Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: The Bane Chronicles

I wanted to read all of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books this year, and at first I was unsure about whether that would include the two volumes of short stories, but clearly I’ve decided not to leave anything out. I just finished reading the first of the short story books, the collaborative The Bane Chronicles by thebanechroniclesCassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Maureen Johnson.

About the book: Near the end of City of Heavenly Fire, Magnus Bane gives Alec a little book full of some of the most important adventures of his life. Although The Bane Chronicles is written in the third person, I assume that this is the sort of volume that Alec received. The book contains eleven short stories, all around 50 pages, that take place at various points in Magnus’ long, warlock life.

Here’s a look at the stories –>

“What Really Happened in Peru” : 2 stars. There seems to be little point to this story. It’s a wandering tale that spans centuries, and the explanation at the end of the story does not answer the question that the narration set out to answer in the beginning. Some interesting things happen, and yes, it all takes place in Peru, but otherwise there is no coherence here, and Magnus does not even seem like the familiar Magnus Bane from the novels proper. It’s a weak start for this book.

“The Runaway Queen” : 4 stars. This one does take a more traditional story form, with mounting tension and a clear beginning and end. It starts a little slow, but the rest grabs the reader’s attention in true Cassandra Clare style. Magnus seems like his usual self again and the story feels like one of those crazy Shadowhunter and co. schemes that goes nothing like planned but is entertaining along the way.

” ‘Someday,’ Magnus said, looking at the crumpled royal person at his feet, ‘I must write my memoirs.’ “

“Vampires, Scones, and Edmund Herondale” : 3 stars. I found this one much more interesting than the previous two because it is directly connected to some of the main characters from The Infernal Devices. The backstory in that regard kept me engaged in reading this story, even though again, it was a wandering sort of story more fit to be a chapter in a novel than a complete story within itself. Short stories are supposed to stand alone, even if they connect to other stories, and this one does not.

“Magnus had been alive hundreds of years himself, and yet the simplest things could turn a day into a jewel, and a succession of days into a glittering chain that went on and on. Here was the simplest thing: a pretty girl liked him, and the day shone.”

“One can give up many things for love, but one should not give up oneself.”

“The Midnight Heir” : 3 stars. This one is addictively mysterious, ties even more directly back to The Infernal Devices, and feels just like a chapter from Cassandra Clare’s books. That was the problem with this one, though– it felt like a chapter, not a short story. If you’re not familiar with The Infernal Devices characters and plot, this story will make little sense, and seems to serve more as a glimpse back into that world than as a crucial event in Magnus’ life. Also, I was a little disappointed that the strength of a Tessa/Will/Jem reunion would take attention away from the struggling child in this story– it’s nice to see them again, but… priorities.

“The Rise of the Hotel Dumort” : 3 stars. The strengths of this story are its mystery and impending sense of doom. It’s weakness is that it features two disasters that should probably be linked in some way, but do not seem to be. If there is some connection, readers are left entirely to their own devices in making it. The setting is compelling, and both disasters kept me engaged in the story, but the end was not much of an ending. I believe some information about the vampires’ possible involvement might have tied it all together, but alas, that info was sadly missing.

“Saving Raphael Santiago” : 3 stars. This one starts strong. It opens with a mystery, and with a connection to The Mortal Instruments. It has strong, evocative and emotional prose in places, and the end is satisfying. But the mystery is concluded in the first half of the story, which kills most of the tension. I think this story would’ve benefited from a shorter page count.

“Love did not overcome everything. Love did not always endure. All you had could be taken away, love could be the last thing you had, and then love could be taken too.”

“The Fall of the Hotel Dumort” : 2 stars. Again, we have a mystery of sorts concluded too early, though the drop-off of tension was better managed. Unfortunately, the big details of the story are already clear from The Mortal Instruments– I knew what ailed the vampires because I remembered a comment Magnus made about it in TMI. And one has only to look at the date of this story and of TMI to know what does (or doesn’t) happen to Camille. The worst part though, for me, was the dreary descriptions throughout the story. Much like the underlying sense of gray and rain and confusion in the beginning of Clockwork Angel, the relentless heat and sickness and griminess pervading this story gives an unpleasant atmosphere to the whole story. I wanted to like this one, but all I got from it was a headache.

“What to Buy the Shadowhunter Who Has Everything (And Who You’re Not Officially Dating Anyway)” : 2 stars. I was happy to see some of my Mortal Instruments faves again, but sadly, this story felt more like a forced reunion with them than an actual story. Why couldn’t they have been doing something fun? Seeing Malec from Magnus’ perspective just makes them seem more perfect for each other though, so that’s a plus.

“The best one could hope for from Shadowhunters, if you were a Downworlder, was to be left alone.”

“Even the Shadowhunters Magnus had met and liked had been, every one, a trouble sundae with dark secret cherries on top.”

“The Last Stand of the New York Institute” : 4 stars. This was a step back in time from the last story, but I had been waiting for exactly this story to appear so I didn’t mind the jumble in chronology. The setting is great– the attention to timely matters, particularly– and the characters are portrayed loyally from details provided in The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices. This is the first story in the book that has a strong story arc without relying on dramatic mystery, and there are some great one-liners and avenues for thought about prejudice and equality. The title of the story is a bit misleading, but this is a strong piece of the collection.

“It was one of the few things he had to believe in, the possibility of beauty when faced with the reality of so much ugliness.”

“The Course of True Love (And First Dates)” : 5 stars. Yes. Just yes. A little predictable, especially since the timeline here is in the midst of The Mortal Instruments, but this story is wacky and sweet and as much unexpected fun as City of Bones.

“The Voicemail of Magnus Bane” : 3 stars. Although admittedly humorous, this one does not read like a story at all, which disappointed me. I love when a cool format tells a good story. But there was no plot here, and nothing unexpected after having read The Mortal Instruments. I was hoping to be surprised, but perhaps the only point of redemption for this “story” was the moment Raphael had to call Simon a babelicious rock god.

My overall reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. My average rating was actually 3.1. I want to mention (miscellaneously) that the illustrations at the start of each story were one of my favorite things about this book, but also that I was sad not to see more Mortal Instruments characters make an appearance. It’s fascinating to see a closer perspective from someone outside the main Shadowhunter thoroughfare, and Magnus has proved a great candidate for that– he’s a genuinely kind person, who sees beauty in almost everything, whether it’s a man, a woman, or an elegant piece of clothing. He gives readers a whole new look at Shadowhunters that is multi-faceted and not always flattering. It provides readers a rounder view of the Shadowhunter world by leading them into Downworld, and eventually combining the two very different ways of life. I am glad I gave this one a chance, but I don’t think I’ll ever be rereading it, even if I want to revisit other Shadowhunter books in the future. I will be reading Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, from the same authors, in the near future.

What’s Next: I’m currently reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is September’s classic of the month for me, and which I won’t review until my Sept. wrap-up. My next full review should feature Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice that I’m planning to pick up immediately after finishing with Austen’s classic. But I’m also extremely tempted to pick up one of my Book of the Month choices for September alongside my Pride and Prejudice quest, so don’t be surprised to see an extra review of undetermined title sneak in before Eligible. 😉

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Because You Love to Hate Me

Because You Love to Hate Me is a set of 13 short stories about villainy– the reasons for it, the blurred line between it and heroism, the benefits of it, and so much more. Each story explores a bit of unexpected villainy, leaving the reader to wonder who is truly evil and whether it’s good to be bad. Ameriie, the editor of the collectionbecauseyoulovetohateme, opens the book with an introduction about the appeal of villains, especially in YA literature. From there, the collection shifts between the thirteen short stories from current, popular YA authors, and the thirteen prompts and responses from the Booktubers who collaborated with the collection. The response essays take many different forms, either reacting directly to the story they follow, or addressing a broader topic of villainy. Altogether, it’s a thought-provoking book about human nature, and the gray area in our moral codes. And now for a closer look at the stories:

“The Blood of Imuriv” by Renée Ahdieh. 2 stars. The stories are arranged in alphabetical order by author’s last name, which seems fair, but this is a weak story for the book to open with. There’s backstory, speculation, contemplation… but not much action. There seem to be no stakes whatsoever until the very end, and when I did reach the climactic moment, I still wasn’t sure who I was supposed to sympathize with: the killer or the victim. Neither seemed truly “villainous.” The response essay for this one also disappointed me, although I might have liked it more if it hadn’t been the first one in the book. It doesn’t address its story at all, and tries too hard to be funny/whimsical. Further Reading Status: I am still planning to try Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn, but this story didn’t encourage me to pick it up immediately.

“Jack” by Ameriie. 3 stars. This one has a good plot twist toward the end, but again, it’s slow and low-stakes through much of the story. The writing style is so informal, and I kept thinking this author would have been better suited to telling a story aloud than writing one down. I didn’t understand Jack’s motives for repeatedly climbing the beanstalk, or the giant’s fear of looking below the clouds, though good use is eventually made of both details. I enjoyed the ending, but not much else. The essay also seemed informally conversational, but this conversation was more my style, and I liked the way it used the story to talk about villainy in literature, but also about villainy in the real world. FRS: I would read more from Ameriie only if it came in another book like this in the future.

“Gwen and Art and Lance” by Soman Chainani. 5 stars. This story is written entirely in digital messages passed between the main characters, which grabs and holds the reader’s attention. Chainani uses this medium to subtly display his characters’ personalities, fitting the format and the plot together perfectly. Additionally, he uses a great blend of the traditional and modern King Arthur details; there’s enough history to feel familiar and enough modernity to feel fun and unpredictable. The essay also uses an unusual format to good effect. FRS: I’ve seen so many great reviews about Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil, but I don’t read middle grade books anymore. Nevertheless, I was impressed enough with this story that I’m adding it to my TBR.

“Shirley and Jim” by Susan Dennard. 4 stars. I wouldn’t say this story is atmospheric, but it’s definitely eerie. The characters come across as so mysterious and creepy, holding the reader’s attention even while nothing much seems to be happening (again). The format is a letter to the main character’s best friend, which gives just enough foreshadowing to the story to keep readers engaged before anything villainous goes down. The essay is formatted as emails exchanged between real and unreal persons, which was cool in concept, but felt a bit forced and also as though it were trying to be a story itself rather than a response essay. FRS: undetermined. I’m intrigued about Dennard’s writing now. I might try the first book in the Truthwitch series from the library and just decide from there.

The Blessing of Little Wants” by Sarah Enni. 3 stars. This story is wonderfully mysterious, but the big secret is too obvious. Luckily, there’s a little more to the ending than the reveal alone. The last sentence leaves so much ambiguity; I like an ending that’s really a beginning, but I wanted to have a better sense of what this beginning was going to mean for this character and her world. There’s so much left open. But I especially enjoyed the essay for this one: it explores the blurred line between good and evil. It’s intelligently done and engaging. FRS: I don’t know if Enni has written under a pseudonym, but I couldn’t find anything else written in her name.

“The Sea Witch” by Marissa Meyer. 4 stars. This one surprised me by being the best Meyer story I’ve read to date. It’s atmospheric and odd, but also well-characterized with that human connection that makes the whole story feel strangely personal. I really wish stories of powerful women had less to do with sadness over certain men not loving them, but this is a story of strength rather than woe, for which I was grateful. I wish some of the secondary characters had been a bit clearer, though; for instance, what makes Lorindel lovable in the first place? The accompanying essay is one of my favorites in the book, fun and also provocative. FRS: The only Meyer books I haven’t read already are Stars Above and Heartless, neither of which I plan to read, although I might read something new from Meyer someday.

“Beautiful Venom” by Cindy Pon. 2 stars. This story brings modern-day rape and victimization issues to the forefront, which in theory is good, but I disliked almost everything else about this story. The main character has so little agency, and 2 of 3 times won’t speak up for herself. She wants neither of the two life paths presented to her, which leaves the reader feeling adrift and confused: what or who are we supposed to be rooting for, when it feels like there are no viable options? I was left wondering whether I should be hoping for the main character to live or die at the end. The essay leans more on the morals of the story than the way the story is presented, which was a good way to play up “Beautiful Venom”‘s single strength–its subject matter. FRS: I won’t be reading more from this author.

“Death Knell” by Victoria Schwab. 5 stars. This is the sort of story I expected from this collection– it’s mysterious, it’s fun, it’s creepy, and it makes you contemplate who the real villain is (in a good way). There’s always something gripping about Death personified, which only adds to the beautiful writing and adept plotting here. I loved every sentence. The essay is formatted as a letter to death, which was one of the most interesting story responses in this book, even if some of the comments in it were less original than others. FRS: I cannot wait to read more Victoria Schwab writing. I’m starting with Vicious (soon, hopefully), and I’m more excited than ever to start.

“Marigold” by Samantha Shannon. 4 stars. I like not knowing who to trust, which becomes a real factor as sanity starts unfolding toward the end of this one. The world-building is great, the backstory is great, the characters are distinct, weird, and surprisingly surprising. I wish I had learned more about Isaac though– who his family is and why his reputation is so important. And why is George so shady? He’s inexplicably knowledgeable in some areas, and his giant ego covers any gaps in his intelligence. But why doesn’t he seem to understand humans? The essay for this one is thought-provoking, and does a great job tying old folklore lessons to this story, and also to modern life. FRS: I am planning to read The Bone Season, and probably further.

“You, You, It’s All About You” by Adam Silvera. 4 stars. Here’s a story that’s creepy and puzzling in the best way, though also unexpectedly violent. The mind manipulation concept is fascinating, and works perfectly with the second-person narration. The last sentence left me rethinking everything, and the essay afterward opens up even more possibilities about what’s really going on. The essay is fun and psychological, and adds extra layers to the story’s potential. FRS: I’ve been vaguely planning to pick up More Happy Than Not at some point, and this story reinforced that desire.

“Julian Breaks Every Rule” by Andrew Smith. 3 stars. This story uses first-person narration, but also directly addresses the reader to bend the line between narrator and audience. This is a story that’s aware of its existence as a story, and gives very NONSUBTLE (and annoying) hints about its foreshadowing. The concept kept me invested, but once I’d reached the end I realized none of the middle action had anything to do with Julian’s decision at the end of the story. All of the information that’s provided to the reader through Julian’s accidental rule-breaking spree is already available to Julian at the beginning, which left me confused about how he reached point B from point A. The essay saved it for me though; it leaves the reader questioning Julian, in a good way. FRS: I’m on the fence. None of Smith’s books really call to me, but I do like some things about his writing style.

“Indigo and Shade” by April Genevieve Tucholke. 4 stars. I found the secret identity of one of the characters in this story much too obvious, but the writing itself and the sense of impending change kept me going. This one is a twist of the Beauty and the Beast tale, which is recognizable from practically the first sentence, but will still surprise readers with its ending. This story feels like magical realism rather than fantasy, but it works. The essay following it is compellingly passionate, and harks back to that intriguing blurred line between hero and villain. FRS: I’ve read Wink Poppy Midnight, and thought I was done with Tucholke, but now I’m thinking I should pick up Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea because apparently sometimes I really like Tucholke’s writing.

“Sera” by Nicola Yoon. 5 stars. While the opening story and essay didn’t feel like the best beginning to me, this one made a great ending. The format switches between present day and one character’s life from birth to present, giving a few different perspectives and calling attention to the problematic nature of villainy along the way. Some villains do not choose evil, but have evil thrust upon them. And maybe they’re better for it. This story is wonderfully creepy but makes realistic points about the moral gray area. The accompanying essay is a sort of (humorous) villainous pep talk that encourages readers to embrace the things that make them different, and it’s another strong ending. FRS: I’ve already read both of Yoon’s published books, but I will definitely keep an eye out for her future releases.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars overall. My average rating was actually 3.7. Though I didn’t like all the stories in this collection, and my favorites were almost exactly which ones I expected them to be, I think this book was a great idea, and I had fun sampling the different authors’ stories even when I didn’t think I wanted to read any more of their works. Reading this book was helpful in fine-tuning my TBR, and I would definitely read more like this in the future.

If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me! I’m pretty sure this is my longest review to date, but it’s worth the discussion. I had some great quotes marked from this book, but I’ll add them to my monthly wrap-up instead of lengthening this post further.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds, an adult “speculative Western thriller” that I chose from Book of the Month. A gunshot murder occurs in a closed environment where no one is supposed to possess firearms, which already has me intrigued.

Who’s your favorite villain?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: City of Heavenly Fire

Drum roll, please… because I’ve finished the Mortal Instruments series! I didn’t really expect my Shadowhunter marathon to take me this long when I started rereading City of Bones in January, but I’ve now read nine of Cassandra Clare’s books, and finished both the Infernal Devices trilogy and the Mortal Instruments series, both of which I had started previously and failed to complete. And now the end is here! Sort of. There are a few more Clare books left on my list, but reading City of Heavenly Fire was a big milestone. And it’s a big book, so it’s doubly pleasing to have finished.

About the book: Sebastian/Jonathancityofheavenlyfire wants to rule the world (what’s new?). He couldn’t reach heaven, so he’s raising hell. He’s gathering allies and creating Endarkened forces to battle the Shadowhunters and anyone else who gets in his way. As usual, the Clave is being less than helpful and the real work falls to Clary and co. The problem is that Sebastian wants Clary and Jace beside him, and if it would save the world to hand them over, the Clave might consider making a trade. So when a clue falls into their hands about where Sebastian is hiding, Clary, Jace, Simon, and the Lightwoods set out on their own to end things once and for all– literally, because even if they win, there’s a chance they won’t be returning from this particular trip. With more at stake than ever before, it’s vital that Clary can harness her Rune-creating power, and that Jace can master the Heavenly Fire still raging through his veins; they’re going to need every advantage they can find to prevent total world domination.

” ‘Heroes aren’t always the ones who win,’ she said. ‘They’re the ones who lose, sometimes. But they keep fighting, they keep coming back. They don’t give up. That’s what makes them heroes.’ “

This is a long book. It’s massive. It gives all the same perspectives the reader expects after reading the first five books in this series, plus a few new characters. And yet, despite it’s size, City of Heavenly Fire is not slow and bogged down with detail as I feared. There are a few repetitive conversations, but for the most part all the information feels new and vital to the story. Unlike some of Clare’s other long books, I don’t think this one would benefit from any shortening.

“I think sometimes we are reckless with our hearts the way we are with our lives. When we give them away, we give every piece. And if we do not get what we so desperately needed, how do we live?”

The characters feel older in this final volume. So little time has actually passed– six months, I think– but all of these characters feel so much more mature than where this series started out. They’re still teenagers, and a few of the newer characters to the series are even younger, but Clary, Jace, Simon, Isabelle and Alec… they’re familiar at this point, and the reader knows they can fight and strategize and persevere. The going may be tough, but now they have experience. Their friendship is stable and reliable. The reader is expected to know what they’ve been through together, because the narration isn’t dropping those constant, lengthy, annoying recaps that series sometimes use. The characters have come to feel like family, for better or worse.

“There are things we want, down under what we know, under even what we feel. There are things our souls want, and mine wants you.”

One of the best things about Clare’s books are the overlapping details. Between the (last half of the) Mortal Instruments and the (entire) Infernal Devices, there are small clues to a bigger picture, and together the two time frames begin to construct a history, an entire world that extends beyond a single book, or in this case even a single series, and that makes Clare’s entire fictional universe so much bigger. I read Clare’s first nine books in publication order, and I think that’s a great way to go, but it seems like the distribution of detail would be interesting to read in other arrangements as well. If I do another big reread marathon someday, I’ll want to pick up these books in a different order, and I think the detail and the morals will be just as rich.

“Because the world isn’t divided into the special and the ordinary. As long as you have a soul and free will, you can be anything, do anything, choose anything.”

A downside, though, is that I think for these first two Shadowhunter series at least, the reader must read all nine novels to learn the entire story. There are little pieces that just don’t entirely make sense otherwise. For example, Clary meets Tessa in City of Heavenly Fire, and if the reader doesn’t understand who Tessa is, or how her friends connect to Clary’s, Tessa seems entirely inconsequential to the book. Nothing important happens in their meeting beyond the fact that they’re meeting, which is something that readers won’t care about without reading the Infernal Devices trilogy in conjunction with the Mortal Instruments. This is only one example; there are so many little comments and details that tie the two series together, so I highly recommend reading both sets together.

“So much magic, Clary though, and nothing to mend a broken heart.”

A little compare and contrast: I rated the Mortal Instruments books and the Infernal Devices books very similarly, but now that I’ve completed them both, I must say that I enjoyed the Mortal Instruments books a lot more. The plot is more action-packed, each character feels important to the story, the wrap-up is emotional but it’s still focused primarily on the events of the series. I found the Mortal Instruments less overly-dramatic, and also funnier.

“I was going to kill someone today. I just wasn’t sure who when I woke up this morning. I do love mornings. So full of possibilities.”

The biggest disappointment for me– in all of Clare’s books that I’ve read so far– is the Clave. The individual members that the reader sees seem so human and comprehensible, but somehow when all the big decisions get made, the Clave seems to repeatedly (and obviously) choose incorrectly. I kept thinking this series would end with some equality between all the different species we see coming together in these books, or at least with a repairing of a clearly defunct government system that might one day lead to equality. I can understand that Clare wants to end her books with room for future strife, but how long is it really going to take the Shadowhunters to realize that they’ll save a lot of lives and make a lot fewer enemies if they’ll try something different? I’m still hoping that a better balance of power will be reached in later books, although I’m not sure how many more hundreds of pages I’ll be willing to read to find out.

“Have you ever felt that your heart contained so much that it must surely break apart?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been one of my favorite Cassandra Clare reads to date. Definitely in the top 3, though I don’t have an official listing of the order of my favorites and dislikes. I’m planning to move on to The Bane Chronicles soon, which was Clare’s next publication after the end of the Mortal Instruments series. It’s a short story collection with other contributing authors, so I’m a little wary, but I’m a lot more intrigued about it after City of Heavenly Fire than I ever have been before.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading the collaborative new release Because You Love to Hate Me, a short story collection about villains collected from a dozen or so popular YA authors. Big name bloggers and booktubers also contributed to this one, but I’m primarily reading it as a sampling of authors, to help me decide which writers I might want to see more from, and which ones I’ll want to skip. Also, it’s all about villains, which is fun to experience.

Who’s your favorite YA fantasy author?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Hobbit

I cannot even count the number of people who have recommended this book to me over the years, or even the exact number of years I’ve been putting it off. But here is The Hobbit, my 77th book of 2017 (my goal was 73, so that was a happy realization), and my first foray into Tolkien’s oeuvre.

About the book: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. thehobbitHe lives a happy hobbit life in his hobbit-hole home under a pleasant hill. Hobbits are not usually adventurous, but when Bilbo finds himself hosting thirteen dwarfs and a wizard for tea one day, he learns of an adventure just beginning and finds himself swept along in it. The adventure is a quest– the dwarfs want to travel back to their old homeland, overthrow the dragon that has taken residence there, and thus reclaim their palace and treasure. They are each to be rewarded for their trouble with gold and silver and precious gemstones when the treasure is recovered. That is, if they can survive the harsh landscape and dangerous magical creatures they encounter along the way.

“…and they all felt that the adventure was far more dangerous than they had thought, while all the time, even if they passed all the perils of the road, the dragon was waiting at the end.”

Here we have an adventure story, arguably the quintessential adventure story, although Treasure Island could also make a good case for that title. As with many adventure tales, this book is largely episodic in nature, meaning a lot of small plots are strung together consecutively in one long linked chain. Knowing the gist of the quest from the beginning of the story helps combat the chaos of the journey, as does the narrator’s foreshadowing in places where the story seems prone to wandering (episodic tales are generally full of chaos and wanderings, and lack the typical rise and fall of tension that begins with a single problem, is faced with obstacles, finds its climax in some sort of confrontation and then resolves, whether for better or worse. In episodic tales, the tension rises and falls repeatedly through multiple climactic moments and resolutions). The Hobbit uses a mix of both main plot types by laying the episodic adventure over a traditional plot arc with gradually mounting tension.

“Now is the time for our esteemed Mr. Baggins, who has proved himself a good companion on our long road, and a hobbit full of courage and resource far exceeding his size, and if I may say so possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance– now is the time for him to perform the service for which he was included in our Company; now it the time for him to earn his Reward.”

The best aspect of The Hobbit, as I saw it, was the narration itself. The tale is told from some third-person perspective that knows future and past, can see various characters’ thoughts and motivations, addresses the reader directly, and acts as a general all-knowing guide to Middle-earth. There is a time in the book when Bilbo Baggins is said to be writing a memoir, and I find myself attracted to the idea that Baggins himself is the narrator of this tale, relying on accumulated knowledge of magical creatures and the parts of the story that must have been told to him in order to present himself as a nearly omniscient narrator.

“I may be a burglar– or so they say: personally I never really felt like one– but I am an honest one, I hope, more or less.”

I was also fascinated by Gandolf. He seems to be a fallible creature, and yet he’s always in the right place at the right time, or in the wrong place at the right time so that things work out in a certain favorable way that they wouldn’t have been able to if he were present. He speaks of prophecy to Baggins, and though not much is discussed about it, I like to believe that he was so sure of Biblo’s skill and luck and general agreeableness due to some unmentioned prophecy. There is no other explanation given for his insistence on Bilbo Baggins accompanying the dwarfs on their journey, and for his surety that the hobbit is just the “burglar” they need. I would’ve loved to learn more about him, and I hope he makes a reapparance in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (I really don’t know anything about it, please don’t spoil me).

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

The songs woven throughout the story are also highly entertaining, especially when the reader tries to put a tune to them while reading. 🙂

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I really haven’t been in the mood for episodic stories lately, but there was just enough of a traditional plot arc to get me through this one. The quest is mapped out early, so I had no difficulty reading through all the small mishaps along the way to the Lonely Mountain, knowing that there would a battle for the treasure at the end of the tale that would give the journey purpose. I highly enjoyed Tolkien’s narrative style, and am definitely planning to continue with The Fellowship of the Ring, though I think I’ll wait until I’ve finished the Song of Ice and Fire series first to keep my fantasy details straight. I found a lot of little details in The Hobbit that reminded me of details from Martin’s series, and I wasn’t surprised– I would be more surprised if you could point me to a fantasy writer who wasn’t in some way inspired by Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Chronicles of Narnia is a phenomenal adventure saga for readers young and old alike who area after fantastic journeys and magical creatures. The Magician King, by C. S. Lewis, is the first Narnia book (in chronological order, which I recommend), and it’s both easily readable and utterly engrossing.
  2. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust would be a great choice of fantasy for adult readers who are looking for something short and sweet and very reminiscent of The Hobbit. This one follows a boy who travels beyond the village of Wall to retrieve a fallen star for the girl he thinks he loves, and finds a whole world of adventure.
  3. I you’re not afraid of a long book, pick up George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. I know the size of the novels in his Song of Ice and Fire series are intimidating, but they are worth the time. There are some similar elements of world-building between Martin and Tolkien, although A Game of Thrones is much more political and character-driven.
  4. For more adventure stories without all the fantasy elements, try Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the story of a teenage boy setting off with pirates in search of hidden gold. There’s no magic in this one, but if you like the constant misadventures of The Hobbit and don’t mind learning some nautical terms, you’ll enjoy this one just as much.

Coming up Next: I’ve just picked up Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire, the final book in the Mortal Instruments series. It’s immensely long and I won’t be finishing it by the end of the month (which is only a few hours away), but I’m eager to see how it all ends for Clace and Simon and the Lightwoods et al, so I’m predicting that it won’t take me long to finish this one.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Clash of Kings

I can’t believe it’s finally happening. Four years after starting George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, I’m finally continuing. I’ve read A Game of Thrones twice now, but this was my first time through book two, A Clash of Kings. No spoilers ahead.

“If half an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”

About the Book: There’s a new king onaclashofkings the Iron Throne, but he’s a cruel boy. There’s also a new King in the North, a usurping king coming up from the South, one coming in from the sea, one with no real claim at all beyond a grudge at his last smothered attempt of rebellion, and one who is not a king at all, but a queen, a khaleesi, a young girl in the East fighting to win back her birthright with what little (but growing) power remains to her. With six claimants to parts or all of the Seven Kingdoms, treasons and turncoats abound. No one can be trusted, and yet no one can win the war without trusting outside help. While the major players in the Seven Kingdoms are watching their backs for enemies disguised as friends, no one’s watching the mounting trouble on the Wall. The Night’s Watch has ventured out to face the king-beyond-the-Wall, but a rebellious wildling army breaking through the Wall’s defenses isn’t their only concern– the old magics are coming back, waking from a long slumber to threaten the realm anew. And the worst of it is that no one below the wall believes in the danger; they’re so busy deciding who will rule the realm that they aren’t defending the realm against the wildling invadors– and worse.

“Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”

“It is all a game to them still, a tourney writ large, and all they see is the chance for glory and honor and spoils. They are boys drunk on songs and story, and like all boys, they think themselves immortal.”

In A Clash of Kings, we see familiar characters back again (the ones who survived), as well as a closer look at a few we only glimpsed in A Game of Thrones, but we also have some all-new characters, too. There are two new regular POVs, in addition to a new prologue character. But the biggest surprise, I think, comes from the fact that you can root for entirely different characters to win than you did in book one. I’m still not sure who I want to see win the iron throne, but my opinions have definitely changed. For the first time in the series I could name characters that I really hate, but I’ve also grown fond of others that I didn’t expect to become so important. That is my favorite aspect of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series– the perspectives are shown with equal import, so each character feels human and the reader can choose his/her own side in the battle for the throne.

“So long as there was magic, anything could happen. Ghosts could walk, trees could talk, and broken boys could grow up to be knights.”

The magic is done well in this book. There’s so little of it, and so few characters take it seriously, that when it does crop up it’s acceptable to feel doubtful at first, and then easy to embrace it. There’s one major instance of… magic? sorcery? something out of the ordinary in a seemingly ordinary scene, and when I read that scene I was shocked, and certain that there must be some other explanation. But in the end it folded neatly into the story and I loved the possibility of something so fantastic in A Clash of Kings— it was just as entertaining as the wights of book one.

“There are no shadows in the dark. Shadows are the servants of light, the children of fire. The brightest flame casts the darkest shadows.”

It’s also growing increasingly hard to know what to believe. Each of the chapters is narrated through a close third-person perspective, which gives us the thoughts, actions, and emotions of one character at a time, but it also allows for bias. In this book so much more than the first of the series, the reader starts to see conflicting details– two characters hold different beliefs about certain events or people. Someone says one thing, another says something entirely else. Sometimes it’s easily explained by the fact that news is slow to reach certain characters or locations, but other times the reader is left to wonder which version is truth, if any. We see characters lying to each other, also. I think it’s going to be more important, going forward, to be wary of trusting any of the characters too fully. The narration is not completely omniscient, which leaves room for deception. The fact that we start to see discrepancies in this book feels like a hint that the characters are fallible. Sometimes they’re wrong. They make assumptions, in the more innocent cases, but sometimes they’re scheming. Everyone’s up to something, and the narrator is not entirely reliable either. How much of it is “true”?

“There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”

For a series in which Houses are so significant, I also want to note that it’s hard to pick a whole house that I want to see win. It’s not unusual to hate the Lannisters and love the Starks, but there are Lannisters that don’t seem completely evil in this book, and Starks that I wouldn’t want to see on the throne. It’s interesting that the Lannisters are so commonly loathed, but there are so few POV chapters from within that house that we have to see them through secondary eyes, through already-skewed perspectives. On the other hand, almost every Stark from that House gets POV chapters, though most of them are children who don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s just as important to pay attention to the medium as the message, so I’ve been taking note of the distribution of chapters as well as the plot, though I think I need to read a bit farther before I can draw any conclusions from the combination of them.

“I will hurt you for this. I don’t know how yet, but give me time. A day will come when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you’ll know the debt is paid.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I love this series, but I didn’t fly through this second book with quite the same level of excitement I had for book one. The focus is largely on the politics in King’s Landing, but that was my least favorite part of this volume. I need to read onward ASAP, but first, a break. I know these books just keep getting longer, which is great, but I’m on new-information-overload and I need to let A Clash of Kings settle for a bit. I’ve got three episodes left to watch of Game of Thrones season 2, and then I’m putting the series down until September.

“Perhaps we are doomed if we press on… but I know for a certainty we are doomed if we turn back.”

Further recommendations:

  1. Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling (first book in an NA fantasy trilogy) is another great choice for fantasy readers who like a lot of politics, a little magic, and an intricate plot. In this one, an unsuspecting young woman ascends to the throne, only to realize that there are powerful others who will do anything to take it from her.
  2. If you’re looking for even more magic and unpredictability, try Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (first book in an adult fantasy trilogy). This one’s very Narnia-esque, with shocking plot twists and all-too-human characters who see the world on a grander scale.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Jodi Lynn Anderson’s new YA historical/science fiction novel, Midnight at the Electric. I’ve just started, so I don’t know much about it other than it follows three time lines, one of which takes place in the Dust Bowl. I’m expecting a quick, easy read that’s also going to impress me.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Stardust

After reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology earlier this year (and remembering how much I loved Coraline as a child), I decided I had to check out more of his books. I’ve had a few picked out, and decided to dive into Stardust this month, an adult fantasy stand-alone novel that’s short and sweet and full of adventure. It seemed like a good lead-in to The Hobbit, which I will be reading later this month.

stardustAbout the book: Dunstan Thorn sets a unique life on its adventurous course when he accepts his Heart’s Desire as rent payment from a strange and powerful man. Just shy of eighteen years later, Dunstan’s half-faerie son, Tristran, sets out past the village of Wall into the land of Faerie. He thinks he’s going to retrieve a fallen star that will win him the hand of the most beautiful girl in the village, but in Faerie nothing goes quite as planned. He meets several interesting characters along the way, some who want to help him and some that mean to thwart his plans. There’s also the matter of the fallen star possessing the form of a young lady, one who hates Tristran for his intent to trade her so he can be married. But the difficulty of Tristran’s own journey is the least of his problems– there are other creatures seeking the star, characters who will cut down anyone in their path. But even if Tristran succeeds, will the most beautiful girl in town consent to marry a shop-boy destined to be a sheep farmer in the little village of Wall?

” ‘I had thought,’ he confessed, ‘that a fallen star would probably look like a diamond or a rock. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lady.’ ‘So, having found a lady, could you not have come to her aid, or left her alone? Why drag her into your foolishness?’ ‘Love,’ he explained. She looked at him with eyes the blue of the sky. ‘I hope you choke on it,’ she said flatly.’ “

This is one of those episodic tales which, I think, require a lot more work from the author to keep the reader’s attention than traditional plot arcs. The reader must stay interested in many different “episodes” throughout the book, rather than one continuous arc, which means it’s all in the details, rather than the plot. This happens often with adventure stories, in my experience. In this case, there is the matter of the fallen star quest to tie Stardust all together, but Tristran’s search for the falling star is only one event among many. Gaiman juggles multiple characters, multiple plot lines, and many “episodes” in this one short volume.

For that reason, world-building forms the bulk of this short novel. There’s plenty going on, but it’s veiled in description of unusual place details and characters with uncommon mannerisms. The most interesting introduction for me was the addition to the story of seven brothers in the middle of killing one another in various deceitful ways, but all of the character introductions and new places are similarly packed with unusual background or sensory details to keep the reader engaged. The village of Wall and the world of Faerie seem almost tangible. Thus, the world-building is the strength of Gaiman’s Stardust.

The weakness, by contrast, is the romance. Tristran is willing to spend so much of his time and energy on this crazy quest for the girl he thinks he loves, but the reader sees from the beginning that his “love” for the beautiful Wall girl is a youthful infatuation no deeper than a preoccupation with the color of her eyes. In Faerie, he discovers that he wants something quite different for his life than manning a sheep farm with the beautiful village girl. But even when romance starts to play a role in the story for the second time, there are none of the casual little details to indicate affection; the love is necessary to the plot, and is described rather flatly, only going so far as to make its point. Books without romance can be great. Books with romance that isn’t the center of the story can also be done fantastically. But in a book like this, when romance plays such a key role in Tristran’s adventures, there need to be enough details for the love to feel as real as the world, and in that regard, Stardust fails.

But let’s talk about Tristran next.

“He was a gangling creature of potential, a barrel of dynamite waiting for someone or something to light his fuse; but no one did, so on weekends and in the evenings he helped his father on the farm, and during the day he worked for Mr. Brown, at Monday and Brown’s, as a clerk.”

Tristran is an elusive character, not especially wise or idiotic, not especially anything, really. He does take action of his own, but he is also shunted along in his journey by the actions of others. He takes things as they come, with little show of emotion. If not for his willingness to adventure, he would seem a particularly bland character. But he is willing to take chances and partake in quests and anything else required of him, and that makes him an excellent guide through a novel like this in which the reader never knows what to expect next. With such a fluid story line, the main character can’t be too rigid in his ways or the adventure won’t be possible. On his own, Tristran would be nothing more than a boring sheep farmer, but he is not on his own. He is part of Wall, and part of the Faerie realm. He is oath-bound to a fallen star. He’s capable and versatile, and ready to change the world.

Stardust feels a bit like a writer’s exercise, a foray into uncharted territory. It’s the sort of story I imagine would emerge from a writer’s hands when he/she sat down at the keyboard and decided to follow the letters wherever his/her fingers took the story, through worlds real and imagined. It could have been expanded four or five times into a thick fantasy novel if things hadn’t worked out so quickly and easily for Tristran on his quest. Personally, I would’ve followed those murderous brothers through several hundred more pages even if their story veered far beyond the point where it overlaps with Tristran’s. Instead, Stardust is a sample of fantasy– a snapshot, a tiny glimpse into the realm of the extraordinary. This one’s definitely an adult tale, so if you’re looking for an easy start into adult fantasy, Stardust would be a great way to get a feel for that genre without investing much time.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed the journey, but I was also glad to put it behind me at the end. I’ll still be reading more Neil Gaiman books, whether this year or next I don’t know, but I’m in awe of Gaiman’s range. The three books I’ve read under his name have been so vastly different that I have no idea what to expect from further books, but I’m definitely curious enough to find out.

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is an adult magical realism novel that feels similarly episodic, and follows a scientist boy and a magical girl from childhood to adulthood, through crises of varying magnitude.
  2. The Magician’s Boy, the first book in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, is a more apt choice for readers young and old who want another easy entrance to the fantasy genre. If you’re looking for fantasy that’s fun but not strictly adult, try Narnia; I started reading these books when I was seven, and am still enjoying them now that I’m in my twenties with an English degree. Narnia is a land where anything can happen, and all seven books are quick and engaging reads.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a classic murder mystery (from the legendary queen of murder mysteries). This one’s about a long train ride in which a passenger is killed… meaning anyone on the train could have done it, and anyone on the train could be the next victim.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Game of Thrones

I’ve embarked on a fantastical journey. This is not the first time I’ve read the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, nor, I hope, will it be the last, because there are many things to love about it. But it’s been four years since my first trek through A Game of Thrones, and since I intend to continue onward this time, I figured I was due to revisit book one.

About the book: The Hand of the King gameofthronesis dead. Some might say he was murdered. Either way, Winterfell’s Lord Eddard Stark sets things in motion when he accepts the position offered by his friend, the king. While he’s away at King’s Landing, the rest of his family must step up to leadership roles on behalf of the north and Winterfell, but other houses in the Seven Kingdoms want to use the Stark family’s new vulnerability to gain more power for themselves. Some wish to be the Hand of the King–and some, with secrets and schemes laid years ago, want to be king (or queen). The slippery and ambitious Lannisters, loathed by many, seem to have the closest claim to the throne if only they can get the king out of the way. But while allegiances shift and families grapple for the throne, there’s new trouble beyond the Wall–the white walkers are closer than ever before, killing men and raising wights from the dead. If ever there was a time the Seven Kingdoms needed to band together, the growing threat past the Wall is proof that this is it. And yet all the major houses of the Seven Kingdoms are too busy at war over the Iron Throne…

“Every noble house had its words. Family mottoes, touchstones, prayers of sorts, they boasted of honor and glory, promised loyalty and truth, swore faith and courage. All but the Starks. Winter is coming, said the Stark words.”

A Game of Thrones is the first in a seven book series (five published so far, with no news on which decade the sixth book might eventually appear in). It’s high fantasy, but there’s not a lot of magic. There are old stories of the magic that used to be in the lands, but very few characters brush anywhere close to it in this first novel. There are hints of the supernatural. Some might argue there’s a bit of romance. But first and foremost, this is a political series, an exploration of characters and their alliances and the powers they wield or lose.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

About the writing: you don’t read A Game of Thrones for the writing. You just don’t. George R. R. Martin’s writing style is competent. It’s wise in its choice of detail and in the seamless flow of present action and backstory. It includes some great lines. But the narration is primarily matter-of-fact, concerned with the inclusion of every necessary detail in its proper place rather than beauty of metaphor. There are some clunky sentences, moments when the pronoun doesn’t refer to the last name mentioned and other little issues that are not indecipherable but do cause occasional confusion. But it’s okay, because you don’t read A Game of Thrones for its pretty sentences.

You read it for the characters.

“Never forget who you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

The best part of A Game of Thrones is that it’s not a tale full of “good guys” vs. “bad guys.” Who even are the good guys? There’s not even a main character. Everyone in A Game of Thrones is (arguably) as important as everyone else, be they man, woman, or child. Readers can choose a different favorite for the throne every hundred pages. Even just on my second time through the same first novel, I have different favorites than I did the first time, though my most-hated characters haven’t changed. In this first novel, the reader follows nine POVs, all in the third person. The chapters are titled only with their lead character’s name. But it’s all connected. The major players appear in each other’s chapters, or their relatives do, or their friends, or their secrets. Martin is a master of plucking individual story lines out of the whole, making each of them distinct and compelling without losing sight of the bigger picture and its interconnectedness.

“I swear to you, I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I’ve won it.”

This was an interesting book to reread. There’s a bit of mystery, some questions that are answered within this first volume and some left for future novels. That made it fascinating to read back through, with some idea of what was coming ahead but gaps still left to motivate reading on. There’s so much detail packed into this one shortest novel of the series that I felt the reread was completely worthwhile, even though I did recall the big reveals that took place. I was able to look more closely at the little hidden truths that are folded into the writing, but I don’t know enough yet to see through everyone’s secrets.

“The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.”

I don’t want to talk too much more about plot, but I will say it’s intense. You need to have a strong stomach to read through some of the details in this book. There’s rape. Murder. Battle scenes. Direwolves. Humans reanimated after death. Harsh punishments and cruelty. Incest. Betrayal. A child pushed off a tower. And you never know who’s going to live or die. I learned my first time through this book not to get too attached to any one character, because Martin likes to build sympathy for them just to lead them to their deaths. If this was a spoiler review, I’d talk about some of my theories, but it’s not, so I’ll just say (for anyone who’s read this already or watched the first season) that Tyrion is my favorite Lannister, Arya is my favorite Stark, and Daenerys is currently my favorite character. I thought Jon’s chapters were most fun to read, and Catelyn’s the least. But no matter who you favor, A Game of Thrones is utterly captivating and 100% worth the time it takes to read an 800-page book.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Same as last time. I still find politics a little exhausting to read about so extensively, so I’m aiming to take about a week’s break before starting the next book. But I will watch season one of the TV series in that time. My plan is to read the five books published so far, and then watch the corresponding episodes for each book as I complete them. I suppose when I reach the end of the fifth book I’ll carry on with the episodes and just read the remaining two novels when they’re eventually published. (Please, George R. R. Martin, publish those last two books.) Waiting for the series to be finished is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to dedicate myself to reading it.

Further recommendations:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is not really the same as Martin’s books at all, but I think there’ll be some overlap between the two fan bases. Outlander is a sci-fi/romance/historical fiction/fantasy mishmash about a time-traveling woman who falls through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and stands up in the same circle two hundred years in the past. And it has a phenomenal TV series that’s about to get really good in September, so now’s the time to read it.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare, the final book in the Infernal Devices trilogy. Because as fun as it is to start a new series with 1000+ page books, it’s also a relief to finish what I’ve already started. Clockwork Princess is a Shadowhunter novel set in Victorian London, featuring an evil mastermind with an army of mechanical monsters and a tragic love triangle.

Are you a series reader? Which one’s your favorite?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now read my complete review of the next book in this series, A Clash of Kings!