Maria Lewis's debut novel is a smoothly-paced, exciting and refreshing urban fantasy with more emphasis on a coming-of-age journey than the usual crimMaria Lewis's debut novel is a smoothly-paced, exciting and refreshing urban fantasy with more emphasis on a coming-of-age journey than the usual crime-mystery sleuthing prevalent in the genre. The story introduces blue-haired, fun-loving, smart-mouthed Tommi Grayson, born in Scotland after her pregnant mother left her native New Zealand in a hurry. Eight months after her mother's accidental death, Tommi is finally ready to head off to her mother's homeland to try and find her father - not to meet him, just to see. After all, her mother had once confessed that her pregnancy was the product of a rape, so she hardly wanted to sit down to a cup of tea with the man.
Armed with a possible name, Tommi's search leads her to a large house on a quiet street at the end of town, where she learns a lot more about her father and his family than she ever wished for - and about herself.
The strength of this story is without a doubt Tommi herself, who narrates with humour, intelligence, compassion and strength. Due to her werewolf heritage, she has a temper and so was directed into martial arts, and her post-New Zealand training builds on that. But the other key character whom you can't help but love is Lorcan, the ex-Praetorian Guard turned Custodian for the Trieze, the 'rulers', if you will, of this new paranormal world Tommi finds herself well and truly caught up in. Lorcan reminded me of Joscelin from the Phèdre series by Jacqueline Carey - a bit of a romantic dream, to be honest, but such a good one! If you're not familiar with the series, think beautiful, noble (and rather sweet) man who is also a fierce and highly skilled warrior and, to top it off, devoted and protective but not domineering (that's it, right there, the romantic dream!). Lorcan is in that vein, and Tommi's relationship with him builds slowly and believably, adding that extra layer of tension that keeps you invested.
That isn't to say, though, that this is a romance, only that it is romantic with guts - the ideal kind for an Urban Fantasy. Speaking of, I was so relieved that Who's Afraid? didn't follow the usual pattern of Urban Fantasy novels: that of the mystery, detective kind. While dead bodies do turn up, it's always clear who is behind it, and Tommi is on no quest beyond mastering her werewolf self and training before the next full moon. Tension and suspense is maintained because you know something's going to happen, and it's also maintained by showing Tommi's normal days - normalcy always raises the stakes.
While the plot has its formulaic moments, especially in regards to the showdown climax with her insane young relative, Steven, it also surprises. Lewis takes the time to develop Tommi's character, to let you experience what 'normal' looked like for her, to meet her friends and come to love them too, so that your emotional investment is well and truly secured. And with Tommi narrating, I flew through my reading of this, easily glued to the page, and made a nice pile of soggy tissues at the end (really, Lewis holds no punches). Things have been set up for a clean sequel with a fresh new story, and Tommi is the kind of character you want to accompany for the long haul.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and unacknowledged. Twenty-three year old Riley Purefoy lost half his jaw in the war; the artificial replacement helps hold his face together and is healing well, but he can't chew food or speak clearly. Still, Riley considers himself one of the lucky ones, and not just because all his limbs are in working order and his brain isn't muddled. He's just got married to Nadine, his fiancée from before the war, who served as a nurse on the front. While Riley comes from a working-class background, Nadine's parents are upper class, and as much as they've always liked Riley, they don't much care for the idea of their only child marrying a disabled veteran with no work skills or prospects.
Riley tries to find work, but he's just one of many unemployed young man missing body parts. Yet his determination not to live off Nadine's parents drives him to persevere, and make his own path.
In contrast, his commanding officer from the war, Peter Locke, returns from the war haunted by the overwhelming loss of life, all the men under his command who didn't make it. The list of names feels immense, and Peter soon turns to alcohol in order to endure. His wife is no help: Julia was raised by a domineering monster of a woman who made her understand that her only value was in her looks, so in order to be what she thought Peter wanted, she underwent a facial treatment that's left her face looking like a mask: white, immobile, false. Julia is ill-equipped to live with this new version of Peter, or their three-year-old son, Tom, who was whisked away by Julia's mother after his birth. Not knowing how to be a mother to Tom, or a wife or even friend to Peter, her plaintive, melodramatic behaviour quickly drives them both away. And now that Nadine and Riley are married and off on their honeymoon, the household only has Peter's cousin Rose to keep it sane.
Rose, however, has the opportunity to train as a doctor, an opportunity she wants with heart and soul. Never married and now never likely to be, medicine is the one thing she cares about - aside from her cousin and his family. Now she must make a decision, to put her own life ahead of someone else's and sacrifice her dream, or to stay and help.
From March to December, 1919, The Heroes' Welcome follows the paths of these five men and women as they struggle to build a life and a future while they mourn for all that's been lost.
There is always a "right" time to read a book, when your mind and emotions are aligned with a book's mood and tone and content, when your own mind is receptive and open to the story that wants to be heard. As interested as I am in World War One stories - stories about the first half of the twentieth-century interest me greatly - this was not, unfortunately, as it turned out, the right time for me to read this book. I kept picking it up, telling myself, Now, now, now I will start it; reading the first few paragraphs that describe Riley's injury, his face and what he's had to adapt to, I had to keep putting it down. The trouble way, I'd just finished reading Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man - a heavy non-fiction expository book - and was reading another about a man with mental health problems who abducts a girl, plus I'd just watched Sophie Scholl, a World War II story that made me cry buckets, and I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed and in need of something light and fun. The Heroes' Welcome felt like the last nail in the coffin of my emotional well-being (that sounds incredibly dramatic, but there are other things going on at the time that were making me feel this way).
All of that aside, I did find this to be a very readable novel, and certainly a very memorable one. Not enough stories get written about life after the war - we tend to skip a few years and go straight to the heady, exciting, liberating Twenties. No one received counselling or support after the First World War; likewise, no one seemed to want to hear about the struggles of the survivors through fiction. This story felt raw and true and honest, just one story among many possibles that could have been told but no less real for that. It is a sequel to a novel I haven't read, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, but it didn't make a difference: anything you need to know in order to understand these characters and their stories is provided. And aside from the sense that they have considerable shared history that I wasn't privy to, it didn't really feel like I was missing out for not having read the first book.
This is a depressing tale, though: the story of Julia affected me deeply and on top of all the sad stories I'd been reading and watching at the time, it felt like one sad story too many. Perhaps its that element of realism, but this didn't read like a story of hope to me, but one of struggle. Riley's industry, pro-activeness and pragmatic outlook help considerably in balancing out Peter's self-indulgent (yet still understandable) melancholy, depression, and general stubbornness to move on with his life. The two are opposite ends of a pendulum with a narrow swing. Their wives - and Rose - also present drastically different perspectives. Julia is the wife who stayed behind, who has no idea how to do anything let alone look after a small child and a mentally ill husband who shuns her. Yet of all of them, Julia goes through the most in terms of metamorphosis, which is why what happens is all the more heartbreaking. You come to care for her, shifting from scornful pity to sympathy and then to empathy. Of them all, Nadine was the least well-developed, and a little too perfect, but it was Tom, the child, who, while being thinly sketched, hit the hardest: my own son is three, nearly four, as I write this, and the neglect that Tom experiences was painful to read.
At times, the prose style felt too static, too constrained. The omniscient narrator describes almost endlessly, and left too little for me to but endure. The writing flowed, the story flowed, and you certainly get swept along - almost, slightly, with that 'train wreck' sensation, that fascination with the macabre that continues to appeal to us - but at the same time it never relaxes into the telling, never relinquishes control or trusts the reader to understand these characters on their own.
This was an emotional read, an intense and often upsetting story that I can't imagine myself ever forgetting. That's something I always want from fiction, that evidence of a connection and a good story told well. These people felt real, their stories like true reflections of real ones. For all that, though, it lacked that organic touch: the third-person omniscient narrator was just too intrusive for me. That's an element of the story that I don't think I would have reacted to any differently, had I read this at a different time.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours...more
**spoiler alert** In our (predominantely) white, Western, ex-British world, we are still hung up on our colonial roots and a deep sense of shame and g**spoiler alert** In our (predominantely) white, Western, ex-British world, we are still hung up on our colonial roots and a deep sense of shame and guilt - no one really talks of it in that way but it's there, nevertheless. Whether you're Canadian, Australian, American, Kiwi or from any of the other ex-British Empire colonies (with perhaps the exception of India; slightly different scenario), we weren't exactly welcomed with open arms, and we've yet to really apologise or make amends (because that would mean, as far as we're concerned, returning land, and we are very resistant to this). This post-colonial, anxiety-riddled, ideological hang-up comes out in our fiction, of course, and never more so than in Fantasy Fiction. Which is just one of the reasons why I love the genre.
While some authors take the Big Guns approach, in which the heroes of their fantasy worlds bring 'freedom', 'democracy' and 'capitalism' to the 'oppressed', the 'enemy' or the 'savages' (a la The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind), or forcibly unite the countries in order to defeat a greater enemy (American colonial history in a nutshell a la the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan) - and both push into the 'frontier' - others take the perspective of the 'indigenous' population being invaded, conquered and oppressed by another, arrogant force. Stories like Eric van Lustbaader's excellent Pearl Saga (which he's never finished and I fear, now, never will), for example, or any other Fantasy tale in which we side with the invaded rather than the invader, tells an interesting story of its own as we seek to empathise with our own indigenous populations, who we have and continue to oppress and denigrate.
Palmer's Ours is the Storm is a worthy entry into this body of ideologically-driven fantasy fiction, and unique enough to stand proud amongst them. It sets up fairly conventional expectations: the underdog hero with an epic purpose; the discovery of magic and a belief in its might and power; the Native-American-like plains people (Huumphar) who fight guerrilla style; the female hero of the Huumphar who, you think, will play the role of a great interracial love affair with the male hero; a great, perverted evil that corrupts and erodes those who wield it (always fun to pick what this trope is an analogy of: capitalism? colonialism? Depends what your views are...); and of course a might big showdown of power and ego in which our underdog hero much be triumphant. Like any genre, Fantasy has a formula - or several - but it is what authors inventively do with that formula that keeps us reading.
The boy has lived so long in complete darkness, in a stone cell somewhere, nowhere; he hasn't spoken to anyone in he doesn't know long, he has now lost his memories. He doesn't know who he is, who his parents are, what they looked like or how their voices sounded. He doesn't know where he's from or where he is now. This has become his life, his present, past and future.
Until, one day, an opening appears in the ceiling: a hatch has been opened, and a voice reaches down to him. The voice, the man, promises to release him, sounds outraged at his condition, and passes him a knife: the first of many tests. The boy, freed, learns that he is Revik Lasivar, son of a great man, a powerful leader in uniting Feriven, this land, under one strong leader: Halkoriv, the man who has freed him.
Halkoriv styles himself a king, and has lived for far longer than a normal human life span. He wields a magical force, a power that dominates and turns his servants into obedient mindless drones. Halkoriv is cunning, but at first seems merely fatherly to Revik. Revik, a poor starved boy driven nearly mad by being held captive in the dark of Cunabrel's fortress for so long. With no memories of his parents he latches onto Halkoriv and strives to please him - and to honour his father's legacy. Established as Halkoriv's heir, after years of training Revik is sent out on his final test: to lead an army to Cunabrel's door and defeat this nobleman who dares to separate himself from Halkoriv, and destroy the dream of a united Feriven in the process.
To get to Cunabrel's lands, Revik must pass through the plains: Huumphar land. He comes up with a brilliant strategy that changes the balance of power in the grasslands, and in the process of defeating Cunabrel, Revik comes into his own power. Seemingly invincible, he rides down a party of Huumphar on his own, but meets his match in the seeress Ahi'rea, who, with her Sight, can See that it is not a real magic Revik wields, but that he is being ridden by a monster that will devour him. The clash of swords and magic will have a devastating result for Revik, as he learns that everything he believed in was a lie. So who is Revik Lasivar?
This is just the beginning, really, and the deceptions and lies are handled with a magician's sleight-of-hand, a dexterity and skill that will surely surprise you. You think you've got it worked out, you think you understand more than poor Revik: that Halkoriv arranged for him to spend tortuous years in a dungeon cell so that he could pretend to save him; that Halkoriv set Cunabrel up to take the blame for it; that Revik is an ally to the Huumphar, by birthright, but this knowledge has been stolen from him; and so on. Who is Revik is a question that runs through the whole novel, and this theme of identity is pivotal to the plot. The turns in the plot are delicious, and one of the book's greatest strengths.
Ours is the Storm is well-written, visually arresting and fast-paced; the Huumphar are easily established, building upon our contextual knowledge of indigenous populations, specifically Native Americans. As an analogy for American colonialism and frontier-expansion, Ours is the Storm isn't particularly subtle, and by extension does seem to say the British Empire was rotten to the core, amongst other things. The one thing I would have liked more of was characterisation. Revik was well drawn, believable and oddly charismatic. In contrast, I never quite understood the key Huumphar characters, who are pivotal, such as Ahi'rea (not sure how to pronounce that either!). She was never fully fleshed out, so, while she was a strong character with whom you could place great faith, a believable character, I didn't get to know her as a woman or a Huumphar.
Alongside this theme of colonial invasion is the one of peace versus war, and the idea that the Feriven army is almost possessed by a hatred of the Huumphar - whom they dehumanise and fear - and an unnatural drive to fight. What it brings to mind, of course, is that our natural state of co-existence is one of harmony and peace, not bloodshed, and that, given a real choice, people would rather live peacefully and cooperatively than in terror. Thus, the thirst for blood, for whatever ideological reason, is largely manufactured. I can't help but think of the bloodlust and push for revenge that occurred in the mainstream media after 9/11, the repercussions of which are still being felt by many. Peace begins to seem like a fanciful dream, and Ours is the Storm posits the idea that you have to tackle the rotten core at the heart of it to finally find rest from the hatred and endless fighting. And, hopefully, to be happy with what you've got, appreciate differences rather than fear them, and respect others' right to live freely.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book....more
After more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen's wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leaveAfter more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen's wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leave him, that their marriage has 'run its course'.
Fifty-four year old Douglas is stunned and resistant. Connie is the love of his life, the only woman he's ever had a serious relationship with, and the mother of his two children: Jane, who died just days after she was born, and Albie, a moody youth about to transition to university. Douglas is a scientist, Connie an artist, and Albie takes after his mother.
Despite Connie's announcement, she is still determined that the family take their planned trip around Europe to tour art galleries and take in foreign places. Douglas sees it as his chance to change Connie's mind, but the trip is fraught with tension, and Douglas's inability to get along with his son is the cause of the disintegration of his carefully detailed itinerary.
Now, instead of going back to England with Connie, Douglas is determined to find Albie and bring him home - thinking that this will be a heroic act in Connie's eyes. That if he can return her son safely to her, she won't leave him. But the search for Albie in Europe tests Douglas in other ways, and away from Connie and all that is familiar to him, he has a chance to break out of his own tightly-controlled parameters and behave in ways that surprise him.
But is it enough to save his marriage? Can he rescue his fraught relationship with his son, a boy who has always managed to provoke irritation and disappointment in him? Us is a story of one middle-aged man's quest to preserve something that, perhaps, shouldn't be saved. A transformative journey not only across Europe, but through the past and his memories, the pieces of which come together to make Douglas Petersen a wholly real and sympathetic - if not entirely likeable - man facing a major upheaval in his life.
In the beginning, I loved this book. I loved the conversational style Douglas has in telling his story directly to the reader, his frank reflections and realistic flaws. This is very much a book about human nature, human foibles, the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in being human, the ways in which life plays out and our best intentions don't always work out how you planned. It's a story about personalities, and making room for other people's characters, adapting and compromising, to make not just a marriage but a family work.
The trouble was that, after a while, I found the story and the style almost stifling, claustrophobic. Perhaps those are overly dramatic words, perhaps what I really mean is it was a bit repetitive in terms of style and voice, that Douglas's voice was too authentic and that I have, maybe, more in common with Connie and less patience for Douglas. I love getting inside a character so different from myself, but every story contains different elements - voice, style, plot etc. - that, together, either work for you or don't. It becomes wholly subjective, an emotional response to a person that you can no more consciously influence when reading about that person than you can, meeting them in the flesh.
Us is strongly realistic, almost painfully so. The non-linear structure is easy to follow - Douglas guides the whole way, which is very in keeping with his character (he loves itineraries and maps) - and helps break it up, as well as enable the full picture to come together slowly and with a solidity that comes from the use of small details, little snapshots. There's a quote from John Updike's Rabbit is Rich at the very beginning that fits this book perfectly:
He finds a hundred memories, some vivid as photographs and meaningless, snapped by the mind for reasons of its own, and others mere facts, things he knows are true but has no snapshot for.
As a description of the style and structure of this book as well as the way Douglas walks you through his memories and his life, this is very apt. The characters are recognisable - and often unpleasant - in all their flaws and quirks, and the scenarios feel familiar whether you've experienced them or not. There's skill in that, from Nicholls, that shouldn't be dismissed.
But essentially this is the story of a marriage in the process of dissolving, and the interesting thing was how you, the reader, feel about that. Do you want them to stay together? The stories and memories that Douglas chooses to share have a noticeable influence on that, until the last third of the book when you start to finally break away of Douglas's mindset and you have enough information to consider things for yourself. Perhaps the ending is a surprise. Perhaps it is a disappointment, yet really it is the only way it could have ended, in hindsight. But it is very sad. It made me think of how I - who have much in common with Douglas, really, being an introvert who dislikes 'partying' and finds socialising exhausting - could never be in a relationship with an extrovert like Connie. There have been times when, snuggling on the couch with my husband of a Friday or Saturday evening, we've remarked out loud how nice it is that our wishes are in harmony, not conflict. Yes that sounds a bit smug, but really it's just comfortable. The pattern of Connie and Douglas's relationship makes sense, the way it plays out and the hurdles they had to overcome, but at the end of the day Douglas won: it was Connie who had to change. It was Connie who gave up aspects of her life. That's never a great recipe for a long-term relationship.
Yet life is rarely neat and simple, and if it is, it might not feel like living. What this story really shows is how complicated every individual relationship is, that you can't apply one system of rules or expectations to every relationship, every marriage. That what works for some doesn't necessarily work for others. And that not every marriage should survive. That maybe it's better that it doesn't. I like to think I'm not the judging type, but we all try to make the world less chaotic, more familiar and understandable, by using our own frame of reference - our own perspective - to make sense of the world and the people in it, so everyone judges in that sense. This is one of the things I love about fiction: the chance to hear a voice different from our own, a different perspective, other people's choices, and not just get irritated that they didn't do things the way we would have done them, but to consider their choices in light of their own context, their own life and character. In that sense, fiction has great potential. I may not have enjoyed Us as much as it seemed I would at the beginning, but it still made an impression and reminded me of some of the qualities of storytelling that I really value.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
It's been many years since Assassin's Apprentice came out in 1995. Where was I in 1995? Finishing high school - grade 10 - and slowly starting to reIt's been many years since Assassin's Apprentice came out in 1995. Where was I in 1995? Finishing high school - grade 10 - and slowly starting to realise that Fantasy was the genre I loved. I read Assassin's Apprentice a year or two later, in college, and wanted so badly to love it. It had one of the new breed of Fantasy covers (click the link above to see it), and the genre, in the late 90s, was experiencing a true revival: fresh talent, new energy, original ideas and some beautiful covers by Voyager here in Australia (so different from those commonly associated with Fantasy thanks to publishers like Tor in the U.S. with their ugly, chunky fonts and often awkward-looking artwork).
But I digress. I wanted to love the first book set in the world of the Farseers - Hobb's first novel, if I remember correctly - but I couldn't. It wasn't long, but it was slow and uninteresting to me at the time; I couldn't get into it. I did give Hobb another go a few years later, when I was at uni and read The Liveship Traders. The first book took me a long time to get through, but it picked up at the end and the last two books were quite exciting. So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I received her newest, Fool's Assassin, in the mail. Not only was I leery of being able to enjoy Hobb's slower, more ponderous style (for such as it was from memory), but this is the start of a third trilogy set in the same world as her very first book, and the fact that I hadn't read the intervening books was a big looming ignorance which I feared would preclude any enjoyment at all.
Not so, on the last count at least.
The story reintroduces readers to FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard son of King Shrewd's oldest son, Chivalry, who abdicated the throne in favour of his younger brother, Verity. Fitz, son of a Mountain Kingdom woman, is the protagonist and hero of the previous trilogies, which see him being brought to Buckkeep Castle and trained as a spy and assassin - for the Farseer kings, if a bastard isn't useful to the throne, he's a threat. It is as a boy at the castle that Fitz first meets the Fool, a blonde boy in a land of dark-haired people who later, in the Tawny Man trilogy, figures prominently as a White Prophet, Fitz his Catalyst.
But Fitz has retired, as much as he's allowed to, and now lives incognito at Withywoods with his wife, Molly, and some of her children from her first marriage (to Burrich). Known as Holder Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is enjoying his quiet life, his wife, and being away from court politics. But on the night of Winterfest, three strangers appear at the manor house, a pale messenger he never gets to meet vanishes, and there's blood in his study - both the ground floor study where the messenger was waiting for him and his own, private study where Fitz does his real work. As angry as he is at the violation and the mystery, the trail soon goes cold, years pass and he forgets all about it. Until another pale messenger arrives, barely alive, with a message from the Fool that doesn't make sense, for all that its importance is clear. And just like that, Fitz is launched back into the world of intrigue, danger, adventure and death.
Fool's Assassin begins slowly, almost too slowly. It took me a while to get through the first few chapters, which seemed far too preoccupied in the minute details of Withywoods and Winterfest. Yet it does set the tone and pace for the novel to come, as well as ease you back into this world. And even though I can barely remember anything from Assassin's Apprentice, Hobb's gentle handling of exposition (including background information) meant that I never got lost. I'm not sure if readers who are more familiar with the earlier trilogies would appreciate the recapping and reminiscing as much as I did; it's hard to say. But all the details of who died, who was tortured, what happened to so-and-so from the previous books, didn't feel like spoilers to me; such details have actually motivated me to read the previous trilogies and catch up. In such a condensed form, the excitement and thrill of previous plots is forefront.
Fitz is technically an old man in this book: at the start he is forty-seven, and Molly, at fifty, is three years older. Twelve or thirteen years go by during the course of this book, but because of the intense Skill healing Fitz endured as a younger man, his body keeps healing and he looks younger than his true years. He'll need that boost of youth and vigour, as the end of this first volume is merely the beginning of a very personal adventure for Fitz. I would love very much to give some details, especially as the messenger plot-line I shared in the summary above is just one sliver of what happens in this, but I really don't want to spoil it for anyone. What I will say is that I loved Bee, she's a truly engaging heroine and fascinating too. It's interesting that Fitz doesn't realise a few things about her, especially considering I figured it out and I haven't even read the other books! Because of Bee, the slower pace and fine details of daily life became welcome, soothing almost, and intrinsic to the development of characters and plot. Sure it could have been slimmed down, but I wouldn't change anything: for all the pace, I found it exciting, gripping and immensely enjoyable.
It's also quite heartbreaking. There were several places in the story that set me crying, which I love: I love being that involved, that invested in the characters, that what happens to them affects me enough that I cry. Sure, I cry easily these days, but you still need that connection. One thing's for sure, Hobbs characters are alive, they're real, and the deceptive simplicity of the writing and plot draws you in in an organic, homely way. It fits well. It also makes you realise, in terms of the overall plot of the trilogy - which doesn't become clear until the very end of book 1 - how necessary it is to spend such a long time on establishing the characters, especially Bee. (And as a warning: this book ends on a cliffhanger.)
As for the world itself, Hobb builds on her previous work and as far as I can tell, nothing new has been added here. It's well established, but reminded me of one of the reasons why I struggled with the first book as a teenager: it's not the most interesting world. Following on the well-trodden path of modelling a fantasy world on medieval Europe, perhaps the most striking difference is the lack of religion. There's no religion in this world at all, at least not in the Six Duchies. There's magic and mystery, the supernatural, the long-gone Elderlings and newly-arisen dragons, but no religion. It's a surprising omission, once you note it, only because in our own world, religion is always there, even if you don't follow one or have personal beliefs. It still frames your world, shapes your experiences and your perspective. Without religion, the characters here need some kind of creed to follow, some shared understanding of how the world works and their place in it. Loyalty comes to mind, and the Farseer kings. They're not worshipped, but the lengths characters like Chade, Fitz's mentor, go to to protect the throne are almost worshipper-like.
Fool's Assassin is a successful re-entry into Fitz's world, I would say, and provides the pivotal beginnings to a new high-stakes plot. Even without having read the previous trilogies, I would say that this plot is the most personal for Fitz, I just can't say why without spoiling things. Am I eagerly awaiting the second book already? Absolutely! The best thing to do in the meantime, is go back to the beginning and read the Farseer Trilogy and the Tawny Man trilogy (I would love to read the Soldier Son trilogy too, while I'm at it). Hobb has reinvigorated my interest in this world, which I didn't think would happen, but considering how slow the pacing is here, how uneventful so much of this long book seems to be, that says a lot about her skill in developing characters, anticipation and momentum.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
Alex Caine grew up in foster homes and was a wild kid until he started learning martial arts; since then, he's had focus, discipline and a means of eaAlex Caine grew up in foster homes and was a wild kid until he started learning martial arts; since then, he's had focus, discipline and a means of earning a living in illegal cage fights. He always wins, too, because he has a secret advantage: he can see people's shades, and knows what his opponents are about to do. It isn't until he meets Englishman Patrick Welby that Alex learns there's a name for what he is: mage. Once Welby unlocks the door to the hidden world of magesign and the Fey, Alex is reluctantly drawn in. Welby has his sights set on a powerful magical book that he hasn't been able to read, but he thinks Alex can. He wants Alex to go with him from Sydney to London to try and read the book, being held by a cranky and unlikeable bookseller called Peacock.
Welby's hunch was right: Alex can read it, only with unexpected consequences. The book is actually a vessel for a trapped piece of a Fey god, a being of chaos that was driven from this plane with only this one little bit remaining, a piece that latches onto a mortal soul and drives them to destruction. Alex is no less a victim, and with his training is driven to lethal acts. He'll do whatever it takes to get rid of the indestructible book, even braving the dens of flesh-eating Kin, before any more people die at his hands.
With the help of an unlikely but beautiful, inhuman ally called Silhouette, and pursued by a ruthless and ambitious magical-artefacts dealer called Mr Hood, Alex finds himself traversing the globe to hunt down shards of the powerful stone that first rid the world of the godling, Uthentia. Time is running out and the stakes are getting higher. Even if he succeeds in his quest to find the long-hidden pieces, he has only a hunch and conviction that he will be able to use what took three powerful mages to wield long ago. But there's only one way to find out.
I'm not a big reader of Urban Fantasy, mostly because the majority of books that fall under that sub-genre always use mysteries or detective work as their plot, and mysteries tend to bore me. Character development especially, and also world-building, are all-too-often overlooked in a mystery (or detective or thriller or CIA) novel. I'm not sure why Urban Fantasy must contain some kind of mystery-detective plotline, but I'm guessing it's a way to explore the familiar-unfamiliar world for the sake of the audience. When it's not a mystery, it's romance - paranormal romance. I find the latter more interesting and engaging because romance, by dint of its nature, relies on characters, so you get plenty of character development (or you should). Bound pleasantly straddles several tropes common to Urban Fantasy, combining Fey and Kin with human, magic and mystery with crime and violence, love and obsession with murder and mayhem. It has more of a classic Quest structure than a detective one, and uses the trope of introducing a new, hidden and complex world to an ignorant human as a means of providing exposition at a gradual pace. Overall, it works.
Bound is a gritty, dark urban fantasy, full of violence and gore and visceral imagery. There are hints of other works here - or rather, certain scenes reminded me of other works, which is not to say Baxter lacks originality but that stories create a community of ideas and imagination, which I love. The golems reminded me of Jonathan Stroud, the island of malnourished worshippers and the obese dictator reminded me of Iain Banks' Consider Phlebus (the first of his Culture science fiction series). Other elements of the novel reminded me of less tangible stories, books I couldn't quite remember or grasp. Overall it makes Bound feel like familiar territory, one that doesn't need much exposition to understand.
Alex Caine is a good protagonist and hero-figure, leading us into this new world unwillingly, but never baulking at what he knows he must do. For the most part, he asks good questions and uses his head. I can only hope that his character is more fully developed and explained over the following two books, as we don't learn a whole lot about him here. Silhouette, likewise, is a shadowy figure (no pun intended), but an excellent one. She's only half-human, and Baxter does a good job of developing her inhumanity while at the same time giving us plenty to like and relate to. The world of the Kin and the Fey is an interesting one, and while it might not be the most original of storylines or worlds, it is quite entertaining, in a dark and often violent way.
Where I struggled some was with the writing. Baxter's prose is solid, his details are nicely placed, and the dialogue flows quite naturally. But what I got really tired of was the constant use of the rhetorical question. Baxter uses it a great deal when Alex starts reflecting and thinking and in general, trying to figure things out. The occasional rhetorical question works fine, but sometimes there were several in the one paragraph and it does weaken the writing (not to mention makes Alex a tad annoying in those moments).
I enjoyed Bound, both for its dark, twisted other-worldly creatures and, at times, downright terrifying scenes of violence and gristly murder (the scene with the children was particularly hard to read), as well as for the simple but layered world-building. Alex Caine starts off the series as an ordinary man with a couple of extraordinary talents; by the end, he's something more than human and forever changed by his experiences. It can only get more interesting from here on.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
In the kingdom of Ricalan, winter is a formidable force for many months of the year, as well as a useful ally in this time of invasion and attack. It'In the kingdom of Ricalan, winter is a formidable force for many months of the year, as well as a useful ally in this time of invasion and attack. It's not only the settlers from Mesentreia forcing the Ricalani tribes off their land as they've been doing for the last few decades, supported by Ricalan's Mesentreian queen. Now they must also contend with forces from the Akharian Empire to the west. The Empire is also feeling the pinch from Mesentreia and its settler-invaders, and is using Ricalan as a battleground. But the Empire are also slavers, taking every Ricalani civilian after attacking villages, and the Ricalani army is doing little to stop them.
For Sierra, the ongoing battles - both ideological and physical - are merely a backdrop for her own personal hell. In Ricalan, as in Mesentreia, magic is against the law, hunted down, eradicated. Sierra was hidden by her parents until a powerful Akharian Blood Mage, Kell, now working for the king of Ricalan and his mother, comes for her. Sierra's magical gift is fed by the emotions of others, particularly pain and suffering. And Kell, sadistic torturer that he is, has been using her to feed off his victims, store impressive amounts of power, all for him and his apprentice, Rasten. So she was there when Isidro was tortured, brutalised and defeated.
Isidro is foster-brother to the rightful king of Ricalan, Cammarian, the younger son of a minor southern prisoner of Mesentreian blood, Valeria, who was married to the Ricalani queen's brother. The queen chose Cam as her successor, and upon her death his own mother tried to have him killed. Instead, he fled with Isidro, leaving the throne for his older brother, Severian, to take. They have been on the run ever since, falling in with various groups, not staying too long on any one tribe's land lest they wear out their friends' welcome. Until Isidro is captured and then rescued, and Sierra sets herself free. All three of them are being hunted by Rasten and Kell, but it is Sierra who poses both the real danger, and a real hope for salvation.
After a bit of a slow start where I was strangely very confused over the three different nationalities and who was of which country and where the story was even taking place (there is a map but I read it weird, don't know how, and that started the confusion), Winter Be My Shield becomes a deeply engrossing, very interesting, solidly-constructed Fantasy story whose consistently measured pacing is nevertheless gripping due to the oodles of tension and anticipation throughout. I've spent a bit of time, in my summary, trying to provide some context and introduce the three nations, mostly because I had been so confused at first - in retrospect, it's hard to see how I could have been confused, but there you go. Spurrier actually does a very good job of doling out the exposition in manageable bites, at relevant points in the story. You never quite get to the end of understanding of this world, though: for as well-crafted as the world building is, there's always more to learn and reveal, and that helps add to the interest.
I enjoyed this story immensely, once I got into the swing of things and understood what was going on. There are several different 'sides' but only two main perspectives: Sierra and Isidro. Occasionally, Cam and Rasten get to share their perspective, and an Akharian mage called Delphine provides an absorbing Akharian perspective towards the end. The characters are fairly straight-forward, well fleshed-out, and realistically flawed and human. I was expecting Cam to be the main character - he's a typical protagonist, being heir to a kingdom, a fugitive, handsome, charming etc. Blonde, too - that always helps (his mother's blood; the Ricalani are described as being akin to Asian but very tall). So I was pleasantly surprised - and pleased - when it turned out that Isidro was a key protagonist alongside Sierra. Isidro is a more interesting character, more nuanced, and what happens to him - both at the beginning and at the end - adds to this.
Sierra could have been a bit of a formulaic character, but often manages to surprise. It's not the first Fantasy story to feature a character like her, and in some ways this story, and Sierra, reminded me of Kate Elliott's excellent Crown of Stars series. Rasten could be a stand-in for the deliciously evil Hugh, and so on. But I wouldn't go too far with such comparisons: the Children of the Black Sun trilogy stands clearly, solidly on its own feet, engaging with classic fantasy tropes while at the same time bringing new, or refreshed, ones to the genre. The magic system is uncomplicated yet intriguing, and Sierra's untrained ability is fascinating. You also really feel for her - and Rasten before her (a great villain is one you can sympathise with, even if slightly)- when you learn what kind of mage she is, and how much of a blessing her ability could be if Kell hadn't already started warping it for his own ends.
With a steady, slightly slow pace and a wealth of detail, Spurrier brings her wintery world to cold life. There's violence, gore and pain, but also simple pleasures and a complex history in the process of being unlocked, discovered and revealed. By the end of volume one, the stakes have only become immeasurably higher, and Sierra in a wary working relationship, of kinds, with Rasten. Everyone has their own motives, their own plans, which cris-cross messily over each other. I look forward to reading the next two books, Black Sun Light My Way and North Star Guide Me Home, and seeing what happens to these interesting characters in this intriguing world. A well-written, exciting Fantasy that only gets more absorbing the further you read.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
The question of whether you read Someone Else's Love Story as a story about faith and destiny, or coincidence and growing up, is a redundant one: it iThe question of whether you read Someone Else's Love Story as a story about faith and destiny, or coincidence and growing up, is a redundant one: it is not the answer that matters, but the fact that there is a question at all. For Shandi Pierce, she has spent the last four years in denial, so fiercely omitting the truth of the night she got pregnant that she's convinced herself she had a virgin birth. The illusion comes crashing down on the day she moves from her mother's mountain home to Atlanta, where her father lives, to continue her degree closer to campus. En route with her best friend, Walcott, and her three year old son, Natty, they pull over at a little petrol station because Natty is car sick. Going inside to get a drink, Shandi spies a handsome older man, who she pins as being divorced. Her parents divorced when she was very young due to arguments about how to raise their daughter (her mother is Catholic, her father is Jewish), and Shandi has had a few boyfriends since Natty was born who are all much older men.
The suspected divorcee is William Ashe, and he isn't divorced. He is in mourning, though, so when a drug-addled man enters the Circle K with an old gun and proceeds to rob the place, William sees it as destiny. Here is a way to end it all. Shandi reads William's reaction differently: she sees the way he moves between the gunman and her son, and thinks he is deeply protective - the quality all women want in their male partners when children are involved. She's sexually attracted to him, and being in a hostage situation, adrenalin pumping, only seems to heighten it. When William says "Destiny," she thinks he means them. She falls in love.
But William is deep in his own love story, the love he has - or had - for his wife, Bridget, and their two year old daughter, Twyla, who died in a tragic car accident exactly one year to the day of the robbery. William is autistic, though as his best friend Paula points out, he "learned how to pass." A genetic scientist, he's built like a football player and makes origami animals to keep his fingers busy while he thinks. When Shandi turns up at the hospital after the robbery, Natty in tow, she asks for his help in finding the boy's real father. Things changed for both of them that day at the Circle K; for Shandi, she killed a miracle. Now she has to find the truth, and hopes to find love along the way.
Someone Else's Love Story is a snappy, intelligent, engaging read, fast-paced enough to swing you along with it as it explores the characters' neuroses and conflicted states of being. For "conflicted" they are, and if it weren't for Shandi's slightly sarcastic, slightly ironic observations, it would slip into melodrama. The other thing that saves it from self-indulgence (that quality I can't stand) is Jackson's ability to see and explore the ways in which faith works for us as individuals, without ever coming across as having picked a side. William is, frankly, incapable of believing in God or anything else, and so the character presents a balance in that way. Shandi is seemingly neutral, or undecided, while Bridget was in training to be a nun. It's the push-and-pull between faith and everything (and everyone) else that matters, the way the characters work their way to an understanding that allows them to love and be loved. It's not just the concept of "religious faith" that the book deals with: more prominently, it explores the idea of faith in a non-religious context, too. Faith as in trust and understanding.
One of the things I liked about this book was its blend of cliché and originality. There are the characters: slightly-unlikeable yet oddly-likeable heroine, Shandi, caustic Paula and too-good-to-be-true Bridget, and distant, hard-to-reach but honourable William, plus gangly bean-pole Walcott who is so clearly in love with Shandi before either of them realise it (not to mention he's already pretty much Natty's father), and Shandi's Hollywood-esque rich dad and evil stepmother, Bethany. William does, of course, bring to mind Don Tillman from Graeme Simsion's highly entertaining 2013 novel, The Rosie Project; Don has Asperger's (though doesn't believe he does) and is a geneticist who helps a younger, attractive woman (Rosie) find her father via DNA sampling. In Rosie, there is romance between the two; in Love Story, there is Shandi's desperate attempts at romance that largely go unnoticed.
This isn't a story of new love, but of new beginnings to old stories. Often, they are other people's love stories, and Shandi has stumbled into them rather blindly. This includes her own parents and the truth of their unhappy marriage, which provides such an important lesson for their daughter. At its hearts, it's a story about being a parent, and the love parents have for their children - and what they sacrifice, or destroy, when love becomes a weapon. Jackson strikes true on many fronts, and what held me back from loving it is purely a subjective, personality thing. That magical relationship between reader and writer via the prose style, which no one can control. That magic relationship wasn't quite there for me with this book, though it's a successful story in so many ways. It also didn't help that I find the cover off-putting: too pinky-purple, too ugly-pretty with its loud, obvious daisy, too trite and commercial. I don't even like to look at it, but I hope it doesn't put anyone else off from reading this.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
If you're looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of HowIf you're looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of How to Bake a Man. While there are some more serious themes at play here - the young, working generation's struggle to find meaningful, satisfying work and a purpose in life; difficult people in the workplace; overcoming fear and taking risks - at its heart this story is a celebration of comfort food and love.
Becca Muchmore is twenty-seven, single, and trying to do something with her life by spending her savings on an MBA. Only, her first day back at uni is a humiliating experience for her, and she feels so out-of-place that she's ready to pack it in, go home and bake cookies. As her best friend Dez says, "But what are you going to do? You're in school and hate it. You quite your job that took forever to find. You can't make cookies your entire life." Yet that's exactly what Becca decides to do, despite her friend's wise words, despite her mother's theatrical sighs and criticisms. Within the space of just twenty-four hours, she's done the paperwork for the permits and licenses she'll need, and followed a connection from Dez's husband and secured a trial deal, selling baked goods to the staff at a law firm in a San Francisco skyscraper. Now she needs to bake, and bake some more.
Luckily, she has help: one of her neighbours and the de facto superintendent of her apartment building, Salvatore Souza, puts his arm muscles to work, mixing the tough dough for honey nuts. A man of many part-time trades, Sal is liberal with advice on women and love - of which he has plenty of experience - and lets Becca know that he's available to help her with her new business, should she need it. As Becca launches her new business, Becca's Best, at Winston, Janszen and LeGuin, she realises the job comes with an unexpected - and unpleasant - surprise: one of the lawyers, Jennifer Regan, is her doppelgänger. The resemblance between Becca and Jennifer would be nothing but a funny story if it weren't for the fact that Jennifer is the office cow, a deeply angry, mean-spirited and foul-mouthed woman with a sharp tongue and no interpersonal skills. She also happens to have a wonderful, handsome, genuinely nice boyfriend, a lawyer from another firm called Jeff, who Becca feels herself falling for, fast.
Over the next few days, Becca finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the resemblance she shares with Jennifer, how someone like Jeff could be with her, and what's going on between Jennifer and another of the firm's lawyers, Brad. While she bakes by night and tries to figure things out by day, the one thing Becca can't see is the truth in front of her: that there's a loyal, resourceful and uncomplicated man who's perfect for her, working alongside her, waiting for her to figure things out.
There is much to enjoy about How to Bake a Man. First of all, I find it hard to go past a book that so prominently features cooking, especially baking - I don't seek them out, but when they come my way they score (consider Baking Cakes in Kigali, Sweet Nothings and Sugar Spun Sister as good examples). Secondly, romance and baking just go so well together, don't they? (And in Baking Cakes in Kigali, cakes and detectives!) But this is also a coming-of-age story for Becca, as she figures out what she wants to do and goes for it. That's not easy to do, especially when you have confidence issues like Becca does.
I will say that Becca's ability to quickly set up her own company and acquire a client did strike me as a bit too easy, a bit quick and convenient. She started small-scale, it's true, but the focus of the story was on her emotional hang-ups, her would-be romance with clean-cut, preppy Jeff, and her obsession with Jennifer. The baking was a way in to that, albeit a consistently relevant one. Things just seemed to work out a bit too easily and cleanly for her, she didn't experience the blows and set-backs of most small businesses. I'm also unconvinced that anyone would readily buy baked goods twice a day, every day (just as I have no idea how she could cook that much in a day - making more than one recipe in a day is exhausting in my experience!). I'm not sure that her business, as structured, would actually work the way it's described here. You have to suspend disbelief and focus on the same things Becca's focussed on: namely, Jeff and Jennifer.
The physical likeness between Becca and Jennifer - which some people see immediately and others pick up on more slowly - was an interesting plot tactic, not something I'd read before, and used as justification for Becca's personal interest in Jennifer's life. Not sure I'm entirely convinced, but it makes for fun reading (there is some stalking involved). Really, the star of this story - the one character you can't help but love and appreciate from the beginning - is of course Sal (with, surprisingly, Becca's mother in second place). Unlike stories like Bridget Jones's Diary, the real love interest is portrayed as a good guy from the beginning. The only strikes against him, from Becca's perspective, are that he's a womaniser (which is just an impression she's picked up) and that he doesn't have a "real job" - and when you're white and middle class, that's important. But through helping Becca get her business going, she sees that he's reliable, dependable, loyal, useful, intelligent, friendly, and likeable. Like most people, she judges on appearances, and those are generally always shown to be misleading.
Becca can be frustratingly slow at times, though, especially on picking up Sal's none-too-subtle signals. But she has to go through a cycle of falling for the kind of man your parents would like to see you bring home, to realising it's just an infatuation and getting it out of your system, before you can see the man you really love, who was there all along. It's not original, but it's a classic.
With recipes for all the baked goodies talked about at the back of the book (in American measurements etc. - you'll need to do a bit of translating if you want to cook any of them), the story comes full circle. The commonly-held belief that "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is perhaps at the heart of this book, or at least is its structure, but really this is a story about a young woman coming into her own, realising her full potential, going after what she wants and succeeding at it. It's a story about strong women, lonely women, women in love and women in the wrong relationships. The tone is a nice balance of light-hearted and 'let's be serious for a minute here folks', though I found the scene with Jeff on Becca's couch a bit odd and disturbing. Maybe because the whole Jeff thing was so wrong for Becca, and that was the point where she seemed to realise it too - or be on the brink of realising it. Overall, a fun tale and some new recipes to try someday!
There is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II - a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. IThere is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II - a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. It is of immense importance to keep the past alive through personal, human stories, in the hopes that we will be better prepared, better able to spot such atrocities today and in the future. Sadly we've seen that this is a nice theory that doesn't play out; however it's important to keep trying.
One area of WWII that is less explored but equally important are stories from the non-Jewish perspective, stories about Nazi soldiers or ordinary German civilians, stories about others who also experienced the war but in different ways. The Paris Architect adds to this meagre slice of historical fiction pie with its story of a French gentile and architect, Lucien Bernard, who has no particular feelings either way about the Jews - though when pressed, he's no "Jew-lover" - but seeks to get by under German occupation.
In a strained and childless marriage to Celeste, and a social-climber mistress, Adele, on the side, Lucien's big ambition in life is to have one of his designs built in Paris for all to see. The occupation has made much of life and work in the city stall, but there are also surprising opportunities as well. The Germans are building infrastructure - factories to make the weapons used against the Allies - on French soil, working with well-established French businessmen and unpaid forced labour to get their projects built fast. Lucien is approached by one such businessman, an old man called Manet, who has a frightening proposal. Flattering Lucien's skills and vanity and appealing to a sense of moral rightness that Lucien doesn't feel he possesses, Manet dangles the promise of hiring Lucien to build a big munitions factory if he will also design an ingenious hiding place for a wealthy Jew being hunted by the Gestapo.
It isn't a sense of empathy for the Jews that leads Lucien to take on the task, one that could see him tortured and killed. It's the challenge, the vanity, of besting others that leads Lucien to agree to Manet's terms despite his incredible fear. Lucien isn't interested in dying for a cause. He wants to live, survive the war, and prosper too. Architecture is more important to him than anything else in his life.
But as Manet continues to ask Lucien to design more hiding places for terrified Jews, and Lucien even meets one of the men he's helping, something in him begins to change. The Jews become human beings, and the matter of hiding them, helping them survive and escape, becomes deeply personal. But as the Gestapo cotton on to the hiding places and begin torturing builders and craftsmen for information, the net starts to tighten around Lucien and Manet. How much longer before connections are made, and their time is up?
The Paris Architect is a wonderful story, a fresh take on the story of German occupation in France, the plight of Jews and life for non-Jews under the occupation. Lucien is one of those flawed characters who is undeniably, realistically human - the kind of person you can relate to because his concerns, his fears, his sense of morality are, lets be honest, the norm. Whether it's World War II or today, most of us would be just like Lucien, regardless of how much we'd like to think we'd do better, be better. Human nature trumps in survival cases. If we already ignore people who are suffering in times of peace, why would we think we'd be any better in times of war and terror?
Yet Lucien also shows that you can make choices and change. You can decide what you want to stand for, what's worth fighting for - and dying for. The tension in this novel is palpable, aided by gruesome scenes of torture by the Gestapo on French civilians. From a craftsmanship angle, a more subtle technique ("less is more") would have been just as affective, if not more so. The problem with Belfoure's scenes of torture is that it's hard to write such scenes, especially in a readable novel like this (as opposed to a more "literary" style, as much as I hate using that term), without sliding into cheese. I'm not sure that Belfoure was quite successful in getting into the minds of Gestapo officers - can't really fault him for that - but in the absence of true insight or understanding, the tension and genuine fear can be created in other, more convincing ways. The Gestapo officers began to sound like clichéd film villains in silly action movies - a Stallone cheesefest from the 80s, that kind of thing.
Belfoure was clearly more comfortable with the civilian characters, and developed Lucien into a believable, sympathetic character even when he's not all that likeable. The fact that he matures and becomes, for want of a less corny expression, a "better person", absolves him of his earlier vanity and ego. Not to mention that he's quite honest with himself about his vanity and ego.
There's a lot to learn from The Paris Architect - about daily life under occupation, about architecture and, especially, about human nature. Not always predictable, the tension and drama propels the story forwards to a fitting climax. At its heart, The Paris Architect is about the small deeds of courage and conscience that people are capable of in times of oppression and fear. While the self-policing conducted by French citizens on each other - spying on their neighbours, reporting people to the police to protect themselves - is unflattering, it serves to make those smaller, sometimes barely visible deeds all the more important. If I can bastardise a quote from Othello for a moment here, I would say that people like Lucien and Bette lived "not wisely, but too well." The point being, they lived, and they lived a life they could be proud of by making choices that weren't wise in the circumstances, but were worth it.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
'I believe we can make a solid argument that African-American boys ought to be deemed legally endangered. Their very lives are threatened with extinct'I believe we can make a solid argument that African-American boys ought to be deemed legally endangered. Their very lives are threatened with extinction, or at least any meaningful existence, and thereby ought to be afforded certain protections based on their classification as such.'
Roger Whitford, an attorney for the Centre for the Protection of Human Rights, has a plan to put a stop to the prejudiced treatment of black men in the United States, men - and boys - who make up a third of prison inmates. When Janae Williams' fifteen-year-old son Malik is arrested for the murder of his friend Troy - the twenty-ninth murder in Philadelphia in the twenty days since the start of the year - Roger decides to take on the case, not just to free Malik, but to launch his big campaign to get black males in America extra support and protection.
Janae is a classic statistic: pregnant as a teen, she put her education on hold to have the baby and raise it on her own. Now she works as a cashier in a hospital cafeteria, striving to make ends meet and give Malik a chance to make something of his life. But now, he's not just been accused of murder, the prosecution wants to try him as an adult - the standard response to murder cases. Keeping him in the juvenile court is just the first step in Roger's plan, but first he needs to get Janae on side - not an easy task when you're comparing her son to an animal.
Roger plans to use the Endangered Animals Act and have it extended to include African-American males, but it's a hard pill to swallow for the community and Janae in particular. Even more so for young, ambitious Calvin Moore, a hotshot lawyer at a big firm with grand plans who studied his way out of the community Janae is stuck in. Roger wants Calvin on the case, but it's a tough sell. Not until Calvin stops seeing his origins as something to turn his back on and instead as something he should try and use his skills and position to help, do the pieces start to fall into place.
But will Roger sacrifice Malik for the sake of the bigger picture? Can Janae truly trust an old white man to keep her son out of jail?
Cush's debut novel has a clear aim and agenda, and tackles it well. With a tight focus, a neatly delivered storyline and believable characters, she brings the human angle to a serious issue of race, discrimination, prejudice and poverty. It's a fairly short book that makes the wise decision to keep the spotlight on Janae and her son, rather than a long, drawn-out legal and political battlefield that could end who knows where. As much as you can't help but want to follow through and see where Roger's plan ends up, it would detract from the story without adding anything - especially considering that the situation Malik finds himself in is pretty much unchanged today. The point, I would think, is to get people thinking in a different way about the issues, to open a debate (or contribute to an already-existing one), not to launch into an actual, fictional campaign.
While the writing does, at times, carry the whiff of a beginner novelist - especially in some of the descriptions and language - there's no denying that Endangered has the necessary ingredients for a great story, is highly readable and shows the author's great potential. At times a bit simplistic, I nevertheless appreciated the human angle to the story. If the characters seemed a bit stereotypical, part of that would be because there's some truth in stereotypes, and part of it would be because the author hasn't yet reached her full range and stereotypes are unavoidable. Perhaps more time could have been spent on fleshing the main characters out, to make them feel and sound less like stock characters, but the writing was nicely, smoothly consistent throughout and the simple touch was actually refreshing.
Cush stretches her legal chops in the legal-drama side of the story; an attorney for many years, she has a focus on domestic abuse, urban violence, and inner-city education. The descriptions and dialogue between the lawyers and the judge, for instance, were accessible to a layman like me while still sounding authentic and believable.
Throughout the story, I couldn't help but feel a chill at the thought of children - children - being tried as adults and sent to adult prison. This is, according to the story, a law in Pennsylvania, and is just one of several laws that I, as a non-American, hear about and shudder at. As Endangered shows, it casts the wrong emphasis on crime, and neglects - and downright ignores - the issues behind crime. I'm naturally leery whenever I hear the words "zero tolerance" because it's so black-and-white and encourages black-and-white thinking, prejudice and a "hard-ass" attitude based on the idea that everyone's equal and there are no excuses. There aren't excuses, but there are reasons, and if you don't stop and consider those reasons and what's really going on - if you don't get at the crux of the matter - then you're never going to really, truly stop it from happening. Because clearly the threat of jail time doesn't do much at all, and as this novel pointed out, prisons create hardened criminals out of people who made mistakes or did something dumb, for various reasons. It's a big, complex mess of issues that throws open the debate of nature versus nurture - whether you're a criminal, or whether your environment and various social factors contributed to you going down a particular path that, if the factors had been different, you might not have gone down.
Endangered doesn't try to please those "hard-asses": it clearly posits the understanding that these boys slip into crime because of poverty, peer pressure and other social factors. The lack of good male role models is also a contributing factor - not just in black American communities but everywhere - but again, Cush manages to blend the two sides: that you do have a say in how your life turns out, and you can change it; and that the world you come from does mean that we don't all start out equal.
An enlightening and thought-provoking novel, Endangered blends readable entertainment with prevalent social issues to position Jean Love Cush as a writer to watch.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. ...more
It is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that thIt is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that there was anything wrong. Her father, a bee keeper and general handyman, is non-committal - first he tells his daughter that her mother has gone to another war rally and won't be back for a few days, but after a while he simply says nothing. Instead he takes Lissy out of school for the last couple of weeks of the school year so he can take her with him on his annual rounds, distributing his bees at three different privately-owned orchards.
There is Earl Caulkins and his apple trees; an aloof and mildly eccentric author, Chance Curtis; and irascible farmer Les van den Hoven whose busy, loud and cheerful wife, Opal, is everything Lissy's mother is not. Opal takes Lissy under her wing for the week they stay at the farm, introducing her to painted nails and gossip. It doesn't quite make up for her mother's absence, but it helps. Later, over the summer holidays, she goes again with her dad and the bees, this time to wild blueberry crops and other out-of-the-way places.
It isn't until she starts a new school year at her small town's middle school that she realises something is definitely off. The mothers of girls she goes to school with are avoiding her as if she has something contagious. Her best friend Katie doesn't want to walk with her to school anymore, and arranges for her brother to switch lockers so hers isn't beside Melissa's anymore. Kids whisper around her and then suddenly stop, ostracise her or treat her meanly in the hallway. And she has no idea why, because no one will tell her. Nothing touches on her idolatry view of her absent mother, whom, she thinks, went away because she's sick - cancer, Lissy thinks, after reading about it in the library.
Whether her mother was present in the house or far away and silent, she manages to deeply affect Lissy's life. As Melissa grows up, spending summers with her dad and the bees and her school days writing stories and poems, her mother takes on a larger-than-life, demigod-like aspect. Such is how she copes with her feelings of abandonment and rejection. Nothing and no one can replace her, so it's a shock when her father moves on with his life - and expects her to move with him.
Bee Summers is a fairly short coming-of-age novel told with childlike confusion and puzzlement by its protagonist, Melissa. Set somewhere in east United States (there are references to Boston), the late 60s and early 70s provide a vague backdrop of upheaval and public protest, while the fashions, decorating styles and cars give nice period details. In the early parts of the story, there is plenty of evidence that Lissy's mother isn't someone you or I would like all that much, but Melissa is a strongly sympathetic character who misses her mother deeply. It's clear to us that her mother has walked out for her own reasons, and that Melissa is too young to understand without being explicitly told. It's hard to agree with her father not to tell her the truth, and the idea that he's both protecting Lissy and preserving her idea of her mother falls apart later when it becomes clear he just didn't want to talk about it (he was, like many men of his time, a war veteran from the Korean war, and also like many men of his time, found it hard to open up about anything). Because no one tells her otherwise, naturally Melissa creates an image of her mother as this loving, wonderful woman.
Yet Melissa also grows up increasingly lonely and closed-off, and perhaps because she does come from what is essentially a "broken home" with no motherly support or guidance, she matures slowly. I found it hard to empathise with her over her father's decisions to remarry and move. Certainly, if nothing else, Bee Summers shows how much damage can ensue when people don't talk to each other openly and honestly. Misunderstandings and a lack of communication result in what was, to me, a truly tragic ending. What's interesting about Melissa as a carefully-constructed character is how realistically flawed she is, and how clearly you can detect her mother and father's genetic inheritance in her. Her personality is her own but she has inherited characteristics from her parents; if both parents are uncommunicative, and at least one is inherently selfish, it's not surprisingly that you see it in Melissa as well. She doesn't make great choices all the time. She does live in fear, later, that because she didn't have a mother for so long, she doesn't know how to be one herself. Dugan has achieved a careful and honest balance between Melissa's vulnerable flaws and tender fragility. It's hard to dislike Lissy because so much of her character is a result of her circumstances. That said, had her mother stayed around, she probably would have grown up much like her - since she listened to her so much - and might have ended up even less likeable. It's an interesting aspect to the novel, and makes this a story that you can't read aimlessly or passively.
Where the novel disappointed me somewhat was in the development of Lissy's voice - she narrates in first-person past tense, which is a strong choice (you all know by now how much I'm coming to detest the latest fad for using present tense). However, her voice is a child's voice, rather than an adult's voice reliving a child's perspective, and I found this a bit weird and confusing. Almost as if you're reading about someone who's development has stunted. It bleeds into the later parts of the story, too, so that Melissa always sounds desperately immature.
Secrets abound in this story about silence and selfishness. (How's that for a bit of alliteration?) For me, the stars of the story were the bees themselves - I have a deep love for these precious little creatures who are so instrumental to the survival of life on earth. I can't resist any story with "bees" in the title or on the cover, whether they figure as part of the story or not. While the bee summers of Melissa's youth fade into her childhood with the blush of nostalgia - as these things do - I was left bereft and saddened that the bees had left the story. I liked hearing about them, and wanted more. But they had served their purpose, plot-device-wise, and everything must change and move on. That's always a strong theme of coming-of-age novels, that things end and we must grow up and lose our innocence. The sense of that is strong in Bee Summers, and perhaps it's that quality of honest realism that makes it hard to tease out my response. The past of our childhood always has an element of pain, humiliation, gaucheness to it, that makes us shy away from it while at the same time missing it. I'm always impressed by writers who can capture something that ephemeral, that ambiguous, and Dugan has captured it so well I'm left feeling off-footed and mildly uncomfortable. Not an easy book to review but I do recommend it for those readers who like coming-of-age stories.
1974, Bittercreek, Alberta. Eight-year-old Egg Murakami is the youngest of three children born to Japanese-Canadian parents who have an ostrich farm i1974, Bittercreek, Alberta. Eight-year-old Egg Murakami is the youngest of three children born to Japanese-Canadian parents who have an ostrich farm in outside this small prairie town. Her older sister, seventeen-year-old Kathy, is a star basketball player and often impatient with Egg, but she is also Egg's de facto mother figure now that their older brother, Albert, is dead. Their mother remains gentle and kind, but loses herself in poorly-hidden alcohol, while their taciturn father never leaves the barn where the ostrich's live. He eats there, and sleeps on a camp bed, while their mother sends food over.
Egg doesn't know why or how Albert died. She understands that it was a tragedy, but she doesn't really understand why it seems shrouded in shame. It's September, and a new school year is starting. Kathy is itching to get out of the town, but is torn by her responsibilities to her family, especially Egg. Egg is full of curiosity, bursting with interesting facts about ostriches, and excited about her new Six Million Dollar Man lunch tin. But living in a small country town, and looking the way she does, with onigiri in her lunch tin, Egg is bullied at school, especially by Martin Fisken. She finds peace and a measure of safety in the school library, where Miss Evangeline Granger offers some welcome kindness.
Full of curiosity, wonder and loneliness, Egg struggles to make sense of her small but complicated world. As certain pivotal details come to light, Egg tries to make things right in the only way she can think of.
Prairie Ostrich is easily one of the best books I've read this year. Kobayashi has deftly captured Egg's unique, eight-year-old voice and brought the girl to life with a mother's tender touch. There is both a sense of Egg as a heart-breakingly isolated, fragile and lonely child, emotionally neglected by her parents and essentially left to fend for herself, and also one of a resilient, curious, thoughtful being full of wonder for the world. In the year after Albert's death, Egg's parents have lost themselves to their sorrow, and the resulting neglect - there and yet not there - is heartbreaking and tragic, and also horrible.
Mama cries, Mama cries but Egg cannot go to her. Egg is frozen, like the Vast Open Plains of the Northern Tundra. First day of school and Albert was not with them. Albert will never be with them. He has been dead for three months, two weeks, and five days - such a long, long time. Now they are all broken apart and Mama's lost and drifting and all the king's horses and all the king's men will never be able to put them back together again.
Egg runs back to her room, to her bed. She pulls the covers over her head. She does not want to see, she does not want to hear. She feels her heart shrivel up in her chest, a small, hard thing, not like the blue whale at all. The blue whale will not help her; not even the speed of light will bring Albert back. She curls and tucks her knees up to her chin and thinks of the stolen mints from the drawer, the matches from her Papa's tool box. She cannot be good. And if she is not good, then she is damned.
Egg knows that Mama wants Albert. But Egg is alive and Albert isn't. [pp.40-1]
Prairie Ostrich deals with the Murakami family's sorrow in the same subtle, wrenching way it deals with all the other serious issues in the book: homophobia, xenophobia, love, friendship, bullying, fear. Egg has Kathy to look out for her, but Kathy has her own life to lead too, and can't always be there. Nor does Egg want Kathy to sacrifice her dreams for Egg's sake. Egg is such a self-contained little soul, full of interesting facts and perceptive insights into the people around her. The reader understands what's going on better than Egg, yet there is plenty that is obscured from the reader as well, so that you are on a journey of discovery along with her.
In the Greek myths, sometimes the monster was once a mortal who became horrible through a punishment. But that didn't solve the evil. It just made it huge. Maybe that's where all the bad comes from, Egg things, a bad so big that it bursts out of nowhere. And then she thinks of Papa, his exile in the ostrich barn. What bad did he do? [p.132]
I was left gutted by this beautiful novel, the prose poetic and so precise. Full of imagery and quiet, tender moments punctuated by tension, the threat of discovery, the fear of being hurt. So subtle, yet so vivid.
Egg looks back at her sister, at Stacey, who waits on the sidelines. The late autumn light blazes behind them, two silhouettes made smaller by the crush of the sky. Kathy holds the ball in her hands, standing in the free throw circle. Egg watches, waits for her sister to take that shot. But the shot never comes. Why, Egg wonders, why is Kathy just standing here? Egg feels a sudden sense of things beyond her grasp. She wants to call out to her sister, to shout some warning, for Kathy seems so lost and alone. But Kathy is not alone. Stacey slowly walks onto the court. It seems to Egg that it takes Stacey a long time to reach her sister. Kathy, head down, stares at the ground, her body small, as if she has folded something precious, tucked it up inside herself and hidden it away. She stands so still. But Stacey just walks out to Kathy and places her hands on Kathy's face, brings her chin up. Egg sees the ball fall away, bump bump bump bump bump. It rolls unevenly across the court.
The afternoon light, the shift and flare. Egg can't tell exactly what she has seen. [pp.46-7]
Egg questions, philosophises, observes, tries to make logic out of human nature. She's in a harsh world, a small and small-minded world, set in a vast, open landscape. It is not hard to see how small these characters are, against such a backdrop. Full of pop culture references that draw upon the things that interest Egg, she tries to make sense of her world in the only way she can, and in the process I saw some things in a new and interesting light.
Superman works alone. He has a cape and everything. His only weakness is kryptonite, from his home planet of Krypton. Superman, exiled, saved from his dying world by his mother and father, who loved him, loved him more than anything, loved him and sacrificed themselves so that he could be saved. Egg puzzles this over. What does it mean when your greatest vulnerability comes from those you love the best? His fortress is called Solitude. The strongest man alive and he is still lonely.
Egg thinks Rumpelstiltskin wanted to be found. It must be lonely sometimes, spinning straw into gold, in the middle of a dark forest. He didn't want to hide anymore. She thinks he just wanted a family and maybe if someone knew him by his true name, they would love him. It's like hide-and-seek and you wait and wait and if no one comes, that is sad. If someone comes, your stomach squishes, and then - ta-da! - what a relief! But if you hide and hide and then finally someone sees you as you really are and they don't love you, that is the worst thing. That is the worst. [p.179]
This short novel is, in a way, a coming-of-age story for the whole Murakami family - what a shame you can't say the same thing about the townspeople. Recapturing the 70s with wonderful detail, Kobayashi writes with skill and perception, so much so that the story feels faintly autobiographical - I can certainly imagine the author drawing heavily on her own experiences, but I don't know much about her so I could just be reading into it. Egg certainly feels like one of the most alive characters I've read in a long time, and it's that quality of realism that makes her story punch so hard. It feels so true, you can touch the sharp jagged edges of her life, hear the whisper of air on the prairie, see the ostrich feathers ruffle, and feel the ostracism Egg experiences. It's hard to get my head around how people could treat a child so dismissively, or harshly, simply based on how she looks. Yet it happens all the time, and with ease. In this, Kobayashi's novel is a timeless portrait of small-town fear, the confusion of childhood, the pain of discovering your sexuality can be used against you, as a teenager.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
I've read a scant handful of English-translated French novels, especially French-Canadian novels, and they have all had a distinctly, how can I descriI've read a scant handful of English-translated French novels, especially French-Canadian novels, and they have all had a distinctly, how can I describe it, dreamlike? quality to them. They're less anchored by daily minutiae, somehow. It's a quality, a tone or atmosphere, that I can't quite put my Anglo finger on yet. Suffice it to say that, The Douglas Notebooks seems to me like a novel only a French person could write. Which is a compliment, trust me.
This is a fable, but in a loosely-defined sense. It seems to float, not tethered to any particular time or place, in order to tell a tale that is both strange and at the same time, perfectly ordinary. The writing itself is what gives it its fable-like quality, the sensation that you're reading something ancient yet contemporary. With a story such as this, in which the writing itself it like a living organism, both the writing and the story are impossible to separate, much like classical music and the piano.
In an undisclosed place in the world (but most likely Quebec) at an undisclosed time (but most likely post WWII and onwards), a rich and powerful businessman, Antoine Brady, and his wife Alexina, have a daughter, and then a son - Romain. Romain will inherit an empire, but he is different from his family, and made to feel constantly at fault.
...their younger son, though perfectly normal, never knew exactly how to behave with his nouveau riche family who kept up relations only if they were public. To the questions Romain asked - naively, timidly like all children his age - they made no reply, or replied too quickly and off the point. Not now. How can you think such a thing? Will you please keep quiet! The little boy wandered the gleaming corridors of the manor house with its fake turrets; he hid in the folds of the curtains, hands stroking the heavy velvet; he curled up on the landing of the imitation marble stairs that was wide enough to hold two family trees. In the end, he did indeed keep quiet. [p.13]
Romain couldn't stand up straight. Romain waddled like a duck. Romain put his elbows on the table and, more often than not, started fights. Romain was too much this and not enough that. When a word dared to exit his mouth, it disconcerted. It wearied his mother, irritated his father. Awkwardness, foolishness, absent-mindedness. All was Romain's fault. Even the rain that rotted the crops. [p.15]
At his eighteenth birthday, Romain announces that he is "leaving to live in the country for a while." No one believes him, and no one thinks he can look after himself. Mostly, no one knows anything about Romain or what he can or can't do. Even after he packs a simple bag and leaves, no one really understands that he's gone; they're still deciding what private university to send him too.
Meanwhile, Romain makes a home for himself in some woods, near a river, some seventy-six-days' walk from his parents' home. He builds himself a cabin, plants the seeds he's brought with him in a clearing, and catches fish in the river. With the money he saved up over the years, he makes small purchases in nearby villages, each trip an adventure. In one such village he encounters Éléna, the apothecary's assistant.
Éléna Tavernier came to the village of Rivière-aux-Oies by way of a convent, the Little Sisters of Saint Carmel, where she had fled to after her abusive father dies when their house catches fire. Éléna first encounters Romain's music - he took his clarinet with him, and plays it in the woods - when out gathering herbs and plants for making medicine. The pair fall in love, and soon Éléna is spending more time with Romain - who they rename Douglas, after the tree - than with Mercedes, the apothecary. And then comes the baby, and everything changes.
In simple terms, a fable is a very short story featuring anthropomorphised animals, plants or other natural phenomena, and a moral or message. The Douglas Notebooks doesn't fit that definition in a conventional sense, though it does feature a tamarack tree (Larix laricina), a deciduous conifer, which Douglas comes to believe is - well, I can't tell you who without spoiling things. But the tree is a recurring motif, certainly, and in some ways, Douglas himself is almost uncivilised to the point of being closer to nature than to anything human. As for a moral or message, it isn't readily apparent but is possibly to do with time, progress, love, change - themes like that. It's anti-development, pro-preservation of the forests seems pretty evident, as is the understanding that you can't stop it.
The sense of time being flexible, or not quite realistic, is best captured in medieval-like nature of Rivière-aux-Oies - before Antoine Brady comes and makes a deal to develop the land and build a big shopping centre; after that there's no turning back the tide. The novel is like a time-lapse video of modernity and progress, with several centuries collapsed into just a few short decades. It adds to the surreal, hazy, fable-like quality of the novel, and comes back to this idea that the writing and the story are inseparable.
It's quite a sad story, in some ways, yet certain characters have the chance at happiness and the outcome of tragedy leads to contentment. It's told in short segments, divided into parts named after cinematography directions: Location; Close-Up (and fade to white); Wide Shot; High-Angle Shot; Dissolves; Fast Motion; Music; and The End (followed by "Credits (in order of appearance)", which is like those brief summaries at the end of a movie telling you what happened to certain characters later). The headings work literally, but their cinematic meanings lend a grand scope to the story, a way of making it both an intimate, small tale and also a broader, global story with universal themes.
While I can't discuss it too much without giving away plot details (and in a short novel light on plot, I already feel like I've given too much away), it's a story that speaks to the heart and contains enough recognisable tropes within a less familiar style, to appeal to many readers. Fischman, an award-winning Canadian translator, has done a fine job of retaining the style and voice of Eddie's original, I'm sure - I feel it's safe to say this even without having read the original French novel, because the English version feels and sounds so very French. The Douglas Notebooks is a hauntingly beautiful story, poignant and steeped in layers of meaning, old-fashioned in style yet speckled with timely, modern images and messages. A quick read, it no doubt ripens upon re-reading, though like any fable or fairy tale, it's an enjoyable read on the surface, too.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
When Kelsea Raleigh turns nineteen, nine hardened soldiers turn up at the door to the isolated cottage where she's grown up under the care of her now-When Kelsea Raleigh turns nineteen, nine hardened soldiers turn up at the door to the isolated cottage where she's grown up under the care of her now-elderly foster parents, Carlin and Barty. She knew the day would come, she's always known who she is and what she's been prepared for - and why she was hidden. Until now. At nineteen Kelsea has inherited the throne from her long-dead mother, Queen Elyssa, a woman she's never known but has built up in her head as wonderful, good. The Peacemaker Queen, they call her mother, because of the treaty she signed with the Red Queen of Mortmesne twenty-five years ago that ended the Mort invasion just as it reached the walls of the Queen's Keep - but not before the Mort army marched across Tear, sowing destruction and fear, raping and plundering as they went. The survivors of that invasion still have fresh memories, and everyone is afraid of Mortmesne and its long-lived queen.
Kelsea leaves the only home she's ever known to travel across the Tear to the capital, knowing that her life is in danger every day. Her uncle, the Regent, has hired assassins to kill her before she can reach the Keep, but it's the infamous thief known only as the Fetch who holds her life in his hands. Fulfilling her destiny to be crowned as queen of the Tearling is only the first step in Kelsea's dangerous new life. When she discovers the realities of the treaty her mother signed, she makes a decision that will forever mark her as a very different queen from her vain, unintelligent mother - and set her country on the brink of war.
I decided not to go into the plot too much in this review because this was a Fantasy I started reading with little knowledge or pre-conceived ideas, and partly as a result of that I absolutely loved this book. Even the ARC's proud proclamation that, months before the book has even been released, it's already in the works to be turned into a movie starring Emma Watson, didn't really affect me or my expectations. (And I always ignore the comparisons publicists make between this book and that one; I recommend others do the same.) The only thing I thought I understood, going into it, was that it was a YA fantasy - mostly because (and this probably sounds silly but blame successful marketing) my ARC is trade paperback-sized - and only YA prints in trade paperback size for genre fiction. (I've no idea what the actual book will look like, as it's not out yet.)
So, I went into this story not quite knowing what to expect, but hoping for a good story that I could sink my teeth into. That's precisely what I got, and more.
This one goes under my "magic and mystery" sub-category, because it's got plenty of both. I am, like other readers, leery of magically-endowed artefacts - in fact, they generally put me off from even picking up a book. It's always either a sword (popular phallic symbol used by male authors) or jewellery (used by both male and female authors - is it meant to symbolise the womb?). In this case, it's jewellery, a magical sapphire necklace that Kelsea has worn since she was born. There's an identical twin to the necklace that her mother had worn, which Carlin gives Kelsea after she turns nineteen. The sapphire has a life of its own and soon starts to enable Kelsea to see through the eyes of others; it can give her superhuman strength and even kill without a mark. We don't know where these necklaces came from or where any of the magic came from - in fact, the history of this world, such an intrinsic part of the world-building, remains a bit of a puzzle.
From early on, there's talk of "the Crossing" and life "pre-Crossing". We then learn a few more details that lead us to think that in our own future, we abandoned Earth, took to the stars, and colonised another planet. That interpretation, based on fairly vague facts, holds up until near the end, when what I took to be figurative references to "sea" or "ocean" suddenly become literal. Our descendants have abandoned the world as we know it, but for what or where exactly? Was the incredibly dangerous ocean they Crossed - an ocean that sank the all-important medical ship and drowned all the doctors and nurses on board - some kind of portal between worlds? A portal full of water? The possibilities are mind-bending, and I hope Johansen is going somewhere with this or I'll be extremely pissed off. In general, the details we're given about the establishment of the new colonies - headed up by different countries (apparently America and Britain teamed up to create the Tearling, but we're also told it was also founded by a man called William Tear who had a utopian vision; not sure how the two work together, and I can't quite imagine the US and UK becoming besties for such a huge thing) - are teetering on the edge of believability. They could easily fall one way or the other, depending on Johansen. Poorly executed world-building can sink a story in a second; on the other hand, if all the pieces come together and coalesce into something strong, vivid and plausible, then you've got a winner. We'll just have to see, on that score.
Where the story really excels is in the creation of the heroine, Kelsea, who feels very modern (contemporary to us) and personable; she's smart, compassionate, brave and honourable. She's succeeding two rather rotten rulers, her own mother and uncle, and her kingdom is on the brink of utter ruin. If you're not lucky enough to be born into the nobility, who own all the land and control everything, you're a peasant slaving away on their land for next to nothing, or some other menial labourer in the city. Attitudes towards women have markedly declined, there's no education, no books except those hoarded by a few people like Carlin - and no appreciation for them, either. The dominating religion, the Church, is a bastardised mix of Catholicism and Protestantism that uses the Bible mostly as a prop; it's rotten to its core. The people of the Tearling have known hardship like you can barely comprehend - far worse than in our own Medieval period upon which traditional fantasy is so commonly based. Despite being descendants of us, they've lost not only a great deal of modern technology and learning in the Crossing, but also the humanity we continue to strive for. A sense of what's "right", an end to the exploitation of children, women, indigenous groups etc., the valuation of literacy and education, of workers' rights. All gone, it seems, in this new world.
The odds are stacked up high against Kelsea. Now queen of a nearly bankrupted country with few resources, a weakened and illiterate population, rotten and corrupt from the inside by a few powerful people who seek only to protect their own interests (sounds familiar) and a powerful, strong and aggressive country looming over them, it's part of what makes this story compelling, seeing Kelsea - someone we can relate to so easily - come in and try to make changes. We know from the beginning that she survives her crowning and becomes a legendary queen - the Glynn Queen - so there's no uncertainty on that score. The tension comes, instead, from how it all happens. How does she defeat her enemies? How can she repair such a damaged and festering kingdom? It also comes from the so-far unanswered questions and mysteries surrounding other characters and history: who is the Fetch, and is he even human? How has the Red Queen stayed young for over a hundred years, and what is she doing to herself to achieve it? What is the dark thing she summons, and what are its goals? What is the Mace's story? (The Mace, as he's nicknamed, is Kelsea's "right hand man" and leader of the Queen's guard: fearsome, terrifying, knowledgeable.) What's the deal with the sapphires, and where exactly is this new world?
With a fast-paced plot and a comfortable, smooth writing style, Johansen has written a compelling and engaging fantasy novel taut with adult themes and gut-punching realities. She's started me on a journey into the heart and blackened soul of a corrupt world - a world inhabited for only a couple of centuries yet already suffering from human occupation. The machinations, treachery, bloodshed and grief are all too real, and it even had me crying till I couldn't read the words on the page at the end. Yes, it snared me. It will make a good movie, too. I'm indecisive over how original it is - certain key elements reminded me straight away of the YA fantasy series, Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (which I also loved). It follows a familiar fantasy formula yet because of its futuristic setting, it's history based in our world, and the resulting mix of attitudes and adopted customs, it does tread on some fresh ground. Ultimately, it's well-written fantasy that you can curl up with and sink into. I don't even want to know how long I'll have to wait till the next book; I want to read it now, I'm not ready to put aside these characters and all those puzzles.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more