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.

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.

Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters is a leisurely, meandering forest path, with dappled sunlight pooling in the occasional fairy-tale glades – an expansive bildungsroman canvassing the untheatrical lives of Molly Gibson and her county neighbours, from the aristocracy to the servants.

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl.

Mrs Gaskell’s final novel may lack the grit of my beloved North and South, focusing instead on the “old worn grooves of… the South”. It takes a certain mood for the lengthy examination of those grooves, and Mrs Gaskell’s voice has a beautiful, lulling, motherly tone. But potential readers are sorely mistaken if they think this novel is dull or blandly expository. No, Mrs Gaskell paints with her characteristic sensitive strokes, colouring her characters so convincingly that the stepmother and villain are sympathetic, if they cannot be likeable. As vain and manipulative as Mrs Gibson may be, she vows to be an impartial stepmother, and to love Molly as much as she does her own daughter. (That is to say, less than she loves herself, but we cannot expect too much from such a silly, self-involved creature.) The secondary characters are as charming; I especially love Lady Harriet, who used her rank to champion poor Molly when her conduct was unfairly subjected to the scandalous gossip of Hollingford. The squire too, although prone to tempestuous tantrums and exasperating pride, is as tender-hearted a friend to Molly as a higher ranked middle-aged man can be.

Osborne ransacked the hothouses for flowers for her; Roger had chosen her out books of every kind. The squire himself kept shaking her hand, without being able to speak his gratitude, till at last he had taken her in his arms, and kissed her as he would have done a daughter.

The plot may seem mundane, but before the reader’s senses are so much as piqued, the narrative slips into a wry comedy of manners. It dissects Truth, family tensions, female adolescence, nationalism, religion and women’s position in Georgian society. Like North and South, profound power shifts are woven into the deceptively humdrum fabric of everyday life: the aggressive expansion of the middle class, the reinstatement of the South as the economic capital, “the emergence of a scientifically led intelligentsia”.

I only give four stars because at times, Molly and Cynthia are more akin to two halves than individual wholes. The latter is the fatherless, ‘bad’ counter to the motherless, ‘good’ former. Molly is the “steady sun”, and Cynthia the “inconstant moon”. I also almost wish Molly’s romantic hero were someone else. Their tacit understanding and easy friendship are heartwarming, but their relationship began when the hero took her under his wing and deemed her his favourite – but frail and ignorant – pupil, whom he must shelter and protect. Molly gradually steps away from her wide-eyed role as Telemachus, but readers are much less privy to the hero’s changing perception of his pupil, then his sister, then his love and equal (I assume there was this change – I cannot have him still considering her a frail young thing). Indeed, we are not sure exactly how he came to love her either, especially after his fervent infatuation with her sister. Perhaps Mrs Gaskell intended to reveal all this, but she sadly passed away before she could write the final chapters.

Wives and Daughters is a delicate union of humour and depth – a moving magnum opus, a cautionary fable, a penetrating illustration of the individual, inner life, inescapably entangled in the fine-spun web of perplexing relationships and outward appearances.

Favourite quote: “I won’t say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it was not me.”
Rating: 4/5

One of my favourite reviews, most lovingly written by B0nnie in the form of a perfect extended metaphor.

Sylvester

Georgette Heyer may not have the most refined Regency prose (her sentimental language is rife with mannerisms quite out of place among the landed gentry, let alone the nobility), but dear Phoebe Marlow sparkles with such caustic wit and vivacity, that this historical romance (Heyer practically invented the historical romance) quite grew on me. I especially appreciated her defiant ambitions to be a spinster novelist – ‘unusual’ would have been a grave understatement for women more invested in their careers than their marital prospects, not that gentlewomen were expected to have careers at all! Even more laugh-out-loud hilarious than Austen’s most popular work, Sylvester is a delightful mélange of comedy, incredulity and biting banter, with an affably (if only because he was rather clueless, his poor grace) arrogant hero and unaffectedly charming heroine.

On Sylvester’s arrogance, it was a refreshingly nuanced strain – that is, he treated everyone with incredible civility, even the most unsympathetic and offensive characters. He was condescending (in the Regency sense of the word), generous and genuinely caring towards his servants and many of his inferiors. Instead, his pride manifested in his unconscious expectation to be obeyed without question, to take for granted that his personal comfort would be every present person’s utmost priority. So although I thoroughly enjoyed how Tom and Phoebe gave him much-needed ‘set-downs’, I could not fault him too harshly for his sometimes viciously severe ways.

Sylvester: ‘Don’t throw my rank in my face again! Good God, am I some money-grabbing Cit… decorated with a title for political ends, and crowing like a cock on its own dunghill?’

Tom: ‘Oh, don’t fall into a miff! I see precisely how it is! You are very like my father, [Sylvester]! It’s as natural for you to be a duke as it is for him to be the Squire, and the only time when either of you remembers what you are is when some impudent fellow don’t treat you with respect!

I will admit that towards the last quarter of the book, Ianthe’s wholly ridiculous plot developed at a slovenly pace, and I skimmed several chapters. But until that unfortunate speed bump, the characters’ steady stream of hysterical antics made an endearing, engrossing Regency read.

Side note: Before I started the book, I unfortunately glimpsed a review with a picture of Spock, and I never could get it out of my head whenever Sylvester’s ‘flying black brows’ were so distinctly described. Please, someone make an adaptation so I can safely imagine a less hysterical male lead!

Favourite quote: “The charm of your society, my Sparrow, lies in not knowing what you will say next – though one rapidly learns to expect the worst!”
Rating: 3/5

North and South

‘He may care for her, though she really has been almost rude to him at times. But she! – why, Margaret would never think of him, I’m sure! Such a thing has never entered her head.’

‘Entering her heart would do.’

I struggled for a ridiculous length of time trying to articulate the fullness of my admiration for this masterpiece, and I still fear I do not do it justice. A novel significant enough to be included in the Penguin English Library, North and South has already been the subject of countless critics’ and academics’ far more eloquent and perceptive analyses. But since it is arguably my favourite book of all time, and since I have yet to speak to a single person who has heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, I will flatter myself into believing that this review is somewhat meaningful.

It is sometimes said that where Austen ends, Gaskell begins. And in Margaret Hale (whom Penguin very rightly calls “one of the most original and fully-rounded female characters in Victorian fiction”), I can certainly see the same study of restraint, propriety and unconventional elegance amidst an unsympathetic supporting cast. But North and South is so much more than an industrial Pride and Prejudice. No, it is an incredibly ambitious portrait of the class, economic and religious upheavals of Victorian England, intricately examined through multiple characters and relationships spanning all social strata. Individually, they offer refreshingly diverse perspectives, but together, they masterfully mirror and augment each other to illustrate the sheer profundity of the shifts in the turbulent (an understatement) social landscape. (To be clear, none of this is achieved with any dull, expository dialogues. Mrs Gaskell simply shows.)

The tone is also more serious – Margaret’s trials are far more devastating than Elizabeth Bennet’s silly sisters or obnoxious acquaintances. The characters are less excessively frivolous, so even though Gaskell injects just as much cutting irony, readers are more inclined to shoulder Margaret’s hurt and disappointment than to dismiss her acquaintances with a laugh.

And of course, there is the central relationship: Mr Thornton and Margaret Hale. Their differences are so much more entrenched, so heavily written into their very cores, and so sympathetically elaborated on either side, that their “antagonistic friendship” (as Margaret calls it) is also much more intriguing than the superficial misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. Not only were they raised in polar environments (physical and social), Thornton’s paternalistic, almost callous commercial attitude disgusts Margaret’s compassionate nature. She astutely points out that the masters are just as dependent on the workers as the workers are on them, but Thornton refuses to show them more than the minimal respect they secure by contributing to his profits.

But what Margaret cannot glimpse is the heart beneath his frigid veneer. So when we finally witness the profound changes in our hero and heroine – the slow unravelling of their pride, their tentative steps into the other’s perspective – the effect is incredibly moving. Where Austen is laugh-out-loud hilarious, Gaskell grounds her wit in poignant shades of grey (allusion to Milton wholly intended). But Miss Austen’s fans will also find witty repartee and literary references – all very apt for the Southern daughter and her father’s favourite student.

The main criticisms confuse me, but I believe both can easily be refuted. Some are exasperated by Miss Hale’s ‘selfishness’. Others want her to stop acting so ‘self-righteously’ and to grow a spine. For the former, I presume the ‘selfishness’ was observed in her disapprobation of Thornton (since in all other aspects of the novel, the latter complaint is perhaps the more accurate interpretation of Margaret’s temperament). I argue that this was entirely the point – although ‘selfishness’ is not quite the right word. Neither Thornton nor Margaret understood where the other was coming from (figuratively and literally), and yet they made dismissive comments about each other’s ways. Their dispositional clashes are precisely what makes their relationship one of Mrs Gaskell’s many nuanced explorations of “what divides people, and what brings them together”.

‘It is no boast of mine,’ replied Mr Thornton; ‘it is plain matter-of-fact. I won’t deny that I am proud of belonging to a town… I would rather be a man toiling, suffering – nay, failing and successless – here, than lead a dull prosperous life in the old worn grooves of what you call more aristocratic society down in the South, with their slow days of careless ease. One may be clogged with honey and unable to rise and fly.’

‘You are mistaken,’ said Margaret, roused by the aspersion on her beloved South to a fond vehemence of defence, that brought the colour into her cheeks and the angry tears into her eyes. ‘You do not know anything about the South.’

And for the latter, righteousness and having a spine simply are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Margaret’s outspoken disapprobation of Thornton is already proof of her independent spirit. But more importantly, I think Margaret always had an iron spine from the very first page. She agreed to leave Helstone not out of weak-willed compliance, but because she could not bear to think her father a hypocritical church leader much more than she could not bear to leave her picturesque, romanticised country home. Likewise, her other decisions to obey her father were carefully weighed, practical choices to limit the pain to herself (as she wisely knows she can bear it far better than her mother), rather than let her father butcher the job and exacerbate the collateral damage, even if it meant shielding him from his cowardice. Sacrifices can be symbols of strength as much as signs of weakness.

The 2004 BBC miniseries (four episodes) is also my favourite adaptation of a British classic, which stays remarkably true to the original novel (thank goodness!). Sinéad Cusack is the most formidable, domineering, incredible Mrs Thornton (not to mention her perfect Yorkshire accent). Richard Armitage’s brooding Mr Thornton is already a classic (forget Colin Firth – not that I ever considered him remotely attractive enough to play Mr Darcy). And Daniela Denby-Ashe makes a perfect Margaret. The changes that were made actually added to the plot’s richness, at least in the context of the small screen. But do only watch it after you have read the book! Although I think North and South is one of those rare novels that are just as engrossing even after watching an adaptation first (because so much of the delight is in the execution, not merely the concept), it becomes much easier to appreciate the details and subtleties of the miniseries.

Favourite quotes: Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and ‘an’t please you, sir’.

‘I don’t know that you would ever like him, or think him agreeable, Margaret. He is not a lady’s man.’ Margaret wreathed her throat in a scornful curve.

He was in the Charybdis of passion, and must perforce circle and circle ever nearer round the fatal centre.

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Side note: It breaks my heart that there is no Clothbound Classics edition of North and South. If anyone knows where I can find a beautifully bound hardcover edition, please tell me!

For more quotes, notes and my running commentary, please check out my Goodreads reading activity (only on desktop computers).