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!

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

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.

Wildwood Dancing: Juliet Marillier

I’ve always had a soft spot for fairy-tale retellings; hence my love for¬†The Lunar Chronicles,¬†Beauty,¬†so on and so forth. It’s fun to see how authors re-imagine the words of ages-old writers, or how they toy with the constraints set in place by The Brothers Grimm and other storytellers.¬†Wildwood Dancing¬†by Juliet Marillier follows the time-old story of¬†The Twelve Dancing Princesses,¬†except there are only five of them (which is probably for the best; imagine having to remember twelve characters) and they’re merchant’s daughters, not royalty.

The girls live in Transylvania, in a mysterious castle that is already fraught with superstitions and strange lore. Romanian culture was heavily laced into the story, from the food to the names to the words, but I’m not sure that the author quite accomplished what she was going for. When I read the book, it felt like I was being told over and over again that they were Romanian, when I should have understood this from context. The “Romanian-ness” was blatant, but it should have been subtle; you know how in grade school, English teachers would always tell you to “show, not tell”?
So the girls live in this castle with a few servants and their father. Tati is the oldest, and an ethereal beauty; Jena comes after her, and she’s the protagonist of the story, who is known for being sensible; then it’s Iulia, I think, the flirty one, then Paula, the scholar, and finally Stela, at five years. Oh yeah, their ages range from 16 to 12, I think, with Stela as an outlier. That made it a little frustrating at certain parts (like when Tati insists that she’s in love with a man that she’s known for a week), but since this is set in what, the late 1800s – early 1900s, I tried to suspend my disbelief. ¬†The merchant father is working with a cousin of his (the girls’s uncle) on a business venture, and that cousin has a son named Cezar.

Recently I’ve stopped writing up synopses for the books that I read because honestly, it’s such a boring task. I’m way too meticulous when I try to recall the events, and it gets really miserable. So I’m just going to cover the highs and lows of the book in depth, as I usually do. If you want to know what happens: there are five girls — they go dancing in the Otherworld on full-moon nights — their father, the merchant, is very sick and has to go away for a while, leaving them in their uncle’s care — their uncle is killed, leaving the girls in Cezar’s hands, and he’s kind of a tyrant — Cezar is a misogynistic pig who knows the girls are somehow sneaking out — Jena’s pet frog, Gogu, turns out to be a man — Tati and her vampiric lover, Sorrow, manage to end up together; Costi, who is Cezar’s supposedly-dead older brother, turns out to be the real identity of Gogu, and he was under a supernatural curse doled out to him by Draguta, the forest witch. He marries Jena and their father comes home, hearty again, and everything is fine and dandy.
See, I’m not good at explanations.

Cezar was a good antagonist. There were times when I wanted to put down the book and cry because he was frustrating¬†me. There are so many sexist stereotypes ingrained into him, and he demonstrates just how useless he thinks women are several times. Cezar looks for a damsel in distress, in Jena, and grows angry when he isn’t able to find one– which makes him dangerous. Jena maintains diplomacy with her childhood friend, failing to shut him down when needed, which I found annoying; but nearer to the middle of the book, when Cezar’s advances became more aggressive, I realized that it was probably because she didn’t want him to go ballistic on her. He’s huge, strong, and intimidating– definitely not the type you’d want for an enemy, especially if you’re a fifteen-year-old girl.

I liked the camaraderie between the younger sisters, though I’m excluding Tatiana from this because for most of the story, she was the lovelorn maiden mooning into the night sky, wallowing in self-pity because she can’t be with her week-old lover. I didn’t like her at all. But I get that she had to be included in the story, because she’s one of those quintessential fairy-tale characters.

Jena maintains that she is the “sensible” sister throughout the story, and her practicality shines in every one of her decisions. She refuses to allow Cezar to feel like he is in control. She warns Tati away from Sorrow, a member of the Night People, who are notoriously dangerous. She chooses not to trust Gogu after he turns into a man– understandable, because her frog just turned into a man. Her reasoning behind this, though, irritated me a little: the vampiress Anastasia drags her to “Draguta’s Mirror,” which is a pool of water that will apparently show you your future. Jena sees Man-Gogu (Costi) attacking her sisters. Firstly, I don’t understand why the heck Jena believes the mirror that this woman introduces her to. Anastasia has been suspicious since her initial appearance in the Otherworld; the Night People, whom Anastasia belongs to, are known for playing cruel tricks on people, and Jena even claims several times that the Night People are attacking the villagers in an attempt to turn the villagers against the woodland fey. So why, Jena, would you suddenly believe that Anastasia is being truthful when she claims to have something like “Draguta’s Mirror”? And secondly, why would you believe anything that Draguta’s Mirror shows you? It was introduced to you by a vampire, specifically one who has some kind of grudge against you, and being the sensible sister, shouldn’t she have some sliver of doubt about everything she observes? This was one point where I felt that Jena lost her practicality for the sake of the plot. Even when she was explaining to her sisters about why she believed Anastasia, she was faltering and it was out-of-character.

The Otherlands were interesting, and I’d love to see more of their world. The Queen, Ileana, Draguta the Witch, and all of the other quirky characters were fleshed out just enough so that we cared about them. Ms. Marillier could have skimmed over this cast without paying too much attention to them, but I’m glad that she delved into the fairy creatures and the weird residents of the woodlands because it helped the reader understand why the sisters are so disillusioned with the human world, and why they want so much to keep the Otherlands thriving despite Cezar’s threat to tear them down. I also like how aloof the woodland creatures are to everything going on in the mortal realm; they don’t care that Cezar has a vendetta against them. They’re very laissez-faire about the whole situation, which would seem to be the appropriate response for magical beings.

One thing I noticed is that¬†this book is long.¬†That’s not good. When you’re reading something lengthy, you should never notice that it’s lengthy, because that means you’re not enjoying it… that’s what I think, anyways. Because if you’re totally engrossed, you won’t even notice.

Also: the ending left me with a lot of questions. It wrapped up in a very anti-climactic manner. Cezar, who is the bane of their existence? He realizes he’s messed up his own life and walks into the forest. What happens to him? That isn’t revealed. I hoped he had joined the Night People and would throw a curveball at them, and I was waiting for this, but nope. He just… vanishes. Then also, what happens to the Night People? I felt like she was building up this huge secondary, or maybe primary antagonist, but they just vanish at the end of the story. Ileana banishes them or something, even though they had this whole plan to take over the Otherworld… that plot was left as loose threads.
The story moves slowly, but that’s because Ms. Marillier fleshes out her world very meticulously. Overall, I believe that it’s sub-par as a fairytale retelling because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table in regards to¬†The Twelve Dancing Princesses, not really. ¬†The re-read value is low, too. But if you like fairy-tales and you’re interested in Romanian culture, maybe check it out. I’m thinking about continuing the series anyways because the next book features Paula, who is honestly, in my opinion, the best of the sisters. She actually seems to have a good head on her shoulders and is very down-to-earth. But we’ll see. My bookstacks grow taller every day and I don’t have enough time to get through them all, haha.

Happy reading!

Creature of Moonlight: Rebecca Hahn

I only just finished reading¬†Creature of Moonlight¬†like five minutes ago, and I’m so relieved to have finally found a book that I seriously enjoyed. This is Ms. Hahn’s debut novel, featuring a young princess, a dragon, and a kingdom rife with conflict. There were so many aspects of this novel that I really enjoyed, and the fact that it was her first book is especially impressive. I’ll try to keep this concise, but I’ve said that before and it never really happens, so we’ll just see where this goes.

Marni is a flower girl, living on the edge of the forest with her grandfather. They tend to a gorgeous garden, serving the nobles of a neighboring land, with the mysterious woods lying just shy of their backyard. Now, Marni’s parentage is unusual; her mother was a princess who fled into the woods (renowned for swallowing up young women, never to return) and came back, alive– but round with little Marni in her belly. Marni’s uncle, the current king, murdered his sister supposedly in a fit of rage, and Marni’s grandfather, the old king, threw himself in front of her tiny toddler body to protect the girl from her uncle’s sword. He gave up his kingdom for his daughter’s daughter.

Marni is inexplicably drawn to the woods; she’s wandered in and out her whole life, never straying too far for fear of losing herself. It’s the memory of Gramps that always brings her back out; she needs to be there for him, like he was there for her. Creatures of the woods try to seduce her into staying: there’s an enchanting woman who calls for Marni, better known as Tulip among the woodland creatures and the townspeople; little fairies and goblins; and a medley of other puzzling residents who tempt Marni back. But she never stays for long.
This all changes when she returns home one day to find her grandfather dead. But because of circumstances, rather than running to the woods, she makes her way to the castle.

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the plot, but I can laud the characters. Especially Marni.

I think that Marni is an avant-garde example of a strong female protagonist. It’s not that she’s particularly powerful; nor is she some chosen one, born to slay the dragon or something like that. Marni’s powerful because she stays true to herself throughout the entire book; her whole character arc is about¬†making choices. Marni moves at her own pace despite peer pressure to conform to a standard. She knows what she wants, and she strives to achieve what she wants, when she wants it. When she chooses to go to the castle rather than the woods, its because she knows that she wants to avenge her mother, and the best way of going about it is by sticking close to her uncle. She doesn’t go to the castle because it’s what the mysterious Count of Ontrei wants her to do; she goes because¬†she¬†wants to.

I don’t know if I’m doing her justice.

I guess the best example I can think of, with Marni’s insistence on sticking to her decisions and doing what she believes is best for her, is in regards to her love life. From the beginning of the novel, we learn that she has reached marriageable age and has had suitors, both villagers and nobles, peasants and lords, wandering to her door to ask Gramps for her hand in marriage. One of the things that I appreciated was the fact that Gramps left the decision up to Marni; even when the powerful Count of Ontrei comes to ask for her hand, despite the fact that he is seriously considering giving Ontrei his blessing, Marni is the one who steps up and refuses him. And Gramps sticks by her side. He doesn’t try to convince her by telling her of the Lord’s wealth and influence; he simply apologizes to her suitor and turns him away.

Anyways, I was talking about her choices: so through the book, due to various circumstances, Marni comes to live in the castle and forges and alliance with the Count of Ontrei. They grow closer, of course; they spend many long evenings together, and he’s the only one of her suitors that she befriends. The Count of Ontrei woos her determinedly, and he inches his way into Marni’s heart, but she knows to hold him at a distance. She knows that he might be in it not for her, for love, but for the throne. Since Marni’s uncle, the king, and his wife, are barren, she is the only heir to the kingdom. The Count of Ontrei’s courtship, while enjoyable, is highly suspicious.
Also, he proves to be very arrogant despite his relatively good nature. There are several occasions in which he simply states that they will marry, and she quickly calls him out on it. The first time it happens, he had misunderstood their deal and assumed they would wed in order to solidify the alliance. Marni says no, but they grow closer. The Count continues proposing and while I would usually think that this is annoying, Marni doesn’t seem to mind. The book recalls that sometimes his proposals are offhanded and silly; sometimes they are serious, and they make her stomach twist with anticipation and her heart flutter with hope. But always, she refuses him.

There is one time where, after a romantic evening in which he kisses her for the first time and then she quickly kicks him out of the room after realizing how scandalous it is for them to be alone in her room, without an escort, where she begins to treat him coldly. The Count finally catches up to her and they discuss what happened, and I believe that an argument arises between the two. Lord Ontrei, loudly, says something along the lines of “we’ll talk about this later and I’ll see you in your rooms tonight,” which, as you can imagine, is humiliating for her. There are lords and ladies all about the place, all of them gossip-mongers and watching the exchange with the eagerness of vultures to carrion. Marni recognizes this (righteously furious) as Lord Ontrei staking a claim on her; dominating her. He informs them that he can come in and out of her rooms as he pleases. He paints her to be coy, but assures the world in so many words that he has her exactly where he wants her.

Marni punches him in the nose.

That was my favorite part of the story. It was such a defining moment for her– she will¬†not¬†take BS– and it fleshes out both characters so much. Marni, up until this point, is fairly non-confrontational and composed, but reveals just how fiery she can be. Lord Ontrei is cocky and charming, but shows us that not everything about him is goodness and light. He has a shade of darkness staining his pallet, just like every other character. I like how after this incident, he apologizes through his actions and Marni forgives him. Their love story was interesting for a YA novel because Ontrei was not entirely good, or at least, he didn’t come off as so. And it’s not like Marni hated his advances; she falls in love with him, as much as a girl of sixteen can, and he makes her happy for sure. And I think that he was starting to love her. But still, she never consents to marriage, and though he tries to persuade her, he never succeeds.

That’s one more thing to note: no one in this book is completely good or completely evil. It translates well into real life. The character closest to pure goodness is Marni’s aunt, the queen, but she does have her reservations about Marni when times get tough and doesn’t help her when the king is actively trying to assassinate her. Lord Ontrei, as we saw above, ¬†is steadfast and loyal to Marni, but can be blind with imperiousness and has on more than one occasion, revealed a sinister sliver of his personality that Marni clearly sees. The king, though he killed Marni’s mother and grievously injured her grandfather, only murdered her because he was afraid of the forest completely engulfing their lands. He had to protect his people, his kingdom, and he knew that his father wasn’t strong enough to do so. Maybe years of being king have hardened him, and he’s justified himself so much that he no longer feels guilty but I think, rather than simply not regretting the the way he slew his sister, his lack of anguish was due to a coping mechanism. Maybe he would have gone crazy if he kept thinking about what he had done. The dragon, while painted as evil for most of the book, reveals himself to be a fairly neutral character. He only takes girls into the woods who want to escape. He loved Marni’s mother the way an immortal, magical creature could love a human, but it wasn’t enough.
I found that it made the characters all the more human and relatable, and I was able to empathize with them much more than I would have a flat, evil/good person.

The Queen’s role in this story as a sort of guiding figure and mother for Marni was very sweet. Rather than siding with her husband and accusing the girl of being entirely responsible for everything wrong in the kingdom, the Queen welcomes her into the palace with open arms. She even argues with her husband about his treatment of Marni. It’s nice to see a queen who isn’t the main character, but also has autonomy. She doesn’t agree with the king, who is this constant threat to Marni’s presence; instead, she takes the exact opposite route and tries to protect Marni, even freeing her when the king sentences her to die. Also, she calls this scary antagonist¬†Roddy, and that’s real cute.

Lastly, I want to talk about the woods: the way that Ms. Hahn paints them is so gorgeous and vibrant that I felt like I could see everything clearly. She takes great pains in making sure that the woods are not gorgeous, innocent, guileless; their beauty is eerie. It’s dangerous. The creatures that inhabit the woods seem pure, but, being otherworldly and unbound by human nature, are treacherous. The lost-girls-turned-griffins-and-pheonixes are stunning, uninhibited by mortal worry, screaming across the sky as free as they can be. The two years that Marni spends in the woods are described vividly; not so much every single thing she did, but in the emotions she felt while she was unfettered, liberated from the castle and the villagers. I wish I could put it into words but there’s really no way to understand how exquisite this sequence is, other than to read the book.

I hope that you pick this up. I think that it’s so beautiful, really reminiscent of¬†Alice in Wonderland¬†or fairy-tales or folklore from long ago. The beginning chapters are a teeny bit slow but by chapter three, I was hooked. And I love the female lead, the power given to the female lead, and the depth of her story. Marni’s trying to find her home in a place where dozens are offered to her, but none fit quite right. She’s a simple character, yet utterly complex; I don’t know how to define her. Read the story, because it’s an adventure that you have to traverse by yourself.