Tag Archives: fantasy

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

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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

Review: Because You Love to Hate Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s your favorite villain?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: City of Heavenly Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s your favorite YA fantasy author?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Hobbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant