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 reaIt'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
Oh Laini Taylor, who do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
1. Unbelievably fantastic fantasy world-building (not to mention a globe-trotting Earth-bOh Laini Taylor, who do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
1. Unbelievably fantastic fantasy world-building (not to mention a globe-trotting Earth-bound setting! Can I get a shout of "Exotic locales" anyone?) 2. Wonderful, flawed, loveable, resilient, tortured, enigmatic, honourable, loyal, loving heroine and hero (Karou and Akiva) 3. Vivid, charismatic, believable supporting characters, no matter the species 4. A plot that feels fresh and unique, so much so that I can't think what influences have gone into developing it (specific stories, myths etc. that is - aside from the Bible of course; that book influences everything whether we will it or not!) 5. A fresh take on the classic angels vs. demons story 6. Thought-provoking in its approach to making people question their own assumptions and judgements, especially around concepts of colonialism and race - pertinent as ever to a homegrown American audience but just as valued elsewhere 7. Revenant magic (not sure I've spelled that right!) 8. Surprise! An unpredictable plot and the introduction of fresh elements hitherto unforeseen
I'm pretty sure I could go on and list ad nauseum all the fine details I love and admire in this trilogy, and this book. Dreams of Gods & Monsters is the final book in the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy (you can read my review of the first book here, and my review of Days of Blood & Starlight also), and it more than delivers on the exceptional first two books. Really you aren't going to hear any complaints from me. This trilogy has skyrocketed its way almost to the top of my favourite YA fantasy book list (nothing can ever knock the Obernewtyn series from the list, not even this, but it comes damn close). I was more than relieved that Taylor's final installment was just over six hundred pages long - it was not a story I wanted to end any time soon.
Whenever you get a successful YA series like this, the last book - or indeed any of the books after the first one, to which people get so attached to - can deeply polarise. Readers build their own wishes and expectations over where they want the story to go, and how they want the characters to develop, and it's rare that that coincides with the author's intentions - how could it? Personally, I love going on the ride the author wants to take me on. I very rarely bring my own expectations to a reading, simply because I very rarely ever build any. This doesn't make me a passive reader - quite the opposite in fact, and it's a disappointing book that forces me to be one, as I've complained about in other reviews. I like to see how the story unfolds; I want to experience a story, not dictate to it.
I'm reminded of those people who care so much about celebrities. There's a similarity here, to how attached people get to certain stories, and how today's readers turn fictional characters into celebrities - with "Team xxx" badges and online discussions, often quite heated, about the characters (especially sexy male ones) - as if they really were celebrities. I must just be more old-fashioned or traditional in how I read. Yes I like to daydream about characters sometimes, or think about their motives or deeds or where they're headed, but mostly just in my own head. I mean, I'm not a fangirl, in the modern sense of the word. I keep it all nice and private and personal, between me and the book. So I keep my mind open to where the author is taking me, and yes I do judge the success of a story based on plot and character development, and how successful it was, but not against any pre-conceived ideas of where I think the story should have gone, for instance.
For me, I loved the fact that Taylor brought in whole new plotlines and developments and built new layers into her world-building. I also have a long love-love relationship with fantasy fiction, of which I read so much of while a teenager and uni student, but which I hardly read much of anymore, sadly. All the things I love about fantasy are here: the fascinating worlds, the endearing and original characters, a bit of magic and mystery, a grand, sweeping and complex plot, fine details and realism, and thought-provoking social critiques. Other reviewers are perfectly right in saying that Dreams doesn't have a tight structure and the conclusion to the plot that began in the second book (the angels using Earth to acquire weapons) ended almost anti-climatically, yet none of these things disappointed me. They could have, easily, if I didn't love Taylor's writing so much, or the way her mind works, or the characters, the world and the story so much. I loved that it went in new directions and introduced new plotlines, because it meant I got to know the world and its characters even more. This place has become so real to me, like the best kind of fantasy does. I snuggle down within its pages and immerse myself. All my senses are engaged, my emotions especially (these books make me cry, make me feel what the characters feel and more), and my brain too.
If the writing itself isn't always perfect, the storytelling is. It is a fitting conclusion to a fantastic, sweeping fantasy story, and makes me want to crawl inside Laini Taylor's imagination and make myself a nest there. I am in awe of that woman's creative ability, her imagination and her way with words. Yes I got a bit tired of the climatic, revelatory stand-alone sentences (the very same kind of sentence that turned me off Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Avatar, the third book in the series, mostly because I read them all too close together). Just not enough to kill my love.
Ah, I will miss Karou and Akiva and all the other characters, and this wonderful, scary, sad, tortured yet ultimately hopeful world. It's all explained and cohesive now - all the questions I didn't know I had have been answered, and while the future is uncertain it's still a lot better than what's come before. I don't want a happily-ever-after ending, it's just not realistic; this one suited the story well. All in all, a mesmerising, emotionally-intense and brilliantly-creative ending to a stellar fantasy story. Extremely highly recommended. ...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
The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted tThe third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it's a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she's been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can't say I'm at all disappointed.
Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I'd like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March - over three months ago - and it's not all that fresh in my head anymore.
For as much as I love a good romance - like, really really love - and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn't a soldier in the regime - and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette's limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she's not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes - which I won't spell out because it's a spoiler.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, though with less heat than before: There's no reason why a Young Adult title can't be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There's smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that's a huge shame. I'm not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.
"You think you've had it hard," [Adam's] saying to me. "Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail - you think that was difficult. But what you don't realise is that you've always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis." His hands are clenching, unclenching. "And that's more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it's really like to live out here - no idea what it's like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea," he says to me, "what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism - but it doesn't work that way out here. In this world you're either alive, about to die, or dead. There's no romance in it. No illusion. So don't try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don't."
Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.
No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]
I love these powerful insights, I do; they're raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters' very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that's because I'm an adult reader and not the intended audience. I'm slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints - because I didn't have them when I was younger, that's for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.
What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi's determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that's all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.
This is Warner's room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.
These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I'm still recovering from. I can't deny that he seems different to me now.
I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.
He's like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he's been given all the tools to kill a person, he's too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father - the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.
And I understand that.
I really, really do. [pp.186-7]
Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it's not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody - in general, Juliette isn't the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the "grey" in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she's still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It's a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.
The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn't mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief - they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit ... truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place - the goal of such stories as this - is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don't know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don't feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn't need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey....more
It has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror wriIt has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror writer who died young, and Ophelia, her older sister Alice and their father, Malcolm Whittard, are still grieving.
In an effort to help them recover and give them a chance of scenery, Ophelia's father accepts a last-minute posting to a museum in another country to finish setting up the greatest-ever exhibition of swords. Malcolm Whittard is, according to his business card, the "leading international expert on swords", but with only three days to go before the opening of the exhibition on Christmas Eve, it's a demanding job that takes up all his time.
Alice seems content to sit and brood, but Ophelia spends the time exploring the museum. It is a cold place, in a city caught up in a perpetual winter, and the museum is a weird and wonderful place. The guards in each room are old ladies with black handbags who spend most of their time knitting or sleeping, so Ophelia is free to wander into parts of the museum she isn't allowed to be in. It is during her exploration that she encounters a peculiar room, with a little door and a big keyhole through which is the eye of a boy, staring back at her.
The boy, who was dubbed "the marvellous boy", has been alive for over three hundred years. He was sent here on a mission by the wizards of east, west and middle, who took his name to keep him safe. He no longer remembers it. They gave him a sword, a relatively plain and heavy sword with a carving of a closed eye near the hilt, and certain instructions. He was to find the "One Other" and give them the sword, with which they would defeat the evil Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen was unable to kill him because of the protective spell on him which also prevents him from ageing and dying, and so she had him locked up here in the museum, and the sword taken away. She need only wait out the time of his protection spell, then she can kill him and be free to take over more of the world, as she did to his homeland and this place, where she has reigned ever since.
Ophelia, unlike her mother, is not prone to fantastical flights of the imagination. She is a member of the Children's Science Society of Greater London and believes in logic and reason and science. But little by little, she finds herself on small but dangerous missions to find the key to his room, to set him free and find his sword before the Wintertide Clock strikes on Christmas Eve and the Snow Queen's plan comes to fruition. But Ophelia is only eleven, she's not courageous and relies heavily on her asthma inhaler. She's a little girl up against a frightening woman, with only the whispered words of comfort from her mother for encouragement.
In her search for the hidden key and the missing sword, Ophelia might just find her hidden courage, and save her sister, her father and the world.
I don't read enough of stories like this one; or rather, I don't make enough time to read stories like this one, which is a sad mistake. Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy was utterly wonderful, a delightful story of adventure, danger, loss, grief, wizards who think a lot, deception, sibling love, resilience, courage and the classic fight between good and evil. It is fantasy in the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia and similar works, a children's story that will engage and entertain readers of all ages, an old-fashioned tale given new life.
Ophelia is a timid and sensible girl, and the request made of her by the Marvellous Boy requires her to not just be brave, but to put aside all things rational, suspend disbelief and trust the word of a strange boy who claims to be several centuries old. The more involved she becomes, the more danger she is placed in, and the more her old certainties come crumbling down. She doesn't become a new person, or a vastly different person, she simply becomes her full potential as Ophelia. She's a great protagonist, suffering through the classic coming-of-age trial-by-fire that fantasy stories are best known for.
Wizards, [Ophelia] thought, when she gained her composure. What good were they if they couldn't tell you how to do stuff, if they were always talking in riddles and saying they knew everything before it even happened? It wasn't very helpful.
If she were a wizard, she'd write reports for people. She'd make sure everything was very clear. She'd write, Looking for a magical sword? No problem. Go to the fifth floor, turn left, open a large wooden chest, et cetera, et cetera. She'd have check boxes. Found your magical sword? Place X here.
The Marvellous Boy himself remains something of an enigma, and a sad one at that. He tells Ophelia his story in segments, and the vivid rendering of his life before being locked in the little room really brings him to life. He is quite clearly something of a sacrificial lamb, a boy hand-picked by the wizards who must sacrifice everything with little say in the matter. As such, he is an infinitely sympathetic character, a little boy lost who stays calm and friendly and positive in the wake of dire circumstances. I felt so sad for him, but also proud. Foxlee deftly captures the characters and their motivations within the confines of the fantasy formula, a fantasy that is none too clear about place and time. Any apparent plot holes - a never-ending winter somehow sustaining a human population, never mind the trees, is hardly believable - simply don't get in the way of the story. Such is the strength of Foxlee's writing, that it all comes together and works, much like a fairy tale still carries the strength of its own conviction despite the fact that the details don't really make sense.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy oozes atmosphere and tension, suspense and the thrilling bite of danger. Among it lies the fragile workings of family dynamics and confused love, vulnerable to the atmosphere, which makes it all the more precious. While Ophelia is off exploring and adventuring, fifteen-year-old Alice is being lured in by the museum curator, Miss Kaminski, who gives her princess dresses and flattery and helps drive a wedge between the two sisters while also flirting with their father. Miss Kaminski - and it's no spoiler to say this - is the true enemy. Beautiful and elegant but infinitely cold, Ophelia sees glimpses of the woman's true self but is too young to understand it.
While the overall plot is as predictable as any fairy tale-fantasy story - whether or not you have ever read "The Snow Queen" fairy tale (which I have not, strange to say, though I don't think there are all that many similarities really), this story does follow a fairly standard fantasy formula - the story is brimming with imagination and you never really know what's going to happen next, or how things will play out. The writing is strong and near-perfect, the pacing fluid and smooth and not too fast, and the characters fleshed-out nicely. I grew quite attached to Ophelia, and the Marvellous Boy, and welcomed the satisfying conclusion. With such rich detail and atmosphere and action, the story played out like a movie in my head, and I can easily see this being adapted to film one day. It would be a costume- and set-designer's dream come true, to bring this magical story visually to life. As it was, my humble imagination did a pretty good job of it!
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that passages quoted here may appear differently in the finished book. ...more
**spoiler alert** This review contains major spoilers.
The third and final instalment in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately after the ending of**spoiler alert** This review contains major spoilers.
The third and final instalment in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately after the ending of book 2, Insurgent, which culminated in a rather anti-climactic revelation. If you remember, the revelation was the climax of the novel, but didn't actually tell us anything much. The main problem with it is that, throughout this whole trilogy - and this is something that didn't solidify for me until I finished Allegiant - Roth failed to create the society of her post-apocalyptic, dystopic world convincingly. It isn't until you have the truth, as it is revealed in book 3, that you can even judge this. The problem is, in a way, similar to what you experience reading Lois Lowry's The Giver: these people are aliens - alien to us, the readers, anyway. They are "Other" but this distinction is never clear and so we can never really see their world from their perspective; thus, it never quite seemed realistic (to human nature) and I'm still not convinced Roth managed to pull it together in the final book.
The truth of Tris Prior's community, her fenced-in, half-ruined Chicago, is that she and all the other people's grandparents were put there because of a genetic flaw. Genetic manipulation conducted sometime in the past (i.e, our future), intended to solve our worst personality flaws, had unexpected negative consequences. As it is explained to Tris when she and her companions reach the military-science base not far outside the fence, the attempt to correct our genes resulted in damaging them.
"Take away someone's fear, or low intelligence, or dishonesty ... and you take away their compassion. Take away someone's aggression and you take away their motivation, or their ability to assert themselves. Take away their selfishness and you take away their sense of self-preservation. If you think about it, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean."
I tick off each quality in my mind as he says it - fear, low intelligence, dishonesty, aggression, selfishness. He is talking about the factions. And he's right to say that every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling. [pp.122-3]
Ah, good old genetic manipulation. It's irrelevant how original or not it is as a trope, because it's something we'll never get tired of talking about and exploring: what it means to be human, and whether we should deliberately alter our state of being - whether we should force evolution on ourselves. It's an obvious consequence of being philosophical, curious and thinking ourselves superior. Stories like this one play it out and you know, I can't think of a single example that doesn't deal with negative consequences. But such is the wonderful nature of speculative fiction: to explore and experiment and see. To play out a hypothesis without actually harming anyone. Because a lot of these moral and ethical dilemmas are ones we have to think our way through, not act upon in the real world.
Trouble is, in the case of Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy, it's never really explained quite well enough, or convincingly. The bits of information don't quite add up to the whole. It seems to contradict itself, or simply not take the time to really give readers a good enough grasp of the situation for it to make sense. As a result, many of the new scenarios Tris and Four find themselves in don't quite make sense. Well, they do and they don't. For instance, after the genetic tampering made its way down through the generations and finally manifested, not in friendly, compassionate, intelligent, funny, easy-going and talented people (as I'm sure they were aiming for) but in a range of people who were all lacking particular key personality traits that you need in order to be "well-rounded", a civil war occurred.
The civil war became known as the "Purity War": those with missing genes versus those considered "pure", the people whose grandparents or great-grandparents hadn't undergone genetic tampering. Thus the half-destroyed condition of the United States and its decimated population (the Purity War, in other words, is the "apocalypse"). Afterwards, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare was established and a permanent solution to the "problem" of the genetically damaged people was found: to round them up and put them inside fenced-in communities, like Tris's home in Chicago, there to sort themselves out in their own way. Tris's ancestors established the factions, and the Bureau, seeing how well it worked (it restored a sense of order and calm), instigated it in the other secure environments. It was found that the genetic damage would correct itself with time, so they needed to give those people time. Tris is one of the "corrected" people: she is divergent, which means she never fit neatly into any of the factions. The aim was to have everyone become "divergent" - or healed - and re-enter society. The Bureau didn't expect the factions to try and kill the divergent.
That's it in a nutshell, but the explanations don't always gel with what we've seen. It's not that it can't make sense, but that we feel a bit cheated. Because we've been inside Tris's head all this time, seeing everything from her perspective, listening to only her thoughts, we're getting the perspective of someone who's just like us - a person like us who is in the middle of a very strange world. She's like a human surrounded by aliens, but aliens in disguise. We always knew there was something seriously wrong with Tris's world, but because Roth couldn't share many world-building explanations without giving everything away (and she couldn't, being stuck with Tris's perspective), there was no way to know that the problem wasn't so much environmental as medical.
While I was reading this, I got hung up on a few things like this. If, knowing the whole story, you were to go back and re-read all three books together, I'm sure it would work a lot better, because you'd have explanations for the way people behave. The danger, of course, with this kind of premise, is making it too black-and-white. As a person whose genes haven't been tampered with, I always found it hard to understand how Tris's people could have formed such neat factions (or, indeed, how anyone could say "I am THIS faction" and that completely sums them up). The explanation does make sense, it's the only way to explain it, because the people weren't - according to the story - properly human.
Always ironic, isn't it, the way these stories play out: try to make people into better humans, and you end up making them worse; not only that, but the unmodified people then set themselves up as "superior" - in this case, "pure" - and fail to see that by dividing people and establishing such drastic social and psychological barriers, they are becoming inhuman themselves.
This was something that I struggled with, in this book. My slight disappointment comes not because the explanations annoyed me, but that they were so ripe for exploring. It comes not from Roth having to hold back on the world-building out of necessity and plot, but that, when those considerations were no longer a problem, she still held back. She held back in so many ways, when it wouldn't have taken much for her to take a step closer to the kernel of truth at the core of the entire premise. I would have liked her to follow through, not hold back - not as much as she did, anyway. It seemed like such a perfect opportunity to delve into these thorny issues, but instead Roth remained firmly, stubbornly subtle. It wouldn't have taken that much to really make this a powerful story, to crystalise the issues and make readers really think. There's no need to dumb it down or hold back just because your target audience is adolescent; the opposite is true, in fact. Teenagers are smart, their brains are going through some major renovations and development, and they're thirsty for some mental exercise - even if they pretend otherwise. I wouldn't have liked this watered-down speculative fiction as a teen, and I don't care for it as an adult, either.
I've come all this way and I haven't even mentioned the plot, or the characters, or the ending - an ending which, I'm sure, surprised or shocked or even upset more than a few readers. Truth is, for as much I was disappointed at the way the revelations and world-building were handled, I still enjoyed this book for all the things it did well. Tris's character continued to develop and become more assertive, to the point where I actually started to like her.
Four faces his first real dilemma in Allegiant and has much to overcome within this one volume - he learns that he isn't in fact divergent, that he hasn't been "healed", and he starts to fall in with genetically damaged people who object to the way they're treated at the hands of the "purists" (another really interesting concept and consequence that fell short of thought-provoking brilliance). He goes through a lot and comes out of it a stronger person, which was really good to see as his character was always a bit static before. I still don't find him to be a particularly strong character, though - if anything, he got weaker the more we got to know him, as if all his charisma was purely on the surface and his character wasn't half as interesting (or maybe it's because he has "damaged" genes, hmm??) We also get to know him better because he narrates his own chapters. Disappointingly, his voice isn't dissimilar enough from Tris's that it's always apparent who's speaking - there were times when I actually forgot, and had to look for Tris or Four's name to know.
The plot is interesting, but for the sake of a fairly fast pace, it skims past things that would have helped flesh it out more, like the shanty camp Tris visits with the soldiers. There's some real social-justice-commentary going on in Allegiant, but it only ever brushes the surface and I thought that a shame.
...I start walking down one of the aisles, as most people take off or shut themselves inside their lean-tos with cardboard or more tarp. I seem them through the cracks between the walls, their houses not much more than a pile of food and supplies on one side and sleeping mats on the other. I wonder what they do in the winter. Or what they do for a toilet.
I think of the flowers inside the compound, and the wood floors, and all the beds in the hotel that are unoccupied, and say, "Do you ever help them?"
"We believe that the best way to help our world is to fix its genetic deficiencies," Amar says, like he's reciting it from memory. "Feeding people is just putting a tiny bandage on a gaping wound. It might stop the bleeding for a while, but ultimately the wound will still be there."
I can't respond. All I do is shake my head a little and keep walking. I am beginning to understand why my mother joined Abnegation when she was supposed to join Erudite. If she had really craved safety from Erudite's growing corruption, she could have gone to Amity or Candor. But she chose the faction where she could help the helpless, and dedicated most of her life to making sure the factionless were provided for. [pp.347-8]
Yes, all very valid, Tris, but what else? Aside from understanding your mother better, what else is going on here? It's a key and highly relevant social justice comment in this scene, and you've turned it into a small but sweet reflection on how great your mum was. Understandable, but does that have to be all?
But the ending, oh the ending! I really liked it. And it wasn't completely unexpected, because it's the main purpose behind using first person present tense - a tense that has become hideously over-used recently, like a ghastly new fad that everyone copies without knowing why. Want to know what the point of using first person present tense is? It's so you can kill off your narrator. You can't, technically (though you can because we're all about breaking the rules in English), kill off a first person past tense voice, because technically they're relating, or retelling the story. Though that's not really true either.
But let's stay on track: Tris dies at the end of Allegiant, and while she didn't have to die for the sake of the character, she did for the plot. It was the right move, and it made for a much stronger ending than the previous two books - and a very strong ending for the trilogy. Our engagement with the story becomes more emotional as well as intellectual. There's always that moment of utter disbelief, that faint hope that some miracle will occur a la The Matrix and the character will come back to life. From a craftsmanship, writing perspective, it was a great ending. From a plot perspective, it was a strong ending. But it does make me glad I wasn't more attached to Tris, or I would have been extremely upset.
All of that said, it could just be me. Maybe other readers found the world-building enough, the social commentary thought-provoking, the explanations sound. In which case, Roth did well. I can only speak to my own reading experience, which is a mixed one. I really enjoyed this book - didn't love it, but it was actually quite riveting at times. I wish it hadn't softened its punches so much and connected the dots more, and I wish that the characters had been more interesting, overall....more
After spending so long trying to stay out of - or escape - the Inviernos and their blood sorcerers, Queen Lucero-Elisa né Riqueza de Vega, only livingAfter spending so long trying to stay out of - or escape - the Inviernos and their blood sorcerers, Queen Lucero-Elisa né Riqueza de Vega, only living bearer of a Godstone, finds herself journeying across the desert sands and into the heart of Invierno country, to their capital city, Umbra de Deus. Betrayed by a man in her own court, her personal guard and the leader of the Royal Guards, Hector, has been taken prisoner and carried off to Invierne for the sole purpose of making Elisa follow. And she does, she must, for he is not only one of her most loyal supporters, he is also the man she loves.
Hector's a clever man, and being taken captive, trussed up and beaten doesn't stop him from finding ways to incite resentment among his Joyan captors, or from reducing their number or slowing them down. He knows Elisa so well, he knows she's close behind, and he's ready for her when she catches up along with her lady-in-waiting, Mara, the assassin Belén, and the failed Invierno sorcerer, Storm.
Freeing Hector is only the beginning, though. Elisa intends to resolve the ongoing conflict with Invierne one way or another, so that she can then turn her attention to solving the treachery in Joya d'Arena, where members of her own ruling council have taken over the capital city and the castle. Storm's oblique comments over the past months have raised questions for her, especially concerning the truth of her people's own history and arrival on this planet.
More pressing still: Why does Invierne want her so badly? Why must she come willingly? And what is the truth behind the Godstones? Only in the heart of enemy country can Elisa discover the truth, but can she escape with her life - and still be queen to her own people?
The third and final book in the Fire and Thorns trilogy is just as strong as its predecessors, just as exciting and gripping, just as infused with gentle humour and vigorous plotting, and just as well developed. And even better: this one comes with a map! Ah it makes all the difference, really, not to mention the plain fact that I love maps in books.
While Elisa's personal growth isn't as noticeable in this outing, seeing as she's already achieved so much and matured so much previously, but it does build upon it. I mentioned briefly in my review of the second book, The Crown of Embers, that there was a curious colonial, superior attitude shown by Elisa towards Invierne and its people, and this still remains a niggling issue for me. Mainly, I'm not sure how deliberate it is. Certainly, throughout all three books, the sense of superiority among the Joyans is always present, and the more we learn about the Invierne's and what happened to them when Elisa's people arrived, the clearer the distinction becomes, the more solid the coloniser-colonised parallel is. I guess I was expecting something to come out of it, because it was the most interesting part of the whole plot for me. It's a story line I've always been interested in, and this Fantasy trilogy was such a good vehicle for exploring it. It's just that it didn't go anywhere, it wasn't grabbed hold of and it didn't change anything.
Which makes me wonder whether a second series will come out of this one, a new story set in the same world which will dig into it more. Elisa's story merely establishes a truth, but goes nowhere with it. The focus remains on Elisa in a more personal, immediate way, and her immediate problems. Or is this the difference between Young Adult and Adult Fantasy? I definitely do not want to hear that you can only explore complex themes like this in adult fantasy. To merely touch upon it like this, is not good enough. Because surely the whole plot, all that world-building, was leading to this, this truth beneath the propaganda? I was disappointed that it was revealed and then...nothing. It didn't make Elisa see things differently, or even feel sympathetic (as I did). In that moment, she felt more a product of Earth than of her own place. It affected my admiration of her.
Yet it didn't really change my enjoyment of the story as a whole. It's exciting, adventurous, intriguing fantasy, and aside from the fact that it's written in ineffective present tense instead of past tense, which would have suited it much better, it's well-written and well-developed. There are a few minor surprises, plot-wise, along the way, but it does in general follow a fairly well laid-out and predictable path. But Elisa is such a strong character, and the story and its characters overall are nicely filled out with shades of grey, that they easily make up for any other flaws. The romance is handled nicely: it feels genuine, between Elisa and Hector, but it doesn't take over the story. Everything about the book, and the trilogy as a whole, is just so bloody enjoyable. It just makes such good reading that I was disappointed when it ended and it was all over. For now. I truly hope Carson writes more set in this world, because it's clear we've only just scratched the surface and there's so much going on here than we've yet learned about - we don't yet know the real truth behind the Godstones, for instance.
If I could wish for one thing, though, one thing, it would be the scrapping of present tense. Yes, it is that ineffective here, and just not used properly, or correctly, so that it ends up holding the story back rather than propelling it forward. It would be so much stronger if written in simple past tense. So much. You know that expression, Why reinvent the wheel? That's what I'd like to say to all these writers - especially YA - who are dabbling with present tense these days. It's turning into a real pet peeve of mine. It's just, it's such a restrictive tense, it really confines your writing and doesn't allow for any flexibility or artistry or flair. It's an exceptionally difficult tense to write in, and if it's not done well - or correctly - it just spoils things. I keep going on about it in discussing the Fire and Thorns trilogy because I loved this story so much, and it would have been almost perfect if it had just been written in past tense. There, rant done, I'll say no more....more