A Trilogy That Lost Its Way: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Shattersteel

My hopes were high for this final part in the Her Pitiless Command trilogy, Sriduangkaew’s take on the Snow Queen fairy tale, set in South East Asia, with queer characters started out really, really well. Sadly, the second book already lost momentum and direction. This conclusion to the series fared no better and felt to me like the author just wanted to get it over with.

SHATTERSTEEL
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Published: Apex Publications, 2021
eBook:
160 pages
Series:
Her Pitiless Command #3
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: The prosthetic arm never seats quite right, despite countless adjustments.

For her entire life, Nuawa has made herself a weapon to assassinate the Winter Queen.

She failed. Her secrets are laid bare and she has lost everything.

The queen keeps Nuawa as a tool, and soon a sacrifice as she brings her ultimate goal to fruition: to harness the divine power of her makers that’ll make her lover General Lussadh immortal.

But Nuawa isn’t done fighting yet.

I could technically copy and paste my review of the second book in this trilogy, Mirrorstrike, because everything about that one still holds true with this final instalment. Except, this time, my patience was more tried, this one is the ending of the story so I had higher expectations, and it’s also just a little bit more chaotic and less coherent than its predecessor. But okay, I guess, let’s get into it.

Nuawa and Lussadh are getting married – hooray for the happy couple – so the first half of this 160 page novella is about them being lovey dovey and having lots of sex. Which, you know, is fine if that’s what you’re in the mood for and I actually found the sex scenes to be very well written. But the reason this book even exists – to tell the story of Nuawa fighting the Winter Queen – is completely ignored for almost half the book.
The romantic dialogue also makes me cringe every time because Sriduangkaew likes using big words and so her characters tend to make grand statements with polysyllabic vocabulary. It sounds over the top and overly dramatic to me but that’s a matter of taste and your mileage may vary.

One more thing that made reading this hard was the use of various different pronouns. It’s great to read about a world that includes all sorts of genders and relationship constellations, but using she/her, he/him, they/them, xe/xer, and ey/eir/em in a book this slim felt like overkill. Especially because sometimes, when we were in Nuawa’s point of view and she just met a character for the first time and couldn’t know what pronouns ey used, she was thinking about that person as ey/em, and that just felt strange. Like how do you see if someone goes by they/them, ey/em, or something else entirely?? So again, I love the inclusion but it didn’t feel organic.

Something that is a fact, though, rather than personal preference, is the lack of plot. Now that the trilogy is finished, I have come to the conclusion that the author had a great idea, wrote the first book, and then didn’t quite know where to go from there. Everything feels so up in the air, every scene on its own reads okay but there is very little connecting these scenes to each other. The whole Snow Queen theme got lost along the way and it reads like the author pantsed her way through it all and then just left the book as it was. I get it, writing a book is difficult and writing a trilogy even more so, but that’s what editing and drafting is for. Also, maybe spend at least half a page reminding your readers of what happened before? Yes, the book then might be 200 pages long but those would be pages well used.

The characters also never quite recovered after the first book. In Mirrorstrike they already felt like shadows of themselves, occupied mostly with swooning over each other rather than what they’ve been spending their entire lives doing up until then. Nuawa from Shattersteel is barely recognizable as Nuawa from Winterglass anymore. The same goes for Lussadh. I did enjoy some minor characters in this book but they don’t get enough time to shine because this is still a very short book.

The resolution to what was set up in the first book is relatively simple and had a deus ex machina feel to it. Nuawa originally set out to destroy the Winter Queen, avenge her people, and free her land and she went a good part of the way on her own strenght and intellicenge. Sadly, she lost her agency along the way as well, so it’s not really even her to battles the Winter Queen at the end but someone else. Any satisfaction I might have felt in finally achiving the big goal was dampened by the fact that Nuawa was, at best, a messenger rather than the saviour of the people.

All things considered, I’m mostly disappointed. I will forever love and adore Winterglass but I don’t see much of a reason to recommend books two or three. They add very little to the world building and characters. What little plot they offer is merely a convoluted vehicle to get to the ending (defeat the Queen and have a relationship with Lussadh, that’s all there is to it, really). I’ll give Sriduangkaew another chance and try her Machine Mandate series but as much as I enjoy beautiful language and deep characters, the books I read still need some kind of plot. And this one couldn’t decide what it wanted to be when it grew up so now it’s a jumbled mess of pretty words.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Adventure, Thievery, Love, and Found Family: Margaret Owen – Little Thieves

Who’d have thought that, this late in the year, I’d stumble across two five-star-reads one right after the other? (I know who thought so, because both books are Illumicrate picks, so the Illumicrate team knew what they were doing!) This fairy tale retelling/sequel/twist of the Goose Girl from the point of view of the villain has a little bit of everything and a lot of heart. Even if the protagonist would never, ever admit that. This is YA the way I love it, with magic and silliness but also depth and a believable romance and characters that grow while staying true to themselves. I highly recommend this and I’m so glad it’s part one of a series!

LITTLE THIEVES
by Margaret Owen

Published: Henry Holt & Co., 2021
Hardcover: 512 pages
Series: Little Thieves #1
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Once upon a time, on the coldest night of midwinter, in the darkest heart of the forest, Death and Fortune cam to a crossroads.

Once upon a time, there was a horrible girl…

Vanja Schmidt knows that no gift is freely given, not even a mother’s love–and she’s on the hook for one hell of a debt. Vanja, the adopted goddaughter of Death and Fortune, was Princess Gisele’s dutiful servant up until a year ago. That was when Vanja’s otherworldly mothers demanded a terrible price for their care, and Vanja decided to steal her future back… by stealing Gisele’s life for herself.

The real Gisele is left a penniless nobody while Vanja uses an enchanted string of pearls to take her place. Now, Vanja leads a lonely but lucrative double life as princess and jewel thief, charming nobility while emptying their coffers to fund her great escape. Then, one heist away from freedom, Vanja crosses the wrong god and is cursed to an untimely end: turning into jewels, stone by stone, for her greed.

Vanja has just two weeks to figure out how to break her curse and make her getaway. And with a feral guardian half-god, Gisele’s sinister fiancé, and an overeager junior detective on Vanja’s tail, she’ll have to pull the biggest grift yet to save her own life.

Margaret Owen, author of The Merciful Crow series, crafts a delightfully irreverent retelling of “The Goose Girl” about stolen lives, thorny truths, and the wicked girls at the heart of both.

Vanja Schmidt is a terror and a joy and she tells us her story not just from her own perspective but with her very personal style as well. That means we get to follow a slightly cocky but undoubtedly brilliant young girl who has taken the place of Prinzessin Gisele, is now impersonating her and following a plan that will ultimately lead her to freedom. You see, Vanja also happens to be the goddaughter of Death and Fortune who expect her to choose one of them to serve for the rest of… well, forever, I guess. So the plan is to make (meaning: steal) enough money so Vanja can leave the country and its beliefs and make a life for herself somewhere else. Except then things get even more complicated when she steals from someone who is protected by one of the Low Gods. Eiswald, the god of the forest, curses Vanja to become her greed. Which means that rubies and diamonds sprout from her body unless she “gives back what she took”. And off goes the adventure!

My gods did I love this book. It’s a chonker but there is just so much to discover and so many things to love that I was happy to have this many pages to enjoy. If you’re familiar with the Goose Girl fairy tale, you’ll know that our plucky heroine Vanja is actually the villain of that tale. The servant/friend of the real princess who steals her identity and lives in the castle with the lovely prince, all while Gisele, the real princess, lives the life of a servant who takes care of the geese (thus the title) and wants to take back her rightful place by the prince’s side.
Well, in this version, nothing is what it seems or how you remember it. Not only is Vanja not a villain (although her morals are often questionable) but Gisele isn’t the kind of vapid princess you’d expect. And the prince is decidedly not lovely!

What makes this book stand out from other fairy tale retellings and from other YA adventure/romance novels is first and foremost the hilarious yet heartfelt narration by Vanja herself. She’s funny, she’s self-aware, but she’s also a young girl who, more than anything, wants to be loved and accepted for herself. Watching her grow over the course of this novel was simply wonderful and nothing about her development felt forced.
The same goes for the romance which is understated, slow-burn, and believable. There is also a secondary F/F couple that I found adorable and charming. This story also takes place in a world where sexuality doesn’t seem to be an issue. There are very minor non-binary characters, a minor character in an M/M relationship and people don’t assume everyone is cis or straight. It’s not a big deal in the story but I found it lovely nonetheless.

The plot is pretty damn great because it does that thing that I love where it starts with a simple plan that then spirals totally out of control. Where it used to be about Vanja trying to amass a certain amount of wealth, then there’s the added burden of trying to break this curse which – by the way – will kill her by the next full moon. That leads her down the rabbit hole of her past and on the way, she has to deal with this junior prefect who’s investigating the staggering amount of thefts (by Vanja). Oh yes, and she’s about to be married to Adalbrecht of Reigendorf because she’s still impersonating Prinzessin Gisele. So there’s a lot on her plate!

There’s just so much I could be stealing right now, if I didn’t have social obligations with the man who tried to poison me earlier in the week. And if it weren’t for the curse. And, I suppose, the law, though really we all know my concern for that is cosmetic at best.

What really surprised me was how this mostly funny story that doesn’t take itself too seriously then started to show true depth. Not only are the characters multi-faceted and most of them surprised me at least once, but the themes of the book get darker and more serious, Vanja’s personality makes more sense and the tender relationships she builds in this story become so much more meaningful.

I could tell you so much about the world this is set in. There are gods and there’s magic, there are politics galore, people talk with different accents, there are cultural aspects and traditions – just a bit of everything that makes a world feel real. Margaret Owen never overburdens her story with these tidbits but she gives us enough to make her world feel vibrant and rich. I always felt like I knew enough to feel at home but there’s also plenty more I’d like to discover in future volumes, especially about how the whole prefect system works, what their magic entails, and what influence the gods have on everyday humans.

“You know an awful lot of big-boy no-no words for a man of the gods.”

“You are an absolute terror,” he snaps. “At this point I’m frankly amazed nothing else cursed you before now.”

Finally, the thing that can make or break a book is the ending. And again, Margaret Owen stuck the landing and delivered an ending that made me weepy with joy without being cheesy. Things aren’t perfect at the end and sacrifices had to be made, but overall, it is a very satisfying conclusion to this story that shows Vanja, despite her growth, still staying true to herself. Man, I love that girl! At this point, I don’t know if this is a planned trilogy or longer series but if Owen has more stories like this up her sleeve, I’d be fine with 10 volumes or more. What a feelgood romp with surprsing depths.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Poetry for Fans of Folklore: Catherynne M. Valente – A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

It’s been a great year for a Cat Valente fan. With two new novellas out (both of them fantastic!), I was more than happy. But I also had an itch for more so I picked up one of Valente’s older works, a collection of poetry and (very) short stories about one of my favorite topis: folktales.

A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Curiosities, 2008
Hardcover:
166 pages
Poetry Collection
My rating:
6.5/10

Opening line: On your knees between moon-green shoots,
beside a sack of seed, a silver can, a white spade,
a ball is tucked into the bustle of your skirt:

A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS by award-winning author and poet Catherynne M. Valente is a delightful collection of poetry, short fables, and fairy tales that explore myth and wonder, ancient and modern, with an introduction by Midori Snyder.

This is not going to be a proper review because I am simply not equipped to say anything qualified about this book. I don’t read a lot of poetry and there’s exactly three poets that I can say I love (Robert Frost, John Donne, and C.S.E. Cooney). I have no idea how to judge whether a poem is “good”, all I can go on is whether I liked it or not. And the reasons for that vary – mostly it’s just a feeling. But if a poem is inspired by a fairy tale, chances are I’ll enjoy it even if it doesn’t rhyme.

That said, I found many things to enjoy in this book. The language wasn’t my favorite – which is weird, because I adore Valente’s prose especially because it is so lyrical and poetic! – but I think I’m just not the right audience for this kind of poetry. So I read the poems more for the “plot” and the emotions they evoked but didn’t fall into the language as much.

I am, simply put, more of a prose reader so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed the little stories between the poems more than most of the actual poetry. They are little snippets or pieces of folktales rather than proper stories, most of them barely two pages long, but they reminded me also exactly why I fell in love with Valente in the first place. She not only has a vast knowledge of fairy tales, mythology, and folklore from all over the world, but she’s also been questioning them in her writing since forever.
Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across a “feminist spin on fairytale XYZ” but Valente has been doing that since the beginning of her career. She questions why Cinderella’s sisters and Cinderella should work against each other, whether Bluebeard’s wife is maybe okay being complicit with what he does, how a girl feels when she’s finally married her prince (and if maybe that was a mistake)… There’s a lot of food for thought there, in both the poems and the little stories.

I loved how these poems and stories nudged my brain to look at these well-known tales from different angles, to rethink what I’ve been told, but there’s also another theme that runs through the book like a red thread. Unsurprising to anyone who has read their share of fairy tales, they are often about terrible things happening to women and children. But in Valente’s Guide to Folktales, this gets amplified through the claustrophobic feeling running through each poem. She writes about women getting trapped by men, literally or emotionally, or being unable to escape their situation so very often that this book, despite its frequent feminist spins, gets a little depressing. That’s not a critique because Valente manages to describe these feelings of being trapped and powerless really well, but it’s a warning that this isn’t exactly a feel-good collection either.

One of my favorite poems, if not the favorite, was the one about Cinderella and her stepsisters as you’ve never seen them before. Again, it’s not a particularly happy tale but it encompasses the questions I’ve had about the fairy tale in just a few perfectly-chosen words:

Please, we are sisters;
out of the same striped pelt
did our father scissor our hearts.
Do this thing for me
your sister is afraid of the man
who loves her so much
he cannot remember her face.

“Glass, Blood, and Ash” by Catherynne M. Valente

As for inspiration, it’s not only well-known Western fairy tales, but also folklore and myhts from other places in the world. Valente does love herself some Greek underworld but she never shies away from looking across borders and seeing the rich cultures other places have to offer. I’m sure with a bit of background knowlege this book could be a treasure trove of Easter eggs.

I have no idea how to rate a book of poetry properly, so I’ll just go by my own level of enjoyment. And while this is far from my favorite Valente book, I did quite like it. It was an interesting glimpse into Valente’s earlier writing but despite its relative age, the book read very modern. It’s still relevant today and I’m sure fans of poetry will find it even better than I did.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

How To Say Nothing in 500 Pages: Hannah Whitten – For the Wolf

Look, I had high hopes for this book. Really high hopes. I mean, I put it on my 5-star-prediction list, just to let you know that I went into this convinced I would love it. Unfortunately – and I’m very much not alone in that assessment – it ended up being a hot mess that should never have made it into print in its current form. This review will be more like a cathartic rant than anything else.

FOR THE WOLF
by Hannah Whitten

Published: Orbit, 2021
eBook: 488 pages
Series:
Wilderwood #1
My rating:
2.5/10

Opening line: Two nights before she was sent to the Wolf, Red wore a dress the color of blood.

THE FIRST DAUGHTER IS FOR THE THRONE.
THE SECOND DAUGHTER IS FOR THE WOLF.

As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose – to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in order to save her kingdom. Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the Wilderwood – and her world – will be lost forever.

Hannah Whitten’s New York Times bestselling debut is a sweeping tale of love, legends and the secrets that hide beyond the trees.

There are so many things wrong with this book, I hardly know where to start. The most glaring plotholes? The flat self-insert characters? The obvious villain? The shoddy world-building? The inconsistencies? The melodramatic writing and dialogue? The complete and utter lack of story? You see, we’re spoiled for choice here. Oh well, I’ll just dive in and spill it all out in whatever way – that’s how the author did it as well, after all.

So Red – short for Redarys – and Neve – short for Neverah – are two royal sisters who live in Valleyda, a country that borders the Wilderwood. Many centuries ago, some dude fled into the wood with his girlfriend who was betrothed to a man she didn’t want to mary. They kind of ended up stuck in the forest and the dude, forthwith called the Wolf for no discernible reason whatsoever, lives in that forest. He brings his dead girlfriend to the border and demands “the next one” and from that day on, when two daughters are born to the ruling family, the first is for the throne, the second is “for the wolf” (roll credits). The reasons for this are unclear and – this isn’t a spoiler but a warning – are NEVER PROPERLY EXPLAINED! Neither does anyone ever explain why this magical dude whose name I have forgotten already is called a Wolf, what precisely he does with those second daughters and what the point of anything is, really.

Oh well, that’s only half-true. You see, Valleyda has a religion based on the “Five Kings” which are five random Kings from the time the Wolf went into the forest. They were apparently taken by evil Wolf guy and now people send the second daughters to the Wolf to get those five kings back. Why? Nobody knows. Who decided that the second daughters were supposed to be a trade for the five kings? Nobody knows. Who even were those kings, why would we want them to return and wouldn’t they be zombies after hundreds of years anyway? Nobody knows. Because Hannah Whitten hasn’t actually done any worldbuilding that isn’t absolutely necessary to tell us the kind of story she apparently wanted to tell.

Which is no story at all but rather throwing two bland characters together and having them be melodramatic at each other. Seriously, nothing about this book makes sense. So let’s ignore that there’s no reason for this ridiculous religion to exist and follow Red as she enters the Wilderwood as a sacrifice. She brings the clothes on her back and a BAG OF BOOKS! I mean, I feel you girl, I love reading too but come on, you were certain you were going straight to your death, why the fuck would you bring a heavy bag full of books??? Do you think the Wolf – who you’re convinced is going to kill you on sight – is going to let you finish that series you started before he offs you?
Either way, she arrives at the Beast’s castle, and who’d have thought, the Wolf/Beast turns out to be hot young man who, despite being hundreds of years old, looks like he’s twenty so it’s Twilight all over and we’re all okay with it because apparently that’s just the sort of thing some people find sexy. What follows is hundreds of pages of nothing. There is no fucking conflict because Red has it pretty sweet at that place, Eammon (the “Wolf”) is a bit distant because he’s emo and just wants to keep her safe and sacrifice himself for the world because he’s just that pure of heart. Red shows no initative, doesn’t do anything, basically just exists in a state of stubborn uselessness and moons over Eammon’s sexy dark hair.

Then there’s the whole magic “system”. None of that makes any sense, it always behaves in such a way as to be convenient to the author’s wishes. If she wants Red to be heroically saved by Eammon – who is super emo martyr guy and nothing else, by the way – then the forest is bad. If she wants Red to do something useful for once, the forest magic works completely differently and helps. A tiny point of interest was the event that happend on Red’s 16th birthday where apparently she had an adventure at the edge of the Wilderwood that ended in “carnage” and made her resign herself to her fate as a sacrifice. That carnage is explained in a few sentences and is actually super boring, doesn’t add anything to the plot, and explains absolutely nothing about how the magic here works. But whatever, afterwards, Red has some piece of Wilderwood inside of her? Plants go crazy when she feels that power, sometimes they want to kill her, sometimes not? It’s an evil power but also totally good because the Wilderwood and the Wolf actually protect the world from a bigger evil… Don’t ask me for details, there aren’t any and what little is explained makes no sense. And for the ending to be properly cheesy and disgustingly sweet, every single rule that has been sort of set up over this long, long novel, is just thrown overboard. Because we can’t have anything be complicated in this supposedly adult fantasy novel.

Which leads me to another gripe. The author herself was very adamant about this being “not YA”! First of all, YA is not an insult. Some of the most amazing books in the world are YA books and YA authors are not to be looked down upon – seriously, keeping a teenager interested in a book is a feat! Secondly, if you wanted to write an adult novel so badly, why the hell didn’t you? Apart from its plotlessness, this book doesn’t just read like YA, it reads like really, really bad YA. The kind where you know the author just wants to write about two pretty people making out but doesn’t actually have anything to say or a story to tell. I can see her Pinterest mood board in my mind, with all the foresty dark bookish aesthetics and the scarred hero with the sexy hair and the curvy blonde heroine (who just happens to look a lot like the author herself) – but none of that is a story.

What you get is the girl going in the forest, meeting a handful of nice people there. They protect the world from some evil that makes no sense using magic that makes no sense and being so fucking good it makes my teeth ache. Eammon is pure self-sacrifice, he would die rather than let Red get hurt because, after all, he’s known her for a whole week so that’s only natural. In bad YA trope land. Red herself is also a total Mary Sue who only wants to protect her sister – a relationship which isn’t shown on the page at all, by the way, we’re just supposed to feel this super deep love between two cardboard characters whose defining characteristic is their difference in hair color.
The biggest problem of this book (and that’s saying something) is its utter lack of conflict. Even the short scenes where Eammon saves Red or Red saves Eammon never feel like they’re in any real danger. That entire good forest/bad forest, Shadowlands (what even are those?!), Five Kings, fake mythology crap is just in no way interesting. Red isn’t in danger, Eammon is in pretend-danger but we know nothing’s going to happen to him because the entire point of this story is the mind-numbing romance between them. And calling it “slow burn” is insulting to the readers’ intelligence. Because “nothing happening” and the characters just not talking or interacting in any way does not equal slow burn. It equals boring. Then suddenly, they’re hot for each other, make out a couple of times and of course would DIE FOR EACH OTHER BECAUSE REASONS. Waaaah, it’s so infuriatingly bad.

Ooooh, and speaking of the sister. Neve is still in Valleyda and she wants her sister back. We don’t know why as their relationship was never really established, but hey, let’s just go with it. Neve meets the most obvious and ridiculous villain you can imagine – again, this is for adult adults who are so much smarter than stupid teenagers, let’s not forget it because women authors don’t automatically write YA – and then just lets herself be manipulated into stupid crap. She also watches uselessly as the manipulative evil priestess clearly kills off all the people standing in her way. Neve is so dumb, even if the sisterly relationship had felt in any way real, I couldn’t have rooted for her.

The writing is at least consistent with the quality of the book’s plot. Endless repetitions, wannabe poetic descriptions, but really very basic non-immersive language is what you get. Characters constantly shape their fingers into claws, move their hand over their faces, Red’s veins always turn green because forest magic, and even the many, many mentions of blood feel completly lifeless. I suppose that’s the author’s reasoning for this book being so very adult – because although our protagonists have fucking magic, what they do the entire middle part of the book is bleed on trees. Yep, you read that right. And as someone who is clumsy and has cut herself fairly frequently with kitchen knives, let me tell you, it’s no fun. It hurts, it stings, it bleeds like a pig, and it keeps burning long after the blood has stopped coming. The bleeding and cutting in this book felt like it’s nothing. Eammon’s hands are basically nothing but scars because he keeps cutting them and bleeding around like it’s a vampire party. And sure, if mentions of blood are a trigger for you, then definitely stay away from this book. But if you generally don’t have a problem with reading about blood and worry that this will be too gruesome – don’t. The descriptions are so lifeless, so throwaway, that you never, for a second, feel like you’re there or like anyone really got hurt. Plus, there’s convenient healing/taking away wounds magic.

You might wonder why I even finished this book and you have a very valid point! The first time I thought about DNFing was at 25% which was about when Red and Eammon met and the basic plot (or lack thereof) had been set up. At that point already, there was nothing I wanted to know. You know that feeling when you read a book or watch a movie or TV show – the need to know what happens next – that was missing here. I kept pushing because 25% is not much and it was a 5-star-prediction after all. Plus, Beauty and the Beast retelling, magical dark wood, comparisons to Naomi Novik and Katherine Arden (which are a fucking insult to both those brilliant authors, if you ask me). It only got worse from there but once I was past 50% I thought I might as well finish it, see if any of those world building “mysteries” get resolved, if anything is explained, if there is a point to this rather big book at all. Now that I’ve made it through this messy author wish fulfillment, I can safely say, it wasn’t worth it. Feel free to skip!

MY RATING: 2.5/10 – Really bad!

P.S.: I just started a re-read of The Poppy War and it is the most soothing experience to read something so good after something this embarrassing and amateurish!

Change Your Own Story: Alix E. Harrow – A Spindle Splintered

I’ve been following Alix E. Harrow’s career with much excitement because not only does she like the same books I like, but it feels like she wants to write exactly the kind of books that end up being my favorites. Heavily influenced by fairy tales and mythology, her tales are about nerdy characters, about underdogs, about true friendships and dreams come true. The fact that she started a “spider-versed fairy tale retelling” novella series feels like Christmas and birthdays and some other holidays all rolled into one.

A SPINDLE SPLINTERED
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
Hardback:
128 pages
Series:
Fractured Fables #1
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it.

It’s Zinnia Gray’s twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it’s the last birthday she’ll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.

Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia’s last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

This story isn’t a fairy tale but it has a lot to say about them, particularly about Sleeping Beauty. Zinnia Gray has a rare disease – Generalized Roseville Malady – about which very little is known, except that most people suffering from it don’t make it past twenty-one. So the fact that she identifies with a fairy tale princess cursed to fall asleep on her birthday isn’t all that far fetched. Zinnia makes the best of her life, she lives fast, studies what she likes, and fiercly loves her best friend Charm who, by the way, is the absolute best friend ever in SFF fiction. Sure, you could say her savior/hero complex isn’t super healthy but she would do anything for Zinnia and reading about the way these two interact, their chat messages, the one-liners, the absolute trust – it’s pure friendshop goals!

So if you know the elevator pitch for this is “spider-verse a fairy tale” you won’t be surprised when, on her twenty-first birthday, Zinnia jokingly touches her finger to a spinnig wheel’s needle and – bam! – pops up in an alternate universe next to a real princess who wears a poofy dress and looks like she fell out of a Disney movie. It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s what and soon the two work together to try and break the curse. Instead of sitting around waiting for fate to catch up in the shape of a needle, they pack some stuff and go out to find that thirteenth fairy to convince her to lift the curse or bribe her or… something. And while they’re at it, maybe Zinnia’s “curse” can be healed as well..?

The strength of this novella is definitely its protagonist and her relationships to the people around her. Zinnia has a great sense of humor and enough self-awareness to not take herself too seriously, despite her pretty serious situation. As a fairy tale scholar, she is also the perfect person to fall into a parallel universe where the fairy tale is actual fucking reality, and try to both help the resident damsel in distress as well as maybe save her own life at the same time.
There is actually a cute little adventure happening in Fairyland (where Zinnia has cell phone reception, btw, which I somehow find absolutely hilarious) and even characters who only show up shortly get… maybe not fleshed out but they give off a sense of being more than we can see. Whether it’s Princess Primrose’s mother or the prince she’s betrothed to, there is more to them than their fairy tale nature lets you suspect. I loved that, just as I loved the actual adventure the two girls go on, including creepy marshes, a raven, and some blood because, hey, its a fairytale! There must be blood.

Perhaps a little too easy and on the simplistic side was the big picture world building and the resultant world-hopping. What first seems to be the big conflict – how to get back home to her own world – soon turns into a barely existing barrier. Zinnia tries out one idea which happens to work, and that’s it. From then on, world-hopping is possible with no real effort. By anyone. That took a lot of the magic out of it for me.

But then this story isn’t about the multiverse, or even discovering and comparing some of its worlds. It’s about the people who live there. Just like in the movie inspiration for this novella series, you get a few comical appearances with no depth but great plot moments, like 90s princess (not like other girls, short hair, you know the type), Viking Sleeping Beauty, and Space Princess with a laser gun. As important as they may be to the overall plot, the heart of this story is Zinnia, her best friend Charm, and Princess Primrose who also has a lot more depth than you’d expect from your stereotypical fairy tale princess.

I loved so many aspects of this little book, starting with its self-awareness and its sense of humor. If you don’t like plenty of references then this may not be for you. Harrow drops a lot of them, starting with Disney characters, movies, and songs, , moving on to the darker, earlier versions of the fairy tale, to other pop culture characters and books and authors. And I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into it but the fact that Zinnia’s disease is called Generalized Roseville Malady – GRM for short – and it kills lots of people while they’re still very young, made me think of a certain boob-filled book and TV series by an author with very similar initials who is known to kill off characters, even if they’re protagonists…

I wish briefly but passionately that I’d been zapped into a different storyline, maybe one of those ’90s girl power fairy tale retellings with a rebellious princess who wears trousers and hates sweing. (I know they promoted a reductive vision of women’s agency that privileged traditionally male-coded forms of power, but let’s not pretend girls with swords don’t get shit done.)

Alix harrow clearly has a lot to say not just about fairy tales but about women’s roles in stories and in real life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the women in this book instinctively work together, that they listen to each other, try to learn the other’s story before judging. And it just so happens that the vapid princess isn’t quite so vapid, the evil fairy may not be exactly what she seems, and Zinnia’s choices in life (based on the fact that it will be a short one) may not have been perfect. Harrow allows her heroines to be flawed and make mistakes while still remaining the heroes of their own story. And having a choice to change that story makes all the difference.

The ending could have been super sappy and messed the whole book up but, fortunately, Harrow didn’t go down that path. She left us on a satisfied note with a protagonist who has been changed fundamentally by the events of this tale, with a lovely side story for some side characters, and, most importantly, with the promise of more stories. More princesses who’d rather save themselves, more worlds, more versions of fairy tales to explore.
This was a very quick read and I do worry that it might not hold up on a reread, especially once a few years have passed. But only time will tell and until then, I’ll be recommending this fun, heartfelt novella with its excellent female friendships to anyone who likes fairy tales. Especially if they don’t behave as they should.

I’m already looking forward to the next book, A Mirror Mended, which will tackle Snow White.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

Good Idea, Amateurish Execution: Kalynn Bayron – Cinderella is Dead

A book based on the fairy tale of Cinderella with a queer Black protagonist and a cover this beautiful? Of course, I couldn’t resist. But it teaches me the lesson – yet again – that books can’t be judged by their cover or even by what the synopsis promises. I was all aflame for this story, I wanted to like it so very much, so my disappointment is even greater. Because it’s just not very good.

CINDERELLA IS DEAD
by Kalynn Bayron

Published: Bloomsbury YA, 2020
eBook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: Cinderella has been dead for two hundred years.

It’s 200 years since Cinderella found her prince, but the fairytale is over.
Sophia knows the story though, off by heart. Because every girl has to recite it daily, from when she’s tiny until the night she’s sent to the royal ball for choosing. And every girl knows that she has only one chance. For the lives of those not chosen by a man at the ball are forfeited.
But Sophia doesn’t want to be chosen – she’s in love with her best friend, Erin, and hates the idea of being traded like cattle. And when Sophia’s night at the ball goes horribly wrong, she must run for her life. Alone and terrified, she finds herself hiding in Cinderella’s tomb. And there she meets someone who will show her that she has the power to remake her world.

This book starts out so well. 16-year-old Sophia lives in Lille, the capital of the kingdom of Mersailles which is ruled by the King and his ironclad laws. There aren’t many but they are serious. Based on the tale of Cinderella, which happened some 200 years ago, women have no rights, the husband or designated man of the household makes all decisions and can “discipline” his wife and children however he sees fit. How that horrorshow came out of the Cinderella fairytale? I don’t know and neither does anyone in this book, so just accept it and move on. The law also states that, starting at age 16, every young woman has to present herself at the royal ball where she can hope to be chosen by one of the men currently seeking a wife. Men aren’t obliged to go to the ball, they can go if they want and they can choose a 16-year-old wife even if they themselves are much older. If a girl doesn’t get chosen on her first ball, she shames her family. Every girl gets three tries, otherwise she is a forfeit and essentially turned into a slave. Yup, that’s the setup.

Look, everything about this world is already ridiculous but for the sake of the fairy tale I was willing to let it slide. This book, however, has very little in common with any fairy tale as it reads more like the exact cliché YA dystopian novel you’d expect from its world buliding. Sophia is not like other girls (ugh) but at least she has a good reason. Because she is in love with her best friend Erin and they’ve even had somewhat of a secret relationship. You can imagine that this woman-hating totalitarian world does not look kindly on the LGBTQIA+ community. Sophie wants to just run away but Erin is too scared and just wants to do what is expected of her, even if that means denying who she really is and living her entire life under the control of whichever man chooses to marry her.

At the ball, Sophia’s temper (or should I say stupidity) runs away with her and, shortly after, she runs away from the ball and is now on the run from the King and his guards. If they find her, they’ll execute her. Thankfully, she immediately meets another girl and continues her story with her. Secrets about the past are revealed, plans for revolution are made, allies are found, and romance abounds. I honestly cared so little about this book by the end that I feel tempted to just spoil the twists but in the hopes that other people find more joy in this, I’ll leave it at that.

There were so many problems with this novel and they became more and more glaring the further I got. I already mentioned the world building and how it makes absolutely no sense. But even with a huge amount of suspension of desbelief, I couldn’t overlook the book’s many other flaws.
Let’s start with the writing style. I had read on several places on the internet that this was supposed to be a debut novel (which would have made things a little better) but apparently it is not at all. Kalynn Bayron has published several other full-length novels and shorter works. I wouldn’t have guessed it judging from this book. Starting from recapping events from the previous chapter through dialogue, over super cringy conversations, overly dramatic descriptions, and a predictable plot, I would have bet my kidney that this was a first try at writing a novel. It honestly reads like my own very first book which I wrote at the age of 12 – part wish-fulfillment with the super beautiful girl protagonist who saves the world without actually doing much herself, part dramatic, impactful scenes but without the necessary build-up to make them dramatic.

The characters were actually the best part because, first of all, they are distinct and they’re not all perfect. Sophia, of course, is the best of the best and only sees the good in people and never does anything wrong and just wants to save the world and everyone from the evil king. Constance, her love interest, was my favorite. She is feisty and impulsive, sometimes even funny, but definitely her own kind of person. She was the one thing I kept holding on to while reading this. Other than that, we don’t get to know many characters too well. There’s mysterious Amina, there’s Sophia’s best friend and (ex-)lover Erin who conveniently turns into a bitch once Sophia has found a new love interest. Oh, and there was Luke, the young gay man Sophia meets at the very beginning of the book and whom we don’t see again until the very end because even though he was the most interesting person to me as a reader, in this story his only value seemed to have been that he is another gay person in Lille. Once that was established, he was no longer useful for Sophia’s story.

If I’m talking characters, I also have to talk about the villain, King Manford. He is the kind of villain who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. There is a super weaksauce attempt to explain his actions at the end, but it was neither convincing nor even tried to be. I can’t take a character like that serious and I certainly want more from a YA novel than a Bad Guy who’s just bad because reasons. It’s a writer’s job to come up with compelling characters with agency and that includes the antagonist. Manford executes people on a whim, he’s the one enforcing the crazy laws of his kingdom and making sure women don’t have any rights whatsoever. So of course it’s easy for Sophia to fight him. Her plan to kill him won’t haunt her because he is so purely evil that taking a life – even the life of a despicable man – would come with no psychological consequences. That is a sad thing, especially in a book that uses a fairy tale as its basis and pretends to subvert it.

The author generally doesn’t appear to have a lot of confidence in her readers. I can’t imagine why else she’d explain the events of the previous chapter to us, why her characters would have “As you know, Bob” conversations, or why we are told at least one million times how this society works, how bad it is, and how much everyone is suffering. WE GET IT!!! We got it after the first two chapters where you showed us this world. There’s no need to explain it to us again and again in every chapter after that! The writing got worse and worse later in the book. Once Sophia and Constance are together, they turn from young women with a plan to cheesy idiots, exclaiming their love in the most sappy words imaginable. Mind you, the entire story takes place over the course of maybe two weeks.

A good plot can still save a badly written novel. Give me the subversion of the original fairy tale, give me twists and high stake moments, give me battle scenes, and difficult decisions for our protagonist. I wants them! Oh… there’s none of that available in Cinderella is Dead? Well, that’s a bummer.
It starts with Sophia never actually figuring anything out for herself or doing anything of consequence of her own volition. Every situation where she doesn’t follow the rules is forced by someone else’s actions, be they the king’s or someone else’s. When she needs new information, it conveniently is delivered to her. By Constance, by a friendly townsperson, by the super ridiculously convenient fact that she finds something that has been stuck behind a drawer for the last 200 years that NOBODY ELSE HAS FOUND IN ALL THAT TIME!!!!! She can open locks with a hairpin when it’s convenient to the plot, the king’s guards are terrifying but also really dumb when it’s convenient to the plot, and the characters are only in real danger when it’s convenient to the plot. Do you see a pattern here?
I was never, for one second, worried that anything could happen to the protagonists because the potentially dangerous scenes are over so quickly that I didn’t have time to get worked up about them. And the style of this book is just not the kind where you have to fear for anyone. You know evil wil be defeated somehow. In fact, you know pretty early on how it will be defeated, even if Sophia takes ages to finally catch up and get it, too.

Another thing I found a bit strange was how much this world relied on the Disney movie version of Cinderella. That felt so cheap and jarring, especially since it gets mixed up with other versions of the fairy tale. When did Cinderella wear an “iconic blue dress” in the actual fairy tale? Depending on which version you read, her dresses are usually silver or gold. Bayron chose to implement elements such as birds picking out the stepsisters’ eyes and the fairy godmother but then she made a character ask someone else to “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” something which is just so weird. I’m aware that there is no one original version of any fairy tale but using the Disney movie so heavily just didn’t feel right, especially for this secondary medieval-ish world where Cinderella was an actual person and movies definitely aren’t a thing.

Now that I’ve got most of the bad stuff out of the way, let met tell you what this book does well or how it at least earned a couple of brownie points. It’s not for the Black queer protagonist – that’s great for representation but it doesn’t make the story the tiniest bit better. But this was an absolutely readable book, probably because the language was so dialogue-heavy and otherwise kept things really simple. There are no big words, no long sentences, no flowery language or heavy descriptions. This was one of the fastest 400 pages I’ve read in a long time.
The far more important bit is that Bayron actually acknowledges that killing the king doesn’t immediately change the world. The rules he’s put into place have been with people for 200 years and they are very well fixed in their minds. Why would men, who currently hold all the power, willingly give that up just because their ruler is gone? It is mentioned several times in the book that killing the king is just the beginning and that there is a lot of work to be done afterwards. I loved that because it made this crazy world just a little bit more believable and it acknowledged that you can’t just start a quick rebellion, kill a ruler, and then live in a utopia where everyone’s happy and accepting of each other. That is important and I’m glad I got to read it in a YA book.
But then, in the very last chapter, there is this one little line that is such a big fat “Fuck you, democracy” to make me re-think my opinion of the protagonists and their motives… I can’t say more without spoiling but I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes.

This entire book felt like a badly thrown together mash of ideas that weren’t thought out properly  at all. Our perfect heroine needs a villain to fight – fine, here’s a cardboard  uber-villain. But there has to be a shocking twist, right? Have you seen The Empire Strikes Back? Why not use something like that, that could be fun. And then evil has to be defeated, of course. Let’s just fill that final “battle” with lots of clichéd dialogue to hide the fact that there’s very little to it, after all.
No matter how I look at it, this just wasn’t a good book. It needed some serious work, some honest editing, and it just needed a better story. If the Cinderella aspect has so little actual impact on anything, why use it at all? Why not make up your own dystopian world and have it make sense? I started out quite liking the ideas and the characters. But the more I read, the more frustrated I got and the less I cared. I don’t know if I’ll give Kalynn Bayron another chance. If this is how she writes her fifth (or whatever) book, then I have little hope for improvement on the next one.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Pretty bad

Melissa Bashardoust – Girl, Serpent, Thorn

I was drawn to this book for three reasons. One, its title reminds me of Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi which I absolutely adored. Two, it’s a fairy tale retelling of sorts, and three, I had read Bashardoust’s debut novel and thought she had a lot of potential.
Thanks so much to the publisher and NetGalley for the eARC provided. This book comes out on July 7th, so if you’re interested you’ll only have to wait a few more days.

GIRL, SERPENT, THORN
by Melissa Bashardoust

Published: Flatiron Books, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 3/10

Opening line: Stories always begin the same way: There was and there was not.

There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.
As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.
Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

I’ve read Melissa Bashardoust’s previous novel Girls Made of Snow and Glass and while I didn’t love everything about it, it showed a lot of potential and made me want to seek out whatever book came next. If I hadn’t known before, I would have thought this was her first novel and Girls Made of Snow and Glass her second one because so many first novel problems were present in Girl, Serpent, Thorn.

This is the story of Soraya, sister to the shah, and cursed with poison running through her veins. Everything she touches dies, so her family keep her locked away and nobody can touch her. Soraya fills her time with stories and gardening. Until her brother the shah returns home with a div prisoner who might know more about Soraya’s curse. I’m sure most people will agree that this is a pretty cool premise. The implications of a young girl, isolated from other people, unable to touch anyone without killing them – that alone already makes for a highly interesting story. What would such a girl’s life be like? How would she deal with being so alone, especially at an age when her one friend is falling in love?
Unfortunately, I may have gone into this book with very wrong expectations. This is not a character exploration, nor even a particularly well done F/F romance. It’s about an unbearably stupid girl fighting an unbearably stupid villain. And all because every single character in this book is too dumb to just communicate and talk normally with each other. Seriously, the entire plot hinges on forced misunderstandings, characters making illogical decisions that no sane person would make, and a romance that exists  because the author tells us, not because the characters actually get to grow close to each other.

The writing in Bashardoust’s first novel was competent and the characters were interesting and not easily classified as good or evil. Somehow, in this second book of hers, the writing got way worse. Everything lacks a certain subtlety. Pauses in the characters’ speech, for example, are always explained. Actually, everything is always explained. There are moments that would have had much more impact if Bashardoust had let the readers understand them for themselves. And I’m not talking about super difficult-to-interpret things either. Everything is fairly obvious, but I was all the more annoyed at having everything spelled out even though there’s really no reason for it. If you don’t trust your readers to be intelligent enough to get it, that’s just not very flattering.

Let’s talk romance. This is marketed as an F/F romance but apparently, the love triangle is also making a comeback. Because this starts with not quite insta-love (but sort of) and only some of it can be explained. Soraya has been lonely for a long time, so it’s only natural and understandable that she yearns for human contact and that she’d seek out the attention of a handsome young man. Why said young man is immediately infatuated with her, however, is unclear and should at least raise some alarm bells for Soraya!
And while her attraction can be understood, the immediate exclamations of deep emotions cannot. Sure, spill all your lifelong secrets to the guy you just met, even though you’ve been keeping them your entire life… How am I supposed to root for a heroine who behaves that stupidly and puts her trust in a complete stranger just because he tells her she’s pretty? Maybe I’m just too old for this kind of story but I just kept shaking my head and rolling my eyes for the entire first half of the book.

And it’s not just Soraya either. The villain – who has a great back story and could be so incredibly interesting! – is just as gullible and idiotic as Soraya. I also never understood why he’s evil. There’s no shades of grey here, he just does bad stuff because reasons. It’s just not fun to root for a dumb protagonist who’s fighting against an equally dumb villain, although at least the odds are somewhat evened out by the fact they neither of them seems to be using their brain. I won’t tell you exactly what happens because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, but let me give you a few vague examples.
Soraya immediately puts all her trust (something she hasn’t done ever!) in the guy she just met because he deeply loves her and thus is obviously trustworthy. Not only does she tell him about her curse but she also spills some other family secrets that are vital to keep her family safe!
Later in the book, Soraya tries to trick the villain by agreeing with him. It’s the most obvious, unbelievable trick in the universe and any villain worth his salt would not fall for it. Except here, he does.
And let’s not forget Soraya’s most glorious moment of stupidity when she accidentally lets someone know another secret by misspeaking. Girl, take half a second to think before you speak!! Seriously!

If the characters had otherwise been interesting, I might have overlooked those glaring problems. But they are all flat. Cardboard flat. Everyone gets one characteristic, one problem they’re dealing with and that’s it. The characters’ emotional response to anything that happens is just way overdone. Soraya holds back angry tears when telling a story that she’s heard and told over and over for many years? If we’re supposed to understand that she’s angry about it, make it less melodramatic, please. The same goes for the romantic moments. Everything felt just sooooo over the top. One smouldering look and Soraya’s skin prickles, it just felt completely ridiculous.  There were several of these instances and I kept getting the feeling that this is the author trying to make her readers emotional. It doesn’t work that way! You make us like and care about your characters and then bad or romantic or exciting things happen to them and we feel things. Don’t just tell us Soraya cried and expect us to feel sad along with her when we have no basis to understand her.

I admit I started reading this book when I was also reading Deeplight by Frances Hardinge and the difference in writing style and sheer skill became all the more apparent. I don’t know if I would have liked this better if I hadn’t been reading one of the best YA books ever at the same time but I’m pretty sure my reaction to the writing would have been mostly the same. I don’t like stupid characters without any nuance to them, no matter how interesting the setting may be.

Ah, let’s take a moment to discuss setting and world-building. There has been a high demand for fantasy set outside the tropey medieval Europe stuff that used to be everywhere, and I am more than happy that publishing is doing pretty great when it comes to that. We get all sorts of stories set in places all over the world – real and fictional – inspired by underrepresented mythologies, fairy tales, histories, and people. So of course I was excited to read a Persian-inspired fairy tale retelling. But it takes more to build a fictional place than just throwing in some fancy words or making your characters wear certain clothes. That’s only skin-deep and I have come to expect more of YA!
At no point did I really feel like I was in a specific setting. The palace may go by a Persion-inspired name but the way it’s described, it could have been any old castle. Other than that, we get a mountain and a forest setting. So fine, if the actual place and the climate don’t feature in the book very much, that’s okay. Then at least show us where we are through politics. Again, Soraya’s brother Sorush may have been called shah instead of king but essentially, that’s how he is presented. Politics are never even really mentioned and while that wasn’t super necessary for Soraya’s personal story, there are hints of div politics. The divs are just described as this supernatural species of beings who attack and kill humans. We don’t know exactly why humans and divs are at war. We do learn that divs aren’t all alike, that there are factions among them and they they don’t necessarily get along. Which would have been a cool addition to a really thin plot. But by the end of the book, we know exactly as much as we do at the beginning. So definitely don’t expect anything like City of Brass level political intrigue.

I don’t know the reasons behind the choices made with this novel. Is it a misguided belief that deeper world-building will put off readers? Do authors and/or publishers think kids wouldn’t get it? Was it just laziness because for an immersive world that feels real, you’d have to do a lot of research, hire sensitivity readers (especially when writing about a culture not your own), and put in a lot of work? From the afterwork I gathered that the author did some research but other than names, we don’t get to see the fruit of that labor. In the end, I honestly don’t care why the world building is so thin. If the end product remains shallow, that’s the version the publisher decided was going to go out into the world and that’s all we readers get. And I’m not particularly happy with what I got here.

Now that the most glaring problems are out of the way, let’s look at the actual story. Because, boy, does it have problems of its own. The first half of the book – and I’m pretty sure it’s almost exactly in the middle – reads like a first draft. The entire first half is basically the set up for the real plot. And I don’t mean the part that you read in the synopsis – that’s the set up for the set up. Soraya’s skin is poisonous and anything she touches, she kills. So her royal family has hidden her away. She moves through secret corridors, rarely interacts with humans other than her mother, and yearns for friendship and love and human touch. So far, so intriguing. Then that whole insta-love-but-not-really-thing happens followed by a series of super dumb decisions,and bad writing.
In the second half of the book, however, the story finally finds its footing and becomes interesting. I’m not saying it’s great but at least by that point, I actually wanted to get back to the book to see what would happen next. Until Soraya’s next act of supreme stupidity at least.

I’ve already ranted about the characters but I want to say that they are not all bad. The most interesting ones just aren’t the protagonist. Soraya’s mother, for example, would have made one hell of a heroine. Parvaneh, the imprisoned parik (a type of div) Soraya wants to question about her curse, also turns out to be more than first meets the eye. It’s a shame that Soraya herself is so flat. Her only defining quality is that she’s cursed, wants to get uncursed and thinks of herself as a monster. It’s a good premise. I like characters who are torn, who have to find their place in the world, but if that’s their only thing and they behave stupidly most of the time, then that’s just not enough.

You will not be surprised that I didn’t really like this book. During the second half, we at least get some interesting scenes and a few moments of excitement. Although that is quenched pretty quickly by Soraya being dumb, the villain being dumb, or the plot being super convenient. The ending left me feeling annoyed and asking myself what the hell I’d been reading and WHY. If the whole point of the story is for Soraya to accept her otherness and to live with who she is, that’s great but please wrap it in a good story.
I spent almost all of the time reading this book rolling  my eyes, waiting for something thrilling to happen, and asking myself when the actual romance part would start. Sadly, this was super disappointing. For the little spark of good ideas (villain backstory, hinted at div politics, great mother character) I’m giving this book a few brownie points. But if this hadn’t been a review copy, I would have DNFd it long before the 50% mark.

MY RATING: 3/10 – Pretty bad

A Feminist Little Mermaid: Julia Ember – The Seafarer’s Kiss

I like The Little Mermaid in all its variations. The original tragic story, the Disney version, many retellings I’ve read, and some villain origin stories. This book is kind of a mix of them all. It retells the fairy tale but with a mythology twist, an f/f romance, and a good balance between tragic and happy.

THE SEAFARER’S KISS
by Julia Ember

Published: Duet Books, 2017
Ebook: 214 pages
Series: The Seafarer’s Kiss #1
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: The amethyst dagger called to me from inside the drowned man’s chest. The purple hilt gleamed in the light filtering through the rotted floorboards of the ship’s deck.

Having long-wondered what lives beyond the ice shelf, nineteen-year-old mermaid Ersel learns of the life she wants when she rescues and befriends Ragna, a shield-maiden stranded on the mermen’s glacier. But when Ersel’s childhood friend and suitor catches them together, he gives Ersel a choice: say goodbye to Ragna or face justice at the hands of the glacier’s brutal king.

Determined to forge a different fate, Ersel seeks help from Loki. But such deals are never as one expects, and the outcome sees her exiled from the only home and protection she’s known. To save herself from perishing in the barren, underwater wasteland and be reunited with the human she’s come to love, Ersel must try to outsmart the God of Lies.

Ersel is a little mermaid but she is different from the others. While other girls do their best to keep their bodies healthy for the big test that will determine their fertility and so their status in the merpeople society, Ersel spends her time exploring human artifacts, looking through sunk ships, and talking to her only friend Havamal. But one day, she meets an actual alive human girl on top of the glacier and – after some initial scepticism on both sides – befriends her. Ragna has survived a shipwreck and needs any help Ersel can give her just to survive the next few days.

This story starts out pretty much as you’d expect a retelling of The Little Mermaid to start, although Ersel is not a princess, just one regular mermaid among many, and they are all ruled over by a brutal king who makes iron-clad laws. Whoever disobeys pays dearly by having some of their scales removed (so essentialy torture) or being exiled. And with the merpeople population dwindling, a young mermaid’s fate is above all to produce children whether she wants to or not. It’s for the good of the people, after all.
But Ersel has nightmares about being given to some merman just to be his brood mare. She’s heard tales of women who are kept locked away and whose only purpose in life is creating more merpeople. They have no chance of seeing the sun, no friends, nobody who would dare help them.

It was this bit of world building that made this retelling slightly more interesting than I would otherwise have been. The characters and plot are all rather superficial, we never get to know anyone really well, the world isn’t particularly fleshed out, and the plot is predictable to some degree. But the tidbits of information Julia Ember does give us on her version of merpeople society kept me interested and reading. When Norse mythology came into the mix, I wasn’t particularly pleased (it makes no sense to me for merpeople to adopt the same religion as humans would) but it leads to a really nice twist around the middle of the book.

We all know how the story goes. The little mermaid wants to be human, visits a scary underwater witch, and bargains away her voice to get a chance at true love. Well, all of that is true, except the witch is actually Loki and he stays true to his nature, tricking people wherever he can. I won’t tell you more, but I was giddily pleased when I read the part where Ersel bargains with him and what comes out of that transaction. It’s not what I expected and I love being surprised!

The second half of the book is where we veer off the beaten fairy tale track and Ember’s own ideas are front and center. I loved certain aspects of this but they also felt like last-minute add ons that were thrown in so there would be more of a story. A bit of foreshadowing wouldn’t have hurt for some of the things that become important later in the book. I also liked that Ersel has to deal with the consequences of her actions, although there, too, I would have liked a bit more depth. It’s easy to say that Ersel sympathises with a character but it would be so much better if we, the readers, could have known that character well enough to sympathise with them too! For the things the book is trying to do, it was simply too short. With a bit more time spent on character development and world building, this could have been much better.

All of that said, I did enjoy reading this book. Instead of a teenage girl pining after some prince (well, shield maiden in this case), Ersel knows that there are bigger problems in her world. Sure, she’d love to go and explore the world with her new-found love, but merpeople society is seriously messed up and she feels that she should do something about it. It’s also about finding her place in the world and among her friends, about accepting who you are and who you can be. For a quick read and anyone who likes retellings, I recommend picking this up.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

2020 Retellings Challenge – First Quarter Update

I can’t believe a quarter of the year is already over again. It feels like I just made those reading resolutions, endless lists of new publications to watch out for, and checked out other people’s Best-of-2019 lists.
But since we took our big sunny vacation during winter this year, I actually managed to get a lot of reading done, especially for the wonderful 2020 Retellings Challenge hosted by Tracy at Cornerfolds. It was my first time travelling to a warm place when it’s cold at home and I can highly recommend it. It did wonders for my mood, my tan, and of course my reading time. And sipping on a fresh coconut is at least as cool as having a cup of tea while reading a nice book.

What I’ve read

Just like last year and just like with any reading challenge, my chosen books ranged from brilliant to pretty bad with everything in between. I’m making it a little harder for myself this year by not counting books that would technically fit certain prompts. For example, Winterglass (still fantastic!) was a re-read, so I’m not counting it. Sword of Destiny is technically a collection of short stories where only one of them fulfills the prompt (includes mermaids) and I felt that if I counted that book I would kind of be cheating. I’m still listing them here because they are retellings but I’ll pick other books for the bingo squares.

So far, the absolute standout book I read for this challenge was Descendant of the Crane, although I’m not even sure it’s a retelling of something. It’s set in a Chinese-inspired fantasy kingdom and it uses some mythology elements but whether it counts or not, it was an excellent book! Mirrorstrike, the sequel to Winterglass wasn’t as good as the first book but I’m still very much looking forward to the sequel.
I checked off one of the toughest prompts (a book over 500 pages) with Tessa Gratton’s retelling of Shakespeare’s King LearThe Queens of Innis Lear which was pretty amazing. And I finally read Diana Peterfreund’s sci-fi retelling of Jane Austen’s PersuasionFor Darkness Shows the Stars.
What I like about this challenge is that it forces me to read outside my comfort zone – that was very much the case with Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, which is exactly what the title suggests. It was a great book, although very different from what I normally read. I’m so glad to have picked it up as it’s also the first book translated from Arabic that I’ve ever read.
I also really enjoyed the March group read, A Study in Charlotte, which is about the descendants of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. It was different than what I expected but a fun, quick read that made me want to pick up the sequel. And an even quicker read was Keturah and Lord Death, which is kind of Hades and Persephone and kind of 1001 Nights wrapped in a medieval romance. It was really sweet.
An audiobook that started out really well and then sort of meandered on to a mediocre ending was Juliet Marillier’s Beautiful. The only book I read that I would call bad was Kiersten White’s The Guinevere Deception. One bad book and one middling one out of 11 total is a pretty good ratio, I’d say.

My retellings reading plan

As usual, I don’t set myself a specific TBR but I do want to stay on top of this challenge because the Hugo shortlist is about to be announced and that always means reading a lot of works I missed last year. For the Retellings Challenge, I have picked out at least one book for each prompt, just to be prepared, but if I discover something new that fits a prompt, I may just go with that.
I have already started my book for the African myth prompt, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, during my vacation and I’m absolutely loving it. It’s not an easy book to read, though, and it wants to be savored so I may be “currently reading” this one for a while yet. But if it continues the way it started, it may end up on my favorite books of the year list!

  • Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf (African myth)
  • E. K. Johnston – A Thousand Nights (1001 nights)
  • Alexa Donne – Brightly Burning (set in space)
  • Julia Ember – The Seafarer’s Kiss (features mermaids)
  • Victoria McCombs – The Storyteller’s Daughter (German fairy tale – Rumpelstiltskin)

General Thoughts on the Challenge

I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this year’s challenge as much as last year’s because the prompts seemed much more difficult for me. While retellings of fairy tales and Jane Austen are abundant, there isn’t as much to choose from when it comes to Frankenstein or Les Misérables retellings. But with a bit of research and recommendations from other participants, I think this year may turn out to be even more rewarding. Because the prompts challenge me more, I am forced to discover  books I would otherwise not even consider and I’m sure there will be at least one hidden gem among them.

If you’re doing this challenge as well, how is it going for you? Have you discovered a new favorite? Have you been disappointed by an over-hyped book? Let me know in the comments!

Falling in Love With Death: Martine Leavitt – Keturah and Lord Death

This is a fairy tale-esque book I’ve been meaning to read forever. It’s part 1001 Nights, part Hades and Persephone, and part medieval romance. Its simplicity is at the same time what makes it so lovely and also what will probably make it disappear from my memory quite fast.

KETURAH AND LORD DEATH
by Martine Leavitt

Published: Boyds Mill Press, 2006
Ebook: 216 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Keturah, tell us a story,” said Naomi, “one of your tales of faërie or magic.”

Keturah, renowned for her storytelling, follows a legendary hart deep into the forest, where she becomes hopelessly lost. Her strength diminishes until, finally, she realizes that death is near—and learns then that death is a young lord, melancholy and stern. She is able to charm Lord Death with a story and gain a reprieve, but he grants her only a day, and within that day she must find true love. A mesmerizing love story, interweaving elements of classic fantasy and high romance.

Keturah lives in a small village that has come into disrepair and wants very little of life. She wants her grandmother to be well, her best friends Beatrice and Gretta to be happy, and a true love for herself. When she gets lost in the wood and almost freezes to death, she meets a tall dark stranger who turns out to be none other than Lord Death himself. Not wanting to die without having experienced love yet, she tells him a story but leaves out the ending, bargaining for another day in which she can prove to Death that she can find her true love and marry him.

So begins the fairy tale of Keturah and Lord Death. Keturah doesn’t mess around but promptly seeks out the village wise woman (read: witch) for a charm to let her know which of the eligible bachelors in town may be Keturah’s own true love. And then go and follow her in her daily business, get to know other characters and see that, to Keturah’s dismay, none of the village boys seems to be her true love, no matter how much she likes them or how much they admire her.

This story is a very simple one but that doesn’t mean it’s easily dismissed. Not only does Keturah have to keep bargaining with Death – by use of unfinished stories – for another day, and another after that, but the way her home town sees her also changes. They accuse her of witchcraft, of having met fairies, of being in league with Death! The only people who always, always stick by Keturah’s side are her grandmother and her two best friends. It seems silly to mention in a tale like this because it really does read like a fairy tale, but the female friendships were truly heartwarming. Beatrice and Gretta not only try their best to help Keturah but even offer up the men they are secretly in love with for her to marry – just so she can escape being taken by Death.

For a book this slim, there’s actually a lot going on. The town expects a visit from the King, there is a threat of plague (how timely…), and a big celebration is coming up, including a cooking contest that Keturah needs to win in order to potentially marry one of the boys in town – men in his family only marry Best Cook because tradition. The fairy tale-like writing style worked pretty well and while not much happens that couldn’t be predicted from the first page, I was never bored.
But it was also the writing style that makes this book a little forgettable. I quite enjoyed it while I read it but it really did feel like reading an old tale that I had read many times before. There were no twists, no real villains, there was just a bunch of essentially good people and beautiful Keturah, who is possibly the best of them all.

The conclusion also doesn’t come as a surprise, and I don’t think it tried to. For us readers, it’s clear from the start who Keturah’s true love is and who she will end up marrying, but watching Keturah herself slowly learn this truth was a lot of fun. Even though I feel bad for the boys who clearly had a crush on her.

If you want a quick read that reminds you of being a child, reading fairy tales in bed, do pick this up. It’s a lovely little story with wonderful characters. And even though I’ll probably forget all their names within the next week, I will remember the feelings this book gave me fondly.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good