I was improbably excited for this book. It lived up to the hype but not in the way I'd expected. You're in for so much more than a ghost story here. There's magic, history, superpowers, time travel, ghosts, ghouls. We open on Jacob, normal and unassuming until he witnesses his grandfather's murderer. His grandfather, who used to tell him bizarre stories until Jacob decided he was lying. The family narrative is sweet and spurs a slapdash trip to Wales to find the truth behind grandpa's stories. What Jacob finds is so much weirder than I'd expected. (I apologize for the vagueness of this review. I'll be tiptoeing carefully so I don't spoil it.) The first part of Jacob's exploration is a strange sort of ghost story, with creaky old houses and cracked pictures. When he finally finds the children, he stumbles into a large, darker war than the one his grandfather fought in. Riggs offers a good mix of sci-fi/fantasy without sacrificing character development. Jacob forms complex, deep relationships with the residents of the house, particularly the fiery, cynical Emma. Everything comes to a head at the end, when disaster after disaster culminates in a huge surprise and a chilling choice. I wish I could tell you more; you'll just have to read (and love) it for yourself.
plot . 5/5 A lot goes on in this book and Riggs has excellent control over when to pause and when to race. Parts remind me of Insomnia by J.R. Johannson. Jacob is relatively normal but not terribly happy. He has a best friend by convenience, a clueless and laissez faire mother, a wayward father, a grandfather whose lies have come between them. It's a compelling set-up. Lots of people harp on the "outcast" as young adult hero, but I find the trope hopeful. And appropriate here. The spark is the death of Jacob's grandfather--grisly, sudden, and mysterious. Suddenly, Jacob doesn't think his grandfather was lying before. I liked that first, Jacob spiraled into depression. I'm not a sadist; I just thought it was so realistic. Too many books have loss + immediate action, with no time to mourn. Jacob's devastation showed his deep feeling for his grandfather and made his later spur-of-the-moment trip make sense.
Scene two, we're in Wales. A dark, isolated island perfect for a creaky old war-torn house. Riggs is careful to strew the pages with mystery and clues long before you find out the truth. The whole time, I felt like I was building up to something. A ghost. A demon. Something dark and strange. What Jacob actually discovers is so much cooler. We get a little peaceful time to ooh and aah over the peculiar children and indulge in the fantasy. These children and teens have strange abilities and odd appearances, like a new kind of circus freak. I was also happy to see Jacob forming friendships and even a crush--a surprisingly normal, age-appropriate crush. Then everything goes to hell. Riggs is certainly not easy on his characters. He forces Jacob into a choice with no good answer and danger on both sides. Riggs left me gaping in the aftermath, hungry for book two.
concept . 5/5 Okay, so Riggs kind of had me at old photographs and World War II. Then there's the ghost stories. The premise: Jacob's grandfather was a war orphan who ended up in an orphanage full of strange children. Children who could throw fire, become invisible, animate the dead. Children who are somehow still hiding in that orphanage in Wales, long after the war is over. How? Let's say there's some pretty fantastic fantasy involved. Love Celtic mythology? You get layers of this too. If you're expecting a standard ghost story, you may be disappointed. Or, like me, you'll love the alternative Riggs gives, with dashes of fantasy, science-fiction, and the paranormal. It's just a really cool concept that shows the depth of Riggs' imagination. I wish I could say more.
characters . 5/5 The characters really make this book. Obviously the plot is exciting and the style is beautiful, but the characters made me care. Jacob is a little broken. He's brash, arrogant, and also deeply vulnerable. When his partly estranged grandfather dies, he falls to pieces--but finds a kernel of hope that if he can only understand, he'll be redeemed for his doubt and disbelief. He's also just a normal teenage boy. I totally bought him. His parents actually get more play than most young adult parents, and for good reason. They don't get him. They're selfish. They're also loving in a clumsy kind of way. I particularly loved Jacob's father, a writer who's written dozens of unfinished books, who never really figured out what he wanted to be when he grew up. Who loves his son but is jealous that his son connected with his father in way that he never could. The family drama piece alone is fascinating.
Then we meet the residents of the orphanage. How can I say I love them? Let me count the ways. Emma is a weird sort of love interest (you'll see) and also kind of a bitch. In the best way. She doesn't mind being abrasive. She also has a hidden whimsical side that softens her. She kicks ass without Jacob's help, but she's willing to let him in--eventually. Miss Peregrine is the darling head mistress, and pretty damn terrifying. She's obviously loving towards her wards, and she'll also peck your head off if you dare put them at risk. I wish I could remember more names, but my head is a sieve these days. There was a side character I particularly enjoyed who an turn himself invisible, and who is a lovely nerdy know-it-all.
style . 5/5 Now I get to gush. Riggs has a beautiful writing style. It's rich, eerie, lush, chilling. There are places that remind me of poetry, others that deeply horrified me, others that made me laugh actually out loud. There's also a lot of sarcastic, bantery dialogue. I mean, have I mentioned enough times that I'm a sucker for snarky banter? And the dialogue! It reads like it should! Like actual teens! It's surprising how hard that is to find. There are also some highly evocative descriptions of scenes and places that you could have drawn a postcard of in your head. I dog-eared at least ten pages, which is a sign of some really excellent quotables. Just beautiful. I can see why he's married to Tahereh Mafi.
mechanics . 5/5 Old photographs! I fell in love with the photo narrative in In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters and Riggs uses it to equal effect. For Riggs, the photos illustrate some of the bizarre characters we meet. I can just imagine Riggs going through old photographs, finding the strangest ones, and inventing an even stranger character around them. I only wish there were more photos, because I'm a junkie.
take home message A genre-bending novel with deeply lovable characters, a unique fantastical plot, and a chilling accompaniment of vintage photographs. ...more
A very long time ago, I used to write Harry Potter fanfiction. And so did a girl named Cassandra Clare--who, by the way, was exponentially more successful at it. When I spotted this book on shelves a couple years ago, I freaked out. Surely this could not be the same Cassandra Clare who wrote Drago Dormiens! It was. In case you were wondering. Long story short, I hoarded these books when Borders went out of business and it took me way too long to read them. I got about two chapters into this book before falling in love. I love Jace. I love Clary. I love Simon. I love every single character and every single page. I love how nerdy and artsy and elegant Clare's writing is, how sarcastic, how full of snarky witticisms and anime and art references. This is the kind of fantasy book I've always aspired to write. And now I'm reading book two, because I can't wait for more and I can't believe I've been missing out on this fandom for so long! Read it. It's phenomenal. Original, full of action, fantastically well written. I'm going to stop gushing here and start gushing below.
plot . 5/5 No silly set-up. No waits. Clare throws you right into the plot page one. I admit, I thought the blue-haired boy was going to be a love interest, at first. Clare shocked me, and she never stopped shocking me. Every chapter is something new that throws a wrench in the plans and moves the plot forward. Even the long passages of exposition aren't slow, because they're so interesting! The Shadowhunter world is amazingly rich and well-developed. I feel like I know it, and could find it somewhere if only I knew how to see like Clary could see. It didn't let up until the end--and even then, the twists came to the last page. There was one plot point that freaked me out. It has to do with the familial relationship between two characters, and I hope Clare resolves it well, because right now I'm just going EW.
concept . 5/5 Demons aren't new. Vampires aren't new. Demon hunters aren't new. The Mortal Instruments takes them all and makes them feel new. I don't see the comparison to Buffy as strongly as some critics do, but I guess there's a similarity in the Whedonish wittiness of the writing and, ya know, demon hunters. But Clare does it differently. It's more epic. More pretty. There's something about it that makes you want to dance in fairy rings and listen to Celtic folk music. It's so richly developed that even the silly parts, like demon-run motorcycles, feel believable.
characters . 5/5 I claim Simon for marriage. Just saying. Also Jace. Okay, so I love them all. Clare's characters are multifaceted and just whimsical enough to make you laugh out loud. Jace and Simon are both delightfully snarky, which happens to be my weakness, and so easy to fall in love with. Clary has plenty of wit herself, which is great. Even though she's new to this world and not a good fighter, it never feels like she's letting the boys drag her along. She takes charge of her own destiny and kicks plenty of ass. Alec and Isabelle are also awesome.
style . 6/5 So, how many times can I use "snarky" in one blog post? Clare just knows sarcasm. The dialogue, the descriptions, the writing--it's all a mix of clever quips, amusing turns of phrase, and very pretty descriptions. She knows how to build a scene without bogging you down in description. She knows how to keep the action going in a fight and go into slow motion for that epic kiss. She knows how to lighten the tension of a dark moment with a bit of wry humor. I'm enamored.
mechanics . 5/5 I could have done without the epilogue, but it didn't take away enough to make me dock points. It just didn't add much. I thought everything was nice and polished.
take home message The rebirth of YA fantasy--a breathtaking adventure told with a hint of whimsy, a dash of wit, and plenty of heart. ...more
the basics The Pendragon series is an old and beloved favorite of mine. It has everything you could want from the fantasy and sci-fi camps, mushed together with some flavors of dystopian, romance, and adventure. Very basically, it's a young adult science-fiction. Digging deeper, it's a beautifully written series with detailed world building, twisty plots, and characters you can really stand behind. The first book is still one of my favorites. It's the moment Bobby finds out his world has disappeared, leaving him with a mission on another planet and a life that will never be the same. The atmosphere is very Hunger Games but with a much bigger scope. MacHale plays out the old good and evil battle with much more gray area than your typical young adult novel. He gives you one of the most delightfully insane villains and a hero worthy of Harry Potter all in one. Merchant of Death is a fast read that keeps you on your toes. I was never comfortable, because I knew that just when I thought I had a hang of what was happening, MacHale was going to pull out the rug. The final twist blew me away, and the cliffhanger had me clawing for the next book. Not to mention, I spent my early teen years half in love with Bobby Pendragon, who's an adorable, heroic, admirable main character with enough flaws to keep him real. The supporting cast is just as great. You get to know Bobby's best friends a lot through their interludes, so it's like having a Ron and Hermione who are just as important as Harry. I cannot overstate how magical, breathtaking, and creative this book is.
plot . 5/5 I'm rarely surprised in books. Call me narcissistic, but I just have a knack for guessing what will happen. Drives my friends nuts in the theater. But MacHale surprised me. Shocked me, in fact, more than almost any young adult writer ever has. Shocked me in the way that when I got to the twist, I had a small heart attack--but as I thought more about it, all the pieces started to make sense, and I wondered how I hadn't seen it coming. That's the kind of writing you can expect here. It's fast-paced and thrilling, always something going on from the first page. But you're still given plenty of time to savor the new world he puts you in.
concept . 5/5 Read this book and you'll want to be a Traveler as much as you ever wanted that Hogwarts letter on your eleventh birthday. The idea of people keeping the universe in line is insanely cool. Not overly new, but the way that MacHale writes it makes it feel fresh. Then there's Saint Dane, the baddie, a total sadistic crazy person who brings villainy to a whole new level. He's the Joker for young adult science-fiction, only much, much more terrifying. The world in Merchant is also great on its own. I've seen a lot of half-done worlds in young adults science-fiction and fantasy. MacHale doesn't settle for that. Denduron feels real--both new and familiar, like something out of The Time Machine with its own special twist. It's not even his most creative world, but you'll have to read the rest of the series to get to those. Just writing this makes me want to go read it again!
characters . 5/5 Can I give it a six? I rarely come across a book where I love all the characters so much. Even the ones I hate. Bobby is the perfect Arthurian hero, but not in an annoying way. He's the guy you want to be, or date, and half of what makes him so admirable is that he's so well-adjusted. No tormented bad-boy here. He's a normal guy, confident in some ways, scared to talk to his long-time crush, devastated over what's happened to his life but also curious and gracious about the opportunity he's been given. Don't worry--he's got enough flaws that you don't have to hate him for being perfect. His Uncle Press is a fantastic mentor figure and reminds me a lot of Merry in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence, another favorite. Then there's Mark, his nerdy best friend, and Courtney, his crush, the only two people who seem to remember that he existed. You get their perspective in alternating chapters, which means that they become as real to you as Bobby. Their perspective on his adventures adds a whole other layer. Oh, and Saint Dane. Can I say three times in one review that he's the perfect villain?
style . 5/5 The style is typical young adult science-fiction with a little more prettiness to it. MacHale makes you feel like you're on Denduron, in the mines, or swishing through the crystal flume, or watching the effects of the explosive tak. Reading this book, I felt transported to a magical world in a way that few books can do. Honestly, I'd put him right up there with J.K. Rowling and I think it's a shame that he doesn't have a bigger fan base, because he's just as clever and polished.
mechanics . 5/5 The way the book is set up is really, amazingly clever. Basically, half the chapters are Mark and Courtney on Earth, and half are Bobby describing his adventures. Only the Bobby chapters are journals, sent via wormhole. At various times. Which means that when you're reading a Mark and Courtney chapter and they get a journal, that's already happened, and they have no idea what Bobby is doing now. Sometimes journals will come one after the other. It's such a clever structure for a story and it makes it feel even more urgent, because you are Mark and Courtney. I was just as much on the edge of my seat as they were and I had a hard time not skipping ahead.
take home message Merchant of Death is a masterful science-fiction and fantasy hybrid with an atmosphere worthy of Harry Potter and a story that will keep you nail-biting until the last page. ...more