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Review: City of Heavenly Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s your favorite YA fantasy author?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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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

 

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Every now and then I like to pick up an Agatha Christie book, because no one writes complex murder mysteries like Agatha Christie. This time, I picked up her 1933 Hercule Poirot novel, Murder on the Orient Express, because 1. it’s going to be a movie later this year that I’m interested in seeing, and 2. it fulfills a slot on my 2017 reading challenge: a book based on a true story.

About the book: Hercule Poirotmurderontheorientexpress (world-famous detective) needs to make quick arrangements to get back to London, which lands him on the almost-full Stamboul-Calais coach of the Orient Express. What he doesn’t know is that he has hurried onto a train in which a murder is about to take place–and when it does, who better to solve it than the renowned detective? There is a doctor on board, and a director of the train line, who follow Poirot step-by-step as he interviews each of the surviving passengers on board, examines their luggage,  and uses logic to assemble a solution that sorts truth from lies–and identifies a shocking murderer… or murderers. To complicate matters, at the same time the murder was being committed, the train hit a snowbank and has been unexpectedly stopped on its track, away from stations and civilization–which means that the culprit/s must still be on board, feigning innocence and posing further threat to those remaining.

“All around us are people of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.”

This murder features a complex but logical conclusion. Poirot is an observer of psychology, and extremely skilled in putting together clues and discrediting lies with cunning attention to single words or phrases, or the exact placement of items. Christie presents the clues… and then Poirot shows all of the characters the “obvious” solution they’ve been missing all along, the truth that’s been hiding in plain sight.

In this particular case, though, I don’t think there is any possibility for the reader to guess the final solution before it is given. Poirot discusses the clues in the narration, but he also holds back details. For instance, there’s an important grease spot in this story that is noted briefly as a clue. But Poirot does not point it out to the others on his team until he knows what it means. And until he confides its meaning to them, the reader would not be able to figure out the answer to its presence because the crucial placement of the spot is not divulged in the narration until the time when the solution is presented. Although this is only one small clue, it is a good example of withheld information– and when there is information withheld from the reader, the possibility of the reader being able to reach the same logical conclusions as Poirot decreases. It is possible that the reader could make a wild guess and be right about the murderer/s and motives, but it’s not possible for the reader to follow the clues to that conclusion. For that reason, this book will appeal more to readers who like to be led through a well-crafted mystery, but not as much to mystery readers who like trying to solve the case themselves before the solution is revealed.

“But have I not heard you say often that to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think?”

The only downfall is the wide cast of characters. Christie presents around a dozen characters with equal importance, giving only the most necessary details about each of them, one after another. It can be difficult to keep them straight throughout much of the story, and furthermore, it can be difficult to attach any sort of like/dislike to any of them when they’re all given this equal weight in the narration. If the reader can’t keep them separate in mind and maybe choose a potential murderer or two to stake a guess on, it can be harder for the reader to feel invested in the characters, and thus in their story.

Additionally–and I’m still on the fence about whether this is a strength or weakness–there’s quite a bit of diversity in this book, and it’s noted in the narration. Normally that’s a good thing, but here it’s also used as a sort of plot device. Different characters are judged in their ability to murder in certain ways by their nationality. I do not pretend to have any psychological training or skill in identifying patterns of murders, but it seemed odd to me that an Italian would be more suspect of a murder simply because it was a stabbing than an Englishman. Or for an American woman to have a more likely murderous temper than a Swedish or German woman. I appreciated seeing multiple nationalities, multiple languages being spoken, etc. but I did think that they were played upon rather oddly while Poirot and crew fished for suspects.

About the ending: there are some interesting twists in this book, but none so great as the end solution to the mystery. I was more pleased with the ending than any other part of the book, because the end is both terrifying in its implications and humorous in the conclusion that the investigators choose to accept. The book wraps up quickly, but is stronger for doing so. I wish I could say more without spoiling the book, but I will say that it’s my favorite end to a Christie novel so far.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was nearly a 5 star book for me, but I had so much difficulty keeping a few of the characters straight. There was a helpful chart with the layout of the train carriage and the passengers’ sleeping berths on it, and I did reference that repeatedly, but some sort of appendix that would’ve given me the key details on each character would’ve helped further in keeping the names attached to the right facts. But either way, this is definitely one of the best (maybe even the actual best) Agatha Christie book I’ve ever read. I was not bored or overly confused at any point, like I occasionally am in Christie’s complicated mysteries. I want to read more Christie. And I want to see the new movie adaptation for this book.

Further recommendations:

  1. Choose And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie if you’re looking for a similar mystery. This one features ten characters stranded on a small island, where they all begin to die one by one. Everyone is suspect until they’re dead–but will the mystery be solved before there’s no one left?
  2. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a great new psychological thriller with one key detail in common to Orient Express: a murder has been committed on board a ship at sea, which means that the killer is still on board. In this book, though, the journalist investigating the case finds herself also in danger of being killed, and her attempts to find the truth are further complicated by the fact that no one else on the ship will admit the dead woman ever existed.

What’s next: I’m currently reading George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second book in his Song of Ice and Fire series (perhaps more commonly recognized by the name of its first book, A Game of Thrones.) Check back soon to see if the second volume is as fantastic as the first.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Clockwork Princess

I’m on a mission to read all of Cassandra Clare’s books this year, and after months of feeling like I was stuck in the middle, I have reached an end–not the end, because I still have two collections of short stories and three full novels to go, but I have officially reached the end of the Infernal Devices trilogy. Although I had read the first two books of this series previously, this was my first time through book three, Clockwork Princess. This will be a spoiler-free review, but you should read Clockwork Angel and Clockwork Prince before continuing below.

clockworkprincessAbout the book: Mortmain’s evil plans are coming to fruition–the automatons are now nearly unstoppable and countless in number. All he’s missing is Tessa, the final piece toward completing his scheme, and he won’t be missing her for long. Charlotte and the other residents of the London Institute are preparing to end things once and for all–if they can manage it, with only nine fighters. More likely, they’ll fight to the death and make no more than a dent in Mortmain’s army. Defeat would mean disaster for all shadowhunters, but the Consul is looking for any excuse to remove Charlotte from power at exactly the wrong time–no one else will help her now. With Jem and Tessa and Will all tangled up in conflicting love and honorable intentions, there are threats of broken hearts on the horizon, as well as the potential end of all Shadowhunters.

” ‘There must always be a first,’ said Jem. ‘It is not easy to be first, and it is not always rewarding, but it is important.’ “

I would easily say this is the best book of the three. The action starts right away, but without the momentary confusion of coming into the middle of a scene. From the beginning there’s a wider range and more equal distribution of character perspectives presented than we’ve seen in the earlier Infernal Devices books–Will, Tessa, and Jem are still our main characters, but the reader also sees secondary points of view early and often throughout the book. Sophie, Charlotte, Cecily, the Lightwoods…

“We see our better selves in the eyes of those who love us.”

First of all, there’s a plot hole here. In this volume, the reader finally learns about Mortmain’s “creation” of Tessa, and what he’s planned for her. But even if he played a role in her existence, how does that explain his knowledge of her unique shape-shifting talent? This is a question for anyone who’s already read this book–if Tessa’s the first of her kind, how could anyone (Mortmain included) have known what specific power she would display, even before Tessa knew?

But back to the review. My only real complaint about Clockwork Princess, and to a lesser extent, the other books in this trilogy, is its length. I do not mind reading long books, but I think most of the issues I had with Clockwork Princess could have been resolved on their own if Clare had been restricted to a shorter page/word count. First we have Jessamine, a largely pointless character. This trilogy failed to make me sympathetic to her case, and her reappearance in this volume provides only a reiteration of information. She does very little to further the plot throughout the trilogy. Secondly, we have annoying repetitions, which I mention in more detail in my review of Clockwork Prince, but which also appear in this book. The reader follows multiple perspectives, which I enjoy, except for the parts where the characters discover the same things at different times and the reader is forced to read a repeat of the same information. I wish Clare would have found a way around that. I also wish some of the Jem/Will/Tessa angst had been left to the reader’s imagination. Because thirdly, we have nonstop angst. It was clear from book one that they all love each other, and the looks and gestures between them would’ve been enough to convey the difficulty of that situation without each character describing their love and pain in every chapter. Will’s curse from book one and Jem’s and Tessa’s engagement from book two (and something else I won’t describe from book three) are the only real changes between the three of them, and yet we are given hundreds of pages of reasoning as to why each of them shouldn’t be in love with the other but is anyway.

That’s a hard point to criticize though, because the overly drawn-out love triangle angst is basically the purpose of the book. The mystery with Mortmain could have fit inside one book if all the relationship drama were removed from the trilogy; after the first book, he’s barely present. We don’t see him at all in Clockwork Prince, and in this book he makes one big play for total control of the Shadowhunter world, which is significant, but hardly takes up 568 pages. I’m not sure it even takes more than 100. Clearly the tension between Jem and Will and Tessa is the majority of the book. And just below that is the romantic tension between the secondary characters…

” ‘Life is a book, and there are a thousand pages I have not yet read. I would read them together with you, as many as I can, before I die–‘ “

Not all of Cassandra Clare’s books are that way. There’s always angst, but this trilogy in particular is full of the complications of love. Others are much more plotty. Clare writes some great plot twists, but very few of them can be found in Clockwork Princess. What can be found, though, is a sort of elegant exploration of love and all its complications. And through that, the largest weakness of this book–its overstated romantic tension–also becomes its main strength.

“Life was an uncertain thing, and there were some moments one wished to remember, to imprint upon one’s mind that the memory might be taken out later, like a flower pressed between the pages of a book, and admired and recollected anew.”

And if you’re only reading for the love story, you’ll appreciate this ending. The last 80-100 pages of this book lay plot entirely aside to explore how things turn out for our main characters after everything settles down.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Personally, I could have done with a little less angst. But the story between all the heartache was well done, and even the heartache had its moments. I admit I was wary of this trilogy when I read Clockwork Angel this year–I didn’t like it as much as I’d remembered, and I was afraid the rest of the series would feel the same; but the three books steadily improved, and I think the rocky start was worth reading just for this third volume. I believe there’s a spin-off series (also by Cassandra Clare) starting publication in 2018, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for that. I’ll also be continuing onward through the rest of the Shadowhunter works, including a read of City of Heavenly Fire in August, which will be another satisfying end, I hope.

Coming up next: I’m presently reading my classic of the month, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Classics reviews only appear in my monthly wrap-ups, so you’ll find my thoughts on Treasure Island there, and my next full review will feature Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game. Ware’s book features a group of boarding school friends who’ve grown up and are dealing with an unexpected death, and the uncovering of lies they’d vowed not to tell each other.

Do you like starting a great series, or finishing it? There’s such a big difference between the anticipation of a great first book and the satisfaction of concluding the last one. While I liked the conclusion better in this trilogy, I think generally I’m a fan of first books–they excite me. Which do you prefer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Game of Thrones

I’ve embarked on a fantastical journey. This is not the first time I’ve read the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, nor, I hope, will it be the last, because there are many things to love about it. But it’s been four years since my first trek through A Game of Thrones, and since I intend to continue onward this time, I figured I was due to revisit book one.

About the book: The Hand of the King gameofthronesis dead. Some might say he was murdered. Either way, Winterfell’s Lord Eddard Stark sets things in motion when he accepts the position offered by his friend, the king. While he’s away at King’s Landing, the rest of his family must step up to leadership roles on behalf of the north and Winterfell, but other houses in the Seven Kingdoms want to use the Stark family’s new vulnerability to gain more power for themselves. Some wish to be the Hand of the King–and some, with secrets and schemes laid years ago, want to be king (or queen). The slippery and ambitious Lannisters, loathed by many, seem to have the closest claim to the throne if only they can get the king out of the way. But while allegiances shift and families grapple for the throne, there’s new trouble beyond the Wall–the white walkers are closer than ever before, killing men and raising wights from the dead. If ever there was a time the Seven Kingdoms needed to band together, the growing threat past the Wall is proof that this is it. And yet all the major houses of the Seven Kingdoms are too busy at war over the Iron Throne…

“Every noble house had its words. Family mottoes, touchstones, prayers of sorts, they boasted of honor and glory, promised loyalty and truth, swore faith and courage. All but the Starks. Winter is coming, said the Stark words.”

A Game of Thrones is the first in a seven book series (five published so far, with no news on which decade the sixth book might eventually appear in). It’s high fantasy, but there’s not a lot of magic. There are old stories of the magic that used to be in the lands, but very few characters brush anywhere close to it in this first novel. There are hints of the supernatural. Some might argue there’s a bit of romance. But first and foremost, this is a political series, an exploration of characters and their alliances and the powers they wield or lose.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

About the writing: you don’t read A Game of Thrones for the writing. You just don’t. George R. R. Martin’s writing style is competent. It’s wise in its choice of detail and in the seamless flow of present action and backstory. It includes some great lines. But the narration is primarily matter-of-fact, concerned with the inclusion of every necessary detail in its proper place rather than beauty of metaphor. There are some clunky sentences, moments when the pronoun doesn’t refer to the last name mentioned and other little issues that are not indecipherable but do cause occasional confusion. But it’s okay, because you don’t read A Game of Thrones for its pretty sentences.

You read it for the characters.

“Never forget who you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

The best part of A Game of Thrones is that it’s not a tale full of “good guys” vs. “bad guys.” Who even are the good guys? There’s not even a main character. Everyone in A Game of Thrones is (arguably) as important as everyone else, be they man, woman, or child. Readers can choose a different favorite for the throne every hundred pages. Even just on my second time through the same first novel, I have different favorites than I did the first time, though my most-hated characters haven’t changed. In this first novel, the reader follows nine POVs, all in the third person. The chapters are titled only with their lead character’s name. But it’s all connected. The major players appear in each other’s chapters, or their relatives do, or their friends, or their secrets. Martin is a master of plucking individual story lines out of the whole, making each of them distinct and compelling without losing sight of the bigger picture and its interconnectedness.

“I swear to you, I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I’ve won it.”

This was an interesting book to reread. There’s a bit of mystery, some questions that are answered within this first volume and some left for future novels. That made it fascinating to read back through, with some idea of what was coming ahead but gaps still left to motivate reading on. There’s so much detail packed into this one shortest novel of the series that I felt the reread was completely worthwhile, even though I did recall the big reveals that took place. I was able to look more closely at the little hidden truths that are folded into the writing, but I don’t know enough yet to see through everyone’s secrets.

“The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.”

I don’t want to talk too much more about plot, but I will say it’s intense. You need to have a strong stomach to read through some of the details in this book. There’s rape. Murder. Battle scenes. Direwolves. Humans reanimated after death. Harsh punishments and cruelty. Incest. Betrayal. A child pushed off a tower. And you never know who’s going to live or die. I learned my first time through this book not to get too attached to any one character, because Martin likes to build sympathy for them just to lead them to their deaths. If this was a spoiler review, I’d talk about some of my theories, but it’s not, so I’ll just say (for anyone who’s read this already or watched the first season) that Tyrion is my favorite Lannister, Arya is my favorite Stark, and Daenerys is currently my favorite character. I thought Jon’s chapters were most fun to read, and Catelyn’s the least. But no matter who you favor, A Game of Thrones is utterly captivating and 100% worth the time it takes to read an 800-page book.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Same as last time. I still find politics a little exhausting to read about so extensively, so I’m aiming to take about a week’s break before starting the next book. But I will watch season one of the TV series in that time. My plan is to read the five books published so far, and then watch the corresponding episodes for each book as I complete them. I suppose when I reach the end of the fifth book I’ll carry on with the episodes and just read the remaining two novels when they’re eventually published. (Please, George R. R. Martin, publish those last two books.) Waiting for the series to be finished is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to dedicate myself to reading it.

Further recommendations:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is not really the same as Martin’s books at all, but I think there’ll be some overlap between the two fan bases. Outlander is a sci-fi/romance/historical fiction/fantasy mishmash about a time-traveling woman who falls through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and stands up in the same circle two hundred years in the past. And it has a phenomenal TV series that’s about to get really good in September, so now’s the time to read it.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare, the final book in the Infernal Devices trilogy. Because as fun as it is to start a new series with 1000+ page books, it’s also a relief to finish what I’ve already started. Clockwork Princess is a Shadowhunter novel set in Victorian London, featuring an evil mastermind with an army of mechanical monsters and a tragic love triangle.

Are you a series reader? Which one’s your favorite?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now read my complete review of the next book in this series, A Clash of Kings!

Choose My Next Read: Round 3

Here’s your chance to vote for a book you’d like to see me review in August! I’ve been particularly enjoying having some assistance in deciding what to read next from my ever-growing TBR, and I love seeing your feedback on which books I should read and which reviews you’re most interested in. So without further ado, please choose my next read!

The category: first in a YA series

The rules: choose one title from the list I’ve compiled below of unread books from my TBR that fit this category, and vote for it in the comments. The book with the most votes (or randomly selected winner between tied titles) will appear on my August TBR, to be read and reviewed within the month.

The books:

  1. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh. The 18 year-old ruler of Khorasan takes a wife every night–only to have her killed in the morning. Shahrzad volunteers for one such marriage with the intent of revenge for a friend who died under the same circumstances. She tells stories to keep herself alive, and in the process learns the secrets of the tortured ruler who killed her friend.
  2. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. In 2575, there is an ongoing war over possession of a small, icy planet. Kady and Ezra, in the middle of a bad break-up, are forced together in the evacuation and additionally through a plague outbreak. On top of those challenges, the artificial intelligence of the ship seems to be working against their race to figure out what, exactly, is going on in space.
  3. The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. With few survivors left on Earth, those who remain have learned not to trust anyone. Beings who look human but are decidedly not also roam the planet, so when Cassie meets someone new who might be able to help her she must first determine whether he is who he appears or presents a new danger altogether.
  4. The Kiss of Deception by Mary E Pearson. Princess Lia is out to break tradition–the tradition of arranged marriage for royalty based on best political gain. She runs away on the morning of her own wedding to settle in a distant common village, unaware that two men are pursuing her–an assassin, and the prince who would have been her husband.
  5. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins ventures on a quest for treasure guarded by a dragon. He stands to gain more than gold–through each part of his quest he faces a new challenge that will also teach him in turn to use the complete range of his personal skills and encourage him to learn about his own nature. (I’m counting this as first in a series because I intend to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy afterward, and would be using this one to get me started.)

choosemynextread3

A disclaimer: I’m agreeing only to read the first book of any of these series in August. I do own the next books in each of these sets, and I do intend to continue at least through a second book in all of them, but when I get around to a second book in a series depends on my interest level in the first and what else I’ve already planned for upcoming months. But I will absolutely read at least one of these books in August.

Please lend a hand. Drop a name. Leave a vote in the comments, because there are too many books on my TBR that I should’ve already read and I don’t even know where to start. Which of these books would you like to see me review next?

The deadline: Wednesday, July 26, 10 pm US Central Time.

May the best book win!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: City of Lost Souls

I started reading Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books in January, and I’m up to book 7 in publication order. The next two are both end-of-a-series books (book 3 in the Infernal Devices trilogy and book 6 in The Mortal Instruments series) and now that it’s been about 7 years since I picked up a Cassandra Clare book for the first time I must find out how things are going to end. But I’m not quite there yet. I just finished reading TMI book 5, City of Lost Souls, and I enjoyed it even more than I expected to. No spoilers below for City of Lost Souls, but if you haven’t read the previous four books, from City of Bones through City of Fallen Angels, you’ll probably want to do that before continuing with this review.

cityoflostsoulsAbout the book: Jace is bound to the imposter Sebastian, who everyone knows is Valentine’s evil son Jonathon, though he doesn’t use that name. What’s new is that the dark magic used to bind Jace to “Sebastian” affects his motivations, and thus his actions. When Jace and “Sebastian” go missing from the rooftop Clary left them on, the Clave prioritizes finding them–but the Seelie Queen warns Clary that she might not find Jace in the same condition as she left him. When the Clave tires of searching, Clary and her friends continue not only to try locating Jace, but to thwart Sebastian’s plans entirely so that Jace can be pulled free and clear of the evil influence. This will require spying, lying, and brute force, in the end. Except just as Jace may have been changed by the binding magic, Clary might find a softer Sebastian than she was expecting. Is redemption possible for her brother? Or is it all an act, like her instincts are telling her?

“We’re meant to protect each other, but not from everything. Not from the truth. That’s what it means to love someone and let them be themselves.”

Although Clary and Jace were my favorite characters in TMI books 1-3, they’re becoming more frustrating in these later books. These aren’t exactly short novels, especially books 4-6, so the tension between Clary and Jace is getting a little drawn-out. They love each other, but there’s always some reason they can’t be together the way they want to be. I understand that some romantic tension is necessary to the series–no one wants to read about people being happy and everything going right all the time, and emotion is just as important to Clare’s Shadowhunter books as plot. But the reasons Clary and Jace are being driven apart are getting pretty weird and elaborate at this point, and I wish Cassandra Clare had found some other way to keep the tension alive than to keep planting variations of the same barrier between Clary and Jace. For much of this book, the sections in Clary’s perspective often looked more or less the same: the twisted but repetitive “I love him but I can’t be with him but I love him anyway so I must find some way to be with him” angst, while not much else was actually going on.

But Clary’s not all bad. For the first time in the series, Clary has some real Shadowhunter skill. It’s not just luck or conveniently timed ideas for creating new runes; in City of Lost Souls, we finally see some of Clary’s combat training pay off with learned maneuvers. It’s so good to see her as more than a damsel in distress, and as more than an odd, exceptional case of a Shadowhunter lacking the typical know-how. She’s finally starting to be notable for more than her stubbornness and parentage, which is a huge plus.

“You don’t need anyone’s permission to do anything. You’re Clary Fray. You go charging into every situation without knowing how the hell it’s going to turn out, and then you get through it on sheer guts and craziness.”

And yet, even though the plot is all wrapped up in Clary/Jace drama, some of the other main characters are becoming much more interesting in City of Lost Souls. There are some interesting developments between Alec and Magnus, Isabelle and Simon, Maia and Jordan. Maureen is creeping out from the plot shadows. Camille makes an interesting offer. Rafael refuses to be forgotten. And Jonathon/Sebastian is, as always, a wild card at best. I found some of these other character developments and smaller plot threads more interesting than Clary’s angst for about 3/4 of the book, although Clace did leave off in an interesting situation.

“He was like the ocean ceaselessly throwing itself against a rocky shore, and this Jace was… a calm river, shining in the sun.”

Clare is great at twisting characters so that you never quite know who is who or what they’re going to do next. You might think you do, but then Clare shows a whole other side to their character. Morally gray characters are so much more interesting than bland heroes and villains, especially these morally gray people who all have some connection either to heaven or hell that shapes them in uniquely powerful ways.

And I suspect it will just keep getting better in the final volume, when everything comes together at last.

“If you keep hope alive, it will keep you alive.”

“Battle was like a whirlpool […] Things came at you and then surged away so quickly that all one was really aware of was a sense of uncontrollable danger, the struggle to stay alive and not drown.”

There was also a bonus scene the end of my copy, which I read in conjunction with City of Lost Souls. The scene is called “Becoming Sebastion Verlac,” and features an inside look at Jonathon’s past. This scene disappointed me. No new information is provided through it, and there are no surprises or even points of intrigue. On top of that, it didn’t  quite match up with the commentary from the book proper. In City of Lost Souls, Jonathon tells Clary that when he encountered Sebastian Verlac he hadn’t expected him to fight back. In this scene, the real Sebastian is portrayed as a “trusting fool”, without the presence of mind even to be afraid before his death. Bonus content is always hit-or-miss for me, and this one was a miss.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though my feelings about Clary and Jace are cooling off, there’s more going on in this book than the usual penultimate-novel tension build-up. There are some unanswered questions left at the end though, which is making me more eager than ever to finally reach the end of this series. I’m invested in a lot of these characters now, and I can’t wait to see where they’ll all end. I haven’t actually read any of Clare’s series endings yet, but I suspect it’s not going to be a flat happy ending where everyone lives and evil is thwarted forever. Next in publication order is Clockwork Princess, but I want to get to City of Heavenly Fire soon as well, while this one’s still fresh in my mind.

Coming up next: I’ve also recently finished reading Emily Henry’s new release, A Million Junes, a YA magical realism romance. I’ve been reading a ton between the end of June and beginning of July, so I have a little backlog of reviews to work through, and lots of great reads on my TBR for July, so stay tuned. More Cassandra Clare reviews within the month, but first I can’t wait to share everything I loved about the ghosty Romeo-and-Juliet type story of A Million Junes.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant