Snow City

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 Front CoverSnow 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.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Gold Shadow

Thanks to the author for providing me with an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review. For my full review request policy, please click here.

“Don’t look like you’re going to cry all the time. Tears are one of their favourite drinks around here.”

I liked the second half decidedly more than the first; it was difficult believing both were written by the same person. But first, coffee some general observations: Gold Shadow promised diversity, and it delivered – superlatively. Some uninspired introductions were a little on the nose, unlike the easy assembly of Kaz Brekker’s criminal crew. But it never crossed into tokenism, and once the North American setting was revealed, it lost its studied air.

Imagine if Black Mirror’s Nanette Cole had yelled at Robert Daly, “You think you’re the misunderstood nerd, but you’re just another sick, entitled white guy who can only feel masculine behind a computer screen!” The first half of Gold Shadow would have been the expository equivalent. In fact, it may as well have been one grand explanation, with a side of sudden jumps into minor characters’ points of views, as if the protagonists’ running commentaries were not explicit enough. Besides, for a character whose whole life had been eked out in the same hellhole, the dutifully described details would have long been taken for granted. An especially exasperating scene saw another character explaining the types of slaves to an escaped slave.*

Having said that, getting through the first half was not hard; the plot was intriguing enough. It just could have been a much more full-bodied blend of form and function, given how much better the second half already was.

Ah, the second half. We were finally allowed some actual action, and Perry likewise progressed to more polished prose. Her writing showed such articulate restraint, I almost forgot my prior frustration. I especially enjoyed experiencing Ebony’s world through her enemy’s eyes – after all, this enemy was not privy to any information, so she had no explanations to lavish on us. No, she had to deduce, as we should have been allowed to deduce.

Without the crutch of clarifications, character development also flourished. The main cast was finally dressed with flesh beneath their stereotypical façades: the strong and silent one, the broken beauty, the outwardly cold but secretly soft-hearted leader… A few characterisations had come off as contrived in the beginning (Ebony’s soulless survivor persona, for example; the self-evident declarations of emotional detachment did not help), but Perry’s better bridled hand ended up convincing me to unreservedly, unconditionally invest my (rather delicate) emotions in the entire cast – the ‘good’ and the inane alike.

Another reason Perry is a babe is the blessèd absence of romance. I do like my realistic romances, which I think add some welcome hope and lightness and angst and pathos to high-stakes and action-packed plots. Amongst these characters however, the mildest insinuation of that kind of emotional intimacy would have been a blue whale out of water. So thank goodness for Perry’s wisdom here – a virtue that is sadly absent in worryingly many recent and raved-about young adult releases.

Ironically, the few instances of additional world-building in the second half were also far more effective than all the descriptions in the first half combined. There were still some details missing that would have helped me care more about the characters’ country. I have yet to grasp just how advanced the technology has become, or what the general populace think or know or want. But since Perry concentrated on crafting the slave cities and the rebellion in this first book, it was understandable.

All this to say, I look forward to reading the second book. The ending of this one was tantalising, to say the least. And if the second half was anything to go by, I am sure the next instalment will have writing deserving of a place in young adult bestseller displays.

“Being early meant being on time. Being on time meant being late. But being late was unacceptable.”

And may it be published early, then.

Favourite quote: This may be my new favourite dedication: “To all those aspiring writers who dream first and sleep later.”
Rating: 3/5


*Show, for heavens’ sake, don’t tell! seems to be my personal Peeves. A small selection of books that give their readers proper credit: A Darker Shade of Magic (its sequels, not so much), The Bear and the Nightingale, Caraval, The City of Brass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, How to Live Forever (the novel), The Night Circus, and of course, the ever beloved Harry Potter.

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” – Ernest Hemingway

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

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 brother’s 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