Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Midnight

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Book Title: Midnight
Author: Derek Landy
Series: Skulduggery Pleasant #11
Date Started: May 29th 2018
Date Completed: May 30th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Action, Adventure, Horror, Mystery
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Stars
Final Rating: Four stars
Review:

Skulduggery is back once again, but it's not all smiles and rainbows (unless you get the limited edition with bonus content, which I highly recommend because that last page made my year). The second Skulduggery series takes on its dark magical world in quite a different way to its predesscor, and while I love it dearly, it's not quite the same. And it shouldn't have to be; the whole point is that the world has changed after what our heroes went through in the first nine books. I have trust that Derek knows what he's doing (just don't tell him, or we'll never hear the end of it).

I feel like someone needs to set up a line for all of these characters with free hugs at the end, but everyone could use at least a dozen. It's very doom and gloom - and don't get me wrong, Skulduggery has always been dark and not just a little twisted, but there was always hope, there were always laughs and motivation to keep going, just because they can. And those are still there. But the tone is different now. The characters don't so much have that same motivation anymore. It's definitely going back to its horror roots, which isn't a genre I'm as familiar with. But I'm willing to be converted, it just might take a bit longer.

But, I will argue that this shift in tone is both a strength and a weakness. I really like the attitude to violence and its consequences we have these days; it's not just fun to be in battle, it is genuinely hurting people. Is that right, is that fair? They're not so much questions being answered, but ones that the characters are asking of themselves, especially Val. That thoughtfulness is done without criticising its older instances, but instead by shifting our perspectives as Val is. It's very well done, as is the commentary on American politics, immigration and many other things. I'd find myself sitting there nodding, agreeing, even smilling at how nice it is to see some common decency acknowledged for what it is. It's not there for the sake of it, which is how it should be done, but the drawback was that sometimes it felt like it was being commented on more than the story was. Action, commentary, action. The plot isn't so much about solving mysteries anymore, but it gave people clear goals they woudl stride to; Midnight is more about the character overcoming what's being forced in front of them.

As with every Skuldggery review I've ever written, I always like to take a little time to comment on Valkyrie, because she's the beating soul of this story. Each character is just as real and alive as the last, but Val is the rock that gets beaten, molded and stays with us, the audience, as we traverse the story. To say that seeing her hurt and vulnerable after everything she's been through in the original series reduces the power of these books would be ridiculous, because it's what is continuing to make this story so vivid and resonant. She is hurt, she is regretful, but she also tries to be better when she falls into those old habits. Whether it's my personal attachment to her or the character itself, Valkyrie is an even stronger character than she used to be because now she struggles all the more. Yes, she was never fearless exactly, so she was brave. But Val has finally hit that wall that all of us do when we get old enough to really comprehend what mortality is, and what it means for everything around us as well as ourselves. Val's crisis, really, is about what mortality, magic and consequence means to everyone else, and how she can't control that anymore. You can only really do that with a character who you've seen be (comparatively) carefree, and I'm continually impressed at how Derek is managing to evolve my childhood stories without crushing them. This isn't in with the old and out with the new; it's 'this was the old. Now we have to live with it'.

A bit more on the technical side than coming from the heart, but I wouldn't miss Midnight and its sequels for the world. It gets bonus points for Tanith, and minus points for not enough Tanith. (I'll forgive if we get another solo Tanith book - please? I'm begging here.)

Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Raven King

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Book Title: The Raven King
Author: Nora Sakavic
Series: All for the Game #2
Date Started: May 10th 2018
Date Completed: May 18th 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Stars
Final Rating: Four stars
Review:

These are good'uns. I'm really glad that I was persuaded to pick these up for the first time, and I also hope they continue to get recognition. There's a cult following - and I think that's the perfect audience for this story - but a part of me wants everyone to notice them because they're damn good.

The structure of these books is always a little bit weird, and I really wish they had a proper conclusion. We tend to get a dramatic climax three quarters through and then other drama for the rest of the book that doesn't quite meet the height that's been established, so it almost feels like something else is being built up to - but then it just finishes. On the one hand I like the fact we get to see the consequences of the 'final battle', but at the same time I'm left feeling unsatisfied; there's an arc that's been restarted and cut off abruptly.

We also get a lot of info dumping in these books. I'm sure it's why big publishers haven't picked it up (what the hell else could it be, these books are gold), but I do catch myself still engaging with it. The difference between this and what you see in other stories that need to give the reader exposition is that it's useful and will come into play later in the plot. Sakavic is giving you the details you need to know to understand the weight of events when they happen, even if it is a lot at a time. And, as someone who isn't familiar with the US school system and its sports obsession, it's quite useful to understand what's actually happened. (Also, Exy is a fictional sport, right? Because I wouldn't have been able to tell if I hadn't googled it. It seems perfectly believable and Sakavic writes it with cool effortless confidence).

The stakes are very high considering this is a book about a group of outsiders playing a sports game. Now, call me a naïve Brit, but to me making this literally a life-and-death situation for the characters is impresive to say the least. And it's what makes this series so engaging. Maybe there are some points where it feels a little too dramatic for what's happening, but the people fit so perfectly into the world Sakavic has carved out for them that it works.

And when you come down to it, undeniable, the characters are what make this series. There's astounding depth to their relationships; no one is forgotten or glossed over; each and everyone one of them feel like a real person. That's what gives the All for the Game series its cult following. It's the best kind of character writing, really, because all the drama comes from interactions. And that's damn hard to do. The physical things they do create action, but the beating heart are the people that are performing those actions and why they're doing them. I could also talk about representation and how hard it is to write characters who are violent, hurtful, antisocial and still show them as human, but we'd be here for a century. You can read it to see for yourself.

I don't know what to expect from the last book in this series. As I've said, the conclusions to these books tend to be their weak spot, but there'll have to be a proper finish next time. I'm excited for it.

Monday, 7 May 2018

To Kill a Kingdom

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Book Title: To Kill a Kingdom
Author: Alexandra Christo
Date Started: May 1st 2018
Date Completed: May 7th 2018
Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Romance
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Two Stars
Final Rating: Two stars
Review:

◆ Thanks to NetGalley for this ebook for review ◆

Oh boy, oh boy, am I salty about this one. To Kill a Kingdom has a fantastic concept - and I'm serious about that. The Little Mermaid but the mermaid is a murderer and the prince is a seafaring siren hunter. It sounds amazing. And in practice, it's -almost - amazing. So you have to understand me when I say that I am so very very upset this was written the way it is. Because I nearly put it down about five or six times before completely giving up, and I still only made it 37% of the way through.


This isn't dark, it's just abusive. There's no weight to it, no emotional stakes. Just pulled strings for the sake of being edgy, and I think it's dangerous because these characters are going through what, in theory, are really horrific and terrible things. But the emotional backlash is being so glossed over that it's almost romanticsed and I don't think that's at all fair. Maybe if it wasn't marketed as dark and didn't end up going on to be a romance (which, let's be honest, was obvious from the second you heard she kills princes, I mean there isn't even any convincing attempt to suggest otherwise). Dark is when bad things happen and they feed into the story because a person can't possible go through it without it affecting their story. This felt like it was trying to get on the YA bestsellers list by being edgy.



I think that Elian was also of more interest to the author than Lira was. I know she's trying to push a strong female protagonist, but when your male lead has a more interesting story - which you devote about twice as many speaking lines, chapter perspectives, active decisions to and more - you're shooting the woman in the foot. You can still have strong female characters without them being the protagonists, and that's okay if that's the story that needs to be told. But so much of what I read in this book was a specific story that didn't make logical sense as to what the characters believed and how they had acted by until that point. I couldn't engage with the plot because all that I could think was 'this doesn't make sense', 'how does that work?', 'why are they doing that?'



Going back to the unconvincing darkness to further this, I struggled with this book because the people weren't real enough to be believable. An example being that Lira, our protagonist, hates her one-dimensional-force-of-upmost evil mother, but will do whatever she says. Despite thinking of herself as a rebel? And yet says she's fearsome, but doesn't react like a person scared of another person at all. Why? Because she's protecting her friend? Having someone to defend doesn't evaporate your fear, it gives you a reason to push through it. I didn't feel like Lira was having to push through anything. She was just bad-mouthed and volatile to the whims of whatever the plot needed. (There was a moment where I thought she was going to have her voice taken away, like in the original fairytale - I mean they literally say she'll be 'without her voice' - and that we might get a chance for her to actually have to act and grow as a person. But no, we can't possibly have our spunky heroine without the ability to drone on annoyingly for no purpose than her own arrogance.)


Maybe I'm overreacting. I feel like every point I have to make about this isn't dramatic enough for me to rate it as lowly as I have. But at the same time, I just don't feel like I can give it any higher. I know some people are enjoying it, and I'm happy for them, but I just cannot stomach lazy, underdeveloped, contradictory and consequently problematic writing.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Charmcaster

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Book Title: Charmcaster
Author: Sebastian de Castell
Series: Spellslinger #3
Date Started: April 26th 2018
Date Completed: May 1st 2018
Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Action
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Stars
Final Rating: Three stars
Review:

◆ Thanks to NetGalley and Hot Key Books for this ebook for review ◆

These books are still fun, but it's the world rather than the action that keeps bringing me back.

Each story in this series has its own plot, sure, but they do feel quite repetitive. But that's also where the world-building really shines through because despite it being predictable it's still really engaging. I feel like an attempt was made at the end of Charmcaster to raise the stakes by just adding a couple more climaxes, but they kind of cancelled each other out. I'd rather than longer climaxes with a bit more magic, but that's just me. Undeniably, though, this is a series that benefits from its desire to wander; you just want to keep exploring and discovering and the best thing about these books is that it is more than happy to take you on that adventure.

I like how the relationships still feel like they're growing. Again, it's an aspect of the world-building, but it's pulled off well. The Argosi and how their culture is rubbing off on Kellen especially. Deus ex Argosi is arguably in play, but you can see how far our protagonist has learnt from it. Again, it is something that is changing even if the structure isn't, so it's definitely worth coming back to these for me. I just can't help the feeling that I'm waiting to be given a twist I didn't see coming.

In theory, these female characters are awesome, but Castell just cannot write their personalities in the scenes themselves. Past Ferius, they're flat and typical and it's so frustrating because they're varied and powerful! I mean the representation alone is wonderful; genuinely, so many characters are female it's a joy to read. And they're in positions of power, positions of courage, positions of intellect. But damn, their dialogue does not reflect it unless they're playing the bad guy.

Still enjoying the series, still coming back to it, but I'm waiting for the big twist.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

West

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Book Title: West
Author: Edith Pattou
Series: East #2
Date Started: April 12th 2018
Date Completed: April 23rd 2018
Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Romance, Historical
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Stars
Final Rating: Three stars
Review:


◆ Thanks to NetGalley for this ebook for review ◆


My rating for this one keeps jumping up and down. I was a bit underwhelmed while reading, but every time I put it down I'd find myself replaying little sections. In the end, having had the time to step back from it, I think of it more fondly than while I was reading. Take that as you will.



As an older reader, reading East again with its simplistic style didn't matter too much because it was fuelled by nostalgia. I adored it as a child. Reading a new story with its very straightforward writing was a bit harder. It's both a blessing and a curse because there's a timelessness to it, a real nod to fairytales. Its ambiguous style lifts it in some ways, but it also means that important twists and action scenes are underwhelming: they're described in three or four points and then it's finished. It's not quite as satisfying when you feel so personally attached to the characters (whereas in a fairytale the protagonist is often androgynous and unspecified).



Ultimately, as much as I enjoyed the parallels to the first story, it didn't add much new. If you broke down the structure of West it'd probably be identical to East, and when you consider that Rose is essentially on her own search again, the White Bear is trying to find this identity, and Neddy is trying to unite his people, it's the same story all over again. And, to be fair, we do look at different things, but I'm not as attached to them. Where East beat with a heart of exploration, filled with maps and compasses, West replaces them with more practical mountain climbing and wind directions. It's still interesting, and I suppose it's grown with the characters now in their adult forms, but it wasn't as whimsical. Worth the read? Yes. But maybe not so close to reading the first book.



How to make me love Rose even more than I already did? Give her a sword. Goddamnit, I am weak. Of course, Rose was already a heroine authors should look up to; she was active and determined without needing a weapon. I think she's scaled maybe three or four mountains largely by herself at this point. Most importantly, she empowers others. It stretches the imagination sometimes, how adoringly they all look at her, but I think it's believable too. She's the beating heart of this story (even though it was a shame we still don't really get to know Charles at all).



I was a bit disappointed while reading West, but the more I think about it the fonder I am of it. I remember it like a fairytale, and that's a hard thing to achieve, but it doesn't sit so much like a novel. It works better recounted than experienced.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

The Miniaturist

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Book Title: The Miniaturist
Author: Jessie Burton
Date Started: April 1st 2018
Date Completed: April 7th 2018
Genres: Historical, Mystery, Adult
Quality Rating: Five Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Stars
Final Rating: Five stars
Review:

It's rare you find a book with a story so compelling; that unfolds so naturally as if it isn't written at all. To then find that it has beautiful writing as well is even rarer. I thoroughly enjoyed The Miniaturist, even having watched the BBC adaptation so I already knew the story.

For me, this is diverse historical fiction. It's how you write a feminist story (that features varying minorities) that is still accurate to the time period and society it's set in. The history of Amsterdam is so interesting, and even without being a primary focus I feel like I learnt a lot about general everyday life, especially about the kinds of people that aren't recorded in history.

Nella is an interesting protagonist because she begins entirely believing in how she's been raised. She has such clear expectations and anticipation for what she'll have to endure, and suddenly she's thrown into a whole different game and has to tread water herself. So often these days I find myself seeing character arcs that are simply triumphing over evil instead of personal development. But through experience, hard learning and actively starting to make decisions when she thought she couldn't, Nella completely transforms.

The book is just as enjoyable as the show - and as accessible too. It's a very faithful adaptation but I felt like I was discovering it all over again. I'm quite glad I read it after watching the show since I knew to pay attention to the slow-burning plot and have the patience for the politics. That being said, it's all so engaging regardless of your historical knowledge that I would've loved it anyway.

Friday, 30 March 2018

East

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Book Title: East
Author: Edith Pattou
Series: East #1
Date Started: March 27th 2018
Date Completed: March 30th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Adventure, Historical
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Stars
Final Rating: Five stars
Review:


It's very weird timing that I decided to reread East (or North Child, as I read it). I just felt like reliving something I loved in my childhood, only to get halfway through, have a look on GoodReads and see that it has a sequel coming out in a few months. Ended out working quite well - the only problem is I want West now.

It's my kind of fairytale retelling; faithful to the original but with its own kicks for a modern sense of society and politics. Of course Rose drives that, but the themes are suited for a more recent audience. The book is based on the fairytale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, a Norweigan folktale that some might compare to Beauty and the Beast, though it deals with quite a different set of themes and ideas. While the French fairytale is more focused on things like purity and love overcoming the animal instinct and beastly aggression, East of the Sun and West of the Moon explores things like unspoken loyalty, trust and determination.

This is a beautifully period-centric piece. It tells the story as you'd imagine it in the traditional fairytale, but it's still universal and timeless in its themes and storyline. I can't speak for how accurate its representations are, but it makes me want to find out more about the various cultures featured, especially at this time in history. The fact that such a fantastical story is grounded in history is really interesting (I'm not sure if it is so in the original fairytale or not); it somehow makes the events grander. Really, it's a love letter to historic voyages; mapmaking, hiking, apprentices, royal families, humans are the mercy of a greater being are all tied in. It's not hard to see why I loved it so much as a child: it's everything the great explorer I wished I was could need.

Rose embodies the ambiguous heroine from the traditional fairytale but has her own dramatic agency. I think that's ultimately what a fairytale retelling should do (or at least if they're trying to stay true to the original - I understand modern adaptations have a whole different set of rules to deal with), and Pattou aims for a feminist twist with her protagonist's unrelenting determination. There were times when I started to get analytical about her characterisation - a scriptwriter at heart, that's me - but actually I was always impressed. Rose actively solves the problems given to her, and her companions give her aid but never save her - only the white bear goes for the protection of Rose herself in the climax. I like that, and I think for younger readers it's especially empowering: anyone can put their chin up and try to make things better, even if you're scared and you have help and you don't totally suceed. It's the trying that counts.

East is a brilliant book for younger readers, maybe on the cusp of moving over from children's/middle grade, and can be enjoyed by any age group. It's a case study for fairytale retellings, and an example of solid feminist representation without making your character a caricature. I look forward to reading it's newly announced sequel and rejoining Rose and her white bear.