There are no good men in this game, said Mitch. Only Mitch was not entirely correct. There are no perfect men – good and pure is a dangerous conflation. And good, being a relative thing, suited Mitch and Sydney well, at least. Victor was surprisingly good too. Sure, he hungered for sweet, sadistic revenge. Fantasised the exact places he would fire bullet after bullet into his former best friend. But said friend almost killed him first, so it was fair play. Or within the confines of understandable human reactions, anyway. (In V.E. Schwab’s other series, Lila relished the thought of carving Holland up, but no one would call her bad.) But even though Victor never grows into the villain that flared in the blurbs and summaries and mountains of praise, it did not matter in the end. This book is still dangerously enchanting.

I had said before that Schwab paints her characters in shifting shades of grey. In Vicious, she painted them in black. Some more than others (Eli is straight up Vanta), but all nonetheless a deliciously dark absence of colour. To be clear, black still does not necessarily mean bad here. In my books, Victor is arguably ‘good’. What it does mean is that this cast is on a completely different level than Holland. But not quite on the Dane twins’ either. They tore free of the pages with fascinating motives and wants and needs. Fascinating because with a little more blind ambition and a lot more arrogance, it becomes disturbingly easy to imagine ourselves in the protagonists’ shoes. That is how well Schwab crafts her characters – with deeply grounded motives, rationales, pasts, calculated trajectories. Even Eli’s depraved fanaticism and Serena’s similarly perverted, misdirected anger were, in a terribly twisted way, understandable.

The pacing was breakneck, even with the constant cutting back and forth between the past and the present. In Shades of Magic, the fickle dance between places and perspectives was the weakest strand. But in Vicious, Schwab doled out hearty, even servings of suspense. Every present chapter ended on the glinting edge of another precipice, but so did every past chapter. Even as I inwardly groaned whenever I was whipped away from the present timeline with a burning desire to know what happens next, I also had to feed another burning desire to know what happened next in the past timeline too. A cruel game, Schwab played. But a very clever one. Where there were slower (but alas, necessary) flashbacks, she wisely kept them succinct.

Some readers found Eli’s ‘religious’ fanaticism too abrupt or extreme to be believable. Personally, his ‘religion’ felt wrong even before he convinced himself that he was doing “God’s work”. As Victor wryly observed, what sane religious man would pray to Him for the strength to play God? Eli was worshiping himself, feeding his sickly inflated ego first by demanding that God make him into more, then by masquerading as a blessed angel. Besides, today’s grim reality shows how it is all too possible to twist religious zeal into something terrifyingly corrupt.

For a truly vicious tale spun from an original reinterpretation of superhumans and characters you will loathe and be intrigued by to the same disquieting degree, Schwab’s debut adult book is a thrilling, unputdownable read.

Favourite quote: “I want to believe that there’s more.” Victor sloshed a touch of whiskey over the edge of his glass. “That we could be more. Hell, we could be heroes.” “We could be dead,” said Eli. “That’s a risk everyone takes by living.”
5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

For my review on Warm Up, the short story prequel, click here. For my reviews on V.E. Schwab’s other series, click here.

A Conjuring of Light

In truth, Schwab’s matter-of-fact prose plunged too far into the unfortunate ‘telling’ territory. And her miscalculated attempts to throw in some final paradigm shifts cast an amateurish tone over the characters’ voices. But lacing up the loose ends well (and leaving all the right ones free) is half the battle when it comes to concluding instalments, so I must give Schwab well-deserved credit for doing such a masterful job. I stand by my four stars.

While Schwab’s penchant for s p e l l i n g  o u t her characters’ emotions was already noticeable in the first two novels, the passages were far less frequent and drawn-out (and hence less glaringly obtrusive). Even more exasperatingly, many of the passages in A Conjuring of Light simply repeated the same tiresome internal ‘dilemmas’ in the preceding books. (If I drank every time I read yet another paragraph on Lila’s instinct to run or kill Alucard or otherwise sever relationships, I would have been too intoxicated to read past the first few sections.) Continue reading “A Conjuring of Light”

By Light We Knew Our Names

When I found this collection of magical realism vignettes, I was certain that I would love it like I did Like Water for Chocolate and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Instead, the thirteen short stories left me wanting – though for exactly what, I cannot articulate. Coming of age, parental relationships, death and feeling trapped were recurring themes, and Anne Valente explores them with an abundance of symbolism. But I was often left wondering what it is that she actually wants to evoke with the sometimes bizarre supernatural elements.

We have girls turning into bears in Dear Amelia, and while I appreciated the ideas of indignant hope, of shame and loneliness, of fighting against the inevitable, the final message of burrowing into dens and ignoring it all failed to strike any emotional chord. On the other hand, To a Place Where We Take Flight and Terrible Angels had poignant passages, but were otherwise unremarkable. The plot developments were not particularly original, nor were the perspectives presented by the protagonists. In fact, much of the book was similarly unmemorable, beyond the persistent irritation half the characters seemed to ignite in me. Continue reading “By Light We Knew Our Names”

On the Merits of Young Adult Fiction

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis

When bubbling excitedly about a novel I have just finished reading, I am often met with the same uninterested shrug. “I don’t care for young adult books.” I see questions on Goodreads below new releases, anxiously asking whether they are adult books, because how improper would it be to enjoy something aimed at teenagers. So I cannot help myself but try to articulate how this folly against young adult literature is misinformed on multiple levels.

Level 1: There are two sides to every coin.

Young adult books are not by definition insubstantial – take The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, chock-full of literary and cultural allusions to rival (and better) most adult books I have read. Nor are they necessarily lacking originality – Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a favourite example. It is true that publishers are far more generous when it comes to green-lighting young adult books, which allows a much greater volume of less-than-stellar novels to be made available for public purchase. But obversely, this also enables fledgling writers to take greater risks with idiosyncratic ideas and writing styles. Most of my favourite authors were first found through their young adult books, rather than their adult ones.

And on the other side of the coin, adult books are not necessarily deliciously complex either. In fact, with the additional burden of having to prove themselves unconventional enough or controversial enough or profound enough, many just come off as pretentious try-hards, for want of a more elegant phrase. There are delicate balancing acts between showing and telling, and then there are broken sequences of such shapeless impressions that you wonder whether the author himself has any idea what he wants his readers to be mystified about in the first place.

Level 2: Do not judge a book by its cover (or blurb or genre).

Perhaps the irony is that even beautifully articulate and sufficiently phantasmagorical adult works are frequently shelved as ‘young adult’ books. Not because of their content or tone or whether the author usually writes for young adults. But because they are fantasy novels. I have seen The Night Circus and The Magicians in the young adult section in bookstores and on Goodreads. The problem with thinking of young adult and adult as genres is that they simply are not. They are audiences, both perfectly capable of reading sci-fi and romance and horror and thrillers set in sleepy suburbs. The distinction is better drawn between the themes that they are more likely to be interested in (perhaps adults are less inclined to read coming-of-age fiction, because it does not reverberate with their current circumstances).

In an effort to circumvent this preconception, yet another age group has been coined ‘New Adult’, which loosely encompasses the years between 18 and 30. Supposedly, the books in this category provide much better ‘insight’ than properly young adult books, because they show the protagonists’ life experiences gradually eclipsing their childhood innocence. Personally, I do not see why this label is needed at all. The primary purpose of many young adult books is precisely to explore this transition, albeit some fulfilling it better than others. But the same goes for whatever books might be in this new category. There are always well-written and less well-written novels, regardless of who you lump them with. Though I suppose, from a purely commercial perspective, it makes simultaneously marketing the books to young adults and adults easier. (Which simply supports my point that the separation between young adult and adult is often arbitrary.)

Level 3: Implications.

Besides, labelling any and all fantasy publications with relatively young protagonists as young adult, when combined with the presumptions discussed under Level 1, implies that adults have no time for such frivolous escapism. Which sounds rather dull and unfortunate to me. Surely, there is a reason that popular children’s books are cherished as tales for all to read? The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series… all classics today. They fill us with childlike wonder as they whisper lessons on love and friendship and courage and faith. Fantasy is no juvenile plaything to be trifled with.

I do hope that you are nearing the age where you will start reading fairy tales again. Or young adult for that matter. Or whatever book you like, without a care for these categories or what people might say.

A Darker Shade of Magic

It is not often that you come across a well-written fantasy novel with a genuinely unique universe (and not another superficial rehashing of witches and werewolves), so I was immediately impressed by the opening chapters of this book. The richly constructed worlds (plural) and teasing mysteries will keep fans of The Night Circus engrossed. V.E. Schwab exercises a perfect balance between dropping hints and illuminating answers. By the end of the book, I had even felt a fleeting sense of worry that she would run out of sufficiently surprising twists for the next two novels in her trilogy. Assuringly, there are still some larger questions left unanswered, though not in the glaringly frustrating way as a cliffhanger would, or a story with too many loose ends. As I had said, Schwab has a knack for balance. Priste ir Essen. Essen ir Priste.

Contrary to some reviewers’ criticisms that the ‘superficial’ characters were difficult to connect with, I instead found layers to their pasts and personalities that I still cannot clearly grasp, which simply added to my excitement for the sequels. I do admit that Lila irritated me considerably during her first encounters with Kell, reminding me of a petulant child determined to meddle in matters she had no understanding of. But she won me over by the middle of the book. Certainly, she spoke and acted infuriatingly recklessly multiple times, and her moral compass was not exactly admirable (she did admit to enjoying killing, after all) but her wit and guile and just the right amount of bravado ultimately tipped the scales towards Badass and away from Hubristic Fool. And retrospectively, it gave her desperation to accompany Kell at the probable expense of her life (if not her soul) much more credibility than a more reasonable temperance would have done; suppose she was not as imprudent, would she have managed to force one of the most powerful magicians to let her follow him? All in all, I surprisingly ended up enjoying her subtle development the most.

As the sections and chapters had a habit of shifting between the events unfolding across the three Londons (some of which were obviously less gripping than others), the pace did slacken occasionally. A few diversions unnecessarily dragged out the time between each return to the main narrative, building suspense that frustrated more than it drove up anticipation. But in all fairness, Schwab’s talent for dropping a well-timed shadow of a hint kept me tearing through the pages. Whilst A Darker Shade of Magic does not present the sublime prose of The Night Circus or The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, Schwab’s vibrant creativity stands out. In fact, for those who found Erin Morgenstern’s lengthy descriptions tedious, Schwab may offer a better balance between depth and pace.

Potential readers may be hesitant because A Darker Shade has been shelved as Young Adult by various sources. First, the overgeneralisation that YA is always insubstantial is already terribly presumptive. And ‘adult’ books are not necessarily complex or beautifully articulated either. But that is a topic for another essay. In any case, this book straddles the line between the two audiences (for YA and adult are audiences, not genres), with fantastical elements that will draw readers of all ages, but a writing style more commonly found in a so-called adult book. In that respect, it is similar to The Night Circus. So do not be put off – you will not regret it!

Favourite quote: “The bodies in my floor all trusted someone. Now I walk on them to tea.”
Rating: 4/5

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