For four years, 14-year-old Evie has been living with broken ribs after being abused by her grandparents. Although she was adopted by Amy...moreRating: 7/10
For four years, 14-year-old Evie has been living with broken ribs after being abused by her grandparents. Although she was adopted by Amy and Paul, who proved to be loving, devoted parents, it took three years before she trusted them enough to tell them about the pain and what it meant. When the novel opens she wakes up in hospital after her operation. As a memento, the doctor gives her the piece of rib that they removed. When she goes home to recover, Evie’s Uncle Ben suggests she make something out of the piece of rib, and she decides on a dragon – her ideal pet. Uncle Ben carves the bone into shape and Evie spends her recovery time etching scales and other details into the bone.
She only wishes her dragon could be real: “my chest was tight with longing. If I had a dragon, I’d never be powerless again”. And, inexplicably, Evie’s desperate wish comes true – the dragon comes to life at night and becomes her tiny but powerful guardian. Under the dragon’s direction, Evie sneaks out of the house at night and roams the almost mystical marshland of her neighbourhood. It is the dragon’s way of helping her heal and come to terms with the abuse and neglect she has suffered. But the dragon has a mysterious plan too, and he’s guiding Evie in the preparations for it. There is unfinished business that Evie cannot handle on her own, and that Paul, Amy and Ben could never handle for her.
At first glance, The Bone Dragon looks like a fantasy novel, but in truth it’s more a psychological drama that walks a fine line between fantasy and realism. At the borderline is the dragon – we never know if it really comes to life or if it’s only a product of Evie’s imagination and desperation. Initially it seems real, and indeed the simplest interpretation of this story is that the dragon comes to life. But as the story progresses you realise that Evie isn’t doing anything that she couldn’t do by herself. The dragon is certainly real to her in some way, but it might simply be a psychological tool, a means of pushing herself do dangerous, daring things, or another persona that does things the original Evie can’t or won’t. Whether she’s conscious of this psychological split is debatable; both possibilities are equally unsettling.
It does however, make The Bone Dragon one of the most sophisticated and psychologically compelling YA novels I’ve encountered. As I read, and then as I went through my review notes and re-considered the story, I was increasingly impressed by the psychology of Evie’s character. Some of the flaws that had bothered me actually became less significant as I admired the novel’s strengths.
Twelve-year-old September is tired of her life in her parents’ house, so when the Green Wind alights at her window and offers to take her to Fairyland...moreTwelve-year-old September is tired of her life in her parents’ house, so when the Green Wind alights at her window and offers to take her to Fairyland on the back of the Leopard of Little Breezes, she accepts immediately.
From the start, September finds that Fairyland is nothing like what she could even have begun to expect. She nearly drowns when she arrives, and then has to choose between one of four unappealing paths – to lose her way, her life, her mind or her heart. Losing her way means going back the way she came. She doesn’t want to lose her life or her mind, so she choose to lose her heart, since “[a]ll children are heartless” (5) anyway, as hearts are heavy and it takes a long time to grow one.
On her journey, September agrees to retrieve a witch’s spoon from the evil Marquess who rules the land. The Marquess has introduced all sorts of rules and bureaucracy in an attempt to tame the world and make it more hospitable to children. She has even forbidden the fairy folk from flying, and had their wings strapped down with chains. She insists that fairy folk are too mischievous and dangerous by nature so
I fixed all that, September. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to invent bureaucracy in a world that didn’t even know what a ledger was? To earn their submission, even to the point of having their wings locked down? But I did it. I fixed it for children like you, so that you could be safe here and have lovely adventures with no one troubling you and trying to steal your soul away. I do you didn’t think you had charmed them all with you sparkling personality, child. (126)
The Marquess blackmails September into retrieving a magical sword in the midst of a periods forest. Luckily, September has friends to accompany her. She met a dragon-like creature called a Wyvern, who believes his father was a library. His name is A-through-L, and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of any subject beginning with the letters A through L. September also earns the devotion of a tattooed, blue-skinned boy named Saturday who will grant you a wish if you wrestle him nearly to death.
Obviously, this is not your usual fairytale or a typical children’s fantasy, even though it has all the magic and wonder of one. But it’s the exactly the kind of thing I love and look for in a Valente novel. Nevertheless, I got off to a bad start. While I fell in love with Valente’s writing in works like The Habitation of the Blessed (2010) and Silently and Very Fast (2011) it has a very childish quality here that I immediately disliked. The abundance of detail that I normally find so enchanting about her style, here seemed excessive and irritating.
I’m not so easily dissuaded though, and I kept reading hoping I’d just get used the style, or that the book would hook me once the plot was in full swing. And, happily, the book kept growing on me until, by the end, I was completely and utterly enchanted by it.
Valente has written a lush fairytale full of strange creatures and places. It’s strongly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland with a nod to Narnia, particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Valente’s stories often have a metafictional aspect to them, and there are quite a few comments about stories in general and this one in particular. September embarks on her adventure having read stories where girls are whisked away to other worlds, and she worries that she’s not ill-tempered, smart, brave or talented enough for this journey. She understands what’s expected of her too, because “What is a child brought to Fairyland for if not to thwart wicked rulers?” (139).
This is so much more than an echo of the works that inspired Valente though. Like the best rewritten fairytales, she builds on them in interesting ways. Unlike Alice in Wonderland for example, the novel considers why September – and other children – might want to escape to Fairyland for reasons other than simple curiosity, and despite the many dangers. At first it seems like September is just bored and irritable, looking to do something other than wash teacups. But she’s also unhappy at home – her “father ran away with the army” (19) and her mother is always working, no doubt struggling to make ends meet.
By spending time away from her mother however, September is given the chance to appreciate the practical things her mother – an engine mechanic – has taught her.
she was her mother’s daughter, always and forever, and felt sure whatever she set her hands to would work. Once, they had spent a whole afternoon fixing Mr Albert’s broken-up Model A so that September would not have to walk every day to school, which was several miles away. September would have been happy to watch her mother shoulder-deep in engine grease, but her mother wasn’t like that. She made September learn very well how a clutch worked, what to tighten, what to bend, and in the end, September had been so tired, but the car hummed and coughed just like a car ought to. That was what September liked best, now that her mother was not about and she had the freedom to think about her from time to time – to learn things, and her mother knew a great number of them. She never said anything was too hard or too dirty and had never once told September that she would understand when she was older. (158)
September’s skills, ingenuity and acquaintance with hard work are essential as she frequently encounters demanding obstacles and great danger. She understands that this is necessary:
There must be blood, the girl thought. There must always be blood. The Green Wind said that, so it must be true. It will all be hard and bloody, but there will be wonders, too, or why else bring me here at all? And it’s the wonders I’m after, even if I have to bleed for them. (49)
And she does bleed, many times. Her body is changed in ways that are far more scary than simply shrinking or growing as Alice did. One of the creepiest but most memorable moments is when she encounters her own Death, who appears to her as a small creature. Rather than run away, September cradles her Death in her arms and sings it to sleep.
Another way in which September differs greatly from Alice is that her actions and adventures have real consequences for herself and others. It’s not just a dream, and after a while you sense the gravity of what’s going on. Even though September is like Alice in that she goes from one bizarre encounter to another she always plays an active role and what she says and does matters to other people and the plot. She can’t just leave one thing behind and completely forget about it as she moves on to the next.
It was the gravity of this story that ultimately won me over. I think it was about midway through the novel, when September has to deal with something particularly threatening and scary, that I really started to enjoy the story. It’s still a children’s tale, but not a patronising one. September might be in a fantasy world, it very real to her and her friends, as is the quest she embarks on. She has to make sacrifices, face up to uncomfortable realities, and make choices that I would never have to want to make myself. The were several occasions where this book had me on the verge of tears.
It’s not all dark and desperate though; the novel is full of the delights you’d expect in a fairy world and more – whimsical customs, magical baths, strange mouthwatering food, pookas, spriggans, live bicycles who run (or rather, cycle) in herds, and a key who races after September because it knows she will need it. It’s lovely read for people who love modern, elaborate fairytales and stories that can be both grave and delightful. I recommend it.
I didn’t expect to get a copy of this from Penguin Books SA, and I wasn’t even going to read it, since paranormal romance is not my thing and I hate t...moreI didn’t expect to get a copy of this from Penguin Books SA, and I wasn’t even going to read it, since paranormal romance is not my thing and I hate these lame pretty-girl YA covers. However, I’ve been away on a holiday of sorts, and found that I was too distracted to focus on more demanding reads, so I told myself to stop being a snob about this and just give Unearthly a shot. At the very least, I would learn a little more about the current trend of YA romances featuring mythical beings.
In Unearthly, the beings are angels and angel-bloods (human/angel hybrids). Sixteen-year old Clara Gardener is a Quartarius, a ‘quarter-angel’. Her mom Maggie is a Dimidius – a half-angel. When the novel opens, Clara is shown her ‘purpose’ – a vision of her reason for existing, her destiny. The vision shows a raging forest fire and a mysterious, beautiful boy she has to save. Using clues from her vision, Clara and her mother figure out where it’s supposed to take place and, along with Clara’s younger brother Jeffrey, they pack up their things and move to Jackson Hole, a small town in the forests of Wyoming.
At Jackson Hole High School, Clara learns that the boy she’s supposed to save is Christian. Christian Prescott.
Seventeen-year-old Ananna of the Tanarau is the pirate daughter of pirate...moreThis review was initially published on my blog, Violin in a Void
Seventeen-year-old Ananna of the Tanarau is the pirate daughter of pirate parents, raised in the violent, seafaring lifestyle of a pirate. She dreams of one day captaining her own ship, although that seems unlikely now that her parents have arranged her marriage to the son of another pirate clan. Tarrin of the Hariri. Tarrin is “the most beautiful man [Ananna] ever saw” and looks like a god from a temple painting, but Ananna distrusts beautiful people and when Tarrin shows his disdain for her family name, she decides to run away. Ignoring Tarrin’s warnings that his family will send an assassin to kill her for this insult, Ananna steals a camel and disappears into the city.
She hides out for a short while, but the assassin comes after her as promised. They are fighting it out in the desert when a snake appears. It’s about to bite the assassin and save Ananna’s life, but she’s so shocked and scared when she sees it that she kills the snake, saving the assassin’s life instead and activating a curse. The good news is that Naji, the assassin, can no longer kill her – the curse forces him to protect her from harm because every time she gets hurt or even finds herself in danger, he experiences physical pain. So of course if she dies, he will too. Ananna is not obliged to hang around, but after seeing the suffering that she could cause by leaving Naji, she decides to travel with him and find a way of ending the curse.
Ananna and Naji’s world is rich with magic and bursting with the potential for adventure. Naji comes from an elite order of assassins who reside in The Mists, a mysterious Otherworld that exists in the same space as the normal one, but is invisible to it. Naji is skilled in the magic of blood and darkness and can move unseen by leaping from shadow to shadow. Ananna has always been untouched by magic, although her mother is a water witch and tried her best to teach her daughter the craft. Instead, Ananna takes after her father and frequently recalls his advice in times of trouble. She’s a quick-fingered thief, is deadly with a blade and perfectly at home when running a ship.
Her quest with Naji takes them across the desert, the ocean and to a magical floating island. They fight magical beings and cutthroat pirates, proving to be deadly young warriors. Although Naji has to protect Ananna in order to protect himself, she has to look after and save him a lot of the time as well, especially after he’s incapacitated from using too much magic or suffering the pain incurred by Ananna’s injuries. I was surprised but pleased to find that Clarke didn’t entirely romanticise the idea of Ananna as a pirate by glossing over the violence of her lifestyle for the sake of a YA audience. At seventeen, she’s familiar and comfortable with violence. She’s kills people, she’s used to being cut and bruised, and she doesn’t make a fuss about it. That’s not to say it’s a violent book – it still has a very gentle YA feel. The characters don’t make a big deal of the violence and none of it is very graphic, so the tone remains light.
There’s a delicate touch of romance to the story, but that doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of “growing romantic tension” advertised in the blurb. Any attraction between our two protagonists is completely one-sided. The story is narrated by Ananna, and she finds herself drawn to Naji in the same way that any seventeen-year-old girl would find herself attracted to a mysterious guy who she spends a lot of time alone with. He’s also perfect for her in terms of looks: Ananna distrusts very good-looking people, but although Naji is handsome, his face is marred by an ugly scar, so Ananna sort of gets the best of both worlds with him. Naji however, remains taciturn throughout the novel, and the only romance he acknowledges is the one that once existed between him and a river witch named Leila. He doesn’t smile, he barely speaks to Ananna unless he has to, and doesn’t show any interest in her beyond their quest. He’s not mean, but he’s more like an estranged brother than a potential boyfriend.
I was surprised that the feisty, garrulous Ananna didn’t make more of an effort to get Naji talking. Because Naji, for completely inexplicable reasons, flat out refuses to give Ananna any proper information about the curse that’s changed both their lives, where they’re going to end it, and what they’ll have to do to achieve that. And like Ananna, Naji is also being chased by people who want to kill him, but he doesn’t provide the details. In contrast to her tendency to be hot-headed and smart-mouthed, Ananna is willing to just follow Naji around and wait to see what happens, even though she could easily coerce him into telling all. I’m not sure why Clarke makes her characters act this way. Normally when authors make characters withhold information, it’s to force them to maintain a sense of mystery that could easily be lost. But this is not a mystery novel and it doesn’t need the suspense. When Naji does eventually reveal tiny bits of his plans and the details of how he was cursed, it makes no real difference to the story. So why hide these things in the first place? If anything, they could have given the story a greater sense of purpose.
This is one of many small problems that spoil the book. Ananna generally speaks well of her parents, so it’s unclear why they basically sold her off in marriage at the age of seventeen. After running away, Ananna expresses sadness at leaving her parents as well as frustration regarding the arranged marriage, but she never thinks about this extremely troubling issue for very long. After activating Naji’s curse, you’d think she’d be calculating enough to realise that having a skilled assassin to protect you is very useful when there’s a clan of pirates out to murder you, but she lets her pride and her temper get the better of her and almost leaves to fight her battles alone. The problem with the Hariri doesn’t end up being nearly as dire as expected though – after the fight with Naji and another battle out in the desert, they practically disappear from the plot. The story mostly concerns the quest to end Naji’s curse, but it moves very slowly. There’s plenty of action and adventure so it’s not boring, but this basically fills up the long spaces between the very brief pieces that actually move the main plot along.
Then the book ends without resolving anything. This didn’t bother me too much. The end approached without the characters having made any real progress in dealing with the curse, so I assumed the bulk of the story was being saved for the sequels. But mostly it didn’t bother me because this is one of those books that I don’t feel much of anything for. It’s just a quick easy read to pass the time and, in my case, finish a reading challenge. I couldn’t help but notice the flaws, but they didn’t elicit more than a shrug. Naji and Ananna’s adventures were enjoyable and I liked them both, but I’m not particularly interested in finding out how they solve their problems, so I won’t be reading the sequel. But at least I didn’t hate it, and this review was a lot easier to write than most.(less)
I got off to a very bad start with this. The first few chapters rush by in a hurried attempt to set up the plot. Imagine highlighting the most signifi...moreI got off to a very bad start with this. The first few chapters rush by in a hurried attempt to set up the plot. Imagine highlighting the most significant scenes in a novel and taking out everything in between. One moment David is talking to a teacher, then there’s an explosion, the teacher dies, kids try to escape but are trapped in the school by soldiers. All this in two or three pages. In the next chapter it’s suddenly two weeks later, then a month, the gangs form, and they get told about the virus. The next chapter begins “One year later”. It’s like the authors (Lex Thomas is a pen name for Lex Hrabe and Thomas Voorhies) were so eager to get to the main story that they wanted to get all the preceding stuff out of the way as fast as fucking possible. I love a pacey plot, but this is ridiculous.
It’s been a few weeks since the final events of Deadlands. Lele, Saint, Ash and Ginger are camping out the wilderness that is Cape Town because it’s t...moreIt’s been a few weeks since the final events of Deadlands. Lele, Saint, Ash and Ginger are camping out the wilderness that is Cape Town because it’s too much of a risk to return to either the mall or their hideout outside the enclave. When they save a family from the zombies however, they have no choice but to take them to the enclave, so they decide to use the opportunity to buy supplies. It’s a big mistake. Corruption has festered, security has become more brutal, and the Resurrectionst government is about to distribute Wanted posters with the names and descriptions of the four Mall Rats. Their days of raiding the mall and selling the products in the enclave are definitely over.
It’s clear to Ash that they need to get the hell out of Cape Town. It’s a difficult decision to make, but they’ll be able to get away from the institution that wants them dead and perhaps find other survivors to help them fight the Resurrectionists. They might even find some answers to the many secrets surrounding the Guardians.
So begins their road trip across a decimated South Africa. They find new companions and new reasons to be hopeful about the future, but mostly it’s a hard journey, and not just because of what the Rotters have done to the country. Some of the Rats are keeping secrets that could destroy their friendships. What they find tests their characters and their relationships, and puts their lives at risk. As it turns out, there are far stranger and more dangerous things than Rotters or even Guardians out there, and the Mall Rats will be sniffing them out.
Blackwood is partly a supernatural mystery, but mostly it’s a novel about the blossoming romance between two troubled 17-year olds who find themselves...moreBlackwood is partly a supernatural mystery, but mostly it’s a novel about the blossoming romance between two troubled 17-year olds who find themselves trapped by family legacies. Their relationship is the best thing about the novel. The supernatural mystery is the worst. The result is decent, but it could have been so much better.
The Peculiars is a steampunk-ish coming-of-age novel about how difference breeds prejudice. The people who believe in Peculiars see them as sub-human,...moreThe Peculiars is a steampunk-ish coming-of-age novel about how difference breeds prejudice. The people who believe in Peculiars see them as sub-human, morally decrepit freaks. Scree has a dubious reputation as “the place where they send criminals. They say the forests are filled with hideous things”. “No one’s there but misfits, political enemies, and aliens”, Lena is told. It’s no surprise then, that all Peculiars are lumped together with thieves, murderers and anyone considered socially undesirable. The government uses this for political gain. Scree is rich in mineral resources, and by stating that Peculiars are non-human and playing into people’s fears and about them, the government is then able to declare Scree terra nullius – “a ‘land belonging to no one’”. It makes it easy for them to justify their actions there – stealing the land from the indigenous people and exploiting them as slave labour. It’s essentially the story of European colonialism. Scree is a metaphor for Africa or Australia, and the Peculiars represent the indigenous people of those lands.
It’s quite a while before you really see any of this in action though. The majority of the novel is set in Knob Knoster where Lena is trying to prepare for her Scree journey. As a result many reviewers have complained about the slow pace of this book. The blurb gives the impression that this is an action-adventure novel set in Scree, but in fact Lena doesn’t even get there until the last quarter of the novel. You also don’t get to see nearly as many Peculiars as you would expect – their very existence is portrayed as something of a myth for a while, although it’s obvious to the reader that they’re real.
Luckily, this didn’t bother me. I don’t trust blurbs, and in general I’m fine with slow-moving plots. I would have liked the Peculiars to play a larger part, but at least they’re intertwined with the politics and social views of the time. What really, really bothered me though, was Lena. She’s such a weak, thoughtless girl that she essentially spoiled the novel for me.
Nick Dunmore’s classmates are acting strangely. His basketball teammates keep missing practice and a lot of students are staying home sick or look lik...moreNick Dunmore’s classmates are acting strangely. His basketball teammates keep missing practice and a lot of students are staying home sick or look like they’ve been up all night. They’re all being very secretive about their behaviour, including Nick’s friend Colin who shuns Nick but is seen sucking up to two boys who are so uncool Nick calls them “The Freaks”. It’s all got something to do with a DVD that’s being passed among the students. Those who have it refuse to talk about it, and Nick – a popular jock – can’t understand why he’s being left out. When he finally gets his hands on a copy he finds that it’s an amazingly realistic multi-player online fantasy role-playing game called Erebos.
The game has weird rules. Always play alone. “Never mention your real name in the game. Never mention the name of your character outside the game.” Never speak about the content of the game to other players or post information on the internet. Don’t copy the DVD unless instructed. The strangest rule of all, is that players only have one chance to play – if they die or break any of the rules, it’s over and they cannot play again.
Normally, I’m averse to YA set in schools, preferring the more adventurous kind, but Maxfield Academy isn’t your average school and I loved this novel...moreNormally, I’m averse to YA set in schools, preferring the more adventurous kind, but Maxfield Academy isn’t your average school and I loved this novel. Unlike some stories with a mystery, it doesn’t waste your time pretending that nothing’s wrong, even though you already know what’s wrong because you read about it in the blurb. There’s no point in making Benson think he’s in a normal school, so as soon as he arrives there’s a student to explain everything to him. Benson is as appalled by this as anyone should be, and isn’t shy about voicing his views – the school is a prison, everyone is insane for pretending that things are normal, and he’s going to get the hell out.
I'm glad to have read this, simply because fairy tale plots and themes are used so often in modern literature that it felt good to become acquainted w...moreI'm glad to have read this, simply because fairy tale plots and themes are used so often in modern literature that it felt good to become acquainted with old versions of the tales and get closer to the original folklore. I also enjoyed picking up on some of the values of the time that come across in the stories.
That said, most of them are terribly boring. The method of storytelling is something I just could not get comfortable with - rapid, perfunctory, repetitive, bizarrely irrational. It was often disturbingly amoral as well, even more so than stories that try to be realistic about how life goes. There are plenty of the happy endings that have come to characterise fairy tales today, but happy endings were certainly not the standard for these tales - some are incredibly violent and/or downright depressing.
I'm not criticising the book or fairy tales in general for this; they're rich cultural texts that still influence literature today. But I decided to go with a subjective rating, which is to say, I did not really enjoy reading this, however valuable the experience.(less)
My god, I thought this would never end. It's a lovely idea for a story but it's far, far too long, drawn out by unnecessary detail and a meandering pl...moreMy god, I thought this would never end. It's a lovely idea for a story but it's far, far too long, drawn out by unnecessary detail and a meandering plot. To make things worse, I couldn't take the villains seriously - names like Capricorn, Cockerel and Flat-Nose just aren't menacing, and the fact that they're supposed to be knife-wielding, gun-toting arsonists doesn't feel real. The movie (enjoyable if not great) improves on the book by making the story more lighthearted, adventurous and a hell of a lot shorter. The book's attempt at dire drama struck me as pretentious. If I hadn't been listening to the audio book so that someone else could do the reading for me, I would not have made it to the end.(less)
Technically this review contains spoilers, but if you know the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, you already know the basics of what’s going to happen i...moreTechnically this review contains spoilers, but if you know the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, you already know the basics of what’s going to happen in Beastly. Not that you can’t see all the clichés getting ready to roll out from the start.