China Mieville is a British author who is probably best known for his vast Peake-esque Bas Lag books, for which he has received an array of accolades....moreChina Mieville is a British author who is probably best known for his vast Peake-esque Bas Lag books, for which he has received an array of accolades. When describing a Mieville novel, two things that inevitably crop up are nods to Mieville’s in-depth world-building, and his idiosyncratic use of language, both of which are evident throughout his entire oeuvre, and even those pieces of work that depart substantially from the loosely linked Bas Lag trilogy.
Kraken, Mieville’s newest offering, brings together many of the elements evident in the author’s fairly diverse backlog, resulting in a strange and Frankensteinian read that has the uncomfortable appeal of a rather violent car crash. Click here to read the full review.(less)
"Fairy tales are life lessons disguised with colourful characters and situations," preaches Mrs Peters to her class of apathetic pre-teens, among them our twin protagonists, swotty Alex and snoozy layabout Conner.
After this valiant bit of Aesopian moralising, Peters goes on to bemoan the loss of the original Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm tales in favour of Disneyfied bastardisations and the competing charms of computer games and violent movies. And thus, the scene is set for Chris Colfer's middle grade portal fantasy The Land of Stories.
For Alex and Conner, the tales told to them by their father were a source of support and moral sustenance used to help each square peg twin feel slightly less out of place in this round hole world. But since their father's death (travelling home from his bookstore, no less), the two have had to get by largely by themselves, with their mother working double shifts to help ends meet, and their quirky grandmother off jetsetting about the world.
After some eighty pages of this scene setting, and much of it involving the elucidation of the various morals and teachings of the fairytale canon, Alex and Connor find themselves deposited into a parallel realm populated with all the tropes, characters, and histories so familiar to those with a family tradition of bedtime stories. ("I'm so glad Dad and Grandma read to us so much growing up!" says Conner. "Who ever would have thought it would be this useful?") Think Shrek, only with less humour and less accomplished writing.
Once in the fairytale realm, the twins effectively switch personalities, with know-it-all Alex taking on the role of the dreamer, and dopey Conner morphing into the problem solver. And indeed, they have a few problems to solve, the key one being collecting from about the realm the various fairytale-themed artefacts required to complete the wishing spell that will get them back home. It's a task that sees them pinching glass slippers from a pregnant Cinderella, breaking into the castle of obnoxious and air-headed Red Riding Hood, trawling about creepy troll dungeons and attending fairy courts. Oh, and they're also battling it out against Snow White's wicked stepmother, who's on the same treasure hunting trail.
But though the twins seem to come up against myriad problems and dead-ends and life-or-death situations, each is resolved with almost magical ease, and the book quickly begins to feel more like a scenic stroll through fairyland in search of souvenirs than an actual narrative. Most of the problem solving is done for the twins via a diary that explains what needs to be done in order to overcome each obstacle, or occurs through happy coincidence.
There's a sense of the author speaking down to the reader, with jokes being explained, and thematic resonances being given the same treatment, just in case a reader has somehow missed them. For example, Alex's explanation of the moral of Cinderella is appended with, "Was that really what Cinderella was about, or was it what she needed Cinderella to be about?"
This sort of exposition occurs throughout the book, simplifying and explicating to the point of patness. For example, the amusing reveal of the various Prince Charmings being brothers is diluted by the explanation that follows. ("Of course!" says Alex. "Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty all married Prince Charming! There's more than one! How come I never thought about that?")
The writing is terribly uneven as well. Though the characters' voices are at times inconsistent, it's the narrative voice that needs work, as it often feels amateurish and childlike. Take for example the line describing the children's arrival in the fairy realm: "He completely startled her. Alex lost her balance and fell--headfirst into the book!" There are also a surprising number of lines involving Conner stubbing his toe: "Conner was so upset that he kicked a tree, but he ended up just hurting his foot. 'Ouch!' he yelled". And indeed, the said bookism here is apt, for characters yell, shout, shriek, moan, whimper, growl, demand, bellow and what have you to a rather impressive degree; POV errors occur as well, such as on page 122, where we suddenly slip into Goldilocks' point of view.
In addition to formatting errors such as the curiously centred paragraph following a line break on page 250, there are also a surprising number of examples of structurally or semantically problematic sentences. For example: "They jolted at the sound of another voice besides their own" (semantically strange) and "the higher she climbed, the less she looked down at the ground, fearing it would tamper with her effort to reach the top" (a strange use of "tamper"), "she was so determined to see the top of the tower" (where the "so" is out of place when not followed by a clause beginning with "that"). A few other choice quotes include "The twins could feel their hearts sink into the pits of their stomachs" (a strange turn of phrase given that it's being used to describe excitement, not despair), and "Alex gave Conner a really dirty look" and "'It happened by total accident,' said Grandma" (both instances of the extraneous usage of totally/really/so/completely).
Colfer has his work cut out for him creating something fresh out of very, very well-mined territory, but there are some entertaining, creative moments here. The story's at its best when the inner proselytising adult is set to rest and the kids and the narrator are given space to joke around and enjoy themselves without feeling the need to finger-wag and tsk tsk. Fun little nods such as the name of Goldilocks' horse (Porridge), Conner's disgust at the "obnoxious", perfect unicorns, his suggestion that Sleeping Beauty's empire take up coffee drinking to increase productivity, and his curiosity about princes and their interest in "dead" girls hint at what this book could have been with some solid editing.
As it is, however, the book feels as though it underestimates its target audience, eschewing subtlety and depth in favour of careful explanation and simplicity, and it's this, along with its somewhat bloated length and troublesome editing, that prevents the book from reaching the heights it might otherwise have.(less)
White Tiger is the first in the Dark Heavens trilogy, which was first published by Orbit in Australia, and is now being reissued through Angry Robot,...moreWhite Tiger is the first in the Dark Heavens trilogy, which was first published by Orbit in Australia, and is now being reissued through Angry Robot, the new ‘SF, F, and WTF’ imprint of HarperCollins UK*. Angry Robot was kind enough to send me an ARC of the book to review, and given the nature of this blog, a review is exactly what you’ll get, although today with bonus ramble!
I’ll be honest and say that my very first impression of this book was a feeling of relief that the rather execrable cover could be put down to the fact that the book is an ARC. The cover, which comprises some dodgy Photoshop burn-and-fade, a tiger tattoo design, and a strangely made-up girl wearing an Ed Hardy tattoo shirt, is not an especially well put together piece of work–and I’ve cringed at my fair share of urban fantasy novels in my local bookshop. However, given that the other two in the trilogy have been posted up on the Angry Robot website, and exhibit similarly styled covers, perhaps I was mislead.
Unfortunately, my woes didn’t end here. I wanted to enjoy this book far more than I did. My interest is easily piqued by anything set in a foreign country, and particularly one with whose culture I have some familiarity, and given my boyfriend’s love of wuxia and kung fu comedy (Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan are regular guests in our home), I was ready for a rollicking good ride.
While White Tiger does indeed offer some fun and pacy action, and it certainly barrels along at an impressive pace (I churned through its 500-and-something pages in one [admittedly long:] evening), the book suffers from a number of issues that make me reluctant to put it out there as a great Hong Kong-based urban fantasy novel.
White Tiger opens with Australian English-teacher and nanny Emma having an awkward and stilted conversation with kindergarten manager Miss Kwok. Concepts such as face are alluded to, and we soon come to an explicit discussion of the importance of wealth and and power and consumerism in Hong Kong society. This, to me, was a red flag (for the curious, never fear, as Chan will later smugly inform us about the importance of red in Chinese society). Kylie Chan, I should note, is a Caucasian Australian author who is married to a Hong Kong national, and as far as I know resides in Hong Kong. While this potentially offers the reader an interesting reflection on Hong Kong society, Chan unfortunately does so very much from the perspective of an outsider, and through Emma’s eyes we are treated to a blow by blow account of Things That Are Different in Hong Kong. I think the novel suffers from this, and feel that the setting and milieu would have been stronger as a whole had Chan better straddled the issue of anthropologist as insider/outsider. As it is, we never really get a feel for Hong Kong as a cohesive place or space, and much of the novel feels as though it is taking place in a vacuum with the occasional tour guide break to inform us about how to eat siao long bao or that shopping in Hong Kong is a neverending past-time. This to me was somewhat disappointing, as much of my enjoyment of reading tends to stem from being transported to another place. Examples of books that do this exquisitely include The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, any fiction by Yasunari Kawabata, and if we’re looking at more mainstream urban fantasy, a range of work by Charles de Lint.
This lack of anchoring is compounded by the fact that the characters seem to frolic between various settings and even countries without so much as a line break to let the reader know what’s going on (although I might be able to blame the ARC format for this–it’s highly possible that the line breaks didn’t translate into the physical copy, and that this will be addressed in proofing). I was a bit perturbed to find the family suddenly in France, then England, then Australia, and all whilst I was under the impression that they were eating breakfast in their kitchen at home.
An additional consequence of this lack of anchoring is the fact that the supernatural threats experienced by the characters in White Tiger never really feel real or grounded. I should perhaps note tat this point that main character Emma has let her afore-mentioned job at a kindergarten to take on a suspiciously well-paid job as a live-in nanny and English teacher with an astonishingly handsome employer and his painfully precocious (and already perfectly English-speaking) young daughter. Inevitably, we find out, with the help of some foreshadowing slathered on rather more thickly than I prefer my Vegemite, that Emma’s employer is a down-on-his-luck god who is being hunted somewhat indiscriminately by a variety of demons and Other Bad Things. All of which are rather hilariously divided into ability levels, much like D&D game critters, and who explode into a pile of black goo when attacked, much like, er, Flubber. Or that yellow stuff from the mushroom episode of Around the Twist.
After a few black good incidents, Emma finally realises that all is not as it seems (this takes rather a long time, considering that she apparently has an IQ in the near-genius range), at which point the book suddenly slides into a Rocky-esque training scenario where Emma turns from chubby klutz into martial arts extraordinaire. Perhaps an appropriate soundtrack would be Eye of the (White) Tiger. The book from this point on can either be conceived of as the author’s unrelenting embrace of Mary Sue-dom, or perhaps as the traditional empowerment of the would-be superhero through the well-beaten overcoming adversity through Kung Fu path. Unfortunately, while this is all very well and good as an episode of Buffy, the notion of an entire book-as-montage doesn’t really work, and the reader soon comes to realise that the entire first book in the trilogy is basically a prolonged prologue.
While there are some fun moments to White Tiger, and I enjoyed some of Chan’s dialogue (although Emma’s punch line of ‘you’ll keep’ does become a tad stale after a while), I can’t help but feel that the book doesn’t really stand on its own. Rather than being a separate element of the trilogy, it might well have fared better being incorporated into the second or third books. The forbidden love story component of the book doesn’t quite ring true, and when set in context with the other elements of the book, it becomes quite challenging not to see Emma as some sort of vicarious winner-takes-all puppet.
It's like we're complementary colours...you know what those are, right? Colours that make each other disappear? So if you cross red with green—or blue with orange, or yellow with purple—you get a pale, pale colour, almost white...
Interestingly, though, if you put complementary colours next to each other, they make each other shine much more brightly.
I wonder what would happen if you and I met? Would we kill each other off, or make each other glow?
Madeleine Tully has been corresponding with a parking meter. Or perhaps via a parking meter, to be accurate. A gap has opened between our world and that of the Kingdom of Cello, a gap just large enough through which a letter can be posted; a gap in a parking meter. At least so the letter-writer tells Madeleine, who goes along with what she sees as her correspondent's imaginative feats despite her clear disbelief: “I feel that maybe you're planning to rip off Philip Pullman's Northern Lights,” she tells him.
Her correspondent is Elliot Baranski, a boy who lives in a world that is a curious regional mishmash where the seasons wander about at their whim, a day of summer chasing a day of winter rather in the manner of my native Melbourne. But unlike Melbourne, which is known for having a populace that's uniformly clad in black, Cello is all about colour. Just as the seasons sweep through Cello, so too do colours, which travel through almost like storms, each colour frequency affecting the people of Cello in a different way. Some colours are physically harmful, while others bring romantic notions or an obsessive need for achievement.
It's a concept that encourages all sorts of real-life parallels: the dangers of focused light such as those from lasers; the use of light-boxes in northern Europe to help combat the seasonal affective disorder brought about by the never-ending twilight of winter. Though Madeleine pooh-poohs the notion of her pen-pal living in such a world, believing it to be nothing more than a fantasy, her study of Isaac Newton and his scientific breakthroughs regarding light sees her applying Elliot's creative analogies to her own difficult situation; Elliot, on the other hand, applies Madeleine's research about Newton in a more literal manner—and both have fascinating results.
A Corner of White is a strange and wonderful book, and much of its beauty comes from the very same phenomenon that Madeleine muses over in her letter: it's not just Madeleine and Elliot who are complementary, but also their stories and their worlds.
Although it's Madeleine who lives in our magic-free world, her story often feels almost as fantastical as Elliot's. She lives with her mother, the two of them apparently having fled from her father, a tremendously wealthy, influential man for whom every door seems to open. But instead of the riches and wonders of their previous life, Madeleine and her mother are living virtually as paupers, making do in Cambridge in a tiny apartment, a stockpile of beans, and a delightful sense of whimsy. Their riches-to-rags tale feels fantastical, and it's rendered in a way that seems to recall Victorian children's literature: it's vivid and curious, and yet mysterious. We only know of Madeleine's past what she shares with her friends, and there seems to be far more to it than meets the eye.
Curiously, Madeleine seems to see the world in a peripheral manner, taking it in almost out of the corner of her eye, rather than looking headlong at it. She speaks of liking both Elliot and her friend Jack well enough, but of their perceived alter egos—what she believes to be the fantasy-world Elliot and Jack's history research subject Lord Byron—even more. She also mentions enjoying engaging with facts because they “take her sideways”, an approach her increasingly distant mother seems to take as well. Given all this, I suspect that there's more to both Madeleine's background and her mother's health problems than is revealed in this first volume of a planned trilogy.
Elliot, on the other hand, though living in a world that is parallel to ours, is strangely far more grounded than Madeleine. He's practical and pragmatic where Madeleine is dreamy and disconnected, and the contrast only strengthens the strange aspect of Cello. There's a languid humour to the world-building that only enhances the moments of darkness, and there's an uneasiness that slowly surfaces as we begin to learn more about the politics of the world.
For all these complements and contrasts, however, we're constantly reminded of a thread of similarity and sameness that runs through the two worlds, and of course, our two key characters. Isaac Newton, who was behind the discovery of white light and the way in which it can be broken down into a spectrum, figures in both Elliot's world and Madeleine's, this perhaps being a representation of the universality of science, rationality, and our innate desire to both create and reason. The spectrum of light, too, applies on so many levels: whereas in Elliot's world light is used as a sort of geological phenomenon, in Madeleine's, the spectrum colours occur as “auras”.
It applies as well to A Corner of White itself. If this book were a light colour, it would be white. At first glance it may seem simple, but when put beneath the prism of the keen reader, it exposes its true nature: a shimmering double rainbow of colours. It's utterly delightful, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel.(less)
Recent speculative fiction has trended towards the dirge-like in nature, delighting in delving deep into the execrable nature of humanity, taking pain...moreRecent speculative fiction has trended towards the dirge-like in nature, delighting in delving deep into the execrable nature of humanity, taking pains to wallow melodramatically in all manner of ethical turgidity, and throwing all manner of dark and disturbing fare in the direction of the hapless reader. Freaks and abominations abound, and our moral shortcomings are painfully (and verbosely) highlighted through plots that take us through a veritable narrative morass of foulness. With speculative fiction famously being an inauspicious indictment of our times, it’s no surprise that some authors are turning to stories a little less grim and gritty, and a little more ribald and vainglorious. Rachel Aaron, with her uproarious debut The Spirit Thief, the first in a trilogy, is unashamedly a member of this small but powerful minority party. The rest of this review can be read here.(less)
**spoiler alert** Despite the sanitised reproductions flitting across theatre screens or rendered in block-colour glory in children’s picture books, f...more**spoiler alert** Despite the sanitised reproductions flitting across theatre screens or rendered in block-colour glory in children’s picture books, fairy tales have traditionally functioned less as sumptuous rags to riches accounts railing against strict class systems and more as rather pointed cautionary tales designed to keep children both morally upright and close to home. Frequently, the take home message is something along the lines of avoid the woods at all cost or never trust a stranger. It’s a sign of a confident author then that Jackson Pearce in her retelling of Little Red Riding Hood adheres far more strongly to this warily paranoid paradigm than to the increasingly romanticised take on the monstrous that is being seen with increasing frequency in today’s young adult genre fiction. Read the rest of this review here(less)
Most teenagers see each birthday as a rite of passage placing them further ahead on the track to adulthood. For Violet Eden, however, birthdays are a time of regret and mourning: Violet remains haunted by the loss of her mother, who died during childbirth. But seventeen years have passed since that day, and this birthday is destined to bring more than the requisite remorse and loneliness. Having turned seventeen, Violet is now a member of the Grigori, a part-human, part-angel consort whose job it is to keep the peace between these two races. Because angels aren’t quite the harps-and-halos lovelies they’re generally made out to be. And Violet is suddenly faced with a decision that will change her life forever…
Angels are the new succubi are the new vamps, it seems. Fortunately I’ve managed to steer clear of the vast majority of the mediocre paramundane stuff being pedalled by publishers far and wide, so while I did greet this one with a touch of scepticism, I didn’t bring years of angelphobic baggage with me when I sat down to read it. I’m not sure whether this had any bearing on this review, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by this debut. Yes, it ticks all of the YA paranormal boxes: drawn-out love triangle, brooding bad boy versus clean cut good boy, criminally negligent parent, chosen one in denial, ditzy-genius best friend, war between our world and another, and a good heaping of angst and (literally) self-sacrifice. Yes, it’s Twilight meets Buffy meets The Night Watch. But despite this, and despite the irritations upon which I’ll extrapolate in a moment, it’s a highly enjoyable read.
Embrace is Jessica Shirvington’s debut, and it’s a commendable one. Shirvington’s writing is clean and assured, and occasionally beautifully vivid. Often first person books suffer from treating the reader in an overfamiliar manner, but Embrace doesn’t suffer from this tendency in the slightest. In fact, while the teen voice comes through in the dialogue between characters such as Violet and her best friend Steph, it’s blessedly restrained, and generally utterly believable. Shirvington does take a slow-burn approach, though, and the result is a lot of beauty and not much plot. In fact, it takes a good quarter of the book for Violet to realise her status as a Grigori (derived from the Greek for “Watcher”, but very hard not to read as a Russian variant of Gregory, which makes for a giggle very now and then), and when all the prettiness is peeled back to expose the bones of the plot, well, needless to say that there’s not that much on display. Still, other than the first quarter, the book doesn’t feel slow, even though the journey being taken is largely an internal one (with the occasional angel slaughtering taking up a few pages here and there). One area where the prose-level sheen does feel ersatz, though, is in the setting: Shirvington’s characters live in some unnamed city in an unnamed (presumably western) country. This is a frustratingly common problem in paranormal YA, and Australian paranormal YA in particular. I know that publishers are worried about the perceived parochialism of heavily Australian works and how this will affect territorial sales, but it’s unsatisfying and awkward for the reader to have no grounding in terms of setting (for a YA paranormal that draws admirably on an Australian setting, see Van Badham’s Burnt Snow).
The novel does involve some significant suspension of disbelief, and given that I’m not a civil engineer, suspension isn’t really my thing. There are a number of elements that I struggled with and couldn’t quite reconcile, and while they didn’t prevent me from enjoying what is, on the whole, a zippy and inconsequential read, they did cause me some hesitation. These elements ranged from plot points to whole characters, and were varyingly problematic. Perhaps the most hilarious of these is the fact that Violet tells her friend Steph about being a half-angel in a food court. Steph’s response? Unquestioning belief. (Another gripe: the fact that someone born after 1990 is named Steph. All Stephs are 80s children) In terms of characters, Violet’s father was perhaps the weakest element, being little more than a walk-on character who parroted a few lines here and there. While we’re told that he’s given himself over to his work in part to the grief he feels over his wife’s death, his reported absence throughout Violet’s life is somewhat alarming. Then there’s the strangely contradictory way in which he conducts himself when he is around: glaring at Violet’s male guest, who is innocently sipping coffee in the kitchen, but then happily leaving her in a drunken and rather wretched state with a stranger on a night club dance floor. The dazed way in which he schedules a solitary dinner with his daughter for the following week just feels awkward, as though his character is being stretched to fit the needs of the book. I can’t help but wonder whether this situation might have worked better if Violet were a couple of years older and living on her own rather than being a teen shackled by the constraints of adolescence.
The male leads are problematic, too, and not least because they diametrically opposed. Good guy Lincoln is bland and uninspiring, and Violet’s adoration of him is difficult to comprehend. Bad boy Phoenix, on the other hand, is frankly a terrifyingly manipulative stalker who is not above a bit of sexual assault and emotional rape (literally). As a reader I find it hugely frustrating to keep coming across these sorts of characters, and to find that the female lead so inevitably falls for them. While Phoenix is revealed as a “baddie” in the end, his behaviour throughout the book is scarcely questioned, and I find this deeply concerning. And let’s not even get started on the whole sacrificing oneself for a guy thing…
The last area in which the book flails a little is in the heavy-handed use of symbolism (no doubt the name Violet Eden has tipped you off already). Violet, of course, has a sort of spectral persuasion, being able to engage all of her senses in a particular, unusual manner, and of course her surname has a biblical meaning. Phoenix is all about rebirth and renaissance, and (rather wincingly for the reader) apparently has the same beguiling taste of the forbidden apple. Biblical references abound, and the myriad epigraphs regularly skate over this territory (or I assume that they do, because I have a naughty tendency to skip them).
Personal gripes and narrative issues aside, Embrace is a surprisingly strong and eminently enjoyable read, and I whizzed through it despite my reservations. The fact that all of the above didn’t destroy my enjoyment of the book says something about Shirvington’s ability to craft a neatly written and interesting tale, and I’m curious to see where she takes the trilogy (hopefully I’ll find out soon, as the lovely Hachette marketing department has informed me that the sequel has just been released). While it’s not a perfect read by any means, it’s good enough to stand apart from the greasy buffet of the paranormal dog’s breakfast, and there’s a freshness and liveliness to it that makes it stick with the reader.(less)
Like most small communities, the village of Daggorhorn is not without its secrets. An impoverished community in the heart of the woods, it is one that has seen more than its fair share of loss, and an undercurrent of fear pervades its every aspect–particularly when the sun sets and the full moon rises. Daggorhorn is at the mercy of the Wolf, a fearsome half-human, half-wolf beast kept at bay only by the village’s long-time habit of providing sacrifices and staying as far as possible out of its way.
But this full moon, things are different. A blood moon hangs above the forest, and the villagers know that despite their best efforts, the outcome will be nothing less than horrific. As the small, close-knit community becomes victim to the brutality of the wolf, tensions rise, and so do suspicions–and finger-pointing and condemnation abound. Valerie, whose sister is one of the victims, finds herself at the centre of the villagers’ accusations about the true identity of the wolf. But Valerie has her own suspicions about the wolf’s identity…
A hotly anticipated 2011 release, Red Riding Hood has been written to tie in with the film of the same name, and unfortunately it shows. Adapted from the film’s script, it’s the barest bones of a story–and by bare, I mean thoroughly picked clean of any last morsel of meat. It runs at just over three hundred pages, but the length is misleading, given that over sixty of these are taken up by chapter headings, and that the final chapter will be belatedly released online to coincide with the film’s release. Yes, you did read that correctly–the final chapter (admittedly touted as a “bonus” chapter, but really rather essential to the reading experience given the extreme ambiguity of the novel thus far) has been embargoed until mid March, a fact that has raised the ire of readers who have shelled out the big bucks for what is effectively an extended theatrical trailer. And rightfully so, because it is a marketing gimmick that does leave rather a bad taste in one’s mouth.
The utter lack of an ending, however, is only one of Red Riding Hood’s myriad problems. The book is plagued by all manner of narrative and stylistic issues to the point that it would give me RSI were I to painstakingly sit down and document them all. It’s a shame, because fractured fairytales and retellings of famous cautionary works can make for rather interesting authorial fodder, and from afar this one seems to tick all of the requisite boxes. But after even a few pages one can see that the book is listless, slapdash, and uneven. The village setting should intrigue, but is so reminiscent of M Night Shyamalan’s The Village that it feels derivative–and painfully so. But where The Village manages to inure its creepy little setting with moral ambiguity and paranoia, Red Riding Hood suffers from a distinct lack of atmosphere. There’s a sense of poverty, isolation, and alienation, but it’s never explored: rather, we’re given a few jolting anecdotes and a mass of blow-by-blow character descriptions that never slip deeper than the superficial, and the setting as a result feels like a Potemkin village rather than anything that might truly exist.
The plot, too, is slim, and its various turning points difficult to fathom. We’re led to believe that the villagers live in fear of an awesomely powerful and horrifically slavering wolf, but yet there has been no effort made to prepare a vaguely functional contingency plan in case things go wrong. The fact, too, that the village seems to run by the lunar calendar, and harvests accordingly, yet is utterly unaware of the possibility of a harvest moon seems, well, slightly problematic. Furthermore, the fact that it takes perhaps half of the book to lead up to this point is problematic, particularly given the leisurely pace of the book beforehand, and the subsequent hasty scramble of the narrative afterwards. The villagers run amok, accusing various individuals of lycanthropy in a manner that feels unmotivated and unplotted, and the way the narrative reaches its climax feels truly messy. Our protagonist is accused by one of her friends of being a werewolf, but mere moments later is exonerated by the same girl in a sudden change of heart that follows no rhyme or reason. Similarly, the author alludes to several characters as possibly being the werewolf, but does so by throwing in so many red herrings that the book as a result smells revoltingly fishy. If this were a better novel, I’d say that this is ostensibly to highlight the sort of inherent paranoia that comes of inward-looking societies subjected to an external threat. But given the overall quality of this book, I’m rather more inclined to say that there’s a distinct unfamiliarity with both the mystery and horror genres going on here.
I wish I could say that the prose and characterisation were the standouts here, as I’m notoriously lenient on plot provided that these two things are done well. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The prose is bizarrely uneven, aiming for a lyrical quality in some parts to the degree that one could play a game of bingo with all of the similes and metaphors on offer, but then falling back. on. staccato. sentences. in others. The use of an omniscient point of view makes for problematic reading, as well–omniscient is a notoriously challenging viewpoint to write well, and I think that the choice to use it here is largely due to the fact that this book is truly at its heart a script rather than a novel. It’s fine to flash between characters in a movie, but in a novel it can be a cheap device if done poorly–particularly if it’s used to obscure information from the reader. Worse, the prose is peppered with painful explication, with the scenes with the bad guy priest perhaps the most evident exemplars of these. Readers are perfectly able to make their own judgements about characters’ motivations and to read at a level beyond the literal without being told what’s going on, and to explain to reader such things as the fact that the villagers have become animals themselves in their determination to cast blame, or that they have allowed both a literal and spiritual evil into their home is just a touch patronising.
Perhaps the weakest element of this book, and thus the major cause of its downfall, is its characterisation. While we’re given more than enough in terms of physical descriptions, we’re never truly let inside the various characters’ heads, and in those few cases that we are, the characters suddenly insist on acting entirely out of character, thus invalidating our readings anyway. Why does independent, tomboyish Valerie suddenly fall for cruel and bitter Peter at first sight (and after a grand total of one line of dialogue, or monologue to be exact])? How are we supposed to believe that Lucie is in love with Henry when he scarcely even appears at all? Why does Valerie’s friend suddenly do an about face after accusing her friend (with reasonably good reason) of being in cahoots with the wolf? And must the literary folk of the world endure yet another evil priest character? Truly, the only character with whom I felt some sort of vague empathy was Valerie’s mother, but her role is unfortunately vanishingly small.
While Red Riding Hood has been much hyped in both the blogosphere and in the cinemas, it’s unfortunately not a book that I can recommend. While it draws on the strong foundations of the classic fairytale, the elements where it succeeds in doing so are few indeed. In addition to the weak plot, the book suffers from poor characterisation and awkward writing, and the cheap gimmick regarding the final chapter will no doubt raise some eyebrows–if you must, buy the updated edition further down the trac(less)
The Shadow of Malabron is the first in a trilogy by new-ish author Thomas Warton (not to be confused with the Nobel Laureate of the same name). It’s a...moreThe Shadow of Malabron is the first in a trilogy by new-ish author Thomas Warton (not to be confused with the Nobel Laureate of the same name). It’s an uneven offering, and one about which I’m a little ambivalent.
The book starts with an interesting prologue of sorts that hints at something fable-like to come, and sets up what seems as to be an intriguing and novel idea. Unfortunately, as is often the case with prologues, the book turns its attention elsewhere, and the reader is soon looking on as young teen Will Lightfoot bickers with his widower father and young sister as they embark upon a camping trip.
The notion of setting up camp in a new and unknown place, of course, is a harbinger of things to come, and soon Will finds himself in a motorcycle accident that lands him in what is apparently known as the Perilous Realm, a sort of parallel story-world. The name of the place is apt, as Will finds himself being hunted down by the Night King. As is frequently the case in this sort of quest-based epic fantasy, Will is befriended by a motley assortment of allies, and with them, he sets out to find his way home.
There are a few good moments in The Shadow of Malabron that point to Warton as a writer to watch. There are some neat turns of phrase scattered here and there throughout the novel, as well as some great moments such as the library that is physically constructed from books. As a whole, though, the novel is competent but nothing notable: it goes through the motion of a standard epic fantasy without daring to step off this oft-travelled path in search of something new for readers to enjoy. This is a shame, as Warton clearly has some talent as an author, and a more creative take on the premise could have resulted in something quite interesting.
As it is, The Shadow of Malabron is a fast read that many young readers will likely enjoy, but that many adults will find themselves comparing with classics such as The Lord of the Rings and other well-known quest-based novels.(less)
It’s a simple fact of young adult literature that if you want to get things moving right off of the bat, you need a prophecy. Better yet, an ambiguous prophecy. Better still? An ambiguous prophecy that applies to twins. Series such as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and myriad others have rested firmly on the narrative possibilities opened by a prophecy, and Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst happily walks these well-trodden pathways with portents, sybils, and oracles galore. One of the great things, after all, about a prophecy is that it has the fabulous ability to suddenly turn a nondescript everyman character into a kung-fu-fighting, sabre-wielding, me-against-the-world hero. Prophecies force the character in question to suddenly make a 180 degree turn, and ensure that they can’t simply opt out of the narrative. After all, if Harry had said something along the lines of ”Voldemort? Can’t the police deal with him instead?” the famous series might not have been quite so thrilling.
Sophie and Josh Newman are your everyday fifteen-year-olds. They’re welded to their iPods, suffer through tiresome part time jobs in order to save up for clothes, cars, and other goodies and, well, actually, that’s pretty much it. But all of that’s about to change. When a creepy, bearded (no, not Rasputin) decides to visit the bookshop in which Josh works, Josh finds that he’s in for something a little more challenging than trying to find a book based only on a description of its cover. The man, John Dee–yes, that much-maligned John Dee–it turns out, is indeed after a book, but one that’s not your usual trashy thriller. Rather, he’s after The Codex (note capitalisation), an ancient volume full of all sorts of magical boons, including a spell for immortality. Problem is, Josh’s boss (who turns out to be that reasonably well-known alchemist chap Nicholas Flamel) doesn’t particularly want to give up this book. Magical shenanigans and plenty of butt-kicking ensues, and Josh and his sister Sophie, along with Nick and a martial artist vampire named Scathach or, affectionately, Scatty, are on the run. Eventually finding asylum in Yggdrasil, the famed World Tree of Norse mythology (as you do), the bewildered teens are told of the role that they are to play in saving the world. Or perhaps destroying it.
Superficially The Alchemyst reminds me of the fabulous Percy Jackson series (see our reviews), perhaps because its narrative draws very similarly on the approach of “Main character walks into a room. AND THEN THERE WERE MONSTERS!” But while the action in Riordan’s work is famously non-stop, The Alchemyst seems to suffer from pacing exhaustion mid-way through, resulting in a few chapters that seem to consist of little more than narrative panting. Moreover, it lacks the neat self-contained arc of each of the Percy books, ending as it does with not so much a cliffhanger as just a general sense of incompleteness. It may start out Meatloaf-like (ie, like a bat out of Hell), but then sits back on its haunches for a bit while it gets into the nitty gritty of each adult character’s history. And given that we’re dealing with immortals here, this takes a bit of time, resulting in plenty of the book taking place in the form of flashbacks or of soliloquy. The result is a read that can feel somewhat unfocused, particularly given that a YA should ostensibly focus on the teen characters rather than the adult ones.
In fact, while we get to hear all about the histories of each of the major adult characters, all of whom are famous beings from various world mythologies–Hecate, The Morrigan, the Bastet cat, and plenty of others make an appearance–we learn very little about our supposed protagonists, Josh and Sophie. One has the sneaking suspicion, in fact, that there’s very little about them to learn. Indeed, Josh’s main concern when being hunted down by various supernatural forces is for his iPod, while Sophie seems to rejoice in taking every available opportunity for witty banter. (Words may be cutting, but they’re not exactly the best weapon against the forces of darkness.) Scott attempts to work in their ambivalence about whole prophecy thing, but rather than adding a sense of believability or depth of characterisation to the novel, this simply serves to slow things down, and we’re treated to several slow chapters wherein the twins try to work out where Nick’s loyalties lie or go about looking for hidden cameras just in case they’re unwitting guest stars on Punk’d. Things further slow down when we switch over to the viewpoints of Nick’s wife, Perry, who spends most of the book chained up in a cell–yep, fascinating reading, that–or those of John Dee, who prefers to spend his days indulging in flights of fancy.
Another issue that I struggled with is the writing level in this one. Our characters are almost sixteen, but the novel itself feels written for the MG crowd rather than the YA one, and I found myself constantly thinking of Josh and Sophie as much younger than they actually are. (Indeed, every time Josh started up his car, I wondered whether he’d need a booster seat in order to see over the dashboard.) A little bit of humour wouldn’t have gone astray, either.
On the plus side, The Alchemyst is wonderfully creative, pulling in all sorts of critters and creatures from mythology, and young readers will have a field day picking out the various allusions and references. Scott is a dab hand at world building, and he creates an interesting wider mythology upon which all of this rests that makes for some fascinating reading. Moreover, as a plus, the ecology of magic use is well thought-out and interesting. But there’s something about his world that, like the characterisation, just feels a little superficial. Throughout the book, various nasties blow stuff up, destroy stuff, and generally cause all manner of mischief, but no one in the real world ever seems to be affected by any of it. In addition, the fact that the twins’ family members (which I have to note include a pair of obligatorily absent archaeologist parents) are so remote that they might as well not exist at all, makes the twins’ efforts seem sort of futile. What are they fighting for, if neither the world, nor their loved ones at the very least, seem to be affected by any of this?
The Alchemyst is an intriguing start to a new series, and while it suffers a little from some pacing issues and a lack of focus, it has plenty of good things to its name: strong female characters, all sorts of mythical creatures and legendary tales, and monsters galore. I wouldn’t shout its name from the rooftops, but I’ll certainly be giving the next in the series a go.(less)
This review originally appeared at Black Mamba Boy and The Life and Times of Michael K, I was perfectly happy to while away a few hours with a light a...moreThis review originally appeared at Black Mamba Boy and The Life and Times of Michael K, I was perfectly happy to while away a few hours with a light and fluffy book, and a tongue-in-cheek read offering a more humorous take on the recent spate of paranormal teen novels sounded right up my alley. But while I wasn't expecting Proustian exposition or Dostoyevskian characterisation, I was expecting something a little more well-rounded and with a stronger internal logic, and certainly something with a more substantial plot. Still, it's fun, and it's silly, and it's certainly a single sitting read. And certainly the design of the book itself is difficult to go past (I shamefacedly admit to being smitten with this cover). But while tweens and younger teens may gobble this up, older teens may not offer such a resounding endorsement.
As a final aside, I can't help but mention that I found myself a little unsettled by the fact that Frankie's parents encourage her to attend a 'normal school', but only allow her to leave the house wearing caked-on white makeup to hide her naturally green-hued skin. Harrison does emphasise acceptance and inclusion in this novel, but I can't help feel a little disconcerted. Perhaps if a novel is not going to address the complexities of a particular theme, it might be best to avoid raising them in the first place.
*This is very much a hypothetical scenario concocted by a book blogger in a slightly whimsical mood (less)
There’s something enchanting about a train station, and it’s no surprise that they are so frequently evoked in literature as a setting or a context. Train stations, after all, are perfect for bringing people together again, tearing them apart, sending them on journeys, or greeting them as they return. And it’s those large, central stations in particular, those ones from which, and to which, all roads (or tracks, as the case may be) lead that are particularly memorable: they represent habits and opportunities, expectations and adventure and, best of all, veritably hum with the potential for novel encounters. But all too often this potential is not realised: people avoid meeting their fellow commuters’ eyes, pretend not to recognise each other, and stampede along, alone in the bubble of their thoughts as they head along to wherever it is that they’re going. It’s this sort of habituated routine that Cassandra Golds in her novel The Three Loves of Persimmon so beautifully examines.
Eponymous Persimmon is a daily fixture at the vast and grubby Botanical Gardens station, where she spends her days delightedly arranging posies of flowers and chatting with Rose, who provides some rather intellectual conversation given that she’s a talking ornamental cabbage. Persimmon, however, doesn’t begrudge her friend’s green and leafy visage. This is rather lovely to see, given the fact that the young florist has been unceremoniously excommunicated from her family for showing a rather deviant interest in such useless things as flowers rather than agreeing to dedicate her life to, as the rest of her family has for generations, the far more pragmatic and sensible vegetable side of things.
Persimmon’s stance on this integral flower-vegetable divide however, is rather less binary than that of the rest of her family. Rose, for example, straddles the line between flower and vegetable, being that she is not only an ornamental cabbage, but an exceptionally attractive one at that, and might well result in some challenging of flower-produce binaries. Indeed, Persimmon herself may be named for a fruit, but it’s one that’s often used in art and as ornamentation, and is perhaps not as pragmatic and sensible as, say, a potato. And while Persimmon may be a florist, with all the frippery and flippancy that this role apparently suggests, she also has a hard-headed intellectual streak, as indicated by her sheer adoration of a book that has been critically brutalised by the famed critic Mr Peabody, and therefore disregarded by everyone else.
Persimmon, though, despite the quality of conversation offered by Rose (who is quite the literary sort, and is rather adamant that Shakespeare and his lot could be dramatically improved by the addition of a few vegies—and wouldn’t be adverse to the idea of the sonnets being renamed “the punnets”), is desperately lonely. After all, being stationed at the station means that she is a mere morning stop-off in the lives of most people, and such a thing isn’t conducive to making friends or, of course, finding love. And our dear Persimmon, with her quixotic adoration for all things floral and pleasant, is quite the romantic sort. So it’s no surprise that when her deceased (but clairvoyant) aunt begins to send her messages from beyond the grave telling her to get on with it, Persimmon begins to see potential lovers all around. But finding true love is not quite so simple as it might seem. Persimmon walks the Goldilocks-like line between the pragmatic and the playful, and it’s telling when one potential suitor falls instead for a girl named Daisy, while another cruelly finds Persimmon too florid for his hard-headed tastes. For her own part, although it takes her some time to realise it, Persimmon is looking for someone like herself: someone who can stand happily in the overlapping portion of the vegetable-fruit Venn diagram.
Persimmon’s search for love and acceptance is mirrored by a narrative involving a station mouse called Epiphany whose entire existence has thus far , like that of several generations of station mice before her, taken place (in rather a mushroom- or potato-like manner, one might say) in the bowels of the train station. Indeed, Epiphany is scorned whenever she suggests that there might be something beyond this blinkered, limited existence, and the disappearance of her father, who had exhibited the same sorts of curiosity, frequently evoked as reason enough not to question the status quo. But a conversation with a weed blown in by a gusting wind is catalyst enough to send her on an, er, epiphanous journey of her own.
These two narratives, both drawn so beautifully and so enchantingly, come together in a surprising, utterly delightful manner, and it’s all but impossible not to be charmed by the result, which is moving, illuminating, and frankly quite lovely. Golds has an exquisite sense of the fairytale genre, and she evokes every essential element in a way that is absolutely pitch perfect, without ever falling victim to cliché. Her writing is nimble and elegant, and at times gorgeously lyrical without the weight of authorial indulgence that can affect a lesser work. Her characters are gorgeous: they’re archetypes without becoming stereotypes, and they’re drawn with rich subtlety and allusive effect. (And I can’t help but mention the strength and determination of the female characters, who were both unshakeable in their perspectives of self and identity—hoorah for feminism in a fable!) The train station setting is also beautifully exploited, with Golds making it work for her in that way that train stations are perfectly placed to do: as a place of fleeting encounters, adventurous departures and, of course, serendipitous meetings.
This is a beautiful, affecting tale of the need to challenge the status quo, question norms, address binaries and bigotries, and to remain unwavering on those things that are truly important to oneself and one’s identity. It’s a book that may initially seem slight, but that (as its cleverly ambiguous title suggests) opens itself up to reveal an astonishing depth of thought and internal richness.(less)
Gail Carriger’s debut novel Soulless has been on my reading radar (admittedly my reading radar could put most current military technology to shame) fo...moreGail Carriger’s debut novel Soulless has been on my reading radar (admittedly my reading radar could put most current military technology to shame) for some time now, and I must admit to being rather chuffed at arriving home to find that the lovely Hachette Australia had sent me a copy to review. I have rather a thing for parasols, tongue-in-cheek pomposity, and Victorian-era mysteries, and Soulless has all of the above. The rest of this review can be read (less)
I was lucky enough to win this, and the rest of best selling author Kerrelyn Sparks‘ back catalogue, through an Avon romance competition a few weeks a...moreI was lucky enough to win this, and the rest of best selling author Kerrelyn Sparks‘ back catalogue, through an Avon romance competition a few weeks ago. I have to say that I was a little dubious about the books, given that I’m not generally a huge romance reader, and vampires tend to hold very little appeal for me. However, I cracked up laughing when I read the blurb to How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire, and knew that I was going to have a fun time with this book. See for yourself:
Roman Dragenesti is charming, handsome, rich. . .he’s also a vampire. But this vampire just lost one of his fangs sinking his teeth into something he shouldn’t have. Now he has one night to find a dentist before his natural healing abilities close the wound, leaving him a lop-sided eater for all eternity.
So, having read that bizarre blurb, I was off reading. Soon I was ensconced in a bizarre vamps-on-vamps gang warfare book replete with a company that manufactures fake blood with product names such as Chocolood, vampire conferences, a vampire-slaying CIA team, and some vampire dental work that turns out to be difficult to manage given that our heroine, Shanna Whelan, finds it difficult to see a vampire and his teeth in her little dental mirror.
I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by this book, which sort of has a bit of a Buffy or Angel feel to it. Sparks draws on a lot of the old vampire tropes, but does so without taking herself too seriously, and I think it’s largely for this reason that the book really works. She teases her characters and throws them into absurd situations, and gives them bizarre character quirks that need to be worked out. Many of the vampire tropes are twisted in hilarious ways that, rather than being a bit tired, really add to the book. Her characterisation is generally very good, and the plotting and pacing are great. I did feel the end came a bit abruptly, which was perhaps due to the book’s being part of a trilogy. However, in terms of pacing, the only sections that I thought sagged a little were some of the romance sections, where vampire Roman and his lover dentist Shanna (who does finally replace his lost fang) declare all sorts of love for each other or wistfully consider the type of life they could have. My only other gripe is the book’s bizarre title, which has nothing to do with the book at all, and sounds as though it’s trying to fit in with a bunch of other recent titles that boast long and whimsical titles.
All in all, this is a surprisingly good book, and I now have the guilty temptation of Sparks’ other six books sitting on my bookshelves and waiting to be read.(less)
If I were to make a list of things that despite my grumpy and contrarian ways I find almost impossible to dislike, it would include the following: ferrets, Scottish accents, faux European countries, and tongue-in-cheek fairy tale re-tellings. Ondine: Summer of Shambles, Ebony McKenna’s debut, contains all of these things–in some cases in clever combination–putting it instantly on my to-read list.
Following yet another woeful examination performance, fifteen-year-old Ondine de Groot decides that spending her days washing and drying dishes at her parents’ bed and breakfast is by far preferable to honing her admittedly limited extra-sensory skills at psychic summer school. Whilst this might seem rather a strange decision to, well, perhaps any teen who has ever existed, Ondine is quite determined that she wants out, and with scarcely a second thought she has packed her things and is on her way back home. After the stresses of psychic summer camp, Ondine is relieved that her journey home promises to be an uneventful one. At least until the ferret stowed away in her luggage decides that this is a key point at which to begin nattering away to her at a million miles an hour. And in a charming Scottish accent (but with some rather less than charming turns of phrase), no less.
After rather a lot of chatting on the ferret’s behalf, and rather a lot of listening on Ondine’s, it turns out that the furry little fellow is the unfortunate subject of a hex cast by a jilted prom date (Ondine’s great-aunt) the better part of a century ago. And so, Ondine is on a mission: to break the spell on her furry friend so that he might be returned to human form once more. But it seems that the strangeness surrounding Shambles is a portent of things to come, and Ondine is rather perturbed to find that things suddenly become quite a good deal more complex. Although Ondine and Shambles, as her smart-mouthed friend is known, do make a concerted attempt to set about breaking the spell that has trapped him in ferret form for so long, their efforts are secondary to the various other types of intrigue going on in the background: attempted regicide, frowned-upon romances that cross age and class barriers, disapproving visits from the food inspector, the discovery of a wealth (quite literally) of jewels and goodies, and Ondine’s rather unbidden crush on a dastardly but undeniably handsome prince.
If one were to sum up Ondine in a single word, the term that comes immediately to mind is charming. Ebony McKenna has created the sort of rich, curious world that might result from the marriage of a Miyazaki film to a fairy tale by the brothers Grimm, and it’s rather difficult not fall rather in love with it. Full of imposing castles, stodgy pub fare, and references to Eurovision, the fictional country of Brugel recalls something along the lines of late nineteenth-century Germany or Austria, with the odd modern-day anachronism thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the reader is given scarcely more than a taste of this world, which is a shame, as it’s one that piqued my curiosity.
Ondine also suffers from a distinct lack of focus in terms of plot: certain plot elements, such as the attempted regicide, are introduced vaguely, as though almost in passing, and then never really allowed to develop in a substantial manner. This is true, unfortunately, for much of the narrative, and while each plot progression in and of itself promises something fun and enjoyable, the story as a whole never really comes together in a cohesive manner. Even Ondine’s star-crossed romance with Shambles struggles to surface, perhaps due to the fact that it’s given relatively little space in the book. But lack of space is not the only culprit when it comes to undermining the plot’s coherence: there are certain points that just simply feel illogical or lazy, and that jar as a reader. How, for example, is it possible that one can escape so easily from a psychic camp? Surely the psychic supervisors would be aware of such things? Moreover, the fact that Shambles’s ongoing ferrety state can be put down to his simply being in the habit of being a ferret seems like a narratively crude approach to take, and one that is used more for laughs than for any overall plot progression. Another rather more pressing issue is that the book feels almost abridged or abbreviated, and seems to end where it perhaps should have begun.
Still, Ondine is largely carried by its voice and humour, and despite the issues highlighted above there are some very entertaining moments. McKenna’s voice is simultaneously haughty and endearing, and those who enjoy archness in narrative voice, as I do, will find that this, in addition to the emphasis on humour and farce, helps balance out some of the book’s plot and character-related shortcomings. McKenna also takes the time to touch on some interesting themes such as family and obligation, and also looks at issues of taboo and social norms, which adds an interesting dimension to the book. However, this raises another issue, which is that of the positioning of this book as a young adult novel, which I’m not entirely sure is accurate. While Ondine does deal with some issues that fall quite firmly into YA, and the protagonist falls into the age range typical of a YA, the tone and plotting of Ondine both have a distinct middle grade feel. Given that books targeted at either age group tend to employ particular conventions and approaches, the genre ambivalence of Ondine means that it’s not entirely successful as a YA or as an MG. This is unfortunate, as I can’t help but feel that Ondine may slip through the gaps as a result.(less)
Having read quite a bit of young adult fiction this year, I’ve become rather disconcerted by the ways in which females, both young and old, are often depicted. While in many cases authors work to give us well-rounded and positive characters with whom to identify, I’ve come across more than my fair share of depictions that feel either quiveringly parochial or sneeringly cruel. The former is often seen in the fact that so many characters seem desperate to utterly lose themselves within the safety of a (generally unhealthy) romance, thus ceding agency and that scary notion of individuality and responsibility. The latter seems to arise in the problematic intersection that occurs when strength is conflated with outright bitchiness. While of course young adulthood is a challenging, tumultuous time, and such situations and scenarios do arise in the real world, it’s the fact these problematic issues tend to go unchallenged in YA literature that bothers me. There’s certainly been a shift towards an eerie romantic conservatism that condones all-enveloping approaches to “love”, that highlights selflessness, subservience and, frankly, an astonishing acceptance of the most terrifyingly stalkerish behaviours. But in those cases where this is challenged, it seems, it’s done via the literary equivalent of raunch culture, resulting in heated exchanges of snark somehow designed to gloss over the worrying power imbalances that still remain all too obvious.
Van Badham’s Burnt Snow, then, is an antidote of sorts, a narrative catharsis that quietly (and sometimes raucously) takes these issues in hand, and that intelligently toys with them, and then subverts them utterly. Badham’s approach is clever enough that it’s difficult not to feel as though there is a subtle undercurrent of satire lurking beneath this novels glossy, teen-friendly plot. I can’t help, too, but acknowledge the palpable feminist exhortations implicit in so many of the elements of this classy debut. While it’s not a feminist work per se, there are themes, situations, and characters that certainly invite relevant discussion.
When Sophie moves from Sydney to the sleepy coastal town of Yarrindi, she’s prepared for a largely uneventful year. But as with all small communities, Yarrinidi’s quaint and cautious exterior belies a much more troublesome underbelly, one that begins to creepingly manifest with the slow inexorability of a gathering storm. Secrets abound, both within the town, and deep within Sophie herself, and Sophie finds herself negotiating not only the querulous boundaries of teen friendship (and in this book these boundaries are roughly as neatly drawn and stable as those found in a country in the midst of civil war), but facing a crisis of self that emerges as she learns more about he family’s magic-drenched background. And if this isn’t enough, Sophie finds herself unreasonably drawn to the intractable Brody Meine, whose inscrutable nature is about as permeable as a genius-level Sudoku, and is equally as frustrating. But sparks fly–literally–when the two are together, and despite the warnings of all of those around her, Sophie finds herself desperate to tease out the elements of the Escheresque puzzle of which she has suddenly become part. But it’s a decision that brings with it horrific and inescapable consequences, and Sophie finds herself both the subject of a startling transformation, and the object of a truly terrifying witch hunt.
It’s difficult not to draw parallels between Burnt Snow and a certain best-selling YA novel, for Burnt Snow, while in some ways following a similar trajectory, takes such a vastly different approach. (A notable wink, perhaps, is the fact that Sophie, rather than arriving in a sodden, rain-drenched down, something that must be simply accepted as-is, instead appears to bring with her a seriously aggressive storm that threatens the whole town.) Despite the fact that Sophie has lived within a fairly protective household and has avoided seeking out situations that would challenge her fairly limited world-view, there’s a sense of agency here, and one that becomes more and more assertive as the book progresses. Indeed, almost immediately upon Sophie’s arrival in Yarrindi, there’s a very clear shift in her personality: Sophie becomes someone who is always questioning, always seeking the truth, always challenging norms. This isn’t to say that Sophie’s behaviour is epiphanous or motivated by some sort of savant-esque brilliance, of course. Sophie, more often that not, makes a right mess of things, finding herself in all manner of awkward, painful, and occasionally downright dangerous situations. But it’s the fact that she’s always analysing her actions and her motivations that makes for such interesting reading. Rather than mindlessly going along for the ride, Sophie is constantly engaged in increasingly sophisticated self-reflection. And while this doesn’t necessarily mean that she makes the right decisions for herself, or for those around her, she’s at least aware of what she’s doing, and why.
One fascinating component of the book is Sophie’s social ambivalence as she tries to make sense of Yarrindi’s immensely complex schoolyard politics. Sophie sees her move to Yarrindi as an opportunity to explore and develop her adult self, and does so by attempting to ingratiate herself into the school’s in-crowd. There are, of course, complex motivations for doing so: the protection that comes with being part of such a group, the sense of adulthood and maturity she feels at being able to transform herself in a sphere that’s beyond her parents’ influence are two key factors. Participation in Sophie’s new group, however, requires the sort of diplomatic skills typically honed over years of employment in the UN, and Sophie finds herself conflicted over the new self she has developed and the yearning she has to recreate the quiet and supportive social standing she maintained in Sydney. Badham does an excellent job of teasing out the seeming arbitrariness of these friendships, as well as Sophie’s constant sense of ambivalence over her new role, and I’m impressed by the way she manages to work with such a large supporting cast in a way that presents each character as a well-defined individual rather than relying too heavily on archetypes. The cast is largely female, and generally strong and progressive in nature: beneath those caked-on layers of make-up are some savvy and complex individuals who are quick to condemn wrongdoing and unfairness, and I must say that I enjoyed the fact that sexism when it crops up is immediately pounced upon and problematised rather than being treated as a simple status quo (although there is one scene with Sophie’s mother that may invite some questioning from the reader). While these characters do at first seem a little superficial and hastily sketched, Badham slowly takes us deep within them, being careful to show that there’s always more to a person than meets the eye. Badham’s approach to sexuality, sensuality, and maturity is equally as rewarding, and while there are one or two scenes that feel a little too longingly altruistic, or a little too “be careful what you wish for”, she takes a sensitive approach to sex, virginity, and sexual preferences, and I appreciate the space that this is given in the book.
In addition to the above, perhaps one of the strongest things about Burnt Snow is its assured approach to setting, which is something that Australian young adult authors often struggle with. There’s a tendency for Australian YA literature to be set in geographically ambiguous areas: unnamed towns and made-up suburbs are usually par for the course, and our school system is often given the American treatment to make it more palatable for the US market. Moreover, our ethnic composition (which is substantially different from that of the US) and certain social norms are often skimmed over or made generic for the same reason. But Badham’s Yarrindi bursts off the page, and her Sydney is also well-drawn. The high school, where much of the drama takes place, is almost unfailingly believable, although there are a few elements, such as the private time-out room given to love interest Brody, that feel a little stretched.
To me, the areas where Burnt Snow suffers a little is in the relatively slow-going introduction–the novel is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a slow burner, and does take some time for the high octane stuff to get going–and in the introduction of the magical elements, which can be occasionally awkward and out-of-place. I do feel that they could have been more carefully and subtly integrated into the narrative in order to fit more neatly with the otherwise cautious and steady flow of the book. As it is, nose-bleeds, seizures, thunderstorms, shattered glass, and demonic possession abound, and their treatment is a little uneven, with some taking on an almost comic, Buffy-esque feel that doesn’t quite fit the tone of the rest of the book. Some of these plot points I feel stretch unnecessarily, such as the “closing of the circle” scene, where Sophie’s friends are bespelled (moreover, despite these characters’ massively strange actions, few others even seem to even notice the whole ordeal, which I felt rather odd), while others seem a touch hasty or unmotivated. Of these, Sophie’s new-found magical knowledge is probably the most rushed, and required a re-read; a scene involving a confession on the part of Sophie’s mother also sits a little awkwardly on some rickety narrative scaffolding.
Burnt Snow offers a welcome respite from some of the teen lit cropping up at the moment, providing a cast of well-drawn characters, a strong setting, and an exotic mythos that will titillate and entice, all of which will no doubt result in fans clamouring at their local bookshop for the sequel. We’re given a fascinatingly multi-faceted main character whose constant ambivalence is all-too believable (as is the fact that she unerringly focuses on her love interest despite the world potentially coming to an end), and who seems to have vast potential for growth. My only major gripes are the pacing issues and the slightly awkward introduction of the magical elements, which push it just slightly below the “excellent” mark for me. In all, though, this is a very good read, and no doubt we’re to see some impressive work from Badham in the future.(less)
Anyone who’s been reading this site for a while knows that I regularly pass on zingy series fiction to my husband. Though his reading interests are polar opposites of mine, he’s possibly an even tougher critic. He’s basically a thirty-year-old teenage boy, and a mere paragraph of extraneous exposition results in him skim-reading–or worse, putting down a book for good.
Presently I can only think of half a dozen or so series that pass the husband test. These include Michael Grant’s Gone series, Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, and the mega-fat Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. With Steven Lochran’s Vanguard Prime books, I can add another to this list. (When I get a chance, Steve, I’ll totally make you a badge.)
The standard X meets Y elevator pitch for these books seems to be Alex Rider meets X-Men, but I’d disagree–and only partly because Alex Rider failed the husband test. My description would be something more along the lines of Percy Jackson meets Captain Planet after a serious red cordial and jelly snake binge. (Strangely enough, very few of my blurbs end up on the backs of books. I can’t imagine why that is.)
But in all seriousness, Wild Card, the second in Lochran’s Vanguard Prime series, is excellent stuff. It’s a book that, like the Percy Jackson books, combines quick-draw pacing with intelligent, self-aware humour and a wonderful sense of the humanity that is underscored by its super-human characters. Lochran has a superb understanding of the power of juxtaposition and contrast, and he uses his superhero glitz and glamour as a lens through which to examine the everyday.
So plot-wise, what do we have? Here’s a quick run-down. Newly recruited superhero Goldrush is off attending a personal development session when he and his chaperone the Knight of Wands are attacked. It turns out that the Knight of Wands is the subject of a Kill Order–but as they try to find out who’s behind the order, Goldrush and the Knight of Wands find themselves caught up in a complex battle of maybe-good versus maybe-bad, with many shades of grey in between. No one’s entirely as they seem, and Lochran plays up the moral ambiguity of the situation to excellent effect, giving us a fascinating cast of characters with conflicting interests and intriguing back-stories.
Unlike many such series, our protagonist is not a kind of blank-slate everyman. He’s surprisingly well-defined for such a slender volume, and Lochran puts him to work battling all sorts of existential and moral dilemmas. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the fact that Goldrush (also known as Sam) identifies as somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (binary?) of ordinary person and superhero. Throughout the book he vacillates between dreaming about what his friends from his “ordinary” life are doing and bridling at the fact that he hasn’t been formally acknowledged as a member of his new superhero family. He also finds himself seeking out the mundane in the extraordinary and vice-versa, and these small moments add up to something that over time creates quite an impact.
At first all of this identity crisis business may seem at odds with the larger business of fighting baddies, but in Lochran’s cleverly realised world, it’s not at all. Goldrush’s identity is key to the decisions that he makes–as is pointed out quite explicitly by the Knight of Wands during his superheroism as a “call to personal evolution” speech. The speech might seem immediately applicable to Goldrush, but in fact it’s universally applicable.
What Lochran is doing with Wild Card is ambitious and clever. It’s less the kind of a superhero story you might see on the big screen, and more one where the term “super” is used to simply exaggerate very real issues. Lochran’s characters speak of superheroes, of superheroism, or superpowers, but in many ways they live in a world of omni-hyperbole. When everything is exaggerated, those exaggerations then become normalised, bringing us back full circle: this series is in many ways a classic bildungsroman–only set against a backdrop of kapows, witty banter and leotards, and with a plot that’s more determined that your typical Terminator to keep on truckin’.
Admittedly, there are some things that felt a little incongruously heavy-handed against this thematic elegance and some very, very slick writing. I do wonder whether the fact that I stumbled over these elements was due partly to my lack of familiarity with the graphic novel side of the superhero canon, which I’d bet that this series draws upon quite heavily. For example, I felt that the switching between the points-of-views of Goldrush and his antagonists resulted in some choppiness, particularly when those scenes were action-heavy and were occurring simultaneously; neither was I entirely satisfied with the nightmares that bookend the story. Curiously, I can see these elements working in a more visually oriented format–and wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this was the effect that Lochran was going for here.
A gripe that’s less readily explained by the above but that can probably be put down to the difficulties of marketing an Australian author to a global audience is the fact that the book feels locationally ambiguous: I didn’t get a strong sense of Sam’s background, and felt that both Sam and his non-superhero life felt a bit unanchored as a result. Once things get moving, however, we’re spirited off to more concrete locations, which certainly helps to ground the book.
Brimming with imagination and wit and with pacing so fast that you’ll be in pain from the G forces, Wild Card is a overall thoroughly enjoyable addition to the superhero genre. And given that it passed the husband test with flying colours, I’m pretty sure it’ll pass the disaffected teen reader test, too.(less)
If you’ve ever wanted to read George RR Martin, but the thought of slogging through a dozen volumes each of a good thousand or so pages daunts you, I’...moreIf you’ve ever wanted to read George RR Martin, but the thought of slogging through a dozen volumes each of a good thousand or so pages daunts you, I’d suggest picking up Kate Forsyth’s newest offering The Starkin Crown instead. Read the rest of this review (less)
**spoiler alert** Theodosia Throckmorton, young heroine of R L LaFevers’s Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, is proof of the saying that work, rathe...more**spoiler alert** Theodosia Throckmorton, young heroine of R L LaFevers’s Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, is proof of the saying that work, rather like a gas, will always expand to fill the space given to it. Despite the fact that Theo neither attends school nor is supervised by a governess or tutor, and that her parents, enthralled by the exigencies of their curatorial and archaeological work, are scarcely aware of her existence, Theo in no way lives an idle life. Precocious and bookish, and with an interest in all manner of arcana—an interest rather well served by her daily proximity to the museum in which her father works—Theo spends her days reading up on topics such as ancient Egyptian hexes and curses, an area in which she demonstrates considerable natural talent. While her formal knowledge of the stuff is quite extensive, she also has a bit of an intuitive knack for identifying cursed objects. . .
Such as those brought home by her mother from a recent archaeological dig in Egypt, which sheis horrified to realise are positively crawling with all manner of dark magic. One item in particular results in a near-visceral reaction from sensitive Theo: a legendary amulet known as the Heart of Egypt, which Theo fears is tainted with a curse so foul and powerful that it has the potential to cause the fall of Britain if it ends up in the wrong hands. Which, of course, it does. And, given that the setting of the novel is early 20th Century Britain, the wrong hands, are, of course, Ze Germans. With the help of street urchin pickpocket Sticky Will, her slightly dunderheaded brother Henry, and the slightly wigged-out Lord Wigmere from the Antiquaries Society, Theo sets off after the undeniably evil von Braggenschnott (his name alone, most onomasticians would agree, incites a bit of a tremble in the old knees) in order to retrieve the Heart of Egypt and return it to the tomb where it was found—a task that requires some parental wheedling, a spot of stowing away on a ship bound for Africa, and a rather complex combination of luck and magic.
Given that all of this fits into the space of a mere few hundred (substantially spaced) pages, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos is quite the plot-oriented book. Unfortunately, such breathless rapidity is frequently to the detriment of other essentials such as characterisation and mood, and this sadly serves to undermine the book as a whole. Despite what should be a grimily fascinating and politically fraught setting in pre-WW I London, the authors fails to evoke any real feeling of either location or era, forcing the reader to clutch at occasional snippets about long-skirted dresses, omnibuses, and train station thievery in order to paint a picture of what should be a wonderfully dark and desultory period. The unanchored feel of the book is in part compounded by the depiction of snarky Theodosia, whose speech and attitudes both feel rather too modern for the book’s setting.
While many of the characters are little more than sketches, and frequently fail to rise above broadly rendered caricatures, it’s Theodosia who to me is the most problematic. The author intends, one imagines, to depict her as witty, gutsy, and ambitious, but her rather galling condescension towards virtually every other character in the novel transforms her instead into something quite unlikeable. Perhaps this is in part because Theodosia tends to act on her own, eschewing cooperation and collaboration unless it serves her ends, or perhaps one could put it down to the astounding neglect of her academically oriented parents, but either way, I’d certainly be wary of coming across this young lass in a dark alleyway, or even a well-lit room, for that matter. Given that the novel is written in first person, however, it’s impossible to escape Theodosia, and one therefore must put up with her unerringly sneering reproaches. Theo does have her moments where pluckiness rather than arrogance shines through, particularly towards the end of the novel, but one has to hope that her facetious ‘tude might be dialled back somewhat in later iterations of the Theodosia series.
The novel also struggles under the weight of some awkward narrative turns that make it difficult for the reader to suspend disbelief. As a reader, I’m largely accepting of anything strange and unusual–but only so long as it fits within the logic of the world as set out by the author. Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos suffers from not a few moments of ‘just because!’ logic and eyebrow-raising coincidence, particularly in the latter half. Wigmere, for example, tasks Theodosia, who one must recall is an eleven year old girl in pre-women’s-lib-era Britain, with personally returning the Heart of Egypt, citing, in what one can only describe as a highly dubious argument, the unavailability of his extensive task for as a recent for doing so. Likewise, a number of narrative coincidences with which I can’t help take issue, and which are perhaps the result of editorial pruning, result in awkward montage-esque scenes involving Theo chasing down baddies in labyrinthine London (think the sewer scene in The Third Man, only without the zither) and dashing about Cairo’s market places and Giza’s pyramids.
It’s a shame that the novel is plagued by such a number of problems, as the Theodosia series otherwise promises a light and entertaining take on Ancient Egyptian mythology and history, and potentially brings with it a strong female narrator whose plight may well be enjoyed not only by female readers, but by that notoriously intransigent and rather difficult to please subsection of the reading population–the middle years male. However, uninvested and uncritical readers may well enjoy this lively introduction to an archaeological mystery series.
We last left Percy Jackson, the young demigod hero of Rick Riordan’s inordinately popular middle grade series, celebrating his birthday whilst preparing to fight a battle whose outcome will result in either the restoration of Mount Olympus and all things god and godly or, well, the end of the world. Percy, the unlucky subject of a rather morbid Prophecy thrust upon him as a young lad, is, of course, going to play a significant role in this whole unpleasant scenario. But though many would find it difficult to chow down on a cupcake or two whilst contemplating the death and destruction to come, Percy’s quite cool about the whole thing. In fact, when we first encounter the young son of Poseidon in this, the last book in the series, he’s not spending his days lost in tactics and strategies and similarly odious things—rather, he’s out and about joyriding in his stepfather’s car. As you do.
But given that this is a Riordan book, we know that Percy’s idyllic summer is soon to come to an end, and within a few pages poor Percy finds himself flying headlong into battle in an effort to head off the approaching forces of Kronos, the titan time-lord who is intent on having his time in the sun, or in the smoke and rubble, as the case may be. Kronos, rather the more diligent student when it comes to all this battle-related, has spent the summer steadily massing his thoroughly unpleasant army ready to take down Percy, the Camp Half-Blood crew, and not a few fairly well-regarded gods. While Percy is fortunate enough to escape, the gravity of the whole shebang slowly dawns upon him, and he begins to position his own army in preparation for the invasion. Percy, though rather pleased with himself at all of this, is perhaps more than mildly chagrined to find that Kronos is only one (albeit a significant one) of his worries. Upping the stakes somewhat further again is the terrifying titan Typhon, a rather nasty beast who, according to Greek mythology, can lay claim to being the father of all monsters. Given Typhon’s rather chequered past–the odd effort to slay Zeus, and similar infelicities–and his vast, well, vastness, it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the big league gods are directing their efforts towards putting down the titan rather than stepping in for a little deus ex machina goodness with regard to the Kronos situation.
Percy and the campers soon find themselves all but overwhelmed: despite their training and preparation at the camp over the years, they lack the power and skill to be able to overcome such a significant threat. As the casualties rise, Percy realises that urgent action needs to be taken in order to defeat Kronos, and so ventures down into the Underworld to give himself over to the River Styx, an act that will make him invincible–save for one potentially crippling weakness.
While Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian has a lot to recommend it, I can’t help but feeling a little disappointed with the novel as a whole. Riordan works to bring together the various storylines and characters from the previous novels, and given the fairly disparate nature of some of these, he does a good job of integrating them fairly seamlessly into the narrative. There are occasions, however, where the character cameos feel a little forced, and it’s rather as though we’re viewing the credits at the end of an 80s teen movie, watching the actors smile and wave as the camera pans over them. While some of these walk-on characters do play a role in the novel, it’s difficult not to feel as though their insertion is purely for the point of squeezing a nostalgic tear from the reader. There are other slightly jarring moments, too–motivations that seem odd or baseless, such as Clarisse’s refusal to fight alongside the campers, and the sudden introduction of items, such as Pandora’s Box, which we’re told will play an important role, but never really does. Similarly, the identity and role of the last Olympian seems rather slight given the book’s title, and one can’t help but wonder whether things could not have been reworked to allow for a smoother narrative.
The book similarly struggles with another problem typical of those that end a series: that of the final resolution. In my experience, final books frequently stumble under the responsibility of having to tie up loose ends and provide a satisfying culmination to the overarching plot of the series, as well as those plot points raised within the more finite boundaries of the volume. While The Last Olympian does quite a good job of walking the tight-rope between the two, it does rather fall victim to the ‘winding up’ syndrome, and introduces very little in the way of new conflicts or challenges (save perhaps in the final chapter). The unfortunate result of this is that much of the novel feels inevitable–we know how it will play out, and in the end there’s very little that surprises.
The emphasis on ‘closure’ and conclusion also means that less attention is given to character building. While some of the characters do seem to develop of their own accord as a result of their actions in the battle, for the large part character growth is quite literally bestowed upon the characters by the various gods at the end of the book. Highlighting the key points of particular characters’ actions in such a way almost seems to weaken the veracity of them, and Riordan’s other characterisation/backstory trick, ie relaying information via dreams, is used to such a degree in this last book that it becomes quite frustrating–one longs for the characters to actually do something to solve a problem rather than simply dream it.
This isn’t to say that The Last Olympian is a weak novel. Riordan is a strong writer, and builds his narrative upon an equally strong framework. There are particular elements here that do stand out a little from the previous books, and Riordan has done well to elucidate them. The usually free-wheeling and giddy Percy becomes a little more introspective, and his conceptions of good and bad become more nuanced, allowing him to examine his and others’ motivations in a more subtle and interesting way than he might have previously. Similarly, Riordan opens a thread of dialogue with regard to the true instigating factor(s) of Krono’s war against the gods that challenges conceptions of power and perceptions of egalitarianism. There is the notion of oppression and exclusion, and how these issues affect others–topics that could easily be transplanted into myriad situations in today’s world. While it is difficult to explore such issues to any great depth within such a fast-paced narrative, it’s commendable that Riordan manages to integrate such themes without doing so overtly or in a didactic manner.
In all, The Last Olympian is a welcome conclusion to the Percy Jackson series, and does a fine job of tying up the various plot and character arcs that have carried through the earlier novels. Percy’s wry sense of humour and typically anecdotal manner is in evidence throughout, helping to lift and expand the narrative, in particular in the later scenes, where he turns his astute gaze to more complex and challenging manners. It’s true that the battle scenes do at times feel never-ending, slowing somewhat the breakneck pacing we’re used to, and do feel rather predictable, but there’s no denying that this final volume is a fitting farewell to Camp Half-Blood.(less)
Lisi Harrison’s back with the third installment of her junk food-esque Monster High series, and it looks as though she’s finding her stride. Though th...moreLisi Harrison’s back with the third installment of her junk food-esque Monster High series, and it looks as though she’s finding her stride. Though there’s no denying that these books make Stephen King, the self-proclaimed “literary equivalent of a hamburger” look like the ten course degustation menu at Jacques Reymond, with matching wines, they’re the kind of guilty pleasure that you’ll indulge in after a tough day at work (and after which you promise yourself that you’ll atone for your bad behaviour with a run or a volume of French poetry).
Well-regarded paranormal writing duo Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie, best known for their Wicked series, have returned with a new series in which the...moreWell-regarded paranormal writing duo Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie, best known for their Wicked series, have returned with a new series in which the “cursed ones”, the blood-lovin’ folks of the world, have had enough of behind-the-scenes living, and have made their presence known to the world. However, unlike the vamps in the Sookie Stackhouse books (see our reviews), the nocturnal critters in Cursed Ones aren’t sexy, and they aren’t especially friendly. In fact, they have a bit of the ol’ world domination on their minds, and that, combined with an insatiable blood-lust, makes them rather formidable foes. So formidable in fact, that the developed world is slowly crumbling beneath the onslaught of these dastardly folk.
But where there are vampires, there’s always a vampire hunter, or in this case, a team of them. Eighteen-year-old Jenn Leitner is one such “hunter”, having stepped into the role after a rigorous, Tarantino-worthy training schedule at Spain’s Sacred Heart Academy . Working as part of a team of butt-kicking comrades, it’s Jenn’s duty to go about dusting any of the fanged and the fabulous. But things quickly become complicated when one of Jenn’s own family betrays her, and when her little sister Heather is kidnapped by a fearsome gang of blood-thirsty vamps, and Jenn finds herself facing down her greatest fears, and foes, all at once.
Perhaps I’m showing my reviewery age, but I’m quite the jaded cynic when it comes to all things vampire-related. As a reader, I tend to find myself liking a book despite it including vampires rather than because it does, so any author trotting out vampiric tropes before me is facing some harsh initial hurdles indeed. I’ve certainly been pleasantly surprised by some authors in the past year or so, but I’ve also found myself groaning through a morass of cliched dross.
The Cursed Ones certainly isn’t the latter, but I’m afraid that it didn’t quite light my fire the way it might have. Despite an exotic setting (Spain, glorious Spain), and a racially diverse cast (hooray!), the book struggles somewhat in the plot stakes (pardon the pun), perhaps in part because of the challenge involved in setting up a new series, which I admit is far from an easy one.
The book’s painfully confusing in media res opening had me flailing about as a reader, and I admit to going back to check whether this was indeed the first in the series, or whether I’d missed a volume or two somewhere down the track. We’re immediately thrown into the action, with an array of seemingly disparate characters slaughtering vamps and monsters all over the place. While these openings can be great on camera, in a novel the reader needs a touch more time to find a character with whom to empathise so that they can hitch on and enjoy the narrative ride. As it was, I found this book rather like a Japanese hot spring: far too terrible to leap into immediately, and requiring a few tentative toe-dippings before I could fully immerse myself in it.
While things certainly pick up after this awkward opening, the plot struggles to bring much anything fresh to the table, meaning that the reader is left relying on the characters to carry the novel. While there are some interesting characters introduced throughout the novel, there’s rather a sense of a D&D game to it all, with characters picked deliberately in order that they might contrast with the others in the book (the Planeteers from Captain Planet rather come to mind here…). There are some interesting personal challenges highlighted, with Catholic vampire Antonio’s quest for redemption being a particularly interesting one, and the difficulty in resolving human and inhuman aspects, such as those doing battle within the werewolf character Holger. However, I felt that the fact that much of the narrative focuses on Jenn, who spends most of her days swamped by feelings of inadequacy, resulted in the novel being less successful than it might have been if we’d spent more time in the point of view of the other characters.
That’s not to say that we don’t flit between POVs, because, oh, we do. While for the most part this works, some of the head-hopping becomes a little vertiginous after a while, and I found myself in so many different heads that I was beginning to wonder if I’d developed psychic powers. I can’t help but wonder whether a tighter approach to point of view might have resulted in a streamlined book. And just as an aside, I always find it weird when non-native speakers slip into their native tongue for basic phrases such as “yes”, “no”, or “thank you”. Surely these phrases are amongst those learnt by rote, and it’s the more challenging parts of the language, such as idioms or exceptions, that would require one to fall back on one’s native tongue?
Perhaps the major issue with the book is that each character’s kryptonite is so explicitly stated that much of the mystery is taken out of the narrative. We know that Jenn’s sister’s asthma will play a role in the plot. We watch as Jenn and the vampiric would-be Catholic priest struggle through the most challenging demonstration of starcrossed loverdom since Romeo and Juliet. The careful telegraphing of the various characters’ motivations, weaknesses, and actions results in a plot that’s neat, but unfortunately rather inexorable, which is a shame.
Finally, I did find myself struggling a little, as I usually do, with the characterisation of the vampires. With the exception of Antonio, who is rendered as a counterpoint to the rest of his brethren, this whole race is drawn in rather broad brush-strokes (read: “baddies”). Such approaches always unnerve me a little in fiction, as it’s hard not to draw analogies with historical minority groups, and I always find myself mentally flagging these instances.
Admittedly, as someone who is lukewarm about paranormal fiction at best, The Cursed Ones isn’t quite my cup of tea, but if you skip the few first chapters you’ll find yourself in for a neat and tidy, if not especially memorable, read. I suspect that since this book was largely dedicated to laying the groundwork for this series, things will pick up in the next offering from this powerhouse duo.(less)
Last year I read and enjoyed Ebony McKenna’s whimsical, dreamy debut Ondine: Summer of Shambles, and was delighted when the second in the series lande...moreLast year I read and enjoyed Ebony McKenna’s whimsical, dreamy debut Ondine: Summer of Shambles, and was delighted when the second in the series landed on my desk. What made Ondine so utterly enjoyable in my mind was its charming mix of nostalgia, magic, absurd pop culture references and, well, talking ferrets, and the follow up offers more of the same, but in an even stronger and more delightful package.
If there’s anyone who’s living (well, dead, I suppose) proof of nominative determinism, it’s the brothers Grimm. All that stuff about happy endings a...more If there’s anyone who’s living (well, dead, I suppose) proof of nominative determinism, it’s the brothers Grimm. All that stuff about happy endings and princesses with shining hair? Made up by Disney and Mills & Boon. The real Grimm stuff is just that–grim indeed. If you can measure the worth of a story based on its blood, guts and decapitations, well, it’s no wonder that these are classics.
I should admit that I was initially attracted to Century by its beautifully gloomy cover: all chiaroscuro shades with a stunning purple foil title. Ho...moreI should admit that I was initially attracted to Century by its beautifully gloomy cover: all chiaroscuro shades with a stunning purple foil title. However, in this instance I can happily say that I was right to judge a book by its cover.
While author Sarah Singleton is no newcomer to fiction—or non-fiction for that matter—Century is her first foray into young adult fiction. While some authors struggle to make the transition between adult and young adult fiction, coming off as overly earnest or painfully twee and pat, Singleton seems to have found a genre that works for her.
Century is an eerie, ghostly tale that has an old-worldly feel to it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that it had been dug out of Great-great-great Aunt Edith’s (bless her soul) old leather trunk, or that it had been unearthed from amidst the forgotten curiosities lurking in a shut up attic.
The book tells the tale of young sisters Mercy and Charity, who have lived all their lives in the mansion Century, staring out at a never-ending winter. The girls’ days are dark and bleak, and their routine consists of little more than stodgy breakfasts and ill-remembered lessons. However, on one of these seemingly endless days, Mercy not only finds a tear on her pillow, but comes across a ghost in the nearby lake, and these strange discoveries lead her to realise that not all is as it seems. Mercy’s days are suddenly filled with musing and curiosity: how old is she? When was the last time she saw her mother? How long have they been living in Century? and she embarks upon a ravenous study of her family’s history.
The girls’ father, Mercy finds out, unable to cope with the death of their mother, has placed the house and its inhabitants under a spell that sees them living out the same day over and over as time passes by around them. While this plot element should seem trite and clichéd, Singleton treats it masterfully, taking us back and forth in time to show us exactly how the family came to be in such a situation. Moreover, rather than simply treating it as an inexplicable curse that Mercy must simply learn to deal with, we watch as she struggles with the losses the curse represents, and her frustration and anger at being forced away from a typical life, even though she has known nothing different.
Singleton draws together a web of fascinating incidents involving Frankensteinian experimentation, pained and unrequited love, and a family secret capable of shattering lives, and the result is a chilling, masterful tale that is surprisingly beautiful. Don’t expect a dirge, though—the ending is quite uplifting, and I found myself drawing parallels (somewhat oddly) with both The City of Ember and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy: after watching someone trapped in darkness for so long, it’s a beautiful sight to watch them come out, blinking, into something altogether new.(less)
All I can say is that I would have found it rather more interesting if when I was in high...moreThis review originally appeared at Read in a Single Sitting.
All I can say is that I would have found it rather more interesting if when I was in high school my peers hadn’t passed notes about their crushes and packed lunches, but rather notes that said things like ‘someone in 2Y is a witch’.
Of course, in my school, this probably would’ve just resulted in a bit of reprimanding or a snide remark about not being of the proper character to study law or medicine (the horror!). But at gloomy and oppressive Larwood House, this little note causes a good deal more of a kerfuffle. Witchcraft is a serious, burnable-at-stake offence, after all. It doesn’t, therefore, take long for word to get out about this concise little accusation, and since popularity is negatively correlated with one’s likelihood of being a witch, the attention promptly turns to the class outcasts.
What ensues is a terrific muddle of witchcraft gone wrong, brilliant epistolary asides, hilariously terrible inquisitions (imagine Monty Python-esque roleplays in which characters are asked to play the role of a witch in order to assess their true witchiness), and a sad and sorry subplot of utterly pathetic unrequited love that will have you feeling quite the socially suave individual in comparison.
Against a backdrop of disappearing school shoes, the current class knitting fad and terrible school lunches, Wynne Jones explores in-group and out-group belonging and how easily people clump together against a perceived outcast in order to preserve their own standing. (There’s a brilliant examination of this pecking order provided by one of the characters in a journal entry, where the idea of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ boys and girls is posited, as well as the sheer danger of overstepping the boundaries allowed by one’s social rank.)
But it’s not only the crowd mentality that gets explored in Witch Week, but also the impact of deficit thinking. Where one of the accused is strident in renouncing his possible witch-hood, another finds herself of the mindset that if people are going to accuse her of being a witch, well, why not indeed be a witch?
There is so much clever, witty stuff going on here, and beneath the humour and zaniness is a very intelligent examination of social structures and how they come to be impressed upon us. Up until the very last few chapters (and I’m going to get spoilery here, but you’re big kids, you can take it) I was having a tremendous time. But of course, this being part of the Chrestomanci series, Chrestomanci must makes his deux ex machina appearance. And what comes next is something I’m rather torn over. It’s brilliant, but it’s also disappointing in a way, in that it negates the very existence of everything we’ve just read.
Still, this quibble aside, Witch Week is Diana Wynne Jones in top form, and I recommend picking up a copy if you haven’t already.(less)
My morning walk to work takes me past the National Gallery of Victoria, and past the gallery’s huge water feature, a thing loaded and glimmering with tossed-in coins. And no doubt, wish those coins, wishes. Every now and then I’ll walk past to find that the water feature appears to have been cleaned out, and I find myself wondering what has become of those coins and the wishes that they represent.
In Verdigris Deep, Frances Hardinge takes things a good deal further than my own vague thoughts about coins and wishes, drawing on folklore to devise a marvellous, eerie tale of well spirits, wishes gone terribly wrong and the corrupting nature of power. It’s my second outing with Hardinge, and I can say that with her vivid, unpatronising prose, wonderful creativity, and unflinching willingness to challenge her readers, she’s certainly wedged herself firmly in my bookish heart alongside the likes of Diana Wynne Jones and Kate Forsyth.
Ryan, Josh and Chelle are dashing to catch their bus home from the forbidden area of Magwhite when they realise that they’re short of coins. Ever the quick thinker, Josh, the entrepreneurial, devil-may-care individual of the group, retrieves a handful of coins from a nearby well and uses them to pay the fare. All’s well that ends well. At least, temporarily. Each of the three begins to notice changes. Chatty Chelle finds that she’s able to tune into the thoughts of others, and that she’s unable to keep from parroting those thoughts. Thoughtful, near-sighted Ryan begins to develop a strange type of second sight that manifests as wart-like eyeballs on his hands. Josh’s sparky personality begins to extend to a mastery over all things electromagnetic. The children soon realise that by stealing the coins from the well, they’ve unwittingly accepted responsibility for granting the wishes associated with those coins.
But as they set about doing so, they find that the wishes they grant have consequences that are rarely positive. While Josh leaps into the wish-granting fray with abandon, striving to grant even those most horrid, audacious of wishes, Chelle and Ryan both find themselves musing on the very nature of wishes. It’s Ryan who realises that, like a conker, there are two elements to a wish: the prickly outside that seems to be the wish, and the hard interior that is the actual wish. When people make their wishes, it seems, they may say one thing while meaning something entirely different–such as the man who wishes for a Harley Davidson, when what he really wants is to be the type of person who rides a Harley Davidson.
Things slowly unravel around the children as their efforts to right things in a world where the very nature of right is in question go terribly awry. Hardinge juxtaposes the literal wish-fulfilment and its outcomes against the backdrop of the children’s lives. Like the wishers whose problems the children are trying to solve, they all have their own problems, things they wish could be magicked away because they don’t know how to deal with them. Or things they believe they wish will come true.
There’s Josh’s desire to be noticed by his parents, who are so caught up in their own world that they have little time for him–which explains in part his willingness to act on his god-like powers. There’s Ryan’s dislike of his biographer mother’s career and the painful consequences it has for her subjects. There’s Chelle’s gaucheness and her inability to fit in, and the way that her newfound gossiping power both ingratiates her into Ryan and Josh’s friendship while alienating her from others. There’s so much going on here, but Hardinge treats her young readers with the respect and equality that they deserve, never speaking down to them, and never offering a simple, pat solution. Things aren’t easily or neatly resolved, and nor should they be in a book about the consequences of simplistic wishes.
Though very different in tone and setting from her debut, Verdigris Deep is rich and complex, compellingly alive with all of Hardinge’s famously explorative prose, and elegantly, carefully layered. Do seek it out. (less)
“I once read somewhere about a list of things meant to break curses,” says Tanya. “The list was being near running water, like a stream or a book, the colour red, salt, turning clothes inside out, and iron.”
It’s a good thing that thirteen-year-old Tanya pays attention to what she reads, because the fairy realm that she’s about to encounter has none sugar and spice and everything nice we’ve been conditioned to expect. No, this is pre-Disney fairy we’re talking about here: the unseelie, the cruel, and the cunning.
Tanya has long been at their mercy: as an individual with the dubious gift of being able to see the fey, she’s singled out for the sorts of torment that other people don’t have to worry about. After a particularly cruel prank on the part of the fairies, Tanya’s mother finds herself at her wits’ end, and sends Tanya off to stay with her cold and distant grandmother at her ramshackle country estate. But Tanya is far from safe in her new surrounds: despite her best efforts, she finds herself swept up in all manner of superstition and intrigue: including a fifty year old mystery that rears its very ugly head.
Tanya and her unlikely friend Fabian, a dorky lad who’s the son of the manor’s caretaker, set about unravelling the truth behind an unsolved murder case that’s haunted Tanya’s grandmother and the other residents of the mansion for many long years. But when you’re dealing with fairy, nothing’s as easy as it seems, and soon the two are fending off charms and spells, avoiding the severe gaze of Tanya’s grandmother, sneaking off into the woods at night, and perhaps more importantly of all, trying to figure out who’s truly on their side.
Thirteen Treasures is a rich, lush book, and it’s beautifully transportative: the reader has a sense of the setting being so very real. I’m always a sucker for a book set in a shambling country estate, and this one uses place to excellent effect. The ancient manor creaks and crumbles on the page, and it’s impossible not to be able to feel the sheer size and grandeur of the building. There’s a constant sensation of the manor being more than what meets the eye, and indeed this proves true of all of the other settings in the book as well–everything from the eerie fairy forest to even the local township. To be honest, it’s the setting that is the stand-out element of this book.
That said, the plot, too, is for the most part enjoyably clever, with the mystery well-drawn and studded with all sorts of small asides that end up being of importance to the larger plot–Tanya’s mother’s birthday, for one, and the strange bus passenger who tries to buy a broken compass from Tanya for another. I enjoyed the way the ending played out, but did find that there were some minor plot lines that seemed to parked for later examination in the book’s sequels: that involving the mysterious “Red”, who is found traipsing through the manor’s secret passageways, but then later all but vanishes, in particular. There’s also the inclusion of the “thirteen treasures” themselves: their appearance is so fleeting as to be only to justify the title of the book, and could easily have been done away with.
I also found some of the pacing a little off, and felt that certain scenes could have been conflated, or timelines altered. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 12 Tanya and Fabian begin a discussion of something designed to create the “fairy sight” in someone who’s a non-seer, but then suddenly adjourn for no apparent reason–this could have been cut altogether and worked into a later scene. A scene involving something that needs to occur exactly at midnight seems also to take much longer than the minute allowed.
In addition, because the narrative focuses so squarely in Tanya and Fabian, there’s little room for the other key characters to be developed much beyond the initial impressions we receive. Admittedly, this is partly due to the fact characters such as Tanya’s grandmother and the Fabian’s father quite actively distance themselves (for reasons that eventually become clear), but it’s a little disappointing not to see them as much more than their simple household roles.
In all, though I appreciated 13 Treasures for its immersive qualities and its unrepentant willingness to delve into the darker side of the fairy realm, and enjoyed the mystery element of the plot, I just didn’t quite connect with the narrative or the characters quite as much as I wanted to. (less)