The King of Bones and Ashes

Thanks to the publisher for providing me an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review. The King of Bones and Ashes will be available on 23rd January 2018.

Winnowing between three female narrators, Horn conjured a marvellous cobweb of Machiavellian machinations. The witches were meticulous murderers, preying on the more merciful and spinning soul-stirring confessions from omissions and lies. A family drama this may be, but certainly not the suffocating, suburban kind.

The novel ensnares with its serpentine subterfuge – by the end, I trusted only five characters. Three were the protagonists. One was long dead. The mysteries were unscryable, the twists bizarre. Nothing could have prepared me for the final reveal – I physically recoiled, after the five solid minutes I needed to process it. Nearing the last chapter, I was positively panicking that Horn would cut us off with a cliffhanger – this will be a trilogy after all, and he was still throwing major twists so near the end. Thank goodness he deigned to give us some closure.

My first Horn book, The King of Bones and Ashes had an idiosyncratic grain. The atmosphere throughout was strangely muted, as if the magical community were sealed off from the conventional world by a viscous, translucent film. I have never been to New Orleans, but the images that filled my mind had the same saturated filter as Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Set in a neon-hip, kitsch-modern beach park, the adaptation exuded an uncanny mixture of familiar and foreign, current and nostalgic. Horn’s latest did the same.

This book was also hard to neatly shelve. Some scenes were skin-crawlingly horrific, others were power struggles that would have made an Asian period drama proud. Oh, and magic was involved. There was also an unsettling strand of American Horror Story freakishness (fans of the series will likely enjoy this too), but with less of the occasional humour.

Would I recommend The King of Bones and Ashes? Sure. But maybe not for late-night reading.

Rating: 4/5

Monstress: Awakening

The award-winning and critically lauded Monstress series by an MIT professor and a Marvel illustrator caught my eye with the promised expansive world-building and layered characterisations. Set in an alternate matriarchal Asia, the steampunk-meets-kaiju graphic novel follows an Arcanic (a human and Ancient half-breed) wreaking vengeance for her dead mother.

The inherent advantage of graphic novels is that, because a single panel can impart so much more information than the average sentence, few introductions are needed. And in Monstress, readers are thrown straight into the war-torn bowels of a genocidal cult, a slave camp, and two enigmatic Arcanic Courts. The very first panel is a full-page illustration of Maika, our protagonist, stripped naked and being auctioned off for parts, sex and other unspoken horrors.

On the flip side, some authors rely too heavily on this convenience, tipping the balance too far towards ‘showing’ (without actually showing us much). They fashion ambitious worlds, but fail to supply compelling cultures and histories. Worse, in some novels, you have no idea what those cultures or histories even are, or what the heck is going on half the time. Disappointingly, Monstress belonged to the latter group.

Too many invented terms and technologies and species were slung in at once, with few effective definitions or demonstrations, despite the aforementioned option of just drawing it out. Details of characters’ lives and relationships were so haphazardly littered throughout the volume, I had no clue which ones were actually significant and which were just fillers. I was often plagued by the feeling that the panels were spliced together by some Machiavellian mischief-maker who cut out the important moments for petty torture. As the convoluted plot progressed, my questions only multiplied. I’m not sure I’m bothered to look for answers in the second book.

Maybe the characters really were more nuanced than your typical comic book heroines. The last graphic novel I read was Maus in Year 10, so I do not have much to compare them with. But compared with traditional novels, given how poorly the illustrations conveyed information, Maika’s identity crisis and emotional turmoil only succeeded in being a tad contrived.

The Art Deco-manga art was stunningly intricate. A shame that the elaborate detail did little to carry the actual narrative.

Rating: 2/5

Half of a Yellow Sun

This is a hard book to review. It was moving and merciless. The language was so consuming, when my mother called, “Come! Eat your chicken udon before it gets soggy!” for a moment I gawked and thought, We have meat! Then I realised what a fool I was. Of course we have meat. We always have meat.

Another image swam through the many imagined ones still treading in the shallows of my mind. My friends and I were sitting on the uneven planks of a stilt house. The wooden, wall-less structure served as Ban Chôk’s community centre. We had just eaten our first meal in the village and our interpreter was asking us what we thought of the food. Someone said, “There’s no meat. Can we have some meat next time?” Others nodded. I also nodded, even though I did not notice that there was no meat and I liked the coriander soup and boiled vegetables anyway. After the man left, our teacher said quietly, “Meat is expensive.”

I remember those words from time to time. They always kindle in me something akin to shame. School voluntourism trips are always somewhat hollow, but it was another level of irony to demand so unthinkingly from the people we were supposed to have been helping.

Half of a Yellow Sun is commanding like that. It immerses you in the mundane, meticulous details, which bring other details from your own life with them. From the eyes of five characters (an uneducated village houseboy, a radical professor, his rich and beautiful and cultured lover, her twin and an Englishman), we see an intimate, pitiless tapestry of the years leading up to and embroiled in the Biafran War. Adichie’s narrative is one that needs no exposition – the famine, rapes, forced conscriptions, international politics, national politics, civilian massacres… all were palpable through her characters’ individual treks through love and loss. In the first half, at least.

In the second half, those same details lost their potency. The metallic tang of war was already in the air, yet we were still tangled up in personal scandals that took entire chapters to unfold. I was irritated by how frequently the precipitating event was clumsily alluded to – obvious attempts at building suspense. But reading “the months before Baby was born” twice on the same page only fanned my frustration more than anything.

My criticism may sound paradoxical; after all, these deeply personal narratives are what make Half of a Yellow Sun so evocative. But somewhere in the middle, they just became distractions. I wanted awfully to like the book, so I took a break and read something else first. I only came back to it four books and a month later.

I’m so glad I finally finished it. Once we moved past the scandalous event, the prose returned to its unflinching brilliance. Half of a Yellow Sun is a book I would recommend to everyone. I will never adequately articulate how arresting and haunting and relevant it is. This story is not over yet.

Favourite quote: “This is our world, although the people who drew this map put their land on top of ours. There is no top or bottom, you see.”
Rating:
4/5

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom

Is it just me or is reviewing a book you love a lot harder than reviewing a book you really dislike? Because I promise I do not normally take a month to write a review. I originally bought Six of Crows for my flight to New York, but ended up reading Being Mortal instead (I had just lost my phone in the Hong Kong airport so I was, ironically, not in the mood for an escapist book – I was too busy worrying). I was, however, in the mood once I had settled into my queen-sized hotel bed that night and sorted out how I would get my phone back. A mistake, because I only went to sleep at 5 a.m. after I had finished the whole thing in one sitting. #typical

To bookend the trip (pun intended), I bought Crooked Kingdom for my flight back to Hong Kong. But of course it did not download properly, and of course I did not find out until well into the flight (also #typical). So what was the obvious thing to do? Start it at 1 a.m. once I had settled down on my sofa at home. And only go to sleep at 5 a.m. after I had finished the whole thing in one sitting.

I have never read the Shadow and Bone trilogy, which is set in the same universe. I do not think I ever will – the premise looks a bit too plain-Jane-Mary-Sue, and from other readers’ comments, Six of Crows seems to be the darker, ‘edgier’ cousin. But that did not give me any trouble getting into this duology. Bardugo’s sleight of hand in the first chapter was a brilliant move. You are first introduced to an impressively fleshed out cast with histories and futures you quickly become invested in, only to be pitched into the next chapter to meet the real criminal crew. It was a splendidly sly opening, subtly foreshadowing the ingenious, labyrinthine plot in store.

This real crew was easy to love. Bardugo’s greatest strength is the rich diversity of her characters and world. Six of Crows is probably the most diverse fantasy novel I have read in at least the last few years. Few books manage to bring together comparably diverse characters – there are the logistical obstacles (the effort required to craft so many cultures, to devise convincing reasons for these very different people to be in the same place at the same time), and then there is the simple fact that it does not even occur to most authors to actively consider it in the first place.

There was justified criticism of the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Bardugo’s pick-and-mix inspiration from Russian culture. In Six of Crows, she was careful to inject three-dimensional cultural backgrounds into her characters, more mindfully shaping their languages, customs, dress, religions, values, even details like staple foods. With this elaborate arsenal, her duology was even able to touch on exoticization, genocidal indoctrination and state-sanctioned mistreatment of minorities. It is only with such diversity that an imagined universe comes alive – not just as an isolated, generic kingdom or woodland or gritty city. But as a sprawling, breathing, beating world.

Yes, the ‘impossible-beyond-impossible heist by some overlooked outcasts’ premise was a bit clichéd. But Bardugo made it work. Every member of the crew had talents that were incredible, but still believable. There were no deus ex machina magical powers, no deus ex machina ways out. This was where Kaz Brekker’s genius (which is to say, Bardugo’s genius) shone. There was never a moment when I could guess what his ultimate plans were. Just when you think he has finally been cornered, he pulls a Plan Z that flips the cards back into his hand. And because of this uncanny a-hundred-steps-ahead thinking, I was easily convinced that only he could lead a bunch of teenagers into an unbreachable fortress, steal an internationally hunted hostage and escape alive.

If you want a roller-coaster plot and a lucidly imagined world with unrivalled diversity, the Six of Crows duology will be right up your (crooked) canal.

Favourite quotes: Kaz leaned back. “What’s the easiest way to steal a man’s wallet?”
“Knife to the throat?” asked Inej.
“Gun to the back?” said Jesper.
“Poison in his cup?” suggested Nina.
“You’re all horrible,” said Matthias. – Six of Crows

“Have any of you wondered what I did with all the cash Pekka Rollins gave us?”
“Guns?” asked Jesper.
“Ships?” queried Inej.
“Bombs?” suggested Wylan.
“Political bribes?” offered Nina. They all looked at Matthias. “This is where you tell us how awful we are,” she whispered. – Crooked Kingdom

Ratings: Six of Crows 4/5
Crooked Kingdom 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Day the Angels Fell

Thanks to the publisher for providing me an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review. The Day the Angels Fell will be available on 5th September.

“Children are caterpillars and adults are butterflies. No butterfly ever remembers what it felt like being a caterpillar.” – Cornelia Funke

The most exasperating pitfall of children and Middle Grade books is when authors underestimate their young readers. They underestimate their emotional depth, their comprehension of love and loss, their intelligence, their ability to carry themselves with composure. Children are so used to being overlooked, they observe and surmise a lot more than adults would expect.

On intelligence

For the entire middle third, I was not sure whether the author thinks his readers are that incompetent to not be able to piece together the blindingly obvious clues or if he wants his characters to seem that incompetent. Because my eight-year-old cousin would figure it all out stat. And Sam, our protagonist, was already 11 years old. Besides, his best friend was supposedly smart. Realistically, she would have figured it all out stat too. The only silver lining was that it provided some unintended eye-rolling humour.

If Smucker really wanted to make his book longer, instead of dragging on the dramatic irony for chapter after chapter, he could easily have developed the relationship between the elderly Sam and the young son of his tenant. When the novel ended, they still barely had any rapport, and in a book attempting to tackle the loss of innocence, it was an unfortunate waste.

On emotional depth

Even more frustrating was how severely Smucker underestimated children’s cognisance of death. Yes, denial and fluctuating emotions are very realistic reactions. But Smucker’s contrived execution of Sam’s wilful blindness and moral dilemma did little to make him relatable – only forced and unsympathetic. He was mature enough to immediately understand how eternal life, without perpetual youth, would be torture. But the next moment he was bewilderingly desperate to give his mother such a life.

A more convincing and meaningful arc would have had Sam not recognise this tortuous consequence until later, perhaps after he came to terms with his anger and guilt (with a little help from Abra and Mr Tennin). Or the angels’ story could have been revealed later. Since Sam remained in denial for most of the book anyway, his primary dilemma could first have been deciding who to trust (after all, in the real world, distinguishing between good and evil is rarely packaged with such obvious pointers) or a much harder time finding the three materials (the symbolism of which could also have been better considered).

Instead, any intended poignancy was lost. A shame, because some elements of The Day the Angels Fell were reminiscent of the acclaimed A Monster Calls. What Patrick Ness understood was that his preteen readers can grasp more than the inevitability and finality of death. Instead, his character grappled with guilt – guilt over being tired of mentally clinging on to his mother, tired of feeling duty bound to dredge up more vain hope each time she tried a new treatment. Maybe many adults are doubtful that a child’s comprehension of death could be nuanced enough to factor in society’s implied ‘acceptable’ stance on cancer and death (i.e. the former should always be fought and the latter always avoided at all costs), let alone that the same child could be burdened by it. That’s frankly a little condescending, isn’t it?

Bottom line

The Day the Angels Fell had potential, but turned out to be a disappointing misunderstanding of its own target audience.

Rating: 2/5

Revenants: The Odyssey Home

Thanks to the author for providing me a copy in exchange for an honest review. Though I was gifted this book, these opinions remain mine. For my full review request policy, please click here.

The publisher’s note at the end of the book called Revenants a novel “that might haunt them from time to time”. I agree. Though claiming to be a retelling of the Odyssey, there are only loose conceptual similarities. The war is still ongoing, there are no tragic maidens on magical islands, Betsy has no husband desperately fending off seductresses. The monsters and trials Betsy wrestles are all from inside her: anger, depression, guilt, grief. And although she eventually takes a decade to find her way back ‘home’, most of the novel covers only the months immediately after her brother’s death.

Kauffman’s keen grasp of the diction of two periods separated by 55 years and defined by two very different, devastating wars breathes lucid authenticity into his characters. He presents his readers a savage, unromanticised portrait of war, both at the actual front and in the homes, communities and nations embroiled in it, elucidating its relentless, divaricating trails of ruin – and the political machines it still feeds. His strokes are both graphic and allusory; aside from the one prosaic, expository paragraph on Betsy’s brother’s final hours, Revenants is a deft demonstration of how to show-not-tell.

One of my main gripes was the frequent typos and occasional grammatical mistakes in my Kindle edition. I often had to reread sentences to guess what they were intended to say, and it drew me out of the otherwise immersive atmosphere. But contrary to other readers, I did not find the beginning slow. While Revenants was not a gripping read, every development and flashback was purposeful. The secret patient’s memories were richly detailed, but they were compelling rather than tedious. The plot progressed at a comfortable, steady pace; I was never bored. In fact, I found Betsy’s coping behaviours at the beginning a tad abrupt and theatrical, and a quicker pace would have made her even more caricatured.

Even after her much more convincing emotional growth, she sporadically lapsed into histrionic utterances. For example, when Nurse Baker comforted her and explained how the patients keep themselves from jumping off the roof, she responded, “That’s me. Climbing up that ladder to the roof, one day, one rung, at a time”. Or abruptly in a colloquial conversation with her father: “I could be the thread by which one of them manages to hang on. Manages to go home”. While these could have been potent unvoiced thoughts, when used in direct speech, they felt incongruous, if not eye-rolling.

I was also hoping for more on her parents’ and her younger brothers’ own odysseys to acceptance, so to speak. Some plot developments were also too convenient (Betsy being asked to organise the old patient files just after it had occurred to her that the secret patient’s file might be hidden among them, and just after a staff member had told her she would normally never get access to them). Betsy did offer to help, but only with paperwork in general.

Nevertheless, I was impressed by Revenants. It is a poignant account of personal guilt and communal grief, disguised as a tragic mystery and woven with a romance. Though I ultimately decided to give it three stars, they are three very big stars. A historical war novel you will find difficult to forget.

Favourite quote: “So?” “So nobody works here for long even if they’s suffering from the giantest Jesus complex there ever was.”
Rating: 3/5

Being Mortal

Part review, part reflection. Maybe the withering aeroplane air was making my eyes watery. Maybe I wasn’t functioning properly with only two hours of sleep. For whatever reason, as I read this book on my flight to New York, I found it so profoundly moving at times, I even shed a few tears.

I am not unfamiliar with mortality and death; my eldest cousin passed away a few years ago, my father was hospitalised during the SARS epidemic, my great-great-aunt is in a nursing home and no longer remembers who I am, my mother had cancer, I wrote my IB Extended Essay on active and passive euthanasia. Yet I had never given serious thought to the social, cultural and economic crisis ageing has become.

In his fourth book, Gawande unpicks the crucial ingredients of a life, though limited by a body breaking down, that is still fulfilling. He also unpicks when it becomes wise to start letting go, and what letting go really means. He touches on euthanasia and assisted suicide, and how their implications run deeper than simply offering one more choice – they shape entire cultures’ perceptions of, reactions to and proposed solutions for the ageing population. And he does all this with a compelling, compassionate voice.

When put into written words, our attitudes towards dying and the dying are almost absurd. Our modern culture increasingly prioritises the children’s need for peace of mind over the ageing’s need for a dignified, autonomous life. And this prioritisation is viewed as the loving course of action. It is paternalism – a word the said children’s generation cringes at – reversed. The history of nursing homes likewise stems from logic that retrospectively sounds foolish: why don’t we shuttle the old and infirm into these hospital ward variants until they recover? Hence, “nursing” homes. The fact is, we never recover. The only certainty in life, after all, is death. So why do we so stubbornly pursue ever more aggressive invasive procedures and sterile, depressing ‘homes’ for the dying? This is the pressing question Gawande attempts to answer.

On a more personal note, like the AIDS patients in the Carstensen Hong Kong-American experiments, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, her perspective was overhauled. By the time I was finishing primary school, I knew where my parents keep their share certificates, the passwords for all their financial documents, how to pay the electricity and water bills online, and the minutiae of their wills. Just in case I die in a freak accident, she would always say. I never had much interest in these conversations, not because I wanted to avoid thinking about death, but because her fixation had turned it into another mundane source of nagging. And an 11-year-old could only have so much interest in life insurance claims.

But Gawande pushed me to empathise with her fixation, which I shamefully admit I had never attempted to do. Being Mortal is an important book, not only for the generation that is currently ageing, but also (and perhaps more so) for the generation after. We are the ones who wield the power to shape how we will age in the future generations to come.

Rating: 4/5