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…

Books, Reviews

ARC Book Review: Brother’s Ruin

Brother’s Ruin

Author: Emma Newman

Publisher: Tor (Macmillan)

Published: March 14, 2017

Rating: 3 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed: A Hazard of Good Fortunes, H.G. Wells, Dracula, Sweeney Todd, Mirabelle Mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, The Dark Days Club, Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Parasol Protectorate

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

Brother's Ruin

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review!

This was a nice, pleasant read. If you’re looking for a quick, simple vacation read where you don’t have to think too hard about the plot, this one’s for you. Brother’s Ruin has that very quaint quality to it that many cosy historical crime novels in women’s literature would have. It’s not a gripping thriller mystery beachside read. But a gentle mystery you save for a rainy day at your lake cabin with a cup of tea.

Because it’s so short, I don’t have too much to say about it. If  you’re stuck inside on a snow day or something, it’d definitely take you one sitting to read it in its entirety. What grabbed me about it was the fact that it’s set in the 19th century. Victorian history and literature is my jam (my undergrad was focused on it). The cover design has a steampunk vibe to it, which is always appealing. And I was personally hoping the title would hint at some tragic demise.

That’s not necessarily what happened… but it was charming nonetheless.

Newman has an extraordinary talent of making the grim underbelly of Victorian London oddly warm and inviting. Not to say that she strips away the grungy aspect of the poor and terrible living conditions, like many people who glamourise the 18th and 19th centuries do, but that she incorporates it in a very quiet, gentle way. The plot focuses on Charlotte Gunn, who is engaged to a lovely, if boring, straight laced man, and earns her own living as an illustrator on the sly. Her family is in dire straights because her father owes money to a seedy lending business, and her sickly brother is being tested as a recruit for a magical institution. It plays like your typical Victorian domestic novel. And even with the subtler supernatural elements, it reads like one. There are no intense action sequences to be found, despite the fact that shocking things do happen. Newman just has a way of glossing over the more vulgar plot points without ignoring them altogether.

Brother’s Ruin is the first book in a series Newman’s titled Industrial Magic, which isn’t the most original title in existence when it comes to steampunk magic plots. But I do like that it hints at the type of rules for her magical world building she’s created for herself. Newman’s magical focus is on this new age of industry, where factories have come into prominence and trains and clocks have become the latest thing. Applying things like pyromania or telekinesis to engineering is a stroke of genius I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of, and I like that little twist.

As such a lover of Victorian crime, I would’ve liked to see Newman go darker with it. The big twist is that there’s a death trap that causes heart failure, and I would have loved to see a proper exploration of exactly how that contraption works and the magic at play there. It was just a little too vague for me and I didn’t feel completely connected to the darker elements of the plot as a result.

One of the last things I wanted to address was the fact that the cockney dialect almost crosses the line into Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins territory, but it toes that line well. As a result, because it’s so concise and the dialogue is, for the most part, true to the era (which is also more than can be said for many modern writers of Victorian history), it feels like a genuine Victorian novel. It doesn’t quite have the crazy insanity of a penny dreadful, but it would undoubtedly belong in a women’s periodical.

It’s just very pleasant and safe, and a nice book to pick up if you just want to shut off for a little while.

Books, Reviews, Uncategorized

ARC Book Review: Traitor to the Throne

Traitor to the Throne

Author: Alwyn Hamilton

Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers (Penguin Random House)

Published: March 7, 2017

Rating: 5 / 5 Stars

For People Who Enjoyed: Wrath and the Dawn, The Grisha, Six of Crows, Star Wars, Rogue One, The Big Lie, Blame

This is a spoiler-free review!

traitor

I received this ARC from Goodreads and Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review! Yay! This was my first ever ARC, and as a genuinely fantastic read, definitely worth celebrating!

I completely forgot how much I loved this series. It’s been just over half a year since I read the first book, Rebel of the Sands, so I was pretty rusty on the previous events and who was who. Fortunately enough, Hamilton gives a solid Here’s What You Missed On Rebel of the Sands… in the opening chapter, which was both informative and didn’t feel like an unnecessary info-dump rehashing of what we already know.

I’d been warned by friends and various reviews that this book was different than the last and it had me worried. I went in with a deep love for Jin. He just about makes the series for me. Without Jin, I wasn’t sure if the plot could carry itself, because he carries half the charm. So when he wound up only showing up for about a fifth of the novel, it was disappointing, but I also didn’t find myself constantly looking for him or waiting for him to show up again. There was a delightful amount of action going on in the interim between Amani and Jin’s separations and their inevitable reunion. I almost forgot to wonder when I’d get to see their Han/Leia style snarky  banter again.

Which brings me to one of the cleverest things Hamilton has done with this novel. It’s difficult to imagine Amani without Jin and Jin without Amani, both as two halves of a romance, and as partners in the rebellion. Yet by doing away with Jin early on in the plot of Traitor, Hamilton proves that Amani can, in fact, survive without a man. Not only does she cleave Amani from her love interest, she tosses her out of her comfort zone in a very female dominated environment. She goes from the very equal roles shared between the men and women of the rebellion, to the extremely insular patriarchal harem of the Sultan. Hamilton recently did a promotional interview explaining her choices in tossing her into the harem, which nicely expresses precisely why I have so much respect for this choice. By throwing this strong, independent female character into this group of women placed in a feminine space exclusively for the male gaze, Hamilton’s prised apart the problematic nature of patriarchal society and how much more work we have left to do in the feminist fight to demolition it.

Rebellion’s never  been more relevant than now. When women are still fighting for reproductive rights in not only third world countries, but Western society today, we’re still fighting to be taken seriously in the modern world. And that’s exactly what Hamilton is reflecting here. She may not have started Rebel of the Sands with a particular real life fight in mind, but now she has one, and it gives her series so much meatier context. These women have no choice but to fight for their survival, whether it’s in the middle of the desert, fighting for justice, or fighting for the attention of the men that hold power over them. The women in Hamilton’s series are all united under the same struggle, regardless of their class.

I saw Alwyn Hamilton speak a handful of times while I was at YALC in July (hence the reason I read Rebel of the Sands in the first place) and at the time, her panel discussions on building a team of rebels was hypothetical and silly, goofy, fun. But now it’s real and she’s hitting the nail on the head. Hamilton is no dummy. The way she weaves her tales, builds characters, and gets her message across exudes intelligence. She knows exactly what she’s doing and it’s beyond a desert romance. It’s so much bigger now. It’s fighting for what’s right, no matter your gender, your class, your race… Fighting for truth, and justice…

For all.

Books, Reviews

ARC Book Review: The Bone Witch

The Bone Witch

Author: Rin Chupeco

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

Published: March 7, 2017

Rating: 3.5 / 5 Stars

*This is a spoiler-free review.

the-bone-witch

For Those Who Enjoyed: Uprooted, The Grisha, Six of Crows, Lord of the Rings, Sabriel, Interview with a Vampire, Memoirs of a Geisha

I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I feel a little bit like I’ve been robbed of a five-star experience. Everything about this on the surface screams like a book I would love. It’s got a great title, a beautiful cover, a cool dark premise, and gorgeous aesthetics. It’s one of those stories that could have been the perfect book if there was more action. Since it doesn’t, it reads like many first novels in a series do: it introduces the world building and characters. I’m prepared to tentatively let it slide when I know first novels aren’t always the best novels when it comes to series. If the next book gets more into the nitty gritty battle sequences, I’m on board. We’ll just have to wait and see…

What this book does do really well, however, is give you an immersive, ornately curated experience. It’s like walking through a beautifully curated museum exhibit, full of intricate details that draw out hints of the past and tell a story about the wealth of a culture. There’s this very carefully put together array of Japanese-inspired wardrobes and culture and I feel very much like I’m opening a window into the history of this magical, mythical place. Every robe is intricately detailed and every tradition entwined in becoming a bone witch is extremely rich.Yet ultimately it’s too detached from what truly happened with time that we just don’t get the meat of the story. There’s no knitty-gritty action or juicy details. It is beautiful and full of life, but because it’s nothing but an exhibit behind glass, you don’t get the full story of what made these people tick. Everything’s already been long lost to legends of the past.

Without a doubt, this book is beautifully written. If anything, Chupeco prioritises aesthetic over plot and in this way, it succeeds far more as a work of art than as a novel. And maybe that’s not so bad. Maybe The Bone Witch is ushering in a new definition of what a novel can be.

All I know is, I had a really nice time at the museum.

 

Reviews, Sneak Peek Weekends

January Sneak Peek Weekends #3

Today I’ve got a handful of fantasies following a suspiciously similar trope…

Flicker and Mist

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Having the ability should have been fun. In another world, a child who could become invisible might play pranks on her parents, might sneak around with friends, might go ride the beasts in the dead of night. In another world, the Ability might have brought freedom and joy. But I was not born in another world, I was born in the Upland, where the Ability was used as a weapon of war.

Author: Mary G. Thompson

Publisher: Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Published: January 3, 2017

For People Who Liked: Scorpio Races, Half Bad, The Grisha, X-Men, The Incredibles

Target Audience: Fantasy readers, fans of characters with superpowers and/or magical abilities.

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

If this were the first fantasy manuscript involving a protagonist oppressed or hunted for having a magical power that set her apart from everyone else, I might give it a tentative pass. Or at least put it in a pile for later considerations.  Which might be what I’ll say for any book on today’s list. But being a regular reader of fantasy, and YA fantasy at that, I know the tropes. I’ve seen these tropes over and over again.

I get it. We’re still chasing after the next Harry Potter. It’s been 20 years. Let’s put the magical Chosen One/weapon convention to rest. I want a new fantasy novel to grab me and do something new with the genre!

The publishers want this one to follow in the footsteps of Half Bad. I can tell. It’s got that exact same vibe as Sally Green’s series. Except Half Bad is also not doing anything unique with the genre, nor does it have a particularly great reputation in terms of diverse representation. Granted, Flicker and Mist already hints at better writing than Half Bad, so maybe, just maybe the same ol’ conventions might be taken in a new direction.

Frost Blood

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I offered my hand to the fire. Sparks leapt from the hearth and settled onto my fingers, heat drawn to heat, and glittered like molten gems against my skin.

Author: Elly Blake

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 

Published: January 10, 2017

For People Who Liked: Half Bad, Frozen, Lord of the Rings, Red Queen, Throne of Glass, X-Men, The Incredibles, Flicker and Mist.

Target Audience: High fantasy readers. The same people who might pick up Flicker and Mist; they can take them home as a package deal.

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

I picked this one up immediately after Flicker and Mist. If these two crossed my desk at the same time, and this one happened to be lower on the pile, I’d put it down immediately. This isn’t to say that this book is terrible and shouldn’t be read. But rather, agents aren’t wanting to see exactly the same plot in every submission they see.

If I were an agent, my personal focus would be on fantasy and sci-fi, and as I said, I’d be looking for that unique hook that sets a manuscript apart from other novels in the canon. The trouble is, there’s that trope again and I’m not going to wait around to see if this is putting a twist on the convention. This is especially why I chose to do these sneak peeks. Opening chapters aren’t going to give you nearly enough to tell you whether the story’s going to be amazing or not. But that’s exactly what most agents are using to pass judgement on whether it’s good enough for publication.

That being said, there’s nothing particularly new going on with Frost Blood either. Though it does help that it can easily slot into an already existing subgenre alongside so many other stories in a similar vein. And that’s exactly why it was published in the first place…

Lost Girls

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I remember last night perfectly. I know what we ate for dinner. I know my little brother didn’t do his homework. I know Dad drove me to my ballet lessons, then waited for me in the Starbucks across the street.

Author: Merrie Destefano

Publisher: Entangled Publishing

Published: January 3, 2017

For People Who Liked: The One Memory of Flora Banks, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

Target Audience: Readers who like gritty mysteries, amnesia plots, or paranormal/urban fantasies.

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

No. The entire first page is word for word the back cover blurb. Which I know isn’t the author’s fault, but as far as novel openers go, as an agent, I’ve already read the blurb, and would be looking for something in the manuscript sample to tell me something I don’t already know about the novel. So often, I find myself 50 pages into a novel, turn to the back cover and go “oh, that’s what this novel’s about?” and it’s a feeling I thoroughly enjoy, because it means the author’s keeping me guessing. That’s not what’s happening here and it’s just very lazy on the publisher’s part. My interest just isn’t piqued and it isn’t helped by the juvenile writing style.

Also, you can’t tell from anything in the marketing of this book, but she’s got hints of possibly having some special magical power and I’m already bored.

If you want something a little more original and engaging, try:

You Don’t Know My Name

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The numbers on my phone stare back at me. Thirty more minutes of target practice before I can start my homework. I take a breath and run the back of my hand across my forehead. It’s still damp with sweat from my run and the hour of Krav Maga with Mom.

Author: Kristen Orlando

Publisher: Swoon Reads (Macmillan)

Published: January 10, 2017

For People Who Liked: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Catch Me if You Can, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, James Bond, The Bourne Identity, A Series of Unfortunate Events

Target Audience: Readers who like spy or undercover plots

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

I will admit, I had a lot of fun reading the prologue of this novel, which is shocking, because despite what a prologue is supposed to do, it’s rarely the most engaging part of a novel. It feels exactly how I felt watching Netflix’s new A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s surprising, it’s action packed, it’s doing something you don’t ordinarily see in YA. I’m excited by the My Parents are Spies! angle.

This is the exact type of book as an agent, I’d request the full manuscript. The opening narrative is strong and pulls you in. With this in mind, if I were to then receive that full manuscript, I’d have to give it a pass because it quickly devolves into a silly high school plot where the author tries too hard to make cool teen lingo happen. But I was excited for that hot second and I encourage people to give it a shot just in case it is the fun spy plot it says it is.

Poison’s Kiss

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I’m not a bad person. At least that’s what I tell myself over and over as I wend my way through the marketplace, past the vendors selling spiced meats and bright fabric, incense and rare birds.

Author: Breeana Shields

Publisher: RandomHouse

Published: January 10, 2017

For People Who Liked: Wrath and the Dawn, Rebel of the Sands, Six of Crows, The Raven Cycle, The Sineater’s Daughter

Target Audience: People who like more lyrical prose, fans of the deadly kiss trope, fantasy lovers.

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

After about five hours of poring over books, I was more than a little weary of reading the same plot over and over again. And so it was with such delight and relief that I stumbled across this beauty. This one was unquestionably the easiest yes I could give to any of the 11 books I flicked through on this particular day. It’s got this vivid, beautifully written, colourful world building that feels very much like Alwyn Hamilton or Leigh Bardugo’s handiwork.

I’ve harped on this entire post about taking the usual and making it unusual and this is the perfect example of how an author can do that successfully. For some reason completely unknown to me, I love the doomed lovers convention where if they kiss, one of them will die. It’s one of those things that is likely done to death in a million horribly written ways, and yet I’ve read a handful of really well-written twists on the theme. This being one of them. I’d love to see this one get more attention as time goes on!

Books, Uncategorized

Book Review: RoseBlood

RoseBlood

Author: A.G. Howard

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams

Published: January 10, 2017

Rating: 1 / 5

For People Who Liked: Twilight, The Mortal Instruments, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

*This is not a spoiler-free review! (A spoiler-free review can be found on Goodreads!)

roseblood

Wow… This author sure is doing… a lot. I wish I could say it’s in a way I enjoy, but it’s not. I first stumbled upon RoseBlood at YALC back in July. I can’t tell you why this book of all upcoming releases promoted at the YA convention was the one I was going to spend months watching out for, but it was. It was the retelling of Phantom of the Opera that got me. I love a good retelling, and gothics only clinch it for me.

I guess the one thing I can say about A.G. Howard is that she knows her shtick. Not that it’s a very good shtick. Just that she knows what she likes and she does it her way. It just so happens that she does it badly. In terms of retellings, there’s nothing remotely original about this story. The way I would define a retelling is taking an old classic and spinning it into a new adventure.

That’s not what Howard’s doing here.

Instead, what we get is a bizarre information dump of every single piece of research the author’s done on Phantom of the Opera (which, according to her website and author’s notes doesn’t actually culminate to a lot). Not only do some of the original characters show up in this story, but so does the book itself. So I have to ask: is it a retelling if the characters are canonically aware of the original text? If the protagonist is obsessed with Phantom of the Opera and then happens to find herself ensnared by the phantom himself?

As a standalone completely separate from the original text, I would say maybe it’s a little more interesting? That’s being far too generous to the terrible writing though. There are aspects I would say in a far better written story, I’d really like. The story is set in this gothic abandoned opera house in France… Vampires are (sort of???) involved… There are graveyards… Mad scientist things keep happening… It could’ve been so good…

Instead, what we get is this terribly cringe-worthy narration with one dimensional characters and weird quirks that are just there… to be weird. Every single character gets a painstakingly detailed physical description from the colour of their hair to their clothes. Which isn’t that unusual as far as description goes. But Howard pairs that with their so totally weird hobbies they  do in their spare time and… that’s it. That’s her character development, done. It’s as if she’s interpreted modern day gothic literature to be the golden age of emo from 2007. All the characters sound like they shop at Hot Topic and do all the things they do just to be extra. In an opera school, which presumably teaches opera, we get a handful of weird teachers who do weird things in their spare time including: mad science experiments, having tea parties with mannequins, taxidermy, and graveyard fanaticism. This would be really cool, if it meant anything to the plot whatsoever. And guess what?

It doesn’t.

I kept waiting for there to be a big reveal at the end where they all come together to reveal “ha HA! We were in on it all along!” and they pulled together their weird expertise to culminate to something insane.

That’s not what happened.

…and I haven’t even gotten to the main plot. The premise of the story is that Rune is being shipped off to this prestigious opera school outside of Paris, which apparently only accepts American students, because she did something horrible in her hometown. But her big, quirky thing is that she has some sort of musical Tourettes. In that she sings… uncontrollably. …and apparently this is so severe, it could kill people. Oh, but it’s only ever triggered by opera. So her mother… sends her off to a school, where there is nothing but opera singers? Everywhere? All the time? Seemingly the logic here is so she can learn to control her musical struggles. This would make more sense, if there was a single hint that this school actually bothers to teach any form of music. Instead, all there is is an opera performance, which needs to find its leading lady. You would think in any other variation of this story, the protagonist would be going for that role and fight for it.

Nope.

She avoids it like the plague, even though she’s clearly the best singer there, and when she gets the part, makes an excuse and gives it to her friend. Again, this would be a nice twist, if Howard bothered to even have this friend of hers show up for longer than one or two scenes. None of these characters matter, and in extension, nothing Rune does matters. She spends an exorbitant amount of time trying to figure out what causes her uncontrollable singing and has zero self-preservation skills. She’s got no agency, and even less clue.

Which brings me to the love interest. Thorn (yes, his name is Thorn, because that was the name the Phantom gave him…) casually stalks Rune her entire life. Now, I get this is taking a page out of Phantom of the Opera itself. Christine Daae grew up with the Angel of Music watching over her, which turns out to be the Phantom, terrorizing her for his own ends. That’s dark and creepy and he gets his just desserts at the end. Cool. Except here, Thorn and Rune have this psychic connection they’ve had all their lives, so by the time he physically stalks her and watches her in her bedroom, she’s apparently fine with it? He pulls together this convoluted plan to bring her to the Phantom by giving her this bleeding rose. Bleeding. Rose. RoseBlood. See what she did there? This is a motif that shows up again and again and again as if bleeding roses are a thing that actually exist and show up on a regular basis in gothic literature? Do they? I’ve read a pretty fair amount of gothic literature and I don’t… I don’t think that’s a thing.

It’s not a thing.

After a drawn out series of creepy steps to get her to meet him for the first time, Rune shows up and is instantly enamoured with him. …even though he’s literally stalking her and intruding on her thoughts. She later sneaks out to a rave club to see him again, where he and the Phantom psychologically date rape the entire club. As in they lure people into the club, sap them of their energies and then drug them to conveniently forget? And apparently because they’ve drugged everyone, it makes it okay? There is far too much talk of “oh, but it’s okay, because they’ve just been drugged.” Um…?

When is that ever okay?

Not even if you are a “psychic” vampire is it okay. Not just vampires. Psychic. Vampires. If this were a real, legit vampire story, I want some good, old fashioned consequences to their actions. The thing with vampires is, they know what they’re doing is messed up, as does the author. That’s what makes them so horrifying. They’re predators. This is precisely why vampires shouldn’t be glamorised or romanticised! If there was a single ounce of “my god, they’re drugging the whole club and draining their souls, we should stop them!” I’d be into it.

But this is not. How you write vampires!

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One final thing that just puts the nail in the coffin for me (heh) is this mad scientist subplot (if you can even call it that), which finally comes full circle by the end of the novel. One of the other totally super weird things that happens in this novel is there are animals in the woods surrounding the opera house that make noises other animals would make. Crows meowing, swans, croaking… it’s a cacophony of weird! It turns out that Thorn’s totally super weird quirk is that he surgically experiments on animals who are hurt. Which apparently involves swapping their vocal cords. Now, I’m not an expert in anatomy, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how vocals work. Especially when it later comes to swapping other people’s vocal cords? It’s like that weird b-movie trope that if you swap someone’s brain or heart with a serial killer’s you’ll get a Jekyll and Hyde situation. That’s not a scientifically accurate thing… Maybe that’s what Howard was going for, but if she was, throw some supernatural potion in or something to make it a little more believable.

This is a cult classic d-movie in the making if ever there was one. It’s the kind of thing little emo 16 year old me and her friends would’ve read or watched and laughed at hysterically during a sleepover or something. Except there’s not a chance this would ever get filmed by anyone in their right mind. So if you’re interested in reading it, maybe… don’t. And read Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde instead… Even the original Phantom of the Opera itself. Literally any other gothic classic but this one. And if you want some campy, gothic crack, go watch Rocky Horror. (No, seriously. Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show would be a far better use of your time, by far.) Hell. You could read the infamous worst Harry Potter fanfiction ever written, My Immortal and have a richer reading experience.

There are so many way better gothic stories out there. Go read or watch them instead.

 

Books, Uncategorized

2016 Year in Review

This year was a fantastic year for YA, thanks to months of dissertation research and the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) in London, which I attended in July. I read a lot of really fun and beautifully written fantasy and a lot of really painfully written fantasy. You might say I spent the entirety of 2016 returning to my roots and reading nothing but fantasy novels. You can find my roundup for the best and the worst reads of the year below!

The Good

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The Raven King – Maggie Stiefvater

I spent the past year obsessing over this series. Maggie Stiefvater is the first author since J.K. Rowling who has inspired and irrevocably changed my writing style for the better. Needless to say, she’s kind of a big deal. After spending the better part of a year taunting her readers on social media about the highly likely death of her protagonist, I was looking forward to finally seeing Stiefvater make good on that promise and do what few writers dare. While this book was a thrilling, emotional ride, having had months to evaluate it, as a series finale, it falls short in several places. A lot of key players that make or break the final sequence that holds the entire plot together show up way too late in the series for me to truly connect with their presence in the latter half of the book. I will say, plenty of my wildest theories came true and then some, which was pretty satisfying and almost makes up for the aforementioned issues. I look forward to reading more of her books in the future, as I know all too well she’s gonna continue writing stuff that speaks to my own work.

A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schawb

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A Darker Shade of Magic was the first of many books I read in prep for YALC and it was a perfect place to start. Schawb imagines a world where there are multiple alternate reality versions of London and there’s only one person left who can travel between them. Her concepts are extremely original and she’s not afraid to get dark. She was also the first author I met at YALC and we had a nerdy little bonding session over writing lady pirates, which the world undoubtedly needs more of. She’s another author who’s pretty present on social media and she’s very keen on sharing her writing struggles in a big way, which I appreciate.

Six of Crows – Leigh Bardugo

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Leigh Bardugo rounds out the trifecta of stellar YA fantasy writers that could not be beat no matter what else I read. Bardugo, Schawb, and Stiefvater set the bar for me and they set it high. Their world building is so rich and different. Similar to The Raven Cycle, Six of Crows follows a ragtag group of six criminals who plan a giant heist which inevitably goes awry. Her world is colourful and full of extremely well-developed languages and races with winks to European cultures. All the female characters have agency, they do what they want and they’re not afraid to go out and get it. She strikes a solid balance between gritty tomboy, Inej and girly Nina, (a description which doesn’t do either of the girls justice; they are truly fantastic). The characters are great, they have intense, sometimes horrifying backstories, and it’s a lot of fun seeing them bounce off each other.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter – Melinda Salisbury

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I feel like if I read this at any other time in my life, I might’ve hated it, but I was along for the ride. The cover is beautiful, in fact, quite possibly the most beautiful cover design I’ve ever seen. And I think that set the precedent for what I wanted the novel to be. It also helps that the author is an unabashed sweetheart. I just can’t fault her for any missteps in the novel when she’s just writing what she loves and having a geeky time about it. (She’s also a delight on social media.) The story’s got a really cool premise: a girl who kills with a single touch is brought up to be the queen’s executioner. The entire novel revolves around her finding her identity outside of that. And I can’t be mad at the love triangle when she’s got agency for the first time in her life, and she’s making her own choices. It’s what I wish Shatter Me would’ve been. It’s not about the romance, it’s about her finding her way in a fantastical medieval world ruled by hints of Scandinavian mythology. And I love that.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

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Another Scandinavian-based fantasy world. I think had I read Uprooted before Six of Crows, I would’ve given it at least 4 stars. This seems to be a theme in high fantasy novels lately, yet somehow, I’m thoroughly into it every time. Maybe that’s because I’ve got a Ukrainian-Polish background and I like being represented even with subtle nods in fiction. There’s not enough appreciation in the world of the vast differences in European cultures and I like that fantasy writers are at least the ones going there. There are hints of a potential girl on girl romance, which I wish she would’ve developed, though the romance we get between the female and male leads is still more intense than the majority of YA romances out there. But I think something needs to be said for developing soul mate bonds between platonic friends. (A notion also prominently explored in The Raven Cycle.) I think what bogged the story down for me was the repetitiveness of the spells she uses and the never ending battle scenes. It certainly doesn’t stop Uprooted from being a gorgeously written story…

The Bad

Half Bad – Sally Green

Yikes. There is one narrative choice I hate in books more than others, and it’s when stories are narrated by emotionally and psychologically damaged kids. You see it in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and to a certain extent, Room (I know, I’m sorry- I said it.) It makes me incredibly uncomfortable when the writing style is choppy and naïve to reflect that mindset. Half Bad in particular reads like a story narrated by a six year old, instead of a teenager. Being that this novel is a debut, it’s very hard to tell whether this particular style is intentional or if Sally Green’s a legitimately terrible writer. Either way, there’s no emotional depth as a result. Green also happened to speak at YALC and the fact that she had to preface everything she said about her writing process with an apology and “I must be doing it wrong” says an awful lot. Do not read this book. It’s a tutorial on how not to write.

 Heir of Fire and A Court of Thorns and Roses – Sarah J Maas

Teen readers seem to love Sarah J. Maas, which I find baffling. The Throne of Glass series is like a more action-packed, yet equally poorly written answer to the Twilight series. Throne of Glass follows girly girl, Celaena who is apparently the most fearsome assassin in the kingdom, but it seems she’d rather spend her time wearing pretty dresses, flirting with boys, and eating cake than anything else. Which could be really cool, if we got to see her kicking ass a lot more and reveling in it. A Court of Thorns and Roses follows a similar issue, in that huntress, Feyre loses all agency not even a third of the way into the book. All Maas’ character names are ridiculous and bogged down by unnecessary vowels, which I hate. Throne of Glass lacks a rich world full of different races beyond straight, white people (unless they wanna die horribly…), while A Court of Thorns of Roses suffers from an extremely rapey plot and male characters who seemingly do what they want in terms of sexualizing the protagonist and she doesn’t seem to care? I will admit, Maas is my trashy airplane go-to, which is the only way you can get me to read her novels…

The Bone Season – Samantha Shannon

I should probably give Samantha Shannon some credit because this was another debut novel and unlike Sally Green (who is a full-fledged 30-something adult who should know better by now), she was something like nineteen when she wrote it. This book has a lot of promise which gets watered down by the unnecessary romance. It honestly would’ve been a hundred percent better without the romance. Another reimagining of London, this one’s set in the future, where protagonist, Paige gets captured and put into a magical slave trade and sold off to her love interest. The rest of the novel is her building up a slave uprising, which again, would’ve been great without the problematic romance. The action scenes are so fantastic, they were mentioned multiple times during the panel Shannon was in at YALC. I’m gonna give her the benefit of the doubt and try the sequel before casting any official stones. She’s my age with at least three novels under her belt, so to a certain extent, I both empathise, and am bitterly jealous. I hope the second book is better…

 Voyager – Diana Gabaldon

I always read the Outlander series with a grain of salt. Above all else, this series is silly, but it reads like Gabaldon wants you to take her seriously. Which is hard to do when the height of her action always culminates to a rape scene. Always. I think this is the first novel in the series where I properly could not handle the ridiculousness. I thought Outlander was fun and Dragonfly in Amber was the same fun, only this time, in France. This one is twenty years later and Jamie’s still a stubborn asshole (whom I hate with a fiery passion), whom Claire just swoons over anyway no matter how much he abuses, or emotionally manipulates her. That’s pretty much the usual, only this time, Gabaldon outdoes herself with extremely racist stereotyping of Chinese and African slaves. Wow. This is another raving fandom I don’t understand, except the middle-aged housewife edition. If you’re considering getting into the series, stop after book two, because this is an uncomfortable, cringy mess. (But hey, at least there are pirates?)

Rivers of London– Ben Aaronovitch

Another reimagining of London, this time, a magical police procedural. (Aaronovitch, Shannon, and Schwab were on a panel discussing different magical interpretations of London, thus the running theme.) This one also has a ton of glowing reviews, including from friends of mine. I’m very wary of reading male authors and Aaronovitch is a perfect example of why. All his female characters are developed according to how physically attractive they are to the protagonist. Ew. Throughout the entire novel, I got a graphic explanation of what every single one of the female characters’ breasts looked like. I didn’t need that and I nearly put the book down halfway through for this very reason. No, I’m not interested in reading stories through the point of view of a sexist dudebro. And the fact that this particular police procedural happens to have magic in it isn’t enough to separate it from every other male-helmed police procedural. I don’t need another one of these in my life, thanks.

Honorary Mentions

Pantomime – Laura Lam

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This is a book I most likely would’ve panned alongside Sarah J. Maas had I read this in 2014. Instead, I think this is the book that really changed my opinion on what makes a “good” story. 2014 Sophie strongly believed a bad book is a bad book if it’s poorly written, no matter what the subject matter. However, despite the cringy, unrealistic dialogue, Lam is undoubtedly well-intentioned. I was really shocked to find that Pan Macmillan pushed to have Pantomime displayed prominently on the main tables in Waterstones instead of simply on the shelves, given its unorthodox protagonist. Micah Grey is a bisexual intersex, gender fluid character, which is several levels beyond the conventional straight white girl protagonist of traditional YA novels. Although there are some problems with depicting intersex people as magical creatures, I’m willing to overlook it, because as far as I know, this is the first high-profile YA novel of its kind. And I respect that and I want more of it.

 

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime – Judith Flanders

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This might seem like a completely random inclusion on my list, but it’s actually my usual jam. My next writing project is a Victorian crime novel, so I’ve been gearing up my novel research accordingly. I don’t usually read non-fiction, but this was a really fun look at so many different high-profile murder cases and the over the top way the Victorian public reacted to them. The Victorians liked a good scandal and it definitely showed. There’s a nice wide, wide breadth of examples throughout the 19th century, which I really appreciated.

The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge

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Again, had I read this before Six of Crows, I would’ve appreciated it more. Frances Hardinge was also at YALC and was fabulous in every sense of the word. She wore this wild, wild west outfit with boots and a bolo tie and hat and waxed poetic about dark Victorian era plots. I loved her to the point where I was too intimidated to compliment her while we were both in line for the bathroom. (Probably for the best…) Given just how much I love (and I mean, love) everything Victorian, I knew immediately after seeing her speak, I had to read one of her novels. The Lie Tree is about a young 19th century girl who wants to be a scientist. Her father’s involved in some hinky dealings involving a rare breed of plant and she gets swept up in the adventure and scandal. It’s pretty great, and the beautiful writing is evidence enough why she won the Costa Book of the Year award. But something about the slow pacing kept me from properly engaging with it in the same way Uprooted did. I wanted a little bit more from her, but she is undoubtedly amazing regardless.

Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton

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I find it hard to believe this novel was written by a 20-something white girl. I’m very impressed with the subject matter in this one. It’s set in a fantastical Arabian city, filled with characters of colour. It’s got a very Scheherazade feel to it, except with a lot more female characters kicking ass. It’s got a lead couple you can root for (because in my opinion, a couple who kicks ass together, stays together) and their kind of snarky back and forth really works. It’s a fun gun-slinging Arabian knights romp! Alwyn Hamilton really knows what she’s doing. Kudos to her…

 

Heir to the Empire – Timothy Zahn

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I’m adding this in because it’s a prelude to my January 2017 reads. Heir to the Empire is the first book of one of the many series within the Star Wars, Legends world. I read this one almost immediately after seeing The Force Awakens for the first time. Needless to say, I was brought up as a huge Star Wars fan and felt it was my duty as a fan to get into the novel universe. I was wary going in, but I shouldn’t have been, because this is clean, cheesy fun. It’s a lot of melodrama, it’s a lot of the old gang doing what they do best, which is getting into crazy escapades and getting captured and fighting against the Empire. Leia gets a lightsaber (yay!), Luke gets a bad ass bounty hunter rogue Jedi lady friend (also yay!)… It’s all in all a great time. Look out for more Star Wars reviews this month! (I’ll have many.)