Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

“You rescue something and you’re responsible for it. But maybe that’s what love is. Maybe it’s like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think. You do it no matter the cost and you keep on running”

While not without its flaws, Faithful is a gem of a book. Alice Hoffman has crafted a heartfelt and ultimately uplifting coming-of-age. Faithful revolves around After being involved in a car crash that leaves her best friend comatose, Shelby Richmond, a teen from Long Island, is left bereft. Reeling from this loss Shelby is unable to resume her ‘ordinary’ life. After a suicide attempt and a stay in a mental institution where she experiences further trauma, she segregates herself into her parent’s basement. She shaves her head, ignores others, and spends most of her time getting high in an attempt to numb the guilt that gnaws at her. Her mother tries to reach out to her but Shelby has become convinced that she’s worthless and undeserving of love and forgiveness. She eventually becomes involved with Ben, a nerdy pot dealer who used to go to high school with her, who unlike others seems to accept this new version of her. Ben convinces Shelby to move with him to New York. In spite of her new surroundings and the distance between her and her best friend, Shelby cannot shake the by now deeply-ingrained belief that she’s undeserving of happiness. Her self-sabotaging is not easy to read about, but thanks to the clarity of Hoffman’s prose, I could always understand where Shelby was coming from and I did not feel frustrated by her low-self esteem and self-hatred. Shelby begins working at a pet store where she befriends one of her co-workers, Maravelle. Over the years she also grows close to Maravelle’s three kids, who experience struggles of their own. In New York Shelby also starts taking in rescued dogs which later on paves the way to her decision to become a vet. Shelby’s love life is complicated as she finds herself growing away from Ben and falling instead for a married man who is a walking talking red flag.

While the premise itself may not sound very original, Hoffman’s unembellished style is devoid of unnecessary sentimentalists, which makes those poignant moments and/or scenes all the more powerful. That the story takes place over the course of seven years or so makes Shelby’s character arc all the more authentic. She never completely gets over the accident nor does she completely forgive herself, however, she does, in time, stop punishing herself.
While readers are told—on more than one occasion—that Shelby hates herself, we soon realize that does not define her character. She certainly dislikes herself, but, she can be surprisingly tenacious and her dry humor is certainly amusing. The mistakes she makes along the way make her into a very relatable and realistic character. I loved Shelby’s snarky charm and her well-hidden kindness.

One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in its characters and Shelby’s various relationships with them. She forges new friendships and begins to see her parents and their marriage in a different light. The fragile bond she shares with her mother is touching and heartwarming. It is with the help of an unlikely cast of characters that Shelby is able to overcome her self-hatred. Slowly we see the connections she makes influence her: she becomes strong in order to help the ones she loves.
In her clear yet graceful prose, Hoffman depicts simple everyday life scenarios that can be at once moving and funny, from capturing silly moments between two ‘stoned’ friends to focusing on more emotional scenes such as a mother-daughter heart-to-heart. While Faithful begins with a terrible loss, Shelby’s past tragedies do not dominate her story. Yes, forgiveness and guilt play a big role in the novel, but, Faithful is also about hope and love (familial, platonic, romantic).

I do have a few minor criticisms. Shelby steals quite a few dogs. Yes, she steals them from people who were not abusing/neglecting them and no the narrative doesn’t demonise those responsible, however, it seemed a bit weird that she would keep coming across dogs in need of rescuing from bad owners. There are a few lines related to suicide, depression, mental disorders, that were a bit…icky, I guess. We then have this random guy who works at the hospital and refuses to help Shelby unless she promises to grow out her hair…which she does. And wow, now she’s pretty again. This had the same energy as a man telling you to smile more and you do and lo-and-behold your depression is cured. Great. Throughout the course of the novel, Shelby receives letters/messages from an unknown person. These messages at times seemed straight out of a self-help book. At other times they just puzzled me. They basically try to make Shelby ‘better’. Towards the end of the narrative, we meet the person behind these and I will say I did not approve of any of it. I would be wary of someone like that.

Nevertheless, despite these ‘flaws’, I was still able to fall in love with Hoffman’s storytelling. While it may not appeal to those who are looking for plot-driven stories or who aren’t keen on stories that are heavy on the telling, I found this to be a bittersweet noel about survivor’s guilt, trauma, forgiveness, and hope.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

The first time I read Coraline I was 10 or so and I won’t lie, it scared the bejesus out of me. I mean, the Other Mother has buttons for eyes. Buttons. And she wants to sew buttons into Coraline’s eyes. Wtf.
Anyway, this is a great piece of fiction. The story revolves around Coraline, a young girl who, alongside her distracted and workaholic parents, has recently moved into a big house divided into flats. As Coraline is out of school at the moment she grows increasingly bored and restless. After visiting her neighbours, who are rather peculiar, she ends up exploring her home and coming across a small locked door. The door, once unlocked, reveals a bricked wall.

One day, after a sort of argument with her mother, Coraline finds herself alone at home and decides to open the door once again. This time it leads into a corridor that takes her into a flat that is almost identical to her own. Here we meet Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father who seem eager to bestow their love and attention on her. While Coraline is momentarily swept away by the delicious food she’s being served and by this ‘other’ version of her parents, she can’t help but feel slightly put-off by their appearance. Her Other Parents happen to have black buttons for her eyes. As the story continues we see just how terrifying the Other Mother is.
As I said, this is a creepy, even unsettling book. Coraline is such a likeable and sympathetic character that I found myself immediately invested in her and her wellbeing. I’m also a sucker for dark fairy tales, and while this book isn’t quite as dark as say Pan’s Labyrinth, the two definitely share their similarities. Coraline is tempted into accepting a seemingly perfect vision of her life and family. But, she can’t quite make herself forget and or stop loving her real parents, however imperfect they may be. The Other Mother’s love is not love, not really, and her behaviour towards Coraline, and her other ‘subjects’, can be seen as echoing the ones of an emotionally abusive parent. Ultimately the story takes a cat-and-mouse turn where Coraline has to outsmart the Other Mother.
I absolutely love Gaiman’s storytelling, and here he really outdoes himself. He has written something that is accessible to younger readers without sacrificing depth or dumbing down his narrative. And of course, the cat steals the show.
The film adaptation is great too. A favourite of mine even if does add Wybie into the story (he’s very much a comedic-relief type of character). If you have time I also recommend you check out The Eldritch Horror of Coraline by CJ The X (it’s a chaotic & funny analysis of the character of the Other Mother).

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater

“Your Boyfriend Called, He Thinks You’ve Joined a Cult, Please Advise.”

Mister Impossible may be Stiefvater’s trickiest novel. I inhaled it in just a day and part of me knows that I need to re-read in order to truly absorb everything that went down. This is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling pretty devastated. It seemed like nothing and everything was happening. Plot-wise, well…Ronan, Hennessy, and Bryde go galavanting across Virginia while committing ecoterrorist acts. Sort of.

Ronan and Hennessy are pretty chaotic characters who have a predilection for self-destructive behaviours and self-loathing (a great combo). Ronan’s chapters in Mister Impossible are particularly elusive and hella unreliable. I read somewhere that Stiefvater’s said that this trilogy was about the stories we tell ourselves and ouch…that is exactly what we are getting in Mister Impossible. This was as intense as The Dream Thieves but far more brutal. Things don’t get better, people don’t always learn from their mistakes or know how to break away from vicious cycles…I don’t know, this has me rambling already. Ronan is such a conflicted (and conflicting) character and I found myself wanting to shake him because he does and says some really fucked up shit and whisk him away from Bryde and anyone else who hurts/messes with him.
Declan, Jordan, and Matthew’s chapters were welcome respites. Matthew is struggling to adjust to the fact that he is a dream and is understandably sick of being treated like a child by Declan. I really liked how Jordan and Declan’s relationship developed, their scenes were truly a salve to my weary soul. Their chemistry, their light banter, their art talk. I just loved them together.

The narrative is very much about self-divide, art, forgery, reality vs dreams, miscommunication (or even 0 communication), loneliness, chronic illness, and not so great coping mechanisms. A sense of unease permeates the narrative, Ronan’s chapters were especially anxiety inducing.

The writing was Stiefvater-levels of clever (funny, exhilarating, surreal, fairytalesque), the pacing was relentless (even if nothing seems to happen…tis’ a mystery how she does it), and the characters are as compelling as they are frustrating (Ronan, please, stop breaking my heart).

SPOILERS
And that ending,wtfStiefvater, who told you to go all Fight Club/Mr. Robot on us?

my rating: ★★★★★

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Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

“My stepmother had broken me. She’d cast me away from my brothers, my family, my home. Even from myself.”

First things first: that cover. I mean….words cannot describe how beautiful it is.
Ever since watching early 2000s Barbie movies reading Juliet Marillier’s spellbinding books I’ve had a soft spot for retellings and I’m happy to say that Six Crimson Cranes makes for a truly wonderful take on “The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds” type of tales (which include the six swans, the wild swans, and even marillier’s daughter of the forest). Fans of Ghibli and even Disney should definitely consider picking this up as Six Crimson Cranes is a truly magical novel.

“We were seven, and seven was a number of strength. An uneven number that could not fold unto itself, large enough to withstand many threats, yet small enough to stay devoted.”

In Six Crimson Cranes Limm transports her readers to the Chinese and Japanese inspired kingdom of Kiata. Here Princess Shiori, the only daughter of Emperor Hanariho, is not looking forward to getting married to the son of Lord Bushian, someone Shiori considers to be a barbarian. In spite of her sheltered upbringing, Shiori’s adventurous streak (read: foolhardiness) often lands her in trouble. Thankfully for her, she has six brothers who dote on her (even if they do enjoy teasing her now and again) and are more than happy to watch out for her.
On the day of her betrothal ceremony, she uses magic—which is, you guessed it, forbidden in this kingdom—to cheer herself up. And then her magical friend lands her into the palace’s Sacred Lake. Luckily, Shiori is saved by Seryuu, a dragon prince (okay, this whole dynamic gave me some strong spirited away vibes) who offers to help her with her magic. Shiori’s lake mishap raises her stepmother’s suspicions. And it turns out that mysterious & aloof Raikama also dabbles with magic. When Shiori witnesses Raikama getting up to no good she runs to her brothers to warn them about their stepmother’s true identity. Alas, the siblings don’t stand a chance against Raikama who uses her dark magic to curse them. Shiori’s six brothers are transformed into cranes. Shiori too is cursed: no one will be able to recognise her and if she were to utter a single word one of her brothers will die. Voiceless and alone, Shiori travels the lands hoping to find her brothers and a way to break the curse.

“Ironic, wasn’t it, that I—a girl who always wanted to make her own choice—now for nothing more than to surrender to fate?”

What follows is a compelling tale of resilience. Lim has spun a truly enchanting fairy tale one that feels at once familiar and unique. While her story implements quite a lot of archetypes (the protagonist on a quest, a curse, a magical companion who offers wise words of advice, hidden identities, evil stepmothers) she also subverts quite a few of them. Lim’s storytelling is so engaging that even if I predicted most, if not all, of the twists and revelations that occur along the way, well, it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of her story. In fact, I actually found myself looking forward to Shiori figuring things out for herself. Shiori is a truly lovable heroine. To start she’s a bit of a hothead and until her curse, she was leading a rather cushy lifestyle (okay, the arranged marriage wasn’t great but it was also very much the norm in this kingdom). After the curse, Shiori endures quite a lot of hardships. Her love for her brothers and her desire to set them free sees her overcoming the many trials that come her way, and by the end of the narrative, Shiori has undergone quite the character development.
I loved the setting, the magic, Shiori’s voice, her bond with her brothers, the folktales and myths Lim incorporated within her story.

“I would not have you be alone, […], not in your joys or your sorrows. I would wish your strand knotted to mine, always.”

Six Crimson Cranes is a truly delightful and dazzling novel. Not only is Lim a fantastic storyteller but I felt really invested in Shiori and her brothers. There is a hint of romance which added a sweet note to the overall narrative (i am just praying it won’t turn into a love triangle…) but the story’s focus remains very much on Shiori’s quest.
Marillier herself described this novel as a “gorgeous” take on an old fairy tale, and “a must-read for lovers of folkloric fantasy”…and well, she’s spot on.

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland

“Dark, dangerous things happened around the Hollow sisters.”

Brimming with beauty and danger House of Hollow is a spellbinding modern fairy tale. Written in a tantalising prose that seems to echo traditional fairy tales House of Hollow presents its readers with a beguiling tale about sisters and monsters.

“We were taken. We came back. None of us knew what happened, and none of us ever would. We were the miracle that parents of all missing children dreamed of. Spat back from the abyss, unharmed and whole.”

When they were children the Hollow sisters went missing. And then, a month later, they came back. Ever since their return, the Hollow sisters have become undeniably strange. Their hair has turned white, their eyes black, they have matching scars on their throats, and they seem to have unquenchable appetites without ever gaining weight. Something about them makes those around them feel intoxicated, as if under a spell.

“Strangeness only bred strangeness, and it felt dangerous to tempt fate, to invite in the darkness that seemed already naturally drawn us.”

At seventeen Iris Hollow desperately craves normalcy. Her older sisters left the nest years before and, unlike Iris, have no interest in playing normal. Grey, the eldest, is a supermodel and fashion designer, while Vivi is leading a sex & roll kind of lifestyle while touring with her band. After months without seeing them the Hollow sisters make plans to meet up….and Grey doesn’t show up. Fearing the worst, Iris and Vivi try to make sense of Grey’s disappearance and soon come across some disconcerting clues. Someone, or something, else is also after Grey, and it is up to Iris and Vivi to untangle the mystery of their sister’s disappearance.

“What you don’t understand,” she said to me once when I told her how dangerous it was, “is that I am the thing in the dark.”

There is so much that I loved about this novel. Sutherland’s prose is lush. Flowery descriptions give way to ones that are almost grotesque in nature. The fairy-talesque rhythm of her prose makes Iris’ story all the more alluring. The atmosphere is in this novel is as exquisite as it is eerie. We also get some exceedingly lavish descriptions about the characters’ appearances, clothes, and environments, which made the story all the more vivid.

I don’t want to reveal too much in terms of plot but things get dark. ‘The Halfway’ reminded me a bit of The Hollow Places while the supernatural elements brought to mind Natalie C. Parker’s Beware The Wild duology and Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales series.
The magic in House of Hollow is as beautiful as it is dangerous and Sutherland is not afraid to reveal the rot that lies beneath a beautiful veneer.
The relationship between the Hollow sisters is utterly captivating, low-key co-dependent, and one of the novel’s biggest strength. Iris’ voice was compelling and I immediately felt drawn to her. Vivi and Tyler provided some lovely moments of lightness and I loved them from the get-go. Grey was a fascinating if sinister kind of character. The casual queer rep was a welcome surprise and made me fall even more in love with the story. And, I can’t begin to describe how refreshing it was to read a YA novel that isn’t about the romance!

House of Hollow is an enthralling and subversive fairy tale, one that combines a missing person story with a creepy tale about scary places and dangerous girls. Sutherland’s writing is breathtakingly gorgeous, her characters alluring, her storyline entrancing. I am more or less in awe with House of Hollow, so much so that I would love it if Sutherland would grace us with a sequel.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Chain of Iron by Cassandra Clare

“So many secrets between them. So many lies.”

That’s it. That’s the book.

(i am only half joking)

Actual review:

Although Chain of Iron is one of Cassandra Clare’s least action/mystery driven books the drama between the various characters is sure to keep you turning pages. Chain of Iron picks up 4 months after its predecessor, and we mainly follow Cordelia, James, and Lucie, with the occasional scenes from the povs of Grace, Ariadne, Anna, Thomas, and even, lo and behold, Alastair. Everyone, with the exception of Alastair and Christopher, is hiding or angsting over something. Cordelia loves James, James believes he is in love with Grace, Matthew is drinking more than ever, Lucie has teamed up with Grace to bring Jessie back to life. Lot’s of drama. Much angst. The historical setting makes the romance all the more engrossing, as we get a lot of repressed feelings and heaps of longing. The mystery aspect involving a Shadowhunter murderer and Cortana burning Cordelia’s hands kicks in nearly half-way the novel. But, as I said, miscommunication is what drives this novel. And, usually, I hate narratives that rely so much on characters not communicating with one another, or misunderstanding a certain situation, but when it is Clare who does it, I don’t know, I just eat that shit up. The characters are young and going through a lot so most of the time it did make sense for them to keep so many secrets.
I loved Clare’s sumptuous descriptions, her humour, the banter between the characters, the setting (Edwardian London), the chemistry and tension between the characters.

Onto the characters:
→Cordelia is definitely a favourite of mine. I really appreciate that she is not restricted to the role of love interest and that much of her arc has to do with her wanting to be a hero in her own right.
→James, this poor boy. Although he is still under Grace’s influence we really get to see how much he cares for Cordelia.
→Matthew…well, he wasn’t my favourite in the 1st book and I have mixed feelings towards him. I do find him amusing, and I do feel bad for him, but, I am tired of him blaming his own actions on Alastair (I get that it is a coping mechanism but he is so petty every time Alastair gets a mention or makes an appearance). By the end of the novel he definitely grew on him, and I am curious to see where Clare takes his character next.
→Lucy really surprised me. I was not excepting her to do the things she did but once again, I have faith in Clare. I did like the fact that we are presented with a central character whose actions begin to blur the lines between good and bad.
→Grace, whom I hated in COG, definitely appealed to me more this time around. We get flashbacks into her rather miserable childhood under Tatiana and her scenes with Christopher revealed a new side to her character.
→similarly, I became quite fond of Ariadne and, to my surprise, ended feeling rather miffed at Anna (the opposite of what I felt in COG).
→the Italian Shadowhunter was the kind of Italian character only a non-Italian author would create. She was a cliché to the point that I found her genuinely amusing.
→Thomas is such a pure and kind-hearted character (even if he at times sees these things as a weakness). We don’t get a lot from him in this novel but what we do get just strengthen my feelings towards him.
→and of course, last but not least, Alastair, my absolute fave. Look, I have a weakness for prickly characters. It was so sad to see him trying so hard to be better. Yet, for all of his efforts, most of the characters treat him like the plague. His arc in this instalment truly hit me in the so called ‘feels’. The boy deserves a moment of respite.

What I would like from Chain of Thorns:
→more of Cordelia & Lucie. Their friendship was very much on the sidelines throughout COI.
→for characters to actually TALK with one another.
→more of Alastair.
→I would also love to read more about Christopher.

my rating: ★★★★★


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Later by Stephen King

Did I finish this in a day? I sure did.

Stephen King simply excels at writing ‘kids with powers’. This is the 14th novel I’ve read by him and it deepened my already deep appreciation of him. The prose, characters, themes, and atmosphere in Later are pure King. Yet, while he has written more than book starring a child who Sees Dead People, Later gives a new slant to this classic trope. Set in New York between the late 2000s and early 2010s Later centres on and is narrated by Jamie. Now in his twenties, Jamie looks back to his childhood and early teens.
Raised by his single mother, a literary agent, from a very young age Jamie could see ghosts. His attempts at normality are thwarted by his ‘talent’. Jamie’s mother financial troubles and her rocky relationship with a NYPD detective cause a further strain on his childhood. His mother’s girlfriend eventually forces him to help in an active case.
While King’s children do occasionally come across as children of the 70s, more than the noughties, he manages to capture a child’s naïveté and perspective. Later is a suspenseful read that showcases King at his best. King explores the loss of innocence, questions of morality (“For the Greater Good”), police corruption, mortality, and, of course, evil. King’s prose is gripping, his characters—regardless of how we feel about them—engaging, his dialogues are absorbing, and his observations—about people, American society, death, love, the ways of the world—not only ring true to life but are also exceedingly insightful. I loved the novel’s metafictional moments, his references to the conventions of horror/Sees Dead People genre, his lampoon of a certain type of male author, and his self-references.

Stephen King simply excels at writing ‘kids with powers’. This is the 14th novel I’ve read by him and it deepened my already deep appreciation of him. The prose, characters, themes, and atmosphere in Later are pure King. Yet, while he has written more than book starring a child who Sees Dead People, Later gives a new slant to this classic trope. Set in New York between the late 2000s and early 2010s Later centres on and is narrated by Jamie. Now in his twenties, Jamie looks back to his childhood and early teens.
Raised by his single mother, a literary agent, from a very young age Jamie could see ghosts. His attempts at normality are thwarted by his ‘talent’. Jamie’s mother financial troubles and her rocky relationship with a NYPD detective cause a further strain on his childhood. His mother’s girlfriend eventually forces him to help in an active case.
While King’s children do occasionally come across as children of the 70s, more than the noughties, he manages to capture a child’s naïveté and perspective. Later is a suspenseful read that showcases King at his best. King explores the loss of innocence, questions of morality (“For the Greater Good”), police corruption, mortality, and, of course, evil. King’s prose is gripping, his characters—regardless of how we feel about them—engaging, his dialogues are absorbing, and his observations—about people, American society, death, love, the ways of the world—not only ring true to life but are also exceedingly insightful. I loved the novel’s metafictional moments, his references to the conventions of horror/Sees Dead People genre, his lampoon of a certain type of male author, and his self-references.
Later is an addictive read that offers readers a fantastic blend of genres—horror, coming of age, supernatural, crime—and will definitely appeal to fans of King.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

 

The Neil Gaiman Reader showcases Gaiman’s range as an author. Gaiman moves between genres and tones like no other. From funny fairy-talesque stories to more ambiguous narratives with dystopian or horror elements. While I have read most of his novels and a few of his novellas I hadn’t really ‘sunk’ my teeth in his short stories. The ones that appear in this collection have been selected by his own fans, and are presented in chronological order. While it was interesting to see the way his writing developed I did not prefer his newer stuff to his older one. In fact, some of my favorite of his stories are the ones from the 80s and 90s. Even then his writing demonstrates both humor and creativity. Some of the stories collected here read like morality tales while others offer more perplexing messages. Many of his stories revolve around the act of storytelling or have a story-within-story structure. At times he retells old classics, such as Sleeping Beauty, while other times he offers his own take on Cthulhu, Sherlock Holmes, and even Doctor Who. A few favorites of mine were: ‘Chivalry’, ‘Murder Mysteries’, ‘The Goldfish and Other Stories’, ‘The Wedding Present’, and ‘October in the Chair’. If you are a Gaiman fan and, like me, have not read many of his short stories you should definitely consider picking this collection up.


my rating:
★★★★☆

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How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black

“I am nothing,” Cardan said, “if not dramatic.”

Holly Black’s prose is as tantalising as ever.
The tales collected in How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories focus on Cardan. We learn more of his childhood and get to see certain scenes and events from The Cruel Prince through his perspective.
Stories are at the heart of this volume as Cardan has various encounters with the troll Aslog who presents him with different spins on the same tale (in which a boy with a sharp tongue is cursed with a heart of stone…sounds familiar?).
Although Cardan is as capricious and dramatic as ever we do get to see why he is the way he is. Black does not condone his behaviour and there is some great character development on his part.
The illustrations are simply stunning. There are quite a lot and they are all beautiful. Rovina Cai’s style and the tones she uses really suit this Black’s faerie world.
If you are a fan of The Folk of the Air trilogy I would definitely recommend you pick this one up.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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