Sunday, 19 February 2017

Crooked Kingdom

Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn't think they'd survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they're right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and left crippled by the kidnapping of a valuable team member, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz's cunning and test the team's fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city's dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of magic in the Grisha world.

Spoiler alert! This review contains a few mentions that could be considered minor spoilers if you haven't read Crooked Kingdom. I try to keep anything too spoilerific out of my review, but there are some stray mentions in there which might spoil a couple of plot points.

Do you ever feel like you must have missed something with a book? Everyone raves about it. It has a 4.6 rating on Goodreads. It's been on just about every bestseller list going. And then you read it, and you wonder if your copy somehow ended up with different contents than everyone else's? That was my feeling on finally finishing Crooked Kingdom.

I loved Six of Crows. Really loved it. It was a step up from the Grisha trilogy - which I really enjoyed - in terms of plotting and writing style, and it ended on one hell of a hook. I barely put Six of Crows down when I was reading it, and all the reviews I've read for the second in the duology were raves, so I was expecting more of the same from Crooked Kingdom. I didn't find it. I hit the wall about a third of the way in, and found the second half of this book an absolute chore to get through. Perhaps if my hopes hadn't been so high, I wouldn't have been so disappointed. But the gulf between book one and book two, between my expectation and the reality, was a big one.

Whereas Six of Crows had a tight, consistent plot, Crooked Kingdom felt like four or five different plots stuck together. It just felt so disjointed, with Kaz and the gang lurching from one ludicrously implausible scheme to the next. They cook up a plot that seems impossible, execute it, almost get caught but then get away thanks to Kaz's apparent omnipotence. Repeat ad nauseum. I lost count of the number of times I put this book down. First there's rescuing Inej, then there's revenge on Van Eck, then there's something about buying up sugar and bombing the city's supply to increase its worth, then there's rescuing Grisha, then there's revenge on Pekka Rollins. And I've probably missed some because I got to the stage where I was skimming towards the end. Reading back what I've written, these individual plots probably hung together to form a grander scheme, but I never got that sense while I was reading. Everything felt very episodic. Don't get me wrong, the world building is incredible, and the intricacies of the plot are so tight they'd tie a less talented writer up in knots. But with so much going on, I just found the book unforgivably boring. There was a bigger story going on here, with Grisha-enhanced super soldiers infused with metal flying around and kingdoms teetering on the brink of all-out war, fighting for control of those with magic and the opiate-like substance used to turbocharge them, but it felt relegated to the background in favour of another "OMG, isn't Kaz awesome!?" moment.

My main problem with this book was the same niggling problem I had with Six of Crows and can be summed up in two words. Kaz Brekker. Honestly, the man is a total dick. Alright, he's got a tragic backstory, but no more so than many other, far more pleasant characters. Quite why anyone puts up with this nasty, arrogant asshole is beyond me. The oddly limp finale has him finally getting his revenge on the man he perceives to have wronged him (short version; he tricked Kaz and his brother out of all their money and turned them out onto the streets where his brother got sick and died. Let's just ignore the fact that Kaz openly admits to conning numerous people out of their money and putting them in exactly the same situation, shall we? And if you've read Six of Crows already - which I presume most people would have - it's nothing you don't already know), by giving a loving, uncomfortably detailed description of how he buried the man's innocent son alive. Our hero, ladies and gentleman! Sure, it turns out to be a bluff, but what kind of sick fuck does that? I just can't bring myself to root for such a colossal prick, and the numerous instances of him treating his supposed friends/allies/people he needs around for his own benefit, like utter garbage did nothing to endear him to me either, and the less said about the scenes of him threatening children and tormenting heavily pregnant women the better. His scenes with Inej towards the end, while offering moments of genuine sweetness, were too little too late to redeem this character in my eyes. In fact, pairing him with her, a far better character who'd been through worse and come out stronger, only made his flaws seem more glaring. I appreciate that different people handle trauma in different ways, and it would have been pretty boring if we'd ended up with six identical, scarred but hopeful characters, but Kaz's utter assholery and insufferable smugness just made me want to see him get outsmarted and having the everloving crap kicked out of him. But of course, that never happened.

And that raises my other problem that the character of Kaz. His apparent omnipotence and constant forward thinking, to the point I assumed he must be a new kind of Grisha who could see the future (alas, this is not the case), robbed the story and events of any tension. I'd suggest a drinking game where you take a shot everytime a character waxes lyrical about how sly, sneaky and badass Kaz is, but you'd run a very serious risk of death from alcohol poisoning. The best you could hope for is a three day hangover.

In every single situation, he's one step ahead, knowing information he couldn't possibly have known and planning for scenarios he could never have foreseen. That happens once in a story, and it's exciting. It's a heart-stopping near miss, raising the stakes for our protagonists. But when you've seen the story-ordained hero trick his way out of an impossible situation for the fourth time - and that's just in this book, I'm not even counting Six of Crows - you stop caring the next time they're in danger, because you know exactly what's going to happen. The finale of this duology, which should have been an all out battle of epic proportions, ends up being a damp squib that essentially rehashes the same plot twist we've seen four or five times already. Oh not, Kaz is outsmarted and they're all going to die! Oh wait, no they're not. The guy manages to outwit every single character he crosses paths with, beat up a room full of heavily armed thugs bare-handed (despite having a dodgy leg and needing a cane to walk) and has an extensive knowledge of geo-politics, trading markets and property investment. He's less a character than a plot device, a heavy-handed analogy for how rotten Ketterdam makes people and just a thoroughly unpleasant bastard, and not in a good way. I found myself veering between bored and annoyed by him, which meant I spent a good deal of the book in a foul mood. If you love the character - which many people appear to do, so I'm very much the minority - you'll probably love this book. In fact, I'm fairly certain you will, as Kaz is clearly intended to be a product of his environment and a personification of Ketterdam; damaged, harsh, but not completely beyond redemption. But for me personally, the character was pretty much the entire reason I didn't enjoy this book.

Elsewhere, the characters I loved so much in book one were all present and correct, if a little sidelined by the plot. Inej is still my favourite character, with a little more of her backstory coming out in this book. She deserved better than being shackled to a miserable git like Kaz, but that's love I guess. Nina's battle with her addiction to parem was suitably brutal, even though I had no idea by the end of the book why it had changed her powers from a heartrender to someone who could apparently raise the dead into some sort of zombie horde to do her bidding. I'm still too pissed off by what happened to Matthias to even mention him, but I was glad to see Jesper and Wylan finally get together. Forget Kaz and Inej (well, not Inej, because she's awesome), this pair stole the show for me! There were a couple of returning faces, but they were too fleeting to make much impact. Even my beloved Sturmhond got short changed! I loved the introduction of Dunyasha, a mysterious assassin who goes after Inej, but she pops up in literally two scenes, says something about having royal blood, and then gets killed off. It's just ... bizarre! Why the hell go to so much trouble describing this character, giving her a jump-off-the-page-awesome personality and a deliciously enticing tie to a bigger picture, only to have her fall off a roof on her second outing? Maybe she was somehow connected to the original Grisha trilogy and I've just forgotten about her, but what a waste!

In a sea of cookie-cutter YA characters that bring little to the table in terms of diversity, I like that this series involves a mix of ethnicities and sexualities. There aren't a whole lot of romantic scenes in this book, but one of the few kissy scenes - and easily the most lengthy and detailed one - occurs between two guys. The author does an awesome job of writing the female characters too, with a refreshing lack of bitchiness and backstabbing, and a healthy representation of female sexuality without any judgey faces from other characters. Again, more of this please!

I feel a little harsh giving this book just two stars because Leigh Bardugo is such a fantastic writer and, even when the story wasn't holding my interest, her writing is pure poetry. There's no way this book is two stars in terms of writing quality, but it's two stars in terms of my enjoyment, and that's how my ratings work. Crooked Kingdom was impeccably plotted and dazzling well written, but it bored me to tears.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Waiting on Wednesday #6 - Roar

Yay! I've finally made it to another Waiting on Wednesday! The universe seems to conspire against me whenever I try to take part in this, but, finally, through some forward planning and actual organisation, I made it this week. Success! A big thank you to Jill at Breaking The Spine for hosting this weekly feature.

My first Waiting on Wednesday this year (my god, I really am unorganised!) is Roar by Cora Carmack. Oh, Roar! Let me count the reasons I am waiting for thee!

1. I've been looking for a book to fill the hole in my life that was left by the Storm Siren trilogy, and I think this might be it. It has enough similarities to hook me, and enough differences to reel me in.
2. From the blurb alone, Roar has all the magic ingredients I look for in a YA fantasy read, with enough twists on convention to make it something different; a "magical" saviour who doesn't actually possess magic, a princess who's trying to get out of a marriage to a hot prince rather than into one, and a heroine who's going out to take power for herself. No special snowflakes here!
3. As the author herself says; "There’s a hot (and possibly evil) prince, a bad ass storm hunter who looks great in leather, a princess in disguise, and a really fun and ferocious cast of characters. Plus lots of angsty sexual tension and kissing and swoony stuff." Hot damn! Where do I preorder?
4. That cover art. Seriously, look at it! That deserves to be framed and put on the wall!

In a land ruled and shaped by violent magical storms, power lies with those who control them.

Aurora Pavan comes from one of the oldest Stormling families in existence. Long ago, the ungifted pledged fealty and service to her family in exchange for safe haven, and a kingdom was carved out from the wildlands and sustained by magic capable of repelling the world’s deadliest foes. As the sole heir of Pavan, Aurora’s been groomed to be the perfect queen. She’s intelligent and brave and honorable. But she’s yet to show any trace of the magic she’ll need to protect her people.

To keep her secret and save her crown, Aurora’s mother arranges for her to marry a dark and brooding Stormling prince from another kingdom. At first, the prince seems like the perfect solution to all her problems. He’ll guarantee her spot as the next queen and be the champion her people need to remain safe. But the more secrets Aurora uncovers about him, the more a future with him frightens her. When she dons a disguise and sneaks out of the palace one night to spy on him, she stumbles upon a black market dealing in the very thing she lacks—storm magic. And the people selling it? They’re not Stormlings. They’re storm hunters.

Legend says that her ancestors first gained their magic by facing a storm and stealing part of its essence. And when a handsome young storm hunter reveals he was born without magic, but possesses it now, Aurora realizes there’s a third option for her future besides ruin or marriage.

She might not have magic now, but she can steal it if she’s brave enough.

Challenge a tempest. Survive it. And you become its master.


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Top Ten Tuesday - Hate to love romances

Happy Valentine's Day everyone! Or, as the card my boyfriend gave me this morning said, Happy Let's Get Ripped Off For A Shit Card And Some Overpriced Flowers Day (who says romance is dead?)! This week's Top Ten Tuesday's romance-based theme is All About Romance Tropes/Types, so I've gone for my top ten hate to love romances - these are romances where the characters start off hating each other and end up loving each other, not romances that I hate to admit that I like.

(As always, a big thanks your to the fab bloggers over at The Broke and The Bookish for this weekly meme!)

I love good hate to love romances that are done right as much as I loathe ones that are done wrong. I couldn't come up with ten I hated or ten I loved, so I decided to do five of each. So, here are my best and worst hate to love relationships in fiction, plus a couple thrown in from TV (I'll let you guess which show I've been binge-watching lately).

Ones I love

Buffy and Spike - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Forget Buffy and Angel, Buffy and Spike were by far and away the better pairing. Plus, they hated each other more on meeting, so their journey to sort-of love by the end of the show packed more of a punch. Also, you can keep David Boreanaz's sullen pouting and I'll take James Marsters' dry humour and tight t-shirts. His back and forth hunter vs hunted relationship with Buffy, their hilarious banter and their genuinely sweet moments were the highlights of later series'. Okay, maybe she didn't really love him at the end. But she said it anyway.

Nym and Eogan - Storm Siren
I love this series, I love the characters, and I love this couple! The hate was pretty one-sided, coming almost entirely from Nym towards the man who was training her to harness her storm powers as a weapon of war, but Eogan supports her every step of the way. There's no instances of the guy treating the girl like crap, disrespecting her or mistreating her just to make their eventual love seem more of a transformation, Eogan's too much of a sweetheart and Nym's too much of a badass for that to fly!

Karou and Akiva - Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well. Okay, so this one's more hate to love, back to hate, then back to love again, but it's epic! I don't want to say too much because spoilers, but this is Romeo and Juliet amongst warring angels and demons. A blue-haired, demon serving girl and a winged, vengeance-seeking angel-boy. Their highs are high and their lows are low as the pair find themselves on opposite sides of a centuries old war, but their souls always find each other. Even if they don't always want them to.

Mia and Tric - Nevernight
God damn you Jay Kristoff! Was it too much to hope that these too would get a happy ending (no spoiler by the way. It's made abundantly clear in the opening chapters that this story is not going to end with "and they all lived happily ever after")? From the gender stereotype switch up - they're both wannabe assassins, but she's the ass-kicking, foul-mouthed, hyper-violent one, and he's the sensitive, moral, considerate one - to their back and forth between rivals, lovers, fighters and friends is beautiful, all the more so because it's overshadowed by the spectre of inevitable heartbreak.

Shazi and Khalid - The Wrath and the Dawn
Khalid is the boy-king who takes a new wife each night and executes her each morning. Shazi is the volunteer bride looking to avenge her best friend's murder by killing Khalid. Sometimes the "hate" in hate-to-love relationships in YA is forced to make the "to-love" bit seem all the more dramatic, but in this case, it's perfectly justified! The slow-burn relationship between the pair and Shazi's uncertainty about her mission as she learns more about the boy behind the mask, all set against a dreamy middle-eastern backdrop, is front and centre of the story as Shazi falls foul of her own heart.

Ones I hate

Cordelia and Xander - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I love Cordelia and I love Xander. But I hate Cordelia and Xander. I love an odd couple pairing but  never go on board with this one. It felt like one of the writers randomly said; "hey, wouldn't it be funny if Cordelia and Xander got together?", and then they all went home for the day and it got left in the script. It never felt believable, it never felt fully developed and it was just weird. Good thing it didn't last! Although I still maintain that Xander should have ended up with Faith!

Ananna and Naji - The Assassin's Curse
Ananna was an amazing character, and until she was paired up with Naji, this book was great. Unfortunately the author saddled an amazing character with a crappy love interest and killed the pacing of the story dead. Ananna turns from a total badass to a whiney pushover who traipses around after Naji, talks shit about his exes because they're prettier than her and just generally sulking. I fail to see what either of these characters see in each other, and to top if all of, their continued presence around each other is down to another of my pet peeves; an unbreakable magic bond. I hate these so much! Because magic is not a basis for a relationship, it's a lazy way of sticking two characters together and allowing one character to treat the other like crap (usually the guy to the girl) and not be called on it.

Lea and Les - Assassin's Heart
Both of these characters are a stupid and unlikable as each other, so they're at least a good match. But they're both also amoral, selfish, idiotic and just downright unpleasant. Still, their hate to love romance was one of the worst things about a book that I absolutely hated.

Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo - A Song of Ice and Fire
Their romance fares a little better in the books that on TV (he doesn't rape her at least), but the fact remains that Dany is a thirteen year old child bride sold to a brutal war lord against her will by her own brother. Regardless of where their relationship goes, it's forever tainted by how it started in my eyes.

Cyra and Ako - Carve the Mark
This relationship is far from the most problematic thing about this book, but it's certainly up there. My main issue with this one is that it was just so by the numbers. Every stage was obvious, every "twist" was signposted and every conflict was glossed over. I knew from the blurb alone exactly how this relationsip would start, develop and end, and I wasn't wrong. Nothing about it surprised me and nothing felt original. I felt like I'd read it a hundred times before, and while I could probably level that criticism at any number of hate to love relationships in YA, this book is the last one I read, so it makes the list.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Wing Jones

Jandy Nelson meets Friday Night Lights: a sweeping story about love and family from an exceptional new voice in YA. With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing's speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants.

To be completely honest, I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I decided to read Wing Jones. I don't read a huge amount of contemporary YA becuase I find it so hit and miss, and when it misses, it tends to miss badly because the line between relatable and patronising is a fine one. But the bookish lovelies taking part in the #BritishBooksChallenge2017 steered me onto this one, so I decided to give it a go, thinking it might be a harmless way to pass a few lunch breaks at work if nothing else.

I wasn't expecting to absolutely fall in love with it.

From the moment Wing Jones arrived, all sprayed magenta pages with a colour fade to die for, I was hooked. First off, the book is utterly gorgeous (and yet another example of the UK cover being far superior to the US one). Second off, the story - while sounding a bit cliched and by the numbers in the blurb - is fantastic, packed with nuances, fab writing and brilliant chracters. Third off - it packs far more of an emotional punch than I was expecting, but still manages to be overwhelming uplifting. Fourth off (okay, I'm stretching it with this counting system!) - in a genre that's crying out for diversity, Wing Jones has it in spades. And not just a box-ticking exercise with a few token ethnicities or sexual orientations thrown around, but genuine, well-rounded and well-written characters that aren't your out-of-the-box, straight, white characters. Hurray!

Wing doesn't have an easy life. She lives with her loving extended, half-Chinese half-Ghanaian family, having lost her father as a child. Her football-superstar brother Marcus has it all, but Wing has never seemed to fit in anywhere. Insecure about her looks, bullied at school and almost totally friendless, she's the kind of girl that wouldn't know how to go about looking for her place in the world, if she even believed it existed at all. But after an accident turns her world upside down, Wing is forced out of the rut she's been comfortable - albeit miserable - in, out of her brother's shadow and into the spotlight.

I was on tenderhooks through the first few chapters, knowing that something bad was about to happen but not quite knowing what it would be or when it would happen. The blurb was a bit of a spoiler - the emotional gut punch would have been ten times more powerful had I not seen it coming - but even so, the events which set Wing on her journey of self discovery are suitably shattering. Katherine Webber's writing is phenomonal, reducing me to tears on more than one occasion.

The characters are what makes this book so wonderful! It wasn't so much the friendships, but the importance of family that shone through the story. From Wing's own hectic, seemingly mismatched family, to the inclusion of her brother's girlfriend Monica - ostracised by her own family for dating a black guy - and his best friend Aaron who's practically family himself, the message was clear, and it raises the valid point; that real family is what you make of it. Wing's constantly bickering grannies were the highlight - I have to admit that Granny Dee just beat LaoLao into second place for my favourite supporting character! - but Monica, and Wing's supportive running team mate, Eliza, were refreshing changes to the pretty girl hate that's so maddeningly prevalent in YA. There's no rivalry between Wing and Eliza, just mutual respect and encouragement. There's no jealousy or backbiting between Wing and Monica, just support. Sure, there's resident high school bitch Heather who pops up to antagonise Wing every now and then, but even with her, there's the suggestion of more going on beneath the surface.

And then there's Wing and her sort-of love interest Aaron. Awwwww! I just can't with these two! I was a little concerned at first that their romance was going to come off as just gross. Aaron is after all Wing's older brother's best friend, he's practically one of the family, so developing Wing's crush on him into something more could have turned majorly creepy. But instead, it just works. I think anyone with an older brother had a crush or two on his friends growing up, but, despite starting out as little more than teenage infatuation on Wing's part, their relationship develops and blossoms through their love of Marcus and their mutual passion for running. Despite the book being quite short and a lot else going on, the romance never felt rushed or contrived, which is one of my biggest issues with a lot of the contemporary YA I've read in the past. The romance often feels forced into the story for the sake of it and can end up detracting from the plot. But that didn't happen here. The romance between Wing and Aaron feel like a natural part of the story. It's a consequence of the plot, not the plot itself, and more importantly, it felt real. Some books get this wrong, but this book gets it completely right.

The recurring appearance of Wing's two guardian angel/spirit creatures was hauntingly beautiful. I was a little skeptical of the stereotypical dragon representing her Asian roots and the lion stepping up for her African heritage at first, it just seemed a little too on the nose for me (then again, I suppose if you're going for fierce creatures from those continents, I wouldn't have any better suggestions), but the strength they possessed, showing up when Wing was hurt or scared or suffering was touching to the point of making me tear up. It's a testament to how uplifting and engrossing this book is that is almost inspired me to go for a run. Almost. I'll be honest, it would take a book filled with pictures of Tom Hardy naked placed at the finish line to make me run anywhere. But the fact that Katherine Webber has managed to make running seem almost appealing to a girl who doesn't believe a person should run unless they're being chased is no mean feat.

The ending wraps up a little abruptly and a little too neatly for me (even though it does acknowledge that Wing and her family's struggles aren't over), but it's a minor nitpick that can't detract from all the wonderful chapters that have come before it. Wing Jones is an emotional, uplifting and inspiring book, one that I'd recommend to pretty much anyone. I'm so glad I decided to get in on the British Books Challenge 2017 (thanks to Chelle Toy over at Tale of Yesterday for hosting and organising this year!) and that the guys turned me onto this book because I would have missed out on what I'm sure will be one of my favourite reads of the year.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Carve the Mark

On a planet where violence and vengeance rule, in a galaxy where some are favored by fate, everyone develops a currentgift, a unique power meant to shape the future. While most benefit from their currentgifts, Akos and Cyra do not—their gifts make them vulnerable to others’ control. Can they reclaim their gifts, their fates, and their lives, and reset the balance of power in this world?

Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power—something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows.

Akos is from the peace-loving nation of Thuvhe, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Though protected by his unusual currentgift, once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get his brother out alive—no matter what the cost. When Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. They must decide to help each other to survive—or to destroy one another. 

Disclaimer. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Star-crossed lovers? Check. Nature versus nurture? Check? Space? Wars? Intergalactic power struggles? Check, check, check! Then why was this book not half as exciting as it should have been? All the ingredients were there, this one just didn't come together for me the way it should have based on what it contained. You know when you're really excited to read a book? You expect it to be great. Your imagination is already spinning all the ways the story could possibly go. You lock the front door, put your phone on silent and start reading. and it quickly becomes clear that the book is not going to live up to your expectations.

I read and enjoyed most of Veronica Roth's Divergant series (as in, I liked the first two, and I don't want to talk about the third one). I wasn't blown away by them, but they were enjoyable enough that I would have picked up another book by the author. In terms of writing style, story ambition and storytelling, Carve the Mark is a definite step up from Divergant. That's not to say that Divergant wasn't good, it just feels like Veronia Roth's writing has matured. The switching povs - from first person for Cyra, the third person for Akos - was a bit jarring at first, but ended up being a nice twist on the usual switching third person or standard first person pov that I'm used to reading in most other books.

That said, despite the first person perspective, I couldn't connect with Cyra as a character, mainly because she was written so inconsistently. It felt like the author wanted her to be too many things, so she came across as more of a charactature than a character. She's supposed to be in constant pain from her currentgift (or drugged up on a nauseatingly strong painkiller), yet no one bests her in a fight. She's supposed to be strong and resilient, yet she's a complete slave to her brother's whims, immediately backtracking every time she stand up for herself and refuses to do as she's told. He tells her to torture and hurt people and, despite showing on one occasion that she can easily turn this "gift" on her brother if he pisses her off, and she just does it. Even if she doesn't believe the victim deserves it, and to the point where the lingering pain she causes leads them to kill themselves. Roth wants her to be a badass with an armful of kills, but seems afraid of going all in and following through on what that would mean, perhaps for fear of making Cyra unlikable. She wants Cyra to be vulnerable and suffering, but doesn't want to get too deep into the harsh reality of what it means to live with a truly debilitating condition. And it's that level of calculated cynicism when writing a character that stops me from reading them as a real person.

Akos fairs better in the story. His hate to love relationship with Cyra was a little by the numbers, but he was a much more believable character because he didn't suffer from the same "woe is me" backstory that Cyra was hobbled by. I liked that he wasn't a flawless, alpha-male, sweep-in-and-show-the-protagonist-that-all-she-really-need-is-a-man-to-sort-out-her-life, type of character. Instead, what we get it two flawed individuals who ultimately believe that they can be better than they are, and support each other to get there. No one is picking anyone up off the floor here, they're helping each other to stand up, and that element of the story, I was down with. I've never been a fan of stories where the supposedly strong female lead character is, despite what the author tries to tell you, ultimately rescued by the love interest, or simply swaps one guy for another as a means of clumsily demonstrating character development.
I think my main issue with this story however, was just that it never felt like the galaxy-spanning space adventure that it sold itself to be. This should have been YA Star Wars, but everything feels so oddly contained. At one point, Cyra says "this is a war" to Akos. But the problem is, it never feels like it is. The stakes never feel that high. The world - spanning entire planets - never feels that vast. Ryzek - the big bad of the story, never feels like a credible threat. It's all very well humanising your villains, but Ryzek comes across as a weasely coward, with no presence or charisma to speak of. I just couldn't believe that this man was the leader of such a fearsome people, much less that he had the Svengali-esque influence needed to rally support and overthrough governments.
There's been a lot of talk online about the racial undertones of this book, and whether it perpetuates the lazy and incredibly damaging stereotype of the dark-skinned aggressors. This is always a thorny subject, especially in a genre that's literally crying out for diversity (check out the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign). When you read the first few chapters of this book with that in your mind, the peaceful, light-skinned Thuve people being constantly hounded and harassed by the decidedly darker-skinned Shotet does read a little awkwardly to say the least. Add in the Shotet's brutal nature - right there in the book blurb - grass skirts, face painting and tribal "kill" tattoos, and you find yourself wondering how this issue wasn't picked up by somebody, anybody, involved in bringing this book to publication.

However, I still accepted a review copy of this book, wanting to make up my own mind rather than dismissing it entirely based on other people's opinions. Did I see where people who suggested this were coming from? Yes. Would I have read it in the story had I not seen it suggested before? Probably not. There's certainly a vein of cultural supremacy at the beginning of the book that plays the more "western" culture/people/character as the good guy - something that's depressingly common in YA - but I have to admit, I wasn't absorbed enough in the book to read it this way as the story went on. I just wasn't envisioning the characters and the world the way I do when I'm really swept away by a story. Had I been, I may well have seen this as more problematic. The thing is, I do genuinely believe that the stereotyping here was unintentional, and, frustratingly, is something that could have easily been identified and remedied before this book made it to the shelves.

Ultimately, this was one of those reads for me where the sum of its parts was greater than it's total. All my "must read" boxes were ticked, but Carve the Mark just didn't grab me and the ending annoyed me more than it intrigued me. The story was wrapping up, and then there is quite literally a single sentence ending the book which dumps a completely random plot twist in out of absolutely nowhere, and further undermines an already pretty weak villain. All that said, I get why some people are raving about this book, just as I get why some people are ripping it to shreds. It has all the elements of a YA fantasy must read, and perhaps that's why it wasn't for me. I prefer stories that cover a few bases and cover them well to stories than try and cover all the bases and stretch themselves too thin.

Friday, 13 January 2017

The Fate of the Tearling

In less than a year, Kelsea Glynn has grown from an awkward teenager into a powerful monarch and a visionary leader. And as she has come into her own as the Queen of the Tearling, she has transformed her realm. But in her quest to end corruption and restore justice, she has made many enemies - chief among them the evil and feared Red Queen, who ordered the armies of Mortmesne to march against the Tear and crush them.

To protect her people from such a devastating invasion, Kelsea did the unthinkable - naming the Mace, the trusted head of her personal guards, Regent in her place, she surrendered herself and her magical sapphires to her enemy. But the Mace will not rest until he and his men rescue their sovereign from her prison in Mortmesne. So, the endgame has begun and the fate of Queen Kelsea - and the Tearling itself - will be revealed...

The Fate of the Tearling closes with the author acknowledgements, as most books do. What makes this one different is that it's the first I've seen that contains an almost-apology to the readers. It's unusual, to say the least! But contains a warning that not all answers are given in this series. And the author is not kidding. There are so many unanswered questions, so many dangling or unresolved (at least satisfactorily) plot threads and things that made absolutely no sense!

After the pure fantasy of The Queen of the Tearling, I was a bit surprised when The Invasion of the Tearling started to veer towards sci-fi, something that continued at pace in Fate. There's still an element of fantasy here, even if the magic powers that are wielded by some characters remain frustratingly vague and unexplained, but with religion getting a poke in the ribs and time travel thrown in, Fate seems to be more sci-fi dystopia than anything else. It's a strange mix that sits uneasily at times, leaving the story muddled and confused in places. As with Invasion, we get dual timelines, this time with a new character from the past. These parts - from the pov of character Katie - were my favourite parts of the book. The fall of the Tearling's perfect utopia to fear, suspicion and the rise of religion is fantastic.

Unfortunately, the present day story doesn't fare quite so well. There are so many disparate characters, including new ones who seem to bring nothing to the stroy (Jeval anyone?) that the central characters from the last two books get lost in the mire. What happened to my beloved Pen?! He's mentioned about twice, once drunking and crying over Kelsea, and once more telling her that he can't be around her anymore (their "relationship" is one of the many plot threads that feels like it's been short-changed), and that's it! Poor guy gets about two pages of book time! Things get a little better in the second half of the book when the ranks are thinned a bit, but it still feels like the main plot from Queen has faded rather than being enhanced. After two books of teasing, the reveal of who Kelsea's father is was indeed the damp squib I was expecting. It's revealed in a throwaway sentence and has no bearing on the rest of the story.

There's some nice humanisation of the mysterious Red Queen, who was the antagonist for book one and much of book two, but I do prefer my big bads to remain just that. Back stories and tragic childhoods do go some way to watering down a really good villain. The creepy Brenna makes a return too, but her presence feels unnecessary, and her quick departure feels totally wasted. Sure, she instigates a plot point with the Red Queen, but it's nothing that justifies the characters presence.

I absolutely loved Kelsea Glynn in Queen. She kicked ass and took names, not afraid to stand up for her beliefs and her people. The scene where she gets coronated with a knife in her back was an act of utter badassery! After becoming a pale shadow of her former self in Invasion, I was happy to see her snap out of her funk and be a bit more like the old Kelsea. Unfortunately, she doesn't get many opportunities to show off here, what with being imprisoned for most of the story, but it did remind me why I fell so in love with the first book.

The ending could be a redeemer for you, depending on how you like your twists, but for me, I just found that it came out of nowhere and was confusing as hell! I had to read the final three chapters about three times to work out what happened - not to mention how, and I'm still not 100% sure I got it right! Time travel is a tricky beast to get right, often leaving more questions than it answers, and, unfortunately, that's what happened here for me. It also meant the the big showdown that I was expecting between Kelsea and the mysterious Orphan is completely glossed over and robs the book of the dramatic showdown ending I was looking forward to.

Taking away my issues with the story, I still love Erika Johansen's writing. She's without a doubt a fantastic storyteller, and paints a vivid picture with just a few words. I really think that if the story was tighter, I'd have rated this book much higher on the strength of the writing alone. It's not utterly flawless though. There were two appallingly written sex scenes. They were just . . . weird. They came out of nowhere, were confusing as hell to read (I had to read them a few times to confirm that sex had actually occured) and were about sexy as being rubbed down with a raw chicken. I'm not sure what tone the author was going for, but it did not work. And, I'm sorry, but if you've never had sex before and someone abruptly "shoves" themselves inside you with no warm up, you don't immediately orgasm, you have to be prised down from the ceiling!

If you'd asked me when I'd finished Queen (which I loved) whether the conclusion to this series was a disappointment, I'd have said hell yes! If you'd asked me when I'd finished Invasion (which I hated for the most part but ended up liking overall by the end), I'd have said probably. But if you'd asked me part way through Fate, I'd have said no. This series started so strong, but I felt that it tried to be too many things and ended up losing sight of the heart of its story and characters. Maybe I wouldn't have been so hard on this book if the first in the series hadn't been so fantastic. As it is, this is a disappointing end to a steadily declining trilogy.