Over the years, I have read a lot of books. I've picked my way through the so-called "Classics", got losWe MUST talk about this hidden indie treasure.
Over the years, I have read a lot of books. I've picked my way through the so-called "Classics", got lost in Fantasy and Science-Fiction, been taken to other times by Historical Fiction, stayed up late to find out the answers in the latest Psychological Thriller, fallen in love with Romance, and rode the wave of every YA trend. And yet, I have never read a book like this one.
Requests for indie/self-pub reviews come to me all the time. I usually take a glance at the first few pages and am almost always put off by the poor grammar or writing. I rarely make it past the first chapter and, if I do, the story quickly loses my attention. And, to be honest, I didn't expect Senlin Ascends to be any different.
However, I took a chance on this because it came so highly recommended by Mark Lawrence, and I didn't come up for breath until I'd finished the final page. It is both a masterfully-crafted work of art AND an addictive pageturner.
“Newcomers may expect the ringdoms of the Tower to be like the layers of a cake where each layer is much like the last. But this is not the case. Not at all. Each ringdom is unique and bewildering. The ringdoms of the Tower share only two things in common: the shape of their outermost walls, which are roughly circular, and the price of beef, which is outrageous. The rest is novel.”
Just so you know: it's nothing like Mark Lawrence's work. As I said, it's unlike anything I've ever read. Senlin Ascends is about a man who loses his wife on their honeymoon to the Tower of Babel. Concluding that she must have entered the Tower, the book chronicles his ascent through the ringdoms of the Tower - each a unique, dazzling and completely weird world of its own - on a mission to find his beloved Marya.
The writing is gorgeous and oh so very compelling. It's a bizarre tale that at times feels like one of those strange, suffocating dreams where everything is familiar but also not. There's this undercurrent of wrongness to the novel, even when Senlin finds himself merrily drinking wine on the Baths level of the Tower.
Senlin was unprepared for marriage in every way. He possessed neither the imagination nor emotional warmth that intimacy required.
Marya was so much better at taking the flaws of the world in stride, which was why she was indomitable and difficult to disappoint. She probably found the bull snails and drunken merry-go-round charming.
Characters major and minor come bounding off the pages. I always feel like the best tell for an author truly adept at creating characters is when smaller, secondary characters are important, well-developed and worthy of our interest and/or sympathy. Of course Senlin is important to us, but I also really enjoyed reading about the many people he meets on his journey - Tarrou, Edith, Adam, etc.
But, really, it's so hard to explain why this book is so good. The best tool of a reviewer is comparison but Senlin Ascends just stands on its own. It's depth is almost literary, and yet it is hard to put down. It's unsettling, and yet darkly comical. The protagonist is a stuffy old headmaster, and yet lovable. Add to that some beautiful descriptions of each ringdom, portrayed in exquisite detail with everything from bloodthirsty executioners to clockwork animals... how can you resist stepping in?
And the best thing about this? There's a whole sequel to enjoy!! Arm of the Sphinx is next on my wishlist.
"The three suns hanging on a chain about his throat tried to gleam, but the clouds in the crying sky told them no."
If I were to write a review in th
"The three suns hanging on a chain about his throat tried to gleam, but the clouds in the crying sky told them no."
If I were to write a review in the style of this book, it would begin something like this:
I turned these pieces of former tree, the midnight ink recounting a narrative tumefied by metaphoric wanderings. It pained, O readers, it pained! Persevere, I thought. Quitting now would be a mark of failure, like a baby bird that flutters its wings for the very first time, stretching them out with the promise, the hope, of flight, only to return, defeated, to its nest.
I didn't finish it. Judge away, O readers, judge away, but I could not force myself through. It was a nightmare. I was so freaking bored. And I had to go read the blurb to remind myself what the book was about. Nevernight is so difficult to get through that I got to a point where I was just counting the pages until I could return to Tana French. Ulysses is easier to read than this book.
You know what it reminds me of? Shatter Me. A denser version. I once said that Shatter Me was not a novel; it was a collection of similes and metaphors that do not make sense. That is a fantastic description for this book! A collection of similes and metaphors that do not make sense. Clearly this works for a lot of people, but it was not for me.
The book is heavy. Lots of descriptions, overuse of similes and metaphors (did I mention that they don't make sense?) until I had no idea what was going on. I read sentences and thought "Huh?!" It hurt trying to figure out what Kristoff was saying.
There were the ones that I understood but were so eyeroll-worthy that I wished I didn't:
"Mia sighed. Took her temper by the earlobe and pulled it to heel."
And then there were all the ones that I really just didn't understand:
The girl felt the words in her chest. In the deepest, darkest place, where the hope children breathe and adults mourn withered and fell away, floating like ashes on the wind. ** If her face were a puzzle, most would put it back in the box, unfinished. ** Something had followed her from that place. The place above the music where her father died. Something hungry. A blind, grub consciousness, dreaming of shoulders crowned with translucent wings. And she, who would gift them.
No, seriously, what the fuck is happening?
And everything is so overwritten and melodramatic. To borrow the quote Anna used: "She introduced her boot to his partner's groin, kicking him hard enough to cripple his unborn children."
???????????????? Just say you kicked him in the balls! ^This does not better writing make.
I can't do it. I'm going to go bury myself in a place where love blossoms and life finds itself carried away on the wings of wonder. Read a better book, that is.
Don't trust the fire, for it will burn you. Don't trust the ice, for it will freeze you. Don't trust the water, for it will drown you. Don't trust the a
Don't trust the fire, for it will burn you. Don't trust the ice, for it will freeze you. Don't trust the water, for it will drown you. Don't trust the air, for it will choke you. Don't trust the earth, for it will bury you. Don't trust the trees, for they will rip you, rend you, tear you, kill you dead.
I did not expect to enjoy this book so much.
How many YA fantasy novels have I read that are called something like "The Queen of ____" or "The ____ Queen"? Too many. Way too many. How many feature a throne that is up for grabs and both a male and female POV? Pretty much all of them. Somehow, though, The Queen of Blood takes a familiar concept and does something that - for me - was completely different.
For one thing, I absolutely loved the setting. Aratay is a place where everything, every village, every city, is built on giant tree branches. Unlike the usual Medieval-style fantasy novels, this one is entwined with nature. The forests of this land are alive with spirits that represent the elements (as seen above in the rhyme) and the spirits are inherently evil and violent towards humans. However, some women have the ability to summon and control the spirits, to varying degrees.
Below her, above her, and all around her was the academy. It was a circle of trees whose trunks had been fused together into a ring and whose bark had been smoothed and polished to gleam like marble, a hollow tower with rooms within the walls. Spiral stairs ran up the inner ring, edged with ornate vine-coated banisters that looked like lace. On each level, the stairs produced a platform that cut into the air and also recessed into an archway that led into the interior of the tree.
This is pretty much how I picture this world:
In Aratay, the Queen controls all spirits and protects the citizens from their violence. Other women with the affinity are trained to be potential heirs to the throne so that Aratay is never left unprotected. However, as the story unfolds, it looks possible that the Queen may be losing control. The book starts with Daleina discovering her own ability when she saves her family from a spirit attack. The rest of her village perishes and she vows to become stronger and better so this tragedy will not happen again - therefore, she goes to the academy.
If this had been your average fantasy novel, there is no doubt that Daleina would have battled her way to the top, doing no wrong, being the best at everything, delivering empowering speeches and having a once-in-a-lifetime epic romance. Or three. But this is not that book.
Daleina is actually not the best. In fact, as potential heirs go, she's one of the worst. She gets through by using smarts and strategy instead of power and strength. Her attempts to control spirits often do not go as planned, but the underlying message seems to be that thoughtful consideration and hard work trump innate talent. And I kind of like that. She's not special, she just works really hard.
I found the story very compelling. Some things I saw coming, others not so much, but either way it was a difficult book to put down. The book moves from dramatic action scenes full of raging spirits to quieter, character-driven scenes between the female students. All of them were enjoyable. Though the two perspectives are the standard male and female POVs, they are not starcrossed lovers. In fact, Ven is a mentor and kind of father figure for Daeleina, and the small romantic subplot remains firmly in the background.
It's also extremely bloody and nasty, sometimes terrifying. Don't make the mistake of thinking that any character is safe - because the author is just the right amount of evil.
There's also so much female friendship. It is, in many ways, a matriarchal society and many of the characters are female. And though they are competing for a limited number of positions, they remain friends throughout. They support one another, encourage one another, and cheer for each others' successes. It's diverse in colour, sex-positive and contains no woman-hating. Jealousies exist, as they always do, but even the most talented, beautiful girl is not an enemy.
"They're jealous of me." "No one is jealous of you." Daleina resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Sometimes Merecot got in these moods. Daleina was never sure if she meant it or not. Merecot never sounded upset, but she excelled at hiding her feelings. "Except you." "Except me, of course," Daleina said, "but it's not because of your incredible powers, or the fact that you're at the top of every single class." "Oh, really?" "It's because of your hair," Daleina said with a straight face. "You have the best hair."
The ending is a grisly combination of awful and perfect. I'm so excited about some of the things the author has set up in this book. A few things have been briefly mentioned that I know must surface in the sequel and, honestly, I cannot wait!!
This is a book. You are the reader. Look closer. There’s magic here.
I really struggled with this one. Despite exciting little quotes - like the one
This is a book. You are the reader. Look closer. There’s magic here.
I really struggled with this one. Despite exciting little quotes - like the one above - to draw in any self-proclaimed bibliophile, something about this book just felt off from the very start.
I mean, it's slow. But that on its own is not necessarily a problem. Fantasy is often the kind of genre that can get away with having a slower, more drawn-out and intricate plot. No, it's more that I think the premise is fundamentally flawed and I just could not get past it. It must be me, though, because I have only seen one other reviewer comment on the issues I had.
The Reader is supposed to be about a society where reading doesn't exist. Reading is, as the blurb states, "unheard of". But when Sefia's aunt Nin is kidnapped, the only clue to what is going on is "The Book" that her father left behind before he was murdered. So Sefia sets about deciphering the book, and searching for her aunt with the help of a mute boy called Archer.
Firstly, though, it's simply not true that these people don't read. They do. Just think about what it would really mean to have a society that didn't read at all. Communicating through visual symbols is one of humanity's oldest behaviours - if you have a language and you can physically create art, it makes sense that people would create visual representation of words/things. And, as it happens, this society does just that. Symbols (e.g. an anvil or cleaver) appear above shops in the first chapter. Yeah, this is not the Greek Alphabet, but it is reading.
What this book seems to mean when it says that people don't read is that they don't read the Greek alphabet. For a book that is so culturally and racially diverse, it's disappointing to see reading defined in such narrow parameters.
Secondly - and I am so confused by this that I genuinely wonder if I somehow missed an explanation - how does a girl who has grown up in a society where reading doesn't exist simply look at a book and teach herself to read? How can she possibly see a picture of the letter "B" and know it makes a "buh" sound? I'm not being rhetorical - did I miss an explanation of how this is possible? How many non-Japanese speakers can look at this か and instantly be sounding out a "ka" sound?*
Also, as I mentioned above, a society that doesn't read would mean a VERY different kind of world - imagine the possibilities and what it would mean for this fictional version of humanity - and yet very little is done with it. The world itself is standard fantasy, with a heroine who could be any other YA fantasy heroine, and the usual combination of assassins, thieves, pirates and romance. I can't name a single interesting thing about Sefia to set her apart from the rest.
Another thing - people are getting really excited about the promise of pirates. Fair enough. But I'm starting to realize that I maybe don't love pirates as much as I think I do. I seem to conjure up an image of the old-fashioned, alcoholic "Yo Ho" Jack Sparrow kind of pirates. Truth is, that's just romanticism, and they're actually just a bunch of rebellious sailors. "Sailors" probably sells fewer books than "pirates", though.
So, as well as the fundamental flaws with the concept, I didn't connect with any of the characters, I found it so slow (lots of stories within the story, which quickly became boring) and one of the big reveals feels like a rip-off of (view spoiler)[The Neverending Story(hide spoiler)]
Also - and it pains me to say this - the obsession with "The Book" here is, frankly, a little weird. And yes, I freaking love books, but it's so crazy intense it's borderline comical. Like maybe you'll get it if you're the kind of person who sits alone in a dark room, stroking your books. I'm almost that insane, but not quite :)
*Okay, I knew I must have missed something. I guess the book briefly mentions her parents sounding out the letters on her toy blocks when she was young. I'm still skeptical of her ability to suddenly turn this into actual reading, but at least her reading skills didn't just appear from nowhere.
This book was beautifully-written, but I don't think it was for me. Expectations come heavily into play here and I'd been under the impression that thThis book was beautifully-written, but I don't think it was for me. Expectations come heavily into play here and I'd been under the impression that this was a far more magical fantasy novel than it actually was. For the most part, it reads like a character-driven contemporary about an old couple. When the fantasy aspects do arrive, they felt somewhat out of place. Kirkus calls the characters "compellingly ordinary" and they are indeed ordinary, and perhaps compellingly so for those who didn't expect to be whisked out of this world and into another. I just wanted more from it....more
The genre is so... familiar. Perhaps its unfair to blame Age of Myth for that. Perhaps the real culpritThis is why I no longer read much epic fantasy.
The genre is so... familiar. Perhaps its unfair to blame Age of Myth for that. Perhaps the real culprit is the limitations of this genre (or the perceived limitations at least) because all epic fantasy series contain the same or similar elements, they blend into one, they all start to look the same after a while, and they all start to look like A Song of Ice and Fire.
Sullivan is a competent writer with a flowing style that doesn't suffer from the same density employed by many other fantasy writers. There is intricate world-building, developed characters and bloody battles - and yet, I don't know about you, but I've seen this all before. This world feels like a mash-up of several others, the characters remind me of other fantasy characters, and the action cannot make up for the lack of emotional stimulation.
It is too neat, too safe, too recycled. "What will happen?" is a thought that never crossed my mind. It seemed I already knew.
Age of Myth opens with Raithe killing one of the Fhrey - a strong race of creatures deemed "godlike" and believed, until now, to be immortal. He earns himself the title of "God Killer", yet another addition to the Kingslayer, Kingkiller (etc.) trope. But, of course, this changes everything. Not only is Raithe wanted by the Fhrey, but he has also uncovered a dark truth - the Gods can be killed.
The story also focuses on a seer called Suri, and Persephone, a widow destined to become the first female chieftain. This in itself calls for comparisons to Daenerys Targaryen, but it is the word "dahl" - so similar to Martin's "Khal" title - that makes one wonder if the similarities can really be coincidental.
Gods, warriors, giants, seers, goblins, clans reminiscent of Westeros' houses, wolf companions reminiscent of the Stark direwolves - I can't pinpoint anything original or standout here. Granted, originality is hard to come by in the narrow confines of genre, but that is why authors need to step it up with a sparkling writing style, memorable characters, or just some charm and narrative charisma.
Unfortunately, Age of Myth is simply forgettable in the vast sea of the fantasy genre.
The cover had me thinking this was probably steampunk, or some sci-fi subgenre at least, but Steeplejack is actually a complex, thoughtful fantasy, exploring racial politics in a postcolonial city. Hartley's background as a writer for adults comes through in the novel, making it denser (not in a bad way) than the typical YA novel, and more mature.
The first person narrative, compelling mystery, and action scenes propel the plot along through twists and turns, but it's far more than just a fast-paced surface story. The world is vivid, exciting and rich in detail. The story is rife with economic and political entanglements. The racial and class tensions lie at the centre of this mystery, forcing us to draw parallels between Bar-Selehm and our own history.
Anglet is the protagonist and narrator. Relatable, downtrodden but fierce, it's hard not to like her instantly. If anything, though, I would have liked her to be a little more flawed. The author allows her to make mistakes and bad decisions, but her motivations are sometimes a little too selfless to believe, especially as a starving steeplejack in such a harsh time and place. But there are more books to come so we shall see what lies in store for her.
I especially liked the family aspect - just one more thing to add to this multilayered novel - and the way Anglet's complex relationship with her sisters is portrayed. You can feel the history between them long before we get snippets of it, and I liked that Anglet took care of her sister's baby for her (though, as a new mother myself, I can't help being skeptical about how they manage to schedule this newborn's feedings - she's two days old and Anglet is able to go about the city and bring her back to her mother when she needs feeding?! Lol, yeah. Riiiiight.)
In this world, we see a diverse cast of characters reminiscent of two other recent sci-fi/fantasy reads: Railhead and False Hearts. It's really refreshing to see more diversity in these predominantly white genres. In Steeplejack, tensions abound between the native black Mahweni, the white colonists, and the brown Lani, who the white Feldish settlers brought over as slaves.
Anglet is Lani and the story opens with the murder of a fellow Lani steeplejack. On the same day, a luxorite stone that powers the city Beacon is stolen. Though the police are dismissive of the boy's death, Anglet is convinced the two are linked. Her need to know the truth leads her to some dark places and she soon finds herself pulled closer and closer to a dangerous conspiracy.
Steeplejack's true strength is that it has so many great selling points. It's a fast-paced action adventure; it's a smart twisty mystery; it's a thought-provoking tale of racial politics; it's a touching family drama. Oh, and it isn't a romance. At all.