The Premise: This is the story of young dwarf Jepp, who grew up in Astraveld, a crossroads between the Spanish NetherlandReview originally posted here
The Premise: This is the story of young dwarf Jepp, who grew up in Astraveld, a crossroads between the Spanish Netherlands and the Protestant North. Loved by his mother, who runs a bustling inn, Jepp is treated like a prince and is fiercely protected. It is a good life, but when he is fifteen years old, a man comes by the inn, offering to bring Jepp to the court of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia and her husband, Archduke Albert of Austria. Eager to see the world beyond the narrow one he knows, Jepp agrees. He has always held a dream of one day meeting his father and he believes that the man offering to take him away is part of his fate. This begins Jepp’s journey away from childhood and all its innocence and into the big world, where perhaps he can
My Thoughts: Before reading Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, I didn’t really know what this book was about or what category of young adult it belonged to. I actually thought Jepp was YA fantasy at first because it begins at a inn at a crossroads (familiar Fantasy territory). I soon figured out that I was reading historical fiction when Jepp says he lives in the Spanish Netherlands and mentions the Infanta Isabella, its sovereign from 1598 to 1621. There’s an author’s note at the end of the book that explains the real life people and events that inspired Jepp, (which is fascinating and worth reading), and basically Jepp did exist, but little is known about his life. Marsh took the question of who Jepp was and extrapolated that into this story. Jepp is divided into three “Books”, and each “Book” seems to correspond to a change in scenery and a new direction in Jepp’s life.
Book I begins while Jepp still lives in his mother’s domain, but not for long. A man named Don Diego comes to the inn and invites him to he court of the Infanta Isabella, and that’s where Jepp stays for this part of the story. Jepp is still rather innocent and unsure of himself so he is mostly an observer, doing what he is bid by the others around him. We get Jepp’s impressions of the specially designed rooms for the court dwarfs, the gardens where they arranged themselves in a tableau for the Infanta’s pleasure, and the performances where he has to play the fool for a few laughs. As for the people at court, Jepp focus is narrow: Don Diego; the other dwarfs, Sebastian, Lia, and Maria; the court jester Pim, who arranges the entertainment; and Hendrika, the mistress who oversees them. These people are the ones he interacts with most, and everyone else is hazy and not so well-defined.
Despite Jepp’s faithful descriptions, there’s the sense that there’s a certain naivety in what Jepp observes. He sees things that trouble him, but does not fully comprehend them until later. He dislikes his treatment at the palace, but doesn’t immediately see the same misery in others. His youth is part of the story, but I found some of this innocent observation and floating along very passive. Basically, Jepp wasn’t really doing anything, and this didn’t make him easy for me to connect to. The only goal he seemed to have was to one day find out the identity of his father, but there seems no way of doing so away from his mother, and so I felt like there wasn’t much of a direction to the story. Sometimes there are other things that saves a story for me in this situation, like a romance I could sink my teeth into, but even here, Jepp disappoints. He thinks he’s in love, but he barely knows the girl. When things do finally pick up, it is instigated by a situation someone else is in, and Jepp is pulled into it by his sweet nature and wanting to help. Of course this changes his life, and propels his fate along in a way he doesn’t expect.
There’s some drama as the story segues into Book II, but the story stalls for a second time as Jepp repeats what he’s done before: letting things happen to him, and observing rather than doing. The eccentricities of his surroundings is where the entertainment lies, not in Jepp’s own actions. Of course Jepp, Who Defied the Stars gets better – Jepp does start to take his fate into his own hands, if you will, and it’s nice that when I think back now, I see how Book I is reflected in Book II, but with an older and wiser Jepp, one who begins to take part in his own life – but reading was a slow process (I’m sorry to report that I kept putting the book down and sighing for at least the first half). The last third of the book (Book III) ended up being the best third for me, but it takes some patience to get there. The change in Jepp from passive to active removes a lot of the issues I had with reading, and with his relationships with other characters.
Jepp, Who Defied the Stars essentially becomes a story about fate versus free will, but this isn’t a clear message for me until the author’s notes at the end. I liked Marsh’s own personal relationship with this theme that she described in the addendum, but I’m not sure if the idea that Jepp was fighting against some fate was really something I picked up on while reading this story. I think the history itself was a little bit more interesting. Despite being set in the past, this story does a good job of keeping the focus on Jepp’s personal experiences rather than on History. However, Jepp’s voice has a formality to it that is a deliberate reflection of the time (Marsh notes she was careful to choose words in use before 1600 when writing Jepp), and the language contributed to feeling like I couldn’t comfortably sink into the story.
Overall: I have a sort of “middle ground” reaction to Jepp. I wasn’t wowed while I was reading it, and Jepp’s passivity and the formality of his narration made me feel impatient with the story. On the other hand, I can see that these were deliberate choices in the writing because of the theme of “fate versus free will” and because of the time period that Jepp is set. I think my visceral response usually determines how I feel about a story and for much of this book, I felt like I was plodding along, but when I think about it analytically, it comes off much better. So: this may be more for the “thinkers” than it is for the “feelers”.
(Also may I say, this book was BEAUTIFULLY designed? I loved how the inner pages were NAVY with pretty endpages and chapter headings, and the cover had shiny bits on a matte background, silver font, and those stars. Gorgeous.)...more
The Premise: September is a twelve-year old girl, tired of the same thing at home while her father is away at war and heReview originally posted here.
The Premise: September is a twelve-year old girl, tired of the same thing at home while her father is away at war and her mother works in a factory. Then one day while she stands over the dishes, the Green Wind sweeps in through her window and asks her if she’d like to come away with him to the great sea that borders Fairyland. Of course she says yes, and pretty soon she is stepping through the closet between worlds in a green smoking jacket and meeting witches and a Wyvern. September would like to enjoy Fairyland, but ever since Good Queen Mallow disappeared and the Marquess took over all is not well.
My Thoughts: There are layers to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. On the surface, it’s a story of a girl who escapes her humdrum life and has lovely adventures in Fairyland. I think young children would enjoy the descriptions and the lush language (it has the sort of omnipresent narrative with dashes of whimsy and color that would be perfect for being read aloud, one short chapter at a time). On a deeper level, there’s poignancy and gems of insight in September’s adventure that makes this a book that will resonate with mature readers too.
The surface story reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but more of The Phantom Tollbooth (a book I grew up adoring), in which a bored boy is transported to the Kingdom of Wisdom via magic tollbooth and has to rescue two princesses whose banishment has caused disharmony.. With Queen Mallow’s disappearance and her replacement by the Marquess, and the playful of storytelling and its characters, I saw a lot of parallels, but as I read further on, they fell away. The Girl Who is a lot more complex. The prose is full of lush vocabulary and description. Fairyland manages to be both a wonderful dream, but it also holds reminders of life’s realities.
So September is whisked away to Fairyland. As can be expected, it is a place of magic, with its own strange rules. September is flown there on a flying leopard with the Green Wind and has to put together a puzzle and get through immigrations in order to enter. Once there she meets three witches (one a wairwulf) who tell her that the Marquess has stolen their Spoon, which September offers to retrieve. Along the way, she meets a wyvern, A-Through-L, who is the son of a Library, and whose wings are all chained up on account of the Marquess’s new rules. Not liking this Marquess the more she hears about her, especially when compared to the Good Queen Mallow, September goes to Pandemonium (the capital of Fairyland) to meet her, and picks up another traveling companion – a boy named Saturday that grants wishes. That, in a nutshell, is the start of September’s adventures, but it doesn’t really describe the experience. Maybe this tidbit will help show you:
September let go a long-held breath. She stared into the roiling black-violet soup, thinking furiously. The trouble was, September didn’t know what sort of story she was in. Was it a merry one or a serious one? How ought she to act? If it were merry, she might dash after a Spoon, and it would all be a marvelous adventure, with funny rhymes and somersaults and a grand party with red lanterns at the end. But if it were a serious tale, she might have to do something important, something involving, with snow and arrows and enemies. Of course, we would like to tell her which. But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know which sort of beast it is, either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.
As you can see, the narration seems well aware of the traditional stories of children who go to have adventures, and September, a reader herself, is aware as well. There’s a consciousness that comes with the creative madness – as if the story is quite cognizant under its merry storytelling of all the other stories in which children are taken to Fairyland, and of all kinds of other things. This made me feel like I had to pay attention to the details so I wouldn’t miss anything. At the same time there was a lot of playfulness that comes out in the words and descriptions, and the setting itself is like another character. I think that feeling of having to pay attention while the story was also so lush in describing the wonder of Fairyland hurt my reading speed initially. I had to slow it down to a crawl so I could digest the story in manageable bites. Things hit their stride when the story, previously innocent and fairly light, took a turn for the more serious.
When I say it became more serious, I think it depends on the reader how things will affect them. It remains, as always, light on the surface. I can see children reading this and seeing a straightforward adventure that they could enjoy, and they may not wonder too much about things like whether September’s flight to Fairyland represents her escaping her own reality (in which her father is fighting in foreign lands and her mother works in a factory leaving September alone by herself), and whether the wyvern has created a father he can more easily accept than one that abandoned his family. When September begins to face the work of the Marquess, I saw a lot of underlying themes packaged in a fairly harmless manner. It’s Good (September) versus Evil (the Marquess), but look closer and there are shades of grey, commentary on childhood, fear, growing up, and death. All of these things aren’t in your face – just gently touched on so that you can contemplate them later at your own leisure, long after the pages are closed and that lovely ending has faded.
Overall: This is a fairytale that works for many ages. If you are looking for depth you will find it, but if you are looking for straightforward adventure, you will find that too. The writing itself is colorful and odd and really rich in substance. It’s the sort of writing you can read aloud, but not meant for fast flipping. I enjoyed the experience once I realized that this was one I had to consume at my own pace....more
I've been meaning to get to this series. Ever since Tithe, I've been a fan of Holly Black, plus this was supposed to be areview originally posted here
I've been meaning to get to this series. Ever since Tithe, I've been a fan of Holly Black, plus this was supposed to be a YA with supernatural elements and a con artist protagonist. What's not to like, right?
My Thoughts: In Cassel Sharpe's family, everyone is a curse worker except for him. With one touch they can bestow a "curse". His mother can manipulate people's emotions, his grandfather can kill, his oldest brother, Philip, can break bones, and Barron, the middle brother, works luck. Although curse workers are rare and blowback exacts a cost for each working, curse workers are the reason why everyone in the U.S. wears gloves and keeps their skin covered. Being the only normal in a family of workers is hard for Cassel, but thankfully, he has his family's other talent to fall back on: swindling people. While his brothers rely on their curse worker skills, Cassel grew up fine tuning his ability to manipulate others by conventional means.
Now Cassel is enrolled in a private boarding school, but when he wakes up on the roof of his dormitory without any idea how he got up there except a dream of a white cat, his stay at Wallingford is put on hold. This is purportedly for the insurance liability, but Cassel suspects it's because people think he might be curse-worked. Cassel has been careful at the academy so that people would forget his past-- that he comes from a family of crooks and conmen, but this one incident reminds everyone. Despite this, when Cassel goes back to his parents' house all he wants to do is hustle his way back into the school. In between the house cleaning his grandfather has him do, Cassel is on damage control and smoothing his way back in. But while he is figuring that out he notices some telling behavior from his family -- especially from his brothers. They're keeping secrets from him, and Cassel suspects these secrets are more than just hiding things from the non-worker. He suspects they have to do with the night he killed his best friend Lila.
One of the stronger aspects of White Cat was its world building. The idea of workers, a very small percentage of the population with genetically passed abilities, fits seamlessly into the story. Cassel lives in a world where their existence is a given, and he offhandedly mentions what most people in his world already seem to know: that workers exist in the criminal fringes of society, a fragment of a percent of the population, but everyone wears gloves because of them. Gloves have become so de rigueur that Cassel feels uncomfortable if he sees bare hands. A fear of workers is part of day-to-day life: people wear charms to protect themselves from being worked, and there is also an ongoing controversy about legislation requiring everyone be tested for worker ability. What isn't as well known is how the abilities work, and here Cassel knows more than the average person because of his family.
What was less strong was the character development, unless we're talking about Cassel. Since White Cat is told from Cassel's point of view, he is the most well developed character. The sense of isolation -- both from his family for being a non-worker and for Lila's death, and from the other students at his school, is in his every action. He doesn't seem close to anyone, and only relies on others when he's forced to (it goes against what he was taught). He's a great broody teen guy character and I really enjoyed getting in his head and seeing how his upbringing has messed with him. Unfortunately, that isolation made the supporting characters difficult to know: they got little page space compared to Cassel, and what there was was filtered through Cassel's walls. Cassel is least familiar with his classmates but they are probably the most likable characters. His brothers are distant and untrustworthy, his sister-in-law disconnected, and his mother a manipulative nightmare. His grandfather seems to be the only one in the family with a proper concern for Cassel, but he's left out of the loop. Even Cassel's romantic relationships are dysfunctional ones and it's not clear if Cassel understands either girl he thinks he loves.
As for the plot - I liked the mystery aspect to this story. There's a sense of urgency to figuring out what's going on -- that until he does, the cards are stacked in everyone else's favor. I really loved the concept of what was going on when all was revealed, but I figured things out a lot quicker than Cassel does, and I wasn't as wowed by the twists as a result. It was nicely done, but there were so many clues that I ended up questioning Cassel for not being quicker on the uptake. Also, because so much is made of Cassel being a normal in a family of workers and having to hone his skills as a confidence artist, I had a certain expectation of Cassel as a manipulator. I think I was expecting Cassel's tricks to be more.. tricky, than they were. Instead they felt really obvious. I don't know what this says about me, but I seem to be in a decided minority in feeling this way.
Overall: I loved loved loved the concept, world building, and voice. But. Other than Cassel, a lot of the side characters weren't fleshed out and I wasn't as surprised by the story as I wanted to be. I liked this one, and feel like it has that Holly Black writing that sucks me in, I just wasn't in awe (and I really wanted to be). That said, I think a lot of people liked this one more than I did, and I liked it enough and am curious enough to continue this series with the next book, Red Glove....more
**** This review will have spoilers for Book #1, A Discovery of Witches! ****
The Premise: Picking up right after A DiscovReview originally posted here
**** This review will have spoilers for Book #1, A Discovery of Witches! ****
The Premise: Picking up right after A Discovery of Witches left off, Shadow of Night begins with Diana and Matthew's search for two things: the elusive manuscript Ashmole 782 (in particular three missing pages), and a witch who can teach Diana how to use her unpredictable magic. With their enemies closing in on them, their solution is to use Diana's timewalking ability to go to Elizabethan England, thinking they will find what they need there. But when they arrive, it's clear that Diana does not fit easily in with the locals, and her strangeness during a time when witches are persecuted does not bode well. Then there are Matthew's friends, the School of Night, and his family -- all of whom are used to a very different Matthew than he is in modern day. Accepting of his new wife and the differences in his behavior is not an easy task for everyone. And this is all before Diana and Matthew have begun to do what they set out to do.
My Thoughts: Much like A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night is a hefty volume, weighing in at 584 pages, but it has a very different feel than the first book.In Discovery, the burgeoning romance between Matthew and Diana is a big part of the story, and then the stories focus widens into a greater conflict between supernatural creatures. In Shadow, the romance and the conflict are still there, but they are impacted by the era the hero and heroine are living in. Time's effects are felt almost from the first page, when the couple arrive at Matthew's Old Lodge. The year is 1590 and Diana and Matthew are immediately presented with servants (vampires) and a succession of guests -- all who happen to be well-known members of the School of Night. Diana meets Christopher (Kit) Marlowe within moments of their arrival, swiftly followed by George Chapman, Thomas Harriot, Henry Percy, and Walter Raleigh. These men and the time period bring out old chauvinistic habits in Matthew that Diana does not like, but it won't be the first time in this story that Diana sees a different side of Matthew. As the story continues, his relationships and responsibilities of the Elizabethan era come up time and again. His family, his friends, his position amongst the Congregation and in current politics, all come to bear.
While being in the past is a dream for a History aficionado like Diana, she wasn't expecting it to be as hard as it is, and she feels sorely out of place. It all starts off badly: as much as she tries, her speech and mannerisms are immediately flagged as unusual, and she has to stay hidden to keep her from raising everyone's suspicions. There is some consolation in being able to meet a lot of historically famous people, but she's immediately disliked by Kit Marlowe, who is insanely jealous that she married Matthew, and wants only to cause trouble for the woman who married the love of his life. Diana's troubles are added to when she realizes that her magic is more difficult for her in the past and she needs a witch help her control her power.
This feels like a well-researched book, written with a lot of regard for history and this time period. There were interesting tidbits and scenes between Diana and the people of the past, but I think there will be mixed responses to the amount of history that infuses the book. When it was relevant to the story and to the setting, I enjoyed it, but I struggled with trying to find the plot in the parts where Shadow of Night overindulged. I do think that someone more interested in the Elizabeth period would enjoy the history lessons, I wanted the narrative to focus on the plot and I was frustrated by the added bulk. I wondered if it was really necessary for Diana to meet so many members of The School of Night, for example. They were a window to Matthew's character as a vampire with his thumb on the pulse of history, but this could have been done without having to meet them all. I had the same issue with other characters and scenes. I felt that they weighed the story down making it move less fluidly than the last book. Transitions felt abrupt, as if the story was written in snippets and then stuck together. This is in stark contrast to A Discovery of Witches which I thought had a better balance between the action, conspiracy, and romance.
Speaking of the romance, there is something of a change in Matthew and Diana's relationship in Shadow of Night. There is some focus on relationship bumps caused by Matthew's personal pain and the particular stresses in being a vampire and witch in love. I enjoyed the way being in 1509 gave Diana a unique viewpoint to who Matthew was, and how this was incorporated into the story. The book is divided into six parts, each each part set in a different location. The section that involved France and Matthew's home was particularly interesting. But, again, I had trouble following the transitions here. It seemed that in every location there was some new revelation about Matthew's personality which added angst to the story, but they felt out of the blue. I think this was because usually Matthew and Diana seemed happy and in love until some issue would suddenly appear. Maybe the issue is that the story was from Diana's point of view and Matthew keeps his emotions well-hidden, but the hints that there was anything wrong were too subtle for me as a reader and it made Matthew seem very inconsistent.
As for the main plot and Diana and Matthew's goals of finding the three missing pages of Ashmole 782 and of educating Diana on witchcraft, there is some progress here. Shadow of Night answers some questions I had at the end of A Discovery of Witches, and the book flashes forward to the future/present (in short interludes between the six parts of this book), and tell the reader how it has been affected by Matthew and Diana's trip. I liked having some sort of update on the characters we met in A Discovery of Witches and seeing some new-to-me members of Matthew's family, so I enjoyed those interludes (I especially liked Marcus and Phoebe). I just wish that there was more to say about the series plot from this book, because overall, I felt like while there were a lot of scenes and situations, there was little forward movement in the overarching plot.
Overall: My reaction is lukewarm. I felt like Shadow of Night was the story equivalent of hitting pause on the series while the hero and heroine go off to strengthen as a married couple and prepare to go back into the fray. There is good reason for going into the past -- to find out more about Ashmole 782, and for Diana to get help with her witchcraft, but once they are there, these goals faded into the background and being in the Elizabeth era came to the forefront. There was a lot of churn in this story caused by the timeline and I think a reader's reaction to it will determine how much they like the book. While I felt some of it was necessary, I was disappointed with how much felt like chaff. I had trouble with the focus and flow of the story, and with how little forward movement there was to the series plot, and because of this, I preferred the first book over this one. I hope I'll fare better when Diana and Matthew return to present day. ...more
This was a book that popped on my radar because of a On the Smuggler's Radar post over at the Book Smugglers. Pirates and assassins and curses (oh my)! Throw in the suggestion of a romance in there and you have me obsessively searching for info online. Finally I checked Netgalley and it was there! I hit that button to request it in a flash. Meaning to read the book after the books I was supposed to read, I downloaded it and.. looked at the first few pages. Yeah, so three hours later at 2am I was done. I couldn't help it. This was a fun fun book and it was so easy to zoom straight through it.
The Premise: Ananna belongs to a respected family within the Pirates' Confederation, the Tanarau clan, and she's spent all her seventeen years living on a boat. She's proud of being a rough-and-tumble pirate, but when her family arranges an alliance with the low-ranked but rich Hariri clan by marrying Ananna off to their son, Ananna balks. During the introductions to her husband-to-be, Ananna plays along, but at the first chance she gets, she's is on a camel and leaving her fiance in the dust. Unfortunately, the Hariri clan employs assassins when they are displeased. Skilled at both combat and blood magic, assassins are almost legend -- not real. Or so Ananna thought, until an assassin appears. Desperate and terrified, Ananna makes a split-second decision which shockingly activates a curse and chains her to the very man hired to kill her.
My Thoughts: This book starts off abruptly. It begins right in the middle of Ananna's meeting with her new fiance. She makes a quick assessment of his prospects as a pirate captain (not stellar), and escapes. At first I had some catching up to do to understand Ananna's situation, but once she moves from prospective bride to escaped fugitive, I got the gist: Ananna is a pirate princess and being married off is not on her agenda. Fleeing on camel, Ananna takes to the streets like a female Artful Dodger, using the skills learned over a lifetime as a pirate to survive. The story is very dynamic -- Ananna is constantly on the move. At first she just wants to get away from her arranged marriage, but when she finds out that an honest-to-goodness assassin is after her, her desperation ramps up. Assassins, it is said, are not just killers. They are blood magicians. It seems likely that Ananna will die--until a turn of luck puts Ananna in an partnership with the very assassin sent to kill her.
Ananna is a handful, with a lot of rough edges that come through in her narrative ("The sea crashed against the big marble wall, spray misting soft and salty across my face. I licked it away and Mama jabbed me in the side with the butt of her sword.") Although she is seventeen, not more than five years younger than Naji, the assassin, her unrefined manners and pirate's vernacular (peppered with ain't's, double negatives and bravado) made her seem younger. It's suggested that Naji sees her that way too - he is horrified by the whole situation. Assassins are by their very nature solitary. They do not spend their time looking after teenage girls.
There's a gentle humor in an uncouth pirate girl taking on a magic-wielding ninja-assassin, then the two being shackled to one another. Even in the most dire circumstance, Ananna's luck always leads to a path of ever-increasing disaster, and the story seems to acknowledge this with sly nudges. It's not enough that Ananna has the wrath of a pirate clan behind her and she's stuck in the middle of the desert, no, an assassin joins the chase. When Naji switches sides, things do not get better, instead they seem to get worse. The Hariri clan still wants Ananna dead and Naji has enemies of his own, enemies scarier than the Hariri-- who now have Ananna on their radar. As Naji and Ananna continue their adventure, the hits keep on coming.
The setting of The Assassin's Curse is something out of the usual Desert and High Seas Adventure canons. The magic of this world has familiar elements too - blood, herbs, an invocation, and an affinity, all combine to create a spell, but there is something new and fresh in Ananna's experience of it. Her voice with it's street edge, mixed with the meshing of familiar concepts in new ways (pirate and assassin, desert trek and sea adventure, a dash of weird thrown in for good measure) really makes the story. That, and the bickering between reluctant allies Ananna and Naji. I really enjoyed the way their relationship slowly developed through the book and the hope that it could develop into something more.
Ananna's pirate persona and voice may not appeal to some, but while I did find Ananna young and hotheaded (with an odd resentment towards attractive people), this just made her realistically flawed to me. Likewise, Naji's hang-ups with appearances showed his own human weakness. I hope this doesn't turn into a story that advocates a bias against beauty, but I don't think it will. I expect to like the next installment just as much as this one, and I plan to read it when it comes out. This was a lot of fun and I'm excited to see more.
Overall: The Assassin's Curse an entertaining Fantasy YA story: it has swashbuckling adventure, a pirate heroine, and a blood magic-wielding assassin, for crying out loud. If that is something that appeals to you, I say try this one and read it for the brain-candy enjoyment of it. I read it in four hours. I had a good time. I will come back again for a continuation to this ride. ...more
Erin Morgensternwas signing the new paperback edition of The Night Circus at BEA, and I picked up one for myself based oReview originally posted here
Erin Morgensternwas signing the new paperback edition of The Night Circus at BEA, and I picked up one for myself based on the good reviews I've seen online.
My Thoughts: This story is all about the magical atmosphere of the Le Cirque des Rêves (aka The Circus of Dreams), which is a circus unlike any other circus in the world. This is a circus of Wonder, swathed in black and white. One tent holds a garden made entirely of ice, another holds a vast labyrinth of rooms. The carousel animals breathe, and the food always tastes better than one remembers. Guests move from tent to tent, sampling performances and marvels, but one visit is never enough to see everything. Adding to the special atmosphere of the circus is that it appears as if from no where and is only open at night.
Of course, if the Night Circus seems impossible, that's because it is. Unbeknownst to the regular people who visit the circus and even to the people that work in it, the Circus is actually a dueling ground for two magicians from opposing schools of thought. Their weapons are their students, Celia and Marco. Since childhood, these two were trained by their respective teachers in the art of magic. Celia's teacher is her father, Hector Bowen, who goes by the stage name "Prospero the Enchanter". Marco is an orphan chosen by a mysterious man in a grey suit and the initials "A. H." Each is taught by an indifferent (and sometimes cruel) father figure, and each is told that one day they would use their knowledge against an unknown other. All they know is that they are bound to someone, and when the circus comes, the game begins.
The Night Circus is a different kind of story, mostly because this is one of those books that actually feels setting-driven. It is all about the circus. All the character's stories revolve around or are pieces of the circus's history. The battle between the two magicians is the propellant for its birth, but once it starts to grow, that's when the cast of characters surrounding it grow too, and they are often as surprising as the circus. First there are the creatives that gather at midnight dinner parties at the eccentric Chandresh Christophe LeFevre's house planning its execution -- a retired prima ballerina with exquisite taste, two fashionable sisters with fine-tuned observational skills, a renowned architect/engineer, and Marco and Mr. A. H--. When the circus is opened, Celia becomes part of the endevour as the Circus's illusionist, and she is joined by the circus folk. Some of these people seem to have a touch of magic as well, including a mysterious contortionist, a fortune teller who reads the future, and twins born on either side of midnight on opening night. Celia and Marco's relationship grows alongside the circus itself in a complicated game of one-upman-courtship.
The sign proclaims something called the Ice Garden, and Celia smiles at the addendum below which contains an apology for any thermal inconvenience. Despite the name, she is not prepared for what awaits her inside the tent. It is exactly what the sign described. But it is so much more than that. There are no stripes visible on the walls, everything is sparkling and white. She cannot tell how far it stretches, the size of the tent obscured by cascading willows and twisting vines. The air itself is magical. Crisp and sweet in her lungs s she breathes, sending a shiver down to her toes that is caused by more than the forewarned drop in temperature. There are no patrons in the tent as she explores, circling alone around trellises covered in pale roses and a softly bubbling, elaborately carved fountain. And everything, save for occasional lengths of white silk ribbon strung like garlands, is made of ice. Curious, Celia picks a frosted peony from its branch, the stem breaking easily. But the layered petals shatter, falling from her fingers to the ground, disappearing in the blades of ivory grass below. When she looks back at the branch, an identical bloom has already appeared.
The timeline of The Night Circus spans several years. It starts with a wager in 1873, and the bulk of the story spans a few decades after that. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, and dates and locations are provided at the beginning of each chapter. Very cheekily, there are interludes between chapters, without a date, but the point of view is secondary -- "you" are in one of the tents of the circus (perhaps the date is now?) experiencing the anticipation, the pool of tears, the house of mirrors and other circus tents yourself. There is also a secondary story, beginning 11 years after the circus opens, about Bailey -- a dreamer and one of many that loves with the circus. His story dovetails nicely into the main narrative as the story expands.
So remember how I said this was a setting-driven story? It's so focused on atmosphere that The Night Circus is like a wonderful, comfortable dream. Like a dream, I was spirited off to a place where amazing things happened, but there was a buffer between me and what was going on. I was having a grand ol' time marveling over the very visual descriptions of the circus and being charmed by the unique and likable characters, and while I did care when bad things happened, but I wasn't gutted by them. I do not think that this is a failing of the book -- it just felt to me that this book was more an imaginative treat than it was something real that I was supposed to connect to emotionally. That's OK. Sometimes I want to read something that just takes me away to a beautiful place for a while and be told a pretty story. It was a fairytale basically.
Overall: Very lovely story where the circus is the star. Reading this book was like gorging myself on a buffet of artisan chocolates, marzipan, and Turkish Delights. It was just so lush in description, and it felt like the story had much the goal of a circus: to entertain and amaze. The Night Circus was a fairytale steeped with visual wonder, but like all fairytales, even though there was love, loss, and even impending doom, I felt removed, like I was reading it through the lens of "this couldn't possibly be real". It really is a circus of dreams....more
The Premise: Jacqueline Wallace is having a horrible sophomore semester in college. After 3 years together, her boyfriendReview originally posted here
The Premise: Jacqueline Wallace is having a horrible sophomore semester in college. After 3 years together, her boyfriend Kennedy dumps her so that he can sleep with other girls. Two weeks after that, his frat brother Buck attacks Jacqueline in a parking lot and tries to rape her. She escapes only because a guy in her economics class was there. Shaken by the assault, all Jacqueline wants to do is to move on and act like nothing is wrong. She doesn't tell anyone what happened, but Lucas, the boy who saved her knows, and suddenly she's noticing him everywhere. To add to everything else, Jacqueline has missed two weeks of Economics because she was avoiding Kennedy and if she doesn't make up the midterm she missed, she's going to fail the class.
My Thoughts: Since I didn't really look at any reviews besides the one before beginning Easy, I was genuinely freaked out by the first few pages. I didn't know what would happen to Jacqueline, and I had a sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach when she walked to her truck and was suddenly pinned down from behind. I was relieved when a savior appeared, but after this incident I still worried since Jacqueline didn't report Buck for the attempted rape. I'm putting that out there now for anyone for whom this would be uncomfortable with descriptions of sexual assault. My rule of thumb is not to discuss what happens after the first fifty pages of a book, so I won't say whether things get darker for Jacqueline, but I will say that the first few pages with the attempted assault is at the threshold of what the reader actually gets to "see".
As can be expected, Jacqueline wants to put the attack behind her. She has a lot of other things to deal with on top of her trauma. Besides getting over her breakup with Kennedy, tutoring upright bass, and working towards her music education major, she has to save her GPA by not failing in Economics. This means getting in touch with the class tutor, Landon Maxfield. As Jacqueline's busy schedule would have it, she can't make any of the face-to-face session with Landon, so instead they communicate by email, and what starts off as a formal interaction ("Mr. Maxfield", "Ms. Wallace"), soon becomes a light flirtation ("I already looked forward to his name in my inbox, our back-and-forth banter"). At the same time, Jacqueline is also noticing someone else -- Lucas, the guy who saved her from Buck. He sits in the back of her Economics class, sketching instead of taking notes, makes her coffee at Starbucks (he's the barista), and shows up at the club to ask her to dance. He's got a mysterious bad boy edge -- lip piercing and tattoos, and girls coming up to him after class. At first seeing him makes Jacqueline relive that night, but after she's noticed him, she's drawn in, and it looks like the feeling is mutual.
Minutes before the end of class, I turned and reached into my backpack as an excuse to sneak a look at the guy on the back row. He was staring at me, a black pencil loose between his fingers, tapping the notebook in front of him. He slouched into his seat, one elbow over the back of it, one booted foot casually propped on the support under his desk. As our eyes held, his expression changed subtly from unreadable to the barest of smiles, though guarded. He didn't look away, even when I glanced into my bag and then back at him. I snapped forward, my face warming.
If you like romance with that delicious build-up of falling in love, where a couple's addiction for one another is a force you can feel, this is probably a book you will like. Jacqueline is decidedly pursued over the course of seven weeks by a guy who says and does all the right things. I mean, this guy is good. Things begin with light touches and long stares and progress until the electricity is fairly crackling, but this guy is also respectful and not aggressive (mysterious too). When Jacqueline's best friend and roommate Erin advises her to "make him chase you" that's when things get interesting. And here's when I get contrary. Yes, I was sucked in, but my own cynicism kept rearing its head. The male romantic lead here was too much of a fantasy for me, by all accounts some sort of dream guy, showing up at just the right time to boost Jacqueline's confidence. I couldn't stop myself from feeling disbelieving even as I raced to finish the book. It felt like there was so much going on with him that he unbalanced the story a little.
If Easy was just about the romance, I wouldn't have liked this book as much as I did. I liked it's depiction of college. This is not a book where the college setting is just icing -- no, this story is permeated by its setting: dorm hallways as hangout areas, lectures with auditorium seating, lugging laundry to the basement, and equal parts study and being with friends. College life is shown with ups (like independence and intense friendships) as well as downs (like rumors and clique culture). The dialogue was particularly good -- utterly natural and believable. I always felt like it captured the emotions of the moment.
I also liked Easy for being a story with a positive message. It put the blame of sexual assault where it belongs and had a proactive message to women as well. Those who blame the victim and support the abuser exist here, but are clearly not in the right. I loved the message of sisterhood and of women looking out for one another, and I was really invested in Jacqueline move upwards and forward from what happened. My empathy for Jacqueline made me cheer for all the positive things that came her way. This story wasn't perfect (see above), but it was a good one.
Overall: An entertaining New Adult contemporary with a pro-female message. I quite happily was swept along by the easy writing style, the banter of the college set, and the electric romance. Even if part of me found Jacqueline's hero too conveniently perfect to suspend my disbelief (he fell in that uncanny valley between an awesome guy and a god), I liked this one. Definitely worth the $3.99 I spent on it. ------------------------------------------------ original goodreads review: 3.5 from me. Longer review to come. I think my issue is that while the relationship was addictive and great, it was a little too fantastic for me. Like I had trouble with my own cynicism. (view spoiler)[ Lucas was both the responsible good guy with brains and many jobs, and the bad boy with the tattoos and the motorcycle. All the girls want him, but he has only eyes for Jacqueline. His touch is like magic, and he's mysterious. And then it also turns out he's a bit broken and needs Jacqueline's help to heal. There was too much fantasy in there for me. (hide spoiler)] Anyway, it came close to being a 4 for sheer suck-you-in powers. ...more
My Thoughts: Told from the first person POV, this had the feel of a memoir. I couldn't tell what prompted this introspection, but I saw the story as three parts: Jacob's early years at the IIC, his relationship with the Emperor, and the fallout from that relationship.
Jacob Dawes starts off as an unclass in Mexico City. His father, an abusive drunk, was Resettled years ago, leaving Jacob (or Jake), his mentally ill mother, and his toddler sister to fend for themselves. When he's eight-years old, Jake's intellect gets him selected for the Imperial Intellectual Complex (the IIC), so that he and a handful of genius children can serve the Emperor with their technological and intellectual advancements. It's an honor to be chosen, but too poor to receive advance notice that this would happen, Jake is taken away from his family by unsympathetic servants of the Empire. At the IIC, his poverty and class keep working against him. He's immediately singled out by the Director as a likely troublemaker and unworthy of being in the program at all. Shunned by many of the students and instructors, Jake struggles to prove himself, but he's often the target of punishment and bullying. Eventually, he finds his niche in Physics under a kindly mentor, and after that he becomes a rising star with a series of breakthroughs under his name. By the time he's fifteen, his advancements bring him to the attention of the young emperor, Rikhart IV, who is exactly Jake's age. An unlikely relationship begins.
Jake and Peter (the Emperor) are on the exact opposite spectrum of the class ladder. At first Jake is in awe of Peter, but he quickly adjusts and sees Peter as another person - someone he likes. When Peter brings Jake along on a year-long tour of the Empire, the two have a chance to spend time alone. They begin a romantic relationship after an easy companionship (sex here is fade-to-black after some kissing and enthusiastic pushing). There's not a lot of slow burn in their romance - their falling in love feels inevitable -- but after they do, that's where the drama really begins.
Class division is a big theme in this book. It's clear from the start that although Fighting Gravity is set in a future where space travel is common, the social structure is traditional and hierarchical. While the Emperor has absolute power (so much so that the word "Emperor" is used in everyday phrases where we'd say "God"), merely being born as an unclass has made Jacob's life a constant battle against the extreme bias of those around him. Jake resolves to be beyond reproach, he doesn't always succeed, and his impulsiveness often overrules his self-preservation. His non-conformist attitude about class (reacting to the individual, not their status) is welcomed by some (such as the Emperor), but makes enemies of others.
I worried for Jake. He's the underdog in Fighting Gravity, and while he is extraordinarily gifted, he's also flawed. His biggest weaknesses involve impulsiveness and letting his anger overrule diplomacy. Jake sees how people react to his class, is annoyed, and just reacts instead of protecting himself and to soothing egos. He knows that the aristocrats have "quiet, unpleasant ends that didn't involve petitioning committees" if they wanted to be rid of him, but he kicks the hornet nest anyway.
"Others may say what they think, but you cannot." "Oh no? And why's that?" She heard the edge of anger in my voice because her eyebrow quirked. "You know why. Because of what you are." The hot rush of anger spread from my head down through my fingers and toes. My fists clenched. "I thought you were different than them, Your Grace, but I guess I was wrong. I don't get to have an opinion because I'm unclass? I should have known. You're like the rest of them." The crack of her hand against my cheek left my jaw throbbing and my ears ringing. "Stupid man. Yes, it is because you are unclass, and you know I do not think less of you for it. If I did, would I be trying to protect you?"
This was a character and relationship-centric story. A big pull of Fighting Gravity (once we're past his time at the IIC), is the drama that unfolds from the volatile combination of Jake and his closeness to the Emperor. With Peter, who treats him as an equal, everything is wonderful, but that's in private. In public, time and again, Jake just makes himself an easy target for others and makes decisions without telling his powerful lover. He gets threatened and tells no one, and then of course his enemies carry out their threats. I sped through the story in a matter of hours because I wanted to know whether Jake would be alright and if he could be happy with Peter. It was really frustrating though--Jake brought a lot of trouble on himself, but the hatred against him was unjustified too.
I really liked how much Jake's class played a role in the story, but I also felt like Jake's problems center on himself. He's hated for being an unclass, but he's oblivious to others with similar situations. When he does think of others not as lucky as himself, his attentions are too little or too late. I'm hoping that enlightenment in this area is being saved for later. I'd like to see how both Jake and Peter would approach the class issues in the Empire.
Another niggle I had was over the extremity of some of what Jake goes through. Despite being caught up in what was going on, a romantic gesture and some painful punishment still felt over the top to me. I found myself asking "did they really have to do that?" at certain scenes. I'd have preferred more nuanced consequences for Jake, even if the angst and drama had me flying through the pages. I preferred the subtler moments, like those between Jake and his assigned servant, Jonathan. There was the suggestion all is not as it seems in that area, and I'm curious where it will go in the next book. Well, if there is a next book. Fighting Gravity didn't end with a cliffhanger, but it did feel like Jake's story wasn't over.
Overall: Fighting Gravity is a science fiction romance styled as a memoir about a poor unclass boy (Jake) whose genius intellect brings him out of the slums and into the path of the Emperor. They fall in love, but there are consequences because of deeply engrained beliefs about class hierarchy. Overall I thought this was a well-written, emotionally gripping type of read that went down easy. It may not have knocked my socks off because I wanted the class issues further developed, but I can see others not having that issue, and at $2.99 for the ebook, it's worth giving it a go. Recommended for those looking for a coming-of-age type of SFR....more
The second book starts up two years after the last one left off (so I recommend you read these in order). Disclosure: I'vReview originally posted here
The second book starts up two years after the last one left off (so I recommend you read these in order). Disclosure: I've met the author in person and I received this book for review from the publisher at her request.
**** There will be minor spoilers for the first book in this review! ****
The Premise: It's been two years since Maggie Graham's first summer at the Crossroads Theatre. A lot has changed in two years. The theater has become nonprofit, and Maggie is its new executive director and artistic director. There are professional actors as well as amateurs in the cast, and the Crossroads even works with groups of children in some of its selections. Maggie is now the owner of the local hotel, the Golden Bough, and has slowly begun to update its look. A lot of things have changed, but one thing stays the same for Maggie -- her feelings for the lover who walked away. Rowan was freed of his curse and returned to Faerie two years ago, and even though her it's time to move on, it's not that easy.
My Thoughts: Spellcrossed was a surprise. The surprise was it took me a lot longer to read this book than I was expecting to. According to goodreads I started it June 11th and finished it July 4th. Now, I didn't expect Spellcrossed to be an action-packed adventure -- the first installment is more character driven than anything else and I enjoyed that quite a lot, but from the get go I understood the premise: Maggie needing to figure out her life -- along the way she falls in love and gets involved in the personal dramas of the Crossroads Theatre cast. The romance was quiet but tinged with mystery, and the struggles of the other actors brought a new layer of meaning to their work at the theater.
In Spellcrossed, the direction of the story felt less clear in its first few pages. It's almost two years down the road from when Rowan left her and Maggie spends her time working on the Crossroads and the Golden Bough. It's the beginning of summer and she's starting rehearsals for a production of Annie. New characters are introduced (child actors and professionals as well as some amateurs), and a typical summer of theater at the Crossroads begins -- full of the trials and tribulations of putting on a show. There are plenty of vignettes about things going wrong but I wasn't sure where the story was headed until 75 pages in. Until then, the story spends quite a lot of time with the minutia of Maggie's job as director. I am not really a fan of musical theater, and maybe that's the reason why I questioned what the point was. In the last book it made sense that the reader knew the details of the productions and of the actors' struggles because this was part of character growth, especially Maggie's, but here it felt less vital.
Since I liked the first book so much I decided that Spellcrossed was just a quiet book and it was taking it's time to ramp up, but in hindsight 75 pages is a long time to get the ball rolling, and I wouldn't be surprised if readers stopped reading before the story really begins because of the lack of direction. The problem is that once there is something to chew on, Spellcrossed is still ramping up. (view spoiler)[Even after Rowan returns, bringing with him Maggie's long lost father (hide spoiler)] (spoilery things that happen in the first one hundred pages of the book), when I wanted to explore what was happening to Maggie, the theater kept taking up her time and the pages of the book. I felt like the theater and the other characters didn't add much to the pacing or the story and I mentally wanted to cut swaths from this book and skip ahead to the meat: Maggie and the important relationships in her life.
When the book does hit its stride it is exactly what I wanted it to be, but the tragedy is that it takes a good three quarters of the book to get there. Until then I was mentally writing a "this book didn't meet my expectations" review. When I hit the last one hundred and fifty or two hundred pages? That was when I really was there, getting caught up in what would happen next and empathizing over Maggie's tough choices. The ending of this book, with it's mix of sorrow and happiness was what I loved so much about Spellcast and had been hoping to see here. This is where the story delves into the messiness of love and relationships. Again this wasn't an ending that was rainbows for everyone, but I think it ended the way it should. Just like when I finished the first book, it felt right. In the end I was very glad I kept going.
Overall: As with Spellcast, Spellcrossed is contemporary fantasy, but the contemporary parts ground the fantasy. Magic and the otherworldly are present, but everyday human connections are the real glue of the story. I liked this one, but it may not be for the impatient because it starts slowly and takes its time ramping up before its strong finish....more
I requested Seraphina from Netgalley because the summary mentions dragons that fold "themselves into human shape". Shapeshifters in the fantasy genre is something I'm still thrilled by, even though I should have my fill already in urban fantasy. Not sure how, but it's different I tell you. Other things that also drew me: tensions between humans and dragons, a heroine trying to hide a secret while working beside a "dangerously perceptive" prince, and the great blurbs by Naomi Novik and Tamora Pierce. Not to mention some very tempting book reviews.
My Thoughts: This story starts with Seraphina.
"I remember being born. In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart's staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe. Then the world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back. I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest's benediction for my mother's soul. My mother left me a complicated and burdensome inheritance. My father hid the dreadful details from everyone, including me. He moved us back to Lavondaville, the capital of Goredd, and picked up his law practice where he had dropped it. He invented a more acceptable grade of dead wife for himself. I believed in her like some people believe in Heaven."
Not surprisingly, my first impression of Seraphina was that she is an odd duck. Clearly there's something strange about her for remembering her birth, and the inheritance she alludes to. Then she tells us that her father has told her time and again that to stay safe she must stay under the radar. That her secret, if discovered, would mean her death. Only a select few know it, among them her father and Orma, a her music tutor (who happens to be a dragon). But Seraphina can't help herself. She doesn't want attention, but she is herself. Despite her best intentions, Seraphina stands out. Her prodigal musical talent is difficult to suppress, and after she's noticed for that, it's hard to forget her.
When the story begins, Seraphina has been court composer's assistant for two whole weeks. Two weeks of rushing to be ready for the kingdom's forty year celebration of the treaty with the dragons where the Ardmagar (the dragon equivalent of a king) is scheduled to make an appearance. Then Prince Rufus is found dead during a hunting trip. He was decapitated, and whispers that a dragon is responsible begin to be passed along. Things are difficult enough with the peace without these new rumors -- many Goreddis still fear the dragons and worry about Goredd disbanding the knights who practiced dracomachia (a fighting technique used specifically against the dragons).
Seraphina thinks something is about to happen because of Prince Rufus's death. She isn't sure what, but she wonders who really killed the Prince and why. Seraphina's position within the palace gives her special access to the royal family and she tries to keep an eye out for possible threats. She devises her own ways of finding things out, often finding herself face-to-face with Prince Lucian, head of the guard, as a result -- and he proves a little too smart and nice for Seraphina's comfort (especially since he has a fiancée). In the meantime, she also worries about her tutor Orma and the ominous message he received at the Prince's funeral. Interwoven with that is Seraphina's own issues with keeping her secret -- her flute solo at the funeral moved everyone to tears and of course made her noticed. I'm half tempted to say what Serphina's secret is in this review (it's a big part of her character), but I am not sure it's exactly revealed in the first fifty pages and the blurb dances around it. Let's just say it is a great secret for storytelling. There's a lot of little anecdotes about Seraphina's past and how they relate to her secret all while everything else is going on. Her struggle to understand her mother (who died at childbirth) is a big part of Seraphina's ruminations. If that isn't enough, there's also this strange mental garden that is tied to Seraphina's secret.
Maybe that sounds like a lot of odd little threads, but these things are related in a smooth and interesting way. This is the type of world building that you sink into and while it has that medieval, city-built-around-a-castle setting that a lot of Fantasy has, much of the world felt fresh and new to me. The highlight was that dragons can shapeshift into people. What I loved about this that is in Seraphina, becoming human is a truly alien experience for a dragon. They can't really deal with a new body that sometimes makes them feel and think in ways dragons aren't supposed to. They needs Censors to make sure they don't go insane - which in their culture, is when a dragon allows emotion to overrule logic. Dragons literally have memories of such a distasteful lapse scrubbed away. Of course, with the dragons so concerned with being dragons and keeping themselves apart from what they think of as human weakness, they also stay unknowable to their human allies who say they have no souls. There's so many little details like that that are thrown in here. Seraphina knows more about dragons than most people so she bridges the cultural gap in her narrative. Tidbits about dragon and human relationships are dropped as needed throughout the story (not to mention the cultures of neighboring countries Porphyry, Samsam, and Ninys), and they fascinated me. I couldn't get enough of the meeting of different worlds.
The other thing I really loved about this story were the characters. Seraphina was my favorite. She has more than one facet - sometimes quiet and a bit grumpy, sometimes scared and secretive, other times just fierce and brave. She starts off as a sixteen year old girl who wants to blend into the walls, but as the story progresses her chutzpah shines through as she throws herself into stopping anything from ruining the treaty. I loved this, but I also loved her vulnerability because she has the daily anguish of hiding her true self. And let's not forget the secondary characters. First of all: Prince Lucian - my goodness, the awesome interactions he and Seraphina have! There was something a little fun about how they both surprise each other, and I can't wait to see how their relationship develops. Then there's Seraphina's father, who tells her to stay unnoticed every chance he gets, but who does so because of his fear for his daughter; Orma, who is a dragon and who has always seemed distant, but who Seraphina still trusts and loves; even Princess Grisselda, granddaughter of the current queen and Lucian's fiancee proves to be more complicated than she initially seems.
Overall: You know those books that kind of make you excited because you read them and think, "This is right up my alley! This book has things I find awesome in it!" ? Seraphina is one of those books for me. I just want everyone who likes Fantasy with girls doing stuff (and dragons!) to read it already. The characters! The world building! Have I mentioned the shapeshifting dragons?! Alright, I get that not everyone loves YA Fantasy and books with a drop of romance, but if you like that sort of stuff, just a little bit? If you like the quality and creativity of Robin McKinley, Megan Whalen Turner, and Diana Wynne Jones? Then maybe you should try this one.
**** This review may contain spoilers for the first book!! ****
The Premise: Finally orphan Moon has found a place for h(Review originally posted here)
**** This review may contain spoilers for the first book!! ****
The Premise: Finally orphan Moon has found a place for himself in the Raksura colony of Indigo Cloud. He's still adjusting to being a Consort and all that entails, but in the meantime, the Indigo Cloud court is moving. The influence of the Fell has reduced their numbers and poisoned their home, and now Indigo Cloud is returning to the great tree that they left, generations ago. Unfortunately, when the colony arrives at their tree, they discover that a vital part of it has been recently stolen: the seed at its heart. Without it, the tree will die and Indigo Cloud would be left homeless and vulnerable. The colony needs to find the stolen piece before the damage is irreversible.
My Thoughts: The Serpent Sea begins almost where The Cloud Roads left off: with Raksura of Indigo Cloud traveling to their ancestral home via flying boat. It's been a long journey and Moon and the rest are eager to finally be at their destination, but when they land, the great tree doesn't feel quite right. It's not long before they discover the reason why. Someone has come into the tree and stolen the seed at its heart. Of course this now puts Indigo Cloud back into peril again -- without a home, they're vulnerable. The other nearby Raksura colonies may accept their return to their tree, but they wouldn't necessarily tolerate Indigo Cloud settling in other territory.
As with The Cloud Roads, I loved the fantastic landscapes of The Serpent Sea, especially when it came to the places that the people of the Three Worlds lived. Every one seemed more amazing than the last. It really felt like anything goes here with building places to live. It begins with the colony's new home amongst the mountain-trees, with branches that interweave to create platforms for smaller trees to grow:
"It grew darker, the green-tinted sunlight muted as clouds closed in high above the treetops. The drizzle turned into a light rain that pattered on the deck. The platforms of the suspended forest grew wider and more extensive. Many of them overlapped, or were connected by broad branches, with ponds or streams. Waterfalls fell from holes in some of the mountain-sized trees. Moon wondered if the water was drawn up from the forest floor through the roots. It was like a while multi-layered second forest hanging between the tree canopy and the ground, somewhere far below."
The quest for the seed leads them to other settlements, including the one shown on the cover -- a city built on a giant water-monster (!!!) that swims in a large body of water named the Serpent Sea. These are great settings but there is some thought behind them: why people chose to live in these places, and how it affects them are considerations that aren't omitted from the story. As you'd expect there are also new creatures introduced as the Raksura travel to find the seed for their tree, but there's no revisit from races encountered in the last book. This may be to underscore how far the colony has traveled, or how isolated populations become from one another because of the difficulty of travel.
I was fascinated as usual by the variety and differences in cultures, but this story doesn't forget the Raksura themselves. I continue to enjoy how Raksura society is conveyed through Moon's experiences. At this point Moon is no longer the newcomer and his actions have granted him some respect. When the colony decides to search for the missing seed, he's part of those plans, but he's still settling into his new role as a Consort and he's not always confident in that role. In the meantime there's still some tension between the queens, Pearl and Jade. These types of adjustments don't happen overnight, and The Serpent Sea reflects that.
There's an implied system of hierarchy based on birth and an internal ranking system and it is fun to see where certain Raksura placed. I loved that this was a society where women were leaders, and queens are expected to be more aggressive than consorts. There's a scene in particular (towards the end of the book), that illustrates this point and had me cheering. There are some developments that shed light on the history of Indigo Cloud as well as some eye-opening interactions with other Raksura. I also enjoyed learning a little more about the magical abilities of the mentors. I would love to learn more, and I hope the unique situation that Chime is in (he's the only Raksura known to have changed from a mentor into a warrior) gets more attention in the next book.
Most of my reaction to The Serpent Sea is positive, but I had one (probably unfair) issue with it. The Serpent Sea is basically a quest story. The goal from the beginning is clear: Indigo Cloud Court wants a home and to have one they must have their seed. Because of this, to me, the plot felt a lot simpler than The Cloud Roads. Since Moon's past and Indigo Cloud Court's problems with the Fell have been cleared up, the focus is now on Indigo Cloud Court resettling. The quest for the seed has it's complications and there are bumps along the way, but I didn't feel as though there was as much that was unexpected. I feel like I'm being a tough critic with that that reaction though. In other ways, The Serpent Sea shines. It delivers just as rich world building and gripping action as the first book did, and it continues Moon's personal journey in a believable way.
Overall: I think part of me compares this with the first installment and wants something more complex than a quest story, but when I put that quibble (which I feel very few people would share) aside, The Serpent Seas is very enjoyable and shows the same imagination (the world building in these books is amazing) as the previous book. This is well-written fantasy and has an incredibly creative, visual story-telling style.
This review is based on a uncorrected proof won through a contest on the author's blog.
My Thoughts: The premise of For(Review originally posted here)
This review is based on a uncorrected proof won through a contest on the author's blog.
My Thoughts: The premise of For Darkness Shows the Stars was pretty much guaranteed to make me read it. It's a retelling of Persuasion, my favorite Jane Austen book, and a futuristic romance? Um, yeah, sold.
In the futuristic world of For Darkness Shows the Stars, the social classes have been cleverly structured to mirror that of Regency England. The Luddite lords own all the land, and lives lives of noble leisure. Almost everyone else is Reduced. They are servants, trained by the Luddites to do simple tasks, and unable to take care of themselves. Many years ago, technology was abused, leading to to generations born with developmental difficulties (the Reduced) and world war. The Luddites were spared by their own caution, and now reap the benefits. But now there is also a new class - the Posts, rare children born from the Reduced that are just like the Luddites, but without their social position. As can be expected, their appearance has begun to shake up the social structure. Some Posts have run away from their estates and made their own fortunes in exploration and enterprise, forming a new class that is wealthy, if not noble.
Within the current social structure, the Norths are high ranking nobility. Elliot's position allows her to manage the household since her sister, Tatiana, and her father, Baron Zachariah North, have no interest, but as the younger daughter of an estate to which she's not an heir, Elliot has little power against her father. In the years since her mother's death, Elliot has deflected the worst of his selfishness, but as far as Baron North is concerned, he is lord and master. He reinforces his supremacy over Elliot subtly, with punishments designed to hit Elliot where it hurts the most. His latest act is to cut down a field of wheat that Elliot had secretly modified to end the food shortage on the North lands. Beneath his casual callousness, Elliot fears that her father choose her wheat field on purpose.
The loss of the genetically modified wheat leads Elliot to convince her family to rent out her grandfather's shipyard to the Cloud Fleet, even though the Fleet is staffed entirely by free Posts. Admiral Innovation of the Cloud Fleet brings with him an interesting assortment of wealthy and adventuring Posts, among them his wife Felicia, Captains Andromeda and Donovan Phoenix, and finally, Captain Malakai Wentforth. But when Elliot lays her eyes on Captain Wentforth, she gets a shock. He's Kai, the young Post boy she fell in love with but failed to run away with four years ago.
The set up of the book has quite a few nods at the original Persuasion, with Elliot in reduced circumstances, her frivolous family spending money while she worries about bills, and a newly wealthy lower class as a means for the Norths to survive. But For Darkness Shows the Stars really takes at most the skeleton of the original as a guide, choosing to make social commentaries in it's own, very different way. Instead of drama playing out under the surface in drawing rooms, this story is more out in the open. Elliot has a close relationship with Posts and Reduced on her estate, relying on her Post foreman Dee and others for advice, and often visiting Ro, a pretty Reduced girl her age, for company. While Elliot works with the Posts and Reduced, others in her social class treat them no more than indentured servants or slaves. There are several examples showing the huge divide between the Luddites and others. For instance, the birthing and healing houses for the Reduced and Posts. These places are ill-staffed, and inadequate. Many Posts, in no need to be treated like the Reduced are, leave their estates but fall prey poverty and new forms of abuse.
Kai/Malakai keenly feels the unfairness of the class system and questions it -- why should he be servant and answerable to the Luddites when he has skills and a mind just as sharp if not sharper than theirs? Letters between Kai and Elliot through the years break up the story and are evidence of their attachment, but also show the two questioning the Luddite beliefs. The dynamics between classes plays a more obvious role when Kai left the North Estate, and Elliot stayed, and later, Kai more openly holds a grudge over Elliot's rejection than in the original. When Malakai shows up again with other successful Posts, what he's done to achieve that success also becomes a plot point.
I liked these differences from the original story. I've read a lot of retellings, and I always end up liking the stories that take the bones of the original but infuse it with its own flavor over those stories that rigidly follow the script. Baron North is more scary than he is vain. Several characters no longer exist or are in very different forms, and of course, names have been changed, but characters are still recognizable, if different. I liked the concept of a future where events have produced a class system similar to the Regency period, and that use of technology was linked to religion. I liked that this was cleverly incorporated into the conflict between characters. More cleverness: the clues about where the story was set (not in the U.K). I enjoyed that the settings for many of the scenes were unique to this retelling.
And how did I feel about the romance? Kai and Elliot's correspondence peppering the book showed their early friendship as children, with only a few hints of their romance later. Where the romance really resonated for me was in Elliot's internal anguish over Kai. Her emotions now, which she takes great pains to keep hidden, tell me more than anything else. Kai is harder to read -- the third person narration focuses more on Elliot -- and he was surprisingly bitter at the start of the story. Later on, I felt like he showed a different emotion but you had to read between the lines to guess how he felt, until the expected letter. Like the original, Kai's inscrutability makes Elliot's feelings more palpable, and it was on Elliot's behalf that I rooted for the couple. This wasn't a story that was about a new love, it was about already being in love and sick with it. I wanted them to be reunited. I liked the way that happened, and how some of the class issues (at least at the North estate) were resolved. Some readers may have wanted more social issues settled, but I didn't think the scope of the story would have made that realistic. This ending was a beginning, and I was happy with that.
Overall: This is one of my favorite retellings. Readers should not go into this expecting a story that follows the Persuasion formula to the letter, but since For Darkness Shows the Stars is set in a post-apocalyptic society where new advancements are frowned upon, things are bound to go off script. And they do, in the best way. I liked this for being an homage but also for being incredibly original at the same time....more
The Premise: Clara Gardner is a regular seventeen year old, except for one thing - she's part angel. With visions of a(review originally posted here)
The Premise: Clara Gardner is a regular seventeen year old, except for one thing - she's part angel. With visions of a boy standing among pine trees as a fire rages towards him, Clara thinks she knows what her Purpose is. She has to save him. When her visions give her enough details to figure out where this fire is going to be, her mom uproots the whole family from Silicon Valley to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Clara thinks all she has to do is find the boy from her vision and make sure she's there at the right time and place to fulfill her destiny. Except things aren't always as simple as they appear. The longer Clara is in Jackson, the more she learns how little she knows about her powers and about her vision, and how life never goes the way you expect.
My Thoughts: I have to admit that I went into this story with a little bit of trepidation. It's not really anything against angels (although they aren't my favorite supernatural creatures), so much as a bias against young adult paranormals these days. I think I have this little aversion to this genre because I've read one too many with a predictable storyline. That said, I hadn't seen anything about Unearthly that sounded any alarms. In fact, I'd mostly read good reviews. With that in mind, and without knowing much else, I borrowed Unearthly from the library, and I'm happy to report that Unearthly doesn't go the predictable YA paranormal route (although it does do a couple of things that seem to be common in YA these days - more on that later).
What stood out for me was a few things. First of all there's Clara's voice, which felt like it had the right mix of pre-adulthood maturity peppered with sarcasm and angst. She's no airhead, but there is a balance between her angelic traits (good looks, preternatural athletic ability and angel powers), and her human ones. For all her awe-inspiring ability (wings and glowing and speaking in tongues), she is still an awkward teen. Actually, it seems like Clara is more awkward than angelic - for every moment of celestial grace, she has more than her fair share of humiliation, like a hair dye horror story and New Girl dorkiness. Then there's Clara's relationship with her mother. They don't always see eye to eye, but they have a close relationship, one in which her mom is in the picture, wants to know about her life, and actually tells her daughter that she's part angel! Basically, she's a mom that actually acts like one.
Because of her mother, when Clara talks about her visions, she is matter-of-fact. After all, she's known what she is since her fourteenth birthday. We don't have to go through the slow build-up of Clara discovering her angelic side, instead the story begins a little further along. Yes, there's a lot that Clara still doesn't know, and her mother isn't always forthcoming, but at least it feels like Clara has a tangible goal, one that I was curious about:
"In the beginning, there's a boy standing in the trees. He's around my age, in that space between child and man, maybe all of seventeen years old. I'm not sure how I know this. I can only see the back of his head, his dark hair curling damply against his neck. I feel the dry heat of the sun, so intense, drawing the life from everything. There's a strange orange light filling the eastern sky. There's the heavy smell of smoke. For a moment I'm filled with such a smothering grief that it's hard to breathe. I don't know why. I take a step toward the boy, open my mouth to call his name, only I don't know it. The ground crunches under my feet. He hears me. He starts to turn. One more second and I will see his face. That's when the vision leaves me. I blink, and it's gone."
The fire, the boy, and Clara's purpose drive the story. At first, everything she does is for the sole goal of getting to the place and time that the vision foretells, and at first it looks like you can see where things are going. The first day Clara arrives at school, she sees him. His name is Christian, and of course, he's perfect. All-American, popular, and as beautiful as can be. Clara promptly faints. I cringed, expecting the usual saccharine love story to follow. In my mind, all kinds of red flags were going off. I didn't like that Clara hardly knew Christian and was so intensely involved, vision or not. He had a girlfriend! Clara just looked like a stalker, so obsessed was she with fulfilling her purpose. But the story didn't go the way I expected. It wasn't about Christian so much as it was about Clara, making new friends (strange loner Angela and friendly, nice-girl Wendy), and finding a life outside of her vision. Things happen which begin to suggest that there is more to being an angel than a purpose, and there are darker things afoot that Clara's mother never told her about. Another boy begins to get Clara's attention. Things weren't going like I expected and pages were flying by as I raced to find out what happened next.
The love triangle in Unearthly at first felt like a necessary evil. Clara had to discover some things about relationships for herself. I hoped that once she realized that one relationship was superficial compared to the one developed over the course of the story, that we'd see the end of it. It looked that way - the intensity of Clara's feelings is palpable and reflected the emotions of first love. Clara seemed to know what her heart wanted, and I liked her more for it. I also really liked the romance. Then the love triangle is shoehorned back into the plot. Despite how much I want to know what happens next (enough to want to read the second book, Hallowed), and how much I liked the romance and the angel elements, the threat of the unending love triangle brought my enjoyment down a notch.
Overall: There were quite a few things I enjoyed about Unearthly. It's a compulsively readable - I wanted to know what would happen next and the pages just few by as I got caught up in the mix of real world teen drama and paranormal intrigue, all voiced by the very human Clara. In many ways it avoids the cliches of YA paranormals - but it doesn't completely avoid common YA tropes like the dreaded love triangle, nor is Clara always poised - I winced a few times on her behalf. I think it will depend on the reader if what Unearthly does differently from your typical paranormal YA balances out where it treads over well-worn territory. For me, the differences outweighs the commonalities, and I am curious about the second book, but if Hallowed strings the love triangle out further, I'm going to bail....more
The Premise: Rylann Pierce and Kyle Rhodes met in a college bar while they were both pursuing advanced degrees (she for(review originally posted here)
The Premise: Rylann Pierce and Kyle Rhodes met in a college bar while they were both pursuing advanced degrees (she for law, he for a Ph.D. in Computer Science). They shared a walk home and a good night kiss, but life got in the way of anything more. That was it, until nine years later when their paths crossed again. Just starting her new job as an assistant U.S attorney in Chicago, Rylann is surprised to discover that her first assignment involves a motion to reduce Kyle's sentence. Kyle, an heir to a billion dollar empire is now the infamous Twitter Terrorist who shut down the site for two days.
My Thoughts: About That Night is the third book in Julie James' FBI/US Attorney series. The first book, Something About You (reviewed here: ) focuses on Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron Lynde and Special Agent Jack Pallas, and the second book, A Lot Like Love (reviewed here: ) focuses on wine store owner and heiress Jordan Rhodes and FBI agent Nick McCall. Cameron (book 1) is Rylann's boss, and Jordan (book 2) is Kyle's twin sister - but don't let this discourage you from starting with any of the books in the series. The cameos from other characters aren't gratuitous because they have real relationships with the main couple, but that doesn't mean you need to know their backstories to understand what's going on in About That Night.
What you may want to know before reading About That Night is that this book is a little bit different than the previous two in that there is not really a suspense plot. This makes sense - Kyle is a computer guy and businessman who made a huge mistake in bringing down a website used by millions. He's not a FBI agent whose job it is to protect the heroine. So instead of a villain somewhere pushing our couple together, this book has a more straightforward contemporary romance plot. Boy meets girl. Boy asks girl out on a date. Boy doesn't show up. Nine years later, Boy is thrown in prison for hacking Twitter, and Girl shows up at his motion to reduce his sentence...
The real conflict in the story is about who Rylann and Kyle are. Rylann is more of the Good Girl - she has a six-year plan, she knows what she wants to do, and she follows the rules and works her butt off to get what she wants. While Kyle is a computer whiz kid, and thus a bright guy, he's also more impulsive and less sure about his direction in life. He's sort of a Bad Boy what with his reputation with women and being an heir to a billion dollar empire. When she first sets eyes on him at a college bar, Rylann pegs him as more trouble than he's worth, but he makes her realize that he's more than he first appears to be. Unfortunately, circumstances prevent the two from getting to know each past that night. Fast forward nine years and the spark is still there, but Rylann is an assistant U.S attorney. She just started her job. She doesn't want a tarnished reputation, and that is what she would get if she were to date someone surrounded by controversy like Kyle, not to mention that he's an ex-con her office prosecuted.
Romantic suspense has never been my bag, so I was pleased that About That Night took a different direction and was just straightforward contemporary romance. One caveat: although this had an entertaining, comfort read quality, it was almost too straightforward. What I mean by that is that the conflict level was low. Yes, there is an issue with Rylann's career versus her interest in Kyle, but this couple are grown-ups and deal with it in a grown-up way. I like this about them - I like characters that are adults and act like it, and Julie James always has characters that care about their responsibilities and careers and are good at what they do. It's refreshing not to have silly overblown drama, but there is also a feeling like there's no fire, no feverish need to turn the pages when everyone is so reasonable. Rylann's conflict of interest was a minor dilemma, and the steamy sex scenes (at three, I think this is the steamiest James book yet) may have added 'oomph' for some readers, but threw me. Are these huge issues? Not really. What keeps you hooked instead is the genial writing and just how darn cute and compelling Kyle and Rylann are together. As I was reading, I was happy. It's only now that I look back do I realize that the book was relatively even-keeled with little drama. How that will go over depends on who you are as a reader.
Overall: If you are looking for high drama and strife, About That Night may not be the book for you. This is a low-frill, straightforward contemporary romance (with a shot of sexytimes) - a good comfort read and a solid Julie James book. While it wasn't my favorite by this author, it fits right in the middle of the pack on my personal rating scale....more
This is an anthology of short stories that I bought while I was at Lunacon earlier this year. The concept behind each o(review originally posted here)
This is an anthology of short stories that I bought while I was at Lunacon earlier this year. The concept behind each of the stories is how fae creatures may have adapted to modern times. I guess you can say all urban fantasy explores this idea, but these stories really focus on the clash of cultures and creative ways a square peg can fit into a round hole.There are fourteen stories in this book and I don't plan to give away spoilery details to any of them, so this review is going to be really brief overviews and impressions of each story.
1) We Will Not Be Undersold by Seanan McGuire - This story centers around big-box store Undermart. Regular-guy Dan is an employee dating Nimh, one of the junior managers, and all is well until he begins to notice odd behavior at work. This was a quick, cute, tongue-in-cheek read and a good one to start anthology on a light note. It feels very different from what I've read from Seanan McGuire before. There's something of a young adult air to it.
2) Changeling by Susan Jett - Marisol, a new mother distraught over complications during her son's birth, discovers how the fae have adapted to New York when her midwife remembers just where she saw the birthing nurse before. A hero's journey story that has a few familiar folktale elements and a thought-provoking ending.
3) Water-called by Kari Sperring - Jenny is some sort of water spirit or elemental that has fed on humans that have fallen into her canal for centuries. Lately the bodies have been leeched prior to their dumping and Jenny is forced to deal with the hunter infringing on her territory. This is a story set in the nighttime, with a main character that is far removed from human concerns and emotions. She is a predator -- ancient and terrible. I enjoyed the tangible descriptions of the canal and its surroundings and everything to do with Jenny. Where this story went wrong for me was the 'hunter' character.
4) The Roots of Ashton Quercus by Juliet E. McKenna - Another story with fae as the protagonist, but this time with less predatory concerns than the last story. It is about a grove of dryads that have discovered that their trees are about to be razed for a new road. I liked the solution they came up with and how their group dynamics played out within the story.
5) To Scratch an Itch by Avery Shade - This time the fae in question is a little girl named Avery Sky who was told she had to abide by three rules, and one of them has to do with telling her parents if she ever got an itch between her eyes. This is what happens to Avery when the itch finally comes. This was a sweet story about childhood. I liked that the mystery behind the itch rule is revealed to the reader at the same time it is to Avery.
6) Continuing Education by Kristine Smith - Lee Kincaid is enrolled in an MBA program at the Old Campus of Monckton College, but her school's professors are more than they appear to be. This was a mostly straightforward tale, but touches on the idea of the symbiotic relationship between the fae and humans.
7) How To Be Human™ by Barbara Ashford - A jaded "menopausal male fairy" uses his charismatic powers to make money off of self-help seminars. I liked both the premise and the link between power, age, and cynicism in the fairy world.
8) How Much Salt by April Steenburg - This is a story about a selkie named Dylan who is forced to go inland because of the way humans are encroaching on the sea shores. The story revolves around where he ends up. I was mildly amused by this one but wouldn't have minded if it had gone further.
9) Hooked by Anton Strout - Hooked is the sort of story that changes as you read it. It starts off with a man knocking on a door because of a flyer, takes a little turn I wasn't sure I liked, veers into something darker, and then twists and lands elsewhere. Hmm. The destination was OK, but I liked the journey there more.
10) Crash by S. C. Butler - A female trader hears a rumor about leprechauns on Wall Street and follows up on it. This left me with a feeling like I'd been gently nudged to imagine some twisted humor in some real world events.
11) Fixed by Jean Marie Ward - Jack Tibbert starts off as a cat and is taken to an animal shelter where trouble ensues. This was another story that felt decidedly YA since the narrator, Jack, is a teenage boy and definitely notices the teenage girl who picked him up. There was a good sense of urgency and action in this one, but I could guess where the story was going.
12) A People Who Always Know by Shannon Page & Jay Lake - A sort of cloak and dagger story that reveals political fighting between older traditionalists and younger upstarts among the fae. I always like stories that have something of a battle of wits in them so I liked where this went, but I wish there was more to this.
13) The Slaughtered Lamb by Elizabeth Bear - I think The Slaughtered Lamb was one of my favorite stories in the anthology in terms of the world building. It had that gritty UF style, and a New York City where magic overflow means there's a "liaison between the real world and the otherwise one". This is conveyed to us through the eyes of a transvestite werewolf with achy feet. I liked the characters more than what was actually going on, mostly because the action was quickly dealt with. The characters lingered longer. Yup, another I wanted to continue.
14) Corrupted by Jim C. Hines - This was (in my mind) the darkest of the stories, so this book closes on a very different note from which it began. A fairy whose job is protecting humans from those of her own kind, has to pay a high price to keep people safe. I thought this was very grim.
Overall: I think my reaction is on the middle ground when I look at the anthology as a whole. There were bits and pieces of each story that sparked my interest but I didn't find a story that really burned itself in my brain. All of these stories stood alone just fine (if they were companion stories to a series, I couldn't tell), but there were a few stories here whose worlds I wouldn't mind revisiting - Elizabeth Bears', Shannon Page and Jay Lake's, and April Steenburg's, in particular. Many felt complete and satisfying as they were (Susan Jett's, Juliet E. McKenna's, Barbara Ashford's, Seanan McGuire's and a few others), then there were the 3 or 4 stories that felt a little flatter than the rest. These focused on the premise of the fae creatures surviving among humans but I didn't really notice other elements to them. The stories that incorporated some sort of growth and/or inner conflict, or conveyed the adaptation while telling a bigger story were the most memorable for me....more
The Premise: Zoe is a woman traveling across Europe. War and disease have decimated the world, and Zoe has to contend w(review originally posted here)
The Premise: Zoe is a woman traveling across Europe. War and disease have decimated the world, and Zoe has to contend with the few survivors - the immune and those who mutated into something else. There are dangerous people on the road, but there are also those who haven't lost their humanity, including Zoe -- which is why she rescues a young blind girl and brings her along. As they travel, Zoe remembers the past eighteen months that brought the world to where it is now. For her, all began when she worked as a janitor at Pope pharmaceuticals and came home one day to find that someone had bypassed her home security and left a mysterious jar in her living room.
My Thoughts: The narrative in White Horse alternates between THEN, when Zoe first finds the malevolent jar in her apartment and the world slowly begins to slide into chaos, and NOW, when Zoe is traversing Europe on foot amongst the rubble and death. Both timelines promise to answer lingering questions as Zoe narrates - what is Zoe's destination and why, in the NOW, and what was in the jar and what is this new illness in the THEN. These questions do get their answers, but in the meantime, Zoe is the pragmatic hero holding on to her sense of decency during a terrible time.
"When I wake, the world is still gone. Only fragments remain. Pieces of places and people who were once whole. On the other side of the window, the landscape is a violent green, the kind you used to see on a flat-screen television in a watering hole disguised as a restaurant. Too green. Dense gray clouds banished the sun weeks ago, forcing her to watch us die through a warped, wet lens.There are stories told among pockets of survivors that rains have come to the Sahara, that green now sprinkles the endless brown, that the British Isles are drowning. Nature is rebuilding with her own set of plans. Man has no say.
It’s a month until my thirty-first birthday. I am eighteen months older than I was when the disease struck. Twelve months older than when war first pummeled the globe. Somewhere in between then and now, geology went crazy and drove the weather to schizophrenia. No surprise when you look at why we were fighting. Nineteen months have passed since I first saw the jar."
THEN, Zoe mops floors at her job at the drug company and has normal family - her two parents, and her married sister, Jenny. Zoe's biggest problem was boredom and dealing with her relatives' annoying matchmaking. Then the jar shows up, and Zoe begins to see therapist Nick Rose and has her friend James (a assistant museum curator) examine it. Acquaintances start to get sick, and seemingly incongruous events begin to take on alarming significance. NOW, Zoe is in Europe, trekking through gutted villages. She is determined to get to a specific destination, and her day-to-day worry is about survival. In both worlds, there are secondary characters that come and go, some making more of an impact than others, but everyone is dealing with the same things Zoe is. Relationships are sketched out quickly - there is the sense that they may be ephemeral once disease strikes, but it's always clear how Zoe feels about the other characters, and it's easy to empathize with her feelings.
THEN is filled with a sense of foreboding, that something terrible is beginning to happen. NOW is dreary and bleak - the horrors so many that Zoe has become somewhat numb. Both sides of the narrative are peppered with unsettling details. Like a lot of Horror stories, White Horse makes it impossible to feel completely comfortable with the story. Fire alarms along a white hallway are linked to menstrual blood on a sanitary pad, and crumbs flying from a mouth are described in icky detail. As for the gory stuff, we get glimpses of the monsters that were once men along Zoe's journey, but the story doesn't focus on them. The things people do to each other and to themselves is just as gruesome - there is a rape and assault within the first fifteen pages, plenty of death (some of it very brutal), and a creepy judgmental character stalks our protagonist through Europe.
While there is this pervasive thread of Horror throughout White Horse, Zoe herself manages to keep her moral compass, and she finds other people who do the same. There is a lot of hope in this story, if you can grit your teeth through the rest of it. There is even a love story in there. Although it's not delved into as much as I would like, the romance lifts the dark mood of the story somewhat.
Overall: White Horse is a post-apocalyptic survival tale focusing on a woman named Zoe before and after the world-wide cataclysmic event. Zoe's tell-it-like-it-is voice and my curiosity about what happened and what will happen kept me flipping the pages. Although I wouldn't normally pick a Horror-infused story for myself, there was just enough hope alleviating the darkness to appeal to me. That said, I give you fair warning -- this is a very dark and often gruesome tale. It's difficult for me to predict how much the unsettling bits will affect you.