New York City: Day 1

Today, I touched down in the Big Apple. Alone. Two months ago, I had impulsively bought tickets for a ballet half the world away from home. To celebrate its golden anniversary, three of the most renowned companies are collaborating to perform an act each of the late, great Balanchine’s iconic Jewels. The cast is so apt it is almost poetic; the Paris Opera Ballet will perform Emeralds, a piece heavily inspired by the French Romantic aesthetic; New York City Ballet, for whom Balanchine had originally choreographed Jewels, will take Rubies, a staccato archetype of Balanchine athleticism; and the Bolshoi Ballet will take Diamonds, the regal finale that radiates Imperial Russian grandeur. A tortuous 16-hour flight later, I have finally made it.

While I did spend most of the day (or night, by Hong Kong standards) wondering whether I would develop deep vein thrombosis like so many of the cases we had discussed in our tutorials, it still was not as uneventful as I would have hoped. Critical note to self: Always look behind you whenever you leave a seat. Or risk leaving your phone in the airport like I did in Hong Kong. By the time I had finally realised, the plane was already taking off. So now I’m alone in New York without a phone.

I also learned that a 16-hour flight is really long. If flight times and our perception of time were graphed, it would show an exponential curve. Just a year ago, 12-hour flights were my norm. I was never bored; a movie fit snugly between take-off and the first meal, and afterwards I would always spend the next eight or nine hours struggling to get as much poor quality sleep as I could with some wailing infant a row away. But when you add just four more hours, you can suddenly read an entire book, watch two movies, get a solid eight hours of sleep, and still have an exasperating stretch of time to stare into the darkness and contemplate your chances of getting a pulmonary embolism from all your inactivity.

Anyway, besides the ballet on Saturday, I still don’t know exactly what I will be doing here. I quite literally came all the way to New York ‘just’ to see a ballet. Of course, I have a general list of things (MoMA, Museum of Natural History, The Met, The Whitney…), but no set plans at all. I suppose I do have some time tonight to allocate the destinations to days. If I don’t nod off from jet lag first.

I Can’t Be the Only One

There are contemporary books so lauded or so popular, they are cultural pillars in our collective consciousness (at least, my generation’s): Harry Potter, Twilight, and to lesser extents, The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson. And because these series have transcended into such phenomena, there is luxurious room for justified disappointment, apathy and even loathing.

There are also books, though not Herculean triumphs like the aforementioned, that are popular enough to have seemingly achieved omnipresence across social media platforms and in prime window displays in bricks-and-mortar stores (yes, those still exist). Many of these are adored enough to have scored an average 4.0+ on Goodreads. To the uninitiated bibliophile, that may not sound impressive, but with a community numbering more than 55 million members and books often receiving more than 100,000 ratings each, such a high average is actually no easy feat. For the typical book, it would mean almost 50,000 deeming it perfect enough to merit the elusive five stars. From my personal experience, the rating system really is quite reliable, and I do agree with the vast majority of the 4.0+ ratings for the books I have read.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this post is, I have been increasingly frequently boggled by certain books, which either received rave reviews or were otherwise simply commercially successful enough to have sold-out sequels etc. Here is a list of those books, and why I did not enjoy them.

1. Freakonomics (averaging 3.9 stars)

I wrote a full review for this ‘groundbreaking’ introduction to economics a little while back. Steven D. Levitt certainly thinks of himself as some ‘woke’ academic with (gasp) controversial answers to some big questions. But too often, the crucial intermediate steps between his bold hypotheses and conclusions were missing. Some statistics were quoted from unreliable sources. His deductions were no more than superficial appeals to intuitive logic. And the black-and-white explanations were too simplistic to be convincing or even evaluable.

The titles for most chapters were overworked and sensationalist. His tone was unpalatably dismissive, stamped with an all-too-familiar oh look at you less educated souls, how cute! strain of superiority. Yes, I was uncharacteristically generous when I gave this three stars. But be assured that it was for wholly unrelated reasons to the educational value of this book. If you want to learn some economics, look somewhere else instead.

2. Heartless (4.1 stars)

Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles was deserving of praise. The retellings stood on inventive premises that worked, had compelling and complicated characterisations both familiar and fresh, and were different enough from previous reworkings to make them feel like completely new stories. Heartless (a ‘prequel’ to Alice in Wonderland) was not this.

The protagonist, Cath, was insufferable – the archetypal fortunate-in-all respects girl blessed with wealth, a good family, attractiveness, and purported ‘intelligence’, who was woefully stuck in an oh-so-original ‘unfortunate’ circumstance (catching the eye of the king). If the problem were just the premise, I would have been willing to set it aside. But she could not seem to do anything but whine. Whine and precipitate the very disaster she was warned about repeatedly throughout the novel. Oh, and inexplicably turn mad and start chopping heads off left, right and centre.

I mean, I get it. [Highlight to show spoiler] Her lover died. (Her fault.) But it was all so sudden. The final few chapters felt like Meyer was desperately rushing to turn Cath into the villain we all know so well from the original stories, knowing that she was already running out of steam. Not to mention how clichéd it all was. True, clichés are clichés for a reason – they can still be powerful when spun well. This was not spun well.

3. The Wrath and the Dawn (4.2 stars)

I also wrote a full review for this duology, the first four paragraphs of which discuss the sheer ludicrousness of the plot and characterisations (or lack thereof). But if you cannot be bothered to scan a few more hundred words, the gaping flaws were as follows:

  • Girl’s best friend is murdered by the caliph.
  • Said girl has few charms to recommend her (at least, none uniquely able to catch the caliph’s attention when 70+ just as beautiful and much more talented girls have failed) but decides to seduce and murder the caliph.
  • Girl thinks she’s all that but it’s a Hong Kong summer-ful of hot air. 90% of her qualities are tell-not-show.
  • Caliph is seduced. Don’t ask me.
  • On day two, girl becomes all butterflies and lust for her best friend’s murderer because he’s frickin’ hot.
  • Some corny lines.
  • More corny lines.
  • She finally finds out why he has been murdering a girl every dawn and stuff actually goes down but it’s already the last few chapters.

I really have no clue why the two books were considered to be amongst the best fantasy novels published in their respective years. Nor why readers swooned from the ridiculous patchwork of clichés that was the central ‘romance’. I did end up giving the second book four stars, precisely for the same reasons most readers enjoyed it less – the eye-rolling romance became less important, towns were razed, a war declared, basically some actual action happened.

4. The Sword of Summer (4.3 stars)

I know, I know, this is a Middle Grade book, so I was not the intended audience. While I staunchly believe books written for younger audiences should never automatically be held to lower critical standards (read The Little Prince, Harry Potter, even picture books like The Giving Tree and The Paper Bag Princess), another spin-off series is just one too many. There are only so many times you can rehash the exact same concept, and for Riordan, third time was sadly not the charm.

With The Sword of Summer, you can tell he was trying too hard. His wit was a little thinner, his characters flatter, his twists more formulaic. Magnus Chase might as well have been Percy Jackson 2.0 – take Percy Jackson’s voice and personality traits, truss them up into a younger blond, and you have our latest demigod hero. I was so uninterested I gave up after the first quarter. Maybe it’s time to get back to some actual creativity.

5. Deathless (4.1 stars)

Valente’s lemony prose first captivated me in her Fairyland series (reviews here, here and here), with its sumptuous verbal illustrations weaving allusive treasure troves for literature lovers and seasoned readers. Deathless boasts the same meandering descriptions, but in this case, the leaden-footed build-up was an unfortunate detriment instead. The narration was too verbose, bordering on pretentiously philosophical, and I was constantly tempted to skip entire chapters.

It suited Fairyland, where there was a deliberate absence of urgency or any overarching tasks, so the reader was able to feel like she had all the time in the world to be enamoured by the wondrous, witty marvels of Valente’s unique, well, fairyland. I am sure her extensive knowledge of Russian folklore was incredibly impressive. I am sure she transformed well-loved stories (as she did with Fairyland) into a poignant, heart-wrenching, witty, intricate mural of war and love – if you ever manage to slog through it first. But no amount of genius or incandescent language can make up for the total lack of direction. If this novel were 100 pages shorter, perhaps I would have been able to finish it.

So?

So there you have it, why I cannot comprehend, for the life of me, why these books receive such inflated hype. Are there any popular books that you just could not enjoy? Comment them below, I would love to hear!

Flame in the Mist

An overdue review, but better late than never. (Although in medicine, late often makes never. But I’m getting distracted.) Having read Ahdieh’s last duology, I was justifiably wary about this one. Like most Young Adult books, the blurb of Flame in the Mist had to spotlight a romance, and romance is definitely not Ahdieh’s forte. Compound that with the incomprehensible fact that the most successful ‘feudal Japan-inspired’ series amongst English readers is still the quasi-Asian mess that was Across the Nightingale Floor, and you have quite a sceptic. (Going on another tangent, every single one of the most popular books set in feudal Japan was written by a Caucasian author.)

What ultimately encouraged me to buy the book was her evident meticulous research for The Wrath and the Dawn. She may be Middle Eastern, but the language, tone and smallest details demonstrated an impressive understanding of a region that preceded modern Persia by more than twelve centuries. And thankfully, besides minor descriptions that were a touch absurd (really not sure how varnish can ever smell like Dragon’s Beard candy), Flame in the Mist was also nowhere near Rubinstein’s gross appropriation.

Flame in the Mist was a large improvement on The Wrath and the Dawn in almost all aspects. But most of all, in the romance – or lack thereof. Yes, Mariko does fall into another nonsensical amour (an Ahdieh signature). Yes, it was ridiculously abrupt. Yes, there were no conceivable reasons behind Okami’s attraction towards her. But this was all much more forgivable because it was forced into existence only in the final quarter of the book, and remained relegated to the sidelines. What is Ahdieh’s forte is subterfuge, and the ceaselessly twisting, ruthless palace politics were fortunately in the limelight this time around.

I have no idea what is up the crown prince’s golden silk sleeves. Or the consort’s. Or the elder prince’s. I am still not even sure what the emperor’s agenda actually is. Nothing good, for sure. But beneath the appearances the characters are so adept at crafting, the loyalties are divided between many more than two sides. Sure, a lot of Ahdieh’s tricks have long been hallmarks of East Asian period dramas. But I personally have yet to find another English Young Adult novel capturing the tensions so well. The Wrath and the Dawn was no original tale either (in fact, it was much closer to a poorly disguised khoresh of clichés), but Ahdieh does have a knack for recreating worlds too often dressed in garish kitsch and scanty knowledge.

Like Shahrzad’s entirely absent ‘allure’, for the first half, Mariko’s alleged strategic quick thinking was also just a lot of tell without any show. Her choice to cross-dress and hunt down her attempted murderers was based on tenuous logic (I suppose Ahdieh had to get her to the Black Clan somehow), rather than shrewd judgement. She also made some pretty stupid decisions more frequently than one would expect; she saved the leader of the aforementioned murderers, even though all she was wanting was him dead. Now, the classic ‘calculated reason’ would have been because she wanted to torture his employer out of him first, or just to torture him, finis. But no. She did not show that foresight either. I can only say how glad I was when she realised her own naïveté and ineptitude once she had to ‘play with the big boys’, so to speak.

Anyhow, Flame in the Mist is one of the very few well-researched non-European historical fantasies I have read. For that alone, I was impressed enough to give this three stars. For the relatively complex and incalculable plot, I bumped it up to four. Highly recommended holiday read – quick, light and so much more engaging than the typical Californian beachside summer flick.

Favourite quotes: “To me, you are magic.”

“I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.”

Rating: 4/5

The Bird and the Sword

I loved the beginning-of-the-world myth Harmon’s medieval kingdom was built from, which had an intriguing biblical base note. I loved the premise of an emotionally shuttered young woman fighting for her voice, wings and people. I also loved the final twist, even though it was not the most unpredictable development in the world. But something about Lark and Tiras’ relationship just left an uncomfortable aftertaste.

I have only seen this mentioned in one other review (many reviews were five-star), so maybe I have quite an individual interpretation. Personally, I failed to see Tiras’ ‘love’ mature much from its possessive origins. Maybe Harmon thought the whole “I think I will keep you” thing was romantic. Maybe it could have been, in the right circumstances, with the right characters, and with the right context. But Tiras himself admitted that he had kidnapped and imprisoned Lark to “kill two birds with one stone” – (1) because he thought she could ‘cure’ him and (2) to threaten her father into submission (and dissuade him from plotting too hard to steal his throne).

And he only continues to use her to keep his lords in check and to help his army slaughter the Volgar. Even his lovemaking was largely to ensure there is an heir. Yes, he teaches her to read and shows a little care and patience, but it far from negates how much he based Lark’s worth on her ability to protect his city. Love (even if we call it love) should never be the endgame, you should love for the right reasons. And I have a feeling Tiras’ were not the right reasons.

“You are of great use to me. I will put a child in your belly. A son who will be king.”

“Why do I have to be taught?”
“Because you said you know nothing about being a queen. Because I am king. And because it is your duty to please me.”

“You said I chose you because you are of use to me. And I did.”

Otherwise, I found the prose and pacing quite enjoyable; 350 pages was the perfect length. There were no frilly descriptions (the bane of fantasy literature), few sentences felt aesthetically pretentious (you know, those blunt phrases tacked onto the end of some observation or revelation that the author thinks sound ‘deep’ and ‘poetic’) and I was only tempted to skim a handful of passages. Deep-rooted hate and hysteria (likely inspired by the Salem witch trials) pervaded the atmosphere in an unusually adept demonstration of ‘showing, not telling’. While the plot was relatively straightforward and somewhat predictable (the typical a kingdom faces a mysterious threat and its king falls in love with its unlikely liberator concoction), Harmon’s particular blend of fantasy elements was fresh enough to make a quick, agreeable read.

Favourite quote: “Often-times, grass was more useful than gold. Man was more desirable than beast. Chance was more seductive than knowledge, and eternal life was completely meaningless without love.”
Rating: 3/5

The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger

It is all fine and dandy for the central romance to be some inexplicable instantaneous affair if the focus of the novel were the impending war or palace politics or honestly anything else. But The Wrath and the Dawn is, unfortunately, essentially a love story. The (gasp) forbidden kind with a broken boy and a murderous girl (or a girl who wants to think she can be murderous). So when, after eleven chapters of brazen loathing, Shazi wanted to kiss her best friend’s murderer just three days into their marriage, I almost stopped reading then and there. No reason was given for this sudden, ridiculous change, unless her observations that oh, he’s so broken, and oh, he’s so handsome count.1

Even in those eleven preceding chapters, I was filling with dread. Her bravado was swelling to an eye-rolling intensity, and I was already wincing for the classic wow, she’s so defiant, she’s so special moment. But I still had this pathetic hope that it was all only to identify her as a formidable force the caliphate’s enemies would have to reckon with. And not another “charm” to ensnare Khalid. In all honesty, besides her ‘sylph-like’ beauty, I saw few charms in her. At least, none striking enough to make a caliph throw the safety of his city to the wind and say, damn all, I want her to destroy me.

Why Khalid even decided to go to her chamber at all2, I can never say. He mentioned how she glared at him on their wedding night, as if that was explanation enough. And as if most of the other brides would not have so frankly shown their hatred as well, knowing that their husband would order their deaths the dawn after. Was it really because her arrogance made her seem “limitless”? In my experience, arrogance is far too common in this world, not too rare. I am sure there was, at the very least, a handful of brides who had sheltered the same blind hope they would be the ones to break the cycle. So this ‘romance’ was all very sudden and superficial.

Yes, many readers will find the lush Middle Eastern landscape “sumptuous”. Honestly, it was just good research. Maybe more authors should try that when they attempt to set their stories in distinctive historical periods. I am glad, however, that Ahdieh rarely let her lists of palace ornaments or traditional foods waylay the pacing of the plot. There was a surprisingly tolerable ratio of descriptions to actual action, given the “exotic” location. For that alone, I raised this duology from two stars to three.

What finally tipped it to four was the onslaught of subterfuge and intrigue. This became especially engrossing in The Rose and the Dagger, where impending war had forced Shazi and Khalid’s relationship to mature at lightning speed. We see much less of the ‘roiling tension’ (which was never that compelling to begin with) and more of the cunning and stalwart strategising that defined our protagonists. Seeing them work in tandem to raze their enemies to the ground was far more fun to read about. (Too many young adult authors forget to let their characters mature over sequels; many more forget to let relationships between characters to mature over sequels; many many more forget to let characters and relationships mature exponentially in times of war.)

A good deal of reveals left my mind whirring. Some loyalties were better shrouded than others, but I was still kept on edge waiting to see the ultimate goals of the characters’ machinations – and just how far those machinations would go. I almost wished [highlight to reveal spoiler] Despina was nothing more than her father’s spy – it would have been the single most unpredictable and jaw-dropping twist. All of the side characters were delightfully despicable or fatally flawed. And best of all, most took some time to fully figure out. There were men committing evil in the name of twisted love and intellectual fools who could trade a death for a thousand more. There were men as courageous as they were dense, and sisters as strong as they were weak. And enough stubbornness to go around and still have seven basketfuls left over.

So while the romance can be infuriating, if you can cope with some insta-love, The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger make a light, enthralling and often witty read. Most importantly, they belong to the few fiction books you can rest assured you will not have to trudge through pages of purple prose to enjoy.

Favourite quotes: “For without a measure of arrogance, how can one attempt the impossible?”

“Beauty fades. But a pain in the ass is forever.”

“Tonight is a night to turn heads. Make them remember you. Make sure they never forget. You are the Calipha of Khorasan, and you have the ear of a king.” Despina put her hand on Shahrzad’s shoulder and grinned at their shared reflection. “More important, you have his heart.” She bent forward and lowered her voice. “And, most important, you are a fearsome thing to behold in your own right.”

“The more a person pushes others away, the clearer it becomes he is in need of love the most.”

Rating: 4/5 for both

For my review of a prequel, The Moth and the Flame, please click here.


1Oh wait, she was already falling in love on the second night. Two words, and suddenly she drops from abhorrence to butterflies and whimpers.

2Shazi was the first bride whom Khalid visited after their wedding.

A Court of Mist and Fury

A bit late to the party, but yes, A Court of Mist and Fury was an enormous improvement both pacing and character development-wise. For one, I wasn’t tempted to skim entire chapters like I was for the first book. The fights and harrowing encounters were convincingly well-matched, but never drawn-out or gratuitous. There was an irksome amount of ‘telling’, but I suppose it highlighted the thunderstorm of confusion and self-hate and hurt and hopelessness that was tearing Feyre apart – if a little inelegantly. The sex scenes, on the other hand, were definitely drawn-out and gratuitous, especially with how frequent they became towards the second half. And given Maas’ very limited, very specific vocabulary for them, they were rather repetitive too.

Regardless, I am thoroughly impressed by how well she had handled the love triangle. Its purpose was nothing so trivial as creating unnecessary drama or anguish – it demonstrated, with raw emotion, how indescribable horrors can break people apart, jagged fragment by jagged fragment, until a borderline abusive relationship can pretend to be happiness’ false twin. It also brilliantly showed what love should represent – equality, honesty, vulnerability.

Some readers were indignant that falling out of love is normal, that Tamlin didn’t need to be painted a villain. (1) I don’t think that was the point at all. Under the Mountain had wrecked him, and it was the only way he knew how to react. He was always the shelterer, even in the first book, when he had sent Feyre away knowing that she could break the curse.

“Tell me there’s some way to help you,” I breathed. “With the masks, with whatever threat has taken so much of your power. Tell me – just tell me what I can do to help you.”

“There’s nothing I want you to do… It’s my burden to bear… I want you here, where I can look after you – where I can come home and know you’re here, painting and safe.”

– A Court of Thorns and Roses

(2) Let’s suppose they miraculously escaped less emotionally scarred. The slow, blurred unravelling of Feyre’s love would have taken far far longer, and with Maas’ evident pacing problems, I’m perfectly fine with the quicker way forward, thank you very much.

Feyre was also far more like the Feyre I had imagined when I first picked up A Court of Thorns and Roses. With a little help from her new family, she learned to conquer her panic, guilt and shame. To let herself realise her own worth, despite it all. And since her trials in the last book, she became wiser, shrewder – dangerous in her own right, and not because she unleashed a High Lord’s power. I’m glad I plowed on through the first book, because this was so so much better.

Favourite quotes: “I fell in love with you, smartass, because you were one of us – because you weren’t afraid of me, and you decided to end your spectacular victory by throwing that piece of bone at Amarantha like a javelin. I felt Cassian’s spirit beside me in that moment, and could have sworn I heard him say, If you don’t marry her, you stupid prick, I will.”

“To the people who look at the stars and wish, Rhys.” “To the stars who listen – and the dreams that are answered.”

Rating: 5/5 (originally 4/5)

For my review on A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first book, click here.

Strange the Dreamer

sathaz (SAH·thahz) noun

The desire to possess that which can never be yours.
Archaic; from the Tale of Sathaz, who fell in love with the moon.

I can see why some readers gave this book one or two stars; I can also see why others lamented the far-flung heavens, whose infinite stars they can never pluck and give. Laini Taylor spins luminous descriptions, but she can, at times, be in want of some direction.

Strange the Dreamer has faint echoes of her best-known trilogy, with beautiful monsters and razor-sharp vengeance. But the thakrar (to use her conjured word) she inspires – her breath-catching capacity to dream up myths and worlds – surpasses even Eretz1 and its two moons. And not only dream up, but interweave the two into glittering motifs, resurfacing only at the most heartwarming and heart-wrenching moments. Like Sathaz, and his moon that broke into a thousand pieces. And Sarai, and her mind that breaks into a thousand pieces.

thakrar (THAH·krahr) noun

The precise point on the spectrum of awe at which wonder turns to dread, or dread to wonder.

Weep is truly alive under her pen; the characters’ hearts (plural) beat softly against the pages, against your fingertips. But Taylor’s talent for the whimsical is a double-edged sword. Strange the Dreamer is a slow burn, with verbal illustrations that slip too often into purple prose. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at several passages, and skimming many more. A shame, because the first two Daughter of Smoke and Bone novels had shown much more balance, and my inability to trudge through the final one had almost stopped me from reading this.

The characters, at least, were expertly crafted from tangles of raw emotions. My heart broke multiple times even for Minya, the most stubborn and sadistic of them all. And for Eril-Fane, who had slain a part of his soul on the day he had slain the gods. I certainly felt like Sarai, whose days were drowned in lull potions; I had gone to bed at 5 a.m. to finish the book first, and when I’d finally woken up, I’d looked like living death.

So you can imagine the sense of utter betrayal when [highlight to reveal spoiler] it all ended with a cliffhanger. Thank goodness this will only be a duology (unless Taylor pulls a Jenny Han), because I’m not sure I’d be able to cope with more tantalisation like that.

Pick up Strange the Dreamer if you want vibrant and tragic and fairy-tale and yes, bewitchingly strange. Only a truly gifted storyteller can reveal the end in her prologue and still manage to ensnare her readers so completely until they are released by her very last word, excessive descriptions and all. A gorgeous new series to rival her first.

Favourite quote: “A man should have squint lines from looking at the horizon,” the old librarian had said, “not just from reading in dim light.”
Rating:
4/5


1A universe in Daughter of Smoke and Bone.