The Bird and the Sword

I absolutely loved the beginning-of-the-world myth Harmon’s fantastical medieval kingdom was built from, which had an intriguing biblical base note. I loved the premise of an emotionally shuttered young woman fighting for her voice, wings and people. I also loved the final twist, even though it was not the most unpredictable development in the world. But something about Lark and Tiras’ relationship just left an uncomfortable aftertaste.

I have not seen this mentioned in other reviews (many of which were five-star), so maybe I have a very individual interpretation. Personally, I failed to see Tiras’ ‘love’ mature much from its possessive origins. Maybe Harmon thought the whole “I think I will keep you” thing was romantic. Maybe it could have been, in the right circumstances, with the right characters, and with the right context. But Tiras himself admitted that he had kidnapped and imprisoned Lark to “kill two birds with one stone” – (1) because he thought she could ‘cure’ him, and (2) to threaten her father into submission (and dissuade him from plotting too hard to steal his throne).

And he only continues to use her to keep Lord Corvyn in check and to help his army slaughter the Volgar. Even his lovemaking was at least initially to ensure there is an heir. Yes, he teaches her to read and shows some care and patience, but it far from negates how much he based Lark’s worth on her ability to protect his city. Love should never be the endgame, one must love for the right reasons. And I have a feeling Tiras’ were not the right reasons.

“You are a great use to me. I will put a child in your belly. A son who will be king.”

“Why do I have to be taught?”
“Because you said you know nothing about being a queen. Because I am king. And because it is your duty to please me.”

“You said I chose you because you are of use to me. And I did.”

Otherwise, I found the prose and pacing quite enjoyable; 350 pages was the perfect length. There were no frilly descriptions (the bane of fantasy literature), few sentences felt aesthetically pretentious (you know, those blunt sentences tacked onto the end of some observation or revelation that the author thinks sound ‘deep’ and ‘poetic’) and I was only tempted to skim a handful of passages. Deep-rooted hate and hysteria (likely inspired by the Salem witch trials) pervaded the atmosphere in an unusually adept demonstration of ‘showing, not telling’. While the plot was relatively straightforward and somewhat predictable (the typical a kingdom faces a mysterious threat and its king falls in love with its unlikely liberator concoction), Harmon’s particular blend of fantasy elements was fresh enough to make a quick, agreeable read.

Favourite quote: “Often-times, grass was more useful than gold. Man was more desirable than beast. Chance was more seductive than knowledge, and eternal life was completely meaningless without love.”
Rating: 3/5

The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger

It is all fine and dandy for the central romance to be some inexplicable instantaneous affair if the focus of the novel were the impending war or palace politics or honestly anything else. But The Wrath and the Dawn is, unfortunately, essentially a love story. The (gasp) forbidden kind with a broken boy and a murderous girl (or a girl who wants to think she can be murderous). So when, after eleven chapters of brazen loathing, Shazi wanted to kiss her best friend’s murderer just three days into their marriage, I almost stopped reading then and there. No reason was given for this sudden, ridiculous change, unless her observations that oh, he’s so broken, and oh, he’s so handsome count.*

Even in those eleven preceding chapters, I was filling with dread. Her bravado was swelling to an eye-rolling intensity, and I was already wincing for the classic wow, she’s so defiant, she’s so special moment. But I still had this pathetic hope that it was all only to identify her as a formidable force the caliphate’s enemies would have to reckon with. And not another “charm” to ensnare Khalid. In all honesty, besides her ‘sylph-like’ beauty, I saw few charms in her. At least, none striking enough to make a caliph throw the safety of his city to the wind and say, damn all, I want her to destroy me.

Why Khalid even decided to go to her chamber at all**, I can never say. He mentioned how she glared at him on their wedding night, as if that was explanation enough. And as if most of the other brides would not have so frankly shown their hatred as well, knowing that their husband would order their deaths the dawn after. Was it really because her arrogance made her seem “limitless”? In my experience, arrogance is far too common in this world, not too rare. I am sure there was, at the very least, a handful of brides who had sheltered the same blind hope they would be the ones to break the cycle. So this ‘romance’ was all very sudden and superficial.

Yes, many readers will find the lush Middle Eastern landscape “sumptuous”. Honestly, it was just good research. Maybe more authors should try that when they attempt to set their stories in distinctive historical periods. I am glad, however, that Ahdieh rarely let her lists of palace ornaments or traditional foods waylay the pacing of the plot. There was a surprisingly tolerable ratio of descriptions to actual action, given the “exotic” location. For that alone, I raised this duology from two stars to three.

What finally tipped it to four was the onslaught of subterfuge and intrigue. This became especially engrossing in The Rose and the Dagger, where impending war had forced Shazi and Khalid’s relationship to mature at lightning speed. We see much less of the ‘roiling tension’ (which was never that compelling to begin with) and more of the cunning and stalwart strategising that defined our protagonists. Seeing them work in tandem to raze their enemies to the ground was far more fun to read about. (Too many young adult authors forget to let their characters mature over sequels; many more forget to let relationships between characters to mature over sequels; many many more forget to let characters and relationships mature exponentially in times of war.)

A good deal of reveals left my mind whirring. Some loyalties were better shrouded than others, but I was still kept on edge waiting to see the ultimate goals of the characters’ machinations – and just how far those machinations would go. I almost wished [highlight to reveal spoiler] Despina was nothing more than her father’s spy – it would have been the single most unpredictable and jaw-dropping twist. All of the side characters were delightfully despicable or fatally flawed. And best of all, most took some time to fully figure out. There were men committing evil in the name of twisted love and intellectual fools who could trade a death for a thousand more. There were men as courageous as they were dense, and sisters as strong as they were weak. And enough stubbornness to go around and still have seven basketfuls left over.

So while the romance can be infuriating, if you can cope with some insta-love, The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger make a light, enthralling and often witty read. Most importantly, they belong to the few fiction books you can rest assured you will not have to trudge through pages of purple prose to enjoy.

Favourite quotes: “For without a measure of arrogance, how can one attempt the impossible?”

“Beauty fades. But a pain in the ass is forever.”

“Tonight is a night to turn heads. Make them remember you. Make sure they never forget. You are the Calipha of Khorasan, and you have the ear of a king.” Despina put her hand on Shahrzad’s shoulder and grinned at their shared reflection. “More important, you have his heart.” She bent forward and lowered her voice. “And, most important, you are a fearsome thing to behold in your own right.”

“The more a person pushes others away, the clearer it becomes he is in need of love the most.”

Rating: 4/5 for both

For my review of a prequel, The Moth and the Flame, please click here.


*Oh wait, she was already falling in love on the second night. Two words, and suddenly she drops from abhorrence to butterflies and whimpers.

**Shazi was the first bride whom Khalid visited after their wedding.

A Court of Mist and Fury

A bit late to the party, but yes, A Court of Mist and Fury was an enormous improvement both pacing and character development-wise. For one, I wasn’t tempted to skim entire chapters like I was for the first book. The fights and harrowing encounters were convincingly well-matched, but never drawn-out or gratuitous. There was an irksome amount of ‘telling’, but I suppose it highlighted the thunderstorm of confusion and self-hate and hurt and hopelessness that was tearing Feyre apart – if a little inelegantly. The sex scenes, on the other hand, were definitely drawn-out and gratuitous, especially with how frequent they became towards the second half. And given Maas’ very limited, very specific vocabulary for them, they were rather repetitive too.

Regardless, I am thoroughly impressed by how well she had handled the love triangle. Its purpose was nothing so trivial as creating unnecessary drama or anguish – it demonstrated, with raw emotion, how indescribable horrors can break people apart, jagged fragment by jagged fragment, until a borderline abusive relationship can pretend to be happiness’ false twin. It also brilliantly showed what love should represent – equality, honesty, vulnerability.

Some readers were indignant that falling out of love is normal, that Tamlin didn’t need to be painted a villain. (1) I don’t think that was the point at all. Under the Mountain had wrecked him, and it was the only way he knew how to react. He was always the shelterer, even in the first book, when he had sent Feyre away knowing that she could break the curse.

“Tell me there’s some way to help you,” I breathed. “With the masks, with whatever threat has taken so much of your power. Tell me – just tell me what I can do to help you.”

“There’s nothing I want you to do… It’s my burden to bear… I want you here, where I can look after you – where I can come home and know you’re here, painting and safe.”

– A Court of Thorns and Roses

(2) Let’s suppose they miraculously escaped less emotionally scarred. The slow, blurred unravelling of Feyre’s love would have taken far far longer, and with Maas’ evident pacing problems, I’m perfectly fine with the quicker way forward, thank you very much.

Feyre was also far more like the Feyre I had imagined when I first picked up A Court of Thorns and Roses. With a little help from her new family, she learned to conquer her panic, guilt and shame. To let herself realise her own worth, despite it all. And since her trials in the last book, she became wiser, shrewder – dangerous in her own right, and not because she unleashed a High Lord’s power. I’m glad I plowed on through the first book, because this was so so much better.

Favourite quotes: “I fell in love with you, smartass, because you were one of us – because you weren’t afraid of me, and you decided to end your spectacular victory by throwing that piece of bone at Amarantha like a javelin. I felt Cassian’s spirit beside me in that moment, and could have sworn I heard him say, If you don’t marry her, you stupid prick, I will.”

“To the people who look at the stars and wish, Rhys.” “To the stars who listen – and the dreams that are answered.”

Rating: 5/5 (originally 4/5)

For my review on A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first book, click here.

Strange the Dreamer

sathaz (SAH·thahz) noun

The desire to possess that which can never be yours.
Archaic; from the Tale of Sathaz, who fell in love with the moon.

I can see why some readers gave this book one or two stars; I can also see why others lamented the far-flung heavens, whose infinite stars they can never pluck and give. Laini Taylor spins luminous descriptions, but she can, at times, be in want of some direction.

Strange the Dreamer has faint echoes of her best-known trilogy, with beautiful monsters and razor-sharp vengeance. But the thakrar (to use her conjured word) she inspires – her breath-catching capacity to dream up myths and worlds – surpasses even Eretz1 and its two moons. And not only dream up, but interweave the two into glittering motifs, resurfacing only at the most heartwarming and heart-wrenching moments. Like Sathaz, and his moon that broke into a thousand pieces. And Sarai, and her mind that breaks into a thousand pieces.

thakrar (THAH·krahr) noun

The precise point on the spectrum of awe at which wonder turns to dread, or dread to wonder.

Weep is truly alive under her pen; the characters’ hearts (plural) beat softly against the pages, against your fingertips. But Taylor’s talent for the whimsical is a double-edged sword. Strange the Dreamer is a slow burn, with verbal illustrations that slip too often into purple prose. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at several passages, and skimming many more. A shame, because the first two Daughter of Smoke and Bone novels had shown much more balance, and my inability to trudge through the final one had almost stopped me from reading this.

The characters, at least, were expertly crafted from tangles of raw emotions. My heart broke multiple times even for Minya, the most stubborn and sadistic of them all. And for Eril-Fane, who had slain a part of his soul on the day he had slain the gods. I certainly felt like Sarai, whose days were drowned in lull potions; I had gone to bed at 5 a.m. to finish the book first, and when I’d finally woken up, I’d looked like living death.

So you can imagine the sense of utter betrayal when [highlight to reveal spoiler] it all ended with a cliffhanger. Thank goodness this will only be a duology (unless Taylor pulls a Jenny Han), because I’m not sure I’d be able to cope with more tantalisation like that.

Pick up Strange the Dreamer if you want vibrant and tragic and fairy-tale and yes, bewitchingly strange. Only a truly gifted storyteller can reveal the end in her prologue and still manage to ensnare her readers so completely until they are released by her very last word, excessive descriptions and all. A gorgeous new series to rival her first.

Favourite quote: “A man should have squint lines from looking at the horizon,” the old librarian had said, “not just from reading in dim light.”
Rating:
4/5


1A universe in Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

Vicious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Conjuring of Light

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

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

Caraval

I reserve five-star ratings for works so close to flawlessly crafted as The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and Harry Potter. So when I decided on five stars for Caraval after only several moments’ hesitation, I knew I have to write a sound review, if only to assure myself that my discernment had not rusted away after such a long spell of mediocre fiction. To be clear, my ratings are strictly personal; if I were to rate an acclaimed classic such as, say, Lord of the Flies, I would unabashedly give it one or two stars. So while the cultural significance is still a factor (as I am sure it is for many readers), my own enjoyment of the plot, prose, characters and unique (or not so unique) universes is what ultimately decides my ratings.

Out of the novels that I have rated, the determinant that separated almost all ‘very good’ books from five-star status was the pacing. I gave The Night Circus only four stars because despite the sublime (an understatement) descriptions of the titular circus, somewhere along the journey, I grew as tired of the competition as the protagonists did. The intricate details became bothersome distractions, the build-up to the inevitable central romance too slow. A more recent candidate, A Darker Shade of Magic, suffered from a similar problem. The frequent shifts to less riveting perspectives created unnecessary delays, kindling frustration more than they did constructive suspense. Admittedly, some of the books that I did give five stars to do not have perfect pacing either (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was an especially slow read in the series), but it was not to an extent where the exceptional creativity or meticulous world-building and plot planning could not more than make up for it.

In the early hours of yesterday, I finished Caraval in one sitting. In itself, that may not prove good pacing. But this story flew – I was not even remotely tempted to skim over a single passage or flip to a more action-packed page (a terrible habit that occurs with the overwhelming majority of books I read; patience is not one of my virtues). The lists of wondrous items typical when setting fantasy scenes or the protagonist’s indecisive monologues were never too drawn out. Nor were the chases and fights, of which the difficulty to write succinct (yet sufficiently well-matched and theatrical) ones is far too often under appreciated. There was enough to show the author’s thoughtfulness, but not so much that it became pretentious or amateur.

The idea of a game or performance blending magic and reality is not novel, but the premise of Caraval was original enough to make this interpretation feel completely unlike anything I have read before. And the distinction between what was real and what was not became so increasingly blurred that I began to second-guess almost every explanation and event. For every reveal, another twist lay in wait. This ‘meta’ element of mystery was a major contributor to the book’s appeal, which, on top of all the mysteries embedded in the actual plot, sealed Caraval’s place as an exceptionally compelling story. And like Victoria Schwab, Stephanie Garber has a knack for knowing exactly when to reward her readers with answers. Questions ranged from being answered just a few paragraphs later to taking the entire book for the puzzle pieces to fall into place.

In a book where the impossible is possible, there is always the unfortunate threat of a deus ex machina happy ending. Thankfully, that did not happen in Caraval. I was sceptical in the final chapters, but the justifications were convincing and consistent with the capabilities and limitations that the rest of the novel had hinted at. Where there were slightly dubious explanations, or where the characters’ actions were contrived [highlight to reveal spoiler] (such as the reasons Julian gave in the tunnels and when Tella was driven to commit suicide), it ended up legitimate because it was all an ingenious ruse in the first place. In fact, retrospectively, the vague sense of something being ‘off’ was what made the book so incredibly brilliant. It was the perfect tightrope walk between where small but significant cracks could leave room for actual deception and where the reader could still easily brush it off as paranoia from the preceding plot twists.

As for the romance, the author was wise to keep it a supplement rather than the all-consuming focal point. Although the characters’ determined denial of their obvious chemistry would have been infuriatingly petty and cliché in many other books, the twisted lies the sisters were told for most of their lives, the manipulative nature of the game and the oft repeated warning to ‘not get too carried away’ were very sound reasons for caution. Not to mention [highlight to reveal spoiler] Julian’s express instructions to not encourage any romantic interest. The reasons for their mutual attraction were also much more meaningfully fleshed out than the all-too-common ‘two attractive people happened to be thrown together for a dangerous adventure’. The romance was responsible for the weakest passages (some were amateurish and abrupt), but all things considered, it added to the book more than it took away.

My other minor complaint was that Aiko was little more than a stock ‘enigmatic Far East Asian’. But she was at least less cringeworthy than the flat stereotype that Tsukiko was in The Night Circus. Hopefully this review adequately justifies my five-star rating relatively concisely. If you are in the mood for an immersive melange of mysteries bottled in a spectacular adventure, disguised alternately as a murderous race and a magnificent performance, I wholeheartedly recommend Caraval.

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟