Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep
 
After the previous book, I struggled to find a book that could hold my interest. I started a couple of books that I had to put down, but I’ll maybe finish them later when my mood is more suitable for them. The one that won in the end was Kill the Queen (Crown of Shards 1) by Jennifer Estep.

Kill the Queen is epic fantasy that reads like urban fantasy. It’s told in the first person point of view, the heroine is a sassy woman in her late twenties set apart from others because of her different magical abilities, and she kicks ass. The story itself is pure epic fantasy: the entire royal family is massacred, and the sole survivor, Evie, goes into hiding to learn the necessary skills to avenge everyone and claim her place on the throne. To achieve that, she joins a gladiator troupe where she finds true friends that she hasn’t had in the court.

The book isn’t necessarily remarkable, and it doesn’t stand out among the similar books. The lone orphan betrayed by the one person she thought was her friend is a trope well-tried before. The medieval world is familiar, even if this one was mixed with things like indoors plumbing and fast communication. The peoples populating the world were too similar to ours—the people of the north had Nordic names and the dragon shifter was Chinese. But the writing style is catchy and I found myself reading late in the night, eager to find out what would happen next. The story was concise and got to the point satisfyingly fast, and the ending was good. The story doesn’t need a follow-up, but there were a couple of questions left open, and I’ll definitely read the next book too to find out what will happen.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

It’s not often that I pick a random book I see an ad for, read the sample chapters, and like them so much that I purchase the book and just keep reading. And this even though I knew it’s a retelling of a fairy tale, which seldom are worth reading. It’s also told in first person present tense that I don’t really like, with alternating point of view chapters, but I was able to overlook that too. A Curse So Dark and Lonely is therefore quite unique.

A Curse So Dark and Lonely is based on the story of the Beauty and the Beast, which has been retold so often that one would think there’s no point in doing it again. But Brigid Kemmerer has only taken the premise from the original story: a prince with a curse that can only be broken by someone falling in love with him. Everything else is new.

Rhen, the prince, is perfectly handsome young man for most of the time. The beast only emerges every three months or so, by which time the woman brought to his castle for the purpose should’ve fallen in love with him. Why that never happens eludes him. Once the beast emerges, it rages for a while, killing everyone, and then everything restarts from the beginning, with the exception of the dead who remain dead. After hundreds of cycles, Rhen’s stopped wooing women in his own world. Instead, the women are kidnapped from a parallel reality—our world—to which his personal guard Grey has been given access by the same enchantress who’s placed the curse on Rhen.

Harper, the heroine, isn’t the bookish beauty of the original story. She lives in Washington DC of our reality, and comes from a broken home: her father has left, leaving the family on the mercy of his violent debtors that her brother tries to appease, and her mother is dying of cancer. Most importantly, however, Harper herself isn’t outwardly perfect. She has cerebral palsy, which in her case affects her mobility, and she has a pronounced limp.

Harper is accidentally brought into Rhen’s world by Grey, when she tries to prevent him from kidnapping a new woman. The start isn’t therefore auspicious. And even after the situation is explained to her, she has no intention of falling for her kidnapper, which is refreshing. To make the matters direr, Rhen is told by the enchantress, that this will be his last season. If he doesn’t find a woman to love him, he’ll remain a beast forever.

Stakes so set against him, Rhen doesn’t even try to woo Harper. Instead, he allows her to drag him out of his castle where he finds that his people are suffering and the kingdom is about to be taken over by the enemy Queen. From then on, the story is fairly traditional fantasy, with the parallel reality twist and a ticking clock towards the final emergence of the beast.

I absolutely loved this book. Harper was a wonderful character, resilient and compassionate, and growing stronger than she’s believed herself to be. She’s constantly torn between wanting to help Rhen’s people and returning home to see her mother before she dies. Rhen is less likeable, calculating and arrogant. It’s never even occurred to him that he would have to learn to love the women in return for them to fall for him, and his failures baffle him. But he’s torn by his actions as the beast too, which make him more sympathetic. As a potential couple, however, the two aren’t really a good match, and the reader doesn’t have a great hope that the curse will be broken in time. Rhen’s guard Grey makes a much better romantic hero, and I at least couldn’t help rooting for him, despite knowing what the stakes were.

With the enemy army approaching, the story comes to a point. The ending is satisfying, with a twist that allows the story to continue in the next book. I’ll definitely be reading that one too. The book is marketed for middle grade and young adult audiences, but there’s some graphic violence, and I wouldn’t recommend it to younger readers.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Wicked King by Holly Black: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Wicked King by Holly Black

The Wicked King, the second book in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy, is as brilliant as the first. It starts five months after the events at the end of the first book when Judy, the human raised in the faerie land, tricked her worst enemy, Prince Cardan, into becoming the king of the faerie to protect her little brother. By now she’s beginning to see the wisdom of her stepfather’s teaching that it’s easier to gain power than to keep it. She has more friends and allies than in the first book, but she can’t trust any of them, the least of all the king himself, who hates her for the geas she’s put on him that forces him to obey her commands. It doesn’t help her that she’s finding him increasingly alluring.

The threat to her little brother hasn’t passed, and there are enemy forces who want to either take the crown or declare a war, or both. As a human among the faerie, Judy don’t have the same powers as her enemies, so she has to rely on her own strengths, but those begin to dwindle as the enemies gain in strength. And then her sister’s wedding brings her brother back to faerie, and all her careful plans seem to come to nothing. The twist at the end is worthy of any scheming faerie. Waiting for the third book is going to be difficult.

Judy is in a better place in this second book than in the first. She has power and she doesn’t constantly have to fight the cruel faeries who love to see her humiliated. That doesn’t mean there are no gut-wrenching moments in this book, but they are fewer than in the first book. Judy is more sympathetic character in this book than the first though, so every set-back feels worse.

The book is marketed as suitable for middle-grade and young adult. With this I have to disagree. The characters may be in their late teens, but they have to deal with adult problems, power and war, and are treated as adults able to marry etc. There are no graphic sex scenes, but there is plenty of graphic violence, on top of which there are scenes of abuse, mental and physical. Just because this is fantasy written by a woman, doesn’t make it suitable for younger readers. This is book for adults with a young protagonist and should be treated as such.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Summoned to Thirteenth Grave by Darynda Jones: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Summoned to Thirteenth Grave by Darynda Jones

Charley Davidson, Darynda Jones’ brilliant urban fantasy series of a grim reaper slash goddess comes to an end with the thirteenth book, and it does it well. Summoned to Thirteenth Grave managed to be both upbeat and very final; there is no room for wistful thinking that the series would return any time soon. Yet the ending managed to leave me happy instead of sad to see it go.

The story had high stakes of the world ending in only a few days, unless Charley manages to find a way to close the hell dimension she’s accidentally opened. Despite the tight time-frame, she nonetheless has time to investigate her mother’s death, which had taken place when Charley was born, a case of an abducted girl, and a mystery of a man who carves names to his body. All this is done with the customary Charley attention span, though her ADHD didn’t act up as badly as it used to do. Perhaps a century spent in her own hell dimension had cured her of the worst. The book was consequently thin on laugh-out-funny moments usually caused by her short attention span.

Since this was the last book, a lot of time was spent in tying up loose ends and saying goodbye to regular characters, many of whom were ghosts and who were now given their chance to pass through Charley to their final rest. Everything was made perhaps a little too tidy, but it created a few teary moments. There were a couple of unnecessary deaths too, which seemed to take place solely so that the characters could be mentioned in the book and be given an ending too.

All this meant that there was a lot going on in the book that had nothing to do with the ultimate battle. That took place at the very end, and was over before I could blink. The big twist that ended the battle was foreshadowed well, and worked as intended.

The same can’t be said about the two other big twists concerning Charley’s family. (This here is a RELATIVELY SPOILER FREE review. If you’ve already read the book, there’s a version with spoilers at the end of the review.) Both were sprung on the reader out of the blue, and failed to have any emotional impact they no doubt were supposed to have; at least this reader was both unamused and unmoved by them. Both twists were unnecessary too, and as the latter completely changed how I view a beloved character, I found it singularly upsetting twist for the author to make in the last book. It should’ve been dealt withor at least hinted atfor several books already to have a proper impact. Now it just came out as Deus ex machina, and not a very good one as that.

It wasn’t a perfect book, but it was a perfect ending. When the ending manages to leave you happy with how things turned out instead of sad or confused, it’s worth all the stars I can give.

***

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Here’s the review of the twists for those who have already read the bookor those who never intend to read or just don’t care. The first twist concerns Charley’s sister Gemma. The two of them had a difficult relationship throughout the series, but they’d grown closer in the last couple of books. And then she dies. Only, the reader isn’t told about it until several chapters later when it’s suddenly sprung on them after been given to understand she’d survived the attack that killed her. All this time, Charley doesn’t seem to care.

To handle Gemma’s death like it never took place was immensely upsetting, and robbed me of a chance to mourn her properly. There are no hints of her fate, no foreshadowing, and in fact she’s treated by all characters like she’s still alive, because she appears as a ghost. And when the truth is finally revealed, Charlie’s reaction is lacklustre to say the least, even if we are given to understand that she’s in a bit of a denial. She—and with her the reader—grieves the passing of Rocket, her ghost friend, much more. Charley’s more interested in how Gemma can help her understand their mother’s death. But Gemma didn’t need to die for that. She was a psychiatrist; she could’ve been made to remember with her skills, not Charley’s. If the reader had been told the truth from the start, we could’ve grieved with Charley, and then found solace in the fact that Gemma could still help. Now it becomes more a means to an end. All in all, a severe let-down in a very good book.

The other major twist concerns Charley’s uncle Robert, who has been her stalwart companion throughout the series. Charley has helped him to solve crimes, and during the most of the series he was in the dark about how she did it. And now, we’re told that not only has he always known the truth, he was in her life solely because of what she is. Because, it turned out, out of the blue, Uncle Robert was an angel.

This annoyed me even more than Gemma’s death, mostly because I didn’t care for her much, whereas I loved Ubie. It’s of course nice that he had a greater role in Charley’s life than she believed, but the way it was handled, in the last book and mainly as Deus ex machina, so that he could fight in the last battle, was just lazy writing. And that’s not worst. I liked Uncle Ubie with his weaknesses, as a human who did his best even against greater odds in a world he didn’t quite understand. Now all that became a lie. The character I’d loved never existed. And that was truly upsetting.

There was a minor twist at the end too, but it was passed with barely a notice. Reyes tells at the beginning that they have three days to conquer the hell dimension until it takes over the world. But in three days, it barely covers the town where they live. The timeline is in fact for him, because he’s made a deal with Archangel Michael to get Charley out of the hell dimension. They have three days together and then he has to leave with Michael. It passes without notice. But this could have a proper emotional impact too, if both Charley and the reader had been made aware of it from the beginning. Now it made me feel like I’d been rooting for the wrong horse the whole time. The stakes would’ve been much higher if we all knew it was personal for Charley and Reyes, not just about saving the world. Which, in the end happened rather easily.

This ends my spoiler section of the review. Like I said, the book was still good, but it could’ve been better with some proper foreshadowing.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Vicious by V. E. Schwab: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Vicious by V. E. Schwab
Vicious (Villains 1) is an excellent book that works on every level: the premise, the story and its execution, and the characters. It’s deceptively simple, the narrative gives only the information the reader needs and nothing more, but grows more complicated towards the end. And the ending is satisfying.

The book is set in a vaguely American town, though it’s never explicitly stated that it takes place in America. The society is contemporary and like ours, with the exception of EOs: ExtraOrdinary people. They’re not a widely known phenomenon in that society, and the reader isn’t given any comprehensive explanations about them. Two college students, Victor and Eli, set out to study them, and they find a way to create EOs. They never ask if they should, they simply set out to do it.

Victor and Eli are friends, not because they necessarily like each other, but because in their college they are the only two people who they find affinity to. They are both damaged in some ways, mostly because of events that are alluded to but never clarified (Eli’s father flocked him, Victor’s parents neglected him), and both have brilliant minds. They are competitive and envious of one another’s successes, and the friendship doesn’t seem healthy. When Eli successfully becomes an EO and then denies Victor the chance, Victor goes behind Eli’s back to become one too. It leads to a spectacular falling-out between them. Ten years later, it’s time for payback.

The story is told in two levels: the countdown to the showdown, and the events that led to it in the past. Mostly, we follow the events through Victor’s eyes, and while the reader is ready to treat him as the main character to root for, he isn’t a good guy or a hero. Eli believes he’s a hero, but even the chapters in his point of view don’t manage to create sympathy for him. That both main characters are fairly unsympatheticthough Victor comes out bettermight make a rather unpleasant reading, but luckily there are a couple of side characters that bring warmth to the story, and show Victor in a better light too.

The showdown, Victor’s revenge, is built carefully in short chapters, creating tension and raising the stakes, so that the reader is more or less convinced that it won’t work and that Victor will lose. And while that is in some ways true, it’s also untrue. The ending is immensely satisfying.

Vicious is both a psychological study of unhealthy friendships and dangers of unchecked ego, and a thriller. It works on both levels. It might work even if it didn’t contain the supernatural element, but that’s needed at the showdown. It’s a complete, standalone book, and it doesn’t need a sequel. I can understand why it has taken the author years to write one. But now that it exists, I’ll definitely read it too.

***

At the end of my edition of the book was a short story called Warm Up, which is available separately too. It’s marketed as a prequel to Vicious, but it’s more of a vignette, a story of an EO and his encounter with Eli and the inevitable consequence of it. It doesn’t add anything to the Villains world, and it isn’t necessary to read it.

Warm Up by V. E. Schwab