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

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

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