Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Where the Drowned Girls Go is a relatively compelling if inoffensive addition to the Wayward Children series. Once again Seanan McGuire sticks to the same formula: we have a focus on aesthetics, a fairy-talesque atmosphere, and a story revolving around a girl who is either lonely or made to feel different or insecure about something. Like its predecessors, Where the Drowned Girls Go critiques individuals and institutions that seek to impose conformity on those they deem ‘different’. Here the good/bad binary feels particularly lacking in nuance, and I miss the ambivalence that permeated the first few instalments. Still, McGuire’s prose has is always a delight to read. While here she goes a bit heavy-handed on metaphors involving smiles (we have, to name a few, wan smiles, bland smiles, terrible smiles, terrifying smiles…the list goes on), her hypnotic style is rich with tantalising descriptions and lush imagery. I also appreciate her darker take on fairy tales and magical worlds. As we can see, those who go through magical doors do not always make it ‘home’ unscathed. They carry physical and psychological scars from their time there and struggle to integrate themselves back into ‘reality’.

In Where the Drowned Girls Go we are reunited with Cora who we previously followed on a rescue mission to Confection in Beneath the Sugar Sky. She’s haunted by the Trenches, the world she fell into, and fears that she will once more be transported to that world. She believes that at Eleanor’s school she won’t be able to resist the Trenches so she decides to enrol at the Whitethorn Institute. But, she soon discovers, Whitethorn is not kind to ‘wayward children’ like her. The school instils fear in its students, punishing those who mention their experiences in other worlds and rewarding those who come to view magical doors as the product of a delusion. Cora is bullied by some of her roommates who make fun of her appearance and such. Eventually, Sumi comes to her rescue and Cora has to decide whether she does want to leave Whitethorn. There are a few moral lessons about friendship, not being mean, or not letting others dictate who you are.

While there were fantastical elements woven into the story and setting this volume lacked that magic spark that made the first few books into such spellbinding reads. I also found Cora to be a meh protagonist. Her defining characteristic seemed to be her body, which wasn’t great. Sumi was a welcome addition to the cast of characters as I found the girls at Whitethorn to be rather samey (which perhaps was intentional). I don’t entirely get why Cora got another book. She was the main character in Beneath the Sugar Sky. Her insecurities etc. were already explored in that book…and this feels like an unnecessary continuation to her arc. Still, I love the aesthetics of this series and the wicked/virtue & nonsense/logical world compass.
Hopefully, the next volume will be about Kade…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

“He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call.”

Written in a playful pastiche style Sorcerer to the Crown will certainly appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones. Cho’s bombastic prose, characterized by an Austenesque sense of humor, and madcap fantasy of manners story were a delight to read.
The first time I read this, back in 2015/6, I did, truth be told, struggle to get into Cho’s high register language. But, the more I read, the more I familiarised myself with her lofty and loquacious style. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant read, a real blast!

“In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.”

Set in an alternate Regency England, Sorcerer to the Crown follows Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first Black Sorcerer Royal, who was raised by his recently deceased predecessor, Sir Stephen. While Zacharias clearly respected and was grateful to Sir Stephen, the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Moreover, Zacharias can’t forget that Sir Stephen bought and freed him, separating from his own family. This being Regency England Zacharias is treated with open animosity by most of his colleagues, some of whom are actively attempting to besmirch his name, claiming that he’s responsible for England’s decline of magic and Sir Stephen’s death. Zacharias is an incredibly level-headed individual, a thinker not a fighter. He’s serious, studious, punctilious. He’s also fair, loyal, and endearingly naïve. Yet, even he can’t quite keep his calm when his reputation, and life, are under attack. Attempting to clear his name and to discover the reason behind England’s magic drought, he leaves London.

“Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies—too potent a brew for their weak minds—and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.”

He visits Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, a place that is meant to snuff any magic from its pupils. In England, the only women who are ‘allowed’ to practice magic are those from the lower classes (and can only use spells to facilitate their daily chores/tasks). Due to her ‘questionable’ parentage (ie her mother was not an Englishwoman) Prunella Gentlemen, similarly to Zachariah, has always been treated as an outsider. Prunella is an orphan who thanks to her ‘generous’ benefactor, Mrs. Daubeney, was, for the most part, treated like the other students. When an incident threatens to change this, Prunella decides to take matters into her own hands and forge her own path to happiness.

“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.

Zacharias and Prunella cross paths and form a camaraderie of sorts. While Prunella is still very much self-serving, repeatedly going behind Zacharias’ back or eliding important information & discoveries, she does seem to enjoy bantering with Zacharias. Together they face disgruntled magicians, engage in some magical mishaps, attend/crash a ball, confront angry magical creatures, try to reason with a formidable witch, partake in discussions with some rather tedious thaumaturgist, and challenge the Society’s long-established traditions and hierarchies.

““Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

While the witty dialogues and droll characters result in delightfully humourous, within her narrative Cho incorporates a sharp social commentary. From the rampant racism and xenophobia that were typical of this time to addressing gender and class inequalities. Through satire Cho highlights these issues, and, in spite of her story’s fantastical backdrop, Cho doesn’t romanticise this period of time and the England that emerges from these pages feels all too real. The use of historically accurate language and the attention paid to the time’s etiquette and social mores, result in an incredibly well-rendered historical setting.

While this type of narrative won’t appeal to those looking for action-driven stories, Cho’s sparkling storytelling is not to be missed. The follow-up to this book is, dare I say, even better.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire — book review

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Although occasionally entertaining, Come Tumbling Down struck me as a rather unnecessary and insubstantial addition to the Wayward Children series.

“Once a wayward child, always a wayward child.”

Don’t get me wrong: Seanan McGuire’s writing style is as lush as ever. Her prose, with its use rhythm and repetition, echoes that of fairy-tale, lending a certain allure to her narrative. As with the previous instalments McGuire weaves real issues into her fantastical setting (such as body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria, anxiety, OCD, trauma) however in this case not all of them were seamlessly woven into her story. Some—such as body dysmorphia—were just rushed through and consequently seemed to lack depth.

“No one should have to sit and suffer and pretend to be someone they’re not because it’s easier, or because no one wants to help them fix it.”

The story sadly feels like a rehash of the previous volumes. Part of me doesn’t think that we needed another chapter that focused on Jack and Jill…the dynamics between Jack and Miss West’s students—old and new—weren’t all that compelling. I wish we could have had more of Christopher or Kade instead. The exchanges between the characters felt repetitive and aimless.
The humour felt forced. Sumi was very much the ‘clown’ character who eased the tension of a scene by saying something silly/absurd. The quest itself felt unfocused and made Jill into a rather one-sided character.
On the one hand I really love McGuire’s writing…but here her storyline and characters lacked depth.There were some clever phrases and some ‘aesthetic’ character descriptions but they never amounted to anything truly substantial. Pretty words aside, Come Tumbling Down doesn’t really add anything new to this series.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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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.

 

THE FEVER KING: BOOK REVIEW

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The Fever King by Victoria Lee

★★✰✰ 2.5

Although I’m no longer an avid reader of YA books The Fever King sounded really good so I had rather high hopes for this one.
At first The Fever King reminded me of some of some of my favourite YA. It has a not-so-far-in-the-future setting similar to the one in Proxy and Control and to start with the magic and witchings reminded me of Half Bad and Burn Mark. Sadly, The Fever King is a rather formulaic dystopia. The characters, the ideas, the plot, everything was so predictable and needlessly frustrating.
➜The writing was okay for the most part but there were a lot of purply phrases which stood out (for the wrong reasons).
WHAT in the world is going on with Noam’s stomach
:
-“Tar oozed through Noam’s stomach
-“a warm beat of familiarity took root in the pit of Noam’s stomach
-“twinge in his stomach that felt suspiciously like embarrassment
-“Noam’s stomach twisted a little tighter
-“the pit of Noam’s stomach shriveled
-“his stomach was full of hot tar
-“his stomach was a mess of buzzing insects
-“an uneasy wave pitched in Noam’s stomach
-“[his] stomach swollen with something rotten
-“he felt like he’d swallowed grease, oil sloshing around in the pit of his stomach
Noam’s stomach is mentioned more than 30 times! Also what is this—“Noam’s blood felt sharp“—supposed to mean?!
The plot is the usual YA: protagonist looses parents, gains some powers, becomes part of an organisation, things are not as they seem, etc etc. The story felt rushed which didn’t help the characters or their setting.
➜Noam Álvaro becomes adjusted way too quickly to his new life as a witching under Level IV.
➜Level IV…what is going on here? The way this division operates is far too woolly for my liking.
➜The conflict between Atlantia and Carolinia wasn’t very clear cut. The world building was just poorly executed. The world seemed reduced to two opposing forces (or better yet, two opposing people) and we never get a clear impression of Noam’s world. The story is set in the future but it could have easily be se in an ‘alternative present’.
➜While this book tackled a lot of relevant and or difficult topics (there are the Atlantian refugees, the treatment witchlings face, genocide, abuse, and the list goes on) it does it in a somewhat superficial way.
80% of the story consists in Noam and or other characters saying variations of: “you have no idea what you are talking about”, “you don’t know nothing about nothing”, “you don’t know what I’ve been through”, “you are so privileged”. It sort of got old. Fast.
➜Initially, I liked the way in which magic works. Witchlings need to learn physics, maths, and so forth in order to be able to use their powers. Then as the story progresses magic no longer has such a pivotal role.
➜The story tried to be dark and gritty but was mostly cheesy. Just because your characters wear very tight trousers and go partying that doesn’t make them “edgy”.
➜The love ‘subplot’ was also too rushed and difficult to believe.

Overall, I felt that this book tried hard to be a more dark YA that tackles current social issues in a sort of futuristic alternative world. The narrative attempts a certain ‘damaged+rebellious youth’ aesthetic which didn’t really work for me but might as well work for younger readers. In some ways the story and its characters would have been better suited if they had been in a comic or a manga rather than a novel.

 

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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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