Fawkes

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.”

FawkesAn 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.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

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: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

An Enchantment of Ravens

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Tried to be ~conceptual~ with the “living rose” among books, Aster’s Craft.

Why I still gave this four stars: A Review.

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
difficult
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.

Rating: 4/5


*Try Gail Carson Levine’s The Fairy’s Mistake or Catherynne M. Valente’s In Cities of Coins and Spices.

The Language of Thorns

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Illustrations by Sara Kipin.

“Because we know – even as children – that impossible tasks are an odd way to choose a spouse, that predators come in many guises, that a prince’s whims are often cruel.”

Subversions of classic fairy tales, villainous origin legends, and just damn good short stories, The Language of Thorns is not another funny but forgettable Tales of the Peculiar, or a mellow and melancholic Beedle the Bard (though I do very much love Beedle the Bard!). The depraved and disturbing roam wild in Bardugo’s own signature Small Science: a language truly wrought from thorns.

Each tale is seasoned with the subtle savour of the sprawling, breathing, beating world Bardugo first fashioned in Six of Crows – one with myriad palpable cultures and customs.* The Language of Thorns presents six stories from four nations, and in the names and shifting landscapes, we see reflections of the real countries that Bardugo’s world was built on.

When Water Sang Fire aptly springs from the Scandinavian Hans Christian Andersen’s universally recounted The Little Mermaid. The Witch of Duva is infused with Russian leanings towards Baba Yaga cautionary tales, though its solvent is a purebred German bedtime story: Hansel and Gretel. In true Ketterdam fashion, The Soldier Prince blends The Nutcracker (another German tale retold by a Frenchman and dressed in a Russian ballet) with Velveteen Rabbit, an Anglo-American children’s book. Amaya and the Thorn Wood introduces the spirits and superstitions that frequent African folk tales, and slides down the same spiral streams of Arabic tales within tales. Amaya herself is something of a Scheherazade too.

Love speaks in flowers.
Truth requires thorns.

I only wish these tales were still more strongly steeped in the cultures they supposedly were the vessels of. As they stand, they resemble retellings of traditional European fairy tales more closely than the varied collection I had expected from the author who had so effortlessly written the most diverse fantasy novel I have ever read. I also wish we had something from Shu Han, the only nation influenced by Asian cultures; the only Shu character in Six of Crows had the least screen time and character development.

I adored (an understatement) Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, but I have yet to read the Grisha trilogy – it strikes me as a plain-Jane-Mary-Sue. Judging from other reviews, those who have read the trilogy may be delighted to find one or two familiar faces. But The Language of Thorns was darkly delightful even without such prior knowledge.

More favourite quotes: “It was the wounds from the thicket that had proven all the sweet blossoms and starlight had been real.”
“A thousand desperate wishes had been spoken on these shores, and in the end they were all the same: Make me someone new.”

Favourite tales: The Witch of Duva (Ravkan)
When Water Sang Fire (Fjerdan)
The Third Tale, Amaya and the Thorn Wood (Zemeni)

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


*I do realise the Grisha trilogy came first, but that was set in only Ravka. Six of Crows was a considerably more cosmopolitan adventure.

The Last Namsara

An enjoyable but ultimately forgettable read, Ciccarelli’s debut novel relied too heavily on clichéd characterisations and predictable plot twists. While the symbiosis between stories and dragons was an interesting original element, for a plot line that attempted to spin hair-raising intrigue, the consequences rang hollow.

The Last Namsara had a suffocating focus on the royals’ machinations, with no convincing portrayal of their people’s emotions. If we do not know what the people want, what they believe, who they believe, where their loyalties lie, or how they would react, does it really matter who wins? Not if we don’t really care about said royals either.

Their motivations rang hollow too. Jarek’s insatiable lust for Asha was bewildering; even if it branched off a desire for the throne, there was no need to also desire her body. Did he just want what other men could not have? Because few other men would want her. Was he just a jerk? Maybe. Dax’s revolutionary tendencies were similarly abrupt and uncertain. The romance was even more contrived. Only Asha and the king’s bloodlust was somewhat believable.

Besides, if the people detested the old stories so much, why would they name the wicked girl they feared the most after an ancient goddess? Why did the people become hesitant to execute a criminal once she was given another fabled title? The anti-Old One regime seemed to be deeply entrenched, yet it was only enforced one generation ago. Certain things just didn’t seem properly thought through, as if the author herself did not adequately understand the country or the culture she was creating.

But having said all that, The Last Namsara still was enjoyable. Asha was not exactly likeable (or relatable), but she was sympathetic. I especially liked the short stories wedged between each chapter. Will I be waiting for the second book? No. But this one is still worth a try if you’re in a fantasy book slump. Maybe Ciccarelli will be more ambitious in her next novel.

Rating: 3/5

Ever

In the same spirit of seasonal sentimentality, I reread Gail Carson Levine’s least popular fantasy novel. I had bought my copy from one of those mail-order catalogues my primary school used to hand out – what an era – but I had found the prose too different from her other books to give it more than a perfunctory skim.

Last year, I made a conscious effort to read more books by non-Anglo-American authors. And remembering that Ever was heavily inspired by ancient Mesopotamian myths and texts, I impulsively gave it another go at 2 a.m.

This time around, the writing wove through my mind seamlessly. Each sentence was simple and succinct, but by no means stiff. Some readers have complained that whenever white authors attempt to emulate foreign voices, they contrive gross caricatures of broken English. While in some cases I would agree, Levine’s language was reasonably reminiscent of Pritchard’s anthologies of ancient Near Eastern texts. And regardless of authenticity, the prose was perfectly fluent, lush even, and conveyed lucid Mesopotamian landscapes without the crutch of verbosity.

The plot itself was not exactly impressive, nor were the mythical ordeals empathy-inducing. The romance was heartwarming fluff, but fluff nonetheless. Yet the unexpectedly ambitious themes warrant a full review. Ever was the first novel I had read (well, skimmed) that attempted to navigate the tricky, easily stuffy theological realm. Kezi was raised a devout worshipper of Admat, the omnipresent, omniscient god of her country, Hyte. When she meets a very different god in the flesh, she understandably experiences a spiritual crisis.

Through her eyes, Ever deftly traversed some Big Questions: Is there a God? How can we know whether He exists? How can we know whether He is good? Why do we suffer? Must we suffer? As a second-generation Christian, these questions were certainly relatable. But because of its bold subject matter, Ever has also been met with astringent criticism. Disapproving readers have drawn parallels between the seemingly callous, absent Admat and the Judaeo-Christian God; from that angle, Ever may well seem like an attack on the Abrahamic faiths.

Personally, however, I found few theological similarities. Kezi’s religion may be monotheistic, but the sacred text and religious practices contradict Abrahamic teachings too greatly to permit deeper or more serious comparisons. Levine herself said she deliberately distanced the book from the Bible.

Even if young readers were to draw their own parallels, this novel is still an engaging preface to the crossroads every child raised in a religious family will ultimately reach – questioning what they have always been taught to believe. Whether this leads them to their own personal relationship with their god(s) or to disillusionment, formulating your own understanding of your religion is, in my opinion, the only way you can truly believe. So why rule out a book just because you (or your child) might end up disagreeing with some parts of it?

“A mind is like a parachute. It does not work if it is not open.” – Frank Zappa

Rating: 3/5

How to Live Forever

“Remember is the last month,” said Festival.
“Remember’s not a month.”
“Of course it is,” said Festival. “There are twelve months thirty days long and the five days at the end of the year that are left over are called Remember. It’s when we all remember what happened in the past year, all the people who were born and all the people who died. You have to have Remember, otherwise you’d start the next year out of balance.”

Caesar’s calendar may not have had Colin Thompson’s witticisms, but the Romans did found a December Christmas, which more than suffices for a wallow in nostalgia. In this spirit of seasonal sentimentalism, I watched four seasons of Winx Club and reread this childhood gem.

It took me forever and a day to find this book, in part because I only remembered the above quote (I thought it was the cleverest thing as a child). But more maddeningly, Thompson also wrote a picture book with the exact same name – and a remarkably different plot. The picture book is quite well known – the novel, on the other hand, is not even in print anymore (you can buy a secondhand copy for US$170 on Amazon).

What a trip.

When I did find the book, I was surprised by how few people know of it. Essentially every English novel can be found and dissected on Goodreads – the bibliophile’s digital paradise, overflowing with needlessly lengthy reviews and pre-reviews and pre-release-reviews of the most niche books – and only 18 other people have rated How to Live Forever (compared to the 1074 who have rated the picture book).

My surprise was compounded by how well-written it is. For a children’s novelist, Thompson showed surprising restraint. Incongruous expository dialogues were sparse, the obstacles convincing, and the solutions not dei ex machina. The magic made enough sense to keep me invested in the characters’ mortal perils. And most impressively, the quirky details of the magical world were littered dismissively – that is to say, delightfully realistically – throughout the first three quarters of the book, until the protagonist finally caught on and all was explained. An infinitely more engaging introduction to a magical world than most children’s books allow.

Tricked into an alternate reality where books are as large as houses (in fact, they are houses), Peter searches for his father and the fabled Ancient Child with his Caretaker, a girl who was born at the same minute he was and consequently tasked with showing him around. As they journey through each gallery of the living library, readers will discover witty subversions of idioms and clichés, peculiarly disgusting creatures, and a strange abundance of wizened old men of dubious character.

“They live down on gallery two in the Chinese Sixteenth.”
“Don’t you mean the Chinese Quarter?” said Peter.
“No. That would be a quarter of a gallery. This is only a sixteenth.”

Unfortunately, some common pitfalls were still left unfilled. The scenes attempting to heighten the suspense by evoking an emotional response were embarrassingly overdone. Of course, as a child, I was less critical. I did find Peter’s outbursts irritating, but I brushed off his overzealous internal dilemmas as passable ways to raise the stakes. Then again, I was also stuck with other ‘age-appropriate’ books whose authors were often much more uncomprehending of children’s emotional capacities.

Ultimately, How to Live Forever is still a marvellous specimen of a children’s book that does not underestimate children – an increasingly elusive breed. Its wit will be sure to charm even grown readers wanting a light, heartwarming, winter read.

Rating: 4/5