Ana: Thea was supposed to be doing a solo review of The Haunting of Maddy ClareJoint review originally posted on The Book Smugglers
Ana: Thea was supposed to be doing a solo review of The Haunting of Maddy Clare but then last week I was having a moan about not wanting to read any of the books on my TBR and then Thea was like, “What do you want to read dude” and I was like, “I think I am in the mood for a historical novel, possibly Horror as well. Maybe.” and she was like, “Dudette, why don’t you read Maddy Clare with me” and I looked it up and it was a historical novel with GHOSTS and I was like “OMG, I am so in”.1 So yes, The Haunting of Maddy Clare was exactly what I wanted to read and on that front, it completely delivered. It was that sort of comfortable read, the cosy mystery I was looking for but it does have many flaws. But more on that below.
Thea: Actually, Ana is misrepresenting the conversation. Yes, she was having a moan about the lackluster books she was reading, and then I basically had to pitch and sell her on Maddy Clare – which she had earlier said she’d pass on, for lord knows whatever reason – pointing out that the novel is: 1. Post-WWI historical; 2. Gothic in nature with a ghostly haunting, and; 3. Topped off with a romantic subplot. AND THEN, after selling her on this, Ana finally realizes that – HELLO! – this has her name written all over it (far more than it has mine). She woke up and smelled the proverbial coffee. Hence, the joint review. I went into The Haunting of Maddy Clare expecting an engaging ghost story, a mystery, set against an effective historical backdrop with a touch of romance, and I’m happy to say that the novel delivers (with only a few reservations).
On the Plot:
Ana: Sarah Piper is a modern woman living in London in the aftermath of World War I, doing the odd secretarial job. When a temp agency offers her the opportunity to work for the dashing Alistair Gellis, she takes upon the offer – only to realise, perhaps too late, that her new job requires her to go ghost hunting. Alistair is an academic writer, researching haunted places in England and his newest case – the man-hating ghost of a young servant called Maddy Clare – requires the assistance of a woman. The two travel together to the small village of Waringstoke where they will investigate the haunted barn where Maddy appears and where they are joined later by Alistair’s assistance Matthew Ryder. At first, Sarah is doubtful that ghosts really exist but to her dismay (and terror) Maddy makes a horrific appearance and is able to form a connection with Sarah. It is then that Sarah learns why Maddy is angry and in search of revenge and she has no choice but to help the ghost lest they all become victims of her wrath.
I am rather conflicted about this book and how to write this review. On the one hand, I read this in one sitting and for the most part it was an enjoyable cozy, fun read. I loved the historical setting (as superficial as it was) and Sarah, the main character, was an interesting heroine. My first act as soon as I finished reading it was to write down: “competent cozy mystery, a historical ghost story with a side of romance, recommend with reservations”. It wasn’t until later that I started to realise that it had its share of problems. In fact, as I write this review, as I reflect on it, the more I find to criticise. Do you know, I truly hate when that happens, but alas.
In terms of plot, The Haunting of Maddy Clare is quite straightforward: a ghost story mixed with the mystery behind Maddy’s short life. Her story is of that sort that involves small-town horrors and the mystery was fairly predictable: I was able to guess the culprits very early on. The ghost was suitably scary though and Maddy’s back story was quite sad. My main gripe is perhaps the setting: although I love readings stories set in the early twenties but beyond a few mentions of clothes and to the mores of the era, there isn’t anything really vivid about the setting – this story could have been set at any point in time.
There is also a heavy focus on a romance that develops between Sarah and Matthew and that was so underdeveloped as to be almost random (but more on that below).
Thea: I agree with Ana’s initial assessment – this is a wholly competent and engaging novel, and I most enjoyed the experience of losing myself in The Haunting of Maddy Clare. Traditional ghost stories are not my favorite subgenre of horror – not by a long shot – but when they are done well, I can be completely won over (see Michelle Paver’s phenomenal Dark Matter or Susan Hill’s deliciously terrifying The Woman in Black). In the case of Maddy Clare, all of the right elements are in place. As the novel progresses and Sarah, Alistair, and Matthew conduct their investigation of the haunting, readers learn the truth behind the tragic, horrific mystery of young Maddy’s past. The horror elements, steeped in the nature of Molly’s haunt fueled her rage and fear are expertly written. It is this mystery, of Molly’s past and what she wants, that drives the novel – at least, in my opinion.
Layered on top of the ghostly haunting is the narrative of our intrepid temporary secretary heroine, Sarah Piper, and the different challenges she faces in a post-war world. Work has dried up, and as a woman without family or means, Sarah’s reality is a meager and brutal one. Though I do agree with Ana that the historical setting could have been replaced with any different era, I did like the touches that were unique to the early 1920s and how the time period shaped the experiences and perceptions of the different characters. Sarah is a modern girl in that she cares for herself and is self-employed in a non-servant position, there is this tension between what is acceptable and respected, versus the newer, bolder evolving world. There’s also the legacy of war and how it has affected Alistair and Ryder, which I think was done very well by Ms. St. James.
There is a degree of predictability regarding the plot, but I am not so bothered by this as The Haunting of Maddy Clare is not really about twists or surprises; rather, it’s a book about the characters and their own stories.
On the Characters:
Ana: Apart from Maddy Clare herself, I find myself reconsidering my thoughts about the characters.
At first glance, this is exactly the sort of read I tend to like. There were things I absolutely loved Sarah’s character: she is that type of quiet, introvert heroine that is struggling to find a place in the world. She thinks of herself as independent and modern and for the most part, she truly is finding her voice, not to mention becoming sexually aware.
Having said that, even though I had the feeling that this is supposed to be a feminist read, the text itself, kept coming back at me with these essentialist quotes about what it’s like to be a woman – how emotional they can be; how only a woman can know about the feeling a favourite piece of clothing, etc – which made me pause.
There was definitely something incongruous about how Sarah is portrayed and how she is developed. For example, at the beginning she muses about she is the sort of woman who must worry about her reputation, who can’t be free to do all she pleases. There is a lot of blushing when she meets Alistair and awkwardness because they must travel together. But then later on, there is a SURPRISE!REVELATION! in which we learn that Sarah has had several lovers after quick dates. And then she forgoes all about her worries with her reputation without a second to consider it and spends several nights sleeping with Matthew at a public Inn.
There is nothing wrong about her having sexually active life, of course. Far from it. The problem is how inconsistent her character presentation is.
The male characters are not developed much beyond their descriptions. Alistair is nice and debonair and Matthew – the romantic interest – is dark and brooding. Both have PTSD and that’s about it. The relationship that develops between Sarah and Matthew is completely clichéd – exactly the type that gives Romance a bad name, except the Romances I read are way better than this.
There is one particular scene that Thea and I have been talking about that we both felt was really problematic and even revolting. There was this really random, surprising sex scene in which Matthew basically walks into Sarah’s room one night, thrust himself into her, comes quickly and then leaves the room saying it wouldn’t happen again. Mind you: at that point the two had barely exchanged a word and Matthew even believed Sarah had a thing for Alastair.
Although Sarah was willing – he did not know that. He had no way of knowing that at that point. We only know that because we see narrative from Sarah’s point of view. I ask of you: isn’t that problematic? And yet, we are supposed to take it on a stride and understand that the poor little man had ISSUES because of the war. This is never truly addressed in the novel beyond Sarah worrying about not being good enough for him. SERIOUSLY.
Ok, I am working myself up.
Thea: So, I’m of two minds when it comes to characterizations. I truly loved our heroine, Sarah, for all of the reasons that Ana mentions. She’s not a stereotypically brash, stylish, cigarette-smoking flapper with nary a care in the world. Instead, our heroine is reserved, of small means and certainly not a fashionable paragon of roaring twenties’ sensibilities. That said, Sarah isn’t just some timid, meek woman. Rather, she is independent, and just as she describes herself: as a modern woman. I actually liked the revelation that she had her own encounters and trysts with men, and didn’t find it out of place with her character. Her arc – discovering what she wants and is capable of – is endearing and, to me, works.
What did not work, however, was the kind of icky, not-so-satisfying romance. As Ana mentions above, I didn’t believe in the attraction between Sarah and Ryder (really?! RYDER?!) – I am not a fan of the instant lust, nor am I a fan of repeated phrases that glorify Ryder’s stubbled jaw or broad shoulders or manly manliness. Added to that is the somewhat horrifying first sexual encounter between Ryder and Sarah, in which he steals into her bedroom in the middle of the night – without talking to her or knocking on her door – and roughly thrusts himself upon her. I have nothing against a late night booty call, or romantic passionate encounters, but the problematic thing with all of this is that Ryder had no real idea that Sarah wanted him or was willing. Especially in this book, given the ghostly Maddy Clare’s story, I felt like this was a jarring, incredibly disturbing development, and not romantic in the slightest.
I am a little more charitable when it comes to the development of male characters than Ana, however. I liked that both Alistair and Matthew have bonded over their time in the war together, and the very real stresses and issues they deal with in its aftermath. I feel like we get to know and understand Alistair, with his genteel appearance and easygoing manner, but with a lurking toughness and experience beneath that foppish exterior. In contrast, Matthew is lacking the same depth. We know he looks manly and dangerous, we know what he has suffered, and we know that Sarah has the hots for him almost immediately. And yet…as a character, he’s two-dimensional. Perhaps this is because of Sarah’s point of view narration, in which she is superficially drawn to his appearance and demeanor, so the book never really fully explores Matthew Ryder as a fully fleshed out character. In any case, I felt the overall experience…lacking.
Beyond this main trio, of course, we should not forget about Maddy Clare, her adopted family, or the various villagers with their own foibles, secrets, and pasts. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that I think this supporting cast – and Maddy herself, of course – are done convincingly well.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: The Haunting of Maddy Clare is that sort of read that is perfectly acceptable and nice as you are reading it. It is not until you are done with it that you go: WAIT A MINUTE. MAYBE THAT’S NOT REALLY AS GOOD AS I THOUGHT. In the end the best I could say is: I’ve read better, I’ve read worse. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but that’s that.
Thea: I’ve read better, but I’ve also read much, much worse, and overall my experience with Maddy Clare is a positive one. I enjoyed this book and can think of no better way to spend an afternoon if you’re looking for a quick, engaging historical novel with an effective ghost story. The only thing that didn’t work for me was the uncomfortable romance – but I don’t think that’s enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel. Recommended, with reservations....more
Ana: I absolutely love to be taken by surprise by a book. I had no real expectatJoint review originally posted on The Book Smugglers
Ana: I absolutely love to be taken by surprise by a book. I had no real expectations about Peaceweaver except for the hope that it would be a cool Historical Fantasy novel but as soon as I started reading it, I knew this was going to be a Good One. And it was: a cool story with connections to Beowulf, great Norse setting and above all a fantastic heroine. This is definitely a case of “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
Thea: I wholeheartedly agree with Ana. The cover of the book is a little misleading because it gives the impression of a Middle Grade or younger YA novel (which isn’t bad – just misleading). I was completely taken by surprise by the depth of this story, with its impressive heroine, the exploration of duty and honor, and the beautifully written world. In short, I loved it.
On the Plot:
Ana: Peaceweaver is a companion novel to The Coming of the Dragon which – from what I understand since I have not read it (yet) – is a retelling of Beowulf. At the end of that book, its hero Rune meets his bride-to-be Hild. Peaceweaver tells the story of Hill leading up to that point.
As the story opens, Hild is getting ready to become the mead-server at the hall of her uncle, the King of Shylfings. This is an honoured position and she hopes to fulfil her role with the grace and ability that is required of her. More than that, she hopes to become, with time, a peaceweaver –suggesting peaceful actions and effectively becoming a political adviser. This is a position that has been instrumental in keeping the peace at her kingdom but ever since the Queen has fallen ill, the King has resorted to hear the words of his Bard. Her dreams are quashed when she is taken over by an unknown force – much like a berserker – and is driven to protect her cousin (and presumed heir) from an assassination attempt. Unfortunately for her, she is now regarded as a threat and sent away to marry the new King of the Geats as a peace offering. Before she leaves her entire world behind as well as her family and friends, she learns that the King has no intention to honour the peace treaty and she fears she will be killed to.
There is quite a lot that happens in this book and the above is but the set up – the majority of the novel is spent on Hild’s journey to her new home, a journey that is full of danger. Hild faces it all resolutely and with a clear mind – she knows she must do everything to escape, to avoid getting to her destination. But to her dismay, the force that guided her to protect her cousin is also guiding her to protect the men that are taking her to her new home.
There are a lot of different threads here – there’s Hild’s coming of age story, finding her place in the world. Plus, the backdrop of diplomatic relations between two different kingdoms and an adventure story with monsters and dragons. I loved Hild’s portrayal and her strong voice and I actually think this should be required reading to those who think Medieval-inspired Fantasy can only portray women as either saint (mothers, wives, daughters) or whore. Yes, Hild dreams big, but her dreams are possible and realistic within the context of that era.
I also really loved this book’s treatment of slavery. Slavery was a part of the Viking world, part of their social structure. The book acknowledges that and our heroine – despite her fair treatment of her slaves – sees nothing wrong with it, in principle. It is just part of her world but I loved how the text shows a different perspective by giving voice to slaves by making it clear that their compliance is merely adaptation in order to survive. There are no happy slaves who are grateful to their masters here. One of the main characters is Hild’s slave companion, who is almost like a mother figure to her. At the first opportunity she gets, the slave runs away. Hild is hurt by this but also fully acknowledges that she would do the same if she was in her shoes.
Thea: ALL THE THINGS THAT ANA SAID. What most impressed me about this book – and that’s a hard choice, because so many things impressed me about Peaceweaver – is with the utterly convincing nature of Hild’s world. Through our heroine Hild’s eyes, we see the order of society, with the male warriors and clan Kings holding sway over their people, while women provide guidance and uphold honor, duty, and advise in other ways. As Ana says, Hild’s story is the perfect antidote to historical medieval fantasy, in which women are often portrayed as virginal saints to be protected, whores, or untouchable warrior women. Hild is, in contrast, a believable young woman – the niece of her clan’s warrior king, who thinks, dreams, and feels like a woman that belongs to this time period. I have to again say I WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree with Ana’s comment about Hild (and her kin’s) feelings towards slaves – there are no happy slaves here, but also importantly there aren’t any radical contemporary ideas in the mix, either.
Of course, the plot itself is wonderful as well and I now realize that I need to get my hands on the companion book to Peaceweaver as soon as possible, because HOLY CRAP, I loved this story. Hild’s is a coming of age novel, but one that unfolds from the dining/gathering hall of her clan, to the mist shrouded woods beyond on her trip to the realm of the Geats, replete with betrayals, new friends, and honest-to-goodness monsters. I loved every step of the journey, and the different decisions that Hild must make along the way.
On the Characters:
Ana: How much did I love Hild and everything about her? A LOT. I loved that she was resilient and resolute, strong without necessarily being kick-ass although there were plenty of kick-ass moments when she was berserking. I appreciated that there was a heavy element of conflict then stemming from her wanting to have a choice and being forced to do things she doesn’t want to especially considering that she wanted to be a peaceweaver. Having said that, she does like the power she has but she hopes she can control it and eventually learns she can indeed choose how to proceed.
I loved her relationship with her mother and sisters, with her best friend. I loved how she ponders about honour and about how she would even possibly accept dishonourable actions if that means saving her own life. She is a complex, flawed heroine and I just wish everybody would read this book. Plus, the secondary characters are also expertly handled by the author.
Thea: Yep, this is another review where I’m just nodding my head and basically agreeing with everything Ana says. As our heroine, Hild is freaking AWESOME. She isn’t a badass warrior, nor is she infallibly wise – Hild is simply Hild. Headstrong and brave, yes, but not without her own biases and failings. The most important thing about Hild is her sense of action and consequence, and the knowledge that she has the ability to make decisions that will inevitably affect others – not just herself. She grows with each of these decisions, finishing in a wonderfully written (albeit painful) character arc.
I loved the other characters too, especially in that they all felt real and multifaceted. No one is just Bad or Good, and perceptions of these different characters change over the course of the book – from Hild’s slave Unwen, to the warrior, Mord. And isn’t that the nature of people and relationships? Opinions change, just as people and circumstances do – and I especially loved how this is shown in Peaceweaver.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: This is the sort of adventurous fantasy novel that I love. Part Coming of Age, part Quest, this heroine’s journey is absolutely, completely awesome. I loved it, definitely a Notable Read of 2012 with top 10 potential.
Thea: What Ana said. Peaceweaver is a surprising, enthralling adventure of a girl coming into her own as a young woman and her steps towards becoming a great warrior queen. I loved it, from first page to last, and cannot wait to read more from Rebecca Barnhouse....more
Review Note: This review is for both THE COMET'S CURSE and THE WEB OF TITAN (spoiler-free).
In the not-too-distant future, a rogue comet is spotted by a group of amateur stargazers, one that would pass and just miss the Earth’s orbit by a few hundred thousand kilometers. The world watched in marvel as the tail of comet Bhaktul lit up the sky as it burned through the Earth’s atmosphere, causing a global light show of unparalleled beauty. Soon after the comet’s passage, however, people all over the planet start to exhibit flu-like symptoms, followed by respiratory distress and ultimately death. After months of the strange global pandemic, researchers discover that it was particles from the tail of Bhaktul that are responsible for the mounting deaths.
This earth-shattering discovery is followed by even grimmer news – there is no cure for Bhaktul’s wake, and there is no escape. The particles from the comet’s tail have permeated the global atmosphere, and it is only a matter of time – scant years – before everyone dies. The only exception to the illness? An inexplicable immunity in children under the age of 18. In a last ditch effort to save the human race, mankind unites in a project of incredible scope and daring vision – the creation of a space ship, called the Galahad, to shuttle 251 teens to a new home around a distant star. The best and the brightest from around the globe are selected for the mission, each groomed with specialties in different areas, from agriculture to fitness and nutrition, and after three years of preparation, the Galahad makes its historic launch and leaves Earth behind forever.
In The Comet’s Curse follows the launch of these 251 teens as they embark for the stars. Completely on their own for a mission of five years is no easy feat, but with a leader like Triana and a team of razor-sharp witted council members like Lita, Gap, and Bon, as well as with the help of a superintelligent navigational computer named Roc (with a wicked sense of humor), the journey is in good hands. That is…until shortly after launch, and one startled teen says he saw a man on the ship. And then the messages start – ominous notes left for the teens, acts of vandalism that threaten the safety and integrity of the ship. Someone has stowed away on The Galahad, and it’s up to the intrepid crew of teens to figure out who and stop him before it’s too late.
In Book 2, The Web of Titan, the crew of the Galahad has survived their stowaway encounter and have moved along their trip to the ringed gas giant Saturn, four months into their journey. Slingshotting around the planet, the crew also picks up a payload that has been left behind by a human research outpost studying moon Titan. The teens know nothing about Titan and the researchers there, just that the crew mysteriously lost contact with the Earth before the launch of the Galahad. Hannah, one of the science and math minded of the Galahad crew, notices an anomaly in the data emitting from Titan that must have something to do with the payload – a strange, but undeniable beam of energy that has been focused on the Galahad. When the crew intercept the pod left behind by Sat33, though, things aboard the ship are in danger once again. Some of the crew start to report migranes, followed by a period of coma and then awaken with bizarrely glowing eyes. The ship’s systems begin to malfunction, threatening the life support systems on the ship and the 251 souls aboard it. With time running out, it is up to the intrepid crew to discover the truth of the Sat33 team, and how the Galahad can avoid its fate.
Well folks, color me happy. I truly, honestly loved the first two books in this series and think I have a new obsession to burn through (hence this double review, since I couldn’t stop myself from reaching for The Web of Titan once I had finished The Comet’s Curse).
As far as apocalyptic scenarios go, astronomical disasters are my favorite flavor of the end of the world. I loved that Bhaktul’s particular brand of apocalypse means the end of the world, not through a dramatic impact of the planet, but through a slow killing disease from which there is no escape or cure, except off the Earth itself. The twin themes of these books are those of hope, and that is so damn cool in a post-apocalyptic novel. Essentially, the Galahad books are post-apocalyptic and incredibly sad – the Earth and all those souls on her surface have been obliterated. All vestiges of human civilization and its vast history and cultures will be lost forever as no one is safe from Bhaktul’s reach. But the efforts of humanity to preserve some memory of itself and to give children a chance at a future? That is awesome and shamelessly optimistic, and I’m not ashamed to say it warmed my jaded, science fiction loving heart. In The Comet’s Curse we flash back and forth between realtime on the Galahad as the teens leave earth behind and the past, as human adults squabble with politics and the reality of selecting a crew and preparing them for their journey. The time and perspective jumping technique is wonderfully effective, building tension and providing insight to the selection process and rationale behind the Galahad mission. In The Web of Titan, the narrative is linear and regularly structured, but every bit as engaging as the first novel as the stakes are upped and real danger faces our crew of heroes and heroines. Common to both books is the interspliced narration of Roc, the artificial intelligence that pilots and regulates the ship; a supercomputer with a lighthearted, wisecracking personality. To steal from a review of the series from Booklist on the jacket copy, Roc’s narration essentially is our Greek Chorus, adding narrative and thematic insight to the story (in an undeniably fun and slightly zany way).
Beyond the plotting, the actual science behind the story is engaging though on the lighter side, as actual technical aspects of space travel and technology are not fully explained. We know that this version of humanity can build a super spaceship capable of making it to the distant stars without too much trouble, and in just five years these teens will arrive at a distant solar system using a combination of ion engines and solar sails to get there, slingshotting around the large planets in the solar system to aid the speed at which the Galahad travels through space. There are talking supercomputers, artificial gravity devices, and so on, and the myriad problems of space travel (the slow reality of travel via propulsion engines, the atrophy effects of living in low gravity, the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation, the micrometeoroids that could pepper and devastate a ship) are handily ignored. That said, I actually like and appreciate the line that The Comet’s Curse and The Web of Titan straddle, not completely ignoring science, but implementing mysterious technologies that acknowledge and explain away any of those pesky issues that hamper space travel today.
And then, there are the characters. I *love* our diverse cast of crew members aboard the Galahad, both in terms of their widely different personalities, and with regard to their backgrounds and ethnicities. It makes sense that a last ditch group of humans should be from as diverse a genetic pool as possible, and the crew of the Galahad reflects that conscious choice, with characters from different parts of the world of different cultures, races, and creeds. My favorite of the crew is of course Triana (Tree), the leader of the Galahad mission, as she struggles with the burden of caring for her fellow shipmates. Of course, a ship full of teenager also means that there are romantic entanglements afoot, and I can’t help but also love Gap, the engineer Council member hopelessly in love with Tree (though he’s afraid to say anything to betray his feelings to the girl who is always in charge, cool and collected). Adding to the cast is the bubbly Channy (head of nutrition and well-being, urging everyone on the ship to stick to a strict exercise regimen), the quietly contemplative Lita (head of medical on the ship), and the surly Bon (agricultural leader with an attitude problem, and interestingly, one side of the inevitable love triangle between Triana and Gap). I love ensembles when they are done well, and the crew of the Galahad has the hallmarks of a great group cast. My only concern is that with such a large group of characters, time with each of them is brief, especially as the story expands to secondary and tertiary members. Over the six books of the series, however, I hope that we get to spend more time with each of the characters.
Overall, I really, really enjoyed this series, and I cannot wait to continue with the rest of the books. Absolutely recommended – if you haven’t heard of the Galahad books (or like me were momentarily thrown by the series covers), you should check it out....more
Princess Rhis of the small, craggy, but bountifully rich kingdom of Nym lives a charmed but rather boring life.
Though she’s intelligent, Rhis is not the heir to the throne and thus has little interest in learning all the subjects that make a queen (especially not when her stuffy elder sister-by-marriage insists on nitpicking the flaws in Rhis’s attention span and work ethic). Instead, the plain young princess is far more interested in the things that make her happy – music, dancing, and composing ballads (to varying degrees of success). Instead of studying politics or treatises, Rhis spends her time escaping from her daily chores and sneaking away to her private tower, spying the comings and goings of the kingdom with just her music and thoughts to keep her company.
When an invitation arrives from Crown Prince Lios of Vesarja to attend the celebration of his return from adventures abroad, Rhis can barely contain her excitement. All of the eligible young princes and princesses from neighboring kingdoms will be in attendance, and rumor has it that the young Crown Prince will be looking for a future bride. When Rhis arrives at the palace, she expects a whirlwind mix of dancing, music and frivolity – she doesn’t expect the friends she will make, the sides she will choose, the incredible adventure quest she’ll find herself spearheading, or falling in love.
Dudes. DUDES. I loved this delightful throwback to old school YA fantasy, coming of age novel. I’m happy to report that my memories of Crown Duel and Court Duel did not steer me wrong, because A Posse of Princesses is everything I was hoping for and then some. Resourceful heroine with agency? Check. Believable teenage characters? Yep. Fantastically varied (ethnically and culturally!) fantasy world? You got it. A dash of compelling, non-cheesy romance? Oh hell yes. I went into A Posse of Princesses expecting a diverting fantastical romp with a dash of romance, and Sherwood Smith delivered in spades.
First and foremost, I adored the heroine of this adventure, young, sixteen year old princess Rhis of Nym. Rhis is not your typical heroine – she’s neither beautiful (she’s rather plain with her stick skinny frame and mouse brown hair and eyes), nor is she remarkably intelligent (not that she’s lacking brains, but rather lacking direction and drive to apply herself to those subjects that don’t interest her). She is what one might expect of a sixteen year old princess from a sheltered kingdom; a dreamer, naive, a little dramatic and self-absorbed (but really, when you’re sixteen, who isn’t a little dramatic and self-absorbed?!), but her heart is in the right place. Instead of being particularly brave, or a warrior princess, or with a biting, unparalleled wit, Rhis is a heroine with an incredible sense of empathy. She cares for others and puts aside social expectation as she tries to see others in new and open-minded ways – and that is an incredibly cool quality in a YA heroine. Though Rhis might not start off as a heroine or with an aptitude for studying or adventure, she grows so much over the course of the book as her experiences and interactions with others shape her character. This is similarly awesome, and I loved her character arc from sheltered, slightly-superficial princess to a possible queen with adventure and a rescue mission under her belt.
Similarly, the supporting cast of royals in this book are wonderfully drawn. I loved the passionate, fickle nature of Princess Shera, the powerful warrior-minded Princess Taniva of the plains, and the foreign Princess Yuzhyu who tries so hard to master the language and fit in with a court that is largely happy to ignore her. Of course, what would the story be without Prince Lios and his trusty, sly scribe Dandiar? I won’t say much for that way lies spoilers – but I loved, loved the romance (even if it’s a bit predictable, so what! It’s done well. Sans super cheese. YES.). Heck, I even loved the ‘perfect princess’ Iardith – the epitome of beauty in this world with her dark skin and long dark hair, but a cruel streak as broad as her ego. I love that each of these characters, Iardith included, are humanized and we see through Rhis’s eyes why they might act the way they do.
From a plotting perspective, there is a degree of familiarity to the story – secret identities, courtly intrigue, romantic misunderstanding, and a daring rescue mission all factor prominently in the book. While some of the bigger twists lean towards the predictable, the writing is done so well and the characters so engaging that it hardly matters. From a worldbuilding point of view, I loved the setting and its varied cultures, from the mountainous (and resource rich) Nym, to the wild High Plains, to the warish kingdom of Damatras, to the distant shores of Ndai (look, there’s a map too!). There are many different realms here, each with their own variations and entanglements, and as A Posse of Princesses is just one standalone novel in a universe with other books and characters, I’ll be sure to revisit it soon.
Finally, can I just say how much I *loved* that Sherwood Smith takes a more cautious look at LOVE FOREVER at sixteen years old? Instead of ending with a teenage marriage and happily ever after immediately, there is a period of wait and angst, with both Rhis and her prince exploring what they want for themselves, apart from each other, before making any lifelong decisions. This is, in a word, awesome.
If you couldn’t tell, I loved this book. A whole lot. I’ll need to find and dust off my copy of Coronets and Steel very soon (and also search out the vast, sprawling waste of my TBR for a copy of Inda. I know it’s in there. Somewhere.). Absolutely recommended. Please, for the love of all that is good, do NOT judge this book by its cover....more
Violet Eden (yep, that’s her name, because it’s a story about ANGELS, get it?! EDEN!) hates her birthday, beOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Violet Eden (yep, that’s her name, because it’s a story about ANGELS, get it?! EDEN!) hates her birthday, because it’s also the grim reminder of the day that her mother died in childbirth. It’s no surprise, then, that Violet is not looking forward to her seventeenth birthday party, even though she’ll be with the people she cares most about in the world – her workaholic and emotionally distant father, perky best friend Stephanie, and her crush/mentor Lincoln. The day Violet turns seventeen, though, strange things start to happen. First, there are the crazy veins darkening on her forearms. Then, there’s the strange way Lincoln is behaving, kissing Violet then pushing her away. Finally, there’s a hot new dude (with sparkly purple and silver hair – more on that in a bit) that shows up, following Violet’s every move.
Violet learns that these events are all related, and that she is, in fact, an angel-human hybrid and destined to become a Grigori – a protector of mankind against fallen exiled angels that want to enslave humanity and live out their twisted hedonistic dreams on Earth. See, Grigori come of age when the human-angel turns seventeen, and then have to make the choice to “embrace” their responsibilities and powers thus becoming a full Grigori, or turn their back on duty and live forever alone and in fear that exiled angels will hunt them down. Complicating matters is the fact that Violet and her crush Lincoln are actually meant to be Grigori partners (which means for some reason that is never adequately explained in the book that they can NEVER be together), and the presence of the mysterious hot exile angel Phoenix, who has his gloriously styled purple-silver locks of love catching Violet’s eye.
Added to the mix is some half-baked conflict in which exiled angels of dark and angels of light are teaming together to kill all Grigori so that they can exact their unimpeded control on Earth.
If Violet is going to survive, she has to choose her destiny. She has to embrace her fate (see what I did there?!?!).
Ahh, Embrace. I went against my doubts and decided to read you, all the way to the bitter end. Where do I start? How do I begin to articulate my thoughts about this novel? I suppose I’ll start with the positive – the fact that I was able to finish the book speaks volumes. The writing itself and voice for Violet are consistent and competent, and I had no problems with the actual prose and readability of the novel. I also like the basic premise and idea of Grigori and exiled angels duking it out on Earth…but that’s were things all start to fall apart. The characters are lackluster; the plot is mind-numbingly familiar and predictable (down to the insipid love triangle between Good Grigori Lincoln and Bad Exile Phoneix). The entire story is a lukewarm rehash of any number of paranormal YA books on the market, from Twilight (but not nearly as fun) to Hush Hush.
Since there are so many possible talking points for this review, I’ll just stick to my main problems with Embrace, which are threefold: 1. Violet and the Plausibility Gap; 2. The Hilarity/Ridiculousness Factor; 3. The Worldbuilding That Makes Me Feel RAGE.
Let’s start with Violet.
1. Violet and the Plausibility Gap
Violet Eden is our heroine, who is damaged, shyly withdrawn, but of course is both rich and effortlessly beautiful, drawing the eye of many a supernaturally powered suitor:
' “If you want him , you have to, you know…make a move. You need to let him know what he’s missing out on. Use your…assets.”
She meant my boobs. Steph was always telling me that I had it, so I should flaunt it. But I preferred to focus on other things, like my high cheekbones, full lips, and creamy complexion. And, of course, my long hair, which I could hide behind when I needed refuge.'
Ahh, effortlessly gorgeous, yet shyly withdrawn heroine. Bella Swan, what hast thou wrought? This is a minor complaint, however, in much larger picture. My main gripes with Violet (and the cast of characters at large, really) concern how easily she accepts the news that she is a half-angel without real argument or question. In this pivotal scene, Violet learns how Grigori are born (which touches on my issues with worldbuilding, but more on that below):
' “How do you know I’m one of these ‘Grig’ whatever, anyway?”
“Grigori. It happened when you were born and your mother died. If a parent dies within twelve days of their child’s birth, the combination of new life coinciding with new death creates a gateway for an angel to impart a piece of its essence.”'
Of course, not even a full page after our heroine learns she is an ANGEL HYBRID she completely eats it up because:
' I stoppped in front of him, staring daggers. “Am I what he says?”
Griffin looked straight at me, holding my gaze easily. “We are ALL what he says.”
I don’t know how or why, but looking into his eyes, I suddenly knew it was true. It was as if he had penetrated the deepest layers of my guards and unearthed a truth buried deep within me.'
And that is IT. No questions asked. No denial. Just because OMG HE LOOKED INTO HER EYES AND IT WAS TRUE, she accepts this explanation – without seeing any demonstration of angel powers, or exiles, or whatever.
But that’s not all! Because it turns out that Violet is not only effortlessly beautiful and a future Grigori angel-in-training, but she’s also Powerful Beyond Compare! Most fledgling Grigori can perceive of only two angelic senses (smelling apples or flowers being the main sense) – but powerful Violet can feel all five sense. She’s also so powerful that her aura looks like a rainbow (get it?!? VIOLET EDEN, Rainbow Angel!), and attracts exiles of both light and dark. Of course. How incredibly boring, predictable, and lazy.
2. The Hilarity/Ridiculousness Factor
There are several things about Embrace that are hilariously silly (which is probably one of the reasons I kept reading the book). There’s a bizarre preoccupation with hair in this book – particularly, with bad boy exiled angel Phoenix’s sparkly hair. One could make a drinking out of mentions of Phoenix’s hair. Observe:
' I was struck by his hair, of all things – at first look it appeared black, but then I saw other colors rippling through it, shades of purple and silver. It reminded me of a rough opal. I wondered how a hairdresser could have managed such a complex blend of streaks. It was beautiful and…vain.'
' Phoenix stood up and started pacing the room. He kept playing with the buttons on the cuffs, undoing them and doing them up again. He was wearing a navy shirt that highlighted his hair, and every time he walked under the downlights it shimmered.'
' Phoenix looked hot dressed entirely in black. No tie or jacket, but he still managed a cool elegance. The outfit acentuated his hair and made it look incredible – the deepest plum, almost black, with splices of dazzling silver.'
And my personal favorite:
' I turned to look at him. Glimmers of purple floated through the black base of his hair and as the sun caught different angles, a few strands sparkled silver.
“Your hair is…amazing.”'
I cannot wait to use this line in real life. here’s also the generous heaping of cheese regarding the romantic entanglements of the plot. Observe one character’s heartened plea to Violet:
' It’s not fair that I know how great we would be together, except that we can’t. It’s not fair that, even though I know I’ll never have you, I planned everything – the candles, the lilies – replayed the words I wanted to say a million times when you and I finally made love.'
And so on and so forth.
While these are more nitpicky, amusing things – the next problem is the real dealbreaker.
3. The Worldbuilding That Makes Me Feel RAGE
The entire premise of Embrace is that there are exiled angels living amongst humans, who have chosen to fall because they want to experience human sensation (original, right?). The Grigori are apparently created when a parent dies within twelve days of their child’s birth, because this opens a gateway that allows angels to give a bit of its essence to the newborn child. Ooookaaaaaay. This is all the explanation we receive, and like Violet, we are meant to eat it up without question. Why twelve days? Why only a parent’s death? Who knows! That’s just how angels roll.
Accepting this premise, and that the Grigori are created to keep exiles in check feels lazy, but doable. When we finally learn about the origins of angels in the context of a familiar creation myth, however, this is where things start to get ugly.
' “Many, many years ago this earrth and man were created. There are many opinions as to who created them, but that is not today’s story. Man – we can call him Adam, if you like – was given a garden in which to frolic. For a time it was perfect [...] I’m sure you understand that if man were to have free will, then he must have the presence of choice and opposition. Angels, being entrusted with this responsibility, used their powers to create one of their own – a rare angel, for it was a woman. In all ways the opposite to Adam, except that they were both immortal [...] Well, Lilith was created to bring balance to this unbalanced world. You see, she represented everything opposite to the untainted man, and brought with her all of my favorite things: temptation, lust, seduction, deceit, anger, fear, persuasion, you get the drift. Anyway, Adam was enraged with Lilith when, after a while, she refused to lie beneath him.”'
Violet doesn’t question any of this and accepts it at face value. Charming, right? Nothing like reinforcement of good old fashioned religious misogyny to perk up a story!
Even more charming is the revelation that Eve is apparently Adam’s second wife, who was created as angelic PR/cleanup following Lilith’s leaving Adam (that evil temptress hussy!).
I don’t think I have the energy to express the range of emotions this type of premise evokes. There’s shock, followed by disbelief, topped off with a nice generous dose of RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGE.
On a related subject, there’s also a scene thrown in early in the book, in which Violet relates a traumatic, life-altering experience when a teacher attempted to rape her in the classroom. When she opens up and tells Lincoln this very personal story, it’s a big deal…but then it’s all mysteriously forgotten shortly afterwards. This experience never again surfaces, nor does it factor into Violet’s mind or decisions (even when she decides to open up and have sex with someone else). This bothers me. It bothers me a LOT because a serious matter like a sexual attack felt thrown and pushed aside as an early character arc point, easily forgotten once completed.
There are many other things I could say about Embrace, but ultimately, why bother? I gave it a shot and simply put: this book did not work for me. Your mileage my vary, but for me? I’m steering clear of Violet Eden and any future adventures.
Review Note: All quotes have been taken from an ARC and have not been checked against the final book....more
One of the things I love the most about blogging and reviewing is how it makes it possible for me to clearly see the evolution of my reading habits. LOne of the things I love the most about blogging and reviewing is how it makes it possible for me to clearly see the evolution of my reading habits. Last year for example, I found myself navigating toward Contemporary YA as the sort of comfort read to fall back into whenever I went through a reading slump. Unfortunately, Contemporary YA doesn’t seem to be working for me lately. It wasn’t until I picked up Witch Hill to read that I noticed that this is the third Marcus Sedgwick novel I turned to as a comfort, safe read since the beginning of the year. “Safe” because it seems that regardless of premise or genre, I tend to enjoy his books enormously. Even when they are not as brilliant as Revolver or Midwinterblood, they are still quite good.
Witch Hill is a short horror story that follows 12 year old Jamie as his family sends him to spend time with his aunt and cousin in the aftermath of a terrible fire that destroyed his house. He is clearly traumatized, trying to cope with the memories of waking up to fire and the nightmares he’s been having recently are not helping – but strangely, they don’t seem to be related to his horrible experience but something else altogether: something to do with his aunt’s house, a witchcraft trial that took place in the village centuries ago and above all, the nearby hill and the ancient legend of an enduring evil.
In terms of narrative, Jamie’s first person narration is interspersed with illustrations from the author and the historical transcripts of the witch trial of a young girl in the 17th Century. Jamie is the main character but the girl’s story is as important – and although she doesn’t have a narrative voice of her own, she was still a vivid character and her story an extremely poignant one.
In terms of content, there are three different threads connected by the narrative: the historical aspect, the elements of horror and Jamie’s character arc.
The historical element is brilliantly incorporated in the narrative as Jamie’s aunt is running a village clean up of the chalk figure in the hill – the figure of a crown that gives the name to their village (CrownsHill) only to slowly discover that the figure might not be that of a crown after all. This story is set in the South of England where there are several of these types of Hill Figures and the connection between the figure and how the name of the village has evolved over time is really interesting. In addition, there is also a connection with the history of Witch Trials in England and although not necessarily news to me, it was interesting to read those from the perspective of a young boy.
With regards to the horror, I always love how Marcus Sedgwick incorporates elements of folklore and history in his horror stories and I feel a little silly to even say that – given how this is a MG novel – but I was completely terrified by Jamie’s nightmares, his paralysing fear when dreaming all too familiar.
Finally, the third element and the one that connects everything together is Jamie’s character arc. I loved seeing him learning about and researching history, connecting the dots to get to the bottom of the mystery. But his emotional arc felt a little bit contrived and even forced especially in the end in the manner he faced his guilt and his fears over his traumatic experience. Another thing that bothered me a little bit was how one of Jamie’s biggest insights was how Jamie realises that the two girls – his cousin and the girl tried as a witch in the past – probably were connected by the fact that they both have or had “boy problems”. His insight is how people don’t really change over time, and that the two sixteen year old girls would inevitably have the same problems and they would inevitably be about boys. This was quite disappointing for being so reductive and generalist: as though ALL 16 year old girls have boy problems. It should be obvious that whilst some 16 year old girls do, some don’t, some have girl problems, and some of them have a freaking variety of other problems altogether. I appreciate that the story is narrated by a young boy of 12 but I didn’t feel the text challenged this realisation in any way. What a shame.
Despite this gripe, I enjoyed Witch Hill even though it is not a brilliant novel as I know Marcus Sedgwick’s can be. Although I feel this is aimed to a much younger audience, Witch Hill was an easy, comfortable read, exactly what I wanted and needed....more
A Beautiful Evil is the sequel to last year’s Darkness Becomes Her and it picks up right where the previouOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
A Beautiful Evil is the sequel to last year’s Darkness Becomes Her and it picks up right where the previous book left off. Ari, our cursed-to-become-a-gorgon-when-she-turns-21 protagonist is training to be able to tap into her dormant powers so she can face the powerful Goddess Athena and rescue her father and her friend Violet. She has also been allowed by the Novem – the supernatural families that run New 2, this world’s futuristic version of New Orleans – to visit their secret library to research the way to Athena’s secret realm and how to break her own curse.
A Beautiful Evil was an extremely frustrating read. I was wary to begin with, given my conflicted thoughts about Darkness Becomes Her and unfortunately ALL of the problems I had with the first book make a return with a vengeance (to the point I could comfortably copy and paste my thoughts from that review). Simply put, this series has an awesome premise and world-building but flawed execution, lacklustre secondary characters and formulaic writing.
First the positives: I like the world building and the main character a LOT. The Greek Mythology reimagining is everything I want from my Greek retellings. By making Athena – the Goddess of Wisdom and Strategy – into a power-hungry lunatic who likes to play with the lives of those who serve her and who has horribly cursed Medusa and her descendants, it competently takes into consideration what immortality and the passage of years can do to someone’s frame of mind. I love this because more often than not, in Fantasy, we come across immortal beings that don’t seem to be affected at all by all the time they have lived and all the things they have seen or endured.
With regards to Ari, our main character, I love that she is a mix of vulnerable and kick-ass, that she lives on that line where she is adamant she doesn’t want to become a gorgon because she doesn’t want to become a monster but is inevitably attracted to the power she has.
That’s about it though, when it comes to the positives. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned aspects is enough to hold this story together when the execution of the plot is so rushed as to make it ridiculous and even conflicting with what we are told. Athena is – supposedly – one of the cleverest strategists and yet, leaves quite a few things to chance. The location of her temple is – supposedly – one of the most well guarded secrets of the ancient world and yet Ari finds all the clues to find it after a couple of visits to the library with a thoroughly easy way to open its alter-dimensional door.
Although I understand that there is an element of urgency given how Ari’s father is undoubtedly being horribly tortured by Athena, Ari and her friends rush into danger with no back-up, no training (unless you count the couple of sessions she had) and no real plan. Repeat after me:
ONES DOES NOT SIMPLY WALK INTO MORDOR.
And if you do, there has to be real consequences. But in the end, I felt that every single plot point is addressed, Athena was defeated (for now), Ari is sort of comfortable with her powers and has the hope to fight the curse and Ari and love-interest Sebastian walk into the sunset even though Ari does something really fucked up to him when they are taken by Athena. The resolution of that conflict is so rushed and dealt with in such a hand wavy manner as to be problematic (although there are things still left open, I do wonder if this is going to be the last book?).
Furthermore, the secondary characters are one-dimensional including Sebastian – his character is only surface deep, his descriptions don’t go much beyond his looks and even the one thing that might define him in terms of emotional conflict is disregarded with no real consequences. The writing relies on shortcuts (adrenaline that runs through veins to convey excitement; blood pressure rising to convey anger and so on and so forth). Not to mention how weird is it that the book is extremely violent, with horrible, graphic scenes of torture – both emotional and physical – and yet strangely PG when it comes to Sebastian and Ari’s romantic relationship. They pledge themselves to each other but don’t do a lot more than…hold hands.
In my review of the first novel, I said that it felt like reading a prequel. Well, this one reads like an entire series of 10 books condensed in 287 pages. Despite my misgivings with the first book, I still had hopes for the second book. I tried, I really did, to give this series a chance but I really don’t think this is going to get any better. It’s time to say goodbye. ...more
It starts the summer when Cameron’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, the very summer when she has her first kiss w(waverig between 3 and 4 stars)
It starts the summer when Cameron’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, the very summer when she has her first kiss with a girl, her best friend Irene. Her first reaction upon hearing of her parent’s death is that of relief: they will never have to know about her and Irene. The guilt that follows – guilt for feeling relief, guilt for having being with a girl – is all-consuming. In the aftermath of her parent’s death, Cameron’s conservative aunt Ruth moves in to take care of her and in the ensuing years, Cameron lives a secret life of crushes and hooks up with other girls – flying under her family’s radar. Then Coley Taylor moves to town and Cameron falls in love with her. The two become friends and then to Cameron’s surprise, something else develops between the two girls when Coley’s boyfriend is away for that summer. Until Coley, consumed by guilt and shame, exposes their relationship to her family and their church. Horrified, Aunt Ruth sees no alternative than to send Cameron to Gods’ Promise, a religious Boarding School designed to “cure” Cameron of the sin of homosexuality.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming of age novel that follows young Cameron Post from the age of 12 to about 17. The book is narrated by Cameron in first person, from a point in the future – after she’s left God’s Promise.
I am not sure how to write my thoughts about the book. On the whole, I did really enjoy it, I think it is an important story for many reasons but there is a degree of disconnect between the book and I that prevented me from truly loving it.
This sense of disconnection comes from Cameron as a character and how she presents herself to the world. Her narrative is very, very detailed and sometimes even emotionally detached. Although I understand that part of it comes from trying to deny her own emotional state after her parent’s death as a means of self-preservation, this didn’t quite work, especially when you consider that she is narrating it from a point in the future, when these things have been resolved. The extremely detailed narrative sometimes loses itself in small, inconsequential details – I felt the book was overlong because of that. Another thing that made me pause is how everybody seems to love or want Cameron – all the hot girls and even some of the hot boys. There is hardly any relationship between her and other characters her age (and some a bit older) that doesn’t have a sexual element to it. I do understand that part of this coming of age novel isabout sexual development and some of these relationships developed into friendships but this seemed a bit extreme.
Having said that, this is a really well –written novel, the prose is self-assured and the story, once you remove the extras, is well-developed. The parts of this story that deals with Cameron’s feelings and her slow development, her growing up to understand herself in the face of the world, her family, her church and her beliefs are easily my favourite. I love coming of age stories and this is a really good one. I loved for example, how in the early years (set in the 90s) Cameron found succour in the movies she rented – and how she was constantly looking for scenes or movies with LGBT content. This only reinforces how stories like this very one are so important for teens that are struggling with their sexuality or starting to realise they might be gay – especially if they stem from conservative backgrounds.
This brings me to another point that might explain my detachment. Cameron goes through a lot in a very lonely, quiet way – part of it due to her circumstances (small town, conservative religious family) and her own character but the narrative itself is very subdued and subtle as well. This is even clearer when it comes to the boarding school God’s Promise and what they did to the kids there. The story shows quite a lot of sympathy for the people working at the school. It shows how complicated, how complex the relationship with people who genuinely believe they are right when they say that homosexuality is a sin and a choice you make and who believe they are helping you can be, especially if they are loved ones. Cameron’s relationship with her beloved grandmother is one of these and it almost broke my heart. Her patience and understanding for those people working at the school are incredible and the very real fact that some kids also believe what they are told and how in time, even Cameron started to have doubts seemed very realistic to me even as it was extremely frustrating at times. I really did HOPE and WANT a Hollywood ending for this. An ending in which not only Cameron left this school but also an ending in which that place was closed down by authorities or was burnt to the ground or destroyed by meteors or something. That said, the ending we did get is still awesome and fitting to this novel.
Interestingly enough, despite the fact that the school carries on and the people working there are portrayed with a huge degree of sympathy, there is absolutely no doubt about the horribleness of the place and how abhorrent the mere idea of conversion therapy is. I understand from this author’s interview that some reviewers took offense from the fact that there is no clear condemnation of conversion therapy in the book – I couldn’t disagree more. Despite all the sympathetic descriptions, despite all the “good” characters, it is very clear to me (and to Cameron) how that place is an absolutely horrendous place BECAUSE of those things. Behind the façade of love and care, the emotional abuse that the kids go through is beyond comprehension: they are taught to hate themselves and to fear that their souls will be condemned forever if they don’t choose to change. I can’t imagine how that must feel.
I seem to have a personal preference for out, loud and proud stories but the quiet and sober ones like The Miseducation of Cameron Post are equally as important. ...more
Callie Woodland is at sixteen years old an orphan, homeless, penniless, and responsible for the care and upbringing of her seven year old brother, Tyler. Only a year earlier, the War escalated and culminated with the release of a deadly weaponized spore that wiped out anyone not immunized – everyone except the very young and the very old. Both Callie and Tyler are “Starters” – minors that were lucky enough to receive the rare vaccine before the spore warheads were deployed. The only others to receive the vaccine are known as “Enders” – the extremely elderly. Everyone in between, from twenty to seventy, were killed in the aftermath of the devastating biological spore warhead deployment. In a world dichotomized between the disenfranchised Starters and the wealthy Enders (who, thanks to miracles of medical science now have the ability to live far into their hundreds), Callie and Tyler are marginalized and utterly without rights or a means to survive. Work is illegal for anyone under the age of nineteen, and without legal guardians, Callie and her generation are surplus members of society, liable to be thrown into asylums (essentially a death sentence).
With nowhere else to turn, Callie decides to take a chance on a place she’s only heard of whispered by other Starters: Prime Destinations. Or, in the Starter vernacular, the Body Bank. Prime Destinations promises its young recruits a free makeover, impossible beauty, and lavish wealth – and all it costs teens are a few days of their lives, while Enders rent out their young, beautiful bodies. Callie’s hesitant to sign her rights away to her body for any period of time, but with Tyler getting sicker and more malnourished each day, her choice is simple. The first two test runs are easy enough for Callie to handle, taking only a day and then a week of her life. During her third rental, a full month of sleep while an Ender uses her body, Callie comes to not in the quiet sanctuary of Prime Destinations corporate headquarters, but in a boisterous night club. Something has gone wrong with her rental and Callie is awake and in control of her body with a mystery to solve and only a distant voice in her head that must be coming from the Ender that rented her body. What has happened to her renter? Why is she awake? And why is her renter so dead set on keeping Callie away from Prime Destinations?
If Callie is to provide for her younger brother and to survive the next few weeks, she must uncover the truth behind her mysterious renter and Prime Destinations.
I’m torn when it comes to this review. On the one hand, I know objectively that Starters has a significant number of flaws in terms of worldbuilding and depth – but on the other, I zipped through this story, conscious of the flaws yet thoroughly enjoying myself all the while. I love the premise of the novel, with its stark dichotomization of society. Only the extremely aged and the extremely young remain, and in such a world, wouldn’t the old do everything to hold onto their last vestiges of power? The sheer hate that so many Enders feel for the youths that they both envy and despise is a palpable thing, and I love this tension that characterizes so much of the novel. The laws that are enacted, the outright hostility and oppression of the young makes sense from the perspective of the Enders in power. I also love the conceit of Prime Destinations and the logic of “renting” young, able bodies to the rich and old.
But then…on deeper reflection, there are many aspects of the book that simply do not stack up. The premise of the novel with its dramatic war and spore-induced genocide is undeniably interesting, but why would there be a vaccine that could cure the young and incredibly old, but at the same time have some shortage that prevents anyone from 20 years old and upward from receiving it? Wouldn’t there be anyone – young tycoons, celebrities, athletes, high-level politicos, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople – between the ages of 20 to 60ish able to bribe their way into receiving this vital medication? Especially considering that people knew that the spore warhead was coming (hence the availability of the vaccine to those who most desperately needed it)? Furthermore, if people can live so long past the age of 150, why would they be considered frail members of society that get first dibs on a rare vaccine?! There are so many unanswered questions, not just with the premise of the war, but the technology. At first, we don’t really know what Prime Destinations does to its youthful body donors and we’re given the impression that Callie goes through a super scrubbing bath that leaves her glowing and beautiful – we later learn (sort of hobbled together) that donor Starters are subject to intense plastic surgery techniques that lead to their perfect appearances (of course, Callie doesn’t need any of that crazy surgery because she’s apparently gorgeous underneath the grime of street life).
There are other strange choices with regards to the world that don’t quite add up – the division between “friendlies” and “rebels” (friendlies being starters that are…friendly. Versus rebel Starters that are predictably TATTOOED! And PIERCED! And like BREAKING THINGS AND CAUSING CHAOS!), for example, feels contrived and half-baked. There’s a really bizarre Cinderella vibe going throughout the story, too (down to the prince charming and lost glass slipper), that feels utterly incongruous with the rest of the plot.
On the character front, Callie’s narration is superficially simplistic, and there’s a strange rationale for all of her decisions that doesn’t quite add up – she’s incredibly concerned for her brother Tyler, but she decides that instead of going back to Prime Destinations when she awakens in her body during the rental period, it’s totally cool to go on a date (make that multiple dates) with a hot dude. Really? There’s the introduction of a character in an aslyum who is literally a lamb for slaughter (and you can tell this as soon as you first meet said redshirt character). There’s an obligatory romance, but with a huge hulkingly crazy twist by the end of the book. In short, things in Starters get really, really weird.
And yet…for these criticisms, there is something undeniably, page-turningly fun about Lissa Price’s debut novel. I love the idea of Prime Destinations and the creepy ulterior motives of the corporation. I love the faceless villain of The Old Man. I love how quickly the story moves and how it is so utterly action-packed. I like the adventure, and the improbably cheesy combination of Beverly Hills 90210 meets Dollhouse. Hell, I even loved the insanely ridiculous twist at the end of the book! And you know what?
Though it might be superficial, though there are plot holes and unresolved questions you could drive an army of tanks through, the book kind of works by virtue of its blasé confidence and fast pacing. Starters is like that CW show or insane Nicholas Cage film that you know you probably SHOULDN’T like as much as you do…but you do.
And I do. I’m not ashamed to say it. I’ll be back for Enders....more
This is going to be short. I didn’t finish this book, here is why:
I’ve been in the mood for mythology/historical novels lately and I thought The Pillars of Hercules would fit the bill. It follows Alexander, before he was The Great, as he makes a move against Athens and then moves further West. His unstoppable army has weapons that most people see as Magic but are really Science (based on the forbidden knowledge of such things that his former tutor, Aristotle, has). Meanwhile, a bunch of other characters are doing mysterious stuff: a Persian princess hires two mercenaries (a barbarian from Gaul, a Greek archer) to protect her on her journey to somewhere to search for something and a messenger is on his way somewhere to deliver a message to someone: I stopped reading The Pillar of Hercules at 40% into the book (I read it on my Kindle) and I have no idea what these mysteries are. Probably that is the point of the book but I didn’t care enough to carry on and find out exactly what these people are doing.
The flap copy will tell you that this is supposed to be an epic adventure that captures the grandeur and mystery of the ancient world . But the first 40% of the novel is an extremely boring string of choppy events, with an inordinate amount of info-dump to the point where I, at times, thought I was reading a history book. Details about Alexander, his father, his conquests, etc were clumsily included in the novel, sometimes even interrupting the action. The excerpt below is only but a small example of info dump – at times whole pages where just like this:
"His downfall’s thanks to Craterus. Who saw his chance to rid himself of a rival, and used Alexander’s mindset to make it happen. So now he can put a more pliable man in command of the part of the phalanx that’s been left back in Egypt."
It is as though we were supposed to accept the authenticity of the Ancient Greek setting with passages like these but there is only so much researched facts can do. This was even harder when the language was very grating as it sounded SO modern and dated:
“Now let’s aim this fucker.”
“Will you make up your fucking mind.”
“Heavy stuff, probably bullshit”
“Forest must be full of buggers”
Of course, my problem was not all the swearing but how the swearing reads as though the characters of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels moved to Ancient Greece. It doesn’t capture the ancient world as the blurb promises inasmuch as it makes it sound just like ours.
Finally, here is the main reason why I decided to put the book down. There are several view point characters in the book: the Gaul, the Greek archer, another Greek army guy, Alexander’s friend Eumenes and even a RANDOM MESSENGER. Please note how they are all dudes. The thing is: there is a female character that is supposed to be powerful, smart, rich and important. Does she get a voice? No. Does she get to speak a lot, or appear a lot on page? No. In fact, at one point she is kidnapped then rescued by her HEROIC mercenaries. That’s when I stopped reading the book. Granted, she might have gotten a point of view narration at some point but I don’t see why I should wait for more than 40% of a book to see a female character getting a voice.
**WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST TWO BOOKS IN THE ALPHA AND OMEGA SERIES. If you have not read books 1 & 2, and you wish to stay unspoiled, look away now! You have been warned.**
Married life for omega wolf Anna Latham to dominant wolf mate Charles Cornick is blissful, but lately their bond has become strained. Following the public outing of werewolves to the rest of the world, public tensions have been running high, leaving supernatural creatures in a politically precarious position. With such intense scrutiny placed on werewolves, any violent act or slip-up could result in public fury, and with anti-supernatural creature legislation in the ether, the stakes are incredibly high. In this tense environment, Bran, the Marok and Alpha in charge of every werewolf in North America, needs to make sure that any and every wolf transgression is put down quickly and quietly, before news reaches the general public – and the only person capable to do the dirty work is his son, Charles. Charles has been his father’s right-hand man for centuries, but even his stoicism and determination falters as he’s sent out on increasingly more missions, hunts, and kills. The ghosts of those he’s murdered haunt Charles, and he becomes more aloof each day, shutting down his mate-bond with Anna in an attempt to protect her from the guilt, terror, and even the possible harm his ghosts can cause.
Anna isn’t having any of that brooding ‘I’m protecting you for your own good’ nonsense, though, and does everything in her power to get her father in law to lighten Charles’ load. Bran sends the couple on a consulting gig in Boston, to help a special task force including the FBI, Homeland Security, and “Cantrippers” (a new agency dedicating to archiving and protecting humans against supernatural creatures) catch a brutal serial killer, who has managed to take down not only human prey, but fae and werewolves, too. For Anna, it is the perfect opportunity to spend time with Charles and distract him from the ghosts that haunt his thoughts – and when a new victim is abducted by the mysterious killer, Anna and Charles are determined to find and save the girl before it is too late. As they close in on the killer, both Anna and Charles will have to confront their own demons in order to stop the murderer, and repair their strained bond.
Reading a new Patricia Briggs book is like receiving a highly anticipated, awesome birthday present – you look forward to it all year, you’re excited and nervous when you start unwrapping, and then you’re blown away by the level of sheer awesomeness within. Such is Fair Game. Without fail, I am always nervous when I start a new book of a beloved series – there’s the potential for Things Going Wrong, and that tends to freak me out. Reading Patricia Briggs, however, always reminds me of what a ninny I’m being because her books – both the Mercy and the Alpha & Omega series – are always, always fantastic.
Fair Game has our pair of intrepid heroes in a rough patch, and not because they don’t madly love each other, but because of the strain put on Charles by his father (and in turn because of Charles’ incredible pigheadedness in blocking Anna out). If there’s one thing we know about these two characters over the course of the series, it is that they are flawed and damaged creatures. Anna was changed to wolf under the most dire, horrific circumstances, and Charles’ past is no less gruesome. Together, though, the two are a perfect match.
I am always in awe of the premise behind this spinoff series and the concept of the “Omega Wolf”. The romance trope in which the big burly hero wants to protect the poor, sweet heroine can be incredibly grating – but that’s not all an Omega Wolf is, nor is it truly what the Omega Wolf represents. Anna is not a victim and she doesn’t wait around for people to save her, and I really, really love this about her character. Like Mercy, Anna is an under-powered heroine, lacking in brute strength and aggression – but that does not translate to a lack of agency or power. Rather, Anna’s strength is in her ability to assess a situation and understand how to approach others, especially those that no one else dares approach.
I also love Charles and his unique relationship with his wolf side – Brother Wolf, as he refers to him – and how Brother Wolf plays an especially central role in this book. So often in werewolf novels, the beast is the thing that needs controlling; in Fair Game, it is Brother Wolf that takes over and helps the human side of Charles heal. Beyond our main characters, there are a few notable additions to this book in the character of FBI Special Agent Leslie and Boston Pack Alpha Isaac – both of whom I hope to see in subsequent installments.
As always, the writing, scope of world building, and the plotting is fantastic in Fair Game. Tied to the events in the Mercy Thompson books (though running behind that current timeline), I am once again in awe of the intricacies of pack magic, supernatural creatures and custom, and political entanglements that all play a role in this third novel. While I was able to suss out the identity of the killer fairly easily, the overall mystery and the details of the investigation are so wonderfully wrought a smidgen of predictability hardly matters. Finally, the novel finishes on a dramatic, pitch-perfect note – complete with bloody decapitation and a nightmare of political implications. I cannot wait to find out what happens next.
Once again, I found myself completely engrossed, enthralled, and impressed with Fair Game – it was absolutely worth the wait. If you haven’t read this series yet, you really need to start....more
Sixteen-year-old Ephraim Scott comes home from school one day to find his mother passed out at the kitchen table – unfortunately a more than common ocSixteen-year-old Ephraim Scott comes home from school one day to find his mother passed out at the kitchen table – unfortunately a more than common occurrence given his mother’s alcoholism – except this time around she is holding a bottle of pills. Her suicide attempt is a reaction to having identified Ephraim’s body at the morgue that morning. Thankfully, she lives and everybody is convinced that it was all simply a horrible mistake. Then Ephraim finds amongst the other boy’s belongings – which are very similar but not quite the same as his own – a coin. A coin that, he learns, grants wishes when he flips it. At first he is understandably doubtful: a magic coin? Surely nothing like that can exist. But once his first wish is – unexpectedly, surprisingly – granted, he is enthused by all the possibilities. Soon he starts wishing for other things: for a better job for his mother, for his best friend Nathan to get the girl of his dreams and for Jenna, the girl he likes, to like him back. But with every subsequent wish he starts to notice unexpected changes around him, some of them subtle, some of them more life-altering than he wished for. And then he learns the true nature of the coin and that there are consequences to his every wish…
Fair Coin is an immensely fun plot-driven novel and the summary/blurb doesn’t even begin to address what truly goes on in the story. To reveal the real nature of this story would inevitably and unforgivably spoil the book 1 – and the twist or revelation about the coin and the wishes is really where I became excited about the book. That revelation doesn’t happen till half way through the book though, and once it does, the story really gains momentum, not to mention that Extra Cool status. The plot moves fast, each wish taking Ephraim to unexpected places, affecting not only his life but also the lives of those around him.
On that front, the best aspect of Fair Coin for me, are the moral conundrums, the ethics of using the coin and the author manages to address them – to a certain extent – not only when it comes to wish-making but also when it comes to messing up with unknown forces of the physical universe.
“To a certain extent” because even though the story and the characters talk about the ethics and the moral consequences of wish-making, I felt those were only surface deep, never really getting to the nitty-gritty bottom of anything. And this brings me to the Fair Coin’s main flaw as I see it: the characters don’t go much beyond a certain script. The main character is a typical teenager, the main villain is a typical villain and so on and so forth which translates as: their emotional range don’t go much further than what is expected from them. Someone dies, main character cries for about half a page and that’s it. Someone else loses someone extremely important to them and one page later it is like nothing has happened and they are laughing as though it’s all forgotten – even if the text TELLS me they are grieving, I don’t see it. The characters’ emotional reactions are not developed enough to move the reader or to ensure any deeper connection with the story.
That isn’t to say the characterisations are completely bad – not at all. The portrayals of the teenager characters are believable and there is a plethora of cool female characters that have huge roles to play in the story. Even if, for the most part, Ephraim is making wishes that will affect the female characters in his life more than any others – these female characters still have agency and react to this once learning what’s happened. There is definitely a degree in which Ephraim and his friend Nathan objectify the girls they like but this element is addressed and is part of Ephraim’s learning curve as a character.
One last thing: the story is full of twists and turns and I loved this aspect of the novel. But thinking about it and trying to analyse all the elements, I am not entirely convinced – and I believe there is one fundamental problem with the premise of the novel. I will expand on this bit as a footnote for those who have read the book already so don’t read it if you don’t want to be spoiled. 2
That said, there could be an explanation for this – and that might be exactly what book 2 will be about. Despite its problems with the characterisation, I loved the premise of the novel and how it all played out and Fair Coin is ultimately, a super fun book. ...more
While gathering the ceremonial herbs and flowers on the eve of a great wedding celebration, handmaid Aeriel and her mistress Eoduin ascend the highest peaks overlooking their village – and Eoduin’s natural grace and beauty attracts the eye of the Darkangel. A cruel, blood-drinking, soul-stealing vampyre, one of seven icari, the Darkangel steals Eoduin as his thirteenth bride, much to Aeriel’s terror and dismay. In her quest to avenge her friend and mistress, Aeriel is also stolen away by the vampyre, not as a bride, but as a serving girl and weaver for the Darkangel’s thirteen existing brides. Trapped in an impossibly cold palace of death and despair, Aeriel is horrified when she meets her new mistresses – ghostly, shrunken wraiths without blood, substance or soul, and only a far gone memory of the women they used to be. With the help of an ancient mage, Aeriel vows to stop the Darkangel from taking his fourteenth wife and coming fully into his power as a full vampyre – for if he gathers his fourteenth soul, he will join his six icari brothers to wreak havoc and descruction on the world.
And yet, for all of Aeriel’s determination, for her fear of the Darkangel and his cruelty, for her vow to help the wraiths and her lost mistress Eoduin, Aeriel senses that there is still some kernel of goodness in the Darkangel. Aeriel holds the fate of the world in her hands – to trust in the buried, locked away remains of a good soul within the Darkangel’s leaden heart, or to slay him to protect everything good and living in the world.
I confess that I’ve never read anything from Meredith Ann Pierce, and had not even heard of The Darkangel until this year – but I am so very glad I did. This is a lush, almost poetic tale with prose that is both sweet and pure, though not without its share of darkness (as is true of the best dark fantasies and fairy tales). In style and in form, The Darkangel feels very similar to Clare B. Dunkle’s The Hollow Kingdom, tossed with Robin McKinley’s Sunshine and Beauty, with a touch of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (yes, there’s a magical talking lyon in this book). This is pretty excellent praise, as all of these books are pretty freaking fantastic, and The Darkangel conjures images and likenesses of different aspects of them all. Truly, it is the writing style and the descriptions that won my heart with this book – from the phrasing of certain passages, to the descriptions, there’s something almost…well, darkly magical about The Darkangel, as cliched and hackneyed as my own words sound. Take, for example Aeriel’s first encounter with the Darkangel’s wives:
He led her up a winding stair, down a long narrow hall to a little door at the very end. It opened onto a tiny windowless room in which were twelve-and-one emaciated women. Some stood in corners or crouched, leaning back against the walls. Some crawled slowly on hands and knees; one sat and tore her hair and sobbed. Another paced, paced along a little of the far wall. All screamed and cowered at the entrance of the vampyre.
Isn’t there something so beautifully lyrical in the cadence of the passage? Something beautiful in how Ms. Pierce’s prose depicts something so terrible? Like Robin McKinley’s older work, there’s something unexpected and gorgeous in The Darkangel‘s turns of phrase; something sadly missing in many contemporary fantasy novels, for young readers and adults alike. It’s the type of quality you forget about until you read it, and The Darkangel has this ineffable essence packed into every gorgeous sentence on the page.
Beyond the care and detail Meredith Ann Pierce’s novel gives to phrasing, the worldbuilding of The Darkangel is similarly lush and unexpected. I loved that this actually is a science fiction novel in addition to being a fantasy, with a sad story of colonists long come and gone, and the wasted aftermath of their efforts on Aeriel’s strange planet, where days are much, much longer than those on Earth.
From a character perspective, however, things are a little shakier. As a heroine, Aeriel is sweet and honest, and her motivations are utterly believable and never feel forced or contrived. That said, she is, perhaps, a bit too good to be true; a bit too selfless, and good, and moral. There’s nothing wrong with a heroine that never falters or balks in the face of danger, or hesitates in making self-sacrifice for the good of others – but it does leave her character feeling a bit bland and lacking in complexity. My only real complaint, however, lies with the eponymous Darkangel himself. I didn’t really believe that there was any good left in him, and even though the slightly-saintly Aeriel senses this innate humanity, buried beneath his cold, beautiful, and cruel exterior, I don’t know that I bought the romantic angle of the book. And yet…perhaps this is just a matter of personal taste. In any case, with two more books in the trilogy, perhaps these characterization issues are addressed more in-depth.
Overall, The Darkangel is a beautiful, unexpectedly lush book, with a style that is unrivaled in the current YA Fantasy space. Absolutely wholeheartedly recommended – now I just need to figure out where I can get my hands on copies of books 2 and 3 in the trilogy.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From one early chapter in the book:
The icarus paused gracefully at the steps; all his moves were grace. “Do you come?”
Aeriel turned back to him. “I am to be your bride,” she said, not questioning. The certainty of it overwhelmed her.
The darkangel looked at her then and laughed, a long, mocking laugh that sent the gargoyles into a screaming, chattering frenzy. “You?” he cried, and Aeriel’s heart shrank, tightened like a knot beneath the bone of her breast. “You be my bride? By the Fair Witch, no. You’re much too ugly.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I realised The Freedom Maze was something special. I felt its impacOriginally posted on The Book Smugglers
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I realised The Freedom Maze was something special. I felt its impact from the very start: I had barely started it and already had problems falling asleep because I kept thinking about what was happening to the protagonist and where the story might go. This is a book that works on every single level I can think of: from a storytelling point of view, as a coming of age tale, as a Speculative Fiction story, as a Historical novel, as a social and cultural examination of racial identity and much more. It’s a multifaceted story that is deeply affecting, gripping, thought-provoking and as close to a perfect novel as it can be. I hope I can do it justice. One thing before I proceed any further though: I do spoil a few minor plot points, but since this is not a book about plot, this shouldn’t detract at all from your enjoyment of the novel.
The Freedom Maze follows 13 year old Sophie in the 1960s in Louisiana as she spends the summer with her aunt and grandmother at the Oak Cottage, the old family home of the grand Fairchild family from back in the “good old days”. Sophie has been left behind by her mother who is now pursuing a new career after divorcing Sophie’s father. She barely hears from her father –now living in NY with a new wife – and her relationship with her mother is fraught with tension. She constantly bemoans Sophie’s behaviour as unladylike, complains about the state of her unruly hair, about her clothes, about her time spent reading books. It’s been like this forever and Sophie has developed strategies available to her in dealing with her mother – they involve a lot of shutting up and a lot of appeasing.
In any case, the summer is in full swing and Sophie is bored, sick of being left behind by everybody she knows and there is only so much sunbathing, reading and fishing one can do. And then there is the old family maze which Sophie is attracted to – a maze in a state of disrepair, haunted by the ghosts of old Fairchilds. It’s also where she first comes across a trickster spirit that constantly teases Sophie and who obliges when she wishes she could have a grand old adventure just like the ones she reads in the books she loves. He sends her back 100 years in the past to her own family’s plantation when to her dismay – because of her darker skin, because of her hair – she is taken for a bastard child of one of the sons and as a slave. Because of her close ties with the family, she becomes a house slave, working for her “grandmother” – the Old Missy. At first, Sophie takes it all as an adventure but her trip to the past do not follow the script she expected it to and things get really serious, really fast. And Creature will not take her back until she’s done what she is supposed to do.
From a plotting perspective Sophie’s journey to the past is perhaps the basic storyline of the novel and as such it is a tale of survival: first as a house slave, then as a hand in the sugar cane plantation. But as I said before, The Freedom Maze works on many levels, and this basic storyline expands to encompass a myriad of themes.
At first, Sophie sees her trip as an adventure and has an almost detached relationship with the story she is living but soon she realises there is no easy way out and she has no idea when she is going to back to her own time. The most fascinating thing is how the story subverts traditional time-travel stories: she is not a casual observer and she is not a saviour (although she does help one person in distress) and she is certainly not welcomed. Instead, she is affected by it but not from a perspective of a “white person who comes to learn about slavery” either because as it turns out, Sophie and her family in 1960 are not as white as they like to believe they are. She spends six months in the past and those six months are worth an entire life – the more time she is there, the more she forgets about her life in 1960, the more she starts to believe she is Sophie-the-slave and embraces her own tell-tale story of being the bastard child of Robert Fairchild. When she does, eventually, return to her own time, the physical consequences of her life in 1860 are not erased magically by leaving behind only memories. She goes back a changed girl and it shows: it’s been half an hour in 1960 but she has aged. To the point where she has no choice but to tell her aunt what happened.
This fits in the coming of age theme of the novel. Sophie starts out as a naïve young girl who has to grow up fast and with no choice: her life now mirrors those of the slaves she comes in contact with. Her coming of age is both a matter of identity and a matter of history and those are brilliantly interwoven in the narrative. Her family in 1960 is a proud white family who celebrate their past as the “good old days”. They identify themselves as good people and yet their discourse is horribly, inherently, casually racist. Her mother has removed her from her school once it became a mixed race school and is constantly telling her not to speak with Black men because they are dangerous and dirty. Despite this, there is a brilliant acknowledgment of how complex people are. In that sense, it is also possible to address gender issues here as the mother is trying to find her own way in a world that despises working, divorced women. There is a generational tension between Sophie and her mother but also between the latter and her own mother.
The aunt is the figure Sophie can count on the most and who really loves her, except when she becomes silent when at one point they find a paper cut from 1860 that refers to Sophie as a slave who can “pass as white”. 100 years before that, everybody hails Dr Charles Fairchild, the owner of the plantation as a benevolent, firm yet kind figure. He even has a hospital for infirm slaves and they are tended to with care. But that is because they are worth money, and one has to tend to their property well. When his daughter mistreats a slave, he gives her a lecture about how she would never whip a dog or a horse when they misbehave. The slaves are portrayed in the very same complex manner: there are those who accept their position more easily than others; there is also the complex, difficult dynamic and hierarchy between house-slaves and plantation-slaves; there are good people, bad people, happy or unhappy and they all have voices. One of the best, most impacting quotes from the novel comes from a slave when talking about their “benevolent” owner:
"Africa spoke from the kitchen door. “You both wrong. […] There ain’t no such thing as a good mistress, on account of a mistress ain’t a good thing to be. Think on it, Mammy. Old Missy maybe taught you to read and write and speak as white as her own children. But she ain’t set you free.” "
This is a story that challenges stereotypes at every turn with astute, subtle observations. It portrays racial identity and divide in 1860 and in 1960 and in doing so, makes one wonder about race and identity right NOW. Sophie encapsulates this when, at both ends of the book, she reacts differently to her family’s observations – in the end, she has been altered by her experience in positive ways.
Because of this, the story is still fundamentally a fairytale – although a freaking gut-wrenching one. It is obviously a time-travel story and one that incorporates elements of traditional African beliefs beautifully.
I also mentioned several themes and I think I managed to somehow do so in a clinical, cold way when there isn’t anything even remotely cold about the way I reacted to the story. My heart went to Sophie’s family (not the Fairchilds though, but her adopted family, the one that took care of her) and their plight. When Sophie comes back to 1960 and has no way of knowing what happened to them, my heart broke alongside hers with sheer sadness.
Do you know what is surprising? I read this on my Kindle and it wasn’t until I was setting up this post that I realised that the book is less than 300 pages long. Less than 300 pages long and it manages to accomplish so much in those pages.
There are books you just know will stay with you forever. This is one of them. ...more
**WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST TWO BOOKS IN THE AGENCY SERIES. If you have not read books 1 & 2, and you wish to stay unspoiled, look away now! You have been warned.**
After the events of The Body at the Tower, Mary Quinn finds herself a full graduate of the Academy and an official operative of The Agency. Her first official assignment, however, is the somewhat disappointing mission to discover the identity of a petty thief, responsible for nicking a number of trinkets in the residence of Queen Victoria and her family at Buckingham Palace. Undercover as a parlor maid, Mary dutifully dives into her official role and is set on discovering the identity of the thief. Her investigation, however, leads her to an even more intriguing mystery when the police turn up at the palace, unannounced, bearing with them the shell-shocked heir prince Bertie. During a typical night of drinking and entertainment with the less than reputable Sir Ralph Beaulieu-Buckworth, the prince and his friend made an ill-advised trip to a seedy opium den – a trip that would end with the murder of Beaulieu-Buckworth at the hands of an opium-crazed Chinese sailor, Jin Hai Lang. Mary’s long lost father, presumed dead at sea.
Reeling from this dramatic news, Mary is determined to figure out the truth of her father’s incarceration, but her path is anything but clear. With tensions brewing at Agency headquarters and the infuriating James Easton reappearing in her life, complicating matters even more, Mary also knows that something secret and sinister is happening at Buckingham Palace. With a suspected traitor in the midst, Mary’s first job is anything but simple.
Building on characters and plot threads introduced in A Spy in the House and The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel picks up the intrepid Mary Quinn’s story and throws a slew of new complications in the mix. From a pure storytelling and plotting perspective, this third entry is somewhat uneven. The mystery aspects of the novel – that of Mary’s father’s imprisonment, that of the petty thief in the palace, and that of the larger treasonous plot afoot – feel scattered, with many stops and starts that don’t quite gel together in a cohesive whole. The eponymous Traitor in the Tunnel, truly the overarching mystery of the book, is sort of haphazardly thrown together and comes to a dissatisfying conclusion.1 Criticism concerning the logic of the plot aside, however, The Traitor in the Tunnel is an incredibly readable book and as engaging as ever, fraught with action and danger and steeped in mystery. I couldn’t put the book down, even while my brain cataloged some of the less-appealing aspects of the plot.
The reason why The Traitor in the Tunnel succeeds is not because of the strength of its plotting, but rather because of the strength of its heroine. As always, I love the premise of this series, taking the Victorian time period and adding a group of women who refuse to accept society’s imposed roles and amass their own power and agency – literally. As with the prior two books, The Traitor in the Tunnel explores these societal expectations and the women that both embrace and defy it (including the figure of Queen Victoria herself). Mary’s story in this third book is the most cathartic of all her adventures to date as she comes face to face with her lost father and is forced to reconcile her memories of Lang Jin Hai with reality. I love that Mary’s reunion with her father is not glamorized, and that Jin Hai is not exonerated for his crime or his addiction. More importantly, I LOVE the exploration of Mary’s heritage and sense of self-perception and identity in this novel (I have been waiting for this to be addressed in the series with more scrutiny!), as she has to make a choice about revealing her heritage in a London where “Asiatics” (and half-breeds like Mary) are seen as hated, inferior foreigners.
Mary’s soul-searching especially comes into play with her relationship with the infuriating/loveable James Easton. I won’t say much about anything that happens, except that their romantic relationship is FINALLY played through to resolution – but you’ll have to see for yourself if that is a good or a bad resolution. In any case, as always, I love the chemistry between James and Mary, with the both of them as incredibly stubborn and strong-willed as they are. Other familiar faces also make appearances in this installment – Felicity, Anne, the irritatingly charming Octavius Jones.
Overall, the series’ overarching plot is advanced with dramatic news at the close of the book with the future of the Agency at risk, some wonderful romantic developments, and plenty of loose ends to be explored. In short, while The Traitor in the Tunnel is not a perfect book, it is a very good one, and I cannot wait for the next Mary Quinn mystery....more
After global warming has ravaged the earth and the polar ice caps have almost entirely melted, the world is a dramatically different place. With the recession of glaciers and ice that had previously covered inaccessible regions of Canada, Norway, Finland, Greenland, Iceland and other northern regions, a slew of rich natural resources are ripe for the taking. With a rush to move up north to mine the jewels, oil, and other precious natural commodities, the power balance and economics of the world shifts dramatically, and UN peacekeepers are enlisted to monitor and protect the exploited north.
Anika Duncan is one such UN worker, a pilot for the Polar Guard, charged with flyovers of the northern polar region and monitoring any abnormal behavior. Anika and her partner Tom are on a routine flyby, when they notice an uncleared freighter with abnormal – radioactive – cargo. The freighter fires on their ship, killing Tom and nearly drowning Anika. Angry and hungry for answers, Anika cannot let the mystery ship go and delves into the mystery of the freighter and its mysterious cargo in order to avenge her friend and prevent a catastrophe and corporate conspiracy of global proportions.
Arctic Rising explores a future world in which our ecosystem is irrevocably changed, and is essentially an eco-thriller with a politically astute and socio-economic edge. One thing I love about Buckell’s work is his attention to detail and his keen integration of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, and Arctic Rising is no exception. Heroine Anika is from Nigeria (the bi-racial daughter of a religious father and a Nollywood actress mother); the bubbly secondary character Vy is a Southern homegrown American girl with apple pie appeal (despite being the most successful drug dealer in the Northern region); Roo, a freelance spy, is from the (now submerged) Caribbean island region. There are gay characters, there are characters of varying race, social standing, and native background, and in a genre that is somewhat homogenous (especially in contemporary sci fi), this is really goddamn cool.
Of course, at its core, Arctic Rising is really a thriller – an ecological thriller with a political and socially conscious edge, that toes the line between science fiction and realism. Mr. Buckell excels in his envisioning of the repercussions of a world where the ice caps have almost completely melted, and I loved the extrapolation of this premise. This vision is brutally and painstakingly realized; it is a world where the lower lying islands and regions have been wiped out, where an entire new world order has been built around the resources of the north with new oil rigs being set up each day and tightened immigration and work permit laws. Beyond the worldbuilding implications, I also loved the tightly written action scenes in Arctic Rising, from interrogations, to high speed boat chases, to blow-by-blow fistfights, and more. My only problems with the book were with some of the less even pacing points – in between the action, there is a lot of exposition-ladling and some generous info-dumping. The story is also incredibly contained, only looking at the cross section of the northern region without exploring what is happening at other ends of the world (how are the regions of South and Central America handling the rising waters and temperatures, for example?).
These criticisms aside, I truly enjoyed reading Arctic Rising and recommend it to anyone hungering for a scifi thriller with an eco-bend....more
The Sunbird is the third book in Elizabeth Wein’s Arthurian/Aksumite cycle of stories which follows the deOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
The Sunbird is the third book in Elizabeth Wein’s Arthurian/Aksumite cycle of stories which follows the descendants of King Artos of Britain and their lives in sixth century Aksum, Africa (present-day Ethiopia). Although part of an ongoing series, The Sunbird can definitely be read as a standalone (although I did have a few questions about previous happenings in the series, the most urgent one being: how and why exactly did the descendants of King Arthur end up in Africa? I shall have to go back and read the first two books in the series The Winter Prince and A Coalition of Lions both already purchased and added to my TBR pile)
The Plague is spreading in Europe and even though quarantine has been set in the Aksumite Empire, the plague breaks through and begins to spread. This story follows young prince Telemakos, the son of Medraut (son of King Artos) and Turunesh (daughter of Kidane, member of the imperial parliament of Aksum), as he is tasked by his aunt Goewin, the British ambassador to Aksum, with the dangerous mission of investigating who is responsible for it. Telemakos is a clever, resourceful boy who is constantly overlooked and underestimated because of his youth and his mixed-race status. Using these to his advantage, he is able to learn key information to help the Kingdom and is eventually sent on a journey across the Empire to learn more – a journey which will have terrible consequences.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Sunbird – it is a short yet extremely well developed story. It has moments of great gravitas – especially those that deal with courage and loyalty and the moments where the story dealt with the relationship between Telemakos and his father Medraut. There is a great comparison between their relationship and that of the mythology Telemakos and his father Ulysses. The latter deals with an absent father and the hope for his return whereas our Telemakos has to deal with a father who is present but who won’t use words to communicate with Telemakos: his muteness is a self-imposed punishment for past deeds and frustratingly difficult for Teleamakos to understand. I also really appreciated the strong female characters with agency and the high stakes of the story – Telemakos’ is a really dangerous mission and the author doesn’t shy away from it and there are horrendous scenes of torture that were really hard to read.
I loved its protagonist above all. Telemakos is a great, intrepid hero whose reluctant acceptance of his mission is coupled with his own cheeky certainty that he is the only one who can pull it off. He is at times old beyond his years and at others, a youngster who wants nothing to be cuddled by his family. I loved the Ethiopian setting as well, although I can’t really attest to any historical accuracy when it comes to the Kingdom of Aksum ( I am not really sure historical accuracy comes into play here considering this is a Fantasy novel about King Arthur).
Beyond that, I had extremely high expectations for The Sunbird considering that 1) the author wrote Code Name Verity which is so far my favourite 2012 read and 2) the main character of this book has been compared to Megan Whalen Turner’s Eugenides, one of my favourite characters of all time. In hindsight, this was probably not a good thing and I will admit that those expectations were impossible to be met. Although Telemakos did remind me of a young Eugenides (from The Thief) for his cleverness and cocky demeanour, I think the fact that narrative here doesn’t have the unreliability factor akin to Megan Whalen Turner’s books, makes this comparison a bit too extreme. This is perhaps, an unfair assessment but expectations are expectations and I believe I have to be clear in this regard. Funnily enough, I think The Sunbird has more things in common with Code Name Verity and its themes of courage and patriotism despite their wildly different setting.
One thing is certain though: Code Name Verity was not a fluke and Elizabeth Wein has just become a new favourite author. ...more
Earthseed begins with a familiar premise: after mankind has wiped out the majority of Earth's natural resourcOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Earthseed begins with a familiar premise: after mankind has wiped out the majority of Earth's natural resources and damaged its ecosystem over the centuries, humans turn to the stars for a new home. These human survivors have thrown their hopes on a distant system in deep space, creating an artificial intelligence powered space ship, loaded with the history of human culture, knowledge, and the genetic material to create new humans, crops, and animals. As Ship nears its destination, just years away from reaching the new planet, it executes its mission to create and nurture human children from its genetic stores.
Zoheret and all of her fellow shipmates have grown up under the careful watch of Ship, learning about Earth's past and preparing for a future on a new planet. But Zoheret and her friends come of age at fifteen and come ever closer to reaching their new home, things begin to change. To best prepare its children for the reality of pioneering a new world, Ship creates a competition and gradually begins to withdraw the careful protections and conveniences with which it has provided its passengers over the duration of their young lives. As the teens cope with the reality of creating a new society, divisions form, violent tendencies are exposed, and the truth of Earth's past history, Ship's mission, and the future of humanity comes to a dramatic, terrifying head.
Inevitably, when reviewing older SF titles like Earthseed, there's the question of datedness. Having read and reviewed Monica Hughes' The Game earlier this year, there certainly is something to be said for the context and point of time in which a novel was written - in the case of The Game, while the overall conceptualization was fantastic, the execution and depth of character was somewhat wanting. Earthseed begins with honest-to-god ROLLERBLADING around a spaceship.
I repeat: Rollerblading. On a spaceship.
How freakin' 1980s-early-'90s baller is that?!
All joking aside, I am happy to report that Earthseed stands the test of time. In the lingo of an '80s child, Earthseed is a totally rad book.
The premise of the novel is a familiar one, and fairly standard in future-dystopia SF fare, from the aforementioned The Game to Wall-e, but I think handled with a (surprising!) deftness and freshness in Earthseed. There are a number of unpredictable twists, plot-wise, as Ship hurtles its way to a new planet, and besides the rollerblading, the novel didn't feel dated at all.[1. On a side note, this is the mark of an excellent work of SF - take Ridley Scott's Alien, for example. I can still watch that 1979 film today and be thoroughly convinced by the acting, the set, the quality of the aliens...that's pretty awesome, and no small feat. But I digress.] Yes, this is soft science fiction (e.g. faster-than-light space travel, an enormous ship that houses an entire ecosystem that takes days to traverse in its hull), but I loved the jungle-within-the-ship setting and the juxtaposition of high-technology against a new low-tech environment, and watching how characters would respond. I also loved the diversity of the cast, encompassing many different races and cultural namesakes, which is, again, not something I expected in a book from 1983. Also unexpected was the level of brutality in this book, since it is billed as a YA novel. Earthseed doesn't shy away from anything - I'm talking teen sex, jealousy, infidelity, drinking, deception, murder, you name it. One of my complaints with much of the contemporary YA dystopian market is its lack of teeth - there's never any fear that our heroes are in the wrong, that they won't prevail or survive. In Earthseed, this is decidedly not the case. Characters do what they have to do in order to survive - and many of them die. Our heroine, Zoheret, makes many questionable decisions, and though her heart is in the right place, she's not idealized or infallibly right, which is wonderfully compelling. At one point in the novel, Ship tells Zoheret that she's not the smartest, or the kindest, or the most deserving - but like Ship, there's something about Zoheret's dogged stubbornness that is appealing.
Beyond Zoheret, many of the overall characterizations were perhaps a tad superficial, but only because the cast is so large - I do think the actions and justifications for all made sense and rang as genuine. I liked Ho's conniving and Manuel's selfishness - though these are archetypes that one often sees in society-falls-apart type of stories, they are archetypes for a reason. Ultimately, though, I think what I loved most of all about Earthseed is that the character of Ship (because yes, Ship is a central character) is not an evil robot/AI monster with a twisted agenda. I feel that in many contemporary SF novels, technology is demonized, and in this book, Ship is the voice of reason and civility; it is the peacemaker to our warlike tendencies, the Vulcan to our messy human emotions.
Ship is, above all, a nurturing force that is seeding the future with hope that mankind can change. And that kind of optimism, especially in a novel as bleak and gritty as this one is, is brilliant.
"When our ancestors were attacked at Pearl Harbor, they called it a day that would live in infamy. The day the Partials attacked us with the RM virus will not live in anything, because there will be none of us left to remember it."
~President David R. Cregan, March 21, 2065, in a press conference at the white house. Three hours later he hanged himself.
The Partials were created by man - a synthetic human-appearing army of super soldiers, made to fight mankind's battles. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.
(Ok, I couldn't resist the BSG comparison - it's kind of inevitable. But more on that in a bit.)
When the Partials - one million strong - rebelled against their human overlords, they unleashed a biological weapon that decimated mankind. The RM virus had a 99% fatality rate, leaving only a small, isolated community of less than 50,000 survivors congregated in the crumbling ruins of Long Island. The true legacy of RM and the Partial War, however, would not be felt until years later - with the death of every single newborn child. Desperate to find a way to cure the virus, to have at least one baby live longer than three days, the aging Senate that governs humanity passes the Hope Act, which dictates that all fertile women over the age of 18 must be impregnated and bear children on a yearly basis.
Sixteen year old Kira, a "plague baby", can barely remember the days before the Partial War, but she's passionate to find a cure for the RM virus that threatens the survival of her species. A skilled medical researcher and an idealist, Kira has a crazy idea - to capture a Partial and to study its physiology. When, against all odds, Kira's plan to capture a Partial succeeds, she finds herself mired in a power struggle of unfathomable repercussions. To cure RM and save her best friend's unborn child, Kira will do anything - but the answers to Kira's questions will change her world forever. Nothing is what it seems, and Kira gradually uncovers the truth: the truth of the Partials and the war with humanity, the truth of the civil unrest that threatens the handful of human survivors, and the truth of the RM virus itself.
Well, color me happy - I had pretty high hopes coming into Partials, having been such a fan of Dan Wells' other work - and I am incredibly happy to report that this book totally, unquestionably rocked.
Inevitably, Partials draws comparisons to Battlestar Galactica - you've got a flawed, decimated human society with just a few thousand survivors, living day to day in a struggle to simply survive. You've got your cylon-esque synthetic humanoids, in this case called Partials, that are indistinguishable from their human creators, seen as abominations by their human creators, but think and feel and emote just as their human creators do. There aren't any battlestars or raptors, no resurrection ships or FTL jumps in Mr. Wells' book, but the themes that underly BSG are all present in Partials - what defines humanity? Who is to blame for the calamitous war? With the stakes so high, how far can and will either side go in order to survive? What separates a rebel cause from terrorism?
Frak me, I loved every second of it.
But enough of the BSG references - how does Partials stand on its own, you ask? The answer is: beautifully. From a writing and storytelling perspective, this first book in a planned series expertly weaves in complex themes of humanity, and addresses the question of immediate survival, versus hope and planning for the future. The twists might be a bit on the predictable side (not because of poor writing, but because, well, there's only so many directions a story like this can go), but are executed with surgical precision. Dan Wells also plays close attention to pathology of RM and delves into the structure of the virus and the medical mystery/thriller aspect of its proliferation, in the style of Megan Crewe's The Way We Fall and Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy. Also similar to the Newsflesh books, and to some extent, Patrick Ness's The Ask and the Answer (Book 2 in the Chaos Walking trilogy) Partials has an impressive political subplot that addresses rebellion, freedom of choice, of speech, and expression of these rights. The only thematic aspect of the story that I wish could have been explored more thoroughly is the question of women's rights - the Hope Act and its repercussions, forcing women to bear dead child after dead child, year after year, is an amazing vehicle for deeper evaluation and commentary around reproductive rights and a woman's right to choose. While these issues are touched upon lightly in this book, I'm hoping for deeper examination in book 2.
From a character perspective, I loved Kira as a heroine - fiercely capable, level-headed, never the damsel in distress, and passionate about those she cares for and her ideals. She's also refreshingly free of the traits so common in the contemporary dystopia YA heroine - none of the annoying too-stupid-to-live tendencies, none of the frustrating inner monologues about romantic entanglements (especially when there are clearly bigger issues - like extinction - at stake). No, Kira has a mission and even though there is an undeniable romantic subplot for future books, it's tempered with realism and handled with subtlety. The larger cast of characters feels genuine and well-rounded, from Kira's boyfriend Marcus (with his genial attitude, but frustrating tendency to want to "save" Kira - who bristles at his protective urges to save her from herself - ick, but believable), to the serious one-track minded Haru, to the passionate Xochi, to the stoic Partial captive, Samm. The best litmus test for effective cast building is the fact that I cannot wait to get to know these characters better in the next book.
I loved this book, I cannot wait for the next volume, and I'm afraid that my list of favorite books of 2012 is filling up already. Absolutely frakking recommended. ...more
Young Michael Vyner has had a rough lot in life - his father died heroically in the first world war saving thOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Young Michael Vyner has had a rough lot in life - his father died heroically in the first world war saving the life of a fellow soldier, leaving Michael and his mother pressed to make ends meet. After his mother dies of illness, Michael is orphaned and left adrift in the world when he learns that Sir Stephen Clarendon - the same soldier his father died rescuing in the war - has become Michael's legal guardian. Whisked away from his home, Michael is sent to stay with Sir Stephen for the Christmas holiday, at the remote and imposing mansion of Hawton Mere.
There is something not quite right about Hawton Mere and its owners. First, there's the terrified woman in white that disappears into the nightupon Michael's arrival. Then, there's the fragile mental state of Sir Stephen - heartbroken and driven to the verge of madness since his wife's suicide - and the imposing attitude of his sister, the beautiful Lady Charlotte. Most unsettling of all, though, is the feeling of malevolence and the stink of despair that surrounds Hawton Mere and all those who live there. Soon, Michael finds himself the target of sinister, impossibly ghostly, attacks. It is up to Michael to discover the secrets of Hawton Mere, before he is claimed as another one of the desolate home's victims.
I was cautiously optimistic going into The Dead of Winter because of my recent hot streak with Victorian-ish gothic horror, and I was delighted to find that the novel completely lived up to expectations. Part haunted house tale, part good old fashioned revenge-driven ghost story, The Dead of Winter rocks.
Chris Priestley's novel has many similarities to the aforementioned The Woman In Black - both are retrospectively narrated; both are preoccupied with spectral appearances, haunted marshland manors in a post-Victorian England; and of course, both feature a lurking, pervasive sense of malevolent evil from beyond the grave. Most importantly, just as I did with The Woman In Black, I absolutely loved the ominous, traditional ghost story of The Dead of Winter. As a haunted house story, the sense of setting and atmosphere is paramount to the success of the book, and Hawton Mere is deliciously creepy with its isolation (of course), its marshy frozen landscape (another staple), and its many dark halls and secret passageways.
Also of major import is the ghost at the heart of the novel, itself. Unlike the pure force of malevolent hatred that drives some ghost stories (though it has an ample dose of this type of ghost, too), The Dead of Winter builds on a mystery and a wrong that needs righting by young Michael - a crime has been committed, and someone must be brought to justice. Though the mystery at the core of The Dead of Winter is fairly obvious (if not who the perpetrator is, it is obvious who the ghost is and why it is haunting the grounds), it is beautifully executed.
The other great strength that this novel has lies with its sympathetic main character, the orphaned Michael. Emotional and direct with his narration - essentially the novel is reflective and epistolary in style - Michael is a young man that has a good head on his shoulders. He's not afraid to cry or to run for help when things get terrifying, and that's always refreshing in a horror novel protagonist. Plus, as this is very much an introspective novel with minimal dialogue, Michael's emotional intuitiveness helps move the story along wonderfully.
I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say this last bit - I love it when a ghost story ends on a terrifying high note - and The Dead of Winter certainly does that. Absolutely, enthusiastically recommended. ...more
Life and death are complicated for Mackenzie Bishop. As a young childOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
There is nothing fresh about this start.
Life and death are complicated for Mackenzie Bishop. As a young child, she shadowed her grandfather (affectionately nicknamed Da)'s every move. She idolized and loved his seriousness, his strangeness, and his ability to lie with the truth. From a very young age, Mackenzie is sure of two things: that there is something different about her Da, and that she will do anything to make him proud. Even if that means she must inherit her Da's powers and become a Keeper for the great Archive - where everyone goes after death, facsimiles of their dead forms containing all the memories of their lives kept in quiet, organized rows in a colossal library of the dead.
Every now and then, one of the dead - a "History" - awakens and tries to escape the Narrows to the outside world; it is up to Keepers, like Mackenzie's Da to capture those Histories and Return them to their slumber.
Now sixteen years old, Mac is a seasoned Keeper having inherited her Da's position and his key. She's become accustomed to lying to everyone, to shying away from touch, to roaming the Narrows alone and stopping violent, frightened Histories from slipping into the Outer. She's lost her Da, her ten year old brother has just died, and her family has moved to a new apartment in a crumbling former hotel called the Coronado.
It is here, at the Coronado, that things start becoming strange for Mackenzie. More and more Histories are awakening, and someone has been tampering with memories of the past. The Corondo's tragic past, its history of murder and sorrow, is at the heart of the mystery, and Mackenzie must discover the truth before the Archive is torn apart.
This is the first book I've read from Victoria Schwab, and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. But I'll start with the obvious, and the good: The Archived is a beautifully written book, a morose, slow-simmering modern gothic novel, with a truly intriguing premise. Narrated by Mackenzie mostly in realtime, but with quick interstitials of her memories of her Da, The Archived's greatest strength is its powerful, moving voice. Mac may be sixteen, but she has enough secrets and careful lies to last a lifetime - believe me when I say that hers is a voice filled with pain and weighed down by the burden of responsibility. I loved and sympathized with Mackenzie's struggles, her need to keep away from any real and honest human interaction, the grief she feels for the loss of a brother (made so much worse because she knows his memory is kept in the Archive but she must never wake him). The Archived isn't all doom and gloom, though - in addition to Mackenzie's dark, elegiac solo, there is hope and brightness in the form of her new neighbor Wes (he of the sculpted hair and guyliner). I loved the lightness that Wes brings to the book, his easy way around others, and the effect he has on Mac as she realizes she does not need to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders alone. I loved the atmosphere of the book, the deliciously gothic setting of the Coronado and its many, many secrets in the past. The Archived is a very visual book too, and Victoria Schwab brings the hotel-turned-apartment complex to life painstakingly, slowly, brilliantly.
While these elements are fantastic, there are some in whose efficacy I am less convinced. Perhaps the story moves too slowly and it takes too long to get to the actual conflict at the heart of the Archive. But more importantly than the pacing, the bigger question mark to me is the premise of the Archive itself, the need for Librarians, Crew, and Keepers. The rationale for keeping the Archive secret makes sense (indeed, if people knew there was a netherworld where Histories are kept sleeping, they would be tearing down the doors in the hopes that they could revive or spend just another day with their departed loved ones). But I'm not sure the actual purpose of the Archive itself makes sense - only Librarians can read Histories, but why would they (it certainly doesn't seem like they do anything)? For what purpose? The danger with Histories is that they might wake up and violently escape, killing humans before slipping away into the ether forever - but if they were never housed in the first place, they would never awaken, harm others, or slip away. I'm sure (I hope) this is something that will be revealed over the course of the series, but for now, the central concept of the afterlife as a giant library seems...shaky. There's also a brief, predictable romantic entanglement with two different boys that felt forced and tepid, but in the grand scheme of things, this is a nitpick.
Ultimately, The Archived is a good book. I loved its beautiful, atmospheric writing and a its compelling heroine - but by that same token, the story was a shade too loose and sluggish, and the actual premise of the Archive at the heart of the book needs honing. Still, I'll be back for The Unbound....more
**WARNING: this review contains inevitable spoilers for book 1 –The Name of the Star. DO NOT READ if you don’t wish to be spoiled. You have been warne**WARNING: this review contains inevitable spoilers for book 1 –The Name of the Star. DO NOT READ if you don’t wish to be spoiled. You have been warned!**
The Madness Underneath picks off a few weeks after the events at the end of The Name of the Star. After being attacked by the Jack the Ripper copycat, Rory has been recovering in Bristol, away from her school and her friends. The worst part of being away from London though is her isolation and inability to share with anyone the true nature of the events that took place then. Worst of all, she has been cut off from communicating with the Shades – the city’s secret ghost-fighting police – and hasn’t shared how her encounter with the Ripper has changed her forever: she is now the only ever (as far as she knows) human terminus, with the ability to vanquish ghosts on contact.
As such, when presented with the chance to go back to school she takes it. But when she arrives in London she realises that things can never be the same again and that there is something mad and evil underneath the streets of London.
The most striking aspect of The Madness Underneath is its overall seriousness. And it shouldn’t have been any different really, considering how the main character had a close encounter with death, and how that has altered her life forever. As such, Rory’s narrative is one that comes from a place of deep trauma – even if she does not want to admit it. I am really appreciative of the way that Maureen Johnson infused the story, the narrative and Rory’s arc in this book from a PTSD perspective. Because of that, Rory does not sound, read or behave exactly like the same person from book 1 – how could she? But anything that happens here, any change in behaviour, any outrageous action, are thoroughly understandable because they come from a place of trauma, a place of coping.
Similarly, Rory’s need to not be considered a victim and to be able to regain control are deftly handled especially when combined with her newly discovered power. The way that she reacts to it, and how she feels powerful for how she can control death is both empowering but also a bit scary. It will be interesting to see how this will be developed in the next book.
One of the biggest, shiniest elements of book 1 was its mixture of humour, wit and snark with a side of outrageously fun ghost-hunting Ghostbusters-style. Although there is still wit and snark here, those fun elements were almost gone. Rory’s arc as a survivor is the most important one in this book and the one takes centre stage here. This I feel, instead of being a part of the book, was so separate from anything else that it was almost to the detriment of all other storylines in the novel – which appeared to be scattered and unfocused. From the new attacks and murders that appear connected to the Ripper’s death as well as a new set of villains and dangers, those were almost underdeveloped and randomly deployed in the story. However, everything that happened here COULD be potentially connected to the very same storyline but that is left still to be seen.
At the end of the day, The Madness Underneath is a Proper Middle of Trilogy Book – it is deeper, more thoughtful, darker than its predecessor and with a twisted ending where SHIT hits the fan bit time (also: kissing) but it is not as tight a book as it could have been. It is maybe too short and brief, too scattered for that. I still really enjoyed it and am definitely on board for book 3.
I have to agree with Ana on all counts – The Madness Underneath is a good book and a darker text than its predecessor (as it should be, given the traumatic events of book 1), but it suffers from a disconnected plot and Middle Book Syndrome.
On the positive side, I loved the careful detail that Marueen Johnson pays to heroine Rory as she grapples with the enormity of everything that has happened to her over the past few months. An American teenager that has moved from public school in Louisiana to a private, competitive boarding school (Wexford) in London for her senior year, Rory faced some pretty hardcore culture shock – add to that the Jack the Ripper copycat murders around her school, and you’ve got a pretty stressful situation. Did I mention the part where Rory nearly dies choking on a piece of food early in her Wexford career and develops the ability to see and talk to dead people? And the fact that the Jack the Ripper killer is also a ghost who has it out for Rory, thanks to her ability to see him? Yeah, that happened. At the end of The Name of the Star, Rory has been brutally attacked by the Ripper killer (who, in life, was a ghost-hunting cop like Rory’s new friends) but lives through the ordeal and in the process has become a real-life terminus – that is, she can make ghosts disappear forever with a single touch.
Naturally, this type of trauma leaves a mark, physically and emotionally, and the Rory of The Madness Underneath is a different young woman than the one we got to know in The Name of the Star. She’s still loveable, quirky, talks-when-she’s-nervous Rory, but she’s also lived through an incredibly harrowing ordeal and has been changed by the experience. As Ana says, Rory’s struggles with post-traumatic stress are beautifully, painfully detailed in this book, and I think her characterization and arc through this second novel is the strongest thing about the book.
On the negative side, however, the actual plot of this novel is scattered and far less powerful than that of the prior book. While The Name of the Star was a honed, tightly plotted paranormal thriller with a clear murder mystery underlying the text (in addition to and working alongside Rory’s personal journey as a character), The Madness Underneath treats the paranormal elements and mystery as more of a backburner/throwaway feature. This wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that the book goes into crazy-what-is-happening mode and crams in a ton of action and plot twists in the last 30-40 pages (which is completely out of sync with the rest of the book). The connections made between Rory’s abilities and a new couple of murders, the history of Wexford, and a cult (yes there’s a cult) are tenuous at best. And there’s a huge WTF moment at the end of the book that also comes out of nowhere and feels…well, gratuitous, and in there purely for twisty cliffhanger shock-value.
I still enjoyed The Madness Underneath, but felt that it lacked the polish of the first book, and definitely suffered from intense middle-book syndrome. I’ll be back for book 3, though, most definitely....more
Ana: Sometimes my book-reading decisions are very easy to make: I wanted to read The Humming Room on the strengths of its cover alonFirst Impressions:
Ana: Sometimes my book-reading decisions are very easy to make: I wanted to read The Humming Room on the strengths of its cover alone. I knew nothing of it when I started reading it and didn’t realise it was a retelling of The Secret Garden (haven’t read that book) until I was done and read the blurb. I read the book without any expectations whatsoever and even though I have a few reservations, I really enjoyed this story.
Thea: I, too, was immediately struck by the lovely cover for The Humming Room, but also was motivated to read the book because of the praise I’ve heard for Ellen Potter’s previous novel, The Kneebone Boy (which, incidentally, also has a gorgeous cover). I was thrilled to discover that the book was actually a retelling of The Secret Garden (which I haven’t read since I was a child), and found myself caught up in Ms. Potter’s lush writing style and enamored with heroine, Roo. I truly enjoyed this book, although it felt a little abrupt and I can’t help but think there should have been more to the story – but overall found The Humming Room to be a sweet, lilting read.
On the Plot:
Ana: The first thing that needs to be said is: I haven’t read The Secret Garden so I can’t say first-hand how much of The Humming Room is a close homage/retelling and how it might deviate from the original (or not). I do believe that being unencumbered by expectations or by previous knowledge of this story proved to be a blessing in this case (I mention this because earlier this week I reviewed Gil Marsh which was also a retelling and which I approached with great expectations).
With that caveat out of the way, The Humming Room was an enjoyable, if uneven, read. Its first half is definitely its strongest: it is beautifully written and we get a good sense of the main character and her developing arc (more on that later). This story has been transported to modern times but there is a certain timeless feel to it which comes from the setting – an old mansion on an isolated island. It is evocative of old-fashioned stories and I loved it because of that. I also appreciated the subtle narrative that hints at mysteries, ghost stories and even tales of fairies.
However, the second half is distinctively different. In the first half things were developed slowly, by introducing the main character Roo and the mysteries surrounding the house, the island and its inhabitants with gentleness and care. But once a secondary character is introduced and the mysteries revealed, the story is rushed up, leading to an extremely abrupt and undeveloped climax that left several things unexplained and unresolved – at least for me. Despite this unevenness, I am still glad that I have read The Humming Room.
Thea: It has been a very long time since I have read The Secret Garden (or since I have watched any of the many film adaptations – my favorite being the one with Maggie Smith), and my memory of the story is a little fuzzy – I remember the highlights (the broken family, the supposedly crippled son and standoffish father, and for some reason I remember that maid Martha had a cockney accent), but I went into The Humming Room with no real expectations or demands. Happily, I found myself easily slipping into this more modern re-imagining of The Secret Garden without any trouble. Instead of following a young girl whose parents died of a cholera outbreak in British colonized India, The Humming Room takes a young girl named Roo from her trailer park home after her drug dealing father dies to live on a strange isolated island called Cough Rock in her uncle’s mansion. The story runs fairly parallel to the original source material – the orphaned girl moves to a secluded home only to stumble on a family saga, and of course, a literal and metaphorical secret garden that will blossom once again with care and time.
From a storytelling perspective, I love Ellen Potter’s sense of atmosphere and backdrop – one of my favorite parts of The Humming Room is the setting of Cough Rock, the history behind the name (the mansion used to be a Children’s Hospital for those suffering from Tuberculosis), and the gothic, ghostly touch to the story. I loved the feel of the island, the river that surrounds it, and the folklore of the Faigne and the Yellow Girl.
That said, I do have to agree with Ana in that while the style and setting to The Humming Room is beautiful in the first portion of the novel, something is lost by the second half, and the ending to me felt rushed and incomplete. I also remain unconvinced of the “magical”/fantasy aspects of the novel…but perhaps that’s just my own personal taste.
On the Characters:
Ana: Roo is a wonderful strong-willed protagonist and I thought her story arc was beautifully done and it showed character growth. The transition from a malnourished, lonely, stand-offish child to a blossoming young girl was my favourite aspect of the novel. I loved the small details of how Roo interacted with others and with the world around her – her hiding places, her talking to animals and her connection with the natural world.
Unfortunately, the secondary characters are not developed much beyond their initial introductions and this is especially true about the villains of the piece are so underdeveloped (they shows up, they do villainy things, they leave never to come back) as to be completely pointless.
Thea: I *LOVED* Roo as our heroine – she’s quiet and thoughtful and, as one character describes her, she takes in everything the world has to offer and makes herself hard like a steel beam. She watches, she listens, and she learns; I had no problems believing in this twelve year old protagonist and her own unique way of seeing and reacting to people around her.
I’m a little hesitant to name any other characters, because to do so might spoil folks that are unfamiliar with The Secret Garden, so I’ll try to be sufficiently vague here: The characters from The Secret Garden are all in The Humming Room, following the same types of arcs and characterizations as those upon whom they are based.
Again, the only disappointing thing to me was how rushed the book felt by its climactic scenes, and how I could quite buy into the fantasy-ish elements of the story (in particular, one fantasy-ish character).
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating::
Ana: Despite its unevenness, I truly enjoyed The Humming Room and it made me really want to read The Secret Garden and see how it compares.
Thea: I agree that the book is uneven, yet I still thoroughly enjoyed reading The Humming Room. Ellen Potter’s beautiful sense of imagery, setting, and her loving care for description and language completely won me over. I’ll certainly be reading more from this author in the future....more
Couldn't get into this. Writing was annoying me with all the telling. "My sense of direction deserted me". And then the insta-love took the cake thisCouldn't get into this. Writing was annoying me with all the telling. "My sense of direction deserted me". And then the insta-love took the cake this time. The girl "met" the guy when they were on solitary confinement and spoke through the walls and at the end of a few paragraphs she was already thinking she would "lose him" when she was released. sigh. (Ana)...more