Tag Archives: fantasy

Reviews: Things in Jars, In the Dream House, and The Mercies

Some recent non-Women’s Prize reads (the last you’ll be seeing from me for a while!):

 

One of the February releases I was eager to get my hands on was Jess Kidd’s newest novel: Things in Jars. I picked it up in early March and it took a little work, but I did enjoy this one in the end.

thingsinjarsIn the novel, an Irishwoman living in Victorian London works as a private investigator. Of course this is hardly an appropriate profession for a woman at the time, but Bridie has a medical background, a gentleman’s disguise, and a connection with a policeman that keeps her in business. Her latest case involves a missing child; the young girl and her new nurse have vanished without a trace, and her father does not want to report the kidnapping through official channels. Bridie learns that the child is suspected of being a merrow, a mythological Irish creature in danger of being “collected” and preserved in a jar, a fate befalling scientific oddities of the time. She also learns that the child is not exactly who the father claims her to be. Between the lies and the greedy anatomists, can Bridie rescue the girl in time?

“Bridie rekindles her pipe, giving it a few rapid drags. She squints at the dead man through the smoke. ‘I’m not in the market for a haunting.’ “

Things in Jars is a genre-bender: I would primarily deem it historical fiction, but it is also a mystery, dips into some science, and contains a few fantasy elements as well. There’s even a hint of romance. In addition, it presents some commentary on sexism and immorality relating to its time period, dealing in themes of scientific progress vs. morality, the divide between wealthy and poor, the truth in and power of folklore. There’s much to enjoy here, and I did actually enjoy most of it. Though it’s hardly a whodunnit, I found the layout of the mystery here particularly effective: alongside Bridie’s search, we are given chapters featuring the kidnappers and their attempt to escape with the unusual child, which means the question the reader is asking of the novel is constantly evolving. There are also flashback chapters woven in, which gradually unveil key moments of Bridie’s past that manage to feel both relevant and well-timed in the larger narrative.

The only aspect I didn’t like- and this was a big hurdle for me to overcome- was the writing style. Kidd employs a very high level of whimsy that I found almost unbearably cloying. In some ways it serves the story well- Bridie is smoking some potentially hallucinogenic drugs, leaving the reader with some uncertainty over whether her ghostly tag-along is present or imagined; the pervasive tone of, well, silliness, makes it easier to roll with some of those more absurd elements, while also softening the horror of others. Kidd isn’t romanticizing this time period, but rather presenting it warts and all to the reader. (If you’re squeamish about historical medical practices enter with caution. Pet lovers should also note that there are a couple of short but grisly scenes where misfortune/abuse to animals is unpleasantly detailed.)

Perhaps it says something about me that I would’ve preferred this book to take a more grave approach to the heavy subject matter it deals with and drop the attempt at lightheartedness, but the constant dramatics really were the only complaint I had about this book. Aside from the pets’ fates, of course.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Kidd is an excellent writer who clearly put a lot of research into this book and is in full command of the language. Though I did appreciate the plot, as well as the themes and commentary worked into it, I really struggled with the writing to the extent that I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to try another of Kidd’s novels. Maybe if I give it some time.

 

Next I reached for my first non-fiction read of the year (yes, it’s been a long time coming), and one of the titles I was most sad not to have picked up in 2019: Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House, a memoir of abuse in same-sex relationships.

inthedreamhouseIn the book, Machado details meeting a charming woman, becoming her girlfriend, feeling increasingly stifled and unsafe in the relationship, and eventually dealing with the aftermath of psychological and emotional abuse.

“It’s not being radical to point out that people on the fringe have to be better than people in the mainstream, that they have twice as much to prove. In trying to get people to see your humanity, you reveal just that: your humanity. Your fundamentally problematic nature. All the unique and terrible ways in which people can, and do, fail.”

Acknowledging that people of the same gender can hurt each other in romantic relationships shouldn’t seem difficult, but Machado uses this book to outline a literary (and actual) history sadly lacking in any evidence of that this is a real phenomenon. She uses inventive structure and imagery to explore the difference between what she wanted from this relationship and what she got, and the resistance she found afterward when trying to tell her story. Each chapter is presented as a facet of the “dream house,” a different side of the relationship that looked like everything the author wanted from the outside but turned out to be something quite different once she found herself stuck inside.

Machado does an incredible job of conveying the mounting sense of tension and fear pervading this particular relationship without actually describing a lot of specific, personal information. In the Dream House is not a sensationalist cry for attention or attempt to shock the reader with horrifying anecdotes- Machado uses her experiences to talk about domestic abuse and queer relationships more broadly. It’s an exploratory work, a narrative meant to open the eyes of nonbelievers and give those who have seen it firsthand a sense of solidarity.

“Dream House as Epiphany / Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.”

This is a powerful book that I would recommend to… anyone who’s ever been or will be in a relationship, honestly. I can’t relate personally to much of Machado’s experience, but some of the situations she describes and the commentary she explores surrounding them have made me rethink all sorts of interactions I’ve had in my own life and the ways that society has taught me to view relationships generally. Having read In the Dream House, I feel both more educated about a perspective that doesn’t match mine, and also seen in ways that I didn’t expect to be. (Bonus points for the Iowa City setting,  which I always love to see after spending my own college years there. I think I only missed being there at the same time as Machado by three months!)

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Very nearly 5, and I’m not sure if I can explain why it didn’t quite hit that mark for me; I suppose I knew enough about the book going in that it lost its ability to really surprise me in the way that I tend to reserve my 5-star ratings for, which of course isn’t any fault of the book. It’s a brilliant read that I highly recommend and am unlikely to forget.

 

Last but not least, I finished reading Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies earlier this week, and absolutely loved it!

themerciesIn the novel, the Norwegian island Vardo is hit hard by a sudden storm in the early 1600s. The storm kills most of the town’s men, who were out on the sea in their fishing boats when it struck. The women left behind must learn to survive on their own, to find their own food, light their own fires, and carry on in a world where women are not supposed to hold any power. Soon after the storm, a new commissioner is appointed to their area; he believes that such a sudden and devastating storm could not have been a natural occurrence, and makes his home in Vardo to root out the witches to blame. In a divided and changing community, the women soon learn that no one is truly safe.

” ‘You’re no witch.’ / ‘It doesn’t matter what I am, only what they believe I am.’ “

Historical fiction is a genre that doesn’t always work for me- I enjoy learning about events from the past through invented narratives, but I dislike romanticizing, sensationalizing, and sentimentalizing approaches, and so I always go in a bit wary that the tone and style just won’t be to my taste. Much to my pleasant surprise, The Mercies drew me in right away, presented zero cause for disappointment at any point, and held my attention rapt until the end. Though it centers around a famous set of witch trials in Norway at this time, the focus is mainly aimed at the distressed community on Vardo. In the wake of such an impactful storm, life has changed drastically; the women argue over what should be done and how to go about it. Old rifts are wedged wider, new rifts form out of the grief and uncertainty that now (in 1618) defines life on Vardo. Into this fraught setting enters an outsider, a man with a singular goal: to hunt witches. In 2020, of course, we know that “witches” were simply social outcasts who couldn’t prove their innocence in a system designed to fabricate guilt. The author does not attempt to surprise the reader with this familiar revelation, but rather to explore the social conditions that make this phenomenon possible.

As such, Millwood Hargrave supplies the reader with very human, very compelling characters, a setting that’s practically a character in its own right, and a tale brimming with tension and emotion. The women feel both like people of their own time and neighbors you could have today (supposing you lived on a very cold and isolated island). They are strong and flawed, just doing their best to navigate life under the rules they’ve been given (as are we all). There’s a great LGBTQ+ relationship in this story, plenty of tragedy, and village’s worth of determination. I found the writing very immersive and enjoyed every page.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and yet even so I was not prepared to love it as much as I did. I believe this is the author’s first adult novel, but I’ll certainly be picking up more of her work in the future, including some of her YA content.

 

If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought! If you haven’t, do any catch your eye?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: One Day in December, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Institute

First off, apologies to anyone who wanted to share a comment on my last post and wasn’t able to, thanks to a WordPress glitch. I’ve corrected the post settings and the comment box is back now, so I’ll link it here just in case: Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question. (No worries if you don’t want to comment, of course.)

For today, I’ve got another set of short reviews. These don’t have anything in common except for the time period in which I read them, so feel free to skip around if you prefer.

onedayindecemberJosie Silver’s One Day in December is a popular romance novel that I received last Christmas and waited all year for the right time to pick it up! In the end, reading this between Christmas and New Year’s was really the highlight of my experience. It’s formatted as a set of New Year’s resolutions followed by snippets from the year, over the course of a decade.

Other than the perfect timing, a lot of this story just didn’t work for me. First, it’s the least romantic romance I’ve ever read. The main couple “meet” in the first five pages of the book by glimpsing each other through a bus window. This moment was supposedly important enough that neither of them are able to fully love anyone else afterward. Through ten years of narration, we follow both of them as they date various other people; the romance we’re unarguably supposed to be rooting for through nearly 400 pages doesn’t come together until the LAST PAGE of the book. So, no steamy scenes between the two of them, and for most of the interim they can’t even be honest or open with each other. (Where’s the romance?!)

To some extent, I appreciate the longer timeline and the messy relationships, but I didn’t feel that the author used this setup to develop much of a rapport between the two main characters. Both the man and the woman find excellent partners in these 10 years that I would have rather seen them with than each other, which is partially due to the fact that the reader simply spends more time with those couples than the main ship. Even with 390+ pages and ten years’ worth of plot, we don’t really get to know any of the main characters well enough. The writing is so much telling rather than showing, to the point where the characters remain completely unpredictable because they don’t exhibit clear personalities or motives. They seem more like vehicles to push us through this story rather than just, you know, being the story. This made it impossible to invest emotionally, a crucial flaw in a romance.

“Despite the fairy-tale snowstorm out there, this isn’t Narnia. This is London, real life, where hearts get kicked and bruised and broken, but somehow they still keep beating.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Full disclosure, I think I’ll end up lowering this rating after some time has passed. I had low expectations going in and picked it up at a time when I wanted something light and inconsequential so I didn’t hate the read, but I think it will be the complaints that stick with me most.

thekingdomofcopperI read S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, the first book in her Daevabad trilogy, almost an entire year ago, and I don’t think I did it justice in my (3-star) review. I remember my expectations not quite fitting what I actually knew about the book (that it’s the first in a Muslim, Middle Eastern high fantasy series), so that’s on me. I also remember feeling a bit disappointed in the use of a few tropes, which seemed to be driving the story in a predictable direction. Long story short, my expectations for The Kingdom of Copper were a bit wonky when I picked it up soon after, and I am now relieved that I set it aside in March and finished it in December. This was the better time for it in my reading life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot since this is a sequel, but in this second volume Chakraborty leaves the cliches behind and gives us three well-developed characters who are growing and changing in interesting ways, who are all brought together into the same conflict, on different sides of the issue. The magic and politics are intriguing, the world-building is excellent, and the characterization is absolutely superb- I found all three POVs equally engaging, which is rare and didn’t happen for me even in the first book of this series. If you enjoy adult high fantasy, this is really a stellar trilogy so far. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in The Empire of Gold (out in June 2020).

“I know what it’s like to have ambitions, to be the cleverest in the room- and have those ambitions crushed. To have men who are less than you bully and threaten you into a place you know you don’t belong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s my own fault, but it was definitely a bit jarring trying to jump back into this right in the middle. I think my ratings could definitely change (for the better) in a proper reread of all three books together.

theinstituteMuch to my surprise, after this buddy read went off the rails in early December, my friend and I suddenly decided to try finishing Stephen King’s The Institute in the last three days of the year (while also wrapping up other books)- and succeeded! Aside from that rewarding victory, this was a mixed bag for me.

On one hand, this started out so promisingly with an interesting ex-cop on an unhurried adventure, picking up an old-timey job in a random small town when struck with a whim. As soon as he’s settled in what is foreshadowed to be an important location to the overall plot, the narration switches to a genius boy of twelve who’s taking his SATs (as a formality) in preparation of beginning his college education at two elite schools- at the same time. But something happens that he doesn’t see coming- he’s kidnapped and taken to a secret facility in Maine where children with light psychic abilities are tested, used, and abused. Of course if anyone can figure out a way to stop what’s happening there, it’s the genius kid, and so a large turn of events is set in motion as soon as he arrives. Looks good, right? Unfortunately, it started unraveling for me about right at that point.

My biggest issue was simply that I didn’t buy it. The secret place where thousands of kids have been held captive over the course of 50+ years and used as psychic tools by conspiratorial adults could have been fantastic if it had been a bit more grounded and developed, but instead it feels like a quick sketch of an idea that’s not entirely thought out. There’s no nuance to the adults at this facility, they’re absurdly cruel and apathetic without reasonable explanations. The tests sound cool and retro (“shots for dots”) or provide a vivid image (the immersion tank), but they don’t make much sense. The plot is riddled with holes (it definitely shouldn’t have taken a genius to escape this place), the Stranger Things and even Miss Peregrine’s vibes are weak and doesn’t carry the story, the characters begin to feel less like people and more like plot devices the longer the book goes on. I also kept having to double check that this is set in modern day because the kids don’t speak and behave like modern day kids.

That’s a lot of complaining, but the worst part is King’s tone deafness. In The Institute he commonly refers to a group of kids as “gorks.” These are kids who’ve been kidnapped and abused to the point of essentially losing their minds, and it feels incredibly unfair of him to lump them together with such a thoughtless, hurtful term. Near the end of the book, there’s one character who tries to urge the others not to say “gorks” because its rude, but within two pages she admits it’s too hard not to, and everyone goes on using this term without another thought. This seems to indicate that King knew he would be called out for insensitivity, but either didn’t understand why or didn’t care enough to remove the offensive comments. (And I haven’t even started on how the one woman on the small town police force was “never cut out to be a cop.”)

I’ll leave The Institute at this: I like the core idea and the first third of the book was a 4- or even 5-star read for me, but the execution fell apart in the latter half. I hope King will continue to publish future novels, because I’d really like to see him do better, for old times’ sake.

“It was so simple, but it was a revelation: what you did for yourself was what gave you the power.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed bits and pieces, I enjoyed the buddy read experience (as always), but this one is going nowhere near my favorites list.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Dark Age

CW: murder, graphic violence (including torture), rape (off the page), use of nuclear weapons, planetary destruction

Disclaimer: Instead of a regular review (since this is the fifth book in a series) I’m going to use the opportunity of having recently finished reading Pierce Brown’s Dark Age to talk about the Red Rising series in general, and why I am reading it. So, no spoilers, and maybe this’ll be interesting even if you haven’t read any of the books in the series.

darkageBrown’s Red Rising series includes: Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star, Iron Gold, and Dark Age.

There are a lot of different factors that can motivate me to pick up a book (of course), but one thing I’m always looking for in what I read is something unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. A dystopian/fantasy with a male hero and themes of fighting for racial/social equality hardly sounds unique, but the Red Rising series has always possessed a certain level of grit that (in my opinion) sets it apart from similar stories of its genre(s). Despite a fair amount of casual sexism and ableism, which I find increasingly annoying as my reading taste shifts more toward feminism and female authors in general, Brown is the only author I read who can write a passage like this:

“I moan something in fear. There’s a lurch. A sudden pressure in my chest. He pulls away, his hand holding something red as he mouths a word dead to my ears. 

‘Worthy.’

Then he takes a bite of my heart.”

…and still leave me with room for doubt over whether this character is actually dead. Set thousands of years in the future, most of our main characters are Gold superhumans for whom surgery can fix almost anything that evolution has not already. There is a caste system, so the lower folk (lowColors) usually can’t afford to be fixed, and are worked to the bone by their superiors, but having a powerful friend can help even them. It really puts what is humanly possible and what is not humanly possible into a whole different realm.

Furthermore, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything with such a wide scope. Red Rising begins on Mars, as overflow from Earth has long since required the populating of additional planets, but the plot is mainly confined to two limited locations (a Red mine, and the Institute). As the series progresses, the plot moves farther into space. By Dark Age, we’re following world leaders who govern billions of citizens and are conducting a war between “Rim” planets and “Core” planets (though in actuality there are more than two sides taking up arms in the fray); the action is taking place in so many different places- even on ships between the planets- that the plot is just huge. Dark Age clocks in at over 750 pages, and probably at least 25% of its language (I’m obviously guessing, but it’s A Lot) is lingo specific to this series. The perspectives we’re following grant us access to whole armies, governmental bodies, and rulers with the power to end or save millions of lives with a single command; but they also give us individual humans with distinct motivations and emotions to remind the reader that no matter how big a character might seem with all their power, everyone is small in the face of the universe. The focus is craftily balanced between the very broad and the very narrow.

“Some men can stare at their feet and pretend the world isn’t falling apart. I cannot.”

And of course, the plot is utterly unpredictable. This is always a boon for me, as I find myself more frequently disappointed by authors I’ve loved in the past as their style becomes familiar to me. This has not been the case with Brown. The betrayals are brutal, the deaths are either horrific and described in minute, gory detail, or so abrupt and easy as to be almost comical. It’s meant to entertain at an epic level, but also to resonate with our own sense of humanity and the modern world.

Speaking of the modern world, Brown engages more and more with current politics as this series progresses. Gone is the simple cry for equality, and in its place, we see a much more nuanced presentation of many world issues feeding into each other. One of the topics Brown tackles in Dark Age is climate change and planetary destruction. Of course, in his universe, artists/architects have molded the environments of uninhabitable planets not only to make them livable but to mimic Earth’s rotational speed and thus fit humanity’s preferred cycle of time. Which is a statement in itself. Following that, we see a major battle on one small planet in which a “natural” storm is produced by one army to gain advantage over the other. The person at the controls experiences a moment of crisis and considers that increasing the storm to wipe everyone from both sides off of the planet might be the best way to turn the tide of the war, and for humanity at large. In addition, nuclear bombs are dropped on the planet in the spirit of “if we can’t have it, no one can.” All of this seems designed to make the reader think about our attitude toward our own planet these days. Earth is not one of the main settings for Dark Age or the larger series, but I think the point is clear enough. And this is just one aspect of the larger story.

“The waves crash all around the roots of the building. Both were made by man. Perhaps at first in hope, to give our species a new home to live and to love. But in time, I don’t know when, their creation became a vanity of will, and in the shadow of that vanity, man grew lesser for having more. Lesser for mastering the keys of creation, because he mistook himself for god, and cared less for his people, and more that his works endured.”

“The worlds cannot afford a man who wrecks a planet simply to win a battle.”

Ultimately, Red Rising is a high-tech political space drama series with a Latin / ancient Rome obsession, reflecting on the future fate of humanity. It practically requires its own dictionary- none is provided. (There is a cast list, but it shows only the house each person belongs to, no refreshers on their politics or past deeds.) Everything about this series is dense and demanding. Red Rising, the first (and shortest) novel, is certainly simpler, but even in Golden Son (the second novel) we begin to see where Brown is heading, and he really runs with it. I appreciate the challenge.

This isn’t going to be a favorite series for everyone. It’s niche, and it’s hard work. I can’t even tell you whether loving Star Wars or other space sagas is a good indicator here, because I really don’t read/watch any other space stories at the moment (other than Saga, the only story I know of that seems remotely similar, though much more readable). And honestly, I’m not sure this overview is doing much in the way of persuasion, but it’s just not a series I would recommend to everyone. I could do the usual spiel of assuring you it gets better after the first book, but forcing yourself to continue if you’re not enjoying these books is unlikely to work in your favor. And you need a strong stomach to survive Red Rising. There are impalements, flayings, live dismemberments and such in this most recent volume alone, and Brown doesn’t spare any details.

Some specific (non-spoiler) impressions of Dark Age, for anyone who has read the book: I found it very slow to start, with a few great moments but mostly political catch-up; and yet Brown ramps up the action in the end. As in Iron Age, we’re seeing multiple perspectives to glimpse different facets of the war; if I had to pick one, I think Lysander’s chapters interested me the most consistently in this volume. I was surprised by the return of a character I thought was dead (I shouldn’t have assumed this person was dead). I couldn’t bring myself to worry about Darrow with one more book on the horizon. Virginia’s new adversary seemed ridiculous at first, but I’m intrigued to see where Brown goes with it. I’m very interested in the Ascomanni, though I thought Brown’s writing of this “fairy tale” element seemed the weakest part of the novel- it felt rather shoehorned in. I’m also loving the mystery of “Figment.” I was disappointed with the lack of Sevro scenes, though.

“All that will be measured, all that will last, is your mastery of yourself.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was probably my least favorite book of the series so far, but I think the fact that I failed to reread any of the others to refresh my memory before diving into Dark Age made the read more challenging and emotionally distant for me than any of the others have been. I’m really hoping to reread a couple of the earlier titles before Book 6 comes out, but I said that last time. And I’d love to do a full series read at some point when everything is published, but it would feel like such a huge undertaking that I don’t know when it might happen. But, as I’ve made it this far, I’m still on board to read the final book of the series! I’m just really hoping it’s the final book this time. If this series goes on any longer, it’s going to feel like drama for the sake of drama, and I’m going to lose respect.

Have you read any of the Red Rising series? What did you like or dislike about it?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Storm of Swords

It took me 15 days to read all 1,000+ pages of George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, but I stuck with it. In all that time, I wasn’t sure whether I would end up posting a review for it, spoilery or non. But after spending half of my reading month on one book, I’ve finally decided that I do want to talk about this one, whether or not anyone is interested in following my (slow) progress.

A disclaimer before we get rolling: I’ve only read books 1-3 at this point, and I’ve only watched through half of the third season. PLEASE DON’T SPOIL ME! This will be a mostly non-spoiler review, in which I’ll talk only about the third book, but expect that I’ll be mentioning some events (vaguely) and characters who are still alive in the third book; if you want to avoid even that much info, please don’t read any further. If you’d rather check out my (also non-spoiler) reviews for A Game of Thrones or A Clash of Kings in the meantime, please do!

astormofswordsIn the novel, the Lannisters retain control of the Iron Throne in Westeros, doing their very best to knock other contending kings out of the running. Robb Stark has lost no battles, but can’t seem to hold his allies and lands. Stannis Baratheon has suffered a major defeat on the Blackwater, but refuses to relinquish his claim. The Greyjoys have made their move rather uncontested, but lack support. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen builds an army and watches her dragons grow. Tywin Lannister, official Hand of the King, plots to keep these enemies at bay, but even in King’s Landing chaos reins. King Joffrey’s commands win him no friends. The Tyrells and Martells could be powerful allies for the Lannisters, but are at each other’s throats instead. The Lannister children war with each other. No one is safe, and no one can be trusted. Meanwhile, Beyond the Wall, another king is on the move with plans to invade, and all of the Watch’s pleas for aid seem to be going unanswered…

” ‘Is it all lies, forever and ever, everyone and everything?’

‘Almost everyone. Save you and I, of course.’

I’ve already raved about the complex characters, politics, and world-building in my previous Song of Ice and Fire reviews (linked above), and those opinions hold steady through the third book, as well as my dislike of the way most women are represented as objects to be raped and/or stolen, and their general lack of rights. It feels redundant to examine them at length again, so I won’t be sharing more about those aspects in this review. Which will perhaps be more of a reflection.

What I do want to talk about are a few trends I noticed in this book that may be new elements, or may simply have been new observations of old elements that I wasn’t able to pick up on while reading books 1 and 2 (it’s been over a year since I read the earlier books in this series, in which time both my reading tastes and my critiquing abilities have changed).

The first is that there were far fewer surprises for me in this book than I remember discovering in the previous two volumes. To some extent, this may be due to mild spoilers I’ve been subjected to over the last year, and especially during the run of the final season of the corresponding TV series. Another explanation may be that this is such a middle-of-the-series book, and it shows; the scene has been set in the first two books, but it’s too early for anything climactic, so book three felt like Martin marking time, slowly moving his pawns a few short spaces across the board in preparation for bigger events to come. But ultimately, I think the biggest factor for fewer surprises stems from the fact that I’m growing accustomed to Martin’s writing. I can spot his foreshadowing a mile away. I can’t help noticing threads left mysteriously dangling, no matter what other distractions he provides in the foreground.  I’m familiar with the way he plays on the reader’s emotions or expectations by building up scenes or particular character dynamics right before he plans to upset them. I love trying to “crack” each author’s code in this way, but with at least two books (and hopefully four, in the end) left to read in this series, it’s also a bit disappointing to find predictability through familiarity with the writer’s style.

Which of course isn’t to say I saw everything coming, because I didn’t. In addition to quite a bit of foreshadowing, Martin does like to drop the occasional bomb that can’t be seen coming. The combination of both tactics keeps things interesting even for readers like me who begin to suspect they’ve cracked the code. I can’t say I experienced much boredom while reading, despite the sheer enormity of the book and the weeks I spent reading it exclusively. Each chapter adds something new and significant to the overall narrative, though like any book, some are certainly stronger and more memorable than others.

“Why won’t they let me be? I just need to rest, that’s all, to rest and sleep some, and maybe die a little.”

Which brings me to another frustrating trend I found in this book, for the first time while reading this series: some plot arcs, for some characters, have begun to feel rather unnecessary to the overall scheme of things. Of course I have plenty of pages left to read in the final books so it’s possible I’ll find more sense in some of these choices later on, but for now I’m confused. I’ll give one example (skip to the end of the paragraph if you want to avoid vague hints about one character’s plot line): Jon’s time Beyond the Wall. I was so excited when this plot arc began at the end of book 2 because of all the possibilities for nuanced alliances and betrayals, secrets he might learn, acts of sabotage he might commit… but then he reaches the wall again and Martin has not capitalized on any of those opportunities. Rather than nuance and fresh character dynamics, I felt as many of the other characters seemed to: that Jon was a poor actor who’d accomplished little other than survival in a situation where much more than his own life was at stake. He is able to issue a warning, but his knowledge of the enemy’s numbers proves irrelevant and he hasn’t gained any insight into their tactics. So much could have been made of this journey, but instead it felt like mere shuffling from one setting to another, and then a shuffle back to start. There were a couple of other situations I felt similarly about, but in the interest of not spoiling or confusing anyone with my vague rants I’ll keep them to myself for now.

One more trend, on a bit of a more positive note. This book, more so than I remember in books 1 and 2, is full of assumptions. What I mean is that Martin feeds different characters different bits of information, or no information at all, and lets them all reach their own conclusions. Some staunchly believe so-and-so to be dead, some staunchly believe so-and-so to be in such-and-such a location, etc. Martin often allows the reader to know when a character is expressing opinion rather than fact, but not in every case. I particularly enjoy this level of irony (and mystery), so this was a fun element for me.

“There is much confusion in any war. Many false reports.”

Of course, this is all compounded by an intriguing layer of magic. I do quite love the bits of magic infused throughout this world, though I will admit that a couple of times in A Storm of Swords it began to feel like a cop-out response to a difficult situation. I hope that impression does not continue.

Otherwise, I could go on and on about my favorite and least favorite characters, events I liked and didn’t, theories for what comes next, etc. But I think I’ll save more spoilery thoughts for a full series discussion when I’ve reached the end of the books- or at least, as many are published so far.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series that I have not given 5 stars, mainly for the reasons listed above: finding the foreshadowing is getting a bit overly obvious, and feeling that the book is overly long for the amount (or lack) of important twists occurring. But I’m still fully invested in this series, and looking forward to continuing. I’m currently watching season 3, and I intend to finish season 4 as well before I continue on to A Feast for Crows. Here’s a handy chart I’ve been referring to in order to help me decide how many episodes to watch, at what point in the reading process, if you’re interested in trying a similar approach or simply enjoy comparing the differences between the story’s mediums.

Do you watch / read the Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire series? What are your (non-spoilery!) thoughts so far?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The City of Brass

For some reason I didn’t really read fantasy in 2018, and I’m not sure why because I’ve always loved the genre. I’m a lot more particular these days about how tropes are used and whether plots are being recycled, but I still love the worlds and the politics and the adventures. So I’m committing myself to reading more fantasy in 2019. I started the year with Sawkill Girls, which felt a bit like Fantasy Lite, and now I’m onto also read S. A. Chakraborty’s Deavabad trilogy, starting with The City of Brass, which (as an adult fantasy with about 100 more pages) was a lot more intense. In a good way.

thecityofbrassAbout the book: Nahri lives an ordinary human life in Cairo. Well, normal except for the fact that she makes her living by stealing and conning and has an unusual talent for healing people. But all semblance of normalcy disappears when a ritual for banishing djinn from possessed bodies turns out to be less of a hoax than Nahri counted on. She accidentally summons a djinn who tells her that humanity is not her ancestral race. The two are chased back to magical Daevabad, where on the surface they are welcomed as esteemed guests of the royal family- Nahri is descended from a line of powerful and revered healers that were thought to be extinct, and her companion (Dara) is a renowned warrior of lore- but quickly find themselves trapped in a web of manipulations and deceit.

I guess I’ll start at the beginning.

When I first picked up The City of Brass, I had trouble getting into it. The writing is competent and descriptive but not at all flashy in the way that I usually expect from magical world-building. I wasn’t marking beautiful sentences because I wasn’t finding any.

Furthermore, the reason for the dispute between whether this is an adult or YA trilogy quickly made itself apparent- the two main characters who are the focus of the third-person narration (Nahri and Prince Ali) act like teenagers. One of them is a teenager. There’s no explicit content, other than a bit of scattered cursing. But the background information is very convoluted (there are two distinct groups referred to as Daeva, the words daeva and djinn seem like they should be interchangeable but are not, djinn cannot be separated from their relics but also djinn that are former slaves cannot be separated from their vessels, there was an infamous war and also a separate infamous rebellion, etc.) and much of the terminology is specific to this world. Mature teens could handle this book, but any reader who picks it up needs to be able to do some heavy mental juggling as a ton of world-building is laid out in this first volume. I actually had to use the glossary in the back of the book, which is unusual for me.

There is also a map of this magical land at the front, but I would’ve found a map of Daevabad much more beneficial.

But my biggest hang-up was worrying for almost half the novel that the story was turning out to be very trope-y and basic. I thought the writing weak when the djinn that Nahri summons waits to turn up *unexpectedly* until the banishment ritual is finished, Nahri has bribed her way into a shop, dined, and been kicked out, and is in the midst of taking a shortcut home through an enormous cemetery. Then he appears out of nowhere, just in time to help Nahri fight of the enemy that’s just about to attack with an army of ghouls. And of course, he’s very handsome and basically kidnaps her and in the course of their journey they become very attracted to each other. Meanwhile, in Ali’s perspective (who reminded me a lot of the prince from Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone), the young prince acts traitorously and makes mistake after mistake without personally taking any consequences. Early deaths lack emotional punch. Nahri feels very much like the “chosen one” and Ali feels on the brink of becoming a bland hero who always conveniently escapes real danger. An angsty love triangle seems imminent.

” ‘You weren’t so fond of me a week ago.’

He grumbled. ‘I can change my mind, can’t I?’ A blush stole into his cheeks. ‘Your company is not… entirely displeasing.’ He sounded deeply disappointed in himself.”

But about halfway through, things get interesting. Chakraborty doesn’t need flashy sentences- she’s got full command of this world and she turns it upside down a million times without letting any of her scaffolding topple. Relationships and politics are given depth and intriguing complications. People die. Secrets are outed. Unexpected alliances and enemies are made. Nahri, though she seems to be getting special treatment because of her family status, is actually being tested, and she’s failing. Dara has a lot more good and evil in him than he willingly shows. Ali faces real danger and sees real consequences. Everything that seemed simple turns out to be a mask or an outright lie.

” ‘I was also once a young warrior from the ruling tribe. It’s a privileged position. Such utter confidence in the rightness of your people, such unwavering belief in your faith…. Enjoy it.’ “

Although plot is maybe the wrong word to describe the way everything begins to unravel. This is very much a set-up book; it moves fairly slowly and is mainly focused on establishing the world, the motives of the various characters, and their connections to one another. There are few events, big or small. If you’re a reader who needs the first book of a series to blow you away, this may not be the trilogy for you. The Daevabad books require some patience, and some belief that a great payoff is worth the time it takes to get there.

I can’t end this review without talking about the fact that this is a Middle Eastern fantasy. The reason this is coming up so late here is because the cultural aspects had little impact for me. The call to prayer comes often, and at least one of the main characters is very religious, but that detail seems largely irrelevant to the story. Then there’s the fact that a prominent character states that the city’s religion (Islam) may have been adopted in Daevabad for political reasons rather than religious ones. The “tribes” are also on the verge of war with one another. As I’m fairly unfamiliar with abayas and feteers and the names for the different Muslim prayer times and traditions, their presence in the story came across mainly as just more unexplained terminology to wade through and I could only hope that their meaning would become clear enough in context. I wanted to learn about this area and its traditions while reading this book, but I don’t feel like I accomplished much of that. These details will probably have a lot more meaning to some readers than they did for me, but without a bit more explanation of their significance I fear a lot of the cultural influences were lost on me, which is really a shame.

But on another note, I thought the representation of strong women and non-binary characters was done well. Nahri leaves Cairo for a place with very different customs and expectations, and both she and her new acquaintances must find ways to accept each other and compromise where the other side won’t bend. She may not have come into her power fully yet, but she does stand up for herself. And there’s a hint of a great male-male romance on the horizon that I’m looking forward to a lot more than finding out which man Nahri is going to end up with. The straight romances revolving around Nahri seem like the weakest parts of this book, to be honest.

” ‘Don’t worry about my reputation,’ she said lightly. ‘I do enough damage on my own.’ “

I’m just so nervous about this series. It has a lot of promise, and if Chakraborty can pull it off I think these books will come to a phenomenal conclusion- but it’s going to be a tough balancing act to get there. There are a few more elements in The City of Brass that I’m unsure about, plot arcs that are just starting out now that could either go in a very good way or a very bad way, so I might have more to praise/complain about regarding this first book but I won’t know for sure until I see how it’s followed up in the next installment.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. All in all, The City of Brass was a very divided reading experience for me. The beginning was a solid 3 stars at best, and nothing that happened later has changed my opinion about the uninspired opening chapters. But the end was absolutely 5 stars and very promising as far as what’s coming next. I ordered the sequel the instant I finished reading- The Kingdom of Copper was JUST released, so I picked a great time to start The City of Brass. The jury’s still out on this trilogy for now- I have some predictions about where things are headed, and I’m definitely intrigued, but I can’t say based on this first book whether I’m invested in the entire trilogy yet. We’ll see what happens with book two. But either way, I’m fully committed to the fantasy genre once again.

Further recommendations:

  • If you like cultural fantasies that are somewhat trope-y and somewhat trop-defying, try Tomi Adeyemi’s Nigerian first-in-a-series fantasy novel, Children of Blood and BoneThis one’s YA, but I think it has a lot of similarities to The City of Brass and that fans of one will enjoy the other, and the sequel is set for release in a few months.
  • For more fantasy with fast(er) plotting and highly interesting character dynamics, don’t miss Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. If you like the juicy betrayals and close-kept secrets in The City of Brass, you’ll probably love this band of misfits and their long-con game. It’s sequel Crooked Kingdom is *almost* as good.

I’m way out of the loop in the fantasy game. Especially adult fantasy. Hit me with all the recommendations, please!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

Review: Sawkill Girls

My January TBR is basically my December book haul (plus a couple of library books), and luckily I ended up with quite a variety that’s helping me read more impulsively this year, despite the constriction of a monthly TBR system. I actually let a friend choose my first book of the year from my January TBR box, and she picked Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls, a creepy YA fantasy that I’ve been meaning to read and finally grabbed a copy of in December. It was a great choice to start the year with!

sawkillgirlsAbout the Book: Girls have been going missing for over a hundred years on the island of Sawkill Rock. Everyone has heard the stories about the island’s magical villain, but few know which pieces of the lore are true. Zoey, the local police chief’s daughter, won’t accept non-answers about her missing best friend any longer. Marion, new to the island, becomes much more involved in the mystery than she ever would have thought possible. And Val holds the secret of generations of missing girls- a secret she’s quickly losing control of. Relationships between the three girls are complicated at best, but they may be the island’s best chance at stopping the monster as his greed and strength increase.

“Girl-ghosts swarmed Val’s brain. She could hear nothing but their wails, calling for her damnation.”

Legrand tries so hard for atmosphere, but she tries a little too hard, in my opinion. She uses a lot of visual descriptions, heavy on the adjectives, in a way that made it impossible for me to see this world beyond the page. As engaging as I found the story to be, I could never quite forget that I was reading words and turning pages.

Which isn’t to say that the book is not atmospheric or that I didn’t love the story. What gives Sawkill Girls its perfect creepy vibe is the slow addition of magical elements throughout the entire first half of the novel. The opening of the story feels so present-day and normal that I was confused for a long time about why this book is considered fantasy. Even as the magic is introduced, it feels more like metaphor or magical realism than full-blown fantasy, though it does find its target in the end. But the small, unsettling, otherworldly details really worked for me in a way that the visual cues in the writing did not. Every time I thought I had this story and these characters figured out, Legrand would throw in a whole new layer of intrigue and possibility that upturned my every assumption. That was the technique that completely won me over.

“It wasn’t in her ears as much as it was in her bones, working its way out from the inside. It vibrated in her marrow as though her entire self teemed with tiny borrowing bugs. Like summer cicadas buzzing in the trees at dusk, the cry droned.”

There were a few times when I thought the magical elements (especially Marion’s bone-cry, described above) made the girls’ sleuthing efforts a bit too convenient, but these were small moments of doubt and nothing more. Mostly, I bought into the magic and the ways that the three main characters discovered both the hidden secrets of their world, and the burgeoning powers within themselves.

Speaking of power, though this is indeed a fantasy book (despite whatever first impressions it gives), it is also very feminist and queer. Though there’s no real reason given for the monster’s need for young female victims, there is so much commentary about how these girls are strong enough to stand up for themselves and change the cycle. There are girls who like girls, girls who like boys, girls who don’t like sex at all. They all are given a voice and an audience.

“Marion couldn’t imagine a God like the one she’d grown up hearing about- some man sitting in the clouds, maneuvering the pieces of the world to suit his whims because he, of course, knows best. But she could imagine a God in the shape of an island crowned with trees, brooding in the middle of a black sea.”

One thing that didn’t work for me, both structurally and in the realm of Sawkill’s magic, was that the island itself is alive in a way. “The Rock” has its own perspective chapters woven between those of the three main characters- only a page or two at a time, scattered sparsely through the novel, but ultimately these seemed overly mysterious and gimmicky, and completely unnecessary to the overall story. The girls learn enough about Sawkill Rock and the history of its most notable inhabitants throughout the course of the novel that the Rock perspectives don’t add any vital information. I much preferred seeing the Rock through the girls’ eyes to seeing them through it.

Speaking of perspectives, I started out enjoying each of the three girls’ chapters, but about halfway through the book I’d had enough of Zoey. She’s a bit abrasive, and I didn’t always agree with the way she treats the people she loves. She wants to be accepted as the asexual, non-white, loud girl character that she is, and she should be, but the way she lashes out against her father, whose mistakes were well-intentioned, and Marion, whose crime is loving someone that Zoey despises, seem as inconsiderate as she’s accusing them of being. She’s constantly ignoring Grayson when he’s justifiably concerned, and expecting his help when she doesn’t seem to be returning the favor. She’s not all bad, of course; I think this comes down to a case of preferring one character (or in this case two) out of the perspective options- they rarely come out balanced completely even.

But I never did tire of the plot. The mystery and the obvious peril created by Sawkill’s monster kept me hooked until the very last page.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though clearly I had a few hang-ups, this book was a great start to my 2019 reading. I want to read a bit more YA and a bit more fantasy this year than I did in 2018, and Sawkill Girls made me excited for more of both. I’m on the fence about trying Legrand’s other big publication, Furyborn, as its premise doesn’t appeal quite as much to me as Sawkill Girls did, but I will be keeping an eye out for future Legrand publications!

Further recommendations:

  • Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is a great next read if you love teen girls fighting back against the men who hurt/kill them. There are plenty more animals in The Female of the Species for Legrand readers who love the horses of Sawkill Rock, though there aren’t any actual fantasy elements. There is still murder and danger and plenty of challenged stereotypes, and it’s a good (slightly heartbreaking) time.

What’s your favorite YA standalone fantasy?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Subjectivity and Books

For over a year now, I’ve been slowly making my way through a Twilight saga reread at the pace of one chapter per day, on days I feel up to it. The purpose of the reread is to note how my reading tastes and critiquing abilities have changed in the last 10 years. By this point, I realize that I’m also reading so that I can box these books away– the Twilight saga was important to me once, but I don’t think I will ever be reading it again. For a shameless hoarder, I’m surprised by how happy I am to be saying goodbye to an entire series.

I’ve always thought there are (arguably) two reasons to read a book– for merit, or for enjoyment. Sure, sometimes the two overlap, and sometimes a reader is disappointed to stumble upon a dud that fits into neither of those categories. And of course, reading is highly subjective. One person will find art in a book that another will not, a plot arc will be enjoyable to one reader and boring to another. And yet, I picked up Eclipse this year without expecting to find merit in the story or have much fun with it– I expected to learn about myself. I can’t say that I’ve ever read with that intent before outside of assigned biology textbooks and the like, but here we are.

eclipseI suppose the first time my twelve year-old self read Twilight she thought there was merit in that book. I believe it was the first book about vampires I had read, the first book with an “awkward” narrator, the first book that was almost entirely about the romance. And it was also a major phenomenon at the time that all of my friends bought into, which was hard to resist.

I’ve always been loyal reader. I forget characters and plot and details easily, but I remember forever how I felt about a book. For a long time, I’ve remained loyal to my first bookish impressions, and am finally submitting to the possibility that while first impressions are important, they don’t need to dictate a my entire future with a book. Just because I loved Twilight in my embarrassing tween years does not mean I need to love it forever. But nor do I need to bury that experience so deeply that I can pretend that past naïve version of myself did not exist. I can grow from this.

Even when I was eventually convinced that the Twilight saga’s merit stemmed from its ability to generate a wide YA audience and start a sort of revolution for better teenage books, I still found enjoyment in the series. As I mentioned, I’m a loyal reader. Even last year when I began rereading Twilight, I found some enjoyment in the nostalgia for a long-gone era of my life and the magic that I thought I saw in this series when reading it for the first time. But now, three books in, I’m resigned to changing my mind. Eclipse was my favorite book in the Twilight saga in all of the years that I could say I still remotely liked these books. This time, Eclipse has been my least favorite read of the series so far. I find Jacob’s behavior in this volume abhorrent, Edward and all of his controlling issues boring, Bella at once overdramatic and spineless. The love triangle feels forced, the villains are hardly present in the story, and the romance no longer makes sense to me.

It’s hard to admit I may have been wrong about a book or series. It’s hard because if I was wrong once, if I need to change my mind about this one thing, how can I rely on all of my previous opinions about all of the other books I’ve read? Should I reread everything? But what if in another ten years I’ve grown enough mentally that my opinion will no longer match what it is even now? Would I have more accurate results if I simply reread the same book over and over and over until I die, noting every nuance of every opinion on every reread and trying to form one solid opinion from that massive log of data? How can I trust anyone else’s reviews when I can’t even trust my own?

The time when you read a book for the first time matters. Everything matters– your personal background, your present circumstances, the list of every book you’ve ever read before, including the ones you can’t exactly remember. Everything influences your reading of a book, to the extent that even if you reread a book immediately after finishing it the first time, you will no longer be the same person with the same opinion about that same book that you were a week ago. A review, a rating, a private impression of a book– these are snapshots that reveal as much about the reader as the text. And that is why, despite the fact that it seems an older version of myself cannot “trust” my earlier reviews, I will continue to rate and review and add to my mental store of impressions about the books I read. They’re a documentation of my reading life, and of my self.

Admitting that I no longer find any merit or enjoyment in Eclipse is a change for me (though admittedly, I’ve been completely avoiding the subject ever since I began to suspect this might be the case). Allowing myself to accept that I simply no longer feel the same about a book as I once did is a bigger change, an alteration that shows how my experience with books has changed even in the year since my post about rereading Twilight (you can also check out my thoughts on rereading New Moon this past spring). These are good changes, I think, and I’m glad that such a dismal reread inspired such a level of introspection. Perhaps there is merit in reading a book that has no merit in itself.

I do intend to continue this series reread with The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner (a between-the-books novella) and Breaking Dawn, at the same rate of one chapter per day on days that I’m interested. And I hope that those rereads will be just as fruitfully self-reflective, before they free up some much-needed space on my shelves.

Do you have a hard time rereading books that you think you’d feel differently about after time has passed? Is it easier to accept a positive opinion change, or a negative one?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant