Books, Reviews

Book Review: Passenger

Passenger

Author: Alexandra Bracken

Publisher: Hyperion

Published: January 5, 2016

Rating: 4 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed: Indiana Jones, Outlander, Back to the Future, A Wrinkle in Time, This Savage Song, Dreamland Burning, The Lie Tree, Code Name Verity, The Diviners

Passenger

This was kind of everything I want in a novel. I may be extremely biased, considering I too have written a time travel series about family blood feuds, but I’m still absolutely here for it all the same. This is my first Alexandra Bracken novel (she’s far better known for her insanely popular The Darkest Minds series) and I somehow imagined a far simpler writing style on par with most YA fantasy series out there. I am, however, delighted to find my assumptions were wrong, and in fact, Bracken weaves together a complex, beautifully written story crossing the boundaries of time.

There were so many things going into this novel that had me absolutely grinning ear to ear giddy. Etta (who has a great, original name vintage flavoured name, which I loved) is an incredibly smart, driven female protagonist. She’s an insanely affluent violinist training to play with the greats. She’s so focused, with her eyes honed right in on the prize, that it all almost works to her detriment. This is something I definitely think is lacking in YA female protagonists lately. So often, they’re drifting and don’t know what they want at the start of the story, and often don’t figure it out until the end of the series. But here, Bracken gives us a different take. Etta knows who she is, what she wants, and how to get it, and Bracken throws her in the deep end of the complete opposite of what she expects. Etta effectively loses the one part of her life she can depend on in being thrown back in time. I gotta say, although I’m upset that the likelihood of Etta’s returning to her life as a sharply-motivated violinist is pretty slim given how her arc progresses, I’m loving this inversion of the YA female stereotype. Etta has to learn to let go and be less of a control freak in her own life and I like that.

There is nothing that makes me more excited in a book than surprise Victorian settings. As with any time travel plot, Etta and Nicholas to a certain amount of bouncing around from one era to the next. Shockingly enough, for a time travel writer, I might not have a good sense of what a typical time travel story is like, but I can’t say I’ve ever read one that uses the jumping from one era to the next so liberally and so effectively. A lot of the time travel novels I’ve read have stuck to a single era, but this one has a very clear goal propelling them through the different time periods. Bracken’s very meticulous about her every choice she makes and no time jump feels out of place or superfluous to the plot. Etta and Nicholas stay as long as they need to in every era, no more, no less. Although this may not be your usual quick YA read, the plot is tight and gets on without any unnecessary waffling.

That being said, I am a little disappointed that we couldn’t linger and properly savour each era. Bracken’s so hyperfocused on Etta’s task at hand, she never gives the reader an opportunity to explore each new setting. In the span of the novel, we see World War 2 London, 19th Century France, 16th century Damascus, and yet it’s a very insular perspective on each era. One that doesn’t fully embody the atmosphere of each place and time. The tight rules of time travel in Bracken’s world seems to work against her in this way. Because Etta and the other time jumpers aren’t allowed to interact with themselves from different timelines, or really interact with big world events, there’s no opportunity to do any fun name drops to give that real sense of place.

Refusing to let her characters interact with the world around them, Bracken effectively strips all meaning of time and place. Both Nicholas and Etta struggle with their sense of belonging. Etta, a modern girl being thrown into the past, and Nicholas, a 19th century boy punished to never jump through time again. The pair of them are essentially blank slates, ones who could redefine that sense of belonging; that sense of home, not applying it to a specific place or time, but in with each other.

Very rarely do time travel romances do the whole “their love defies time and place” without being cheesy and melodramatic, but Passenger definitely succeeds without being overwrought. The romance, when it starts picking up steam, doesn’t overpower Etta’s original mission. She’s determined to find the astrolabe to save her kidnapped mother and Nicholas is 100% there to support her through it. (A trope I’ve also been known to use on a pretty regular basis). That mission is first and foremost a priority and Bracken doesn’t diminish its importance in favour of the central romance, while still making Etta and Nicholas’ romance a sweeping one. And I respect that!

I will say, I read this book on and off within a series of about four months, while getting distracted by other books. I feel like had I read it within a week, I would be far more in love with it than I was. I was fully on board for it in a big way within the first 150 pages, and I think my enthusiasm diminished the longer I left it sitting on my bedside table. So if you like some fantasy, like some history, like some romance, all tied together in a heftier-than-usual YA package, this is that novel. Just expect to really take some time to savour it because I think this is definitely one of those books you have to spend quality time with.

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, Reviews

Book Review: The Beast is an Animal

The Beast is an Animal

Author: Peternelle van Arsdale

Publisher: Mary K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)

Published: February 28, 2017

Rating: 5 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed: The Sineater’s Daughter, Stardust, Blair Witch Project, Dracula, The Raven Cycle, Carmilla, RoseBlood, A Darker Shade of Magic, This Savage Song, The Grisha, Six of Crows, “Goblin Market”, “Pied Piper of Hamlin”

Beast is an Animal

This book felt the way my soul feels. The irony if this is delicious, considering the plot follows a pair of spooky soul-eating sisters of Welsh lore. The first 50 pages of Beast is an Animal took my breath and raised goosebumps on my arms in ways a YA novel hasn’t done since Libba Bray’s The Diviners. Real, intense suspense is a rare feat in YA and for a debut author, I’m impressed by how solidly van Arsdale nailed it. It’s dark, it’s haunting, it’s gothic, it draws you in, chews you up, and spits you out, and it’s just so so good.

Those first 50 pages could almost be a completely separate novel from the rest of the story. If anything, if you’re interested in picking up this book, but don’t want to commit, at least read those first 50 pages, because it’s literary magic. The remainder of the narrative follows Alys, whose village was brutally ravaged by the soul-eaters, leaving every adult dead. What follows is a slow-moving coming of age plot as she comes to grips with the darkness within her that has allowed her to survive the sisters’ wrath. It’s one of those stories that really needs to be savoured until the very end before outright dismissal. The middle segment drags and it doesn’t become clear where van Arsdale’s going with it until you’ve hit the final act.

Although the middle lulls compared to the rest of the novel, it offers hints of Neil Gaiman level storytelling. It’s quiet, yet ominous. Alys and the remaining children get sent to a neighbouring town, which is extremely Puritanical and suspicious of them all. Fearing the threat of the soul eaters, they build a wall around the town, where Alys and her kin are forced to guard it every night while the townsfolk sleep well in their self-righteous, religious beliefs. There’s something akin to Stardust here (which I love), injected with surprisingly accurate witch-hunt context. Taking the Puritan witch hunt angle is hardly a new one, yet it still speaks to modern society more than ever. The religious, pearl clutching fear mongering does not rely on facts, but rather savage gossip against the unknown in order to justify actions. The town is, as one might expect, all white, in fear of the other. All races not like their own are labelled children of the Beast, also wrongfully assumed to be evil incarnate.

Alys’ own character arc is here to showcase how evil isn’t just evil and good isn’t just good, there is no black and white. She slips into the grey areas pretty seamlessly, giving her moments of solitude with the Beast and moments of melancholy in her power struggle against the sisters. She learns the true evil is with those who believe themselves to be morally superior above all else, despite their hypocrisy. It says a great deal about modern so-called Christians, who preach only what conveniently applies to their outlook, without any concept of empathy toward people who differ from them. Van Arsdale’s social commentary on how these people can justify racism and damnation of the Other is weaved into her narrative with such ease, there’s not an ounce of preachiness to it. It’s just raw, honest discussion of humanity and what makes us beastly.

Had I only read the first two thirds of this book, it would’ve only earned 4 stars, but stepping back, and seeing the plot as a whole, van Arsdale has three very clearly laid out acts. I love a well-thought out narrative, and I have a lot of respect for her for it. I know exactly where she split her plot in even thirds. From the extended prologue of the sisters’ attack on Gwineth, to the watchers of the wall, to the climax in the tranquil Lakes. I got it. It’s organised, not overly complicated in any way, and it makes for beautiful storytelling.

Another thing I appreciate in Beast, is that the romance takes a backseat to Alys’ confronting her fears. In fact, her love interest doesn’t show up into more than halfway through. I have to say, I approve of fantasy authors doing this more often, because it gives so much room for the protagonist to develop beforehand. Alys has a clear objective (even though she doesn’t fully confront it until years after it’s set for her; the only pitfall of the novel) and not even falling for a boy will stop her. Her relationship with Cian instead feels like an added bonus to an already fantastic plot. The romance doesn’t feel forced or intrusive or tacked on. He’s just there for her in the background, willing to wait for her while she does her thing. That’s how I write my fantasy romances…

I should also note that the Welsh folklore of the soul-eaters is the exact same myth that A.G. Howard struggled to recreate in RoseBlood. It wasn’t until near the end of Beast that I made this connection, and understood why Howard would make that leap from soul-eaters to vampires. Van Arsdale’s soul-eaters are undoubtedly vampires in that same hair-raising way that Dracula is undoubtedly a vampire. The only difference is, van Arsdale doesn’t bother bashing you over head with this parallel like Howard does (repeatedly. With a nail-spiked iron bat). She’s subtle and just lets them be what they are, and it pays off.

I loved everything about this novel. I loved that it was quiet, and atmospheric. That it made me feel like I could take my time, like an unencumbered walk in the woods. That she used the witch and vampire tropes without being cheesy about it. That her villains were flawed supernatural women giving some creepy Lucy Westenra Bloofer Lady realness. That van Arsdale wasn’t afraid to murder her entire cast. This novel made me want to get back to my literary roots. Reread all my Victorian gothic faves.

Go read this book. And then go read Dracula. Both are fab depictions of spooky creatures of the night.

Sneak Peek Weekends

March Sneak Peek Weekends #1

The first sneak peek of March releases is another set of YA fantasies! Let’s see if they’re worth a read!

Hunted

Hunted

We always know before the change comes. When a storm approaches, we feel it in the thickness of the air, the tension in the earth awaiting the  blanket of snow. We feel the moment the wind changes direction. We sense a shift of power when it is coming.

Author: Meagan Spooner

Publisher: Harper Teen

Published: March 14, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Beauty and the Beast, The Lunar Chronicles, The Shadow Queen/The Wish Granter, Long May She Reign, Court of Thorns and Roses, The Bloody Chamber, Cruel Beauty, Robin Mckinley, The Beast is an Animal, Wintersong, Uprooted

As an agent or acquisitions editor, would I select this for publication?

As I’ve mentioned in previous sneak peeks, fairy tale retellings are very in, and for some reason, Beauty and the Beast is especially hot right now. I’m not sure what the draw is to be honest (though the new movie was a dream). I find this particular fairy tale hasn’t done many authors any favour recently. Sarah J Maas and Rosamund Hodge have both tried their hand with varying success, but I can’t really say either have done anything revolutionary or beautifully written with it.

This one might finally break the cycle.

I’m not sure why almost every single Beauty and the Beast retelling has to start with Beauty and her sisters doing something mundane before the action picks up, but I want something more exciting to open the story for once… Sarah J. Maas almost does it, but her downfall is her weak character development and terrible writing… This is beautifully written, but slow on the pick up.

Because Beauty and the Beast has been done over and over and over so often, would my instinct be to give this one a go as an agent? I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s enough to set it apart, but I genuinely hope there’s something here!

Blood Rose Rebellion

Blood Rose Rebellion

I did not set out to ruin my sister’s debut. Indeed, there were any number of things I deliberately did not do that day. I did not pray for rain as I knelt in the small chapel of our London town house that morning, the cold of the floor seeping into my bones.

Author: Rosalyn Eves

Publisher: Knopf

Published: March 28, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Throne of Glass, Red Queen, Hunger Games, Rebel of the Sands, Divergent, Dark Days Club, These Ruthless Masks, Stalking Jack the Ripper,The Tempest

Would I select this for publication?:

This one has a nice flip to the current fantasy YA trend of special magic girl who wants to be normal. Instead, everyone’s magical and she’s not. I like it… but is that enough? This could go one of two ways: this means she got non-magical talents, or she’s more powerful than anyone else and hasn’t grown into her power yet. If it’s the former, I’m into it. If it’s the latter, we’re just falling back into the usual fantasy conventions which drive me up the wall… I do find the immediate introduction of a love interest concerning. It feels like the protagonist is going to seek validation based on a boy’s interest in her and that’s never a good sign. Unfortunately, what I’m getting most from this opener is that the protagonist is useless and boring and everyone keeps treating her like a child. The inciting incident is showcasing her fighting over a boy with her sister and it’s not endearing in the least. This one would go in the no pile, for sure.

Books, Reviews

Book Review: Firstlife

Firstlife

Author: Gena Showalter

Publisher: HarlequinTEEN

Published: February 23, 2016

Rating: 4 / 5

For those who enjoyed: Divergent, Hunger Games, Snow Piercer, Lord of the Flies, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Orange is the New Black, Beauty Queens

This is a spoiler-free review!

Firstlife

This novel is bonkers in the best way. It’s like an extremely camp version of Hunger Games and I loved it more than I should have. It’s everything I wanted Divergent to be… There is so much going on, I don’t even know where to start.

The heroine, Tenley Lockwood, who has possibly the best character name I’ve stumbled across since Wuthering Heights, lives in a dystopian society divided into two factions: Troika and Myriad. As you can imagine, one’s peaceful, one’s violent. And Ten has to choose between the two for her second life after she dies. For one reason or another, both sides want her more than anyone else and it seriously irks them that she refuses to choose in an attempt to find her own, independent way. Even though it’s totally unclear why she’s being pursued and why she refuses to sign with one or the other, that’s why I’m completely taken by her. She’s stubborn and obstinate, and unwilling to bend to anyone’s will.

Best of all, she can kick some serious ass.

It’s Ten’s fierce independence that saves her from being a stereotypical YA heroine. There are so many aspects of Showalter’s writing that teeters on the edge of cringe-worthy, but she’s exceptionally good at pulling it back to the right place. For instance, there’s two boys chasing after her? Don’t worry – she sees one of them as her brother. There’s a superficial mean girl bullying her in prison? Oh, look… she’s got complex, grey morals and now they’re best friends. Oh, the heroine keeps finding herself in dire situations she can’t get out of? Doesn’t matter, she’s already beat up her attackers, saved half a dozen people, and is on to the next thing. Amazing. I’m here for all of this.

None of the developments in this plot should work, and yet it does.

Her love interest, Killian, is your conventional bad boy with a secret heart of gold. And maybe I’ve been seduced by his name alone (what? You mean Killian Jones, right? Eyeliner wearing, leather clad bad boy pirate, Killian Jones from Once Upon a Time? Where do I sign up???), but I fell hook line and sinker for him in ways I’m never tempted by YA love interests. He comes from the violent Myriad faction and the entire way through, even though the sensible thing to do would be to join the peaceful Troika faction, the odds are stacked in favour of Myriad. I mean, you get the hot guy and you get to beat people up. It just so happens to make for the more interesting story. The chaotic neutral in me has mad love for Killian and Myriad. You know what? Yeah… go wreak havoc with your hot boyfriend. I’d far rather read that than watch her sing Kumbaya with her new guardian angel bestie for an entire novel…

The whole way through, Tenley knows better than anyone that there are flaws in both Myriad and Troika. Neither is perfect and both have their own ulterior motives she’s constantly aware of. Ten’s incredibly calculating, a characteristic we don’t see too much of in female characters. She’s earned her nickname, Ten, for her love of numbers, and the fact that she’d undoubtedly be a mathematician if the factions let her simply be what she wanted to be, does so much to set her apart from the conventional dystopian heroine. Unlike a lot of dystopian heroines who are thrown into the maylay without any skills for war or rebellion (I take it back, Katniss. You are great with a bow), I can definitely see Ten strategizing and leading rebellions in future books. The factions supposedly want her because of a prophecy stating she’ll be the leader of them all and I can see her doing just that.

The point I’m trying to make her though, is that I want more logically inclined girls in YA. I want girls to be able to read stories about girls like them who are good with numbers, or science, or leadership, so they can feel validated in what they love to do. This is what YA heroines should be doing in the grand scheme of their stories. They should be helping real life girls pursue their passions, no matter how many people tell them they can’t because it’s not a girl’s job. And I think, against all odds, Tenley Lockwood is leading the charge.

Books, Reviews

ARC Book Review: These Vicious Masks and These Ruthless Deeds

These Vicious Masks and These Ruthless Deeds

Author: Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas

Publisher: Swoon Reads (Macmillan)

Published: February 2016 and March 14, 2017

Rating:

These Vicious Masks: 4 / 5 Stars

These Ruthless Deeds: 3 /5 Stars

Overall: 3.5 / 5

For Those Who Enjoyed:  X-Men, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Dark Days Club, Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Parasol Protectorate

This is a spoiler-free review!

These Vicious Masks

I received an early release copy of These Ruthless Deeds from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve decided to review these two together, because I finished the first book immediately before the second and wouldn’t have had time to post a review of These Vicious Masks before the release date of These Ruthless Deeds. Plus, I think my love for the first book gives a richer context to the second.

As a fanatic of both Victorian literature and magical powers, I was so giddy getting into These Vicious Masks. What made it even more enticing was the silly, tongue in cheek way the characters and dialogue was written. It’s like a solid mix of Joss Whedon and Jane Austen in terms of sassy, witty rejoinders. There’s a stereotypical dark and brooding love interest which the protagonist keeps poking fun at for being so. You suspect you’re getting into a Rochester or Heathcliff situation with him, when really he’s just a socially awkward, kind-hearted Darcy. The pair of them, plus Evelyn’s best friends and sister have this very snappy whip smart dynamic which is easily the triumph of the series.

Oscar Vicious Masks

I felt These Ruthless Deeds lost some of that charm with the shift in focus from that ragtag team to the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters-esque Society of Aberrations. The first book spends so much time poking fun at society matters that the focus on Evelyn’s return to society was boring by comparison. Because she spends so much time under the Society’s thumb, the narrative loses the snappy dialogue that made the first book so fun to read in the first place. I happened to read an interview snippet from Zekas who noted that she and Shanker only keep dialogue that make them both laugh in their drafting stages and it feels a little like they abandoned that rule by the second book in favour of this dry political intrigue plot.

What I did like about These Ruthless Deeds was how Zekas and Shanker addressed the British Empire. There are moments here and there where it’s explicitly stated that the Society of Aberrations is working to round up people with magical abilities in order to protect the country’s Imperial interests. Since the British Empire’s historical background is rooted in horrific deeds and has been documented as such in so many novels of the time, I wanted them to go full blown dark, gothic horror on it. Although bringing down the political conspiracy within the Society does have massive consequences by the end of the novel, I wanted it to go further with it and really drive home the horrible things the Empire is doing to the world and not just immediately to the characters at hand.

While I did still thoroughly enjoy These Ruthless Deeds, the novelty of what made the first book so good wore a little thin. But if you’re a huge fan of Jane Austen, Gothic literature, X-Men, and Joss Whedon’s sass, you will love this series.