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

Swimming Lessons

Yesterday (or rather, the day before, since it is now past midnight), I walked into the most beautiful bookstore in Tribeca, with floor-to-ceiling shelves, gleaming brass ladders, and the kind of muffling carpet that belongs to grand hotels of old. It was called The Mysterious Bookshop.

Feeling quite overwhelmed, I simply plucked the first pretty cover I saw and sank into the burgundy leather sofa. The book was Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. It began beautifully – the prose was limpid, like running water. The words tumbled and pooled into Southend Pier summer snapshots – pastels, sunshine, bubbling laughter. I was hooked.

But it quickly dissolved into a love-hate relationship, though thankfully not quite as tempestuous as Ingrid and Gil’s. Flora was the generic self-centred, sexually assured, ‘screwed up’ millennial younger sister. Nan was the generic Bert to her Ernie. And Gil was the generic smooth-as-silk seductive English professor. The only character that had any flesh was Ingrid, the vanished mother we only meet in hidden letters. Her voice was a lucid dream, and I was rooting for her from her very first page. Sadly – and I suppose it was already clear from the novel’s premise – everything only spirals downwards. I only became more and more frustrated by her complete inability to turn back. To properly process how disastrous her relationship is and to run the hell out of there.

Even with the countless affairs, illegitimate children, and betrayals by almost everyone around her, she continued to just let her life crumble into precisely what she had sworn she would never let it come to. Back when she was young and had dreams and did not know Gil Coleman (Get it? Gil? Gill? Swimming lessons? Hah.). Come to think of it, we never learn her dreams. Details of her life before Gil were disconcertingly absent. Her identity was wholly built on her relationship with her husband. Gil was infuriating too. He had the nerve to think, as he fell, that he wanted to tell Ingrid how much he loved her. Pah! If he had ever loved her, he would never have caused her such relentless humiliation and emotional torture. He loved her body and he loved how he managed to catch and tame her mermaid soul. He did not love her. I was even frustrated by Flora and her infantile frustration at Nan, just because she was more responsible. Basically, I was frustrated a lot.

But what was the most frustrating was the epilogue. After going through the maddening lows of Ingrid and Gil’s marriage and their daughters’ present-day unresolved grief, we were given no answers. At all. Which would have been a little more bearable if the novel had ended at the final chapter. In some ways, Swimming Lessons was about being okay with not knowing. Flora finally accepted that her mother had drowned, and tentatively began to move on. Yet Fuller completely unravelled her own arguments by throwing in the epilogue, which implied that Ingrid was, indeed, alive. Now what? Was she there because she needed closure too? Was she there to reveal herself to her daughters after eleven years? Was she there to see if Gil had missed her? Or was it a random woman after all? But by then, I’m not even sure I care anymore.

The entire book was a fine dining restaurant well past its glory days, presenting an exasperating parade of amuse-bouches and never managing to make the entrée. No amount of mesmerising prose can ever make up for the perplexing mess Fuller somehow managed to spin out of nothing.

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!

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

A Court of Mist and Fury

A bit late to the party, but yes, A Court of Mist and Fury was an enormous improvement both pacing and character development-wise. For one, I wasn’t tempted to skim entire chapters like I was for the first book. The fights and harrowing encounters were convincingly well-matched, but never drawn-out or gratuitous. There was an irksome amount of ‘telling’, but I suppose it highlighted the thunderstorm of confusion and self-hate and hurt and hopelessness that was tearing Feyre apart – if a little inelegantly. The sex scenes, on the other hand, were definitely drawn-out and gratuitous, especially with how frequent they became towards the second half. And given Maas’ very limited, very specific vocabulary for them, they were rather repetitive too.

Regardless, I am thoroughly impressed by how well she had handled the love triangle. Its purpose was nothing so trivial as creating unnecessary drama or anguish – it demonstrated, with raw emotion, how indescribable horrors can break people apart, jagged fragment by jagged fragment, until a borderline abusive relationship can pretend to be happiness’ false twin. It also brilliantly showed what love should represent – equality, honesty, vulnerability.

Some readers were indignant that falling out of love is normal, that Tamlin didn’t need to be painted a villain. (1) I don’t think that was the point at all. Under the Mountain had wrecked him, and it was the only way he knew how to react. He was always the shelterer, even in the first book, when he had sent Feyre away knowing that she could break the curse.

“Tell me there’s some way to help you,” I breathed. “With the masks, with whatever threat has taken so much of your power. Tell me – just tell me what I can do to help you.”

“There’s nothing I want you to do… It’s my burden to bear… I want you here, where I can look after you – where I can come home and know you’re here, painting and safe.”

– A Court of Thorns and Roses

(2) Let’s suppose they miraculously escaped less emotionally scarred. The slow, blurred unravelling of Feyre’s love would have taken far far longer, and with Maas’ evident pacing problems, I’m perfectly fine with the quicker way forward, thank you very much.

Feyre was also far more like the Feyre I had imagined when I first picked up A Court of Thorns and Roses. With a little help from her new family, she learned to conquer her panic, guilt and shame. To let herself realise her own worth, despite it all. And since her trials in the last book, she became wiser, shrewder – dangerous in her own right, and not because she unleashed a High Lord’s power. I’m glad I plowed on through the first book, because this was so so much better.

Favourite quotes: “I fell in love with you, smartass, because you were one of us – because you weren’t afraid of me, and you decided to end your spectacular victory by throwing that piece of bone at Amarantha like a javelin. I felt Cassian’s spirit beside me in that moment, and could have sworn I heard him say, If you don’t marry her, you stupid prick, I will.”

“To the people who look at the stars and wish, Rhys.” “To the stars who listen – and the dreams that are answered.”

Rating: 5/5 (originally 4/5)

For my review on A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first book, click here.