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Review: Illuminae

I’m a little late to this train, but I’ve been meaning to read Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae Files (first book: Illuminae) for ages, and I’ve decided to get around to them while the last book in the trilogy is still fresh. I have now finished book one and can confirm that I’m interested in reading the entire series.

illuminaeAbout the book: In the year 2575, Kady and Ezra have just broken up on their home planet, Kerenza, when mega-corporation BeiTech tries to take Kerenza for itself by flattening its current inhabitants. Kady and Ezra escape– separately– onto different ships of the Alexander’s fleet. As BeiTech pursues the Alexander to eradicate the last witnesses to its crimes, Kady and Ezra adapt to life in a state of emergency aboard their respective ships, and eventually resume contact with each other. As one of the Alexander fleet’s three ships is ravaged by a mutating zombie-like disease, another experiences deadly difficulty with an insane Artificial Intelligence system, and the third, which was never meant to traverse space alone, struggles for survival after its crew has been gutted to aid the other ships. Ezra is recruited as a pilot and Kady finds a mentor in coding and hacking; both throw everything they have left into surviving, even if that means keeping the entire fleet alive by themselves.

“I’m sorry I didn’t write you back. I should have. I mean, when you say ‘I’m never going to speak to you again,’ you don’t think your planet’s going to be invaded that afternoon.”

First, let me rave about the layout. Illuminae is formatted as a file, a set of documents compiled on the Kerenza/BeiTech incident and its aftermath. The entire story is narrated through emails, reports, communication logs, online journal entries, data stream, online journals, etc. It utilizes different fonts, backgrounds, graphics, and more on the visual spectrum. There are no “chapters,” per se, but each document section is a sort of chapter unto itself, and they’re all delivered in addictive bite-sized pieces that flow easily from one to the next and make the book nearly impossible to put down– a bad case of the “one more chapter” excuse going on into infinity because there’s always such a short and intriguing section coming up next.

“She is a thief. A whisper. Melting through curtains of code and shadow like a knife through black water.”

Beyond it’s unique narrative style, I enjoyed the plot and characters immensely. What I didn’t love: the way this story felt dumbed-down in places, my biggest pet peeve with YA lit. For example, the surveillance camera footage documentations. There is so much extra commentary and guiding of the narrative being done on top of reporting what is actually taking place on screen that those sections felt totally inauthentic to me and not at all visual. Another example– the briefing notes. These little guide maps through the story felt like a way for the authors to hold the reader’s hand through the story, to shine their laser pointers on the details we’re meant to notice. (Note this time stamp. Remember that this person has appeared in this earlier scene. See how reaction X to event Y means Z.) Very little interpretation is left up to the reader, to which I say: YA fiction should not be approached by writers as watered down adult fiction. A younger target audience does not mean that readers can’t follow a story and make their own inferences.

And then there’s the AI system, AIDAN. I think we all know by now that “computer goes haywire, thinks it knows best, and kills a bunch of humans” is a tired plot line. I was worried when it seemed at first that Illuminae was headed in that direction, but AIDAN was a pleasant surprise. I actually disliked most of AIDAN’s data stream/narration because it didn’t feel much like glimpsing inside the thought processes of a super computer, but I liked that the book left AIDAN ambiguous– maybe it is acting for the greater good when it massacres thousands of people. Maybe it isn’t. That’s entirely up to the reader, which is a great move on Kaufman and Kristoff’s end.

“They are beyond me. These humans. With their brief lives and their tiny dreams and their hopes that seem fragile as glass.”

More I liked: the body count is incredibly high in proportion to the number of characters introduced in the story. Important characters die, which makes the constant threat of impending doom feel plausible and amps up the tension. Another YA pet peeve of mine is that teen heroes often put very little work into learning/leading and yet somehow they are the ones to outsmart and outlast the wisest of elders, without the reader ever really doubting that they’ll somehow save the day. Illuminae isn’t like that. It’s teens aren’t “chosen,” they work hard, and they seem to be at real risk.

“The universe owes you nothing[.] It has already given you everything, after all. It was here long before you, and it will go on long after you. The only way it will remember you is if you do something worthy of remembrance.”

It’s definitely a YA book, a little overly dramatic in places and full of flirting at times you’d think the characters would be more interested in fighting for their lives. But Illuminae is also a well-plotted story with a great layout, and if you’ve got any interest in YA sci-fi (or just YA or sci-fi) and haven’t read this series yet, I do recommend it. It’s a fun (but tense) experience.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I docked one for the narrative hand-holding, but I did really love reading Illuminae. I have a (maybe irrationally) low tolerance for zombie stories, but even when I realized halfway through this novel that the mysterious sickness strain was turning people into zombies I stayed hooked. I will definitely be reading books 2 and 3, hopefully soon but my to-be-read-immediately pile is really stacking up. I’ll probably be reading Gemina (Illuminae Files #2) within a month. All I know about the next book is that it maybe doesn’t feature the same characters, which I find myself surprisingly okay with despite the cliffhanger in this one.

Further recs:

  1. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, especially for readers who are straddling the YA/adult lit line. If you like a good space drama, you can’t miss this one. Brown’s readers are currently awaiting book 5 in this series and let me tell you the books just keep getting better. Cool tech, twisty plot, plentiful battle scenes, a little romance and a giant fight for equality– what’s not to like?

Have you read the Illuminae series? What did you think? Are books 2 and 3 as good as book 1?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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On Changing Your Mind About a Book

It’s almost my birthday, and as I’m reflecting on another year gone, I thought this would be the perfect time to also stop and consider how I’ve grown as a reader. This is going to be a weird and maybe unpopular way to do it, but I’m going to use a spoiler-ish review of Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon to explore those changes. (To anyone who’s cringing right now: I promise I have a juicy adult lit fic review coming tomorrow and you’re welcome to wait and read that instead.)

newmoonWhy reading growth? Why New Moon? Well, I’ve been rereading the Twilight saga for about a year now, and I’ve just finished the second book, New Moon. It’s taking so long because I’m not as interested as I once was, and I’ve been proceeding at the rate of one chapter per day, only on the days I feel like tackling one. I’m doing this because I know my reading tastes and opinions have evolved so much, and it’s been an enlightening experience to relive a past love and really make myself think about why it might have worked for me before, and why it doesn’t now. You can check out my reaction to rereading Twilight if you missed it, but here I’m delving deeper into my changed opinions on the series and particularly on New Moon.

Yes, I did say “past love.” I was one of those twi-hard fans back in 2007 (I was 12) and I have no regrets about that– it was the first YA fandom that I felt like I was part of right in the height of its coolness and I remember that experience fondly even if the story itself makes me cringe now. I was addicted. But even when I loved the series I hated New Moon.

I hated it because I was Team Edward in the novels (but Team Jacob in the movies) and I was so disappointed that Edward went AWOL in the book. I read New Moon immediately after Twilight, when Eclipse was imminent but had not been released yet; I needed more Bella and Edward and New Moon has only that one “good” Bedward chapter at the end. I spent much of that first read trying SO HARD not to skip ahead to make sure Edward wasn’t being written out of the series, but I did not care about the budding friendship with Jacob at all.

That was the first thing I thought would be different this time around. I thought New Moon would be my favorite reread of the series now that I don’t like Bedward anymore– also I’ve really been enjoying literary breakups in the last few years. Especially in YA. The breakups feel more real and interesting than the instaloves and drawn-out angst, which was definitely not the way I felt about YA romance in 2007. But New Moon is not designed for readers to enjoy the Bedward breakup. Readers even have to fight to like Jacob– every time he’s mentioned Bella thinks something along the lines of, “Well, I like him, but only because I’ve lost the best thing I ever had and I’ll just have to settle for liking what’s left.” The reader is constantly reminded that Edward is basically a vampire god and even as a werewolf Jacob will never be cool enough. I have never liked Bella less.

New Moon is still my least favorite book in the Twilight saga, but not for the same reasons I initially disliked the book.

My first time through, I probably didn’t see anything wrong with Bella and Edward’s relationship. Honestly I don’t remember much of 2007, but I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the series as much as I did if I had seen something wrong with their relationship. The second step for me was to see that Edward was wrong to be so controlling, though I made excuses for him. Sure, it’s bad to make other people’s decisions just because you’re stronger and can force things to be a certain way, but he’s got a unique set of circumstances and he means well, blah blah, that’s what I thought as the issues with the Bedward relationship became more public and I was forced to acknowledge that the Twilight saga maybe had some flaws. Step three: At some point in high school I reread the series and was shocked to find that once I’d familiarized myself with the arguments against Edward I really didn’t like him much at all. I still didn’t like Jacob much as a character, but I could see he was the healthier option. And the final step: I’ve been rereading these books again, trying to decide whether nostalgia is a good enough reason to keep them or if it’s time to replace them on my shelf– and this time around it’s Bella I can’t stand. She always seemed to me like an adult’s version of a teenage girl, but I liked her ordinariness. Her subpar-ness, even. But now she seems more like a doormat and I’m more frustrated at Bella putting up with Edward’s absurdness than at Edward for being absurd. I know not to blame the victim, but Bella goes above and beyond and hurts a whole string of friends and family in her lost-love misery and I don’t forgive her for it.

I can’t believe I ever cared about such a weak and misguided character. Even assuming she loves Edward beyond reason, where’s her self-respect? The Twilight saga was probably the closest thing to romance I had read by the time I encountered the Twilight saga, which might have been why I liked it. Genre exploration is a good thing, I still believe that. I still like reading love stories, and actually I still like reading about vampires on occasion as well.

But I think my changing opinions reflect more on my mental state through the last eleven years. Looking back at my 4-step realization of New Moon‘s poor characterization, I can make a personal map: At step 1) I wanted a relationship so badly i didn’t care if it wasn’t a particularly healthy one, there was no point even making that distinction because I would rather have something than nothing. 2) I wanted a healthy relationship but was willing to settle. 3) I understood that I deserved a healthy relationship as much as the next person, and finally 4) I currently believe that life’s too short to put up with anybody’s crap for any reason and it’s better to be alone than in a bad relationship.

Bella didn’t seem to think so, but I’ve moved on.

The biggest change for me since my first read of New Moon in 2007 is that I expect more from a book now. I’ve read more, I’ve lived more, and I’m less tolerant of what’s not working in a book. If this had been my first time through the series, I don’t think I would’ve even finished New Moon. There’s just nothing happening except the preservation of a bad relationship at the cost of a potentially better one. But even though Jacob might be the better choice… he’s so boring. Whether it’s the writing or just me, I just can’t get excited about Jacob. I guess that’s my one opinion on New Moon that hasn’t changed in the last eleven years. He’s got all the potential, but New Moon reads like Meyer didn’t want readers to side with him and I can’t get past that.

I also rewatched the film to cap off this New Moon experience, and I think it’s safe to say the only thing I appreciate about the Twilight movies at this point in the game is the music. I had some good laughs, at least.

My reaction: New Moon was an amusing if frequently unpleasant reading experience. I am planning to finish my reread of the series, one chapter per day. We’ll see if Eclipse takes six months like the first two did. And when I’m done… I think I’m done with these books altogether. It’s been interesting to unearth some truths about my growth as a reader, and I don’t think the experiment would’ve worked with something I’ve consistently loved through the years, like Harry Potter. But I’m ready to take what I can get from this series and lay it firmly to rest in my 12 year-old past, where it belongs.

Have you ever changed your mind about a book you used to love (or hate)?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Children of Blood and Bone

I have been reading significantly less YA this year, for no particular reason, but Tomi Adeyemi’s new YA fantasy, Children of Blood and Bone, caught my attention. An entirely non-white cast is pretty new and exciting for a big title in YA fantasy, but a great set of characters needs a great plot to back them up, and that’s what I was hoping to find in Children of Blood and Bone.

childrenofbloodandboneAbout the book: Eleven years ago, the Raid killed Zelie’s mother, hurt her father irreparably, uprooted her family, and sent a wave of grief across the entire nation of Orisha. The King, fearing the magic that hurt him once, used the Raid as the first step in eliminating not only magic from Orisha, but every maji with the potential to wield it. When his quest to end magic eventually reaches his daughter, Amari runs away from the Royal Palace, and her brother Inan runs after her with the King’s might behind him to stop her. Amari meets Zelie and begs for her help; with destruction in their wake and no way to turn back, a new quest begins: a quest to restore magic to Orisha as it was before the Raid. It’s a race against time as well as the King, and it’s likely no one will survive…

Children of Blood and Bone is narrated through three first-person perspectives: Zelie, Amari, and Inan. Though their backstories and motivations differ vastly, the narrative voice remains the same among the three of them. The book benefits from the use of multiple voices, but when they aren’t thinking about the unique details of their circumstances it can be hard to tell them apart.

“There are parts of it, parts of her, that light something inside me. But the light only lasts a moment. Then I drown inside the darkness of her pain.”

I also found it rather odd that there are four main characters and only three perspectives; those three have clearly been chosen for proximity to certain advancement points of the plot, but the imbalance kept me constantly questioning that choice. Amari’s connection to magic seems the flimsiest of all four (the maji friend she loses appears only once, through Amari’s eyes, and then only through her memories. Seeing a princess/servant friendship only through the eyes of the pampered princess weakens that link). Inan’s perspective is repetitive and confusing, but his character is such a wild card that he can’t be discounted. Zelie is obviously necessary as the lead character. But I would’ve loved seeing Tzain’s perspective, as a non-magical member of a magical family (he’s Zelie’s brother). He has so much respect for magic and majis though he isn’t one himself, and his motives are the most intriguing to me. It seems an oversight not to allow him a voice in this story.

But the real trouble with Children of Blood and Bone is that it lacks tension. There are surprises in the plot and so many of the details are captivating and unique, but (trying not to spoil anything here) I never doubted that no matter what impossibilities blocked their way, these teens would find a way to scrape by and save the day. Of course they will, that’s the point of the book, as it is with so many other books, but it’s the sort of familiar plot arc that makes it impossible to forget you’re reading fiction. Even wacky fantasies, if written well, can feel like they’re real (even if only in some distant alternate universe), but Children of Blood and Bone was always words on a page for me. When the stakes raised I sat back quietly wondering how the writer would maneuver her characters out of their current mess, never ‘will they get out of the mess?’

“My heart sinks as we continue forward. To our deaths we go.

Or not.

Zelie and her friends are “chosen by the gods” as the only people who can save magic– and thus the world– despite the fact that they’re teens distracted by their own budding loves and secret animosities. They have a deadline that’s presented as impossible when it’s two weeks away, but after unplanned stops and detours and obstacles, that deadline never slips out of reach. Some real tragedies are happening in the meantime, and the book certainly doesn’t lack emotional pull, but the plot is a bit… familiar. Convenient. Fictional.

Overlooking that, there’s no denying that the writing itself is gorgeous. Adeyemi’s words are intelligently chosen and aptly placed. She introduces new phrases rather than relying on old cliches, and the resulting sentences are a delight to read. Her characters are unique and sympathetic. And most importantly, she makes some great points about racism that are tweaked to fit the fantasy world but are largely applicable to the modern world. Check out these heart-wrenching beauties:

“They built this world for you, built it to love you. They never cursed at you in the streets, never broke down the doors of your home. They didn’t drag your mother by her neck and hang her for the whole world to see.”

“I won’t let your ignorance silence my pain.”

A warning: this book ends on a cliff-hanger. It’s the first book in an ongoing trilogy, so it doesn’t end with much resolution. And before it gets to the end, there are some graphic scenes including torture and dramatic deaths. I would say it’s heavier than it is dark, but in either case it’s not a book to pick up lightly.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Other than taking longer to read than I was expecting, I did enjoy my experience with this book. The plot wasn’t quite as strong as early reviews led me to believe, but I’m intrigued by where this one ended and I will be reading the next book with strong hopes that it’ll be onward and upward from here. Tomi Adeyemi is certainly an author to watch; but I don’t mind having to wait a year or so to check out the next book in this series.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Red Rising Sons of Ares

It’s a long wait between Iron Gold and the release of Pierce Brown’s new novel, Dark Age, in September. But this graphic novel prequel to the series (entitled Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Sons of Ares) just released this month, and I thought it would be a great way to see a little something new from the Red Rising series before going back through a reread of the earlier novels in preparation for Dark Age.

sonsofaresAbout the book: Fitchner au Barca was born a weak link in the Gold chain, and the Golds have been trying to snuff him out since his infancy. But Fitchner survives, and always living at the bottom of the Gold pack teaches him to run, to fight, and to win. He learns to love the other dregs of society, and to see the injustice of a system that gives more power to the strong and takes advantage of the lesser echelons. He breaks the law to take a wife of another Color, and understands better all the time the corruption of a system that will not admit that she has value. Fitchner learns from his treatment at Gold hands how the lowColors live, and every moment brings him closer to a desire to break with the Golds and force a change in their corrupt system.

This is a graphic novel containing the six issues of Sons of Ares. The story goes back and forth between Fitchner au Barca’s backstory and the present heist he’s leading at the book’s opening.

I’m glad I waited to read all six volumes in the one book. I felt a little left out last year when the issues started releasing individually and I wasn’t reading them, but I think I would’ve gotten confused and needed plenty of rereads to stay on top of the story line if I hadn’t read them all together like this.

The action moves pretty quickly from one event to the next, leaving the reader to infer a bit about how the characters are getting from one place to the next and how the plot points lead into each other. It’s a little harder to juggle in the beginning before the characters are known, but once the reader gets the hang of the back-and-forth between Fitchner’s past and present and learns the members of his heist team, everything becomes clearer.

I haven’t read a lot of comics/graphic novels/visual stories, and I have no expertise at all with critiquing drawings. But I can say I enjoyed my evening with this book. The characters were identifiable enough that I could tell who was who, though they seemed generally kind of smudgy and unclear, which I also liked because I like relying on my own visuals in my head until I’m through all the novels.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I was getting much new information from this book. A lot of Fitchner’s backstory is explained in the series proper, so this book felt like a filling-out of the frame the series already laid in place. Brown notes in his introduction:

“In telling Darrow’s story it became more and more apparent that I would be doing a disservice to the overall tale if I didn’t trace it back to its roots.”

But enough of the roots are already there, in my opinion. Sons of Ares did not seem like a necessary chapter to the overall tale, after the information we’ve already been given. A lot of the big ideas about the wrongness of the Society and the dangers of their power hierarchy are repeat lessons from the novels, as well. And there’s one of my biggest pet peeves: a repeat of content from early in the book presented all over again later. (That was the one thing I would’ve changed about this book; a single panel– or maybe two– would have been enough to get the point across that the story had come full circle.)

perasperaadastraStill, it’s fantastic seeing some of the details of the series in a visual form and die-hard fans will find a lot to enjoy in this volume. If you’re still on the fence about this series, you probably don’t need to pick this one up, but if you’re like me,  desperate for another dose of the Red Rising world in the wait between novels… this may be just the pick-me-up you need.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had a great time with this book, even though didn’t excite me as much as the actual novels tend to do. I loved having another mode in which to enjoy this series– the visuals brought new life to some of the awesome details of this world, without being too prominent to override my own mental visuals. I’ll definitely read this again sometime, and it definitely made me more excited to start my reread of the Red Rising books soon! I just cannot get enough of this world.

What do you think about the Red Rising series? Are you interested in picking up the graphic novel prequel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Stillhouse Lake

In the midst of a Christmas food coma, I started my first Kindle Unlimited read. Everyone was getting lazy after the big holiday meal, so I wanted something thrilling to keep me awake. Enter Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake, the first book in her recent thriller series. Three months later, I’ve finally finished reading Stillhouse Lake

stillhouselakeAbout the book: Life is no picnic when you unwittingly marry a serial killer. Gina had two children and a whole life with Melvin Royal before a freak accident put a car through their garage wall and ousted his gory secret hobby. But even after the arrests and trials die down, no one seems to believe Gina is innocent. How could she not have known? How could she not have helped? She changes her name, and the names of her kids. She moves again and again, hiding their identities, installing expensive security systems, using temporary phones and concealing their locations even from her own mother. There are too many threats against Melvin Royal’s family for Gina to be open and honest about who she is. Protecting her kids comes first, always. But after years of running, they’ve finally found a place that feels like home, and Gina starts taking risks again, doing whatever it takes to stop running– even when the murders start again, right outside her door.

In this moment, in all moments now, I can’t afford to be seen as weak. Not for myself. I have two children in the house, and I’m responsible for their lives—lives that are never safe, never secure. I will do anything I must to defend them.”

Right off the bat, I have to say that part of the reason this book took me so long to read is that I wasn’t enjoying it. I made it all the way to 45% before it stopped feeling like a drag and finally held my interest. I had seen good reviews for this book and I DNF so rarely that I stuck it out through 130 pages that I felt I was mostly hate-reading. That’s a pretty extreme reaction for me, and now that I’m finished I have some mixed feelings about it.

First, I do think it is a fault of the novel that those first 130 pages are stuffed with mainly scene-setting background info. We get a lot of information and small events that are only minimally relevant to the overall story, details that show over and over again how hard it is for Gina/Gwen and her children to hide in plain sight without really furthering the plot. It felt like overkill, and I found it especially annoying because we hear Gina/Gwen saying over and over that she’s gotten paranoid about safety, that she checks and double checks and flees at the slightest provocation and doesn’t trust anyone, etc; but even as she’s thinking all those things, she’s making exceptions. Anyone who reads mysteries/thrillers is going to see those lapses as the catalyst. A careful reader will see right through the excuses and know that something weird is going on and despite all her claims to the contrary, Gina/Gwen is going to get caught in the middle of the chaos because she’s overlooking things that even she knows she shouldn’t be. It all feels so obvious.

And of course, eventually Gina/Gwen realizes her mistakes, about 150 pages after the careful reader does.

I hate myself for not questioning that.

I had good reasons, but those reasons seem useless now. They seem like illusions.

But I did have to give some credit to that 45% eventually, because there was another detail in those pages that I thought seemed so obvious, that I ended up being wrong about. I appreciated having to second guess myself when Melvin Royal came into the story. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say more about the part that surprised me and made me give Stillhouse Lake a little more respect. Once I made it to the second half of the book, I got along with it a lot better.

There are no good answers, but this time I’m not just going to be strong. I’m hitting back.

My favorite thing about this book was also my least favorite thing: the perspective. I think that first 45% went so slowly for me because Gina/Gwen is the first-person narrator throughout, and there are so few other characters in that first half of the book to give the reader an idea of what other people think of Gina/Gwen. Seeing how other characters act around the main character (or vice versa) is a big part of characterization, and in the first half of the book Gina/Gwen is so solitary and consumed with her own thoughts and worries that the reader is given a very biased picture of her until some new friends and enemies finally enter the story more meaningfully.

This was my favorite aspect because so much can be done with a narrator who’s so focused on herself, especially if she’s lying or wrong about something. Her thoughts are presented as truths, though they might not always be. A careful reader is going to be looking at the other characters around Gina/Gwen and taking cues from their behavior around her rather than trusting her completely right away. But in this case, the perspective was also my least favorite aspect because Gina/Gwen didn’t live up to her wild card potential. The reader isn’t given enough information and time with the other characters to see what Gina/Gwen is wrong about before she does. It’s no use trying to piece the mystery together before Gina/Gwen, because there’s just not enough to go on until she’s suddenly putting the missing links together right along with the reader.

For that reason, I would call this a slasher thriller rather than a psychological one. It’s not the sort of mind-games novel where the reader is given the clues up front and tries to make crafty connections, it’s just the run-for-your-life-through-the-woods sort of  thrill. The clues aren’t all in place until it’s too late. But the action scenes are great; this is some of the best running-for-your-life-through-the-woods drama that I’ve ever read. The characters are gritty and real. The threat feels constant and close. If those first 130 pages could have been condensed into about 50, I would have really loved this book, and I think readers with fewer thrillers behind them aren’t going to have as much of a problem with that slow beginning. There’s a lot to like about this book.

“He also knows that a gun can’t protect you unless you protect yourself mentally, emotionally, and logically. It’s the punctuation at the end, not the paragraph.

Side note: I don’t have much knowledge about the families of criminals. I had a hard time suspending my disbelief at first about the level of animosity against Gina/Gwen, and especially against her kids. I could see there being a few crazies out there interested in revenge or just a continuation of the gore Melvin Royal started, but I couldn’t believe that they were constantly being  targeted by basically everyone. Shouldn’t there be some balance, especially after she’s gone through a trial and been proven innocent? Shouldn’t there be some good samaritans out there as well as all the crazies? Surely someone must see the rest of the Royals as victims?

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I really couldn’t give a higher rating after disliking the first half of the book so much, though I really did like it once the plot picked up. I liked it enough that I’m planning to read the sequel, Killman Creek, which is the only other book in this series that’s already published. I really prefer reading physical books and I’m fairly new to e-reading because of that, but I had a pretty good experience with this one, other than it not being my favorite book.

Further recommendations:

  • If slasher thrillers are your jam, try Riley Sager’s Final Girls. This one’s a bit psychological as well, but the focus is on the knife-wielding and gory deaths. There are more great running-for-your-life-through-the-woods scenes here, and some of the same commentary on targeting victims that Stillhouse Lake dabbles with.

Have you read any good thrillers lately?

Sincerely,

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?

Sincerely,

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?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant