Scott Lynch – The Republic of Thieves

Six long years we have waited and now it is finally here. The last time I was this excited about a new book in a series was when Dance With Dragons was published (and I still haven’t finished that one). Scott Lynch didn’t let us down and I am now more hooked than ever on the Gentlemen Bastards.

republic of thievesTHE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES
by Scott Lynch

Published by: Spectra, October 2013
ISBN: 0553804693
ebook: 800 pages
Series: The Gentleman Bastard #3
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Place ten dozen hungry orphan thieves in a dank burrow of vaults and tunnels beneath what used to be a graveyard, put them under the supervision of one partly crippled old man, and you will soon find that governing them becomes a delicate business.

***WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR BOOKS 1 AND 2***

Having pulled off the greatest heist of their career, Locke and his trusted partner in thievery, Jean, have escaped with a tidy fortune. But Locke’s body is paying the price. Poisoned by an enemy from his past, he is slowly dying. And no physiker or alchemist can help him. Yet just as the end is near, a mysterious Bondsmagi offers Locke an opportunity that will either save him – or finish him off once and for all.
Magi political elections are imminent, and the factions are in need of a pawn. If Locke agrees to play the role, sorcery will be used to purge the venom from his body – though the process will be so excruciating he may well wish for death. Locke is opposed, but two factors cause his will to crumble: Jean’s imploring – and the Bondsmagi’s mention of a woman from Locke’s past . . . Sabetha. The love of his life. His equal in skill and wit. And now his greatest rival.
Locke was smitten with Sabetha from his first glimpse of her as a young fellow-orphan and thief-in-training. But after a tumultuous courtship, Sabetha broke away. Now they will reunite in yet another clash of wills. For faced with his one and only match in both love and trickery, Locke must choose whether to fight Sabetha – or to woo her. It is a decision on which both their lives may depend.

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I am a sensible reader. The Lies of Locke Lamora was so incredibly good that I knew I would die if I read the second book right away. So I waited, knowing that Red Seas Under Red Skies was sitting comfortably on my shelf, ready to be picked up at any moment. When I did (last year), I was glad I had waited. Because that cliffhanger was EVIL! Needless to say, it was the first thing that needed to be resolved in this third volume of the Gentleman Bastard Sequence.

Locke and Jean are neck-deep in shit – again. Only this time, it’s serious. Once the first and biggest obstacle of Locke’s imminent death is overcome, they find themselves drawn into a dangerous game of politics that doesn’t only involve the Bondsmagi but also a certain red-head we’ve heard a lot about in the previous book. If this were a friends episode it would be called “The One With Sabetha”.

republic of thieves part-cover

As with the previous books, there are two major story arcs going on, one in the present and one in the past. This grants us a much-needed reunion with the Sanza twins (oh how I miss them) and, what’s more interesting, finally lets us meet the legendary Sabetha in the flesh. I loved the new glimpses into Locke’s childhood and training under Master Chains but I must say that I didn’t buy the love story. At all. Sabetha, most of the time, was a rather shallow and very difficult person. I do like that she’s a complicated person with severe mood swings but it seemed to be her one defining quality. Locke’s obsession with her may make more sense at the end of the book – and I’m very much on the fence about that – but I truly didn’t understand their teenage romance. There was no chemistry, there were no sparks, and the whole thing felt incredibly one-sided, even when Sabetha finally comes around.  I’m not sure if this is just my reading of it or if she has simply been overhyped as a character, but Sabetha, as a person, was a grave disappointment to me.

Much more intriguing was the plot. As usual, Locke and Jean set out to achieve a certain goal and everything goes to shit. Do not fear (too much) for our Gentlemen Bastards, we all know by now they find some way or another to get out of trouble alive, if not always completely intact. Their third big adventure takes them to Karthain, home of the Bondsmagi, and deep into the magicians’ schemes. Charged with manipulating, by legal means only, the upcoming election, and given a very clever opponent, Locke and Jean need to come up with new ways to apply what Chains has taught them.

In the past, once you get through all the childhood drama and teenage tantrums, the entire troupe is sent to the city of Espara, to act in a play. The eponymous Republic of Thieves proves to be more difficult to put on the stage than you can possibly imagine.

republic of thieves1Both storylines combine what Lynch does best. There are heart-stopping moments of suspense, intricate plans, political intrigue, banter, and lots of cursing. By showing us a very young Locke juxtaposed with Locke at present, the author highlights his development as a character and a master thief. The last third of the book was so good, you will not want to put it down, while the beginning can be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace with lots of setting up the new adventure and flash-backs into Locke’s early childhood – as far back as his time before the Gentlemen Bastards.

It did feel quite slow at the beginning and frequently, I found myself in one timeline when I’d rather be in the other one. Around the middle, both plots pick up so much pace that I didn’t care anymore because either story line had stopped on a cliffhanger and I needed to know what happened next. As a part of the series, this was the weakest one for me, but Scott Lynch being Scott Lynch, it’s still a damn good book that did not feel like it was 800 pages thick. If you have read the previous books, it’s a no-brainer: Pick this one up, too, if only for the shocking revelations about Locke Lamora himself. If you haven’t read The Lies of Locke Lamora, what are doing reading this review? I said there were spoilers! Go and pick up the first book now. If you like fantasy and heist stories, you really can’t go wrong.

RATING: 8/10  – Excellent

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The Gentleman Bastard Sequence:

Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples – Saga Volume 2

I don’t read comics an issue at a time. This may be because I love long, sprawling novels and still haven’t quite warmed to short fiction but reading a story one comic book issue at a time feels like chopping a big tale into very small bits. As soon as I get into it, it’s over. So I’ve been waiting for the second collected volume of Saga since I devoured volume one. When it showed up as immediately available on NetGalley, I frantically clicked on the download button and squeed like a little girl. Adobe DRM made it impossible for me to read the book on my boyfriend’s tablet (ugh!) but it only speaks for Saga that I simply couldn’t wait and ended up reading it on my computer screen.

saga volume 2SAGA: VOLUME 2
by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Published by: Image Comics, July 2013
ISBN: 9781607066927
Paperback: 144 Pages
Series: Saga #2

My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: I should rewind for a second. This is my old man back when he wasn’t.

The smash-hit ongoing epic continues! Thanks to her star-crossed parents Marko and Alana, newborn baby Hazel has already survived lethal assassins, rampaging armies, and alien monstrosities, but in the cold vastness of outer space, the little girl encounters something truly frightening: her grandparents!
Collects Saga issues #7-12

dividerAlana and Marko just got themselves to a mildly safe place – a tree that is also a space ship – and could continue their flight almost comfortably. If it weren’t for Marko’s parents who drop by unannounced and are less than happy to find their only son married to a Landfall girl. At the same time, The Will and Prince IV continue their search for the scandalous couple and their baby. And to make things worse, there’s a new hunter on their trail…

This series manages not only to keep up its whacky style, it turns it up to eleven. Whether it’s a giant with a monstrous scrotum trying to kill our heroes, a “space fetus”, or a rodent medic, Vaughan and Staples’ imagination seems to know no limits. The artwork is stunning as ever, the characters are vivid and don’t all look the same (something I’ve noticed with certain comic artists), their age differences are visible. But there are more reasons to love these characters, because they feel utterly believable, each with their own problems and dreams. Most of all, I was impressed (again) with the depiction of Alana and Marko’s relationship. There is no romanticizing or cheesy scenes. Apart from them having wings and horns, respectively, they could be an ordinary couple trying to make it in our world.

I suspect that this story will continue to grow and end up being about way more than an interspecies war. If it keeps up this kind of quality and suspense, I’m in for the long ride. Ten volumes? Great. Twenty? Why not? Because so far, every issue was better than the last and there are more characters to love or hate, but always with a passion.
The Will and Lying Cat grew on me even more in this volume. Once Will is joined by Marko’s mysterious ex Gwendolyn (whom I love and hate at the same time), things take an interesting turn and plot strings tie together beautifully. There were even a few moments that made me hold my breath and fear for the characters’ lives – until then I hadn’t even known I cared that much.

saga will and lying catI was extremely pleased to see how Marko and Alana met, a scene that added another layer to each of their personalities. The appearance of Marko’s parents temproarily splits the plot in two. Because Hazel’s new babysitter was unceremoniously sent away by Marko’s mother, Marko goes out to find her and his mother follows after him. Which leaves Alana and her new father-in-law on the ship with Hazel. Marko and his mother don’t have much time to talk about relationships or family because they are thrown from one danger into the next. Alana on the other hand, gets some quiet moments, interrupted only by her discovery (yet again) of how babies work.

saga alana readingEvery plot thread delivers a wonderful mixture of action, character development and flash backs to keep me utterly hooked. The only negative I can think of is that Marko’s parents – while featuring throughout the entire collection – don’t get enough depth. Yes, they are layered characters but I was under the impression that I was supposed to care a lot more about them than I did. This being a very, very minor issue (and may just as well be my own fault for not connecting with the characters), my love for the comic series has only grown. So… when is the third collection coming out?

THE GOOD: Amazing characters, crazy ideas, a killer plot – drawn beautifully and vividly. Realistic depiction of Marko and Alana’s relationship. Fantastically narrated by Hazel-at-some-unknown-point-in-the-future.
THE BAD: I couldn’t connect with Marko’s parents as much as I wanted to.
THE VERDICT: Even more highly recommended than volume one (which you should read first, nonetheless!). Possibly my favorite comic books ever.

RATING: 9,5/10  – Pretty close to perfection.

dividerSaga:

  1. Volume 1
  2. Volume 2

Juliet Marillier – Daughter of the Forest

If you like fairy tales or retellings, there is a good chance you’ve heard of Misty the Book Rat. She has thing for everything fairy tale-esque and hosts an annual Fairy Tale Fortnight – two weeks of reading fairy tales, retellings, or anything else to do with fairy tales. This year, I was lucky enough to be chosen as an active participant (rather than just read a retelling for myself). I highly recommend you check out Misty’s youtube channel. She’s one of those people who inspire passion for a book you’ve never even heard of before.

daughter of the forest1DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST
by Juliet Marillier

Published in: Tor, 1999
ISBN: 0765343436
Paperback:
Series: Sevenwaters #1

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Three children lay on the rocks at the water’s edge.

Lovely Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by her six brothers who love and protect her. Sorcha is the light in their lives, they are determined that she know only contentment.
But Sorcha’s joy is shattered when her father is bewitched by his new wife, an evil enchantress who binds her brothers with a terrible spell, a spell which only Sorcha can lift – by staying silent. If she speaks before she completes the quest set to her by the Fair Folk and their queen, the Lady of the Forest, she will lose her brothers forever.
When Sorcha is kidnapped by the enemies of Sevenwaters and taken to a foreign land, she is torn between the desire to save her beloved brothers, and a love that comes only once. Sorcha despairs at ever being able to complete her task, but the magic of the Fair Folk knows no boundaries, and love is the strongest magic of them all…

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Mythology in all its shapes and forms intrigues me. As do fairy tales. A combination of the two usually guarantees that I will go out and buy a book, and almost none came as highly recommended as Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series. A retelling of The Six Swans set in Ireland and involving a romance as well as the horrible task our heroine has to complete in order to save her brothers – there is so much potential there, I simply couldn not resist. The execution of the tale was well done but didn’t sweep me off my feet.

Sorcha tells her story in detail. Very much detail. To say this is a slow book would be an understatement. That said, I quite like slow books. I love how they focus on characters instead of action, how deep they let us get into the protagonist’s head. But despite the first person narrative, there was always some distance between me and Sorcha. Maybe it was the flowery language or the very drawn-out scenes but it was never one of those books for me that I could crawl into and dissapear in for a while. One scene especially made me cringe, not just because it was a terrible experience for Sorcha but because I felt that the scene was simply added for shock value and to give Sorcha more personality. Her wild spirit and determination to save her brothers no matter what, would have been quite enough.

As the protagonist struggles to break the curse, she has to remain completely mute. On the one hand, that is an intriguing idea, on the other hand, it is difficult to keep a story moving when the heroine never speaks. She has to let her actions speak for her. But Sorcha’s actions are just as predefined as is her silence. She collects starwort, spins it into thread, weaves the thread into fabric and sews shirts. Of course, she has to collect food and clean herself, but in reality, her everyday life is just not very interesting to read about. Then again, it wasn’t boring, either, especially in the second half. Juliet Marillier walks a fine line between thrilling and boring and somehow manages to just make it good enough to keep reading.

daughter of the forest posterAt a certain point, another level of conflict is added when Sorcha has to deal with the Britons, the sworn enemies of her own people. The Briton characters were my favorites in the entire book. I never really warmed to most of Sorcha’s brothers and Sorcha herself didn’t really grow any more interesting than she was at the very beginning, for all the ordeals she has to suffer through. Simon, Red, even Sir Richard, or Margery, managed to leap off the page and make me care. Whether it was because I wanted them to be happy and help Sorcha in her task, or whether it was because they were absolutely despicable, they were real to me and evoked real emotion. And yes, there were definitely butterflies and silly girl giggles involved when it came to a certain character.

One thing the author does magnificently well is the fact that I was never really sure if Sorcha would manage to break the curse. This is a fairy tale and as such should end in a happily ever after. But the stakes were so high and Sorcha was faced with more and more difficulties along the way, that for a long time, I was conviced this would end badly. The ending could not have been better. I won’t spoil it, but let me say that it is neither happily ever after nor is it completely bad. That bittersweet part in between struck a chord with me and was one of my favorite bits of the book.

In the end, I wasn’t impressed enough to continue with the series right away. I will, eventually. This is a recommendation, despite some misgivings, because while I was never so in love that I hugged the book to my chest and danced around the living room (yeah, that happens sometimes), it was also not bad. I am somewhat torn about how to rate this because I believe the quality of the writing should be rated higher than this. However, my rating is based on a scale of my personal enjoyment and I don’t really see myself re-reading this novel.

THE GOOD: Great beginning, great last third, some fantastic characters and a beautiful, very subtle romance.
THE BAD: A protagonist who is never more than somewhat interesting, a very drawn-out middle part, and not enough mythology for my taste.
THE VERDICT: A great retelling of The Six Swans, full of atmosphere, conflict, and an incredibly enduring girl. The beginning and the end were wonderful and despite some slow and one unnecessary bit, I recommend it to people who like character-intense books and, of course, fairy tales.

RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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The Sevenwaters Series:

  1. Daughter of the Forestsevenwaters trilogy
  2. Son of the Shadows
  3. Child of the Prophecy
  4. Heir to Sevenwaters
  5. Seer of Sevenwaters
  6. Flame of Sevenwaters

Review: Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett – Havemercy

What an unexpected pleasure. This book was completely – and I mean completely – different from what I expected. It’s not really steampunk despite that awesome dragon on the cover, it’s not quite epic fantasy, it’s not too heroic, and there’s very little action altogether. However, it turned out to be a brilliant fantasy of manners, a beautiful romance, and a very original take on dragons.

havemercyHAVEMERCY

by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett

Published by: Spectra, 2008
ISBN: 9780553905250
ebook: 448 pages
Series: Metal Dragons #1

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: That morning, I awaited my arrest in Our Lady of a Thousand Fans.

Thanks to its elite Dragon Corps, the capital city of Volstov has all but won the hundred years’ war with its neighboring enemy, the Ke-Han. The renegade airmen who fly the corps’s mechanical, magic-fueled dragons are Volstov’s greatest weapon. But now one of its members is at the center of a scandal that may turn the tide of victory. To counter the threat, four ill-assorted heroes must converge to save their kingdom: an exiled magician, a naive country boy, a young student – and the unpredictable ace who flies the city’s fiercest dragon, Havemercy. But on the eve of battle, these courageous men will face something that could make the most formidable of warriors hesitate, the most powerful of magicians weak, and the most unlikely of men allies in their quest to rise against it.

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Gorgeous as it may be, the clockwork dragon on the cover is severly misleading. This story may feature dragons, but they are very much in the background. Instead, the plot revolves around the fate of four viewpoint characters. The exiled magician Royston and the country boy he meets there, a boy named Hal, were my first favorite characters. The way Hal, a tutor to Royston’s nephews and niece, hungers for knowledge and yearns for Royston’s stories from the bustling city of Volstov was more fascinating than any action scene could have been. Our other two viewpoint characters reside in the capital. Thom is a scholar with the unhappy task of rehabilitating the Dragon Corps. The Corps’ most fearsome rider, Rook, has been involved in a  rather large scandal and is not deemed fit to mingle with society. Thom more than struggles trying to get some manners into the impulsive Rook. In the beginning, Rook was my least favorite character, I almost loathed him. It goes to show the writers’ talent that by the end, I came to think of him as a dear friend. After a while, I couldn’t even decide which storyline was my favorite. But Rook and Thom surely made for the most exciting bantering and psychological warfare. Each character is multi-layered and so intricate that I didn’t even care about the side characters, most of whom were left rather flat.

The blurb implies epic battles and a raging war. The war exists, although when we enter the story, it is almost over. Epic battles will not be found within these pages. Instead, we get character studies, amazing relationships and a surprisingly wonderful romance. Discovering who these people are was enough for me but if you’re looking for Epic epic, you won’t find it here. The plot is slow-moving but never boring. Every page offers new tidbits about what made the characters who they are today. They are each thrown into new situations without knowing how to handle them.

havemercy dragon

With magicians and flying clockwork dragons, this book has one foot firmly set in the realms of fantasy. Same as the characters, the world-building takes time to unfold. But the closer I got to the end of the book, the more I realised that the city of Volstov, its politics and its magicians, were quite well fleshed-out and I had no trouble finding my way around this place, understanding the slang and suspending my disbelief. Everything in this book is subtly done (except maybe Rook, but then he is not meant to be subtle). I read along, quite happy to follow these characters around for no better reason than to get to know them better. Towards the end of the book, a sort of mystery comes up that needs urgent solving and brings us some of the action the blurb promises. It wouldn’t even have been necessary but it added a little extra something to an already thrilling book. This is not your avarage fantasy novel. If I had to compare it, I would say it reminds me a little bit of Ellen Kushner’s At Swordspoint. Except this is better.

The one qualm I have about this – and it’s not really a big problem – is that there isn’t a single important female character. The number of women in the entire book can be counted on my hands. A few of them get to say a line or two but women really don’t seem to feature much in this world. That’s okay, not every book has to have strong female characters, but it seemed strange that the only women mentioned were either prostitutes or an important man’s wife. There are two female magicians that I can mention as somewhat redeeming but altogether, this is very much a man’s world.

An original fantasy of manners that didn’t thrill me right at the beginning. But at some point, and I believe it was when Hal first meets Royston, authors Jones and Bennett set their mechanical dragon’s claws into my brain and I was absolutely hooked. It may not be steampunk but it’s sure worth reading.

THE GOOD: Wonderfully layered characters, relationships and character development. A world that is both subtle and intriguing. Plus, a gay romance that will give you butterflies (no matter your sexual orientation).
THE BAD: The beginning is very confusing and takes some pulling through. There’s an abominable lack of women characters!
THE VERDICT: An original fantasy of manners that manages to be epic without shedding gallons of blood on a fictional battlefield. It focuses on characters and their personal growth. Highly recommended.

RATING:  8/10  – Excellent

dividerThe Metal Dragons/Havemercy Series:

  1. Havemercy
  2. Shadow Magic
  3. Dragon Soul
  4. Steel Hands

Second opinions:

Review: Sharon Shinn – Jenna Starborn

Why did I pick this book up? It certainly wasn’t because of the cover. I may be shallow when it comes to a book’s fashion sense, but really, if the story interests me, I don’t care. So this ugly specimen entered my hallowed halls of reading because the SF Squeecast made me. These guys truly deserve their Hugo and I love their podcast to bits. Such good recommendations!

jenna starborn

JENNA STARBORN
by Sharon Shinn

Published by: Penguin US, 2002
ISBN: 9781101549643
ebook: 384 pages

My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: You would think that if someone commissioned your conception, paid for your gestation, and claimed you immediately after your harvesting, she would love you with her whole heart; but you would be wrong.

Jenna Starborn was created out of frozen embryonic tissue, a child unloved and unwanted. Yet she has grown up with a singularly sharp mind—and a heart that warms to those she sees as less fortunate than herself. This novel takes us into Jenna Starborn’s life, to a planet called Fieldstar, and to a property called Thorrastone—whose enigmatic lord will test the strength of that tender and compassionate heart.

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Any retelling of Jane Eyre is walking the plank by default. Charlotte Bronte’s original story is not only universally beloved but also one of my very favorite books ever. I have read it many times, listened to it on audiobook, watched pretty much all the movie and TV adaptations (The BBC’s version from 2006 is the best), and generally never seem to tire of the tale. Setting the story in a science fiction universe, with interstellar travel a routine, every house equipped with a PhysiChamber to fix any diseases its residents may have, and people being grown in gen-tanks, there is still (or again) a huge gap between the classes. Not every resident of the galaxy is automatically a citizen, and citizenship comes in different levels.

jenna starbornSo… a science fiction retelling of Jane Eyre, huh? Having just finished this book, let me say that while I enjoyed reading it very much, I am also left a bit underwhelmed. Sharon Shinn stays very close to the original and we almost get a scene-by-scene retelling, simply set on the planet Fieldstar. However, since Thorrastone Park – this alternate Thornfield Hall – is built “inspired by” old English estate manors, the setting doesn’t really have much impact on the story. Jenna works as a technician, taking care that the force field that creates a breathable atmosphere, doesn’t break down. She still spends a lot of time with Mr. Ravenbeck’s ward, Ameletta, and even teaches her a thing or two about nuclear reactors. However, apart from traveling in hovercars instead of carriages, there really wasn’t much to set this story apart from the original.

Maybe I am being unfair. If I had read this without knowing (and loving) Jane Eyre, I probably would have adored this book. But knowing the original, and knowing it quite well, I couldn’t help but compare. On every single page. I found myself waiting for certain scenes to happen, wondering how Sharon Shinn would translate them into a universe with space travel, women working “manly” jobs, wearing men’s clothes, etc. In the end, while I found the romance believable and I really enjoyed what the author did with the games Ravenbeck and his guests play, it didn’t really work for me.

The characters, at least, are true to themselves. They are clearly recognisable as their 19th century counterparts and I cared deeply for Jenna and Ravenbeck. The one new character that is introduced feels, while equally likable, a little misplaced. What this book did for me was show just how perfect Jane Eyre is. Not only is it a gripping story of love and class division, but it is also beautifully constructed. Every puzzle piece sits in its place and if you change one thing, you’d really have to change all the others to make it work. I believe that’s why Shinn was so careful, didn’t really change anything.

Apart from one long ride on a space ship, the science fiction element fell short for me as well. I haven’t read a lot of hard sci-fi (I can’t remember any, at least) but I really would have enjoyed more descriptions of Jenna’s work as a technician. Give me all the details about the gadgets and cables she has to take care of.

In conclusion, this was a book worth reading and it showed that the author knows her craft. She evoked emotions in me, made me care about the characters, and even made Jenna tell her story to us, her “reeders”.

THE GOOD: Come on, it’s Jane Eyre!
THE BAD: Not enough science fiction, really just an almost exact retelling with no new twists.
THE VERDICT: A good book retelling one of the most beautiful stories ever. Just not what I was expecting or hoping for.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 Quite good

 

Review: Kristin Cashore – Graceling

I like using re-reads as an excuse to buy audiobooks. When I found out that this particular version was a full cast audiobook – and unabridged! – I was in heaven. Hearing a distinct voice for each character made this audio experience just perfect, and the narrator, with his kind-uncle-storyteller voice, rounded it up very well. My rating may have gone up since I last read this, simply because the audio version deserves some extra credit.

GRACELING
by Kristin Cashore

Published: Full Cast Audio, 2009
ISBN: 1934180890
Pages: 471
Hours: 12,5
Copy: audiobook
Series: The Seven Kingdoms #1

My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.

Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.
When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away… a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

I remember first reading this when it came out in paperback and being drawn into the story very quickly. Katsa is a wonderfully independent heroine and she stays true to herself throughout the entire story – despite a scrumptious love interest, she never loses sight of who she is, and she keeps her convictions. This is something I don’t see a lot in YA fiction. Mostly, the appearance of a man makes the female lead change her world view and, in proper Twilight fashion, turns the man into the focal point of the girl’s life. Not so in Graceling.

This is clearly a character-driven book. Kristin Cashore does have a story to be told but the plot is simple and straight-forward and, in and of itself, not very exciting. But she also gives us a small cast of characters that are intriguing enough to stay interested and, at times, glued to the pages. Katsa and Po’s interaction was enough for me to keep reading. Their development is believable and heartbreaking. I said Katsa stayed true to herself but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t change. Po teaches her new things about herself, and falling in love is always a pivotal point in life. All of this, the author brought across in this novel, and it was as thrilling on a re-read as it was the first time around.

Maybe I have become more critical since I first read this, but the prose didn’t strike me as particularly good. A lot of times, we learn Katsa’s thoughts, then hear them again, repeated in speech. The structure is plain, the narrative straight-forward. It’s not great but it also isn’t terrible. The repetitions got on my nerves every once in a while but not enough to diminish my enjoyment of the story.

What really strikes me about this book is how daring it is. It breaks the clichés of YA fantasy romances while retaining all the elements that make it captivating. A strong, independent heroine, a love story that is subtle and overwhelming at the same time (in a good way), and an ending that’s not all happy, but all the more convincing.

On the audio version:
This was the first time I had an entire book read to me, with an actor for each character. It was a wonderful experience to get the unabridged story told to you. I thought that Katsa and Po’s voices were well-chosen, and I was especially pleased with Bitterblue. She sounds young enough to be believable but the actress brought a dignity to her voice that brought Bitterblue’s character to life. To create even more atmosphere, at the end and beginning of most chapters, there is a little background music – which is totally up my alley. It is a costly audiobook, sure, but it’s worth it. I might actually listen to this again many times.

I wanted to re-read this for a while and the recent publication of Bitterblue gave me the necessary kick in the butt. I will attack the third book set in the Graceling Realm very soon, because I had forgotton how intriguing Bitterblue is as a character and can’t wait to find out how she holds up in her own novel.

THE GOOD: An independent heroine, a beautiful love story, and strong characters all around.
THE BAD: Simple writing, not the most action-packed plot.
THE VERDICT: If you like YA romances set in a fantasy world, pick this up. I just loved to see a truly strong female protagonist who doesn’t lose her head when she falls in love. There should be more heroines like Katsa.

RATING: 7,5/10 Very good

The Seven Kingdoms Trilogy/Graceling Realm Trilogy:

  1. Graceling
  2. Fire
  3. Bitterblue

Related posts:

Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle

It must be the healthy air or simply the fact that during your holidays you can relax and finally get to some books you’ve neglected. Which is why I thought I’d get right into my resolutions for the second half of 2012 and kicked the list off with Dodie Smith’s classic novel. I caught the beginning of the movie a while ago and was so enchanted that I felt I would love to book. And I did. Truly, I loved it… and hated it. Here’s why:

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE
by Dodie Smith

published: Vintage, 2004 (1948)
ISBN:0099460874
pages: 416
copy: paperback

my rating: 6,5/10

first sentence: I am sitting in the kitchen sink.

This enchanting novel tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her unusual family who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Cassandra’s eccentric father is a writer whose first book took the literary world by storm but he has since failed to write a single word and now spends his time reading detective fiction. Cassandra’s sister, Rose, despairs of her family’s circumstances and determines to marry their affluent American landlord. She is helped and, sometimes, hindered in this by their bohemian stepmother, an artists’ model who likes to commune with nature. Finally there is Stephen who is hopelessly in love with Cassandra. Amid this maelstrom Cassandra hones her writing skills, candidly capturing the events that take place within the castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love.

Our heroine Cassandra leads us into the enchanted world of the castle she lives in with her rather eccentric family. As she writes her diary (which we read), we see just how bad poverty can get and with how little this strange family can be content. Cassandra’s thoughts and observations are surprisingly deep for a girl her age. Without any envy, she describes her older sister’s beauty, without bitterness she talks about the way her father never wrote again, after the initial success of his novel. But her life is boring and observing and trying to “capture” the people and landscapes around her is not as fulfilling as she would hope. When two young men enter the neighbourhood (very Jane Austen, isn’t it?), her life changes forever…

I was instantly feeling sympathetic towards our narrating heroine. Her family suffer but manage to creatue happiness in their very own way, and I enjoyed reading about their little routines and rituals. But Cassandra got on my nerves very quickly. Precocious – yes. Smart-ass? Not so much. The way she always sets herself apart from the group and describes, sometimes quite coldly, what is happening, made her feel cold and arrogant to me. She certainly doesn’t think too much of herself but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she considered herself a notch above everybody else – for she is the one who captures everything, who sees more than others. Or who would like to. Her flaws make her believable but personally, I just couldn’t really like her.

The plot dragged a little and felt like a soap opera at times. But the love and engagement and childish fun and unrequited love mixed with the very mature style made this a nicely balanced book. I didn’t pine for anyone, I didn’t really care who ended up with whom. But I did find myself wanting to go back to the book whenever I put it down.

It suddenly seemed astonishing that people should meet especially to eat together – because food goes into the mouth and talk comes out. And if you watch people eating and talking – really watch them – it is a very peculiar sight.

An unlikable protagonist is one thing but a whole cast of lovable, deep side characters make up for it. Rose and Topaz, Stephen (above all) and even our two gentlemen captured my heart by storm. I did care a lot about them and would have actually liked to see more of their perspectives. This being a diary, however, that wasn’t possible. I look forward to finishing the movie and I hope the focus is not so heavily set on Cassandra’s fate alone. Her coming-of-age story is certainly better than a lot of modern YA tales I’ve read but it’s far from my favorite…

THE GOOD: Concise and beautiful writing, a very different family life from what I know, in a romantic setting with a heroine full of ideas and thoughts.
THE BAD: Not really a bad point but I didn’t warm to the narrator. Which dragged the entire story down a bit.
THE VERDICT: If, like the sisters in this book, you like Austen and Bronte and can’t decided with romance you’d rather live in, you’ll probably enjoy this story. A young girl’s coming-of-age with love, betrayal, and a castle.

RATING: 6,5/10  Very good with some reservations.

N. K. Jemisin – The Broken Kingdoms

I can’t say what it was exactly, but I felt a pull towards more books by this author since I read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms earlier this year. I know I’m behind on her works and everybody has already finished her new books, The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun. But I gotta start somewhere, right? And I was enjoying myself a lot again. Even more than with the first in this loose trilogy. I’m actually a little heartbroken and want to dive straight into the next one.

THE BROKEN KINGDOMS
by N.K. Jemisin

published: Orbit, 2010
ISBN: 0316075981
pages: 313
copy: ebook
series: The Inheritance #2

my rating: 9/10

first sentence: I remember that it was midmorning.

In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortalkind. Oree Shoth, a street artist, takes in a strange homeless man on an impulse. This act of kindness engulfs Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city. And Oree’s guest is at the heart of it…

I’ve known for a while now that I have a thing for middle books. Even though either of the two books in this trilogy that I’ve read so far could be read as standalone novels, N.K. Jemisin does a beautiful job of tying together the two very different tales told here. Oree Shoth was an intriguing protagonist and I strongly urge you not to read blurbs or the synopsis of this book. The reason I say this is – I knew nothing about this book other than it being part two in this trilogy – and I was quite charmed (in a weird way) by the little plot twist right at the beginning of the story. It wouldn’t be a spoiler to say this but I want to give you the chance, dear readers, to discover this little thing I’m not mentioning, by yourself and be as surprised as I was.

That said, I loved Oree. She is not only a likable heroine, strong and brave and kind, but also a fantastic narrator. I grew to care for her very quickly and I’m truly sad that her story is over (unless we meet her again in book three, which would be awesome!). But also the other characters, above all Shiny, showed depth and personality that made me just love them. Especially after reading John Scalzi’s cardboards-with-name-tags, this felt like I was reading about real people. In an imaginary world, true, but with honest feelings and dreams. And being a sucker for good characters, that was already enough to get me emotionally invested.

But the author gives us more. Apart from suspense, that tingle sense of romance that I remember from the first book, and interesting new revelations about the gods and their past, I was also very pleased with how the plot went. There was almost nothing predictable in this story and I loved how every time I thought I figured something out, Jemisin took her story and twisted it around, making me have to guess all over again. I also thought that her writing had improved. Those few things I disliked in book one – the partly disjointed tidbits of information and jumping back and forth – was gone here. It’s like somebody told her how to be better and she just did.

I am, you see, a woman plagued by gods. It was worse once. Sometimes it felt as if they were everywhere: underfoot, overhead, peering around corners and lurking under bushes. They left glowing footprints on the sidewalks.

Ten years have passed since the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and a lot has changed since then. Discovering just how different the world – and the city of Sky – is, was another reason for why I enjoyed this book so much. We learn things that happened before we read Yeine’s story and we learn about what’s been happening since then. Having known only a few people’s perspective on the God’s War so far, it was nice to get to see the other side of it. And again, the author managed to make me care for somebody I was sworn to despise. Readers of the first book will know immediately that I speak of Shiny (you know who). Learning about his suffering, his side of things, his interpretation of events was simply amazing.

What probably impressed me the most was the originality of the story. I don’t remember ever reading anything quite like it. And in its uniqueness, it also happens to be beautifully executed. What Jemisin has done with her personal idea of gods living among mortals and the balance of the world depending on the whims of three all-powerful beings is simply stunning. This may be because I simply don’t know of any other books who may have done this before, but for me, at least, this is the first of its kind and will hold a dear place in my heart for it. Thank you for not re-hashing things that happen to have sold well in the past (yes, this is a nod towards the Hunger Games knock-offs – which is, itself, a Battle Royale knock-off). In a market so flooded with crap, it is sheer bliss to discover a gem like this.

The ending left me with a bittersweet kind of satisfaction. One crying and one smiling eye, I am now fighting the urge to start reading this book again. Right now! I like to think of myself as someone who judges a second book more harshly than a debut novel. Because if it’s a first novel, there are things a writer still has to learn, I’m sure. By the second book, though, there should at least be some improvement. And this was just a beautiful, beautiful fantasy novel that catapulted N.K. Jemisin into my top authors.

THE GOOD: Beautifully written, compelling characters, taking her mythology from book one to another level. I adored the ending.
THE BAD: Could have explored certain themes more, may feel misleading to some.
THE VERDICT: I loved it. If you were uncertain about book one, read this one. If you liked book one, read this one even more. One of my best reads this year.

RATING: 9/10 Close to perfection.

Read chapter one on N.K. Jemisin’s homepage.

The Inheritance Trilogy:

  1. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
  2. The Broken Kingdoms
  3. Kingdom of Gods

Stephen King – Wizard and Glass

When I first found out about this series, I wanted to read it all in one go. And then I found out that Stephen King built a whole universe around this series – in his other fiction. So I decided to take it a bit more slowly and delve into other King books as well. So far, reading any Stephen King has paid off, and some books have fairly obvious references to the Dark Tower series that made me giggle as if I’d found an easter egg. Nowadays, it’s all on the internet, easy to be found. Which doesn’t make the hunt any less thrilling.

WIZARD AND GLASS
by Stephen King

published: New English Library 2003 (1997)
ISBN:0340829788
pages: 845
copy: paperback
series: The Dark Tower #4

my rating: 9/10

first sentence: “ASK ME A RIDDLE,” Blaine invited. “Fuck you,” Roland said.

Wizard and Glass picks up where the last book left off, with our hero, Roland, and his unlikely band of followers escaping from one world and slipping into the next. And it is there that Roland tells them a story, one that details his discovery of something even more elusive than the Dark Tower: love. But his romance with the beautiful and quixotic Susan Delgado also has its dangers, as her world is tom apart by war. Here is Roland’s journey to his own past, to a time when valuable lessons awaited him, lessons of loyalty and betrayal, love and loss.

And the broken record continues. This is awesome!
This book differs a lot from the others in the series, because 90% of it are a flashback into Roland’s past. 14-year-old Roland is sent to Mejis with his friends Alain and Cuthbert – both of which I came to love very easily. It is in a small town called Hambry that he doesn’t only discover first love but also a plot that could threaten his own home and people.  One might think that after the enormous cliffhanger of book three, I’d be annoyed that we only spend enough time with Eddie, Jake and Susannah to get them settled around a fire where Roland can tell his tale. But, to be honest, I got so drawn into Roland’s past and this new cast of characters that I wouldn’t have minded reading another book solely about Roland’s former ka-tet.

While our well-known (and more and more beloved) characters still feature in this novel, we are introduced to a lot of new ones. New for us readers, not for Roland. His first love, Susan Delgado, the extremely scary with Rhea (I shudder to think of her), the despicable aunt Cord, or the Big Coffin Hunters – they all come to life on the pages of this novel and manage to evoke some emotional response from be, be it fear, disgust, compassion of love. In a flashback told by the progatonist, you can be sure he’ll survive. This does not mean, however, that there wasn’t a myriad of moments where I feared for him and his companions. King is truly the master of suspense!

We do learn new things about the quest to the Tower, despite spending most of the novel in the past. The new themes and ideas were mindblowing and kept me hooked for hundreds of pages at a time. I keep my reviews spoiler-free, so all I’m going to say is that the title of this instalment in the series is well chosen.The flashback also made Roland more human to me. While in the first book he comes of as this perfect hero without much going for him except his obsession for the Tower, he has grown more likable and more real in subsequent novels. After this, I care for him as much as I do for Jake and Oy (he’s still my favorite) and Eddie and Susannah. In my reader’s heart, this is the book that cements them as ka-tet.

Roland and Susan (art by Jae Lee)

What surprised me was how beautifully the love story was told. Sure, Stephen King is great at shocking and scaring his audience, but I know believe that he could write anything he sets his mind to. I was drawn into Roland’s love story, I completely understood how his 14-year-old heart could beat for nothing but his beloved and how preoccupied a teenage mind gets when in love. Despite King’s worries in the afterworld, I think he’s done an extraordinary job and written a better love story than many romance authors manage.

After Roland has finished telling his story, we do shortly return to our present day ka-tet. And they deliver one of the most awesome show-downs I can remember. There is no mean cliffhanger this time but I loved how King decided to weave in more references to literature and pop culture. He manages to conjure up childhood memories and scenes from famous books and twist them so they’re utterly scarey and make you feel just as frightened as Eddie, Jake, and Susanah. I also feel the urge to read The Stand very soon because it is the novel that feeds most heavily into this part of the Dark Tower series.

Stephen King’s afterword is well worth reading as well. He is not just a brilliant writer but he’s also so damn likable! In my opinion (and it may only last until I’ve read the next book) this is the best novel in the series so far.

THE GOOD: New characters, an amazing story that gives Roland more personality and keeps you hooked on every page. A beautiful love story and an awesome ending.
THE BAD: There is one passage that got drawn out a bit too long for my taste.
THE VERDICT: Yet another fantastic instalment in this series. I am growing fonder and fonter of the story, the characters and the quest for the Dark Tower. More please!

RATING: 9/10 Pretty close to perfection!

The Dark Tower Series:

  1. The Gunslinger
  2. The Drawing of the Three
  3. The Waste Lands
  4. Wizard and Glass
  5. Wolves of the Calla
  6. Song of Susannah
  7. The Dark Tower
  8. The Wind Through the Keyhole

Related Posts:

Other Reviews:

Kristin Cashore – Fire

Graceling was a surprisingly wonderful book and when Fire came out, I immediately got it and started reading. For some reason that I can’t put my finger on, I didn’t take to it as much as I expected. I put it aside. Finally, I picked it up again (if only because the publication of Bitterblue reminded me) and was disappointed and hooked at the same time.

FIRE
by Krisin Cashore

published: Gollancz, 2009
ISBN:0575085126
pages: 352
copy: paperback
series: Graceling Realm #2

my rating: 5/10

first sentence: Larch often thought that if it hadn’t been for his newborn son, he never would have survived his wife Mikra’s death.

It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men. This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she has the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own. Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City. The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom. If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

Plot

Theres not much plot to speak of. Cashore spends half the book setting up Fire’s situation and the chaos in the kingdom. However, this we learn by what Fire thinks of through memories and conversations, not by actually witnessing the impeding war and the two rebel armies that are gathering on each end of the kingdom.
What drives the plot forward is solely the budding romance that starts about a third into the book.  In the second half, a plan slowly evolves that needs Fire’s cooperation and offers some moments of suspense. These are few and short ones, though, which makes this a slow and for the most part a very quiet book.

I have to mention the very strong prologue. In fact, it was such powerful writing that I wouldn’t have minded spending a few more chapters with that utterly creepy kid Immiker. The whole prologue reads like a vignette and makes you want more. I came to care for Immiker’s father Larch very quickly and followed the story with dread and enthusiasm (because I like good writing, not creepy kids).

Characters

Fire is a great protagonist. The author spends a long time setting her up and making us see what ails her. I don’t mind a heavy focus on characters in novels because characters are what I value the most and what gets the most points in a review. The good writing and Fire’s interesting conflict kept me reading despite the lack of drive. I found it interesting that in both of Cashore’s novels the strong female protagonist has a good deal of self-loathing going on. Katsa because her Grace was killing and she didn’t want to be a killer machine under somebody else’s rule. And Fire because of what she was born and what her father did. Being a fan of good and complicated characters, I think both of these girls’ inner turmoil makes an excellent read. Rather than your standard beautiful and flawless heroine, we have somebody who is facing conflict every moment of every day – without having to run into an army of enemies. And yes, she is still stunningly beautiful but in this case, I forgive the author because it’s actually important for the plot that Fire is of unnatural beauty.

Fire is what they call a monster. Monsters in these books are animals with unnaturally colored coats or fur. Fire is the only human monster left and she looks normal, for the most part. She is, however, extremely beautiful – so much so that she is stunned whenever she catches sight of herself in a mirror – and has hair the color of flame and fire and sunset. Animal monsters come in all sorts of striking colors and color combinations. They also have one other thing in common: They are unusually aggressive, especially when it comes to killing (and eating) other monsters, be they animal or human.
What I found most interesting, apart from all the beauty and uniqueness, was Fire’s ability (and that of all monsters) to penetrate the mind of others and, depending on how strongly they are guarded, implant thoughts and feelings into them. Predator monsters will make the weak of mind think that they have nothing to fear, that they want to come closer – so the monster can tear their throats out. They are still animals so the range of reason for which they use this power is limited to killing and feeding. But humans with that ability are a whole different species and the possibilites are endless.

Fire is already guilt-ridden about her father and confused about her own “talent”. Now she is also handling moral questions every single day, questioning whether she should manipulated somebody’s mind when it’s not to save her own life. She is a likeable and honorable character and we spend a lot of time in her mind, witnessing her struggles. Maybe a little too much.

Her guard Neel however, seems to exist only to reach her handkerchiefs when appropriate and the rest of her guards, which surround her at all times and would have been a great opportunity to give this novel more life, were cardboard creatures with names attached to them. The author’s attempt to make one or two of them into proper people failed as we never get to see their motivations or, indeed, their actions.

The few other characters, namely the king and his brothers as well as Fire’s best friend Archer and her neighbors, are mostly just as bland. Brigan has some personality, though we don’t get to see nearly enough of it. Archer, who I found very intersting and three-dimensional, loses over time. The others are simply there for certain dialogues to take place or to draw the focus from Fire – and we’re still painfully close to her at all times.

The most interesting, and most disturbing, character was by far Immicker from the prologue. Those who have read Graceling will recognise him easily enough. What a creep!

One thing I’ve noticed with Kristin Cashore – and this does not diminish the pleasure I feel reading her books – is that I find most of her fantasy names poorly chosen. We had Po in Graceling and “Po” as a German word means butt. So you can imagine how I struggled to keep a straight face. Also, isn’t there a tellytubby called Po, as well? Definitely two things I do not want to associate with Po’s character, as I found him quite charming and swoon-worthy.

Here we have Archer – which is a good name in and of itself. But in the beginning of the book, there is talk of a mysterious archer who kills silently from a distance with never failing arrows and needs to be found. When Archer talks about that archer, the flow of the prose feels a little silly at times. As for Brigan, whenever I read his name, my mind felt the need to insert that missing “g” at the end. Again, not a good choice. All of that does not make the book any worse, but it does make my mind stop for just long enough to take me out of the reading flow. Which I can’t imagine was the author’s intent. A simple Jack or Joe would have worked just as well. Macke it Jak, to sound more alien, if you like…
(Slightly off topic here: George R.R. Martin does a fantastic job with names, taking known names and altering them just enough to give them that outlandish feel but not so much that we can’t pronounce them or stumble when we come across them. I’m thinking Petyr, Jaime, Rickard, Benjen, etc.)

At this point, I must also bow to Krisin Cashore for incorporating a wonderful relationship between friends – Archer and Fire are what we would call friends with benefits. It is so well done that it feels quite natural. The love they feel for each other is, at least on Fire’s side, that of a very close friendship. So what if they console each other in a sexual way every now and then? I already liked the way love and sex were viewed in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books and I’m happy to report that Kristin Cashore has managed something similar (if more shallow).

World building

The Dells can be found on the map east of the Seven Kingdoms we know from Graceling. In the prologue, this geographic setting is nicely explained but after that, we don’t get to see much of the country. Fire’s home is in the north and apart from finding out that there are forests and mountains, the place didn’t really feel alive to me. The same thing goes for any area Fire sees on her travels and the King’s City as well. None of the settings felt interesting or were described in much detail. The novel would have benefited from a bit more focus on that instead of endlessly staying inside Fire’s head.

What also bothered me a lot was the use of our names for months. Fire’s birthday is in July… but July was named July because of things and people from our real world history. So why would months have the same names in a fantasy universe? If you don’t want to invent names for them, just call it high summer or something. I didn’t expect to mind this detail so much but it really took me out of the flow – yet again.

Writing style

I have little to say about the style. Despite all my misgivings, this was a fairly quick read and except for a few names here and there, I didn’t want to stop reading. Cashore knows her craft and her style is fluid and easy to read.

Bottom Line

There is a double threat on a kingdom already chaos and our fiery protagonist gets thrown into the middle of it. But the book still missed an overlying story arc and no matter how intriguing Fire, the character, may be, in this case it wasn’t enough to make the whole novel interesting. At times, it dragged so much that only the hope of some action or at least new information to come up kept me going. And, of course, the budding, if very subdued, romance between Fire and a certain dashing gentleman.

Young adult books don’t have to be shallow, as many authors try to prove to us over and over. I love that Kristin Cashore stayed true to that in her second novel, even if I wasn’t a big fan of the story. I hope Bitterblue will prove that the author doesn’t just know how to write great girl protagonists, and write them well, but that she also hasn’t run out of ideas yet.

THE GOOD: Compelling protagonist, interesting inner conflict, a romance subtle enough to be to my liking.
THE BAD: A book of many flaws, namely lack of plot, strange pacing, use of names and too much repetition. Anticlimactic ending.
THE VERDICT: Not nearly as good as Graceling, though based on great ideas. I hope the author shows some growth in Bitterblue.

RATING: 5/10 Really good + really bad = a fiery meh

The Graceling Realms:

  1. Graceling
  2. Fire
  3. Bitterblue