“The face that the world sees is never the sum of who we are.” I was thumbing the blurb’s print on the roughish dust jacket of Bone Gap when my finger“The face that the world sees is never the sum of who we are.” I was thumbing the blurb’s print on the roughish dust jacket of Bone Gap when my fingertips stopped at this line, the last one dangling at the end. It struck a chord with me. Lately I was contemplating about appearances, about the metaphorical masks we put on when we bottle up feelings or when we don’t want the society to judge us for who we really are. With its ambiguous synopsis, would the book be able to quench my curiosity? It did, but in a way I did not expect.
The story unfolds in the small town of Bone Gap, which couldn’t have been more aptly named. Patched together by sleepy cornfields, neighbourly bonds, and gossips with little to no drop of truth in them, the Midwestern farm town is full of gaps—instances and realizations where people could just slip into when they think they no longer want to be part of the town. Brothers Finn and Sean O’ Sullivan, for instance, have been orphaned twice, first when their mother hightailed it to Oregon with a new man and second when the inexplicably beautiful Roza disappeared from their lives.
The town did not think anything is amiss with Roza’s disappearance, as they are used to people leaving them. But eighteen-year-old Finn knows Roza did not leave on her volition; he saw her being kidnapped by a man whose face he could not quite describe. Since he could only identify the man by the way he moves—“like a cornstalk in the wind”—the police and the people of Bone Gap starts doubting him, even believing that he has helped Roza go away. Finn could handle that. What he could not is when his brother Sean seems to side with the town…which is not really that surprising, since Sean has given his heart to Roza the night the mysterious girl appeared in their barn after escaping an unknown evil.
In a series of events that marries dream and reality, the readers are introduced in a world awash with mystery and magical realism. I love how the story cradles Easter eggs lifted from the pages of D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths, with the starker ones pointing to the tale of Persephone and Demeter. The prose, which bears the beauty of lyricism and the subtlety of poetry, are helpful in binding the different realities of the novel together. I initially did not know that the book is tinged with fantasy, which is why it took me by surprise when the magic in it turns out to be not merely metaphor but real magic. It was a nice touch, especially when you get to pick out the references to other literature. Most of the characters are indelibly endearing. Finn, who earns the nicknames Moonface, Sidetrack, and Spaceman for always seemingly drifting and not looking anyone in the eye, is a precious character whose development throughout the novel is palpable. I love how his “distractedness” became also useful in making the third-person POV a little unreliable. This makes the chapters enchanting to read, with essential twists at every turn.
The novel also dips its edges into romance, but not of the cloying, sweet kind. Pretty boy Finn finds himself uncontrollably enamoured with Petey, the feisty and not-so-pretty bee-eyed daughter of the town’s beekeeper (much to the bafflement of the whole Bone Gap, of course). A heart-aching revelation explains this unconventional attraction, but headstrong Finn refuses to back down. His love for Petey is real, no matter what.
Fairytales drop by here, too, but in a style that reverses their Disneyfied formula. Whereas the traditional ones include poor, pretty girls in the dirt who get swept up and brought to castles to live the life of princesses, the one we have with Bone Gap includes a poor, pretty girl who actually enjoys working in the dirt and is not interested in a living in a castle with you, thank you very much. Stockholm syndrome is eschewed here in the process.
Unfortunately, the poor, pretty girl in question—Roza—shapes up to become the story’s Mary Sue. She is beautiful to a fault, charming enough to captivate the whole town (and basically everyone she gets in contact with, including otherworldly abductors), and in possession of little “flaws” that are not flaws at all. In other words, our little Polish girl is just too good to be true. I believe that with more believable imperfections (and a bit more of personality development), she could have been more humanized.
But over all, the story is still good; it is up there with my “most unputdownable” list. It dissects what real heroism is—should it should always involve brawn and good looks, of Knight-in-Shining-Armour treatment, of definite hubris on the sides of saviourism? Or is it enough to have bravery and steadfast belief in the midst of doubters and critics, of a good heart beaten by disquiet but unbeaten by hopelessness? Here, the princess did not get saved by her prince, but by another young man with a disability he did not know and a need to get himself a family again. Here, the prince shuts off the world and retreats inside himself to brood and simmer in stoicism. Here, a not-so-pretty maiden gets her heart broken by a love that she thought made her beautiful, only to be washed away by a reality that sneakily hid itself in masks. Here, we are reminded that true love does not require seeing what others could, if it could already see what it needed to in order to remain alive.
If someone hands you a ticket to an alternate universe—a reality different from where you are standing now—where would you want to be? The universe whIf someone hands you a ticket to an alternate universe—a reality different from where you are standing now—where would you want to be? The universe where you took that big risk that might have made your dreams come true? Probably the reality where a certain person did not leave you and killed half your soul in the process? The dimension perhaps where you opted to embrace this person’s heart instead of slowly poisoning it with hurt?
We may reel in these thoughts in the form of sighed regrets and weakly disguised daydreams, but for Marguerite Caine, the concept of multiverse is more than just a bittersweet notion of what-might-have-been. It all started when her life was turned upside down the day her physicist parents invented a device that allows a person to travel between parallel universes—the Firebird. Marguerite learns the benefits and perils of using the Firebird after her first travels, back when she was driven by rage and revenge after the “death” of her father. One long string of misunderstandings (and countless misadventures) later, Marguerite once again finds herself leaping across dimensions to save Paul, the love of her life, from powerful enemies who want to use the Firebird for their own dark plans. Paul’s soul is splintered into four pieces that are trapped within other Pauls in alternate realities. Before her enemies catch up with her, Marguerite must save Paul and his other-world counterparts.
In this follow-up to A Thousand Pieces of You, Claudia Gray launches into yet another mad, white-knuckle romp of a dimension-hopping quest that slaked my anticipation for the series. It is startlingly addictive despite looking like, at first glance, a gimmick-laced sequel that forced itself to latch onto the idea of its parent. The sceptic in me initially frowned at the whole “splintered soul, collect them all” thing, having encountered this trope in many stories before. But the book proved to be larger and more intricate than the clichéd premise; the author executed it with one bang of a literary gunshot that blew me away completely.
Like its predecessor, Ten Thousand Skies Above You also teems with scientific jargon, love, adrenaline rush, different flavours of Machiavellianism (ah, the very spice of this book!), the blend of romance and mathematics making up what we like to call destiny, and the twists that will keep its audience at the edge of their seats. Knowing that it did not in any way suffer being the second book in the trilogy is refreshing; the story stands solidly on its own, unlike others that are only churned out to serve as hollow bridges for the first and third books.
With our heroine’s feelings for our handsome bachelor-in-a-bind moving the plot along, it is understandable that romance will eat up a substantial part of the story; moreover, it also coincides with how the events were wrapped up in the preceding novel. Gray, thankfully, made it so that every page was not saturated with typical YA mush—just enough fluffy romance to oil up the gears and keep the tale going.
But keep in mind that not all romance was pure cheese and cloying sweetness. It may be true that a person has other versions in the varied spectrum of parallel universes, but Marguerite has a staunch faith in the consistency of one’s soul. She believes that a person may have ten thousand variations, but they’re all the same at their core. So when she bumps into a counterpart of Paul that shows a darker, crueller side—a counterpart that does not feel a dollop of genuine care for the Marguerite of his world—she begins to question the strength of their love across universes. This is an intriguing emotional turn, one that shakes our heroine’s resolve and reveals more layers of her personality.
Characterisation, of course, is still top-notch. With many characters leaping from one version of themselves after another, they have to manipulate their behaviour in order to convince the mirrored counterparts of their world that they have not just commandeered the body of their other selves. The author once again proved that she is adept at making characters pop out of the pages no matter how many versions they may have, having done it flawlessly in A Thousand Pieces of You.
I’m particularly enamoured with how she shaped up Marguerite more—she already did a good job with her in the first instalment so I was surprised she did something better here. It is a common formula for badass YA heroines to be written as pseudo-superhumans, with “weaknesses” endearing enough to be chalked up as additional quirks. The author opted not to subscribe to this recipe. So while Marguerite maintained her spunk and softness as well as the relentless questioning on the morality of life-hijacking, she uncovered that side of her that just wants to eschew reality for a while after it has taken its toll on her. This humanizes her otherwise too heroic makeup.
Wyatt Conley, the main antagonist, has been given a heftier identity here. I like my bad guys in various shades of grey, not all-wicked in a cardboard-thin kind of way. He was but fuzzy evil figure in the A Thousand Pieces of You so I’m happy his character is given weight and personality here. He is more complex than I realize; I can’t wait what the author has up her sleeve for him in the next book.
Gray’s nimble hands also did good with the ever difficult world-building, a very significant element that will decide the three-dimensionality (ahem) of the trilogy’s universe. For this instalment, we have a war-torn San Francisco, the criminal underworld of a murkier New York City, a mesmerizing Paris where another Marguerite keeps a shocking secret, and a couple more baleful, futuristic universes that Marguerite takes dangerous trips to. It seems challenging to mould them fully in a novel that is barely 500 pages long, but the author managed to make it work! I believe that the way she expertly populates the settings with her characters has something to do with it.
Overall, Ten Thousand Skies Above You has been an enjoyable ride, one that I can’t help but pick up again the moment I finished it. The story ends with a gripping cliffhanger that will make the last book in the series—A Million Worlds With You—a surefire wild ride. With the first two novels proving to be true-blue unputdownables, I have expectations high for the finale.
4.5 stars for that exhilarating experience!...more
Taking short-term AWOLs from our realities to soak in our daydreams is completely and understandably human. We might not always admit it, but we enjoyTaking short-term AWOLs from our realities to soak in our daydreams is completely and understandably human. We might not always admit it, but we enjoy wallowing in unlived possibilities. But what if those possibilities exist in the form of alternate universes? What if our romantic pockets of what-might-have-beens are real in every sense of the word—that there’s a universe where the person you adore loves you back, a reality where you chose the other path that might have changed your life forever, and a dimension where you became a person you never expected to be?
Claudia Gray’s novel A Thousand Pieces of You revolves around the idea of a multiverse, with an added bonus: you can actually leap through all of these dimensions as long as a version of you exist in them. But what it makes clear is that there is more to this concept than the pretty chassis of being able travel into a parallel reality and meeting a parallel version of yourself. This tale, at its best, elegantly crosses the high-wire of the chosen premise’s complicated science and the too romanticized structure of these What-If Worlds.
The book follows the story of Marguerite Caine, the artistic daughter of two brilliant physicists that invented a device that allows a person to travel between dimensions—the Firebird. Being the only right-brained person in a house full of scientists, Marguerite tilts the family picture off-kilter, but charmingly so; they are perfectly content, parents and sisters and hyper-intelligent assistants alike. The happy picture only cracks one day when her father is murdered. Vowing to avenge him, Marguerite and her friend Theo hop through several dimensions to chase Paul Markov, the prime suspect and one of her parents’ enigmatic protégés. But in the middle of her gritty and dangerous tour of the multiverse, Marguerite uncovers truths that befuddle her resolve for revenge and make her question her heart. Is Paul really behind the death of her father? Or is the crime really more sinister and complicated than she imagined?
Mesmerizing and deliciously addictive, A Thousand Pieces of You came as a pleasant surprise to me. After encountering a barrage of Young Adult novels that hitched a ride in the sci-fi train in an effort to cast its audience net wider, I did not set my standards high for this. I thought I have seen this kind of dodgy promotion in YA dystopias before; I thought this would be just a mushy romp about regrets, swaddled by a love story centered on yet another husk of a heroine (or worse, another Bella Swan). I have long been disenchanted by such commercial moves that thrive in this part of the lit industry, which is the reason why I abstained for a while from the genre. If anything, curiosity teased me to pick this up. How would a newer contemporary YA author approach this concept? The only other books that I devoured on the topic was the elegiac The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer and the toothsome, video-gamey InterWorld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves.
Thankfully, the book proved me wrong. While it is still a story about love (no denying this, no), it does not simmer in romance like it is the fuel that keeps the words flowing. I admire how the storyline is woven in an intricate web of Machiavellian schemes, betrayal, rage, and the ever-changing rules of each world that our heroine jumps into. Of course, the bond of fate and love (and mathematics, as the readers are frequently reminded) between the main characters are the common denominator between each universe.
World-building is a tricky cogwheel in a multiverse. Fleshing out one world is in itself a toilsome task, how about constructing several believable ones? The author branches out the tale from the contemporary world where the main storyline begins to (1) a futuristic London, where holographic social media populate the streets more than actual face-to-face conversations do; (2) Imperial Russia, precariously replete with cutthroat politics; (3) an underwater world eerily similar to the labor colonies in Chang Rae-Lee’s On Such a Full Sea; and to (4) a dimension pretty similar to where it all began, except with a few different choices taken by the characters. I understand how making these all pop out realistically in less than 400 pages is going to be impossible. The most developed one, if only because Gray dedicated a big chunk of the story to it, is in Russia. I admired how the transitions between these worlds are seamless…reader-wise, that is. (It is quite rocky for our characters in there, like that time when Marguerite literally falls down a flight of stairs as she takes over the body of her other self in a different dimension.)
Characterization here steps up on a delightful, Inception-esque notch. In the changing universes, the main Marguerite must try to learn how her other versions will act, which means she has to manipulate her behaviour to con people that she is perfectly normal and did not just hijack that dimension’s Marguerite’s body. That is basically a character attempting to fit into a different mold of her character. I adored her in that sense, and even beyond the fourth wall. I did not fall for her at the get-go; she appeared to be a messy stew of emotions in the beginning, a portrayal of angsty teen leads that I became so tired of before. I was indifferent towards her for the first few chapters. Over the course of the story, though, I learned to like her. She is both soft and spunky, fired up alternately by rage and love, emotionally confused, and, even if she has too much on her plate for being a harried dimension-hopper, still has time to worry about the morality of taking over another person’s body while they carry out their self-assigned missions.
Now, Paul? He’s a different beast entirely. Aside from the very obvious multitude of a person's—Paul's—versions in other universes, I guess one of the reasons the story bears A Thousand Pieces of You as its title is that we get to see many fragments of him across the book: we get glimpses of him through flashbacks and Marguerite’s observations, and we spend only a few moments with him when he appears in the dimension where the main Marguerite is in. Logically, the most complete portrait of him is his bashful bodyguard version in the long section of the story set in Russiaverse, which in a way is not him at all. Now, illogically, despite not having a stitched-together presentation of him, he is the character that tugs at my heartstrings the most. Selfless almost to a fault, shy, mysterious, he will do anything for the Caines without asking anything in return. He does not even care if Marguerite loves him back or not. His heartbreaking tragedy here is that when he finally gets his chance with her, he finds himself in competition with none other than a version of himself…a version that the girl actually loves. Yes, not him. The other him. It is a truly unconventional love triangle, where the guy is present in two corners and still does not quite win.
A certified unputdownable treat, A Thousand Pieces of You is one of those YA books that can make me believe in the genre again. It is nowhere near perfect, but it is amazing in its own right. I cannot wait to get my hands on its sequel, Ten Thousand Skies Above You.
The Moth and the Flame is a brief peek into the relationship between Jalal al-Khoury, Captain of the Guard of Khorasan, and Despina, feisty handmaidenThe Moth and the Flame is a brief peek into the relationship between Jalal al-Khoury, Captain of the Guard of Khorasan, and Despina, feisty handmaiden to the new Calipha. Both of them were introduced as secondary characters in Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and The Dawn, which is a YA-fied revisionism of the tale of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights.
Fleshed out and made truly lovable, these characters are a fun to read, seeing how their bond slowly bloomed from witty banters and a playful battle of wills into something deeper more dangerous than their little repartees. There are of course portions that turned out to be a little bittersweet, especially when we are given a chance to glimpse at what’s going on in Despina’s mind.
Although a tad too succinct, I enjoyed this story as it was able to quench my thirst for interactions of the two of the most likable characters from The Wrath and the Dawn. Most of their development in the longer novel was done “off the page,” so to speak, so it is satisfying to see how they are when they pushed in the forefront. I have not gotten my hands on The Rose and Dagger yet, but I hope these two will also get the space they deserve in that sequel. ...more
"Never Let Me Go" unfolds as a story about secondhand lives and tells us that love, no matter how powerful, sometimes cannot save our souls the way we"Never Let Me Go" unfolds as a story about secondhand lives and tells us that love, no matter how powerful, sometimes cannot save our souls the way we think it could.
Basically, it's about three friends who are clones: they are brought to life and cared for with the sole purpose of becoming organ donors in the future. They are brought to life only to die, just so other people may live. They are living, breathing spare parts. With a setup like this, will you still feel human? Will it still feel okay to love?
Going through the pages of this book is a little depressing. There were slivers of possibilities between the pages, but eventually the story winds up in an ending with an almost clinical presentation of all the reasons why there can't be a happy-ever-after here. There's a bittersweet note at the end, however, a tinge of hope and compassion for humanity despite all its cruelty.
I wouldn't want to inflict pain on other readers, but this one's too good of a gem to pass up. I highly recommend this!
The true brand of a good tale, I once heard, lies in a string of four words signifying the storyteller’s power over his audience: “And then what happeThe true brand of a good tale, I once heard, lies in a string of four words signifying the storyteller’s power over his audience: “And then what happened?” These words indicate a sliver of magic in the middle of action, wedged between this or that plot point; it is a question posed as a half-baked sterling review, an evidence that the truly gifted tale-spinners can prod readers to continue thumbing through the pages for answers.
Contemporary literature pushes the challenge to summon these words up a notch, especially for authors who opt to give revisionism or retellings a go. How would you keep your audience spellbound when they already know what would happen?
Madeline Miller knows exactly what to do, as evidenced in her debut novel The Song of Achilles.
Unfazed by the herculean task of taking on one of the greatest Greek literary masterpieces of all time, Miller manages to weave a story that feels simultaneously old and fresh. She borrows significant parts of Homer’s The Iliad for her novel’s backbone, though instead of giving the narrator’s seat to her titular character, she bestows it to a rather vague figure in the source material: Patroclus, the brother-in-arms and, in this universe’s canon, lover of Achilles.
(That detail alone could ignite a debate, but let us take it here as a fact the same way Plato did in his Symposium, Aeschylus in his lost play Myrmidons, or William Shakespeare in his Troilus and Cressida, shall we?)
The story unfolds as a bildungsroman. After accidentally killing a boy over a game of dice, the young prince Patroclus is exiled from his homeland to the faraway kingdom of Phthia, where he crosses paths with Achilles for the first time. Achilles, branded well even before he was born as “the best of all the Greeks”, is golden, beautiful, swift, and strong—essentially everything that Patroclus thinks himself to be the opposite of. But the envy and bitterness Patroclus harbors towards the boy vanished when they forge an unlikely a bond, a friendship that soon blossoms into love. They grow up together and nurture these feelings, despite risking the ire of the gods. Destiny, however, catches up to them: Helen of Sparta was abducted, and every Greek hero was called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Choosing a life replete with glory and fame over one lived in obscurity and irrelevance, Achilles joins the cause. Fearing for his beloved, Patroclus could only follow.
And this, as many of its readers would know, is where the tale latches itself onto the fateful events of The Iliad: how the Greeks and the Trojans engage in a ten-year warfare, how Achilles is dishonored by King Agammemnon, how Achilles nurses his wounded ego and withdraws from the battles, and how Patroclus decides to take matters into his own hands, unwittingly diving headfirst into his own downfall.
Enthralling and soul-wrenchingly poignant, I think The Song of Achilles proved it rightly deserved the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012.
Since this patchwork of Greek events has been refashioned as the autobiography of the self-effacing Patroclus, the novel in its entirety takes an unassuming tone. It seems that Miller makes it a point for Patroclus to take the whole vehicle with him, as even his personality makes the novel’s title an altruistic dedication to the love of his life instead of being the story his own life.
This takes us to what many “classic fans” are pointing out as this story’s Achilles’ Heel: characterization. I have seen it argued many times that Miller’s Patroclus is in no way the same Patroclus that Homer created. The former is molded to be overtly maternal, a tad too “feminine” by preferring the art of medicine and cookery, buzzed by his undying love, and a “total zero” when it comes to the battlefield. Homer’s Patroclus, they say, is much stronger. He fought like a true warrior and is not underscored to be the bottom to Achilles’ top.
What they failed to pay attention to is the obvious: it is Miller’s Patroclus, not Homer’s. How is it that any Greek myth can have fifty versions that can be considered correct, and this cannot? Note, too, that Miller’s Patroclus is crafted to be an unreliable narrator. Just because Patroclus considers himself weak does not mean he truly is. What kind of assets should a character possess to be considered “strong”, anyway? Why would he be tagged in a prophecy as “The Best of the Myrmidons” if he is weak? Miller is throwing clues at you here. This is The Iliad sailing in the modern times, and she is making you take a step back and reassess what a “strong” character should be like.
Achilles, for his part, is a striking albeit lonely portrait of a Greek warrior. Throwing away my initial view of him as a child-man throwing a tantrum, I reopened my eyes to his character to learn his real tragedy—his semi-divine birth. He is a bevy of almost’s: almost a god, almost immortal, almost good enough. What’s worse is he would not simply die; he is prophesied to die young.
Acutely aware of his mortality, he seeks eternal life in the form of fame and glory, of his story etched in songs and urns. He simply cannot hold back if he wants to be immortalized. His emotions then, too, are of extremes, explaining why he practically goes berserk when he learns of what happens to Patroclus at the hands of Hector. See, Achilles does not seek any other person to get close to because he already has everything in Patroclus: a bosom companion, a friend, an adviser, a lover. Losing the man equates to everything being taken away from him. With his grief and wrath tearing through his hubris, he returns to the battlefield not for honor or reputation like everyone else, but for his fallen beloved friend.
Stepping back for the big picture, these two characters are pushed in the forefront romance-bound, with big chunks of the novel portraying them as younglings exploring their feelings. With that, I think it is only understandable how…hormonally charged some chapters came to be (I could do without that certain soft porn-ish bit actually, but we have passion-crazed teens at our hands, so…)
This does not mean the whole piece has degenerated into a lump of, to borrow from fandom-speak, vanilla slash. Even if emotions are highlighted, there are so much more going on in the story that Miller successfully delivers. From time to time there are slips with switches between modern and period-appropriate tones, but these are not exactly unforgivable. The purple prose that threateningly rears its head more than once in it is not deplorable either, as it sometimes do lend the words a splendor that readers can enjoy. If I will have one thing I disliked about it, it is how hastily-paced the chapters of the Trojan War seem to be, presented in stark contrast of the slow build-up of the first half of the book.
But the real beauty of The Song of Achilles, I think, lies in how Miller utilizes her literary tools to tug at the readers’ feelings. It could not be reiterated enough that the material she worked on is not new—we are talking about a three thousand-year-old poem here, and there is no escaping that even if her market consists mainly of young adults. Those who have played hokey instead of completing the required Homer readathon back in high school must have taken to SparkNotes for their Iliad and Odyssey book reports; if not, they might have watched an Iliad-inspired flick starring a very brawny Achilles played by Brad Pitt (with an armor-stealing Patroclus as his…uh, baby cousin). There is practically no reason for anyone to not know anything about it. Because of this, she knew she could not make the readers ask “and then what happened?”. What she did instead is wrote the tale in a way that will make her audience say, “This author knows that I know what will happen, and she’s making sure I’m relishing every step I’m taking until I get there.”
This technique gives her foreshadowing a different flavor, especially the ones pointing to the looming tragedy involving the two main characters. The audience that knows will take these bits of forewarnings as rungs—painful ones—towards the inevitable ending. I surmise that every time Achilles nonchalantly wonders “What has Hector ever done to me?”, a staunch supporter of the leads gets a shard of his or her heart shattered again, tenfold.
Over all, this has been one roller coaster of a read. I repeatedly go back to some passages just to revel at their raw beauty, sometimes to even cry at them. I would shamelessly admit that this book made me want to revisit Homer’s masterpieces again, just so I could see my darling characters again in a universe that classicists have unreservedly adored.
The way I see it, we readers are willing preys of the printed word. We lay ourselves open before the tales we encounter and wait for their best blows;The way I see it, we readers are willing preys of the printed word. We lay ourselves open before the tales we encounter and wait for their best blows; we crave stories that are chiefly meant to enchant us. They need not be perfect. We just seek for works that can hold us under a spell, rendering us unable to put them down until the wee hours of the morning. We are always, always in search for a masterpiece that will beguile us with its beauty and power.
Finding such a book in the landscape of contemporary literature is a difficult task, especially around the young adult parts. You have to dig through layers upon layers of rubble to get to the actual gems. Fortunately, I found one in the form of Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn—a stunning jewel in its own right, although one with facets that necessitate a little more carving, honing, and polishing.
Taking roots from the beloved classic A Thousand and One Nights, The Wrath and the Dawn unfolds in a kingdom ruled by a brutal young caliph named Khalid, who takes a new bride every night only to have her killed at sunrise. Every day, a family mourns the loss of a daughter murdered without reason or meaning. Every day, riots rise but get easily quelled. Things only start to change when sixteen-year-old Sharzhad, whose dearest friend fell victim to Khalid, volunteers to be a bride with an underlying motive of avenging her friend.
The nightly stories that Sharzhad tells Khalid bought her several dawns, guaranteeing her survival. Things are going according to plan until she realizes that the king is not the monster that she thought he would be…and until her treacherous little heart begins falling for him. Though she teeters into surrendering to her feelings, Sharzhad decides it is an unforgivable betrayal and readies herself to take Khalid’s life despite her love for him.
Engrossing and truly “unputdownable”, The Wrath and the Dawn is brimming with intrigue, secrets, magic, and flavors that will appeal to the palate of readers who clamor for something different in the YA market.
Most of its characters are vibrant and intricate. Its abrasive heroine, for instance, balances out her fiery verve with a coldly manipulative charm; her way with words couples itself with a fairly dangerous level of cunning. But when matters relating to emotions barge in, she gets herself in a tug-of-war of decisions that she finds so difficult to win. She repeatedly scolds herself for the deplorable treachery to her friend and to dozens of other murdered girls, yet her heart screams an intelligible plea to see the good side to their executioner. I would have dismissed her as a lost cause then and there, but there is something about her that makes me root for her, despite the gigantic neon sign at the back of my mind screaming Stockholm Syndrome.
Then we have the enigmatic Khalid, unflinching wearer of the tags of a madman, a murderer, and a monster. It is tough to decode what hides beneath his impassive façade, but one revelation after another, we get a peek of the broken eighteen-year-old boy that he really is; we learn how he is trapped in a web of deceits and choices that becomes even more complex when Sharzhad steps into the picture. However, despite the reveals, I still felt like he persisted to be a half-solved puzzle in the end. I expected to close the book with a clearer grasp of his character, but other than the reasons for his actions, I see nothing else that can convince me he is fully fleshed out. I cannot wait to get my hands on the sequel, if only that installment will zero in on molding him into a fuller…can we say antihero?
Among the characters, my favorite is Captain of the Guard Jalal Al-Khoury. Armed with his teasing personality, a scorching passion in protecting his family, and a stubborn resolve to see the good in people, he comes out to be a lot more likable than his cousin Khalid. As for the others, I’m going to need more prodding to even start liking them. I have always been thirsting for YA books with no love triangle in sight, so I surmise my several rounds of eye-rolls while reading about Taqir, Sharzhad’s childhood sweetheart who embarks in a journey a la-Iliad to rescue her, are only understandable. But I guess without him there would be no non-romantic conflict in the sequel (i.e. a war against a perceived ruthless ruler), so I have to give him that.
Also one of my problems with this ensemble is that there are not enough female characters who can parallel Sharzhad. An addition of one would be a welcome move in this largely masculine universe. Sure, there is the neighboring kingdom’s Yasmine, but aside from her snakelike allure and hints that she may be the yin to Sharzhad’s yang, the story gives no proof to further support it.
What I really loved about this is the world-building. Ahdieh proves to be a master in its craft. She makes turning the chapters a sensory experience—so vivid an experience in fact that the passages can substitute as tickets for the readers to the ancient realms of Middle East. With her words, I enjoyed touring the caliphate of Khorasan; I had fun basking in all its heat and hues, almost feeling the sun on my skin and almost hearing the scimitars clang against each other. I was colored curious by the intricacies of this universe. I became thirsty to learn more about Parthia and the kingdoms lying in the dunes beyond, the horsemen tribes of Badawi, the mystery of the hired assassins Fida’i, and many more.
However, there is a pitfall some portions of the story unsurprisingly trips on: purple prose. While most of the descriptions successfully helped in popping up the setting, there are parts that appear to be overdone, giving off an almost cloying effect. This extends to the adjectives for some of the characters. Khalid gets peppered with the most unflattering ones, as many of his portraits become too reminiscent of those brawny leads in old paperback romances. But hey, thanks to the novel’s curiosity-piquing plot points and turns, I managed to sift through those parts without taking a breather.
The Wrath and the Dawn, at its core, is a love story—it does not really pretend to be something else. That is the reason why it does not saturate itself with too much cutthroat politics similar to A Song of Ice and Fire, even if this is omnipresent in the novel and there is a hinted promise to tap more into that in the sequel. That is reason why the book gently carries human emotions to the writer’s playpen, poking at every feeling and mixing them altogether to bring forth varying levels of dimensionality to some of the characters involved.
I’d go out on a limb and say I enjoyed this book tremendously, even if tons of questions have all but crowded every corner of my mind while I was reading it. For specifics:
1. The rape/detached sex. The fateful wedding night. Amid the discussions of whether it was rape or not (with arguments saying it was our girl who initiated it to gain Khalid’s trust even after he tells her he expects nothing more than her life at sunrise), let us just focus on Sharzhad herself. It would have been more realistic had she felt more strongly about the icy consummation of their marriage instead of just letting pass a shrug in the form of “At least he didn’t try to kiss me.” And she was a virgin, for god’s sake! I just cannot fathom why her thoughts would not linger a bit about it, even if she has perhaps long accepted it as part of her plan. It struck me as odd and…cold. It also would have been a good opportunity for the author to explore such a taboo topic. 2. Stockholm Syndrome. It did not escape my notice that Sharzhad falls in love with Khalid even before she is made aware of the reason behind the killings. But I noted too, that it is in Sharzhad’s personality to seek out the good in everyone or to search for reasons before she takes action. In the process of knowing her enemy, she realizes what every other kind person around her tells her: that Khalid is not the hateful slaughterer she thinks he is. This is okay for me because it makes for a good story and a decent exploration of the characters’ “literary anatomies”. What I am uncomfortable with is the knowledge that some very young girls out there are probably reading this and contort their idea of real-life romance. Kids, this is fiction, okay? A dark one with a twistedly romantic swing, but still fiction. 3. Solutions to…the reason for the bridal murders. I would not fully spoil it here, but after knowing the reason, I thought they could have made a way around it. Find a way to not kill innocent daughters and, say, choose female criminals on the death rows instead, or old people who may volunteer if they learn what the reason entails. Perhaps they have attempted it and did not work? I am awaiting mentions of it in the next book.
Notwithstanding its more than a handful of flaws, I admit I was still shackled by the magic Ahdieh weaves through her tale. Maybe this is what Khalid had felt when Sharzhad surprises him with zero effort. I eagerly sought for answers, for the next moves, for the next scenes, and I am still excited to get my hands on the second book, The Rose and The Dagger. I think this is what stories should be like: truly bewitching despite its imperfections, keeping its audiences on their toes while they await the conclusion.
Short stories possess a kind of magic that novels sometimes do not have. The worlds in them seem smaller because of their length, but I came to realizShort stories possess a kind of magic that novels sometimes do not have. The worlds in them seem smaller because of their length, but I came to realize that this is nothing but a hypercritical verdict: the worlds in them are in truth so much bigger, as there is a plethora of possibilities hanging at the ledge of every tale’s abrupt end. The readers often get to be the mind-pilots when they reach the said ledge, imagining what would happen past the borders. These tales are like tiny pieces of a universe pulled apart and made to stand alone. The very good ones are strong enough to make a reader believe they do not need to be a part of something bigger in order to do what volumes of others could, from something as small as scraping the reader’s heart to something as large as totally changing someone’s life. Imagine what an anthology of these kinds of stories would be like!
But let us keep in mind that a tale’s power is directly tied to its effect to the audience. In the end, it is still a matter of preference and taste—what can reduce you to tears may only be able to make me arch an eyebrow; what can make me laugh like there is no tomorrow may only make you shrug.
Considering this, I believe that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s ’s anthology There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories may be regarded as a powerful collection, but one whose clout does not quite hit my heart’s bull’s eye nor grabbed at my interest for long. (The title did arrest my curiosity, I'll admit, but it was its contents that I have a few concerns with.)
Don’t get me wrong: the stories have a lot to offer. They bring forth a blend of bittersweetness, hope, desperation, grit, heartbreak. They flash facets of histories of women who sought, found, and lost love in a variety of places and situations: seedy apartments that witnessed infidelities, hasty and messy one-night stands, hesitant romances in corporate bubbles, trysts crutched by temporary bliss, and label-less relationships. They feature an assortment of women, too—there are strong ones, "weak" ones , and those lodged in between. But even though there is a lengthy list of rave reviews for this anthology and the one that preceded it (There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales), I cannot seem to find a concrete element in it that will make me cherish it as something that is utterly remarkable.
I think my main concern with the whole thing is that even though the stories are meant to be stand-alones, the characters (and in effect, the situations they are in) seem to bleed into each other. And I am not talking in a seamless, spin-off-like Venn Diagram way either. It was as if there is a handful of templates for characters that get recycled for the individual tales, as though there is a lone element that make them identical in voice and demeanor.
The result, for me, is that there is no character that stood out. Well-written characters are vital for short stories because they often drive the whole tale with them. Like what I said in the beginning of this review, there might be a bigger universe outside a short story’s concrete margins when it reaches the end, but the space where characters could establish themselves as beings worthy of being remembered is very small. The process of character creation and/or development should happen here—it could not extend to those unseen margins.
I liked how each story unfolded, though. The successions of every scene hold a flavor of honesty and simplicity; their undemanding messages could be conveyed to their audience effortlessly. Remembering these bits as something notable could be a lot easier if their anchors—the characters, of course—are as strongly knitted as they are.
Loved it unreservedly. From the heroine to the main twist (that I think anyone can see from a mile away, but whose punch does not in anyway soften desLoved it unreservedly. From the heroine to the main twist (that I think anyone can see from a mile away, but whose punch does not in anyway soften despite THAT knowledge), this is worth the read. Will provide a full review soon. ;)...more