Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: The Distance of the Moon

(Are you tired of my Penguin Modern excitement yet? I promise I’ll cool it after this month. But in the meantime…) I read another Penguin Modern! This is the 4th of the 6 I bought first, and I’m going to read the last two before the end of March and then take a little break from them. Maybe. My next 6 are already on their way to my mailbox. But first, I read Italo Calvino’s The Distance of the Moon, a set of short fictional stories involving astrology.

thedistanceofthemoonAbout the book: Qfwfq is a fount of stories, having apparently lived several billion years in our solar system and held on to remarkable memories of his cosmic experiences. Through Qfwfq and our narrator(s), these stories explore Earth in a time when the moon could be touched from its surface (“The Distance of the Moon”), at a time when Earth was not yet fully formed and lacked color (“Without Colours”), in modern times as an ancient family prepares for the sun to burn out (“As Long as the Sun Lasts”), and separate from Earth entirely as the narrator considers the pros and cons of imploding vs. exploding, the fate of all cosmic matter.

Italo Calvino is the sort of writer I could follow anywhere. I have read a few of his short stories before picking up this volume, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I found here. I know embarrassingly little about astrology, and I can’t say for sure whether the italicized paragraphs preceding each of the stories in this book are true scientific facts or not. I can say that this whole collection felt like an accessible lesson in astrology, with things like gravity, life spans of stars, and the big bang transformed into fantastical fiction that I just couldn’t put down once I’d started. I mean, granted, the whole book is less than 60 pages, but even so I usually take breaks between the stories/speeches etc. in these little volumes. This one I read straight through, and the four pieces seemed like stories that should be read together.

It’s difficult to classify exactly what I would say this book is. Certainly some sort of sci-fi/fantasy collection, but readers who don’t usually like sci-fi shouldn’t be afraid to read this book. There were a few times I wanted to call it (well-done) magical realism, and underlying it all there’s incredible romance. The general lesson in love seems to be that we want what we can’t have rather than what’s available, and the romance is more an intriguing side force pushing through the story rather than the main focus. But Calvino’s writing is certainly romantic, by which I also mean that it is generally beautiful and lush and captivating and whimsical. Calvino is doing more than telling stories here, he’s testing the language and wielding it with poetic mastery. Check out a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.”

“He won’t be able to forget even for an instant that everything around him is temporary, temporary but always repeated, a mosaic of protons, electrons, neutrons, that will fragment and come together again indefinitely, a soup that will be stirred until it cools or heats up: in short, this holiday in the most temperate planet in the solar system is completely ruined.”

“For Ggge, light-years seem like flea jumps: she hasn’t realized that space is a glue you get stuck in, just like time.”

It’s hard to pick a favorite selection from this book. “The Distance of the Moon” started a little slow for me, but the Deaf Cousin and the changing orbit of the moon upped the intrigue. “Without Colour” might have been my favorite, though the banter and the look at the solar system through the eyes of some very long lives infinitely amused me in “As Long As the Sun Lasts,” and none of them got me thinking as much about existence and possibility as “Implosion.” They’re all such different stories and yet they certainly belong together, with a connection I didn’t feel between the stories in the last fiction volume I read from the Penguin Modern set, The Missing Girl.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had no idea what to expect from these stories going in, but they absolutely hooked me. I need more Italo Calvino (I started reading his short story collection Difficult Loves a few years ago; I think I should go back and finish it). I need more Penguin Moderns. As much as I love a good, long saga, I’m really appreciating these little sample-size volumes this month. I wanted to expand my reading horizons in 2018, and these glimpses at modern classic authors are really helping me decide which directions I should go with that goal.

What reading surprises have you encountered this month?


The Literary Elephant


Review: The Philosopher’s Flight

I was in the mood to read something unusual this month, and Tom Miller’s new release (also a February Book of the Month Club selection), The Philosopher’s Flight, absolutely fit the bill.

thephilosopher'sflightAbout the book: Robert Weekes is a male sigrlist in a world of female sigilrists. No one knows why, but women are the dominant power in Empirical Philosophy, a brand of science condemned by many as a sort of evil magic because its drawers of sigils can do cool things like fly. Robert grew up in the shadow of his war-hero sigilrist mother and three practicing sisters who told him he was good– for a boy. But now he’s 18 and wants to join the Rescue & Evacuation division of the Corps. It’s 1917 and he wants to join the war effort as the first male Corpswoman. To do so, he’ll have to prove himself a million times over, as a student at an all-girls college, as a hoverer who can pull his weight, as a medalist in the General’s Cup, and so much more. He makes new friends, finds new causes, falls in love– but is a happy life as a good siligrist “for a boy” enough to make him give up a dream he could lose everything chasing?

” ‘Everyone ought to have a dream, Mr. Weekes,’ Addams said. ‘But the time comes when you have to put childish things away and face the world as it is.’ “

This is one of a very few episodic stories that I’ve really enjoyed in the last few years. For some reason the narrative style of stringing together lots of small adventures rather than one major plot arc just hasn’t been jiving with my reading preferences in a long while, but every now and then I still stumble across one that’s addictively compelling. The Philosopher’s Flight was one of those.

“I’ve never killed a man. But I have separated many an enemy from a fresh supply of oxygen and allowed him to breathe himself to death.”

The book starts from a future perspective, and each chapter starts with an excerpt from relevant (fictional) political writings that relate to current plot points or emotions. These details give away some answers; for instance, the reader knows who will survive the year when the characters start appearing in writings from future years. But, as with many episodic tales, the excitement is in the journey rather than the destination.

Those excerpts, despite their revelatory nature, are a great touch in Miller’s world-building, as is the appendix at the back of the book with further info on certain sigils that come into play in the narrative. I always check the page count of a book before I start, which is how I noticed that appendix, but I’m glad I did; I liked reading those sigil sections as they became relevant to the story rather than all at once after finishing the book. There aren’t reminders to match the chapters of the story to the sigil info in the back, so I had to shuffle back and forth a bit, but those extra details really made the story feel more credible, more complete, even as bizarre as the world is. Though it takes place in historical US, so much of the history is different with the addition of Empirical Philosophy that it doesn’t feel much like the real world, and every detail helps.

This book is… wacky, to say the least. It’s a little magical, a little scientific, a little historic, dips into modern social issues, and tackles every angle with a mix of humor and thoughtfulness that leaves the reader chuckling without removing some more serious undertones. The reader never knows what to expect, and Miller is clearly having his fun with creative license.

“We were a couple of dull young people in love, besotted, barely conscious of the hubbub around us. But that’s just the sort of moment when the gods decide they ought to lay you low.”

But under all the zany details, this is a book that flips the gender dynamic (women are most powerful) and keeps the reader thinking about the ways gender bias still exists in our real world. As interesting as I found that angle throughout the story, I was constantly on the fence about its effectiveness. There are some great lines that made me think, “oh yeah, that’s something I’m so used to in today’s society that I’ve hardly even noticed that it’s a problem,” but there were other lines about Robert fighting for recognition as a man that disappointed me, like even in a world when women have the advantage, the man we’re supposed to be sympathizing with is pushing to get to the top. In the end, I do think this story is advocating for gender equality rather than giving anyone an edge, and I know that’s a narrow line to walk, but there were instances when I thought it skewed a little too far one way or the other. Some of the women seemed unreasonably cruel, and Robert faces prejudice for being a male sigilrist that feels at times more like a challenge for real women to dive into the unfair aspects of a male-dominant world and fight through them, rather than an acknowledgment that such prejudices do exist and that there should be effort made on all sides of the problem.

“Devastatingly handsome men such as myself had to be on guard against city women, who were known to be brazenly forward in their attempts to corrupt the flower of American youth.”

” ‘Well,’ Ma said. ‘Maybe he’ll find himself a rich wife out there and support me in my old age. At any rate, it sounds like a grand adventure.’ “

But as doubtful as I occasionally was about the way Miller tackled the gender gap, I never came across any statements that actually turned me away from the book, and coming so close to the edge as it does kept me constantly thinking about what’s okay to accept from other people and what’s not, which is a worthwhile result for any novel.

“It’s never mattered that I can’t do it. What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would definitely read a sequel, but I have no idea if there will ever be one. This was such a fun read, but not the sort of fun that’s insubstantial. This is the kind of book that makes me appreciate Book of the Month Club– I probably would not have heard about this book otherwise, I chose it on a whim, and it was a quality read. Weird, but in a good way. I can’t wait for next month’s selections.

Further recommendations:

  1. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians shares a lot of similarities to Miller’s new book; if you’re looking for a bizarre but engrossing novel about a magical branch of science with its own schools and applications, try Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. It takes place in the modern rather than historical world, and it’s full of plot twists and unexpected changes of direction for the reader who’s a fan of the unpredictable.

Do you prefer fantasy/sci-fi stories full of imaginative details, or more contemporary stories that relate to the real world? Some combination of both?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Crooked Kingdom

No mourners. No funerals. No spoilers. I finally, finally got back to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, and today I’m reviewing book 2, Crooked Kingdom. You should read Six of Crows first, though. In case you need more incentive, it’s a fast-paced YA fantasy with a great cast of misfit characters, plenty of sleight-of-hand and plot twists, and lots of feel-good one-liners about resilience and compassion.

crookedkingdomAbout the book: The Dregs want their Wraith back, they want the money they were promised, they want safety for themselves and their hostage, and they want the power to choose their own futures. They’ve been crossed, and they’ll be crossed again, but only an idiot would cross Kaz Brekker and his crew and hope to get away with it. Even as the gang becomes the most wanted criminals in the world they refuse to give up hope and they keep fighting for better days. But what can six lost souls do when Ketterdam itself seems to rise against them?

“He often wondered how people survived this city, but it was possible Ketterdam would not survive Kaz Brekker.”

“None of them really knew what Kaz would or wouldn’t do. Sometimes Matthias wondered if even Kaz was sure.”

I’m probably in the minority about this, but I actually preferred Six of Crows to Crooked Kingdom. I thought the sequel would take this duology to new heights, but where Six of Crows constantly surprised me, Crooked Kingdom was exactly what I expected. I suppose it makes sense for books in a duology to be this well matched, but I was hoping for a bit more… chaos. A bit more uncertainty about who would win. Crooked Kingdom ties the loose ends from Six of Crows together, but it’s more predictable about it.

“I would come for you. And if I couldn’t walk, I’d crawl to you, and no matter how broken we were, we’d fight our way out together– knives drawn, pistols blazing. Because that’s what we do. We never stop fighting.”

Crooked Kingdom is more episodic than its predecessor, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but I find episodic tales (especially of this length) somewhat exhausting after a fashion. The plot twists are less thrilling because you’re expecting them, and the big shocks are less shocking because you know which parts are just for show. It gets a little tiring, knowing that everyone (or at least Kaz) knows what’s going to happen next, and you (the reader) are being left out for the dramatics of the narrative. In the first book, it made sense for Kaz to play his cards close and test the loyalty of his friends by leaving out some of the details. Now, there’s no reason for trust issues and the reader knows things won’t go as planned, so why not let us in on the plans?

“Well, Brekker, it’s obvious you only deal in half-truths and outright lies, so you’re clearly the man for the job.”

Perhaps because of that deliberate manipulation of information, my favorite parts of this book were the flashbacks– the backstories about Wylan leaving home, Jesper’s relationship with his parents, Inej’s experience at the Menagerie. It’s incredible to see the things that made these characters so strong. It’s also incredible to see their dreams for the future. For a band of criminals, they have some lofty goals; their rough pasts and hopeful futures make their criminality more a matter of necessity and survival than the sort of evil bullying they want to snuff out. The characters are the best part of this duology, and seeing their humanity through the flashbacks and future goals they’re all harboring gives them so much more color than the impossible feats they’re trying to pull off in the present.

” ‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ said Kaz. ‘I don’t hold a grudge. I cradle it. I coddle it. I feed it fine cuts of meat and send it to the best schools. I nurture my grudges, Rollins.’ “

Let’s talk for a bit about fiction. About how much harder it is to believe that the Wraith can enter a room with locked doors and barred windows, can walk a high wire with no safety net, that the bastard of the Barrel can plant or pickpocket anything on anyone without their noticing, etc. when you can’t actually see the tricks. It’s easier to write about sleight of hand than to perform it– but for the most part Bardugo makes the Dregs’ tricks seem plausible; the fact that they occasionally fail helps with that. But some parts of this books till seem… fictionalized. Manipulated. Written the way that they are because of reader expectations rather than natural facets of character. I know I’m being very vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Let me just say that something bad happens toward the end of this book, and I hated it not because it was bad or sad or less than ideal– I hated it because it felt unnecessary. Because it felt rushed and fabricated. Like Bardugo thought the ending would be too happy without something going wrong, so she had to throw an extra punch at the victors for good measure. I would’ve found the ridiculously happy ending more believable.

“But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.”

But don’t let my minor complaints fool you. Though I appreciated the finesse of Six of Crows more than the flash of Crooked Kingdom, the second book is still a phenomenal read. If you’re only going to read one YA fantasy set, let this one be it. It has so many good messages about finding (or fighting for) your place in the world, about demanding more than the crap the world deals you. The Grishaverse is bright and beautiful, the Dregs are dirty heroes out for justice rather than revenge, and the writing is imaginative and even occasionally poetic. This is the kind of story that inspires my own writing, and despite a few choices I would’ve made differently with Crooked Kingdom, I can’t recommend this duology enough. (Perhaps even because I would have chosen some things differently– it’s educational to read something you don’t agree with one hundred percent.)

“The world was made of miracles, unexpected earthquakes, storms that came from nowhere and might reshape a continent. The boy beside her. The future before her. Anything was possible.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a fantastic time reading this book and I’m definitely going to pick up The Language of Thorns soon for more of Bardugo’s imaginative writing. I’ll probably keep an eye out for future Bardugo publications as well. I’m not as interested in reading her edition of Wonder Woman just because I’m not as interested in reading that whole superhero series, but the Six of Crows duology is such an improvement from the Grisha trilogy (which I though was also good, but not this great) that I’m definitely interested in seeing where Bardugo goes from here.

What’s your favorite YA fantasy?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Saga: Volumes Seven and Eight

Happy Valentine’s/Galentine’s Day, book lovers! I’m currently reading Jane Austen’s Emma, which is all about ill-conceived attempts at match-making and finding true love right under one’s nose, so it’s exactly what I want to be reading today. But before I’m ready to review that classic, I’ll tell you about something else I finished reading lately.

My “Short Books Spree” continued this month with Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga comics, volumes seven and eight. In the past I’ve read Saga three volumes at a time, compiled in Saga: Book One and Saga: Book Two, but volume nine has not yet been published so I read these most recent volumes individually. No spoilers for seven and eight below, but you’ll want to have read through volume six before perusing the rest of this review.

sagavolumessevenandeightAbout the books: With their family of three recently reunited and a fourth member on the way, Marko, Alana, and Hazel make a long pit stop to refuel their tree rocket on a war-torn comet. They encounter new friends and enemies, but most interesting is the mystery surrounding the comet’s current evacuation– and once the mystery is solved, will Hazel and her family make it out in time or run into bigger trouble? The Will is ready to make new steps forward to reunite with his old friends. Squire faces a monster only he can see. A vengeful lover takes a captive. Gwen and Sophie make a bold choice. Lying Cat must take a side. A further quest involving Alana’s pregnancy is required.

“One moment, the universe presents you with this amazing opportunity for new possibilities… and then…”

So far into the series, I can’t give more than vague hints without giving any new plot developments away, but I can at least assure you that fellow Saga fans will not be disappointed by the latest installments to the series. Seven didn’t particularly impress me in comparison with past volumes, but it was up to snuff and certainly ended with a heart-wrenching bang that’s sure to keep readers invested. Eight, on the other hand, is tragic and full of love, with twists that kept me turning pages past my bedtime (though not too far past, because these books are quick and easy to read). What’s more, it brings back many of the main characters from earlier in the series with new alliances, new complications, and new promises of intrigue yet to come.

The cornerstone of this entire series is Hazel’s family. As we know, her mom (Alana) and dad (Marko) came from opposite sides of the Landfall/Wreath war and put aside their differences for a hasty romance and an unexpected pregnancy. It’s been fascinating watching their relationship evolve from that point, through separations and complications, deaths and reunions. They’ve been on the run, they’ve made a few mistakes, and now they’re facing challenges with a second unplanned pregnancy. The developments in these two volumes solidified their relationship for me. Their relationship is continually surprising and inspiring, and all the more so for their interactions with myriad other characters with their own opinions and agendas.

And, through all of the zany plot twists, Hazel narrates the whole adventure with an eye on voicing truths, and moving toward healing and righting wrongs, especially the wrongs of inequality. Saga is, as ever, an epic fantasy adventure advocating equality, kindness, and peace. It features unique creatures, magics, and technologies, a wide variety of sympathetic characters, and provocative art that speaks as loudly as the comic’s words.

“Little one, you are unlike anyone who has ever existed, and that makes you exactly like everyone who has ever existed.”

A general notice: these are (still) adult comics. I would recommend caution for younger readers due to some graphic and sexual content, but mature readers should have no problem with what’s included.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars for volume seven, and 5 out of 5 stars for volume eight. I like reading multiple volumes of this story at once because otherwise the snapshots of some of the characters just seem so brief that it’s hard to place them in the overall story line. I think it’s going to be harder for me going forward now that I’m caught up, but I have had great experiences reading the first two books and now these two volumes. I think once the entire story is finished I’d like to go back to the beginning and read the whole thing through. This is really the only experience I’ve had with reading a plot so serialized, even though there are coherent arcs through each volume that distinguish it as its own story. In any case, I am determined to keep reading this series, and while I’m waiting for volume nine I think I’ll look around for another comic to broaden my reading horizons a bit, maybe something that’s published in its entirety already. I’m just not even sure where to start at the moment, since Saga is my only recent experience with that art form.

Does anyone have any favorite comics they’d recommend?


The Literary Elephant

Reading Lesser-Known Books

I’m thinking about lesser-known books today because I just finished rereading a personal favorite from my teenage days: Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Have you heard of it? I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer is no. This book was published fifteen years ago, and still has less than 20,000 reviews on Goodreads. And I don’t understand why. It’s rating is 4.15 currently, and I do understand that. No book is truly perfect, but this one’s pretty great. Instead of reviewing(/raving about) a book that basically no one has even heard of, I’m going to use Hawksong to talk about the merits of reading lesser-known books; and the sludge readers occasionally have to sort through to find the hidden gems in that category.

The thing is, you just can’t trust the hype. Haven’t you been burned before, picking up a book that everyone’s talking about only to find out it’s just not the book for you? Every reader has his or her own opinions and preferences, and for that reason, it’s best not to listen too closely to whether the masses love or hate certain books. If popular opinion were the best factor in finding books to love, we’d all just go to Goodreads and read only the highest rated books, regardless of things like genre and subject. But no one really does that, right? Sometimes other readers’ opinions are helpful in gauging whether we might like or dislike a certain book, but in the end we’re all marching to the beat of our own drum because we’re readers, not sheep following the herd. Which means sometimes you pick up a book that no one you know has ever read. And sometimes you find a true gem.

hawksong&snakecharmFor me, Hawksong is one of those gems. It’s a fantasy story, a genre plenty of people reach for, but it does have it’s own quirks: it’s a fantasy story about shapeshifters; people who can transform into birds and snakes make up the main characters. The romance is obvious, partially due to the fact that it’s outlined on the book’s back cover, but it’s wonderful in its simplicity. The fight for peace is as uplifting and relevant as it is unrealistic in its abruptness, but a lack of realistic qualities matters little in fantasy novels. For me, the excellent world-building and the general kindness and acceptance practiced by the main characters is worth the short and otherworldliness of the plot. Guessing the identities of the assassins is a bonus side mystery. What’s not to love?

“The first of my kind was a human woman. Surely your kind comes from like roots. We have human minds and human bodies. If we can speak as humans do, and love as humans do, then what makes us so different?”

I don’t remember how I ended up picking up Hawksong in the first place. I know it was one of a limited number of books in my middle school’s tiny library, but why this one? I didn’t know anyone else who had read it, and as time has passed, that hasn’t really changed. I’ve pushed it on a couple of friends (and my mom), but I never see this book in bookstores and I never hear about anyone reading it. I’ve read it more times than any other book in existence. Because often the books that hit hardest, the books that surprise me most, the books that feel most tailored to me, aren’t the books that everyone else is reading. They’re the books that seem weird and unusual, that you pick up on a whim without ever having heard of and are totally surprised to fall completely in love with.

Sometimes the books no one is reading are overlooked for a reason– you encounter some bland (or even just downright bad) books while you’re looking for those hidden gems. But that’s no reason to quit trying.

I know I read things off the beaten path sometimes, and I know I get fewer likes and views and all those good things on my reviews of those lesser-known books, but that doesn’t make me like them (or want to talk about them) any less. Think about how small the world of books would be if everyone truly was reading the same things all the time, only the most popular choices. So many crazy great things wouldn’t even be published. We’d all be reading prize-winners and classics and steamy romances (because apparently tons of sex scenes equals a high Goodreads rating even if the book is trash), but that’s not the case in reality; the truth is, classics can be boring for readers who just want a quick escape, prize-winners have themes that don’t appeal to everyone, and some readers just can’t stand trashy writing even if the make-out scenes are good. So we pick up books that sound the most interesting to us, even if no one else seems to be reading them.

And that’s a good thing.

I feel that I can’t give Hawksong a fair rating anymore. It was a 5-star read back when I was twelve, and now when I reread it I’m probably blinded to its potential flaws by my familiarity with it, and the fact that every time I read it I remember what it’s like to fall in love with reading all over again. Which, in my mind, is still worth a high rating. But I’m not trying to sell you on Hawksong. I’m saying… keep picking up those lesser-known books that no one is talking about. Stay weird. Be you. Find your reading niche. And tell us about the unusual books you love, because how else are we going to hear about them?

What’s your favorite lesser-known book? I would love to hear some titles I’ve never come across before! (And I would especially love to hear that someone else has read Hawksong…)


The Literary Elephant

Review: Lord of Shadows

I’m not sure if the release date for Dark Artifices book 3 (Queen of Air and Darkness) got pushed back or if I just wasn’t paying enough attention to it in the first place, because I thought I needed to be prepared to read it by February or March, not December 2018. That’s why I decided to pick up Cassandra Clare’s Lady Midnight and Lord of Shadows (Dark Artifices books 1 and 2) in January. I hope I will remember them well enough when book three is published, because after reading Lord of Shadows this week I know I’m definitely going to be reading the final book of this trilogy ASAP.

lordofshadowsAbout the book: Emma is trying to prevent the parabatai curse from befalling her and Julian by convincing him that she’s not in love with him. In the midst of that emotional turmoil, there’s a dangerous trip into Faerie that sets a new adventure in motion. The Seelie Queen wants to make a deal with the Blackthorns– a deal that involves finding Annabelle and the Black Volume. But she’s not the only one with an interest in the book, which means Emma, Cristina, and the Blackthorns need to watch out for some new deadly enemies. No one is sure whether Kieran is on the Blackthorns’ side now, or how far they can trust the Centurions who come looking for Malcolm. And where is Annabelle? What will she do next? Is she truly alive?

“We fear things because we value them. We fear losing people because we love them. We fear dying because we value being alive. Don’t wish you didn’t fear anything. All that would mean is that you didn’t feel anything.”

One thing that Lord of Shadows does better than Lady Midnight is to let the inevitable forbidden love angst stand behind the rest of the plot. Sure, Emma and Julian still love each other and that’s still a problem, but they’re trying to solve it by moving on, which means the rest of the story can take precedence. And it’s a great story. There are surprising twists woven throughout the book, and hints at what the final book of the trilogy will pull from its sleeves. The characters are coming into their own a little more, changing and becoming stronger and finding their own places in the story. We get more perspectives, more of Christina and Mark, more of the other Blackthorn siblings, more Kit. I find I care more about Emma and Julian when the narration takes a step back from their tortured love story.

“I think you cannot root out love entirely. I think where there has been love, there will always be embers, as the remains of a bonfire outlast the flame.”

It’s also great to see farther inside of Faerie with this trilogy. It’s a darkly whimsical place, and it rounds out the Downworld side of Clare’s Shadowhunter novels– we’ve seen vampires, warlocks, werewolves, and of course Nephilim, but faeries only in passing. Lord of Shadows takes the reader a step out of the mundane world for a whole new aspect of Clare’s Shadowhunting universe. Even in fantasy novels, it’s wonderful to see all perspectives represented.

Speaking of representation, Lord of Shadows covers a wide range of more familiar diversity topics as well. While Shadowhunter books have always been advocates of diversity, I have to admit that aspect is starting to feel a little more forced. It did to me in Lord of Shadows, anyway. For example, there’s a transgender character who reveals her medical history seemingly for the sole purpose of receiving an acceptance speech from another character. Accepting transgender characters is good, but it felt like it was just pushed into the story so that Clare could write about being accepting of it. If this character had made a stand against the Clave and the law that prevents her from holding the job she wants because of her gender identity, this reveal would’ve fit into the story a whole lot better. But the law goes unchallenged even hypothetically, and I don’t understand why.

There are good examples too, though. Like Mark’s conflicting loves for Cristina and Kieran. The conflict isn’t in the fact that he’s bisexual and loves both a boy and a girl, the conflict is in the fact that one of them is a faerie and one is a Shadowhunter; Mark is caught between two worlds, and his relationships are a reflection of that. It fits into the story as more than a display of bisexuality.

As long as we’re on the topic of love, I think I’ve finally realized my biggest pet peeve with Cassandra Clare books: every single character seems to be romantically interested in basically every character he or she could ever possibly ever be romantically interested in. There’s something about the narration that makes every routine introduction between characters oddly charged. Every friendship also seems to include both parties being especially aware of the other person’s body and love life. Every gesture and sentence is noticed by someone in some romantic way. Clare’s just covering all the bases for angst, I guess, but can’t anyone just be friends? Can’t they just be casual acquaintances? Is there really that much romance in life? Am I missing out?

But that’s a small matter. Clare readers who’ve been interested in the Shadowhunter novels this long know they’re at least partially in it for the forbidden romance. Let’s go back to diversity.

I especially appreciate the Greek and Roman references in this trilogy, though I am a little disappointed we’re getting so many Latin phrases and quotes from ancient Rome without much reference to the mythology. Especially with a character named Diana after “the goddess of the hunt,” I expected a little more. But I’ve been loving practicing my Spanish skills every time Cristina or Diego forget to speak English. There are some great names thrown in when Shadowhunters from all over the world meet for missions or meetings. And even our main characters do some traveling to show readers a bit of variety in culture. Even though Idris is a made-up place, it’s even exciting to see the differences between real places and fictional ones. Fantasy is a genre uniquely capable of uniting very different peoples and creating spaces where peace and harmony are possible in ways we don’t see anywhere yet in reality. It gives readers a goal, something to strive for in real life even where there aren’t Shadowhunters and Downworlders fighting to the death.

“Fiction is truth, even if it is not fact. If you believe only in facts and forget stories, your brain will live, but your heart will die.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the same rating I gave Lady Midnight, but I definitely liked Lord of Shadows better. And I’m hope book 3 will impress me even more. I’m so excited (even though I’m a month late to count it as a successful end to my 2017 goal) to finally have finished my Shadowhunter reading marathon! I have now officially read all the Shadowhunter books currently published, and it feels good. I’m glad I kept going this far even though I haven’t loved every Clare book I’ve read in the past year. I’m still waiting for the Clave to be reorganized, though. Still. Waiting.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Lady Midnight

One of my 2017 goals (that I failed) was to read all of the books Cassandra Clare has so far published. At the time I set that goal, Lady Midnight was the most recent title, but Lord of Shadows was imminent. Now I’m finally finishing those up because better late than never, right? I just read Lady Midnight, the first book in the Dark Artifices trilogy, which is a sort of continuation from the Mortal Instruments series. You can read Lady Midnight without going through all those other Shadowhunter novels, but you probably will have the best sense of who’s who and what’s going on if you do read Clare’s books in publication order. (You can check out my review for City of Bones if you’re just getting started!)

ladymidnightAbout the book: Five years have passed since the Dark War in which Sebastian (Johnathon) Morgenstern tried to take over the world with his evil army. Julian Blackthorn and Emma Carstairs are parabatai now, and still live in the Los Angeles Institute with all of Julian’s younger siblings, who rely on him as their guardian. After years of dead ends and false hope, Emma has finally found a clue that could crack the mystery of her parents’ murder, and of course the Blackthorns will help her en masse, no matter how dangerous or twisted the investigation becomes. The Fae, currently on the Nephilim blacklist, make an interesting proposition to the Los Angeles Institute regarding the murder investigation; it means more risk for Emma and the Blackthorns, but also brings Mark back into the family– at least for a little while.

” ‘The world is terrible,’ said Mark tonelessly. ‘And some are drawn down into it and drown there, and some rise above and carry others with them.’ “

There are beautiful and powerful sentiments scattered throughout Clare’s novels, and Lady Midnight is no exception. But the farther I get into Clare’s oeuvre, I’m noticing that those poignant sentences are hidden under a lot more fluff. The books keep getting longer (my copy of Lady Midnight is 669 pages before the extra content sections in the back) but it seems that less is actually happening. At this point, part of the problem is that so much space is needed to recap previous events in this massive series because everything in the Shadowhunter world is intertwined, and Clare loves name-dropping past beloved characters even when it’s not really necessary to her current plots.

Sometimes Clare hits it spot-on with the humor, especially in the dialogue. But the humor in Lady Midnight often feels forced. Jokes are often followed by explanations that ruin them, random comments are too unnatural and “silly” to be amusing. The same lines and phrases are used over and over again, or sarcasm is brought into situations where it feels out of place. It fell pretty flat for me in this novel.

I think if Clare had written this story in about 200 fewer pages, a lot of these little annoyances would’ve worked themselves out.

But let’s take a look at Lady Midnight‘s central characters:

“She felt suddenly old, not just seventeen instead of twelve, but old. Old in her heart, and too late. Surely if she were going to find her parents’ murderer she would have done so by now.”

  • Emma is described as reckless and brave, and the leader of the group– into battle, at least. But there’s a line between being brave and being careless, and sometimes it feels like Emma makes unintelligent choices just to further the plot, and the others dismiss her rashness too easily.
  • Julian almost falls into that horrible trope where a lack of communication is really the biggest obstacle to his perceived problems, but I do think Emma changes enough throughout the course of the novel that it’s justifiable that he doesn’t try to talk to her openly right away. Many of his “secrets” are obvious before they’re officially revealed, but he’s a good liar, which keeps him interesting.
  • Cristina is a brand new and intriguing character, but so far she’s pretty bland. I could see how eventually it might come in handy to have a main character outside of the Blackthorn family tree, though that hasn’t been necessary to the plot yet. Her backstory is interesting and she seems like she could have a strong personality if she’s developed a bit more, which would make her less superfluous.
  • And then there are all the younger siblings. It was hard for me to keep them straight at first because for a while the reader is only being told about them instead of actually seeing them moving through the novel. I was more interested in seeing them take part in the investigation than in seeing Emma and Julian describe their mannerisms and hobbies.
  • Mark is great. It’s fascinating to see him straddling the line between two worlds, two lives. There’s a depth to his character that isn’t immediately apparent but ensures that he’s more than an object in a tug-of-war between the faeries and the Blackthorns.
  • And Kit Rook– easily my favorite character. He has only a few POV sections and not much action yet, but the things he is involved in are game-changing. His knowledge of the Black Market and its visitors, his skewed view of Shadowhunters, his criminal father, and his eavesdropping on questionable critters from the basement suggest he’s going to provide a unique vantage point to this trilogy going forward.

” ‘Everyone is more than one thing,’ said Kieran. ‘We are more than single actions we undertake, whether they be good or evil.’ “

(On a side note, what is the point of the wild hunt? They’re always described so poetically but… vaguely. They ride among the stars, through storms, with the wind… but for what purpose? What do they actually do? Does anyone know?)

I just don’t love Clare’s books like I did back when The Mortal Instruments was just a trilogy that I binged on a whim. Even in my reread of those first Clare books last year I still had some love for the early novels, but the later books don’t have that same spark for me. The ‘forbidden love’ theme is getting boring, the actual plots– wars and murders and evil robots and whatnot– take so long to play out. But every time I read another book, I’m encouraged to keep going, just one more. I still like something about them, though at this point it’s hard to say exactly what. I guess I keep waiting for the Clave to get what’s coming to them. I’ve been waiting since their bad rules were introduced in City of Bones, but the Shadowhunters are taking an awfully long time to get around to fixing their laws.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a solid 3-star read for me until the last 50 pages, to be honest. Everything was really coming together well at the end and it made me so hopeful for Lord of Shadows (Lady Midnight‘s sequel). I keep thinking “maybe I’ll quit reading Clare’s books after this one,” but then once I start reading I remember why I appreciated them so much in the first place. My goal is to finish with the old releases so that I can read her new novels as they are published.

Further recommendations:

  1. Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is the first book in an excellent YA fantasy duology. It features a group of misfits who are maybe friends or maybe just stuck together by circumstance. Either way, they have to work together to carry out an impossible heist. The stakes are high, the betrayals are vicious, and the characters are bold and lovable. It’s also full of underlying morals of fighting for equality, justice, and peace.
  2. Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series is a fantasy tale of romance and righting the wrongs of the higher powers in charge. If you like Clare’s battles between good and evil, Maas’s stories will probably also appeal to you. In my opinion, you just have to push through this first book to get to the good stuff in the rest of the trilogy, which is a similar battle to pushing through the fluff of Clare’s increasingly long novels for the excitement of the plot.

Are you a Shadowhunter reader? If you are, do you prefer her earliest books, or the latest ones? I guess I’m asking if the excessive length of her newer books is still worth the story? I’m on the fence.


The Literary Elephant

Update: here’s a link to my review of the next book in this series, Lord of Shadows!