YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: High
I read Nina LaCour’s Hold Still shortly after my friend Jeff died, and the book utterly wrecked me. So of course when I learned that LaCour had written a YA lesbian romance, I . . . well, okay. I let it sit in my TBR list for two years.
But now I’ve read it, and returned to tell you that you’d probably enjoy it more than I did.
The plot, in brief: our narrator Emi (a talented young production designer in Hollywood) and her best friend Charlotte discover that recently-deceased movie icon Clyde Jones has a secret (orphan) granddaughter named Ava, whom he’s left an unknown (but presumably enormous) sum of money to. They hunt Ava down, reveal her grandfather’s identity, and point her to her awaiting bank account. They also point her to an audition for a new movie Emi and Charlotte are working on.
So Ava ends up learning about her (deceased) family, becomes filthy rich, and lands the lead role in what’s expected to be a fairly big movie. She also—of course—gets the girl: Emi.
Emi — an eighteen-year-old infected with Hollywood’s movie-sickness.
Ava — an eighteen-year-old with a troubled and mysterious past. She ran away from her cold, lesbian-hating adoptive mother, Tracey, and is now trying to scrape together a new life for herself in Los Angeles.
Charlotte — Emi’s best friend and occasional co-worker. She’s eighteen, but approaches every situation with a sensible, seasoned, professional air that makes her seem twice her age.
Clyde Jones — iconic star of Hollywood’s old Western movies. Recently deceased. Publicly known to be a bachelor, but secretly the father of Ava’s (long deceased) mother, Caroline.
A Slow-Growing, Lesbian Romance!
Need I say more? No. No, I don’t.
Actually, I will say more. It’s possible that Emi and/or Ava could be bisexual. Neither girl puts a label on her sexuality, and although both clearly state they like girls, both also admit to (rarely, potentially?) being attracted to a guy. So I’m tagging this book as both lesbian and bisexual, just to cover my bases.
A Biracial Narrator/Protagonist!
Emi’s race is barely remarked on, but what we did see made me so happy. Like so:
The book also briefly highlights how Emi’s (upper-middle class) family’s experience of and approach to their race compares to a homeless young black man’s experience and approach. I thought the comparison was both interesting and valuable, and wish the book devoted more than a couple pages to it.
Neat Details About Production Design!
Emi’s job entails designing movie sets: choosing the right furniture, rugs, plants, dishes, etc., then making the set look real. I loved watching Emi work, and seeing why she chose [these dishes] or [this wallpaper color] or [this couch] over the thousands of other [dishes/wallpaper color/couches] available.
For example: here, she’s spent seven weeks searching for just the right couch for a scene in which a teen character has sex for the first time (with a scumbag, the teen later realizes). She’s finally found the couch:
Lesson: Life’s Not A Movie!
When Emi begins uncovering the truth of Ava’s grandparentage, she goes all Prodigy Production Designer and tries to craft a movie-style Tragedy-Turned-Triumph story for Ava. One of the first steps in her plan: introduce Ava to the fancy-pants hotel Marmont (which is thick with celebrities and celebrity-watchers).
But life—even Ava’s fairy-tale-esque life—isn’t a movie that Emi can manipulate.
Life is life, and it’s experienced in excruciating slowness and clarity, with no helpful foreshadowing of what lies ahead. People are not characters in movies, and their lives are beyond Emi’s creative control.
Hurray for narrators who learn interesting and important life lessons!
I Was Bored
Okay, so this could be a problem with me rather than the book. I’m a fantasy reader, not a contemporary-romance reader.
My complaints, in brief:
What kept me reading, then? The fact that it was alesbian YA romance. Had it been a straight couple, I probably would have set it aside.
(Actually, I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place.)
Emi’s Character Development
The story’s told in the first person perspective, from Emi’s point of view. Overall, the writing style (i.e., Emi’s inner monologue) is calm, clean, and reserved, leading me to assume that Emi is a calm-clean-reserved sort of person.
That is, until Emi describes herself (and her older brother Toby) thusly:
The energy-level bit threw me off. Calm-clean-reserved Emi had shown almost no energy, much less off-the-charts energy.
So I started paying closer attention to Emi’s behavior and narration, to see if that energy ever came through.
Did it? No.
I’m sorry, Emi, but you can’t just say “I have more energy than other people can handle” and then not follow through. As it stands, it looks like either you don’t know your own personality, or your author (who writes you with such a calm-clean-reserved voice) doesn’t. It’s impossible for me to bond with a narrator whose personality I never get a solid grasp of.
Whose Story Is This?
This book might’ve benefited from being told from both Emi and Ava’s perspectives.
Emi’s the narrator and protagonist (she learns important lessons about herself and life, and those lesson change her), but for most of the book, she has neither a real conflict nor an interesting goal.
It’s Ava who’s living the rags-to-riches story, with all its requisite complex emotions, internal conflict, internal and external changes. But we see almost none of those changes, and it’s unclear how (or if) she changes as a person as a result of her experiences.
I mean, sure, we see her trash her adoptive mom’s house while searching for her birth certificate; she cries while watching the movies that her deceased grandfather and deceased mother acted in; she has a brief, emotional confrontation with her adoptive mother (that doesn’t really resolve anything). But that’s about it.
It is so incredibly frustrating to be shackled to a rather boring character doing rather mundane things, while another character is enduring amazing struggles and major internal changes largely off-screen.
“But Liam,” you argue, “this book’s about how real lifeisn’t a fairy tale or a movie. If Ava—with her fairy-tale-esque metamorphosis from troubled homeless teen to happy wealthy starlet—were the narrator, that’d undermine the book’s message.”
Okay, fine. Maybe this is a flaw in me as a reader, and not a flaw in the book. And yes, it is neat to pair a “Life isn’t a movie” message with an Average Jane Narrator who’s watching from the sidelines while a Fairy-Tale Heroine’s life get turned upside down in Fairy-Tale Ways.
But I, personally, would rather get in on some of Fairy-Tale Heroine’s action—or, at the very least, have a more interesting Average Jane Narrator with genuinely interesting conflicts and goals of her own.
The world obviously needs more lesbian YA novels, and this certainly isn’t the worst lesbian book I’ve read to date. But it just wasn’t quite enough—emotional enough, intriguing enough, engaging enough, romantic enough, powerful enough—for me.
My search for a five-star lesbian YA novel continues.
Spoiler Rating, Overall: Low-Moderate
Spoiler Rating, Last Three Points: High
Unfortunately, Rebel of the Sands (which smooshes together the Old American West and an ambiguously-religioned Middle East) wasn’t the engrossing read I’d hoped for. I actually found it fairly dull, and riddled with silly plot points and shallow character development—but it had a spark in both its main characters and its basic concept that kept me reading, so three cheers for that.
I’ll try to minimize the spoilers throughout most of this critique, but be warned: there’ll be spoilers galore in the last three points in my Criticism section (“Pacing,” “Specific Plot Points” and “Amani-Related Things“). I’ll put another spoiler warning before I dive into them, don’t worry.
Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mythical beasts still roam the wild and remote areas, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinn still perform their magic. For humans, it’s an unforgiving place, especially if you’re poor, orphaned, or female.
Amani Al’Hiza is all three. She’s a gifted gunslinger with perfect aim, but she can’t shoot her way out of Dustwalk, the back-country town where she’s destined to wind up wed or dead.
Then she meets Jin, a rakish foreigner, in a shooting contest, and sees him as the perfect escape route. But though she’s spent years dreaming of leaving Dustwalk, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse—or that it would take a foreign fugitive to show her the heart of the desert she thought she knew.
Rebel of the Sands reveals what happens when a dream deferred explodes—in the fires of rebellion, the smolder of romantic passion, and the all-consuming inferno of a girl finally, at long last, embracing her power.
I wish I had a map to show you. How on earth does this book not have a map?
Amani — a young Mirajin sharpshooter who’s all grit and sly commentary. Born and raised in Nowheretown, Death Desert, she has a desert kid’s outlook on life: (a) the weak die, and (b) you gotta look out for yourself.
Jin — a mysterious young man from the east, who takes pity on Amani and helps her begin her journey. He’s being hunted by the Mirajin Sultan’s army for an unspecified offense. (Possibly “unlawful hotness.”)
Prince Ahmed — the rebel prince, and rightful heir to his father’s throne. He has dreams of gender equality and racial equality and peaceful democracy (I guess?), and is scraping together a happy band of (mostly teenage) rebels to overthrow the Sultan and make it happen.
Commander Naguib — a young man in the Sultan’s army, whose primary goals in life are sneering the perfect sneer and spitting in Prince Ahmed’s face (preferably at the same time).
The story’s narrated from Amani’s first-person perspective, and she starts out with a seriously strong narrative voice. Check this out:
Delightful as Amani’s voice is in the beginning, I got a little tired of it after a couple chapters, so I was relieved when the Old American West accent eased up without losing its vividness:
Sure, I would’ve preferred a perfectly consistent voice throughout, but I’ll applaud the book’s attempt at a strong voice nonetheless.
Amani and Jin
It’s not the most compelling romance I’ve ever read, but I did love the combination of Amani’s fierce “it’s me or the world, and I’m choosing me” attitude and Jin’s calmer “try not to do anything rash, but when you inevitably do, I’ll be there to help you out” perspective.
The Immortal Desert Horses
You won’t be surprised to hear that I loved the immortal desert horses—their creation myth, the process required to capture them, their abilities, all of it.
This is, um, a remarkably short praise section for a book I’m ultimately giving two stars.
I’d like to not ramble for hours, so let me just cover the most significant criticisms.
I’m not really comfortable with how the book blended a vaguely Middle Eastern culture with Old American West culture, for a few reasons:
Cultural blending can be really neat, but to do it well (and sensitively) requires a lot of care and world-building. This book, in my opinion, failed both the “do it well” and “do it sensitively” parts.
And no, the world-building isn’t great either, as I immediately suspected upon seeing the heroine’s surname: Al’Hiza.
I’m not an Arabic speaker, but I know the apostrophe is the English notation of a specific letter—hamza, the glottal stop—and it has zero reason to be in Amani’s surname. The name should be spelled as either Al-Hiza or Al Hiza.
If no one bothered to research how to correctly spell the heroine’s own last name, it seemed likely that little/no research was done for the world-building, period. And yeah, my suspicion seemed justified. We have almost no grasp at all on Amani’s culture except that:
Not exactly the elaborate world-building I’d have hoped for.
Amani’s Modern Attitude and Culturelessness
Now, I love a strong feminist heroine, but Amani’s particular expression of feminism felt out of place in her setting—like a 21st century teen punk rock feminist who time-traveled back several centuries and was dropped into a deeply misogynistic culture.
Her culture values a woman’s virginity, silence, and obedience over anything else she is capable of, and Amani consistently responds to this by holding up both middle fingers, shouting obscenities at the top of her lungs, then proceeding to do whatever the hell she wants.
I saw zero indication that Amani was connected to her own culture at all, which was really disappointing. Well-written characters should feel like products of their own societies and times, not like they were ripped out of a completely different world and plopped down into the story, like Amani was.
Good lord, the pacing was slow.
But first: spoiler warning! I won’t give major spoilers for the plot in this section, but if you don’t want to hear anything at all about the plot, skip the rest of this review and go straight down to the “In Closing” section.
VAGUE SPOILERS, AVERT THINE EYES.
Amani’s primary goal is to get the hell out of her hometown, Dustwalk. She succeeds about a quarter of the way into the book, and after that, she has no major goals.
Sure, she dreams of going to the capital city and living with her aunt (whom she’s never met or corresponded with), but she easily ditches that idea when she realizes Jin’s too hot to say goodbye to. And sure, she has a few (sometimes interesting) short-term goals, but for the most part she’s just . . . traveling. Taking life and its individual challenges as they come.
Jin, meanwhile, has a Super Secret Mission that he won’t tell Amani about. His secrecy and the mere fact that he’s trying to accomplish Unknown Things is a stark contrast to Amani’s goalless traveling. (Sound familiar?)
She doesn’t find out about the Super Secret Mission until a hundred pages before the end of the book—and then she doesn’t get actively involved in the Mission until sixty pages before the book ends. Sixty.
Specific Plot Points
SPOILER WARNING, TONS OF SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS AHEAD
This book had a lot of dumb plot points. For the sake of space and time, I’ll give you only two.
1. The Immortal Desert Horse
While she’s plotting her escape from Dustwalk, Amani captures an immortal desert horse that can travel significantly faster than a mortal horse. So does she ride it all the way to the big city (covering the distance in days instead of weeks), then sell it in the city for an exorbitant amount of money, and use that money to set herself up in her new home?
No. Of course not.
She rides it to the nearest little town with a train station, where she sells the horse for half what it’s worth, and buys a train ticket to the capital city. The train ticket is so expensive, by the way, that it almost bankrupts her.
Why did she make such a stupid decision?
The answer (oh god when will I get a chance to stop complaining about this) is because the story wouldn’t have worked if she’d ridden her magical horse straight to the capital. So the book made Amani dumb for the sake of months of boring desert travel and the opportunity for Amani to join Prince Ahmed’s rebellion. Great.
2. The Rebellion’s Plans
First, some background. Decades ago, when the current Sultan of Miraji was still just a prince, he turned to the vaguely French-ish kingdom of Galla for help overthrowing his father and placing himself on the throne. Galla agreed, so long as they could maintain a military presence in Miraji, and the new Sultan became their primary weapons supplier.
In the present, the Sultan wants to kick the Gallan military out of Miraji—but he also wants to avoid starting a war. So he’s started using his secret superweapon (that can burn whole cities to ash) against Gallan military garrisons, and blaming the Rebel Prince Ahmed for the destruction. The Sultan hopes to just . . . kill all the Gallan soldiers in his country, and then cross his fingers that the Gallan king doesn’t send more to replace them, I guess?
This is ridiculously dumb.
The rebels also want to kick the Gallan military out of Miraji, but they fear that the Sultan’s plan—which entails blowing up some Mirajin towns that are hosting Gallan soldiers—will have too high a civilian death toll.
So they decide to spark a war between Galla and Miraji, because a war would distract the Sultan and make it easier to kill him, and would also reduce the number of Mirajin casualties.
. . .
I repeat: in order to reduce Mirajin casualties, they instigate a war.
I repeat: because the Sultan will be easier to assassinate if he’s distracted by a war.
Sure, everyone knows that wars don’t actually kill people, and also wartime is when security around a country’s ruler is the most lax and assassins are most likely to succeed.
I’ll just mention two things here, too.
1. Devotion to the Rebellion
Amani (eventually) arrives in the rebellion’s secret headquarters, meets Prince Ahmed, and asks him about his rebellion. He replies (in essence), “I’m all about gender equality and racial equality and democracy and justice.”
The chapter (and his very brief explanation of his cause) concludes:
And thus, Amani becomes a follower of the rebellion, I guess? Is that what “the harder it was not to believe him” means?
I ask this because she seems to be (tepidly) converted without any follow-up questions for him. Without any discussion of how he—and his tiny group of rebels, most of whom seem to be teenagers—intends to take down both the Gallan occupiers and the Sultan himself. Without any snorting at the prince’s naive idealism. Without any skepticism that the prince can in fact bring equality and democracy and justice to what is, by all accounts, a terribly misogynistic and racist culture traditionally ruled by a tyrant.
This lack of critical thinking on her part seems really weird.
Amani then spends some time (days?) floating around the camp and casually picking up tidbits of info about the prince and the rebels, but she never shows a real interest in the rebellion. So I’m surprised when Jin asks her if she wants to officially join the rebellion, and she thinks:
So, uh, she feels a powerful need to be part of the rebellion? Since when? What drives it? Is it the misogyny/gender-equality stuff? Is it Jin? Or is it merely (as she did briefly mention earlier on) that it’s kind of cool knowing that she’s watching history being made?
The reader should clearly understand the protagonist’s reasons for shouldering the responsibility of their goal/mission—and this book seems to have forgotten that very important aspect of storytelling.
2. Amani’s Unrealistic Internal Conflict
This is the one that killed me.
Amani is a total badass, until the rebels tell her she’s a Demdji—the offspring of a human woman and an immortal Djinni father—and they hope to use her magic powers for the cause. Alas, she doesn’t know what those powers are, and even a week under the guidance of other Demdji doesn’t reveal what they could be.
So does she shrug and get back to practicing with her guns, because she already knows she’s got the guts and cunning and skill to be of use to the rebellion? Does she remind herself that she’s the Blue-Eyed Bandit, the best gunslinger in the desert, and an asset to any team looking for trouble?
No. She mopes about how she’s the only Demdji in the world without magic powers, and therefore she’s useless and worthless.
Who is this Amani and what did you do with the other one? I want the other one back.
Fortunately, Jin (who, by the way, is Prince Ahmed’s brother) gets as sick of her shit as I do, and tells it to her straight.
God bless you, Jin.
This could’ve been a genuinely interesting internal conflict for Amani (who otherwise doesn’t have much internal or external conflict going on), if it didn’t come so completely out of the blue—if, for example, she’d been struggling all along with self-esteem issues or concern about her self-sufficiency or her ability to contribute to a team.
But nope. She spent the entire book as a 100% capable and confident badass, until she abruptly decides she’s worthless. Sorry, but realistic internal conflict needs a better set-up than that.
As far as Middle-Eastern-ish YA fantasy novels go, at least this one didn’t piss me off as much as The Wrath and the Dawn. So that’s good.
But if you’re looking for a vaguely Middle-Eastern-ish fantasy with magic and war and a sexy king, read The Blue Sword.
If you’re looking for a more intense political fantasy that blends Middle Eastern and Western cultures (but on opposing sides of a war, not quite in a unified culture), check out The Lions of Al-Rassan.
If you’d like a spunky narrator whose spunkiness fits more naturally in their (non-modern) culture, maybe try The Thief.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t read Rebel of the Sands; maybe you’d like it better than I did. I just wish I’d spent those hours reading something better.
Spoiler Rating: ALL THE SPOILERS, BEWARE
And yes, The Winner’s Crime is in some ways an improvement on The Winner’s Curse, but in other ways it’s, uh, quite the opposite.
Prepare yourself for a long and ranty letter.
I’ve already reviewed the first book in the trilogy, The Winner’s Curse, but allow me to summarize its plot for you here.
Valorian gentlewoman Kestrel impulse-buys young Herrani man Arin, whose peninsula and people had been conquered and enslaved by Kestrel’s father (a famous general) ten years ago. Kestrel and Arin fall in love, but alas! Arin’s organizing a Herrani rebellion, which ends with almost every Valorian in the Herran peninsula dead.
Kestrel’s held hostage/beloved guest on Arin’s estate until, finally, she leaves to tell the Valorian emperor about the Herrani rebellion. At Kestrel’s begging, the emperor grants Arin governorship of the Herran peninsula, on the condition that Kestrel marry his son and heir. She agrees, and—deciding it’s best if Arin think she’s a coldhearted gold-digger angling for empresshood—returns to tell Arin the good news of her engagement and his governorship. Everybody privately angsts.
On to its sequel, The Winner’s Crime.
Following your heart can be a crime . . .
A royal wedding means one celebration after another: balls, fireworks, and revelry until dawn. But to Kestrel it means living in a cage of her own making. As the wedding approaches, she aches to tell Arin the truth about her engagement: that she agreed to marry the crown prince in exchange for Arin’s freedom. But can Kestrel trust Arin? Can she even trust herself?
Kestrel is becoming very good at deception. She’s working as a spy in the court. If caught, she’ll be exposed as a traitor to her country. Yet she can’t help searching for a way to change her ruthless world . . . and she is close to uncovering a shocking secret.
This dazzling follow-up to The Winner’s Curse reveals the high price of dangerous lies and untrustworthy alliances. The Truth will come out, and when it does, Kestrel and Arin will learn just how much their crimes will cost them.
And oh hey look, we get a map this time!
I listed a lot of complaints in my review of The Winner’s Curse, including the utter lack of world-building, the unconvincing romance, how passive Kestrel is, and how unrealistic the emperor’s decision was to (1) marry Kestrel to his son, (2) name Arin the new governor of Herran, and (3) allow Kestrel to be the emissary to Herran.
Now I’m giving the author two thumbs up for her attempts to correct (some of) those issues in The Winner’s Crime.
It’s like the author read readers’ criticisms about the first book, mulled them over, and applied what she learned to the sequel.
Surprisingly enough, Kestrel and Arin don’t reconcile in this book. (Is that cheering I hear? Why yes, I believe it is.) They spend the entire book hurt and angry with each other, and although both want to reunite and clear up the lies and misunderstandings between them, they’re prevented from doing so by numerous situations beyond their control.
And I loved it: their lies, their arguments, their secret hopes. It was beautiful and so painful (in just the right way) to read.
And oh my goodness I loved Kestrel’s struggle between her desire to do what’s right (help the Herrani people) and her loyalty to and love for her father (who’s wholly devoted to the empire).
This is a realistic and heartbreaking dilemma, and definitely raised the book in my estimation
Continued Lack of World-Building
Give me more world-building, I’m dying over here.
World-building continues to be a significant weakness in this trilogy.
I’ll just mention one of the many contrivances that bothered me.
Everyone in the city is placing bets on the color, fabric, design, etc, of Kestrel’s wedding dress, and the winner of the bet will land a fat fortune. For some reason (hint: so the book can have a plot), Arin gets it into his head to ask Kestrel’s dressmaker who has been bribing her for information about the wedding dress. Her answer: almost everyone.
So Arin replies:
Arin then tries to convince his spymaster, Tensen, that this is significant. Tensen’s reaction is basically mine:
(Thrynne, by the way, was a Herrani spy caught trying to eavesdrop on a conversation between the emperor and Senate leader; he was subsequently tortured and killed at the emperor’s orders.)
Arin somehow convinces Tensen to look into the matter of the Senate leader’s bet. And by “convinces Tensen to look into the matter,” I mean “convinces Tensen to convince Kestrel to snoop around about it.”
Through their espionage, they deduce that the Senate leader and the water engineer (who placed an identical bet) have plotted a plot that would harm the Herrani people.
They’re right, of course. But why is Arin so certain the Senate leader’s bet indicated he’d performed a great favor for the emperor? Why is he so certain that the favor involved harming the Herrani people? Why are Arin and Kestrel so devoted to unraveling this mystery, of all mysteries?
I would imagine the palace is thick with mysteries and seeming-mysteries, conspiracies and seeming-conspiracies. Why aren’t they also nosing around a few others that lead to dead-ends? Why didn’t they uncover some “clues” that turned out to not be clues of anything after all?
Their single-minded focus on this one particular mystery, and its perfect payoff in uncovering the emperor’s Evil Plan for Herran, was much too contrived to feel real.
Kestrel’s an Unlikable Idiot
For a character who’s supposed to be (a) sensitive to the plight of servants and slaves, and (b) a cunning and brilliant strategist, Kestrel can be unspeakably bitchy to the people beneath her and consistently fails to consider the possible consequences of her actions.
Both traits are portrayed beautifully early in the book, when her dressmaker (a Herrani woman named Deliah, who is frantically attempting to finish her dress in time for the engagement ball) asks if Kestrel has heard the news:
Dude. Let the poor woman finish pinning a few things to the dress. You already know that the emperor is an Evil Villain who does unspeakable things to the people who fail or disappoint him. What do you think could happen to Deliah if she fails to finish the prince’s fiancée’s dress in time for the ball? Horrible things, that’s what.
But no. Kestrel is too overcome by the prospect of seeing Arin (for the first time in two months) to spare half a thought for a mere servant’s life and well-being.
So off Kestrel runs to meet Arin.
The emperor has repeatedly warned her Hey, I know you love Arin and his people, but you’re going to be empress now, so get your priorities in line. If you so much as blink in Arin’s direction, I can have you both tortured to death.
So what does she do when she hears the Herrani representative has arrived for her engagement ball? She runs barefoot through the palace to meet him, in front of approximately everyone ever, then gets pissy when she realizes Arin didn’t come.
What the hell, Kestrel.
But this isn’t the dumbest (as in holy crap you’re going to get yourself caught what are you thinking) move she makes in the story. It’s one idiotic misstep after another with her, and each one left me aghast.
What’s worse is that the book rarely punishes her for her mistakes.
The list goes on.
Fortunately, she does get punished for two of her (countless) mistakes. Two is better than none, but good god, I was expecting her to get caught every step of the way, and it boggles my mind that she didn’t.
(It doesn’t actually boggle my mind. Of course she didn’t get caught; the book needed her to not get caught until she’d unraveled the emperor’s Evil Plan for Herran. Excuse me while I melt in frustration and despair.)
The Dumb Continues
To continue on the same vein:
When Kestrel and Tensen were discussing where to hold their secret spy meetings while in a room full to bursting with the courtiers and the emperor himself (no, I will never get over this), Tensen suggests they try the only tavern in the city that serves Herrani. Kestrel shoots that idea down, saying that if the tavern serves Herrani, it also serves the emperor’s spies.
Sixty pages later, when she’s disguised as a palace maid and conducting her idiotic spy business in the city, she runs into Arin. He recognizes her and challenges her to a tile game; if she wins, he’ll leave the palace immediately (which she wants him to do, for his safety), but ifhe wins, she’ll have to tell him the truth about everything. (He can’t quite accept that she’s the power-hungry courtier she’s pretending to be.)
For some inexplicable reason (*coughsheisanidiotcough*) she consents to the game. He leads her to, you guessed it, the only tavern in the city that serves Herrani.
Remember: Herrani have been the lowest of slaves for the last ten years. They were freed from slavery just two or three months ago. Saying “the only tavern that serves Herrani” is presumably synonymous with “the worst tavern in the city.”
Remember: Kestrel herself dismissed this tavern as a potential Secret Spy Meeting Spot because it’s crawling with imperial spies.
But yeah, sure, the famous empress-to-be (dressed as a palace maid) and the infamous Herrani governor (dressed as himself) go into the tavern to play a game of tiles. The tavern, they discover, is stuffed to the gills, and not just with Herrani:
That’s right. The basest tavern in the city is crawling with nobility and senators. Sure, some high-ranking Valorians might want to go slumming, but not this many.
Nobody recognizes Kestrel or Arin, amazingly enough—even when they stroll in, see that all the tables are taken, and proceed to be as conspicuously rich-and-famous as possible:
Seriously, Kestrel? We’re explicitly told that a palace maid doesn’t make much money. Don’t you think these merchants—or anyone else in the crowded tavern!—will think your behavior is a little unusual for a poor maid?
But wait, it gets worse.
Kestrel and Arin procure a set of tiles to play their game, and proceed to call each other by name and argue IN A CROWDED TAVERN FULL OF COURTIERS AND SPIES about everything that has happened between them. Seriously, look:
(This part of the conversation comes shortly after Arin’s brilliant suggestion that she marry the prince but keep Arin as her lover. Thank goodness she has enough smarts to turn that offer down.)
And do they get caught by any of the dozens of people within easy listening range? By any of the courtiers who should recognize them, or the spies that should perk up at the sound of their names?
No. No, they don’t.
My conclusion: this is so dumb.
A Few Miscellaneous Complaints
This letter is ridiculously long, so let me just mention a few more points:
I need to stop now or we’ll be here all day.
This book’s earning two and a half stars (instead of two) only because Kestrel’s inner turmoil and the unfulfilled romance were awesome. And hey, at least nobody got almost-raped for the sake of romance in this one!
Spoiler Rating: High
I mean, come on; a conquered people overthrowing their conquerors? Forbidden love between a conqueror-girl and a slave-boy? A book cover featuring a pretty woman geared for daintily opening letters at prom while clearly in the throes of either physical pleasure or a massive headache? What’s not to love?
Having just finished reading The Winner’s Curse, let me tell you now: there’s quite a bit not to love.
But by god I’m holding out hope for the rest of the trilogy.
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love . . .
As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.
One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him–with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin. But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.
Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.
The plot, in brief: (First 324 pages) Valorian gentlewoman Kestrel, who has grown up on the Valorian-colonized peninsula of Herran, impulse-buys a human being, Herrani gentleman-turned-slave Arin. They’re just getting to the smooching stage of their relationship when Arin and his fellow Herrani rebels poison most of the Valorian colonizers and take Kestrel hostage, thus ending their romance. She twiddles her thumbs in captivity for a hundred pages or so until Something Rage-Inducing salvages her relationship with Arin.
(Last 30 pages) But smooching him is too traitorous for Kestrel’s conscience. She escapes to tell the Valorian emperor that his Herrani slaves have revolted, but begs him not to exterminate them for their insolence. Emperor graciously agrees to establish a suzerain/tributary relationship with the Herrani people, on the condition that Kestrel marry his son and heir (whom she’s never met). She agrees; the Herrani are granted both citizenship into the empire and governorship of their homeland, and Arin (whose faith in Kestrel’s moral character is shaken by her apparent power-hungriness) cries a solitary tear at the news of Kestrel’s imperial engagement.
Kestrel — the well-bred daughter of the famous Valorian general who conquered and enslaved the Herran peninsula some ten years ago. She’s a poor fighter, but has the makings of a brilliant strategist. Alas, she’s super disinterested in both joining the military and getting married (the only two options available to Valorian citizens), and she shows a scandalous interest in both music and treating her Herrani slaves (almost) like human beings.
Arin — a Herrani slave whose (noble) family was slaughtered in the Valorian conquest ten years ago, when he was . . . nine? Ish? Trained as a blacksmith and farrier, but his true passion lies in music and overthrowing the Valorian government.
Jess and Ronan — siblings, respectable Valorians, and Kestrel’s closest friends. Jess fills the sweet-but-invisible-best-friend role for the book, while Ronan does the sweet-romantic-interest-who-gets-rejected thing.
Cheat — a Herrani man who plays slave auctioneer by day and leader of the Herrani resistance by night. A cruel, petty, jealous, short-sighted brute.
Well, I’m a sucker for stories about conquered peoples/nations overthrowing (or beginning to overthrow) their conquerors. I think I can trace my suckerhood back to elementary school and Winter of Fire, which is one of those life-changing books that destroyed me in all the best ways as a kid. So two thumbs up for the premise of The Winner’s Curse.
Also neat: Kestrel’s strength is her mind, despite her father’s attempt to make her an elite (or at least competent) fighter. Women who can fight well are awesome, but the fantasy genre’s saturated with them; Kestrel’s disinterest in fighting felt rather novel.
But, uh. That’s about it.
Bland Writing Style
The writing quality wavered, to say the least. There were some gorgeously written bits here and there, but most of the book was bland, with occasional dips into straight-up bad.
So “glass doors burned with light” is pretty vivid; I love that she “dappled a few high notes over the troubled sound”; and the last sentence was one of the most powerful sentence in the book. But the rest of it is all yawns.
Descriptions of characters’ emotions were generally all right (if bland), but frequently collapsed into the pit of Telling, Not Showing–as we see when Arin learns Kestrel’s attending a dinner party hosted by the villainous Lord Irex:
How does she intuit that the set of Arin’s mouth is determined rather than, say, displeased, angry, annoyed, grumpy, or any of the dozen other emotions that would be likely in this situation? What is it about him that reads as protective? What does protective even look like?
(“Look protective,” I commanded Husband. He gamely cycled through several expressions, without clear success.)
It’s tantalizingly easy to write “There was something about him that looked protective” and be done–but those halfhearted descriptions are agonizingly boring to read. They provide little to no direction for the movies (plays? BBC television series?) I mentally turn books into as I read them.
For my birthday, someone please get me more authors who bother to craft clever, nuanced, imaginative descriptions.
Lack of World-Building
There is an appalling lack of world-building going on here. We’re told:
Things we are not told include (but are definitely not limited to):
We’re not even given enough information about the clothing styles, cuisine, or architecture to paint a half-decent picture of the setting. I mean, sure, the finest Herrani architecture involves marble floors and glass doors and painted ceilings, but that’s as informative as telling us the Valorian women wear silk dresses:not informative enough.
As frustrating as it is to have no clear image of the setting and culture, I was doubly upset about the lack of information regarding the Herrani war, and the Herrani way of life. The book’s plot revolves around a conquered people’s uprising against their conquerors–so shouldn’t we first be shown, in careful detail, how devastating the war was, and how mistreated the Herrani people are now?
But no. We’re told a few times, mostly in passing, that the war was bloody. We’re told in passing that a Valorian’s house slaves now live in communal building somewhere on the property rather than in the Valorian’s house. We’re told in passing that a Valorian can grant their slaves freedom, but it almost never happens. We’re told in passing there’s a market in the city where Herrani slaves (and the very rare free Herrani) sell goods. We’re told in passing that a Herrani who tries to cheat or steal from a Valorian will be whipped.
Arin’s the only Herrani whose life we see in any detail, and his life is exceptional: his mistress is an eccentric Valorian who allows him special freedoms, asks his opinion about things, plays games with him for fun, wants to know him as a person, cares about his well-being. Sure, it’s mentioned (in passing) that he has scars from his hard labor and past whippings, but that’s not enough to provide a vivid portrait of how difficult Herrani life is under the Valorians.
If you want me to be emotionally invested in an uprising, you have to do better than “They’re slaves, and everyone knows slavery is awful, and hey by the way this enslaved young man is super handsome.”
Yes, slavery is beyond awful. But the book didn’t bother trying to show more than a hint of that awfulness, and the story suffered for it.
Here’s my understanding of Kestrel’s attraction to Arin:
First, Kestrel bought Arin because she was drawn to his strength and quiet rebelliousness on the auction block.
Second, Kestrel’s mind is blown when Arin furiously denies Jess’s claim that the Herrani god of lies must love Kestrel, since Kestrel has such an uncanny ability to discern the hidden truth in things:
The revelation that people might be too afraid to correct her (a Valorian, and daughter of the famous general) if she accuses them of lying has a significant effect:
She’s so shaken that she later asks that Arin always tell her the truth:
But why does she want to know how he truly sees things? Why ishis honesty valuable to her? He’s just a brooding hulk of a blacksmith who glowers at her whenever they’re within line of sight. I don’t understand her motivation for this agreement, and it’s the entire foundation of their relationship.
As for Arin’s attraction to Kestrel, I don’t even know. Sure, she plays the piano and he’s a huge fan of music. Sure, she grants him special freedoms and treats him almost like a human being. Sure, he can empathize with the fact that she feels trapped in her situation: forced to either marry or enter the military, and hating both options. But what else? Anything?
But they fall in love because the book wants them to, I guess, until the Herrani rebellion successfully kills most of the Valorians and imprison the rest. Kestrel’s taken hostage by Arin, and she regrets every kind thought she ever had about him.
Until, that is, a certain Something Rage-Inducing happens (don’t worry, I’ll get there), after which Kestrel and Arin’s seemingly doomed romance is saved–and then Arin undergoes a stunning personality shift, from hulking-brooding-angry dude to hopeful-gentle-sweet loverboy, who eagerly runs up the stairs two at time to see his beloved that much sooner, and jokes with her while they bake pastries, and poetically asks her (his hostage, mind you) to live with him forever:
I don’t know who this Arin is, but he definitely isn’t the same Arin who lurked resentfully throughout the first three hundred pages of the book.
There’s something to be said for a YA heroine who isn’t immediately badass in the face of horrifying adversity (such as seeing her people slaughtered and herself taken hostage by a slave uprising)–but Kestrel’s brand of badasslessness had me in despair.
We’re specifically told that Kestrel’s a poor physical fighter; her strength is in her keen observation and deduction skills, her ability to strategize. Her mind is her weapon.
Yet she makes some unbelievably dumb decisions, such as telling her strong-and-brooding Herrani slave that the entire Valorian regiment is leaving the Herran peninsula, thus leaving the place defended only by the city guard until the new occupying force arrives from the Valorian capital.
And when she’s not being an idiot, she spends most of her time intentionally putting her mind (her primary/only weapon!) on mute, and thus disarming herself:
(Hey Kestrel. You’re probably still a prisoner because you aren’t doing anything about it.)
Is it believable that a young woman in her position might be inclined to try to ignore her problems, let her eyes glaze over and let time pass? Of course. But it makes for an infuriating heroine and an unspeakably dull book. I’d have liked at least a little more emotion in her, more spirit, more action.
Here’s hoping this is part of her character arc across the trilogy–that she makes herself powerless in the first book, realizes the danger of doing so in the second book, and attains true power in the third book. That could make the slog through this first book worthwhile.
Arin’s Character Development
Kestrel spends the book being passive, but Arin’s struggling with the burdens of enslavement, falling in love with the young woman who purchased him, and planning a rebellion.
And it’d make for fascinating reading–if we saw more of the story from his point of view.
We know almost nothing about Arin as a person, except that (a) he’s impertinent and brooding, (b) his family was wealthy before the Valorians came along, at which point he was trained to be a blacksmith, and (c) he loves music.
Arin could’ve been a deep and fascinating character, but we’re shown so little of him and his inner struggles (other than “I want her but she’s Valorian, angst”) that he falls quite flat.
Time to put my favorite rage socks on. Ashers, you should probably put yours on, too.
In the Characters section of this letter, I told you about Cheat, the leader of the Herrani rebellion. He serves no purpose in the story except to (a) be a brutal and incompetent leader for Arin to eventually replace, and (b) salvage Arin and Kestrel’s seemingly unsalvageable romance.
Kestrel and Arin’s romance is heading straight to smoochville when the rebellion kills almost every Valorian in the city and Arin claims Kestrel as his war prize (to prevent her from joining the piles of Valorian dead). Kestrel immediately realizes that Arin’s at the heart of this rebellion, and she’s sickened by him and by herself–her blindness to his suspicious behavior, her deep attachment to him. Nothing, it seems, can repair the damage done to their romance.
Until Cheat tries to rape Kestrel.
And Arin arrives just in time to save her.
Because rape is a great plot device to use when you need your estranged hero and heroine to reestablish their emotional bond.The best, even.
(That odor you’re smelling is my laptop melting in the face of my fury.)
Whyyyy does it have to be rape? Why does our powerless, passive, captive heroine have to almost be raped for the book’s romance to get back on track? Why couldn’t the author have chosen any other way?
I’m just going to link, once again, to Maggie Stiefvater’s brief rant about the use of rape in literature. And now I’m going to remove my rage socks, breathe, and continue to my final complaint. Which is:
Some Silly Plot Issues
I get the feeling that the author is interested in politics, but isn’t precisely an expert on the topic. Or perhaps she merely assumes her readership won’t notice when political and military things get a little silly in her book.
The most notable silliness comes at the very end of the book, when Kestrel tries to convince the Valorian emperor to grant the Herrani people citizenship into the empire, and allow them to govern themselves. The emperor informs her that doing so would piss off the Valorian senators who live in Herran; Kestrel says paying the senators handsomely might soothe their ruffled feathers:
Also, Valorian society is bursting with gossip about how Kestrel–the eccentric, almost-outcast daughter of the Number One Awesome general who conquered the Herran peninsula–has taken a Herrani slave as her lover and risked her life (and her family’s honor) in a duel to protect him from being whipped for stealing from evil Lord Irex. Even the emperor has heard the rumors, and seems to believe them, as he implies when she initially resists the idea of marrying his son:
Why would he choose her as the future empress?
The emperor’s reasons for forcing Kestrel’s engagement to his son feel flimsy at best. I wish the author had taken the time to show discord and fractured loyalties among the military and senators (not to mention explain what the senators even do, why they exist), to make this decision more realistic (and therefore powerful to me as a reader). Maybe this will come in the sequel?
Kestrel agrees to the engagement, and for some reason (*headdesk*) is allowed to hand-deliver the emperor’s written offer to Arin. She decides to keep the emperor’s ultimatum (“Marry my son or the Herrani will be obliterated”) a secret, and instead tell Arin that she got engaged to the prince because, hell, who wouldn’t want to be empress? Arin feels betrayed by her eagerness to marry someone else, but ultimately agrees to swear fealty to the emperor and become the Herrani governor.
Two issues here.
First of all: why is the leader of the Herrani rebellion (which, remember, killed almost every Valorian on the peninsula) allowed to not only live, but become the Herrani governor? Why didn’t the emperor declare Arin’s execution (or at least imprisonment) part of the agreement, and choose someone less dangerous as the new governor? Placing him as the Herrani leader is the dumbest and most unrealistic decision the emperor could have possibly made.
Authors, stop making your characters unbelievably dumb for the sake of plot. How many times do I have to say this?
Second of all: Arin accepts the emperor’s offer, but with a condition:
Once again I say, uh, what?
The emperor is giving him two options: 1) accept the offer, or 2) see the Herrani civilization exterminated.
Who does Arin think he is, accepting the offer only on the condition that Kestrel is the sole emissary between the Herrani and the imperial court? What power does he have to negotiate? And why does Kestrel say she thinks the emperor would be cool with that condition?
Guys. The emperor believes Kestrel and Arin are lovers. The emperor suspects Kestrel’s loyalties lie with the Herrani people, not the Valorians. The emperor has arranged for Kestrel to marry his son and heir; she’s going to become empress.
Who on earth could possibly believe the emperor would allow Kestrel to have anything to do with Herran, much less act as its sole emissary? And with Arin as its governor?
I swear, if she actually is placed as the emissary in either the second or third book in this trilogy, I’ll cry. I will cry, and it will be ugly.
I have so much more to say, but I’m giving up. Go read Lizzie’s excellent review now; she covers (more succinctly and elegantly than I could) several other noteworthy points of criticism.
But hey, maybe the sequel will be better? Here’s hoping. It’s lurking on my nightstand now, watching me as I type.
I’ve made a really dumb decision, god help me. I’m ten chapters into recapping/critiquing the ridiculous (and ridiculously popular) Throne of Glass chapter by chapter, and it is an eye-rolling, rage-filled disaster.
This post—which includes my recap for chapter one—will serve as my one and (presumably) only announcement on Booklikes that the read-along is ongoing on my website. And also my Tumblr. Everyone's free to join the fun.
“Nothing is a coincidence. Everything has a purpose. You were meant to come to this castle, just as you were meant to be an assassin.”
When magic has gone from the world, and a vicious king rules from his throne of glass, an assassin comes to the castle. She does not come to kill, but to win her freedom. If she can defeat twenty-three killers, thieves, and warriors in a competition to find the greatest assassin in the land, she will become the King’s Champion and be released from prison.
Her name is Celaena Sardothien.
The Crown Prince will provoke her. The Captain of the Guard will protect her.
And a princess from a foreign land will become the only thing Celaena never thought she’d have again: a friend.
But something evil dwells in the castle—and it’s there to kill. When her competitors start dying, horribly, one by one, Celaena’s fight for freedom becomes a fight for survival–and a desperate quest to root out the source of the evil before it destroys her world.
This is my first read-along, so bear with me while I find and don my finest recaps-and-rage socks. It might take a couple chapters.
Direct quotes will either be bolded or put in block quotes. If it’s neither bolded nor in block quotes—even if it’s in quotation marks—I’m paraphrasing.
Let’s do this.
So a first chapter has two goals: (a) present the protagonist’s chief characteristics, and (b) hint at their impending conflict. Something like Juanita is quiet but stubborn, and has a strong sense of justice, or Charming extrovert Hadia fears she’ll never step out of her totally-perfect sister’s shadow.
Let’s see how Throne of Glass’s first chapter portrays our heroine, shall we?
After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point. Most of the thousands of slaves in Endovier received similar treatment—though an extra half-dozen guards always walked Celaena to and from the mines. That was expected by Adarlan’s most notorious assassin.
Okay. The jaw-grimly-clenched tone compliments the casual arrogance of the “Adarlan’s most notorious assassin” claim, which—
Wait. If “thousands of slaves” are “escorted everywhere [ . . . ] at sword-point,” and the occasional special assassin snowflake merits seven guards, how many guards does Endovier employ? If I’m doing my math right—let me open my calculator—we’re talking thousands of guards. Sounds like a reasonable use of a kingdom’s military resources.
But back to Celaena, because that wasn’t even the entirety of the book’s first paragraph and already my Ridiculous YA Heroine alarm is wailing.
I’m supposed to believe a teenager is the country’s most notorious assassin, and warrants both shackles and an armed guard of seven to escort her wherever she goes? Come on guys, just give her a Bane mask and strap her to a gurney and be done with it.
So The Most Assassinist of Assassins emerges from the mines after an invigorating day of slavery to find she has a visitor: a man in Ominous Black and a face-hiding hood (someone please tell me how a hood can totally obscure the wearer’s face but still allow them to see out of it, I want to know). The sight of him waiting for her “hadn’t improved her mood.”
That’s it? A creepy dude comes for you after a year of slavery, and all you can say is the sight of him didn’t improve your mood? What about—oh I don’t know—curiosity, fear, surprise, wariness? Could you show any emotion beyond arrogance and badassery?
At least my impending rant about her fearlessness wasn’t necessary. See, she’s only 99% fearless:
[H]er ears had pricked when he’d introduced himself to her overseer as Chaol Westfall, Captain of the Royal Guard, and suddenly, the sky loomed, the mountains pushed from behind, and even the earth swelled toward her knees. She hadn’t tasted fear in a while—hadn’t let herself taste fear. When she awoke every morning, she repeated the same words: I will not be afraid. For a year, those words had meant the difference between breaking and bending; they had kept her from shattering in the darkness of the mines. Not that she’d let the captain know any of that.
“Not that [you’d] let the captain know any of that”? Girl, what makes you think he cares?
Let’s start a list of character traits for fair Celaena:
So Chaol Westfall, Captain of the Royal Guard, He Who Looms Skies and Pushes Mountains and Swells the Earth, takes Celaena on a stroll through the mine’s administrative building:
They strode down corridors, up flights of stairs, and around and around until she hadn’t the slightest chance of finding her way out again.
At least, that was her escort’s intention, because she hadn’t failed to notice when they went up and down the same staircase within a matter of minutes.
But an assassin as assassinly as she cannot be fooled:
If she wanted to escape, she simply had to turn left at the next hallway and take the stairs down three flights. The only thing all the intended disorientation had accomplished was to familiarize her with the building. Idiots.
Actually, I agree. If he’s this concerned, why didn’t he blindfold her before tromping her through the entire building?
Celaena pauses her scornful inner monologue to assure the reader that she’s not some dark-skinned uggo—
She adjusted her torn and filthy tunic with her free hand and held in her sigh. Entering the mines before sunrise and departing after dusk, she rarely glimpsed the sun. She was frightfully pale beneath the dirt. It was true that she had been attractive once, beautiful even, but—well, it didn’t matter now, did it?
—which will make a lovely addition to our list:
Meanwhile, her interaction with Chaol Westfall, He Who Looms (etc., etc.) is just brimming with tension. (Just kidding, it’s not.) She’s pleased by his voice, at least: “How lovely it was to hear a voice like her own—cool and articulate—even if he was a nasty brute!”
Chaol asks a question, which she deflects, and his resulting growl launches her into fantasies of his blood splattered over the marble, followed by the delicious memory of “embedding the pickax into [her overseer’s] gut, the stickiness of his blood on her hands and face.”
Naturally, this makes her grin at him.
Celaena: [Grins at him.]
Chaol: “Don’t you look at me like that.” [Moves his hand back toward his sword.]
Whose bright idea was it to put this man—who goes all angry-werewolf when a criminal shrugs off a question, and almost draws his sword when she tries to unsettle him with a grin—in charge of the Royal Guard? He has anger issues and deep-seated insecurity and impending mass murder all over him.
Then it’s Celaena’s turn to ask a question (“Where are we going again?”), not get an answer, and display her resulting anger:
When he didn’t reply, she clenched her jaw.
What’s with these two getting pissed over nothing? It’s like watching two surly, entitled teens who—oh. I get it.
Having covered the basics of Celaena’s personality, the chapter fulfills its second purpose: providing (sledgehammer-subtle) hints of the awaiting conflict: magic has disappeared from the kingdom, and the King of Adarlan has been filling the salt mines with rebels from the countries he’s conquered. (I’ll be so surprisedwhen our heroine becomes the magic-wielding leader of a rebellion that overthrows the King.)
Celaena briefly shudders at the rebel-slaves’ plight, wondering if they’d have been better off dead. But before you go insist I label her “compassionate”:
But she had other things to think about as they continued their walk. Was she finally to be hanged?
Granted, I’d be more concerned about my impending execution, too—but brushing the slaves off with “[b]ut she had other things to think about” is harsh.
Their destination, when they arrive, surprises Celaena:
The [red-and-gold glass] doors groaned open to reveal a throne room. A glass chandelier shaped like a grapevine occupied most of the ceiling, spitting seeds of diamond fire onto the windows along the far side of the room. Compared to the bleakness outside those windows, the opulence felt like a slap to the face.
Because obviously an isolated prison camp/salt mine’s administration building requires an opulent throne room on the off-chance a royal will drop in for a—
On an ornate redwood throne sat a handsome young man. [ . . . ] She was standing in front of the Crown Prince of Adarlan.
I stand corrected.
Just for fun, let’s keep track of how many times some things happen every chapter. Let’s start with:
We’re told Celaena’s A Total Badass: 5
Celaena proves she’s A Total Badass: 0
Celaena fantasizes about murder: 3
Celaena murders someone: 0
Chaol’s surly teen-boy rage: 4
Our protagonist is unbearable.
Spoiler Rating: High
My favorite DOCTOR Katie,
First of all: *congratulatory doctoral confetti!* There will be celebrating, and it will beintense.
So I’d gushed to you about Angelfall a while ago, and I’ve finally gotten my grabby hands on the sequel, World After. I was expecting great things for it—but this book didn’t attain greatness. More of a meh-ness, I’d say.
Let me tell you about it.
Guess I should first refresh your memory about Angelfall.
Human civilization has crumbled after the catastrophic arrival of the (surprisingly cruel) angels. When Penryn’s kid sister Paige is kidnapped by angels, Penryn makes a dangerous move: saving an angel whose wings had just been cut off by the same villains who kidnapped Paige. Her plan is to hold the severed wings hostage until the wingless angel (Raffe) takes her to the angels’ headquarters, where she hopes to rescue Paige.
Penryn, Raffe, and Raffe’s severed wings trek to the angels’ headquarters, where slimy angel Uriel is throwing a 1920s-themed party. Penryn and Raffe infiltrate and save Paige, who’s been experimented on and now seems more monster than human. Meanwhile, Raffe wakes up from surgery with demonic bat wings rather than his own feathered ones. (His nemesis Beliel has stolen and now wears Raffe’s wings.)
In the end, Penryn and monster-Paige are reunited with their mother, but Raffe thinks Penryn’s dead. He disappears in pursuit of Beliel, maybe to never be seen again.
In this sequel to the bestselling fantasy thriller, Angelfall, the survivors of the angel apocalypse begin to scrape back together what’s left of the modern world. When a group of people capture Penryn’s sister Paige, thinking she’s a monster, the situation ends in a massacre.
Paige disappears. Humans are terrified. Mom is heartbroken.
Penryn drives through the streets of San Francisco looking for Paige. Why are the streets so empty? Where is everybody? Her search leads her into the heart of the angels’ secret plans where she catches a glimpse of their motivations, and learns the horrifying extent to which the angels are willing to go.
Meanwhile, Raffe hunts for his wings. Without them, he can’t rejoin the angels, can’t take his rightful place as one of their leaders. When faced with recapturing his wings or helping Penryn survive, which will he choose?
World After begins a few minutes after the end of Angelfall, with Penryn, Paige, and their mother being taken into the safety of the human Resistance camp, where they really don’t fit in. Paige ends up running away, and Penryn once again sets off on a mission to save her from the angels—but this time without Raffe.
So, what’s to enjoy about this book?
Okay. It’s time to switch from bullet points to a numbered list, because bulleted lists don’t allow for paragraphs of text. Since there are three things in the bulleted list above, let’s start with Point Number Four in the numbered list below. (You love how I structure my letters.)
4. Monstrosity vs. Goodness vs. Appearance
The theme of one’s appearance doesn’t necessarily correlate with how good or monstrous they are is present in Angelfall, but it’s heftier in World After. We have the good angel Raffe with his sewn-on demonic wings:
There’s evil Beliel wearing Raffe’s beautiful floofy wings:
And, of course, there’s Paige:
Penryn knows Raffe is good despite his devilish appearance, and knows that Beliel is evil even with his beefcake body and new soft wings. The problem for Penryn is Paige; she has a really hard time seeing her sweet little sister in the cannibalistic metal-toothed killing machine that the angels made Paige into. It’s a book-long battle between her sisterly instincts (to protect Paige) and her survival instincts (to keep clear of the monster), and I for one loved watching her struggle.
Penryn also struggled with the weight of her own morality. This is a cutthroat, dangerous world, but her conscience won’t let her turn away from people in need.
As the story continues, Penryn sort of makes herself responsible for an increasing number of people, until, ultimately, that number is too high to count.
Others view her as a hero for the risks she takes and the good she does, but Penryn sees herself as just a teen doing what she can.
Katie, I love this so much. I’ll never tire of stories about people forced by horrible circumstances to perform acts of grim-and-desperate heroism, but without viewing themselves as in any way heroic. (Correction: I’ll never tire of these stories so long as they’re written at least moderately well.)
There’s not much room for romance in World After; Penryn and Raffe are separated for most of the book, and have very little opportunity to relax and talk when they are together. But the little romantic development we’re shown is delicious. Delicious because it’s not melodramatic or saccharine or earth-shattering. Delicious because it’s quiet and restrained and halting and real.
This is directly related to my praise of the writing style: Penryn doesn’t linger poetically over ever single glance or touch. She acknowledges those brief moments with a succinctness that, for me, reads so much more powerfully than poetic lingering ever could.
Also, this book provides an excellent variation of the Seductive Finger-Licking scene that appalled me in Kiss of Deception. Here’s World After‘s take (in which, I should note, Penryn is not trying to be sexy):
To refresh your memory, here’s how the hot guy (coincidentally named Rafe) responds to the heroine’s (intentionally sexual) finger-licking in Kiss of Deception:
Let’s just stick with the bullet points this time.
So overall, World After felt like a weak recycling of Angelfall. We do learn more about the angels’ Destroy Earth campaign, and Penryn is emotionally (as well as physically) reunited with her sister Paige, but nothing else really changes between the end of the first book and the end of this one. As a result, I was mildly bored for most of it.
I’m hoping World After is just a victim of Middle Book of a Trilogy Syndrome (you know, where the second book is just a weird slog while the characters recover from the Traumatic Awesome Events of the first book and the scene gets set for the Traumatic Awesome Conclusion in the third book). If End of Days is as disappointing as this one, I’ll be devastated; Angelfall sets up a really incredible story, and I want the series to live up to that incredibleness.
Spoiler Rating: Low-ish
A few years ago, I picked up Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, the first installment in her Grisha trilogy. Picked it up, read it, and sold it to a used book store with equal parts disappointment and annoyance.
The trilogy has since become popular, and I’ve been considering giving it another go–and then lo, Six of Crows was released, the first in a new series set in the same world as Shadow and Bone, but involving different characters in a different place and a (slightly) different time. Here was my chance to see if Bardugo’s storytelling abilities had improved enough since Shadow and Bone to make it worth my while to read the rest of the original trilogy.
Well, I just finished Six of Crows. Is it perfect? No. Is it awesome? Yes. Definitely yes. Enough “yes” to make me think perhaps I should (eventually) give Bardugo’s earlier books another shot.
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…
A convict with a thirst for revenge.
A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.
A runaway with a privileged past.
A spy known as the Wraith.
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.
Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.
Ketterdam, in case you can’t spot it, is the northernmost city on the little island of Kerch, located in the very bottom-middle of the map.
The Ice Court is the capital of Fjerda, a country to the north-northeast of Kerch.
Kaz — a.k.a. Dirtyhands. The brilliant, terrifying, near-legendary lieutenant of the Dregs gang (a fast-rising power in the Ketterdam slums). He of the well-tailored suits, the creepy shark-dead eyes, and the willingness to do any violence necessary to see his goals met.
Inej — a.k.a. the Wraith. A supernaturally-gifted Suli acrobat kidnapped from her family’s caravan by slavers and sold to a brothel madam in Ketterdam, but now putting her acrobat’s stealth and agility (as well as her many knives) to work as the Dregs’ intelligence-gatherer.
Matthias — a Fjerdan drüskelle (read: witchhunter), whose past encounter with Nina (a witch) condemned him to the disgusting, brutal prison in Ketterdam. He’s the eldest of the group at eighteen years old, and stiff with both murderous rage and monk-like drüskelle honor.
Nina — a Ravkan soldier from the east, now stranded in Ketterdam, trained to use her magic to kill her enemies without touching them: stop their hearts, snap their necks, collapse their lungs, etc. She’s currently employed by the Dregs to heal gang members’ wounds (as best she can, having been trained to kill rather than heal).
Jesper — a Zemeni farm boy whose gambling addiction doomed him to the gutters of Ketterdam, but whose sniper abilities found him a place amongst the Dregs.
Wylan — a wealthy merchant’s son who ran away from home and was accepted into the Dregs (as a hostage for use against his powerful father). And, hey, his expensive education could come in handy.
Let me tell you, this book has some vivid descriptions–
–that combine to set a good physical and tonal backdrop–
–for its dark, hands-bloody teeth-bared story. Bardugo’s writing style is definitely improving.
Things to love about the characters include:
The crew also includes one (it seems openly) bisexual young man, one potentially bisexual or gay young man (I suspect we’ll find out in the sequel), and a character whose permanent, painful limp is eased somewhat by the use of a cane.
With such a diverse group, you’d expect the characters to harbor some or a lot of prejudices about the others–and hallelujah, they do. It’s not just personalities clashing that makes so many of their interactions interesting to read; it’s seeing their prejudices at work, and watching those prejudices shift over time as they come to understand each other more.
And yes, some of their interactions are of the more romantic variety, but they’re romantic in a way that fits the book’s tone and story: grim, conflicted, wary, almost (almost) hopeless. There’s no place for warm cuddles and, I don’t know, waltzes under the moonlight in the gutters of Ketterdam, and definitely not during the heist itself.
But that doesn’t stop romantic bonds from forming, in their various ways–and that’s something else to praise: the romances are so very different from each other. If this book had ended with identical happily-ever-afters for such vastly different couples in such a grim story, I’d have thrown the book across the room. Or at least written a very long, ranting letter to you about it.
Holy crap do I love the use of rotating narrators in this book.
The story’s told from five viewpoints: Inej, Kaz, Nina, Jesper, and Matthias. No, rich boy Wylan doesn’t narrate.
This is especially neat because we’re shown each narrator’s backstory in bits and pieces that are scattered throughout the heist plot–and each person’s backstory affects not only who they are as people and their interactions with the other characters, but also the heist itself.
I never felt impatient with the (sometimes lengthy) sections of backstory, because I was genuinely interested in learning more about what made these people who they are. Two cheers for that.
In a story that rotates narrators, especially when those narrators have such different personalities and ethnic/religious/economic (etc.) backgrounds, you would hope that each narrator’s voice would be distinct, both in and out of dialogue. I’ll point to Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys as a good example.
But most of the narrators in Six of Crows sounded rather the same to me: ruthless, brave, and quippy.
Matthias and Inej were (usually) the exception to this rule; Matthias was brusque, both in his narrative and in his dialogue, while Inej leaned toward disapproving silence.
But for the most part, if I opened the book at random and read a few paragraphs, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you who was narrating. And if those paragraphs included dialogue without names attached, I probably couldn’t guess who was speaking.
This is a skill that Bardugo will perfect with more practice–and if the improvement in her writing in the last three years is any indication, it won’t take her long.
Okay. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let me cover this complaint as vaguely as possible.
Kaz and his team have to penetrate the impenetrable Ice Court, which (as you can see in the second map I provided above) is a large fortress-like complex.
Kaz, being the criminal genius he is, has a sharp mind (bordering on supernatural gift) for analyzing a situation (or person, or place) and coming up with a plan; he always seems to be a mile ahead of everyone else in both the analyzing and the planning departments.
So why, why was he blindsided when he encountered resistance where there is obviously going to be resistance? He’s not an idiot. No one else on the team is an idiot, either, and at least a couple of them should have realized “Hey, we’re going to encounter serious difficulties when we reach [spoiler censored].”
There’s no reason for this–except, of course, it made for a more interesting climax. To which I say for the thousandth time: authors, stop making your characters dumb for the sake of an interesting climax. Find a better way to do it.
It happens again a very short time later: again, Kaz didn’t expect to meet resistance where, again, I (and surely anyone else with two brain cells to rub together) did expect him to. But this time, the resistance that he should’ve met wasn’t there. At all. Not even a hint of resistance. None.
The utter lack of resistance was grossly unrealistic, and seriously disappointing in a book that seemed to try very hard at realism in all other aspects.
My guess as to why they didn’t meet resistance where they should have: if they had, they very likely would’ve all been slaughtered, and that doesn’t make for a very emotionally satisfying conclusion. But surely there’s a better way to avoid their slaughter than by having them meet no resistance at all?
I’ll admit, Six of Crows wasn’t as emotionally powerful a motley-crew-attempts-daring-heist story as Mistborn was–but that won’t stop it from joining my permanent collection. Probably in hardback, too, because have you seen how gorgeous it is?
And you know, this looks like just the afternoon to raid the bookstore.
Spoiler Rating: High
After Truthwitch, Passenger is my second Sexy Sea Captain book in a row (filling a hole in my life I’d never noticed before)–and although I liked Passenger better overall, reading it has actually made me consider bumping my rating for Truthwitch up from three to three and a half stars.
Let me reassure you that (despite being initially instalove-ish, bah humbug) Passenger‘s romantic subplot is fantastic and I need more of it immediately. I’m tapping my watch at you, Alexandra Bracken.
The plot, though. Interesting as the overall plot is (and it is really neat), it contains a few serious fumbles that have made this book agonizing to rate. In terms of how much I enjoyed it as a reader, it should be around four stars; in terms of the plot making sense, it should be around one star. Giving it three stars feels like an unsatisfactory compromise.
Can someone please make this decision for me, I’m clearly incapable of doing it myself.
Because I’d recommend this book, I’ll minimize the spoilers until I get to the Plot part of my criticism. No holds barred for spoilers in the Plot section, though. Consider yourself warned.
i. A brief section of music composed of a series of notes and flourishes.
ii. A journey by water; a voyage.
iii. The transition from one place to another, across space and time.
In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she’s inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she’s never heard of. Until now.
Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods—a powerful family in the colonies—and the servitude he’s known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can’t escape and the family that won’t let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas’ passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them— whether she wants to or not.
Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods’ grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are playing, treacherous forces threaten to separate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home . . . forever.
Ironwoods — one of the four original time-traveling families, and now (after a massive inter-family war) the major time-traveling power. Ruled by elderly Cyrus Ironwood (“Grandfather”), who’s determined to absorb the remaining tatters of the three other families into his own, thereby holding all time travelers (and time itself) in his wizened but still iron (heh) grip.
Etta — a white, 21st century young woman whose sole attachments are, in order: her violin, her elderly violin instructor Alice, and her (emotionally distant) mother Rose. She’s ignorant of the whole inherited-time-traveling-gene thing she has going on, so everything that happens in the book comes as a shock to her. But she’s got strength and determination on her side, so she’s game for anything.
Nicholas — a biracial (black/white), 18th century young man who won’t let his skin color stand in the way of realizing his dream: to command a fleet of his own ships. Sadly, he’s also an illegitimate son of the Ironwood family, and they’ve got a plan for him: eternal servitude. He’s gentlemanly and commanding and super sexy.
Sophia — a white, early-20th century young woman who’s 100% Ironwood: proud, ambitious, conniving, ruthless. Also, she’s desperate to see a time when women have equal rights, and benefit from those rights herself. After all, the Ironwood family is short on male heirs; why pass her over just because she’s female? Someone needs to prove to Grandfather Ironwood just how proud/ambitious/conniving/ruthless a woman can be, and by god that someone’s going to be her.
The Interracial Relationship
I’m trying to think of any other books I’ve read recently that paired a young black man with a young white woman, and only coming up with one. This is in part because my reading habits aren’t as diverse as they should be (I haven’t specifically sought out books with black-male/white-female couples), but also–and more significantly–because it’s a frustratingly uncommon pairing in YA.
So I am 200% on board with Passenger‘s interracial couple.
Honest, Sensitive Portrayals of Racism
Passenger doesn’t go out of its way to soften Nicholas’s experience with racism, nor does it lie about how perfect his life would be if he lived in the 21st century instead of the 18th.
Take, for example, this vile speech from captured-British-officer Wren, trying to get a rise out of Nicholas:
And holy crap did the racism do something to my (and Etta’s) blood pressure.
But the book doesn’t stop there; it gives Etta time to process the racism she’s witnessing, and learn something about herself and her time period from it:
It’s a lesson she’s confronted with repeatedly.
Racism follows Nicholas wherever he goes, affecting all aspects of his life–and it’s all honestly, sensitively, and heartbreakingly portrayed.
A fair number of reviewers felt the first half of the book (which was mostly focused on 1776, first aboard Nicholas’s ship and later in Manhattan) dragged on, its pacing too slow. I’m not one of them.
I ate up all of the little historical details we’re presented with (history-obsessed as I am), and loved that we were given enough time to really experience Nicholas’s natural time period. I felt it gave me a better sense of who he was as a person than I would’ve had if the pacing had been faster.
It also added greatly to the atmosphere, without being quite as absorbed in the gritty details as The Kingdom of Little Wounds. Here, as Etta, Nicholas, and Sophia are approaching 1776 Manhattan by carriage, she asks Nicholas if he’s been to the city before, and what his impression was of it. His reply:
I do appreciate a historical novel that doesn’t pretend its setting’s hygiene and sanitation practices were charming, low-tech equivalents to the modern Western norm.
The pacing for the first half of the book also gave Etta and Nicholas enough time to get to know each other a little, bond a little, become attracted to each other, before meeting Evil Dude Cyrus Ironwood and being sent on their mission.
Seriously, I loved every moment they were together, whether they were being wary of each other, trying not to smooch each other, or (as happened not infrequently) bonding over their mutual dislike of Sophia’s arrogant, snide attitude:
And can I just gush over Etta for a moment? Specifically that she’s the Typical YA Fantasy/Paranormal Heroine in that she has few emotional ties to her normal world (no friends; no girlfriend/boyfriend/crush; almost no family), but the book offers a legitimate reason for her isolation rather than just “She’s a loner” or “She just moved to a new town” or “Her parents are irresponsible and usually absent, so she’s super-mature and doesn’t get along easily with other people her age.”
No. This book’s better than that. Etta’s not the loner new kid in town with the absent parents. She’s a violin prodigy who dreams of nothing but making her professional debut and performing for the rest of her life–and no one can stand in the way of that debut and that dream, even if that person is her beloved violin instructor, Alice:
I’ve already mentioned how much I love a YA protagonist who knows what she wants to do with her life, and has the passion and determination to make it happen. Let me say it again now. This is the best.
Minor Writing Style Issues
For the most part, the writing style was good: vivid, engaging, succinct. But sometimes–not often, just sometimes–it got weirdly confusing.
Here, Etta is listening to another violinist practice a complicated piece of music before a performance:
I had to reread that sentence a few times, trying to imagine exactly what that must sound like–concluding that it must sound powerful and glorious–before I moved on to the next paragraph:
So . . . it doesn’t sound powerful and glorious? The whole sinking-through-her-skin-to-shimmer-in-the-marrow-of-her-bones thing was to indicate how mediocre this violinist is?
This happened several times: the author seemed to prioritize a poetic description over the reader’s ability to understand what the hell she means.
In this example, Etta’s introduced to Nicholas and his foster father/captain (who’s a red-head) for the first time:
So his skin is a deep brown that’s been sun-kissed–so it has a golden hue to it? Or maybe reddish? How does having deep brown skin (with either a golden or reddish hue to it) have the effect of being illuminated from within by a fire? How could any shade of skin have the effect of being illuminated from within by a fire? Am I supposed to take this literally (as a description of his skin color) or is it just intended to be an indication of her instant physical attraction to him?
Sure, it’s poetic, but what does it mean?
As much as I love the rest of their romance, its beginnings made me throw my hands up in despair.
When Etta’s kidnapped from her time period and pushed through the passage into 1776, she instantly passes out (time traveling is hard the first few times). She wakes up days later, wearing a strange old-fashioned dress, in a strange dark place, with the sound of screams and gunshots overhead:
In her panic, Etta flees up the stairs (not realizing she’s in the belly of a ship in the West Indies) toward the light she can see overhead–landing smack in the middle of a battle. (Etta and Sophia’s ship was attacked by Nicholas’s; Cyrus Ironwood had ordered Nicholas to intercept the young women’s ship and collect them, then bring them to Ironwood in New York.)
So here’s Nicholas’s first sight of Etta, coming up onto the deck in a state of absolute terror:
Attraction at first sight, I totally support. Instalove “I took one look at her face and the world tilted beneath me, my body tightened painfully, awareness of her rolled through me like sweet warm honey” no. No. Just no.
And especially not in these circumstances. “I turned around and there she was, overwhelmed with horror and panic. She was so hot, seriously, I almost humped her leg right there.”
Are you kidding me?
In this situation I’d hope Nicholas felt, say, fear for her life, concern for her well-being, worry that she’ll hurt herself or someone else in her panic. Couldn’t his immediate awareness of her physical attractiveness have been more of the “That pretty girl’s about to get herself killed” variety than this melodramatic “Mine eyes art blinded by her glory” thing?
There’s something really off-putting about a man becoming physically aroused by a woman when she’s in a state of absolute terror.
This is shaping up to be a long letter, so I’ll only present my top two complaints about the plot.
First: These People are Idiots
This is where I spoil a most of the book.
Etta’s mother Rose had hidden a powerful time-traveling artifact (the astrolabe) in some unknown time and place, hoping to keep it out of the hands of Evil Grandfather Cyrus Ironwood and the equally-dangerous group of renegade time travelers called the Thorns. Rose had also left a coded letter to Etta informing her how to find it, and with instructions for her to destroy it. Cyrus Ironwood found the letter, and kidnapped Etta to make her track the astrolabe down.
Etta and Nicholas decode the letter one step at a time; it leads them to a series of passages that spit them out in inhospitable times and places, such as London during the Blitz.
Now, Cyrus Ironwood has spies (called “guardians”) all across history, all across the world; his people were going to watch the passages and inform Cyrus when Etta and Nicholas popped in one and out another, so he could track their progress (and hunt them down if they tried to pull a fast one on him and run away). Etta and Nicholas are fully aware of this, and spend much of their journey trying to outrun Cyrus’s guardians (as well as the Thorns’ guardians, who are also hoping Etta will lead them to the astrolabe).
So their first stop is in 1940 London–which happens to be Etta’s violin instructor Alice’s childhood home. They track young-Alice down and she helps them determine the location of the first passage, but some guardians find them at Alice’s house, sending all three of them running through the streets of London. When they finally lose the guardians, this happens:
. . .
Uh, what? It’s easier to lose the guardians on foot? When you’re exhausted from running, they could catch up to you at any moment, and you could just hop in a cab and arrive at your destination in a few minutes, then be through the passage and gone well before they could catch up? Seriously?
And sure enough, the guardians catch up to Etta and Nicholas before they reach their destination, so they have to run some more. And then the air raid sirens go off, and everyone rushes into the Underground (which is where the passage is, naturally). By the time Etta and Nicholas reach the correct Underground station, it’s packed full of people escaping the bombs; Etta and Nicholas won’t be able to sneak down the tunnel until everyone (specifically the police or guards monitoring everyone Underground) falls asleep.
In short: Etta and Nicholas make an absolutely idiotic decision for an absolutely unbelievable reason, simply so:
But that’s not the worst of it. No, the worst comes later.
They step through the final passage, straight into a house in 1599 Damascus. The house, luckily, belongs to one of the few members of Etta’s time-traveling family: Hasan. Hasan is Etta’s great-uncle, and didn’t inherit the time-traveling gene, but he knows all about the family’s heritage. He’s also quite fond of Etta’s mother, Rose, whom he’s met (presumably many times) before.
Etta and Nicholas explain their mission to Hasan, who helps them decipher the last clue in Rose’s letter: the astrolabe is hidden in some ruins a few days’ ride across the desert. They’ll need supplies to make the journey, so Hasan gives them new (locale-appropriate) clothing to wear, and . . . the three of them go to the city’s major marketplace to shop for supplies.
A white woman and a black man who don’t speak the native language. Hanging out in the busy marketplace. In 1599 Damascus.
Can you imagine how much attention they must draw?
And up to this point, they’ve been bending over backwards to be as discreet as possible, to avoid (a) being seen by the Ironwood guardians and the Thorn guardians, and (b) being seen by someone who might write down “Today I saw two very strange people” in their historical record, which future Ironwoods or Thorns would be able to find and recognize as a clue to the path Etta and Nicholas took to find the astrolabe.
Hell, even as they’re walking through the city, Hasan himself points out:
Why on earth are Etta and Nicholas parading around the city rather than doing the smart thing and waiting for Hasan at home, where they won’t be seen?
(You can tell where this is going, can’t you?)
Plot convenience, of course. They have to go out in public because:
The plot of the entire book relies on Etta and Nicholas making these two colossal, idiotic mistakes. Without these mistakes, they’d probably be able to get to the astrolabe and destroy it without much trouble. And that’d make for a boring read.
I think I’m losing my will to live.
Second: A Mystery
The novel opens with a prologue that takes place a few (?) years before the story really starts. In it, Nicholas is acting as time-travel companion (well, time-travel valet) for his half-brother Julian Ironwood, who’s Grandfather Cyrus Ironwood’s heir. They’re climbing some cliffs (in search of the astrolabe at Grandfather’s orders) when a freak storm boils up and Julian slips down the side of the cliff:
The Ironwoods all blame Nicholas for Julian’s death, and treat him horribly for it–as we see when, in the “present,” Nicholas tells Grandfather that it was Grandfather’s ambition and greed that killed Julian:
To make sure we’re on the same page here: Julian fell to his death, his body bursting into a scattering of light as time claimed it. When Nicholas finally made it home afterward, he was forced to describe the event to his Grandfather for hours. The entire Ironwood family now hates Nicholas, blames him for Julian’s death.
However, (spoiler spoiler) when Etta gets shot at the end of this book, and her body fades into a scattering of light, her mother Rose reassures the grief-stricken Nicholas that she wasn’t actually dead:
Here’s my problem: Rose instantly realized that Etta was caught in a wrinkle in the timeline; she knew that the light that claimed Etta wasn’t death, but time; she knew that time travelers’ bodies don’t disappear when they die. And yet none of the Ironwoods applied this logic to Julian’s situation–that he didn’t die, but was caught in a wrinkle and sent to an unknown place and time.
It makes sense that Nicholas himself didn’t know what a time traveler being orphaned looks like, or that a time traveler’s body doesn’t just disappear; time travelers receive an extensive education involving every aspect of their ability, but Nicholas–who, I remind you, is viewed as merely a servant to the Ironwood family–received almost no training at all before he was sent off as Julian’s valet. So I’m okay with Nicholas not realizing that Julian wasn’t dead.
But what about the Ironwoods? We’re told that Nicholas spent hours describing the event to Cyrus Ironwood; either (a) Nicholas left out the whole “his body burst into a shower of light and disappeared” part, or (b) Cyrus didn’t know what that signified.
And I, for one, can’t accept either of those possibilities. Nicholas is too careful, too thorough, too smart to leave out a major detail like that. Cyrus (a veteran/primary player in the massive inter-family war that left untold numbers of time travelers dead or orphaned) is too familiar with time travelers’ deaths–and what happens when timelines are changed, and travelers are orphaned–to not recognize what happened to Julian.
So here again we have a fine example of the author seemingly ignoring basic logic in favor of creating a dramatic situation (in this case, Nicholas’s terrible position within the Ironwood family, his desperation to free himself from them, and his lingering guilt, not to mention the grand twist/mystery of what happened to Julian).
I wish my major complaints were less major; this could’ve easily been a four-star book without the plot mistakes. As it is, I’m uncertain about giving such a terribly flawed book three full stars. I did enjoy it, though–especially the romance–so . . . I guess it’s okay? Um.
Spoiler Rating: Low
If you're looking for magic, looming war, sexy princes/ship captains, and strong sister-friendships, but you're not too picky about sound logic, consistency, or worldbuilding, have I got a book for you.
Despite its numerous flaws (don't worry, I'll get there), I really enjoyed Truthwitch—so I'll try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible.
On a continent ruled by three empires, some are born with a "witchery," a magical skill that sets them apart from others.
In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble—as two desperate young women know all too well.
Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lie. It's a powerful magic that many would kill to have on their side, especially amongst the nobility to which Safi was born. So Safi must keep her gift hidden, lest she be used as a pawn in the struggle between empires.
Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see the invisible ties that bind and entangle the lives around her—but she cannot see the bonds that touch her own heart. Her unlikely friendship with Safi has taken her from life as an outcast to one of reckless adventure, where she is a cool, wary balance to Safiya's hot-headed impulsiveness.
Safiya and Iseult just want to be free to live their own lives, but war is coming to the Witchlands. With the help of the cunning Prince Merik (a Windwitch and ship's captain) and the hindrance of a Bloodwitch bent on revenge, the friends must fight emperors, princes, and mercenaries alike, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.
The plot, in short: Safi and Iseult run for their lives.
Safi — a noblewoman (or domna) in a powerful empire, heir to her uncle's estate, but poor and wildly disinterested in doing the noblewoman thing. Big into conning people out of money (to purchase a new home), playing with swords, and Iseult.
Iseult — a failed/semi-incompetent Threadwitch who left her Nomatsi tribe to make a better life for herself elsewhere. (Nomatsi seem similar to our world's Roma, and are universally hated by other ethnic groups.) She's eternally bothered by how unThreadwitch-like her emotions are (which is to say, that she experiences emotions at all).
Merik — a sexy prince/sea captain, and temporary Admiral of his (dying?) father's navy. He's a sailor at heart, and probably would've been happy with his elder sister being their father's heir if she wasn't a cruel and reckless bitch. He's got a temper on him to match Safi's, so clearly they were destined.
Aeduan — a Carawan monk trained from zygotehood to be an elite fighter. Also a
bloodhound Bloodwitch, a super-rare witch type that gives him the ability to sniff out a person's magic type and personal scent, by which he can then hunt them down anywhere in the world. He's got the broody-murderer vibe going for him.
Lizzy, you'd love this so hard. Threadsiblings are friends bonded for life, and Truthwitch does a pretty great job of showing Safi and Iseult's mutual affection and support (and, to a lesser extent, the similar bond between Prince Merik and this Threadbrother, Kullen).
I especially loved seeing Safi threaten violence to protect Iseult—
—and Iseult threatening violence to protect Safi:
Who doesn't love a friendship that involves both balancing each other's flaws and a willingness to engage in bloodshed for each other's sake?
(That said, I would've liked more attention paid to Merik and Kullen's friendship. It didn't resonate with me quite a strongly as it should've, which led to some disappointingly bland scenes when [censored for spoilers] toward the end.)
(Also, I don't understand why Iseult kept the creepy dreams she starts having a secret from Safi. Their friendship is of the "we're in everything together" variety, and the dreams are hugely significant, as Iseult first suspects and later confirms; Iseult's hiding them from Safi struck me as weirdly out of character for her and their friendship.)
Whoops, didn't mean to start complaining here. Moving on.
I'm happy to inform you that Safi and Merik's romance has some great moments of both the snickering and the squeeing varieties, what with their rival tempers and excellent dance compatibility.
Even better, this wasn't a love-at-first sight thing. Their first impressions of each other aren't, uh, good, after which they spend most of their time fighting as they doggedly pursue their conflicting goals. There's physical attraction there from fairly early on, but emotions don't get involved until Safi starts changing as a person in ways that bring their goals into alignment.
I won't say this was the most (or even a particularly) convincing romance, but it was enjoyable enough to keep me anticipating their next scene together.
I've read a review or two criticizing the book's simple and repetitious plot: the women are in danger, so they run; they're in danger, so they run; they're in danger, so they run.
I was okay with this, because we're shown genuinely interesting hints of the greater conflict brewing behind the scenes (two thumbs up for that). This is just the first step in drawing Safi and Iseult into a continent-wide war, and as a first step it works okay.
I also loved how Iseult [censored for spoilers] with the future villain, and how Iseult and Safi are clearly the catalyst for incredible change, being [censored for spoilers] as they are. Ugh, Lizzy, it's awesome and you'd love it.
So why are Iseult and Safi on the run for
most the entire book? Because yes, they pissed off bloodhound Aeduan, but also because Safi's a Truthwitch, and Truthwitches—well—
That's all we're ever told about the danger Safi's abilities pose to her: that her power is "valuable" and "rare," and therefore politicians are willing to kill (her and others) to get their hands on it/prevent it from falling into their enemies' hands.
We're never told (a) exactly why her power is so "valuable," (b) how such a power has been used/abused in the past to make others deem it so dangerous that they'd kill a Truthwitch they can't control, and (c) why the "rare" Truthwitches are super valuable but the equally- (if not more-) "rare" Cursewitches and Bloodwitches aren't equally fought over/murdered.
Sorry, book, but I need more info than "she's a special magic snowflake, so her life's in danger of death-or-enslavement-by-monarch" if you're going to convince me that your premise is logically sound.
And is it just me, or does this premise—that knowing when someone is lying is such a powerful, valuable ability that heads of state will go into killing frenzies to possess or neutralize a Truthwitch—seem a little, oh, silly? I feel it suggests a naive understanding of politics. A Truthwitch present in any type of political setting would surely be laid low by the number of lies and half-truths and sly phrasings and careful omissions coming out of every single attendee's mouth.
And anyway, it'd be all too easy to circumvent an enemy monarch's Truthwitch's powers: just lie to your diplomat (or whoever) and not tell them it's a lie. The diplomat will speak for you, believing what they say is true. The Truthwitch will confirm that the diplomat isn't lying, the enemy monarch will believe the lie, and there. I solved your Truthwitch problem for you.
Now, perhaps if some long-ago king had intentionally spread rumors grossly exaggerating his Truthwitch's powers, and those rumors became accepted as the gold standard for Truthwitch abilities, I could see this book's premise working out. Sure, every monarch would go into a murder-frenzy to prevent their enemies from harnessing the power of a godlike being capable of confirming or denying the validity of any statement, claim, document, or unspoken thought.
But no. All anyone knows about Truthwitches is that they can tell if someone's lying. Which, again: what's the big deal? It can be a useful/harmful ability, sure, but it's not the earthshaking power the book wants me to think it is.
Unfortunately, my difficulty accepting the book's basic premise prevented me from taking the story's conflict as seriously as I'd have liked.
Oh, man. The insufficient explanations start on page one.
Safi and Iseult are planning to go full-on highwaymen on a carriage, hoping to steal back the money that was stolen from them. However:
They agree that their only means of escape is to sneak or fight their way through the guards to reach the ropes they've already set up on the cliff as their emergency escape route; they'll descend on the ropes, fall into the ocean, and swim to safety. Foolproof!
But, uh, why aren't they turning their back on the ocean and just running the hell away?
We're never told what the terrain is like behind them; is it a grassy slope? A forested slope? A rocky slope? Not much of a slope at all? Why on earth do they decide that fighting their way through soldiers, rappelling down a seventy-foot cliff, and swimming through rough ocean is their best shot at escaping when they could (presumably) just hightail it inland and circle back around to meet the road closer to the city?
Aaaaargh. I demand an explanation why the women don't take the obvious, logical escape route—an explanation that doesn't involve Because if they went that way, they wouldn't have fought bloodhound Aeduan and set the whole story in motion.
My first impression of this book wasn't exactly the best, let me tell you. And this is only the first example of several—but you get the point. I have questions, and I want them answered.
Just as aggravating as the general lack of explanations for things are the numerous inconsistencies. They weren't terrible mistakes (say, someone being killed in one scene, then reappearing alive later without comment) but nor were they superficial (like, a woman wearing blue pants one moment and wearing red pants the next); they were moderate mistakes that ruined the logic of some scenes, but not of the plot as a whole.
One inconsistency that I wonder will pop up in the rest of the series relates to Safi's Truthwitch abilities.
Early in the book, the narrator gives us some info about how rare Truthwitches are (very), how they were treated in the past (used and murdered by monarchs), and what their power consists of. The narrator phrases it very concisely:
Okay, so she can only discern lie or truth if when a person is in her immediate presence. Cool. But then why does her magic work with her history books—which, in case you weren't aware, aren't people?
So Safi was able to discern, merely by reading, that an (absent, unknown) author believed in what they wrote. This despite the narrator (and Safi) repeatedly making it clear that her power only works on people who are in Safi's physical presence. I mean, sure, Safi's still discovering the extent and limitations of her power, but inconsistencies like this give the impression that the author was the one still figuring out Safi's power as she wrote. And of course inconsistencies are to be expected in the writing process, but they have to be tidied up during the revision process—otherwise, you're left with a sloppy-feeling book and a grumpy Liam.
1. The worldbuilding felt weak and haphazard.
2. Iseult's and Aeduan's perspectives didn't hold my attention.
3. The Threadwitch idea is neat, but I felt that describing the threads solely by color was a huge missed opportunity. Why not also describe the threads' texture, sheen, number of strands per thread, how tightly or loosely or unevenly they're spun? "Her threads were gray with fear" is barely more evocative (or interesting) than "She was afraid." It'd be more vivid and engaging if those gray threads were described as thick and tightly-spun and slightly frayed, or whatever.
4. Safi and Merik's romance seemed to primarily involve falling (or rolling) on top of each other. Seriously, this happened four or five times.
I'd be okay with it happening once or twice, but seriously, book. This isn't the only way to create physical tension between your romantic leads. Try something new next time.
Despite my complaints, I really did enjoy Truthwitch, and I'll be eager to get my hands on its sequel (due out next year). I have high hopes for this series; let's see how it plays out.
Spoiler Rating: High-ish
This could be a very short letter; it'd read Yep, your review's spot on, followed by my thanks for saving me the trouble of having to type it up myself. Because really, you covered my thoughts perfectly.
But that'd feel like cheating (and wouldn't involve any pictures), so let's see if I can summarize and maybe add to what you've already covered.
My reaction to this book was simultaneous fangirling, indignation, and boredom; that's a horrible combination, and at this point, I have no idea how many stars to give it. Almost makes me want to adopt your no-stars-ever brand of reviewing.
Let's try to talk this out.
In the woods is a glass coffin. It rests right on the ground, and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives . . .
Hazel and her brother, Ben, live in Fairfold, where humans and the Folk exist side by side. Tourists drive in to see the lush wonders of Faerie and, most wonderfully of all, the horned boy. But visitors fail to see the danger.
Since they were children, Hazel and Ben have been telling each other stories about the boy in the glass coffin, that he is a prince and they are valiant knights, pretending their prince would be different from the other faeries, the ones who made cruel bargains, lurked in the shadows of trees, and doomed tourists. But as Hazel grows up, she puts aside those stories. Hazel knows the horned boy will never wake.
Until one day, he does . . .
As the world turns upside down, Hazel has to become the knight she once pretended to be. But as she's swept up in new love, with shifting loyalties and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?
I was all over:
I wish I could give the book a star for each of these elements and leave it at that. But no. It goes downhill from here.
There were many things–which you've already covered, Lizzie–that were sloppily presented in just the right way to make me feel rather insulted as a reader.
1. Parental absence/neglect
"This is meant to be the emotional core of the story," you said, and I'm inclined to agree. Shame that it's not particularly successful.
Yes, absent/neglectful parents provide an acceptable explanation for many YA books' surprisingly mature, independent, adult-like teen protagonists. But I'm sick to death of bohemian, artsy parents who're sooo devoted to their art that they have bills to pay and food to buy and oh yeah children to take care of.
Usually I can roll my eyes once at these parents and let the issue go, but this book kept throwing them at me.
And it wasn't just in a "Oh, here's the reason why Hazel's been able to tromp around killing faeries with a real sword since she was nine" sort of way (though that was a huge part of it); it was also in a "Oh, but they aren't actually bad parents, see, they're really loving and supportive now, isn't that great?" sort of way.
I can get over a book's conveniently absent parents, but I really start struggling when parents morph into the responsible, concerned, hug-offering type just in time for the book's emotional conclusion–especially if parenting (or neglect, or relationships, etc.) is significant to the story, and especially if the damage caused by neglect is waved away as unimportant, as it is here.
That said, I did appreciate that they were contrasted by a few other sets of parents:
(a) Jack's (human) parents, who provide Jack and his brother Carter with a well-maintained home, new clothes, emotional support, motivation to get good grades and enter good colleges, etc.,
(b) Jack's (faerie) parents, who I won't go into for spoiler reasons,
(c) the faerie prince's father, who is off-the-rails vicious and cruel, and who (among other things) cursed his son to an eternal magical slumber for disobeying him.
So the town of Fairfold–actually, just read this:
Imagine me with hands raised to the heavens begging whyyyy.
Why doesn't anyone outside of Fairfold notice four to eight tourists being brutally murdered/turned into stone/whatever every year? Why doesn't anyone (outside or inside Fairfold) do anything about it? Why do all the townsfolk of Fairfold (which is tiny) know about the faeries, but its police and emergency personnel somehow don't, and get confused and dismissive when confronted with what is clearly magic? Why do all of the townsfolk know about the faeries except that one girl, Molly, for no apparent reason, despite her being a local and partying at the sleeping prince's glass coffin like all the other locals?
I have so many desperate worldbuilding whyyys to complain about, and every single one of them pisses me off.
My plotting complaints are no different.
Why did the vicious Alderking suddenly decide (about 15 years ago) to let his faeries start killing humans? If faeries are so naturally bloodthirsty, why did he prevent them from killing humans in the first place? Why is he all offended that humans went to look at his son, whom he left in an enchanted sleep in the forest where anyone can find him? Why does he want to waste time destroying Fairfold when he could just, you know, get on with his revenge-against-the-Eastern-Court plan?
And so on, regarding too many different aspects of the plot.
You already know why these questions upset me: because the most obvious answer to them is because that's what the author required for the story/scene/line of dialogue to work. The plot (and worldbuilding) felt unconsidered and haphazard in a way that does, as you mentioned, seem to imply the author wrote without an outline, hoping that everything would come together along the way. And I am not a fan.
This book feels kind of tailor-made for me. So why the boredom?
Shallow, stilted, and rushed writing.
1. Jack vs. Townsfolk
Once the action really kicks off and Things Start Going Down (faerie-attacks style), the townsfolk decide that Jack's to blame; he's a changeling raised as a human, so he has to be linked to the attacks, right? Thus begins some conflict about defending Jack's honor against the townsfolk, who want to toss him back to the ravaging faeries in hopes of appeasing them.
But this conflict felt shallow and sudden; no one looked twice at Jack before this, but suddenly everyone was afraid of him and certain that he was somehow to blame for the attacks. Attacks made by bloodthirsty creatures who have been picking off tourists by the handful for years. But oh, suddenly it's Jack's fault, yep, naturally.
Until the very end, that is, when we're assured that the townsfolk's fear of Jack will disappear as quickly as it came:
That's not what I wanted to hear. Who can get emotionally involved in a conflict that flares up out of, then disappears into, the clear blue? Not me.
2. Hazel's Scars
Hazel endures some pretty traumatic stuff over the course of the story, and we're explicitly told toward the end that her experiences will scar her.
Except she's left remarkably scar-free. No struggling with, I don't know, nightmares or guilt or PTSD or anything.
We're specifically told that everything went back to normal, except that people sometimes asked Hazel for details about her experiences. So no scars for her after all, I guess?
The story needed more than a sentence about lingering scars; it needed to show me those scars, and how deeply they affect her. As it stands, the story concludes with an emotional thud.
3. Happily Ever After
This book concludes with two happy couples: Hazel with Jack, and Hazel's brother Ben with the faerie prince Severin. (All the thumbs up for the prince falling in love with a boy, oh my goodness.)
But wow, I was not convinced by these romances' closing scenes.
Hazel and Jack have a brief, stilted conversation about how Hazel's not sure she can date him (her arguments: a. she's traumatized by her experiences, and b. she's not experienced at dating), which culminates in a few cheesy, unrealistic-sounding paragraphs about how neither of them is normal, so they can have a not-normal relationship.
Jack even says, "We get to make this part up. We get to tell our own story," at the end of a book that's groaning beneath the weight of the fairy tales and folk tales and Arthurian romances that have influenced it.
Lizzie, I melted into an exasperated puddle. The author may as well have been winking and elbowing me in the side, all, "Eh? Eh? See what I did there?" when all I wanted was for Hazel and Jack to have a good, solid, emotionally realistic conclusion.
Ben and Severin's conclusion was more aggravating than silly: seemingly hours after the evil is defeated and Severin announces his love for Ben, Ben (who's a high school senior, mind) packs his bags and moves in with Severin in the faerie, uh, under-hill palace place.
Right, because ditching high school before you've even finished it to move in with a faerie prince you've really only just met isn't "running away to some other life" rather than "figuring out the one [you] have," no, not at all. And sure, it's totally reasonable to just assume that the immortal faerie prince who says he's in love with you won't agree to wait another few weeks or months for you to graduate before having you move in with him.
Is it too much of me to ask for a realistic happy ending for a boy and a faerie prince?
I still don't know how many stars this rates. Without the gender-role reversal and gay subplot stuff, it'd probably get two and a half stars? Perhaps? I'll give it three, I suppose. Eh.
Robin McKinley obsession shelf: The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, Deerskin.
Spoiler Rating: High
I know you love my rantiest letters, so I’m addressing this one to you. (Consider that your warning.)
Eighth Grade Bites was the quick, fluffy read I’d expected. It was also ridiculously nonsensical—ridiculous to the point that I kept dropping the book to go rant at Husband about this makes absolutely no sense and why on earth is this even happening aaaaugh.
That said, I kind of enjoyed it. Weirdly enough.
If you thought eighth grade was tough, try it with fangs and a fear of garlic.
Junior high school really sucks for thirteen-year-old Vladimir Tod, and not in the good slurp-up-the-blood kind of way. A gang of bullies harasses him daily, the principal is dogging his every move, and the girl he really likes prefers his best friend. Oh, and Vlad has to hide the fact that he’s a vampire.
When the one teacher he really connects with mysteriously vanishes, Vlad is determined to find him. But then Vlad finds an unsettling note scribbled across his essay: “I know your secret.”
Vlad must locate his missing teacher, dodge the principal, resist the bullies’ tempting invitations to Bite me!, and get a date for the dance—all before he is exposed for the teen vampire he is.
You’ll need more context than that to understand the rant I’m about to launch into, so let me give you a more in-depth explanation of the plot.
Spoilery Summary of Spoilers
The book opens with a nice gentleman being slaughtered-by-vampire in the woods for not revealing the whereabouts of one Vladimir Tod. There’s your missing teacher for you. He’s then replaced by this guy:
Mr. Otis rewrites the course curriculum to focus on supernatural beasties. Students have to draw a creature’s name out of a hat, and present a report on it:
Vlad’s pretty naturally relieved when his slip of paper reads werewolf, but Mr. Otis has different ideas:
Mr. Otis smugly informs Vlad he looks forward to Vlad’s report on being a vampire, and then proceeds to be super creepy and obviously a vampire for the next, I don’t know, hundred years until Vlad finally realizes, “Hey, dude’s a vampire.”
Meanwhile, Vlad finds some nifty vampire things in his attic, and also snoops around the dead teacher’s house for clues that might help him find the teacher. Instead of clues, Vlad finds Mr. Otis’s obnoxious top hat hanging up inside the dead teacher’s house. Uh oh.
Mr. Otis immediately jumps to the top of Vlad’s (otherwise empty) list of suspects who could’ve had a hand in the teacher’s disappearance.
Vlad later finds his dad’s journal, which provides insight into the secret vampiric society called Elysia. Vlad’s dad, Tomas, had fled Elysia when he fell in love with a human. Human/vampire relationships are verboten, but Tomas couldn’t give up his lady-love and their unborn son. So they fled—to a town about half an hour away from Elysia’s council’s headquarters, because I don’t even know.
(Okay. It’s cause that’s Vlad’s mom’s home town. But come on. Half an hour away from the council’s headquarters? The council that’d kill them all if it found them?)
Vlad was born half-vampire and half-human, and Tomas wrote in his journal that Vlad fulfills some prophecy. But don’t worry, it’s a good prophecy:
Back to the present. Mr. Otis continues to be suspicious, and apparently is consorting with an even-more-suspicious guy named D’Ablo, who’s after Tomas’s journal. Vlad (finally) realizes Mr. Otis is a vampire, and decides Mr. Otis killed his parents.
But no! Mr. Otis is Vlad’s uncle, come to warn Vlad and his family that Elysia was hunting them down with fangs a-gleaming.
Despite Mr. Otis’s best attempts, D’Ablo (the Elysian council president) kidnaps Vlad’s adopted aunt Nelly in an attempt to lure Vlad into the council’s grabby hands. Vlad, Mr. Otis, and Vlad’s friend Henry go to the council headquarters—where, for a few minutes, it looks like Mr. Otis is a bad guy after all—they free Aunt Nelly, and (thanks to Vlad’s nifty but weird vampire doodad, which he found in his attic) kill D’Ablo.
The story’s told in the third-person, following Vlad (usually)—but the narrative voice is so strongly Vlad that it feels like it was in the first-person. (I just had to double-check that it wasn’t first-person. Nope. It’s third-person.) Vlad’s voice is engaging and entertaining, a great combination of thirteen-year-old-male-mindset and adult-writer-knack-for-description. Such as here, when Vlad (who’s the opposite of popular) goes to a classmate’s Halloween party but ends up hiding out on the porch:
Vlad’s voice is simple, humorous, vivid, and emotional in just the right way. I’m a fan.
It’s a fluffy book, sure, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of conflict. It’s just, uh, not the conflict that the synopsis would leave you to believe.
According to the synopsis, this book’s about Vlad searching for a missing teacher, trying to keeping his secret a secret, dealing with bullies and his school’s principal, and attempting to woo a girl. Those are neat conflicts, but not actually significant to the plot. Well, the missing teacher is; not the rest.
This book actually focuses on the mysteries of Vlad’s vampireness and his family history.
We see not too much of Vlad’s crush Meredith, and almost nothing of Principal What’s-His-Face. The bullies actually serve Vlad’s character arc, but only appear a few times throughout the book. These are conflicts that give depth to Vlad’s personal life, rather than providing actual meat to the story.
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by all the (non-quotidian) mysteries and conflicts Vlad was faced with, and glad that not all of them were solved or resolved in the end.
Unfortunately, this is also where the criticism starts.
Mr. Otis’s Actions
Mr. Otis and his purple top hat are presented to Vlad (and the reader) with an ominous flourish; “Clearly,” the book tells us, “this is going to be a bad dude.” And indeed, he continues to be menacing and creepy and top-hatted until the big reveal of his unclehood to Vlad’s nephewness. When he tells Vlad and Aunt Nelly who he is, Aunt Nelly demands to know why Mr. Otis did all those creepy-menacing-vampire things that scared them so much. His reply:
Later, when asked specifically why he hadn't told Vlad who he was from the get-go, he elaborates:
Yeah. This centuries-old vampire couldn’t think of a better way to broach the subject of vampires with his (vampire) brother’s son than to assign the kid a report on vampires for his English class. Nor could this centuries-old vampire come up with a better way to get the kid to sit down and talk with him than by scaring the crap out of the boy and his aunt.
He then adds:
So his reason for not telling Vlad he’s a vampire is “That’s forbidden,” but in the next breath he says, “Oh, but yeah, I told your aunt even though that’s forbidden and I could be punished for it, but whatev, don’t care.” Sorry dude, but if your reason for not doing something is because it’s forbidden, and then you go and do that forbidden thing later on and don’t bat an eyelash at the whole forbidden part, I as the reader will be tossing you and the book you’re in straight across the room because that makes no sense.
I don’t know how to transcribe the sound of frustration that I’m currently making.
Why’s this frustrating? Because the author is prioritizing a plot twist (“Mr. Otis is Vlad’s uncle, and actually a good guy!”) over sense (“Mr. Otis, being the intelligent, centuries-old vampire that he is, would probably just approach Vlad and say, ‘Hey, I knew your father. Can we talk sometime?'”) The author wanted to generate conflict and intrigue, and chose to make Mr. Otis behave in unrealistically dumb ways to get that conflict and intrigue.
And no, this isn’t the only example of characters doing something uncharacteristic for the sake of the plot. It’s just the one that offended me the most.
The Vampire Tattoos
Now, I don’t have a problem with vampire tattoos as a concept. What I have a problem with is Vlad specifically getting a vampire tattoo.
In this world, a newly-made vampire receives a magical tattoo on their wrist. That tattoo is their name written in the vampire language, and it creates a magical bond between the person and the vampire society (Elysia) as a whole.
Tomas, Vlad’s father, had decided to burn the mark off of his own wrist after he fled Elysia and Vlad was born:
Vlad reads this in Tomas’s journal, so his first exposure to the concepts of both Elysia and the tattoo are along the lines of Elysia is hunting my family down to kill us, and the tattoo is a way for them to find us. His subsequent experiences with Elysia totally prove that thesis correct: Mr. Otis is creepy and menacing, D’Ablo (president of the Elysian council) is actively trying to destroy his family, the Elysian council is comprised of a bunch of cruel bastards who’d sooner see Vlad’s family dead than look at them twice. And so on.
But then, in the last pages of the book, Vlad asks Mr. Otis to stick around and help guide him, and Mr. Otis says he can’t. Vlad gets understandably sad about this, and Mr. Otis tries to comfort him:
Vlad asks Mr. Otis to give him a tattoo, and Mr. Otis agrees.
That’s right, Vlad. Go ahead and brand yourself with a magical tattoo that’ll magically connect you with all those vampires who want to kill you and your family—the same tattoo that your dad risked his life to get rid of in an attempt to save you all from slaughter. Good job. Well done.
Ashers, I am so sad right now.
The Little Things
The aggravating, nonsensical things aren’t just limited to the characters’ actions. No, you’ll also find aggravating, nonsensical things in the overall story development and world-building. Such as this gem, which I enjoyed so much that I made Husband read it aloud to me, so I could cry-laugh while listening to him experience it for the first time:
Oh my goodness, Ashers, I can’t. I just can’t. Vampires invented Latin. Vampires invented cities.
Hold on, trying to catch my breath.
In sum, yes, the number one problem I had with this novel is its overdose of nonsense. It was everywhere: in the characters, in the plot, in the world. It was staggeringly nonsensical in a way that had me wavering between hilarity and indignation. Which was, to be honest, weirdly enjoyable.
So maybe you would enjoy spending a couple hours reading this book. It’s very short (under 200 pages), and it’s on my bookshelf if you ever want it. Just let me know.
Spoiler Rating: Low-ish
I've been in a state of anticipatory fidgets since I heard about Serpentine several months ago. Cindy Pon's previous books didn't impress me, but Serpentine promised four of my favorite things:
Fidgets were obviously called for.
Unfortunately, the novel wasn't as well executed as I'd hoped—I'd give it about two stars for style and several aggravating bits—but I'll be honest: those four wonderful things were wonderful, and worth at least four stars on their own. Averaging that out to three stars seems fair.
But I'm obsessed with mythical snake-ish figures of all types; I probably would've docked half a star if Skybright had turned out to be yet another wolf- or feline-shifter. I'm definitely biased, and Serpentine played right into those biases.
I think this is the first time I've felt so much affection (and so little annoyance) for a book that ultimately disappointed me. Weird.
A lush portrayal of life in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology, this sweeping fantasy tells the coming of age of a girl who worries about the startling changes in her body. Sixteen-year-old Skybright, a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a wealthy family, experiences a growing otherness so troubling, she will risk everything to conceal her dark secret from everyone, including the boy she's falling in love with.
The relationship between Skybright and her mistress/best friend Zhen Ni is complicated: they were raised together, and Skybright is bound to Zhen Ni for life (unless Zhen Ni inexplicably decides to free her of her lowly handmaid status). Skybright's secure in the knowledge that even when Zhen Ni marries, she'll still hold that Best Friend slot in Zhen Ni's heart because a husband is just some dude your parents decide you'll marry.
But Skybright wasn't counting on Zhen Ni falling in love with a girl. When family guest Lan arrives (with her pretty face and marvelous laugh), Skybright realizes that maybe Zhen Ni can have a companion who's both best friend and lover. The result: Skybright feels totally betrayed.
Skybright's doing some betraying of her own, keeping her newfound serpent-shifting abilities secret from Zhen Ni.
What follows are delicious friendship complications, with all three girls struggling within their complex and seemingly doomed relationships:
Even greater: it's Skybright's friendship with Zhen Ni that pushes a lot of the plot forward, not Skybright's romance with boy-who-lives-in-the-nearby-monastery-but-isn't-actually-a-monk Kai Sen. In this way the story's reminiscent of Sanctum; but unlike Sanctum, we can relish in the friendship because the girls spend much of the book together.
So I kind of lied: romance pushes the plot forward as much as friendship does—but it's the secondary characters' lesbian romance that does the pushing, and only because it affects Zhen Ni and Skybright's friendship. This would've been a very different book if it had been missing either the friendship element or the lesbian-secondary-romance element.
Because it's a secondary romance, it's not portrayed in detail. We watch it develop through Skybright's (jealous, confused, betrayed) viewpoint, and she doesn't exactly idle her time away taking notes on lesbian courtship rituals. She has other problems to deal with. Demon problems. (Demon problems that aren't referenced in the book's synopsis, for some reason.)
The book struck a pretty good balance between friendship/lesbian-romance problems and demon problems. Two thumbs up.
Skybright and Zhen Ni
I'm kind of in love with how flawed by Skybright and Zhen Ni are. Zhen Ni loves deeply, but she's also a selfish brat:
Skybright has good intentions, but also shows cowardice and jealousy:
They both make dumb decisions over the course of the story, but their decisions are the natural and understandable products of their character flaws.
It is so damn refreshing not to complain about characters doing uncharacteristically dumb things for the sake of plot.
Guys, It Has a Theme
There's a fantastic theme that's reflected in multiple characters throughout the book, and that theme is responsibility. More specifically, that undesirable responsibility you'd do anything to avoid, but can't; you have to accept it for the greater good of the people around you. Or, as Zhen Ni's mother so eloquently puts it (after whipping Skybright and Zhen Ni):
We see several characters struggle beneath the weight of responsibilities that require them to act against their own desires. Seeing a theme at work in multiple characters like this makes for pretty satisfying reading. (Hey, authors. Do this more often.)
That said, Skybright herself doesn't reflect this theme very well; the sacrifices she makes aren't out of responsibility to the greater good. Mark this down as something that should be in my list of disappointments. Can't win them all, I guess.
The Writing Style
Serpentine generally tries to craft a vivid scene for the reader, providing details of architecture, clothing, plants, and food:
But the writing style is very simple, relying on regular ol' standard phrases to describe things. The day was hot, the fish darted, the wooden railing was carved. This made the descriptions more bland than evocative.
Interesting descriptions use the element of surprise and newness, presenting the reader with a word or phrase that they've never seen in connection to the thing being described. (For example: I was delighted to read the noise of a turning toilet paper roll described as "its staccato" in Lolita. That was such a perfect, unexpected description.)
Serpentine sometimes attempts interesting descriptions, but not often:
Scars that resemble an animal's stripes are neat, but that neat image is preceded by a slew of dull ones: a growling stomach, ginger steps, opening a window, time described as a few hours past dawn instead of whatever she sees out the window, slowly dressing, brushing her hair, winding her hair into braids, scabs that reveal (pale) new skin.
The writing style also relies heavily on telling instead of showing the reader what's going on inside Skybright's head. Here's an example from very early on, when Skybright's about to have her fortune read by a Madame Lo:
I like "the damp of her palms," but the rest of that paragraph is kind of a slog. Just so much explanation. The result is a flat, blah writing style that was difficult to get into.
It also prevented me from bonding with the characters. Yeah, I liked Skybright and Zhen Ni's personal flaws, but they were ultimately pretty bland. A more vivid or interesting writing style (along with more character development) could've perked them right up.
Weirdly, the writing style took an abrupt downward turn as the antagonist appears in the climax. I won't describe the scene for you because spoilers, but let's just say that I read the page three times and still don't have a good mental image of what happened. Also, the antagonist arrived with the dumbest Villainous Monologue two-liner ever. It is so bad.
Kai Sen is Skybright's love interest, and she first lays eyes on him when peeking over the monastery's high walls to see what monks do all day:
She later learns he was raised by the monastery's abbot after his parents abandoned him:
Kai Sen's your standard romance guy, with a good laugh and a nice body and not much personality. I shouldn't have been surprised when they wound up falling in love after spending a grand total of, oh, maybe five hours in each other's company.
I could buy them experiencing physical attraction, giddy fantasies of what their relationship could become, and the first eager steps toward love—but not True Love itself.
For a book that otherwise took such a pragmatic and honest approach to love as experienced in its fictional society (you don't marry for love; affection might develop after a decade or so with your spouse, if you're fortunate), Skybright and Kai Sen's romance felt fake and melodramatic.
Kai Sen as the Abbot's Heir
I'm assuming the author chose not to make Kai Sen a monk so he and Skybright can (a) have sex, and (b) enjoy the glimmering potential of a committed relationship down the road. As a monk, Kai Sen would've been bound to his monastery and vow of celibacy.
That's fine, except we later learn that the abbot intended Kai Sen to become his heir. Heir to the monastery. As in, the next abbot.
To remind you: the abbot explicitly refused to raise Kai Sen to be a monk. The monks Kai Sen grew up with know he's incapable of becoming one of them because the abbot won't accept him as one.
So how on earth could not-a-monk Kai Sen become the next abbot? I have no idea.
And there's no real (read: plot-related) reason for Kai Sen to be the abbot's heir in the first place. Okay, yes, it plays a teeny-tiny role in the climax, but the same result could've been achieved through other, more logical means.
It's just so confusing and unnecessary and illogical and aaaaugh.
The Misleading Synopsis
Finally, a minor complaint about the synopsis. I can't help but wonder if the person who wrote it even bothered to read the book, because (1) Serpentine is not a "sweeping fantasy," (2) it does not offer "[a] lush portrayal of life in the ancient Kingdom of Xia," and (3) the synopsis doesn't even reference the major exciting conflict of the story (which, as I mentioned earlier, involves demon problems).
I don't mind its failure to reference the demon problems so much, but my reading experience did suffer from my belief that Serpentine was going to be a "sweeping fantasy" providing a "lush portrayal of life" in this kingdom. Those phrases had me expecting a much richer display of worldbuilding than actually awaited me. Serpentine focuses very tightly on Skybright and her relationships with Zhen Ni and Kai Sen, and we don't see much of the kingdom/society outside of Zhen Ni's quiet manor and the forest around Kai Sen's monastery.
I frown on synopses that get my hopes up for something the book doesn't provide, and this synopsis earns a full-on glower.
Something else that should've gone into the Reasons For My Affection section is the tone of the book's ending. It's not a cliffhanger, but neither is it a happily-ever-after. Skybright's left with a clear goal (and a strong motivation to pursue that goal) for the sequel, and we're left with the feeling that her story's just begun.
And yes, I will snatch up book two the moment it's released. I need more of what Serpentine offered, asap.
Spoiler Rating: High
I read The Wrath and the Dawn with hopes for great things. The current state of those hopes: a congealed mess of frustration, rage, and plaintive calls of whyyyyy.
As I write this, only 2% of the people who've reviewed the book on Goodreads have as low an opinion of it as I do. A staggering 50% of reviewers have given it five stars.
Let me explain why I'm voting with the minority on this one.
One Life to One Dawn.
In a land ruled by a murderous boy-king, each dawn brings heartache to a new family. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, is a monster. Each night he takes a new bride only to have a silk cord wrapped around her throat come morning. When sixteen-year-old Shahrzad's dearest friend falls victim to Khalid, Shahrzad vows vengeance and volunteers to be his next bride. Shahrzad is determined not only to stay alive, but to end the caliph's reign of terror once and for all.
Night after night, Shahrzad beguiles Khalid, weaving stories that enchant, ensuring her survival, though she knows each dawn could be her last. But something she never expected begins to happen: Khalid is nothing like what she'd imagined him to be. This monster is a boy with a tormented heart. Incredibly, Shahrzad finds herself falling in love. How is this possible? It's an unforgivable betrayal. Still, Shahrzad has come to understand all is not as it seems in this palace of marble and stone. She resolves to uncover whatever secrets lurk and, despite her love, be ready to take Khalid's life as retribution for the many lives he's stolen. Can their love survive this world of stories and secrets?
Inspired by A Thousand and One Nights, The Wrath and the Dawn is a sumptuous and enthralling read from beginning to end.
The Writing Style
The first fifteen pages of the book had me firmly in its enchanting little grasp. I mean, just look at this:
But the lovely descriptions could only do so much; on the whole, I found the writing style melodramatic and off-putting.
My eyes first started a-rolling on page sixteen, when Likable Young Man Tariq accidentally causes an elderly man to drop a basket of fruit:
I won't lie, I think this is hilarious. It's straight out of a rom-com: time slows down and music swells as the hero's gaze lifts to meet the heroine's. I imagined the elderly man gaping at Tariq's sexiness, and perhaps needing a few minutes to regain his strength after Tariq walks away.
I'm assuming the author had intended me to feel awed and weakened by studly Tariq. Alas, I was too busy giggling to be seduced.
In another moment of melodrama, Shahrzad's handmaid (Despina) reveals her secret pregnancy by vomiting into the lid of a soup tureen. The father is Khalid's cousin Jalal, who doesn't know (a) Despina loves him, and (b) he's impregnated her. Shahrzad and Despina argue about telling Jalal, then:
Judging from the serious tone of the scene, the "world of chaos" that had "been unleashed" refers to Despina's situation—but the book never explains why her situation is so dire. Sure, it'll be difficult for her, but I don't buy this the world is crumbling around them stuff.
It also read as an unintentionally hilarious metaphor for vomiting.
Another complaint: the writing style relied heavily on short sentences and abrupt sentence fragments, most of which were separated into individual paragraphs. I'll be the first to point out that I do this myself, but not this much. I find this style unspeakably irritating when overused.
It's even worse when it connects multiple broken paragraphs with ellipses and em-dashes:
It's a technique that can be powerful when used sparingly, but in The Wrath and the Dawn it's all over every page. I'm not even kidding.
The Dull, Unlikable Characters
This book has a fairly large cast of characters, but I'll just summarize the four main(-ish) ones for you.
This is a story with immense potential for fascinating, vibrant characters, but not one was able to capture my attention.
The writing style issues didn't help, of course. Take this standard argumentative-ish interaction between Jalal and Khalid:
Riveting, huh? And here's a taste of Shahrzad and Khalid for you. (Note: Khalid has just entered her room and finds her in bed. He asks if he woke her and if she's tired. She says "no" to both questions.)
Yes, this scene is positively swirling with intensity.
I was going to offer a few more examples of standard character interactions to illustrate my these people are boring point, but the two I've already given you have depressed me.
In sum: my reaction to every single character (except Jalal, whom I only rather liked) ranged from annoyance to disinterest, and I'm done talking about them.
The Plot & Pacing
Not a lot happens in The Wrath and the Dawn. It can be summarized thusly:
Shahrzad spends the book scowling about how she needs to kill Khalid but his presence is glorious and he makes her heart flutter. Occasionally we see glimpses of Khalid angsting about Shahrzad's lilac-scented hair. Neither of them do anything. Shahrzad never even attempts to murder Khalid, which is the reason she married him in the first place.
Tariq provides some action by scurrying around to gather support for his cause, but his subplot felt glossed-over, and he struck me as a fool whose struggles weren't worth my emotional investment anyway.
Oh, and in case you were wondering about the Great Mystery of Khalid's Murdering of the Brides: it's not a mystery. His motivation is explained in the book's prologue.
Sure, the prologue doesn't tell us who cursed him or whose life he took, but it's made clear that Khalid is a decent guy trying to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. He's sacrificing a hundred brides to save the thousands who live in his kingdom, but he's eaten with guilt about it because heaven forbid the heroine's love interest be anything but sympathetic from the first page.
Thanks, prologue, for robbing me of what could've been some fantastic tension and mystery.
The (Horrible, Horrible) Romance
Okay. This is the worst part.
This whole story exists because Khalid murdered Shahrzad's best friend, Shiva, and Shahrzad is determined to avenge Shiva's death.
It's been a year minus two days since you died, Lizzy, and it was no trouble at all to empathize with both Shahrzad's loss and (when I imagined how I'd feel if you'd been murdered) her rage. Honestly, it's because I can relate to Shahrzad's loss so strongly that I'm furious rather than just grumpy about the romance in this book.
Here's how the romance unfolds. They meet for the first time at their wedding, have disinterested sex Shahrzad is raped (which elicits no apparent mental/emotional response or repercussions at all for Shahrzad, excuse me while I am consumed with rage), and they spend the rest of the night storytelling. The next day, Shahrzad catches herself wanting to know what he thinks about her:
The first day passes, and on that second night together (still without any hint of how Shahrzad responds emotionally/mentally to having sex with being raped by her best friend's murderer, aaaaugh), she starts obsessing over why Khalid will have sex with her use her sexually but won't kiss her:
On the second day, she and her handmaid spy on the menfolk as they hold a private tournament. Shahrzad tells herself she just wants to assess how well Khalid can defend himself from a physical attack, but his swordsmanship isn't what's on her mind when he steps into the arena:
That's right. Approximately forty hours after marrying him, Shahrzad's all flustered over and jealously protective of Khalid's sweaty chest.
Lizzy, if you'd been killed and I was plotting to assassinate your (serial-killer) murderer, I can assure you that it would take me more than a day and a half to feel attracted to them. I'm guessing it would take months at the very least before I could even view them as a person—especially if their reason for killing you was still a mystery to me.
Shahrzad doesn't learn the reason for Shiva's death until nearly the end of the book. That's right, she spends the entirety of the book in love with Khalid despite having not a single clue why he murdered her best friend and dozens of other girls.
This book's trivialization of the loss of a lifelong sister-friendship is disgusting, reducing it from an excruciating experience to a convenient (and inconsistent) plot device. "Oh, sure, losing your beloved sister sucks, but look: it's a hot, brooding guy! No mere sisterly grief can withstand these chiseled abs!" I'm crying actual rage-tears as I write this. It's infuriating.
How I'd (Maybe) Salvage This Story
Things would've been a bit different if I'd had the writing of this book. For example:
These changes wouldn't solve all of the book's issues, but you get the idea. My version would respect Shahrzad's friendship with Shiva. It'd have a realistic, romantic romance. It'd have action and fleshier characters and by God it'd make sense. I mean, yes, I'm flattering myself saying I could pull all that off. But it'd at least be what I strove for.
I had a few other complaints to mention, but I'm just done.
Will I be picking up the sequel? Not unless reviewers I respect have good things to say about it. I'm too personally offended by this one.
Now excuse me while my rage and I curl up with a cup of coffee.
I love you,
Spoiler Rating: Moderate
Finest of Katies,
NaNoWriMo Week Three is done (no, I won't talk about my word count), and I finally have a self-published novel to tell you about!
Don't let my one-and-a-half-star rating scare you off. Dragonoak: The Complete History of Kastelir is flawed, sure, but it has some good stuff going on.
But I found myself reading Dragonoak as a first draft submitted to my writing group: a promising, fresh, malleable thing in need of serious revisions, not a finished work. Unfortunately, I have to rate it as the published novel it is, not the novel it could become. It'd get more than a measly one and a half stars if I could rate it on its promise alone.
I should mention I initially found Sam Farren on Tumblr, where I'm a devoted follower of their snake blog. (Even Andrew, who's snake-ambivalent, thinks Toffee is adorable.) Farren doesn't know I exist, but if you're worried that I'm biased, feel free to keep that in mind.
Okay, to the critique.
After being exiled to the farmland around her village, Rowan Northwood takes the only chance at freedom she might ever get: she runs away with a passing Knight and doesn't look back. The woman cares nothing for Rowan's company, but nor does she seem perturbed by the powers that burn within her.
Rowan soon learns that the scope of their journey is more than a desperate grasp at adventure. She breaks away from the weighty judgement of her village, but has no choice but to abandon her Kingdom altogether. Sir Ightham's past leads them through Kastelir, a country draped in the shadow of its long-dead Queen—a woman who was all tusks and claws and great, spiralling horns.
Hiding her necromancy is no longer Rowan's greatest challenge, and what leads them across Kingdoms and through mountains is a heavier burden than she ever could've imagined.
(Side note: race doesn't appear to be a source of tension in Dragonoak. However, it's worth pointing out that Rowan, the main character and first-person narrator, is a farmer from a small village, and she's described as a person of color. Sir Ightham, who is of much higher birth and was raised in the capital city, and who has attained the exalted position of Knight, is white.)
I'll only discuss the most significant four things that could improve, because this isn't an actual critique for my writing group and I need limits. Four seems like a good limit.
Let's see how well I stick to it.
Thing The First: Narrative Technique
1. The Narrator Isn't The Protagonist
Protagonists must overcome obstacles to achieve a goal; their struggles are the point of their story. The people who actually tell that story are narrators. The protagonist and the narrator don't always have to be the same person, but sometimes--like here--using two separate people for those roles can have a significant, negative impact on the story.
Rowan narrates Dragonoak in the first person, and possesses none of the traits of a protagonist (goal, obstacles to overcome, antagonist, character arc, climactic goal-related moment, etc.). Throughout the book, Rowan just tags along behind Sir Ightham and sightsees.
Meanwhile, Sir Ightham has a Super Secret Quest that takes her through kingdoms and across wilderness; it has her fleeing pursuit, collecting confidential information, and scheming with some very powerful people. But the details of Sir Ightham's quest are kept hidden from the reader, because Rowan doesn't know about/isn't involved in it. (Italics for emphasis.) Rowan/the reader doesn't find out what Sir Ightham's up to until very late in the book--and even then, Rowan still doesn't get involved. She continues to just hang about while Sir Ightham is protagonisting off-screen.
This is agonizing. Yes, splitting the narrator and the protagonist can be an effective storytelling technique, but that's not the case in this particular version of this particular story. It left me hobbled to Rowan the Aimless Tourist when I really wanted to be questing alongside Bad Ass Sir Ightham.
Do I think this problem could be fixed? Definitely, with serious revisions. But (as I obviously still haven't accepted) this isn't a manuscript, and I need to let go of my dream of seeing those revisions realized. (Why is it so hard to let go?)
2. Rowan Is Somehow Omniscient
For a first-person narrator, Rowan knows an awful lot about what's going on in the minds of the people around her. Take, for example, this group of bandits:
Two issues here: (1) the "self-proclaimed leader" never actually told Rowan and Sir Ightham that he's the leader, so it appears Rowan already knows the history of this particular group of bandits; (2) the leader scowled silently, but Rowan knows exactly why he scowled.
Another sign of an omniscient first-person narrator is the liberal use of phrases like "as though," "I knew," "no doubt," "seemed," and so on. These phrases appear innocent enough, especially when they imply some doubt ("as though"), but they become dangerous when the writer relies on them to tell the reader what's really going on in the non-point-of-view character's head.
Although there are many possible reasons for Sir Ightham to pinch her lips, Rowan immediately jumps to a specific conclusion--a conclusion that the reader is supposed to believe is accurate.
This type of mistake is common for several reasons, including:
(i.) The writer has a hard time divorcing themselves from the viewpoint character, leading to a sort of bleed-over of knowledge from the author to the character.
(ii.) The writer's writing style relies on telling the reader what they need to know ("Our eyes met, and he scowled as if he'd hoped to never see me again") rather than showing the reader and trusting that the reader will figure it out ("Our eyes met, and he recoiled, smile souring").
Although it's not enjoyable to read, this mistake is easy to fix, and certainly not the end of the world.
Thing The Second: Conflict And Pacing
Some key facts about conflict:
Frankly, I'm not clear on what the story's theme is, nor did I see any character arcs. Which is, you know, not a good thing.
On top of that, there just isn't much conflict in Dragonoak. Sir Ightham's quest is surely conflict-filled, but (again) it's kept Super Secret for most of the book.
Rowan's sightseeing, meanwhile, is inconsequential; she's not struggling for or with anything, not accomplishing anything, not learning anything significant. Yes, there are a few times when Rowan seems to be in danger of drawing attention that'll get her burned at the stake (the standard fate for necromancers), but those tense moments quickly dissipate without any interesting follow-through.
Now, there are a couple of false/minor conflicts that involve both Rowan and Sir Ightham:
That said, there are two really fantastic, A+, two-thumbs-up obstacles thrown in Sir Ightham's path. No, I won't tell you what they are, because spoilers.
What makes them fantastic, A+, two-thumbs-up obstacles? Two things.
Unfortunately, both conflicts come very late in the story; you have to push through a great deal of Rowan the Tourist Touristing About before you get to them. Also unfortunately, the first of those two conflicts isn't handled quite as realistically as I would've liked, and therefore isn't as powerful as it could've been.
In sum, this story--which is a whopping 160,000-ish words, far exceeding the norm for fantasy novels--is 75% conflict-free traveling, followed by two brief periods of conflict (themselves separated by casual sightseeing). Clearly, pacing is an issue.
Thing The Third: Nuanced Portrayals Of People
One reason why I adore Maggie Stiefvater's writing is how nuanced her portrayal of each character is. They aren't characters at all, they're people: complex, idiosyncratic, and lovingly described by an author who knows them as intimately as she knows herself. You learn something about each character from, like, the way they hold a pencil or turn pages in a book. Her portrayals are immersive and gorgeous, and oh my goodness hold on I'm having a writer-crush moment. Just thinking about her writing gets my heart a-flutter.
Now, I'm not saying that every writer has to achieve Stiefvater levels of nuance in order to be successful. I'm saying that some nuance is important to make the characters people, and that a lack of nuance results in characters who read like cardboard cutouts: they're the same size and shape as people, but lack the depth required to convince me that they are people.
Dragonoak has plenty of nuanced moments, some of which are especially well written, but it also has too many instances of cardboard cutouts. For the sake of making any sense at all, I'll break those cardboardish moments down into three types: portraying emotions, portraying change, and portraying groups.
1. Portraying Emotions
A lack of nuance turns emotions (which are complex) and their expressions (which are complex) into simplified equations.
A writer who doesn't pause to consider to the finer details of (a) the situation and (b) their character's emotion and behavior is prone to thinking, "Okay, the character is nervous. Nervous people fidget and stammer," and will rarely deviate from that stereotypical description of nervousness.
But how emotions are expressed varies widely between people and situations. When I'm in a room full of strangers whose eyes are all on me, I get the flushed-nauseous-trembling sort of nervous that takes a few minutes to recover from. When I need to mingle and get to know a roomful of strangers, I get the smiling-inquisitive-engaging sort of nervous that can (apparently) pass as not being nervousness at all. This is because--surprise--I'm a real person, and I react to different situations differently, even if the primary emotion I'm feeling is essentially the same.
How a person experiences and expresses their emotions can also be influenced by what they'd been feeling/doing the moment before. A teen who's furious at her parents probably won't turn all glitter and rainbows when they give her a piece of good news; that anger will affect how she experiences and portrays her sudden happiness (if she even feels happiness at all; the anger might be too strong). Meanwhile, a writer who doesn't consider the nuance of this teen's emotions might say that she went from Stereotypical Anger (crossed arms, scowling) to Stereotypical Happiness (laughing, grinning) in the space of a few seconds.
The result are characters who all display their emotions in unrealistic and, frankly, boring ways.
(Trust me, I know. My computer's full of old novels and stories populated with cardboard characters; they're so boring that I can't bring myself to read them, and I wrote them myself. That's terrible.)
This isn't always an issue in Dragonoak--like I said, the book has its nuanced moments--but those cardboard emotional displays popped up more often than I would've preferred in a book that's already published.
2. Portraying Change
People typically change in increments; depending on what about a person is changing (maturity level, personal or religious beliefs, their understanding of themselves or their society, etc.), it's a process that can take weeks, months, years, or lifetimes to complete.
If a writer doesn't consider the finer details of how people change, a character's major change can be reduced to (at worst) a switch that's instantaneously flipped from one position to the opposite. An immature brat becomes respectful and responsible overnight; a do-gooder morphs abruptly into an evil villain.
In Dragonoak, Rowan recognizes and overcomes her own extreme prejudice. Character arcs that involve unlearning prejudices are awesome, and I really like the set-up for Rowan's prejudice. However, when one's prejudices run as deep and powerful as Rowan's, the process of unlearning them should realistically take quite some time--certainly much longer than the mere days it takes Rowan to shed hers.
Had this change taken a more realistic amount of time, it could've added some neat conflicts and tension to the story. But it was cut too short, and as a result, it didn't offer anything useful or even interesting to the story.
3. Portraying Groups
It might be easiest to pinpoint a lack of nuance in descriptions of groups of people; groups become a single entity, all identically experiencing the same thought or emotion.
No two people will have exactly the same reaction to anything, much less a group of several hundred. Regarding the second excerpt, I expect there'd be the "emergency mode" people who get focused and serious during a crisis, there'd be the "practical mode" people who just stay on task because the situation could get messier if they don't, there'd be the "take-advantage-of-this-opportunity mode" people who might decide this is their chance to steal something or leave an unexpected gift in their crush's bag or go take a nap while their boss is otherwise occupied. And so on, forever.
Describing a group of people, especially a very large group, as all experiencing exactly the same emotion (especially if they're all displaying that emotion in the same general way) is unrealistic and boring. I want to read about various people struggling with and expressing a variety of emotions, not cardboard cutouts identically mimicking identical emotions.
In sum: I'm not a fan of simplified portrayals of characters' emotions or arcs. Nuance is where it's at.
Thing The Fourth: Research Is Important
Writers exist in a lifelong state of research, which often involves looking up information about things they have no personal knowledge of but are going to be writing about. You can't very well write a novel set in ninth-century Japan if you don't know anything about ninth-century Japan.
Okay, you can write that novel, but you'll get tons of things horribly wrong, and those errors will affect how well your novel is received, especially among readers who do know something (or can make educated guesses) about ninth-century Japan.
Sloppy research or a lack of research can, in short, cause hang-ups for readers that the writer hadn't anticipated.
Me, I get fidgety when anything horse-related isn't accurately portrayed because (1) I'm a horse person and like seeing things done correctly, and (2) it's quite easy for non-horse-people to research horse things, so there's generally no excuse for getting the basics wrong.
Dragonoak had some issues with its horses that set me a bit atwitch.
1. Characters Mishandling Their Horses
Characters who own and work with their horses (such as a knight and a farm girl) should reasonably know how to handle those horses. Sir Ightham and Rowan, uh, don't. Such as here, when Rowan's riding her horse Charley and bandits come upon them in the forest:
Horses are not humans; they're prey animals. Prey animals whose panic isn't soothed by hugging because, again, they're not humans. A rider on a nervous, fidgety horse is best off remaining calm and quiet in the saddle, in hopes that their calm will in turn calm the horse. Leaning forward to hug a nervous horse's neck (1) will put the rider dangerously off-balance should the horse shy suddenly, (2) will make it very difficult for the rider to control the horse, and (3) could actually increase the horse's confusion and alarm about the situation.
These characters also spend a lot of time tugging their reins to make their horses go. Reins are (one of several tools used) for steering and slowing a horse; the rider's legs (and/or clicking of the tongue or a verbal command) are used to cue the horse to go. Also, the word "tug" denotes pulling forcefully, which is bad horsemanship in its own right.
2. Characters Failing To Care For Their Horses
Rowan and Sir Ightham should presumably also know basic horse care, such as the fact that saddles and bridles can't be left on 24/7. There's a serious potential for injury to the horse (and damage to the tack) if a horse's tack isn't removed regularly.
Here's a particularly twitch-worthy example for you. The humans are heading to a town high in the mountains, and the route they take won't accommodate the horses. So what do they do with the horses?
Once again the horses are left saddled and bridled for days, but here they're tied to trees, unsupervised, in a remote field at the base of remote mountains. I can foresee nothing but terrible things for these horses.
And so on.
Will everyone who reads this book notice these horse-related errors? No. Can a book's errors on any subject (horses, history, how something's made or used, etc.) affect how readers experience and enjoy the book? Yes.
Fortunately, the horses and the way they're handled didn't influence the plot. They just serve as a gentle reminder that writers really should take the time to do their research.
Okay. I said I'd limit my critique to the four most important points, and I think I technically succeeded.
Would I recommend you read Dragonoak? I'm not sure. It's rough and very long, but it's also promising, with a lovely touch of romance. I guess it depends on whether you have the time and patience to devote to a novel that isn't well plotted and executed. (Which I know you don't, since you're finishing your doctorate and teaching and generally bad-assing around.)
I will say that there's a very good chance I'll be picking up its sequel eventually. Farren's an imaginative writer with interesting stories to tell (seriously, I hope they write a prequel telling Rán's story), and I'd like to see how their writing improves.
In the meantime, I've picked up a few new lesbian YA novels that I plan to read in the next several months; all fingers are crossed that they turn out well.