Tithe (Holly Black)

4.5 stars

I really wish that I’d read this back when I was a teenager. When it came out, back in 2004, I was eleven, but the odds of finding proper young adult books in my local bookshops was close to zero.

‘No, Tabitha, proper young girls read Dickens, not books about drugs and faeries…’

Eventually, I found my way to Twilight and Melissa Marr’s ‘Wicked Lovely’, but I just know that I would have loved to have read this back then. It just makes me glad that there are so many great available YA books out there for teenagers nowadays.

So, this books centres on Kaye, a sixteen year old forced to trail her mother from city to city as she drops in and out of bands. Kaye has known since her childhood that she draws some of the weirder things in life towards her; men with glowing eyes and tiny birdlike faeries, but it’s not until she meets an injured faerie Knight in the woods that she realises the full extent of her ‘difference’.

In exchange for her help, the faerie offers her three questions. For her third and final question, Kaye asks him for his true name…and we all know what such questions lead to.

This was a dark story, there’s no doubt about it. It has sex and alcohol and drugs and violence, but perhaps the darkest thing of all is that very faerie concept of true names and the power that they give. Words are so unbelievably powerful in this story. Those with power over your true name can make you do as they please, can rip your ability to consent from you entirely…

I really enjoyed that Black stayed true to so many of the old faerie tales; we have the Court under the Hill, the moral ambiguity of both the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, the mortal danger of faerie wine and the sad tales of the Changelings. Intertwined amongst this is the gritty urban fantasy that I was expecting; poor rural america, rusting old cars, trailer parks and broken carousels. She doesn’t shy away from making things ugly and I’d definitely put a content warning on this for body horror. If the idea of peeling skin, bleeding scars and iron welded into flesh is already making your stomach turn over then it might be worth giving this a miss!

It would be disingenuous to not mention one of my favourite parts of this story, our Unseelie Knight himself, Roiben. Quiet, hides his emotions behind a mask, utterly powerless to the demands of the Unseelie Queen, a literal sweet child of Summer who is caught beneath the hill. He has no ability to stop himself from completing the horrifying acts that the Unseelie Queen forces upon him. He has no ability to consent, no way to stop the agony. It genuinely breaks my heart a little bit, he instantly became one of my favourite male YA protagonists.

So, if you love dark faerie tales with a gritty contemporary edge and the sharp scent of apples, this is definitely a book I would recommend.

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Descendants (Rae Else)

3 stars

“There are lots of stories about the children of gods. But what about those cursed by the gods, and their descendants…

El, a seventeen-year-old has inherited an ancient and deadly power. She loses control of it, causing a horrific accident, and becomes the prey of a secret organisation, knows as the Order. Forced from her family and home, she hides in plain sight amidst the crowds of London, and is thrust into a world she never knew existed; one full of arete: beings with extraordinary powers like hers. 

Arete are beings that can trace their lineage and powers from ancient Greece. They do not claim their inheritance comes from the gods, rather legend says they are descended from cursed beings, such as Medusa. At the heart of their world is the kerykeion, the symbol that protects them from the humans and the humans from them. El is trapped between two factions, one that has built an empire around the kerykeion and another that is determined to bring it down.

As she is drawn deeper into the conflict, the only way to find the truth is to take matters into her own hands, and the line between friend and foe becomes dangerously blurred.”

I had mixed feelings whilst writing this review. On one hand, it was a quick paced YA thriller with interesting concepts and big ideas, but on the other, I finished reading this book and found it strangely soulless.

It has a great concept, binding mythology and technology, monsters and men. Why have your heroes be demigods when they can be the spawn of Gorgons instead? It’s obvious that Else knows her classics and there are examples of that knowledge spread throughout the entire text. She’s also got some big ideas; enormous sprawling structures hidden by kerykeion, contests of elemental magic, and enormous illuminati style corporations infiltrating the highest levels of business and politics.

So, why was I so underwhelmed?

I spent a couple of days trying to work out exactly why I felt that way, and came to an answer. There’s not enough character development, by far.

El, our heroine, has no defining features that make her ‘her’. We get some snippets of information about a childhood, a friend that doesn’t get enough page space to really be called a friend, and, yet,we  are expected to care when all of this gets torn away. I wonder whether it’s due to the book starting in on the action, maybe we needed some interactions between El and her friend, or El and her Grandmother before she has to go on the run. It’s very difficult to feel the loss of a life that you have not been shown. Likewise, what does El like to read? Is she athletic? What does she feel about the world that she lives in? I found that I was struggling to connect to El, or even to give her a face, and that made it very difficult for me to engage with the book in general.

When you can’t figure out the protagonist, it certainly makes it very difficult to care about romance, especially when it’s a love triangle. Once again, I wanted more from my love interests. Who are they? Why do they choose to do the things that they do? Dan, for example, should be our archetypal heart throb with his dark mussed hair, amber eyes and life spent travelling Europe, but we’re just not given enough information to justify his choices and his actions. Obviously, there’s a lot to be said about creating mystery, but if you don’t put in enough clues then we don’t know that we’re supposed to be looking for it. Mysterious can quickly become one-dimensional if we don’t have glimpses into what a character is feeling.

It was actually quite frustrating because there were some beautiful moments where I could see a rough gem shining through. I felt as if Else’s vision of her story and world were bigger than what she’d put down on paper. There were some wonderful dream like moments where the heart of backstreet London was revealed, only to be shattered by sudden clunking introspection only moments later. Show don’t tell. Slow down and let that heartbreaking moment of emotion spill over into three, four, even five sentences, rather than strangling it in one.

I felt that the book could have done with some injection of sensation. The world exists beyond just sight, it’s brought to life by scent and taste and sound and touch. Describe to me the soundscape of a crowded bar, the scent of earth and rosemary on a Dryad’s fingertips, the strange juxtaposition of speeding cars and tourists against a boy wending fire through his hands. There was so much possibility in this world, so much room for decadence and description, but instead I felt detachment. Distant from the characters and story.

Nevertheless, it was enjoyable in its own way. Quick paced, clever concepts and intriguing ideas; ‘Descendants’ didn’t grab me as I was hoping it would, but Else is a young author and this is a debut novel. I can already think of a handful of underwhelming debuts that grew into awesome series, so, hopefully, this one might be the same.

Many thanks to Rae Else for a copy in return for an honest review.

Down Station (Simon Morden)

508

DNF @ 52% after a good old slog of an effort…

I started reading this book a while ago, and at first the premise seemed really interesting. A ragtag group of survivors flee Armageddon through a door in the London tube network to a strange new world. But very quickly it lost its magic, mostly due to just being a little bit predictable.

The new world just wasn’t that interesting…which still baffles me because how can a world filled with strange monsters be boring? Yet somehow it was. For a book that spent so much time supposedly describing the world I still didn’t really feel as if I was in it.

I wanted to like the characters mainly because I was excited to see a POC protagonist, but they felt like cardboard cutouts and were often weird cultural stereotypes (mouthy girl whose been in care, the older black woman who mothered them all…yeah).

What frustrated me most, however, was reaching 50% and there still being no real discernible plot. Why put characters in an interesting new world and inflict upon them the same boring social hierarchy that we see in everyday life?

I went and read some reviews to try and get myself back into the mindset for continuing to read it but I just felt as if I was reading a different book entirely. Sadly, there was nothing that made me want to continue other than a lingering interest in how it ended. But not even that could keep me going. It’s a pretty rare thing for me to not finish a book but it felt as if the more effort I put into trying to finish, the more I began to hate the book. 52% seems a fair attempt to get into a book and it took me a month to get there. I think, for someone who usually reads books in a couple of days, that it’s time to jump ship.

I’m giving it 2 stars because I don’t think it’s a horrific book and I thought that it was well written but that it was just very much not for more. It’s pretty rare for a book to be ‘too slow’ for me, but I think I’ve found one.

Many thanks to Gollancz and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review. I’m sorry that I didn’t enjoy it more!

A City Dreaming

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‘A powerful magician returns to New York City and reluctantly finds himself in the middle of a war between the city’s two most powerful witches.

“It would help if you did not think of it as magic. M certainly had long ceased to do so.” 

M is an ageless drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and the ability to bend reality to his will, ever so slightly. He’s come back to New York City after a long absence, and though he’d much rather spend his days drinking artisanal beer in his favorite local bar, his old friendsand his enemieshave other plans for him. One night M might find himself squaring off against the pirates who cruise the Gowanus Canal; another night sees him at a fashionable uptown charity auction where the waitstaff are all zombies. A subway ride through the inner circles of hell? In M’s world, that’s practically a pleasant diversion.

Before too long, M realizes he’s landed in the middle of a power struggle between Celise, the elegant White Queen of Manhattan, and Abilene, Brooklyn’s hip, free-spirited Red Queen, a rivalry that threatens to make New York go the way of Atlantis. To stop it, M will have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he’s ever acquiredhe might even have to get out of bed before noon.

Enter a world of Wall Street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steampunk universes, and demonic coffee shops. M’s New York, the infinite nexus of the universe, really is a city that never sleepsbut is always dreaming.’

This is a really strange, not so little book. Structurally, it resembles most closely a set of short stories which roll inexorably on from one to the next. I honestly had no idea what the endgame was until 94%, and that would usually drive me into a frenzy, but, do you know what?

I loved it.

‘It was around two in the afternoon on a hot August Saturday when M realised the rest of the people at the beach house were planning on using him as a human sacrifice.’

Oh, it’s weird and the prose reads like silk, it truly does. I admit, the first few chapters, maybe even the first 25% I found myself railing against everything I eventually came to love. Probably because I was expecting a linear story and I very much did not get one.

I adored the main character. M is the definition of neutral when it comes to alignment. He rolls with the tide, lets the sweep of New York’s power draw him from chess matches to drug dens, coffee shops and backstreet orgies. Most of the book he underplays himself, moving in circles in a way that makes you feel he’s an underdog, not honestly one of the most powerful magic users in the city, an ageless being travelling with the ebb and flow of civilisation.

The side characters are painted in broad, electric strokes, overlaid with M’s sometimes snarky, sometimes apathetic commentary. Every one of them could be a character in a graphic novel he brings them to life so vividly.

Plotwise, I’m not entirely sure what to say to you. The plot is a subtle little thing, twisting sinuously through each of M’s escapades, more like a background concern than an overwhelming worry. Initially, I found myself annoyed and searching for the plot, once I sat back and let the weirdness flow, I found it was something that no longer concerned me. This book’s a bit like a fever dream. If you try to grab at anything, it’ll just flutter away.

It’s urban fantasy to a backdrop of microbreweries and artisanal moustache wax and it’s horrible and beautiful to read. It’s very self aware, cattily funny and sometimes bordering on inappropriate.  I loved it.

Many thanks to Regan Arts and Netgalley for an ARC in return for an honest review!