Books, Reviews

Book Review: Red Queen Series

Red Queen, Cruel Crown, Glass Sword, and King Cage

Author: Victoria Aveyard

Publisher: Harper Teen

Published: 2015 – 2017

Rating:

Red Queen: 3 / 5 Stars

Cruel Crown: 3 / 5 Stars

Glass Sword: 4 /5 Stars

King’s Cage: 4 / 5 Stars

Overall: 3.5 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed: The Hunger Games, X Men, The Sineater’s Daughter, Six of Crows, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, The Bone Season

red queen

I’ve had a rather complex relationship with this series, ranging from incensed from its predictability to deeply respecting Aveyard for growing as a writer. It’s fair to say many series openers aren’t always the best representation for the series as a whole, especially for debut authors. The writer is still getting comfortable with their characters and world building and settling in with their token writing style takes some time. Red Queen is one of those books. It reads like a new writer influenced by several classic outside sources, and as a result, her plot is extremely predictable. I could see exactly where the plot was going about 20 pages in, which made for a really boring, formulaic reading experience. On top of this, Red Queen also happens to be one of the closest stories I’ve read to my own YA sci-fi/fantasy series I’m working on. Seeing a “little lightning girl” go up against a thoroughly evil psychologically manipulative queen hit a little too close to home for me and I have to say, I was a little annoyed. Namely, because I knew I could do it so much better.

By Glass Sword, it’s very clear Aveyard’s nice and settled in with her characters. She’s finally gotten her foot in the door in the publishing world, and she can drop the pretence of the tired love triangle trope. In fact, what makes Glass Sword so strong as a sequel is the subtly of the romance between Mare and Cal. Their love story isn’t front and centre, it doesn’t take priority. They’re facing a war, trying to save lives, and going up against an evil kingdom. It’s safe to say they have a lot more on their minds than making out. The dynamic we get instead is one of quiet support. They’re a kick ass battle couple in for the majority of the story, and then they’re there for each other in the moments in between. I was far more eager to get behind them as a couple when their romance wasn’t so in your face. Another aspect I loved about Glass Sword was Mare really coming into her own as a character. And not just as a protagonist, but a morally gray one. She goes to a very dark place of dejection and mistrust and it leads her to do some pretty horrific things, which she feels is 100% justified at the time. This is the exact type of juicy character development I love delving into, and, in fact, is what I strive for my own characters. Again, I see my own protagonist in Mare and by the end of Glass Sword, I’d dropped the annoyed pretence and jumped straight to rooting her on. I’m less worried about writing another female protagonist stereotype, and more thrilled that my own lightning girl has a feisty heroine to follow. My girl will be in good company one day.

The thing about Aveyard is, it takes her 100 to 200 pages to get going in each of her books. Glass Sword doesn’t get really good until halfway through and King’s Cage’s weakness is Mare’s being rendered powerless in captivity for the majority of the book. Cruel Crown suffers from this issue in that it’s a duology of two novellas, 100 pages each. She doesn’t quite have the time to build the tension or rise to her climax properly with “Queen’s Song” and “Steel Scars”. Her strength is in 300-400 plus page novels with that properly build climax. The slow-building rollercoaster is worth the climb to the top because the free fall to the bottom really is something spectacular once Aveyard’s built her momentum.

The nice thing about reading this series, is you can see the layers of awareness in Aveyard’s craft. In Glass Sword, it’s clear her focus in her writing overall is on strong female characters. She adds not only female friendships in Farley and Mare, but characters of colour in Cam. In King’s Cage, she seems to understand her weakness in her slow build-up. Leaving Mare chained up and helpless in Maven’s court leaves very little to play with in terms of narrative. Fortunately, she finds a way around it by offering multiple perspectives. Giving Cam and Evangeline POVs is kind of a genius move. They’re fringe characters at best, with an outsider’s opinion on the main action. It’s refreshing seeing characters give their honest opinions about the protagonist. Cam is critical of Mare, which gives the reader an option to create their own opinion about her, instead of blindly following what Aveyard gives them. We know Mare’s motivations for her actions, and we now see how they are influencing others around her. It’s a very self-aware take on the narrative, and I have a lot of respect for it. You can tell Aveyard’s driven to push herself to be better with each book. She wants to improve in her diversity and she knows how to be a role model for her young readers. If I’m being honest, that’s kind of exactly what I aspire to be. Is it any wonder my urge to leap off the couch and go write something was far stronger than actually finishing my reading sessions with these books?

Books, Reviews

Book Review: Long May She Reign

Long May She Reign

Author: Rhiannon Thomas

Publisher: HarperTeen

Published: February 21, 2017

Rating: 4 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed: The Sineater’s Daughter, Robin McKinley, A Darker Shade of Magic, Six of Crows, Throne of Glass, The Lie Tree, Uprooted, Lunar Chronicles, Truthwitch, Caraval, The Night Circus, Pantomime, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Princess Bride

long-may-she-reign

Every so often, I think of this book and smile. It’s not that it’s a perfect book by any means. It has it’s pitfalls. But for what it is, Long May She Reign is a delightful, charming read. The biggest thing that charmed me was the protagonist. Fraya is refreshingly different from the YA fantasy heroine trope. She’s not kickass. She’s not girly. But she’s also not a damsel in distress. Instead, she’s smart and resourceful and fit to take important matters to task. And she’s not afraid to speak her mind and stand up for what is right.

I should, perhaps, preface this with the plot. Right from the first chapter, Thomas places her readers in this lavish, beautiful royal feast. Everyone’s gorgeously dressed in elaborate court outfits, acrobats and contortionists are performing between tables, and doves fly out of a pie. It’s big and bold and she’s making a flashy statement from the get go. What I love about this set up is that it perfectly reflects the greedy conspicuous consumption of this corrupt king and really creates the tone for the remainder of the novel.

Just when you think we’re getting this beautiful, over the top royal aesthetic for the rest of the narrative, the entire court dies of poisoning. And in one fell swoop, Fraya becomes next in line for the throne. What remains is a twisty, turny murder mystery on a large scale, paired with some admirable character development on Fraya’s part. There’s a certain quiet dose of classic Sherlock Holmes in this. Unlike many fantasy novels these days, Long May She Reign is far from action packed. Instead, Thomas brings the excitement back to a more cerebral level as we watch Fraya use her science smarts and cunning to unravel the whodunnit. Effectively, she’s Watson and Holmes all rolled into one and I love that in a female protagonist.

Although this novel is essentially set in a medieval fantasy plot, there’s something about it that feels very Victorian. Fraya’s scientific reasoning harkens back to the early days of forensic science, when doctors were still trying to discover how to detect arsenic in everyday matter. Rarely ever do I see female characters engaging in science in young adult novels and it brings me so much joy to see Fraya really excelling at it and revelling in her work. She’s not ashamed of being a scientist, nor does she bow to anyone’s will if ever they tell her it’s not her place to do such investigations. Her scientific curiosity makes her a very different kind of fantasy queen, and a much needed one at that.

Fraya is not a girl who ever expected to become queen. About a dozen down the line to inherit the throne, she was not meant to become queen. Yet it happens, and at first, she’s reluctant. She has grand plans to make the next great scientific discovery and invent something useful enough so she can gain notoriety and get out of her greedy town. She’s got aspirations beyond the kingdom. She wants to make something of herself.

And at first, becoming queen isn’t going to grant her that.

Of course, in time, she comes to realise how corrupt the court truly is and she starts to realise that she has a voice, and she’s in control. She calls the shots and no one else. People will try to pull her strings and manipulate her into doing what they want, but she wants none of it. The minute she has that epiphany, it’s her way or the highway. No more lavish spending, the poor are going to get their due, she really pulls it together despite the odds.

This is exactly what I need out of female characters! I need girls who get shit done! Because that’s exactly the type of role model young girls need right now more than ever! We need to be teaching them that they can do science. They can be effective leaders.

They have a voice!

I am beyond thrilled to see Rhiannon Thomas sharing such a message, and I’m excited to see what she does in the future because true, self-aware, feminist YA authors are few and far between. And they deserve all the attention we can give them.

Books, Reviews

Book Review: A Court of Mist and Fury

A Court of Mist and Fury

Author: Sarah J. Maas

Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s

Published: May 3, 2016

Rating: 2 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed Read These Instead: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, The Passion of New Eve, Fingersmith, Rebel of the Sands, Long May She Reign, A Darker Shade of Magic, Six of Crows, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Stardust, Uprooted, The Diviners, Robin Mckinley, Kelley Armstrong

This is not a spoiler-free review!

IMG_8784

Look, publishing community. We need to talk.

About ten years ago, you let the Twilight series take over the world, and with it, naive young girls’ belief that overly protective stalker boyfriends were something to strive for. Since the series’ completion, readers and moviegoers alike have vowed to do better. We hoped to put these toxic ideals behind us with every conversation we had about the problematic nature of Stephenie Meyer’s books. We hoped in doing so, we could finally move forward to read and support more wholesome, meaningful content.

Yet somehow, you chose to invest your money in Sarah J. Maas, and unleashed a whole new, far worse beast upon the world.

Why are we still letting toxic romances dominate the YA genre? Have we learned nothing from the likes of Meyer at all?

Let’s take a step back for a moment. As with her first series, Throne of Glass, Sarah J. Maas set out to write another fairy tale retelling in her latest A Court of Thorns and Roses series. By the time Mist and Fury begins, we’ve all but cast the Beauty and the Beast pretence to the wind. In perhaps the most dull first third of any novel, Feyre is suffering extreme depression and PTSD following the trauma incurred at Amarantha’s wrath. I am wholeheartedly here for portrayals of PTSD in YA. In fact, I encourage it. And given how much of a non-entity it is in Throne of Glass following Celaena’s pre-series traumas, this almost seems like an improvement on Maas’ part. But not when it goes on and on and on for 200 pages. Reading about any protagonist moping in self-pity is a 50-page deal at most. I get we’re supposed to see Feyre’s lack of self-worth at the start of this novel. I get that her trajectory is clearly one of her realising her value and gaining empowerment. Fine. But you can tell that story in 150 less pages. Believe me, as someone who has opened a novel with significant scenes of abuse and trauma, I know what it means to cut back. It pays to trust your reader and rein it in sometimes.

Which comes to one of the most blatant transgressions Maas commits: her lack of editing. Sure, at this point, she’s kind of well-known for her signature long sequels. But larger word counts do not good writing make. This novel could have easily been a solid 400 pages without the faffing about she does in the beginning.

There are some books that really excel in being split into distinct acts. Separating segments via setting or plot shifts can really solidify the narrative, but Maas’ acts can be separated out according to isolated moments sliding along a scale of boring, great, horrifying, and dire. Which is not what you want out of a narrative arc.

I actually thoroughly enjoyed the middle of this novel. For 200 pages, it seems like Maas has begun to atone for all her grievous harm done in her previous works. She introduces some interesting female characters for Feyre to befriend. The friend dynamic of Rhysand’s council is easily one of the strengths of the series and I wish she could have introduced them by the end of the first book. Amren in particular is a fascinating character, who, for a hot second, seems like she might kick some ass in a dark, ruthless, gory kind of way. She and Feyre have a great scene where they’re given permission to go out on a mission and be badass. I was excited to see where this would go and I looked forward to seeing these new battle sisters doing some serious damage together. Unfortunately, there are once more, long interludes where Amren keeps herself locked up, decoding things while the others go out and do the exciting stuff. Until the climax of the novel, the best, most dynamic addition to the cast has been shafted. As are all of the female characters in this series.

Here’s the thing.

For the most part, I like the girls in this book. At face value, they’re great. Nesta, Amren, Mor, and Feyre could all hold their own in battle as easily as they could all have a slumber-party style ki-ki over wine together. But the patriarchal world they’re placed in does no favours for them. Maas’ faerie world is build up by patriarchal traditions, where the men are led by their territorial, violent animal instincts:

“What’s normal?” I said.

… “The … frenzy … When a couple accepts the mating bond, it’s … overwhelming. Again, harkening back to the beasts we once were. Probably something about ensuring the female is impregnated. … Some couples don’t leave the house for a week. Males get so volatile that it can be dangerous for them to be in public, anyway. I’ve seen males of reason and education shatter a room because another male looked too long in their mate’s direction too soon after they’ve been mated.”

This hyper-masculine tradition also happens to heavily feature treating women like commodities they can use and throw away whenever they like. Rhysand, a character Maas tries so hard to pass off as a celebrated feminist, even tells Feyre in the heat of passion that, “I want you splayed out on the table like my own personal feast”. Every single one of Maas’ male characters, including, and especially Rhys, is a product of this tradition. But instead of engaging with commentary about how toxic such a worldview is, Maas just lets her characters carry on in this reality without consequence, self-awareness, or rebellion against it, as can be seen by Rhys’ explanation of women’s place in the kitchen, and Feyre’s subsequent acquiescence to that role as Rhys’ partner:

“It’s an … important moment when a female offers her mate food. It goes back to whatever beasts we were a long, long time ago. But it still matters. The first time matters. Some mated pairs will make an occasion of it– throwing a party just so the female can formally offer her mate food … But it means that the female … accepts the bond.”

This old-fashioned, dare I say, archaic misogynistic ideal is just treated as the norm, effectively cementing every other male fantasy writer’s depiction of patriarchal societies as the ultimate world-building feature of the genre.

I don’t know what Maas is thinking, but whatever it is, it’s not cute.

Why are we still putting fantasies set in patriarchal worlds on such a high pedestal? It’s fantasy! What’s more, it’s 2017! You can’t tell me it’s more realistic to write a patriarchal society than literally any other kind in a fantasy world. When Maas, a woman writer creating her own world from scratch, has the chance to do whatever she wants, this is what she gives us?

One of the most horrifying scenes in A Court of Thorns and Roses (which is also shockingly overlooked) is Rhysand drugging Feyre and turning her into his slave whore without her consent. Maas sweeps this under the rug with a quick explanation that is all justified to a.) save Rhys’ fearsome reputation among the other realms, and b.) protect Feyre from the horrors of Amarantha’s kingdom. Just when I thought this particular plot was given its much needed closure (shut it down, Sarah. Shut it down right now!), the slave whore plot rears its ugly head again:

“I had heard the rumours, and I didn’t quite believe him.” [Keir’s] gaze settled on me, on my breasts, peaked through the folds of my dress, of my legs, spread wider than they’d been minutes before, and Rhys’ hand in dangerous territory. “But it seems true: Tamlin’s pet is now owned by another master.”

“You should see how I make her beg,” Rhys murmured, nudging my neck with his nose.

Keir clasped his hands behind his back. “I assume you brought her to make a statement.”

“You know everything I do is a statement.”

The only difference is, Feyre’s aware and consenting this time. Still, the skimpy dress and incredibly graphic touching on Rhys’ part all in the name of creating a diversion isn’t good enough to justify his actions. Rhysand’s created a thinly-veiled excuse to once again, objectify Feyre, touch her inappropriately in front of everyone, and lay claim to her when she’s not his to claim:

“Try not to let it go to your head.”

…I … said with midnight smoothness, “What?”

Rhys’ breath caressed my ear, the twin to the breath he’d brushed against it merely an hour ago in the skies. “That every male in here is contemplating what they’d be willing to give up in order to get that pretty, red mouth of yours on them.”

…His hand slid higher up my thigh, the proprietary touch of a male who knew he owned someone body and soul.

 


His eyes on the Steward, Rhys made vague nods every now and then. While his fingers continued their slow, steady stroking on my thighs, rising higher with every pass.

People were watching. Even as they drank and ate, even as some danced in small circles, people were watching. I was sitting in his lap, his own personal plaything, his every touch visible to them.

This isn’t romantic, this isn’t sexy, and it’s straight up not okay!

At what point did this series just turn into a horrific Princes Leia/Jabba the Hut smutfic? I know the only ones imagining what it might’ve been like had Leia been chained to Sexy McSexMachine instead of a giant blob are usually the pervy weirdos. Meaning no one in their right minds would want that mental image. Absolutely no one. In fact, the moment that image popped into my head, the final implosion of Rhys and Feyre’s sexual tension was made all the more cringe-worthy. There’s a reason Carrie Fisher spoke so strongly against Jabba and the gold bikini. She knew what it meant to be objectified, something Maas does not succeed in exploiting with Rhys’ choice to put Feyre in these skimpy outfits not once, but twice in this series. While yes, putting her in these outfits is ultimately a con-game, why should he be lauded for still playing by patriarchal rules in the first place? Shouldn’t the correct course of action be to break down those gender barriers?

All I have left to say about that is, I’m sorry, Sarah. You wrote that Leia/Jabba fanfiction. You made your bed. Now lie in it.

I suppose it’s about time to address the elephant in the room: Rhys. Oh boy… I don’t know how someone can pull together a character’s development so offensively, but Maas somehow wins the prize. He spends the entire first book as a lackey to the villain, doing the best he can to humiliate and emotionally manipulate Feyre. Now, we’re expected to believe he’s not only Feyre’s true love (oh, sorry… mate), but a feminist icon? I’m sorry. No. Did we already forget that he drugged her and made her dance for him in Leia’s gold bikini? It happened. I’m not about to let people forget it…

Readers fall all over themselves over him for coming to Feyre’s rescue when she begs to be saved from her wedding to Tamlin. On the surface, he’s set up to directly juxtapose Tamlin’s controlling over-protectiveness by letting Feyre do whatever she likes. Yet there’s still an unhealthy amount of Rhys manipulating situations in order to do what he feels is best for her. Not what Feyre thinks is best for herself, but what he thinks is best. Every single decision Feyre makes is based on Rhys’ influence. Nothing she does is for herself. By making Rhysand’s word law, Maas effectively strips Feyre of her agency, ironically, the one thing Rhys has attempted to help her regain in the first place.

What’s more, I don’t know who any of these characters are outside of their relation to Rhysand. They all revolve around him, because in Maas’ paraphrased words, he’s the most beautiful, powerful, strongest male in the kingdom. I honestly don’t need this overcompensation to make up for how toxic he is as a person. Not to mention, his male friends are nothing but carbon copies of him. Cassian and Azriel share his colouring and Ilyrian wings. I’ve seen plenty of fanart out there depicting the full cast of characters and I can never tell one male character from the another, nor one female character from another. The men (Azriel, Cassian, and Rhysand) are handsome and dark haired, the women (Feyre, Nesta, Elain, and Mor), beautiful and blonde. Again, the only stand-out is Amren, who is woefully underrepresented and poorly used in the novel. When you have a white cookie cutter template for every character in your patriarchal world, you’ve gotta step outside your box to deliver some diversity at some point. Otherwise, everything’s just vanilla with a side of racism.

If you think Rhys is the only male character abusing women in this novel, you would be dead wrong. Every single female character in this series has an honestly triggering backstory involving rape, whether emotional or physical. This novel is undoubtedly the sort of thing that should come with a warning. I’ve seen copies with warnings that the series is not suitable for young readers on the back cover, but it’s both irresponsible to then market it as YA, and not discuss rape and abuse responsibly. In fact, given how frequently Maas uses the rape card and how non-existent any discourse concerning the consequences is, I’d say this is a dire case of romanticising rape. And I’m tired of seeing readers obsessing over series like these en masse. It’s doing nothing but perpetuating rape culture.

Mor in particular has a brutal rape backstory. This is made all the more upsetting by how eager her father is to sell her off to the highest bidder, and her desperation to lose her virginity on her own terms:

“I wanted Cassian to be the one who did it. I wanted to choose … Rhys came back the next morning, and when he learned what had happened … He and Cassian … I’ve never seen them fight like that. Hopefully I never will again.I know Rhys wasn’t pissed about my virginity, but rather the danger that losing it had put me in. Azriel was even angrier about it–though he let Rhys do the walloping. They knew what my family would do for debasing myself.”


“I wanted my first time to be with one of the legendary Illyrian warriors. I wanted to lie with the greatest of Illyrian warriors, actually. And I’d taken one look at Cassian and known. … He just wants what he can’t have, and it’s irritated him for centuries that I walked away and never looked back.”

“Oh, it drives him insane,” Rhys said from behind me.

What’s worrying here is that while the men are praised for playing the patriarchal system to protect their women, female characters like Mor aren’t shown the same respect for protecting themselves. Mor’s entire character arc is punishment for her female sexuality, kept completely out of her control. Not once does a female character speak out against her sexual abuse, nor do they seek justice for it.

In a recent interview, Maas has stated that she only writes sex scenes if they further the plot. When literally everyone’s backstory hinges on sex, whether consensual or otherwise, I find that doubtful. If there’s one positive thing I’ll say about Maas, it’s that I’m glad she’s leading the charge for sex-positive female characters. But how empowering are these characters really, when they’re defined by their desirability to men and their past sexual traumas? Sure, Feyre has sexual agency, but what else does she have? Especially in a patriarchal world where this is expected of her, and she doesn’t even use this “power” to her advantage…

Look, I’m glad Feyre’s getting pleasured the way she wants it, when she wants it, and the detailed depiction of her sexual stimulation might help girls become more aware of their own bodies and sexuality. But when this is the highest profile series featuring female sexuality in the YA market right now, what kind of example are we really setting here?

Feminism doesn’t begin and end with sexual expression. It’s more than that and Maas’ characters have to join that fight. Especially given it’s one of the highest selling fantasy series in the market right now. Sarah J. Maas is not the feminist role model we need for this generation of girls.

We need more than this.

In short, I’m absolutely shocked and appalled that so many people blindly gave this book 4 and 5 stars. Even those who acknowledge how problematic Maas’ writing is. Is it really worth overlooking blatant normalised rape culture to call something your favourite series? As I said from the outset, we’ve already been there with Twilight. An entire generation of girls fell head over heels for Edward Cullen, a 100+ year old stalker who dictated Bella Swan’s ever action and motivation. Now, here we are again, encouraging a new generation of teens to swoon over this sexy, emotionally manipulative product of rape culture, without any acknowledgement of the consequences.

We need to do better. Starting with readers. Starting with authors. Starting with publishers.

It’s time to hold ourselves accountable for the content we praise and allow kids to read. Because toxic masculinity and rape culture are not values to uphold. We live in a world where the President of the United States can brag about grabbing women by the pussy without recourse. Where old, white men are constantly dictating women’s reproductive rights. Where women are catcalled in the streets and victim blamed for the clothes they wear. Where girls can’t even go out at night on their own without the threat of sexual assault.

Is this really what we want to teach our daughters, sisters, students, friends? That it’s okay, to allow passing men to objectify us, just because they have power over us?

Listen, girls. This is the thing: men have power over us so long as we give it to them. So long as we keep laying down and accepting that we’re weak and in need of defending, they’ll keep doing it. And people like Sarah J. Maas will keep holding to those gender expectations. They’ll keep defining romantic ideals based on hyper-masculine overprotective, possessive men.

It’s up to us to redefine romantic ideals. To tear down toxic masculinity and uplift healthy, equal relationships based on mutual respect.

Because you’re worth so much more than that. You deserve better than Rhysand. Align yourself with people who value you for who you are and not just your body. Listen to them when they praise you for your talents. Accept their recommendations when they stumble across media showcasing aspirational women rising above the status quo. You are more than just an object holding a man’s attention. You are yourself and you deserve the world.

Look beyond the smokescreen of Sarah J. Maas’ works and aspire to be something more.

Books, Sneak Peek Weekends

February Sneak Peek Weekends #4

This week’s sneak peeks are two books focusing on minority characters. Although they may not be meant for me, they’ll undoubtedly resonate with readers they’re representing!

At the Edge of the Universe

edge of the universe

 I sat beside the window pretending to read Plato’s Republic as the rest of the passengers boarding Flight 1184 zombie-walked to their seats. The woman next to me refused to lower her armrest, and the chemical sweetness of her perfume coated my tongue and the back of my throat. I considered both acts of war.

Author: Shaun David Hutchinson

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Published: February 7, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: We are the Ants, History is All You Left Me, Dante and Aristotle, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Final Destination

If I were an agent/acquisitions editor, would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

 

I know I only have the first twenty pages to go off of, but this one isn’t doing anything for me. The blurb promises a unique plot in the form of a male protagonist searching for his missing boyfriend. It’s doing similar things as History is All You Left Me, which makes me think this novel shouldn’t be ignored in terms of LGBT content, which although growing, is still pretty sparse.

In terms of its opening sequence, it’s slow building. This setup is likely intentional to lull the reader into a false sense of security. It takes ten pages to get going. I don’t know if I’d read that far before making a decision in terms of pitch selection. There’s no indication that the inciting incident is a plane crash by the blurb, so I wouldn’t necessarily have much to go on if this were pitched to me. As a mere reader, though, the cliffhanger at the end of the first chapter is a solid hook that leaves you curious.

Hutchinson is engaging with the world in ways I don’t ordinarily see male writers doing. Very early on in the text, he shames frat boys for boasting about date rape. More male writers should be engaging with this kind of discourse, even if it’s for a quick, throwaway line. I do find, however, that this protagonist is a little man-splainy, which is what I hate about male writers in general. But as far as male writers go, this one’s hardly offensive.

From a publisher’s perspective, this is an interesting case, because while books with gay protagonists are in the minority, such manuscripts shouldn’t receive a free pass. Which is why many publishers don’t necessarily see the potential in so many of these books. I, for instance, wouldn’t be the agent or publisher to publish this one, but that doesn’t by any means mean it shouldn’t be on the shelves.

The Education of Margot Sanchez

the education of margot sanchez

A cashierista with flaming orange-red hair invades my space the minute I step inside the supermarket. I search for Papi but he’s walked ahead into his office already.

Author: Lilliam Rivera

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Published: February 21, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Allegedly, Ugly Betty, Jane the Virgin

Would I Publish This?

I am so clearly not the right audience for this novel. This is clearly meant for Latinx readers, which is hardly a bad thing whatsoever. The fact that I can count the amount of Latinx narratives I’ve engaged with lately on one hand is distressing and should be challenged in the contemporary literary canon.

I have no idea if this plot is going anywhere particularly bold or revolutionary in terms of messages, but the opener suggests Rivera isn’t trying to say anything too important with her narrative. The protagonist comes off as vapid and uninteresting. I personally find characters who natter on about their clothes and their “big booty” to be a giant turn off. I don’t know if this is some kind of reflection of Latinx culture or not, but it’s not an aspect I’m keen to engage with.

Books, Reviews

Book Review: Nexis

Nexis

Author: A.L. Davroe

Publisher: Entangled Teen

Published: December 2015

Rating: 1 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed  Read These Instead: The Hunger Games, The Diabolic, Firstlife, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984

This is not a spoiler-free review! You can find a spoiler-free version on goodreads!

Nexis

This is as good a time to write this review as any, given how much furor Harlequin Teen has received over The Black Witch lately… I read Nexis with full intentions of reading the sequel, Redux in time for its release, but I can’t in good conscience read Redux, let alone finish Nexis. Which I feel really terrible about because I received Redux not just in exchange for an honest review from the publisher, but I got it as a granted Wish on NetGalley… If anything, I hope this post raises awareness as to the types of things publishers should be aware of when considering sensitivity reads.

This series has an interesting enough premise. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world (called Evanescence, by the way. I hope that sets the tone…) where humans have let the Earth fall to ruin. The poor are left to rot in the toxic air of the outside world while the elite literally live in their own bubble of ignorance. It’s essentially a cheap imitation of The Diabolic. The elite pat themselves on the back for doing a favour to the poor by creating virtual reality video games that allows people to essentially live a second life. (So basically, virtual reality Sims.) Fine. Cool. The author says to just roll with it and let it happen.

So I do.

In amongst this dystopian world is Ellani, who happens to go by 500 different pet names, half of them cringe-worthy. She’s a stuck up, bratty teen obsessed with boys and disrespectful to her father, who tries so hard to teach her how the Earth once was and all the terrible things human beings have done to it in their selfishness. I can see where Davroe is going with this. It’s heavy-handed, and you expect Ellani to get it at some point and realise she has to do something about it. But nope.

In one ear and out the other.

While her father’s busy trying to teach her empathy for the world that once was, she’s too preoccupied with begging for plastic surgery for her birthday because she’s the only one who hasn’t been altered in some way. She also happens to solely accept validation in the form of how many boys notice and fall in love with her. So vapid is she, she’s apparently “in love with” the prince, who never gives her the time of day, never said a word to her, and doesn’t even know who she is. Not only that, he owns what Davroe is calling Dolls, who are basically slaves he uses to experiment cosmetic surgery upon… If this were, say, The Hunger Games, this would be making all sorts of really intense social commentary on just how corrupt and beauty-obsessed society has become. But no, this, just like everything else, is treated as the norm.

Not only is cosmetic surgery completely normalised in this world, so is assimilation of culture. It’s explained early on that black people were completely weeded out of the gene pool. They’re literally extinct. At this point, I have to put down my ereader and whisper eugenics to myself, which is never a word I want to associate with books I’m reading unless it’s something making important statements against it. This book is not, and in fact, is so blasé, I almost miss when they use the actual word eugenics to explain the way people look so homogenous. And it’s not in a “eugenics happened and now the world is fucked up” way. But in a “and also, eugenics happened… anyway…” way. Casual as you please. As if the reader’s just supposed to accept it and move on. Because that’s exactly what the characters do…

So, Ellani enters the game, which takes all its world-building from how the world used to be before mankind destroyed it. And for 4.5 seconds, she’s taken with how beautiful it is and what a shame that the sky and wildlife and trees and rain are gone. And I think, thank god, maybe she’ll be motivated to do something about it in the real world.

But then a boy comes along. And it’s instalove, so everything else she was inspired by has instantly been wiped clean from her brain (not literally, but wouldn’t that be interesting?) because clearly boys are more important than stopping planetary extinction…

Just when you think I’m done describing the offensive things being so casually name-dropped in this novel, I have one more horrifying tidbit. The big, instigating plot device that gets Ellani into the game in the first place is this big crash which (spoiler alert), kills her father. Fine, you could see it coming from miles away. Alright. But then she loses her legs. And given how poorly Davroe has handled literally everything else in this novel so far, you can maybe see where this is going. Two or so chapters later, she enters the game and discovers she can have her legs back. Well, I was looking forward to seeing a disabled character kick ass in a dystopian world (again, please see The Hunger Games!), but sure, this isn’t a horrifying, ableist alternative at all

I can now glean a couple messages Davroe is leaving with this:

  1. Attention from cute boys is all the validation girls need.
  2. Being beautiful is all girls should aspire to be.
  3. God forbid, if you wind up disabled, you’re better off dead.
  4. You know what was a good idea? The Holocaust.

Cool. With that, I have absolutely no interest, or intention of reading the rest of this series. I sincerely hope Entangled Publishing reads this review and strives to do better next time.

Books, Sneak Peek Weekends

February Sneak Peek Weekends #2

This week’s sneak peek is another personal favourite theme of mine: murder most foul. Here are three of the latest YA releases featuring a couple murder mysteries…

A Good Idea

A Good Idea

I think it started with the seizure. Serena and I talked about it later, and she agreed that if Ann Russo hadn’t had an epileptic fit during the graduation ceremony, she would have been far less likely to contribute her own outburst to the proceedings. Something about the sight of Ann spasming on the ground, red hair gleaming against the aggressively green, meticulously manicured grass of the backfield, mouth opening and closing wordlessly like a fish, gave what had been until then an unnoteworthy ceremony  … a surreal quality that sent things firmly off the rails.

Author: Cristina Moracho

Publisher: Viking Children’s Books (Penguin Random House)

Published: February 28, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, Castle, All the Bright Places, Cuckoo’s Calling, Allegedly, Asking For It

If I were an agent/acquisitions editor, would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

Yes. When I go looking for thrillers with a hint of murder, I want ‘em gritty, brutal, and gory. I want to be shocked and horrified and A Good Idea succeeds from page one. A lot is going on in this first chapter, and it sets up so many intriguing questions. This opening scene takes place during a graduation ceremony (I would argue, a rarity in YA novels?), where a dead girl’s murderer is allowed to cross the stage while the victim goes completely unacknowledged. Meanwhile, another graduating student suffers a seizure. Right away, Moracho’s setting up a heavy message she wants to share. She gets to the point without messing around with irrelevant narrative developments. Her protagonist stands for justice for girls who are victimised while their predators go free without acknowledgement of their crimes or compromising their reputation. It’s a message to get angry about and makes you want to follow her down the rabbit hole to see where this goes. I like that we’re reaching an age where murder and violence in fiction isn’t just meant to shock. When done right, it’s to prove a point, and shed a light on the corruptions of society and the legal system. And I can clearly see that’s what Moracho’s doing here. She’s got a point to make.

To Catch a Killer

To Catch a Killer

 I soothe my forehead against the icy car window and breathe out a path of fog. If I squint one eye, the neon splashed across the rain-slicked street forms a wide, cruel mouth.

Author: Sheryl Scarborough

Publisher: Tor Teen (Macmillan)

Published:February 7, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Cuckoo’s Calling, Castle, Law and Order, NCIS

Would I Select it for Publication?

Given there are so many cop procedurals out there about murder cases, this one’s a little too cookie cutter for me. The title even sounds exactly like every other true crime program on tv right now. There is obviously a market for books like these, otherwise we wouldn’t have dozens and dozens of crime series out there. As far as crime novels go, you kind of have to start with a bang. There’s a reason why every crime show opens with the murder itself and backtracks. Instead, in this, Scarborough opens with a witness investigation. Which, in terms of the crime plot structure, isn’t necessarily the most interesting part of the murder mystery formula. (In my humble opinion.) Right away, I wanna know how did the person die, and who are they. All we know from this chapter is that it’s the protagonist’s teacher, and there was a lot of blood. Obviously, if you’re a die-hard mystery reader (which I’m not), and you like to have a quick, poolside read during your holidays, then maybe this is right up your alley. It’s just not quite up mine…

Dreamland Burning

Dreamland Burning

Nobody walks in Tulsa. At least not to get anywhere. Oil built our houses, paved our streets, and turned us from a cow town stop on the Frisco Railroad into the heart of Route 66. My ninth-grade Oklahoma History teacher joked that around these parts, walking is sacrilege. Real Tulsans drive.

Author: Jennifer Latham

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (Hachette)

Published:February 21, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Holes, The Help, Their Eyes Were Watching God, To Kill a Mockingbird, Allegedly

Would I Select it for Publication?

I don’t know about this one! This one’s got a slow build which doesn’t immediately grip you like it should. It gets there by the end of the first chapter, but it felt like I was going through the motions to get to that point. It does definitely feel, though, like Latham’s also got a point to make. Hers is one about race relations and slave-era America and how it’s impossible to erase that corrupt history, no matter how hard you try to clean the slate. There is clearly something to be said for erasure of victims, whether they’re women, like Moracho’s narrative, or black people, as Latham’s addressing. It’s incredibly topical now especially and I think it’s important to bring that discussion to teens as accessibly as possible. So while I don’t think this would be an immediately obvious choice for me as an agent, there is undoubtedly a place on the shelves for this novel and a reason it’s out there now. Sometimes that’s the burden agents and publishers face – the topics don’t always align with their categories of interest, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be out in the world!

What are your favourite murder mysteries? Feel free to share in the comments!

Books, Reviews

Book Review: Truthwitch

Truthwitch

Author: Susan Dennard

Publisher: Tor Teen (Macmillan)

Published: January 2016

Rating: 2 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed: Throne of Glass, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stardust, Lord of the Rings, Rebel of the Sands

*This is not a spoiler-free review! You can find a spoiler-free version on Goodreads!

Truthwitch

Welcome to the Witchlands, where everything’s made up and the plot doesn’t matter…

This book made me irrationally angry. Which is probably what I get for picking up a book with a Sarah J. Maas endorsement on the front cover. What kills me is that it took me two thirds of the way through before I even realised it was making me angry. And that’s not even to say Dennard is a terrible writer. She’s just not a character writer. …and not a plot writer.

What she is blatantly skilled at is action writing, something I personally struggle with. That being said, without the other two elements to buoy the narrative development, the rest of the story falls apart. Dennard should be writing for video games or DnD campaigns, just not… novels.

Speaking of DnD, this entire world she’s created is essentially a dungeons and dragons adventure. There are bards and paladins and everyone’s got different powers and swords they’re constantly fighting things… Which could’ve been fun. If Dennard were doing anything particularly original with it. It’s a shame, because there are clearly elements where she’s trying so hard to make the world her own. Her world is called the Witchlands, where everyone wields some form of witchcraft or another and for some reason, despite the fact that some witches control the sea, or the weather, or people’s blood, or poisons, the Truthwitch is the most powerful, sought after of them all…

I should just say, this story shouldn’t have followed Safi (the Truthwitch) at all. She’s the worst type of fantasy hero. She’s impulsive and selfish and completely lacking in self-preservation and motivation… The choices she makes are very quick short-term fixes to dire situations without any concern for the long-term. The novel opens with her losing all her money at cards because a guy who flirted with her once charmed her into believing him. (Let me remind you, her speciality is in identifying the truth). During several emergency situations that unfold because of this mistake, she proceeds to intentionally rip up her clothes multiple times, simply for convenience’s sake. The DnD player in me says ripping up her skirts so she can be more effective in combat and giving chase sounds aesthetically pleasing. Why don’t fantasy writers use this option more often? But then I think about it a little more and…

Practicality.

It’s just not practical. Which is literally every single decision she makes in this novel. Another example of poor choices the protagonist makes is although these villages seem to be full of perfectly nice people who might lend her things if she asked, she still beats passing strangers up on the streets so she can steal their weapons. Or not just weapons. Their horses. She beats people up and steals their horses. On numerous occasions! These villagers must be completely desensitised to being used and abused because Safi’s not the only culprit who gets away with it. Her love interest, Prince-and-occasionally-Admiral Merik has this seemingly loyal crew who adore him and think he’s the best, yet he chains them up below deck as punishment? This same person shows up for the first time ever at this new settlement for his people (who have been suffering from the royal family’s debts), and everyone’s celebrating him in the streets, even though there is literally no explanation as to what he’s done to warrant such devotion.

There is literally no explanation as to why lots of things happen in this book. Which is why the development is so weak in all cases. Why are all the kingdoms at war? Why do all the rulers want the Truthwitch of all the other witches for their power grab? Why would the Emperor want lowly no one Safi as his Empress? Why isn’t this story about her soul sister, Iseult?

Why isn’t this story about Iseult?

Dennard missed such an opportunity by not making Safi’s BFF the protagonist here. Iseult has so much going on and is easily the most dynamic character in this narrative. On the surface, she’s got this meek, stuttering Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe, but you find out she actually packs more of a Willow punch with Buffy’s fighting skills. She comes from this nomadic tribe that’s being usurped by this creepy Puritanical preacher a la Fantastic Beasts. And she’s got this complicated relationship with her mother, who supposedly abandoned her when she was young, but in actuality, she was protecting her, and she’s taken on this new apprentice to replace her… She clearly comes from a minority background, like she’s representative of Native or Romani culture even though Dennard doesn’t ever put it into so many words, so she’s got a lot of old world traditions, and she’s constantly the center of casually racist threats (by the other characters, not the author). Meanwhile, she’s also got this ominous voice in her head gently swaying her to the dark side and even though everyone thinks she’s so powerless, she’s actually the most powerful of basically everyone…

Why isn’t this story about her?

I really wish Dennard had done the bold thing and killed off Safi. Iseult would’ve gone total Dark!Willow on everyone and destroyed everything. It would’ve been great and I would’ve loved it. Instead, we got Safi, being selfish and dumb and completely contradictory to her powers… Apparently, lie-detecting protagonists in fantasy is in right now, because this was the second of three books in a row I’ve read with such a trope. So I know for a fact girlfriend’s not doing it right. At all. Having read Traitor to the Throne immediately before this one, where Amani’s fact-checking every little thing someone says to her, Safi never once uses her power. And when she does, it’s like “oh, yeah, I believed it was true, even though it wasn’t, so my power did too”. Why is everyone running in circles, trying to find this useless girl when Iseult is bursting at the seams with every magic there is?

Why wasn’t it about Iseult???

To sum up, this novel should’ve been about Iseult. And I’m upset about it.

I’ll be reading and reviewing the new sequel, Windwitch, soon, so we’ll be able to see if Dennard makes good on that front…