I discovered the Queen’s Thief series last year and fell irrevocably in love with it – suffice to say that in a scale between 1 an...moreOriginal Review HERE
I discovered the Queen’s Thief series last year and fell irrevocably in love with it – suffice to say that in a scale between 1 and 10 of book awesomeness, they are certainly … 11. A Conspiracy of Kings ,the fourth book in the series was easily my most anticipated read of 2010 , one which I waited for with fervour and passion hoping for another perfectly excellent read from Megan Whalen Turner. It is with the utmost enthusiasm that I report that yes, this is another GREAT ONE. The prologue alone, made me want to cry with happiness. I read it and I said to myself: YES, This. This is what I was waiting for.
Before I go any further though, rest assured that I shan’t be spoiling this book or any other book in the series – these need to be read without the reader being spoiled for their surprises – but there will be some minor spoilers for book 1, The Thief. Overall though, this review will be more of an overlook of the book and its themes than an in-depth look at the details of plot for example (because again, this needs to remain unspoiled) .
I will just start by saying: A Conspiracy of Kings is Sophos’ book. And I mean it: it is his book, his coming of age story, his story to tell. This means that Eugenides, the awesome, incredible protagonist of the other three books, is not as present as I am sure, most readers hoped for. This does not mean that he doesn’t have a central, important role, because he does. But he is a co-pilot to Sophos’ journey.
Sophos, the reluctant heir to the kingdom of Sounis first appeared in The Thief and became Gen’s friend, only to disappear during the events of The Queen of Attolia . In this instalment we learn what has happened to Sophos, how he goes from a poetry-loving boy, to slave, to King and what does exactly his journey does to him, and what being the new Sounis means to the neighbouring countries of Attolia and Eddis.
This is above all, a story about identity. Sophos could not be more different from Eugenides. He is as self-deprecating and self-doubting as Eugenides is daring and reckless. His journey to becoming a worthy King is not without hardship and heartbreak. It is about roles one has to play, about finding out who is friend and who is foe, how much you can rely on people, if you can really rely on them. Sophos has to make many difficult choices and once they are done, there is no turning back.
Once he becomes Sounis, he is in an impossible situation – his country is nearly lost and to get it back is no easy task.
When I reviewed the first three books in the series, I said that Eugenides stole several things throughout the books: a gift; a man; a woman; peace; a kingdom. This time around, Eugenides does something he’s never done before – he helps two other people to steal what they need. One character needs his country back and another needs her people’s safety and by helping them achieving that, Gen also aids them stealing each other’s hearts and finally, he aids his own side. If that is not another masterful plan, I don’t know what is.
The fact that he does all that without even being in most pages, just proves to me what an amazing writer MWT is. She could have easily written another book with Eugenides as the protagonist, at the centre of the story, to appease and satisfy fans. But instead of being comfortable, she just takes a step further, distancing herself from her main, most beloved character to tell someone else’s story. That is a ballsy move and one that pays off. Nothing tells more of the growth of a writer than the attempt at doing something new and different. Even though I did miss Eugenides, I loved this mature, wonderful book for what it was and I cannot wish for something different when what I got was this heart-warming story.
The fact that the protagonist is so different does not mean that the same quality of writing, the same amazing storytelling skills that include twists and subterfuge and all the subtle yet passionate feelings one can have for friends and loved ones are not present. They are. There are amazing romantic scenes in this book to rival those in Queen’s. It is in the narrative itself, it is in the way one friend holds the hand of another for example. And a letter that is rushed to be delivered and yet is never displayed to the reader’s eyes because it is so intimate. If you read the other books in the series you know who is Sophos’ lady and you also know what to expect from MWT when it comes to romance.
Furthermore, in this book, MWT combines the two narrative modes that she so expertly mastered in the previous books as the story is half told in first person by Sophos and half in third person by an overseeing narrator. And the way the two narratives are woven together is amazing. Oh, and then there is this one moment when the reader realises what the author is doing, and whom to and why (oh, the why, it is so important) Sophos is narrating his story, that a-ha moment, it is awesome. As per usual.
Character wise, the book is about identity but plot-wise A conspiracy of Kings is a very political book, in the vein of Queen of Attolia .The story has reached a point where the three countries must make hard choices or succumb to invasion to the Mede. It is a hard reality to appreciate and to endure especially because who these kings and queens are. But the end game is this: what exactly these three countries must do to ensure they remain Sounis, Eddis and Attolia. One of them does come out as the apparent winner and sovereign, but because I know and love that person so much, I am also sure of the reasons behind the intricate game that is played. I also know much will it cost the other two rulers to live up to what they must do.
In the end, Sophos grows up and becomes a man. Granted, a man who is still capable of making an ass of himself (and the scene where he lays it all out, about what it means to know one can be stupid is so amazing and heart-warming) but still someone who is loyal and astute and can make decisions at the time of need.
He also grew on me and I found a place in my heart for this character – that same heart that has been stolen by the Thief and remains his. The last pages of the book are of a perfection that I hardly ever see and which made me hug the book and beg for more, please. (less)
It never gets old and it never ceases to fascinate me how reading can be a completely unpredictable act. H...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
It never gets old and it never ceases to fascinate me how reading can be a completely unpredictable act. How books are still able to surprise me even when I have the highest expectations. Take Revolver, for example. It has garnered the highest of praises (starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly to name only but two), nominations for many awards (including the Carnegie Medal) and this year it became a Printz Honor book. It comes as no surprise that I fully expected it to be good.
It’s 1910. In a small cabin situated north of the Arctic Circle, young Sig Andersson sits alongside his father’s frozen body, wondering how he could have died the way he did, falling through a weak-spot in the iced lake when he should have known better than that. He is waiting for his sister and stepmother to come back from the main town nearby with help, when there is a knock at the door. It is a stranger, a Gunther Wolff, who claims to have searched Sig’s father for years and who is convinced that the dead man stole his gold ten years ago. Despite Sig’s proclamations that there is no gold – as their poverty proves – Wolff will not leave until he has it, by any means necessary. Sig can only think of one way to protect himself- his father’s most prized possession, an old Colt revolver, hidden in the storeroom. If only he could get to it…and then his sister comes back and she is all alone.
Flashbacks set 11 years earlier are interspersed throughout. They fill us in about Sig’s parents’ lives in Nome, a small settlement of gold miners in Alaska where they hope to change their lot in life. His father Einar becomes an assay clerk for the mining company and this is how he meets Wolff, a local troublemaker. This is when tragedy strikes – where this story has truly begun.
There is an economy of language in Revolver that fits beautifully with this stark tale. There are no unnecessary lines as though more is a luxury this story cannot afford just like more cannot be afforded by Sig’s family. Their meagre existence in the wilderness of the Arctic is endured in the hopes of a better life one day. The setting is equally bleak: the barren landscape, the deep cold, the utter desolation and isolation of the extreme North are felt at every single turn of page. But for all of that, there is never a sense of desperation: Sig’s memories of his parents are a mixture of stern parenting and harsh love and the flashbacks describe a family who tries to do better, the only way they can. Some of these memories include Sig’s father’s love for the Colt and the beauty of its mechanics and Sig’s mother’s questioning of that very love – how can someone love a Gun, a thing that is meant to hurt others?
That economy of language coupled with the shortness of this book, create a first impression that Revolver is a simple, straightforward tale. Therein lies the brilliance of this story: that it is deceptively simple and the measure of its true complexity only becomes really clear when the story ends. There is no wasted moment in Revolver: the memory of the day long gone when a boy shoots a gun is as important as the small detail of a father’s oily hair. The storytelling is brilliant not only in that way but also how it combines past and present and how the characters are characters are utterly clever in a way that is never clearly announced to the reader. This story is therefore, a triumph of showing versus telling.
Last but not least there is the main theme of this story: the question of how one boy comes to age and how does he do that by being true to each of his parent’s truths – different as they are – and at the same time finding his own truth somewhere in between. This is a story about the harsh reality of the North, about gold mining and the terrible consequences of putting faith in passing dreams, about poverty and desperation and wanting to do better for one’s family, about obsession and thoughtless violence. But above all, it is a story about a young boy and the choice he has to make.
As I said before, I expected this book to be good. But I kinda hoped it would be awesome. It was. (less)
I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.
I must try to remember. _____________
My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.
It says a lot about me, as a reader, that I read those first few lines and am immediately hooked. I think to myself: is Yeine protagonist and first person narrator of this story, a reliable one, if she is trying to remember the story she is about to tell? I am therefore, engaged in her tale from the beginning, because unreliable narratives happen to be one of my favourite narrative styles.
Thus, I am comfortable in my belief that I know what the author is doing and the chapters pass me by and I am slightly disappointed because well, if there are no surprises, where exactly is this going?
But then, the slow realisation that: no. I do not know exactly what she is doing. I was wrong, what she is effectively doing is even better. I go back to the beginning. I re-read the two first chapters. It is a different story now.
It says a lot about N K Jemisin, as a writer, that I am now, more than engaged. I am committed to this story. There is a rapport between this book and I that is a direct consequence of the mix of elegant writing, fascinating story and awesome characters.
But I think I am ahead of myself.
I must start again. ______
Young Yeine Darr, is summoned by her grandfather after her mother’s death to the floating city of Sky, the seat of the powerful Arameri, the family that controls the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. To her dismay, she is named heir and is on the run for the Succession which is to happen in a couple of weeks. It is a wild competition against her two cousins which might well end up in death. Coming from the “barbaric” North, where she was the head of her matriarchal tribe, a position she has to relinquish once she leaves for Sky, Yeine has to learn (and fast) the rules of Sky, adapt to the political intrigues and to basically learn the ropes of the Arameri culture. Part of it means to understand how every single inhabitant of Sky is a member of the Arameri family only to different degrees : Quarter, Half-Bloods, Full Blood. The lowest from the top are servants and the Full Bloods like Yeine and her cousins are the top dogs. And in charge of the Weapons.
And here is where things get really interesting.
Once upon a time, there were three Gods. The Nightlord (or Nahadoth) who came first; Bright Itempas , the god of day, and Enefa, the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades between. Or order, chaos, and balance.
The three Gods were siblings and lovers in what can be called the most beautiful and yet terrifyingly sad story ever.
Falling out. Death. Betrayal, Enslavement. The outcome is this: Enefa is dead, Itempas is the sole remaining God, the Skyfather worshiped by the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The ancestors of the Araremi were his devoted priests and in reward they were given the weapons: Nahadoth and three of his Godling children, entrapped and enslaved in (somewhat) human vessels controlled by any Highblood who dares to (because there is a catch – any command you give must be very carefully phrased as the Gods tend to take them very literally). Still, weapons they are, hence, the power the Arameri hold all over the world. Who would stand up against a family who wield the power of Gods?
And there comes little Yeine. Whose motivations are much different than expected. Revenge. Because her mother was killed and who killed her? Inheritance is the least of her concerns. And then the novel is a murder mystery: because she wants to learn who her mother is and why she left Sky in the first place, why the falling out with her father?
But Yeine is not the sole protagonist of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Oh, no. She shares it with the Gods: Nahadoth and his son Sieh (the trickster or the eternal child). And then the story has yet another layer: as Yeine is caught in the middle of the Gods’ scheming against their oppression. It might come as a surprise the use of the word “oppression” in the same sentence as “gods” but this is exactly the extent of the ruthlessness that the Arameri family has come to. The horrible torture that the gods must endure is tremendous. For two thousand years these beings have been shaped and limited by human forces.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is basically the story of two very dysfunctional families. On one side, the Arameri is the cautionary tale of the maxim: that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Not only does that apply to the enslavement of the gods and peoples of the world, it also applies to a day-to- day life and fundamental relationships with others. Everybody is expendable in their pursuit for power.
On the other side, the cosmic Family: Itempas, Enefa and Nahadoth. In this mythology created by N K Jemisin, there is a mixture between concrete and abstract that is very interesting. These gods are both representations of ideas and nature forces such as chaos, balance and order; heat, cold, change; day, night, dawn, life and death but also very tangible, concrete, human emotions like hate, lust, love, fear. Bearing in mind that humans are their creations, it is almost like their own mirrors: with all the grandeur but also all the pettiness. The only difference is that when any of these things are felt by a God, the cosmos feels it too. This concrete x abstract occur even as Nahadoth talks to Yeine: sometimes looking at him is like staring into an abyss sometimes he is much humanised.
And in the middle of it there is Yeine. Not entirely Arameri, not a God. She is the most human character of them all: when she realises she might not survive her own story, she cries for hours, a very human reaction and one I deeply commiserated with. Her position is a very complicated one. Unused to diplomacy, used to situation when the drawing of a knife is the best way to deal with it, sometimes she is utterly incapable of making any move at all. But she adapts and in this adaptation, she reinvents herself. I thought Yeine to be a very sympathetic protagonist. And it is because of this humanity, that she dares hope for a romantic relationship with Nahadoth (he might be the God of change and chaos, but he is also the God of seduction) and those who tried in the past millennium have not survived the deed for a myriad of reasons best left for the reader to discover but is all part of the complexity of who Nahadoth is. It doesn’t surprise me the least that Yeine has fallen in love with him because I have too, a little bit. This is a larger than life character – consider this: a supreme being, the first ever living being in the universe cursed to live like a lowly slave. And yet, he still has the capacity for tenderness because after all he is the God of change (and adaptation).
As a Fantasy novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has an evocative world and a unique, creative mythology and I found myself wholly invested in the latter. It was definitely reminiscent of Hinduism for example and the concepts of creation, destruction and preservation, personified by Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu; or even Greek mythology in which the Gods are definitely out and about mingling in the daily life of humans and have themselves very human traits. It is interesting to note that a sexual aspect that connect all three examples (there are no asexual Gods present in this tale .)
The novel has its fantastic characters and a great plot and that includes the romance thread as well. But it goes beyond that. It is a very emotional novel, and I went through a broad range of emotions while reading it: fear, rage, hate, compassion, sadness, lust; and finally, there was the writing. It felt very welcoming. I don’t think I ever used this word to describe someone’s prose but that is exactly how I felt, as the author eased me into a story that started thousands and thousands of years ago like I was just there.
All the different layers of the novel intertwine to a very satisfactory self-contained ending. And when I closed this book, I realised that the author did something to me, broke my mind open and torn out my heart several times throughout the book, but in the end I knew exactly who I am. A fan.
You are not welcome to Portero, Texas, unless you have a thick skin and you are here to stay. With hidden doors that open to other...moreOriginal Review HERE
You are not welcome to Portero, Texas, unless you have a thick skin and you are here to stay. With hidden doors that open to other worlds (the Latin word for door: Porta) spread all over town and with all sorts of creatures (like leeches with tentacles for example and ghosts that live in the river and grant wishes if you can manage to breathe underwater enough to make the wish) crawling out or sucking you into them , Portero is definitely Weird Central of America. Its residents have all accepted their reality, living life to the best of their ability, under the Mayor’s authority and the hunters of Mortmaine’s protection. Everybody wears black as to not attract attention except for the Mortmaines who wear bright green; and if you stay long enough you are entitled to a key. This is how you know you belong.
Enter Hanna Jarvinen, first person narrator of this story and one of the most fascinating characters I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Half Finn, Half African American, Hanna is a biracial, bicultural, with bipolar disorder and violent tendencies, prone to hallucinations and who ran away from her aunt’s house before she was sent back to a mental institution. With her Finn father dead (although when she is not taking her pills, she talks to him in her head) all of Hanna’s hopes rest on her mother, Rosalee. Even though she has never seen her mother since she sent her father and her away when she was a baby, she fantasises that Rosalee will not only welcome her but accept her, weirdness and all. All her dreams come crashing down when she arrives in Portero. Rosalee is cold and unwelcoming. She means to send Hanna away, back to her aunt, to the mental institution, anywhere but Portero. She does not want anything to do with Hanna and is absolutely convinced that she will not adapt to the harsh reality of Portero:
“Let me get this straight: You want me to leave because you don’t think I can adapt?” “I know you can’t” Was she serious? I was biracial and bicultural. A walking billboard for adaptation.
As much as Rosalee is unwelcoming, Hanna is unmoving and they are both forces to be reckoned with and so they strike a deal. If Hanna is not freaked out in the first two weeks, she gets to stay with Rosalee. On the very next morning Rosalee sends her to school where she is welcomed by the weirdest happenings and she realises that maybe Portero is weirder than she expected after all. Then, when she fully expected to fit in from day one, after all she was always able to use her looks and her personality to captivate men and women, she is ignored and scorned by the in-crowd lead by Wyatt, a Mortmaine. Hanna is a Transy, a Transient, someone who is just passing by and porterenses are used to see those leaving or dying too soon. But after she witnesses Wyatt using powers he is not supposed to when vanquishing a threat to the school, they become close. Now, Hanna thinks that the perfect way to impress not only the porterenses but above all her mother is to go on a hunt with Wyatt. When she comes back from the hunt, exhilarated, and unscathed, it is when things get really complicated.
Bleeding Violet is one of the best Young Adult novels I have ever read. The writing is lovely, the story is hands down amazing and the characters are everything I could have hoped for. Every time I open a book, I wish for the sort of all-encompassing experience that this book provided me.
I have read several reviews of Bleeding Violet around the internet and most of them focus their attention on how the story is weird , crazy and surreal. Yes, it is. To the point where I would say that the novel would definitely appeal to fans of QuentinTarantino and Vertigo’s graphic novels.
But although Portero is indeed an incredible setting and the situations that happen in this novel are really surreal, to me more than that surrealism, more than anything else what leaps from the pages are how REAL the characters are. Regardless of any gimmicks happening around them, or the way they might react to those situations, Bleeding Violet is extraordinarily realistic at a very basic level.
Take away the doors and the creatures (as fascinating and cool and vivid and creative as they are) and the book is a character-centric novel in which every.single.thing is character-driven. Everything that happens is because of these characters’ emotions and actions. Hanna is the main propeller of the plot, her emotional estate and that of those that surround her is what matter and what is at centre stage here.
Her need for motherly love and acceptance, to fit in start a sequence of events (which in turn re-set something that started a long time ago – but again, THOSE events wore also consequences of deeply felt emotions that converged in one horrible moment in time: greed, grief and fear). The way she speaks, thinks, reacts was …I don’t know. Awesome. I fell in love with Hanna from chapter one. She is so confident but at the same so lost. She has so many issues that need to be addressed and a definite mental illness that needs to be treated.
But Hanna is not the only character who has issues and deeply felt emotions: her mother, as cold as she was, was the result of a horrible childhood. Wyatt, had his own issues with authority and with heritage. This triad of characters and Hanna relationship with both and with herself are the meats and bones of the novel. On the romance side of things, how refreshing and realistic to see a couple starting off as any couple, dating and then having sex (because it is good and natural) sharing a connection and laughter without having to promise to be together- forever- and- ever- amen- because-they-belong-together. It is all the more believable when the two have to work through issues like still having feelings for an ex-girlfriend or not having feelings for any of the guys you had sex before. Or how Hanna sees the world in a confusion of colours and Wyatt tends to see it in black and white.
There are so many threads intertwined in the novel: deception, greed, power, sadness, death, acceptance, what is like to be biracial, what is like to be compassionate when you need to be ruthless, what is like to be young and have new ideas in the face of Tradition, what is like to love a mother who does not love you back. And it makes for a memorable, unique, fascinating, unapologetic, profoundly moving story.
Be aware though that this not a wholesome story. It is dark, gory, sensual, and violent. There are no definite, clear cut, simple answers. And it is certainly not for the squeamish ones: mental illness, teenage sex, a suicide attempt are present as well as moral ambiguity and not a few violent scenes.
I think it is testament to this writer’s ability (and perhaps fondness for her characters) that in spite of all the aforementioned violence and darkness, Bleeding Violent ends on a definite, unmistakable and believable high note. And as of now, this book has a secure spot on my top reads of 2010.(less)
This probably sounds extremely clichéd, but reading a Frances Hardinge book is like entering a whole new world. Take Gullstruck Island for...moreAna’s Take:
This probably sounds extremely clichéd, but reading a Frances Hardinge book is like entering a whole new world. Take Gullstruck Island for example: where consuming a certain type of fish allows one a glimpse of the future; where a beetle song is deadly; and where different peoples fight for survival, as the places for the honoured dead expand at the expense of the places for the living. On one small corner of the island, the Lace – who smile all the time with their adorned teeth and whose names imitate the sounds of nature so that they don’t draw attention from the volatile, living volcanoes that pepper the island – struggle against poverty and overwhelming prejudice.
Their only hope is their Lost, Arilou, who might one day become the most important person on the island and bring riches to the Lace. Born only occasionally and respected for their abilities, the Lost are a different people on their own. Able to send their senses away from their bodies and wander around, they function as the island’s main form of communication across towns and as a sort of sage figure, their important political role unspoken rather than openly asserted.
Arilou is a different Lost though – someone whose mind wanders and rarely comes back. She can’t communicate and that is the best kept secret amongst the Lace, a secret shared and understood without being spoken out loud. Enter Hathin: Arilou’s unassuming sister, born especially to take care of Arilou, to be there for her at all times and to speak on her behalf. It is on her young shoulders that the fate of the Lace truly lies and she lives with this truth every single day of her life.
But then…the Lost start to die mysteriously. All of them are gone except for Arilou and so a history of mistrust and prejudice leads to the Lace being found guilty. Arilou and Hathin must run for their lives but how can the duo survive when one of them can hardly function on her own, on an island where everybody hates them and with an assassin on their track?
And this barely scratches the surface of Gullstruck Island.
Adventurous, wildly imaginative, engaging, thought-provoking, often heartbreaking, always inspiring, Gullstruck Island soars powerfully and beautifully. I feel like a broken record but Frances Hardinge’s imagination is otherworldly and awe-inspiring. It frustrates me a little bit that I do not have the equivalent talent (LOL, how could I) in order to express how good her books are, how awesome Gullstruck Island is. I always feel when I am writing a review of one of her books that I am woefully boring and incapable to convey the sheers brilliance of her stories. I tend to dwell on certain aspects like her powerful social commentary or her heroines’ incredible story arcs and then miss things like…say, the Reckoning in Gullstruck Island. They are group of Lace warriors who abjured their older lives so that they can avenge the death of those they loved and whose deadly weapons are anything they can get a hold of. And then there is the whole thing about the difference between revenge and justice and how different people choose different ways and it is awesome.
The best thing is how Gullstruck Island (the place) is a completely different, original setting in which familiar themes of friendship, sisterhood, coming of age, overcoming prejudice and finding one’s place in the world are explored without a shadow of clichéd writing or oversimplification.
A theme that runs through Gullstruck Island is the insidious nature of prejudice which sometimes is not even OVERT and can even be disguised as friendly. Take this quote for example:
It was a joke, but centuries of distrust and fear lay behind it.
Soon somebody would say something that was sharper and harder, but it would still be a joke. And then there would be a remark like a punch in the gut, but made as a joke. And then they would detain her if she tried to leave, and nobody woujld stop them because it was all only a joke…
Look at me, I am going on and on about things and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the characters are all incredibly well done and I loved them and I hated them and I feared for them and I rooted for them. But most especially, Hathin is such an amazingly drawn, complex protagonist and her arc is inspiring (how many times have I used this word in this review?) and her actions are stirring and affecting. From her complicated relationship with her sister to the way she feels about her place in the world, it is impossible not to empathise with this character. And world, why can’t we have female protagonists like these all the time?
I seriously believe that there is nothing quite like Frances Hardinge’s books out there at the moment – in any shape or form (or genre and age group).
Dear Frances Hardinge: you have ruined me for other books this year and I love you for it.
And I will just finish with my favourite quote from the book:
“I am anything I wish to be. The world cannot choose for me. No, it is for me to choose what the world shall be.”
Yes, yes, yes. Everything that Ana said. I have jumped on the Frances Hardinge bandwagon and have no plans of jumping off. Gullstruck Island is a beautiful, wildly imaginative book that is unlike most anything else out on the market today. Heck, I can’t think of any author in the YA or even adult space that possesses the same imaginative scope as Frances Hardinge.
In Gullstruck Island, we are introduced to an island-society, stratified by different groups of people – varied in their beliefs, in terms of their tribal representations, appearance, and history. Our heroine, Hathin, is one of the Lace – a group of peoples on Gullstruck, marginalized because of their air of perceived secrecy and duplicity, a prejudice that dates back to a time when the always-smiling Lace secretly killed and sacrificed humans to placate the volcanoes on the island. Since that horrific discovery generations earlier, the Lace have been ostracized and demonized by all other tribes on the island, from the Bitter-Fruit clan to the Sours. The one silver lining that the Lace have is Arilou – the Lost are rare on Gullstruck, but there has never been a Lost Lace before, so the respect and power that comes with having a Lady Lost is a huge boon to Arilou’s particular tribe (the Hollow Beasts).
There’s only one problem: Arilou, for all her beauty and seeming appearance of a Lady Lost, has never shown a sign that she is anything more than a mentally handicapped girl. This is the Hollow Beasts’ greatest secret, and all falls on the shoulders of young Hathin, Arilou’s sister and “interpreter” who, over the years, has cultivated a commanding voice for Arilou all the while making herself invisible and insignificant to any inquiring outsiders. When a pair of inspectors come to test Arilou and ensure she is, in fact, one of the Lost, things look bad for Hathin and her tribe. When one of the inspectors dies suddenly, and the other goes missing, marooned on the open ocean, things look even worse.
Someone is blaming their deaths on the Hathin’s people, and single-handedly leading an already Lace-prejudiced populace into an angry mob that seeks to wipe Hathin’s tribe from Gullstruck. It is up to Hathin to save Arilou, to avenge her tribe, and save the Lace from annihilation.
I cannot express how complex this book is, and how carefully and completely Frances Hardinge creates the world of Gullstruck and all its various peoples. The central themes of discrimination, fear, and unwarranted prejudice, stirred by heated to a frenzy by some very nasty individuals is not an unfamiliar one – finding an ethnic group or people of a different belief system to blame for misfortune is, unfortunately, a prevalent theme in human nature. In Gullstruck Island, Hardinge examines these ugly human sentiments with careful attentiveness and draws these historical parallels without ever seeming heavy-handed or didactic. This is the stuff of great writing, folks – and Hardinge handles these very important topics with all the grace and import they deserve.
But beyond the social strata and commentary, Hardinge also manages to simply create a world that is amazingly, breathtakingly full. It’s hard to believe that Gullstruck Island is not a real place, with real people! We learn the different languages that these people speak (“Nundesrruth” short for “not under this roof” is a pidgin dialect, versus “Doorsy” which is the formal spoken and written language on the island). More than that, we see their different customs and beliefs, from the Lace’s affinity for smiling and drilling precious jewels in their teeth and creating long strands of shell jewelry, to the Ash people’s hunger for human ash to create and dye their skins and their goods. There are familiar elements from many different cultures and civilizations, but Hardinge makes these inhabitants completely her own.
And the characters! And the plot twists! What more can I say that Ana hasn’t already said? I loved Hathin with the force of a thousand supernovas. I loved her dedication to her sister Arilou, her feelings of pain and fear and ineptitude when her tribe is massacred, her desire to seek revenge and join the Reckoning. I loved Arilou, too, and the twists that come with her character in particular. There are villains and friends aplenty in Gullstruck Island, all believable and formidable enough, given texture and distinction with Hardinge’s clever prose.
If I had one complaint about this book – which isn’t so much a complaint as a note – it is that Gullstruck Island is unnecessarily long. This is something that I’ve noticed with Hardinge’s other books, and I think a detriment to her work. This title, as with A Face Like Glass are very long, very dense creatures that require days of reading time – and I’m an adult, that can read pretty quickly! Gullstruck Island is not the same type of quick, compulsive read that a Harry Potter or Twilight novel is – and I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I do think this is a reason why Frances Hardinge is not a household name. A middle grade level reader or YA reader, the target reader to which Hardinge’s books are aimed, likely does not have hours and hours of reading time. Gullstruck Island is a wonderful, complex novel as it is, but it probably could stand some careful pruning – which would not only help the story move along in a more direct fashion, but could also help its marketability to new audiences.
That said, I loved this book just way it is, and Gullstruck Island is absolutely one of my notable reads of 2012 (it would’ve made my top 10, had it been published in 2012!). Wholeheartedly, unabashedly recommended. (less)
Following the dramatic conclusion of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark return home as victors to District 12 after...moreFull Review Link
Following the dramatic conclusion of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark return home as victors to District 12 after besting the Capitol and surviving the annual Games – together. But Katniss’s symbolic act of defiance in the Arena has dramatic, unforseen consequences as she has incurred the wrath of those in power, earning her a visit from President Snow himself. Katniss never could have expected that her small challenge with a handful of berries could have had such a dramatic effect, but she learns from an irate President Snow that other districts are taking her lead as rebellion stirs in Panem. And unless Katniss can convince the nation that her trick in the Arena was the desperate act of a lovesick girl, as opposed to defiance to adhere to the Game’s rules, everyone Katniss holds dear will suffer and die. But try as Katniss might to keep her friends and loved ones safe, things are changing in District 12 and through the rest of Panem. When she and Peeta embark on their victory tour, Katniss begins to see how she has influenced the different districts as her trademark mockingjay pin becomes the symbol of the resistance – and there is nothing that she and Peeta can do to stem the tide of unrest. With the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Hunger Games looming and revolution sweeping across the districts, the Capitol is hungry for blood and vengeance, with Katniss caught in the middle of the tempest.
The overwhelmingly well-received The Hunger Games was a gritty thrill ride of a novel, and its unresolved ending left fans salivating for the sequel, anxiously awaiting what Ms. Collins had in store for Katniss. And, it is safe to say that Catching Fire delivers. Packing in all the nail-biting action from the first book, Ms. Collins finally separates herself from the long shadow of Koshun Takami and Stephen King as she ventures beyond the contained realm of the Arena, creating a story of larger scale with the simmering of political rebellion and questioning of the Capitol’s control. In Catching Fire, we see the ramifications of Katniss and Peeta beating the system, emerging from the Arena physically intact, but their actions have been a catalyst to a very dissatisfied, disenfranchised public. It’s in the reactions of the different districts, in Katniss’s reflection on her own actions that drive Catching Fire and take it beyond the mere action, noise and thunder of the first book. While the aspects of government and the dystopian world were touched on in The Hunger Games, Catching Fire takes this world of Panem and examines it much more in depth. We see more of the different districts through Katniss’s eyes as she travels on her victory tour with Peeta and Haymitch, and we see how these areas react to Katniss’s actions and her words. Katniss’s act of defiance affects even the Capitol, as some of the city-folk adopt her mockingjay as a fashion statement, and even begin to sympathize with the young heroine.
While the worldbuilding is fantastic, the plotting is similarly impeccable. The Hunger Games owed a lot of its success to its impressive pacing and action-packed plot, and readers will not be disappointed to find that Catching Fire lives up to all the fireworks of the first book while it simultaneously manages to improve on more well-rounded underlying themes (i.e. the effects of a rigid totalitarian style of rule, the ethics of rebellion). The stakes are upped in this sequel, and as a result the action holds much more significance. There are many twists in Catching Fire, and it would be remiss to spoil them – so I won’t. Suffice to say, the plot twists are delectable, even if they’re not entirely surprising. Ms. Collins writes with a flair for hard and fast SF action, but manages to imbue deeper meaning in each scene primarily through her understanding of not only the political and world-building repercussions, but also through her completely sympathetic characters.
In that light, the true strength of Catching Fire lies in its heroine. Katniss is strong, rebellious, but confused and uncertain all at once – and she’s undoubtably the star of this novel with her frank narrative voice. She’s not really sure what she wants, but she knows she will do anything to continue to survive and endure, and keep those she loves safe. A teen that has been forced through a traumatic, life-changing ordeal, she returns to District 12 only to find that her world has changed (or, rather, that her perception of her world has changed). Her emotions are guarded especially when it comes to her family and the two boys in her life – Peeta, who loves Katniss unconditionally and indeed tries to sacrifice his own life for her and her happiness, and Gale, Katniss’s longtime friend. When Katniss is threatened by President Snow, told that her family and friends will be held accountable for her actions, she finds herself torn between obligation and her own emotional turmoil. In Catching Fire the triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale becomes much more distinct, as Katniss neither wants a boyfriend nor a husband, but finds her hand forced to action in order to protect both Peeta and Gale from the Capitol’s ruthlessness. Readers will undoubtably find themselves taking sides – and for me, as an emotional reader, this is a no-brainer. Gale (who I might note was barely present at all in the first book) seems like a nice guy and he is undeniably in Katniss’s thoughts in Catching Fire, but it’s really always gonna be Peeta for me. Peeta’s devotion to Katniss, his ability to understand her feelings and to respect her choices, his resolve to do anything (and I really do mean anything, as you’ll read in Catching Fire) to keep her safe and whole is endearing beyond belief (Of course, Gale will doubtless secure his own legion of fans…but it’s really all about Peeta). In a young adult literary landscape that is often melodramatic in its romantic entanglements, Catching Fire manages to pull off compelling and believable melodrama because the stakes are already so high. Other characters from The Hunger Games make big appearances here, especially Haymitch, the drunken mentor from the first book – and easily one of my favorite characters behind Katniss. Ms. Collins manages to flesh out not only her main duo of protagonists, but gives supporting cast like Haymitch, Cinna, and Effie the fully dimensioned treatment – and throws in some great surprises in each character’s arc along the way. New characters from other districts also are introduced, whom we will doubtless see much more of in the third and final novel.
In all, Catching Fire is a heart-pounding, thrilling read that manages to pass its predecessor in terms of its depth of themes, its increased worldbuilding scope, and its strong characters. I absolutely loved it – and this is easily one of my favorite reads of 2009. The only drawback? Having to wait another year for the final volume of this stunning series, as Catching Fire ends on a nasty cliffhanger.
Verdict: Catching Fire not only lives up to the hype of The Hunger Games – it manages to surpass expectations. This is a series that will be embraced by young and old readers alike, and will have fans on tenterhooks waiting for the final volume in the trilogy. Highly recommended.
Rating: 8 Excellent
Reading Next: The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan(less)
Thea: The first impression I had when I started In the Night Garden was of Scheherezade and Arabian Nights – of slee...moreFull Review Link
Thea: The first impression I had when I started In the Night Garden was of Scheherezade and Arabian Nights – of sleepless nights filled with endless tales of heroic quests, monsters, and magic. This novel is Ms. Valente’s version of the 1001 nights, and it is a spectacular undertaking of a novel, weaving story within story within story a hundred times over. The prose is lush, the illustrations beautiful, storytelling completely enchanting – as with the Sultan to his Scheherezade, or the young boy prince to the strange orphan with her black rimmed eyes, I found myself enthralled by these strange, gorgeous tales.
Ana:Welcome to a rare event here at The Book Smugglers: we present you Bad Smuggler/Good Smuggler, featuring Ana, as The Bad Smuggler.
When I first started reading In The Night Garden, I was completely enamoured with it and I couldn’t agree more with Thea’s assessment above. The fascination lasted for about 200 pages or so and then, all of a sudden, it was no more. This book, in principle, should have been catapulted to my list of all time favourites and yet, it hasn’t. To say that I am totally befuddled with myself is to put it very mildly.
On the Plot:
Thea: It’s hard to talk about a traditional plot with In the Night Garden – on the outermost layer, it’s the story of a young, handsome princeling who discovers a mysterious girl in the gardens surrounding the sultan’s castle. Though of a noble family, the girl was born with a birthmark, surrounding both eyes with dark, inky black circles so she was cast out of the palace as a demon. The young boy, however, sees the orphaned girl and talks to her, and she tells him a story unlike any he’s ever heard before. The girl tells the prince two full stories, separated into two books in In the Night Garden, The Book of the Steppe, and The Book of the Sea, though the second story loops around and overlaps with the first. The Steppe begins with a simple tale of a crown prince who itches for adventure and discovers a flock of geese surrounding a witch’s cottage at the edge of the woods. When he kills one of the geese and it turns into a young woman, however, the Prince’s story grows stranger and stranger, as he learns the truth of the witch and her daughter-goose, an old war, wondrous monsters with noble hearts and ferocious faces, evil wizards, and the magic of stars. As the girl tells the prince her tale, she leaves off each night with a Scheherezadian cliffhanger, promising to tell him the rest when the two next meet. The prince finds himself enthralled by the girl’s powerful words, and continues to seek her out night after night, begging her to tell him another story after she’s finished with the first.
What can I say about these stories? They are breathtaking. They are eerie and haunting and lovely and terrible and beautiful all at once. There is no doubt that Ms. Valente has a gift for storytelling to rival her orphan girl, seamlessly weaving mythological tales from different cultures into a stunning tapestry. Each story blends into the next, separated by episodic chapter headings according to narrator (”The Wolf’s Tale,” “The Pale Girl’s Tale,” “The Discourse of the Marsh King”), and offering lovely illustrations (by comic book artist Michael Wm. Kaluta below*).
The only drawback to the novel is that because there are so many characters and stories separated into different chapters, it can be a bit confusing to keep track of exactly whose story you’re reading – especially if you have to put the book down for a bit and then try to re-engage. In the Night Garden is a sprawling, circular novel with only a glimmer of a thread of linear storyline – of the orphan, the princeling and his angry sister – connecting the disparate tales. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s unique, it’s different, and I loved it.
Ana: I simply cannot fault this book with regards to storytelling, writing or presentation. It is a tour de force and I was completely awed by each story, by the amazing events and the sheer scope of ideas and stories presented. The author NOT ONLY spins tale after tale with a wonderful variety (from sad stories to happy stories, from fantasy to politics, from mythology to religion) but she also makes them unique with very original twists to well-known tropes. She makes fun of the Hero’s Quest, she has princesses looking like monsters and being hailed for it, she has the Girl saving the Guy and so and so forth until one’s mind is spinning along with the stories themselves. This is a highly polished book that defies convention not only in format but also in content. It doesn’t go from A to B in a straight line (plot-wise or character-wise) and to expect it to read like that is a sure way to invite disappointment.
From a strictly intellectual point of view, the book is pretty amazing. For all intents and purposes, I should have loved the book. The IDEA of the book itself is mind-blowing in its creativity and the author’s mastery of storytelling is akin to people like Neil Gaiman and this is a comparison that I do not take lightly.
HOWEVER. Not all stories are interesting. I found myself bored with a few, and after a while when a new story began and I hadn’t seen the end of the previous one, I started to moan to myself “OMG, not another one”. But my main problem , if I can call it that, was that if I apply my sorry attempt of a reviewing process to it, I realise that the most important piece, at least for me, is missing. It goes something like this:
Is this is well written book? Hell yes.
Is it believable (you know, in the confines of the genre and the story, not that I believe that there ARE griffins and monopods for reals)? Yes, Quite
Do I care? Hummm…Yes?
How much do I care? Not much.
And that is all there is to it. I lacked an emotional connection with the characters because there were so many and they came and they went. This goes back to what I said about convention and I find myself one that is disappointed; but above all, would you believe it, I am disappointed in ME, because I wanted to really love this book and I didn’t, despite how much I like the premise and how much I enjoyed the beginning . Instead I rushed through the final 200 pages, I even committed the Sin of Skimming. And I feel like I am losing something by even admitting to it. Colour me surprised by my own reaction. This is clearly a case, of “It’s not the book , it is me”.
*Art pictured is not from In the Night Garden, but is Orphan’s Tales inspired art from Mr. Kaluta. For more images of his gorgeous art, look online HERE.
On the characters:
Thea: This is where things get even more tricky – there are SO MANY characters in this novel, one for each chapter, who flicker into and out of the book briefly. There is no real traditional “hero” or “heroine,” (arguably the main characters would be the orphan girl and the prince) but there are many, many memorable characters whose stories – no matter how brief – touched me. The Witch woman in the first story, “The Tale of the Prince and the Goose,” and her wise Grandmother and her poor, war-defeated people; the heron-headed Marsh King and his sole courtier, the Lucrotta named “Beast”; the terrible, stinking Wizard who yearns for the power of the stars; the lone sad pumpkin tree and her garden, with her friend the firebird; three cynocephaloi, dog-headed brothers; the brave and strong Sigrid weaving her nets; the tragic Eyvind, a man who was a bear. I think my favorite character, however, existed outside of the orphan’s tales, in the form of the prince’s eldest sister, Dinarzad. She punishes her younger brother for sneaking out of the palace, and for his dalliance with the demon who could curse their home – and even though both characters are two insignificant heirs as the Sultan has many, many children, Dinarzad is the one who insists on propriety, who “would have been sultan” were she not born a woman. Over the course of the book, outside of the orphan’s stories, we learn tantalizing bits about Dinarzad and why she is so harsh to a younger brother who wants to rebel.
Ana: When I finished the book I emailed Thea and I told her I was SO conflicted about it and mostly because of lack of a character arc to get me going and she replied talking about the characters above. She is right, on all accounts – all of these stories and characters ARE interesting, I can SEE that. But somehow, they were all passing, fleeting connections.
I really wanted to read more about the girl, the prince and Dinazard and I was completely frustrated to find out in the end that I would have to read yet another book with another handful of stories like these to finally be able to see how it all ends. I am completely aware of the fact that I am reading this with not quite the right frame of mind, that I am missing the point, that this book is the sort of the book where the journey matters more than the final destination.
I think that the greatest thing that came out of reading In The Night Garden though, was what I found out about me, as a reader. I constantly say that character trumps plot but that story trumps all and I found that this sometimes, is simply not true. Maybe to me, character trumps all, even story. Maybe, I am more conventional than I thought I was.
And I realised that this ended up being a review of my own reading the book than of the book itself – isn’t that great though? When a book sparks this sort of reaction?
Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:
Thea: I can understand why some might find this sort of labyrinthine story with its many characters, flashing bright only to vanish completely like fallen stars themselves, might not appeal to some readers. But I? I loved it. It may have been a taxing experience to read this novel, and it required me to focus and challenge myself to keep track of the story at hand, to read large chunks of the book at a time lest I break the spell that held me in the Ms. Valente’s thrall…but I still loved it. This is not a book you pick up casually to read in starts and stops, nor is it a traditional novel in the sense of the word. But what it is, is a beautiful, imaginative, haunting work of fiction that resonates with all its wonder and eeriness. I loved it.
Ana: I don’t think this is a book for everybody – but then again, which book is? It requires attention, and time from the reader and some, as positive reviews all over the place and Thea’s own reaction attest to it, will be rewarded with the sheer magnitude of Catherynne M. Valente’s imagination. I am so sad that I am not one of them. I feel like a kid standing outside a Christmas’ shop staring to the marvellous things inside without being able to enjoy them. Mind you, it’s not that I didn’t like it – I just didn’t love it either.
Ana: I haven’t got a clue how to rate this. It is a GREAT book but not for me
Twelve-year-old Frankie Parsons is an extremely gifted artist, with a love for birds and languages. He is also a persistent worrier and a hypochondriac, someone with an internal “rodent voice” which constantly nags and niggles about a variety of problems: from groceries that need to be bought, lack of money for the school bus in the piggy-bank to the smoke-alarm batteries that need to be replaced and the spreading rash on his chest which looks like it could be cancer. It feels like no one in his family understands his anxiety expect for his Ma who, every night at 10PM, answers one of his all-consuming questions and chases away his fears – at least for the night. More than anything else in the world, Frankie wishes he could be like his worry-free best friend Gigs and not a creature of habit that has to rely on a well-organised, comforting routine to get through the day.
When a new girl named Sydney arrives at his school this well-guarded routine is shaken by her straightforward, brash, effusive personality. He can’t help but to become friends with Sydney even as he is overcome with the anxiety that comes from the certainty that she will eventually ask the one question that he can’t bring himself to ask and no one in his family will address: why hasn’t Ma left the house in 9 years?
I’ve had The 10PM Question on my radar for a while now but it wasn’t until Things Mean a Lot’s Ana started raving about it that I was compelled to read it. 1 And once again, she was completely right: The 10Pm Question is a wonderful book and I was left speechless by its prose, its insightful story, its plethora of fascinating characters. I am not exaggerating: it took me 5 hours to write these 327 words and I haven’t even started to examine the book yet. And this book deserves to be examined and dissected and I hope to be able to do this in a much less clinical way than it sounded just now.
The 10PM Question is that sort of book that deals with truly momentous events in a quiet, subdued way. It follows its main character as he navigates the stormy waters of his own anxiety and it does so with a lot of compassion, humour and subtlety: it is hard not to feel sympathy for Frankie and his plight and his frustration.
The most fascinating thing for me is how The 10PM Question is a book about mental illness that manages to deal with such a charged, complicated topic with tactfulness and without being direct or overt. It is really mind-blowing how well the author approaches the subject, how softly it creeps up into the writing until it becomes a veritable elephant in the room. But the clever thing is: this mirrors exactly what goes on in Frankie’s life as no one – not his father, not his brother, not his sisters, not his aunties nor his friends – will face or admit the problem with Ma. In a way it makes sense: all of the other characters have reached a point where they have dealt with the problem in their own way whereas Frankie is the youngest, and is approaching the age where he has to question his own environment. It takes a lot of courage and I can’t begin to express how much I loved Frankie, hoped for the best and admired the author for not shying away from an ending that didn’t solve all problems magically but still taking the characters in the right direction.
With regards to the other characters, there is a plethora of quirky, fun, fully fleshed-out secondary characters. Frankie’s family is the epitome of a dysfunctional family with extremely quirky characters but the author avoids the trap of stereotyping by writing every single relationship in depth and with a lot of heart. How can a book be so quirky, funny and silly even as it deals with such emotional topics?
Like for example, this visit to the public swimming pool:
"And last Saturday when they’d been there he’d had his annual unsavory collision with a Band-Aid. There was nothing more revolting in Frankie’s view than freestyling your way, innocent and blissful, into the path of a used Band-Aid. In Frankie’s private hierarchy of squeamish experiences, the casual caress of a stained Band-Aid was right up there with accidentally catching sight of writhing maggots in a forgotten rubbish bag. He’d had to get out of the pool immediately and lie on his towel in the sun to recover."
Furthermore: the story is interspersed with interesting breaks between the present and the recent past and it alternates brilliantly between them. The quality of the writing alone was enough to endear the book to me as soon as I started reading it – it is beautiful and nuanced, poetic even, but without slipping into Dreaded Purple Prose.
But beyond prose, story and characters, The 10PM Question is a thought-provoking book. Not only in terms of its own themes as aforementioned but also in terms of how it fits within literature in general; and with my own reading and what I expect from books in particular. It has been an interesting few months for me when it comes to reading and reviewing. I have realised that I expect a lot from books, that beyond simply providing a good story, I expect books at the very least not to be problematic in their portrayal of Potentially Explosive Subjects (sexism, racism, homophobia, just to name a few). In this novel there are two of those P.E.S.: the way Frankie thinks that there is a divide between boys and girls (there are things that are too “girlie” and things that girls cannot do); and how he feels about Sydney’s mother (who might a sex worker), which comes dangerously close to slut-shaming.
Before proceeding any further: as I have said many times before, I don’t expect characters to be perfect or perfect examples of perfect humanity. But there is a MARKED difference between 1) a character behaving/thinking one way and that behaviour being supported/endorsed by the text itself; 2) and a character behaving/thinking one way but the text challenging their views either directly or subtly. For example: a character can be racist or sexist or homophobic without the text being any of those things as long as it is challenged or at the very least acknowledged somewhere in the story. More to the point: even though Frankie thinks those things, the text does not support it. It is, very clearly, his own particular vision of the world and not the truth of the story. There is a really important difference there – at least for me. In this book, Sydney and other female characters present a different perspective in which the divide between boy-things and girl-things is a cultural, artificial construct; and with regards to how he views Sydney’s mother, the feeling comes from his own anger and frustration. Other characters view the mother in a different light and she is portrayed in a very sympathetic way.
This, as I have learnt, is a very difficult thing to pull off especially how the author does it here: without a shadow of didacticism. The 10Pm Question is a prime example of how a book can address those things in an awesome way. Going back to not only The Other Ana’s review but also her series of fascinating follow-up posts at Lady Business about this very subject, I find myself in complete agreement with her thoughts:
"I’m in awe of the way de Goldi prevented the thoughts of her close third person protagonist from becoming the only voice that is heard within the story, and try as I might I’m not sure if I can exactly point out how she did it. The 10PM Question is actually a novel that goes beyond my current working theory, because it’s not that slut-shaming and the complex circumstances sex workers find themselves in are exactly central to the story. Yet de Goldi manages to introduce enough plurality into the universe of the novel that Frankie’s anger is shown for what it is and Sydney’s mother is ultimately humanised."
The 10Pm Question is, just like its main characters, a Rara Avis: an unusual, uncommon, exceptional, unique, perfect book. (less)
I am overcome with Imperious Feelings demanding that I find the Right Words to write this review. Fly By N...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
I am overcome with Imperious Feelings demanding that I find the Right Words to write this review. Fly By Night is Absurdly Brilliant. This is not an overstatement.
How else could I possibly qualify a book that features a main character named Mosca1 Mye whose love for words is both impetus and trademark? Whose love for words is the driving force toward a life of High Adventure in the company of a smooth-talking charlatan named Eponymous Clent and a murderous pet Goose named Saracen? Whose journey takes her through completely unpredictable twists and turns in a political game where no one knows who is ally or foe?
If not brilliant, what other word could I possibly use to describe a book that is defined by original, unusual worldbuilding as well as Impressive Intellectual Sharpness?
With regards to the former: Fly By Night is set in an alternate 18th Century (but not quite) where years ago, after getting rid of its monarchy, the Fractured Realm plunged into a gruesome Civil War when Birdcatchers – a radical religious movement – came to power. Ten years after all Birdcatchers have been killed (or have they?), the Realm is ran by different Guilds of Tradesmen. The Guilds’ power have been growing exponentially, especially that of the Stationers Guild (who control all printing materials, anything without their seal is deemed illegal) ; the Locksmiths Guild (who have the keys to every door) ; and the Watermen Guild (who control all movement along the river). The power balance is precariously held together by a truce between all Guilds and even one small wrong move could start a whole new war. Mosca and Clent (and Saracen) find themselves in the middle of this complex game of power which is complicated by a Duke who is slowly going mad and whose sister has Ideas of Her Own. Not to mention the emergence of an illegal printing press that has been spreading Illegal Radical Words all over the Realm.
The latter comes from the fact that this is a book with a main character who loves words in a world that fears them. Being a book about words – their importance, their potential, their beauty – one of the most brilliant things about it is how the author brandishes her words like Weapons of Mass Construction.
From the Thought Provoking:
Brand a man as a thief and no one will ever hire him for honest labor – he will be a hardened robber within weeks. The brand does not reveal a person’s nature, it shapes it.
Via the Utterly Hilarious:
(…)Mosca and Saracen shared, if not a friendship, at least the solidarity of the generally despised.
All the way to the Extremely Acute:
‘Where is your sense of patriotism?’
‘I kept it hid away safe, along with my sense of trust, Mr Clent. I don’t use ‘em much in case they get scratched.’
And the Plain Beautiful:
‘But in the name of the most holy, Mosca, of all the people you could have taken up with, why Eponymous Clent?’
Because I’d been hoarding words for years, buying them from peddlers and carving them secretly on to bits of bark so I wouldn’t forget them, and then he turned up using words like ‘epiphany’ and ‘amaranth’. Because I heard him talking in the marketplace, laying out sentences like a merchant rolling out rich silks. Because he made words and ideas dance like flames and something that was damp and dying came alive in my mind, the way it hadn’t since they burned my father’s books. Because he walked into Chough with stories from exciting places tangled around him like maypole streamers…
‘He’s got a way with words.’
Fly By Night is a book that provokes, incites and invites the reader to participate in a wordily love-fest. Granted that at times, this comes across as slightly heavy-handed especially towards the ending but this was simply not enough to make any damage to the immense love I feel for this book.
But that is not all! For Fly By Night is also Coming of Age of the Highest Quality. Mosca’s journey is superbly executed by exploring her loneliness, her perceived uniqueness (which is not true at all, given the truths that she unveils) as well as the connections she forms with other people (especially the Cakes. How could I not love the Cakes?). Her arc has moments of Utter Despair, Sad Mistakes as well as Great Bravery.
Most of all, I loved the development of the relationship with Clent and I loved the bond they formed over a shared loved for words (for better or worse). Take this incredible moment where they have a fight:
Mosca’s opening offer was a number of cant words she had heard peddlers use, words for the drool hanging from a dog’s jaw, words for the greenish sheen on a mouldering strip of bacon. Eponymous Clent responded with some choice descriptions of ungrateful and treacherous women culled from ballad and classic myth. Mosca countered with some from her secret hoard of hidden words, the terms used by smugglers for tell-alls, and soldiers’ words for the worst kind of keyhole-stooping spy. Clent answered with crushing and high-sounding examples from the best essays on the natural depravity of unguided youth.
Isn’t this Staggering Good Writing?
I had a lot of fun reading Fly By Night and as you can probably see, a lot of fun writing this review too. I freaking love when that happens, those are the best kind of books. Fly By Night is a Totally Awesome Book and I already got the sequel because one is not enough for me: just like Mosca, I too, want more story. (less)
Moirin mac Fainche is of the royal bloodline of Alais de la Courcel, but lives in the wild woods of Alba as one of the few remaining M...moreFull Review Link
Moirin mac Fainche is of the royal bloodline of Alais de la Courcel, but lives in the wild woods of Alba as one of the few remaining Maghuin Dhonn, inheriting her knowledge and small gifts of magic from her mother. Moirin’s father, however, is a D’Angeline priest, descended from the godly lines of Anael and Naamah herself. And so, Moirin is a child of two worlds, touched by two sets of Gods, each with important purposes for her. When she becomes old enough to be tested by the Maghuin Dhonn, the great mother bear reveals herself to Moirin, but shows her that Moirin’s destiny lies not in Alba with her people, but across the Straits to the land of her father, and beyond to lands further than she ever could have imagined.
Moirin leaves the open woods and is welcomed with open arms into Terre D’Ange. In a twist of fate, Moirin finds herself in the home of Raphael de Mereliot – charming courtier, lover of the Queen of Terre D’Ange, and magic-dabbling physician. Soon, Moirin – welcomed as an exotic distraction – is embroiled in D’Angeline court politics, caught up in the schemes between Raphael’s dreams of power and Queen Jehanne’s mercurial moods.
Following her diadh-anam, the spark of spirit within guided by the Maghuin Dhonn, Moirin travels from Terre D’Ange to the strange and far land of Ch’in with Master Lo Feng and his magpie Bao, to save a young warrior princess under a horrible curse, and to stop impending war.
Naamah’s Kiss is Jacqueline Carey writing in her element – her writing is as luscious, beautiful and captivating as ever. This is fantasy on an epic scale, encompassing magic, romance, heartache, war, and destiny. As a huge fan of the first two trilogies, I have to admit I was a little nervous as Moirin’s tale is set a hundred years after Imriel’s last book. Though there are references to Phedre and Imriel with a few easter eggs sprinkled throughout, I ultimately loved Ms. Carey’s decision to focus this new trilogy on an entirely new character as a fresh start, leaving Phedre and Imriel’s happy endings gloriously preserved.
As a new heroine, Moirin is exquisite. Ms. Carey excels at creating distinct characters; though I feared that Moirin would be too similar to Phedre, she most certainly stands apart as a heroine in her own right. While Phedre is D’Angelline down to the scarlet mote in her eye, polished, sultry and smoothly navigates troubled political waters, Moirin is raw, headstrong, and passionate. Unrefined in the realms of the political (or the realms of Naamah’s arts, for that matter), Moirin relies less on her savvy and more on her heart, believing in her Alban and D’Angeline gods and the spark of her diadh-anam to guide her. While Phedre’s destiny was sealed by a prick in her left eye and Imriel’s by his parentage, Moirin grapples with her fate – she knows not what her purpose is, only that she has a destiny, and she trusts blindly in that knowledge. Also, unlike her D’Angeline successors, Moirin brings a new perspective to the world of Terre D’Ange; through her eyes, readers see the glimmering beauty of the court, but also see its excesses and pettiness (something Phedre would never admit to). There is intrigue and scheming, but Moirin is not an active, maneuvering player in these games. Her gift from Naamah is desire, in her ability to give and to crave this passion, and this leads Moirin true throughout her adventures.
The plot of Naamah’s Kiss is decidedly less reliant on political intrigue than Phedre or Imriel’s adventures, and, reflecting Moirin as a narrator, is more driven by relationships and passion. The story is complex and sprawling, spanning across three vastly different lands – from the serene woods of Alba to the glitter of the D’Angeline court, and finally the mystical yet troubled land of the Ch’in. Alba and Terre D’Ange we already know, but the journey to Ch’in is completely, stunningly new. In Ms. Carey’s alternate China, Ch’in is an exotic new world, with magic and spirits of its own, and it is portrayed lovingly here. An imprisoned dragon, a cursed princess, family betrayal – it is all here in Naamah’s Kiss.
Finally, one cannot write a review for Jacqueline Carey’s books without mentioning her lush, rich prose. Naamah’s Kiss is no exception.
The stone doorway stood behind me.
But beyond it lay the sea. It sparkled in the bright sunlight, waves rippling and churning, stretching all the way to the horizon. Overhead, gulls wheeled in teh blue sky uttering raucous cries.
I looked back.
The Maghuin Dhonn Herself regarded me with infinite compassion. I took a deep breath, my body trembling. I didn’t understand, not really. And yet the spark inside me knew. “I have a very long way to go, don’t I?” I asked softly.
She didn’t answer.
I wiped my eyes. “May I at least keep this memory?”
Her great head dipped in consent.
“Thank you,” I whispered. “I don’t know where it is I’m meant to go or what it is I’m meant to do, but ‘ll try to make You proud.”
Brightness shimmered and the expression on Her face changed. It was a look like my mother’s embrace, hard and fierce. And it said without words that whatever came to pass, I was Hers. Her joy and Her pride, now and always and forever. My heart too ful for words, I nodded in silent acknowledgment. It was a gift of grace I would cary with me always.
She left and did not look back.
I’ve said before that Ms. Carey is one of those writers whose words make me fall in love, break my heart and leave me filled with a sense of wonder and longing – and such is Naamah’s Kiss. Like her gods, Ms. Carey uses her characters hard, but it is worth every ache and pain along the way.
I loved Naamah’s Kiss, and cannot wait to return to Moirin’s story.(less)
But at first, it totally threw me. I started reading it and was all like what i...moreSo, this book.
My last Frances Hardinge (woe).
Kind of blew my mind away.
But at first, it totally threw me. I started reading it and was all like what is this? Because this is the only Hardinge that is not set in a secondary world. It is the only Hardinge set in our own contemporary world. It is the only Hardinge that has a boy protagonist. It is the only Hardinge that is more Horror than Fantasy:
Three friends Ryan, Chelle and Josh find themselves without their bus fare home and daredevil Josh climbs down the local Wishing Well to collect some of its coins to pay for their journey. Then weird things start to happen. Ryan gets warts on his hands – warts that turn out to be eyes that give him second sight. Chelle starts to broadcast other people’s thoughts, uncontrollably babbling out loud what they are thinking. Josh affects the magnetic fields around him giving him power over metal and electronics. In the meantime, Ryan also starts dreaming about a terrifying figure and that’s when it hits them that what they stole were wishes and now the spirit of the well expects them to grant those, aided by their new powers.
At first, things seem easy enough. A guy wants a Harley Davidson, let’s get him one. A girl wants to hook up with the person she is in love with, let’s get them together.
But soon the kids realise that wishes are not as straightforward as that because sure, the guy might wish for a Harley Davidson, but what he really wants is to be cool. And how can they possibly ascertain those different layers? And what happens when someone wishes for something negative to happen to their enemies?
Just then, things get really out of hand when Josh starts to enjoy his powers a bit too much.
Verdigris Deep might sound like the Odd One Out among Hardinge’s bibliography but it’s not really. There is the awesome concept, just like her other books. There is the cleverness of the plot, the creativity of the story and the refusal to pander to children. The love for language shines through and oh my God, how could I not be completely head over heels in love with how language finds new highs in her books:
Some ten yards away, Ryan stood there stupidly holding a carrier bag full of canned sweetcorn while he watched the continents of his world collide and the stars fall out of the sky. Almost involuntarily he started counting through the Fibonacci sequence in his head to keep himself sane. One, two, three, five, eight…Today the numbers failed him. The way they built up only seemed an echo of what was happening before him, where every bitter sentence added to the last to make something bigger and worse.
Although in a way this does feel like more of an internalised story. Her other books deal with characters growing up in the middle of revolutions or in grandiose, extravagant settings and as such, internal and external conflicts develop side by side.
In Verdigris Deep , the story is informed by the three characters and the powers they gain are granted according to their personalities.
Popular, energetic but unloved Josh gets the most flashy of the powers, the one that allows him to ascertain more control over those around him. Both Ryan and Chelle worship Josh to the point of blindness even as he is cruel and unsympathetic.
Chelle is insecure and shy and kind of the outsider in the group, always babbling away even though the others never pay attention to what she says. At one point, Josh cruelly refers to her as the coleslaw of the group – a side dish that you eat up but don’t really care for.
Ryan is the focal character and he is quiet and lonely, never saying what he really wants or means. His narrative starts off as unsympathetic, detached and even a little bit callous when describing the people around him.
The story progresses as the powers they have gained help Ryan developing a great degree of self-awareness. The realisation about the hero-worship behind his relationship with Josh as well as his own capacity for cruelty (after all, doesn’t he also think of Chelle as the coleslaw?) are only part of how the relationships and the characters are deconstructed, pulled apart and then built up again with sympathy and compassion.
In spite of all of the hijinks, the fear and the creepy factor of the novel as the kids get more and more involved with the Spirit of the Well, this is much more of an understated, quiet novel. Because this is a book that is much more about the microcosm than the macro, it doesn’t end in Revolution or Change with capital letters in quite the same way that Hardinge’s other books do. But it is still in many ways, a book about revolution and change just as much because in the end, the kids’ lives have been altered, bettered and they have grown up. It is a very emotional, touching and humane story.
So basically, what I am saying is: Frances Hardinge is right now, my favourite writer. Let her career be a long and prosperous one. (less)
Thea: I’ve read two books by Rachel Neumeier prior to picking up The City and the Lake, and I can attest to her skill as a storyteller, especially in the fantasy arena. But Ms. Neumeier’s excellent The Floating Islands and Lord of the Changing Winds have got NOTHING on The City in the Lake. I have to admit, I’m not crazy about either cover for the book, but my goodness is the story within jaw-droppingly awesome. Not only is The City in the Lake the best book I’ve read from Rachel Neumeier to date, it’s also one of the best fantasy novels (YA or otherwise) that I’ve read in a long time. I loved this book.
Ana: Thea has been raving about Rachel Neumeier’s books for a while now and I was in tenterhooks to finally try one and decided that City in the Lake was a good place to start and OH MY GOD, I was so not prepared for how awesome this book is. Prose, setting, story, characters, everything is top notch and I too loved this book.
On the Plot:
Thea: The Kingdom’s heart is the City. The City’s heart is the King. In the strange city on the lake, old and powerful magic unites the kingdom and keeps it hale and strong. The Bastard, named Neill and the eldest son of the ruling King, has always known that his role in the kingdom is one relegated to the sidelines. In a younger time, the King was seduced by a beautiful and mysterious woman who gave birth to Neill and disappeared from the kingdom. When the King eventually married and his wife, the Queen, bore a healthy, strong son, Neill quickly become known as simply The Bastard. Despite his title, Neill has never been resentful of his younger half-brother Cassiel – like everyone else in the kingdom, The Bastard loves Cassiel. When the prince goes missing one day after a hunt with his friends, Neill is called upon by his angry father and distraught stepmother to find the errant crown heir, but to no avail. Without the heir present, the kingdom is without its heart and begins to suffer – life grinds to a slow halt, animals and even humans are born dead. The curse spreads to the furthest reaches of the kingdom, where a young girl named Timou lives in a small village with her powerful mage father, Kapoen. When Kapoen leaves the village to seek the cause of the stillbirths and does not return, Timou fears the worst, and sets out on the path to the City at the heart of the kingdom to find him. Here, at the City above the Lake, Timou and The Bastard’s destinies collide. A great evil lurks in the City, and Timou and Neill hold the key to the Kingdom’s salvation, but also its undoing…
I absolutely adored The City in the Lake for so many reasons, from its wonderful worldbuilding to its sweeping prose. From a storytelling perspective, The City in the Lake is a dark and lushly evocative fairy tale of a novel, with a greedy sorceress, ancient magic, and powerful creatures that are neither good nor evil but rather part of the overall balance of forces that comprise this strange and wondrous kingdom. There are many different levels to the plot, as the story alternates between three characters – Lord Bastard, Timou, and Jonas – and each of these characters plays a pivotal role in the ultimate conclusion of the novel. In the City, Neill struggles with the distrust that springs up around him (as many accuse him of attempting to steal the throne for himself and suspect him of orchestrating his brother’s disappearance). On her father’s trail, Timou must find her own strength and travel through an oppressive, haunted wood to find her heart’s true desire. And following Timou, a haunted young man named Jonas struggles with the nightmares that plague him, and must decide whether or not to go after his unrequited love. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but on every level of the narrative, The City in the Lake works beautifully.
On the negative side, the kingdom and its many different dimensions may be a little confusing for newer readers of fantasy, and perhaps some readers will be turned off by the metaphysical aspects of this book (particularly by the book’s climactic scenes). But not me. I loved The City in the Lake in all its luminous abstractness. Plus, with writing this poetic, lush and evocative, I can hardly complain. Rachel Neumeier’s writing in this book is reminiscent of Juliet Marillier and Patricia McKillip – two fantasy authors whom I love and hold in the highest regard.
Ana: I have to agree with everything that Thea says. The City in the Lake is a wonderful, original fairytale in terms of story whilst having a distinct traditional feel with regards to its prose. Plot-wise, it follows three distinct characters, each on their own journeys and all of them are beautifully executed to the point where I can’t tell which was my favourite but perhaps that point is moot since the three storylines converge in the end. What is the most striking aspect of the novel is how it effectively combines those parallel, personal narratives with the overarching story of a Kingdom that has existed for a long, long time and in different dimensions as well (sort of). Not only that, but the story has elements of Quest, of Vengeance, of Romance, of Adventure and with different aspects of Magic and History and it never, ever feels like it is too much because it is all so beautiful and truly magical. It might sound as though I am committing the unforgivable sin of being too cheesy but really, the story is beautiful even when it is sad and dark.
On the Characters:
Thea: As with the storytelling and plot, the characters in The City in the Lake also shine, from the three protagonists, to the solid cast of secondary characters. When Ana and I started reading this book, there were flurries of emails back and forth about how much we loved The Bastard, Timou and Jonas, and this unabashed love for the characters sustained until the end of the book. Each of these protagonists have their own depths, backstories and formative experiences, although some of them overlap. I loved the absentee mother theme that connects both Neill and Timou, as well as the strength of familial bonds and responsibilities that unite them. As for Jonas, his own dark past (and darker future) are the stuff of excellent fantasy. Even the secondary characters, of the King, Prince, and Queen, and other members of the court, are beautifully textured and have believable motivations (especially the Queen in her feelings towards Neill).
As for The Villain – well, this character is pretty nasty, but not simply evil for evil’s sake (which would be rather disappointing). Rather, this villain is greedy for power, spoiled with it, and never understanding nor caring for the consequences of their actions. And the villain’s unflinchingness? I thought it was awesome (I mean, scary but also awesome).1 Not to mention, there’s room for more in this same universe. The villain comes to an end off-screen, which leaves me wondering as to how safe the kingdom really is. What of the much-alluded to but never present Deserisien? Could he make a possible appearance at some point in the future? For a villain as far-thinking as the one in The City in the Lake, I’m certain there might be a contingency plan for failure in the works. I am greedy and I want MORE.
Ana: I can’t begin to express how much I loved the characters – protagonists and secondary – of this book and how much their story arcs were amazing. I mean, it plays with every single one of my favourite tropes. There we have the determined heroine who wants to find her father, the wronged yet goodhearted young man, the hero who sets out after his love and meets with the Unexpected. And then each of them has to overcome obstacles both internal and external. I loved how Timou spend her whole life living by her father’s lessons and then when push comes to shove she had to make her own decisions as to whether those lessons would work for her or not; similarly with The Bastard who lived under a whole plethora of expectations and had to decide whether to meet them or surpass them. Whereas both Timou and the Bastard had to deal very real, concrete problems (even as they were surrounded by magic) , Jonas’ quest takes him on a much more supernatural path (which had real and concrete repercussions) which as Thea says, is stuff of excellent fantasy. I was reminded at every turn of Juliet Marillier’s fantasy novels which is the highest form of compliment I can think of and I demand MOARS as well.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: I cannot believe I had not heard of this book earlier, and it’s a damn shame how unacknowledged it is. From opening sentence to bittersweet farewell, I loved The City in the Lake and recommend it to readers young and old alike. For fans of Juliet Marillier, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, and Sharon Shinn, looking for that next fix of luscious, romantic, flawless fantasy? Look no further – Rachel Neumeier’s The City in the Lake is for you. Easily, one of the best books I have read in 2011 and in the running for my year end top 10.
Ana: Word, Thea. I can’t believe I never heard about this book before and I wish more people would read it. I don’t think I have read a YA Fantasy as good as this in ages and wouldn’t be surprised if it made my top 10 as well.