Killer horses! Death and blood! People dying as they compete in a deadly race! Were you expecting an action-flick? Because you might need to calm downKiller horses! Death and blood! People dying as they compete in a deadly race! Were you expecting an action-flick? Because you might need to calm down for a sec before you can enjoy The Scorpio Races.
Well, I just LOVED this book! High 4 Stars - more like 4.5. It was very well-written - it reads more like a work of literary fiction than a paranormal YA. The setting and characterization are key in this book; the romantic elements evolve slowly and organically (never rushed or overwrought); the book has several moments of real tenderness that are are hard to find in YA Romance, where relationship-building is far less subtle than real-life love ever is.
This book is "supposed to" be about a race to the death on man-eating horses. Some people are comparing it to The Hunger Games, most likely because of the danger and the competitive element. But, this book is nothing like The Hunger Games. Readers expecting a fast-paced romp on a killer horse are bound to be disappointed by the book if it's marketed this way. This is actually, for the most part, a quiet and thoughtful book with believable characters and an absolutely gorgeous setting. The small-town feel of the island, and of the villagers who live there, are all well-drawn and well-crafted by Stiefvater. It is a book about "place," one's place in the world and the freedoms one seeks to come of age.
The Scorpio Races is a story told in alternating point-of-views: Puck Connolly's and Sean Kendrick's. I have to say that it took some time to "get to know" Puck, the female lead - even in a first-person present tense! Eventually, Puck becomes a good female lead, in my opinion - she is challenging and independent, and ultimately gets the characterization we were hoping for in the later chapters of the book.
But, the character of Sean was really the masterpiece of this work. Through Sean's POV the setting of the island really comes into being, so much so that it is like a character in it's own right. His relationship with the horses, and particularly Corr, are the strongest in the book. Seriously, tears, guys. Tears.
The minor characters, like Mutt Malvern (guy with something to prove) and Dory Maude (the female avuncular character), are also really well done. The sons of fishermen, the mainland tourists - everyone was drawn pitch-perfectly. ------------------------------ I dropped a star for: Pacing: it took a quite a few pages to "get into" the book, and to really flesh the Puck's character out. I wasn't sure that the first-person present tense was the best choice for this type of pacing and plotting. Something about the book reeks of nostalgia - why contradict that tone with the first-person present tense, when a more reflective one could've worked better? Could it be that the FPPT made the book drag a bit because there was more reflection than action? Dunno - maybe.
The Capall Uisce: I could've used more myth-building here, because I had a hard time wrapping my head around these water-horses that primarily live in the sea, but who can be removed and broken-in and train alongside regular horses. For instance, if a horse was a carnivore, I thought to myself, it would have different teeth. And if it had different teeth, it would have a differently shaped skull. And if it had a differently shaped skull, it wouldn't even look like a horse.
I swayed back and forth between trying to imagine a realistic water-mammal and a fantastic element. Something kept Stiefvater from a definitive position of the horses as magical, or at least magically-real, and I think it is possible that could've been better explained either way.
Unbelievable Motivations: Now, don't get me wrong - for the purpose of the story, I'm happy Puck is in the races. But, why did she sign up for them? Her motivation was very unclear - which would've been okay if the ambivalence was a plot-point, but it wasn't exactly. Puck's motivations are hinted at, but for the reader, they are never fully realized.
Also, (don't worry this isn't technically a spoiler, just a backstory tidbit) even though the dad was a fisherman and the "mom rarely went out on the boat" with him, the one day they go out on the boat together a capall uisce eats them both?!?! Hmmm! Very useful, Maggie Stiefvater, if you're trying to create ORPHANS. But, it reeks of convenience. ------------------------------ All in all, there is a timeless quality to The Scorpio Races which was surprising. There's radio - but no TV - which can align the setting somewhere in the early 20th century, but the reader never knows for sure - no, there's too much that may or may not be different from our own history, our own timeline, to categorize the setting so easily. Maybe it's just "island life"/"small-town" element, but in The Scorpio Races, rest of the world and it's technologies are inconsequential. We don't care about where/when we are, as readers, because we have fallen in love with this exquisite setting.
In a sense, things seem very "old-fashioned" in The Scorpio Races, but to the credit of the writer they are never "stale" or "old" always seeming "modern" rather than "historical." I like this, because unlike a contemp-YA book wherein the protagonist might text her BF "OMG I H8 My Mom TTYL" rendering the book completely outdated and useless in five years (if it isn't already), The Scorpio Races would've been a great book ten years ago, and will be a great book ten years from now - even after the PNR-craze is over (will it ever be over?) and they stop marketing this book for the same audience as Love Bites: The Fairywalker Academy Journals, and someone shelves it next to more thoughtful works of great stand-alone fiction like Jellicoe Road or The Bridge to Terebithia.
Finally, I am in love, love, love with Sean Kendrick. Almost to the point that I am annoyed with myself! I feel like a fourteen-year-old girl right now, even though I turned 30 three days ago. That's how big my book-crush is. Seriously. Sean Kendrick? Just read this book.
Finally-finally, it might go without saying, but Yikes! Beware of the injury and death of animals in this book. It'll make you sad-faced....more
The book opened like so: "Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well." Oooooooh. Enter the world of Karou, raised by anThe book opened like so: "Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well." Oooooooh. Enter the world of Karou, raised by an otherworldly - but loving - family of chimeras, who becomes the apple of an avenging angel's eye. Akiva, a Seraphim soldier seeking to destroy the chimeras, is drawn to Karou for reasons unexplainable. Then they fall in love. Then, they figure out WHY they are drawn to each other.
The somewhat dainty "Once upon a time..." fairy-tale/fable motif that opened the book is suspended for a bit of teenage realism as the story takes off... In the beginning, there's a few vague mysteries hinted at. But, for the most part we were introduced to the story's protagonist, Karou, basking in all the teenager-y-ness of modern times: artsy, angsty, angry, snarky, funny. I adored her.
And her strange lifestyle, her bizarro foster family of chimeras? It took very little suspension of disbelief. It was convincing from the get-go. In the world of paranormal romance (fantasy, really) the seamless convergence of worlds is key. How your world holds up might make or break me, as a reader (unless you're Libba Bray, I guess).
Laini Taylor wove the two worlds together so seamlessly. It was as if the two worlds just were. Wow! Now, she's getting Gaiman-esque. I don't know what "Gaiman-esque" means when other people reference Neil Gaiman, but for me, it is something specific:
It is something I see in almost all of Gaiman's work, even the short stories. It is this seamless converging of realities, yes! But, it is also the way the story - which seems to have been told hundreds of times before even though you've only read it once - is fresh and new and perfectly rounded out just like a fairy tale. In some ways, it does not claim to be more than a story. But, its a story so good that it is real and true. (What?!? I dunno, this is why I want to marry Neil Gaiman's books and have their babies.)
Wait - J.R.R. Tolkien knows what I mean. Guh! He talks about this great tree of tales, where all the stories exist as leaves on branches. And the author of a fantasy (or, a fairy-story), doesn't discover the leaf - which is/has always been - but instead unfolds it, tells its story, this story that already exists. "One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps."
So, at the end of The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone I just picture J.R.R. Tolkien and Neil Gaiman and Laini Taylor all hanging out picking the leaves of this Tree of Tales and giving them to us in a way that we're surprised by them, but at the same time deeply familiar with them, culturally or spiritually, or whatever.
"The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered...while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost." [Tolkien "On Fairy-Stories"]
Let's just say - Taylor's story presents questions, so many questions! But, never about the believability or viability of her world. Only about her story itself. Why does Brimstone collect those teeth, why does Karou have those tattoos on her hands, who were Karou's parents, really?
The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone is quite an accomplishment for a genre (paranormal romance/romantic fantasy), where the love story is allowed to cast a shadow over the more foundational aspects of storytelling itself. Characterization, conflict, resolution - sometimes, those are left out for the better love story, and it makes for a shitty book. But, not in Laini Taylor's case: the love and the longing work perfectly in a beautifully imagined world.
Laini Taylor's The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone is so well done. She is an excellent storyteller with an excellent imagination. The hamsas, the teeth, the smoke, the bone, the myth of the two moons - all delicately revealed. No extraneous details, everything fits.
So, what happened to her fifth star?
"You need to just let this breathe..."
Once, a kid in my fiction writing class said that to me in his critique of my short story. He held up my story and had circled my OMG! First Kissing Scene. "You need to just let this breathe..." It was his only criticism. And he was the One Kid in class whose opinion I most trusted (you know THAT kid in the creative writing class, the one who is better than you, and therefore whose opinion you hinge your every hope on).
He was right, of course. That scene was trying to convey some "big emotions," some big chemistry, and ended up overwrought and prolly terrible to everyone who wasn't me.
Kissing scenes (intimacy scenes) are hard to do right. Like battle scenes! There is chaos there, and emotions all over the place, spewing everywhere like blood or saliva - take your pick - and the reader often finds herself somewhat lost in them, searching for, like, little moments in the paragraph to latch onto, rushing through them to wrap her head around what is actually going on.
I have a really hard time reading battle scenes. And kissing scenes. For the same reason.
So, here goes: my only criticism of Laini Taylor's The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone, which was otherwise a beautifully realized story - as well as a beautifully written story: Lady, you should have just let some of that lovey-dovey angel/demon stuff breathe for a minute.
Ultimately, there is this climactic scene of closeness between Karou and Akiva. In this scene, an action - (view spoiler)[breaking a wishbone (hide spoiler)] - will lead to the truth about who and what Karou is and what exactly their love is about. Man-oh-man, was that scene drawn out. It was pages and pages long!
Paraphrase: And she was drawn to him, and he was drawn to her. And something was pulling her, and something was pulling him. And they were drawn and pulled. Draw/pull, draw/pull, draw/pull. Chapter ends. Draw/pull. Chapter begins. Draw/Pull. Flip pages, draw/pull.
Suddenly, I am lost in a sea of flowery, overwrought prose. Drowning in it, really. Waiting for action, resolution. Waiting for solid-ground storytelling again. (view spoiler)[Break the fucking wishbone! (hide spoiler)]. And it came. And it was explosive. And lovely!
But, someone should've told her to calm down a little bit a for a minute there. No doubt some people live for these intimate moments in romance books. But, I am not one of them. Laini wasn't being a bad writer, per se. But, she was letting these emotional moments fog up the place for a minute, and I found it somewhat unnecessary. Or overlong. Almost - dare I say - boring.
Don't think I hate LOVE, or something. I don't! But, love scenes and battle scenes, man. Sometimes, they can be just too much. They just need to be careful pieces of writing.
...Read this book! It is excellent. Although I am slightly distressed to find myself in the middle of another series for the third time this year (Goddamn you! Game Of Thrones!), I CANNOT wait for more of these characters. In the meantime, I can't wait for some more Laini Taylor - she's outstanding.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This book was a simple, wonderfully-told tale. I loved almost everything about it - the characters, the writing, the world-building. I even loved theThis book was a simple, wonderfully-told tale. I loved almost everything about it - the characters, the writing, the world-building. I even loved the (view spoiler)[meta-fiction, which many other readers seemed to dislike. (hide spoiler)].
Talking animals, children on a quest to find home, villains and wizards. It wasn't groundbreaking - but it was just perfect in the way that storytelling is supposed to be. The type of storytelling that both 5 year olds and 95 year olds would enjoy. Until...
What I did not love, unfortunately, was the inexplicable, didactic "Blue Cutter" speech by the Wizard Swift at the end of this novel. All of a sudden, the book began to sound really political, slightly whiny, and very pedagogical in that over-the-top and unapologetic way that makes me hate authors. Why, all of a sudden, in a wonderful children's fantasy story - are we beating a point about literary revisionism over the main character's head with a mallet?
And! Not so fast, Mr. Willingham! But, you yourself are a literary revisionist - a re-imaginer, a re-doer of tales long ago told (re: Fables). So, where do you get off admonishing revisionists?
This whole thing made me wonder whether Willingham was just venting a long-held guilt about using well-known fairy tale characters to boost the success his own oeuvre... It got reeeeeeal meta.
I understand that, political and religious censorship hurts stories, Disneyfiction hurts stories, but I don't find what Willingham does too much different from what Uncle Walt does. Sure, his characters are cooler, sexier, and their backstories more closely resemble those of their Grimm-y beginnings - but, he takes a fair amount of liberties with the stories, too. Whether his modern-minded Fables were meant to be viewed his way, the Disney way, the Grimm way - is all subjective.
The wizard Swift's argument falls flat on me. And although the Wizard Swift is just a character, and not necessarily the mouthpiece of Willingham - when a story takes on the didactic, teaching-tone that this one did - I can only see the man behind the mask. Lectures like those shake the very foundation of the story that the author has built, and suspension of disbelief makes the walls of the story crumble all around it.
Thankfully, though, the story does not end there. In fact, it has such a *beautiful* epilogue that I almost forgot the shoddy ending completely.
I feel like doing a little revising of my own...I feel like taking a black Sharpie to the Wizard's pages-long monologue, x-ing out the parts I don't like, keeping a bit of it in so that we can infer the point, and making Down The Mysterly River the perfect 5-Star book that it was meant to be. :-)...more
Surrender was a sad, creepy book. Like, creeeepy. In some respects - and as the synopsis might have you believe - it is a book about a friendship thatSurrender was a sad, creepy book. Like, creeeepy. In some respects - and as the synopsis might have you believe - it is a book about a friendship that both acts to heal the loneliness that comes with being an "outsider" in a small-town, and acts as a catalyst for mischeivous things to occur.
Alternating between the two points-of-view, present-tense narrator, Finnigan (bad boy), and reflective narrator, Gabriel (good boy), Surrender is part-mystery, part literary-fiction, and - at the end - part-thriller. The prose is very swirly and descriptive - at times overly so, in my opinion. The writing can be beautiful, but sometimes so overwrought that events can become confusing for the reader. Not "good" confusing - an intentional dreamlike, narrative device. But, confusing-confusing - like, "wait, what just happened? I'm 20 pages in and have no sense of time, place, setting, character..." The style warms to you after awhile, but the lines of description certainly could've used a bit of breathing room.
I didn't feel this was a book about friendship. No, Finnigan and Gabriel aren't two unlikely friends bashing around the woods together, helping one another through hard times, and playing with their dog. It is a book about desperation. The fear of being isolated. Of not being touched. Not a book about friendship itself, but of longing, maybe, for a friend. And getting something literally terrible in its place.
Instead, I felt this book is mostly about shame. Yup, it's about swallowing a mean, burning-hot rock of shame and letting it live in your belly for thirteen years. It's about what that shame turns into, and what a person burdened by guilt and trauma is capable of when that shame hurts too badly.
At times, it seems Surrender is about our responsibility to our natures: who we think we are, what we think we're capable of, how we act on our desires - whether they are for security, food, revenge. But, it is also about who is "observing" us doing it. Who we imagine seeing us when we thought no one was watching. A novel of surveillance. See: Finnigan surveying the town from atop the mountains and hills. See: Gabriel glancing behind himself with the feeling of being watched.
Surrender is also about the terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad way that human beings can diminish, break, and destroy other human beings. Not a dirty-quick-Bang!-type of "destroy;" but a slow, patient, methodical, deliberate kind of destruction...one that can occur in almost full-view of the whole town watching. Reading Surrender is like watching abuse take place, and flinching, and trying to look away, and not being able to.
When I say "trying to look away, and not being able to," I do not mean to imply that Hartnett writes about abuse exploitatively. The abuse, or graphic scenes (there are a few of these, look out!), depicted in Surrender are not train-wreck moments. They are deep, compassionate, expressive moments of exposition and characterization, handled gracefully by the author.
To be honest, I don't know that too many readers would enjoy Surrender. It is dark. Almost hopeless. Sad. It bummed the shit out of me. But, it is well-done overall. Hey - it won a Printz Honor, and is considered one of the "best book[s] written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit." Still - after reading (and thoroughly enjoying) Tender Morsels, another Printz Honor Book, itself filled with vivid, gruesome revenge scenes, I find myself wondering if one of the qualifications for a Printz Honor is a "holy-mutherfuckin-shit-seriously-did-that-just-happen-yuck!" reaction.
I mean - I finished Surrender at 12:38 up all alone in my apartment, and I was convinced I was going to have nightmares at the end scenes (view spoiler)[Vernon at the window! Vernon on the bed! (hide spoiler)]. Do the Printz judges think teenagers can only be moved by horrible violence that gives you the heebies before you go to sleep?...more