Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: The Queen of the Tearling

Erika Johansen’s popular NA/adult fantasy trilogy starts with: The Queen of the Tearling, a beautiful book inside and out. I had been putting off reading this trilogy because I wanted to have them all in matching paperbacks on my shelf before I started. But this book tied for the win in my Choose My Next Read interactive post for June, so I read it by request, and I’m so glad I did.

thequeenofthetearlingAbout the book: Kelsea, sole heir to the Tearling throne, has been raised by a foster family for most of her life. 18 years have passed between the death of her mother, the infamous Queen Elyssa, and Kelsea’s own coronation. When the Queen’s Guard arrives on her nineteenth birthday at the cottage where Kelsea and her adoptive parents have been hiding on the outskirts of the Tearling kingdom, she has no choice but to go with them and rule the Tearling for as many days as she can survive. Between the assassins, her greedy uncle who wants the throne for himself, the mysterious and dangerous Fetch who takes matters into his own hands, and the powerful Red Queen of the neighboring kingdom with her sights set on making the Tearling bow down before her, Kelsea’s chances of survival are slim. The kingdom is in shambles–the bad guys want to take advantage and win control for themselves, and the good guys are so cautious about preventing further damage that unless Kelsea can prove herself a powerful force for good, she’s in danger even from the people that should be on her side. It will take a miracle to right all the wrongs in the Tearling–is Kelsea that miracle, or is she just a lost girl who’s been lied to all her life?

“The future was only the disasters of the past, waiting to happen anew.”

About the layout: the entire book is written with third person narration that primarily follows our main character, Kelsea, but also shifts to focus on other characters who are crucial to the central action of the story.

Kelsea makes a great main character. She’s not quite a “chosen one” in the typical way that a seeming nobody is plucked from obcurity and placed on a pedestal, but she is thrust into responsibility and expected to save the entire kingdom. She’s intelligent and brave, though she’s clearly inexperienced; it’s a great balance of power and naivité.

“If there was a God, he would feel like this, standing astride the world. But Kelsea was terrified, sensing that if she wanted to break the world in half she could do it, of course she could, but there was more here than she knew. Everything came with a price.”

My favorite parts of the book, though, may have been the sections that were not focused on Kelsea. Every now and then there appears a section focused on an alternative point of view, highlighting a character who’s important but standing on the periphery of the main action. These sections never fail to impress by proving that characters who could have been rather flat are actually full of personality and unique motivations. This is a multi-faceted tale that’s well-thought-out and intriguing from every angle.

Beyond the characters, this is a high fantasy trilogy that’s set in the future of the modern world, which blends fact and fiction in an interesting way. The Tearling seems like a whole new made-up land, but every now and then there are references to real places and details known from our present world. Mostly these familiar details take the form of real-life countries and places, and real-life literature. Rowling’s books get a direct reference, and Tolkien’s. They’re small details, but they give the whole book an extra shot of reality that keeps the reader a little more personally invested.

“Even a book can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and when that happens, you blame the hands, but you also read the book.”

I also appreciate the way magic works in this book. So many times in fantasy, magic is something that comes unexpectedly from within a person and it appears in fairly predictable ways–but in The Queen of the Tearling, magic is not widely understood or expected and it’s linked to the Tearling sapphires rather than Kelsea herself.Very few characters seem to understand the significance of the sapphires or their power, and Kelsea is not among them. The magic the sapphires possess is a force of its own, affected by her anger but almost a character in its own right. The power is something that Kelsea borrows rather than possesses, which is refreshing.

“She’d checked her sapphires often, but they simply hung there, heavy and cold. For today, at least, they were only jewels.”

The only aspect that I might find complaint with was the passage of time. There are a few specific deadlines that are significant in the story, mostly revolving around the “shipments” that the Red Queen demands, which make the reader want to keep track of the timeline of events in the book, but each new section of narration often jumps into the meatier parts of the action before clues are given regarding how much time has passed since the last segment. It’s not impossible to follow, but it’s a little more difficult than it needs to be.

A warning: there are some graphic scenes, and references to rape. The violence of the book is bloody and deadly, but usually takes the form of quick self-defense. The rape discussions are never actual scenes of rape, but rather stories about crimes past. None of these moments are particularly unreadable, but they’re meant to make the characters (and the readers) uncomfortable with the ways of life that have settled in the kingdoms at this time. I believe the point of the trilogy is for these wrongs (and others) to be eliminated, but in the meantime there are some of these uncomfortable elements occuring in the background.

This is a series, though, where the bad guys tend to get what’s coming to them.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I knew I would like this book, though I’d heard that there were a lot of politics to it and that always makes me hesitate. Sometimes politics bore or confuse me, but nothing about this book bored or confused me. I would definitely say that it’s advanced enough not to be a YA book, but there are probably teens who could comfortably read it anyway. I wish I had read this sooner, although I do appreciate being able to read all the books at once instead of waiting for publication dates. I’m definitely going to be reading book two, The Invasion of the Tearling, in the very near future.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like adult high fantasy with multiple perspectives, check out Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism, which is the first book in the Lightbringer series. This is also a book about a kingdom on the verge of disaster, but the villain is slippery and hard to pinpoint because everyone in the book is morally gray.
  2. If you’re looking for a fantasy book with a strong female lead in the NA age range, try Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first book in a trilogy full of oppressed faeries and the mortal girl who may be able to save them all, but could very likely lose herself in the process.

What’s next: I’m going to be reading Sarah Healy’s upcoming (June 27) release, The Sisters Chase this weekend. It’s one of my Book of the Month Club picks for June, and it’s not on my official TBR for the month, but it’s what I’m in the mood for. It’s a gritty tale about two sisters whose parents have died and left them to fend for themselves–they’re fiercely protective of each other but make many questionable choices as they juggle the past and future and travel across the country.

A reminder: there are still just a few hours left to check out the July edition of Choose My Next Read and vote for a book you’d like to see me review next month!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Dorothy Must Die

I’ve been a Wizard of Oz fan since I was a young child watching Judy Garland on a home-recorded VHS tape. I watched it enough times that I could still tell you where all the commercial breaks came into the story. So when I started reading YA again a couple years ago and found out about Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, I had to pick it up.

About the book: Amy Gumm lives in a dorothymustdietrailer home with her pill-popping mother, who seems to have tired of Amy and most everything else. She’s bullied at school, friendless, and more than a little stuck in Dusty Acres. Enter: tornado. Of course, Amy’s heard the traditional story of Oz, but when she wakes up on the roof of her upside-down trailer and scampers out just before it falls into a bottomless pit, Oz is unrecognizable. A strange boy gets her started on her way, but he leaves her with more questions than answers. So does everyone else Amy meets, for that matter. Everything in Oz is different than what she imagined because Dorothy’s defeat of the Wicked Witch of the West and return trip to Kansas was only half the story–now Amy is learning that Dorothy came back and took over Oz. She turned ruthless, and took her famous friends with her. Now the Wicked of Oz are fighting to remove Dorothy from power, but even if their plans are for the good of Oz, it’s still murder they’re considering, and they’re still Wicked. In a land where everyone seems to be tied to villainy of some sort, who can Amy trust? She’ll have to decide, because even if she knew how to get home, she might not want to.

“If this was a fantasy, it was a strange one: this wasn’t the Oz I had read about or seen in the movie. It was as if someone had drained out some of the Technicolor and introduced some serious darkness.”

Best aspect: the intriguing plot. Dorothy Must Die is not one of those retellings that’s basically the same story as the original with a modern twist–it’s a whole new story of what comes after the famous tale of Oz. It is original content full of familiar faces, though no one turns out as expected. Major points for imagination.

“Wickedness is part of Oz. It’s part of the order of things. It’s always been the Good versus the Wicked. Magic can’t exist without Goodness. Goodness can’t exist without Wickedness. And Oz can’t exist without magic.”

Worst aspect: the over-simplified narration. First, before our main character Amy goes to Oz, she’s a bullied high schooler, neglected by the adults in her life. The opening scenes of this book feel so staged, so transparent as a set-up for Amy’s unhappy life in Kansas that they come across as ridiculous. What high school girl’s popularity is re-enforced by pregnancy? When does a principal suspend a student for fighting without asking for both sides of the story? What mother voices concern about a tornado and then leaves her child alone and unsafe in a trailer? So many of these details are obviously supposed to show the reader that Amy is alienated in her community, but they’re not presented well. The characters in the early pages of Dorothy Must Die seem to exist only for the sake of being cruel. Other characters seem to have no purpose at all.

“He looked at me like I was the dumbest person alive. ‘You have to stop asking those kinds of questions,’ he said. ‘You know exactly how we got out here.’ Of course I knew. It was the same as the answer he’d given before. ‘Magic,’ I said under my breath, without even really meaning to.”

But there’s more: the narration is also full of unnecessary questions and slow acquisition of information. Amy, our narrator, pieces things together excruciatingly carefully, showing every step of the simple journey from point A to point B. She’s not the only one though, who draws things out. Everyone is keeping secrets that make the narration more convoluted than necessary. This book could seriously benefit from a good culling of excess words. Here’s an example of how long it takes for characters to get to the point:

” ‘Some magic shoes would really come in handy right about now, huh?’ I said.

‘Seriously. Maybe…’ He stopped himself.

‘Maybe what?’

‘It’s nothing. It’s just–there might be one more person who…’

‘Who?’ I asked eagerly.

‘No,’ he said. ‘It would never…’

‘Who?’

He spoke with finality this time. ‘No. It won’t ever work.’

‘Please,’ I said. ‘Whatever you can do. Please just try.’

Pete nodded. ‘Okay,’ he said. “I’ll ask. But it’s a long shot. It’s the longest shot.’

Dorothy Must Die leaves little room for the reader to make assumptions or piece together clues. It comes across to me as the sort of narration one would find in a middle grade book where readers need more guidance, but there’s some profanity, and some remarks about pregnancy and torture and other more adult themes that make the book inappropriate (in my estimation, at least) for readers of that age range.

The upside: the narration does improve eventually. The incessant questions cease, but the narration is still a little bogged down with secrets and speculations instead of concrete details. The plot contains so many shocking twists and turns throughout, but the greatness of the plot is mired down in its disappointing execution. But at least by the end of this first volume we’re seeing the characters making their own choices for their own reasons, which is a step up from where this story starts.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Although I didn’t like the way the story was told, I am still interested in the premise, and I already have the second book in the series on hand. I’m not sure at this point if I’ll buy or borrow the third and fourth books or quit early, but I will at least read book two. Eventually. This is the sort of series that feels like one story broken into episodes, rather than distinct stories, which means that there won’t be much of a conclusion to most of the plot threads until the end of the series. This is primarily why I want to read onward–for closure.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, first book (in chronological order): The Magician’s Nephew. If you’re looking for a magical story of children traveling to a troubled land, with less beating-around-the-bush in the narration, this series is a great choice for readers of all ages. In the first book, two children accidentally happen upon a gateway to alternate worlds and let a villain from one dying realm loose in another that’s just beginning.
  2. If you like retellings of familiar stories full of powerful villains and plenty of magic (not to mention a little romance), Marissa Meyer’s Cinder and the rest of the Lunar Chronicles fit the bill. Meyer’s books also feature a simple and drawn-out narration, but there’s plenty of action and emotion. In the first book, cyborg Cinder must escape her evil stepmother’s clutches to help the mysterious prince fight a deadly disease running rampant through the country and ensure her own (as well as all of humanity’s) survival.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling, the first book in an NA/adult fantasy trilogy. Newly crowned Queen Kelsea is thrust into her leadership role and learns just how much of the politics and personal family history her adoptive family have left out of her training. She’s got a giant target on her back and nowhere to hide–and maybe no one she can trust, even in her own kingdom.

P. S. If you haven’t checked it out yet, head over to my Choose My Next Read: Round 2 post to vote for a book you’d like to see me read and review in July! Votes count until Friday.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Book of Life

I’ve been (voraciously) reading Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy this month, and now I’ve reached the end of the final volume: The Book of Life. No spoilers for book three in the review below, but please read both A Discovery of Witches (book one) and Shadow of Night (two) before continuing below.

thebookoflifeAbout the book: Matthew and Diana are running out of time–the Congregation is closing in, their enemies uniting, and the Book of Life seems more impossibly lost than ever. More secrets are uncovered, threatening to divide even trusted friends. Phillipe’s blood vow that marks Diana as a de Clermont must be recognized by her adoptive siblings or be lost forever in insignificance. With tyrannical Baldwin nosing into affairs as the head of the de Clermont family and Marcus taking lead as the grand master of the Knights of Lazarus, Matthew must follow orders instead of give them. Diana, pregnant with twins, is more vulnerable than ever, but while Matthew settles matters regarding the future of his family she must seek the book alone, both of them simply hoping against all odds for the best. If they don’t find the manuscript and secure enough support by the time the twins are born, the births may be a death sentence for them all.

“I see you, even when you hide from the rest of the world. I hear you, even when you’re silent.”

First, I want to take a break from the complaints I’ve had about these books and say that this was the story I’ve been waiting for since I opened the cover of book one. Here are some of the reasons this book seems so superior to its predecessors:

  • The dialogue is more abundant, and more excellent. All of the important characters from every scattered time and place that Diana and Matthew have been are coming together. Every conversation is rife with discord and excitement that unfolds in delicious banter.
  • There are more perspectives. Diana and Matthew are still the main focus, but we see their piece of the story as one part of the whole. Again, all of the significant characters are back, and Matthew and Diana are finally sharing center stage in a way that’s beneficial to the story as a whole.
  • The pacing has increased–by which I mean, no more long descriptions of wine and food and furniture. Instead of hundreds of pages of thoughts and planning, the events of this book move adeptly from one plot point to the next in constant forward motion.
  • Matthew is getting his protectiveness/dominance under control. He’s got more progress to make, but he’s proving that it’s possible and he’s working toward it.

“Don’t worry. Matthew won’t be able to stay away for long. It’s one thing to wander in the darkness because you know no different, but it’s quite another to enjoy the light only to have it taken from you.”

I absolutely devoured this book. The plot and characters are more exciting. There are improvements in the layout–the aforementioned multiple perspectives, as well as sections divided by blurbs about the zodiac signs that foreshadow the next chapters. Mysteries are at last being solved instead of multiplied. There’s an actual villain, rather than a vague idea of “many people won’t like this, they might get organized and become a problem.” But, alas, for all its successes, The Book of Life is not perfect.

The biggest issues I have with this final volume are threads left dangling. Though the story as a whole is concluded adequately, a few matters are left open-ended. For some books, this is a great possibility for an ending. But generally, to keep the reader satisfied, open-ended questions must be guided with clear A, B, and maybe C options so the reader can choose a side and still feel that the story has come full circle. This book doesn’t even present options for some of its unanswered questions.

For example: what becomes of Gallowglass? Something is revealed about him in The Book of Life that helps explain his willingness to aid Matthew and Diana’s quest for the manuscript. When that secret becomes a problem, he just disappears. By the end of the book, the problem has not gone away, and there’s still no sign of Gallowglass, who has become a significant character.

Additionally, there’s a big vote held by the Congregation that is supposed to decide whether Matthew and Diana are to be helped on a certain matter. I won’t give more details about the specifics of the vote, and I won’t even say which way the vote goes. But after the suspenseful verdict has been reached, there seems to be no indication of help or hindrance from the Congregation on the matter in question. What was the purpose of the vote, in that case? How will that affect all the other matters they’re still voting on at the end of the story? The Congregation and its future is left irritatingly vague.

And finally, there’s the biggest unanswered question of all: what the heck is going to happen with Matthew and Diana’s epic romance in light of the fact that one of them is immortal and the other is not? The only clear detail surrounding Diana’s mortality is the fact that she will probably not become a vampire. But is there some other way to extend her life? Are they both just going to accept that she’s going to live a few more decades and then Matthew will carry on alone? Can he even carry on alone? The Book of Life was rumored to hold secrets about the philosopher’s stone, which grants some sort of immortality. Is that a philosophical immortality alone–the answer to the continued survival of their species? Or is there some way for Diana’s longevity to be increased? There are too many questions left. Even if she’s satisfied with her mortality and everyone’s planning to let her die peacefully at the end of her mortal life, I wanted to read that answer in these pages. Instead, I’m left wondering how Diana’s longevity apparently went undiscussed through three long books in which Matthew is constantly consumed with worry about her safety. I cannot fathom why this isn’t properly addressed by the end of the trilogy. I needed more closure.

“Did you know that nothing you see on the Internet ever dies, Diana? It lives on and on, just like a vampire.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I haven’t been this obsessive about a guilty pleasure series since I read all of the Outlander books over a year ago. In a lot of ways, Harkness’ books remind me of Gabaldon’s. This third volume is by far my favorite, and I would recommend that if you have any interest in this series at all you should stick it out through the first two and be sure to pick this one up. I’m glad I did.

Further recommendations:

  1. Let me reiterate my recommendation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for Deborah Harkness fans. It’s got as many possible similarities as I believe two series can have while narrating different subjects. Outlander is a cross between romance, history, and magic, like the All Souls trilogy. There’s even a would-be pickpocket apprehended and turned family, like Jack. There’s torture and politics and treason and travel. If you like A Discovery of Witches, pick up Outlander. The third book in this series also is especially worth the time it takes to get there.

What’s next: I’m currently finishing up with Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, a crazy YA tale about a backwards Oz and Amy Gumm, the second girl to leave Kansas via tornado. I’ll have a review posted soon, and it’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming from there. Meaning I’m finally back to my original June TBR after my All Souls divergence!

Do you prefer reading books of a series back to back, or with breaks between volumes? I generally prefer breaks, to savor the series more, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Shadow of Night

Despite some issues I had with Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, I was addicted enough to throw part of my June TBR out the window to binge on the series. So instead of reading anything I actually had planned for this month, I stopped what I was in the middle of as soon as I made it back to my library to check out book two in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy: Shadow of Night. It’s a guilty pleasure read for me, and I often find it best to just gorge on those to get them out of my system, so here we are. (Warning: there are spoilers from book one ahead.)

About the book: Matthew and Diana shadowofnightare still searching for answers and fighting for the right to love each other. Book one left them on the verge of time travel to 1590, with the surprising knowledge that they might be able to conceive children together. Now, back in Matthew’s past, future Matthew has to juggle all of his 1590 responsibilities that he thinks will lead to helpful connections in their ongoing searches for Ashmole 782 and a teacher for Diana. He insists on taking the lead, and makes some questionable choices which threaten not only the pair’s survival but the peace between them. Diana sets out to make connections of her own, and finds new friends and enemies in the process. Neither of them are sure when they should try going back to their own time, or if it’s even possible with Diana’s current skill level. As past and present collide, vampire and witch are tested anew–they must decide what they can afford to lose, and fight to the last  breath for what they can’t.

Stop regretting your life. Start living it.”

About the layout: This book is divided into parts, which mostly feature Diana (in the first person) and Matthew (in the third) on their many adventures. At the end of each part is a chapter featuring a different perspective from the present (circa 2010). These sections provide clues and connections between our main characters in the past and the ongoing story line in the “future,” but they’re confusingly brief. New characters are introduced only to be shuffled out of significance for the rest of the book. Perhaps they’ll be back in the final volume, but either way the amount of page time given to each of them seems odd–I think they’ve been given too little attention if they’re going to be significant, and too much if we’re already done with them. I think there’s real potential for this series in opening up the narration to multiple points of view, but that potential goes unrealized in this volume.

“Change is the only reliable thing in the world.”

Let’s examine the mystery of Matthew’s power. I dislike instances in fantasy when a supposedly powerful being calls on the influence he’s got stored up from the past and provides little to no evidence of how he became so influential in the first place. In these first two books, Matthew is calling in old friends, using his standing and money and family sway to win victories–but how did he become so intimidating in the first place? There seems to be no indication of how Matthew earned his high status in the creature world, which makes him seem less powerful than everyone claims. It’s a discrepancy of balance that goes back to the “show don’t tell” rule of writing. The single murder he committed in book one didn’t explain to me why even vampires are intimidated. I, for one, need more proof that he can back up his threats.

“Stop worrying about what other women do. Be your own extraordinary self.”

There are times when this book seems like it wants to be a feminist kick-ass tale of a female witch mastering impressive power. I’m not sure if it’s the traditionally possessive vampire in the story or something else entirely that prevents it, but Diana doesn’t present as a strong, independent woman, no matter how often Matthew tries to insist she is. Despite the words being spoken, there are so many instances that prove otherwise–for instance, there is a scene in this book when Diana finds herself alone and threatened, and in that time she seems capable of fighting for herself–but as soon as a would-be rescuer arrives, she’s eager to give the fight to someone else. It’s frustrating that she could be strong player but is always so eager to be rescued.

“There were times when Matthew behaved like an idiot–or the most arrogant man alive.”

And there’s the truest statement in this book. Matthew is bossy and domineering, always making assumptions and decisions for his underlings. But the narration seems to understand that he’s making bad choices and acting like a pompous ass, which suggests to me that Matthew will also realize it at some point and change his ways. It would help if Diana didn’t put up with it, but I keep thinking that eventually he’s going to learn he can’t rule the world–and then he could be a pretty great character. In the meantime, he’s almost a villainous love interest, and his most compelling aspect is his horde of secrets.

Additional small annoyances:

  • Vampire servants. Why would anyone want to spend their immortality serving someone else? I’m not saying it’s not possible, but what’s the reasoning?
  • Multiple marriages. How many times can one couple be married in different ways and then say “this time we’re really married” before the reader can no longer stand it? I’m setting the limit at four.
  • Difference in life spans. This is an interesting dilemma, but I’m still waiting for the narration to address the fact that Matthew is immortal and Diana is not.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I didn’t like this one quite as much as A Discovery of Witches, though it had some different pros and cons. I didn’t meant for this whole review to become a rant about the dissatisfying aspects because I did like some things about it–spoiler things that I don’t want to mention. I have a new favorite character who appears unexpectedly in this book, for example. But in my opinion sequels are hardly ever as good as books one and three, and I think that’s the case with this trilogy. I’m still determined to read book three and hopeful that it will be an improvement. I’ll probably be delving into it sooner rather than later.

Further recommendations:

  1. Bram Stoker’s Dracula would be a good choice for fans of Deborah Harkness’ books. I hesitate to recommend books I haven’t read (yet), but this one’s mentioned within the text of Shadow of Night, and I feel confident recommending the quintessential vampire story. Dracula is my classic of the month for October, but reading this trilogy has left me eyeing the book on my shelf lately with more longing than usual, and I think it would make a perfect companion to this vampire-filled trilogy.
  2. Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses is the first book in a faerie romance series with some strong comaprisons to the All Souls trilogy. The creatures in this one are more fantastical than the traditional vampires, witches and daemons in Harkness’ books, but the characters and their fight for love and answers strike some similar chords.

What’s next: Yesterday I started reading both Harkness’ The Book of Life, the final book in the All Souls trilogy, and Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, from my actual June TBR. Dorothy Must Die is a YA tale about a backwards Oz and a new heroine from Kansas who must set things back to rights before Dorothy gets too carried away. These will be my next two reviews, in undetermined order.

What do you do when your TBR goes off the rails? Do you push it back on the track or go wherever the train takes you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now read my review of the next book in this series, The Book of Life!

Review: A Discovery of Witches

I’ve always enjoyed fantasy books, and  every now and then I have a craving for vampires–they’re such tortured souls. Immortality, apparently, can be burdensome.  I found Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches at my library recently, and although it turned out not at all as I’d expected, I realized pretty quickly that I was in it for the long haul. (This is the first book in the All Souls Trilogy, each volume hovering just under 600 pages.)

It begins with absence and desire…It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches.

About the book: Diana Bishop is a historian. adiscoveryofwitchesShe’s also a witch. Her parents–more witches–died brutally when she was seven, an event which convinced her of the dangers of magic, and prompted her to abandon hers. As an adult witch pretending to be human, she’s researching old alchemical texts for a keynote speech in Oxford, resisting the urge to use her buried sixth sense to learn more about the ancient manuscripts she studies. But she stumbles upon one volume that practically drips magic from its seams–and in handling it, she moves one of the biggest mysteries of her world into focus. As a horde of “creatures” flock to the library–and ultimately to Diana–to learn more about the book and gain access for themselves, her lack of control over her magic becomes a problem and she’s thrust into danger she doesn’t understand and can’t fight. The first vampire on the scene, Matthew Clairmont, understands better than everyone else that to open the ancient, lost book means protecting Diana–the only person who’s been able to access it in centuries. Love between species is forbidden by law, but something much more ancient and inevitable is at work with Matthew and Diana. The unlikely pair must find answers in each other, as the world around them crackles with erupting secrets and the first signs of war between the species emerge.

About the layout: Diana, our main character, narrates most of this book’s chapters in the first person. There are also a few chapters woven in that feature third person narration and move around between focus on different characters–usually Matthew, but not always. There’s always more to his story than what he shows on the surface, which makes him compelling to read, though Diana’s lack of magical knowledge makes her a better guide for the reader through the discoveries of this first book.

Marcus knew that a vampire’s life was measured not in hours or years but in secrets revealed and kept. Vampires guarded their personal relationships, the names they’d adopted, and the details of the many lives they’d lived.”

A large portion of this book seems highly concentrated on vampires and their role within this world, even though our main character is a witch. There are four branches of “creatures,” as they’re referred to, in this trilogy: humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They all make appearances throughout the text, but without doubt there’s more information on vampires and their habits and current standing in this world than any of the other species. Eventually, as the reader knows she must, Diana stops trying to deny that she’s a witch and the vampire stories are mixed with details of how witch magic works and how it pertains to Diana. But it’s worth noting that this is a vampire-heavy novel. I think it comes down to Matthew and Diana’s relationship–from the very beginning, she makes concessions for all his odd behaviors because he’s a vampire and he’s been that way for a long time, while she’s planted herself between a witch’s life and a human one, which leaves her on uncertain ground. Thus, we see a lot more of her emotions and her acclimating to the presence of a vampire than anything witchy because it takes so long for her to commit to being a witch at all. And while she’s not learning about being a witch, she’s asking Matthew questions about vampirism, and the focus of the book is often pointed in that direction. Luckily, Matthew’s lived enough years that his vampire secrets are interesting.

“I wasn’t the same creature then, and I wouldn’t entirely trust my past selves with you.”

On romance: love between Matthew and Diana is not one of this book’s surprises, and it’s something I wish I had known before reading. I went looking for a fantasy book, but through hundreds of pages I found myself wondering whether the novel was a romance disguised as fantasy. There’s definitely fantasy, but it generally comes second, and the romance is immediately, utterly obvious. From the very beginning, the narration is clear on what’s building between our two main characters. Diana is startled and mildly frightened at being addressed by a vampire (seemingly the most dangerous of the four species), but she takes the time to note that he’s unbelievably handsome. He invites her to dinner and hints that he might see her around Oxford in that creepy vampire way that indicates he’ll probably be stalking her and creating “coincidental” meetings between them. The first time the narration focuses on him, he admits that he’s intrigued by Diana and he wants to stay close to her, but he absolutely definitely is not in love with her. These details (and many, many more) indicate that there’s going to be romantic intrigue here. If you don’t want to read a romance, this isn’t the fantasy book for you. That said, there’s not much sexual detail in this romance, it’s almost entirely gestures and looks and conversations, so it’s not raunchy in the way I would expect of a true romance, either.

Some things I didn’t like:

  • There’s way more description of meals and teas and wines than necessary.
  • Diana is sometimes okay with being ordered around and stalked and otherwise controlled by Matthew because she loves him.
  • For someone who claims not to be (and is also told by Matthew that she is not) a damsel in distress, Diana requires a lot of rescuing.
  • For a witch, even one who doesn’t want to use her power, Diana knows remarkably little about the “creatures” of her world.
  • Everyone is concerned about or in awe of Diana’s super magical witch powers, but she can’t use/control them. There’s an imbalance in the attention and the worthiness of attention.
  • Completely coincidentally, Diana finds a new abilities she can’t harness but can use for some emergency just at the time when she needs them.

Hence, I admit to problematic elements–mostly in Matthew and Diana’s relationship, in which Matthew wants all the power. But other than all the description of food/beverages, the narration does make attempts to explain most of the problematic areas, and I was left with the impression that some of these things might be fixed in the upcoming novels of the trilogy. I believe this is a series that demands to be read in full, if you’re determined to start at all.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ll admit this trilogy is 100% a guilty pleasure. Romances are often guilty pleasures for me because I don’t read them for the reasons I usually read other books. This one repeatedly gave me the impression: “Twilight on steroids” a few times, which was worrisome, but the story kept me engaged regardless. I’m committed to finishing the trilogy because I think some of the issues I had will be addressed going forward, and I’m curious about where the plot is going, since there are many mysterious threads and a lack of answers in this first book.

Further recommendations:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is the first (long) book in a (long) series that’s similar to A Discovery of Witches in that it’s a mix of fantasy/sci-fi and historical fiction. And romance, of course. An intense but challenging romance that’s very similar (minus the vampirism) to Matthew and Diana’s relationship.

What’s next: I’m currently reading White Fur by Jardine Libaire, one of my Book of the Month Club choices from their June selections. After nearly 600 pages of adult fantasy I’m ready for some lit fic. This one’s a (steamy for summer) star-crossed romance set in 1980’s New York.

What are you reading to kick off the summer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now read my review of the next book in this series, Shadow of Night!

June TBR

I wanted to do something a little different with my TBR this month. I wanted to create a short list of must-reads and a longer list of books to choose from in the reading time I would have left afterward. But the more I looked at all the time the short list would leave me and the great books on that longer list of choices, the more I narrowed them down; soon I had a full length list of must-reads and not many choices left. So below you’ll find a pretty normal TBR, although I left some flexibility in it to keep things interesting.

  1. City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare. I’m prioritizing the Shadowhunter books because I’m right in the middle of the two older series and I’m excited to get to the Dark Artifices soon, so I will definitely be reading at least one Cassandra Clare book this month. I think it’s highly likely that I will also be reaching for Clockwork Princess, the final book in the Infernal Devices trilogy (and next in publication order) later in the month if I reach the end of the list early. I won’t explain what these are about here because 1. many of you probably know about the Shadowhunter books by now, and 2. if you don’t, these are middle/end-of-the-series books and spoilers are cruel.
  2. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. This is my classic of the month (it’s about a man who can’t work because he’s turned into a bug). Since I set up a schedule of twelve classics I wanted to read this year and I haven’t ditched the plan yet, I’ll definitely be reading this month’s classic so I can keep up with my list. Although I decided months ago to read this one in June, I’ll also have a choice with this one–the actual story of Metamorphosis is pretty short, but the copy I bought also has other stories in it. I’ll leave it up to impulse whether I’m going to be reading those other Kafka stories in June.
  3. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I’m starting another series, guys. A trilogy. Shocker. I’ve been having such a hard time choosing which series to dive into next because there are so many good ones I want to read this year, but I checked this one out of the library so I’ll definitely be reading it soon. I think it’s about a special magic book that’s been lost and is unexpectedly found by some unsuspecting soul, and there are witches and maybe vampires? I don’t remember, but it sounded fun and I grabbed it at the library to stop myself from purchasing three more books I don’t even know yet if I’ll like. I’ve made a wise money decision! I feel like an adult!
  4. A BOTM book. Here’s a bit of flexibility in my TBR. I have a small backlog of BOTM books (Swimming Lessons, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, and Since We Fell), and I don’t know yet what the June selections will be (they’re announced on the first), so by the time my BOTM box arrives I’ll have several to choose from. I’ll read one of them for sure, but who knows what it’ll be.
  5. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. I decided to add an extra interactive post to my monthly repertoire in May to help me decide which unread book from my shelf to read next. (You can watch for it again near the end of June–I think I’ll try it at least one more time with a fresh category to vote from.) I had fun with it, and I hope the three people who voted had fun with it, but I led myself straight into the dilemma of offering five books to choose from and no plan for a tie-breaker. Since I originally had a shorter list this month anyway, I decided just to read all three books that received a vote, and this was one of them. It’s a YA first-in-a-series book about a new Kansas girl who steps in to solve some problems that have arisen in Oz after Dorthy went a little power-crazy and turned the well-known fantasy world upside down.
  6. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Here is another book that received a vote from the unread selections I posted about in May (check out this link if you’re interested in the layout/process or want to see the other selections). I had originally planned to read this one in October, but I have too many books I want to read around then. Also, I’ve been really intrigued by this one for years and it’s beyond time I finally fit it into my schedule. It’s about a traveling magical circus, at the heart of which are two competing magicians who fall in love, but aren’t both supposed to survive the deadly “game” they’ve been pushed into.
  7. The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. This is the final book that received a vote from Choose My Next Read: Round 1. It’s a fantasy novel (first in a trilogy, because clearly I like to start a million series at once and try to juggle them) about a girl who becomes a queen and finds that leadership is not what she expected. I know there’s magic that involves a special sapphire, and an evil queen (there are multiple queens in this world) and some politics and a quest for revenge. Beyond that, I’m going in blind on the strength of the reviews and recommendations I’ve seen for this series.
  8. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I gave myself a month away from the Grishaverse, but it didn’t feel like a vacation. I missed Ravka. I feel like this should be a low-priority book because I’m not invested in the story yet (this is the first book in a duology), and I own it, so it’s not going anywhere while I put it off; but I know in my bones that I’m too impatient to wait any longer so I might as well add it to the official list. I think it’s about a big heist that a group of misfits work together to pull off in the same setting as the Grisha trilogy.
  9. Vicious or A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. Here’s another choice I’m leaving myself. You may remember (kudos if you do) that A Darker Shade of Magic appeared way at the end of my May TBR, but even at that time I knew I was assigning myself more books than I would probably have time for. As I feared, I didn’t manage to read it in time. I still really want to, so expect to see it being reviewed in the next month or two, but since I have several first-in-a-series books in this list already, I am considering reading Vicious for now instead. I know for sure I want to start reading Schwab’s books this month, but I’m going to let myself choose which one I feel most in the mood for later in the month, once I’ve decided how many of these other series I intend to continue juggling.

junetbr

And that’s my TBR for June. It’s pretty fantasy-heavy, and there are several new series I’ll be starting this month, which doesn’t really seem like what I was expecting for June, but it looks good. I also have several extras (with more genre variety) in mind in case I finish the list early, but nine books already looks like a full month for me, so we’ll see. Although there are nine books in this TBR photo, those are subject to change, according to the choices I left open in the descriptions above. I just like to have a visual map for the month, even if it’s a tentative one.

Have you read any of these books? Are any of them in your summer reading plans?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Clockwork Prince

“When I think of you, and you are not there, I see you in my mind’s eye always with a book in your hand.”

I’m reading all of Cassandra Clare’s books in publication order this year, and I’m up to Clockwork Prince, book two of the Infernal Devices trilogy. This is my last Shadowhunter reread for the year, so the next five books will be all new to me and I feel like I’ve reached a milestone in my 2017 Shadowhunters journey. I was a little nervous because I didn’t like Clockwork Angel (the first book in this trilogy) as much as I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised with this second volume. No spoilers for book two here, but please read Clockwork Angel before continuing below.

About the book: The Consul has given clockworkprinceCharlotte two weeks to find the missing evil mastermind Mortmain, or lose leadership of the London Institute. Some of the Institute residents are determinedly helping her achieve this goal, but others make for surprising hindrances to her success. Benedict Lightwood wants control of the Institute for himself and will stop at nothing to wrest it from Charlotte; his leadership, of course, would leave the Institute uninhabitable for Charlotte’s friends, as well. Benedict would be enough to handle on his own, but there is also the slippery nature of Mortmain and his helpers to contend with, who always seem to be a step ahead of the Institute crew. These two adversaries Charlotte and her adoptive family must deal with at once are almost more than they can manage–but not so much to keep the teenaged orphans too busy to fall in love, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

“You are in love and you think that is all there is in the world. But the world is bigger than you […] and may have need of you. You are a Shadowhunter. You serve a greater cause. Your life is not yours to throw away.”

About the characters: in Clockwork Angel, I was put off by how rudely all of the characters seemed to be speaking and behaving toward each other. In Clockwork Prince, the reader is given explanations for some of the more deliberate cases of rudeness (which doesn’t quite excuse them from being so awful to each other, but at least it shows the reader that they’re not always cruel, soulless creatures intentionally hurting each other). Furthermore, one of the main characters’ pasts is examined much more closely in this novel, providing evidence for the fact that underneath the insults lies a caring heart.

“There is a soul under all that bravado. And he is really alive, one of the most alive people I have ever met. When he feels something, it is as bright and sharp as lightning.”

Speaking of character development… I should mention that so, so much of this book seems dedicated to a certain love triangle. SO MUCH LOVE TRIANGLE. I mean, all three of the triangle characters are fully developed and a choice is made, but there’s no getting around the triangle. I think several relationships within and surrounding this triangle would’ve been forced to a very different place if either of the two suitors had been aware of the other’s pursuit, but alas, all of the one-on-one friendships/relationships growing here seem to be occurring primarily in private. I’m guessing that the final decision of who will be with whom will have to be remade again in book three, when they’re all finally honest and open with each other and the full truth comes out. All the secrecy is unsustainable.

“I feel myself diminished, parts of me spiraling away into the darkness, that which is good and honest and true– If you hold it away from yourself long enough, do you lose it entirely? If no one cares for you at all, do you even really exist?”

While Mortmain evades capture, hundreds of pages focus instead on the characters constantly present, and all their complicated feelings. All of the “research” and “discoveries” made by the Institute’s Shadowhunters involve little to no contact with their adversaries, or even, hardly, with acquaintances who may be able to help. There are a couple of brief conversations, but overall there is little advancement in any regard but romance in Clockwork Prince.

“I had always thought one could not be truly lost if one knew one’s own heart. But I fear I may be lost without knowing yours.”

A non-romance-related writing tactic worth noting is the repetition involved in the revelation of information in Clockwork Prince. These characters are each independent, but they all also have unique relationships inside the group, in which information is revealed piecemeal. The reader will learn a bit of a character’s past, and then the narration will remind the reader that other characters do not hold the same information, and later page space will be taken up by those other characters learning what the reader has already been told. It can be interesting trying to piece together new layers to clues that are divided this way, but it’s annoying to be given a piece of information and then forced to wait patiently as the other characters continue guessing at a truth that has already been revealed to someone else. A key point of Will’s past is disclosed in Clockwork Prince, for example, and I believe I read the same information about it three times as different characters discovered it, with several incorrect guesses and assumptions mixed in between. Each instance focused on the shock of the reveal all over again, rather than presenting unique perspectives or additional layers to the information that would have provided the reader with something new to discover through the repetition.

And yet, the emotions and mysteries of the characters drive the plot steadily onward, and there is less general unpleasantness than I found in Clockwork Angel.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m still not loving the series, but this one did improve my opinion of it and I suspect the third book will be even better. This one was definitely an improvement from Clockwork Angel, and I’m still planning on reading onward to see if it keeps improving. I first started reading this trilogy in 2012, I think, and I read Clockwork Prince for the first time right after its release, so I’m excited to finally be getting around to finishing the series. For as much as I loved all the Shadowhunter books when I first experienced them, I’ve been putting off reading the endings for an awfully long time, and I’m ready to fix that. Next up in publication order will be City of Lost Souls, and then on to the third and final book in this trilogy, Clockwork Princess. I have high hopes for wrongs being righted there.

Further recommendations:

  1. Cassandra Clare quotes lots of classics in the Shadowhunter novels, and especially in the Infernal Devices trilogy. If you like the Clockwork books, you should check out some of the novels that inspired Cassandra Clare–like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
  2. Shakespeare also makes a few appearances in references in the Infernal Devices; if you want something a little more poetic but just as classic and inspiring, try Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play full of magic and revenge and romance.

Coming up Next: I’ll be reading my classic(s) of the month next, both of Harper Lee’s books. I only review classics in my monthly wrap-ups, so you’ll have to wait until then to find my responses to Lee’s books. I think I’ll take a short break between them though, to read another book from my May TBR, so my next review will be of JP Delaney’s The Girl Before, a recent thriller about two girls who’ve inhabited the same apartment space and found similar disaster within.

Have you taken a moment yet to vote on a book for my June TBR? Check out my last post and help choose my next read!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant