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

A Shallow but Fun Teen Romance: Kiersten White – The Chaos of Stars

I was so excited when the book of the month for the 2019 Retelling Challenge ended up being one about Egyption mythology. I had a particularly hard time finding a book for that prompt, not because there aren’t any SFF novels out there, but because none of them interested me very much. But this sounded really interesting. A daughter of Isis and Osiris but in contemporary times? Sign me up.

THE CHAOS OF STARS
by Kiersten White

Published by: Harper Teen, 2013
Ebook: 213 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4,5/10

First line: When I was a little girl, I still believed I was part of the world’s secret magic.

Isadora’s family is seriously screwed up—which comes with the territory when you’re the human daughter of the ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. Isadora is tired of living with crazy relatives who think she’s only worthy of a passing glance—so when she gets the chance to move to California with her brother, she jumps on it. But her new life comes with plenty of its own dramatic—and dangerous—complications . . . and Isadora quickly learns there’s no such thing as a clean break from family.

This book started out so well. Isadora lives with her family of deities and all the weirdness that comes with that. Being the daughter of Isis and her reanimated husband Osiris isn’t easy, especially if you’re a teenager full of crazy hormones. But the biggest conflict of this story – and the most interesting thing about it – is the fact that Isadora doesn’t feel loved by her mother. You see, Isis has a new baby every twenty years (being immortal makes that pretty easy) and Isadora suspects that Isis does this simply so she can have one more person every twenty years to worship her and thus keep her alive and well. Being sixteen is hard enough as it is, but feeling like just another girl in a sea of worshippers just sucks! So Isadora wants to be away from home for a while and takes a flight from Egypt to San Diego, where her half-brother Sirus lives.

And this is where the story happens, which has next to nothing to do with Egyption gods. Isadora is forced to take a job at a museum where she is promptly allowed to turn her interior design hobby into actual work. Because sure, I guess lots of museums let 16-year-olds design a room filled with priceless artifacts. Isadora also becomes friends with her co-worker Tyler and, through her, meets the incredibly gorgeous Ry. Teen romance ensues.

If I’m honest, this book really wasn’t very good. I can (and will) tell you all the things that make it a shallow, silly, meaningless story, but I want to tell you first that despite its many flaws, I quite enjoyed it. I’m just getting out of a reading slump – induced by books that were not as advertised and bored me to death – so this quick read about nothing much at all was just what I needed. The pages flew by, I never had to think very hard, the entire story was obvious and predictable from the start, but sometimes this is the perfect book!

So, on the things that worked and didn’t work for me. I really liked the idea of Egyptian gods living in our times and being… well, strange. We see glimpses of Isadora’s family in the beginning of the book, but we never really get to know them. There are short retellings of Egyptian myths at the beginning of each chapter but come on, I don’t want two paragraphs about the old myths if I can have the actual gods as characters in this story. The only interesting thing that sets Isadora apart from regular people is that she speaks all languages. Otherwise, she is a pretty standard YA protagonist, if a bit pale.

The side character fare even worse. Tyler is basically just a bubbly girl with no other personality traits whatsoever. Ry writes poetry and has pretty blue eyes. And is obviously crushing on Isadora (as is everyone else, by the way, because our heroine, despite being completely ordinary, is soooooo special). Isadora’s half-brother Sirus and his wife Deena don’t get much to say or do either. They are background decoration for a story that is already very thin.

The story – and by that I mean what you actually get to read about when you pick up this book – is about things like Isadora drinking slushies with Ry, Isadora being cynical about her mom, who has never, in this book, shown a single time that she doesn’t absolutely love her daughter. Oh yeah, and Isadora thinking love is a waste because we’re all going to die one day. I was sympathetic to her for a long time, but that is just the stupidest thing to believe and made me seriously doubt her intelligence.
Whenever the plot calls for something, it’s there. There is so much handwavium in this book, it reads more like something an actual teenager produced. Isadora is unfamiliar with a lot of American customs and societal norms (slushies) but has no problem using a cell phone and never even mentions that there may be other things her sheltered life among gods may not have taught her. We are also told all of these things, rather than being shown. We are told Isadora loves interior design and is obsessed with the constellation of Orion – we aren’t told why, so any impact these “obsessions” have falls completely flat.

There is also a sub-plot that is obvious from the start. When someone breaks in to Sirus’ house and steals only some protective amulets Isadora got from her mother, Isador gets scared for a while, but conveniently forgets about it when the plot calls for other thoughts (such as mooning at Ry’s blue eyes). Other things happen that make the culprit even more obvious but Isador – with all her supposed smarts – doesn’t get with the program. It’s like growing up with gods wiped out her brain cells and she behaves like a cardboard American teenager.

What I did like about the book, and what would have made for a much better story if the author had focused on this instead of a cheesy romance, was the mother daughter relationship between Isis and Isadora. The child feels unloved, the mother does everything in her power to protect her daughter, and yet somehow these two can’t just get together and work out their problems. The resolution of that plot string was also visible from miles away but I found it quite lovely, nonetheless.

I also enjoyed the tone of the narration. Again, it’s pretty standard. A snarky teen heroine narrates (why in present tense, though?) her story and adds all sorts of commentary about her weird family. There is a surprising amount of room descriptions (interior design is Isadora’s thing, remember) and certain passages feel almost like we’re actually reading Isadora’s thoughts. She interrupts herself, catches herself mid-thought, and so on. Nothing about this style is original and the language itself is very basic because… well, people don’t think like a thesaurus, right? But the bottom line is, it was fun to read this story from Isadora’s point of view, even though she can be incredibly thick at times.

So all things considered, this is actually a pretty bad book. It has no depth, no characterization, the mythology is window dressing at best and has no impact on the plot (serioiusly, everything could have worked without magic or deities as well), and the romance wasn’t particularly swoon-worthy either. It was… nice, I guess. Again, I absolutely enjoyed racing through this book, it was like a holiday for my brain, and I’d recommend it to people who don’t usually read much or simply need a break from heavier fiction. But while this book came to me at exactly the right time, I still can’t give it a high rating. I will probably check out one more Kiersten White book because I hope her writing has improved over the years. If it hasn’t, that’s one author I can check off my list. Too fluffy, not enough substance.

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Kind of bad

A Charming Middle-Grade Fairy Tale: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow

October has been kind of a reading slump-y month for me and I’ve come to realize why. Because expectations are a bitch! Whether it’s a book hype on Twitter and Goodreads or simply misleading marketing by the publisher, once I’ve formed certain expectations and they aren’t met – even if the book is otherwise fine – it puts me off reading a book. While this book wasn’t a disappointment the way Gideon the Ninth was, it still was so completely different from what the cover, synopsis, and general buzz about it made me expect that it took me a while to get into it.

GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First line: Some people are born under a lucky star, while others have their misfortune telegraphed by the position of the planets.

The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark, one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.
The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.
Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Jazz Age, Mexico, Mayan gods! These are only three things that made me excited for this book. I had also heard nothing but great things about the author herself and I love mythology retellings, especially when they are written for adults (like Circe or The Golem and the Jinni). But this was also my first mistake. Nowhere – and I mean nowhere – did I see any mentions that this was a YA book or, how I would categorize it, a middle-grade one. The cover doesn’t look particularly like YA, it is shelved as “Adult” on Goodreads, and none of the reviews I’d read made me expect anything but an adult mythology retelling with a teenaged protagonist.

So the writing style was the first thing that threw me. Casiopea Tun lives a Cinderella-like life in her grandfather’s house, where she cleans, cooks, fetches things for her insufferable, arrogant douche of a cousin Martín, and can only dream of the wider world. Until, that is, she opens a chest which contains some bones. These bones happen to belong to the Mayan god of the Underworld, Hun-Kamé who has been imprisoned by his jealous brother who now sits on the throne of Xibalba. Because Casiopea freed Hun-Kamé and also got a piece of bone stuck in her thumb, these two are now connected and she has to go with him on a quest to retrieve his missing pieces that will restore him to full power. Adventure ensues.

The plot is pretty straight-forward, nothing unexpected happens, and the whole book reads more like a fable or (and that’s a plus, in my book) a fairy tale than anything else. The writing is quick and to the point, there is a lot of telling instead of showing, the plot moves fast and felt almost episodic. Each chapter is a new city, a new piece of Hun-Kamé to retrieve, a new enemy to defeat or mythological creature to meet. None of these adventures were bad. I enjoyed most of them a lot, to be honest, but at the same time it all felt so incredibly simple, so child-like. Even the romance, which I found sweet and subtle, was fitting for 12-year-old readers. The only reason this bothered me so much was because that’s not at all what the book promised! Had I known from the start what kind of novel I was picking up, I would have probably loved it from the start. But since I had to adjust my expectations, I only started really liking this after the first third.

Another disappointment were the setting and the time period. The setting lived mostly through its mythology and I loved learning about Xibalba, various mythical creatures and Mayan rituals. But Mexico didn’t really come to life for me. The Roaring Twenties aspect was represented even less. Sure, most chapters begin with a short introduction of the place Casiopea and Hun-Kamé are visiting, but mentioning bobbed hair and fast dances here and there does not make any of this come to life. This didn’t make the reading experience less pleasurable, but it also did nothing to enhance what was already a very simplistic story. There was so much potential for depth, for turning this fast-paced children’s book into what it was sold as. But apart from the fact that Mayan gods are characters, this story could have happened anywhere and during any number of time periods.

Now that I’ve got the gripes out of the way, let me tell you why this book is worth your while anyway! First of all, you, faithful readers, are aware of what you’re going to get yourselves into. Don’t pick this up if you want something like The Song of Achilles, pick it up if you feel like a light-hearted fantasy read with interesting mythology. Because what you’ll get is actually a really sweet tale of a young girl breaking out of her sad life, finding confidence, falling in love for the first time, and growing up a bit. Casiopea may be the protagonist but – just like in a lot of children’s books – she is almost a little bland. Although we’re told how feisty and headstrong she is, mostly she’s just a really good person who happens to be a teenager and thus wants things, such as freedom and pretty dresses and to be kissed by a boy. I liked her enormously, but from a storytelling persepective, I found Hun-Kamé and Casiopea’s jerk cousin Martín even more interesting. Martín is the kind of spoiled brat who believes himself a gift to whomever may walk in his presence and I loathed him with a passion. But then he gets his own point of view chapters and you realize there is more to him than meets the eye. Not much more, mind you, but more nonetheless.

Hun-Kamé, that dark, mysterious god was the perfect romantic interest for a YA novel. Kind of brooding, super sexy, protective of the heroine… but being a god who’s missing some of his pieces, and thus some of his power, he’s also going through an interesting development. As a piece of his bone is stuck in Casiopea’s finger, her humanity is swapping over to Hun-Kamé just as she gets some of his godly powers. I felt that Hun-Kamés slow turn from godly aloofness to an almost human young man was fantastically done. Just like the romance, the changes happen gradually. It is subtle at first and becomes more and more obvious as the story progresses. Because I hate insta-love and enjoy character-focused stories, I really liked that part of the narrative.

In the reviews I’ve since read of this book, some readers were disappointed in the ending but I really liked it. Much like the plot that came before, I didn’t really find it surprising but even in its predictability, it had a lot of charm. Casiopea’s story felt well-rounded, she had grown as a person, seen more of the world, experienced romantic feelings – oh yeah, and also fought terrifying creatures, helped the god of the Underworld, and seen places others can only dream of. Although this book absolutely isn’t what it appears to be, it is a lovely kids’ adventure story with Mayan mythology.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Trickster Tales: Joanna M. Harris – The Gospel of Loki

As someone who loves mythology, I have wanted to read this retelling ever since it was published. But you know how it is. Sometimes it takes a reading challenge to finally give you that push to pick up certain books. I’m glad I did, because although I wasn’t blown away by this story, it did deliver pretty much what I had hoped for. A hilarious narrator, fun tales of gods doing mischief, and a large dose of Norse myths. What’s not to like?

THE GOSPEL OF LOKI
by Joanne M. Harris

Published by: Gollancz, 2014
Paperback: 302 pages
Series: Loki #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence:

The novel is a brilliant first-person narrative of the rise and fall of the Norse gods – retold from the point of view of the world’s ultimate trickster, Loki. It tells the story of Loki’s recruitment from the underworld of Chaos, his many exploits on behalf of his one-eyed master, Odin, through to his eventual betrayal of the gods and the fall of Asgard itself.

From the first moment I opened this book, I knew I would love the narration. The glossary of gods alone shows you just what kind of guy Loki is and whether you will like the style of his story. As he introduces his fellow gods, there is a certain amount of sass, and it is quite obvious whether he likes them or not so much.

The story begins at the very beginning. I mean the beginning of the worlds, explaining how Odin and the gods came to be, how Asgard was created, the big war between Asgardians and Ice Folk/Rock Folk/what-have-you – and of course, also of how Loki, a demon of Chaos, came to be one of the gods in Asgard. I found the beginning a bit slow because I wanted to read about Loki’s escapades, but of course for those to happen, he has to live in Asgard first. But worry not, it’s not a long book so this introductory phase isn’t long either.

Once Loki is established as a god in Asgard, things really get going. He’s not exactly accepted and he does his very best to antagonise his fellow gods. Sometimes, he’s just unlucky, but mostly, he’s just an idiot. What comes next are hilarious tales of Loki, sometimes accompanied by Thor, doing mischief and cleverly getting out of most of his scrapes. I adored the middle part of this novel and would have gladly read another 200 pages of Loki’s trips around the worlds, trying to bring upon the downfall of the other gods.

A large part of this book’s appeal comes from the narration and the writing style in general. You’d expect Norse gods to speak in a medieval-ish tone of voice, hearing them in your head with a Serious English Accent or something. But Joanne M. Harris went another way. These gods talk like modern people, cursing generously, insulting each other in highly original ways, and in generally really funny dialogue. Loki’s first person narration adds the cherry on top. Not only is it humorous, but his personality shines through on every page. Even though he behaves less than honorable on more than one account, you can’t help but love the guy.

The other characters are kind of flat, but hey, they’re gods and they’re stuck in their own skin. They are supposed to be one-dimensional. Thor with his brute strength, but not a lot of brains, Freyja the gorgeous but vain one, Odin, always mysterious and aloof… I wasn’t expecting them to have layers and their dominant personality trait actually made for some great comedy.

The ending, although generously foreshadowed throughout the whole book, was a bit of a let down. Loki tells you right from the start that the world is going to end, that the gods’ reign will come to a close, and he does his best to wiggle his way out of oblivion. Whether it’s him trying to gain a favor from his daughter Hel, goddess of the Underworld, or recruiting his other children, the Fenris wolf and the world serpent Jormungand, he’s always looking for a loophole out of the prophecy that foretells his (and all the other gods’) downfall.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It didn’t have a lot of depth but it was fun, it made Loki into an even more interesting character than he already was based on the Norse myths, and it was a quick read. I will definitely be checking out the sequel, The Testament of Loki, because boy am I curious  what other shenanigans our favorite trickster can get himself into.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

Women Are More Than Wives and Witches: Madeline Miller – Circe

I was worried that Madeline Miller couldn’t possible write another retelling of a Greek myth that was as wonderful as The Song of Achilles. In this book, Circe gets to tell her own story and paints a rather different picture than the one I had – which, to be honest, was only that she was that witch who turned men into pigs when Odysseus landed on her island after the war of Troy. But boy, is there more to her story!

CIRCE
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Little, Brown and Company, 2018
eBook: 393 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Let me say right away that if you don’t much like the beginning of this book – don’t give up! The story is narrated by Circe herself and begins with her early life as a child of Helios in the Titan’s Hall. Her life isn’t exactly nice at first. She is bullied and ridiculed by her siblings for her strange voice and her plain looks, she can’t for the life of her make her parents proud, and she seems to stay constantly in the shadows. Until she finds out that there is magic in her and that she has the power to change things. After she changes a human sailor whom she has fallen in love with, into a god, she goes further and uses her gift with magical plants to change the Mean Girl into a monster.

And so begins her exile. Helios, in rare agreement with Zeus, decides to banish his witchy daughter to the island of Aiaia. Now I expected a long and boring exile because as I metioned, my prior knowledge of Circe was that Odysseus met her after Troy… I didn’t know if she came up in any other Greek heroes’ stories. But whether it’s part of the actual myths or whether Miller simply decided to give Circe more to do, there was definitely enough adventure to keep me intrigued.

Yes, for a long time, Circe is still only a side character who witnesses great things from afar. But reading about the birth of the Minotaur, meeting Daedalus, and of course later on Odysseus and his men, never felt boring. Instead, I was excited to see these other characters portrayed so differently from what I’d read many years ago in books of mythology. Although they may only be side characters in Circe’s story, they all felt fleshed-out, like real people, and that was enough for me, even if we didn’t follow their adventures in this story.

Odysseus does of course eventually show up on Aiaia’s shores and he convinces Circe to turn his newly pig-shaped men back into humans. As for what happens after that – it was easily the best part of the novel so I’m not giving anything away. You should all have the pleasure of finding it out for yourselves. Only let me say that the ending was a rare kind of perfection that made me close the book with a content smile.

This is sold as a feminist retelling of a Greek myth and while it takes a while to become apparent, it definitely is. The women in this book – Circe, Medea, Penelope, Scylla, Pasiphae – may not all be likable (in fact, some are quite horrible), but they are all so much more than someone’s wife, some monster, some witch who is only there to further the plot of the great adventurers. Here, they have agency, they make choices for their own reasons, whether honorable or not. And I loved, loved, loved the friendship that grows toward the end of the book between two women. It was unexpected but I cherished it all the more for that.

The only thing I disliked was the beginning. I understand why it was the way it was, but reading about Circe’s bleak early life with almost nobody to hold onto, to call a friend, with nothing to do but watch gods and nymphs be gods and nymphs (and let me tell you, that gets tired quickly!) – it just wasn’t fun. Her coming into her own, finding out who she is, takes some time, but the journey is all the more rewarding for her sad beginnings.
All things considered, I loved this book to pieces, and I can’t wait for whatever myth Madeline Miller tackles next.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Terrifying and beautiful: Maggie Stiefvater – The Scorpio Races

It’s been a long time that I felt like this after a book. The immediate need to tell everyone about it and how wonderful it was overwhelmed me so I texted my sister last night that she had to read this book as well. And so should you! The Scorpio Races might give you a major book hangover but it is so damn good you won’t even mind.

THE SCORPIO RACES
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic, 2011
Ebook: 447 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.
At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.
Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

I picked this up because I loved The Raven Cycle and trust Maggie Stiefvater as a writer enough to just buy her books without really checking what they’re about. I knew it was about horses – every cover of every edition lets you know that – but when I found out that it’s about water horses and that water horses are terrifying, flesh-eating beasts that come out of the ocean and want to eat you, I was a little on the fence. But not for long.

Kate “Puck” Connolly has lived on the island of Thisby her entire life. When her parents died, leaving her and her two brothers behind, it became hard to make ends meet, but Puck loves her island home more than anything and will do whatever it takes to keep the small family together. Which is why she enters the Scorpio Races, a yearly event promising lots of money to the winner, and lots of death all around. What’s more, Puck intends to enter with her regular island horse, Dove, when everyone else will be riding a water horse – much taller, stronger, and faster than any regular horse could hope to be. But also much more drawn to the ocean from which they came, much less easy to control, much more bloodthirsty…

Sean Kendrick knows water horses, none better than his-but-not-really-his Corr. As the reigning champion of the Scorpio Races, he and his water horse Corr have built up a relationship and Sean a reputation. While he works with horses everyday, he works for the rich yard owner Benjamin Malvern and yearns for freedom. He may not say much but Sean is one of those characters that show off Maggie Stiefvater’s writing gift so well – the quiet ones, the ones that speak more with glances, with body language, with actions, than with words, but manage to say so much anyway.

It took me a while to get into this book. The idea of killer horses seemed a little far-fetched even though I had read the myth of the kelpie before (another killer horse that drags you under the water to drown and possibly eat you). As someone with no experience of horses whatsoever (because sadly, allergies), I had this idea in my brain that they are mostly flighty, shy, scared creatures – so imagining one grinning at you with bloody teeth and actually wanting to bite your neck with them took a bit of imagination. But once I was there, I was all in.

For a book with relatively little plot, this was really a riveting ride. I don’t think I blinked once throughout the second half of the book. I did not put it down, I may have stopped breathing every once in a while. Yeah, very little happens – Puck enters the races, trains for them, meets Sean, he trains as well, they run in the races… – but SO MUCH HAPPENS!! Their character development, not just as individuals but with each oather and with their horses is why I couldn’t put the book down. As much as with an action-packed thriller, I wanted to know what happens next. The stakes are immensely high for both Puck and Sean, they both have really good reasons to want to win, but they also come to care for each other in the process.

The more I read, the more I learned about the (fictional quasi-Irish) island of Thisby, its people, its customs, its problems and its beauties. I learned to love it almost the way Puck and Sean do, despite the terror horses coming onto shore every year, killing livestock, killing people, sometimes letting themselves be caught and trained, only to be raced in the Scorpio Races. It’s a magical place, although the only true fantasy element of this story is the fact that horses want to eat your face – so if you like magical realism, stories that could be real except for one tiny, little, magical detail, then you will like this.  The Scorpio Races themselves are the climax of the book and I don’t think I have ever nor will I ever again read about a horse race as exciting as this.

Many books have good endings, some even great ones. But it is a rare book that delivers such an emotional punch with the very last line, where the last line matters. I was absolutely devastated when I got to the ending. The entire tone of the book sets you up for a bittersweet one – you know you’re not going to get a fairy tale ending, where everyone is happy and everything turns out perfect, and that wouldn’t feel sincere after a tale like this. But Maggie Stiefvater truly hit the sweet spot with her ending of choice. I couldn’t think of a better suited one – or one that rattles my heart more.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

Richard Parks – The Heavenly Fox

Sometimes, I get it in my head that I want a book. Okay, that happens many times. Several times on any given day, actually. But sometimes, I go out of my way to hunt down used copies of a book even if I don’t know the author. The Heavenly Fox just sounded so up my alley and, it was a Mythopoeic Award finalist in 2012 and used copies were actually not that expensive. If you are the kind of person who wants more pages for their money, you should go for the ebook. It is a very short book.

heavenly fox

THE HEAVENLY FOX
by Richard Parks

Published by: PS Publishing, 2011
Hardcover: 78 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The main problem with achieving immortality, Springshadow reminded herself, is that you had to live long enough.

“A fox who reaches the age of fifty gains the ability to transform into a human woman. A fox who reaches the age of one hundred can transform into either a beautiful young girl or a handsome young man at will and can sense the world around them to a distance of over four hundred leagues. A fox who reaches the age of one thousand years, however, becomes a Heavenly Fox, an Immortal of great power, able to commune with the gods themselves.”

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Divided into three acts, or chapters, The Heavenly Fox tells the story of Springshadow, a fox who has lived to be 999 years old and is now waiting for the final three days until her on thousandth birthday to pass. We are introduced to Springshadow’s character as she lives with a human man, herself having taken the shape of a woman, and extracts some of his life force to keep herself alive. It’s a cruel beginning, demonstrating that, despite her appearance, Springshadow is not a human but a fox with her mind set on one goal – become immortal.

heavenly fox springshadowBut even foxes don’t live in a vacuum and, having almost reached one thousand years of age, she is visited by the goddess of mercy, Guan Shi Yin and another immortal. The immortal, Wildeye, gained his immortality through trickery, stealing and eating one of the peaches of Heaven. I know very little about Chinese mythology, but I do know Sun Wu Kong when I see him. And personally, I’m always happy to meet the Monkey King in any fantasy story. So major brownie points for Richard Parks.

In the second act, Springshadow has reached her goal and becomes immortal. Except now she faces the problem of what to do with this immortality. She goes to visit Heaven, which is disappointingly a lot like Earth, only with more magic. But what is her purpose? This is the part that reads more like a fable than an SFF story. Springshadow’s search for meaning and for something to do with her power, is as touching as it is frustrating. She didn’t think that far when she decided to become a heavenly fox… But she knows of another who has gone before her, a fox named Sunflash, who has mysteriously disappeared.

I won’t spoil the third act because it is where things come together beautifully, although I will say this much: Springshadow finds Sunflash and is shown a different way to look at life, both her own and that of other creatures in the world. Sunflash’s story, although told on very few pages, was deeply moving.

Although The Heavenly Fox is a simple fable-like story, I had several causes for loving it, Springshadow’s character being chief among them. So many times, anthropomorphic animals, talking animals, magical animals in fiction tend to be too human to be believable. Springshadow is not too concerned with the death of humans but she does have a great deal more empathy than other foxes. The concept of settling a debt, of self-sacrifice, is foreign to her because – well, she is a fox and why would foxes care? I also loved that Richard Parks takes time to give his tale a little humor. Whether it’s in dialogue with Wildeye (I love Wildeye!) or Springshadow’s trouble when dealing with her brand-new nine fox tails that constantly get in the way, especially when she’s trying to sit down, there is a beautiful balance of the serious and the light-hearted.

Most of all though, I like how important questiones are posed and there is no one right answer. As Sunflash’s story shows, every creature has to choose their own way and to do what’s right for them. But listening to others, seeing the world through their eyes, may help you gain more knowledge to make a decision that’s right for you. The Heavenly Fox is a very short, quiet book but at the same time, a highly engrossing one. I think I will read up on Chinese mythology (I am embarrassingly ignorant on the subject) and then definitely revisit The Heavenly Fox.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Second opinions:

Nalo Hopkinson – Brown Girl in the Ring

I love Nalo Hopkinson’s fiction but it’s taken me a while to go back and pick up her first novel. It’s won awards and everything! Having read some of her newer novels, it may not be quite fair, but Brown Girl in the Ring let me down a bit. It has several first-novel problems (puzzle pieces falling into place too neatly, mostly) but already shows what a great writer Hopkinson was to become.

brown girl in the ring

BROWN GIRL IN THE RING
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published by: Aspect, 1998
Ebook: 281 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: As soon as he entered the room, Baines blurted out, “We want you to find us a viable human heart, fast.”

The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways-farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother.
She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.

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Toronto, after the Riots that ruined the inner city, is not a nice place to live. The rich have fled to the suburbs, leaving the inner city to fall apart, ruled by drugs, poverty, and the posse. Ti-Jeanne, a young woman who just had a baby, lives with her grandmother, Mami, but refuses to learn what she wishes to teach her. Mami wants Ti-Jeanne to become a healer like her, to learn about plants and their properties, how to treat wounds and diseases, and how to care for her new baby.

Ti-Jeanne was a difficult character to like and what kept me from taking to her the most was how she treated her baby. She neglects to feed him for extended periods of time, considering he is a new-born. So new-born in fact, that he doesn’t even have a name yet. When he cries, Ti-Jeanne gets annoyed more often than not, and she generally didn’t show the affection I’d expect from a new mother. Now, I know nothing about having a baby but surely hormones make sure that there is some instinct to protect your child. That was completely lacking in Ti-Jeanne. The only thing that girl is sure about is her ex-boyfriend, Tony.

Ti-Jeanne left her drug addict boyfriend Tony when she found out she was pregnant with his child. So far, so responsible. Of course, being responsible doesn’t stop her feelings for him. But Tony is stuck very deep in the posse’s machinations and has to procure a donor heart for a member of government if he doesn’t want to be killed. Posse leader Rudy is capable of horrible things and Tony is desperate, asking Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother for help.

brown girl in the ring2The plot takes a while to get started. When Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother involves her and Tony in a ritual to ask the gods for help, that’s when the story finally kicks off. I loved the use of mythology and magic in this story, because it is not clean magic, the gods aren’t predictable. You may ask one god for help, yet some other god may answer and not be inclined to help you at all. And even when they do, you don’t know how exactly they plan to help you. Ever encounter with the gods, every vision Ti-Jeanne has of the other world, was wonderfully dark and a treasure to read.

Once it becomes clearer just how evil Rudy is and how he became the leader of the posse, the book becomes quite sinister. There is a lot of blood and torture, and many secrets about Ti-Jeanne’s family are revealed. One too many, if you ask me. You can only put in so many plot twists without making them cheap. However, each of these twists is vital to the plot, so I understand why they are there. Ti-Jeanne has to find all her courage and cleverness to save her life and her loved ones, and whether she wants to or not, has to grow up in the process.

I loved the relationship between Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother in this book. Neither is able to express her feelings well (or at all) and yet it is so clear from reading the book that these two care deeply about one another. Ti-Jeanne may be still a child at heart who doesn’t know what she wants in life, but it is obvious that there is a lot of love in their small family. Ti-Jeanne and Tony’s relationship paled in comparison, consisting mostly of lust and passion (which, you know, is good but not enough in my opinion). In the course of the novel, Ti-Jeanne has to work closely with her family in order to save all their lives and it was those moments of pure teamwork that I adored to read.

This is part futuristic mafia-novel, part mythology, and part coming-of-age. The book is quite short and I felt the first half lacked focus, but the second half and the ending make up for those shortcomings. I am left a bit underwhelmed and wanting more, but overall, this quick read is a good introduction to one of the most exciting fantasy writers I know. I just fear it might not be very memorable. I’d recommend reading Midnight Robber instead.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Second opinions:

Angela Slatter – The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings

Well, this is how long I could keep away from Angela Slatter’s stories. A bit more than a week, which I used to order a paperback copy of Of Sorrow and Such… now that I’ve read The Bitterwood Bible – which is a sort of prequel collection to Sourdough – I am even more in love with Slatter’s style and ideas. I really hope that her Tor.com novella will expand her readership and get more of her stories into my hands.

bitterwood bibleTHE BITTERWOOD BIBLE AND OTHER RECOUNTINGS
by Angela Slatter

Published by: Tartarus Press, 2014
Ebook: 280 pages
Short story collection
Illustrated by:
Kathleen Jennings
My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job.

Welcome back to the magic and pathos of Angela Slatter’s exquisitely imagined tales.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings returns to the world of Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus, 2010), introducing readers to the tales that came before. Stories where coffin-makers work hard to keep the dead beneath; where a plague maiden steals away the children of an ungrateful village; where poison girls are schooled in the art of assassination; where pirates disappear from the seas; where families and the ties that bind them can both ruin and resurrect and where books carry forth fairy tales, forbidden knowledge and dangerous secrets.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings is enhanced by eighty-six pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Kathleen Jennings.

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What is it about Angelas and fairy tales? In both forewords to Angela Slatter’s two collections, she is mentioned in one breath with that other famous Angela who did fairy tales her own way, Angela Carter. While I’d say Carter is a tad darker, I understand the comparison. But because of what this Angela (Slatter, that is) does – namely, connecting all of her short stories and using them to paint one large picture of a time and place – I must admit, I actually prefer her over Angela Carter.

bitterwood - badgersIn The Bitterwood Bible, we see what things were like before the events of Sourdough (reviewed here). Familiar names pop up, well-known settings are used, and one object that was almost a gimmick in Sourdough becomes quite important in these new stories. Since Slatter continues the trend of taking fairy tales and myth and folklore, and using them to build her own stories on top of them, I hardly need to say I loved this collection. But it was striking how much the author has developed, how much more crafty her tales are. What little critique I may have had for Sourdough can’t be repeated about Bitterwood. If there are twists to these new stories, such as in the first story “The coffin-maker’s daughter”, then these twists really hit home.

bitterwood - maiden in the iceI am absolutely in love with “The Maiden in the Ice” which, apart from being a wonderful story in and of itself, ties in nicely with the first story in Sourdough and made me immediately want to re-read it. I haven’t had the time yet but I believe that I will like that Sourdough story much more and see it in a very different light after reading “The Maiden in the Ice”.

Her perfume is earthly, rich and dark, like rotted roses; a sweetness at first, then a potency, then grown too strong, and finally the hint of decay as she moves past the folk in the streets, those in the markets.

If you didn’t think there could be a new and interesting way to update vampires, well, you are wrong! So wrong! Angela Slatter takes vampires and just… does strange and interesting things with them. Hers are neither only sexy and dark, nor purely tortured innocent-ish beings. They are a bit of everything and something different entirely. And they certainly don’t sparkle. I’d say the vampire craze is mostly over and lots of readers may even go out of their way to avoid vampire stories, but lend me a bit of your trust and just try this one. It’s really something else.

“St. Dymphna’s School” merges seamlessly from one type of tale – at least the type I expected it to be – into quite another. It follows a heroine both determined to do what she came for, (almost) no matter the cost, and yet compassionate and understanding that the people surrounding her shouldn’t be hurt just because they don’t help her achieve her goals. In this tale, another character makes a reappearance from Sourdough, or more accurately – an appearance after being mentioned in Sourdough.

bitterwood - st dymphnas kiss

I said above that Slatter isn’t quite as dark as Carter, but that doesn’t mean that these stories are for children or light-hearted. There is one story that  never explicitly mentions the terrible things that happen to its protagonist, but it will break your heart a hundred times over. Even stories with a quirkier, lighter tone manage to twist a knife in you at the end, leaving you filled with horror and shock.

“By the Weeping Gate” is the only story that’s a bit slow to start but it wouldn’t be in this collection if it didn’t deliver the same powerful punch at the end that Slatter’s other stories do. The last story in the collection presents almost a seamless sequel to “By the Weeping Gate” and not only ties these two stories together, but connects the entire book into one big whole beautiful thing.

If Sourdough was about the story of a place and the women living there over the course of several generations, then Bitterwood is about The Little Sisters of St. Florian, women who collect and preserve knowledge, who copy rare (and not so rare) books, some of them mundane, some dangerous, and what happens to their order. The recounting of their last days made me cry a little, as it combines powerful writing with a heart-wrenching story.

One last raving paragraph must go to illustrator Kathleen Jennings, whose work I knew from Catherynne Valente’s The Bread We Eat in Dreams. The style is immediately recognisable and her little drawings are full of detail (albeit a little small on an e-reader). She did excellent work, choosing what to depict – sometimes objects, sometimes animals, and sometimes the characters. I was always a bit giggly when I swiped to the next page and saw an illustration come up. Really wonderfully done!

The longer I read this book, the more superlative my exlamations about it became. From “Hey, I really like this” I went quickly to “This is amazeballs” straight on to “I fucking adore everything Angela Slatter writes!!!” – I gather from other people’s reviews that these are the natural stages of book love when reading Angela Slatter. I kept Of Sorrow and Such for last, because chronology, but you’ll probably be seeing a review of it in December, despite all my well-laid plans for reading exactly what’s on my challenge lists… sorry reading challenges.

Next year promises the publication of Slatter’s first novel Vigil. I don’t even know what it’s about. All I know is that I need it yesterday, and the sequel too!

MY RATING:  9,5/10 – Oh my God, so close to perfection!

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Second opinions
(because you know I’m not completely trustworthy when I adore a book this much – although it did win the World Fantasy Award. Just sayin’…)

 

Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Scale Bright

Some books are best approached without any prior knowledge, without even reading a blurb or recommendation. Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Scale Bright is not one of those books. At least not if – like me – you have no knowledge of Chinese mythology. A cozy sort of buzz surrounds this novella but it was Little Red Reviewer’s recommendation that gave me the final push and made me buy my own copy. Thank you, Andrea, for a shining new author on my bookshelf.

scale brightSCALE BRIGHT
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Published by: Immersion Press, 2014
Ebook: 162 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Julienne is in a crowded train when a man whose skin gleams smooth as stone appears to inquire after her heart’s desire.

Julienne’s aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They teach her that there’s more to the city of her birth than meets the eye – that beneath the modern chrome and glass of Hong Kong there are demons, gods, and the seethe of ancient feuds. As a mortal Julienne is to give them wide berth, for unlike her divine aunts she is painfully vulnerable, and choice prey for any demon.
Until one day, she comes across a wounded, bleeding woman no one else can see, and is drawn into an old, old story of love, snake women, and the deathless monk who hunts them.

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Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s fiction is an adventure. When Andrea compared her style to Catherynne M. Valente’s, I was as sold as I could be. Quickly bought and quickly read, I am once more happy that book bloggers exist and nudge me in the right direction at the right time.

Disregarding the advice given by Andrea, I picked up the book and started reading without really caring what it was about. But soon I discovered that certain characters had more than one name, and names fraught with meaning that I didn’t understand. A few pages in, Wikipedia saved my butt. The short paragraphs on the Chinese myths surrounding Houyi, the Archer who shot down the suns and Chang’e, the woman who lives in the moon, are really all you need to get the gist of the story. Thus prepared, I could finally really enjoy the magic that Sriduangkaew weaves on these pages.

It’s hard to choose what to rave about first. But as I’ve already mentioned Cat Valente’s name, let’s begin with the writing style. Simply said, it is gorgeous.  Sriduangkaew definitely falls into the vague sub-genre of mythpunk, with her poetic language and beautiful, beautiful descriptions. Her characterization seems effortless, the settings vibrant, and all without overdoing it. There isn’t a single line out of place, not one description too flowery. Opening this little book is like falling into a different world, made up of dreams and gods and a young girl coming of age.

Julienne, ostentatiously the protagonist, goes through an interesting growth. Her actions aren’t always obvious, her past unravels slowly, as does her personality. I enjoyed discovering who she was immensely, but the real stars for me were Houyi, the Archer, and Olivia, the Snake-Woman. None of the characters are what you’d call an open book. You have to discover each of them in turn and that was part of the pleasure. Houyi made the biggest impression on me, simply because she was such an entity of power. The tall woman who wears men’s clothing and is married to the woman in the moon has a tender core, especially when it comes to her niece, Julienne. Olivia, at first a pretty straight-forward baddie, becomes more three-dimensional along the way. And Julienne, who was sort of pale to begin with, turns out to be a fully-formed human being with a past and hopes and dreams.

I spefically didn’t talk about the plot because, (1) I don’t want to ruin anyone’s reading experience, and (2) I thought it was one of the book’s weaker points. Yes, there are twists and turns that are surprising and wonderful. But the breaks between certain points happened too harshly. I was comfy in one scene and, suddenly, in the next we cut to somewhere completely different. Following the time frame was difficult for me, but I always found back into the story relatively quickly. It’s a minor point but, ever since reading this, I’ve been wishing for a full-sized doorstopper novel from Benjanun Sriduangkaew – I’m sure the breaks would be much smoother if she had more time setting up each scene and time period.

scale bright detail

After the novella, Scale Bright also includes the three short stories that precede it chronologically.  My favorite was “The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate”, which tells the story of  Xihe, her unhappy marriage and her becoming the mother of suns. The entire story was gripping and gorgeous, the characters filled with strength and anger and hope, I couldn’t stop reading. Considering how short it is, I am also amazed at how much character growth happens. The author really knows how to use language in its most effective way.

“Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon” tells the love story of Houyi and Chang’e and is probably the one you should read before Scale Bright, as it gives a good background on who Julienne’s aunts are. Even gods, it seems, don’t have an easy time when they want a same-sex marriage but Houyi has some awesome lines about why she refuses to wear women’s clothes or change her appearance into that of a man. I really giggled at her comebacks to some of the stupid things people say to her. Altogether, I must admit this was my least favorite of the short stories (which doesn’t say much as it’s still pretty damn good).

“Chang’e Dashes from the Moon” was my second favorite, because Houyi totally rocked her part of the story. It must be a taste thing because I’m suspicious of how much I adored Houyi every time she showed up. This is supposed to be Chang’e’s chance to shine, and she does, but in my opinion Houyi steals the show.

This review was very rambly and not exactly coherent but I’ve noticed that all the best books end up with this kind of review from me. It’s because my head is so full of thoughts that I can’t write a straight sentence. But, as you also know, it is the mark of an excellent book that it evokes so much emotion. I’ll be watching out closely for Sriduangkaew’s next publication, whether it’s a short story, another novella, or – please, please, please – a novel.

RATING: 8/10 –  Excellent

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