I read this book right after it came out. I'm a huge fan of Kostova's debut novel, The Historian, so I was eager to see what her sophomore novel would...moreI read this book right after it came out. I'm a huge fan of Kostova's debut novel, The Historian, so I was eager to see what her sophomore novel would do.
It's not as good as her debut. I'll just get that over with. Because of that, I liked it less the first time around. I kept thinking of Marlon Brando's character from Don Juan de Marco as I read the narrator, which was distracting. I didn't find particularly compelling as a character. I also ended the book frustrated, feeling as if Kostova led the reader on as she gestured at paranormal elements only to write them off as psychosis.
I picked the book up about a year later and enjoyed it much more the second time around. Read out of the shadow of its predecessor, without the expectations of the paranormal aspects of Kostova's first book, The Swan Thieves is actually a delightfully subtle story of artistic mania. The characters are all very well thought out and Kostova does and excellent job of mixing the present with the past with epistolary letters--a convention that is becoming her trademark as a writer. Thought not quite as riveting as The Historian, The Swan Thieves is good fun overall. (less)
**spoiler alert** I was fairly eager to read Shadow of Night after reading Discovery of Witches. I didn't hate it. I didn't love it. While I certainly...more**spoiler alert** I was fairly eager to read Shadow of Night after reading Discovery of Witches. I didn't hate it. I didn't love it. While I certainly had my qualms about the first book book (you can read my review to see about that), my review of Shadow of Night is equally ambivalent, but for different reasons.
First, the good:
- Harkness finally utilizes her skills as an Elizabethan historian for more than painting a sentimental picture of Oxford. Taking her characters into Elizabethan England was smart because it allowed her to create a more vibrant setting than before, borrowing from a vast knowledge of tiny facts and details to transport the reader to 1590s Oxford and London. I especially enjoyed reading about Diana's wardrobe and her initial difficulties mastering the dialects of the time.
- In Shadow, Harkness creates a version of Diana that is MUCH more likable than the first. Unlike the first book, she is not ceaselessly crying, nor does she seem as attracted to Matthew's more Edward Cullen-ish controlling tendencies. Instead, she creates a woman who is much more believable as a strong, capable, bright academic--one who is willing to stand up for what she wants and who doesn't let her husband bully her as he did in the first book.
- The witchcraft writing is definitely stronger in this book than the last. I enjoyed the weaving elements, if the time travel was a bit weak. We finally get to see Diana demonstrate some mastery of her craft and learn from witches who can do way cooler stuff than either of her aunts. The firedrake could be a seriously fun character in the future. Although Harkness takes a while to get to these scenes in the book (about halfway through, actually), once she does, the plot really starts to take off.
- Oddly, the fathers are the best new characters in the book, which is sad because they are both dead in the present time. Steven Proctor is delightfully foppish, and I love that he takes the time to embarrass the hell out of his vampire son-in-law. I wish there was a way we'd see him again, because he might be my new favorite character. Phillipe is also a vibrant new character whom I like most because of his arrogance. He is larger than life in a way I think Harkness meant Matthew to be in the first book, but didn't quite attain. I'm sad he won't reappear in the third book (at least, it's unlikely unless somehow Diana and Matthew changed time enough to save his life...hmm...not impossible).
- Harkness still needs to work on her character building. A lot people have remarked that they are not really in love with the characters, and a big part of that is because of their inconsistencies. Diana's fear of her own magic made a little sense when she was a crybaby (although that never really jibed with her success as an academic--I'm in that world, and it's competitive). Now that she's abandoned the tears for the second book, it makes no sense that she is still scared of learning about her own magic and the world from whence she comes. She's a HISTORIAN OF ALCHEMY, for pete's sake! She's the definition of someone who should be bending over backwards to learn how to use magic.
- Matthew, on the other hand, seems to fade into the shadow after which he is nicknamed. Despite the fact that we learn so much more of his backstory in this book, it often felt like he was a spectator in the scenes he was in rather than a protagonist. As a result, the more emotionally wrenching scenes between him and Diana seem to come out of nowhere. He was a crabby old man for the first half of the book, often absent on unexplained "spy work," and then suddenly he turned back into Will Darcy. His dialogue often came out of nowhere, and his body never seemed to do more than stand at windows and run his hands through his hair.
- "The moon between my thighs." Enough said.
- Too many of the secondary characters collapse into one another. The School of Night all essentially had the same personalities, the most irritating of which was Kit Marlowe (I still don't understand why Matthew didn't just kill him). All of the secondary vampires talked the same and looked the same, male or female. Francoise, Pierre, Gallowglass, Hancock, Benjamin...does it really matter? Just write "INTIMIDATING VAMPIRE" and be done with it.
All in all, I think your ability to enjoy this book and the series as a whole depends on your willingness to cast a blind eye at the stuff you don't like on a regular basis. For me, the escape of the story provides enough to want to read it and finish the series. I mostly just want to know what the writing is in the mysterious book. I also wouldn't mind meeting their kids. But if you're a stickler for things like pretty prose, stable character development, and sensible time-travel writing, this may not be the book for you. (less)
**spoiler alert** Let's be honest. No one is reading these books for the terrific prose. E.L. James is a horrific writer, I believe by her own admissi...more**spoiler alert** Let's be honest. No one is reading these books for the terrific prose. E.L. James is a horrific writer, I believe by her own admission. There are plenty of reviews out there covering her poor word choice and writing style, so I won't reinvent that wheel. None of them cover the ambivalence of the possible overall effects this book may or may not have on widespread popular culture, which what interests me.
The reason why so many people are interested in reading this series is because it's hot, plain and simple. Not just because there is a very graphic sex scene written every ten pages or so, but because of the type of sex that is written. Although many reviews have covered the fact that the supposed "BDSM" lifestyle portrayed in the book is, in fact, fairly mild, it needs to be noted that the scenes James writes are still far more risqué than the average "mommy-porn" out there. This isn't the first BDSM fiction on the market, for certain. It is very interesting, however, that millions of women who might have never imagined themselves being whipped, spanked, or otherwise corporally punished are now fantasizing about Christian Grey doing just that on a regular basis.
Grey, unfortunately, represents all that is wrong with the current preoccupation of chick-lit with domineering, controlling male heroes. He's a self-proclaimed "dominant", but that dominance extends far beyond the bedroom, as he literally stalks his girlfriend, Anastasia Steele: tracking her cell phone, controlling her eating habits, dressing her like a doll...the list goes on and on. Do all women just want to be "owned," as James somewhat suggests? I blanche at the possibility that this story runs in tandem with the current political trends of turning back women's rights to choosing their reproductive healthcare by fifty years, much as Grey does by forcing Anastasia to take hormonal birth control just so he doesn't have to put a sack on it. Gross.
The most redeeming part of the series comes when the Anastasia realizes that the kind of "play" Christian desires is an acceptable part of one's sexuality, no matter where it's coming from. Her struggle to understand her partner's "kinky-fuckery" (one of many helplessly British idioms) probably mirrors the mixed horror and desire that a lot of average readers feel as they devour her story--it's hot, yes, but should I be feeling that? Isn't it wrong? No, she decides eventually, it's not. And it's liberating. Both for her and the reader.
That lovely sentiment is, unfortunately, momentary. It's also overshadowed by the constant need for James to justify Grey's domination with major psychological trauma as a child. While I appreciate the thought and effort put into uncovering Grey's character history, I found myself resenting the assumption that any desire to participate in "kinkery-fuckery" has to be somehow linked to being "fifty shades of fucked up." A lot of people can and do enjoy a variety of sex-positive play without being such an internal mess that they literally can't deal with healthy love and emotion. The best part about this book is that it takes aspects of sex-positive lifestyle into the mainstream, but by over-psychoanalyzing her own character to death, James effectively puts it right back in the margins. One step forward, two steps back.
I'd give this a perfect two and a half stars is I could--that's how ambivalent I am. In the end, my main piece of advice for readers would be to take the book as lightly as possible. This might be difficult for some, given the intense subject matter surrounding its characters' psychological trauma. If you can't or won't think past that mess, don't read it. But the sex is hot and might inspire some serious fun with your significant other. If you can keep Anastasia's mewling guilty conscience at bay, have at a pair of handcuffs and enjoy. (less)
Needless gore, artless prose--basically, Bird's description of the Kentucky frontier is one of the most extreme examples of "Indian-hating" that comes...moreNeedless gore, artless prose--basically, Bird's description of the Kentucky frontier is one of the most extreme examples of "Indian-hating" that comes out of the frontier romance genre of the Removal period. He gets three stars just because its such a seminal example, but don't read it expecting to feel anything but disgust with the actions of the main characters and the irritating racism that's generally par for the course for novels of the period, sympathetic to Indians or not. (less)