Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Ninth House is the first book for adults by the highly popular (YA) fantasy author Leigh Bardugo, and her first that is set in the contemporary world. It’s not a non-fantasy book, however, but full of magic and ghosts. Despite the hype, it’s not Bardugo’s best work, and I’m not entirely sure I would call it adult fiction, despite the themes of abuse, addiction and rape among other things. Characters are more immature than in her books labelled for young adult, and the story and the stakes are lighter.

Galaxy Stern, Alex, has seen ghosts her entire life, which has brought nothing but trouble for her, because the only way she is able to block them out is with drugs. Her life is a complete mess before she is twenty and then a violent attack sends her to a hospital. There she is given a chance to change all that. She is offered a place to study in Yale. Magic is abundant there and to make sure the secret societies wielding it don’t abuse their powers, there is a society to oversee them, and they need Alex’s skills.

For a person who hasn’t been to school since she was twelve, Alex manages to make a passable effort at being a student, although most of her time is taken by Lethe and her duties in overseeing the magical societies. For a person who has recently survived a brutal attack that left her best friend dead, Alex functions surprisingly well. And for a person who has used drugs all her life, she does perfectly fine without them now.

Alex’s personal struggles aren’t the main focus of the story, however. There are several mysteries that need solving. The most important of them is a murder investigation that Alex can’t give up despite orders to otherwise. Another mystery deals with a disappearance of her tutor, which is unravelled slowly in chapters from his point of view. And then there is a murder mystery from a century and a half ago that a ghost makes Alex investigate.

The mysteries are not simultaneous, but the narrative presents them at the same time. The story starts in the present with a teaser of what has taken place so far, and then jumps back and forth between two earlier points in time, plus Alex’s life before Yale, until reaching the present again, where all the mysteries are solved. It takes a little getting used to, but after that the pace of the book keeps good with no slack or unnecessary side-plots.

Despite the focus on solving crimes, the book doesn’t feel like a thriller or crime fiction. Stakes are constantly high for Alex, with violence and the possibility of losing her spot in the college looming over her, yet the urgency doesn’t really make itself felt. Partly it has to do with the non-linear narrative; just as the reader is invested in one story-line, the narrative jumps to a different time; and partly it has to do with Alex waffling about with no clear focus until the murder investigation takes up all her time. It’s a ghost story, a story about magic and abuse of power, and homage to the author’s alma mater.

Yet the story compels. The mysteries are suitably mysterious and the final showdown is nothing I had anticipated. There are no cop-outs or easy solutions. And there is a good build-up for the next book too, so I have to assume one is in the making. All in all, a good story, if not a great book.

Book 3/65

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Dragon Republic by R. F. Kuang
The Dragon Republic is the second book in Kuang’s The Poppy War trilogy. The first book ended with such a bang that it was difficult to see how the second could possibly continue from there, and in part, it didn’t quite pick up with the intensity of the first.

The war against the Federation is over, thanks to Rin. Without it, she and her group of shamans are adrift. Her opium addiction doesn’t help, but she is haunted by her actions in the war and can’t function without it. Things pick up when the Dragon Warlord gives them a purpose: kill the Empress and join his quest to replace the empire with a republic. But the Empress is a powerful shaman, so the assassination doesn’t go as planned and Rin ends up having her abilities bound.

The first half of the book is an endless military campaign where Rin is once again a regular soldier, and despite the constant action, it gets rather boring. It isn’t until at the latter half of the book that the story becomes more interesting, and the pace improves. Rin gets access to her powers, but only with the help of her oldest friend from the military academy, to whom she is now bound. Together they win the war against the Empress, only to find out that it wasn’t the war they should have been fighting.

For this second book, Kuang broadens the world the people inhabit (ancient China) by adding a western force that is very obviously Christian Europe. They come with airships and firearms, and with promises of military aid if the primitive people of the East show they are capable of progress. They preach the word of one true god and are intend on purging the heresy of shamanism. That means endless tests done to Rin to figure out her abilities, and if that fails, killing her and her kind. And, of course, in the end, their promises prove false: they are there to colonise, not to help. Rin discovers this too late.

Rin isn’t a very intelligent character when it comes to deciphering the motivations of people around her. She’s constantly looking for stronger persons to rely on whom she could respect and who would give their approval to her. I think it stems from her being an orphan, as she tends to latch onto father-figures. This leads her to place her trust on anyone who is willing to lead her. And time and again, she is let down by these people.

Because of her need for approval and a father-figure, Rin remains a surprisingly immature character despite all the horrors of war she has witnessed and inflicted. She doesn't really create romantic feelings for the many men around her, even if she occasionally mistakes her feelings for it. She's twenty and hasn't even been kissed, so the men don't see her romantically either. Her friendships don't really flourish. She manages to anger or alienate most of her friends in turn, though some of them do come back too. At least the constant change in friends and allies keep things interesting.

At the end of the book Rin finally comes to a conclusion that she is the strongest person there is and the only one worth relying on. Hopefully she’ll stop seeking for validation from the wrong people in the last book. Likely though, it will lead her to use her powers in more destructive manner than before. And another war is inevitable. The setting for the last book is perfect.

Book 2/65

Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The first book I read this year is The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, the first book in The Poppy War Trilogy. It’s a great fantasy debut set in a culture that greatly resembles ancient China, with an enemy empire across the sea on a bow shaped island that is obviously Japan.

The premise seems like a run-of-the-mill chosen-one story: an orphan is accepted to a prestigious military academy where she excels against the odds, studies arts no one else does, and discovers she has powers unlike anyone else, so that when a war breaks out, she has the ability to save the nation.

However, the Chinese culture brings a twist to the story. Rin, the heroine, works hard to be accepted to the military school (as opposed to being accepted on a whim/by command of king etc.), works hard to impress her masters, shows respect to her elders, and when her master tells her she cannot use the power of gods, she obeys. When the war breaks out, she is sent to help a besieged town, where she is miserable and frightened, and unable to use her powers because she is afraid of the consequences. Until the moment she isn’t.

During the course of the book, Rin discovers her heritage as a member of people annihilated in the previous Poppy War. Only one other person has survived and he is driven by rage and need for vengeance. She moulds herself after him, with grim consequences. At the climax of the story, she makes a choice out of rage. Unlike in western fantasy, where the hero saves the day in a morally sustainable fashion, Rin chooses differently. When she tries to reason with herself to ease her guilt, she comes to a conclusion that there are no chosen ones; only the choices we make ourselves. The book ends at the point where she has to come to terms with her actions.

Rin is a complex character who struggles with anger issues and insecurity, her low background among the offspring of warlords, and her need for power and revenge. Drugs (opium mostly) play a heavy role in her ability to communicate with gods, which in turn leads to addiction. Side characters are similarly torn by many issues, especially the addiction, which makes them difficult to root for.

The narrative style is slightly distancing, so apart from Rin, I didn’t form a deep connection with other characters. The plot progresses in a steady pace, with no slag (two years in the school is covered in a couple of chapters), and the world comes to life effortlessly with no unnecessary exposition. The point of view is strictly Rin’s, with one exception to show readers who is the true enemy, so that it doesn’t feel like it comes out of the blue when Rin learns of it. The Poppy War was an easy and compelling read that rose far above its premise. And for once, I have no idea how the second book in the trilogy will turn out to be.

Book 1/65

Friday, January 03, 2020

A new year, a new reading challenge

Last year, I pledged to read sixty books in Goodreads’ yearly reading challenge, but ended up reading sixty-five. I had compiled a list of sixty-nine books, but in the end I read only twenty books from it. It wasn’t that I had selected uninteresting books to my list, but there were so many new books that I discovered and absolutely had to read right away, that the list ended up to be completely different.

Not everything I chose to read was to my liking. There were a number of books, by my favourite authors even, that I began to read and then didn’t finish. Some because they were disappointingly boring, others because a new book that I absolutely had to read pushed them aside, never to be picked up again. I discovered a couple of new series that I binged, like The Others by Anne Bishop and The Winston Brothers by Penny Reid, and new authors, like Susan Ee and Robyn Bennis, both of which I hope to read in coming years.

Twenty-nine authors, many with multiple books, were women, and only five were men, although I began a couple of books written by men that I then didn’t finish. Only nine authors were other than white westerners, so I clearly have some improving to do on that front.

My favourite books of the year were A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, a Beauty and the Beast retelling that completely changed my mind about retellings; The Guns Above by Robin Bennis, a steampunk military saga that kept me captivated despite being basically a long description of a military campaign; Written in Red by Anne Bishop that sent me on a binge of a brilliant urban fantasy series that was unlike most series out there; The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black that finished her brilliant The Folk of the Air trilogy; and Unnatural Magic by C. M. Waggoner, a unique take on trolls, magic, and gender relations and norms. On top of that came the perennial favourites, Nalini Singh and J. R. Ward with several books each.

This year, I pledged to read sixty-five books. Since I had slight trouble finishing the challenge last year, I’m not entirely hopeful that I’ll manage to read that many books, but it won’t be for lack of trying. I’ve compiled a list of eighty-one booksso far—so I have plenty to choose from.

Some books, mostly those I already own, were moved from the previous list—or even the one before that—to this year’s list. There are books belonging to series that I want to finish. Then there are a number of books that will be published this year.

One that I’m definitely looking forward to reading is A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer, a follow-up to her brilliant book that comes out next week. City of Stone and Silence is the next book in Django Wexler’s unique Wells of Sorcery series. There will be a new Peter Grant book, a new series from Darynda Jones, and also a new, long-awaited Dresden Files book, not to mention several books from Nalini Singh and J. R. Ward that will keep me occupied. On top of that I added new authors to me that I hope I’ll finally have time to read this year, Elizabeth Bear and Tamsyn Muir among them.

The year began with The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, a brilliant fantasy debut set in a world much like ancient China. I already have the second book in the trilogy, The Dragon Republic, waiting, and the last book, The Burning God, will be published at the end of the year. Although it tells a story of a young woman who discoveres she has powers unlike anyone else and will likely turn out to be the chosen one, the culture is so unique and Rin so unlike western heros that it makes the story feel new. A perfect start for my reading year.

How about you, what will you be reading this year?