Rebel of the Sands: Alwyn Hamilton

Rebel of the Sands¬†is the first of a trilogy by debut author Alwyn Hamilton. Well, I guess she’s not really a debut author anymore but this was her first book. It came out a while ago, amidst all the djinns-and-the-Middle-East-and-India fervor; the one that resulted in books like¬†The Forbidden Wish¬†by Jessica Khoury,¬†The Wrath and the Dawn¬†by Renee Ahdieh, and¬†The Star Touched Queen¬†by Roshani Chokshi. I think I was overwhelmed by the similarities in the setting of all of these stories, so I ignored them in favor of other books. Then one day I was at the library, and¬†Rebel of the Sands¬†was sitting guilelessly upon the shelf, shimmering gold and black and blue, so I figured I should check it out at least for the sake of the cover.

I enjoyed this read! It was a welcome change after the start of a series of bad books, so here’s to hoping that I broke the curse.¬†Rebel of the Sands¬†follows a young woman named Amani Al’Hiza, “more gunpowder than girl”, desperate for a way out of her unwelcoming home. She’s a Cinderella of sorts; her aunt’s family hates her, she’s a bit of the chore-child, and her prince comes in the form of a reckless young foreigner named Jin. Amani, unlike Cinderella, isn’t looking for a man– only for a way out. Jin and Amani endure several misadventures before finally making it to their destination, or, well, Jin’s, and Amani finds herself wrapped up in a plot to overthrow the tyrannical Sultan and bring about¬†“a new desert, a new dawn.”

I actually don’t feel too strongly about the first half of the book. It’s a lot of build-up to justify the relationship between Jin and Amani, which is good, because the author took her time to clarify Amani’s goals and give the reader more time to connect with her. Jin and Amani fall in love even though neither of them says it outright; honestly, I don’t think I’m a huge romantic so I was kind of (rolls eyes) at those parts, but it wasn’t overwhelming or anything. I found it — funny? Considering how harsh and cold Amani tries to be, but how she melts whenever Jin’s around, and she knows this and hates it.

I was more interested in the latter half, after Amani and Jin reach the secret kingdom where the rebels are all hiding away, plotting at capturing the throne for the rightful Prince Ahmed. During the entirety of the first part of the novel, I expected Jin to turn out to be “the Rebel Prince” that everyone seemed to be obsessing over, supposedly this huge legend and slowly making his way to the capital and the Sultan. It turns out that the Rebel Prince is his brother. Ms. Hamilton presents a lot of red herrings in this way, where she reveals stuff at the last minute or introduces new aspects of familiar characters that we wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. I really liked this about¬†Rebel of the Sands. After reading so much YA literature, you get a little jaded and find yourself thinking, “I know what’s going to happen.” But I actually didn’t with this book.

I liked how Amani was not the quintessential good-girl hero trope that we see a lot. She leaves behind her best friend, Tamin, perhaps to die. She abandons a young prisoner despite the boy’s pleas for her to help. There’s another instance of this, but it would be¬†too much¬†of a spoiler, believe it or not. Amani debates with herself, sure, but in the end she always saves herself when faced with the choice– unless the person in danger is Jin or one of her other rebel friends. Usually you get protagonists who are very much “no, I have to save everyone, I’m the Chosen one,” or whatever, but Amani is self-serving and that makes her interesting.

The lore that comes into play during the latter half was really interesting as well. We get introduced to a whole cast of secondary characters who make more of an impact in like one hundred pages than Jin did in the entire book. Not that Jin is bad; I liked him, but he seemed a little bland to me. I don’t want to say more on that because I’d have to dissect his character, and I’d rather let you guys make the decision for yourselves.

Anyways, if you’re looking for a gun-toting, folklore-quoting, scapegoats and gold-coated beaut of a book, you’re in luck.
Do you know how long it took me to rhyme that? I’m not even sure it made sense.
Anyways, yeah, give Rebel of the Sands a try!

Update

I’m going to be taking an extended break in order to study for exams. Might still be updating but very infrequently! Thanks for sticking around ‚̧

The Crown’s Fate: Evelyn Skye

I really enjoyed The Crown’s Game, which came previously to The Crown’s Fate, but I feel like something changed. Was it the writing? There was such a lack of intrigue in this novel, which is so disappointing because I remember feeling like The Crown’s Game was very Night Circus-esque. The writing felt like lines and lines of mindless description– like Ms. Skye was rushing through the story just to get it over-with. My biggest problem was that this book was not fun to read.

It wasn’t horrible. It just wasn’t good.

Yuliana and Pasha were, in my opinion, the most obnoxious characters in this story. We’re supposed to sympathize with them but Yuliana is a brat and has no redeeming qualities, and Pasha is a pushover who we’re supposed to root for as the tsar? He’s so weak, though. The country is honestly better off without him. I feel like Nikolai actually would have been a better ruler. And though Pasha’s supposed to have come to this realization that he wants to be tsar and he would be a good tsar somewhere in the middle, he really only wants the position because it’s his birthright; not because he actually cares about his country and people. And this would be fine, if the author wasn’t trying to paint him as the golden boy.

Yuliana is just real annoying. She’s supposed to be the more efficient half of the kingdom but she does all of Pasha’s work for him, and she’s a jerk to everyone else. I don’t understand how she was supposed to be a character we grew attached to. And how is she content to just sit on the side and let everyone else run the kingdom when she’s the one who has been doing all the hard work? She made no sense; she probably would have been a good villain but?? I don’t understand what happened there.

Nikolai and his mom were weird. I didn’t really understand the mom’s role; she’s just there to infect him with her bad magic and then she eventually dies. Which is really anticlimactic because she had this really creepy character going, but then she drops dead halfway through the book. I mean, Nikolai kills her so I guess that’s a character-development thing for him but it was pretty disappointing. And Nikolai was basically a toddler throwing a tantrum through the whole story– I got the impression that he was more upset at the fact that Vika, who he’s known for like a month, presumably isn’t in love with him because she chose Pasha, rather than his state of being in ante-death and the trauma of having died. It just didn’t make any sense. And good lord Nikolai really needed to get his shiz together because seriously, every other one of his lines was “I can’t believe she chose him… instead of me.”

The only person I liked is Vika. She was still cool. But the rest of this story was subpar. You know another thing that annoys me? If you’ve ever read¬†The Night Circus,¬†you’ll know how gorgeously magic was described in that story. Even in¬†The Crown’s Game, we get really detailed, enthralling descriptions. But this book just skims over the magic like “oh yeah Nikolai waved and thousands of small stone birds burst into the sky,” like what happened to the meticulously painted picture that we got in the first book? What happened between then and now?

Man, I’m just so upset that this story wasn’t anything compared to¬†The Crown’s Game, which I had really high hopes for. I think the only good thing I can say about this is that Ms. Skye researched Russian culture thoroughly and it shows. But honestly? I would give this sequel a hard pass. Just pretend it doesn’t exist.

Oh, and the ending? The ending was ridiculous. It was so convenient and so hastily wrapped up. Literally the plot to the entire book is resolved in under ten sentences. So that was very very disappointing. And that’s basically what my opinion is of this entire book: utterly disappointing.

Red Sister: Mark Lawrence

This review is going to be short because I didn’t finish the book, so I’m going to only be talking about the first half.¬†Red Sister¬†is the beginning of a new series (Book of the Ancestor), by Mark Lawrence. He’s also known for his¬†Prince of Thorns¬†books, which I also tried to read but they were a bit too intense for me. I was interested in a “cruel prince” character, but there was nothing redeemable about Jorg Ancrath, our protagonist, so I didn’t get past the first few chapters. This is not to say that¬†Prince of Thorns¬†isn’t a good book; it was written well, but it wasn’t for me. I hope, however, that I’ll have time to try it again in the future.

Anyways,¬†Red Sister¬†sort of shared the same fate; I didn’t finish it, either. But I actually enjoyed¬†Red Sister¬†for as long as I was reading. The protagonist, Nona Grey, was really sympathetic and I felt kind of a motherly attachment to her, I guess. She’s only ten years old, so an interesting protag choice for a book geared towards adults. Nona’s had a hard life, from being sold to the “Child-Taker,” and then sold again to a man who owns a fighting ring. There, she works alongside other small children as a janitor. It could have gone very badly- I wouldn’t have been surprised if she and the other children had been used for far more unsavory things- but Mr. Lawrence decided not to take that route and I’m glad for it.

The real trouble starts when Nona kills a very important man, who was threatening her friend. I forgot to mention this, but Nona takes her friendships¬†very¬†seriously. Anyone who declares themselves her friend is guaranteed fully and unadulterated protection from Nona, who has proven herself as a force to be reckoned with. So she almost kills this guy, who belongs to a powerful family. Rather than being hung for what she did, she’s spirited away by the abbess of Sweet Mercy, a convent of nuns who are trained in battle, espionage and poisoning, religious studies, and magic. By “magic,” I’m referring to this thing that they call “The Path,” which I’m still not entirely sure about. From what I gather, rather than being able to summon fireballs or perform magical spells or something, they can bring people who are on the brink of death closer to life again and things like that. I’m still lost on the subject, though I’m sure that if you read further, it comes into play.

So the whole book is set in Sweet Mercy, which functions like an academy. The girls go to classes, train, there are friendships forming everywhere, Nona finds herself tangled in a web of conspiracy about a million layers thick– your typical “school” universe. I enjoy these types of books, and I really did like¬†Red Sister,¬†because it subverted some important tropes too: like the act of pitting two girls against each other. We’re introduced to Arabella Jostis in the very beginning; like Nona, she’s a new arrival, but she’s sent to Sweet Mercy by her family and has all the money in the world. Nona and Arabella get off on the wrong foot and their relationship fragments more and more as the story goes on, but after Nona proves herself in a life-or-death situation, they get over their mutual distrust and start becoming friends. They even take on the role of “The Chosen One and the Shield,” with the former being Arabella and the latter, Nona.

Another thing I enjoyed was the whole “prophecy” angle. From the very beginning, Arabella is touted as “the Chosen One” and therefore the most important person at the convent. Nona discovers later, however, that all of the important religious and political leaders in their country think that “the Chosen One” and subsequent prophecies are just stuff and nonsense. No one actually believes that Arabella’s important for any reason other than being a Jostis.

The reason I stopped reading couldn’t be summed up better than Diana Wynne Jones, author of¬†Howl’s Moving Castle¬†(my favorite book of all time!) and a multitude of other stories. In one of the essays featured in¬†Reflections: On the Magic of Writing,¬†Wynne Jones recalls that adult books needed an inordinate amount of description. When she tried to publish her first story for older readers, the would-be editor objected, claiming that her writing was “too short,” and “[he] didn’t get enough of a sense of wonder.” To which she wanted to retort, “But you¬†should¬†get a sense of wonder if you stop to imagine it!” She summarizes with two short sentences: Adults are different. They need me to do all that for them.

I’m all for description, sure, but¬†Red Sister¬†was so chock-full of meticulous details that I lost track of the story several times. Mr. Lawrence really doesn’t let you imagine anything for yourself because every single tiny thing- from Nona picking up a butter roll at dinner to Nona presenting herself in front of the High Priest- is fastidiously recorded. Do you think the butter role smells like fresh bread and salt? Wrong. The butter roll smells like x, y, z. Do you imagine Nona looking up at the High Priest with a glint in her eye? No. Nona does x, y, z. Pages and pages of description, whether it was inner monologue or the actions of the character, and for every single little thing that happened. I found myself getting bored even though the plot itself is very interesting, because we aren’t allowed to think independently while reading. Also, since each chapter is about four pages of action and twenty pages of description, the book moves¬†at a snail-like pace.

I don’t plan on picking this book back up, and it’s sad because I really am interested in finding out what happens to Nona and Ara and the rest of their friends. But I’m not interested in sifting through thirty thousand pages of metaphors.
It’s still a good book, just not for me. If you’re interested in magic and warfare, and political turmoil piques your curiosity, you should check¬†Red Sister¬†out! Anyways, onto the next book. I think I’m going to try out¬†Rebel of the Sands.

The Romantics: Leah Konen

The Romantics¬†is a short “rom-com” novel, featuring a protagonist disillusioned with love and his two love-interests… though he fails to acknowledge his one-true-soulmate, who is standing on the sidelines of this love triangle. It is also author Leah Konen’s third book; she has previously written¬†The After Girls¬†and¬†The Last Time We Were Us, though I have read neither of them.

If you like romantic comedies, you’ll be better prepared for this book than I was. I have an amicable relationship with the genre: most pass over my radar, but there are a few that I like. If¬†The Romantics¬†had been a movie, I probably would have made a hard pass; but it caught my attention as a book because it features the amorphous, metaphysical, divine entity of love as its primary narrator. Love has messed up and is trying to clean up the mess afterwards. A young man named Gael has been dating Ankita for a while; he’s infatuated with her, but finds that a week after her drops “I love you,” on her, she cheats on him with his best friend. Gael is heartbroken from both betrayals, but finds himself getting caught up in a whirlwind romance with the spirited, effortless Cara, who wields hot-sauce like ketchup and likes to go on hiking adventures.

If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, you know that the one thing I hate more than anything else in the literary world is the LOVE TRIANGLE CLICHE. It is honestly such an overused, underwhelming trope that generates more frustration and disgust than interest in the plot. So, Pratyu, you hypocrite, why did you pick up a book whose main plot is literally a love triangle? Because the synopsis describes it as “The more Love meddles, the further Gael drifts from the one girl who can help him mend his heart. Soon Love starts breaking all her own rules‚ÄĒand in order to set Gael‚Äôs fate back on course, she has to make some tough decisions about what it means to truly care.”
I thought that love would make this discovery that hey, sometimes romance comes out of the blue and you can’t control everybody, free will and yadda yadda. I thought love would be learning something. But no. I don’t even know what this last line has to do with the book at all, because I didn’t see¬†love¬†discovering anything about “what it means to truly care.”¬†Gael learned a lesson for sure, but the whole book was love patting itself (herself?) on the back.
Also: this thing about love breaking all her rules. She breaks like one or two, and there’s no consequence to that, so I don’t understand why this was also featured as A Big Thing in the summary.

Let’s talk about characters. Gael surprised me because usually, books focusing on romance feature female leads. It was nice to see a guy’s perspective. I was a bit worried that he’d be like Jaxon from¬†Cure for the Common Universe,¬†but he managed to avoid coming off as a prick. Also, the source of Gael’s misery makes sense: his parents are getting divorced out of the blue, and his girlfriend (who he thinks he loved) cheated on him with his best friend (since elementary school). I felt bad for the guy. And the contents of the story made me sympathize even more.

Most of the people that Gael is friends with, are friends with his best friend and Ankita. In fact, Ankita’s best friend chastises Gael at one point of the story for “slut-shaming Ankita at a restaurant.” What was this slut-shaming? Well, Gael’s mom invites Ankita and Mason (best friend) to Gael’s birthday dinner. Gael sits there stewing from his recent break-up, how his friends have treated him, and the fact that his parents are trying to act all happy and normal despite the fact that they are splitting up. Sometime during the dinner, he blows up at Ankita and shouts angrily to his parents that she cheated on him with Mason, then storms out of the restaurant.

That was the slut-shaming. Gael calling Ankita out on what she did. Which is totally reasonable, especially considering that all the remorse that Ankita and Mason seem to show is totally shallow (weak apologies, excuses, etcetera etcetera).

What the heck, Leah Konen? Her message gets even more convoluted throughout the story. She seems to be pushing a feminist perspective — which I would usually support, because I do consider myself a feminist — but calling someone out on cheating =/= slut-shaming, just because they’re a girl. Also, Cara, the love interest: she is your typical dream girl character, but love derides her for everything she does simply because she doesn’t follow the narrative that love wants her to. ¬†I’m associating love with Leah Konen, by the way, because it seems like love is the “author” of the story of “Gael and X, his soulmate”. Also, love is the mouthpiece for Ms. Konen’s philosophies, and while this can be done gracefully, this book shoves the author’s messages down your throat. This is what feminism is. This is what modern romance should be like. This is what love should be like. There’s this point where Gael forgives Ankita and says something like “life is too short to not be with the person you love,” which in any other case I would fully support, but in this context… he makes it sound like “oh it’s okay to cheat on someone because LOVE ya know, LOVE is the greatest thing and you should sacrifice everything for LOVE.” which, no. Hurting people for such a selfish reason is unforgivable.

My main problem with the book is that our narrator is unlikable. Love is patronizing, smug, and acts like Gael, Ankita, Mason, and all the other people in this story are little pawns for her to play with. She even admits to being the reason for Mason’s parents’ divorce, having been too lazy to check up on them ever few years and remind them of the good times or something.

This book was not for me. I wouldn’t recommend it because of how much I disliked “love”, and because it acted as a soapbox for Ms. Konen to preach her ideas about feminism and romance. Hopefully one day, I’ll stumble upon a good book about love; but I’m starting to think more and more that the genre isn’t for me. I guess, if you have read this story (and I mean even if you haven’t, context clues should be enough) I’d fall under what Love labels “Cynics”.

 

A Darker Shade of Magic: V. E. Schwab

So… I got through nearly half of the book, and I still can’t find myself caring about any of the characters.
There’s an inordinate amount of description; for every one thing Kell does, like open a door to another London or put on his coat-with-many-sides, there’s like two or three paragraphs of backstory and random worldbuilding. This is fine if you do it occasionally but when every other sentence is explanation as to¬†why¬†he’s doing this thing orhow¬†this thing pertains to other things, the story becomes really convoluted and dull. Very tedious to read. Not at all enjoyable.

I didn’t like Lila at all. I thought I started liking her, but then… nope. She has a very hardened personality, which is fine and dandy, but it didn’t sit with me. I struggled similarly with Feyre from the “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series. Both of these characters were unfriendly, patronizing, and toed the line between prideful and bullying.¬†Lila kills someone in the first few chapters and just walks off thinking about how she needs a new place to stay. The guy definitely deserved it but she faced no internal struggles at all; there was nothing. She just stabbed him in the gut and then toodle-oo, off we go. And, funnily enough, with all the detail the author poured into world-building, she never established whether the world that they were in tolerated that sort of stuff. Like, is that a normal occurrence in “Gray London”?
I’m getting a feeling that Lila was supposed to be this really kickbutt female protagonist, but… strong women are always a favorite of mine and she just seemed… flat. Her role in the story was unconvincing. I didn’t find her relatable or likable.

The worlds that were established were kind of flimsy. We’re thrust into three different versions of London: White, Gray, and Red. Kell hails from Red London, and Lila from Gray. White is a Mad-Max-esque death circus, where magic is dying or eating people, I’m not sure. It’s run by two psycho twins, as well as the only other magician with powers similar to Kell: Holland. I didn’t find the tale immersive because there was so much to absorb, and we weren’t given enough information to shape the world. I mean, I know that someone may try to argue that you’re supposed to “use your imagination” but it’s difficult to do that when there’s nearly nothing to go off of.

Kell was developing into some sort of character, but any curiosity I held for him was solely based off of his background. Personality-wise, he was uninteresting. What were his goals? His ambitions? I was almost halfway through the book and I had no idea what he wanted, nor what he was like. It seemed like most of Kell was just “Kell is doing this” or “Kell is traveling” or “Kell is smuggling stuff,” but there’s no trace of an identity. He’s the “wise-older-brother” stereotype. He’d make a great side-kick, but I couldn’t be bothered to care for him as our main protagonist.

O yah. Another thing. Prince Rhy or whatever. He’s like the token queer character. It’s good to have representation, but Rhy was so flat. He was the stereotypical gay/lesbian/bi/pan person that shows up in modern-day literature (I call them checklist characters– the author writes them in so that they can get brownie points for being inclusive, but ultimately, they don’t matter to the story and they have no persona whatsoever). I only saw a little bit of him, so maybe he got fleshed out more, but I mean… halfway through the book and all I knew was that he was gay and he likes having sex. And he’s sad that Kell doesn’t feel like he belongs in their family, which, granted, was the beginning of some sort of backstory. But he didn’t come off as important; he didn’t come off as anything other than flamboyantly gay. This is fine, if it’s an aspect of his personality, but it’s not good to have queer characters who are only there to be “the queer character”.

The only people I was interested in were the twins and Holland. I thought that Holland would be our primary antagonist,¬†but it turns out that he’s being controlled by the twins? I think?¬†Anyways, I was hoping to see more of him but if that requires sifting through the rest of the book, count me out. Athos and Astrid were bizarre, but they didn’t seem very original. They were the weirdo, power-hungry sibling monarchs. I don’t know. I felt like they weren’t that compelling.

It had one thing going for it: the conceptualization behind magic. I think that Ms. Schwab had an interesting thing going and you know, maybe I’ll pick this book up again when I have nothing to read– but honestly, there are so many better books out there right now. Still, A Darker Shade of Magic was rated pretty high, so I’m probably just an outlier.

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I’m kind of sad because the beginning definitely had strong Howl’s Moving Castle vibes.
I think that my main criticism of this book is that it moves at a snail’s pace. It is¬†so slow. Unless you’re willing to sit through pages and pages of exposition, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Illuminae: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Woohoo, I love collaborative writers (like J.D. Vaughn of The Second Guard)! It’s always fun to try and figure out who wrote what. Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff are two Australian nationals who have woven together a spellbinding book about a girl, a boy, a battle, a psychotic AI, a horrifying disease, and space. How exciting!

Honestly,¬†Illuminae¬†has been on my radar for a very long time; I just didn’t bother with it because I read the word “exes Kady and Ezra” in the synopsis, and I was like, “lol no.” I hate it when the author reveals the love interest to you (one of the main plotlines, imo) right in the cover. So I had no interest in the book until it was highly recommended to me by two friends. They convinced me with the format: it’s written in a very avant-garde manner, filled with diagrams, transcriptions of interviews, maps, basically everything except for pages and pages of paragraphs. Not that pages and pages of paragraphs are bad; I mean, that’s 99% of YA literature. That’s what I enjoy. But it’s interesting to see something different once in a while. I thought that perhaps, this sort of varied format would be easier on the brain; I was proven wrong by the twists and turns the story took. There were quite a few times where things got too intense and I had to put it down for a while, which might sound dramatic but I just needed to wrap my head around what was happening.

It’s hard to describe the exact line that the plot takes. Basically, a small, illegal mining planet called “Kerenza,” where our protagonist, Kady, lives, is attacked by a huge corporation known as BeiTech. Kady and Ezra manage to escape the carnage, and there’s a¬†lot¬†of carnage. BeiTech basically hurls missiles at Kerenza until it deteriorates from a block of ice to a bunch of half-melted snow-cone shavings. Many die. The few thousand that escape are rescued by a nearby ship called the Alexander, along with its fleet, including the research vessel Hypatia and another vessel whose role I can’t remember: Copernicus. Alexander, Hypatia and Copernicus beat a hasty retreat, but are closely followed by BeiTech’s dreadnought (a war-ship,) the Lincoln.
Kady and Ezra are split up both physically and emotionally. Kady is on the Hypatia, while Ezra is on Alexander. She had dumped him a day before the attack commences, so things are fairly awkward between the two. Unfortunately, due to the lack of support they have from anyone else on the ship, they have nowhere to turn except to each other. Things become especially tense when it is discovered that the Lincoln is following them and has supposedly destroyed Copernicus, but suspicions are rife that high command on Alexander and Hypatia are hiding something big.

The best way I could think to describe this would be… a literary version of¬†Dead Space.¬†Two people are trapped in space with horrifying things happening around them; it’s not really aliens, though. The virus that infects the refugees and crew members is sort of like whatever it was that Eveline infected the Baker family with in¬†Resident Evil 7. It basically turns kind, normal people into these frothing, psychotic, stabby psychopaths. They run around the ship, gleefully slaughtering everything in their path, screaming “DON’T LOOK AT ME,” at their unfortunate victims. The virus has elements of your typical murder-plague, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

There’s also the AI, colloquially known as AIDAN. During the battle of Kerenza, AIDAN is responsible for taking down three of the four BeiTech ships. It is heavily damaged from the fight, and trouble begins a while later when it orders Alexander personnel to destroy Copernicus. This is ordered under a (perhaps) misguided attempt to save the majority of the remaining humans from the effects of Phobos (the virus) which, at this point, is still widely unknown among administrators, staff, and refugees aboard the Alexander. Horrified that the AI has forced them to kill their own people, they shut it down. Unfortunate circumstances lead to AIDAN being powered back up, but the computer recognizes that these personnel have the ability to turn it off again; so it does the only “logical” thing and releases quarantined, Phobos-infected escapees from the Copernicus massacre, into the Alexander’s halls. AIDAN is a wild-card, and makes a surprising shift throughout the story. It’s a really, really frightening concept–AI that is solely responsible for their survival, turning against them– that is executed brilliantly. Not only do we see the effects of AIDAN; we see AIDAN’s thought-processes through transcriptions of data retrieved from its core. This allows us to look inside the AI’s head and keeping in mind that AIDAN is a secondary antagonist, allows us to basically better understand the motivations of a singularly-focused villain. And we find that AIDAN isn’t a villain, not really; it is deluded and far too logically-minded to deal with the emotional complexities of our protagonists, but it’s not a villain. The relationship between AIDAN and Kady is one of the most intricately-woven and human relationships I’ve ever witnessed in a story. Kady is forced to depend on a thing that she hates to survive; likewise for AIDAN, to complete his core objective. I have to admire the way the authors laid it out because it’s hard to shape such a relationship without it coming off as unrealistic or flat-out abusive.

Kady is our primary protag, with Ezra following closely behind. They mostly communicate through private messaging, and though I was turned off by the idea that they were exes and would be obsessing over each other for the entire book, I was disproven… sort of. It doesn’t get to obnoxious levels anyways, so no worries.
Kady is a hacker, and the descriptions of her getting into the system make sense. They’re not arbitrary attempts at techno-lingo. I mean, I’m no authority on this because I don’t know the first thing about computers or coding or hacking, but for the unenlightened, it’s believable. She’s got a strong personality, and her actions make sense for her age. She’s in a very stressful situation, so though she makes some bad decisions, they don’t seem out of place.

Ezra is pretty great. He’s a good dose of entertainment amidst horror and grief, and he quickly endears himself to the reader. I thought that the way he was fleshed out was pretty interesting, and I’m glad that though his main role consisted of “love interest,” he had his own ambitions and motivations. It always sucks when the love interest is a flat character. Also, Ezra’s role is intrinsic to the story; he’s actually the one doing most of the physical labor and primary sneaking around for Kady.

The side characters, like James McNulty and Byron Zhang, aren’t forgettable. I found that even though we only knew them for a few chapters, they had charismatic personalities or were so meticulously detailed that they felt as important as our protagonists. I’m glad that no one sold short, if that makes sense? They all had distinctive roles, and even if they weren’t main characters, they were paid attention to. Even Captain Annie Chau, Syra Boll, David Torrence, all of them.

There were enough plot twists in this book to keep me at the edge of the seat, but not becoming a convoluted, twisty, Rainbow-Road type story. That was especially good, because when you have too many twists, you start to anticipate them. I didn’t anticipate any of these, and honestly? They left me kind of breathless. Like the wait– what– what is happening– kind of breathless. AIDAN. Kady. Ezra. They go through a¬†lot¬†of awful stuff.

I don’t want to give too much away; this is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few months / other than¬†Crooked Kingdom¬†/ so I’d love it if you checked it out! Illuminae is followed by Gemina and Obsidio, so you don’t even have to worry about not having your hands on the sequels when you finish this one. I hope you give it a chance, because its format is super original and really enticing, and the story (while familiar) is still so dazzling.¬†Illuminae¬†is an immersive tale that takes place in the empty blackness of space, where monsters hide in every corner, and there’s nowhere to run because you’re stuck on a floating tin can. See if you can brave its depths and give it a try! ūüėČ

Horizon Zero Dawn

I stopped doing game reviews for a while because I just don’t have time to delve into something so consuming. When I start a game, I tend to involve myself fully and absolutely; this tactic has its benefits and detriments. During the academic year, I try to stay away from them. Luckily, we’re in the middle of summer.

I recently had a chance to play Horizon Zero Dawn,¬†one of the biggest releases of 2017 (I think). I actually happened upon it by chance, while browsing for other games on Amazon. I didn’t know too much about the game– only that there are mechanical monsters– but that was enough to sell me. I think it was the fact that you saw one of those giant creatures on the cover. I love things featuring gigantic monsters (Godzilla! The Last Guardian! Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom!).

So yeah, I didn’t know anything going in. Other than there might be giant monsters. I didn’t see Aloy at the bottom, either, because my eyes were drawn to the massive iBeast. Sorry, I know that it has a technical name but I can’t remember it right now. :’-)

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^ This is a “tallneck”. They’re MASSIVE. I couldn’t find a screenshot that properly conveyed how ENORMOUSLY HUGE it is, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

You start out with this¬†gorgeous¬†cinematic that depicts an older man traveling with an infant; it establishes the relationship between this man (Rost) and our main character, Aloy. The two of them are outcasts; I won’t say more on why they were outcast. I know part of Aloy’s story, but nothing pertaining to Rost. I hope that you find out more during the game (I didn’t play through the whole thing). The first half hour or so is a tutorial, and establishment of Aloy’s background: she and Rost live together on the outskirts of a village, hunting the mechanic creatures and surviving on their own. The villagers don’t speak to or acknowledge them; Rost treats them likewise. Aloy, as a young girl, seems put-out that they refuse to talk to her. She doesn’t have any young friends, so she only wants to make some– and this goes badly, as we see in one scene where she is shunned by a Village Mother and the children. The things we see in this first part help connect the player to Aloy, as well as understand how to use her “sight” device– a strange, alien contraption that allows her to identify targets, look through walls to find electric components, and register the walking path of different creatures. I’m sure there’s more you can do, but that’s all I can really remember right now.

A recurring theme throughout Aloy’s childhood is the question of who her mother is. When Aloy is older, she decides to take part in this ceremony that 1. allows challengers to become a part of the village community and 2. if she beats everyone else in this competition, she may have one wish granted. Aloy plans to ask the elders about her origins.
From here, life becomes more structured. Your main goal is to become strong enough to compete in and successfully complete these trials; Aloy trains by fighting the machine creatures, discovering ruins, and furthering her skill-set.
I really liked how EXP and skill build-up worked in this game. It was really simple to understand. I remember trying to play¬†Dead Space 3¬†and the worst thing about it was how difficult it was to understand the weapons-upgrade system. One of the most awful things you can do in a game is over-complicate power-ups, so I’m glad that the developers stuck to a default model, where each skill is part of a branch, and costs a certain number of “points” that you can gain by working on your EXP and raising your level.

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The map isn’t too helpful– I’m terrible with directions, anyways, but luckily, if you’ve played Arkham Knight or any of the other Arkham games, it follows the same kind of thing where you have an objective marker on the screen and just have to follow it around. Crafting and Inventory are equally easy to peruse.

The game itself is stunning. One of the things I was so drawn to was the machine-mixed-with-nature aesthetic. I know I’m pulling a lot of random video game references, but it really reminds me of¬†Enslaved: Odyssey to the West,¬†which is one of my favorite games of all time. Aloy even reminds me a bit of Tripitaka (maybe the child of Trip and Monkey) (but that’s just wishful thinking lol). You’ll see what I mean in the following screenshots; both games rely heavily on intricately-built jungle-based environments entwined in the harsh, stark lines of technology and machines. I bet it’s symbolic for something, like the contrast between what man makes and what the natural order of the Earth follows, but I just think it’s a really nice visual.

Right? Left is HZD,¬†right is¬†Enslaved.¬†I don’t know. I felt like they looked pretty similar.

Oh man. Thinking about¬†Enslaved¬†makes me so nostalgic. YO. IT’S SUCH A GOOD GAME. PLEASE CHECK IT OUT.
Back to HZD.

I love female protagonists, and Aloy fits the bill. Although… I will say that she’s a pretty flat character. She’s whatever you shape her to be; she doesn’t have any super definitive traits, like Emily Kaldwin from¬†Dishonored 2.¬†Rather, she seems to adjust to whatever the player wants her to be, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I do think that it’s interesting that the developers decided to make her female, when they could have easily made her male and been done with it. It’s kind of cool that your default character is a woman and you have to play the game through her eyes; most of the time, being a woman in a game is a choice that you consciously make. I don’t know if this sounds rambly, because it’s 2 AM and I’m exhausted, but I feel like you don’t really get too many female protags in games and so I do appreciate it.

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You do have dialogue options; they cycle between a compassionate response, a logical response, or an angry response. Though your choices affect the characters directly (like say you make an angry decision and yell at someone; they’ll probably remember it later), they don’t impact the overall storyline. So they’re futile, just put in place to make you feel like you made some change to the story, which is kind of disappointing. I’ve always loved those games where your choices matter.

So the last thing I’ll talk about is the plot: I’m intrigued. It’s a sci-fi adventure, but I don’t want to give too much away because it’s one of those things that’s better discovered by yourself. Aloy’s powers are cool; the game’s enemies are actually kind of difficult to kill, at least in the beginning, but they’re not impossible. Oh geez, I tried¬†Prey¬†(Arkane Studios), hoping that it would be as amazing as¬†Dishonored 2, and I’m sure that it is… but I couldn’t get through the first part, even. The enemies in that game are ridiculously hard to beat, and I was playing on the easiest setting :’-)

I’m definitely going to purchase¬†Horizon Zero Dawn¬†eventually; probably after I’m done with all my big exams coming up in the next few months. Gotta focus on grad school… which I’m not, because I’m reading all these books instead. uuughghhgghghhhhh…
I would definitely recommend¬†HZD¬†to anyone with an interest in adventure games and open worlds with structure! Though you can go on side-quests or explore on your own, it never gets to the point where you’re like “what am I even doing,” like it did for me with¬†Skyrim. I’d often get so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff that was available to do, that I never did anything of importance.¬†HZD¬†ensures that you more or less stay on track.

I hope you get a chance to try it out and take down some mechs! Kachow.

Crooked Kingdom: Leigh Bardugo

I had put off the Six of Crows sequel for a really, really long time because I knew my life would have no purpose once the journey of Kaz Brekker & Co. was over. Now it is over. My life is meaningless, as expected.
I’m kidding. ((Sort of.))
Let’s cover this topic meticulously.¬†Crooked Kingdom¬†is a work of art and deserves to be reviewed at the deepest level that I am capable of, though I’m not entirely sure I can actually do that in the time I have. If I wanted to write the in-depth review that is tapping at my fingertips, it would probably take me all of eternity, or at least a long week.

The cover: we see a crow. Its wings are splayed across the page, its throat is tilted back as it glowers upwards. A crow rising from a kingdom of dull gray-gold. Its tail-feathers are tinted with specks of blood. Now, this is symbolism punching you right in the gut. I mean, maybe the cover artist just thought it was a cool concept, but the whole story revolves around Kaz Brekker, the Crow King, rising from the gutter and taking over the country that has tried to crush him under its heel. He’s like a Pheonix reborn, but with much more chaos, blackness, and monstrosity.

You have to remember, when reading the¬†Six of Crows¬†series, that our protagonist, Brekker, is actually a cleverly spun antagonist. He’s mean. He’s cruel. He’s as cold as a glacier and could outwit a fox. But he’s the one we’re rooting for, and why? Because he’s such a badass.
I’m not saying that Brekker is a bad character; exactly the opposite, actually. Kaz is one of my favorite characters of all time. But he’s definitely a¬†bad¬†guy, and I think that in this book, he brushes the depths of his black soul. Kaz is constantly walking the line between evil and unforgivable, and in this adventure, we see him toeing that line. Part of the tension that feeds into the story is the question of whether he can be redeemed, or whether he’s gone way too far.

Here’s the thing about writing characters who are “evil”: in the end, they always have a heart of gold. ¬†The thing that makes Kaz walk the atypical path is that unlike lots of these bad guys, his plot armor is flimsy, and consequently, we’re not always sure what will happen. He is backed into every possible corner of every possible situation, and anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. I personally believe that the thing that makes Kaz a good character is his maturation over the series; at first, he is driven by a single-handed and unquenchable thirst for revenge, and he will let¬†nothing¬†get in the way. ¬†He’s like any other revenge-seeking thug. Over the course of the books, however, Kaz becomes the guy who is still driven by his single-handed and unquenchable thirst for revenge, but also by a deep fear of failing his team. Kaz grows fond of his crew. That’s what makes him different. He has always been the monster, but now he’s a monster with much to lose, regardless of what he claims.
That was the biggest thing I noticed in Book 2, and that was the thing that endeared it to me. The story isn’t totally about Kaz getting his revenge; it’s about a really daunting, possibly indomitable trial that a group of tight-knit friends has to overcome.¬†No mourners, no funerals¬†my ass; these guys will go to the depths of Hell to drag each other out, and they prove it over and over again through the events of¬†Crooked Kingdom.¬†

Nina, the Heartrender-turned-something-else-entirely. Wylan, the dishonorable son. Jesper, another dishonorable son, and a gambler who can’t afford to lose anything more. Matthias, struggling to reconcile his love for the enemy, and the world he grow up in. Inej. A young woman who had everything torn from her in the worst way possible, but built herself back up with the help of the bastard of the barrel. The focus isn’t just on Kaz and the blood he’s tasted in the cold waters of Ketterdam; each character has their personal struggles, and each struggle is resolved in the most satisfying way. Nina must come to terms with the aftereffects of her fight against¬†jurda parem. Wylan must face his past, his father, his failures, and come to terms with the person he believes himself to be and the person he really is. Jesper’s gambling habit catches up to him in the form of Colm Fahey, the honest farmer, come to fetch his wayward-but-adored eldest son; he must learn how to absolve his sins. Matthias, still deep in the throes of love, must acknowledge that his relationship with Nina is still affected by the remnants of his¬†druskelle¬†background. Inej learns to take power back from the people who wronged and underestimated her and reconciles her pious background with the creature of destruction, fear, and darkness that she has become.

We see hints of these battles in Six of Crows, but Ms. Bardugo lets each one simmer and cook until the events of Crooked Kingdom, giving the characters adequate time to learn from their experiences and mature into wiser people. Not good ones, but ones with more understanding of themselves, their potential, their goals and desires.

The whole world works against the crew– literally the whole world. The Shu, the Kaelish, the Ravkans, the Fjerdans, all of the Barrel and all of the merch. All of Ketterdam. The city that Kaz has poured his blood, sweat, and the occasional tear into, has turned against him. It’s the team’s worst nightmare, but Kaz is undeterred. This is just one more trial on his path to avenging Jordie, putting Rollins further in his self-made grave. The thing that changes, as I stated earlier, is the fact that he seems to realize that his crew is mortal and that everyone has stakes in this game. It affects him through the novel, especially concerning Inej:
“And then,” said Inej, “I’m going to walk a high wire from one silo to the next.”
Nina threw her hands in the air. “And all of it without a net, I suppose?”

“A Ghafa never performs with a net,” Inej said indignantly.
“Does a Ghafa frequently perform twenty stories above cobblestones after being held prisoner for a week?”
“There will be a net,” said Kaz… The silence in the tomb was sudden and complete. Inej couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
~
“Why the net, Kaz?”
Yes, why the net? Why something that would complicate the assault he’d planned on the silos and leave them twice as open to exposure.¬†I couldn’t bear to watch you fall.

The monstrosity of Kaz Brekker has one Achilles’ heel: his love for the Wraith, his spider, the stubborn, quietly determined Inej Ghafa. ¬†I’m not going to say anything more on that; you’ll have to read it yourself. Will they or won’t they? You’ll find out if you pick up¬†Crooked Kingdom.

Speaking of romance: a lot of relationships, like the Kaz/Inej coupling, are tested in the waters of this novel. Inej, a victim of kidnapping in the beginning, is forced to reexamine her relationship with the meanest, sharpest skiv in Ketterdam and Kerch, maybe all of the Grisha universe:
Kaz had been clear about his arrangement with her from the beginning. Inej was an investment, an asset worthy of protection. She had wanted to believe that they’d become more to each other. Jan Van Eck had robbed her of that illusion.
She’s always been Kaz’s right-hand man. She’s closer to him than anyone else, but how much does that matter in the long-run? If she were broken and useless, would Kaz still need her? Or would he discard her as he would any old relic of the past?

Nina and Matthias need to deal with the question of their future together. Waylan and Jesper’s feelings come to culmination, though I will say that a love-triangle is hinted at, but quickly averted (thank GOD). Oh, I forgot to mention this in my earlier post about¬†Six of Crows,¬†but in regards to LGBTQ+ relationships: I think Wylan and Jasper are the best couple I’ve observed so far. Their relationship is understandable (meaning they actually build up a relationship rather than just falling into arbitrary love), neither of them is typecast as the “flamboyant gay” or the “suppressed gay,” and rather than being treated as a means to an end, they have their own stories. Their own struggles. Their own salvations. The thing I hated about Dorian and whatever-his-name-was in¬†Girl at Midnight¬†or most of the other queer couples that have been featured in YA fiction is that they don’t seem like they are their own individuals. They seem like they were written in¬†solely¬†for the purpose of falling in love with another a person of the same sex, which meant that their whole role in the story was “the gay guy/girl/person.” This goes both ways, though. I also hate when a heterosexual character is written in solely for the purpose of falling in love with this specific other person, but the problem is that gay couples are already underrepresented, and when they’re written so lazily, it makes their representation feel more like something the author was checking off a list rather than actually putting time and effort into.

Okay, well, I don’t want to argue about the dynamics of queer relationships because I’m a straight person, but… a relationship is a relationship, you know? All story romances should feel organic and have thought put into them, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual or whatever they are. I think that as a person who reads books and understands romantic relationships, my opinion should have some weight… but I don’t want to be labeled a “straight cisgendered” something or the other. ūüė¶
It sucks to feel like you’re being censored, though I will admit that I’m censoring myself due to an unwillingness to be cast into the imperiously angry flames of well-meaning Twitter activists.

So. Wylan and Jesper. Their problem is that so many bad things are happening so fast, and in such consecutive order, that they don’t have time to talk about what’s going on between them. Ms. Bardugo was able to build a relationship between the two while also avoiding what Ms. Tahir did in¬†A Torch Against the Night¬†with Laia and Elias, a la why are they being so romantic while the world is falling apart around them, what is wrong with these two. And if you want to find out what happens… read the book, yo.

This is running SO LONG but I feel like there’s so much to talk about. The main storyline for example: Jan Van Eck is getting one over on those dirty sewer rats in the Barrel. Kaz, Inej, Wylan, Jesper, Nina and Matthias are going to pull the biggest con of their life (right after breaking Kuwei out of the Ice Prison, lol). The international community is swarming Kerch– the Shu to kidnap Grisha, the Kaelish, Fjordans, Ravkans, and everybody else to find the secret to¬†jurda parem,¬†which Kaz holds right in his gloved hands. It’s going to take a lot more than a lucky break to get them out this time, and the crew just might be bested by the world that they unwittingly took on.
Haha. JK. This is Kaz Brekker and he’s always got a plan, and even if that means half of or all of the city is going to be razed, he’s going to go through with it. Jan Van Eck will bleed whatever tar runs through his body for trying to double-cross the most dangerous character alive, for trying to harm this character’s friends, and for thinking that he could get one over on the sinful disgraces of Ketterdam. Pekka Rollins will get what’s coming to him for all the pigeons he’s fleeced, especially for what he did to two young boys from the quiet countryside. All of Kerch is going to bow down to a new Barrel boss, one more ruthless and cunning than anything it’s ever dealt with; one that was borne from the misery and terror that the old bosses raised, and reveled in a chaos he spread afterwards.

The plot is amazing. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and there were several points where I thought, “this is it. There’s actually no way to get out of this one; he screwed himself over.” and what really delighted me was that there were parts of the book where I made a guess at what would happen (I consider myself to be a fairly good guesser. I think it comes with having read a lot of varied YA fiction.) and found that I had only gotten maybe 1/15th of the plan right. It’s not like Sherlock Holmes, where all the clues are hidden to you and you only figure out what’s going to happen because Sherlock comes up with some information that was never divulged to the reader; Ms. Bardugo lays everything out in the open, and leaves the reader to their rumination. But Kaz is always one step ahead of everybody, including his audience.

Six of Crows¬†was one of my favorite books of all time and¬†Crooked Kingdom¬†wrapped up the series beautifully. I hope that this cast will be featured in future stories set in the Grisha-verse, but only time will tell. For now, though, I would¬†highly¬†highly highly recommend this book to anyone that likes a good story; anyone who likes reading.¬†Six of Crows¬†and¬†Crooked Kingdom¬†are staples of YA literature, and you’d be doing a disservice to yourself not to give them a try. HAPPY READING!!¬†‚̧

Given to the Sea: Mindy McGinnis

Given to the Sea¬†was one of the more eagerly-anticipated novels coming ’round this year. I remember catching glimpses of it on Goodreads; the cover is beautiful, and you know of my love affair with covers. Although I¬†really¬†should learn to stop hoping for a good story based off of a cover. Mindy McGinnis, the author, is known for her¬†Not a Drop to Drink¬†series, which I tried reading but couldn’t get very far into. I thought I might try¬†GttS because it’s been a while since her debut, and authors tend to get better as they gain experience.

This book is confusing. I’m pretty good at following alternating points of view;¬†Streams of Babel¬†had the same format, and it’s one of my favorite books of all time.¬†Code Name Verity¬†did too, though it didn’t switch characters so abruptly. My problem with¬†Given to the Sea¬†is that the problems in its world, and the characters that play a part in the story, aren’t introduced to us at all. Instead, we’re thrust right into the middle of things. The book begins with Khosa, who gives us a spiel about the role of the Given and how dangerous the sea is, but after that there are no more introductions. All of these random people show up and it’s like you’re already supposed to know who everyone is. Madda, the seer, Prince Varrick, the philandering noble, Donil, the Indiri twin, Milda, the baker’s daughter, like who are all these people and why am I supposed to care about them?

Everything in this book revolves around sex and pregnancy. You wouldn’t think so, but seriously: the main problem in the story seems to be that Khosa has not yet gotten herself pregnant, which means that she can’t be sacrificed to the sea because she has no heir who will be sacrificed ages afterwards. There was some minor character who lasted for a few chapters– Khosa’s friend, who offers to impregnate her, and has already done so with two other village girls. Apparently sex is a very casual thing in this world. Then there’s Prince Varrick, who can’t keep his pants on, and Prince Vincent, who likes to pretend that he is a “normal boy” by bedding the baker’s daughter every now and then. ¬†The Pietran soldiers cannot stop making dirty jokes. Then there’s Dara, the Indiri girl, who wants to find an Indiri man that she can make Indiri children with. Do you see what I mean? They talk about sex constantly. This is all in the first twelve chapters. It seems like not all– but many characters’ goals revolve entirely around reproduction. Literally anything that Khosa was involved in was tangentially related to her trying to find a man to get pregnant by.

There’s a lot of dialogue. There were entire passages, pages, that were just dialogue, and that can be horribly tedious to read. Most of this book was difficult because I was either trying to figure out which character was speaking, or why what they were talking about mattered to the plot, or what they were even talking about in the first place.

I lasted for twelve chapters but each one felt more boring than the first. I hate to be harsh, really and truly, but this book just didn’t catch my attention. There were too many unnecessary characters, and those introduced to us in the beginning weren’t beguiling enough to keep me reading. Khosa is beautiful. Dara is fierce. Vincent is reluctant. Donil is a joker. Then there’s the mysterious Witt, who is a killer. Witt never even interacts with the other characters. I don’t even know why he’s in this story. I really don’t understand what’s going on, or why all of these things that are happening, are happening (like some war?? That a neighboring kingdom or something? Is waging? But there’s no explanation as to why).

Also, from what I can garner by skimming through the next few chapters… everyone is falling in love with everyone. Vincent likes Khosa. Dara likes Vincent. Vincent likes Dara. Khosa likes Dolin. Dolin likes Khosa. What the heck. No love triangles for me, thanks. Actually this is even worse because it’s like a love circle? Whatever it is, I’m done.