Tag Archives: fantasy

Mini-Review: Macbeth

It’s been a hot minute since I last read a play, and especially a Shakespeare play. Occasionally I like one, but I can’t name a single play I’ve ever really loved the way I love a good novel. But my 2017 reading challenge urged me to try again, so I picked up William Shakepeare’s Macbeth. I even bought my own copy so that I’d have no excuse to skip over this part of my reading challenge, which turned out to be a successful move.

macbethAbout the book: Three witches appear to the recently-victorious-in-battle Macbeth, and his friend Banquo. They prophesy the two men’s futures, but Macbeth dismisses them as liars. Soon after, the king honors him with a new title as reward for his victory, and Macbeth realizes that the witches must have been telling the truth. And if they told the truth in that instance, perhaps it is also true that Macbeth will be king, as they claimed. But Macbeth is greedy and afraid, and he sets out to take the throne by removing competitors rather than securing the royal title honestly, which earns him a growing list of enemies and assures that the witches will be correct about Banquo’s future too– which doesn’t look so good for Macbeth.

“Double, double toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble. / Fillet of a fenny snake, / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt, and toe of frog, / Wool of bat, and tongue of dog; / Adder’s fork, and blindworm’s sting, / Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing – / For a charm of powerful trouble / Like a hellbroth boil and bubble.”

This is probably one of the easiest plays to understand right from the start that I’ve ever read. For some reason in plays, though not in novels or other mediums, it’s usually difficult for me to keep track of all the characters and the implications of early plot points. But Macbeth has a single plot arc, focusing solely on Macbeth and his affect on other characters, rather than weaving multiple threads together. It is easy to determine the relation of every character to Macbeth, and how they will help or impede his goals.

“False face must hide what false heart doth know.”

“By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes.”

Here’s a comment more generally applicable to Shakespeare’s works than specifically for Macbeth, but it applies to Macbeth as well as to any other of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve read. I find the inventiveness of the language so notable– the use of familiar words as different parts of speech than are typically found, and the use of familiar word pieces doctored with different prefixes or suffixes (or even morphed with whole other words) to give new meaning. I love seeing writers stretch the language. I’m talking about examples like “ravined”: made ravenous, and “incarnadine”: to redden. Unusual turns of phrase, like “water’s breach” for breaking waves, and “eternal gem” for immortal soul. To some extent, this is a product of the medium, and the time period in which it was written. But some of these examples have the same sort of whimsical and unexpectedly apt feel that Dr. Suess’s made-up words do, and I think playing with language in that way, making new connections with the bare pieces of it, is so commendable. There are footnotes in case you miss the meanings, but all of the examples I’ve listed here were clear enough in context despite my unfamiliarity with them that I took notice, and appreciated the author’s willingness to experiment.

The downside to Macbeth, for me, was that a significant portion of it seemed much like filler. There’s miscellaneous magic babble. There’s much talk about the action, but very little action seems to be going on. They’re always talking about battles coming and ending, but only part of one battle is right there in the text. The murders are talked over more than anything else, and yet they also pass fleetingly and without much struggle. At one point a ghost appears, does nothing but frighten someone with his presence, disappears, reappears, does nothing, and then is gone from the play entirely. The most exciting action moments were seen in the all-too-brief stage directions that said merely: [Dies.] I know there are some Shakespeare plays with long and impressive monologues, and I did mark some interesting passages from Macbeth, but for a story so focused on death, I was disappointed with how little fight and action actually appeared in the play. So much of it was tucked behind the scenes. But there were some interesting “last words,” at least:

“Whither should I fly? / I have done no harm. But I remember now / I am in this earthly world, where to do harm / Is often laudable, to do good sometime / Accounted dangerous folly.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’ve only read a couple of plays outside of school (although in all fairness let’s acknowledge that I took an entire class on 15th-16th century plays in college so I have read a healthy number). Maybe if I read more of them for fun, I’d enjoy more of them. I did like this Pelican Shakespeare edition, with the line art on the outside and just enough extra info packed between the covers. Maybe I’ll make a note to read more of them. Any recommendations? (I’ve only read Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar.)

What’s next: On to the next title of my 2017 reading challenge, which is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This is also my classic of the month for December, so it’s got that two-birds-one-stone sort of productivity feel. And of course, ’tis the season. Expect another mini-review coming soon, this one featuring the ghosts of Christmas and Ebenezer Scrooge.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Saga: Book Two

After unintentionally speeding through the comic Saga: Book One (volumes 1-3), I immediately knew I had to pick up the next chapters of the story. As expected, I couldn’t put the second book down, either. I have now read Saga: Book Two (volumes 4-6) which will be covered in this review.

sagabooktwo

About the book: Hazel is growing and learning, but it’s not a safe world she’s inheriting. She’s in constant danger as her parents continue to hide from (and face) potential murderers, unexpected kidnappers, and crazed citizens. The family dynamic is further challenged by internal strife in these volumes, which lead to the division of certain family members from the group and allow for the multiple threads of the story to branch out in new directions, even as plot points from the first set of volumes begin to weave together. Don’t expect anyone you recognize from the earlier volumes to make the same impression here. There are new alliances, shocking deaths, heartwarming reunions, and so much more. The war between Landfall and Wreath continues throughout the galaxy, but Hazel’s family might find themselves much closer to home than they expected by the end of this round of journeys. And yet, even at home, they can never be entirely safe. AND THERE ARE DRAGONS.

I realize that’s a pretty vague description, but this is a sequel and I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t yet experienced it. (And if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?)

“Regardless of sex, everyone loses something in a war… but the first casualty is always the TRUTH.”

The family at the center of the story is fabulous as ever. It’s so encouraging to see a kick-ass set of parents who love each other deeply and do everything they can to keep their family together and safe. They’re an unusual family, and they’re imperfect, but that’s part of what makes them so great. It’s easy to identify with them, and they’re not just a symbol– they have unique personalities and quirks, but even though their lives are nothing like ours they’re sympathetic characters. The fact that their baby/child, Hazel, is still narrating the series also helps keep the story centered around the whole family rather than shifting into just another cheesy romance. There are more complications for them to overcome in this volume, from within the family as well as without, which means in the end that they’ll stand stronger than ever– as the most bizarre model of good parenting you’ve ever seen.

“Each new person we welcome into our hearts is a chance to evolve into something radically different than we used to be.”

The diversity in these volumes, as expected following the previous book, is great. It’s fantasy diversity, so there are creatures with stripes and creatures with horns and creatures that look like spiders and creatures with screens for faces, but the concept is the same as in the real world– the characters are inclusive and accepting; at least, the good ones are.

“We’re all aliens to someone. Even among our own people, most of us feel like complete foreigners from time to time.”

Fantasy in general provides a unique opportunity to display and correct social wrongs that are reflections of reality, without offending any real persons. Saga is about a war based on racism. It also showcases gender inequalities, homophobia, undesirable professions, poverty, and more. It shows the reader the supreme injustice of so many real-world problems, and creates in the reader a desire for peace. It shows how even small acts of kindness can make a world of difference. And it does all this in a highly entertaining and colorful way, because it’s not reality, and therefore it utilizes a special bridge between fiction and life that some readers (me) love to see used. Promoting equality is something I see a lot of fantasy stories striving for, whether with factions or districts, courts or castes; but it’s rare to see any writing that does it this well. We can all learn something from Saga.

Well, the adults can. This is definitely a story for mature audiences, as some of the language and images are undeniably graphic and/or sexual. But if you’re an adult, definitely pick this one up, starting with the first volume. And keep going. It’s worth it.

“Anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn’t read enough books.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Another glorious installment to the Saga saga. I’m definitely going to continue, although there is no Book Three yet, so I’ll have to read the volumes individually until I’m caught up to the amount of pages that are published. I’m already booked for December (check out my full TBR), but by January I’ll need to get my hands on volumes seven and eight. After Book Two‘s ending… stopping is not an option.

Coming up next: I’m currently finishing Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, a Gilded Age thriller/mystery about brutal murders in New York, solved in part by Theodore Roosevelt, a Times journalist, an (in)famous psychologist, and more colorful characters. I love reading about this time period, and it’ll feel good to cross another title off my 2017 reading challenge, so it’s been a fun ride. Review to come soon.

Do you read any comics? I might want to check out some other titles once I’m caught up on Saga volumes!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Bone Season

I’ve read enough YA fantasy that it’s starting to all look the same, but this one fulfilled a slot on my reading challenge so I picked it up anyway. And what a shock I found. Most of this novel– especially the world it’s built in– is so utterly unique. I’ve read a lot of books, but never anything like this.

theboneseason

About the book: Paige is a criminal. All of the “unnaturals” are, just by existing. And in 2059 London, unnaturals have 3 choices: to work the black market under constant threat of death, to spend 30 years rooting out unnaturals hiding in society, or to be scent to Sheol I. But the only people who know about Sheol I are the officials who support its continued existence, and the kidnapped unnaturals who are forced into slavery there– and, of course, the Rephaim, inhuman creatures with a long-term world-domination plan. The Rephaim, like the unnaturals, possess gifts that span the realm between life and death. They can use their minds, their spirits, to connect to the aether– the dimension where souls exist without corporeal form. But the Rephaim, unlike humans, are frighteningly powerful and nearly impossible to kill. Paige has a rare gift, a rare form of clairvoyance that allows her not only to sense changes in the aether, but to cause them. Even this coveted ability, however, may not be enough to level the playing field between Paige and her captors.

This plot is weird, and intense, and I mean both of those descriptions in the best possible way. This could have been a great story with half the amount of detail layered into it, which means at the very least that the world is well-developed and the plot is constantly evolving, entirely unpredictable. The narrator, Paige, starts us out in a dystopian world that’s already significantly different than the real world we live in, but then things get crazy when she’s kidnapped and transplanted inside another little world that she didn’t even know existed. But it’s not just the alien nature of this other world and the creatures that inhabit it that make the book interesting– there are new elements constantly thrown into the mix: impossible tasks, terrifying monsters, battles between powerful beings, new technology, death threats. Every time Paige (and the reader) thinks she’s grasped the rules for survival, the game changes.

” ‘Normal’ and ‘natural’ were the biggest lies we’d ever created. We humans with our little minds. And maybe being normal wouldn’t suit me.”

There is a lot of new terminology in The Bone Season, lingo specific to the world of this series. Rest assured, there is a glossary at the back of the book (at least in my copy there is), but even that doesn’t cover all the new words. You have to pay attention just to keep up with the language, and the plot doesn’t slow down to let readers catch up. The Bone Season is not a quick read. It is not easy. But it is powerful.

“We are the minority the world does not accept. Not outside of fantasy, and even that’s blacklisted. We look like everyone else. Sometimes we act like everyone else. In many ways, we are like everyone else. We are everywhere, on every street. We live in a way you might consider normal, provided you don’t look too hard. Not all of us know what we are. Some of us die without ever knowing. Some of us know, and we never get caught. But we’re out there. Trust me.”

A sticky spot: Paige’s reaction to her enslavement. From her speech and her fight to help others who are oppressed, the reader can see that Paige does not agree with or support slavery in any way. There are occasions when she fights her own “keeper” as well, but she’s also shockingly obedient. Even in her thoughts she refers to her captor by his chosen title, Warden, rather than his name. In some things, she’s very careful not to cross him. She thinks and says, repeatedly, “It’s not like I have a choice,” when the choice of refusal is always there. There may be consequences for refusal, of course, but for someone so willing to fight and so opposed to slavery, it’s infuriating at times how easily she accepts Warden’s leadership. Even in moments when they seem to have found equal footing, she remains the underling until he announces their equality in the matter. Their relationship is odd, at best.

“I looked at him in silence, waiting for his judgment.”

Best aspect: the friendships and loyalties. Shannon is an author who’s not afraid to kill beloved characters, and she’s also not afraid to make her readers care about them first. Paige can feel like a very solitary character at times, with her unique gift and situation, but she does have a great support system and she can be just as supportive. In SciLo (futuristic London) and in Sheol I, Paige develops strong alliances. There are enmities, as well, and neutral conversations, but the scenes that tug the most at the reader’s emotions are the ones in which Paige is risking herself to help someone in need. When she’s doing something kind, no matter the cost. Sometimes her help is not enough, but that never keeps her from trying.

“I had no weapons– but I did have my gift. No longer my curse. Tonight it would save a life, not take one.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The only thing that help me back from loving this book was its density– there’s so much packed into these pages that it’s easy to get lost in the actions and the politics of it. But I will definitely read the next book in this series. I don’t like all of the characters and all of the details, but the unusual world and plot is undeniably captivating. I can’t say yet whether I’ll read the entire series, but I am curious about where it’s going next.

Further recommendations:

  1. Red Rising by Pierce Brown is a great choice for YA and adult readers who like dystopian/fantasy/sci-fi that takes plot twists to a whole new level. Nothing is predictable or boring, no matter what else you may think of the story. In the Red Rising trilogy, a lowly Red is taking on the unjust hierarchy by fighting the Golds from within their own system– on Mars. The plot keeps getting better as the books continue, and the characters never disappoint.
  2. Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is another book for YA and adult readers alike who are looking for an action-packed ride full of crime and betrayals, as well as a little bit of magic. If you like powerful characters from the underbelly of humanity, working together against the odds and with opposing aims, check this one out.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, a novel for my 2017 reading challenge (a book from the year I was born) set in the turn of the 20th century. It involves an early psychologist, or alienist, trying to catch a gruesome murderer with science. I’m also reading Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga: Book Two, the continuation of Hazel’s story as her parents fight for survival and safety in the midst of a war where they’re being hunted by both sides. Full reviews on both are imminent.

What are you hoping to finish reading before the end of the year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Saga: Book One

I’ve only known about Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga volumes for about a year, but even after seeing great reviews I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t needed a graphic novel for my 2017 reading challenge. I think technically Saga is a comic, but I won’t even pretend that I understand the distinctions between all the forms of image-based stories. I have a lot of respect for artists who tell stories this way, but with graphic novels, etc. I don’t feel like I’m reading in the usual way that I enjoy reading, so I don’t pick them up very often. But I am grateful to my 2017 reading challenge for pushing me to pick this one up, because I loved it.

sagabookoneAbout the book: Marko and Alana were fighters on opposite sides of a galactic war. Now they’re new parents, and both sides call them traitors and offer rewards for their deaths. The baby, Hazel, is the narrator of the story, from a future perspective that gives the plot just enough foreshadowing to keep things interesting and the writing just enough insight to seem meaningful even at its weirdest moments. (It’s rated M for Mature, and rightly so, but it’s not a cheesy or vulgar romance.) The key players hunting Marko and Alana have lives of their own, things to win and lose and find along the way as they’re hunting the fugitive family. They’re all just fighting for their own survival, on whichever side of the war they happen to fall, with some surprising alliances. But it is a war, so it can’t end well for everyone.

About the format: In this edition, the first three volumes of Saga are compiled in one book, with bonus material at the end that describes the writing process of the comic from the points of view of each of its contributors. There are six chapters in each volume, but this book is set up so that it reads as 18 continuous chapters from a larger story. Each chapter has its own themes and ideas, and each volume is a set of chapters that are linked with underlying points, but beginning in the very first chapter the story moves smoothly forward, expertly connected with characters whose lives intertwine despite their own unique subplots.

The book starts with the combined narration of Hazel’s parents talking through her birth, and Hazel’s commentary from later on. Hazel is talking about the conception of ideas, and the process of bringing them out into the world into tangible things. It’s an apt comparison to have these two lines of thought going on simultaneously, and amusingly meta: Hazel’s commentary feels a lot like an explanation concerning the creation of Saga. It’s definitely a unique and intriguing start to the book, which draws the reader in.

“Ideas are fragile things. Most don’t live long enough outside of the ether from which they were pulled, kicking and screaming.”

It’s the characters who really make the story though, and keep the reader engaged through chapter after chapter. The art is beautiful (although admittedly I have little experience with graphic novels) and functional, and the writing is apt; it’s all carried out perfectly to keep the reader interested in setting and character switches. Sometimes the reader sees into the lives of the hunters, the government agents and freelancers third-party allies. These are the “bad guys,” and the reader may be surprised (or not) to end up liking some of these as much as our family on the run. Some of them are less likable (every story needs a villain), many of them are unexpected, some of their motives have yet to be revealed, but every one of them is a distinct, fully-formed person with his/her own background and morals. None of them are human. There’s a ghost, a cat (possibly my favorite), a cyclops, etc. Saga connects them all. And the main character is an infant– that’s new, even before you consider that the baby is horned and winged.

You never know who (or what) will be on the next page.

It seems obvious that this series is moving toward an argument for equality and acceptance, which is an honorable message in itself (though it’s the most predictable aspect of the whole story), but so many other great morals are woven in. The women are strong, the truth always comes out, no one is perfect (I love characters who make mistakes and try to learn from them), and anything is possible if you fight for it. Beneath the plot, it’s an uplifting and inspiring read. If I didn’t loathe cliffhangers so much (only when the next book is not yet available), I would wish for this series to go on forever.

“No one makes worst first impressions than writers.”

Except in their books. These writers have made a great first impression with Saga: Book One.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I will read more Saga, but I’m not newly addicted to graphic novels or anything. I’ll read as much of Saga as is published, but it’ll probably be a while before I pick up another comic. I love the story, but I just don’t feel like I’m reading it. It’s the same reason I don’t listen to audiobooks. I know there are great specimens out there, but I don’t find the same enjoyment in them that I find with traditional novels. In this case, the enjoyment I did find was worth venturing into an unusual (for me) medium, and I will try to keep a more open mind about my reading material as a result. I’m definitely looking forward to more Saga.

Further Recommendations:

  1. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (and its two sequels) is a great space narrative about fighting inequality. It also sports a wide and surprising cast of characters whom the reader learns to love and loathe fiercely. Brown’s books are the usual fiction type with no images, but if you like the story of Saga, you may also enjoy this one.
  2. If your favorite aspect of Saga is choosing characters from both sides of the war to root for, you may want to try George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. It takes much longer to read than Saga, but it’s a character-driven political conflict mixed with fantasy elements that allows the reader to choose his/her own favorite side in the dispute and support different characters as their personalities develop. Again, no pictures beyond a map, but the characters are irresistible.

Coming up Next: I’m just finishing up my Halloween read, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. It’s very detailed as far as the criminal investigation (they’re hunting a serial killer), but it’s easy to read and there are a lot of horrifying little surprises in there that don’t feel too fictional to disturb the reader. It’s a (frighteningly) engrossing read, and I should have a review up in a couple of days.

Which graphic novels / comics / manga do you like best? Any suggestions for me?

Sincerely,

Literary Elephant

Update: Check out my review of the next book in this series, Saga: Book Two! It covers volumes 4-6.

Review: Six of Crows

Spoiler alert: I bought Leigh Bardugo’s new book of short stories, The Language of Thorns. I found a signed copy on sale and it looked good, so I bought it even though I knew I wanted to read the Six of Crows duology first. I almost started reading Thorns immediately, but instead I channeled that interest into finally (finally) picking up Bardugo’s Six of Crows, which has been officially and unofficially on my TBRs since about March. And now I’ve read Six of Crows! What. A. Story.

sixofcrowsAbout the book: Six resourceful teens set out together from Ketterdam to earn a fortune by stealing someone from the most secure prison in the world. One of them is a Grisha with a debt, another of them is a professional Grisha hunter. One is a sharpshooter with certain vices, and one is a high-born hostage with knowledge of maps and explosives. One is a deadly former slave who uses her acrobat training to act as the perfect spy, and the sixth, the leader and mastermind of this scheme, is an orphaned cripple with a long con of vengeance on his mind. They’re an unlikely group, and not entirely friendly, but they may be just the crew to pull off a break-in to the Ice Court prison. Even before they begin though, they know the bigger problem will be escaping again once they’ve succeeded in getting themselves locked inside.

“A gambler, a convict, a wayward son, a lost Grisha, a Suli girl who had become a killer, a boy from the Barrel who had become something worse.”

“The mood was jittery, and their laughter had the frantic serration that came with near disaster.”

It’s almost sad to call a book with a plot this strong and intricate a character-driven book, but Six of Crows is definitely that. The reader is hooked long before the heist begins because each of the characters is infinitely intriguing and could carry an entire novel on his/her own merit. But Six of Crows is a masterpiece of perspectives with each of the six main characters leading alternating chapters. The only scene that doesn’t fit this structure is the first scene, in the first chapter, which is told from Joost’s perspective. This is not the only chapter told from outside the POVs of the six main characters, and the relevance of its events does later become clear, but this first chapter is the only one that seems superfluous to me. Joost doesn’t seem as unique and captivating as the other characters and I didn’t care about him as much as I think the book wanted me to. Everyone else is pure perfection.

“Here’s the secret to popularity: risk death to save your compatriots from being blown to bits in an ambush. Great way to make friends.”

One of the best things about these characters (and the book as a whole) is their criminality. Several of the main characters are part of a Ketterdam gang, and all of them are morally suspect. The reader is allowed to view them as good people worth rooting for, but at the same time is exposed to the grit of their lives. They are thieves– some of money, some of secrets. They are soldiers. They are selfish. Although there is a bit of romance involved (very little, wonderfully subtle), these characters are not romanticized. They are willing to do bad things to survive, and that’s not passed off as an admirable lifestyle. They may may be thieves worth loving, but the narration does not condone or encourage thievery. These are not heroes. They’re not anti-heroes either, but there is no misplaced glamour coating the destruction they leave in their wake. It’s a delicate balance written exceedingly well.

“They were like anyone else– full of the potential to do great good, and also great harm.”

“There could be no judgment from a boy known as Dirtyhands.”

We’ve covered the greatness of the characters; let’s take a closer look at the plot. First of all, a heist is a perfect outline for an adventure book. I picked up this book without knowing anything more about it than I could glean from the blurb on the cover: “Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist.” It the word, “heist” that drew me in. But there’s so much more to the narration than that. Kaz (Dirtyhands, as referenced in the quote above) is the ringleader. The mastermind. The schemer. He’s great at performing tricks and scams because he knows people– he can see what drives them, and how far they’ll go. Most importantly, he knows which parts of the plan not to reveal, to avoid leaked secrets and betrayals. He tells each member of the team only what they need to know to carry out their own parts. This is a factor that works perfectly with the narration of the book overall because it allows the reader to follow each of the characters’ perspectives and still be surprised by the plan they’re all a part of. I did wonder how Kaz could have risked all five of the others’ lives by keeping the plans to himself that way when he could have been killed or separated from them, but otherwise Kaz’s methods and the timing of the book’s big reveals work seamlessly together. Many chapters end on little cliffhangers to keep the reader going, providing just enough information for the reader to keep guessing what will happen next. But even when you guess one part right, something you never expected is waiting in the wings. This is a book that’s fun to read the first time through all the surprises, but would be equally entertaining on subsequent reads, when you know which characters are secretly scheming and where their loyalties truly lie.

The true strength of the book, however, lies not in any one of these details alone, but in the way they’re all brought together with Bardugo’s writing. I’ve read and enjoyed the Grisha trilogy, but Bardugo’s writing in Six of Crows shines with a whole new light. She knows exactly how much to say, and how much to let the reader piece together for him-/herself. There are understated subplots and backstories, enmities and friendships within the group. The fact that these six people are working together, despite all of them hoping for different outcomes from the adventure, keeps the reader on his/her toes. Anyone could be capable of anything, and Bardugo uses every detail in every sentence to her advantage, leaving clues that are faultlessly woven into the fabric of the story. It’s a masterpiece. It’s YA for all ages, my very favorite kind. It’s completely fantastical, and yet utterly believable.

“Facts are for the unimaginative.”

Bardugo isn’t just telling a good story, though. She’s also using her book to talk about real-life problems like prejudice and misuse of power. Lots of books aim for big themes like these, but Bardugo does them well. The reader is guided gently to universal truths without being hit over the head with lessons that are easier heard than carried out. Six of Crows is inspiring. It makes me want to work harder at making the world a better place.

“We are all someone’s monster.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I started reading Six of Crows for the sake of wanting to read The Language of Thorns, which I still want to do, but I didn’t expect to find a new favorite book of the year (it definitely makes the list, at least). I absolutely loved it. I must read Crooked Kingdom, the sequel in this duology, ASAP. Bonus points for Six of Crows with its black page edges. Red pages don’t excite me (sorry, Crooked Kingdom), but I loved the black. It’s a beautiful book, inside and out.

“No mourners. No funerals.”

Further recommendations:

  1. Shadow and Bone is the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. If you’ve read the Six of Crows duology and want more from the Grishaverse, this is where to go. The first book is my favorite of the trilogy, and if you (like many others) have heard that the Grisha trilogy is not as good as the Six of Crows duology, I do recommend giving at least the first book a try. The Darkling is worth reading about.
  2. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy is a fantastic next choice for fans of Six of Crows. It follows another set of characters that rank somewhere between heroes and anti-heroes, the dregs of the planet uniting to make a big change. Main character Darrow must infiltrate the elites of the social hierarchy, which involves a sort of schooling system that sets the top students against each other in deadly ways. He’ll find unexpected friends (that he may need to betray) and dangerous enemies (who may find out he’s no more than a Helldiver) at the Institute, but will he make it out alive?

Coming up next: I’m reading several books at once again, and I’ve been extremely busy with work, but I should be finishing and reviewing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane within a day or two. It’s a fantasy story about a couple of children who see things that the adults don’t, set around a pond that the girl calls her ocean.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy

My Cassandra Clare marathon of 2017 continues. This month I read Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, the second short story collection in Shadowhunter publication order. I had high hopes for this one, but honestly it didn’t impress me any more than The Bane Chronicles. This second collectiontalesfromtheshadowhunteracademy is co-written by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, and Robin Wasserman.

About the book: There are ten short stories set around Simon’s time at Shadowhunter Academy, after the events of The Mortal Instruments novels. You should read those first to avoid spoilers. Each story is precluded with a key excerpt from the coming story, and a page of beautiful matching graphics. And now for the stories:

“Welcome to Shadowhunter Academy” : 3 stars. Nothing happens in this one that we don’t know already from the end of The Mortal Instruments. There’s a lot of angst about Simon’s missing memories, and a lot of snobby characters. Familiar faces from TMI appear like “guest stars.” Simon is trying to make a stand against prejudices at the school, but he’s a weaker character at this point because of his unknown past, and we’ve seen these same prejudices in Clare’s previous books. I was expecting a little more flare in this first story, but it’s heavy.

“The Lost Herondale” : 4 stars. This one, at least, follows a traditional story arc with steadily increasing tension to keep the reader engaged throughout the story. It starts a little slow, and trickles off after the tension fades, but it’s stronger than the first story. Most of the characters are still unpleasant, and the prejudices are back… I keep expecting Clare to make a big show of resolving conflict between the species and it just keeps… well, not happening.

” ‘We are all what our pasts have made us,’ Catarina said. ‘The accumulation of thousands of daily choices. We can change ourselves, but never erase what we’ve been.’ “

“Every decision you make, makes you. Never let other people choose who you’re going to be.”

“The Whitechapel Fiend” : 2 stars. Here are two stories in one, in which neither story seems to have a purpose. Especially the story Tessa tells– it’s heartening to see her in this context, but the moral to her story is “problems solve themselves.” There’s a second storyline with Jace and tree falls, which also has little point. “The Whitechapel Fiend” might have made a decent chapter in one of Clare’s novels, but it does not work as a short story. Stories are supposed to stand alone. And they’re supposed to be eventful. Halloween bonus for the demon child, though. She’s creepy.

“Nothing but Shadows” : 4 stars. Another story-within-a-story. Again, I believe a story is supposed to have a purpose, and when Catarina tells Simon her story, it seems at first that she’s going to offer some insight to help him with his current situation and instead she ends it with “you have to work these things out for yourself.” Which is what he would have done without her story anyway. It was a great tale, though. I could read a whole book about Jamie Herondale.

“That is the wonderful thing about making changes and meeting strangers, Jamie. You never know when, and you never know who, but someday a stranger will burst through the door of your life and transform it utterly. The world will be turned upside down, and you will be happier for it.”

“People are afraid of anybody who is different: It makes them worry everyone else is different too, and just pretending to be all the same.”

“Do not let any of them tell you who you are. You are the flame that cannot be put out. You are the star that cannot be lost. You are who you have always been, and that is enough and more than enough. Anyone who looks at you and sees darkness is blind.”

“The Evil We Love” : 4 stars. The back-and-forth narration of this one is more successful than the stories-within-stories. Both of the tales in this one have proper story arcs with increasing tension, and they feel properly related to each other. It provides a fascinating view of Valentine’s Inner Circle, and the difficult relationship between Simon and Isabelle; both are handled well, and even though they both fit into larger plots this story could stand on its own, which is something I’m looking for in a short story.

“Sometimes first impressions were misleading; sometimes they peered straight through to a person’s inner soul.”

“Love, real love, is being seen. Being known. Knowing the ugliest part of someone, and loving them anyway. And…I guess I think two people in love become something else, something more than the sum of their parts, you know? That it must be like you’re creating a new world that exists just for the two of you. You’re gods of your own pocket-universe.”

“Pale Kings and Princes” : 4 stars. Here’s yet another way to tell two stories: book-ending one with another. In this case, the two stories are connected with a single character, and the Shadowhunter prejudices against faeries. The best part of this story, as with much of Clare’s writing, is the trick of perspective: two people (or groups of people) will always tell the same story in different ways. That’s an important reminder in the real world as well as fiction, and it strengthens this story. This one works as a stand-alone, even though it features familiar characters. Thumbs up.

“Bitter of Tongue” : 3 stars. This story is compelling and emotional, but it doesn’t have much of a purpose here. It feels more like a chapter in the Blackthorn family history than anything related to Simon, or even to Shadowhunter Academy. The tension in the story is something that began before this story started and doesn’t end with it either, so nothing is resolved. Thus, the structure feels weak, though the prose is remarkably beautiful in places.

“Fortunate are the ones who know the name of their heart. They are the ones whose hearts are never truly lost. They can always call their heart back home.”

“Some were born with abs, some achieved abs, and some– like Simon– had abs thrust upon them by cruel instructors.”

“The Fiery Trial” : 3 stars. This one seems longer than necessary for the small amount of events it contains. On top of that, the main parabatai bond discovered here is predictable. But there is some wonderfully mysterious confused reality in the middle of the story that’s incredibly compelling, even though the beginning and end are more drawn out than needed.

“Born to Endless Night” : 2 stars. This story offers a unique mix of Magnus’s and Simon’s perspectives. But again, it’s too long. I don’t mind long stories when something is happening; there is only one really notable event in this story, it happens early on, and it has little to do with Simon or Shadowhunter Academy. The rest is all about everyone’s feelings, which can be nice too, but it doesn’t feel like the meat of this story. Also, I dislike babies being named after someone else. A name can affect a person. I think all people should have their own chance to make their own name significant instead of living in the shadow of whoever made the name significant before them. I do understand the desire, I just don’t support it for the naming of human (or warlock) babies.

“I think sometimes it’s too hard to believe in yourself. You just do the things you’re not sure you can do. You just act, in spite of not being certain. I don’t believe I can change the world– it sounds stupid to even talk about it– but I’m going to try.”

“Angels Twice Descending” : 4 stars. Here is an example of a story that is predictable and filled mostly with internalized emotion, but still makes a compelling story. This one could stand on its own, but it’s also full of now-familiar characters and memories. It’s an end and a beginning. It’s a beautiful exploration of meaning and determination that readers can apply off the page, despite all of the fantasy details that also make it the heart of this fictional collection. This is the reason I read the book.

“Choosing what’s right for you, maybe that’s the bravest thing you can do.”

“The point wasn’t that you tried to live forever; the point was that you lived, and did everything you could to live well. The point was the choices you made and the people you loved.”

Simon is one of my favorite characters in the Shadowhunting world, but at times he felt like a weak character in these stories because he’s constantly dwelling on his memory loss. It makes him less certain of himself and more anxious than usual. Also the academy is a disgusting place. It’s not like Hogwarts, which is whimsical and sometimes dangerous but still essentially a good place– Shadowhunter Academy is slimy, with bad food, prejudiced professors, torturous “classes,” horrible students, infestations, and a lack of plumbing. Every new detail about the school is something equally disturbing. It seems like an uninhabitable place, not a zany and educational one. Bad environments make my whole reading experience less pleasant.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. My average rating was actually 3.3. Although Shadowhunter Academy did not live up to my expectations, I am glad that I included it in my Shadowhunter marathon because it’s likely that certain details from this collection will crop up in future novels. It also added extra closure to TMI. But… I finally get to read Lady Midnight! Most of my Shadowhunter marathon has been enjoyable, but the biggest reason I wanted to read/reread all of Clare’s books this year was for The Dark Artifices, except I wanted to read those without missing anything from the previous books. So even though most of these stories did not even meet my standard expectations of what a short story should be, this collection was worth my time.

What’s next: I’m still reading George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords and will review that as soon as I finish. But I’m also picking up Matthew J. Sullivan’s Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, an adult mystery/thriller about a book-related death.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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