Thanks to the publisher Thomas Nelson for providing me a complimentary advance reading copy through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review remain completely my own. Fawkes by Nadine Brandes will be available on 10th July 2018.
“An exotic place to live, despite the view of severed heads on spikes rising every which way.”
An ambitious allegorical reimagining of the Gunpowder Plot and the English Reformation, Fawkes addresses not only the horrific religious violence, but also the slave trade, racism, misogyny, stigmatised diseases, and such philosophical dilemmas as revolutionary jus in bello and personal spiritual truth.
Fawkes is also an exemplary example of world-building. No passage felt obtrusively expository; instead, readers were allowed to discern the rules governing Brandes’ brand of magic themselves. Few young adult fantasy novels give their audience due credit nowadays.
This otherwise impressive feat was dampened, however, by the lapses into 21st-century colloquial speech – especially when it was the White Light speaking. The omniscient, omnipotent colour snickering like an American teenager was jarring, not to mention that the story took place in 17th-century England. The American spelling throughout the novel was also somewhat distracting, but at least it was consistent, so I let this one slide.
Nevertheless, the colour magic concept was genuinely inventive. I almost wish a little more time was spent navigating its subtleties; after all, much of our protagonist’s motivation was fuelled by his need to master it. How was each person’s strongest colour determined, for example? By their temperament? Talents? Interests? And what about purple?
Some characters’ incentives and plot developments were also too convenient. But I did appreciate the unwavering pace – an admirable achievement for such a thematically ambitious book. I would choose minor improbabilities over drawn-out digressions any day.
Overall, Fawkes is a diligently researched retelling of one of English history’s most widely commemorated events (this accuracy somewhat spoils the plot, yes, but I assure you Brandes remembered to inject fresh suspense). I wouldn’t read too much into the parallels between the two factions of colour magicians and the Protestant-Catholic conflict either (the snarky White Light voice, for one, and for another, religion does not have to be passed down from father to son), but they were cleverly and neatly drawn. A solid three stars.
“Triumphantly, he announced their deaths to the cheering crowd in a famous one-word euphemism: vixere, ‘they have lived’ – that is, ‘they’re dead’.”
Almost three months later, I have finally finished this expansive account of Ancient Roman history. SPQR – the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus PopulusQue Romanus – is neither a nostalgic glorification of Western imperialism nor another reworked reduction of how Rome fell. Instead, Beard chronicles with wicked wit their most dignified and depraved moments, piecing together an exceptionally engaging mosaic of how Rome grew from an insignificant village to the first global superpower.
While this did take me much longer than the typical book to read, SPQR is most certainly not a stale or stuffy textbook. Simplification simply does not exist in Beard’s lexicon, and as compelling as her writing is, it takes some time to digest. Besides, exam season is a terrible distractor; at one point, I was stress-reading eight books at once. 🙃
“His supporters dubbed him pater patriae, or ‘father of the fatherland’, one of the most splendid and satisfying titles you could have in a highly patriarchal society.”
Ever since Roman Week in Year 3 (we wore togas and wrote on homemade wax tablets instead of our usual workbooks), I have been engrossed in Graeco-Roman mythology. Sure, Percy Jackson made it cool, but I assure you I was thoroughly fixated years before The Lightning Thief.
Yet despite this persistent interest, I never gave much thought to the folk behind the folklore. So when I found SPQR in a bookstore – a critically endangered species in Hong Kong – I jumped at the chance to buy it.
As a culture that prided itself most on its military prowess, it would have been far too easy for any work on Ancient Rome to get lost in all the conflicts, conquests and controversies. Beard did dissect these in vivid detail, but she also painted us just as detailed a depiction of the ‘home front’ (what a delightful pun): “How long did Romans expect to live? At what age did people get married? What rights did women have? Where did the money come from to support the lavish lifestyles of the rich? And what about the slaves?” She was careful, too, not to overlook the poor, of whom – and not just from Ancient Rome – historical evidence is always sparse.
“This time, the senators met in the temple of the goddess Concord, or Harmony, a sure sign that affairs of state were anything but harmonious.”
This being said, towards the latter half of the book, Beard slipped into progressively more presumptuous prose. This was most rampant in the chapter Fourteen Emperors, which frankly read as self-assuredly as the Edward Gibbon whom Beard made the subject of her satire.
I am, however, inclined to give Beard the benefit of the doubt; after all, SPQR was written for the popular reader, not the academic scholar – or even the ancient civilisations enthusiast. So perhaps she felt she was doing us a favour by skipping the sometimes dull elucidations of exactly where her conclusions were drawn from. Her Further Reading section is rather extensive – spanning some 26 pages.
Nevertheless, I would suggest SPQR only as a starting point. A sweeping starting point, yes, but a starting point nonetheless. No single book can ever be a comprehensive account of Ancient Roman history – or any civilisation’s history – anyway, covering ‘just’ the first millennium or no.
Thank you to the kindest InkBlottings for tagging me! I hardly have time to write anything other than book reviews during exam season, so it’s nice to be able to post something a little different. Do check out Jamie’s blog, the originator of this tag, too!
1. Where do you typically write your blog posts?
Obviously, my desk is nowhere near this organised now.
Journal from Whitelines x Leuchtturm.
My workspace corner in the living room, next to the window. I bought my very first desk last year; before that, I just studied on the sofa, which was a terribly unproductive and unergonomic way of doing things.
2. How long does it take you to write a book review?
One or two hours? Depends how much I like the book and how well known it already is. Generally, the more I like a book, the harder it is for me to articulate exactly why it is so incredible. And if it’s a classic, I try harder to contribute something new – or at least something personal.
3. When did you start your book blog?
February 2016, when I should have been revising for my IB mocks instead.
4. What is the worst thing about having a book blog?
The interminable feeling that I could have written something less mediocre.
5. What is the best thing about having a book blog?
The ever-present impetus for engaging with the books I read. Making myself pinpoint why I like or do not like a novel, what I admire about an author, encourages me to process prose with a much more appreciative mindset. Hopefully one day this will help me publish my very own bestseller. ☺️
6. Which blog post have you had the most fun writing?
It’s too hard to choose just one – and some of them aren’t even book reviews! But to shortlist five:
The rules are pretty simple: Answer the questions, give credit to the creator (Jamie), tag five people or more, and have fun! Oh, and leave a link below so I can read your answers too 😊 But don’t feel the need to do the tag if you don’t want to!
Thanks to the author for providing me a copy in exchange for an honest review. For my full review policy, please click here.
“Staring through a rainy window at a little piece of heaven. Unwilling ever to fully participate in the paradise that surrounds her.”
Snow City is – double meaning intended – dreamlike. Not quite surreal, not yet magical realism. In fact, I’m not sure the term ‘realism’ could at all be applied to this novel. The hazy quality is not disquieting though. But it does dull the senses.
Echo Japonica: Thirty-five. Unmarried. Living alone in self-imposed quarantine. One day she was surviving apocalyptic America. The next, she was in Snow City – her utopian dream world painstakingly perfected on nights dogged by desperation and despair. In Snow City, people are kind, children are loved, women are respected. But with a creator still haunted by a depraved reality, how safe can this shelter really be?
As tiresome as Echo’s diction became and as frivolous as her imagined name was, it was hard not to identify with her. This is a tad embarrassing to admit, but I often puzzle over the minute logistics and intricacies of my own imagined worlds – whether they be lifted from my favourite books or new ones I hope will one day make their way into my very own bestseller. Who wouldn’t trade the relative monotony of real life for an existence that redefines the impossible?
And so I had no difficulty immersing myself in Echo’s occasionally melodramatic prose (she has a particular penchant for repetition and ellipses). The plot, too, was intriguing – peppered with well-placed twists, some as bewildering as our protagonist’s predicament. I easily waded through these 240 pages in a single sitting.
The dreamlike tone, however, was a double-edged sword. It lulled me through the entire book, keeping me entangled (the usual ‘hooked’ is too sharp a word here) in the breakneck plot. But there were also frequent allusions to the horrors of the – our – real world, from which Echo escaped. Horrors made all the more horrible by the realisation that they are happening around us, right now. Horrors that we have become desensitised to because this is human nature, right? Snow City was not as immune as Echo had intended it to be either, so harrowing events plagued its coddled centre too. Yet – the emotional response these passages ought to have evoked was muffled by that persistent dreamlike tone. Even the moving moments felt oddly detached.
Despite its promising premise, Snow City also adamantly avoided the issues of reality, religion, death, authorship and creative control. More ‘mundane’ questions were left unanswered too: How did Echo get here? Why did Echo get here? In the end, the whole woke-up-in-her-literal-dream-world business had disappointingly little to do with the story. I know, I know, letting yourself let go and indulge was part of the point. But we still deserved more closure than this.
Overall, Snow City has an idiosyncratic – if a little insubstantial – charm. A quick, easy escape from reality.
“Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.”
Four flights of fancy, these selections from Calvino’s Cosmicomics “interweave scientific fact with wordplay and whimsy”. They tell the history of the universe, witnessed through the eyes of Qfwfq, an exuberant, always extant, chameleon-like figure. But the most extraordinary part isn’t the plot, or the prose, but the opening phenomena, which were once thought to have been real, scientific events. 🌑
The Distance of the Moon: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
The first half was filled with delightful, phosphorescent imagery. But the hollow characterisations did little to endear the lovers’ sheer ridiculousness to me. In such a phantasmic setting, the narrator’s final proclamations ought to have been romantic, but instead just encouraged an eye roll.
Without Colours: ⭐️
Almost as bland as the colourless, “uninterrupted horizons”. The abrupt leaps of language were also too convenient to make the ending poignant. Inventive, certainly, but too insubstantial to sustain my interest.
As Long as the Sun Lasts: ⭐️⭐️
Published three years after the original Cosmicomics, there are subtle inconsistencies in Qfwfq’s recollections of his millennia on Earth. The story was still sweet though – a 12-page expansion on the archetypal bickering old married couple.
“Without which the history of the universe would not have for him any name or memory or flavour, that eternal conjugal bickering: if ever it should one day come to an end, what a feeling of desolation, what emptiness!”
Published 44 years after the original Cosmicomics,Implosion is an abrupt departure from the preceding stories’ conversational tone. Here, Qfwfq is philosophical – no longer enchanting children (or children at heart) by the fire. But while Implosion may be less exuberant and experimental, the introspective prose struck a chord in my introverted soul.
“To explode or to implode, that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to expand one’s energies in space without restraint, or to crush them into a dense inner concentration and cherish them.”
I have been making an effort to read more non-English literature, and these new Penguin Moderns are great bite-sized tasters for new authors and unfamiliar cultures. I’m already halfway through my second one, Four Russian Short Stories!
Heroes have always been monsters who crushed sentimentalism underfoot.
Behind the Prison: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Lethally sharp satire whetted against uncomfortably relatable truths. Behind the Prison is at once uproarious and unapologetically pessimistic.
“No, nothing in this world is as oppressive and debilitating as blood ties.”
“For her I would gladly ferry across the Sumida on the coldest winter day to buy her those sakura-mochi sweets from old Edo that she loved so much. But medicine? Not even on the warmest day would I want to go buy her medicine.”
Closet LLB: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The most personally terrifying of the three. Like Otsukotsu Sansaku, I had “embraced the unshakeable goal of becoming a novelist” as a child, and I, too, steep myself in literature while I have supposedly settled into (and here is the most obvious difference) medicine. Thankfully, studying medicine was my own choice, and I hope to become something of a Paul Kalanithi or Atul Gawande. But my goodness, may I never be reduced to a Sansaku!
“How much fun are you getting out of life?”
General Kim: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This last story fits the blurb best: “beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising”. A delightfully surreal parody of Patriotism with a capital P to round it all off.
“To any nation’s people, their history is glorious. The legend of General Kim is by no means the only one worth a laugh.”
Overall rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
Have you read any Penguin Moderns yet? If so, which ones were your favourites?
TLDR: The A Court of series had as many problems as the moon has craters, and yet I still gave it four to five stars. So why not this?
Here belies another fork in the age-old debate: should language or content take precedence when judging a novel’s quality? Obviously, having both would be ideal. But you can’t always get what you want.
An Enchantment of Ravens may be Rogerson’s debut, but her pen evoked the easy elegance of a seasoned veteran. Her flawless prose was never purple nor plain. It was infused with sly wit, laugh-out-loud wit, dry wit, wry wit. And she detailed oh so succinctly all the pretty particulars of her own renditions of fair folk. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you write.
“He was astonishingly vain even by fair folk standards, which was like saying a pond is unusually wet, or a bear surprisingly hairy.”
A splendid line in a splendid opening paragraph; from a single sentence, I could already discern the defining characteristic of Rogerson’s faeries.
“Once, a Whimsical poet died of despair after finding himself unequal to the task of capturing a fair one’s beauty in simile. I think it more likely he died of arsenic poisoning, but so the story goes.”
And from another splendid sentence (also in the opening chapter), I could already discern how these faeries exerted their influence on their mortal counterparts.
“Imagine all the things I could give you! I could make pearls drop from your eyes in place of tears. I could lend you a smile that enslaves men’s hearts, or a dress that once beheld is never forgotten. And yet you request eggs.”
And from yet another splendid section, I could even discern how exactly these faeries wreaked havoc on humans. No elaboration was needed; Rogerson simply appealed to our cultural consciousness: the French fairy tale, Diamonds and Toads, is internationally ingrained in our childhood canon. And through our enduring fixation on folkloric subversions, we all know very well how this one really ended (spoiler alert: not well for the diamond-spewing sister either)*. Extrapolate this to the latter two suggestions and it would be easy to imagine the woe the promised attention would only have brought.
“I quite like eggs,” I replied firmly. Besides, what on earth would I do with men’s hearts? I couldn’t make an omelette out of them.
Oh, and did I mention the wit?
This post has become less of a review and more of a discussion on what good writing is, but let me curve back around my digression. Clearly, Rogerson writes sublimely. The problem lay in the plot. Nothing in particular was wrong with it; the pacing was just too breakneck, and left little room for meaningful character development. And for what was essentially a romance, this costly mistake pushed the focal relationship dangerously close to insta-love (gosh I dislike this portmanteau so much, but I suppose bloggers must keep up with zeitgeists).
Now, I do not agree with all those reviews slamming An Enchantment of Ravens as a bare-bones copy of A Court of Thorns and Roses. We get it, here we have another faerie prince, and another mortal girl, and the prince also abducts the girl, and they fall in love. But isn’t that like, the premise of half the medieval folk tales our beloved fantasy novels continue to be inspired by? (Beauty and the Beast being just one notable example.) Broad tropes are not nearly enough to make a book a ‘copy’. Otherwise most – if not all – romances would be copies too. (Yes, A Court of Thorns and Roses included, what with its many clichés.) Broad tropes, in themselves, are not valid reasons for dismissing a plot either. Tropes are tropes for a reason, and when reimagined cleverly or stirringly or subversively, they can be powerful stuff. In short, the rest of this book was so different from S.J. Maas’ bestseller, it hardly merited a comparison anyway.
As for the romance, I do not think it qualified as insta-love either. Isobel initially seemed to tick all the wrong boxes, but it soon became apparent that she was just infatuated with the first handsome stranger who didn’t act like a douche. And she did realise this, poor lonely thing. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised to find this timely discussion on infatuation versus real love – an almost meta move, considering the painfully many young adult releases trying to pass off the former as the latter.
I also appreciated how Rogerson subtly showed the small moments where Isobel slowly fell for Rook, so that the reader realised she really was in love before even she herself did – another brilliant move that made her feelings that much more convincing.
Still, the breakneck pacing made it difficult to discern Rook’s reasons for falling for her. So much was glossed over that their relationship could still easily be misconstrued as a fleeting fancy. And the rest of the plot wasn’t nearly intriguing enough to salvage it. For once, I think An Enchantment would have worked much better if it were expanded by 100 pages or so. I acknowledge Rogerson’s success in spinning a story that never bored or so much as tempted me to skim – a remarkable feat. And yet – balance.
All in all, I gave An Enchantment of Ravens four stars because it is so damn
to find such a wonderfully-wrought fantasy novel. I simply could not bear to downgrade it to a three, despite all the disappointments with the plot. I mean, under Rogerson’s hand, even lines that would normally have been cringeworthy were splendent similes instead.
“No. You surpass us all.” Beside me she looked colourless and frail. “You are like a living rose among wax flowers. We may last forever, but you bloom brighter and smell sweeter, and draw blood with your thorns.”
I highly recommend reading An Enchantment of Ravens if you can get past the silly notions of ripped-off storylines and un-ironic infatuation.
*Try Gail Carson Levine’s The Fairy’s Mistake or Catherynne M. Valente’s In Cities of Coins and Spices.