A Perfect Fairy Tale: Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North

As someone who reads a lot of fairy tale retellings, it’s become hard for books to blow my mind and truly enchant me. Not only do I know the fairy tale by heart but I’ve also read many versions, updates, twists, and retellings of it – so to discover a book that manages to be original while honoring its fairy tale basis is something special. Joanna Ruth Meyer has not only done that, but she’s added some amazing twists that actually left me gasping.

ECHO NORTH
by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Published by: Page Street Publishing, 2019
Hardcover: 389 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I was called Echo for my mother, who died when I was born, because when my father took me into his arms he said he felt the echo of her heartbeat within me.

Echo Alkaev’s safe and carefully structured world falls apart when her father leaves for the city and mysteriously disappears. Believing he is lost forever, Echo is shocked to find him half-frozen in the winter forest six months later, guarded by a strange talking wolf—the same creature who attacked her as a child. The wolf presents Echo with an ultimatum: If she lives with him for one year, he will ensure her father makes it home safely. But there is more to the wolf than Echo realizes.
In his enchanted house beneath a mountain, each room must be sewn together to keep the home from unraveling, and something new and dark and strange lies behind every door. When centuries-old secrets unfold, Echo discovers a magical library full of books-turned-mirrors, and a young man named Hal who is trapped inside of them. As the year ticks by, the rooms begin to disappear, and Echo must solve the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before her time is up, otherwise Echo, the wolf, and Hal will be lost forever.

When Echo was born, her mother died, leaving her only with her beloved father and brother and a thirst for knowledge. She grows up loved and happy, but at the age of seven, an encounter with a white wolf leaves one side of her face hideously scarred. From that day on, she becomes an outcast in her villages, can’t make any friends, and has people stare at her and avoid her. Things don’t get better when Echo’s father decides to get married again – to a greedy, superficial woman who demands more riches than the family can  afford. And then Echo’s father doesn’t return from a trip to the city, so she goes looking for him and finds… a while wolf.

From there, things follow the story of the fairy tale not exactly, but at least recognisably. Echo promises to live with the wolf for one year in order to save her father’s life. They sleep in the same room, and the one thing she is forbidden to do is light a candle in the night and look upon the sleeping wolf. But Joanna Ruth Meyer has added so many layers, so many ideas to this time spent with the wolf. Instead of a castle, they live in a magical house under a hill, with ever-changing rooms filled with both wonders and terrors. Discovering these rooms was so much fun, but best of all was the Library of Mirrors (I want one and I don’t care if it’s impossible)!

The idea of stepping into stories and living them, rather than just reading them on a page, will appeal to any book nerd. So you can imagine my joy when Echo discovered just such a marvel in the enchanted house. But she’s also the kind of character who doesn’t just sit around all day, living fictional people’s stories (not that that’s a bad thing… ahem) – she knows something is up, she knows the wolf is under some kind of curse, and she is determined to figure everything out and save him. Then there are the people she meets in books – a girl who becomes her friend, and a boy named Hal who may become even more than that. But he is also surrounded by mystery, so Echo has a lot of secrets to solve. Meanwhile, the house is starting to unravel, becomes more and more dangerous, and Echo and the wolf have their hands full just staying alive.

What made this book so special for me were a few small-ish things that added up to an amazing experience. First of all, Echo’s being scarred and always feeling like and outsider made her a great protagonist to follow. Like most young girls, she dreams of being beautiful, of being accepted, yet she knows that her scars will always scare people away. She is a resourceful, smart protagonist who desperately wants to help people even though people in general haven’t been very kind to her. If you know the fairy tale, you also know that the heroine does something incredibly stupid – I loved how Meyer solved that problem and made Echo’s decision to do that stupid thing feel not stupid at all. In this version of the tale, it made perfect sense and it didn’t make me think less of Echo.

The other thing that makes this retelling stand out is the underlying mythology Meyer came up with. While in the original, the wolf is a bear and the evil Queen is a Troll Queen, here everything is just different enough to keep people like me intrigued and guessing. If this is not the dumb Troll Queen from the fairy tale, what powers might she wield? How smart might she be and how much more difficult could she make it for Echo to save her wolf? The winds also make appearances, although not as literally as in the fairy tale. I was also delighted at the way they were incorporated into the story, especially the North Wind, who even gets a back story of his own.

As for the romance, it may not have given me butterflies, but it was the steadily building kind of romance that happens between the lines. By the end, I was invested in the relationship, although I don’t quite know when that happened. Speaking of the end – holy shit, there is a twist I did not see coming and that alone makes the book worthwile! The author really doesn’t go easy on her protagonist and just when you think she’s managed to save her wolf, when things start looking good, a knife is twisted in your heart.

If you couldn’t tell, I adored this book. The characters, the plot, especially the world building were all fantastically done. If I had to pick anything I didn’t like 100% it was the language. There were a few phrases that the author kept repeating, such as descriptions of the house’s features or people’s looks. But compared to everything else, that’s a tiny nitpick which didn’t diminish my reading pleasure at all. I am so excited to see what Meyer comes up with next and if it will be just as wonderful as Echo North.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

A Frogged Up Fairy Tale: Nancy Springer – Fair Peril

I bought this book when I saw that it was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award – an award that picks books just to my liking. Sometimes, I prefer the nominees to the winners, but in general, it’s a literary award I trust. Well, I was bound to come across a not-so-good book eventually and it appears that Nancy Springer’s “feminist” retelling of the Frog Prince was it.

FAIR PERIL
by Nancy Springer

Published by: Avon Books, 1996
Ebook: 246 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: “Once upon a time there was a middle-aged woman,” Buffy Murphy declaimed to the trees, “whose slime-loving, shigella-kissing, bung hole of a husband dumped her themonth after their twentieth wedding anniversary.”

Divorced, overweight Buffy Murphy is not a happy camper. One April afternoon, she walks into the woods . . . and meets a talking bullfrog. He asks her to kiss him so he can transform back into his princely self. This being modern-day Pennsylvania, Buffy figures she’s better off with a talking amphibian than a cheating husband, so she takes him home. The fun really starts when her rebellious teenage daughter, Emily, kisses him.
Suddenly, Emily and her handsome prince have vanished into the land of Fair Peril, an enchanted realm that can only be accessed through a portal in the local mall. Aided by a gay librarian named LeeVon and hindered by her fairy-godmother-in-law, Fay, Buffy shuttles back and forth between the real world and Fair Peril. Does Emily really want to be rescued, or does she just need someone to love her? It’s up to Buffy to figure out the key to reclaiming her daughter—and maybe herself, as well.

Buffy is a middle-aged woman who has just been left by her husband of 20 years because he found someone younger and prettier. So Buffy is bitter. Very bitter. So bitter, in fact, that I disliked her from the first moment. When she comes across a talking frog, she is only about half as shocked as she should be and takes it home. This enchanted frog, Prince Adamus, wants her to kiss him so he can become human again. But Buffy won’t hear of it. Instead, she prefers to continue wallowing in self-pity, shoving unhealthy crap into herself, complaining that she got fat  (reading about her eating habits, I wonder how that happened), and hating men.

Although the embittered comments become less frequent as the book progresses, I found it really horrible just how man-hating this story started out. According to Buffy, pretty much all men are the same. The way she thinks of them, they are less than human, they all act only on their urges, women are prized objects (also not humans) to them, and her husband left her only because she got fat and had a mind of her own… Honestly, if Buffy’s personality was the way it was described in this book during her marriage, I can’t even fault the guy for leaving. Holy shit, I wouldn’t want to live with someone that toxic and negative.

My reading of this story is that Buffy is an overdrawn character on purpose. Because all the other characters, without exception, are also overdrawn bad stereotypes. Buffy’s ex-husband is a despicable low-life whose only reaction to his daughter missing (with an older boy, no less) is “well, I like them young, too”. Emily, the daughter in question is shown as a vapid young thing who cares only about shopping and looking pretty. Prince Adamus has slightly more personality. Of course, he is an arrogant fairy tale prince who also thinks he is entitled to any woman’s love just because. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the new trophy wife. She is young and pretty and only married the guy for his money. She even says that outright at one point.

The only character I really liked was Buffy’s gay friend LeeVon. Not only was he kind and multi-layered and simply a good friend, he also developed throughout the story, even though he’s not the main chracter. To be fair, Emily also shows that there’s more to her than a credit card and fashion style, but not much more. While Buffy definitely grows into a slightly more bearable person by the end, I never really liked her. People who are hateful and bitter because their own actions have consequencees they don’t like are just not my cup of tea. I know such people exist in real life and I’m sure they don’t have it easy, but they are not the sort of people I surround myself with if I can help it.

So despite disliking almost all the characters, I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to see how Nancy Springer tackles the Frog Prince fairy tale. About halfway through the book is where it gets really magical. Buffy, Emily, LeeVon and occasionally even Buffy’s ex-husband Prentis enter the realm of Fair Peril, a world that exists side by side with ours but definitely doesn’t adhere to our rules of physics (or any other rules). I quite liked how Fair Peril and our world overlapped, I liked the feeling that magic was wild and didn’t follow rules. So no magic system, nothing that you can make sense of, just untamed imagination.

The writing style was sadly also not for me. The author sometimes described things, then turned Buffy’s inner dialogue into weird rhymes or lines that could have been lifted out of nursery songs… it felt strangely childish and out of place and made Buffy seem like a really silly person even though I think I was supposed to take her seriously. I also found the reactions to a talking frog (at a certain point a very oversized frog) incredibly weird. Emily is shocked when she first sees Adamus and hears him talk – so far, so understandable. But she gets over that impossibility really quickly and just goes with it. Other characters who eventually meet a frog, talking, oversized, sometimes even clothed, also react way too mildly for my taste. On the other hand, Buffy lands herself in an institution for (dumb that she is) telling a police officer that she is looking for her talking frog who is a prince in disguise…
Add to the list of things that don’t make sense Emily’s age. I think she is described as being 16-ish. A teenager with her own car has to be at least 16, but then she has a birthday party where she behaves more like a 10-year-old. But her behaviour changes so drastically with every scene she’s in that it was impossible to place her, age-wise. That kind of ruins the growth she goes through because I never had a clear image of who she was before.

This was supposed to be a feminist retelling of a fairy tale but not only did I hate all the women and most men in this story, I don’t think it’s a feminist thing to paint all people of a certain gender as their worst stereotype. It also didn’t help that Buffy clearly hated herself as much as she hated men. I don’t know how many times she mentioned how fat she was, how “unlovely” her legs were, how her outfits are shit, how she looks bad, etc. etc. Having low self-confidence is one thing, but constantly putting yourself down for things you can easily change (don’t like your legs unshaved? Go shave them! Want to lose a little bit of weight? Try not eating three microwaved, fatty meals every day! Hate your clothes? Go get yourself something that makes you feel pretty, for gods sake!). Buffy is in this spiral of self-hate and generally despises her situation but she’s not willing to do anything to better her situation. It’s like needing to pee but not being willing to get up and go to the bathroom, instead just sitting there, whining to everyone that you really have to pee and how unfair the world is for not beaming you to a toilet… That’s a stupid analogy, but I hope you know what I mean.

The story itself does get better in the second half and the ending is even halfway decent, putting more focus on the mother-daughter relationship than on kissing frogs or hating men. But I have to say, this really put me off picking up other books by Nancy Springer. I give every author at least a second chance, but judging by this book, Springer’s chance will not come any time soon.

MY RATING: 4/10 – Pretty bad

2019 Retellings Challenge – Second Quarter Update

Another quarter year has gone by and, like every year, I wonder how it happened so fast. Summer is here, I already went on holiday in lovely Tuscany, and of course I spent many days reading on the beach. The Hugo finalists have taken much of my reading time, so I haven’t read as many retellins as I would have liked, but I am still excited for this challenge (visit Tracy at cornerfolds for more info) and I plan to finish the entire bingo card this year.

What I’ve Read

For “Middle-Eastern Myth” on the bingo card, I finally read S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass and I loved it. The setting and characters were wonderful, especially the complex political intricacies that Nahri and the readers have to learn about. I loved that there is so much more going on than first appears. Also, I have a super soft spot for Dara.

Brianna R. Shrum’s Never Never was a group read and while I thought it was well done, I wasn’t exactly blown away. A very slow, character-focused book that retells Hook’s side of Peter Pan’s story, it takes a rapid turn at the end, with characters changing their entire personality in a matter of seconds, just for the sake of a dramatic ending. I liked parts of, but very much disliked others, so all things considered, it was okay, but not great.

I fully expected to love Circe by Madeline Miller and I was not disappointed. While it took me a while to warm to Circe herself, once she grew up a bit and I liked her, I was all aflame for her story. You meet many well-known characters from Greek myths and you especially get to see the women’s stories in a different light. Although quite different from The Song of Achilles, this was another excellent retelling of a Greek myth!

Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairytales just fell into my hands one day at the book shop. This gorgeous looking little book is filled with poetry, short stories, and illustrations, all based on fairy tales. As with any collections, there were stories I liked better than others. But it bothered me how very obvious and on the nose the author was with her message. I fully support the message that you should love yourself the way you are, that women shouldn’t be princesses waiting to be saved by a strong prince, the message of empowerment and female friendship – it’s all there and it’s all things I totally love and want to see more of in fiction. But the execution felt like someone preaching with a raised finger and I really don’t enjoy being preached to. So this was also only a good read, not a great one.

Reading plans for the next months

  • Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni
    June’s group read on Goodreads and a book I’ve been meaning to read forever! I’m a quarter of the way in and I absolutely love it.
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
    I adore Oyeyemi’s style and my favorite book of hers was another retelling (Boy, Snow, Bird), so I’m very excited for this new one.
  • Joanne Harris – The Gospel of Loki
    I hope this book wins the poll for July group read but if it doesn’t, I’ll probably read it anyway.
  • Ellen Datlow (ed.) – Mad Hatters and March Hares
    For the Wonderland bingo square, I might just go with this anthology. It features some of my favorite authors and short stories are usually quick reads. Even if there are a lot of them.

General Thoughts

By now, it’s become a little harder finding books to fit on the bingo card. For example, I already read my Middle-Eastern myth book (The City of Brass), so I’m lucky the group read, The Golem and the Jinni, also fits into the “award-winning” square.
This quarter, my reading has really been focused more on the Hugo Awards than this challenge. Once Hugo voting is over (by the end of July), I can put my attention back to this challenge and also finally reading some of the new releases from 2019 which I’ve been buying. I swear those books look at me sadly just to make me feel guilty that I haven’t picked them up yet!

But I’m still enjoying this challenge and the more I read, the more I appreciate Tracy’s reading prompts. Some of them are vague enough that you can read many things (like the “Brothers Grimm” prompt) and some are more specific and make you go hunt for books which you may otherwise not have read, especially if you’ve already read the most obvious choice (“a retelling set in space” –> Marissa Meyer’s Cinder). The Goodreads group reads also push books onto me which I either wouldn’t have read or which I’ve been putting off for way too long. So I’m still very happy with the challenge and with my progress. I expect to catch up much more quickly once I’m done with the Hugo Award nominated books and stories.

2019 Retellings Challenge – First Quarter Update

The first quarter of the year is almost over (how did that happen?), so it’s time for a little update on my reading challenges. I think I’ve been doing pretty well, especially with the Retellings Challenge which is the most dear to me because my TBR is overflowing with retellings and I really need to catch up!

What I’ve read

My retellings have been everything from mind-blowingly good (The Scorpio Races and The Language of Thorns) to still very good (Trail of Lightning and A Curse so Dark and Lonely) to meh (In the Vanisher’s Palace and Pride) to complete failure (Girls of Paper and Fire). Although, that’s a very mixed outcome, I am quite pleased all things considered.

The Scorpio Races took a while to get started for me, but boy did it grab my heart at the end. I cried, people! The Language of Thorns satisfied both my need for more Grishaverse as well as my love for fairy tales. Trail of Lightning was a fun post-apocalyptic Urban Fantasy romp in a unique setting and A Curse so Dark and Lonely caught me with its kick-ass active protagonist and its clever use of the Beauty and the Beast tropes.

In case you want to read my less favorable reviews, here’s Pride and here’s the complete trainwreck that was Girls of Paper and Fire.

My retellings reading plan

I don’t have any fixed plans on what to read next because I like to see where my mood takes me, but there are a few books that definitely have to happen soon.

  • Surprise Peter Pan retelling (depends on which book wins the poll for the April group read on Goodreads)
  • Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
  • Madeline Miller – Circe
  • Rosamunde Hodge – Bright Smoke, Cold Fire

I’m really looking forward to the Peter Pan retelling, no matter which book wins. All the nominated books sound amazing, so I’ll be happy with whatever gets the most votes (except for Alias Hook which I’ve already read). Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles was really beautiful, so I’m making her my choice for Greek myth retelling, Rosamunde Hodge is also one of my favorite retellings authors and I’m curious to see what her version of Romeo and Juliet looks like. And Katherine Arden has stolen my reader’s heart with her Winternight Trilogy, so finding out how the story ends is bittersweet. I really want to know what happens but I don’t look forward to not having any of her books left to read.

General Thoughts on the Challenge

I’ve been loving this challenge so far. I did notice that, after reading a lot of retellings I felt a need for something else. So I spent March reading mostly other books, catching up on some series, even reading something that isn’t SFF (Anne of Green Gables – it’s adorable!) but by now, I’m really back in the mood for more retellings. Since I always read more than one book at a time, I may try pairing a retelling with a new release – there are so many new books this year that sound absolutely amazing.

If you’re doing this challenge as well, how is it going for you? Have you discovered a hidden gem like I did with The Scorpio Races? Have you been disappointed in an over-hyped book? Let me know in the comments and if you participate in the challenge, make sure to link up at Cornerfolds.

The fairy tale continues: Katherine Arden – The Girl in the Tower

The first complete book I read in 2018 (I did finish the last few chapters of Hogfather this year, but that doesn’t count) lets me begin this year with hope. Not that I expected anything less from Katherine Arden after the gorgeous The Bear and the Nightingale but middle books in a trilogy are usually a challenge for authors. How to keep the plot moving and characters developing without going too far, how to save enough story for the final instalment without making the second part boring? Well, Arden definitely has an answer to those questions and the answer is this book.

THE GIRL IN THE TOWER
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2017
Hardback: 363 pages
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: A girl rode a bay horse through a forest late at night.

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

The Girl in the Tower opens not long after The Bear and the Nightingale ends, although it immediately shows the readers more of the world and more of its characters. The attentive reader will remember that some of Vasya’s siblings were sent away or left their forest home to pursue other ways. Olga has become a princess and a mother, Sasha is a man of god. And Vasya… well, Vasya chose adventure over a confined life in a convent or in some minor lord’s bed. With her fantastic horse Solovey, she rides out into the world, without much of a plan but with fierce determination not to be caged.

The changing viewpoints of this book give a good picture of the state of affairs in Rus’ – taxes waiting to be collected, a looming war, bandits who leave villages burned down and steal Russian girls. As Vasya finds it makes things much, much simpler, she is dressed like a man with her long hair hidden away as she stumbles into all of this. As Vasilii Petrovich, she meets her siblings again and even gains favor with the Prince of Moscow. But navigating court is no easy feat even when you’re not trying to disguise your gender. Although it’s an old trope, it is one I can never get enough of. After all, who doesn’t love a good girl-disguised-as-a-boy story?

But although the trope has been used many times by many authors, in this particular setting, it becomes so much more obvious why Vasya would choose to do this. Okay, it kind of just happens because she’s practical and doesn’t like what the world holds in store for women, but once she arrives in Moscow, the differences between men and women are so stark that I wonder why not more women would pretend to be men, if only to have the simple freedom of stepping outside a building when they wished to see the sky.

In Moscow, Vasya also meets her niece, Marya, for the first time, and the connection between the two made me so very happy, despite all the danger that constantly surrounds them. As family reunions go, this was a bittersweet one but the love these siblings have for each other was tangible on every page. Never mind the secrets between them, the difference in  how they choose to live their lives (or the way they have to live the lives chosen for them, in Olga’s case), there is a true sense of family there, and the way Marya and Vasya strike up a friendship out of the blue made that all the clearer.

Morozko makes a few appearences as well, to my utter delight. I admit I have been hoping for a romantic development here and I am not ashamed of my fangirling! He still holds a lot of secrets that Vasya, and us poor readers, don’t quite know yet, but there are glimpses of humanity in this immortal being, as well as hints to the past and where Vasya’s family came from. Not all questions are answered – this is only book 2, after all – but there were enough hints for me to have closed to book satisfied. Morozko isn’t the only mythological creature in this book. Rest assured, there are domovoi and even more famous personalities to be met.

While this book was much more action-packed than the first, with a faster pace, more focus on politics and social structures, I still loved every bit of it. Arden’s style is as beautiful as ever and her characters as multi-faceted. I particularly enjoyed any description of Vasya riding or dealing with horses and literally any interaction between her and Morozko. Even without stating a thing outright, you can still read the characters’ emotions between the lines, in the description of their body language, a twitch or a sigh. It was just pure joy to read!

Katherine Arden has published her two novels at remarkable pace (two in one year!) and the next one is supposed to be published in August of this year. That’s really fast, especially considering the quality of these books. Whether the publication date is fixed or gets pushed back a litte, I have already pre-ordered my copy of The Winter of the Witch and am waiting more than eagerly to find out how this gorgeous story concludes.

MY RATING: 8,5/10

Second opinions:

Romance and cakes: Marissa Meyer – Heartless

I like Marissa Meyer’s books. There’s very little reason for me to like them, but I do anyway, because they are comfort reads, they have fluffy romances, they play with fairy tales, and they are simply fun. In her first book not set in the Lunar Chronicles universe, Marissa Meyer shows that she has grown as a writer and is not running out of ideas.

HEARTLESS
by Marissa Meyer

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2016
Hardcover: 453 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Three luscious lemon tarts glistened up at Catherine.

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland and a favorite of the unmarried King, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, she wants to open a shop and create delectable pastries. But for her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for a woman who could be a queen.
At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the King’s marriage proposal, she meets handsome and mysterious Jest. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the King and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into a secret courtship.
Cath is determined to choose her own destiny. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

This is the story of how a lovely, ambitious young girl turned into the Queen of Hearts we all know from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the very first thing I noticed and loved was that Catherine had hopes, and dreams, and agency! From the beginning, when Cath bakes a set of lemon tarts, we are shown that she loves baking and that she has plans to open her own bakery one day. She also has a best (female) friend! Be still, my heart, remember that there are good YA books out there and this is one of them.

Cath’s best friend is their family’s servant girl Mary Ann. While Cath is more of the creative, baking brain behind their shared plans, Mary Ann is good with numbers and approaches decisions logically – so she’s the business manager, if you like. Not only was it wonderful to see two girls being friends but to see them complement each other so beautifully in reaching their dream. Cath is also, however, the daughter of a Marquis and Marchioness, and thus spends a lot of her time at balls and tea parties thrown by the King of Hearts. Who has his eyes on her and might ruin her dream by asking her to marry him. Add to all that the new court Joker, and romance (and disaster) is bound to happen.

Many people have said that this book moves along more slowly than the Lunar Chronicles and that is true. But the slower pace only bothered me during the middle of the book. The beginning was wonderful because it set up the characters, who each have distinctive voices and mannerisms, and the world in which Cath lives. Sure, it’s Wondreland, but it’s not exactly the Wonderland we know. Marissa Meyer added a lot of little, original details that may remind you of Lewis Carroll’s novels, but give it a flavor of its own. Many well-known characters also make an appearance, and some of them get the chance to become quite three-dimensional. Thus, I suppose, the slower plot.

Hatta, this version’s Mad Hatter, quickly became a favorite of mine, although I also have a soft spot for Cheshire, who in turn has a soft spot for Cath’s baking. All the side characters who get to say a few words, had personality! As much as I loved The Lunar Chronicles, I can’t say that the characters were a strong point. In Heartless, however, they absolutely are. And while a lot of character development happens in the last quarter of the book, it does happen, and it is understandable why it happens.

With a villain’s origin story, it will always hinge on the reason they became evil. And the more I read about Catherine, the more I rooted for her and her dream bakery, the less I could imagine her turning into that dreadful Queen of Hearts who wants to chop everyone’s head off. I can’t tell you any details, but I really liked how things fell into place and turned Cath into an evil monarch. There is quite a lot of backstory to it all, and it involves many people other than Cath. There are some surprising revelations, and a few moments where you go “aaah, that’s why”. Cath’s transition happened maybe a bit too fast and I was devastated about her relationship with Mary Ann. But then, we always knew this wouldn’t be a book with a happy ending.

Because the middle really did drag along terribly, I am not completely in love with the book. But for a great beginning, strong characters, ideas worthy of Wonderland, a Poe-quoting raven, and a great way of turning a girl into a villain, I must give Marissa Meyer credit. She did a wonderful job with this and I hope she plans on revisiting more fairy tales. I know there are a lot of them already, but I’d love to see her origin story of Captain Hook.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

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Tansy Rayner Roberts – Dance, Princes, Dance

After the delightful Glass Slipper Scandal, I wanted to know how the story continued ASAP. Luckily, Tansy Rayner Robert’s podcast series Sheep Might Fly has the entire second book in the Castle Charming series available (start here). Tansy reads the story herself and while she is not an audiobook narrator (there are chuckles, she sometimes has to repeat a sentence, and all the usual stuff that happens when normal people read out loud. It’s actually quite endearing), this was another nice entry in a cute book series.

GLASS SLIPPER SCANDAL
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2017
Audio serial: 140-ish minutes
Series: Castle Charming #2
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: They called her Ziggy, or Zig.

Welcome back to Castle Charming. Winter is upon us, which means the annual tournament of Rookery is underway, a game that pits Royals against Hounds. Meanwhile, fairies steal castle residents away each night, and persons unknown have run up a mysterious bill for far too many dancing shoes. When you live in a fairy tale kingdom, you have to expect to rescue the occasional prince — but for Kai, Dennis and Ziyi, it’s becoming a habit. Can the boys stop pining after each other long enough to step up as heroes?

Tansy Rayner Roberts writes this series for her Patreon patrons and she mentioned in a few episodes of this audio serial that she is writing as she goes. That shows a little, unfortunately, but I also got the feeling that Roberts had certain ideas in place from the start that she wants to play with over the course of the entire series, however long it will turn out to be.

Dance, Princes, Dance mostly plays with the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but it also expands on the characters introduced in the first book. I mentioned in that review that I thought both Kai and Dennis were gay because they were clearly falling in love with each other. One of them, however, is bisexual and we learn a bit about their previous romantic interests – anyway, they still can’t keep their eyes off each other. There are some more romantic revelations in this part, which I liked, although at least one of them (Amira) felt a little forced and strangely out of place in the plot.

The plot itself is also quite jumbled, which I guess is the product of having to write a chapter for a deadline without having everything plotted well in advance. As with the first book, things happen very quickly, and there’s barely enough time to let important moments sink in. When Kai accidentally betrays somebody’s trust, for example. While there are scenes dealing with this situation, everything is over and resolved way too quickly and there’s just no time for getting into the book emotionally.

With the Twelve Dancing Princesses plotline, Tansy Rayner Roberts used the excellent (if slightly cheap) way of getting deeper into her characters’ heads. Being whisked away to a fairy ball every night and only being able to escape by speaking a truth is the perfect recipe for unearthing old secrets or certain thoughts that haven’t been spoken out loud yet. Obviously, every person involved in the fairy enchantment reveals something big about themselves. Some of these revelations didn’t come as a surprise (Kai and Dennis were so obvious), but others did and I appreciated that a lot.

The princes, who have been stand-ins for random celebrities who get into trouble, have personality now. And Prince Cyrus especially gained a lot of depth in this story. Other plot threads set up in Glass Slipper Scandal aren’t advanced here very much: Kai and the ink magic, the probability that Kai is the lost Prince Charming, the fairies and their involvement in people’s lives… but I guess we’ll learn more about these things in coming instalments.

I didn’t like this book as much as the first, but I will follow the series anyway because it is light, charming, and just fun.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

 

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Austin Chant – Peter Darling

I stumbled across this book via the Read Diverse Books challenge and because it’s a sequel/retelling of Peter Pan with a grown-up Peter who falls for Hook, I had to read it. While I thought the story had several problems with plot, pacing, and the ending, there were some truly enjoyable parts. Plus, it’s a really quick read if you’re looking for a short retelling of a beloved children’s classic.

peter-darlingPETER DARLING
by Austin Chant

Published by: Less Than Three Press, 2017
Ebook: 164 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: James Hook was bored.

Ten years ago, Peter Pan left Neverland to grow up, leaving behind his adolescent dreams of boyhood and resigning himself to life as Wendy Darling. Growing up, however, has only made him realize how inescapable his identity as a man is.
But when he returns to Neverland, everything has changed: the Lost Boys have become men, and the war games they once played are now real and deadly. Even more shocking is the attraction Peter never knew he could feel for his old rival, Captain Hook—and the realization that he no longer knows which of them is the real villain.

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This book is both a sequel and a sort of retelling of the original Peter Pan. Peter is returning to Neverland after spending ten years in the real world. He is grown-up, he wishes to forget everything that happened in London, and simply wants to return to being the proud and insolent youth we all know. But Neverland has changed, as have the Lost Boys, as has Captain Hook.

The first few chapters deal with Peter finding the Lost Boys at peace with the pirates, and with their new leader Ernest, a quiet and thoughtful young man. He also finds Hook, bored out of his mind, and ready to rekindle the war between them. This part of the story was my least favorite. It felt like the story didn’t know what it wanted to accomplish, the pacing was incredibly off, switching between not-so-well written action scenes and boring moments without any impact on the overall story arc. Additionally, we are told Peter is ten years older, but he still acts exactly like the original Peter Pan, the child who would not grow up. So the dialogue felt jarring at times and I had trouble imagining a 20-something man (or even a 16-year-old) saying the things he says and behaving the way he does. But what has always made Peter into who he is was his power to forget. The fairies take care of that and give him back his memories – and that’s when the Peter of this book began to feel like a proper character.

With Peter’s reemerging memories come a few flashbacks to what happened during his ten years at home. Peter grew up as Wendy Darling, making up stories of who he really is, the magical boy Peter Pan. The flashbacks were so short and far between that I wasn’t sure why they were included at all. Each scene was over before it could begin properly and, yes, the gist of it (Peter Pan being a transgender man) gets through, but there was no time to really understand what Peter’s life was like. It felt very superficial – maybe parts of those scenes were cut during editing for whatever reason, but all the flashbacks felt like they were cut in half. Either make them proper scenes or even full chapters, or leave them away completely. Personally, I would have liked to find out more about Peter’s life in London.

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The Neverland plot also takes a considerable time to get rolling. At first, it’s all exposition and fighting Hook, running away, fighting Hook again, talking to the Lost Boys, and getting to know Ernest, their new leader. I was also quite confused about Ernest as a character. I immediately liked him and felt he had a lot of potential, especially in balancing impulsive and battle-eager Pan. But he was only really present for the beginning of the story (and shortly at the end), but had no actual role to play. Again, either use the character or leave him out completely. The way it is, a great character was wasted… unless there’s a sequel planned which will feature him more prominently. I don’t know, I’m just guessing here.

The real heart of this story, for me, was the romance between Hook and Pan. Once these two are stuck together and have to kind of get along to survive, that’s when I got really interested. Their relationship was intriguing and tense and need I mention how much I love Hook?  It was especially his humor and his confidence that made him shine as a character. Peter also got a chance to grow as a person and understand his own feelings a bit better, but Hook stole the show on every page. Their romance was really well done and I loved reading about these two people realising how they felt about each other.

The writing was competent, but there were moments when it drifted and got really bad. The best written scenes were the ones filled with sexual tension between Hook and Pan. The battle scenes were boring to read and felt more like a transcript of a movie scene. Some of Peter’s moments of introspection made me cringe. They read like a child’s journal entry rather than a proper narration. As for the descriptions of Neverland and Peter’s surroundings, I felt like the author was trying to be poetic but the effort showed too much, so most metaphors fall falt for me. On the other hand, the dialogue was fun to read, and each character had their own distinct voice. Hook was definitely the shining star, in every possible aspect.

Another interesting thing that didn’t get nearly enough time to be explored was Neverland itself as well as its inhabitants. Austin Chant turned the Neverland fairies into insect-like creatures, although they are never fully described. But add a few too many eyes here, a couple of antennae there, a creature with lots of legs, and you get the idea. I loved that he came up with something new to make Neverland feel interesting, instead of just going with the world created by J. M. Barrie. But the fairies and a story about an old pirate captain are the only original additions to the world building. And, much like the flashbacks, they weren’t present nearly enough for my taste. See, there’s good stuff here, just never enough of it, which makes me kind of happy (because yay, good stuff) but also disappointed (what, that was it?).

Without spoiling anything, I have to say I wasn’t a fan of the ending. It felt rushed and didn’t adress some open questions that are really important to both protagonists. With a story that actually took care to show things aren’t black and white, that explores complicated relationships and features a protagonist still so unsure about himself, the ending felt like a cop-out, a happy end for the sake of a happy end, but without showing us how things work out. Maybe Chant is leaving room for a sequel, in which case I’d be more forgiving for ending Peter Darling this half-heartedly.

Because of the romance, the amazing James Hook, and the bits of original worldbuilding, I quite enjoyed this read. But I don’t feel the urge to pick up any of the author’s other books. If he writes something longer, where he takes more time to explore his characters and scenes, and where the pacing is a bit more balanced, then you can count me in.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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Other reviews (mostly more favorable than mine):

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My First Favorite of the Year: Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale

I was incredibly worried I wouldn’t like this book. Everything about it seemed to scream my name and I was excited for it months before its publication. The cover was gorgeous (I have the US cover, although I like the UK version as well), the description sounded perfect, the early reviews and blurbs made me expect a magical realist tale of medieval Russia, with a strong-minded protagonist, Russian folklore, and beautiful prose. And – for once – the hype was completely justified and I got exactly what I wanted.

bear-and-the-nightingaleTHE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2017
Hardback: 322 pages
Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

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S. L. Huang – The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist

This week, a little special edition from Book Smugglers Publishing arrived at my house and made lying in bed all day a bit more bearable. I know it was a limited print run, but I still find it so charming that the Book Smugglers included a personalised thank you note and a bookmark. The story itself was also wonderful, although it took me a while to get into it.

little-homo-sapiens-scientistTHE LITTLE HOMO SAPIENS SCIENTIST
by S. L. Huang

Published by: Book Smugglers Publishing, 2016
Paperback: 70 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Dr. Alan Zanga is to blame for this.

A dark retelling of The Little Mermaid from the author of HUNTING MONSTERS

I suppose if this is going to be recorded somewhere for posterity, I should set the record straight. The ghostwriter will probably cut it all, but hey, it’s the principle of the thing.

Dr. Cadence Mbella is the world’s most celebrated scholar of the atargati: sentient, intelligent deep-water beings who are most definitely not mermaids. When Cadence decides to release a captive atargati from scientific experimentation and interrogation, she knows her career and her life is forfeit. But she still yearns for the atargati–there is still so much to know about their physiology, their society, their culture. And Cadence would do anything to more fully understand the atargati… no matter what the cost.

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If you’re remotely interested in fairy tales, you know that Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t exactly end the Disney way. Most of us know that and expect retellings of this story to be just as sad. But knowing that going in can also make us blunt to retellings of this melancholy tale because… well, we know the mermaid won’t be happily married to her prince, so why even get emotionally invested, right? S. L. Huang found the perfect way to bring back all the horror and gravity of what the protagonist does to become someone else, as well as twist the knife she puts in your gut right at the end. I can’t say it was a happy experience but it was damn well done!

Caddie Mbella has one passion in life: the study of the atargati (don’t call them mermaids!), a deep-sea species that baffles scientists all around the world. Caddie happens to be very good at what she does. In fact, she is the only one who can sing the way the atargati sing and is thus able to communicate with the “mermaids”. But of course, the government sticks their fingers in what could otherwise be beautiful science, kidnaps an atargati and keeps her in captivity for further study (and who knows what else). Caddie can’t bear the thought o fit and frees the atargati, knowing that from now on she has to live the rest of her life on the run. She takes that risk gladly, except without her studies, without the atargati, she has nothing left. A quick visit to a witch doctor, some DNA-manipulation, and you can see where this flipped Little Mermaid tale is going.

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There were several things that made me absolutely adore this retelling and one thing that bothered me a bit. I loved that Caddie is a lesbian kick-ass scientist (in case any Puppies are reading this: although there absolutely doesn’t need to be a reason for Caddie to be gay, it is truly important for the story!) whose passion for her job shines through in her entire narration. At first, it may feel a tiny bit like a lecture, but then again Huang is introducing a whole new species to her readers, and a bit of background knowledge is totally appreciated. The fact that Caddie delivered it only helped to flesh out her character while doing that crucial bit of initial world building. And the atargati are fascinating! They resemble human females just enough to have earned the name “mermaid” in the wider world, but they are sight-less, genderfluid species who communicate through underwater song. I found learning about them as interesting as Caddie.

However, that introduction was also my one issue with the novella (or novelette?). Because we have to learn all this information at the beginning, I didn’t really connect with the plot that much. My interest was there, but there was no emotional connection to either Caddie or the atargati yet and that made the book feel somewhat slow at first.

That all changes, however, when Caddie frees the captive atargati, has to go on the run, and eventually finds that witch doctor who can turn her into a sort of mutated atargati – with an expected life span of a few months, at best. That was where the emotional hooks finally took hold of me and it was also the first time since I was a kid that I truly felt how gigantic the decision Caddie makes really is – and how equally big the original little mermaid’s decision was (I mean, giving up your species is pretty heavy shit). As it becomes clear that Caddie has lost her purpose in life she pretty much agrees to go on a suicide mission, paved with pain and loss, for one chance to see the creatures she loves so much, live with them and learn from them. Remember when the sea witch tells the little mermaid how every step will hurt like she’s walking on knives? Oh, and how she loses her voice? Those bits are brilliantly incorporated into “The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist” and the loss of the voice especially becomes one of the most painful things for Caddie to endure.

S. L. Huang does a wonderful job of describing the underwater world of the atargati. Considering that Caddie is now missing both her sight and her ability to speak/sing, you’d think there wasn’t much left to tell. But I found the descriptions of atargati society fascinating! It was also the part of the story that let Caddie shine as a character and even offered a sort of romance. And then the ending came and it absolutely broke my heart! Even though I knew it wouldn’t end well – at least if it was a faithful retelling –  it still hit me really hard, like a knife being turned in a wound. I may or may not have cursed out loud while reading it…

All things considered, I really loved this version of The Little Mermaid, how it is both simple and clever in the way it translates the old fairy tale to a near future world. Iliked the author’s Hunting Monsters stories but I loved The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, and I am hoping very much she’ll give us more fairy tale retellings. So here’s my plea to the Book Smugglers and S. L. Huang: Please, can I have some more?

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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