Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an engaging start to an action-driven fantasy series that is written in a winsome prose that is guaranteed to appeal to fans of Rick Riordan. Like Riordan’s books, Zhao combines an action-driven quest with a coming of age tale exploring the highs and lows of being a 12yr boy. I loved the way the author managed to incorporate—with varying degrees of self-awareness—existing tropes of the ‘chosen one/kids with powers’ genre whilst adding new dimensions and elements to their story. Additionally, unlike a lot of MG books, Zhao addresses serious and topical issues/realities in a very clear-eyed and straightforward manner.

Zachary Ying, our main character, has tried to distance himself from Chinese culture in order to fit in his white majority school. His mom, who is his sole carer, works long hours, so Zack spends a lot of his time playing Mythrealm. One day at school he comes across Simon who seems eager to get to know Zack. Turns out that Zack, the host of the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who, alongside Simon, host to Tang Taizong, and later on Melissa, host to Wu Zetian, are tasked with a crucial mission: they have to seal the portal to the Chinese underworld before the Ghost Month. Zack doesn’t really want to be part of all of this but with his mom’s life in jeopardy, he has little choice in the matter. Unlike Simon and Melissa, however, Zack’s emperor was not fully able to possess him and was forced to tie himself to Zack’s AR gaming headset (which lends many of the action sequences a gameplay quality). To rectify this Zack flies to China to strengthen his bond with his Chinese heritage, all the while being chased by baddies…but as their mission unfolds and Zack learns more about the emperors’ reigns, he begins to worry that he is not working for the good guys either.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the author references superhero comics, games, anime (i mean, code geass gets a mention which will always be a win in my books), as well as, you guessed it, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The narrative is quite self-aware in that these references often come at an apt moment, and usually poke fun at the existence/perseverance of said trope/storyline (for example with the ‘fridging’ of zack’s mom). I liked this meta aspect of the narrative as it gives the storytelling a playful edge that serves to counterbalance the more serious themes/scenes. Through Zack’s storyline, the author is able to explore the everyday realities of being a Chinese-American kid who feels pressured by his white peers to distance himself from his own Chinese heritage. Additionally, Zack is Hui, an ethnoreligious minority group with Islamic heritage and/or adhere to Islam. Like other minority groups in China, the Hui can be and are discriminated against by the current Chinese government. Zack’s father was executed after protesting the government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, and this makes his journey to China all the more fraught. While the author criticizes the current Chinese government, through Zack’s quest they are also able to showcase their love for Chinese culture and history, presenting us with a complex image of this country, its past and present. The author’s depiction of and discussions around China oppose the kind of monolithic and homogenous image of this country that sadly seems to prevail in a lot of western media and public discourses. The China that emerges from these pages is enriched by its expansive history and many idiosyncrasies (other MG authors, please take notes!).

I loved the way they incorporate historical facts in the action sequences, so when we are introduced to a new historical figure we get a punchy introduction giving us an overview of their life. There were instances where I wish the author had not added American, or otherwise western, equivalents when introducing a certain figure or when touching upon a certain historical period (we often are given enough context to understand the cultural/historical significance of said person/period). Still, I really appreciated how the author avoids the usual good/bad dichotomy that tends to be the norm in a lot of MG books. Zack repeatedly questions the past behaviours and present motivations of the emperors.
The chapters all have funny titles that were very much a la Riordan. The banter between the various emperors and historical figures was very entertaining, even in those instances where it was trying a bit hard to be ‘young/relatable’. I loved the way the narrative includes and discusses historical-related things, as it very much reminded me of the author’s youtube content, which—as you may or may not know—I am besotted by. While I thought that the historical characters were equal parts interesting and amusing, the contemporary ones, except Zack, were not quite as dynamic. Simon and Melissa in particular lacked dimension and seemed the type of stock characters you find in any ‘trio’ (melissa in particular is the kind of aggravating sidekick who is meant to be a ‘spunky girl’ but comes across as kind of a jerk). I didn’t like them that much either, even before the latter half of the novel. Zack deserves some real/better friends.

Anyway, Zack steals the show as this is ultimately his story. He goes through a lot in this book and is forced to question the kind of person he wants to be/become. He makes mistakes, and he learns from them. He knows he wants to be stronger but finds his notion of strength to be challenged more than once. I wish that the narratives had called out a bit more people like Melissa who mistake his moments of vulnerability or hesitancy as signs of weakness or a ‘lack of moral fibre’. Dio mio, he’s a KID, leave my boy alone. I don’t know, I felt protective of Zack and because of this found myself rather peed off by anyone who tried to make him feel ashamed of being sensitive. But I digress. Overall I thought this was an enjoyable book that manages to blend together history and technology. If you a fan of heroes’ quests you should definitely give this one a try. Added bonuses: hints of casual gay rep + positive Muslim rep.

I for one liked it a lot more than the author’s debut novel, which I sadly was unable to enjoy (i know, don’t get me started if i could actively control and change my response to that book i would). I found the author’s prose to be a lot more confident in this one and their style really worked for this MG-type of storytelling. This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a 12yr old as I would have been able to love it, whereas now I can only just ‘like’ it. Anyway, I liked the humor and the historical facts, so this gets a thumbs up from me and I look forward to its follow-up.

ps: i just remember but some of zack’s reactions to learning some of the horrific things the emperors did are gold

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

“But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me.
I choose vengeance.”

Xiran Jay Zhao has written an ambitious debut novel that should definitely appeal to fans of Pacific Rim & The Hunger Games. Iron Widow is likely one of the most creative books that I’ve read this year (which is saying something given that atm my read count is around 150+) as it presents readers with a unique blend of genres and concepts: fantasy and sci-fi elements are incorporated in a dystopian yet recognizably historical Chinese-inspired setting. Alas, while I liked the commentary and ideas that are at play in this novel, its execution left me wanting. The Not Like Other Girls mc and girl-hate got to me too.

“It takes a monster to slay a monster.”

Way back when I used to be quite a fan of mecha anime (fyi my faves were: macross, code geass & eureka 7) so I was rather looking forward to seeing this subgenre translated into book form. The robots in this novel are called Chrysalises and operated by a psychically linked male/female duo in order to fend off aliens invaders called Hunduns. The male fighters are celebrities, their fights broadcasted to the whole of Huaxia. The female fighters, ‘concubines’, often do not survive these battles, as the boys more or less use them as their own energy bars. The way the girl fighters are treated definitely brought to mind the tributes from The Hunger Games. They are sacrificed without any care or regard, their certain death is deemed necessary for the ‘greater good’, an honour even.

“If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.”

Our narrator, Zetian, has grown up in this extremely misogynistic world. She has been mistreated by her family her whole life, her feet were broken and bound at a young age, and she basically has no freedoms whatsoever. When her older sister dies after being forced into becoming a ‘concubine’ Zetian seeks revenge. She wants to kill the male pilot responsible for her death.
Zetian does indeed succeed but in doing so reveals to the world just how powerful she is. After earning the title of ‘Iron Widow’ she’s paired with Li Shimin, ‘Iron Demon’, a male pilot with a dangerous reputation. Forced into working together Zetian and her new partner discover more about their abilities and the Chrysalises themselves.

The story is very action-driven and has an ‘edgy’ feel to it that will definitely appeal to many other readers. While I did enjoy the author’s take on mecha, their take on Yin/Yang, as well as the issues & realties they touch upon (because of her bound feet our mc’s has difficulties walking and often experiences pain), I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed this novel.
This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel shitty for not liking a book as much as I wanted to (the last time it happened was with lindsay ellis’ axiom’s end).
Because I really love the author’s content on youtube I am not too happy about critiquing their debut novel so I will just list the things that prevented me from liking their book without going into that much detail and without spoiling anything for anyone. Also, I feel the need to say (or write) that I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading this book. I wish the author the best and I do think that they have the potential of becoming a really good writer. They are definitely creative and throughout their novel there are some visually stunning scenes that attest to this (this is the kind of book that should be adapted to the ‘big screen’) as well as some neat-sounding lines that brought to mind the work of Rebecca Roanhorse.

But, alas, here are the things that did not work for me:
the writing felt simplistic and certain words/expressions (‘ugh’, ‘duh’, ‘wow’, ‘yup’) pulled me out of the story; quite a few phrases had this ‘edgy YA’ tone to them that didn’t really do it for me either; personally, I would have preferred it if the story had implemented multiple povs or at least had been told through a 3rd person perspective as Zetian’s inner monologue struck me as extremely simple and the constant questions she asks herself got grating, fast, (“what’s happening? how did i get here? who am i?” “how could i have forgotten him? what does he mean to me?” ); I would have loved more detailed descriptions about the characters’ surroundings or their different environments (and maybe less about their clothes/hair styles); I also think that the world-building would have benefitted from being more firmly established earlier on…we get some crucial lore way too late in the narrative & quite a few aspects remain unexplored; the romance (something i was rather looking forward to) also did nothing for me…the relationship between the boys seemed rushed and it struck me as…I don’t know, I just would have believe in their relationship more if we’d been given their perspectives (their relationship to mc also was kind of meh); while the story was certainly fast-paced my interest waned early on in the story (there were a lot of repetitive and not-so-clear-cut sequences); all of the characters would have benefitted from some more depth; last, but not least, Zetian…I hoped she would be someone a la Zhu from She Who Became the Sun or like Lada Dracul from the And I Darken series (ruthless, knows what they want, may not be ‘physically strong’ but they are certainly intelligent)…but Zetian was low-key stupid and annoying, she had this vague OP/Chosen One/Not Like Other Girls/Badass Girlboss quality to her that I find really off-putting…also, for all her talk of girls supporting girls, the majority of the interactions that she has with other women (there are very few) gave me girls-hating-girls vibes (she has one token female friend).

There are a few other things that I didn’t like but I won’t go into them. I think this novel has a lot of heart and I’m sure that over time the author will hone their writing skills.
If you want to read this novel I recommend you give it a shot regardless of my review because I’ve been known to have shitty opinions (some people on this wonderful site have called me a ‘hater’, ‘dumb’, and ‘illiterate’, so do read my reviews with a pinch of salt).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★

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Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse

Usually, I don’t go back on DNFs (there’s plenty more books in the sea and all that) but I also get that sometimes my enjoyment of a book depends on me getting to read it at the ‘right time’. The reason why I’d DNFed Storm of Locusts after reading just a chapter or so was that I found a certain scene to be way predictable. And that’s it. I was annoyed so I moved on to other books. Nearly two years later, I decided to give it another try, and I’m glad I did. Storm of Locusts was even more enjoyable than its predecessor and I had a really fun time reading it. There is action, character growth, and, as with Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse seamlessly incorporates certain aspects of Native American culture or beliefs into her story and world-building.

Maggie Hoskie, our narrator and a Diné monster hunter, is still recovering from Black Mesa. She’s heartbroken, having lost her only friend, and possibly more, Kai Arviso. Her latest job ends badly and Maggie finds herself taking care of Ben, a teenager who like Maggie also possess clan powers. Maggie is reluctant about her new position as Ben’s ‘carer’ but she was entrusted to her (this scene was a wee bit predictable, I mean, when you have someone say something on the lines of “If anything happens to me” you know something is going to happen to them).
Luckily (or not) for her Maggie doesn’t really have the time to adjust to having Ben around as she finds herself with twins Rissa and Clive Goodacre on a mission to find the ‘White Locust’ who may be responsible for kidnapping their younger brother. Although Rissa insists that Kai is in cahoots with the White Locust, Maggie refuses to believe him capable of harming the youngest Goodacre or supporting someone like the White Locust.
To find them, our gang has to travel outside the walls of Dinétah, and here they came across some dangerous people.
Maggie’s characterisation is phenomenal. Roanhorse captures her conflicted feelings towards her own actions—towards Kai and others—as well as the toll of her monster hunter title. Her feelings towards Kai are also depicted with realism and depth. We can clearly see why she cares for him so much and as I was reading I found myself growing apprehensive about their inevitable reunion. Maggie is not strictly likeable but I loved her nonetheless. I think Roanhorse makes it quite clear why Maggie is sometimes aggressive or cold towards others. Roanhorse gives Maggie her vulnerabilities while also making her into a bit of a badass.
There is also a focus on platonic relationships, which was great. Rissa initially treats Maggie with open hostility and even blames her for Kai’s actions. But as the two find themselves going through hell and back their feelings of enmity slowly give way to a bond based on mutual trust, perhaps even respect.
At first, Ben, being a teenage character in an adult book, acts like the classic teen brat. Thankfully, as time goes by, we see different sides to her, and I look forward to seeing more of her in the next books.
The
It’s been four weeks since the bloody showdown at Black Mesa, and Maggie Hoskie, Diné monster hunter, is trying to make the best of things. Only her latest bounty hunt has gone sideways, she’s lost her only friend, Kai Arviso, and she’s somehow found herself responsible for a girl with a strange clan power.

In her journey to find Kai Maggie becomes makes new allies, discovers how the people outside Dinétah have coped with the Big Water, lands in the territory of human traffickers, confronts a god at a casino (something about this part reminded me of American Gods, an all-time fave of mine) before, at last, coming face to face with Kai and the White Locust.

Roanhorse’s prose is terrific and kept me flipping pages. After the first few chapters, the pacing is fantastic, and the shifting dynamics between Maggie and the other members of her group were engrossing.
This is probably my new favourite by Roanhorse and I can’t wait to hear more from Maggie&co.

my rating: ★★★★¼


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Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

“Like I said already, I hunt monsters. And I got a sword that sings.”

Ring Shout is an action-driven historical novella that combines horror with the kind of anime that have magical swords & monsters-posing-as-humans in them. The story takes place in Georgia during the 1920s and follows a group of black women who hunt monsters who take the form of KKK members. This is neat concept and I would definitely encourage other readers to pick this one up (I particularly recommend the audiobook version as I found Channie Waites’ narration to be spot on). The story did strike me as a rather rushed and somewhat formulaic. Maybe I shouldn’t have read this so soon after finishing another novella by P. Djèlí Clark but Ring Shout shares much in common with his other work. If we leave the setting aside we have a young woman who is the ‘chosen one’ or happens to be the ‘only one’ who can save the world. The stakes, dare I say, are too high for such a short format. If this had been a full-length novel, I wouldn’t have minded as much. Here the side characters have rather one-dimensional personalities (we have the joker, the handsome love interest, the more level-headed in the team, the German who is Marx aficionado, three aunties reminiscent of the Moirai). Still, at least they had personalities. The main character, on the other hand, is very much defined by her ‘chosen one’ role. Nevertheless I obviously rooted for her as she slays KKK monsters.
While it wasn’t a particularly thought-provoking novella (the whole discussion on good & evil was somewhat condensed) it makes for a quick and relatively gripping read starring badass black & queer girls/women. There is gore, some pretty-epic fight sequences, a few moments of respite, and a lot of banter. The author present his readers with some real creepy visuals (the mouths, enough said) and some subversive ideas. Overall, if you are new to his work this is definitely worth checking out (it will make for a solid Halloween read).

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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Starsight by Brandon Sanderson — book review

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Starsight takes this series in an unexpected direction. This instalment is perhaps even more action-driven than Skyward: from the opening chapters to its explosive finale, Starsight is full of spectacular fight scenes.
Whereas Skyward had a narrower scope, Starsight presents us with a far more complex story in which the stakes are higher then ever. Brandon Sanderson’s intricate world-building is populated by many interesting, and richly rendered, alien species. Sanderson’s aliens very much reminded me of Becky Chambers’ ones in Wayfarers, or even Mass Effect, in that we are given a lot of information regarding the way the look, behave, express themselves, reproduce themselves, communicate with others, their role in their society.
Spensa is as hot-tempered as ever, and once again finds herself getting into trouble thanks to her ‘act first, think later’ attitude. While in Skyward Spensa struggled with notions of ‘cowardice’, in this volume she doesn’t really have a lot of spare time to herself. She’s still unsure of her cytonic powers and of what they make her.
In many ways this is a military soap-opera. Spensa finds herself engaged in numerous battles.
This being a novel by Sanderson, there is quite a lot of humour. M-Bot is as hilarious as ever.
While I recognise that Skyward‘s plot was much more ‘simple’, part of me preferred that. At times Starsight was repetitive and confusing. Also, I just missed a lot of the characters from Skyward.
All in all this was an interesting sequel and I look forward to discovering where Sanderson takes this series next.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Chain of Gold by Cassandra Clare — book review

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“We don’t always love people who deserve it.”

To be honest, I thought I was over Cassandra Clare….and it turns out I was very wrong. There is something about the Shadowhunter world that I find interesting. And over the past ten years or so I have grown fond of it and the characters that inhabit it.
Chain of Gold sees Clare at the top of her game. The Infernal Devices series is my favourite by Clare…and Chain of Gold has the same atmosphere. Clare is great at rendering historical settings and I just loved the way she depicts the beginning of the 20th century.
There is angst, quite a few battles, drama, secrets, a few complicated love hexagons, and a lot of longing.

“Would you like to be a muse?”
“No,” said Cordelia. “I would like to be a hero.”

Cordelia Carstairs is perhaps one of my favourite heroines by Clare. Kind, just, not afraid of calling out her loved ones for their rude behaviour. There are so many other characters and relationships that I really loved. I was particularly fond of the bond between Cordelia and Lucie. The somewhat fraught relationship between Cordelia and Alastair was surprisingly poignant. The romantic relationships, often restrained, were engrossing.
The merry thieves (James and his friends) brought to mind Maggie Stiefvater’s the raven boys. James and Grace’s story had quite a few parallels with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
This book made me laugh out loud, squee in delight, and stay up all night.
If I had to pick a favourite character it would probably be Alastair who is far from perfect but has a wonderful character arc.

I loved the setting (London), Clare’s writing, the atmosphere, the characters, the action, and the various mysteries that pop up in the narrative. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Skyward by Brandon Sanderson — book review

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I more or less inhaled this book.

“You get to choose who you are. Legacy, memories of the past, can serve us well. But we cannot let them define us. When heritage becomes a box instead of an inspiration, it has gone too far.”

This is easily my favourite book by Brandon Sanderson. A few years ago I read and was deeply impressed by his epic-fantasy novel Elantris…so I can sort of understand why some die-hard Sanderson fans might not find Skyward to be as intricate or as profound as his adult fiction.
Personally, however, I found Skyward to be a pure blast.

Within the first few chapters I fell unabashedly in love with this novel. This is undoubtedly thanks to Spensa Nightshade, also known as Spin. Her first-person narration is completely unreserved and utterly entertaining.
Growing up as the daughter of “the coward”, Spensa is desperate to prove herself. The planet in which she was born and raised is constantly under attack from the Krell. To survive humans have built communities underground. Pilots, who are considered to be the elite of this new society, train and live on a base on the ground surface of this planet where they try to defend themselves, and the rest of humanity, from the Krell’s attacks.

To become a pilot is no small feat. Many are killed or leave before their training is complete.
Spensa however is keen to fly and kill some Krell. Her reputation however makes her a persona non grata at the base so not only she has to catch up to the teammates who were raised by pilots, and have been training since they were born, but as the daughter of “the coward” she also has to put up with many other disadvantages. Time and again she struggles between wanting to prove to others and to herself that she is no coward and surviving. In a community which glorifies self-sacrifice and violence it isn’t easy to reconcile oneself with notions of courageousness and cowardice.

Spensa was an extremely likeable character. Her propensity for dramatic and grisly declarations (such as: “When you are broken and mourning your fall from grace, I will consume your shadow in my own, and laugh at your misery”) might make her seem somewhat ridiculous but we soon realise that being constantly seen and treated in the light of her father’s actions has made her this way.
She was funny, brave, and surprisingly vulnerable. Sanderson does a great job with her character arc. Spensa soon realises that to be a pilot is not all about being brave.
The dynamics she has with the rest of her team are compelling and entertaining as I found all of the characters to be just as nuanced as Spensa. Sanderson reveals some of the fears and desires that have shaped or are shaping who they are and what they want. There are no good or bad people and being a hero is not all that’s cracked up to be. Some characters retain a sense of mystery, which makes them all the more intriguing.

The action is more or less non-stop. It vaguely reminded of certain mecha anime (except we have ships instead of giant robots). The fight scenes, which were intense and adrenaline-fuelled, kept me on the edge of my seat.
The world-building and society imagined by Sanderson are interesting and richly detailed. He keeps quite a few card close to his chest, so that readers, alongside Spensa, are always left wanting to know more about the Krell and the circumstances that landed a human ship on this planet.

Perhaps my favourite thing about this book was the relationship Spensa has with a certain M-Bot. Their conversations were a pure delight to read. I was also pleasantly surprised by the sort of friendship she forms with a certain Jerkface.

The only thing I would have liked to have been different is a certain revelation towards the end. Part of me wishes it could have been more showing and less telling. Still, that was a very minor thing in an otherwise faultless novel.

Final verdict:
I loved this novel and I have already bought a copy of Starsight as I can’t wait to be reunited with Spensa&co !

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars (rounded up)

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The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin — book review

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Rusting Earth…The Fifth Season is a spectacular read.

“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all.”

Reviewing The Fifth Season is no small feat. We have N.K. Jemisin’s writing style, her intricate and all-encompassing world-building, and her unflinching and emotionally resonant storytelling.
Even upon a second reading, I find myself simply in awe of what Jemisin has achieved with this novel. Although her novel interrogates themes that are often at the core of many sci-fis and fantasy books, and its racial, social, and geo-politics carry echoes of our own world. Some of its imagery and ideas brought to mind Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as some of Studio Ghibli’s films. And given this novel focus on nature one could see it as a work of environmental fantasy. Yet The Fifth Season, with its unprecedented structure and its intricate constructions, is a novel like no other.

“According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life.”

By switching between three different perspectives (Essun, Damaya, and Syenite) Jemisin is able to present her readers with three different stories which are unified by an overarching theme of survival. In spite of their different ages, circumstances, and locations, these three women are orogene, that is they possess orogeny, the ability to manipulate earth and stone. In this world, known as the Stillness, orogenes are seen as dangerous abominations. Yet, given the frequent earthquakes and the continent’s mercurial weather, orogenes do come in handy. The constant othering experienced by orogenes makes readers question whether a society such as this should even survive the end of the world. After all life in the Stillness is not just. Here your second name indicates your use-caste (which is inherited by one’s same-sex parent) and the only way to avoid these strict and predetermined hierarchies is to become commless, and be consequently cut off from the rest of civilisation.
Jemisin’s novel asks whether a society that is conditioned by such class differentiations and that maintains a systematic system of oppression and injustice should be considered ‘civilised’ to begin with. Readers, alongside some of the characters, begin to see Father Earth’s rage (which according to stonelore is the reason why there are so many earthquakes and environmental disasters) as justified.

“Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.”

In the opening of the novel we witness the destruction of the most powerful city in the Stillness, Yumenes. Its obliteration opens a rift in the earth and causes the start of a season, a merciless winter that is likely to last for centuries. For Essun, a forty-year old woman living in a small comm, the world is ending in more ways than one. After a terrible act of violence in which Essun’s not yet three-year old son Uche is killed by his own father, and her husband, Essun is forced to leave her comm in a desperate attempt to find her daughter. Hope, love, and revenge spur her onwards as she embarks on a desperate pursuit of her husband. The start of a brutal season has forced many into leaving their comms and Essun is not the only one to brave the treacherous landscape of the Stillness. Hatred, confusion, and guilt follow her as she attempts to catch up to her husband and daughter. Soon however she finds two companions, both outsiders of sorts, and their presence makes the survival of each day easier. Although Essun’s chapters (told through a 2nd person narration) are weighed down by her grief and trauma, her love for her daughter and the fragile connections she forms with her two companions alleviate the tragic tones of her story.
By comparison Damaya’s chapters retain a sense of innocence in spite of the ill-treatment and manipulations she is repeatedly subjected to. Once her parents discover that she possess orogeny, Damaya, a child from the Nomidlats, is taken to the Fulcrum, a paramilitary order that ‘trains’ orogenes. In the Fulcrum not only does Damaya have to learn to control her orogeny but she has to survive the dangerous contempt of her classmates. The Guardians, an order that controls the orogenes, instil fear and compliance in the young orogene. We read of the way in which this environment affects Damaya and the way in which it slowly yet surely skewers her worldview so that she begins to see herself as someone worth hating.
Last but not least there is Syenite, a fourth-ringer member of the Fulcrum who is assigned to various jobs around the Stillness and whose latest assignment is not as easy as she’d hoped. Partnered with Alabaster, a ten-ringer who was born into the Fulcrum, Syenite hopes to earn a ‘ring’ after the completion of this mission. While Syenite seems to have grown adjusted to the ways of the Fulcrum, and of the way in which orogene are treated by their society, when she is implicitly ordered to make more orogene, a seed of resistance takes root in her. Her story shows readers the politics of the Stillness: from the socioeconomics of the comm Syenite and Alabaster are sent to, to the larger political landscape of the Stillness. Syenite retains a hope for a future that is different, one in which orogene are not oppressed, weaponised, and discriminated against.
In each chapter we read of different types of survival. What Essun, Damaya, and Syenite experience is not easy to read. They are used, abused, controlled, othered, and persecuted by a system of power. Yet Jemisin doesn’t let her novel or her characters be completely obscured by the bleakness of life in the Stillness. The connections they form with others provide us with many emotionally powerful and heart-stirring moments.
This novel confronts so many serious themes and issues that it is difficult to pinpoint some of them. One could read this a story of survival, a testimony of humankind’s ability to adapt, or a tale that focuses on the impossibility that is maintaining one’s moral integrity or sense of self in a world that marginalises, enslaves, and oppresses those that are deemed different or undesirable. There is an urgency in the stories of Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, one that made me read with my heart in my throat. The constant sense of danger, of a catastrophe on the horizon, made this novel hard to put down (even the second time round).

“The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it.”

One of the reasons why The Fifth Season has such compelling narratives is Jemisin’s jaw-dropping world-building. There is so much depth and richness in her world that it is all too easy to visualise it. She provides us with stunning descriptions describing the geography of the Stillness (its various landscapes and formations to its weather) so that it feels as real as it does for the characters who inhabit it. Jemisin seamlessly integrates throughout her narratives a lot of the Stillness’ history. We are given an impression of this world through its stonelore—which brings together history, science and myth and informs many of the customs of the people of the Stillness— and through the knowledge of the various characters.
From their beliefs to their language(s) and traditions, Jemisin meticulously constructs this world in a way that always leaves us wanting more. She allows her world to retain a mysterious allure so that she can later on surprise us with certain revelations.
There are a lot of horrifying things in the Stillness. From the seasons to the caste-system…what becomes apparent is that there are few safe places in this land.
Throughout the course of her novel Jemisin seems to be asking her characters and us whether we should consider nature, and Father Earth, to be the villains of her story given the destruction and pain they cause or if the fault lays on the people.

Breathtaking world-building aside, we also have Jemisin’s specular writing. Her prose can be in turns elegiac and gritty, graceful and direct. Through her razor-sharp narration she captures the incongruent reality of living in a world which seems hell-bent on killing you. Jemisin’s magnetic writing style provides us with plenty of arresting scenes, clever expressions, and mind-boggling descriptions of the orogenes’ powers. Time and again she juxtaposes destruction with creation portraying horrific moments in a hauntingly beautiful way.

Final verdict:
This novel is a triumph. The crème de la crème of speculative fiction.

 

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton — book review


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Whodunnits, Agatha Christie, mysteries, and puzzles are all favourites of mine…so I was pretty excited to read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle as it promised to combine all of these things together.

“I suddenly have the sense of taking part in a play in which everybody knows their lines but me.”

With a fascinating premise and unique structure I was expecting The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle to be an amazing read…and while it certainly did succeeded in grabbing my attention, I was ultimately unconvinced by much of its narrative, which struck me as confusing for the sole sake of being confusing.35967101.jpg

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the type of book that will make you want to scratch your head in confusion and start taking notes. The story maintains its momentum through a blend of action and detection. To start with, I enjoyed how complex the story seemed to be. It definitely kept me guessing and wondering what would happen next. After the half-way point however it seemed to me that all of the different threads were becoming knotted together in a rather tangled mess.

A few of my gripes

➜The Groundhog Day scenario would have been interesting enough…and yet Stuart Turton seems to have felt the need to make his story all the more convoluted by adding weird rules (view spoiler) or using the ‘time-loop’ excuse to make things go a certain way.

➜I know that this is the type of novel that requires one to suspend their disbelief…and I was willing to do so for the seven-days-in-one thing but I struggled to believe in the historical setting. The period was chosen as an homage to Agatha Christie…which is fair enough. There are certain 1930s aesthetics that lend themselves quite nicely to a whodunnit. In Turton’s novel however we have a murky image of this period…the dialogue felt gimmicky and the narrative never gave a clear impression of what year the party was actually taking place in. Just a vague ‘after the War’ sort of setting. The guests attending the party acted in a very impolite manner. Customs and conventions are often forgotten in favour of creating some drama between characters. Everybody seems ready to shoot one another (these type of people usually prefer to shoot pigeons and whatnot) and they are so openly aggressive and rude as to seem completely unconvincing. Turton’s portrayal of the class divide is frankly misleading (so that we will have servants act with open hostility towards the guests).
This cast of characters would have been better suited to a story in the Old Wild West.

➜The whodunnit should have been the heart of the novel. Yet, it is often obscured by a series of weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird nonsense that is there only to confuse the reader. If I were to take the whodunnit out of this ‘context’ it would just seem over-the-top. If you’ve read a few novels by Christie—or any other Golden Age Detective novel—you are bound to find the whole thing derivative. The other mystery is rendered in such a backhanded sort of way as not to be all that compelling.

➜The twists were mildly annoying. (view spoiler)

With so much focus on the structure of his story Turton ends up neglecting the characterisations of his characters so that most of them appear as little more than thinly rendered caricatures. Some of Aiden’s hosts possessed similarly unpleasant and interchangeable personalities while a lot of the men at this party acted in the same blustering way. None of the characters affected me on an emotional level as they seemed closer to cardboard cutouts than real people. The footman is such a laughably one-dimensional villain (seriously, he hunts Aiden singing “Run, rabbit, run”) and so is the main culprit.

➜Turton’s writing could occasionally resort to eye-roll worthy descriptions such as “Blakheath shrinks around me, shrivelling like a spider touched to the flame” and “our entire future’s written in the creases around her eyes; that pale white face is a crystal ball with only horrors in the fog”. Phrases such as these made Aiden’s narration seem rather theatrical.

Overall
The story is so focused on eluding its readers as to leave a lot to be desired. From the poorly rendered time period to the cartoonish characters…this novel was a bit of mess. Still, I did stick to it so it was obviously doing at least something right.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Institute by Stephen King – book review

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“What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.” — Joseph Brodsky

The Institute is a gripping, if occasionally horrifying, read.
Stephen King is a great storyteller and The Institute showcases many of his strengths and traits: we have an engrossing narrative, children and teenagers with psychic abilities, and an army of evil characters.
While The Institute is in many ways a ‘classing King’, its story struck me for its incredibly relevant portrayal of America’s political and social climate (from Donald Trump to anti-vaxxers). The novel’s main concern however is the inhumane treatment of children: within this narrative we read of children who are used and abused, treated as commodities, and denied of their rights, freedom, and agency.
Their age, the fact that they are indeed children or underage, becomes a weapon that is used against them. King’s story subverts society’s notion of children, their role and place in society: children run away from home, they are rude, they don’t know enough about the real world or important issues, and they are egocentric. In The Institute not only do adults keep children in the dark but they use their limited knowledge and lack of experience against them. Those working for the Institute kidnap, imprison, and torture children. Yet, they believe that they are justified in their methods. They believe that as adults they have the power, if not right, to ‘punish’ and ‘educate’ children.

“I am having quite the adventure, Luke thought. Yes indeed, quite the adventure for me.”

This propelling narrative is populated by an array of believable characters. Rather than just focusing on the children, those who are oppressed by the Institute, King’s narrative is polyphonic. We become acquainted with the adults who commit such horrific acts, their working-dynamics, their motivations and beliefs. Still while we see that they themselves view their own actions as necessary, readers will still find most, if not all, of their behaviour and values to be utterly appalling.

“He was only twelve, and understood that his experience of the world was limited, but one thing he was quite sure of: when someone said trust me, they were usually lying through their teeth.”

The characters I cared about the most where of course the children (Luke, Kalisha, and Avery in particular). King gives each child and teenager imprisoned in the Institute a distinctive personality, which is no small feat given that their horrifying circumstances threaten to erode their very sense of self. They are repeatedly humiliated, tortured, and dehumanised. Yet, the fact that they are all living through this nightmare, create a powerful bond between them. They have a camaraderie of sorts, they distract each other from their terrible surroundings and heinous experiences.

King’s depiction of good and evil within The Institute’s brutal world although complex and ultimately open ended convinced me that the end does not justify the means. While in many of his novels there is an unseen or arcane evil presence, something un-human, within The Institute it is the seemingly ‘ordinary’ people who cause the most evil.
What is most terrifying is that they are often completely desensitized to the violence that they are committing against these children (and their parents). When we follow them in their ‘daily routines’ we see that they do not consider or second-guess their job requirements. They consider their horrific actions towards and mistreatment of these children as part of their job descriptions. After all, these children have psychic abilities, and therefore they are not really normal children. They are ‘soldiers’ and they have to do their duty. The way the Institute’s employees normalised their own violent and gruesome behaviour brought to my mind the notion of ‘the banality of evil’.

In spite of the novel’s dark themes and difficult subject matters, this novel never comes across as heavy going. King manages to inject this story with a healthy dose of humour and compassion. He also is one of the few authors who is able to incorporate popular American culture in a way that is accessible to non-American readers (most of his references are made clear because they aren’t just thrown out in the open air, they have some context). Speaking writing of America…I just enjoy the way he portrays small towns. He perfectly captures the ambience of the places he writes of, giving us an impression of a community within the space of a few lines.
King also excels at dialogue. The children and teenagers within this novel have the most entertaining of conversations and arguments. I particularly liked the way in which he employs various slangs as well as managing to convey a person’s inflections. You can see that King pays incredible attention to the English language, to the way people speak, and to the significance of their chosen words.
The novel’s occasional intertextuality (the horror fiction is after all a rather derivative genre) create some moments of entertainment, but it is his self-referentialism that is particularly effective (“They were holding hands and clutching dolls as identical as they were. They reminded Luke of twins in some old horror movie”).
Another thing that I appreciated is that the children’s psychic abilities doesn’t make them into unstoppable forces. Even Avery isn’t made into an all-mighty figure. He is a ten year old who didn’t have a lot of friends before meeting Luke and Kalisha. These children have all too believable fears and they obviously affected by their environment. And it’s perhaps because their powers are limited, because they are afraid and they have everything at stake, that makes their determination to leave the Institute all the more admirable.

“Telepathy always sounded great in stories and movies, but it was annoying as fuck in real life.”

The Institute’s story and its characters, even King’s writing itself, are—in more ways than one—incredibly vivid. With its thrilling storyline and through plenty of slam-bang chases and action scenes, this book makes for an adrenaline-fuelled read.
While there is a lot of stomach-churning violence (often committed against children) King’s descriptions never struck me as gratuitous. If anything that I was ‘forced’ to silently witness what these children endure made me all the more irate towards those who committed these vicious actions.

“Because it was chess now, and in chess you never lived in the move you were about to make, or even the next one.”

King examines the way in which power structures and or authoritative figures abuse and oppress those they perceive as expandable (in this case children) and he portrays in almost painful detail the way in which Luke, Kalisha, and Avery, are robbed of their ‘innocence’.
The absorbing narration, the captivating dialogues, and the edge-of-the-seat plot combine together into an exceptional reading experience.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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