A Court of Wings and Ruin (Sarah J Maas)

5 stars

Spoilers linger ahead, turn back if thou hast not read ACOWAR.

“I would have waited five hundred more years for you. A thousand years. And if this was all the time we were allowed to have… the wait was worth it.”

I think that, luckily, I didn’t go into this book expecting ACOMAF. Why? Because it’s the end of an arc, there’s war, destruction, pain, whilst ACOMAF was about healing, and joy and wonder. I also went into this with my heart in my throat, wondering whether, as a bisexual wlw, I would find this book as offensive as the internet had been saying. I was actually in quite a dark place starting this book, my grandmother had just died, I was 1000 miles from home and horribly homesick, I could feel my anxiety as a constant pressure in my chest. The ACOTAR series has always been like a comfort blanket for me, too many times I’ve curled up with ‘don’t let the hard days win’ on my lips. The thought that had been planted in me, that this book could hurt me, made me feel ill, I desperately didn’t want it to be true. I made sure to read it critically, listening to what people had been saying, but, personally, as a bi woman I didn’t find any of it offensive (though I agree, the acephobic is painfully acephobic). There are definitely one or two things I would love to just sit down and educate Sarah about, namely NB genders, but I felt that there was a real effort made to include more diverse identities in this book. I’ve seen a lot of people saying that Sarah ignores the comments made about her lack of diversity, but I think this book really does show that she’s listening.

ACOWAR begins maybe a week after ACOMAF left off, with Feyre infiltrating the Spring Court, now allied with Hybern, and gathering information for the Court of Dreamers. Feyre is playing the part of a ‘perfect Bride of Spring’, painting, helping organize festivals…sowing unrest and discord in the Court. When commanders from Hybern arrive in the Court, alongside the dastardly Jurian, so begins a dangerous game…

I will start by saying that I know this book, or indeed any of Sarah’s books, are not for everyone. This entire series is about love, romance and sex, so if that’s not your cup of tea then you might as well pick up another book. There are lines in here that I find incredibly beautiful and others find incredibly cheesy. I’m pretty sure that a couple of years ago I would not have enjoyed this series as much as I do now. How we enjoy books is never based entirely on the books, but also on things we have experienced, things that have happened to us…

‘Night Triumphant- and the Stars Eternal. If he was the sweet, terrifying darkness, I was the glittering light that only his shadows could make clear.’

If you don’t subscribe to the soulmate philosophy, then I can just tell you straight off the bat that some parts of this will make you want to scream. I am, however, an enormous romantic; the idea of finding a partner where both of you are the better for your partnership, just makes me well up. The relationship between Feyre and Rhysand across this series is just so perfect, so secure and safe and heartfelt, it’s really going to be hard to find another couple that can even come close. They’re just so good for each other, both feeling able to lower their masks and open their hearts to one another. The mating bond is definitely a magical extension of the intuitive nature of some relationships. I also really enjoyed that there were some times where the two of them stepped on one another’s toes, where they annoyed or worried the other. I honestly don’t think a relationship is as strong as it originally seems until you’ve seen it weather a storm, or ford a river crossing. Arguments are natural, expected, it would be bizarre if couples didn’t disagree about some things.

Feyre
Feyre’s growth as a character in this book was just incredible. Watching her embrace her fears and say and do the things that had always lived somewhere deep in her heart was just so gratifying. Feyre, the woman who had survived homelessness, starvation, torture, accepting her past, accepting herself and mastering the mirror…wow, I was so impressed with her arc. I also enjoyed that she wasn’t instinctively good at flying, did not master the skill in an unbelievable time frame and would probably need to keep working on it even after the end of the book. Watching Feyre grow into a true High Lady, and how her relationships blossomed with the other members of the Court of Dreamers, drawing out the truth of each of the characters…ah, I’m so ready to reread and experience that all again.

Rhys
I’d seen some comments that Rhysand seemed out of character, ‘too soft’, in this book and I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about that. In ACOTAR we saw only the mask, in ACOMAF the mask slipped away, in ACOWAR we saw the heart of Rhys. I honestly believe that, from the end of ACOMAF, Rhys knew that he would die, that his gentleness in this book came from constant integration of every possibility and the realization that all of them ended in his death. He takes every moment of happiness he possibly can, makes sure, with every moment, that Feyre knows that he loves her and would spend every second of eternity with her if he could.

“The great joy and honour of my life has been to know you. To call you my family. And I am grateful – more than I can possibly say – that I was given this time with you all”

I know that a lot of people relate to Feyre, but, personally, I relate more with Rhysand. Feyre’s depression is very visible, very obvious, whilst Rhys hides his behind a mask of half smiles and glib comments, isolating himself from those he loves because he considers himself a burden. Feyre wastes away, Rhys is actively reckless with his life, spending every ounce of himself and his self worth upon those he loves. Even his beast form, with its cruel talons and inhuman face, seems like a metaphor for internalised self loathing, a part of himself that he really hates to let others see. You feel as if Rhys has always been hiding parts of himself, well before Amarantha’s torture, that from a young age he was aware of the suffering around him and that it pained him.

‘Everyone insists Rhysand is soulless, wicked. But the male I knew was the most decent of them all.’ (Jurian)

He was written so well, so honestly, that I could almost know what he was going to do before he did it. The respect that he has for Feyre, his trust in her and her abilities honestly made me well up in places. Feeling and caring, sensitivity and gentleness and love does not make someone weak, and I didn’t really like the implication that Rhysand was in this book. If you think that a man dealing with trauma and fear and the coming of war is ‘weak’, then you’re part of the problem and you can come and fight me to be honest.

The Court of Dreams
I won’t lie, the moment we met Cassian in the snow of the Winter Court, I wanted to be the one to throw my arms around his chest. I missed my Court of Dreamers so much in the Spring Court, I missed their laughter, joy and support for one another. Seeing Feyre becoming an integral part of that circle, to see their love for Rhys become love for Feyre…eugh, my heart. I think the dynamic of the Court, watching as Nesta, Elain and, towards the end, Lucien, became enveloped to varying extents into their circle, was just…I loved it.

I liked Cassian and Azriel in ACOMAF, but, after finishing ACOWAR I adored them. Seeing how much they cared for Feyre, not just as Rhys’ mate, not just as High Lady, but as a friend…how they would die for her and for her sisters, I have no words for how much I felt about that. Azriel’s rage at hearing how Tamlin had turned violent around Feyre, his gentleness around broken Elain, Cassian’s desperation to save Nesta even when his body was broken…the depth of their love for those around them is just unbounded. I personally, would love to see Azriel and Elain happy together, multiple times throughout the book Sarah’s pointed out that sometimes the mating bond just doesn’t work, just isn’t right and I think even Lucien has come to see their bond as something strange and inexplicable. I ship Lucien with Vassa to be honest, I feel that would be one hell of a relationship, and I really think he deserves someone who loves him as much as he loves them, especially after all that Ianthe did to him. Gentle Elain with her green fingers, her love of beauty and her fierce loyalty to her family, Azriel whose life has been shadows and pain but has seen the joy of love from afar…I just want them to be happy. If that happiness is together or in another pairing I don’t mind, just let them be happy.

Nesta and Cassian were just…I already enjoyed their relationship in ACOMAF, but there’s so much more depth in ACOWAR, with even Nesta letting her own mask slip when concerned about the Illyrian General. I will be disappointed, to say the least, if one of the novels is not about these two, I think there is so much more to be said with them, bear in mind that they only met one another in a time of war when so much else was at stake. Does it matter whether the mating bond snaps into place for them? Not really, I always got the feeling that being ‘mated’ was actually not all that common, a little like finding your soul mate and, I almost wonder whether you kind of had to be looking for your soulmate for that to happen. I can’t imagine that was particularly high on either Nesta or Cassian’s priorities. Relationships are different for everyone and I don’t think a relationship without a mating bond is lesser to one with. But who knows, maybe it will snap into place at some point in the next few books.

I’ve seen some people say that they think the inner circle are a bit too blasé, a bit silly almost and I have some things to say about that. I’m a ‘military brat’, I grew up surrounded by battle hardened soldiers and one thing they have almost universally is the most childish sense of humour I have ever come across, sure it dips into darkness every now and then, but for the majority of the time eye rolling and tongue sticking out it entirely par for course. I mean, even for me as a Doctor, do you honestly think we’re serious all the time. Dealing with death painfully often makes you more likely to be cracking dumb jokes and not giving a crap what anyone thinks about it, because you know too much about the frailty of life.

I felt really bad for Mor in this book, really bad…it seemed that, whilst the situation was terrible for everyone, it was really unravelling for her. Being forced to interact with abusers…watching compromise having to be made with those abusers, I mean, there was no choice, without the Autumn Court, without Keir’s forces, they would not have won, but still, it would really have had a serious impact on Mor’s security. For her to maybe no longer feel that she’s safe in her own city, eugh, my heart hurt reading that part. My heart hurt when Feyre yelled at her about things she couldn’t understand, when she struggled to find a way to explain to Azriel that she could not love him that way, when Feyre tricked her into letting her go to the Middle…seriously, Mor really got dealt some of the most painful blows in this book. I just hope that Sarah gives her a wonderful, loving lady in later books, and I hope that the splintering of the relationship between her and the rest of the circle is healed with time.

Sexual Identity
Since Rhys’ mask came down in ACOMAF, I’ve read him as demisexual, someone who feels sexual attraction only to those they have an emotional bond with. The emotional bond doesn’t have to be ‘true love’, just emotional intimacy and trust. I don’t think Sarah wrote him that way intentionally, I just honestly think that lots of people are demisexual but maybe have never considered that part of themselves. It’s an identity that I’ve been turning over in my hands, trying to get a feel for, wondering whether it might apply to me for a while, and I read a lot of my own feelings in Rhys, his flirtations with those other than Feyre not filled with any real sexual desire. You get the feeling he’d never really act on anything without truly knowing them, truly feeling as if he could trust them. The idea that much of that had to do with his trauma at the hands of Amarantha, doesn’t make his potential demisexuality any less valid. Being hurt and betrayed by others can definitely impact on your romantic and sexual identities.

That leads very much into the next point that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I came into this book expecting that I might find problems with the way that Mor ‘being a lesbian’ was handled, only to find that she wasn’t even a lesbian at all! From what I understand as a bi wlw, Mor is a homoromantic bisexual, which means that she enjoys sex with more than one gender but is more often than not only romantically attracted to her own gender. ‘I prefer females‘ seems to be the line that has confused people. The thing is, it is perfectly valid as a bi person to be more attracted to a specific gender, bisexuality is a spectrum and it is perfectly normal to feel more attraction to certain genders than others and still consider yourself attracted to all. The fact that she seems unsatisfied after her sex with Helion seems more to do with the fact she was only having sex with Helion to avoid having to talk to Azriel than the fact that she didn’t like taking male lovers.

‘I do find pleasure in them. In both. But I’ve known, since I was little more than a child, that I prefer females. That I’m…attracted to them more over males. That I connect with them, care for them more on that soul-deep level.’

Homoromantic bisexual…that is literally what she is describing. She’s not bad lesbian rep because she’s not a lesbian at all. It is not homophobic for Mor to say that sometimes she wants male lovers, because she’s bisexual, and erasing that part of her identity is just gross, please stop. I actually found Mor’s story heartbreaking because I see so many similarities with myself.

‘It was Nephelle and her lover- now her wife, I suppose- who made me dare to try. They made me so jealous. Not of them personally, but just…of what they had. Their openness.’

Because being in the closet off the internet can be so heartbreakingly difficult. Seeing people so open in their love and just not being able to find it in yourself to explain the way that you feel to family and friends because some part of you is so scared that it could tear everything asunder, destroy everything that you have. Even the part of Mor that can’t love Azriel, I relate to that so much…I once had a friend that I adored, one of the best friends I ever had, and he loved me in a different way to how I loved him. I tried a relationship because part of me thought that being lovers can’t be that different to being friends, but every time he kissed me or touched me I felt repulsed, because I just didn’t love him that way and in the end I had to explain that and it destroyed our friendship. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him that way that hurt, it was that I had lied to myself and lied to him about the fact I just didn’t see him that way.

So, I don’t think Mor’s story is bad rep, I think that it’s complicated rep, maybe too complicated for a YA book (not that I really think ACOTAR is YA) but at the same time, reading through ACOMAF I honestly think that Mor has been queer right from the start and I was really happy to see parts of myself in Sarah’s books where there had been very few queer identities before.

There are two more points about sexual identity that I want to deal with, Helion and that acephobic paragraph.

‘Dagdan and Brannagh had listened to her fawning with enough boredom that I was starting to wonder if the two of them perhaps preferred no one’s company but each other’s. In whatever unholy capacity. Not a blink of interest toward the beauty who often made males and females stop to gape. Perhaps any sort of physical passion had long ago been drained away, alongside their souls.’

Everytime I see that paragraph I groan because it is acephobic, I don’t think she intended it to be, I genuinely think she was probably horrified when she found out. It reads more like ignorance than malice. Two characters, evil, twins, probably incestuous…literally, this paragraph causes me physical pain because I can just see how hurtful it could be to people and I just honestly don’t believe that Sarah had any idea that it was the case. Being on the internet, learning about different sexual identities, having asexual friends has opened my eyes, but if you haven’t had that kind of awakening…I know lots of people who hold a lot of internalised bullshit that they’ve not yet worked through. This reads a lot like that, and I hope that it leads to some reading that stops it happening again. I honestly don’t believe that a single person exists on this planet who doesn’t hold some kind of internal bigotry, the important part is recognizing that and working to erase it from your thought process and prevent it from hurting others.

Now, Helion…I’ve also seen some very angry stuff online about how he’s a trope, how he’s a hypersexualised stereotype and biphobic, which I don’t agree with? Not all bisexuals fit into a nice little box, some of us really like sex, others not so much, some of us are poly, others not…saying a bisexual character is biphobic for enjoying sex or wanting a threesome is kind of hurtful. Is someone’s bisexuality less valid if they like these things? That sounds an awful lot like slut shaming. I can understand some people not seeing it as representative of their bisexuality but I think it’s disingenuous to say it is outright biphobic, not when other bisexual characters such as Rhy Maresh and Monty (A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue) also are shown as louche and flirtatious and don’t get half of the vitriol. Helion’s love of sex is literally mentioned once, at that point, and, if I remember correctly, not again after that. He has a really interesting character development, and a story that I hope Sarah goes into more detail in later books. I’m really fascinated to see how the news that he is Lucien’s father goes down!!

Diversity
So, one of the things that Sarah has been panned for in the past is her lack of diversity, and I agree, most of Throne of Glass was the whitest, most hetero thing I have ever read. You can tell from ACOWAR that she is really listening and trying. Many of the High Lords we are introduced to in this books are POC, Drakon and Miryam are POC, Lucien is biracial, Illyrians are confirmed as brown, not simply tan, making Rhys, the main love interest, not white. There are definitely some identities missing, for example, trans and NB characters and more varied sexualities, but this book was almost unrecognizable to the white out of TOG and is substantially more diverse than many fantasy books I’ve read recently.

Conclusion
I think it’s obvious from this enormous review that I have a LOT of thoughts about this book and what it does well and maybe what it does not so well. I knew when I started reading that it would not be another ACOMAF, this is book about pain, war and loss, about the fear of waking up one more to a world without the one you love. The ending filled my heart with joy. It was 3am and I was sitting in the dark, clutching my kindle and sobbing because I was just so satisfied and so excited to see more of the world that Sarah has created. Maybe not perfect, but complicated and beautiful.

False Hearts (Laura Lam)

5 stars

So, this is actually a review that I wrote well before I had this blog. It was my first ever ARC review, but it’s still one of my favourite books and, rather excitingly, Laura Lam has a new book ‘Shattered Minds’, set in the same world and coming out soon. So, now seemed like a great time to rec this awesome, diverse, beautifully written book. Hope you enjoy!

“I finished False Hearts a couple of hours ago but had to give myself some time to marinade  because, you know, incoherent screaming doesn’t make a very good book review.

I reviewed the preview of ‘False Hearts’ by Laura Lam ( @lauraroselam) a couple of days ago, basically concluding that, dear lord, I wanted to read the rest of this book and fast. Thanks to Pan Macmillan and Netgalley I was able to get a full copy to review and I’m sure the question you want to know the answer to is ‘was it as good as you thought it was going to be?’

Yes

Oh, yes…

To put this in perspective, when I’m writing a review I tend to make two lists, one of parts I liked, one of elements I didn’t like, but I really struggled to find things to put in the second column. It felt disingenuous to try and find something wrong with this book so, you know what, I accepted that I just honestly loved it.

So what’s the ‘basic’ premise?

Raised in the closed cult of Mana’s Hearth and denied access to modern technology, conjoined sisters Taema and Tila dream of a life beyond the walls of the compound. When the heart they share begins to fail, the twins escape to San Francisco, where they are surgically separated and given new artificial hearts. From then on they pursue lives beyond anything they could have previously imagined.


Ten years later, Tila returns one night to the twins’ home in the city, terrified and covered in blood, just before the police arrive and arrest her for murder–the first homicide by a civilian in decades. Tila is suspected of involvement with the Ratel, a powerful crime syndicate that deals in the flow of Zeal, a drug that allows violent minds to enact their darkest desires in a terrifying dreamscape. Taema is given a proposition: go undercover as her sister and perhaps save her twin’s life. But during her investigation Taema discovers disturbing links between the twins’ past and their present. Once unable to keep anything from each other, the sisters now discover the true cost of secrets.

(Macmillan-Tor/Forge)

The world building is just so good. A corporate owned San Francisco, devoid of crime, running on pure green energy, every citizen augmented. Use of psychoactive technology means every violent or abhorrent thought or fantasy is exorcised through dreams. You see the world through the eyes of the twins who spent their childhood in a woodland cult, deprived of access to the implants and technology that people view as standard. You view this world with the same mild bewilderment that the sisters are feeling, as an outsider.

We have Tila, the adventurer, the twin who always wants to forge ahead, and Taema, the twin who you almost feel started life in Tila’s shadow. The events of the book mean these roles have to swap, we see a Taema who, initially, seems woefully out of her depth, a Tila with the situation ripped from her hands. There’s this wonderful juxtaposition of forward fighting Tila forced to look backwards and the more retiring Taema having to take the plunge into the future for them both.

I fell in love with the tech in this world. I have an intercalated degree in Neuroscience so the concept of Zeal, a psychoactive dream altering agent, sucked me right in. Between the blurred identity of separated conjoined twins and the personality muddling effects of Zeal, you get a feeling that this is a book which focuses a lot on ‘self’. Indeed, Taema, taking on Tila’s identity often wonders whether people like her more as Tila than as herself.

That point takes me onto the sinister cult of Mana’s Hearth. A cult raising people to be part of a lucid dreaming hive mind whole, united in fear of outsiders and nervous devotion to their leader Mana-ma. Mana-ma is a distant villain throughout the book, constantly in the back of the twin’s minds, warping their identity, making them doubt themselves and their independence.

Enter Nazarin, the undercover cop (and love interest). Now, Nazarin could very easily have slipped into a cliché but he never did. He’s not overly brooding or weirdly protective of Taema, you feel he respects her and her ability to make her own decisions. He is the quiet reassurance that Taema, raised to doubt herself, has always needed. I could probably write an essay on Nazarin but I really want you to experience him for yourself because the segments between Taema and him are some of my favourite in the book.

(Also, I feel I need to say that it seems as if bisexuality is the base state in this book and it’s great, it’s great not to read another book where characters get morally offended at getting hit on by the same sex. This was A+.)

This book never felt as if it was dragging, which is a miracle, because I don’t know a book where there isn’t at least one section that I feel could be cut. It runs to a very smooth, well paced end, that, without spoiling anything, I will say was very satisfying 😉

As a final flourish I want to talk about the feel of this book. You know those beautiful aesthetic graphics that people make for books, I feel False Hearts could inspire some completely gorgeous ones. The open starry skies and towering Redwoods of Mana’s Hearth, the bay fog, glistening neon skyscrapers of San Francisco, the swirling unpredictable Zealscapes…this is a beautiful beautiful book.

I hope you all enjoy this every bit as much as I did.”

Originally posted at lordbelatiel.tumblr.com.

Flame in the Mist (Renée Ahdieh)

5 stars

“Mariko has always known that being a woman means she’s not in control of her own fate. But Mariko is the daughter of a prominent samurai and a cunning alchemist in her own right, and she refuses to be ignored. When she is ambushed by a group of bandits known as the Black Clan enroute to a political marriage to Minamoto Raiden – the emperor’s son – Mariko realises she has two choices: she can wait to be rescued… or she can take matters into her own hands, hunt down the clan and find the person who wants her dead.

Disguising herself as a peasant boy, Mariko infiltrates the Black Clan’s hideout and befriends their leader, the rebel ronin Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, Okami. Ranmaru and Okami warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. But as Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets that will force her to question everything she’s ever known.”

So, ‘Flame in the Mist’ had been one of my most anticipated reads of this year ever since it was announced. That’s a lot to live up to and I was both excited and nervous when I received an ARC copy, wondering whether it could live up to my expectations.

Thankfully, I adored this book…

flame-in-the-mist-renee-ahdieh

Characters

Mariko, our protagonist is more interested in inventing things, whether they be objects that explode or those more practical, than being a Daimyō‘s daughter. The funny thing is that she’s actually kind of useless at first in the society of the Black Clan. She can’t cook, can’t cut fire wood, has pretty terrible upper body strength, and manages to make an enemy of pretty much everyone she meets. Maybe sometimes overestimating her own cunning and making chaos of situations, she’s a nightmare and I loved her.

Her twin brother, Kenshin, also known as the Dragon of Kai, is already a greatly revered Samurai warrior. He is equally as fierce as his sister and deeply protective of her, sometimes struggling with tenents of Bushidō relating to self control. One thing I couldn’t work out during the book is whether Kenshin actually has some magic of his own, mages are rare in the book but destruction seems to come to him far too easily. Fear for his sister, the complex political wranglings of the Imperial Court and having to lead a band of Samurai almost twice his age seem to push Kenshin to the brink and I’m pretty curious and worried to see how the next book works out for him.

Okami is, unsurprisingly, one of my favourite characters. Seemingly a little lazy and unkempt, the actually rather dangerous and dark-magic-wielding  second in command of the Black Clan has some of the best lines in the book:

‘My life has been filled with death and lies and loose women…I regret everything else.’

Like, what am I supposed to do with that? Witty and a dashing facial scar? He almost comes with a sticker on his head saying ‘this one is going to be your favourite character‘. I also enjoyed just how infuriating he found Mariko in her guise as a young man, seeing her as little more than a burden and a risk to the Black Clan.

Ah, hate to love, isn’t it glorious?

Story

Often touted as a combination of the Chinese story of Mulan and the Japanese tales of the 47 Rōnin, I will say that, plotwise, it takes a lot more from the latter. It is a Mulan retelling to the extent that Mariko disguises herself as a man and in some aspects of the romance, but the actual story is much closer to the Japanese stories of the rōnin, leaderless samurai, seeking revenge for the death of their daimyō.

It’s a slow story, but I’m glad that was the case. Ahdieh’s descriptions and character building take time and space, she has a wonderful way with words that often made me want to read the story aloud. Likewise, she takes time to allow character relationships to blossom, often leaving the exact feelings of characters towards one another as confused or amorphous, which, let’s be honest, is often exactly how close bonds form.

One thing I have, unfortunately, found over my years of reading is that it’s really difficult to find fantasy set in a Feudal Japanese setting that doesn’t make my eyes roll out of my head. Between painful tropes, fetishization and a basic misunderstanding  of Japanese cultural identity, finding good books has really been luck of the draw. This book was a breath of fresh air in that respect.

Flame in the Mist‘ is a sensitive portrayal of a fantasy feudal Japan. The story could not be told without its setting, it’s much more than scenic window-dressing, with Ahdieh addressing the political and cultural implications of Bushidō, ‘the way of the warrior’, as one of the central pillarstones of the story. It explores the duality of a fantasy Edo period and shogunate culture, where warriors such as the Samurai lived by the laws of Bushidō, including benevolence, integrity, loyalty and honour, but the structure of society enforced strict hierarchies with little or no social mobility. Ahdieh does a good job of explaining some more unfamiliar concepts in text, especially the omnipresent Bushidō code and the political importance of Geiko and the tea ceremonies.

It’s a story about revolution and social change, which, let’s be honest, is incredibly relevant right now. It asks questions about the status quo, about why it should be allowed to persist, whether it is even ethical for it continue in the way it is. Okami, for example, is vocally critical of the way of the Samurai and what he sees as unquestioning loyalty to an underserving upper echelon of society. I’m really excited to see how Ahdieh tackles some of those issues in the next book!

Note

I have seen one or two people comment that the use of Japanese in text is confusing or distracting for them. I would say that a) there’s a glossary at the back, b) the words are pretty easy to understand from context and cultural osmosis, and c) you’d probably just accept it if it was a fantasy novel. If you come from a martial arts background like me (Kendo), then you will probably have no problem with the words at all.

Conclusion

It was amazing, I read it too fast and now I’m going to have to wait painfully for book two. If you’re looking for a YA fantasy set in feudal Japan then this is the book for you; it’s beautifully written, sensitive to culture, has a perfect romance and is just, genuinely, everything that I wanted it to be.

Many thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for a copy in return for an honest review.

A Conjuring of Light (V.E. Schwab)

5 stars

Anoshe was a word for strangers in the street, and lovers between meetings, for parents and children, friends and family.

It softened the blow of leaving.

Eased the strain of parting.

A careful nod to the certainty of today, the mystery of tomorrow.” 

 

I think it’s going to take a while to sink in that this series is over. It’s been a while since I’ve read a group of characters that feel so much like old friends.

I found myself moving back in my memories, trying to work out exactly when I picked up book one, and found that I wasn’t entirely sure. I just remembered every time I walked into a bookshop, saw ‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ and smiled, because what else can you do when you love a book so much that, whenever you see it, you just want to brush your fingers across it.

The series spanned a weird time for me; the last few years of Medical School, a time of growing up, taking responsibility and finding out exactly who I was. It was made all the more poignant by this series being filled with characters of the same age, who were doing just the same. Kell, trying to find his place between worlds; Lila, learning to trust and accept that having friends and those who cared for her wasn’t such a bad thing; Rhy, accepting that taking the responsibilities of the Crown didn’t mean he had to erase who he was.

The book begins directly after ‘A Gathering of Shadows’ ended, after that tortuous cliffhanger that we had to survive for an entire year. The British copy of ‘ACOL’ has exactly 666 pages, which is just too apt, because who didn’t spend their entire time reading this story terrified of their favourite characters (aka all the characters) dying?

I think this is one of the only stories I’ve read recently where I honestly loved every character. Kell with his magic coat and seeming inability to be anything other than the human embodiment of social awkwardness. Rhy, our jovial Prince, who actually seems to feel every ounce of his country’s suffering like a physical blow. Lila, a character who I still can’t quite fathom that people could dislike, impulsive, volatile, coming to terms with the fact that, despite her best efforts, she actually cares for people. Alucard, whose pomp and indifference is many layers of a very elaborate mask to spare his actual, very breakable, heart. Holland, the survivor, the one who both cracked the whip and was subjected to its lash.

A couple of other backstories are explored in ‘ACOL’, we learn about Maxim and Emira’s courtship and their experience of raising Rhy and Kell as brothers, what truly drove Alucard from Arnes, and, in depth, about Holland’s life in White London, from childhood to the horror of the Dane’s reign. The histories slow the pace of ‘ACOL’, and I know they weren’t to everyone’s taste, but I adored hearing more about the characters and, without spoilers, I thought they were all entirely necessary for the story.

I’m going to avoid major spoilers here but I will say that if you’re scared of reading it because you’re worried your favourite will die, you don’t really need to worry. There is a beautiful and wonderful avoidance of all gratuitous death. I’m not saying you’re not going to bawl your eyes out at the handful of deaths there are, but there are no deaths that honestly make you want to put the book down in protest.

It’s an beautifully satisfying ending to the series. All the threads are tied, I think I may have welled up with happiness at the end. I’d say there’s room for exposition in the world if Ms Schwab so wished, and, I would probably enter into a blood pact with Ms Schwab for more stories about Alucard…

This series has always been important to me because it’s probably the only series that comes to mind at the moment with a canonically bisexual protagonist. The page time, character development and story space that Rhy Maresh gets, especially in this book, is incredibly important. I think that if you’re in a majority group, ie. white heterosexual for this point, it’s very easy to dismiss the significance of putting diversity into your books, because you’re not going to know what it feels like to not be represented. Almost every book is written about you, for you. Obviously, the beauty of books is empathizing with people who aren’t ‘like us’, but there’s also great importance in seeing valid characters who are just like you. I also think the importance of Rhy is that his story is not based around how bisexuality has affected his life. He’s not hurting because he’s bisexual, he’s hurting because he’s in love and he’s only partially alive and he’s worried about the responsibilities of the crown. Writing a diverse character isn’t about basing their entire story around their diversity (necessarily) it’s about allowing them to have a story and have adventures just like any other character, and Ms Schwab does that really really well.

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(Fanart of Rhy Maresh by me/ lordbelatiel.tumblr.com)

So, if you’ve read ADSOM, I suggest picking up AGOS and ACOL and hibernating with them for a week. If you’ve read AGOS then what are you doing(?), go and grab ACOL. If you haven’t read any of them, then consider this your sign to pick the series up en masse and devote the next few weeks to the majesty that is Victoria Schwab.

The Young Elites (Marie Lu)

 5 stars 

I did tell myself that I would start being harsher, or at least less ecstatic, with my reviews, and I tried, I really did, I just enjoyed this book too much to give it anything less than five stars. It has everything I want out of a book: darkness, bucket loads of diversity, amorality, mystery, a renaissance setting… cool hair.

The book opens with our protagonist, the anti-heroine Adelina Amouteru, languishing in an Inquisition cell, awaiting the day of her execution. Adelina is malfetto, a survivor of the blood plague that killed her mother and thousands of other Kennetrans. However, Adelina is more than simply malfetto, she is a young elite, one of the few survivors that developed strange unearthly powers after their illness. Hunted by the Inquisition and considered little more than demons, Young Elites are the stuff of legend, so when a group of them save Adelina from her own execution, all hell is about to break loose.

I think the easiest way to describe the setting is post-plague Europe, but with magic. Lu’s writing is dark and rich. I know that some people find her writing a little dense, but I, personally, really enjoyed it. I actually could have spent another couple of hundred pages in the Fortunata Court, amongst the flowers and silks. I just can’t get enough of rich details and luscious locations.

“I am tired of losing. I am tired of being used, hurt, and tossed aside. It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.”

I think one of my favourite aspects of this book is that Adelina is not an anti-hero because she deliberately does terrible things, but because she makes awful human mistakes. She’s selfish and flawed but also deeply traumatised and filled with anger from her childhood, bitter at a life raised as a monster and an outsider. The most heartbreaking part is how desperately she just wants to be loved, how cruelty has warped her view of the world and others, making it difficult for her to trust.

The love interest, Enzo, the leader of the Daggers, is a malfetto prince in exile who wishes to reclaim his throne. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel the romance between Adelina and Enzo at all, it felt very one sided (which may have been the point? I don’t know) and I have an alternate favoured ship for the dark prince.

I have this thing where I fall in love with side characters that don’t get enough page space, and that happened again. Raffaele Laurent Bessette, ‘one kissed by moon and water’, a beautifully androgynous bisexual consort whose magic lies in ensnaring the emotions. He’s basically the ultimate empath and I agree with every single thing he said in this book *no spoilers*.

The ending is a little brutal, I warn you. You won’t see it coming because, well, YA novels don’t tend to end that way. So, if you’re looking for YA from an alternate perspective and enjoy books such as Locke Lamora or the darkness of Red Rising, I’d suggest giving this a read.

The Upside of Unrequited (Becky Albertalli)

5 Stars

“Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?”

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, often preferring a heady dose of magic to reality. However, there are a handful of contemporary fiction writers that are autobuy for me, and Mrs Albertalli is just one of those writers. I picked up ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ last year at YALC and read the entire book in one sitting, falling in love with just how well Albertalli writes youth, especially those who live their teenage life towards the fringes, not popular but not exactly friendless either.

Her latest protagonist, Molly, falls into a similar segment of society. She’s well liked, has a happy home life, but is plagued with clinical anxiety and shyness which keeps her dreaming rather than acting upon any of her crushes. In Molly’s mind it is safer to pine from afar than risk the bitter sting of rejection. But watching her skinny twin, Cassie, fall in love, Molly begins to feel that she is being left behind, and begins to wonder whether she is the only barrier between herself and such happiness.

‘I’ve had crushes on twenty-six people, twenty-five of whom are not Lin-Manuel Miranda’

(I feel you, Molly)

This book was ridiculously cute and ridiculously relatable. I’m twenty three and I still feel the same nervous jitters when I come across someone I like and begin to wonder whether they could like me too. I think it will mean a lot to some teenagers readers to see a fat girl in a contemporary romance, to reassure young readers of all genders that being fat doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful or deserving of love.

‘There’s this awfulness that comes when a guy thinks you like him. It’s as if he’s fully clothed and you’re naked in front of him. It’s like your heart suddenly lives outside your body, and whenever he wants, he can reach out and squeeze it. Unless he happens to like you back.’

Without spoilers, the flirtation between Molly and her love interests was adorable. Hipster Will and Nerd Reid are definitely guys that I have met and dated. I’d also like to thank Albertalli for inserting the ??? into attraction. Sometimes those we come to love have things about them that are odd or a little off-putting at first but you come to accept as you grow to know them. It’s not something that is discussed often in romance, especially not teen romance!

I’d also like to put it out there that any scene about Molly’s mothers or their impending wedding made me tear right up. The world is a cold and cruel place to the LGBTQA community right now and this book was filled with the warmth and comfort that I have been craving. It also made me so happy to see bi women in relationships with women still being referred to as bi. It’s all too easy for authors to erase a character’s bi identity in a relationship and I felt all fuzzy to see that not happening here.

So, my loves: relatable non-cookie-cutter lead, a distinct lack of instalove, diversity, accurate depictions of anxiety, nerdom, oreos and arts and craft.

Dislikes? I don’t know what you expected me to put here because I loved it all.

‘The Upside of Unrequited’ is out on both sides of the Atlantic on the 11th of April (not long now!) and I seriously recommend you all go and pick it up (and ‘Simon’ if you haven’t already read it!).

Many thanks to Penguin Random House for a copy in return for an honest review. All quotations were drawn from an advanced review copy and may be subject to change in the final novel.

The City Stained Red (Sam Sykes)

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5 stars

‘Your employers should consult those who make the corpses. We merely clean up after them. Death is our business, Captain. Business is always good in Cier’Djaal.’

Sam Sykes has to be the first author whose book I’ve picked up solely based on personality. I used to devour high fantasy, to the point where it was almost all I read, but that did lead to the conundrum where everything I read felt a little…the same? I read a lot of science fiction, young adult, some classics, even a little contemporary,  but I was looking for something to draw me back into the high fantasy fold.

I’d been following Sam for a while on twitter because he seemed fun and there was a high concentration of writing discussion, owls and dogs on his feed. Eventually I did indeed ‘BUY [his] BOOK’ and I will admit, I didn’t think his personality would translate into the text because, from past experience, ‘swords and sorcery’ never had much of a sense of humour.

I am pleased to say that I was very much mistaken.

The book opens with our battle weary young protagonist, Lenk, on ‘some crappy little boat’ making the decision that he really ought to put down his sword and place his killing days well in his past. I think that you can already guess that he doesn’t really get a chance to even act on that decision before he is thrust once more into fighting, killing and general tomfoolery. You see, he’d love to settle down, but you can’t retire without gold, and the gold he thought was coming his way is now in the pocket of a priest somewhere in the city of Cier’Djaal.

Except, the priest isn’t a priest, a gang footwar is brewing, the giant spiders that make the silk are feeding on something less than wholesome, and the city is full of demons…

I loved this book.

The monsters are really monsters. We’re not talking vaguely humanoid creatures with boobs, we’re talking dragonmen, demons that haul their way out of peoples mouths and cloaked, multi-armed creatures with paintings for faces. It’s delightfully weird.

It feels like that D&D campaign you’d play if you were funnier, more intelligent and more imaginative than you think you are.

The characters are really something else. Amoral yet loyal, sarcastic, running from their pasts, trying desperately, and failing, to care less and be more detached. A motley crew comprised of a reluctant young warrior, a shict far from home, a seven foot dragonman, a thief, a priestess and a boy wizard. A combination that shouldn’t lead to anything less than Armageddon (and, in its own way, does) but actually tends to hilarity and genuine emotional upheaval.

This is maybe not a book for the squeamish, or those without a slightly twisted sense of humour, but I genuinely adored it. A surprise favourite for sure.

So if you like your fantasy wildly imaginative, gory and darkly funny then this is definitely the author for you.

Apprentice (Rachel E Carter)

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5 stars

So, if you were feeling a little ambivalent at the end of ‘First Year’, I’ll let you in on a little secret…’Apprentice’ is incredible.

I’m not usually the sort of person that writes gushing, overexcited reviews, but this book deserves one. So, we left Ryiah in emotional turmoil at the end of book one, ecstatically happy in one breath and desperately unhappy in another. She has gained both her heart’s desire and lost it.

‘Apprentice’ opens in the training ring, with Ryiah studying increasingly difficult combat spells and attempting to gain more control over her pain-casting. That in itself would be complicated enough did she not have to juggle interpersonal strife and her status as an apprentice battle mage in a country on the verge of war.

‘Apprentice’ covers the entire span of Ryiah’s training, through her every up and down, every failure and triumph. You follow her as she grows and matures, weaves and unravels friendships, and tries to work out exactly what it is that she wants out of life. She’s as bolshy and stubborn as ever, but there’s something about her particular journey in this book that meant I couldn’t put it down until I knew exactly what happened to her.

Her relationship with Darren is tumultuous, hot and cold, on and off, absolutely excruciating and yet, somehow, addictive. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book where I’ve been so invested in the relationship between two characters, so terrified and yet excited to turn the page and find out what happens next. There’s pain, and joy, and more pain, a rising crescendo of it right up to the last few pages.

‘Apprentice’ does have a love triangle, but not in the traditional sense. I actually thought it was really well handled, showing the more painful aspects of young love, how it can be unrequited, and the pain of one party realizing that they just do not love their partner in the way they feel they should.

I felt that Apprentice was tighter and more emotional for having fewer central characters. The ending of ‘First Year’, the choosing of the apprentices, fed into an environment where every character is competing but also having to support one another, because in many situations, if one loses then they all do. It meant you learned a lot more about character motivation and saw relationships building between characters that you only saw the very hints of in the first book. Every character is vulnerable in their own way, even those who are ostensibly strong.

This book hurts, and, for a book set in a magical world, it feels very real. For all that they’re axe and lightning wielding combat mages, they’re also teenagers crossing the border into adulthood. They fall in love with those they shouldn’t, fall out of love with themselves and struggle to find their place in the world. They’re endearing, troubled and torn and you just can’t help but find yourself rooting for each and every one of them.

Many thanks to Rachel E Carter for a copy in return for an honest review.

The Bear and the Nightingale (Katherine Arden)

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“In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, willfull girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.” (Random House)

5* stars

There are some books that are just meant to be read with the cold wind whistling down the chimney and a spiced cup of tea. This is one of them.

I’ve always been a big fan of Russian classics, reading wide-eyed into the night from tomes larger than my head, imagining Princes and Princesses fur bundled in sledges against the driving snow, or farmer’s daughters dancing around the kitchen bread ovens. I was unsure as to whether a modern author would ever be able to capture the wild, hard beauty of Russian history quite like a writer who had lived through it. But this book proved me wrong.

Rich, heady, and yet unyielding in its honesty, embracing the juxtaposition that is the beauty and bleakness of life in a rural northern Russian village far from Moscow. The breaking of bread fresh from the oven, the frail snowdrops raising their heads against the ice, the dull blue lips of a child who froze in the dark winter night.

I fell in love with the wildness of Vasya, our protagonist, and how she felt like a creature of the woods herself. Wilful, clever and obstinate, she was a character after my own heart.

Arden brings to life the elemental superstitions of Russian folklore, from the timid house spirits to the powerful godlike figure of Morozko, Father of the Frost and the Winter Wind. Even if you are not familiar with Russian folklore, Arden manages to gently explain mythological origins in text without the reader ever feeling overwhelmed. I was also impressed with how easily she managed to convey the increasing discord between the old ways and Christianity in the rural hamlets, where farmer’s left offerings to the house spirits to protect them and yet simultaneously felt guilt for looking beyond the church for help. It’s a fascinating time in history that Arden has managed to mould into the most beautiful story.

I feel I could probably ramble about how much I love this book for a good while. I can still remember curling up to read it on my kindle in the dark and just feeling as if I had stepped into another time entirely.

Rich, vibrant, and utterly scintillating; I recommend this book to anyone who is drawn to the winds of the winter, to the warmth of the open fire or the cavernous depth of the night sky. I recommend it to anyone with a soul.

Many thanks to Random House Books for an advance copy in return for an honest review.

A song for reading: Anuna- Noel Nouvelet 

Way Down Dark ( J P Smythe)

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4.75 Stars

“Imagine a nightmare from which there is no escape. Seventeen-year-old Chan’s ancestors left a dying Earth hundreds of years ago, in search of a new home. They never found one.

This is a hell where no one can hide. The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.

This is a ship of death, of murderers and cults and gangs. But there might be a way to escape. In order to find it, Chan must head way down into the darkness – a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.

This is Australia. Seventeen-year-old Chan, fiercely independent and self-sufficient, keeps her head down and lives quietly, careful not to draw attention to herself amidst the violence and disorder. Until the day she makes an extraordinary discovery – a way to return the Australia to Earth. But doing so would bring her to the attention of the fanatics and the murderers who control life aboard the ship, putting her and everyone she loves in terrible danger.

And a safe return to Earth is by no means certain.” (Hodder Books)

 

When I think about this book, I’m reminded of the front cover, or, more specifically, of a less stylized central well of the huge ship Australia. The protagonist looks up into the darkness, at the layer up on layer of decks, crumbling down around her, at the stained and rusted metal of the hulk that she calls home. I have a lot of feelings about this book. Touching on science fiction and horror with a gothic vibe, think dystopia but in space.

Story: 4.5 /5

  • The premise caught my attention immediately. I am a huge sci fi fan, anything that takes me into the dark decaying outer reaches of space automatically ticks a massive box for me. This story focuses on the society that has been created by the environment of the ship; how people have changed how they live their lives, abandoning many of our social values to survive. It’s brutal, in many places quite gory, and touches on some dark themes but I do think that’s part of the appeal. I really enjoyed the direction that the story took and can’t wait to see how it continues.

Character: 3.5/5

  • The characters seem pretty uncomplicated, the book doesn’t delve any great depths in Chan’s soul. I felt that if we had replaced Chan, nothing much really would have changed. A bit like Darrow from Red Rising, Chan felt like a figurehead the story rode upon, rather than the central personality of the story itself. Not that I think that’s a problem, some books are character driven, others are world driven and this book just happens to be one of the latter.
  • That being said, I did care about the protagonist and those that she met on her way. This book wouldn’t have worked if you didn’t genuinely feel upset about the idea of Chan or those around her dying. Probably my favourite character of the lot was Jonah, a young man raised in one of the strange cults found at the very apex of the ship. Interestingly, there was no romance between Chan and Jonah, simply what could be counted as friendship in the increasingly uncertain environ of the ship.

Worldbuilding: 5/5

  • Smythe creates a brutal world filled with humans returning to primeval states and end of day cults. Every moments of the characters lives are spent eking out survival on the dying hulk of the Australia. You have those who have reverted to a base state of violence, those who desperately try to keep the old systems of the ship alive for future generations, and those who believe their suffering has some kind of higher meaning.
  • I ended up having a really vivid view of the ‘Australia’ in my head, a sad semi-abandoned infinity-bound ship, whose inhabitants were many many generations removed from the first that had called it home. They had little choices in their life, with options growing ever and ever smaller as the ship begins to fail.

Ending: 4.5/5

  • Ok, I admit, the twist wasn’t all that shocking. I’m not sure whether that’s because I’ve watched too many sci fi movies, but regardless, I found I didn’t really care that it wasn’t too much of a surprise. I wanted to grab a copy of the second book immediately after reading it, partly because it ended on a strange pseudo cliffhanger and, partly just because I love Smythe’s writing style.

The Nitty Gritty: 5/5

  • Did I mention that I love Smythe’s writing style? It somehow manages to be stark, creepy and yet, at the same time, imbued with a dreamlike quality. Pacing was, likewise, impeccable. ‘Way Down Dark’ isn’t a fast book by any definitions but it never felt as if it was dragging, every moment felt tense and necessary.

Conclusion: A dark and gripping ode to survival in a world where what makes us human seems less and less clear cut. One to begin because you enjoy the old sci fi classics, and one to finish because you’ve fallen for it entirely on its own merits. Definitely a book I will be recommending to the sci fi inclined teenagers and adults that I know.

For readers who enjoyed: Red Rising (Pierce Brown), Illuminae (Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff), Battlestar Galactica (2004 remake)

 

Thank you to Netgalley and Hodder Books for a copy in return for an honest review.