Didn't realize I didn't have this marked, but I got a copy in the mail a few weeks ago and it's Kelley Armstrong, so, yeah. Definitely in the to-readDidn't realize I didn't have this marked, but I got a copy in the mail a few weeks ago and it's Kelley Armstrong, so, yeah. Definitely in the to-read pile. ^_^...more
I hadn't heard of Sara B Larson's debut, Defy, until it showed up in my mailbox, which is shameful of me, because I'm normally pretty on top of anythiI hadn't heard of Sara B Larson's debut, Defy, until it showed up in my mailbox, which is shameful of me, because I'm normally pretty on top of anything that even hints at the phrase "gender-bender." (I blame this almost completely on Tamora Pierce, and probably a little bit on movies like Rocky Horror, Ladybugs, To Wong Foo and Just One of the Guys. My formative years in a nutshell, friends.) So even though I had no plans to read this, and a whole stack of other things that needed to be read instead, I promptly sat down with this one almost immediately upon opening the package. And for all my high hopes and a fairly strong start, I was sadly disappointed.
Defy was an oddly confused piece of writing. It doesn't know if it wants to be the next big smexy romance novel or a straight-forward epic fantasy, so it tries to do both, and fails. 'Hot and bothered' just doesn't work as well when there are more pressing concerns like fighting for your life. Now, I've always been one to say that romance still has a place - maybe even more of a place - when the setting isn't all that conducive to a romance; people still fall in love in the middle of wars. Emotions are heightened, life seems short, and people carpe the hell out of their diems. But... if that's the case you wanna make, then that mentality, that forced, manic, precarious vitality has to be represented and believable. And those other concerns, like war and death and hurt, loss, pain, anxiety — they need to intrude, need to make up a bulk of the characters' thought-space, even. Otherwise, it makes your characters seem vapid and self-absorbed, and all of the potential tension in your story (beyond the sexual) goes right out the window. If they don't legitimately fear for their lives, we won't. If they only care about the ills of society in a cursory way, when forced to, we'll either stop caring about the world, or stop caring about the characters. (And by we, I mean me, but I'm guessing some of you, too.)
Defy felt like a lot of potential, wasted. And I don't just mean the more dire aspects of the society, and the seriousness of the situation. Even Alexa's disguise as Alex felt wasted. Larson does have talent that tries to rear its troublesome head, but beyond the lack of depth and the apparent obviousness of Alexa's disguise (who doesn't know? I think just adults, who presumably are too busy or too obtuse to pay attention to anything around them...Like the fact that one twin matures from boy to going-on man while the other remains sexless and ambiguous. Or the fact that one twin (the not-boy one) seems to spend most of his/her time openly leering at all of the sweaty dreamboats in his/her regiment...), I just felt like there needed to be more follow-through, follow-all-the-way-through, in Defy. There needed to be some psychology, some cause-effect, and all those fundamental hallmarks of good world & character building. Two apparently-straight boys are in love with someone pretending to be a boy - shouldn't there be...a grappling with confusing feelings? As a woman in a society where women are forced into brothels to be brood mares for the army, shouldn't their be some real hatred and bitterness? More distrust, more paranoia and caution in regards to the "disguise," or some acting-out, and even some self-loathing for being a member of the Army that helps prop up this institutionalized sex trafficking? Though there was a scene - a single scene - of disgust for the world Alexa lives in, I can't say that it was really more than set-up for a pivotal moment of the book -- a means to an end, and not a real analysis or condemnation of the world. It was well-done in the moment, and then relegated to the d-plotlines once again.
There were things that should have been explored and capitalized on, that should have had a greater share of the focus, over faux drama and twu wuv. So Alexa's the best fighter ever, and she's maybe magic ooh ahh. She's also smart and resourceful (one assumes), so let us see some more of that. She shows moments, but let's have more than moments; let's have that be the bulk of the narrative instead. Not confused longing and a lip-service condemnation of the serious ills of the world, before getting back to the Very Urgent Business of who's hotter, the prince or the pauper? I try not to get too moral when it comes to a book and how it presents its story -- I generally don't feel authors have some sort of "responsibility" to...well, anything, really, other than the story they set out to tell. But as amoral a reader as I am, I couldn't help but be bothered by the shock tactic of using the forced prostitution of children as an easily-discarded frame for a story about how Alexa's milkshake swordplay brings all the boys to the yard.
Now. I've gone very negative, and some of that may be the wine talking (but probably not), so I do want to say that some of this I just saw as rookie mistakes. The story could have done with a lot of lengthening, which, beyond making more depth likely, would have allowed for more of an exploration of some of these difficult plotlines. The timeframe is very compressed, and if you're rushing to get your main characters alone in the woods together so they can get their angsty-flirt on, you're bound to neglect some of the more troublesome aspects of the story. They're just not as fun, amirite? The story as a whole would have benefitted from a slower pace, and I know I'm not the only one who thought that:
And while we're talking about rookie mistakes, even though it seems silly after the more serious stuff: the names! What was with the names? They were so jarring to me; every last one of them seemed like something the author thought sounded cool, and not at all like something that fit the world being built. Cultures have patterns, languages have forms and cadence and a feel to them, and these things all make part of a believable world. Names are a much bigger part of that than you'd think, because they represent the characters who are our 'in' to the world, and therefore represent the world itself; you can't have:
This one is Frenchish, and this one's English-like, this sounds kinda Spanishy, and ooh, this sounds "exotic" and maybe a little ethnic, so that's perfect - let's toss them all together into my insular, isolated world! Perfect! No one would ever believe they didn't develop organically as an extension of the culture and language of a people! *pats self on back*
Choosing something with no real rhyme or reason other than it sounds badass is something a budding writer does in middle school. You gotta murder your darlings, baby, and you gotta make sound decisions rather than "cool" ones. I just had to get that little rant out of the way, 'cause it bothered me...
BUT, all that said, it is very fast-paced, and managed to be engaging even when it was getting under my skin. I saw enough in it that I would read the follow-up, even if it won't be high-priority; there is talent there, it just wants developing, and I'm curious to see what Larson does in the future. And I think I'll get that chance, as I have a feeling Defy is going to find a very devoted audience. (In fact, judging from some of my GR friends' reactions, it already has.) No matter how much we all rail against it and its predictability, there's always a huge market for love triangles; everybody wants to be Team Somebody. Defy will have that in spades. It's just the rest of it - all of its other bookness - that failed to deliver. It's probably a good "epic fantasy" for people who don't actually like epic fantasy, but want to feel like they're reading one - it gives you the bare bones of such a thing, with some vaguely jungle-ish world-building, looming war and atrocities, and mad swordplay skillz, but in the end, it's really just a standard YA love triangle dressed up in epic fantasy's clothing, like a child wearing her mother's heels and playing house. ...more
School Spiritsis the first in a spin-off series from the Hex Hallbooks. And though I own the Hex Hall series,I was worried when this showed up in mySchool Spirits is the first in a spin-off series from the Hex Hall books. And though I own the Hex Hall series, I was worried when this showed up in my mail that I wouldn't be able to read it, since I haven't actually read Hex Hall even a little bit. Being completely buried in books right now, and heading into what is inevitably my busiest month of the year, combined with the fact that I haven't read HH, I figured the best thing would be to set this on a shelf and let it languish for a bit while I responsibly go about the things I need to get done...which is why I opened up to the first page "just to see" and then proceeded to finish it. [Don't look at me like that, I know I'm not the only one who does this.]
Since I haven't read HH, I guess I can't talk about how School Spirits compares to that, but I can certainly say that it makes me more eager to read it. Though this may not go down in history as the most memorable or most original book I've read, it was pure fun throughout, and I think I may come to find Hawkins' style a perfect funk-breaker. There are those authors or works that I always recommend when someone tells me they're in a reading rut (or when I, myself, am) because they're breezy, effortless style doesn't make you work at enjoying reading. These types of books make a great break when you're stalled in something that you just can't seem to finish, because they remind you that reading can be fun; an author can be have a sense of humor; a book can be quick and light and exactly what you needed to jumpstart you when you're in a slump. I have a list of such books to use as go-to recommendations, which includes things like Kiersten White's Paranormalcy, Jana Oliver's The Demon Trapper's Daughter. I have a feeling School Spirits will be added to that list.
That's the type of book School Spirits was. It's begging to be on "beach reads" lists, or "curling up in a hammock with the sun on your face reads" lists or "OMG I'm done with finals, give me something fun!!1" lists. It was breezy and cute (not cutesy), with just the right amount of fluff to it to make it quick and compulsively engaging, but keep it from being a throwaway. The story is pretty standard paranormal fare, but Izzy - and a number of the other characters - are so engaging that they make the story shine. Hawkins has done a really good job of setting up the series, giving us all the basics to dive into the world, engaging characters to lead us through it, and enough mystery and openness to keep us coming back for those unanswered questions. And because two - at least - of those questions are pretty big ones, I have a feeling that the tension in this series is going to build quite nicely, and make each book stronger than the last. (At least, I can hope!)
So if you're in a rut and in need of a funk-breaker, or just love a good damn fun book, School Spirits might be just the one to pick up. And if you're like me, and still have Hex Hall sitting on your shelves, unread, then you may just want to have a summertime Rachel Hawkins binge......more