Review: Arrow’s Flight (Heralds of Valdemar #2)

[tw: rape, incest, abortion, child death]

I said this before in my review of Arrows of the Queen but it’s so weird reading this trilogy when I’ve already read The Last Herald-Mage trilogy. I’m not sure if I’d recommend you do the same, but it’s been an experience.

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Talia is ready to assume her role as Queen’s Own Herald, but one final test remains: a year and a half internship riding a circuit with a full Herald. In Talia’s case, her mentor is Kris, the Collegium’s heartthrob and Dirk’s partner in crime. Unfortunately, with vicious rumours dogging her steps and her fraying control over her abilities, it’s going to take some work before she’s ready to assume her responsibilities, if she manages to survive.

I’m going to be right up front about this and say that this is probably one of the most boring second books in a trilogy that I’ve ever read. It starts out promising, with Talia and Kris moving from village to village dispensing justice, but then the duo and their Companions (and chirras–basically llamas) are snowed in and remain so for the majority of the book. The result is about two hundred pages of Talia being anxious and stressed about her powers and whether she might be misusing them and not much of anything being done. I heard on tumblr that Lackey mentions that these early books were “experimental” and it definitely shows. It feels like someone wanted to write a closed circle plot but didn’t quite know how to make it engaging beyond having two people (and horselike beings) grow increasingly frustrated with one another. I actually preferred the moments when they were on the road, dealing with the ordinary problems of ordinary folks. It’s like when an author creates some interesting secondary characters when the story is actually about the most boring character and their boring love interest.

I suppose I can’t get mad at a book from the late 80s for things that were probably revolutionary at the time (like acknowledgement of polyamorous relationships) but at the same time, I feel like the entire plot could’ve been avoided if Talia’s instructors at the Collegium realized “Hey this girl doesn’t know what a Companion does, maybe we should teach her the basics?” and I honestly feel like this is the sort of story that would be better as a short story or the sort of event that characters reference but never really explain. I also found the way Talia finally “masters” her powers disturbing, and a definite case of mood whiplash as the book suddenly goes from two people angrily dunking each other in the water to dealing with a murder, an incestuous rapist who committed the murder, and an abortion in the same chapter. Oh and apparently trauma from finding the body of your drowned child can be magically cured by….giving you another baby, who might be the reincarnation of your lost baby? I don’t know, it’s magic, okay? Magic is the explanation.

But hey I guess there was character development, or at the very least Talia will stop reminding the reader that she has no confidence in herself. Seriously, I take back everything bad I said about Magic’s Promise, because it’s way better than this. Also she uses the g-slur a few times in the book.

This book is a difficult one to recommend unless you’re committed to reading the trilogy. It definitely has that “early work by a celebrated author” feel to it (on top of being the second book in a trilogy). It’s best to go into it understanding that it’s an experimental product of its time and definitely weaker than other books the author has published since. In that respect, I am glad The Last Herald-Mage sold me on the series before I picked up this omnibus, otherwise I’d probably be more discouraged by Arrow’s Flight. Fortunately I’ve heard Arrow’s Fall is much better.

Review: Arrows of the Queen (Heralds of Valdemar #1)

Ever since reading The Last Herald-Mage trilogy I’ve made it a goal to read the entire mass of novels set in Valdemar. I’ve actually been sitting on the omnibus containing the debut trilogy (Arrows of the Queen/Arrow’s Flight/Arrow’s Fall) since January of last year. Better late than never, right?

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A daughter of the repressive Holderfolk, Talia’s fate is to marry young and produce children for a husband of her father’s choosing, she is saved from this fate by Rolan, one of the mystical horse-like beings called Companions who Choose people with potential to become the legendary Heralds of Valdemar. Talia finds herself thrust into a new world of combat training, classes, and dealing with her emerging Gifts, but when an old conspiracy threatens her life, Talia must learn to make use of her mercurial gifts before she becomes the conspiracy’s latest victim.

This story is the very definition of a coming-of-age story: person with a tragic backstory discovers they are Special in some way and leaves that life to start afresh somewhere. It’s an old staple that a lot of authors rely upon (like say, me, for instance) and there’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on old staples. I should note, however, that this book was first published in 1987, when at least a few of its ideas must have seemed fresh.

Anyways, so Talia basically goes from being forced to marry whomever her father chooses for her (Holderfolk are very much like that fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon church) to being the new girl at Herald school. What separates her from the majority of young female protagonists (especially YA protagonists) is that she actually manages to make friends with other girls. This is from a novel published in 1987. I know right? Naturally, because she is the protagonist, she has a Special Destiny, in her case, to become the Queen’s Own Herald, A.K.A. the Herald the Monarch depends on to tell them to get their shit together. Talia’s other job, besides attending classes, is to help the Heir to the throne (assuming a Companion Chooses her, as the Monarch and the Heir must be Heralds), Elspeth, who is known as the Brat, be less of a brat, and that’s before dealing with the conspiracy that killed her predecessor and wants her dead.

It’s difficult to talk about the plot not because I didn’t like the book, but because there isn’t a whole lot of plot to be had. Talia is in training to be a Herald, after all, so she spends much of her time attending classes, angsting over her lack of self-confidence, making friends, losing friends, and trying to get a grip on her Gifts. There is a plot involving a conspiracy that is the source of some tense moments, but the machinations of the wider world outside of the Collegium aren’t Talia’s concern at this time. Since this was the first published book in the series, there’s naturally a lot of exposition. The real focus of the book is its characters: Talia herself, Rolan, twin instructors Teren and Keren, Sherill, the first person Talia meets at the Collegium (besides the Dean), Queen Selanay, and her daughter Elspeth are just a few of the great characters in this book. While they aren’t incredibly complex (I remarked in my review of The Last Herald-Mage trilogy that you can sum up the characters in a sentence), but by the end of the book you feel like you’ve grown along with them. They feel like old friends. I especially like how Lackey subverts your expectations regarding Skif and his relationship with Talia.

It’s really weird reading this book after The Last Herald-Mage trilogy (which chronologically takes place before this one) when Vanyel (and Stefen) have become legends and things are a little different now that there are no more Herald-Mages. Just FYI, I’m reading the books in order of publication, chronologically, Arrows of the Queen is more like #34 in reading order.

One of my main criticisms of this book was that I felt the resolution to the conspiracy plot was anticlimactic and obvious setup for the next two books. While there are a few same-sex couples in this book (which was notable at the time) only one gets a bittersweet ending. Talia spends an annoying amount of time doubting herself, while this is not in and of itself a flaw, I felt like Lackey got the point across the second time it came up in the text. As with The Last Herald-Mage, the frequent P.O.V. switches between paragraphs were jarring but tolerable.

In terms of potentially triggering things, Talia grows up in a repressive patriarchal culture where her elders want to marry her off at thirteen. It’s heavily implied that a minor character was raped as a child. The way Talia makes young Elspeth behave is by spanking her (and telling a servant to hit her back when she hits her with a brush), which, while “normal” for the time it was written, might be off-putting to readers these days.

Overall, it’s difficult to accuse this book of being cliche when its probably inspired a bunch of those cliches. As a first book in a trilogy, it’s decent, not the most exciting first book I’ve ever read but good enough to keep me coming back for more.

Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner is definitely in my top ten favourite novels. At first, I didn’t think I’d like the “mannerpunk” sort of fantasy, that is, a fantasy setting with no fantastical elements, so much so that it could be mistaken for historical fiction. Since PotS, I’ve been searching for a novel with a similar emphasis on duels and swashbuckling adventure.

The Winner’s Curse seemed promising, at least, judging from the back cover text, which promised a tale of intrigue, dancing, and duels.

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Kestrel is the privileged daughter of a general, Arin is a slave in his own homeland. When Kestrel buys Arin at auction, their destinies are intertwined, and they can’t help but fall in love. Unfortunately, with rebellion on the horizon, Arin and Kestrel need to decide where their loyalties lie: their countries or their hearts.

In terms of things I liked,the writing is not terrible (although the author does love her short sentences). I liked how Kestrel is more focused on traditionally “feminine” pursuits like playing music (piano, in this case) and is adamant that her worth is not tied to how many people she can whack with a sword (which is what her father wants her to do). However, Kestrel is introduced as a girl who is good at strategy but prefers to beat everyone at a game called Bite and Sting, and in a few scenes in the novel, she gets to demonstrate the depth of her strategic mind, like blackmailing a nobleman into letting her win a duel or figuring out how to sneak out of confinement with few tools available. I also like how she has a close female friend, Jess, who is more focused on pretty dresses and catching the eye of cute boys than soldiering.

Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, as for most of the book Kestrel lets Arin (her slave, remember?) walk all over her, as well as making frankly absurd decisions, like wagering matches in a game against Arin, matches, which can be used to light fires, to a slave. She also fails to figure out that Arin is in fact not visiting a sweetheart in town. For someone who is supposed to be a good military strategist, she stays in the dark regarding this “sweetheart” until Arin tells her so.  In another scene, Atin talks back to Kestrel, what does she do? Does she punish him? No, she immediately acquiesces to his demands to give him more freedom. Not that I support slavery or punishing slaves, mind you. Fun fact: the book refers to Arin as “the slave” for about five chapters before he gives Kestrel his name–even in chapters from Arin’s perspective. That’s right, even in chapters from his perspective, the book still refers to him as “the slave”.

This undoubtedly sounds hypocritical of me given my praise of Captive Prince, but unlike Captive Prince, The Winner’s Curse depicts “slavery lite” with none of the brutality of, say, Snow Like Ashes (which, unlike Captive Prince, is also aimed at young adults). I’ve heard one reviewer describe this book as “girl buys boy at a slave auction” and I honestly can’t fathom how a reviewer doesn’t see anything wrong with the basic premise. Actually, I take that back, I know why. The author claims she was inspired by the Romans enslaving the Greeks, but Arin, like Damen, is described as having “tan” skin. Kestrel, unsurprisingly, is described as white and blonde.

Yeah, problems all around.

In a way I feel betrayed because none of the synopses or reviews I read prior to buying the book mentioned the slavery angle at all. Apparently the hardcover edition does but I was focusing on the paperback. I’m more surprised that some of the people I follow on tumblr were fangasming over this book and, once again, not a peep about the whole slavery thing. At least Captive Prince is up front about its content.

In terms of diversity, there really isn’t any unless you see the Herrani as poc (obviously not positive representation). Even though the Valorian Empire is clearly modeled off Ancient Rome, there don’t appear to be any queer characters. Potential triggers include the obvious portrayal of slavery, violence, and one attempted rape (it’s also implied that Arin’s sister was raped by the Valorians, or at the very least that something terrible happened to her).

The Winner’s Curse is doomed to occupy the spot on my shelf reserved for books with potential, but ultimately flawed execution. I have absolutely zero desire to continue with this trilogy. I’m currently reading Truthwitch, it’s awesome so far. I hope it doesn’t disappoint.

Review: The Girl at Midnight

Now that another year is over and I’ve grown another year older,  I’ve taken the time to look back on my reading choices, and concluded that this year’s theme is “needs more gay” so with that in mind, the next few reviews have more gay (or bi, as the case may be).

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Beneath the streets of New York City live the Avicen, a race of people with feathers for hair and magic in their veins. Raised by the Avicen since childhood, Echo is a pickpocket by trade who is still struggling for acceptance in Avicen society, but when a centuries old conflict hits way too close to home, Echo goes in search of the legendary Firebird, the one thing powerful enough to end the conflict once and for all.

Based on the Goodreads reviews, a bunch of people are comparing this book to Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor and the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare. I haven’t read either of these series so obviously I can’t comment, but even without having read those other series, there’s nothing you haven’t seen before in terms of plot: human raised by community of magical people in an ancient war with another race of magical people, human goes in search of legendary MacGuffin that will end the war, their enemies are also looking for the MacGuffin, who is going to get to the MacGuffin first? Is there even a MacGuffin to find? It’s the usual race against time against antagonists who want the same thing you’re after and the world is probably screwed if you’re not the one who gets the prize.

I wish I could say I liked the characters, but main protagonist Echo comes across as very immature one moment and like a mobile word-of-the-day calendar the next. She’ll constantly interrupt the flow of the narrative to spit out a word and its definition that’s relevant to the situation. I don’t know if this is supposed to make it sound like she’s well read but it comes across as pretentious, and the constant “pausing” of the action to skim the dictionary was more irritating than enlightening.

As for the other characters, the Ala is a mother figure/mentor to Echo, as well as something of a seer. Ruby fills the role of the girl Echo hates for no real reason, whereas Ivy is the Best Friend. On the antagonists’ side there is Zuko Caius, his sister, Azula Tanith, and his best friend/bodyguard Dorian, who are all Drakharin, that is, dragon people, who have scales on their faces like freckles. There’s also Jasper, a flamboyant Avicen who, like Echo, makes a living as a thief and is basically a gay stereotype. Dorian, btw, has unrequited feelings for Caius. I think out of all of them Dorian was my favourite, he’s a badass, disabled (missing an eye) gay dragon boy who seems to be the only one who knows what he’s doing. I kept thinking how much better this book would be with someone like Dorian as the main character, but that’s just my personal bias talking.

If I had to name something I liked about the book, it would be the character death near the end. It was handled surprisingly realistically, I thought, where Echo, who has never killed anyone before, freaks out and keeps replaying the scene in her mind. I felt like this was a high point in her character development, which is saying something because this is the same girl who kept flirting with the enemy when she had a boyfriend, and then didn’t remember she had a boyfriend until close to the end of the book.

There are few characters of color, the Ala is black, Jasper’s skin is brown, and there are a couple characters with bit parts, like a Japanese woman who just exists to give Echo a clue and then dies, or a warlock Echo attempts to rob in the first chapter. The only non-straight characters are Dorian and Jasper, Jasper, as I’ve mentioned, is a stereotype who at one point offers to “buy” Dorian from Caius. Dorian himself strikes Ivy while she’s being held captive and has unrequited feelings for Caius, although I did find their relationship started off as kind of creepy, Dorian and Jasper do share a tender moment at the end of the book. The only disabled character that I recall is Dorian, who as I said lost his eye.

The biggest problem with this book, IMHO, is that it kept reminding me of other things that did it better. Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ shapeshifter books had interesting bird people and snake people. Avatar: The Last Airbender had Zuko and Azula on opposite sides of the main conflict. Plenty of books have interesting “scavenger hunt” type plots. Even the ending was predictable (although with a creepy twist). There’s nothing that really makes it stand out in a crowd.

Review: The Shattered Court by M.J. Scott

I remember taking a readers’ advisory course in library school and the instructor talking about how readers sometimes gravitated towards unusual reading choices. She mentioned once reading nothing but cookbooks at a time of high stress. In my case, “light reading” usually translates into “the most conventional fantasy books I can find”.

Which leads me to this book…

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In the land of Anglion, witches born to the royal line are quickly bound to the land and the goddess through marriage, forbidden to practice any magic that is not simple Earth magic. Lady Sophia Kendall, thirty second in line to the throne, is days away from discovering if she is blessed-or cursed-with magic, but when disaster strikes the capital, Sophie’s brief encounter with Cameron, a battle mage in the service of her friend, Princess Eloisa, leaves her ultimate fate uncertain, especially when she begins to manifest powers that are far stronger than any royal witch before her.

The premise of this book seemed to hint at court intrigue and some tension between Sophie and the nation she’s sworn to serve as a royal witch. The back cover text in particular gives the impression that Sophie and Cameron spend most of the book on the run. In actuality, it’s basically a typical romance novel where nothing noteworthy happens until the big finale.

Seriously, the beginning of the book starts with a bang (literally) and then the protagonists head back to the capital and spend most of the book attempting to avoid each other (and failing miserably) and then it’s as if the author remembers the plot and things happen. THE END. Oh, yeah, there are a couple sex scenes in there too. I could honestly forgive the lack of plot if the characters were interesting, but they’re not. Although, Cameron is a bit more down to earth than the “alpha male” love interests that dominate the genre.

This is being marketed as epic fantasy when it’s clearly closer to romantic fantasy, where the fantasy trappings take a backseat to the romance, or what passes as romance in this book. See, the protagonist and her love interest have sex because the magic made them do it. They feel good about it, even though the love interest freaks out because taking a royal witch’s virginity is a big no-no. Fortunately, Sophie is spared having to fake being a virgin by becoming betrothed to Cameron, and then they spend the rest of the book being horrible at avoiding each other, especially because Sophie can’t stop thinking of Cameron’s cock. I did like how the leads are betrothed straight away but that just means the UST between them happens post-betrothal rather than leading up to the moment where they end up together.

In terms of diversity, there really isn’t any. Sophie is described as having “olive” skin and dark eyes, and I believe Cameron’s skin was described as “golden”. The only hit of non-straightness is a single line about how Cameron “might be the type who prefers his soldier brothers” because if a straight guy isn’t drooling over every woman he sees he must be gay, amirite?

In a nutshell, this book is the very definition of a waste of a decent premise. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it. The only word I can think to describe it as is “tepid”. I wouldn’t recommend it to fans of fantasy or romance, to be honest.

 

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

The following review will contain major spoilers for the play. If you are interested in reading or seeing the play, do not read this because I’m going to spoil the hell out of it. I will put spoilery stuff under a cut. Also, expect spoilers for the entire Harry Potter series, I mean obviously.

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The Harry Potter series is a literary phenomenon. Conservative Christian groups ranted about how it was teaching kids witchcraft, news outlets raved about how kids who had never picked up a book in their lives were reading, and it was part of the syllabus in a course I took on Religion and Popular Culture. It’s one series that doesn’t really need an introduction. Even if you don’t consider yourself a fan, you’ve probably heard about it by proxy.

Recently, however, my interest in the series has waned. Between the movies based on the main series being over, endless debates over whether Snape is a sympathetic character on tumblr, and the Ilvermorny cultural appropriation mess, I’ve realized I much prefer the diverse headcanons the fans come up with than the very white, very heterosexual canon universe.

But then there was an alleged “leak” of the plot of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I read. The utter trainwreck that was this alleged “leak” simultaneously horrified me as a fan of the series and delighted me as someone who just kind of wanted the canon universe to crash and burn at this point. I knew right then and there that I had to read it for myself. I had to see with my own eyes if this alleged leak, this synopsis that sounded like someone’s first (awful) attempt at Harry Potter fanfiction was real.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the play. Nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry Potter is struggling with balancing his job at the ministry of magic and his personal life with his wife and three children. The youngest of these three children, Albus, feels very much like an outsider in his own family, finding it especially difficult to bear the weight of his father’s legacy. He finds an unlikely friend in Scorpius Malfoy, who has had to dodge vicious rumors spread by his peers. What begins as an attempt to right the wrongs of the past quickly spirals out of control, and Albus discovers that evil emerges from the most unlikely places.

Before I get into spoilery territory, here’s some non-spoilery ramblings about what I liked about the play. In the past, I (and many others) have complained about the lack of heroic Slytherin characters (despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Ravenclaw), so it’s nice to see not one, but two Slytherins with major, unquestionably heroic roles in the plot. Out of all the characters, I was most surprised by Draco Malfoy, of all people, who obviously cares for his son and is at times seemingly the only character who knows what he’s doing. He’s come a very long way from the bully fans grew up with. I would be lying if I didn’t say that it’s also very nostalgic, revisiting places that I visited in the previous books. It’s like reconnecting with an old friend (and I for one will never see the Trolley Witch in the same light again). Regardless of anything I will write below, it was nice to see these characters again, even if the focus is now on the next generation.

Unfortunately, here’s where the non-spoilery bits end, so I’m going to cut this. If you don’t want to be horribly spoiled, don’t read past this point.

Read More »

Review: Lirael by Garth Nix

[The following contains major spoilers for Sabriel. Do not read until you have read Sabriel. Seriously, go read Sabriel, it’s amazing.]

[suicide tw]

I’m still mad at all of you who knew about this series and didn’t tell me to read it.

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A daughter of the Clayr with no ability to See the future, Lirael has always felt like she doesn’t belong. Driven to despair, she finds a new purpose in life as an Assistant Librarian in the Clayr’s great library. However, with a new evil lurking in the Old Kingdom, she finds herself thrust from her semi-peaceful life in the Clayr’s Glacier, with only the Disreputable Dog, a mysterious magical canine, by her side.

This synopsis and every other synopsis I’ve read suggests that the book is solely from Lirael’s perspective, but in fact a good chunk of the book is from the perspective of Prince Sameth, son of Sabriel and King Touchstone. I told you there would be spoilers. Both of these characters deal with feeling like they don’t belong and struggling to find a place for themselves. While Sabriel was more or less a “coming of age” tale, Lirael is about not only trying to fit in, but family, including (and especially) chosen family, and also dealing with loss and trauma. There is also an undercurrent of nationalistic fervor that speaks to current affairs even though this was originally published decades ago.

I love these characters. I love how they try to do things right and they mess up but they keep going. Sameth in particular is the poster boy for “didn’t think this through”, while Lirael thinks of herself as someone who can’t do anything right. They both need one of those gold stars that say “you tried” and a hug, lots of hugs. And, just like in Sabriel, Lirael has a mysterious animal companion to set her straight, and the Disreputable Dog is nowhere near as acerbic as Mogget (I love Mogget though). I don’t know what else to say about these characters, honestly, except that I love them and they deserve hugs. Garth Nix has an uncanny ability to seamlessly go from characters relaxing and enjoying themselves to a scene of horror and terror in an instant.

I realize I’m probably not saying that much about the book, especially since it’s much bigger than Sabriel and Abhorsen, but it’s difficult to talk about many things without spoiling the entire plot and the book introduces a bunch of new mysteries and questions. You won’t find very many answers in this book, some, but not many, and that’s okay sometimes, IMHO, provided the final book can wrap things up nicely.

My one problem with this book is that it as great as it is, it ultimately feels like a whole lot of buildup to Abhorsen, which is why I (and others) highly recommend purchasing Abhorsen before you’re done with Lirael. It definitely feels like a much more personal story than Sabriel, and takes some time to get going. In the hands of another author the book could have been a drag, but even through its slower moments I couldn’t put this book down. The world of the Old Kingdom is not ridiculously complex, but it is compelling.

In terms of diversity, the Clayr all have dark skin and light hair, but the author spends more time describing their hair than their skin, which almost seems like the author is trying to say they’re not “too black”. They’re also “magical black people” who spend so much time in the future that they tend to neglect the present. However, it’s a step up from Sabriel, I would say. Sameth and Lirael both struggle with depression, the former also seems to be dealing with PTSD and the latter with thoughts of suicide.

In terms of triggers, Lirael spends the first few chapters of the books depressed and at one point plans out and almost attempts suicide (though obviously she doesn’t go through with it). There’s a moment towards the end of the book where a group of the Dead surround a group of people (including children) and massacre them all, although most of the violence is “off camera”. The implications that a political group wants to send refugees en masse to their deaths might hit too close to home for some people.

Although at times it feels like Lirael is just (much-needed) build-up to the final book in the trilogy (now a series now, I guess). I still very much enjoyed it and I’ve already started Abhorsen. It’s an easy recommendation if you loved Sabriel.

Review: Red Queen

A common thing that happens when you have something that is a success is for it to spawn a plethora of derivative works–what some call rip-offs–some being more obviously “inspired by” the popular franchise du jour. Everything is either “the next Game of Thrones” or “the next Hunger Games”. Coincidentally, these are the books that get all the movie deals, because Hollywood isn’t interested in original ideas anymore, if it ever was.

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Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood. The silver-blooded elite oppress those with red blood with powers that can only be described as godlike, but Mare quickly gets in way over her head when, in front of the king and all the nobles in the land, she discovers that she, too, has a strange ability. To hide this impossibility, the king forces her to play the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons, and Mare finds herself thrust from a world of mandatory conscription and servitude to a gilded cage where even her thoughts aren’t her own, but rebellion is on the horizon, and Mare is playing a deadly game, one that could cost not only her life, but the lives of all Reds.

Let’s start with something this book does right. In many stories, those with strange abilities or supernatural entities are forced to hide from regular humans. The struggles of these “others” are often equated with the real life oppression of marginalized communities (the question of whether they are right in equating elves and superheroes to queer and black people is something else entirely). Red Queen flips the script in making the “others” the Silvers, the oppressors, which honestly makes more sense, if you ask me. They’re the ones with a clear advantage over others, it translates well into a culture of “haves” and “have nots”.

As for the characters, I didn’t hate them, but I did find them a bit flat. Cal, one of the princes, is the popular military man everyone likes, whereas Maven, Mare’s betrothed, is more quiet and intellectual, Evangeline, Cal’s betrothed, who spends most of the book sneering at people (more on her later), and Farley, fearless leader of La Resistance the Scarlet Guard, the Red resistance movement. Mare herself doesn’t really have any idea what she’s doing half the time, but her little shows of defiance (like refusing to kneel before the king) endeared me to her. There is a very annoying love triangle, but at this point I’m more surprised by books that don’t have them than books that do.

However, while it managed to hold my interest (in no small part because the writing is good) it definitely felt very derivative of The Hunger Games, complete with mandatory arena fights that are broadcast nationwide, a decadent elite profiting from their oppressors, even a training sequence that could have been lifted straight from the first book, and, honestly, if that was all that I had issue with, I could forgive it. Unfortunately, the book tells a story about an oppressed minority but doesn’t include any actual minorities on the protagonist’s side. There’s an interview with the author where she says:

“The blood divisions in Red Queen draw obviously from American divisions of class, race, religion, orientation—but obviously are most paralleled by the horror and genocide that was American slavery, as well as modern-day prejudices against non-heteronormative people and prejudices against Muslims.”

-from an interview from BookPage here.

The only two black characters in the entire book are Silvers and one is part of the “mean girls” clique that torments out protagonist. There are a couple disabled characters (including Mare’s father, who was injured in the war Silvers are fighting with other Silvers using mostly Red troops) but other than that? White straight abled people doing white straight abled people things (there is the barest hint that one of the princes might have had a relationship with another guy, but he’s, well, dead). In addition, this book, like so many others, loves its girlhate. Evangeline, Prince Cal’s betrothed, is a bitch. How do we know this? Everyone tells us. Evangeline’s purpose is basically to be the Queen Bee and therefore Mare’s rival and not much else. Lady Blonos, her protocol instructor, is dull and keeping herself together with plastic surgery, and of course, Queen Elara is the worst of them all (although, in all fairness, she’s not a nice person). In fact, the only allies Mare has at court are men, from her guard, Lucas, to the princes themselves, to her instructor, Julian. The only other woman of note is a mute healer who exists because manpain. I almost feel sorry for the women in this book. While the men can pretty much be whoever they want to be, they’re stuck in their assigned roles. She’s the bitch and the protagonist’s Eternal Rival. She’s the obviously evil queen. They could have had nuance, but they don’t. While I’m on the subject of flaws, did you know that hating your oppressors is just as bad as when your oppressors hate you? Yep, the book pulls a #SilverLivesMatter thing, of course it does.

I was all set to like this book despite how derivative it was, and it did have a pretty interesting twist at the end, but it’s another book that appropriates the struggles of actual marginalized communities to tell a story about straight white abled people, and girlhate, although definitely not as much as in Queen of the Tearling.

At this point, I’m thinking I need a break from YA lit. I still have the rest of the Old Kingdom books and a few more after that, but the endless parade of the same old grossness is getting tiresome. Hopefully Lirael and Abhorsen won’t disappoint me.

Review: Dissension by Stacey Berg

[The following review contains spoilers, read at your own risk.]

I picked this book up because at the time I wanted a change of pace from reading about straight people and their problems. This one was getting some good reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and while post-apocalyptic dystopian societies are a dime a dozen these days, there aren’t a ton with romance between characters who aren’t straight.

 

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After a cataclysmic event known as the Fall, the remnants of humanity cluster in the single remaining city under the protection of the Church, who cares for and reveres the Saint who provides the city with power. Echo Hunter 367 is a clone raised to be what the Church wants her to be: loyal, obedient, and lethal, but Echo harbours a secret sin:doubt. When the Church sends her on a mission to ferret out rebel leaders before civil war between the Church and the citizens destroys everything the Church has fought to preserve, she unexpectedly bonds with a doctor named Lia. Soon, however, Echo will be forced to choose between her duty to the Church and the woman she loves.

This book is probably the most okay book I’ve read all year. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either. It has an interesting premise but the world failed to draw me in. The city didn’t feel like a living, breathing place. That probably seems like a weird thing to say about static words on the page, but I’ve definitely read books with settings and characters that feel real, this book’s setting felt more like it was the backdrop for a play. Maybe it’s the fact that the writing doesn’t get very descriptive. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we only experience the world through Hunter’s third person limited perspective, and Hunter, essentially someone who trains for years to protect the Church, is more focused on finding exits to rooms and assessing the threat level of anyone she encounters rather than, say, the colour of the curtains, things you would expect a soldier to notice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really make for compelling reading. There’s also a lot of repetition, somewhat justified because the Church has been Hunter’s only home for ages, but once you read about something reminding her “of the priests’ laboratories” for the fifth time you start wishing she would find a different point of comparison. The characters in general don’t really have a lot of depth to them, either. Lia is the sort of character who will throw herself into life-threatening situations if someone needs help. Loro is highly suspicious of Hunter and protective of Lia, the Patri is Echo’s boss and seems to be hiding something. There’s a bit more nuance towards the end but it can’t make up for the approximately three quarters of a book worth of flat characterization.

This book does what a lot of books like it do and Calls a Rabbit a Smeerp: bullets are “projectiles” and guns are “projectile weapons”, doctors are “meds”, “prints” are books. There’s nothing really wrong with this (regardless of what that bigot Orson Scott Card says} but somehow the use of the future speak almost seems to make the setting more generic for me, which is, I know, an odd thing to say. I guess the long and short of it is everything about this book feels generic to me.

Unfortunately, the book could have been just a generic sci fi dystopian work and I’d be okay with it, but unfortunately it had to feature a particularly problematic trope regarding the main relationship. First let me say that I actually liked how Lia and Hunter’s relationship was very understated, it definitely wasn’t instalove and they weren’t spending every moment of their time together obsessing over each other. It was almost a little too understated, I think, especially since the back cover makes a big deal out of it. However, where the book ultimately falls short in my eyes is the use of the tired old Bury Your Gays trope.

I wish I was kidding, but no, it couldn’t just be generic, it had to incorporate that trope, and you know, it’s annoying enough when straight people do it, but when we queer folks start doing it in our own stories, it feels like a betrayal. I can hear the objections right about now “but it fits with the tone of the story!” or “maybe she’ll write a sequel where it gets better!” but that doesn’t change the fact that the author decided to employ a particularly insidious trope in a book that was not great but was also not horrible, and I am disappoint, I am very disappoint. This is exacerbated by the fact that apart from two anonymous priests whom Echo catches making out at the beginning of the book and Lia and Echo themselves, there are no other overt queer characters.

In the end, I can’t really recommend Dissension. The world didn’t really grab me and by the end I just wanted to finish it and move on to other books. If you would like to read a neat sci fi tale with a diverse cast and a f/f relationship that is bittersweet but not tragic, I would recommend checking out The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie.

Review: The Queen of the Tearling

[The following contains references to rape, pedophilia, homophobia, ableism, racism, sexism, and fat-shaming.]

Before I get into this review, some context is necessary. I was initially drawn to this book for a bunch of reasons: the heroine was described as “plain”, the lack of romance, and I kind of have a thing for queens regnant. There’s at least one in many of the stories I’ve written where monarchies are a thing. The Queen of the Tearling has all the ingredients to make it a must read for me. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned from years of baking, you can have all the right ingredients and the final product could still taste like crap.

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Upon surviving to her nineteenth birthday, Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn is taken from the isolated home where she’s lived her whole life and whisked off to the capital to become the new Queen of the Tearling. Surrounded by corruption both close and abroad and with few friends at court, Kelsea must rely on her wits and the power of the magical yet mysterious Tear sapphire to succeed in changing her kingdom from within, if she can survive that long.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact that the author apparently received a seven figure advance for the entire trilogy. Normally I wouldn’t bring something like this up, but I’d like you to keep this in mind as you read this. There also appears to be some confusion as to whether this is meant to be YA or an adult novel. I picked up my paperback edition from the young adult section, but the trade paperback edition was in the adult section (under “fantasy”). I’ve heard conflicting accounts, but having read the book, I’m going to classify it as an adult read with a strong young adult periphery demographic. This is also important to remember, please keep it in mind.

I don’t know where to start so I’m just going to be blunt: this book is a load of crap. It’s definitely not the feminist epic I was promised. In fact, it’s the sort of watered down feminism that thinks the only requirement for a thing to be called feminist is a strong female protagonist (whatever that means) who takes no shit from men.

I’m going to start by saying a good thing about this book. For the most part, I thought it was well written. There’s a certain lyrical quality to the prose that I liked. It’s a bit purple, almost, but not quite on the same level as Kushiel’s Legacy (which as far as I’m concerned has the most purple prose of any book I’ve ever read). There were moments where I thought the text could have used a bit more polish, but I wouldn’t call it badly written.

Now that I’ve said my good thing, it’s time to address all the ways I feel this book fucks up. Spoiler alert: it fucks up everything that doesn’t have to do with writing style. Particularly regarding the way its being marketed as a feminist novel with a plain heroine and no focus on romance, because I would argue that it ultimately fails on at least two fronts.

Firstly, let’s start with the plain heroine. Kelsea is plain because she is overweight with dark brown hair. Oh, but her eyes are a stunning green. Understand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with protagonists who are not conventionally attractive. As someone who is very much like Kelsea (that is, overweight with dark brown hair) I’d love to see more characters who aren’t skinny, blonde, and blue eyed (not that there’s anything wrong with fitting that description).

My problem with Kelsea as a plain heroine is that the narrative will not stop fat-shaming her.

Kelsea has a major problem with negative self-talk. She is constantly, constantly lamenting the fact that she’s overweight, talking about how she needs to go on a diet or that she shouldn’t eat so much or the men she’s with will think less of her (more on this in a bit). Other characters get in on it too, like the one scene where her guards remark that she’s essentially too fat to wield a sword. Did I mention she’s supposed to be a queen in what is likely an absolute monarchy, and she’s taking this level of shit from her guards? Seriously? In all fairness, Kelsea is nineteen, and as someone who was once overweight and nineteen, a little self-consciousness is normal. However, it still feels like a slap in the face to be lured in with the promise of an overweight heroine and then having to sit there as she turns out to be another overweight woman who hates herself.

Actually, let’s talk about other women in this book for a second. This book seems to delight in demonizing other women. A good example of this is Queen Elyssa, Kelsea’s mother, who essentially sold her own people into slavery. I think most people will agree that this is a very bad thing, but my issue with Elyssa is that, like Queen Levana in Cinder, villainy is coded in a very conventionally feminine way. Queen Elyssa likes frilly pillows and dresses. Kelsea herself is punished for trying on a dress in an early scene, because apparently liking things like dresses makes you frivolous and therefore a bad monarch, not, you know, selling your people into slavery. An older woman, Lady Andrews, has the gall to care about her appearance when she’s over forty. The beautiful women in this book are overwhelmingly victims of abuse and rape (like Marguerite). Even Carlin, Kelsea’s foster mother, is seen as cold and unfeeling when compared to Barty. It becomes particularly egregious when Kelsea admits to Marguerite, her corrupt uncle’s sex slave that she’s jealous of her because she’s beautiful, because apparently being raped and abused because you’re beautiful is preferable to being an ugly queen that men don’t like? Also apparently the Red Queen keeps pedophiles around for….some reason? Seriously, she says she doesn’t care for them yet still keeps them around? It seems like its there for shock value or to emphasize just how evil Mortmesne is, in case the raping and pillaging didn’t tip you off.

Speaking of men not finding her attractive, Kelsea spends a considerable amount of time drooling over the Fetch, who is a lot like the Black Man in The Princess Bride with none of the charm. This charming specimen implies that Kelsea is too plain to rape in her sleep. See for yourself:

“‘Thank you,’ Kelsea replied, then realized that she wasn’t wearing her own clothing, but a gown of some sort of white cloth, linen, perhaps. She reached up to touch her hair and found it smooth and soft, someone had given her a bath. She looked up at him [the Fetch], cheeks reddening.

‘Yes, me as well.’ His smile widened. ‘But you needn’t worry, girl. You’re far too plain for my tastes.'”

Yeah, this is the man she keeps trying to impress. Personally, I think Kelsea would be completely within her rights to set the dude on fire. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. So yeah, Kelsea spends a good chunk of the book obsessing over impressing men who are absolute douchebags. The other leading man in this story is the Mace, a man who is constantly on her case about “dolls and dresses”. Although at first glance he seems like the only sensible character in the story, my issue with him is that he won’t shut up and let Kelsea make her own decisions. The moment where she tells him to shut his mouth is probably the best moment in the entire book.

Let’s stop talking about men for a moment and talk about the villainous characters in general. Maybe my expectations are too high, but for a feminist book aimed at adults, the villains seem almost cartoonishly villainous. Villains in this book are one of four things: fat, old, ugly, or sexual, with motivations that basically amount to “I did it because I’m evil.” Note that in the Red Queen’s case, however, the way she expresses her sexuality is by raping her slaves. By the way, did I mention that having Mort blood apparently equates to having dark skin and there’s literally only one unambiguously black character on the protagonist’s side (Lear, a soldier who is the first black person Kelsea has seen in her life). I get what the author was trying to do (citizens of color being oppressed by a white person in charge) but in practice it’s just another “good white nation vs. evil people of color” thing. Now, the villains do plenty of villainous things: the Regent, for example, abuses women and lives in luxury while his people starve. Lady Andrews shut herself up in a tower and let an invading army massacre her serfs, but there’s also a suspicious amount of emphasis on their appearance that the protagonists generally escape (unless your Kelsea). Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the first series I’ve read with obviously evil villains (hello Black Jewels series) but I guess I expected a little more nuance.

Let’s talk setting and how it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. As far as I am aware this book is being marketed as fantasy. Well, surprise! It’s actually a post-apocalyptic world! Yes, it’s another post-apocalyptic world where society has inexplicably regressed to the Middle Ages. There was something called the Crossing, see, where this socialist named William Tear gathered up a bunch of people and made a crossing to Europe. I’ve read weirder premises, but the thing with the world-building is that it’s just inconsistent. It’s outright stated that all medical knowledge was lost in the Crossing–except birth control. Why birth control? I have no idea. Also how the fuck do a bunch of English and American socialists end up founding a pseudo-Catholic church? How did a socialist utopia somehow become a monarchy? How did Tear manage to somehow only recruit white socialists? Why is a very sexist society like the Tearling okay with having a woman on the throne when there’s an easily manipulated male relative they could just keep as a puppet ruler?  None of this is actually explained and to be completely honest, the author could have still written a compelling book without the inconsistent modern trappings, suspension of disbelief can only go so far.

Triggers are numerous, references to rape are frequent, pedophilia less so. I’ve already discussed the sexism, racism, and fat-shaming, but there’s also some ableism as well in the way Carlin is described as “physically whole” unlike Barty, as well as the statement that Queen Elyssa sent away “criminals and the mentally ill” as slaves, because mental illness is equated to criminal activity. Note that while there is a history of lumping mentally ill/disabled people and criminals together, Kelsea only expresses disgust with the fact that her people were enslaved, not that mentally ill people were specifically targeted.

I think the bottom line for me is that The Queen of the Tearling ultimately undermines its own message. It wants to be a feminist story about a heroine who manages to come to power in a sexist society, but instead it’s a story about an overweight heroine who hates herself and constantly judges other women based on their appearance, never mind the plethora of -isms and the inconsistent worldbuilding. The Queen of the Tearling could have been something special, but instead it just regurgitates the same tired old crap. I know I gave Throne of Glass shit for perpetuating girlhate but honestly, at least Throne of Glass was kind of fun.