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-b...moreOh 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. (less)
This was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story - a book or a film - but I can't think what a...moreThis was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story - a book or a film - but I can't think what and it's really bugging me. I don't mean that it's derivative, only that I think it might be inspired by an older tale, if only I could what it is! Oh wait, am I thinking of the film Brazil maybe? Dreams within dreams? I feel like I'm getting warmer.
The characters are a bunch of misfits, except perhaps for the main character and John. The mystery, then, was why they were there and what their connection was. The story follows a pattern that you think is going to get repetitive and boring but isn't because the "real" world, the dream space (the white room) gets incorporated into the scenarios. Though the characters are surprisingly slow at realising this.
It moves swiftly and keeps the momentum up, but to do so Celine had to sacrifice some much-needed character development. The characters are fairly thin sketches, a bit stereotypical, though they hint at greater depths. This is the first book in a series and while I'm not sure where the story goes from here (same characters??), it makes for fun, interesting reading.
Read in May 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. (less)
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 t...moreThe 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.(less)
Cara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpe...moreCara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpected - and not entirely welcome - assignment. As part of the fledgling treaty with an alien race two years after the L'eihrs first made contact, three top students from across the world have been picked by the aliens to host three of theirs, ambassadors on an exchange program of good will and mutual education. After which, the human hosts will travel to the L'eihr homeworld, a much smaller and tightly controlled planet, on exchange for the same reasons.
The student ambassador who Cara and her family will play host to is an eighteen year old boy called Aelyx. The other two ambassadors will stay with host families in China and France. Cara's parents are overjoyed - ever since her mother's life was saved when the L'eihrs gifted humans with the cure for cancer, they've been pro-alien (and on their humble income, the stipend for hosting helps, too). Not so many others in Cara's town and across America. Anti-alien sentiment continues to grow as the school year starts, and unbeknownst to Cara, it's mutual.
Aelyx and his friends, Syrine and Eron, have their own reasons and plans for destroying the alliance and severing the newly-forged ties between their people and the puny, barely civilised humans. Over the weeks, though, Aelyx finds himself drawn to his friendly host, and even appreciative of her efforts to cook him something he can actually eat. He's not concerned by the growing group calling itself HALO: Humans Against L'eihr Occupation - if anything, it plays perfectly into their plans of sabotage.
With her older brother, Troy, a Marine, on the L'eihr home planet, her boyfriend, Eric, joining HALO, and her best friend, Tori, caving under pressure and ditching her, Cara finds that soon her only friend in the whole town is Aelyx himself. Being in each other's company so much, they're learning more from and about each other than they could have dreamed - and discovering that there's more to their friendship, and more to the treaty, than they had expected or understood. But is it too late to fix things, repair the damage - and stay together?
I'll admit that, going into this, I didn't expect a whole lot. Another American teen drama featuring young love, obstacles and misunderstandings, nothing fancy but hopefully entertaining. I wasn't sure I should expect realism or believability as well. But actually, or maybe because of those expectations, Alienated proved itself to be more than just entertainment and teen drama - though it has plenty of that. Grounded in familiar sci-fi tropes, Landers has nevertheless managed to make it feel and sound fresh and not all that predictable. Cara is a strong, likeable heroine for whom it's not surprising that Aelyx would develop deeper feelings for - or that her ex-boyfriend and her best friend would remain loyal to her, albeit secretly.
By keeping the sci-fi elements simple and relatively straight-forward, Landers avoided many common pitfalls and plot-holes. You might find a few minor ones, but nothing that's going to aggravate you and distract you from the story. You learn enough about the aliens for it all to make sense, which provides a well-grounded context. And of course the human side and its varied reactions rings true as well, with the xenophobia, suspicion of (literally, in this case) the "alien Other" and fear-mongering: you can clearly see that a group like HALO would form and build steam, paranoid about alien weaponry and ulterior motives, and would quickly lose control. Threaded through the story is a pleasing sense of humour that adds the right - and realistic - edge to the novel's tone; humour both lightens and darkens a scene, all in one go.
Dad hooked his thumb toward the back door. "You two go for a walk or something." In other words, he didn't want their guest to witness the fury he was about to unleash. Cara grabbed Aelyx's sleeve and tugged him into the kitchen. "Hurry," she whispered. "You don't wanna be here when he explodes, trust me." As they hurried outside, she heard Ron's hysterical voice calling, "He has a weapon! I saw him hide it in his sweater!" What a lunatic. No wonder [his son] Marcus was so screwed up. Her dad's voice boomed from inside the house. "I've got a Glock, a shovel, and five acres of woods, Johnson!"
Naturally, a story about aliens allows us to take a closer look at ourselves, from another's perspective. Aelyx's views and perspective are a consistent blend of alien and familiar, and his judgements of human behaviour and how we've treated our planet ring true, to our deep sense of shame. But even more than that, it is watching Aelyx grow, develop and mature as a character that really helps flesh out this story. He begins as a stiff, rather uptight kind of person, hard to figure out without understanding his culture and history, but intriguing. His people, the L'eihr, have spent centuries creating a harmonious society, breeding out unwanted genes and breeding in the best ones, creating an intelligent, strong and attractive race. But they've lost a lot in the process, and their wise elders understand what an alliance with untempered humans can give them, aside with strengthening their weakened gene pool. Humans might seem like children indulging in one selfish tantrum after another, but the L'eihrs - for all their sophistication and mind speech - are yet another kind of child, a sheltered, arrogant, inexperienced kind that has sacrificed the headier, impassioned emotions without realising - or appreciating - all the things they have lost alongside them.
Aelyx had once heard [Cara's father] Bill Sweeney say, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As he sat beside Cara on the sofa, watching her face tipped toward the makeup artist, her full lips parted to receive a coat of lipstick, he began to understand why. Ever since his research into kissing and other human mating rituals, his mind had relentlessly fixated on Cara, flashing manufactured sensations of how her soft, wet mouth might feel against his own. He could almost taste her on his tongue, and when his traitorous body responded to the fantasy, he had to pull an accent pillow onto his lap and force himself to recite Earth's periodic table of elements. Gods, what had he unleashed? How would he survive the remainder of the exchange like this?
As much as both Cara and Aelyx grow and change, by the end they still remain true to themselves, their culture and their people. Landers successfully and realistically matured them, making them much more interesting characters, strengthened by their exposure to each other. Not only that, but they actually have chemistry! Yes I know, you'd think that would be a necessary given in a sci-fi romance wouldn't you? But it's not always there. Another reviewer described the romance as a "beautiful mixture of sweetness and steamy", and I find this a very apt description. It's not overdone, it develops nicely, and there's a real depth of feeling to it.
The supporting characters are never much more than simply that, supporting. You never really get to know any of them very well, which was a bit of a shame. Of them all, though, it was Tina, Cara's best friend, who was the most disappointing. She's a short, petite Latina (I'm never sure what that means, specifically - of Mexican heritage? South American? Spanish-speaking, anyway) with the same characteristics that I've come across in other American YA novels. I can't remember which books, but I know I've come across Tina before, pretty much exactly. (The House of Night books come to mind, and another that's eluding me.) The cultural, or racial, stereotyping is lazy and disappointing.
Overall, though, this was an interesting story featuring two strong main characters who I really came to like and enjoy. I didn't find the ending predictable - it seemed like the story could go in various directions, and I was happy to go along and stay in the moment - but it has certainly added a whole new layer of tension and intrigue to the overall story arc. The first book may have ended, but the story as a whole has a whole universe to explore - and I'm definitely interested in seeing where it takes us. Cara and Aelyx's story has really only just begun in this well-written debut novel, and I think it's only going to get better from here.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that quotes in this review come from the uncorrected proof and may appear differently in the finished book.(less)
This companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, which f...moreThis companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, which follows from book one, Shatter Me, was told from Warner's perspective and was extremely intense and absorbing, and perfectly set up my high expectations for Unravel Me, which weren't just met, they were exceeded. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Fracture Me.
Told from Adam's perspective, it doesn't add a whole lot to the story and didn't flesh out Adam's character in the way that Destroy Me did for Warner. As if all Mafi's creative power went into creating Warner and there was nothing left for Adam. I liked Adam in Shatter Me, I liked him a lot, and things got a tad messy in Unravel Me which really upped the ante, but in Fracture Me, Adam backs off entirely as he puts his brother first, and seems to lose all interest in Juliette.
Is this Mafi neatly getting rid of the love triangle that dogged the first two books? If so, it works, and I'm all for tying up that loose thread. But what really disappointed me was that Fracture Me felt inorganic, constrained by its need to fill in a bit of background that Juliette's unable to witness, and overall, a bit pat.
Where were the feelings that had seemed so strong, before? Where was his passion (other than that for his brother)? Where were his ideals, even? This novella not only failed to flesh out Adam, it added nothing to my understanding of this post-apocalyptic, dystopian world, either. If Warner was able to give us a bit of insight into the Reestablishment, Adam should have been able to give us insight into either the rebel organisation, or what life was like for regular people. I've been getting increasingly absorbed by this world and the players in it, but reading Fracture Me was decidedly anti-climactic. (It didn't help that I got my memory of the ending of Unravel Me mixed up - now I'm not sure what I was remembering, exactly, and I don't have the books on hand to check, but I kept expecting Adam and Kenji to break into the house and rescue Juliette; it wasn't until I started reading the teaser chapter one for Ignite Me that I remembered what had happened.)
I also find it disturbing that, in the machinations of the plot, so many people are killed and then forgotten. If you've read this far in the series, you know what I'm referring to. I should hope that they had an evacuation plan, an escape route, since Castle's so smart, but considering how he fell apart, it doesn't look like it. Juliette, in her self-absorbed, self-indulgent way, would probably care more than the more "human" Adam, whose only thought was for his brother. Understandable, but what about after finding him safe? Adam always struck me, before, as a young man of integrity, feeling, compassion, morals, generosity of spirit - all good things. Such is my disappointment with this novella, that not only did I not get to know Adam better than before, but that my impression and understanding of him was so greatly diminished. (Likewise, he didn't offer much of a perspective on Juliette.) Though I did like this bit:
A shot rings out. [...] A guy on the far left falls to the ground and I'm shaking with anger. These people need our help. We can't just hang back and watch thirty unarmed, innocent people get killed when we could find a way to save them. We're supposed to be doing something, but we're standing here for some bullshit reason I can't understand because Juliette is scared or Kenji is sick and I guess the truth is we're just a bunch of crappy teenagers, two of who can barely stand up straight or fire a weapon, and it's unacceptable.
Still, despite all these complaints, I am still just as enthused for Ignite Me as before. With a series like this one, it's clear that Mafi can achieve great heights, and great lows. I will shelve my expectations, then, and try not to hope too much for a book to match Unravel Me. If you're reading the series - and, again, despite my complaints - it is worth reading the novellas, including this one, as they do help flesh out the plot and fill in some gaps between books, things Juliette's not privy to.
And in the meantime, I am rolling my eyes at any and all projected hypotheses regarding Kenji. If Mafi turns him into a new love interest for Juliette, I will be utterly disgusted and will lose all respect. I'm certainly not convinced Juliette's got that much going for her that she attracts so many, very different, men, but more than that, doesn't Kenji deserve his own story? His own love life? It's the way everything revolves around Juliette that starts to annoy me. Can't she just be friends with him and leave it at that?(less)
Victoria, 1932. On her sixteenth birthday, Bluebell "Blue" Laurence looks in the mirror of her bedroom in her aunt's rented house in Willow Creek, and...moreVictoria, 1932. On her sixteenth birthday, Bluebell "Blue" Laurence looks in the mirror of her bedroom in her aunt's rented house in Willow Creek, and sees a monster. The scars from the fire cover her neck, and her red hair is falling out. She can barely walk, reduced to a clumsy shuffle because of scar tissue joining her thighs together. Her aunts, Daisy and Lilac, whisked her away not long after the fire to this house in the country, where they feed her detestable liver custard and tapioca. Her only company is the young Chinese servant girl, Mah, who rescued her from the fire at her parents' house.
Orphaned after her parents and baby brother, Willy, die when their ship sinks en route back from South Africa, Blue is kept in ignorance of the state of her family's affairs. Her father was the manager for her grandfather's shoe factory, Laurence Shoes, and she assumes their house burned down in the fire, but no one actually talks to her, not even her Uncle Herbert, who sends her chocolates and some money for her birthday.
With the ten pounds from her uncle, Blue sneaks out at night to see the circus that just arrived in town. The Magnifico Family Circus is a one-night-only event, and Blue enjoys seeing through the trickery in the sideshow tents and trying to guess how things were done. But it's in the Big Top that she really enjoys herself, watching the acrobatic displays and the elephant, called the Queen of Sheba. Led by the indomitable and very talented Madame - of no known name or age - the Magnifico Family Circus is a small group of skilled performers who take on several roles to make the circus feel bigger and more glamorous. Aside from Madame, the fortune-teller, there's Mrs Olsen, her daughter Gertrude and her young son Ginger, who are trapeze artists, and handsome young Fred who plays the bearded lady and many other roles. And there's the middle-aged brothers, Ebenezer and Ephraim, who play the Ring Master and the clown, respectively, among other things, and manage the heavy work.
Her aunts arrive to take her home during the intermission, and lock her in her bedroom for the rest of the night. It is when the house is quiet and everyone asleep - everyone but Blue, who tries not to panic at the thought of being trapped in the room - that there's a tap at her window. The circus has come to break her free, rescue her and hide her in plain sight. Madame, in her inscrutable way, has knowledge that Blue is being poisoned with arsenic - the hair loss is a sure sign. She wagers Blue has barely weeks left to live, and even though Blue resists the idea that her aunts could be trying to kill her, it starts to make a strange sort of sense. Especially when, from the very next day, she stops vomiting and starts feeling better.
It is a long road to full recovery for Blue, though, and in the meantime she's a runaway with the police looking for her. The circus is skilled at hiding people in plain sight, though, and soon Blue is masquerading as a boy when she's not performing as a harem dancer or a mermaid called Belle. Over the next few years Blue finds a new home in the circus, and a new family among the eclectic Magnifico family. Her only guiding thought is to wait till she's of age and can be financially and legally independent; until then, she plans to stay with the circus.
But Blue has no control over the way of the world, or the effect the Depression will indirectly have on the circus and the fate of her new family. It is at the small rural town of Gibber's Creek in 1935 that their luck runs out and Blue's carefree days of performing in a circus come to an end. It is there they meet Miss Matilda, owner of Drinkwater Station, and her husband who runs the nearby wireless factory. It is at Drinkwater that the circus's real secrets come to light and Blue realises just how clever they all are at multiple duplicity. And it is at Drinkwater that a murder and a murderer catches up with the circus.
While The Road to Gundagai is the third book in the Matilda Saga, it - and all the others (there are more to come too) - can each be read as a stand-alone book. The first book, A Waltz for Matilda, introduces readers to Miss Matilda as a child in 1894 and ends in 1915; the second, The Girl From Snowy River, is about Flinty McAlpine in 1919 till 1926; her brothers appear in Gundagai, as does Matilda from the first book. The next book will be set in 1942, during World War II, and the fifth in 1969.
But this is Blue's story, and I have to say right here, right now, that it's an excellent, wonderful, exciting, perfectly-written story that's easily one of the best teen novels I've ever read, and one of the best books I've ever read, too. I can't recommend this book highly enough, I am utterly in love with it and I know I would have loved it as a teenager as well.
Jackie French was previously known to me as a picture book author - her Diary of a Wombat is a modern-day Australian classic. But I had no idea until recently that she also wrote fiction, primarily for Young Adults and older children. I sought out her books one day and found a whole section in Petrarch's in Launceston, a bit tucked away sadly but completely devoted to Jackie French novels. They didn't have A Waltz for Matilda or The Girl From Snowy River, but I had already planned on reading this and was thrilled to find they had a few copies. I mean, who doesn't love circus stories? Stories about orphan girls being poisoned by wicked aunts? Stories about elephants who love to steal jewellery and have their own teddy bear? Stories about adventure and young love, mystery and treachery and family secrets? The Road to Gundagai has it all, and what's even better is that the writing is so ... flawless.
It's extremely rare for me - in my jaded, too-often-cynical 30s - to find a book, especially a YA novel, that doesn't annoy me in some small way, or feel a bit simplistic or unpolished or with weak world-building or characterisation or plotting. There's almost always something that stops me from really, truly loving a YA novel. One of the reasons why French's writing reads with such confidence and vitality and realism, is that she's practiced and experienced enough to know her own writing style and be comfortable in it: there's no pretensions here, no awkward turns-of-phrase in an attempt to be original, and no present tense! French is skilled at bringing her characters to life with just the right amount of detail, and the pacing is swift and sure so that you never get bored nor feel rushed. Like many of the characters, the story itself is full of charisma. It's completely absorbing and engaging, and just beautiful to read.
The story is also rich in period details, and setting. There is a handy appendix at the back for younger readers that gives concise and interesting explanations and insight into many of the things in the book, but if you already have the context and a general understanding of the Depression you can really revel in the fine details of life in a circus in Australia during the 1930s. Throughout the story, there's the running theme of what a circus - or any kind of theatrical performance - can bring people living in poverty, who spend what they can for a bit of glitter, a gasp and a laugh.
'And tomorrow, Gertrude will ride Sheba with Belle through the shanties before Ebenezer takes her down to the sea for her swim.' Gertrude's face appeared at the caravan door. She gave them all a swift angry look. 'I practise in the mornings.' 'One practice cut short will do no harm. You will be Gloria and Belle will be a dancer.' Madame shook her head. 'The mermaid would please them more, but a mermaid on an elephant is not believable. Best they keep the image from tonight. But wear the jewels. They deserve another sight of jewels. The children will tell their children.' Madame stared into the darkness. Her voice was soft. 'When they talk about these years they will not say, "We shivered in the wind with sacking walls, we ate stale bread and drank buttermilk," but, "One night I saw a fairy fly across a tent. I saw a mermaid swim, and wave her tail at me."' [p.158]
Balancing the dark tones is light and laughter, warmth and friendship. Blue finds love, too, and so does the reader: if you don't fall in love with Sheba the elephant, I shall be very much surprised. It should come as no surprise, of course, that French can write an elephant character so damn well.
Enriched with themes of economics and politics, class divides and gender imbalance, the story of Blue growing, maturing and really coming into her own is an absolute delight. She becomes a confident young woman with skills only the circus could have taught her - along with the nurturing of her circus family. There are moments of sadness and tears, and moments of bravery and resilience. Through it all, Blue is a strong heroine and protagonist you will come to love, along with all the other characters, so diverse and full of surprises. If I haven't won you over yet and made you eager to pick up this wonderful, wonderful book and read it today, then that's a lack in me and not in Jackie French's skill as a storyteller. For myself, I plan to read her entire backlist of novels and discover more gems.(less)