The True Queen (Sorcerer Royal #2) : Book Review

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The True Queen
by Zen Cho
★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

Now, this is what I call a great companion novel.

“Relations are a terrible burden to a girl with magical ability.”

It’s not easy to describe this series. A mad fantasy romp? A fantasy of manners? A pastiche of 19th-century literature?
I strongly recommend reading Sorcerer to the Crown before embarking on this one. I actually think I enjoyed this novel more because I started this knowing more about Zen Cho’s style and magical world.

The story focuses on Muna and her sister, Sakti, both of whom have lost their memory. Waking up after a storm they remember only their names and that they are sisters. The two travel from the island of Janda Baik (where Sakti is trained by the powerful witch Mak Genggang) to England. Sakti however is spirited away during their shortcut through the unseen realm (aka fairyland), and Muna arrives alone to England.
Here we are reunited with familiar faces such as the Sorceress Royal (Prunella!), her husband, Zacharias Whyte, and Henrietta Stapleton (a schoolmate of Prunella).
The novel follows different characters, and Cho easily weaves together their different storylines. Muna remains the central figure of the story and I was utterly absorbed by her determination to rescue her sister.
Along the way, she will have to lie (something she doesn’t like to do), accustom herself to a society that is not friendly towards women practising magic or foreigners (more than a few ‘respectable’ members of the British society throw racist jabs her way), trick a number of magical creatures, and forge an unexpected friendship (some which might blossom into something more).

Cho’s pays incredible attention to etiquette and modes of behaviour. She includes a lot of archaic English words (mumchance might be a new favourite) and really brings to life the old British empire without romanticising it. Yes, her world is enchanting but the society she focuses on has very conservative social mores (our protagonists are judged on the basis of their ethnicity, race, sex, and class). Yet, it isn’t all gloom and doom! Quite the opposite in fact. Humour and wit underline this narrative and I was smiling throughout.

Do you know that food must only speak when it is spoken to?

Cho combines different mythologies and folklores creating a unique compendium of magical beings and traditions: there are fairies, dragons, lamias, vampiresses, as well as Malaysian spirits and supernatural beings such as weretigers, bunians, and polongs. The unseen realm is richly imagined and I loved the parts set in it (those scenes gave me strong Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland vibes).

The more the polong said, the less reassured Muna felt. “But are not spirits famously changeable?”
“I will have you know that is an offensive generalisation,” said the polong. “No one could accuse me of inconstancy.

The way in which magic works in Cho’s world is just as interesting as I remembered (more cloud-riding, yay!).
The characters were another delightful aspect of this story. Regardless of their standing (wherever they were old fogeys or angry dragons) they were portrayed in an almost endearing way. Muna was probably my favourite character. I loved the way she looked up to Mak Genggang, her bond with her sister who is in many ways a difficult person to love, and her unwavering sense of duty and her empathy.

This is escapist fiction at its best. It provided me with a brilliant story, an interesting mystery, magic, funny mishaps, balls, a dash of romance, and non-stop entertainment.

“When I have mislaid my things, murder is not my first course of action,” said Prunella. “What I do is look for them—and quite often I find them.”

One of my favourite scenes features a depressed dragon:

“No one ever saw a longer face on a dragon.
He had never been overly fond of the usual draconic pursuits and in the circumstances, they lost all their savour.
At most he might dutifully pick off a unicorn that had wandered away from its herd, but he had not the heart to finish devouring the carcass before his appetite failed him. ”

Another brilliant scene was when Muna told off a bunch of paintings:

“I am a guest in your country, I am entitled to your hospitality, and instead, you hoot like monkeys. You dishonour your white hair by your conduct. Men so old should know better!”

There were so many funny one-liners and exchanges. Muna’s quest gives the narrative a fast pace so that we jump from one adventure/mishap to the next. I sincerely hope that Cho will write more books set in this world and if you are a fan of authors such as Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones you should definitely give Cho’s books a try.

 

HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON: BOOK REVIEW

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars of 5 stars

You would think that dragons + the Napoleonic Wars = entertaining story . . . yet His Majesty’s Dragon managed to be consistently boring.
I was expecting something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Sorcerer to the Crown but I soon realised that His Majesty’s Dragon lacks the spark that animates those novels. 
Novik is a good writer but she seemed to be restricting herself to the same two or three scenarios throughout the course of her novel. It seemed that Novik was focused more on making the dialogue and Laurence’s reactions believable (as to be consistent with the time the story is set in) than to write an actual story. If I were to replace the dragons with any other animal, eg. horses, very little would change. These dragons lacked the fantastic or alluring aura that dragons should have. I understand that within this universe dragons are ‘normal’ but the story could still make them interesting. Novik’s dragons are basically giant winged cats.
The story, if I can call it that, revolves around this Laurence guy, a good old 17th century man (so he is obviously both righteous and conservative) who ends up having to give up his life at sea so he can become an aviator…his new ride is Temeraire a relatively cute dragon who talks in a contrived manner…but hey. Laurence washes his dragon, he rides his dragon, he has some minor quibbles with other aviators…and that’s that.
The plot was mainly concerned with ‘theory’ and not practice. The characters discuss strategy and tactics, they have a few fights, but all of these scenes lacked the sense of urgency and or suspense that they should have .
This concept would have worked better in a novella rather than a full length novel. The story is boring, the dialogues are monotonous, and the characters are just as bland as the dragons. There are a few scenes that I could consider ‘cute’ but they didn’t really make up for the rest of the novel.
Lastly, in spite of the seeming accuracy of the time (dialogues & customs) I don’t think Novik evoked the 17th century really well. Her depiction of this period is flat and the story lacks a sense of place. And, what about the actual war? Laurence – or any other character for that matter – has very little to say about it…
If the author wanted to take a lighter approach to the Napoleonic Wars then perhaps a bit of humour could have salvaged her story. Jane Austen, for one, knew that wit could go a long way…

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IN AN ABSENT DREAM: BOOK REVIEW

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In an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire

 ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

Katherine–never Kate, never Kitty, never anything but Katherine, sensible Katherine, up-and-down Katherine, as dependable as a sundial whittling away the summer afternoons–was ordinary enough to have become remarkable entirely without noticing it.

Compared to the previous volumes in this series [book:In an Absent Dream|38244358] is a bit of a let down.McGuire’s writing style is enchanting: she uses a lot of repetition which gives the narrative an almost hypnotising rhythm (recalling traditional faerie tales). This instalment follows Lundy, a character previously introduced in [book:Every Heart a Doorway|25526296], who is a solitary and quiet child fond of books and logic. After entering a special sort of door she ends up in the Goblin Market.
AbsentDream-Memories.jpgWhile novel takes inspiration from Rossetti’s [book:Goblin Market|430788] the two do not have a lot in common. The market featuring in this story seemed rather dull. Yes, there are plenty of weird rules that make little sense, and two sisters appear in this in this story, but for the most part Lundy’s adventure lacked the allure and danger of Rossetti’s market.
I also found it weird that a the ‘strict’ rules did not seem to be clearly obeyed by all characters. Initially it seems that no one can ask any question of any sort, then it turns out that very young children can on occasion, and then someone says that it depends from the sort of question.This Goblin Market wasn’t clear cut.
Lundy looses a friend which readers are never aquatinted with, and she goes on dangerous adventures which we also never get to see. Why put these things in? To make this world more interesting?
The characters seemed a bit like a mix of the characters AbsentDream-Market.jpgfeaturing in the previous volumes of this series.
The beginning has a lot of potential. It reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making but the story that unfolds is both rushed and surprisingly boring.
Still, McGuire’s writing is compulsive enough to make up for the rest.

He shouldn’t have treated her like she didn’t matter. He shouldn’t have treated her like his idea of a girl.

 

Review of Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)

Review of Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3)

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire


McGuire’s style resonates completely with the fairytales she draws from. Her lyric narration thrums with the magic which she portrays. Her prose is alluring, it carries a melodic repetition that is incredibly compelling. And while she might be paying homage to old tales, McGuire is also creating her own – equally spellbinding – tales.
Her characters showcase plenty of emotional depth, and McGuire swiftly establishes their differences and similarities. The plot-line in this instalment does not carry as many surprises as the one of Every Heart a Doorway or Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but is nevertheless a vivid and endearing take on the ‘hero’s journey’. The various worlds visited by Cora and the others were all equally tantalising.
That McGuire is able to interwoven realistic issues (eg. anxiety) into a fantastical setting makes her novel all the more unique.
Scary and delightful, bitter and sweet, Beneath the Sugar Sky is a must for any fairy-tale aficionados.

My rating: 4.25 stars

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Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

unpopular opinion in 1…2…3….

While I’m no longer an avid YA fan, I still do like to check out the new YA titles. Reading the blurb, and the general hype, for Children of Blood and Bone I was so sure that I would too love it that I bough a hardback copy. The design of this book is gorgeous. The cover, the title, the map. Wow.
Sadly the actual content of this novel left me feeling rather…cold. While I do understand – and I am thankful for – what Tomi Adeyemi is trying to do, her story is loaded with YA tropes. The West African inspired setting was the only thing that spoke to me. The characters and plot were the same overused YA archetypes: oppressed magic people, special hot-temperated-acts-before-thinking kick-ass heroine, the naive princess, the angsty anti-hero (a wannabe Zuko/Kylo) and his villainous father.
That the three first-person povs sounded exactly like one another didn’t help. I tried to feel something for these characters, but I didn’t. I only felt something when Amari was recalling her friendship with Binta, but that was the only affecting and credible relationship in this novel. I grew tired of Zélie’s predictably petty attitude towards Amari, and the romance felt so forced and unbelievable that I ended up skimming large parts from Inan’s pov (who keeps referring to Zélie as ‘the girl’…so romantic). And of course Amari and Zélie’s brother have to be romantically involved too. How convenient!
The action-orientated storyline doesn’t allow much character development: a good old ‘hero’s journey’ where our protagonists encounter a number of obstacles that help her restore magic.
Racism, classism, culture clash, have been done before both in YA, ex. An Ember in the Ashes and The Winner’s Curse, and in adult fiction, anything by N.K. Jemisin, and I would recommend Children of Blood and Bone only to those who have are new to YA. Otherwise, well, you’ve probably read this before.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

First things first: I read both Tithe and Valiant, when I was about twelve or so, and I absolutely loved them. They influenced my later readings, for I had found myself desperately in want of more dark fairy tales.
To say that I was looking forward to The Cruel Prince would be an understatement. I was ecstatic when I discovered that Holly Black was writing more about the faerie world of her previous novels, so I impatiently awaited the release of this novel. I’m happy to say (or write) that the gorgeous cover and intriguing synopsis fulfilled – and surpassed – my high expectations.

One of the main characteristics of this novel is that it is extremely sensual. There are the more apparent lush scenes, but also there are many observations and remarks referring to Jude’s sensory faculties: there is an emphasis on smell, taste and touch. Because of this the faerie world is extremely vivid and clear cut. There is an almost tangible physicality to Jude’s surroundings, one that, more often than not, borders on being both dangerous and sexual. Holly Black is able to write of a scarily convincing world, by playing with established tropes but also by forging her own lore. Her fairy world is so satisfying. Her fairies are tantalizing: they play clever tricks, employ artful magic and live in alluring castles.

The narrator Jude, despite being a ‘mere‘ human, can hold her own ground against her immortal companions. Too many times we find a simply ‘likeable’ heroine, who is not nearly as complex or developed as her male counterpart or other secondary characters. Jude, instead, is one of – if not the – most absorbing characters of the story. She is nuanced and flawed, possessing an admirable resilience and an understable thirst for power. She is an unconventional heroine, and I loved her in spite – and because – of that. She confides in us, and while she isn’t always truthful, I felt connected to her. And while this novel may be called ‘The Cruel Prince’ Prince Cardan is not the main focus of the story, Jude plays the vital role in her own story. Still, Cardan was incredibly fascinating, and he too cannot be neatly fitted into the ‘antihero’ category. Holly doesn’t make condone his cruelty or his behaviour, and yet, she is able to give him other attributes that make him as complicated as Jude. There is an array of fully fleshed out side characters: there are many characters who make an impact on Jude and her story, her sisters, her ‘father’, her ‘Court’…
The story is at once fast paced and not. Many things happen but Holly Black never rushes the plot. There are almost leisurely passages in which we can glimpse the faerie world and its customs, and I was more than happy to see certain familiar faces…
A beautifully written captivating fairy tale, one that is satisfyingly eerie and intricate.

My Rating: 5 stars

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Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

“You think we are like you humans?” it asked, angrily. “We don’t kill for sport or even for gain. Only for purpose.”

An interesting novella that sets a promising start to the series. Okorafor plays around with sci-fi elements, giving us an intriguing take on overused tropes of the genre. Binti is a rather refreshing story, one that had to work against its ‘shortness’. Okorafor establishes the tone and themes of her story from the very beginning. Her style has a natural flow that makes the story easy to follow despite the unfamiliar world.

“The Meduse are not what we humans think. They are truth. They are clarity. They are decisive. There are sharp lines and edges. They understand honor and dishonor. ”

I would have liked to have more information, especially concerning Binti’s reality. Sometimes Okorafor addressed certain things and then doesn’t return to them, and this made the setting a rather precarious one. In certain scenes there is a focus on superficial particulars that don’t really add anything of value to the story, and usually I wouldn’t mind, but given that this is novella, and every word counts, I think it would have been better to then use more words to depict Binti’s world more clearly. Binti was a forgettable protagonist, her characterisation solely relies on the circumstances she finds herself in, rather than her already possessing certain distinguishable traits.
A quick read that proposes some compelling elements but ultimately fails to stand out.

My rating: 3 stars

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La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Overall:
There is something aesthetically pleasing about Pullman’s daemons-populated world. There is a nostalgic yet magical vibe going-on that I really enjoy. The setting merges old-fashioned elements with more contemporary ones, and which makes for a wistful atmosphere. However, this was very much a companion novel, and, to my opinion, it could have easily been wrapped up in a much shorter novella.

Content:
I do appreciate certain aspects of this novel. I was compelled – and somewhat horrified – by the whole ‘badge-wearing’: I found it worryingly plausible and interesting. Children who are urged to tell on their own parents, friends and neighbours makes for a somewhat grim reality. But I loved that Pullman did that. I know some people will see it as an attack on the Church or something along those lines, but to me, it was simply a tell-tell signs of a rule of terror, something that has happened and still happens – I hope to lesser degrees.
I do think that Pullman needs to find a balance between serious and not. In one scene Malcolm confesses feeling somewhat guilty about the ‘spying’ he does, thinking he isn’t much better than his badge-wearing peers. Dr. Relf’s reassurance that he is doing ‘good’ is incredibly simple and deeply unsatisfying:

“The difference is that I think the people I work for are good. I believe in what they do. I think they’re on the right side.”

Really? You are telling a young boy to keep helping you because you believe that you are on ‘the good side’? Isn’t that what the CCD are saying? They don’t go around shouting ‘We are the baddies, wear these badges tell on your parents, ’cause we are the bad guys!’. That is such a cheap-trick. Then, Pullman includes a rather mature attack on one of his characters…So why include that and not a more nuanced and complex rendition of ‘good and bad’? With the exception of the ‘badge-wearers’ sections, there are many instances where I think things are far too black/white.
And the story itself moves so slowly. There is a lot of foreshadowing about future events, and for that reason, I think it could have worked better as a short story. Cameos stress the impression that this is just less eventful addition to Pullman’s trilogy. And Malcolm is just not that interesting to keep you engaged throughout his ‘adventures’ which in the end are just an ‘anticipation’ of Lyra’s ones. In addition, despite that we are told the contrary, the boy wasn’t all that smart or sharp. I didn’t care for his craftsman hobby and I do think that the story would have worked without Alice.
Many of the characters were rather flat and, I’m afraid to say, yet again, simple. And that the one bad guy – who sadly features in the whole novel – has a hyena daemon…yes, we get it, he is bad.
It was all very much one-dimensional: the plot, the characters….the writing too. Lots of uninteresting dialogues set in a rather prosaic manner. Hopefully, the following instalment, which follows a mature Lyra will be more well developed.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Before the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray

But how did you fight an enemy who never fought fair? Didn’t you have to break the rules to win against the Devil?

It took me awhile to get into this novel, mostly because I couldn’t recall a lot of the events that had occurred in the previous instalments. Nevertheless, Bray’s engaging portrayal of the roaring twenties was compelling enough for me to keep reading, and I’m glad I did. Bray has created a world filled by an almost overwhelming cast of characters who we see develop through the course of the series: their many flaws and particularities make them relatable and likable. I was especially taken by the dynamics within the diviners, and I did wish I could see more of Henry and Ling…
Still, I loved the way in which Evie is portrayed: she is far from the ‘ideal’ heroine but it is her strong personality that makes her such a vivid and unique character. Sam, Theta and Memphis are as compelling. Each of their story arch gives us a fuller portrayal of them.

Because I’m not enough, she thought. That was the terrible echo shouting up at her: Fraud, fraud, fraud. She got drunk and talked too much and danced on tables. She had a temper and a sharp tongue, and she often blurted out things she instantly regretted. Worst of all, she suspected that was who she truly was–not so much a bright young thing as a messy young thing.

The story itself is intriguing, it may not be ‘jaw-dropping’ but Bray manages to include a few twists here and there while also playing around with certain cliches.
The setting is beautifully rendered: the slang, the atmosphere, the description are vibrate with an energy, a tone, attributed to the twenties.
(view spoiler)

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

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Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory offers similar feelings as the ones experienced during a rollercoaster: it has its ups and downs but overall it is a mostly enjoyable ride. The book is named after its protagonist, Karen Memory, who narrates her past adventures with a fresh and fun voice. Her vocabulary which is full of slangs and humorous expression give an unique approach to an otherwise predictable storyline. In fact, it is mostly due to Karen being such an engaging and amusing character that make you want to read more.
Karen Memory mostly focuses on Karen’s particularly witty storytelling: she addresses the reader, foreshadows future events and knowing the outcome of her own story she is also able to criticize and comment her own –as well as other characters– previous behaviours and actions. Karen’s ‘unpolished’ prose narrates to the reader her very own story. It is then Karen’s own storytelling and her rather direct narrative style that make certain portions of Karen Memory particularly absorbing.
The heroine of her own story, Karen, could be both incredibly stubborn and insecure. She knows her worth and is capable of recognizing wherever she has acted rashly or not. Her funny and clever commentary make her into an entertaining and likable character that is easy to root for.
The other characters are mostly caricatures of the Old Western genre. However, despite this, the author was able to create an inclusive and likable cast of characters. Karen’s interactions with them can be incredibly lively and funny. Karen’s romantic relationship with Priya, the young girl who sets in motion the chain of events that become Karen’s ‘adventure’ – is perhaps the most noteworthy: it offers something more heartfelt than just a simple easy-laugh.

The plot mostly relies on Karen’s upbeat storytelling. With its ‘Old West’ vibe and the many references to the Western genre, Karen Memory is exactly what it claims to be: a lighthearted and playful adventure yarn. It is far from being a serious and intense read; it’s an action-adventure sort of Western with girls and guns and steam-powered trappings.
The ‘bad guys’ are recognizable as being as such right at the very start of the story. Soon certain scenes seemed a bit repetitive and predictable. So much so that the whole book feels like a series of chase scenes. More problematic is that a lot of the action is just a ‘reaction’: there is nothing complicated about it, the main characters are simply retaliating to the bad guys.
While Karen Memory succeeds in containing larger-than-life heroes, scheming villains, and gritty action it does not offer a complex narrative with difficult characters and provocative concepts. The author favours a fast-snapping plot over deep or poignant themes.
Karen Memory does not have a thoughtful plot or multi-layered characters. The book did feel a bit flat and predictable but in a way it is so because of its wanting to make homage to the ‘Western’ genre. While it does rely too much on the genres common tropes by having a young female protagonist who falls head over heels for a young Indian girl, it does also satirizes it. Steampunk elements also add a nice little touch to the setting, although at times descriptions of these ‘elements’ were a bit unclear.
Overall, Karen Memory reads a lot like a movie. It relies on its quirky storytelling and action scenes rather than including a unique setting or a complex story.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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