Tag Archives: YA

Review: Asking For It

I first saw this book on Rachel’s blog, and the things she had to say about it completely sold me. I had not heard of Louise O’Neill or her YA novel, Asking For It, but now that I’ve read this book I will never be the same.

askingforitAbout the book: Emma O’Donovan is beautiful. The most beautiful girl in Ballinatoom (small-town Ireland). Her looks allow her a certain amount of popularity and cruelty. She has many friends, although most of her socializing is for show and her own personal amusement. It turns out, despite what they say to her face, most of the people who know her don’t like Emma. So when she gets a little reckless at a party, being a little more daring than usual with drinks and drugs, she is raped and humiliated and no one seems to care. Pictures circulate on the internet. Everyone at school shuts Emma out. Her family is quick to punish, and the law is not on her side. The legal case will take years, and likely go nowhere. In the meantime, Emma’s life is destroyed as the boys blame her for the consequences they face. Everyone seems to think that Emma is the problem, for crying rape, when all along everyone knows she was asking for it.

“Skirts up to their backsides, and tops cut down to their belly buttons, and they’re all drinking too much and falling over in the streets, they’re practically asking to be attacked, and then when it happens, they start bawling crying over it. As your other man said, what do they expect?”

I have never been so close to DNFing a book. Sometimes I put a book down for ages, but never forever. If I think a book is bad, boring, or just not my taste, I soldier through. Asking For It had none of those problems. In the past I’ve been worried that I’m too callous/cynical because I can read anything without crying into my pillow at night.  But Asking For It, fiction though it is, hit me hard. Several times while reading I had to put the book down, and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to pick it back up again.

“Boys are always telling me I’m beautiful, their eyes roaming around my body hungrily, as if looking for a place to plant a flag.”

A lot of the rape stories I’ve read lately have focused on “small” incidents, with the intent of proving that every sexual assault is unacceptable. Asking For It is not one of those stories. What happens to Emma is not “small” in any way. It’s shocking and devastating to read about how uniformly her community turns against her in the aftermath– but the horrors of this book are so real and important. This is supposed to be uncomfortable. Asking For It is a novel that’s not afraid to face hard truths. Emma fails to grasp a lot of the messages that this book is imparting, but they’re clear nonetheless: no matter what Emma wore or how she behaved, what happened to her is not her fault. The consequences the boys face for what happened to her is not her fault. Trying to capitalize on her beauty in an environment that has shown her that her beauty is her entire worth is not her fault.

I also want to talk about the fact that this is a YA novel. Emma is 18, a year from graduating. There were times while I was reading that I thought, “Wow, I would not want a teenager to read this and hate the world as much as I do right now.” But in the end, I think it’s even more crucial for young readers to experience stories this dark, because these things do happen to teenagers, to girls (and sometimes boys) who are unprepared and don’t think it could ever happen to them. Rape culture is that bad.

“How is it that two eyes, a nose, and a mouth can be positioned in such varying ways that it makes one person beautiful and another person not? What if my eyes had been a fraction closer together? Or if my nose had been flatter? My lips thinner or my mouth too wide? How would my life have been different? Would that night have happened?”

Okay, I’m talking too much about what this book made me feel, and not enough about how well it is written.

Asking For It is divided into two parts, “Last Year” and “This Year.”  They are presented chronologically, and each fills about half of the novel. “Last year” starts before the rape, showing Emma with her family, friends, strangers, and acquaintances. The reader sees that she is mean, she is jealous, she is selfish. Reputation matters more to her than genuine regard, and every move she makes is calculated based on what her peers will think of it. It would be easy to hate Emma, but the novel also shows that she acts this way because she feels cornered. Ballinatoom has always put her beauty ahead of anything else, so she feels she must use it to her advantage, and that if she loses that advantage she will be left with nothing. It may be hard to like Emma at times, but she’s also got the sort of explosive personality that makes things happen and sucks the reader into the story immediately with the intensity of a ticking bomb. It’s impossible to look away.

“(I imagined Mam dying, what I would wear to the funeral, the glamour the tragedy would give me. I thought about how much easier my life would be if it were just me and Dad and Bryan.)”

The only detail I found issue with is the way Emma’s friends treat her immediately after seeing the pictures from the night of the disastrous party. They’re quick to exclude and blame her, and I just couldn’t understand how any girl (or person, for that matter) could look at pictures like that and think that what happened was voluntary. I didn’t understand how no one but a school counselor was concerned at all that Emma might not have wanted what happened. Clearly they dislike her enough to want to blame her, but I can’t imagine witnessing anything like what happens to Emma (as several of her peers do) and not thinking, “Oh my god, that girl needs help.”

” ‘You know I’m on your side, right? I was just asking if it was, like, rape rape.’ “

Side note: this has little bearing on the actual story, except as far as Irish law is concerned regarding rape charges, but I did love the Ireland setting. I didn’t realize before this novel, but my reading life has been sadly empty of Irish literature. I loved the sound of the names, the rhythm of the dialogue, the glimpse of culture. I will have to pick up more Irish lit in the future.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was emotional and incredibly difficult to read, but it does what it’s designed to do, and does it well. O’Neill has an undeniable command of language and a knack for unspoken meaning, and I will absolutely be reading more of her work. I’ll probably even buy my own copy of this book at some point– it was convenient to get it through the library this time, but I want to be able to revisit it and loan it out.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve read and loved Asking For It (or haven’t yet) and are looking for more lit about rape culture, you should pick up Not That Bad, a collection of essays edited by Roxane Gay. This is a compellingly readable assembly of nonfiction from 30 writers who’ve dealt first-hand with some aspect of rape culture. It is just as eye-opening and important as the concepts highlighted in Asking For It.
  • Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is another powerful YA novel about rape culture. Though this one’s dark and tragic as well (involving murder as well as rape), it’s a little more hopeful that things can change for the better.

Have you read a book that’s completely shaken you? A book that was difficult to read but you ended up glad to have experienced it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: I Stop Somewhere

I really love the way YA literature has expanded since I was a kid. People can hate on Twilight all they want, but I’m still so impressed with the way that the attention the Twilight saga generated for “right” and “wrong” in teen books opened up a whole new chapter for YA lit. Grown people read YA regularly now– that’s a trend I didn’t see much of before Twilight. And most importantly, readers of all ages speak up about what they wanted to see (or not) in YA lit– and writers listen. Now YA shelves are full of books with positive messages, minority representations, and acknowledgement of real-world issues. There’s still progress to be made, but watching the transformation so far has been incredible.

That’s why I keep coming back to YA, even as I outgrow it. I wish YA had looked like it does today back when it was the only thing I read. So I keep picking up books like T E Carter’s new YA novel, I Stop Somewhere. It’s a novel about rape culture in modern society. It narrates, it informs, and it reminds girls that they’re not alone and that they have something to fight for. And it does these things in an accessible way for young readers. That’s so cool.

istopsomewhereAbout the book: Ellie Frias was raped. She fell in love with the first boy who told her she was beautiful, and he took advantage of every inch of her: mind, body, and heart. And afterward, when he keeps doing the same things to other girls, Ellie can’t do anything about it. She spends months waiting for justice for what happened to her, watching her case move slowly forward while her community tears her reputation apart, along with the other girls brave enough to come forward.

I Stop Somewhere is utterly gutting. It delves deeply into two topics from one teenage girl’s perspective: rape, and death. These are covered with a bit of a heavy hand, though it doesn’t quite veer into overly sentimental territory. The chapters go back and forth between Ellie’s past with the events leading up to her rape, and her present while she’s officially a missing person and her attackers are still at large. It’s a powerful premise…

…but succinctness might have packed more of a punch. When I brought this book home from the library, I opened to the first page just to sample the writing, and I could not put it down for about 50 pages. Those early pages sucked me in and let me piece together what happened that separated Ellie’s past and present narratives, but then the arguments began circling each other, picking apart every nuance of every detail. There are times this book feels more like an essay on certain social injustices than a novel, but my issue lied more in the fact that its provocative prose answers so many of its own questions. So much of this story is commentary rather than plot, but I think more of a focus on the plot would’ve started some great commentary on its own. I tabbed a dozen lines in this book that expanded the way I thought about sexism and rape, but even so I was bored. The entire middle portion of the book crawls by as crumbs of information come out at a time, which may be fitting to the time frame of real investigations but did not help me invest in this book the way that I wanted to. So many of the messages in this book are strong and important and exciting to see talked about in a YA novel, but they lose momentum when the plot stagnates.

There are also moments, particularly in the middle portion of the book as the investigation proceeds, when connections are being made almost too easily for belief. With little or no evidence, girls’ stories are linked, assumptions are made about the criminals and their crimes, and the police make discoveries based on vague clues. No more than the bare bones of the legal processes are holding up the plausibility of this story– its heavy on the morality, and light on intriguing courtroom drama.

Let’s go back to the emphasis on social commentary: specifically involving rape and death. I wish I Stop Somewhere had focused on one of those extremes (preferably the rapes) more exclusively. The death discussion does relate to rape and it does create a narrative structure for this story, but a lot of the death exploration is no more than speculation. There’s a lot of coverage on the rules of death in this fictional world– where someone goes after death, what physical rules still constrain them, how they can move in and interact with the world at that time. And all of that feels so unnecessary to the bigger problem being addressed: the difficulty of prosecuting a rapist.

“They’ve been trying to get more girls to come forward. But I can’t imagine why anyone would. The system is set up to make you want to be quiet.”

Aside from the technical hang-ups, I found a lot to love about I Stop Somewhere. The size of Ellie’s high school is pretty close to the size of mine, so it was easy to plant this hypothetical into my own sphere of experience. Although my personal experiences have been nothing like Ellie’s, I found her easy to empathize with: she’s a completely ordinary teen with common teen worries about fitting in and becoming a woman that will probably resonate with a wide audience of readers from many backgrounds (and not exclusively female, though girls do seem to be the target audience).

“I don’t want to blame myself anymore. I only wanted to belong. I wanted so badly to be taken in– by someone, someplace. Anyone. Anyplace. I wanted it enough to screw up and lose myself, but I am still not to blame.”

And most importantly, I Stop Somewhere is a book that inspires change. It highlights a problem in modern society to draw attention to where the judicial system is failing. It acknowledges that for girls with situations like Ellie’s or the others mentioned in this book that it is hard to come forward and advocate for rebuilding the system– but also that every voice matters. Every girl’s story is important, and every small victory is a step toward securing the respect and justice that all girls deserve.

“Being a girl was all that landed me here. Having all the parts they wanted, but being nothing more than that.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. In a lot of ways, I Stop Somewhere felt like an updated The Lovely Bones. I loved The Lovely Bones in high school but it’s been years since I’ve had any reminders of it so I actually liked that. Although I Stop Somewhere is not my favorite YA book– not even my favorite YA book about rape– I think it’s great that books like this exist for young readers. It was an infuriating and validating reading experience, and I’m glad I read it, even though it made me cry.

Further recommendations:

  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I’m on the fence here, between recommending either this one or I Stop Somewhere more strongly. They are very similar in some ways. I would probably recommend I Stop Somewhere for teen readers, and The Lovely Bones for older readers who still dabble in YA.
  • The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. This is my favorite YA novel about modern rape culture. There are a few harder-to-believe aspects that makes this one feel a little less realistic, but it’s no less fierce and important for that. If you’re only going to read one YA book about rape, this one would be a great choice.
  • The Girls by Emma Cline. This one has less to do with rape, but it features a similar sort of commentary on what it’s like to be a girl. It also focuses on death, by fictionalizing Charles Manson’s cult and their murderous crimes. This is an adult book, though the main character is a teen girl.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Here’s another great YA book for readers interested in fiction that deals with real social issues. This one has nothing to do with rape, but it does offer some great commentary about racism.

Have you read any good YA books with real-life applications lately? I would love some more suggestions!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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

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: 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: Lady Midnight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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