Friday, November 16, 2018

THE WRATH AND THE DAWN


Review of THE WRATH AND THE DAWN by RENÉE AHDIEH
(first in THE WRATH AND THE DAWN series)

This book almost didn’t make my cut for a review; I have such strong criticisms that I feared a review would read mostly negative. However, when measuring whether or not to review a book, I try to ignore all the little (or big) aspects I disliked and simply ask myself: did I like the book? Would I recommend it to someone else? And, yes, I liked THE WRATH AND THE DAWN. I would recommend it to young adult fantasy readers, especially those who prioritize a strong setting.  

The summary of my criticisms is that I found this a good story full of plot holes. If you’re so inclined, you can easily rip at those holes until the story is in shreds. I suppose it’s a matter of credibility and suspended disbelief.

Let me describe the premise. Every night, Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride, only to have her executed at dawn the next morning. After he murders Shahrzad’s best friend, she volunteers as his next bride, determined to murder Khalid herself before he can continue his vicious, unexplained killing streak.

The book is gorgeously atmospheric and one can easily imagine yourself there, living the plot with these characters. I liked Shahrzad; rooting for her comes naturally. She’s obviously brave with cunning patience and well-spoken poise. I also liked the romance, though I won’t say I bought it 100%. Enemies to lovers is difficult to write and when not executed perfectly ends up feeling like, “Uh, why is she now making out with the enemy?”

My primary criticism is that I wanted to know why Khalid kills his brides at the start of the story. I couldn’t invest without this information and grew increasingly frustrated the longer that remained a mystery, only to discover the explanation is being withheld as a big reveal for the end. That meant I never fully invested. Without specific spoilers, there are also numerous other, smaller questions that distracted me throughout the story. Either it’s a genuine plot hole or my question wasn’t addressed to my satisfaction. Regardless, the book presents a several circumstances as a no-other-choice situation....except I see other choices and find myself thinking, “But why don’t they just...?” One specific I can share is that it’s never clarified for me why Khalid spares Shahrzad that first night. It seems to come down to an emotional, lucky fluke, but I want her actions to have saved her and instead it feels like she owes her life to well-timed chance. In general, the author hand feels heavy. If asked why a character did something, I would say it’s because the author needed them to do that to move the story forward rather than because of any logical motivation on the character’s part.

I waffled about reviewing this one, because I know my criticisms sound very harsh. However, when I asked myself if I would recommend it to others my answer is still a confident yes (especially if I can tell you up front that you won’t find out why Khalid kills his brides until the end, so don’t wait on that). At its core, this novel is beautiful and successfully transports the reader to another world.

Friday, November 9, 2018

LIRAEL


Review of LIRAEL by GARTH NIX
(second in the ABHORSEN series)

This second book in one of my favorite series follows not one but two main characters: Lirael and Sam.

Lirael lives with the Clayr, those gifted with the prophetic Sight. Each year she watches more and more of her sisters gain their Sight while Lirael remains Sightless, wondering if the power will ever come to her. She makes do, finding work as a librarian as well as an unlikely friend in the Disreputable Dog, a magic canine creation as entertaining as she is loyal.

Sam is Sabriel and Touchstone’s son, destined to follow in Sabriel’s footsteps and become the next Abhorsen. Except Sam is terrified of death. He can’t bring himself to admit as much to his parents, but becoming the Abhorsen is about one the last things in the world Sam wants. Unfortunately, rather than communicating his doubts, Sam lets his fears turn to procrastination by refusing to study his assigned materials. That lack of discipline could prove detrimental to the entire realm when an undead threat emerges, Sam is expected to help stop it....and he’s barely studied anything regarding how his powers should work.

Both Lirael and Sam feel more adolescent to me than Sabriel ever did. Not to diminish the scale of their problems, but they both come across as whiny at times and occasionally I simply wanted them to get over themselves. Lirael wants a talent she doesn’t have. She clearly has other talents that she refuses to acknowledge, because in her mind they are not The Talent. Sam doesn’t want to follow in his parents’ footsteps. Again, the scale adds complications and pressure, but these are typical problems at their root. I mean none of this as a criticism by the way. I found the teenagers believably egocentric and enjoyed watching their character growth. I admire how Nix makes the fantastical so relatable. One apt line in particular stood out to me, referencing Lirael obsessing yet again over her desperate desire for The Sight: “It was like worrying a toothache with her tongue. It hurt, but she couldn’t leave it alone.”

I love the Disreputable Dog. I love animals in my stories in general, especially when they play an active role and have strong personalities. Mogget makes an appearance, too, and I’m especially pleased to say the two animals cross paths since their mysterious-magic-dog versus ancient-demon-cat banter is not to be missed.

I found LIRAEL a little slower than SABRIEL and suspect it’s because this installment cuts off to be continued in the next book. Though all part of a series, SABRIEL works as a standalone while LIRAEL does feel like half a book...and I cannot wait to start the next one!

Friday, November 2, 2018

THE SERPENT KING


Review of THE SERPENT KING by JEFF ZENTNER
(based on a review copy)

If I ranked all the books I reviewed this year, this one might very well snag the number one spot at the top of that list. I loved it. No, I’m a little in love with it.

The publisher sent me this one unsolicited along with others I had requested and, in all honesty, it doesn’t sound like much. The blurb on the back doesn’t make it sound intriguing and if I summarize the premise without any gushing, I probably won’t make it sound intriguing. It’s a story about three misfit friends navigating high school. Well, aren’t they all? But wait: you really need to meet these ones.

First there’s Dill, probably the most unusual of their small pack. His father, nicknamed The Serpent King of the title, essentially led a cult and is now imprisoned. Dill feels buried under his parents’ expectations. His father expects Dill to continue his twisted legacy while his mother expects Dill to drop out of high school so he can start working full-time to help support the family. Dill is also a talented musician, though shy and hesitant about showcasing his skill since his father saw Dill’s musical aptitude as merely another way “to spread the word through song.”

Second there’s Travis, easily my favorite character as I’m a sucker for anyone who lets their dork flag fly out in the open without shame. Travis is obsessed with a fantasy series and even carries a staff with him everywhere. He knows doing so makes him as easy target for ridicule but the staff is meaningful to him and above all else Travis is true to himself. However, his adorable geekiness is shadowed by his abusive father. Not even his closest friends know, and as Travis suffers along with his mother he wishes he could be like the brave, strong heroes of his favorite series.

Last but not least there’s Lydia, whose strong will and bossy demeanor can be both admirable and overpowering. When people tease their trio at school, she returns with whip-speed, smart, withering comebacks. Lydia wants more for herself than this small town life. She maintains a successful fashion blog and has plans for New York next year. However, her critical remarks about their hometown and everyone in it cause tension with her friends, both fearful she can’t wait to leave them in the dust, too.

I found this book absolutely stunning. The more that I read, not to mention the more that I write myself including studying and breaking down a book into its pieces, the more critical a reader I become. Even when I love a book I almost always have some nitpicky criticisms. THE SERPENT KING I simply adored. Read it.
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Friday, October 26, 2018

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL


Review of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL by PHILIPPA GREGORY

I re-read this one and it more than lives up to my memories of its singular quality. Even knowing what’s coming, at least the major points both from history and my first read, did nothing to lessen my investment in the story; I adored every page.

Gregory is a master of beautiful, dramatic depictions of history bursting with the haunting sense of the inevitable. She makes me invest in all of her characters (even the despicable ones), because she makes me understand them. Though a part of me keeps wishing all these tortured souls will just, hey, go to therapy, make better choices, and live happy lives, the history becomes a character as well, a constant and inescapable reminder that in this time people had fewer choices. (Therapy wasn’t usually one of them.) So instead I find myself on a kind of empathy overload, utterly gripped by the tragedy of their circumstances.

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is told from the perspective of Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s sister, who was Henry VIII’s mistress before he divorced his first wife and married Anne.

Gregory’s work always makes me feel, intensely. I know I’m reading a good story when I have strong emotional reactions where I have to look around me and remind myself that, in real life, nothing’s happening besides me on the couch with a book and a cup of tea. With THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (and all of Gregory’s books), I become infuriated at betrayals, my breath catches at true romance amid all the forced marriages, a deep sadness sets in at characters resigning themselves to unhappy fates, and a contented warmth uplifts me when someone I consider deserving finally gets something they want.

Gregory’s writing is beautiful, of the invisible variety, meaning it’s so skillfully written that every word feels natural and I forget to think about the writing and only think about the story and the characters. Mary’s voice is so compelling and believable. I have read historical fiction by other authors that leaves me unconvinced about the character they have created: I don't buy that the fictional interpretation of that historical figure would really do what we know from history the real life person did do. Gregory is a master at forming characters with such clear motivations that for a moment I think she must have stumbled onto some diary none of the rest of us know about and discovered the actual mindset of the real person.

Among all her other strengths, Gregory is an expert with her pacing, especially impressive to me in this genre. Sometimes the timeline slows down to focus on one period intensely when a lot happened and other times the timeline speeds up and skips over a good chunk when not much interesting took place, but Gregory makes everything feel current and urgent. Anne may have been seducing Henry for years, but I feel as though I experienced every agonized second of wondering if she overestimated and overextended herself.

Greogry continues to be my historical fiction measuring stick. Whenever I read a historical novel by anyone else, I ask myself, “Is this as good as a Philippa Gregory novel?”

Friday, October 19, 2018

FIRE STUDY


Review of FIRE STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER
(third in the STUDY trilogy)

I re-read this entire trilogy and found, unexpectedly, that the first two books exceeded my memory of them. However, this third one, in contrast, didn’t quite live up to my memory.

The flaws are more vague than specific and are probably best described as a lack of polish. I think the heart of the story, the core characters, and so forth are all good and enjoyable, but a lot of the specifics fell short. As one example, I often struggled understanding motivations of villains and heroines alike. As a character-centric reader, the plot loses much of my investment if I cannot understand the character motivation behind why events are unfolding as they are.

To back up, let me describe the premise of this final installment (spoilers for earlier books included). At the end of book two, Cahil, devastated upon learning he is not the lost prince he believed himself to be, frees and flees with Ferde, the vicious Soulstealer who has already taken the lives of many innocents in a particularly cruel and slow manner.

FIRE STUDY concludes the plot-driven, fast paced STUDY trilogy. Above all, I will remember Yelena as someone who never makes the easy choice.

Friday, October 12, 2018

THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE


Review of THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE by AVI

I last read this book back in sixth grade and remember my mind boggling at everything Charlotte experiences. I consider this one of my formative feminist reads as I remember having thoughts like, “A girl can do that? A girl can have adventures like that?” To my sixth grade brain, this was a boy adventure book featuring a girl, and that was both revolutionary and worthy of my complete adoration. I’m pleased to say that the book holds up on a re-read in later life, though my enthusiasm is mildly tampered only by having much more life experience now. This may have been one of my first feminist reads after all, but it was certainly not the last.

Set in 1832, the story follows thirteen-year-old Charlotte, sent to meet her parents across the Atlantic Ocean via ship. It was expected she would have companions her own age and station, but due to unforeseen circumstances she winds up travelling alone. Luckily, the charming captain promptly befriends her and promises to look out not only for her safety but also her comfort during this rigorous journey. So you can imagine Charlotte’s confusion when one of the crew starts warning her against the captain and then her further alarm at hearing whispers about mutiny.

The book is much shorter than I remember, but then again I did read it when I was younger. Then and now, it amazes me how much is packed into such a small book. At times, the older me did want more development, of the characters, the relationships, but I also recognize the book is probably perfect as is for the middle reader target audience.

I’m a bit nervous about re-reading old favorites, concerned I might actually dislike books I adored and considered formative. THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE holds up as worthy of the high place it held in my memory for so long.  

Friday, October 5, 2018

CRUCIBLE OF GOLD


Review of CRUCIBLE OF GOLD by NAOMI NOVIK
(seventh in the TEMERAIRE series, based on a review copy)

This installment in one of my favorite fantasy series finds the dragon Temeraire and his human companion Lawrence stranded among Incan islands in South America. Since the Incans are considering an alliance with Napoleon, this proves...problematic. However, courtesy of their unyielding moral compass, Temeraire and Lawrence frame this as an opportunity, to perhaps sway the Incans away from a French alliance.

I love the growing cast of dragon characters and that the dragons have an equal role in the story as the humans. In fact, one of my other favorite aspects is how the different settings of each book explore the difference in dragon treatment based on each culture. Some revere the dragons like gods while others control them like slaves.

I will never tire of the dragon banter, both amongst themselves and with the humans. Temeraire is a lovable blend of majestic and juvenile. His petty squabbles with Iskierka, usually over who has the most treasure or is best looking out for their human, never cease to amuse me. Temeraire can be equally worked up that Lawrence’s jacket is in tatters as he is regarding political debates. Novik has brought decorum to dragons, crafting a unique interpretation of these vain, materialistic, noble creatures.

This is one of those series I hope will never end, although I believe it already has and that I only have two books left before the end. Oh, well. Temeraire will live on in my heart long after I finish the last word.
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