Review: The Black Prism

There is nothing black and white about Brent Weeks’ first novel in the Lightbringer series, which is a set of adult fantasy books. The Black Prism was a denser read than I was prepared for, but I forged through and formed lots of colorful thoughts.

theblackprismAbout the book: Gavin Guile has been the Prism–and thus the emperor–of  his world for sixteen years. Prisms always serve for multiples of seven years, and then the use of color magic through the entire light spectrum wears them out enough to kill them or drive them mad. Gavin has already served sixteen years, and thus expects to have five more; he wants to use each of those years for one of five great purposes. An unexpected note, however, about the consequences of his past, derails his plans. Instead of telling Karris, the love of his life, the whole truth, he helps Kip and angers a king instead. Kip was a nobody from a small, victimized town under the rule of this new rebel king. His mother has been more of a burden than a nurturing force in Kip’s life, but in the end she gave him one task to honor her–one impossible task: to kill the powerful man who ruined her life. But she describes the man only as “him,” and incites some confusion. Actually, confusion is abundant for Kip because he’s also just learned that he can draft physical colors from light. He must attend the Chromeria, a special–and the only–school for training drafters. Liv, a beautiful girl from Kip’s hometown, with a famous father and a talent for drafting two colors, is already there. Most drafters can control only one color–sometimes two or three, but controlling multiple colors is rare. Only the Prism can wield magic that harnesses them all, and there can only be one Prism at a time–or so he says. But this Prism has a secret: his brother, his competitor for the role of Prism, isn’t as dead as Gavin claims.

The world building in this book is great, and the possibilities that accrue for each of the compelling characters keep the story going–which is good because the plot doesn’t. This is not a book with an overarching plot line that persists from beginning to end, but rather a laying out of setting and characters and then basically a forcing  of all the various components through a fantasy blender to see what’ll happen. There are events, and there are cause-and-effect relationships between some of them, but the suspense lags due to the lack of a continued line of tension throughout the novel. There are a couple of persistent questions, but the narration gives no sort of indication that any or which of them may be answered by the end of the book. Most of my specific inquiries were not answered by the end of this book, and I suspect they’re key matters that won’t be revealed until the end of the series. I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen, but usually there’s a specific line of interest I’m reading for, and in this book, I couldn’t articulate just what I was hoping to find by reading onward. Reading The Black Prism was like waking up in the morning with a vague sense that something drastic would happen that day, but having no idea whether that meant falling out of a tree, watching a car crash, getting fired, or witnessing the apocalypse. There’s simply no way to mentally prepare, and that makes suspense significantly less prevalent.

But back to the world building. Not only are the setting and characters described in wonderful detail, but the magical side of the story is well supported. I found magic based on light to be an engaging concept, and I appreciated that some of the science to support it was provided. I would certainly call this a fantasy series before a science fiction one, but that element of rational explanation for the differences between the magical world and our own was present, and presented well.

” ‘To make it simple, if there are color-deficient men–incidentally, it is almost always men–why could there not also be those who are extremely color sensitive, superchromats? And it turns out there are. But they’re almost always women.’ […] ‘Wait, so men lose both ways? Blind to colors more often and really good at seeing them less often? That’s not fair.’ ‘But we can lift heavy things.’ “

I also had some confusion with the title. The Black Prism suggests that something is wrong with the Prism, or that he’s simply a bad man. There’s the added component of the war Gavin Guile had to fight with his brother–also a potential Prism–to leave the reader wondering whether the brother who lost was the bad seed after all. Usually the mark of a good fantasy book is being able to find redeemable qualities in all characters, rather than black-and-white good-or-evil ones. I did find that gray area with most of the characters here, which made them more engaging but didn’t clarify the title. After the 760 pages (in the mass market paperback edition I read) I still had no clue whether Gavin was the Black Prism. Sometimes people do bad things for good reasons, and it doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. I wouldn’t have called this Prism black or dark or any such term.

More on the characters: I found every character in this book intriguing for their own reason. Kip, though, I was most on the fence about. He’s a fifteen year-old boy who’s overweight and not especially good at anything yet. To some extent, that made him more realistic and likeable, but at other times it made him a hard character to follow because he rarely accomplishes anything. He sets out determined to do something, but then trouble arises, he remembers he’s a nobody, and he thinks “maybe this is the time to lay down and die.” Often he’s helped, then, before true calamity strikes, but occasionally he doubles down and responds in some truly remarkable way. At those moments, he’s a great character. For all the times he considers giving up and dying, he’s difficult to stomach–especially once that reaction becomes a trend and makes scenes with Kip predictable. He was the only character I truly couldn’t decide whether to like or not.

“Kip felt a chill. This man was warm, personable. Kip had no doubt that Gavin liked him, but in Gavin’s circles, you could like someone and still have to kill him. The casual way that Gavin prepared for Kip’s possible betrayal told Kip he’d been betrayed before and been caught unaware by it. And Gavin wasn’t the kind of man who had to learn a hard lesson twice.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think partially my mild dislike of this book was my own fault for forcing my way through it when it wasn’t the sort of book I was in the mood to read. And then once I realized I really was taking the time to read a full-sized adult fantasy novel, I was mad at myself for trying to start something new when I’ve been meaning to pick up where I left off in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I do like the world Weeks brings to life here, and I’m especially curious about how things will turn out for the Guile brothers, so I’m not giving up yet. I will read at least one more book in this series to see if now that the world and characters are established the plot will advance and the suspense will increase. I really want to find out what happens to the Prism, and what the consequences will be for letting his brother live while claiming he was dead. I just don’t know how many suspenseless books I’m willing to read to find out. We shall see.

Further recommendations:

  1. Although the colors don’t use magic, society is divided into colors in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy in a way that may interest fans of Weeks’ The Black Prism. There’s political intrigue, futuristic science, and an unearthly setting that makes Red Rising a great next choice for readers who enjoy the Lightbringer series. I can’t recommend this one enough. You can read more about it in my full review, here.
  2. If you’re interested in adult fantasy and you haven’t yet tried reading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, I’m not sure why you’re putting it off, but start now. I’m ashamed that I haven’t finished the series yet, but I can vouch for the first book, and if you haven’t read it, you’re missing out. It’s the epitome of superb fantasy, and it’s a fantastic read even if you don’t think fantasy is for you.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading The Revenant, the historical novel by Michael Punke that inspired the Leonardo DiCaprio movie (which I’m finally finally going to watch). I’m usually not a lover of survival-in-the-wilderness stories, but this one’s had me hooked since the first page. Stay tuned to find out why.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Scarlet

The Lunar Chronicles are probably the most popular set of YA science fiction books these days. They aren’t known only for their futuristic cyborgs, though, but also for their modern re-imaginings of classic fairy tales. But do the books live up to the greatness of the ideas behind them? Below are my thoughts on Scarlet, the second book. For my review on Cinder, the opening volume of this series, click here.

About the book: Scarlet has spent most of her life on her grandmother’s farm in France. When her grandmother suddenly goes missing, not only does Scarlet find herself suddenly and completely alone, but she also seems to be the only one suspicious of the disappearance. Although she is at first skeptical about the timing of his arrival to town, Scarlet befriends a newcomer who calls himself Wolf as she sets out on her own search for her grandmother. Despite his connection to the gang Scarlet believes has kidnapped her grandmother, Wolf convinces Scarlet of his innocence and promises to share what he knows and accompany her to Paris, where he claims the gang has a headquarters that may be housing Scarlet’s grandma. When Scarlet learns that her grandmother has been scarletkidnapped for top secret information regarding Princess Selene, she believes there’s been a mistake or misunderstanding. How can Scarlet’s family, safe and busy on their farm, have anything to do with old rumors about a Lunar royal child whom most of the world believes to be dead? How far can she trust her memories of her grandmother’s past? How far can she trust her new ally, Wolf?

“And she’d almost trusted him… she’d thought she was helping him. Stars above, she’d flirted with him, and all the while, he knew. She recalled those moments of peculiar amusement, the glint in his eyes, and her stomach twisted. He’d been laughing at her.”

Scarlet is narrated in alternating chapters between Scarlet’s and Cinder’s perspectives, so in addition to the new story about Scarlet (a new take on Red Riding Hood), the reader also gets to see what has become of Cinder after she is imprisoned as  result of her encountering Queen Levana at Prince Kai’s annual ball. At first, the switching between characters can be a bit confusing. The two girls seemed like the same person simply planted in different circumstances. It is challenging to separate what’s going on and with whom until the characters and plot are well established. Further into the book, though, it becomes easier to separate the threads of the story and recognize immediately when the narration is switching from one character to the other, although even by the end of the book the only personality differences I noted between Scarlet and Cinder were a combination of anger and rashness on Scarlet’s part. Where Cinder is patient and logical, Scarlet is quick to react and lash out, no matter the consequences. Otherwise, I’m a little disappointed by how interchangeable our main characters seem in this book. Their motivations, however, remain constant and distinct.

“All Cinder had ever wanted was freedom. Freedom from her stepmother and her overbearing rules. Freedom from a life of constant work with nothing to show for it. Freedom from the sneers and hateful words of strangers who didn’t trust the cyborg girl who was too strong and too smart and too freakishly good with machines to ever be normal.”

I wasn’t especially interested in Scarlet’s story until it began to intertwine with Cinder’s. The ends of the chapters in Cinder were usually so provocative and kept me engaged with the plot and wanting to find out what would happen next, but Scarlet seemed generally slower, with less drama, and those chapter ends just weren’t as sharp and shocking as I remembered from the first book. But I think Scarlet will prove a helpful  friend for Cinder–more helpful than the “Captain” she travels with in Scarlet–and Cinder’s story is growing in an exciting way. Cinder has been more or less freed of her Cinderella constraints by this point, which makes the plot even less predictable and opens up all sorts of new possibilities. She’s largely on her own, she’s growing more powerful, and she’s preparing to stand up for herself against forces of evil. Something great is brewing there, and even though I didn’t love every aspect in the addition of Scarlet’s story, I appreciated how it changed Cinder’s situation and I’m even more interested in what will happen next.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think the plot is improving as more characters are added, but the writing style still just isn’t my style. There are so many threads to the story, and it’s fascinating how they all weave together, so I’m hopeful that I’ll still enjoy this series despite my dissatisfaction with the narration.  Although I was occasionally confused in this second volume over which girl was which, the additional main characters did help diversify the plot–this sequel is certainly no repeat of the first book, which is a big plus in any set. It’s still not my favorite series, but I’m even more invested in discovering where Meyer will go with these characters. I’ll certainly be reading on with Cress, probably next month, and I have high hopes that the plot will just keep intensifying.

Further recommendations:

  1. I haven’t finished reading The Raven Cycle yet, and it’s more supernatural than science fiction, but it’s another great YA series with wonderful plot threads and captivating characters. Fans of The Lunar Chronicles will likely also love Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys. For my complete review of this book, click here.
  2. You may also enjoy Ransom Riggs’ fantasy series, beginning with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The world building in this series is phenomenal, with great plot twists and characters with myriad connections. If you love the world of The Lunar Chronicles but wish for stronger characters, look no further than Miss Peregrine’s.

What’s next: I’m currently reading the first book in Brent Weeks’ adult fantasy Lightbringer series, entitled The Black Prism. This is another book that fans of the Lunar Chronicles might enjoy, if they’re willing to venture into an adult series featuring magic that comes from light–a science fiction aspect to the fantasy. It’s certainly a hefty read, but it’s not slow and I’ll have a fresh review up for it soon, so stay tuned!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now find my complete review of the next book in this series, Cress, here!

Review: The Raven Boys

October is a perfect time of year for the supernatural, which means books like Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys, the first volume in a magical YA quartet.

About the Book: Blue is a teenager with a whole family of psychics, but her only power seems to be in amplifying energy for others’ use. Except on one notable St. Mark’s Eve, she sees a spirit while she is helping her aunt catalogue the names of the soon-to-be dead. No spirit has ever appeared to her before, and she’s told that the only reason for a non-seer to see a spirit is that he’s either a true love or has died by her hand. And this spirit is not just anyone, but a Raven Boy, a member of the town’s private school for rich kids. Blue has a self-imposed rule to avoid them, but she worries that he deserves at least a warning. That is, until she meets Gansey and his three best friends. They’re on a quest to find Glendower, the long-lost Welsh king, along a ley line in Blue’s Virginia hometown, a king rumored to have the power to grant a favor to the person who wakes him. Blue is intrigued by the odd group of friends and their unusual, supernatural hunt for Glendower. theravenboys

“The boys seemed to act as a unit, a single, multiheaded entity. To see any of them without the presence of the others felt a little… dangerous.”

Together, the five of them might have just the right resources to succeed–but they may not be the only ones close on the path to Glendower, and their opponents may be dangerously unstable and perhaps even downright evil. There’s also a ghost who may have something to say about that.

“Gansey was the boy she either killed or fell in love with. Or both. There was no being ready. There just was this: Maura opening the door.”

Sometimes I read a book based largely on its popularity. This was one of those. I did know there would be a hunt for a Welsh king, which was enough to reassure me that I would enjoy its subject matter, but mostly I picked up this book because it’s widely referred to as “good.” So imagine my surprise when I began turning pages and realized I loved everything about this book–“good” is an inadequate description. It doesn’t sufficiently cover:

a) the characters. Every single character in this book is so vastly different and unique, and there are a decent range of them. The narrator shows a little of every main character’s perspective, so the reader sees not only who’s who, but what makes each of them tick. The four Raven Boy friends Blue encounters are all on opposite ends of the (apparently four-sided) personality spectrum. It’s incredible to see what brings each of them together, and how all of their differing motives set them up to search for Glendower. Stiefvater creates such rich characters that feel like they might just walk off the page, which seems essential for

b) the supernatural element. When the book opened with talk of psychics, I was skeptical. But Blue knows skepticism is common and addresses that issue early on, allowing readers to suspend their disbelief and follow her into uncharted territory. Having believable, realistic characters is what makes the supernatural bits feel plausible. I’m not sure I’m a big believer of the supernatural in the real world around me, but Stiefvater makes it possible to read about unusual tricks of energy and otherworldly encounters without thinking constantly, “This could never happen.” And

c) the writing style. The details of this story are colorful and immersive, transporting the reader right into the setting and the characters’ lives. There are enough hints of romance to keep the reader watching, but there isn’t one of those obvious YA loves that starts at hate and ends at dying for each other in two seconds flat. It’s a slow build, as a novel should be. Also, I love that this series seems to be one of those sets where the books tell one story divided into parts, rather than a bunch of smaller self-contained stories lined up. This is one you have to commit to entirely–the first book raised so many questions that I suspect won’t be answered in their entirety until the end of the fourth book, and I certainly will be reading on to discover those answers. And if the witty characters and plot intrigue aren’t enough for you, there’s also some humor mixed in, just to keep things real.

” ‘I’m feeling better,’ he said, as if he’d been ill instead of dead.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was expecting to be entertained by this “good” book. I wasn’t expecting a new favorite YA series, but The Raven Cycle certainly seems to hold that potential. It’s rare for me to find a book in which I am fascinated both by the story and how it’s told, but The Raven Boys is one of those. I will certainly be picking up the second book in this series the next time I’m at the library. Books like this are the reason I believe the YA genre has something to offer readers of all ages.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like YA fantasy with a hint of the supernatural, try Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. This one features magic-wielding casters who partake in a major battle of good vs. evil, rooted in southern USA. I didn’t actually like the whole series, but I did enjoy this first book. (I need to read more YA fantasy/supernatural books. And recommendations for me?)

What’s next: I’m currently reading Marissa Meyer’s second book in the Lunar Chronicles series, Scarlet. After that I’m going to need a break from YA, but for now I’m enjoying this quick science fiction fairy tale retelling. Stay tuned to find out how this sequel compares to the first book!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now find my complete review of the next book in this series, The Dream Thieves, here!

Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses

Sarah J. Maas is a top name in YA fantasy these days, and I’ve finally taken a look at one of her first-in-a-series books, A Court of Thorns and Roses. Although the end of winter would be a much better time to read about the Spring Court of Prythian, I took this book right out to the fields with me this fall and could hardly put it down.

acourtofthornsandrosesAbout the book: Feyre is the youngest of three daughters in an impoverished family, but she seems to be the only one capable of ensuring that her sisters and father survive. Feyre promised on her mother’s deathbed to take care of them, but their luck’s about to change. While hunting in the woods, Feyre shoots her arrow into a wolf that may be a faerie in disguise, and her whole life changes in consequence. An immortal faerie comes to claim the life debt by taking Feyre as his captive into Prythian, a deadly place not fit for mortals. Despite her desire to return to her family and keep the promise she made to her mother, as Feyre becomes more involved in life with the faeries she learns some disturbing secrets that change her view of the world and perhaps even her purpose in life. An unlikely love will also play a role in Feyre’s decisions as it becomes clearer that her life and her friends may be at stake in an epic, magic-infused fight for control of Prythian.

” ‘So,’ he said wearily, ‘here we are, with the fate of our immortal world in the hands of an illiterate human.’ His laugh was unpleasant as he hung his head, cupping his forehead in a hand, and closed his eyes. ‘What a mess.’ “

This book is a fantasy retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast story, which is a personal favorite of mine. Feyre, however, is no helpless damsel in distress, and even when she knows she stands no chance against an enemy, she refuses to go down without a fight–which includes fighting for those she loves. The world Maas has created in this novel is delicately sumptuous and positively irresistible.

“Magic–that’s what the tang had been, what was keeping my limbs tucked in tight, preventing me from going for my knife. I recognized the power deep in my bones, from some collective mortal memory and terror.  How long had it kept me unconscious? How long had he kept me unconscious, rather than have to speak to me?”

However, there were times I felt that Maas had such a clear idea of this story and its setting that when she inserted main characters into the novel, she failed to mine them sufficiently for personality. The characters’ motivations were so basically related to human instinct and natural emotion that there seemed to be little about them that was distinct. These characters felt like they could be strong, but weren’t quite reaching their full potential in A Court of Thorns and Roses. With Feyre in particular, an event would be followed by a note of her emotions or thoughts that didn’t quite match what had been shown previously in regards to her personality and reactions. I think that the return of these characters in future volumes of this series will help them develop more fully, evolving into unique traits and consistent mannerisms, so it’s not a major concern of mine yet although it did make this story feel more contrived.

Nevertheless, whether the characters’ emotions are remarkable or not, emotions are certainly prevalent. Love and hate and immense loyalty in this novel are laying the seeds for what I predict will be remarkably complex relationships as this series continues. Even where the emotions are predictable, they are strong enough to insist upon being felt, inserting themselves into the readers’ own hearts. The plot of A Court of Thorns and Roses has been constructed to instigate emotion.

“Tomorrow–there would be tomorrow…to face what I had done, to face what I shredded into pieces inside myself…but for now…for today…”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think that if I had approached this book as I would a stand-alone novel, it would’ve had a lower rating. The fact that I knew beforehand it was part of a series, and that the second book is widely held as the better of the two that have so far been published, gave me more patience with A Court of Thorns and Roses than I might have had based on its own merit. I liked the plot, but if I hadn’t read this book intending to get to the next one, I might not have been invested enough to read the next one. Now that I don’t read YA books as frequently as I used to, it takes a truly extraordinary novel to keep me interested in a YA set, and this one makes the grade, but barely. I’ll read the second book, A Court of Mist and Fury, and see what happens from there.

Further Recommendations:

  1. Anything by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes would probably be appreciated by Sarah J. Maas fans. She’s lesser known than she deserves. Hawksong is a great YA fantasy choice with a fulfilling romance, and it can easily be read in one sitting.
  2. The Vampire Diaries series by L. J. Smith is another fantastic YA romance, albeit supernatural rather than fantasy. The books are better than the show, as per usual, but the plot is irresistibly dark and addicting, sweet and intense, like A Court of Thorns and Roses. Even if you already have an idea of the story line from the TV show, or generally don’t like vampires, don’t pass on this series without trying it, especially if you like Maas style romance.

What’s next: I panicked on my last library trip, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to get back for a while, and grabbed a few extra things on top of what I was already planning to read in October. I must have been in an otherworldly mood that day, because I picked up fantasy and supernatural books. I hope it won’t throw off my October TBR too much, and I hope I won’t get too bogged down with fantasy to get through them, but I’m planning to finish the library books first. So now that I’ve turned this into a long explanation, I’ll get to the point and mention that I’m currently reading Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys, and loving it. Keep an eye out for my next post soon to find out why The Raven Boys is another perfect October read!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now find my complete review of the next book in this series, A Court of Mist and Fury, here!

Review: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Do you crave books that veer so far from “normal” that the reader must question absolutely everything that’s been told, including the characters’ identities? Search no further that Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a psychological thriller that begins so ordinarily only to leave you wondering whether a single statement can be trusted.

imthinkingofendingthings“Something that disorients, that unsettles what’s taken for granted, something that disturbs and disrupts reality–that’s scary.”

About the book: A young woman and her fairly new boyfriend, Jake, take a short road trip to the farm Jake grew up on. Before they even arrive, however, Jake’s girlfriend is thinking about ending the relationship. What should be a nice meal shared with Jake’s parents turns into a strange evening full of odd coincidences, confused conversations, and a chase through an empty school building late at night. Nothing is quite as it seems, but only the girlfriend seems to notice that anything is amiss. Before long, the reader will begin to wonder whether anyone will make it home from this trip at all.

“Questions are good. They’re better than answers. If you want to know more about life, how we work, how we progress, it’s questions that are important. That’s what pushes and stretches our intellect…Not knowing is human.”

Best aspect: there’s so much commentary, slightly philosophical in nature, about humanity in general. Whole paragraphs about what’s worth living for, whether loneliness is an acceptable condition, how people interact with others and the world; these statements begin as broad generalizations that many readers can likely relate to, but then morph into something a little more twisted that  change the reader’s perspective on what is happening in the story. These little nuggets of “wisdom” seem not only to apply to various facets of life, but to the book itself. In the quotation above, the narrator is championing questions and uncertainty–qualities this book is filled to the brim with. Another example: in stating that thoughts are closer to truth than actions, the reader is guided to pay more attention to what’s inside the characters’ minds than the motions they make in the world. These relatable signposts keep the reader invested in the puzzle and offer clues at the same time.

Worst aspect: when the explanation finally arrives for all the oddities in this plot, it is so brief, and so strange, that much is still left to the imagination. The reader must inhabit the narrator’s mind and make his/her own assumptions about the narrator’s decisions on including certain details. This would be an aspect I could better appreciate if a little more space in the story was dedicated to it. From the slow, ordinary start to the novel (which helps make the uncanny coincidences more unsettling later on), to the gradual build in tension, the reader’s uncertainties about the story feel well-paced and necessary to the reading experience of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The answers, however, are so compact and drive toward such a hasty end that the only way to truly grasp everything is to follow the narrator’s advice and start over from the beginning with the knowledge about the characters you’ve gained by the end. I love a book that makes me want to read it more than once–I’m a little less fond of books that force me into a second read.

“Both fictions and memories are recalled and retold. They’re both forms of stories. Stories are the way we learn. Stories are how we understand each other. But reality only happens once.”

One definite plus about my experience with this book, however, was that I picked the perfect time of year to read it. I didn’t add a lot of extremely creepy or scary books to my October TBR this year, but this one surprised me with its unnerving plot and shiver-inducing details. This short novel is fraught with eeriness, from mysterious men staring in through bedroom windows, to a dark, dank cellar lined with spooky paintings, to a secret inhabited closet in a locked and deserted school. Reality goes off its rails as one simple thought, “I’m thinking of ending things,” leads to its only possibly conclusion. This book is absolutely frightening not only because of the monsters outside, but the ones within.

“What if suffering doesn’t end with death? How can we know? What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape? What if maggots continue to feed and feed and feed and continue to be felt?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would’ve thought this book was perfect if it weren’t for the drastic difference in pacing between the opening and ending. The concept for this novel is particularly appealing to me, and I found the questions and answers equally disturbing and appealing. Halloween really is the perfect time of year for this book. Not only was I pleasantly uneasy while reading this book, but all those little philosophical snippets fed my curiosity about the meaning of life. I’m Thinking of Ending Things has the sort of depth that encourages multiple reads, and will reveal new vantages to the same questions every time. And it’s short, so those potential rereads aren’t daunting. I haven’t gone through it a second time yet, but I probably will at some point. If you like creepy puzzles, pick this one up.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is another psychological thriller with a creepy puzzle and surreal setting. These characters will also lead you to second guess everything you know about what’s happening in the novel, and the and the answers will surprise and tug at your heart. Read my complete review here.
  2. You may also like Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, a truly frightening psychological thriller in which the narrator’s curiosity for truth will lead to dangerous places, even inside the self. This one’s perfect for this time of year.

Coming up Next: I’m reading Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first volume of a popular YA (though I’d consider it NA) fantasy series. There’s been lots of hype about this one’s sequel, but stay tuned to find out whether the first book about the faeries of Prythian and the mortal who may be able to save them all lives up to expectations.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Couple Next Door

Happy fall, y’all! Looking for a creepy read this October? Start with Shari Lapena’s debut thriller, The Couple Next Door.

About the book: Marco and Anne Conti decide to continue with their dinner party plans even after their babysitter cancels, opting to leave their six month old baby home alone next door. Despite checking on her every half hour and carting around an auditory baby monitor, they’re in for a shock when they return home after 1 a.m. to discover their daughter is missing from her crib. Detective Rasbach is all-inclusive in his search, aiming suspicion at everyone from the missing babysitter, to the Contis’ neighbors, to the parents themselves. Everyone has a secret to hide, but which of them is responsible for the baby’s kidnapping? As Anne and Marco crack under the strain of being questioned about the disappearance of their child, their relationship falters and hidden details of their pasts begin to leak out. But everyone of suspicion seems to be accounted for–so where’s the baby?

I loved this story, but mildly hated its presentation. Here are a few reasons why:

The detective’s close presence in this story opens up the novel for difficult speculation early on. Almost as soon as the police arrive, Detective Rasbach is insinuating that the baby’s parents may be the guilty parties. He suggests that the baby may already be dead. His probing questions and his doubts about everyone’s morality instantly raise the tension of the novel. However, he feels like a literary device planted in the book specifically for this purpose. Detective Rashbach is a very stereotypical sort: very little personality appears other than predictable traits like that nothing surprises him, and he seeks the truth beyond all else. In fact, he was so thorough that there was almost no need to think while reading this book at all–every possibility was spelled out explicitly, thecouplenextdoorand often more than once. Rasbach wasn’t the only character speculating, but he was the only one who felt superfluous. Of course, any good crime novel needs a detective, but I wish this book had found a way to use the other main characters to increase suspense without stating everything so obviously–by eliminating access to Rasbach’s thoughts, the reader would be much more involved in finding the answers to this mystery, and more engaged in the book overall. Being able to see the detective’s actions without being force-fed all of his reasoning would allow for more showing, less telling. Here’s a sample of Rasbach regurgitating information the reader has already been given:

“Detective Rasbach observes the couple closely. A baby is missing. Taken from her crib–if the parents, Marco and Anne Conti, are to be believed–between approximately 12:30 a.m. and 1:27 a.m., by a person or persons unknown, while the parents were at a party next door. The front door had been found partly open. The back door might have been left unlocked by the father–it had in fact been found closed but unlocked when the police arrived. There is no denying the stress of the mother. And of the father, who looks badly shaken. But the whole situation doesn’t feel right. Rasbach wonders what is really going on.”

Another aspect that bothered me about this book was its third person narration. Statements like “Rasbach wonders what is really going on” seem obvious and almost insulting. This also ties in to my call for more showing than telling, but it goes beyond that. The narrator clearly has more knowledge of the situation than any of the characters do, and seems to be toying with the reader like a cat with a mouse: dangling snippets of revealing information in front of him/her that have been denied to the reader earlier for no apparent purpose. I think this book would’ve had a lot more potential if the reader had been able to see directly through each character’s eyes with an alternating first person perspective. To be able to see selective thoughts of all the suspects and still wonder who is guilty and what has become of the baby would give this novel real power.

But don’t let my complaints about the book’s narration steer you awry: I loved The Couple Next Door‘s plot. I like to know as little as possible about thrillers going in, and in this case I knew so little that I hadn’t even expected the kidnapping, which is essentially the main focus of the book. I was expecting a murder, like most psychological thrillers seem to feature, but a kidnapping made this story so much more exciting. And then there were all the characters, all with secrets, but mostly normal ones. Every character seemed absolutely ordinary, sometimes even more ordinary because of their secrets–everyone’s got something they like to hide from the world–but if everyone was so ordinary, where was the baby?

The most interesting part of the book, though, is the real danger that persists for a few of the characters–especially the baby–after all the secrets are out and still the baby is not returned. When the likely kidnapper is revealed, twisted motives and all, and all the only thing that remains to be discovered is the baby’s hiding place, the real tension of the novel begins, and it is glorious. Some are worried about the baby, some are worried about taking the fall and landing in jail, some are not worried enough about landing in jail, but throughout it all the action speeds up rather than slowing down.

“Crime has not worked for him, and yet he seems to be digging himself in deeper and deeper.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was highly anticipating this novel. I thought it would be the next In a Dark, Dark Wood or All the Missing Girls, and maybe that’s why I disliked it. I set my sights high too early. I did end up enthralled by the plot in the last fifty pages or so, when there was more acting and less speculating, but it wasn’t enough to overcome my dislike for the slow and obviously pointed narration for the rest of the book. Don’t get me wrong–this is not a bad book. In fact, it may even be a great book. It’s just not the book for me. Before The Couple Next Door, I read Pierce Brown’s Golden Son, which is a book for intelligent readers. You have to pay attention and think hard about the details to keep up with the possibilities and plot twists. Going from that to a novel in which every angle is presented in excruciating detail multiple times and from multiple perspectives was difficult to take. I felt a bit like my intelligence as a reader, my ability to connect the dots, was assumed by Lapena to be completely absent. I don’t think the story would’ve worked without any direction from the narration, but there is an overabundance of it as it currently stands.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware is a psychological thriller in which a woman who believes she’s heard a murder is trapped on a small upscale boat with guests and crew who deny that the possibly murdered woman ever existed. As the protagonist’s anxiety increases, so will the reader’s. You can find my full review here.
  2. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn would be another great choice for October if you’re looking for a psychological thriller that’s more scary. In this one, like in The Couple Next Door, the suspects are also closer to home than the reader might expect.

Coming Up Next: I’m trying another psychological thriller to keep me in the Halloween spirit, this time Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Crammed full of philosophical thoughts and inexplicable coincidence, this short thriller certainly keeps readers on high alert. Check back soon for my full review.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Golden Son

Sequels never quite live up to expectations. Until now, that is. Golden Son, the phenomenal second book in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy (you can find my review of the first book here), is one of the only sequels I’ve enjoyed even more than the first book in its series.

About the book: Darrow, a lowly Red turned Gold, has learned valuable lessons and gained formidable enemies at both the Institute and Academy, elite schools for Golds. He’s having difficulty staying in contact with the Sons of Ares, and when left to his own devices he forms a web of tenuous allegiances with all sorts of characters, many of whom dislike each other. Darrow juggles friends, schemes, and trust as he continues to battle for a spot of power at the top of the pyramid, where he will be of use to Ares. His connection with house Augustus has its ups and downs–working his way into the ArchGovernor’s good graces would be an immense help to Ares, but it seems the Sovereign may have plans of her own for the family that may derail Darrow’s efforts. The Golds, the marvelous Golds, aren’t getting along. Discord may be what Darrow desires, but can he avoid being crushed between them in a civil war?

goldenson

What sets it apart: Red Rising was incredible. In it, however, was one main challenge that persisted throughout the book: Darrow’s need to win the survival game at the Institute. There were other problems and plot twist that cropped up along the way, but those were nothing compared to the maze of intricate plot maneuvers through Golden Son. Darrow’s main problem has grown: lots of people want him dead now, and they’re coming from all directions. There is no safe place, no one he can trust, and yet he can’t win a fight on this scale without help. The contained conflict in the Institute was merely a taste of the horrible fight in the real world where he travels from ships and moons to whole planets that seem pitted against Darrow. The scale has been magnified a hundredfold.

Also, I love Darrow’s evolving view of Eo in this book. The fact that his first great love is dead prevents this story from developing into the usual sort of love story that evolves from a small group of people trying to save the world. But Brown makes a great literary move when he also refuses to let Eo become solely a symbol. Darrow admits that he was young when he fell in love with her. He notes other characters who disliked her. He sees that he doesn’t agree with her in every matter. Somehow, despite these revelations, he can’t let her go, and may even love her more as time passes despite her unrelenting absence. Eo is far from the most interesting character in these books, yet it is her presence and personality that make the entire story possible.

“How could so frail a girl have such a spirit, such a dream as freedom, when so many strong souls toiled and kept their heads down for fear of looking up?”

Worst aspect: I don’t like the instances when Darrow has a plan in the works and the reader isn’t allowed to know anything about it until he’s executing it. It feels like an easy way out for the narration to double back like that, to suddenly inform the reader that Darrow had done something to prepare for the seemingly hopeless circumstances that have befallen him, all without showing his hand to the reader. This technique allows the narration to stay true to the alternating uses of tension and surprise that come fast and heavy throughout the book, but tripping up the system every now and then might be worth allowing the reader at least a little foreshadowing and a chance to see at least the outline of the puzzle. One of Darrow’s friends claims that trying to figure him out is like trying to assemble a puzzle with missing pieces, and the book as a whole certainly feels that way at times.

Best aspect: This book is entirely unpredictable. There were a few plot twists I suspected, but somehow their execution still managed to shock me. Everything in this book is action and reaction and reaction, etc. so that even when one action is expected, it spirals out into something the reader could never have imagined. Maybe you guessed Eo’s secret or Ares’ identity in the first book–but even after the correct answer is revealed in Golden Son, just wait till you see what happens next, how it all fits together, what it means. Darrow is an astute judge of human character, always thinking and planning and counteracting others’ moves; something unsurprising may happen occasionally, but in response Darrow does nothing that fails to surprise. His very presence creates a whirlwind of events. There is no knowing what’s on the next page, and Darrow never disappoints.

“You are like one of the Old Conquerors. Charismatic and virtuous. When they look at you, they see none of the soft decadence of our meager time, none of the political poison that has saturated Luna…They will look at you and see a cleansing knife, a new day for a Second Golden Age.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book. I immediately wanted to pick up Morning Star, the final volume in the trilogy, but by the time I’d reached the end of Golden Son I couldn’t do anything but put down the book and try vainly to catch my breath. The final chapter is deceptive–leading the reader to believe that the story is winding down, that no matter how difficult the road ahead may still be, Darrow has achieved a step forward on his path to radical change. I was lulled into this impression of safety, and then all hell broke loose again. THAT CLIFFHANGER, THOUGH. The end of this book made me infinitely glad I did not try to start reading this series before all three books had been released. I can manage to pause and finish a couple of library books, secure in the knowledge that Morning Star, the final book in the trilogy, is waiting patiently on my shelf. I would not have been able to endure months of waiting for the next installment to be published. Even though I like the other books I’m reading in the meantime, the few days’ wait before I delve into Morning Star will be torturous.

Further recommendations:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is another excellent dystopian novel with plot twists that will leave you reeling. This one features a town that prospers by keeping half of its supposedly innocent population behind bars for six months, then switching the citizens out for the rest of the year to imprison the remaining half. This creates jobs that the economy can no longer provide, but it also opens up new avenues of corruption that will prove dangerous for our main characters.
  2. Caroline Kepnes’ You has virtually nothing in common with the Red Rising trilogy except for a deadly young male protagonist and a sequel just as magnificent as its opening volume. Joe Goldberg is just as fitting a stalker as Darrow is a revolutionary–that is to say that sometimes his plans go awry but he’s excellent at thinking on his feet and overcoming the impossible. You can read my complete review of this book here.

What’s next: Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door is a thriller about a young couple whose six month old daughter goes missing while the parents are next door at a dinner party. The problem is that only the four at the dinner should’ve known the baby would be alone, but they’re all accounted for. I’ll be posting a full review shortly, in case you need any further convincing.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now find my complete review of the next (and final) book in this series, Morning Star, here!