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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