**spoiler alert** Why I picked it up: I read the first two books in this YA trilogy (Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm) last year, and I liked the w...more**spoiler alert** Why I picked it up: I read the first two books in this YA trilogy (Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm) last year, and I liked the world building. The magical system is unique, and there are a lot of really fun secondary characters. I was anxious to see how Bardugo was going to wrap it up.
I was completely satisfied with how everything shook out in the end. Though I felt like the pacing was a bit off, in hindsight Alina and her group’s escape from the Apparat and the search for the firebird were quite important in terms of Things Alina Needed to Figure Out. (She needed to learn how not to be used by people in power and that the Firebird wasn’t the third amplifier.)
I continued to really like Nikolai, and his time as a creature touched by the Darkling’s power was really interesting. I didn’t see that coming, and I think that the fact that he managed to keep parts of himself even as that was happening speaks to a whole lot of inner strength and self-possession. He’s going to be a decent King, I have a feeling.
I had suspected the thing about Mal somehow being another amplifier (though I had no idea he was going to take the Firebird’s place…), so it was nice to be right. I think Mal and Alina’s reaction to that, and the question of what she’ll do to get access to power, even if it is power she thinks she needs to defeat the Darkling, was well done.
The relationship between Morozova, the Darkling, and Mal was another thing I didn’t see coming. I liked how the mystery was revealed slowly – we find out who The Darkling really is in the first book, then who his mother is, and then finally how all of them are connected to the man who figured out amplifiers in the first place, and to Mal… I also was really intrigued by the idea of the power being passed down in Morozova’s “normal” daughter’s descendants’ bones. (Now there’s a story I’d like to read… that’s one of the things that I really liked about this series. There’s a lot of potential for exploration and there are other unexplored corners to be poked around in.)
I was a bit worried when I was within fifty pages of the end and Alina was just going to confront the Darkling and save the students she had stashed away at the orphanage, I was worried it was going to feel rushed, but it didn’t. (And I love that he didn’t actually bring the kids into the Fold… he just told her he had because he knew she’d believe it. Doesn’t make him Man of the Year, but tells you where his priorities are.) In the end, I like that Alina had to come to that moment of truth make her choice, make her sacrifice, but that Mal didn’t have to pay for an accident of birth with his life. (I also really liked that the two of them grappled with “were we friends because of destiny or because of US,” and the answer they arrived at was, “Nope, it was US.”)
Anyway, it was a nice ending to a fun little series.
Now, let’s talk about SHIPPING. Because I read these in isolation, without a community of readers, I was surprised to find that there are some REALLY passionate shipping opinions about this book, as well as a lot of gorgeous graphics that will be showing up on my tumblr soon.
Full disclosure: I don’t really ship anything strongly in this series. I thought that Alina and the Darkling were right up my alley for about fifty pages in the first book, but after the reveal of who he really was, I couldn’t wish that on her any more. She and Mal were sweet, but not something I was rabidly pulling for, and I wanted dear, resourceful Nikolai to end up with a girl who was wild about him, so Alina/Nikolai was right out.
That being said… this book confused the heck out of me when it came to shipping because the thing that I SHOULD want, based on previous pairings I’ve loved, lost me quite early. And that pairing (Alina and the Darkling) is one that a lot of other reviewers are FURIOUS about because it wasn’t end game. And by all rights, I SHOULD have been one of those angry people. (And what follows it not me telling them they shouldn’t be angry, but my attempt to work out why I’m NOT angry right along with them.)
Like I said, I find myself in an odd position as I read other reviews of this book. Because I love bad boys. Some of my very favorite characters are bad, or at the least morally ambiguous characters. I’m a Guy/Marian shipper in the Robin Hood BBC fandom. I wept for days when Guy killed her, and they are still on my list of top five OTPs of all time. I love Jaime Lannister from ASoIaF. I know. He pushed a kid out a window once. He had his reasons. He sleeps with his sister and is kind of a horrible mess on the inside. But he is witty and funny and a broken idealist on the inside, too, and I love him to pieces and flail about him on tumblr a lot. I also love Theon, my sad excuse for a lonely failed Kraken Prince. I was on the Buffy/Spike side of the great B/S vs. B/A shipwar in BtVS because… SPIKE. More recently, I prefer Damon/Elena to Stefan/Elena by miles and miles.
So, when I say I’m usually on the Team Bad Boy when it comes to male characters in general and love triangles specifically… I have some pretty hefty credentials.
So it feels very strange to be reading all of the reviews throwing fits over the Darkling’s end in this novel, and all I can summon up (hahaha Summon… didn’t mean to do that, but it’s funny…) is a moment of melancholy, reverential silence before I go back to feeling WARM AND FUZZY inside over the very solidly Alina/Mal ending. (For those of you who know me from Robin Hood, this would be like Robin and Marian getting a truly happy ending, and me going, “Awww….” Instead of grumbling in a corner about Guy/Marian.) It’s enough to make me scratch my head and ask, “WHAT is happening to me?”
Because I thought the Darkling was a great character. Dark and complicated and terribly sad… but did I want him to end up with Alina? Maybe for a while when I read the first book, but as the series went on, my answer became an emphatic NO. All of that “I need you to balance me out and maybe that will keep me from doing awful things” read to me not as romantic, but as something Alina was right to RUN in the other direction from. She didn’t need that kind of responsibility, and though I think his desire to have someone redeem him was sincere… are we going to forget about what he’s done? He’s a practically immortal Summoner who is responsible for thousands, if not several million deaths. And this is coming from someone who TOTALLY SHIPS a “she’s going to redeem me if I can just get her to love me” pairing like it’s her job. Just… the scale of what The Darkling did is too large for my normal, “Oh, but maybe he can come back from that…” reaction to kick into gear. I think that the moment that Alina realized that his darkness and his pain were bottomless, and he was just going to keep falling into them forever was a moment of wisdom. It wasn’t her responsibility to fix him, and what she did was mercy. The Darkling knew at the end that the Fold was disappearing, he knew she’d managed to bring it down, if not in the way either of them expected (And I fully believe he wanted the Fold to come down for the good of the country, just like she did…), and even if he’d lived, do you think that an entire ARMY of Sun Summoners wouldn’t have been able to bring him down and make him stand trial? I think they would have managed it easily, and Alina spared him that.
And I thought that Alina’s reaction to the Darkling’s death and finding out his real name and insisting on his body being burned next to her decoy’s was bittersweet and fitting. She remembers him in a way no one else does any more – as a lonely boy who was set apart by his power and didn’t know how to handle it.
I didn’t always love Mal, but after what he did for Alina? After he was willing to die so that she could come into her power and save all of them? After he grew into a person who was a good leader and willing to give her up because he thinks she is destined to be more… I was convinced he was a keeper.
And darn it, I liked the sweetness of the Alina/Mal ending. And for all of the people who are upset that she was left without her power… I think they’re missing a rather major point that the series is making. Alina doesn’t need power in order to do extraordinary things. She never wanted to rule. Wishing that on her is rather out of character. The divide between Grisha and “normal” people is a PROBLEM, one that Alina desperately want to FIX… and so to say that she is somehow less because she lost her power (a power that frightened her as much as it exhilarated her, a power that would have made her outlive all the people she loved and might have turned her into someone just as bitter as The Darkling given a few centuries…) seems to be wishing something on her she is happier without. And I don’t see it as “giving up her power,” I see it as “empowering a whole bunch of “normal” people to save Ravka and heal the Fold. In fact, I LOVED that it wasn’t JUST Alina who fixed the Unsea. It was ordinary people, suddenly given the power of Sun Summoning, working together to fix what ONE man did. Honestly, it reminded me of the end of Buffy where EVERY potential Slayer is activated at once, which was a moment I always thought was really empowering.
And as for Alina and Mal having “ordinary” lives back where they started the orphanage… I loved it. The two of them were orphans, too, and so the idea that they would go back to the place where they lived and make it somewhere that homeless kids can grow up loved and have better experiences that Alina and Mal did when they were growing up, in a country that’s changing for the better because of what the two of them did… that’s powerful, and it felt right to me. Not cliché, not like Alina gave up “something better” to be with Mal, but RIGHT.(less)
**spoiler alert** Why I picked it up:I've never read a fantasy novel set in 1890s Malaysia back when it was still a British colony before. Also, the e...more**spoiler alert** Why I picked it up:I've never read a fantasy novel set in 1890s Malaysia back when it was still a British colony before. Also, the excerpt I read pulled me in. Review in a nutshell: Really eerie story about the relationships between the living and the dead in a unique setting. Some plot points were a bit thinly developed, but still definitely worth your time if you like history and ghost stories.
I love stories about characters who have to enter the Underworld, or Annwn, or Hades, or the Paths of the Dead, in order to complete their quest, fulfill their purpose. You name it, I'm there for it. This book put a spin on it I hadn't seen before. Li Lan, our heroine, is the only daughter of a Chinese-Malaysian family who gets a very unusual offer from a much more prominent family - become a ghost bride to their son, who has recently died. The first part of the book builds slowly, definitely hinting that all is not right with the Lim family, setting up Li Lan's attraction to Tian Bai, the new Lim family heir, but just when you think that this is going to be a story that takes place mostly in this world, with Li Lan trying to fend off advances from her ghostly suitor while navigating the family politics of her new in-laws... she ends up getting her spirit severed from her body, wandering around her city not quite a ghost, but not quite living either.
This is when things really got interesting. Li Lan's travels in the world of the living as a spirit, and her time on the plains of the dead were creepy in the best possible way. The way that the author describes all of the objects and food in the plains of the dead as not quite right, as if they are indistinct copies of themselves was really understated but at the same time made the strangeness of the world of the dead really stand out.
Along the way, Li Lan has to confront some uncomfortable truths about her family's history, and gets tangled up in the politics of the Courts of Hell when she realizes her dead potential fiance (who is a nasty piece of work) is in up to his neck with corrupt underworld officials, and she's the one who has to get evidence against him in return for help returning to her body.
By the end of all these adventures, as happens to many protagonists who step out of normal human existence for a while, Li Lan is changed. She can't go back to the life she thought she wanted for most of her time on the plains of the dead. So she chooses life with Er Lang, the Not at All Human guide she met while still in the spirit world. At first, this choice didn't sit right with me, but when I realized how well it fits in with all of the other characters who are irrevocably changed by their adventures, I liked it a lot better. A good ending (and beginning...) for a character who went through a lot to find out where she came from and what she wanted out of life.(less)
I ran across a reference to this book while doing research on Death of a Salesman, and now having read the whole thing, let's just say I'm going to fu...moreI ran across a reference to this book while doing research on Death of a Salesman, and now having read the whole thing, let's just say I'm going to fundamentally alter how I teach that play to include some of the ideas Cullen brings together in this book. I found it to be a very readable examination of a phrase that gets thrown around a lot without much thought. Cullen seems divides the book into chapters that discuss the historical roots of different versions of "The American Dream," and at the same time as he continuously questions why the idea has had such continued significance in America's national consciousness. Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in the history of this loaded little phrase. (less)
**spoiler alert** This was a book that was immensely frustrating to me because I kept on wanting it to be more than it was. I was drawn in by a snippe...more**spoiler alert** This was a book that was immensely frustrating to me because I kept on wanting it to be more than it was. I was drawn in by a snippet from the very beginning of the book and the slightly creepy but lovely cover. I was also looking forward to reading a book with a premise that I, at least, had not encountered before – death leads, not to heaven or a celestial afterlife, but to another life somewhere else. As does the next death, and the one after that, etc, until one finally ends up in the City Unspoken (the setting of most of the novel), where one finally has a chance, perhaps, to die for good.
The problem is, people aren’t dying, and those who are ready to are clogging up the streets, and there are Undead Lich kings trying to take over the city, and there’s an Unseelie Faerie Queen turned Cyber-Fae trying to muck things up, and all of this should have been really interesting, but… it left me cold.
I think the thing about books with this kind of ambition is that the more strange or horrific or mind-bending your universe, the more you really have to work to give the work coherence. I’m not talking about “making the reader comfortable” here, I’m talking about making all the parts of the story and the world work together as an organic whole, even if that whole takes place in an off-kilter universe that makes the audience re-examine their ideas about the nature of reality. And I don’t think that this novel manages to do that. I’ll admit that the author set the bar quite high for himself, what with all of the very disparate parts, but I always felt jarred, and not in an intentional way, I think, when I moved between sections.
One problem is that this barely 400-page novel is weighted down with far too many characters, and so I didn’t get a chance to know hardly any of them, and when major things happened to them. The sad thing is that the characters have potential. I love the idea of Sesstri most – born to a nomadic warrior culture that denies women the right to even learn to read, she turns scholar in her subsequent lives, and I think that’s rife with interesting possibilities. I had the same problem with Asher, whose story should have been epic, but lacked sufficient explanation for his motivation, so the big reveal of what he really is and the resolution just felt like a neat way to tie up a loose end. Don’t even get me started on Purity and her mason boyfriend and the noble girls inside the Dome. I get that the author was going for a juxtaposition of manners and horrific behavior there, but it just set my teeth on edge.
One of the other things that really bothered me is that is seemed like the author was trying to bludgeon me with how otherworldly and terrifying the City Unspoken is – yes, I understand that the towers burn with unnatural fire (though we’re apparently supposed to just accept that lich lords… exist somehow and are up there, with very little explanation of how they got there. I suppose we’re just supposed to accept the fae, too, but I felt like that part was more organic – he did some really wild things with the Lich Lords that needed more explanation and setup). Anyway, I could have done with less of the impending doom spook factor, and more character development, please.
So, my final verdict is that while The Waking Engine contains the occasional really good metaphor or startlingly well-crafted image, the prose is dense and lacks the substance to carry its own weight.
One of the reasons that I love Guy Gavriel Kay is that he has a way of capturing emotion, especially bittersweet loss, that is second to none. And tha...moreOne of the reasons that I love Guy Gavriel Kay is that he has a way of capturing emotion, especially bittersweet loss, that is second to none. And that talent is on display in full force here. I feel like this book was a bit of a slow burn, but I don't mean that as a negative critique. I think that Kay needed the slow build to show how the characters lives were intertwined with each other, and to make the last third of the book, where the action really picks up, mean something more than it could have otherwise.
Not a book to read if what you're looking for is non-stop fantasy action, but a perfect book for late winter nights when you want something contemplative and meaty to sink your teeth into. (less)