New York City in the roaring twenties is the setting for The Diviners. In it, an extremeOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
New York City in the roaring twenties is the setting for The Diviners. In it, an extremely diverse cast of characters experience life in NY with its modernity, its speakeasies, its movies palaces and the theatre. They also grapple with the mysterious and the uncanny: quite a few of them have unnatural senses or gifts that stretch the imagination.
Evie O’Neill is the book’s main character, if you will. She’s been exiled from her hometown after she used her secret gift as a party trick, and she is now enjoying the good life in NY living with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult. That is, until a series of occult-based murders comes to light and Will is asked to help with the investigation. It becomes clear to Evie that something evil is happening in NY and that she and her friends might be at the centre of it.
In some ways this is a very easy review to write because I can pinpoint exactly what works and what doesn’t work. More to the point: The Diviners is capable of causing extreme irritation as well as cool enjoyment.
The irritation comes from its excesses – and if there is ONE word I could use to describe The Diviners it would be just that: excessive. This is an incredibly bloated book. It is overlong, with pointless strands of story as well as an entire subplot (that of the murders, if you can believe it) that if eliminated entirely, would absolutely make no different to the thematic core of the story. It had a lot of head-jumping as well, moving around loads - and I do mean LOADS - of characters’ viewpoints. In fairness, most of said characters are interesting and do add to the diversity of the stor, but I found it odd how clumsy their back-stories were dumped in the middle of the narrative, more often than not interrupting the flow of action.
Another thing I found excessive is the depiction of the historical background with a lot of description and a lot of slang use. The result is unfortunately “forced” instead of “rich” or “vivid”. At times, it felt like I was reading a Roaring Twenties 101 manual with everything Bray thinks we know about the 20s being included in the story.
That said, in spite these criticisms, the book is not a flop. I appreciated its cultural mash-up and its diverse cast of characters which include immigrants, PoC as well as LGBT characters. The premise is absolutely fabulous too, with this huge group of characters coming together and realising they have random supernatural powers in common – where they come from, why do they have these gifts is one of the mysteries of the novel and I guess one that will be explored in the ensuing books in the series. It is an intriguing concept (it’s like X-Men in the 20s!) and one that has huge potential.
Above all, I loved the vast majority of characters, especially Evie, who is a fun female character. I loved how she is written as thoroughly imperfect and self-centred and with an uncanny ability to completely fuck-up and do absolutely the wrong thing.
I shall be back for seconds.
My experience with The Diviners is very similar to Ana's - I was frustrated with the book's excesses, but lurking far beneath the layers of empty embellishment, there is a promising core, comprising strong characters and a compelling story arc. I didn't *love* The Diviners, but I certainly enjoyed it - albeit with some sizable reservations.
From a setting and plotting perspective, The Diviners is at its most beguiling and infuriating. Libba Bray has a fantastic eye for setting and clearly has done a ton of research in the writing of this book, from the slang characters use (and how!), to the political events concurrent with the timeline of the novel, to the authentic feel and bustle of '20s Manhattan. This is all excellently done...to point. There's a line between well-researched setting and ridiculously over-the-top embellishment, and The Diviners, unfortunately, strays towards the latter. The slang is omnipresent and completely over the top - Evie adds the suffix "-ski" to practically every sentence that comes out of her pretty Sheba mouth, in ab-so-tute-ly annoying fashion.[1. I feel like every single one of these slang terms was used in abundance throughout the book.] There's also a tendency to explain details of 1920s life to the reader, which feels inorganic and again, excessive.[2. As I told Ana in an email, the level of forced detail in this book would be the equivalent of some far future author writing about our particular day and age as follows: Thea booted up her slim Macbook Pro and opened the Google Chrome internet browser to check her gmail - Google Mail - account, and then becan to gchat - Google Chat - with her BFF - best friend forever - Ana. "OMG dude, the rager last night was so ridic I cant belive how #lame every1 was." Thea opened another tab in the browser and pulled up Facebook, Liking a series of posts in her newsfeed before turning to her iPhone and skimming the tweets - from social media network Twitter - that kept popping up alerts on her handheld device. You get the picture.] The same can be said for the many passages detailing the setting, the clothing, the breeze skimming the East River all the way uptown to the UES. We get the picture.
There's also the problem of excessive length and the dearth of actual cohesive, unifying plot - as Ana says, the novel does jump heads frequently, every chapter, without needing to and without accomplishing anything to truly move the core story forward. The book's central conflict features a string of Dexter (circa season 6)-esque murders and tableaus, culminating in an anticlimactic finale that renders this entire murder/ghost storyline basically moot. To add to insult to injury, our Diviners never meet up, nor do they band together to form their organization of kickass 1920s X-Men! I must echo Ana here, again, as The Diviners is a "setting the scene" novel - which is fine, except that it takes 600 pages to get there, and the scene is still sadly missing some key developments.
Thankfully, The Diviners is saved by two things: the strength of Libba Bray's writing (which is, as always, engaging and effortless), and the appeal of the novel's main characters. Evie is our main protagonist and the majority of the novel follows her story, as she is ostracized from Ohio and makes her way to the Big Apple - where she instantly feels at home. Evie is charismatic and carefree, with a selfish streak a mile wide - she needs to be the center of attention, but at the same time, genuinely does care for her friends and family. Evie's a character that is easy to love, but at the same time she's a character that can be frustrating in the extreme. I love these types of conflicted characters, who are admittedly narcissistic, but do care beneath that veneer of confidence. I also of course loved thief Sam Lloyd (whom we had over for our stop on The Diviners blog tour, so perhaps I am predisposed to like him) and the sort of dark-side line that he's walking by the end of the novel.
Most of all, I loved Theta and her heartbreaking story (when you finally get to it, it's really moving, crushing stuff), her friend and piano player Henry (who has his own secrets), and Memphis (who goes through the ringer in this book). I love that the cast is diverse, that the story spans Harlem and people of color as well as a gay character, and women who are able to take their lives and destinies in their own hands. This is frankly awesome, and actually true in feel to the historical period and atmosphere of the novel.
Though it is not without its stumbling points and is an unnecessarily protracted novel that could use a good slimming-down, The Diviners is chock-full of potential. I'll be around for the second installment - you can hang your hat on that.
Ana: 6 - Good, recommended with reservations
Thea: 7 - Very Good, though wavering between a 6/7...more
The sword in Fuchida Shuzo's bed was the oldest known of her kind, and he loved listening to her song.
Mariko Oshiro is the only female detective in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department (TMPD), and also the only woman working the highly competitive narcotics division. Being the only woman in the job – and a senior Sergeant Detective, at that – comes with its healthy dose of crap, as Mariko finds herself embroiled in a two-bit sting on a minor pusher. The operation proves unexpectedly fruitful, however, when Mariko is able to strongarm the dealer into becoming a Confidential Informant – and he reveals that a yakuza player is planning a major move to start distributing cocaine in Tokyo. Unfortunately for Mariko, her misogynistic new boss will stop at nothing to get Mariko removed from narcotics, and takes her off the cocaine bust. Instead, her new assignment leads Mariko to the blind, elderly Professor Yasuo Yamada, and a string of failed burglary attempts on the ancient samurai sword in his possession.
Yamada’s sword is no ordinary blade – it is one of the last remaining swords crafted by Master Inazuma, each possessing a deep history and legendary powers – and Mariko’s involvement in the case is no random coincidence. It is fate that brings Mariko to Yamada’s side, and pits her against a truly formidable foe – one who already wields a cursed Inazuma blade, and who will stop at nothing to possess Yamada’s sword.
A police procedural with a twist of richly detailed historical fantasy, Daughter of the Sword is the engaging – if slightly overlong – debut novel from Steve Bein. Easily the most impressive thing about this book – the first in a planned series – is its meticulous and respectful treatment of both contemporary and historical Japan. Bein, a professor of Asian philosophy and history, has clearly done his research – everything from the very different policies of Tokyo police (e.g., the prevalence of stun guns used in lieu of firearms) to the samurai of feudal Japan and their social hierarchies are carefully detailed throughout Daughter of the Sword.
My only personal quibble with Bein’s representation of Japan is that it still feels very much like an outsider looking in (which is to be expected as Bein is not Japanese). That said, this inherent outsider feel to the narrative is a potential problem that Bein neatly sidesteps via his protagonist, as Mariko is a Japanese born woman, but one that has also spent part of her childhood growing up in the United States. Mariko is an outsider in so many ways - with her own family, as her mother so often chooses Mariko’s drug addicted younger sister’s side in so many situations; in her job, where she is the only female detective in the TMPD; with other people who perceive of Mariko as abrasive and not “womanly” enough. This, plus the fact that Mariko is naturally curmudgeonly, makes her an intensely interesting and layered character, and is almost convincing with Bein’s frequent asides that compare American and Japanese culture.
The only significant drawbacks to Daughter of the Sword concern the nature of its structure and its surprising lack of emotional resonance. While the overall story is fantastic and well-plotted, it’s frustrating to have the main storyline involving Mariko and her investigation interrupted with lengthy historical backstory involving less fortunate other characters and the fated blades of Inazuma. While these interstitials are actually fascinating and well-written, the distraction (for chapters at a time) from the heart of the novel is jarring and exacerbates the larger issue with the book – the lack of emotional connection or investment in the characters. Even though Daughter of the Sword is a very interesting book and a competently written book, there’s something ... missing. That extra oomph, that secret sauce, which would bring Mariko and her cohorts to life; that emotional bond that makes you want to root wholeheartedly for a protagonist against the odds stacked against her.
In all, I highly enjoyed this book and will certainly stick around for more of Bein’s work, especially in the Fated Blades universe, in hopes that this extra special emotional connection will be forged in future installments.
In Book Smugglerish, a solid 7 out of 10.
----------------  Unlike in the United States, harder drugs like cocaine are rare and not readily available. Instead, methamphetamines are far more commonplace, according to Bein.
 Bein also includes an extensive Author’s Note following the text, detailing his research and caveats, where he also differentiates fact from fiction.
 Almost. Not quite. It still feels kinda like Bein, as an American who has lived in Japan, is interjecting the narrative with his own observations, which never quite feel wholly authentic to Mariko’s character....more
Ismae is a young girl who is able to escape the brutality and abuse of her childhood home andReview originally posted on The Book Smugglers
Ismae is a young girl who is able to escape the brutality and abuse of her childhood home and of her new husband by joining a convent where the God of Death is still worshipped and becoming a handmaiden to Death. Blessed with gifts by the God, she trains to become one of his assassins and her newest assignment is at the centre of a palatial intrigue to which she is woefully underprepared.
Grave Mercy is a book with not only a kick-ass premise (NINJA NUNS!) but also a fascinating setting: the pivotal moment in Brittany’s history when Anne of Brittany has become its ruler and must defend it against France oppression. Unfortunately, this book and I didn’t see eye to eye and I ended up putting it aside at around page 350 (of 549). It is a sad day when a book featuring Ninja Nuns doesn’t work for me, but alas.
My problems with Grave Mercy were twofold: first of all there was the writing and then there the small little things that annoyed me. With regards to the writing: I thought there was a lot more telling than showing and an extreme reliance on writing shortcuts.
We are told more than we actually see a lot of what happens in the story not only in terms of plot but also of character development. The most glaring of them are during Ismae stay at the convent where she is supposed to have become this kick-ass assassin. The thing is, we are just told that she has become one – the book lists her achievements rather than showing them and then we must accept it as fact. Similarly all the nuns at the convent are described simply by what they do rather than by who they are. One can argue that the story is not REALLY about Ninja Nuns (what a shame) and more about the political intrigue and Ismae’s internal conflict. And truth be told I completely appreciate the immense potential for conflict between someone who is trained to act on things by simply killing them versus having to act via diplomacy but unfortunately I don’t think that this is sufficiently well developed. In fact, I found myself becoming increasingly bored with this very storyline – it is just so…bland.
But then there are the writing shortcuts too. This is one of my biggest pet peeves: in which we are simply told what is happening to a character with familiar clichéd turns of phrase that are used in order to hastily convey emotions. Take these few examples from Grave Mercy:
"The thrill of success is still humming through my veins
humiliation courses through my veins
certainty flows in my veins
shock simmering in my veins
my blood is singing in my veins
relief sings so sharply in my veins"
Holy Mortain, her veins must be extremely congested with so many things running/humming/singing/simmering/ etc through them. I could continue but you get my drift.
And then there were those things that made me stop and question everything I was reading. It annoyed me that there is a complete lack of questioning on her part about being a killer – even though she has been brought up within a religious environment and joins a convent, it doesn’t seem to occur to her that killing might be a little bit against the usual precepts of her church? I get that this is supposed to be explained by the fact that the God they worship (now turned a saint) is a God of Old and they are following the “old ways” rather than the new church but still, it just doesn’t ring true. Similarly, the book starts with Ismae getting married to an abusive husband. Although they never get around to actually consummating the marriage and she flees soon after it, she had been married at a church by a priest who actually follows her own faith and yet there is nary a thought about these vows and she doesn’t think about that marriage anymore.
Then, there is the fact that when she is about to leave the convent she is given a special knife which can kill a person if only so much it touches skin. So tell me again what is the point of all the kick ass training these women went through if all they need is a Special Magical Knife that kills effortlessly?
Finally, my last nit-picky comment. Something that made me think: I have seen this book lauded as a feminist read because of the powerful female characters and the ninja nuns. But is this really a true feminist read just because of that? I mean, ALL OF THEIR ENEMIES are men. Whenever they are talking about their skills at the convent or speak about their enemies, these are all men. So, in truth, even though these characters are all ninja female assassins, their entire world STILL evolve around MEN. Even their god is a male god. Just some food for thought.
I do appreciate the intentions and think they are laudable especially when it comes to giving power to these powerless girls after they have suffered abuse. I just wish this thread had been better developed beyond “let’s give them weapons and make them kill men”. In fairness, I stopped reading before the ending, so this might have been addressed after all. I just couldn’t care enough to carry on and find out for myself.
Grave Mercy really didn’t float my boat. A shame.
I’m of two minds when it comes to Grave Mercy. On the one hand, there are clearly some significant drawbacks to the writing and pacing of the novel, and I agree with some of Ana’s criticisms wholeheartedly. On the other, I personally LOVE this type of fantasy/spy/assassin/political intrigue with a dash of romance type of story. And despite the book’s missteps (particularly with regard to writing style), I found myself really enjoying – heck, loving! – the book, especially once it hits its stride after the first few chapters.
So, first the bad. As Ana details in her take on the book, the writing for Grave Mercy leaves much to be desired. Personally, I am not a fan of the first person present tense as a narrative choice – especially not in a historical fantasy novel – as it tends to lend a strange robotic quality to the protagonist. Such is the case with Ismae in her narrative. Compounding the problem is the very tell-y nature of the writing. Not only are Ismae’s veins chock full of all sorts of craziness, but she also oscillates between incredibly HOT or freezing COLD throughout the novel. Example:
"A fierce heat rises inside of me and Heat rushes into my cheeks
He pulls me closer, so that I feel the heat rising off his body, warm and smelling faintly of some spice. (THEA’S NOTE: I really, really hate this sentence. The only worse offender: “He smelled warm and musky and undeniably MALE.” Gag.)
His grip is firm,and it is as if the heat from his hand burns through all the layers between us"
And so on and so forth. This is annoying. ALSO annoying is the fact that Ismae’s emotions are plainly TOLD instead of experienced. Not to mention the entire glossing over of Ismae’s training to become a killer assassin badass ninja nun! In the span of 3 pages, Ismae learns ALL THE THINGS and is a badass ready to go on her first assignment. I abhor shortcuts. I want to read about her missteps and training, I want to experience her triumphs and failures! Unfortunately, we are deprived of this early in the novel. Add this to the other issues that are prevalent early in the book – Ana’s notes about the Old Ways/Gods, the dubious message that ALL MEN MUST DIE, the snicker-inducing appearance of a Magic!Knife! – and I can easily understand why some are inspired to put the book down and write it off as a DNF.
All these things said, the book takes off once Ismae is assigned to become a spy in the Britton court, working with (and against, in a nice double twist) the mysterious Gavriel Duval – under the guise of being his “cousin” (which everyone in the palace immediately takes to mean his mistress). HERE is where Ismae comes into her own, where she begins to question the teachings of her God, of her devout sisterhood, and of the “justice” of unyielding death. Here she learns that not all men are evil, and that some – even those marked by her God Mortain – deserve a chance at redemption. Here is where we learn that while Ismae has skill as an assassin, she is not infallible, and lacks grace, finesse and diplomacy. By these latter two thirds of the novel, all the complexity that is missing from the earlier chapters comes into play full force. And I LOVED IT ALL.
I love the idea of this sisterhood of assassins and the fantastic elements with those “marked” to die apparent to the handmaidens of Mortain.
I love the drama that is tearing apart the court, and the devotion that Duval and Ismae have to their young, strong Duchess – the same proud ruler that so many are trying to overthrow, enslave through marriage, or kill.
And yes, I love the love story between Ismae and Duval, as predictable as it might seem, because there is something about these two characters that feels utterly sincere.
So there you have it. A Smugglerific disagreement. I truly enjoyed the book, absolutely recommend it, and cannot wait for more. Bring it on, Dark Triumph....more
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat, sighed as he read the lines. His own case, it seemed, was the opposite. He often felt tired of life, but he was not quite done with Dhamsawaat. After threescore and more years on God’s great earth, Adoulla found that his beloved birth city was one of the few things he was not tired of. The poetry of Ismi Shihab was another.
The Kingdoms of the Crescent Moon face a terrible threat. The rule of the almighty Khalif is cruel and corrupt, and his reign is challenged from within by theatrical master-thief Pharaad Az Hammaz, the so-called Falcon Prince. While the Falcon Prince stirs up trouble on the streets of the city of Dhamsawaat, the kingdom faces a larger, faceless threat from a malevolent force: Ghuls, great monsters of sand, skin and magic, are conjured by this great evil, and they will kill anyone in their path.
For the last great Ghul hunter in the kingdom, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, and his young Dervish priest apprentice, Raseed bas Raseed, the violence and death are frightening to the extreme. Though Adoulla is old, tired and only wants to leave his past behind to retire in the arms of his soul mate, Miri, he cannot rest until he has ensured his beloved city is safe from a prophecy of blood and death. Joining Adoulla and apprentice Raseed in their onerous task is Zamia Banu Laith Badawi, a 15-year-old girl who has already witnessed great tragedy. The Ghuls killed her entire clan, an atrocity all the more bitter because the slaughter occurred under her watch. Zamia is no ordinary young woman, but an angel-touched shapeshifter, both a lioness and a woman at once. Vowing vengeance for her murdered band, Zamia joins the Doctor and his Dervish partner, and together the trio sets out to save the throne of the Crescent Moon from the face of true evil.
The debut novel from Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon came out last year to warm reception; this past month, the book made the shortlist of nominees for Best Novel in the annual Nebula Awards. Since a nomination for the Nebula is one of the most prestigious SFF honors, handpicked by members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), I had to purchase the book immediately. And, for the most part, I can understand the love for this book. Throne of the Crescent Moon is an undeniably fun and action-packed read, featuring endearing characters and a compelling, refreshingly non-white, non-Western European setting. Wonderfully fast-paced, with plenty of scenes of blood, magic and death, Ahmed is a natural when it comes to action scenes and moving the story forward in clashes of steel and brilliant flares of sorcery. I also thoroughly enjoyed the world Ahmed creates in the Kingdoms of the Crescent Moon: the deep religious beliefs, the rigid monarchy, and the social strata that divide its inhabitants.
Most of all, however, I loved the main characters that for the novel’s core and serve as the true emotional driving force of the book. Doctor Adoulla—affectionately nicknamed “Doullie” by his friends—is an old man that loves his things and the one woman who will own his heart until the day he dies. Adoulla is not just some weary, wizened Van Helsing type, though—he has his strong unconventional opinions, a love for food and life, and quite the social, outgoing personality. His apprentice, Raseed, is another fantastic character, rigidly adhering to the letter of his faith, though he eventually does question and open his heart and mind to things outside his scripture. And, of course, there is Zamia. Oh, Zamia. Lioness shapeshifter, fiercely proud to the point of ignorance, but loyal to a fault, Zamia is an infuriating but eminently endearing heroine. (I dare you to read this book and not fall in love with the headstrong Zami. Go for it. I dare you.)
While there are so many wonderful things going for this book, there are a few significant flaws, too. Most notably, the writing is overwrought and manufactured, with awkward failed attempts at Arabian Nights–style antiquity. Of course, the greatest shortcoming of Throne of the Crescent Moon—that is, its similarity (and admitted inferiority) to fellow Nebula nominee N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon—isn’t any fault of the book or author. Nevertheless, the comparisons are unavoidable. Like Jemisin’s novel, Crescent Moon is set in a similar type of Near Eastern setting. Both books feature a trio of protagonists, including one wizened old leader, his warrior priest apprentice and a prickly, powerful woman. Both books also feature a great evil awakening and draining the land slowly of its magic. Of course, there are plenty of differences between the two texts, but if Jemisin’s book is a beautiful, slow-simmering ossobuco of a novel, Ahmed’s is more of a Big Mac: delicious and hits the spot, but lacks the nuance, finesse and depth of the Dreamblood books.
All things said and done, Throne of the Crescent Moon is still an undeniably fun read, and I’m happy to see it up for the Nebula. I’ll certainly be back for the next installment.
In Book Smugglerish, a rousing 7 sand-Ghuls out of 10....more
Members of the erudite middle class in 1940s Lithuania, Lina and her family lead a comfortable, happy life. DOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Members of the erudite middle class in 1940s Lithuania, Lina and her family lead a comfortable, happy life. Daughter to a doting, beautiful mother and professor father, older sister to a sweet (if mischievous) younger brother, fifteen year old Lina has the world and all its promise ahead of her, especially when she receives the news that she has been accepted into one of the most prestigious art schools in all of Europe.
But one night in 1941, Lina's home is invaded by the NKVD - the Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, aka the terrifying Soviet police organization responsible for quieting political opposition and anti-Communist sentiment (through deportation, imprisonment, and execution) under Joseph Stalin's rule. Lina's family has been branded as fascist supporters and political enemies by the Soviets, and are given a few minutes to pack their most precious belongings before they are whisked away into the night to disappear from their home forever. Between Shades of Gray is Lina's story as she, her mother, and her brother fight to stay together and to survive. Loaded into cattle cars and transported hundreds of miles to Siberia to serve hard labor in unimaginable conditions, then again to the Arctic Circle, Lina's story is one of pain, endurance, and survival.
When I first heard about this book, I was captivated by the actual background of the novel - Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of Lithuanian emigrees, and Between Shades of Gray was inspired by Sepetys' father, a refugee who escaped Lithuania as a young boy. With this debut novel, Sepetys endeavors to tell the story of the Baltic States - Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia - that disappeared from maps in 1941 during Stalin's occupation and cleansing of the region. Needless to say, this novel is a work that is clearly incredibly important to the author, and should be equally important to readers of all ages, as it gives voice to the Lithuanian experience in WWII under Stalin's regime. While many have read about the atrocities committed against Jews during the Holocaust, fewer books are read - or written - about those committed by Stalin, especially in Lithuania and the other Baltic states.[1. A digression: Recently, I read Al Jaffee's autobiography which tells the story of his experiences in Lithuania during WWII - a Jewish boy living in a shtetl in the far eastern city of Zarasai. His real-life experience - in which his mother took Al and his younger brother away from the safety of America and moved them back to Lithuania in 1941! - is markedly different than Lina's, but I think an incredible one that absolutely should be read.] Between Shades of Gray is a powerful book that skillfully tells this story and accomplishes what Ms. Sepetys set out to do. It tells the familiar story of heartache, atrocity, and death (i.e. arrested in the middle of the night, cattle cars, labor camps, disease, starvation, and death), but from the Lithuanian/Soviet perspective (as opposed to the Jewish/Nazi perspective).
From a writing and character point of view, Between Shades of Gray does a solid job delivering as a work of historical fiction. Told from Lina's first person perspective, we watch and experience everything that unfolds through eyes. To that end, much of the novel hinges on Lina's development as a character and the strength of her narration - and both elements, I'm happy to say, are executed beautifully. Lina is a heroine that is both relatable and strong, and grows from ignorantly headstrong to the one person that can keep her family together as the months and years unfold. I also love the thread of art that runs throughout the book, and Lina's skill as an artist, her love for the works of Munch, and the hope she imbues in her sketches - to leave clues for her father, yes, but also to tell the story of her family and other Lithuanians as they are systematically deported and disappear. Other characters, particularly Lina's beautiful and educated mother, are given similar depth and heft, and make Between Shades of Gray a much more rounded, powerful read.
These praises said, the writing level for this novel was not without its flaws. There was some degree of repetition (especially with certain images and phrases), and from a stylistic standpoint, I'm not sure of the effectiveness or usefulness of Lina's italicized "flashbacks" that end each chapter. Some of these are important to certain plot points, but many more provide no real relevance to the story, Lina, or her past, resulting in a disjointed reading experience. Also, the novel's ending is extremely abrupt, in the form of a jarring epilogue that doesn't give nearly enough emotional payoff for so grueling a tale. And this, in turn ties into my final note about the novel:
While Between Shades of Gray is a powerful and important story, Sepetys' debut novel lacks the skill with words and raw emotional resonance that would make it truly, hauntingly unforgettable. Lina's narrative is simple and direct, emotions layered on one two-dimensional plane without deeper nuance or gravitas. Sepetys' novel isn't the horrific experience of Elie Wiesel's Night, or the eye-opening terror of The Rape of Nanking. Nor does it share the storytelling ability of Zusak's The Book Thief, Wein's Code Name Verity, or Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic. This doesn't mean that Between Shades of Gray is any less of an important book - just that, as a work of WWII historical fiction, it doesn't quite transcend good to great. ...more
Fifteen-year-old Robie has always been told that she is lucky - she's lucky that she gets to live on the MidwOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Fifteen-year-old Robie has always been told that she is lucky - she's lucky that she gets to live on the Midway Atoll with her National Geographic photographer and scientist parents, lucky she does not have to go to regular school or do regular homework, lucky that she gets the experience of growing up in a beautiful, idyllic secluded tropical island locale. But Robie hasn't really felt lucky - she sees life on Midway as a great experience, but she's over a thousand miles away from the closest stretch of civilization, she has barely any interaction with other kids her age, and the tiny atoll has just 4 TV channels, as well as a notoriously spotty phone and internet connection. So, when Robie gets the chance to spend the summer with her cool young Aunt AJ in Honolulu, she's thrilled to spend time lounging by the pool, catching up on all the tv shows she's missed, and getting her nose pierced without her parents around. When her aunt has to leave town for a week, Robie even manages to convince her to stay unattended in AJ's condo. But Robie finds that being on her own isn't all its cracked up to be, and after a frightening encounter with a vagrant she makes the decision to head home to Midway on the first plane out - the weekly supply run.
Thanks to another phone outage, Robie can't reach her parents to let them know she's heading home, and she decides not to call and freak out her aunt. She's made the flight to Midway from Honolulu countless times before, after all, so it's no big deal.
But then a surprise storm hits mid-flight, and everything goes wrong. The engine dies. The plane plummets. And even though she manages to miraculously survive the crash and get in an emergency life raft, she's alone in the middle of the ocean with the gravely injured co-pilot, with no food and no water. And no one even knows she's gone.
The Raft is a harrowing, tautly written novel that takes great pains to detail the realistic psychological and physical trauma that a fifteen year old girl might endure in a mid-Pacific plane crash. I'm both attracted to and repelled by these types of stories - shows like I Shouldn't Be Alive, films like 127 Hours, or books like Into Thin Air. They frighten me, but I cannot resist these heart-rending tales, the chance decisions and confluences of events that make the difference between life and death. In The Raft, S.A. Bodeen takes an ordinary teenage girl, places her in an extraordinary situation, and details her excruciating tale - its triumphs and missteps, and the lengths to which Robie will go to keep herself sane and alive. And for all of this, Bodeen's novel does a phenomenal job. Be clear - this is no incisive tome about civilization, or environmentalism, or even human nature. It is an utterly unprepared young girl's tale of survival. And I'm good with that.
Because this is such an insular story, The Raft relies on two things: the (somewhat sadistic) plot, and the strength of heroine Robie's narrative. From a character perspective, Robie is realistically portrayed as a fifteen year old girl that is more concerned with her freedom and wants than she is with others. She's no survival expert (though she knows a bit more about biology than the average person thanks to her unique upbringing), and she makes so many mistakes with only her instincts, memories, and imagination to guide her survival. I love this hefty dose of realism, and that Robie is so fallible - she feels like a real person, flaws and all. She's resourceful (but not unbelievably so), and her coping mechanism - you'll get to it, I won't spoil you - is hauntingly effective.
From a plotting perspective, The Raft also is a competent, well-executed feat. There are moments of terror and action - the plane crash in particular is scary stuff - but there are also many other moments of quiet, excruciatingly slow dread. This balance, between action and inaction, feels very realistic, very true, and I found myself thoroughly appreciating Bodeen's keen eye for pacing and storytelling.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Raft and absolutely recommend it for anyone looking for this type of survival story - heck, I liked it so much that I immediately picked up S.A. Bodeen's first novel upon finishing this book. ...more
Once upon a time, there was a faraway kingdom called Phantasmorania, ruled by a benevolent King and Queen. ThOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Once upon a time, there was a faraway kingdom called Phantasmorania, ruled by a benevolent King and Queen. This happy royal couple was also blessed with the birth of six beautiful daughters, each princess more beautiful than the last, with rippling blonde hair, jewel blue eyes, and the fairest complexions of palest cream. And, each princess was given the name of a precious stone - Diamond, Opal, Emerald, Sapphire, Crystal, and Pearl. One fine day, the royal cannon boomed out twenty times, signifying the birth of a seventh princess, much to the delight of the townspeople, for it was common knowledge that the seventh princess was a good omen, and destined to be the most beautiful of them all.
To celebrate the birth of their seventh child, the King and Queen decided to throw a grand celebration, and invited all of the fairies of the land in the hopes that they would bestow delightful and useful presents on their youngest child. And bestow these fine gifts the fairies did - Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne was given Charm and Wit and Grace and Courage, and many other similar traits besides, heaped on her already quite beauteous and sweet-tempered head of gold curls. But then, the most powerful fairy god-mother in the land - the prickly older fairy Crustacea with a notorious temper - bestowed her final gift on young Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne:
"Wit, Charm, Courage, Health, Wisdom, Grace...Good gracious, poor child! Well, thank goodness my magic is stronger than anyone else's. She raised her twisty coral stick and waved it three times over the cradle of the seventh princess. "My child," said the Fairy Crustacea, "I am going to give you something that will probably bring you more happiness than all these fal-lals and fripperies put together. You shall be Ordinary!"
And with that parting gift, Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne became quite Oridnary indeed. Her angelic disposition immediately became that of a normal cranky baby, her golden curls darkened and straightened, her complexion turned mottled and then freckled. As the years passed, she simply became known as Princess Amy - Ordinary, but happy, and far more interested in escaping to the woods to play than in the tedious rigors of court life, embroidering, or husband-finding. When all of Amy's sisters have been married off, however, and the princely prospects for the very Ordinary Amy look slim, her parents decide to resort to drastic measures to trick a prince into marrying the last daughter (the good old throw her in an isolated tower protected by a dragon scheme). Rather than endure that nonsense, Amy decides to run away - and embarks on an adventure that will lead to another kingdom, where she will find happiness, hard work, and someone who may be just as wonderfully Ordinary as she.
Originally published in 1980, The Ordinary Princess is a charming, delightful little middle grade book. Taking the very familiar tropes of fairy tales - the beautiful princesses with hair of spun gold and eyes of sky blue, gifted with all the riches and graces in the land - and gives them a very overt twist. Kaye poses a very interesting question in The Ordinary Princess, because no matter how beautiful these traditional fairy tale princesses may be, wouldn't their lives be so very boring? How dull and unfulfilling would it be to be have everything given to you, to be forced into always acting properly and looking beautiful? With heroine Princess Amy - who is still quite gifted with Grace and Health and Wit and all those other good things, mind you - we see how beauty can be overrated, and that happiness comes from the choices one makes and not what one looks like. While the message is hardly subtle, it's an important one and one that is done well in this delightful book.
There is a very linear, predictable nature to this story - and in that way it is in fact a perfect fairy tale. I'm reminded of Philip Pullman's own words in Tales from the Brothers Grimm regarding the essential components of a great fairy tale: the story must move quickly and told in an economy of words that is evocative, winsome, and most importantly brief. Characters do not need to be deeply nuanced or layered, and actions like falling in love are simple milestones that happen quickly, without elaboration or explanation. And in a book that is so clearly paying homage to the traditional folk tale, The Ordinary Princess certainly excels, telling a very different variation of a familiar princess story while adhering to the key ingredients that make a fairy tale successful. And that, dear readers, is thanks to voice. The most impressive and delightful thing about The Ordinary Princess is its narrative skill with words and that storyteller's voice - there is humor aplenty, charm in abundance, as well as the proper fairy tale-ish type of cadence and style. In under 150 pages? This is no small feat, but one that M.M. Kaye has accomplished so convincingly.
It's easy for me to see why this particular book is so beloved; for even if the elements are simple and familiar, sometimes the simple and familiar are all you need. Definitely recommended for anyone looking for a quick, refreshingly sweet and fun read. ...more
In Keara's world, every newborn child is bound to a darkbeast, a magical animal that will be the child's consOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
In Keara's world, every newborn child is bound to a darkbeast, a magical animal that will be the child's constant companion, and with which its bound child can communicate through thought and speech. Over the years as a child grows, it will make offerings of dark emotions to its darkbeast, such as hate, fear, jealousy, or anger. In turn, the darkbeast absolves and teaches the child the error of its ways. This process of offering and absolution continues until the child reaches her twelfth year - at which point she must kill her darkbeast and become an adult member of society.
It has always been thus.
Keara has long awaited her twelfth name day - the youngest of three sisters, she longs to leave childhood behind and become a woman. Once she becomes an adult, she will move to the woman's shared tent, she will be allowed to watch the Travelers perform their revels, and she will finally be seen as a woman in the eyes of her mother. But Keara's twelfth year comes at a terrible cost, and she does not know how she will be able to kill her darkbeast, a raven named Caw, who is Keara's dearest companion and beloved friend. When the time of the ceremony comes, Keara makes a daring, rebellious choice - to defy tradition and to save Caw. Together, the girl and her darkbeast flee Keara's village home and take to the road, avoiding the pursuit of the Inquisitors, who will stop at nothing to cleanse the unpious and inflict their torture on lost souls to bring them back to the Twelve Gods. On the road, the pair find solace in the employ of a skilled troupe of Travelers - actors that move from town to town - but when Keara's presence threatens to hurt her new friends, and as the Inquisitors draw near, she must muster the strength to tell the truth, to stoke the rebellious attitude within that made her save her darkbeast.
The first middle grade fantasy novel in a planned series, Darkbeast accomplishes a tricky feat. Morgan Keyes blends a medieval religious society in a believable and compelling fantasy world - one that is nuanced enough for older readers, but still engaging and accessible for a middle grade audience. There are few books that manage to walk this tightrope - the early Harry Potter novels and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books immediately spring to mind - and Keyes' Darkbeast does this with surefooted grace. In short: Darkbeast is one effective, memorable novel.
Let's talk worldbuilding. Who doesn't love the idea of an animal familiar? Who read The Golden Compass/The Northern Lights and didn't want a Pantalaimon of one's own? In Darkbeast, Keyes takes the idea of an animal familiar and twists it - instead of golden monkeys and lynxes, the familiar beasts in Keara's world are toads and snakes, lizards and ravens. Instead of cuddly (and there's nothing wrong with cuddly!), darkbeasts are creatures that inspire revulsion or fear - which is fitting with their function as magical creatures that absorb the ill emotions of their bonded child. And this, perhaps, is one of the things that makes it easier for a twelve year old to kill its closest companion. It's a brilliant concept, and one that makes Keara's choice to save her friend Caw - whom she cannot kill any more than she can cut off her own foot, as she thinks at the decisive moment - all the more powerful. When Keara starts to question the wisdom of killing one's darkbeast, she starts down a rabbit hole of doubt and knowledge. Why would benevolent gods demand the deaths of darkbeasts? Why do the Inquisitors and tax collectors and the great Primate have so much power, while everyone else has so little? All of these questions, and more, are brought up subtly throughout the book and invite readers to question and rebel as much as heroine Keara does.
From a character perspective, Keara is a fantastic, deserving, and endearing heroine. You know how sometimes you read a book and cannot believe in the main character - either they sound too old or too young for their purported age, or something just seems off? This is certainly not the case with young Keara, who comes across as a living, breathing, flawed twelve year old that has her missteps, but also has a huge heart that guides her actions. I think I fell in love with Keara from the beginning, when she continues to sneak out of her home, explicitly against her mother's wishes - not because she's a bad child, but because she cannot keep herself away from the revels, and cannot sit idly by when her fascination and curiosity burn so brightly. In contrast, Keara's darkbeast Caw is somewhat less defined - my only real disappointment with the book is how quiet Caw is, and how one note his frequent jokes for food and scraps to cover up his wisdom.
This flaw aside, Darkbeast is a brilliant middle grade novel that is even better upon reflection. There is so much room for more - what with formal rebellion brewing in the background - so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we will get more books in this beautiful darkbeast-filled world. Absolutely recommended, for readers young and old alike....more
Glenn Morgan is a brilliant young woman, who desires nothing more than graduating early, and getting a ticketOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Glenn Morgan is a brilliant young woman, who desires nothing more than graduating early, and getting a ticket on a deep space exploration mission to a habitable planet far, far away. Ever since her mother chose to skip out on her daughter and husband, Glenn's life has been a long, painful nightmare. Her father, once a brilliant, celebrated inventor has become a shade of his former self, obsessed with an all-consuming "project" that seems more the product of a delusional mind than fruitful scientific endeavor. The only things that keep Glenn sane are her academic ambitions and the not-always-welcome distraction of her best friend, Kevin Kapoor. Despite her father's obsessions, everything in Glenn's life seems to be according to plan - it's only a matter of time before she gets to strike out in the great beyond and leave her world behind.
When Glenn's father's Project turns out to be successful, however, Glenn's life is turned upside down - her father is imprisoned by the Authority, and Glenn and Kevin find themselves on the run. With an invention that could change everything, Glenn and Kevin cross the border separating their world, the Colloquium, from the terrifying wastes beyond. Together, Glenn and Kevin find that everything they know about their world is a carefully constructed lie, and that the Colloquium is just one paradigm in a universe with many different rules and possibilities.
Magisterium, the sophomore effort from Jeff Hirsch, takes a familiar baseline premise (parentless brilliant girl who has a secret destiny and who can change everything, set in a dystopian world) and embellishes it with some solid originality, making for an engaging, memorable read. This is a very different novel than The Eleventh Plague, as it certainly is more imaginative in scope, traversing two different worlds that abide by different universal laws. I love books that straddle and blur the lines between science and magic, and Magisterium does this with distinct aplomb (calling to mind Incarceron and Sapphique by Catherine Fisher). I especially loved the juxtaposition of the Colloquium and its adherence to order and technology, alongside the world of the Magisterium, full of human-like warrior creatures and natural magic. Of course, this rift between (manmade) Technology and (natural) Magic is a familiar tension, especially throughout YA SF/dystopias, Hirsch's worlds are more...subtle. Less overt in their critiques and there isn't the same absolute demonization of science that seems so prevalent in the works of this particular YA canon - and I greatly appreciate that. I *especially* love how Hirsch shows that both sides of this particular dichotomy have their own strengths and weaknesses, their own tyrants and heroes. Brilliant.
From a character perspective, the counterpoints of Glenn and Kevin are similarly brilliant and I loved both of these young, impassioned protagonists. Glenn clings to her desire for reason and order, while Kevin embraces the different other-ness of the world beyond the Colloquium. Most of all, I love the relationship between these two characters, and watching it slowly evolve the longer they are on their quest. For so long, Glen strives to push everyone away - especially Kevin - and she struggles to make sense of her own tangled emotions. I love that Kevin pushes back, too, and he's not just some complacent, love-struck boy without any deeper characterization (he has a fantastic arc, and I found myself loving Kevin wholeheartedly). My favorite character, however, is the feline Aamon - but I don't want to say TOO much about him, because when you discover who he is and why he befriends Glenn and Kevin, it's a hell of a twist.
The only actual stumbling points for this book - at least for me - concerned the plot itself. From a storytelling perspective, I love the path that Magisterium takes, but the pacing is uneven, especially in the middle portion of the text. There are many wondrous sights and creatures in the Magistra's realm, from beautiful jagged-toothed swan princesses and magic-weaving old ladies, but the introduction to these different friends and foes felt stilted and confusing, and aren't actually necessary to the storyline or plot progression overall. Too, I wanted more meat and gristle when it came to the story behind the Rift that caused the divide between the two worlds, more concrete details in lieu of descriptive flair. That said, the flair is kind of fantastic, and I love the distinct flavor of Hirsch's worlds - so I can't complain too much.
For all the familiarity of the tropes in this book - and yes, they are bountiful as well as familiar - I very much loved Jeff Hirsch's touches of originality and skillful imagination. Solidly recommended (and I cannot wait for Hirsch's next book)....more
It has been six years since Eli, his two sisters, and his parents have sealed themselves in the compound. SixOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
It has been six years since Eli, his two sisters, and his parents have sealed themselves in the compound. Six years since Eli's twin brother, Eddy, and his grandmother have perished on the outside of the thick, concrete reinforced doors, victim to the nuclear war sweeping the world. Luckily for Eli, his father - a billionaire and brilliant technological innovator - has spent years preparing for the inevitable nuclear disaster, building an advanced and hidden underground compound stocked with ample food, water, medicines, and anything else imaginable to help his family survive for fifteen years underground - when it will be safe to emerge and begin rebuilding topside.
For six years, Eli has withdrawn deeper into himself, refusing to touch anyone else, pushing away his sisters and parents, resigning himself to his never-changing daily routine. But lately, ever since Eli turned fifteen, something has changed. Eli begins to question his father's unyielding, absolute control and decisions. And then he discovers a secret that will change everything - Eli knows that his father has been lying, and it is up to him to keep the rest of his family alive.
The Compound, S.A. Bodeen's first novel is another survival-oriented psychological thriller - this time with a more familiar apocalyptic bend. Chronicling a family's experience within a contained, increasingly tense environment, The Compound is a claustrophobic read complete with high stakes and dramatic twists (I'm talking really dramatic, even melodramatic twists). These are not quite unexpected - from the very beginning, you know that something is wrong with this family living beneath the ground, that there's something inherently untrustworthy about Eli's father and everything the family holds as true.
Unlike The Raft, The Compound relies on a much more overt, plot-heavy story - not to say that characterization suffers, but the focus here is on big twists and payoffs. The plotting is solid, if slightly predictable - the truth of the Supplements, and of the Compound itself are familiar tropes. Still, these elements are well executed and entertaining (in a twisted, frightening kind of way). On the character front, similar to The Raft, I really appreciate Bodeen's creation of conflicted, un-likable characters. Eli guards his own secrets and guilt, and his sisters Lexie and Terese are also intriguing, complex figures. None of the family particularly like each other, and it makes for a terse, intense environment and cast of characters with severe psychological games and drama. The youngest sister, Terese, for example adopts an affected British accent from her love of Mary Poppins. Lexie is jaded and hard, cruel to her brother Eli - just as cold and abrasive as Eli is to her.
My only complaints with The Compound lie with the caricaturish villany of the father character, and with the almost melodramatic reveals, especially in the novel's final scenes. These criticisms said, I enjoyed the book highly - but I think The Raft is the more memorable title of the two. ...more
It was a science competition, Silas reminded himself. Not some competitive athletic event. It was surreal- a science competition that hundreds of millions of people would watch. There was only a single rule: no human DNA. All else was wide open. The most profound endeavors have the fewest rules: love, war. The event was many things. Some good, some barbaric. But among them, this: it was the greatest show on the planet.
Silas Williams has won his country three gold medals in three consecutive Olympic Games - though his medals were earned not from any display of athletic skill. Silas is the world's foremost geneticist, and the head of Helix, the US Olympic Committee's American effort; his designs have been the best in the world three times over. But for the upcoming Olympic Games in 2044, Silas's designs have been vetoed by Stephen Baskov, the staunch-fisted ruler of the American Olympic politico. Instead of going with Silas and his vision, the new Gladiator design is coming from maladapted genius Evan Chandler's brilliant supercomputer; a design and genome that no one understands - not Silas, not Baskov, not even Chandler. And the Gladiator is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before; terrifying, powerful, and utterly, incomprehensibly alien.
As Silas struggles to understand the new creation before the advent of the games, a gradual horror dawns on him, and all those who work at Helix. The Gladiator - Evan Chandler's artificial intelligence brainchild - is humanity's reckoning. It means the end of not only games, but of everything, unless Silas and his team can figure out its purpose and how to stop it.
As I mentioned before, I was in a bit of a rut before starting The Games - but whoo-boy, this was a perfect way to break out of that reader apathy. Ted Kosmatka's debut novel, billed as a hybrid of Jurassic Park and The Hunger Games absolutely delivered.[1. It doesn't hurt that The Games totally filled the gaping hole of an Olympics-less future in my life. I know you feel the same, dear readers.] Crichton-esque in style and substance, with a twist of fight-to-the-death awesomeness set against an Olympic backdrop, The Games is total, unyielding SF-thriller fun.
The novel's greatest strength lies with its conceptualization - the mystery behind the American Gladiator, its complex and unreadable genome, and its ultimate purpose are wonderfully executed. While the characterizations and tropes used are familiar, the underlying mystery behind the thriller is blissfully unpredictable (at least, it was for me!). I won't spoil the purpose of the Gladiator, or what it means for the world, but it's a hell of a creation. I also loved the conceit of this near-future world with a separate Olympic Games dedicated to violent, to-the-death showdowns between different countries' genetic monsters. While this might seem like a stretch for 2044, the idea of a gladiatorial games instituted in a government-sanctioned arena doesn't actually seem too far off.
From a pure storytelling perspective, The Games is a well-executed thriller that mostly manages to walk the line between concept and action. My only complaint with regard to pacing is how long it actually takes to get to the Olympic Arena - and how quickly, subsequently, that action is over. There is a LOT of exposition in this book, and much posturing done by various scientists as they try to figure out just what the American Gladiator is, and how it came to be. There's also a lot of back and forth with Evan Chandler and his relationship with his intelligent, virtual-reality based, supercomputer creation (which assumes an Avatar nicknamed "Pea" and is treated as Evan's son). The VR aspect also feels a little 1995, which isn't necessarily a bad thing - there's something comforting and nostalgic with this dated look at technology, and it works to The Games' credit.
Of course, there's also plenty of familiar ground covered in this novel. The Games recycles any number of thriller tropes - there's the brilliant, slightly conflicted but ultimately good-hearted hero, his beautiful and almost equally as brilliant specialist female counterpart, and apocalyptic stakes. That said, there's more to the book than a melange of familiar elements. When The Games deviates from the mold - namely, in its self contained nature, its bleak conclusion, and ultimate fate of its heroes - this is where the novel truly shines.
Most importantly of all, The Games is fun. And, at the end of the day, isn't this what we want from a speculative fiction, genetics-bent thriller? Utter, rapt entertainment? The Games delivers, and I will absolutely be back for more from Ted Kosmatka....more
As it was only the train driver who died, you couldn't call it a disaster. There were 269 people on board when the train, due to a meteorological phenomenon that I have not yet understood completely, came off the rails and missed the tunnel trhough Finsenut. A dead train driver comprises only 0.37 percent of this number of people. Given the circumstances, in other words, we were incredibly lucky.
So begins Hanne Wilhemsen's narrative in 1222, a story of snow-bound murder, 1,222 meters above sea level. Hanne is a former police inspector whose illustrious career ended after taking a bullet to the spine, rendering her wheelchair-bound and paraplegic. After a few years of increasing pain and complications related to her severed spinal cord, Hanne finally decides to seek help and boards a train headed to Bergen to meet an American specialist in back injuries and paralysis. Her plans, however, go awry when the weather deteriorates and her train derails, smashing into a tunnel wall.
Lucky, the wreck only claims the life of the train conductor and happens at the foot of Finse 1222, a mountainside resort that is both well-stocked with food and supplies, and nearly empty on account of the weather conditions. With the help of a local with a snowmobile, the passengers make their dazed way to the hotel and hunker down for the night. As the weather worsens, with an unprecedented blizzard howling outside and temperatures dipping beneath 30+ degrees below zero, Hanne and her fellow passengers find themselves trapped in Finse, without any connection to the outside world.
Then, one of the passengers is found dead. Murdered.
With no way to reach the outside world and no other law enforcement authorities at hand, Hanne is dragged into the mystery of the murdered priest. She must figure out a way to find the killer - or at the very least, keep the peace until the storm blows over - which becomes more difficult when a second dead body is found at Finse 1222.
I like to keep an open mind when it comes to my reading (or, at least, I like to think that I keep an open mind when it comes to my reading). Although I haven't been a huge fan of the (admittedly few) Scandinavian thrillers that I've recently read, I was ridiculously excited to start 1222. A closed-circle mystery (moreso than a "locked room mystery" though the second death is, I suppose, a true locked room trope), 1222 takes a group of colorful characters and strands them in an old, elegant hotel - and everyone is a suspect. And you know what, dear readers? 1222 freaking rocks the hell out of the traditional enclosed murder mystery.
Part of the novel's success is because of its restraint in clue revelations - 1222 excels in its exercise of a (mostly) fair play whodunit, leaving enough relevant clues along the way to allow an apt reader to figure out the killer alongside Hanne Wilhemsen. The mystery is neither obvious nor impossible; it is just right. The killer's identity and motive are clues that are seeded skillfully throughout the novel, with ample misdirection. The killer could be anyone: the angry runaway teenager or the goth girl that befriends him, the conservative television personality or the passengers' supposed "savior" mountain dweller, the cool blonde that runs the hotel or the appropriately named doctor Magnus. Heck, there's even a diverting side plot involving a mysterious high security passenger (or passengers), special operatives, and secret identities. And, to top all that awesomeness off, as a bonus, 1222 ends in an honest-to-goodness parlor scene, with Hanne interrogating and exposing the killer. Yes.
The other part of the novel's success is due to the protagonist of Hanne herself. A middle aged, wheelchair-bound, surly ex-cop (and lesbian!), Hanne Wilhemsen is hardly your typical, idealized detective or brilliant ingenue. She's abrasive as hell (without going over-the-top hardboiled), antisocial, but keenly and believably intelligent (without being Super!Brilliant!). When we first really get to know Hanne, she tells us:
In my day I was a good investigator. One of the best, I would like to think. That would be impossible without a certain curiosity when it comes to other people's stories, other people's lives.
It's having people close to me that I find difficult.
I am interested in people, but I don't want people to be interested in me.
Such is the slightly salty heroine that is Hanne. She's utterly abrasive and selfish at times, but sardonically funny at others. She also shows flashes of real emotion - in the description of her partner and their daughter, for example, or her feelings of sympathy and responsibility for fifteen year old runaway Adrian, for another. There's something incredibly compelling about Hanne, for all that she likes to pride herself on pushing people away - and I cannot wait to read more of her adventures (the fact that this is book 8 in her particular series is very encouraging).
Praises said, I should mention that there are some execution issues with 1222, mostly regarding the translation (which is, at times awkward, particularly when it comes to dialogue and confusing, non-continuous conversations). There also is a degree of repetition when it comes to key phrases or observations of Hanne's, i.e. everyone's general level of hygiene (bad), the repeated assertions that everyone is acting very Norwegian (Hanne's words, not mine!). I should mention, though, while the repetition isn't my favorite, I did enjoy the very different and overt Norwegian-ness and mores of the novel.
Overall, 1222 is a fantastic mystery that introduces Americans to a fascinating new detective and heroine in Hanne Wilhelmsen. I can see why Anne Holt is the bestselling crime and thriller author in Norway, and I eagerly await more english translations of her work. Absolutely recommended....more