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Review: A Clash of Kings

I can’t believe it’s finally happening. Four years after starting George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, I’m finally continuing. I’ve read A Game of Thrones twice now, but this was my first time through book two, A Clash of Kings. No spoilers ahead.

“If half an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”

About the Book: There’s a new king onaclashofkings the Iron Throne, but he’s a cruel boy. There’s also a new King in the North, a usurping king coming up from the South, one coming in from the sea, one with no real claim at all beyond a grudge at his last smothered attempt of rebellion, and one who is not a king at all, but a queen, a khaleesi, a young girl in the East fighting to win back her birthright with what little (but growing) power remains to her. With six claimants to parts or all of the Seven Kingdoms, treasons and turncoats abound. No one can be trusted, and yet no one can win the war without trusting outside help. While the major players in the Seven Kingdoms are watching their backs for enemies disguised as friends, no one’s watching the mounting trouble on the Wall. The Night’s Watch has ventured out to face the king-beyond-the-Wall, but a rebellious wildling army breaking through the Wall’s defenses isn’t their only concern– the old magics are coming back, waking from a long slumber to threaten the realm anew. And the worst of it is that no one below the wall believes in the danger; they’re so busy deciding who will rule the realm that they aren’t defending the realm against the wildling invadors– and worse.

“Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”

“It is all a game to them still, a tourney writ large, and all they see is the chance for glory and honor and spoils. They are boys drunk on songs and story, and like all boys, they think themselves immortal.”

In A Clash of Kings, we see familiar characters back again (the ones who survived), as well as a closer look at a few we only glimpsed in A Game of Thrones, but we also have some all-new characters, too. There are two new regular POVs, in addition to a new prologue character. But the biggest surprise, I think, comes from the fact that you can root for entirely different characters to win than you did in book one. I’m still not sure who I want to see win the iron throne, but my opinions have definitely changed. For the first time in the series I could name characters that I really hate, but I’ve also grown fond of others that I didn’t expect to become so important. That is my favorite aspect of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series– the perspectives are shown with equal import, so each character feels human and the reader can choose his/her own side in the battle for the throne.

“So long as there was magic, anything could happen. Ghosts could walk, trees could talk, and broken boys could grow up to be knights.”

The magic is done well in this book. There’s so little of it, and so few characters take it seriously, that when it does crop up it’s acceptable to feel doubtful at first, and then easy to embrace it. There’s one major instance of… magic? sorcery? something out of the ordinary in a seemingly ordinary scene, and when I read that scene I was shocked, and certain that there must be some other explanation. But in the end it folded neatly into the story and I loved the possibility of something so fantastic in A Clash of Kings— it was just as entertaining as the wights of book one.

“There are no shadows in the dark. Shadows are the servants of light, the children of fire. The brightest flame casts the darkest shadows.”

It’s also growing increasingly hard to know what to believe. Each of the chapters is narrated through a close third-person perspective, which gives us the thoughts, actions, and emotions of one character at a time, but it also allows for bias. In this book so much more than the first of the series, the reader starts to see conflicting details– two characters hold different beliefs about certain events or people. Someone says one thing, another says something entirely else. Sometimes it’s easily explained by the fact that news is slow to reach certain characters or locations, but other times the reader is left to wonder which version is truth, if any. We see characters lying to each other, also. I think it’s going to be more important, going forward, to be wary of trusting any of the characters too fully. The narration is not completely omniscient, which leaves room for deception. The fact that we start to see discrepancies in this book feels like a hint that the characters are fallible. Sometimes they’re wrong. They make assumptions, in the more innocent cases, but sometimes they’re scheming. Everyone’s up to something, and the narrator is not entirely reliable either. How much of it is “true”?

“There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”

For a series in which Houses are so significant, I also want to note that it’s hard to pick a whole house that I want to see win. It’s not unusual to hate the Lannisters and love the Starks, but there are Lannisters that don’t seem completely evil in this book, and Starks that I wouldn’t want to see on the throne. It’s interesting that the Lannisters are so commonly loathed, but there are so few POV chapters from within that house that we have to see them through secondary eyes, through already-skewed perspectives. On the other hand, almost every Stark from that House gets POV chapters, though most of them are children who don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s just as important to pay attention to the medium as the message, so I’ve been taking note of the distribution of chapters as well as the plot, though I think I need to read a bit farther before I can draw any conclusions from the combination of them.

“I will hurt you for this. I don’t know how yet, but give me time. A day will come when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you’ll know the debt is paid.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I love this series, but I didn’t fly through this second book with quite the same level of excitement I had for book one. The focus is largely on the politics in King’s Landing, but that was my least favorite part of this volume. I need to read onward ASAP, but first, a break. I know these books just keep getting longer, which is great, but I’m on new-information-overload and I need to let A Clash of Kings settle for a bit. I’ve got three episodes left to watch of Game of Thrones season 2, and then I’m putting the series down until September.

“Perhaps we are doomed if we press on… but I know for a certainty we are doomed if we turn back.”

Further recommendations:

  1. Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling (first book in an NA fantasy trilogy) is another great choice for fantasy readers who like a lot of politics, a little magic, and an intricate plot. In this one, an unsuspecting young woman ascends to the throne, only to realize that there are powerful others who will do anything to take it from her.
  2. If you’re looking for even more magic and unpredictability, try Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (first book in an adult fantasy trilogy). This one’s very Narnia-esque, with shocking plot twists and all-too-human characters who see the world on a grander scale.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Jodi Lynn Anderson’s new YA historical/science fiction novel, Midnight at the Electric. I’ve just started, so I don’t know much about it other than it follows three time lines, one of which takes place in the Dust Bowl. I’m expecting a quick, easy read that’s also going to impress me.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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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: 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!

Review: The Magician’s Land

Yay, I finished another trilogy! I’ve recently finished reading Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, the third book in his Magicians trilogy. I’ve been looking forward to delving into so many series this year, and I’ve been in the middle of several at once, so not only does it feel pretty darn rewarding to cross one off the list, but I’m already getting excited about which series I’m going to be starting next. Before I get ahead of myself though, let’s talk about The Magician’s Land. (P. S. If you haven’t read the first two books yet, you’ll probably want to check those out before you read any further. You can follow these links for my reviews of books one and two, The Magiciansand The Magician King.)

themagician'slandAbout the book: Quentin had everything, or almost everything, but now he explores what he’s got left after losing everything at the end of book two. Surprisingly, it’s something he lost even longer ago that’s been stuck on his mind–his girlfriend, Alice. With time on his hands and his access to Fillory blocked, Quentin can finally dedicate himself to finding Alice and putting things back to rights. Except he has no idea if it’s even possible to return a niffin to humanity, and no idea what might remain of Alice after seven years in niffin form if he can manage the impossible. He needs research. He needs resources. Maybe he even needs some help. On his search for those, his goals intersect with his friends’ goals, who are on yet another quest to save Fillory. Only this time, maybe it can’t be saved. Quentin and High King Elliot are both digging back into the Chatwins’ past for answers; the Physical Kids’ paths are not done crossing yet. None of them, however, have ever been so uncertain about where they’ll all end up.

“Doing magic was like finally finding the words you’d been groping for your whole life. You’d always known what you wanted to say, it was on the tip of your tongue, you almost had it, you knew it a moment ago but somehow forgot it–and then there it was. Casting the spell was like finally finding the words: there, that’s what I meant, that’s what I’ve been trying to say all along.”

One thing I particularly love about this book is the way it plays with words. All of the books in this series do that, but in this one especially I noted lots of cool words and phrases that seem at once obvious and unexpected. For example, “a dot in the shark” leaves just the same impression as its more common idiom counterpart–a shot in the dark. Also, the religious folk who believe in the ram gods Ember and Umber above all other possible gods in the multiverse call themselves the “Ramsians.” And the references–don’t even get me started on the great references to other magical worlds: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Lorax… the list goes on. This book is a mishmash of everything fantastical and weird, and it’s a perfect combination. Lev Grossman has found the magic in novel writing, to say exactly what he meant all along.

It’s also commendable that Grossman manages to endow the same level of magical intrigue onto the mundane world; the magicians operating there see things that we don’t believe are part of the real world, and yet can’t quite refute–like something large and dagnerous lurking at the bottom of the ocean. Like dragons that hibernate in riverbeds. Who can say, really? Who can guarantee that non of the oddities in the weather or politics of our world are not side effects of magicians letting their craft get a little out of hand? It’s a whole world of possibilities out there, and especially in these pages.

But there are also times when this book goes darker than any of the books before it. Quentin’s happiness has always been tentative at best, and easily thwarted, but with so much changing–not only for him, but for everyone–there are some gruesome elements. Alice, for one, has spent seven years as a magical monster; there’s a lot of confused and difficult-to-access anger wrapped up in her character alone, and that doesn’t count Quentin’s despairing over whether or not he can save her and what he’ll find if he does. Nearing/entering their thirties now, the whole group has finally grown up and chosen their paths, and they’re finding that their futures won’t all be as connected as their pasts have been. Especially after the hard ending of book two, there’s a distinct vein of sadness and letting go that runs through this book, for all of the characters involved.

“Hate isn’t like love, it doesn’t end. It goes on forever. You can never get to the bottom of it. And it’s so pure, so unconditional! Do you know what I see when I look at you? I see dull, stupid ugly creatures full of emotional garbage. Your feelings are corrupt and contaminated, and half the time you don’t even know what you’re feeling. You’re too stupid and too numb. You love and you hate and you grieve and you don’t even feel it.”

The best part of all, of course, are the characters. These are characters that feel real–the best kind. They are not “good” or “evil.” They are all annoying sometimes, they make mistakes, they are wrong, they overstep their bounds, and sometimes they’re right and they save the world. No matter where they stand, though, they are always readable. Even when the reader might have reason to hate them, it’s impossible to resist finding out what will they will do next. Their personalities remain consistent throughout the trilogy, and yet each of the main characters is transformed from the start of the first novel to the end of this last one. It was a journey I felt that I learned from, as well, though there is so very little in these books that coincides with my real life.

“It was funny how just when you thought you knew yourself through and through, you stumbled on a new kind of strength, a fresh reserve of power inside you that you never knew you had, and all at once you found yourself burning a little brighter and hotter than you ever had before.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. While I think the second book in this series will end up on my favorite books of the year list, this third one reminded me more of volume one, with a lot of potential and a lot of great elements but just enough lack of cohesion in the tension to make it feel like it’s missing something. I really loved this whole trilogy. I can’t wait to watch the rest of the TV show as the episodes are aired. I’ll miss these wacky, messed-up magicians. But I don’t see myself rereading the series, not for a good long time, at least. Not until the plot has more or less faded from memory, because not knowing where it’s going next is the exciting part of these books. I would probably read something new of Lev Grossman’s, though, if he publishes another book. I know he also has The Codex out, but that doesn’t sound quite like what I’m interested in, so I’ll wait and see.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you love the magical world of Fillory (and just the magical aspects of the real world as presented in the Magicians trilogy) you should check out the other magical worlds referenced within the narration. I have not yet read Tolkien myself, but I intend to start soon. I can recommend the Harry Potter series with full confidence, though, first book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If you like books like the Magicians trilogy and you haven’t yet read Harry Potter or Tolkien, I mean what are you (we, in the case of the Lord of the Rings) waiting for?
  2. I can also recommend, if you enjoy fantasy worlds full of magic and morally gray characters, A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. This series is full of political intrigue on top of the fantasy elements, and generally the characters in Martin’s books take things a lot more seriously than the lackidasical Physical Kids, but it’s a similar sort of fun ride through magical lands.

What’s next: I’m currently reading the YA (somewhat) historical fiction novel My Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. I wanted to be reading ACOWAR now, but my copy has not quite arrived yet. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get to that one soon, and in the meantime I’m looking for some good laughs in this book about a girl who was queen for nine days in a land where some of the people transform into animals.

What are you reading in this glorious shift of seasons?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Magician King

Although I’ve been finding more of them in the last year, it’s still pretty rare for me to be able to say I liked a sequel better than the first book in its series. In this case, I’m talking about the second book in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy (you can check out my review of the first book here, in case you missed it), which I started last month and was so very eager to continue. Although the first ten pages or so had me worried, the rest of book 2, The Magician King, met absolutely every expectation.

FullSizeRender (11)About the book: Being a king of Fillory is everything it was supposed to be, but that still isn’t enough for Quentin. He and Julia, Eliot, and Janet have everything they could’ve asked for as Fillory’s kings and queens–everything but adventure. The other three might be content enough with the adventure of being royalty in a magical land, but Quentin longs for a quest. Still, it’s been a long time since he’s had a clear purpose for action, so when a quest presents itself, he walks away with the others. The quest, however, will not walk away from them. So when Quentin finds an excuse to make a sea voyage to Outer Island, the far reaches of Fillory, he takes it. Then he listens to a story about seven golden keys, and instead of returning to his castle he sets out to find them. Little does he know then that he will never make it back to Whitespire Castle at all.

“There was more to life than being fat and safe and warm in a clockwork luxury resort. Or maybe there wasn’t more, but he was going to find out. And how did you find out? You had an adventure. That’s how. You picked up a golden key.”

The beginning vs. the end: the book starts in a very different place from where it leaves off, and both reminded me of points in other literary works. The first ten pages or so reminded me of that time in the Chronicles of Narnia when Henry, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy have been royalty so long that when they stumble back upon the lamp post that marks the entrance back to Earth they hardly remember that part of their lives at all, or even where they came from. Fillory is different than Narnia, though. Fillory’s kings and queens see their chance to be more than fat and safe and warm, but unlike the Narnian royalty these magicians don’t take the chance. Of course, the chance ends up taking them, but at first there’s the disappointment of reading about characters who are too content to take chances. It’s the only boring part of the book.

“If you’re too good too much of the time, people start to forget about you. You’re not a problem, so people can strike you off their list of things to worry about.”

But the end! The end is huge and tragic and exciting. The hero doesn’t win the reward, the hero pays the price. Of course Quentin set out to be the hero, and thus pays the biggest price. It reminded me strongly of the end of Pierce Brown’s Golden Son, also the second book in a trilogy. The plots of these two works are vastly different, but the emotional wreckage matches up nicely. Between the crazy plot twists and the devastation of the main character losing everything that’s most important at that point, it would’ve been hard to carry on at all if not for the surety that the extreme lows are just a setup for the epic finale coming up next. Quentin is being pushed into greatness.

“You didn’t get the quest you wanted, you got the one you could do. That was the hard part, accepting that you didn’t get to choose which way you went. Except of course he had chosen.”

On another note, the layout has improved since book 1. We have some great back-and-forth in this one between Quentin’s present and Julia’s past, which keeps the book from stalling. In the first book there were times when the reader needed to see that not much was going on, and to understand the atmosphere at those times even when the plot went dull. It was part of the world-building, when Quentin was studying at school, and part of the character-building as relationships were being established and tested at Brakebills and beyond. In this sequel, the main characters and the world are set; there are new people and new elements, but the main course is already served. All that’s left is to taste it.

“Careful what you hunt, lest you catch it.”

The best part of this book: seeing an old “friend” from The Magicians reappearing unexpectedly. I won’t say who, but I will say that this reappearance makes me even more hopeful that another beloved character will find a way to return yet before the end of the series. I mean, this is a magical world where space and time and life and death have been proven capable of manipulation. Anything should be possible, right? There’s one more chance for this person to come back, so I will definitely be picking up the final book in this trilogy early next month. I have a hunch. I also have a hunch about the Watcherwoman. This is a series that’s impossible to read without making predictions about how everything will connect. Luckily, it’s also one of those series that doesn’t feel like the world is shrinking as connections are being made.

“The higher you get the more you realize how much bigger than you everything is.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely love this series. I love all of its references to other fantasy worlds and I love that it feels like Narnia for grownups and I love the characters with all their flaws. Even with a whole book still left to read I know I’m going to miss this story when it’s over. I’m interested to see how the rest of the TV series will pan out. At this point, I’d advise reading the entire trilogy before starting to watch the show because it does mix in elements from beyond the first book even in the beginning of the first season. Which also means that I’m ready for a rewatch to pick up details I missed in season 1 the first time around. I just can’t wait to see where this trilogy is going next and I hope Lev Grossman is busy writing something new that’s long and amazing right this very minute.

Further recommendations:

  1. Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is a science fiction thriller with such high level physics that it feels almost as magical as the Magicians trilogy (though just as accessible). The multiverse comes into play in this one as well, although the door-filled corridor looks much different than the Neitherlands (the magical fountain land between worlds in Grossman’s trilogy). If you like highly intelligent characters and fast plot twists, check this one out.
  2. If it’s the sword fights and the politics and the crossing-between-worlds that interest you in the Magicians trilogy, try Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, the first volume in a historical fiction saga that involves time travel and various supernatural elements mixed in with actual wars from the mid 1700s.

Coming up Next: Even though I just finished reading The Magician King last night, I’ve already started my next April read, Julie Buntin’s adult lit fic novel Marlena. This was my BOTM club pick from March (which I’m clearly starting a little late), and I’m already completely invested in these tragic characters and their risky choices.

Have you read any of those great books lately that are both character-driven and have fantastic plots? I’ll always pick good characters over plots, but both combined are… magical. That’s how the Magicians trilogy is going. What have you read that makes you feel like all the elements are perfectly balanced?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now check out my full review on the next book in this series, The Magician’s Land!