Thursday, 2 November 2017

The Subtle Knife

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Book Title: The Subtle Knife
Author: Philip Pullman
Series: His Dark Materials #2
Date Started: October 23rd 2017
Date Completed: November 1st 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Adventure, Science Fiction
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Star
Final Rating: Four stars
Review:

When I reread Northern Lights I was a little disappointed that it didn't quite live up to what I remembered as a child. Honestly, I can't actually remember if I ever read the whole series as books - I listened to the radio plays several times over - but I do remember that The Subtle Knife was always my favourite.

The further you go into this series, the more you realise how intimately everything is planned and laid in place. Every detail is part of that plan. It's one massive story split into three parts; arguably each book can't stand totally alone on its own because everything's tied so closely together. Judge that as you will, but I think the feat of proper focus and vision across what must be around 1,000 pages to tell one story is amazing. Pullman knows exactly what he's doing every step of the way, and as the reader you can feel that and let yourself fall in and enjoy the ride.

The Subtle Knife itself actually takes place over a short period of time, but a lot happens in it. These books are a lot slower burning than I remember. I can see why a lot of my peers didn't get hooked on these when they were younger. As magical as they are at that age, it does take its time for things to happen and that can turn some readers off. But I think, in the grand scheme of things, it's all the better for it. We needed the build-up of the first book to understand the gravity of the situation the characters are now in. Jumping between the worlds and that exploration is so much more exciting now that we've experienced being in only a single world: we're stepping out of that comfort zone with Lyra and it makes it all the more exciting.

I like Will a lot. As Much as I love Lyra she can be a brat sometimes. That little annoying twinge I found with her when rereading Northern Lights is definitely a big part of her character, but Will balances her out. He doesn't change her, but he brings out a more patient side. And she likewise pushes him to do bolder things than if he was alone. They work very well as a pair, and the story is better off for it.

It's not quite as magical as I remember, but still very very good. I pick up on a lot more of the intelligence underneath the symbolism and plot these days, and while I appreciate it I think it's funny how the story points were the only thing that really filtered down to me when I was younger. But that is, of course, what makes a brilliant children's book, and why His Dark Materials is such an important series of books. It challenges a lot of things without readers even noticing, and promotes freedom, intelligence and bravery under harmful authority. They're good books to be modern classics.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Red Sister

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Book Title: Red Sister
Author: Mark Lawrence
Series: Book of the Ancestor #1
Date Started: October 9th 2017
Date Completed: October 23rd 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Adventure
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Two Star
Final Rating: Two stars
Review:

Assassins? In a convent? By a key modern fantasy writer I have yet to discover? What could go wrong? A lot, apparently.

Where to start with this book? I'm at a loss, honestly; the book has such high ratings, and I've been hearing about Lawrence for a long time. Yet, Red Sister doesn't seem to correlate to that evidence for me at all. To start with, I found the writing hard to follow. I'm well schooled in the dense writing of a lot of high fantasies, but this novel wasn't that packed with information, it was just dull and non-specific. There were lots of characters, headed by a protagonist who might have been strong in the world, but wasn't particularly in the writing.

I got 32% of the way through this book - about 150 pages. In that time, the story alternated between flashback scenes and training sequences. That is literally all that happens. Nothing else but that. I thought around the 25% mark that there was enough worldbuilding shoved in and that soon something would at least kick off in the background. 5% later, still nothing. I attempted a little more, but I'd already lost any enthusiasm I had had for this book. There's the predictable 'chosen one' mythos discussed, but no evidence yet. It's hard to keep attention on a story when you know exactly where it's going to go, but it doesn't go there for a long time. What are you waiting for anymore?

Maybe I gave up too soon and Red Sister turns great later on. But 150 pages is more than enough time for something other than training to begin. In the end, there wasn't enough to keep me motivated, and life is too short to spend reading books you aren't enjoying.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Tower of Dawn

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Book Title: Tower of Dawn
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Series: Throne of Glass #6
Date Started: October 2rd 2017
Date Completed: October 9th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Adventure
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Star
Final Rating: Four stars
Review:

Did Tower of Dawn need to be a separate book? No. Did it need to be over 600 pages? No. Was it enjoyable and worth it? Yes, but thanks to the new characters added to this insane Game of Thrones-size cast. Is it all going to be too much for the final book? Quite possibly, but I can hope.

Personally, I really would've rather Empire of Storms had been longer or cut into two smaller books, with everyone's stories running parallel. I understand that it might have been character overload with the multiple narratives in the previous book, but it felt like a lot of this was explaining how it paralleled to the events of EoS. As fascinating as learning about the Southern Continent and its people was, Tower of Dawn lacked the pace and relevance of the previous books in the series. I think coming off of Empire of Storms it was always going to be a hard job since that book is absolutely driven in every word to move the story on; we get here and there isn't the sense of anticipation and importance we've grown used to.

I have to say, I found the romance in this instalment incredibly dominating. It's always been a big aspect of the series, but it was getting in the way of the plot in this one. I appreciate the consideration that went into Chaol's feelings about past events and people, and the realistic ambivalence and his underlying self-criticism towards them, but that doesn't explain how he latches on so quickly to new people. There are some cases of instalove in this book, and while I don't hate the couples themselves, it feels like Sarah knew who she wanted together by the end by wanted them done and dusted as soon as possible. All the other pairings in this series have had at least two or three books to develop their feelings and relationships towards each other - and that's why we get behind them; because it feels like they're grown together, not stared across the room and started lusting other someone. But suddenly six weeks is enough for Chaol to be making serious commitments to new people.

The big uncertainty floating around this book is its representation of physical disability. I have yet to read any 'own voices' reviews, though I plan to, but from my admittedly lacking awareness I think it was done alright. Sarah treated the subject with respect and pushed through a positive and supportive commentary through her characters without it being patronising. The one thing I'd mark down was the fact that Chaol's injury was rather conveniently healed - far better than what a lot of writers would do, no one waved a magic wand and made it disappear with no trace it was ever there. But it has been considerably improved to make it easier on the story in the future.

It is a shame that this book is mostly carried by the new characters - but also not, because I really like the new additions to the cast. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Chaol, and Tower of Dawn definitely made me like him more at points, but there are still times he needs to get over himself. I appreciate his personality inclines to being self-critical and somewhat short-tempered, but he throws the blame and then sulks too much for me to get behind him as a protagonist

It's a good thing, then, that I adore Yrene. And that, really, this is more her story than his. I don't remember massively liking her in The Assassin and the Healer novella, but damn can I get behind a woman who is a peacemaker and healer, and is at times a little easy to manipulate, but is loyal and brave despite it. I'm so happy that Sarah is continuing to write such a great variety of female characters who all possess both feminine and masculine traits and aren't ashamed of either. We need kick-ass assassins, but we need strong hearted healers too.

While I have my issues with Tower of Dawn, I did enjoy it. To the point where I was reading it on buses and between meetings, and I'm not a fan of reading on public transport. Overall, I think it felt disjointed from the Throne of Glass story and I was constantly being distracted by the fact we were only following Chaol - just like I was constantly aware that he was absent while reading Empire of Storms. I certainly wouldn't skip it; it not only has plot points that you'll need going forward, but it is genuine fun - I couldn't put it down most of the time. I just didn't enjoy it as much as I would have had it been part of the main story.

Side note (spoilers): Everything was worth it for the epilogue. I needed at least a little closure on Aelin in that coffin. Even though I'm mad I have to wait a year to see what they're going to do with her.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Shadowblack

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Book Title: Shadowblack
Author: Sebastian de Castell
Series: Spellslinger #2
Date Started: September 29th 2017
Date Completed: October 3rd 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Adventure
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Four Star
Final Rating: Three stars
Review:

◆ Thanks to NetGalley for this ebook for review ◆

I really enjoyed the first book in this series and was so excited about where Kellen went, so when I saw the second one listed on NetGalley it took me under three seconds to request it. Lo and behold, I read it in under five days during the chaos that is university and had great fun doing so.

Back when I read Spellslinger, what grabbed me was the quick-witted dialogue and the humour running throughout the story and, of course, Kellen as our protagonist. Shadowblack still had that humour, but it wasn't quite present. This book felt more serious, but not necessarily darker. I think there was a lot of world building around Kellen and the Jan'Tep people that made the stakes higher before things kicked off in the last book, and events were a little more rushed here. I would've liked more of a balance between that silver-tongue dialogue and the mystery-style plot.

What sets this series out is its western genre. Especially for an audience of young adults, who don't often get that cultural experience of the genre (both in books and things like film and television), I think it's something different straight off the cuff. Its combination with high fantasy is a really nice fit as well, even though I would never have thought it would work.

While I disagree, I've seen it compared to Firefly. A big part of this, I'm sure, is to do with the clearly episodic structure of the series. Even two books in it's easy to see that it would make a great TV show because it already feels set up as a long-form story that has individual plots broken into it. We have the same characters and basic magic system, but with each book we're been taken out into this world and shown a different society. It's really good for building the feeling that Kellen's universe is expansive because we're getting to explore it with him. There's also something to say about the fact each book ties up its own plot. I feel like I could leave the series anytime I wanted, and that freedom - at a time where book series' are so confining and it feels like a marketing ploy half the time - makes me want to keep reading. Because the author has given me the freedom to choose, as opposed to trying to manipulate me into half finishing a story in one book.

The one significant issue I have with this series is its female characters. They're not terrible, but I'm unconvinced by them. I feel like de Castell is trying to make diverse and capable women, but falling short in a couple of fundamental ways. The positions he puts them in for one; the use of masculine characteristics to imply they're strong; the fact that we have yet to meet a young woman who doesn't fall in love with Kellen (past his sister, but that doesn't count). I remember having the same uncertainty in Spellslinger and I'm sad that that concern has come up again.

Although I was excited to see where this series went, I didn't enjoy Shadowblack quite as much as Spellslinger. I think there was more focus on the mystery than the characters and culture - which was what I really liked about the first book. Having said that, I still read it for a couple of hours at a time because I was enjoying it so much. Hopefully, in the future we'll go back to exploring the people and their societies over the plot.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Invictus

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Book Title: Invictus
Author: Ryan Graudin
Date Started: September 26th 2017
Date Completed: September 29th 2017
Genres: Sci-Fi, Historical, Romance
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Star
Final Rating: Four stars
Review:

◆ Thanks to NetGalley for this ebook for review ◆

Invictus was a lot of fun. You can tell Ryan loved writing it between her darker books because the spirit of it just lifts from the page. I've yet to read one of her books that I haven't really enjoyed. Her work varies in maturity and genre but every time it's a joy to read.

If you're a history nerd, you'll enjoy this book. Not necessarily for its accuracy (though it could've been much worse - there weren't any specific examples where I was screaming 'that's not what it was like'), but for the various little references scattered through. I'm sure there were some I didn't get as modern history is so much my thing, but the ancient history and renaissance eras were enjoyable just for the little jokes thrown in. (I'd also like to mention how nice it is to have a time travelling story set in the future that doesn't have to go to our present for a cheap 'oh look it's us' gimmick.)

Thank you universe for giving me a stand-alone YA book that wraps up its story. It's such a breath of fresh air to have a book that doesn't have to extend into a series to finish its plot. It's ridiculous how hard it is to find them these days that its a selling point on its own for me. And Invictus proves the point that you don't have to make your story into a franchise for it to be compelling and enjoyable. Yes, the story started to crumble a little bit in believability towards the end, but it's a time travelling book, how can it not? This novel has a well-paced, self-contained story that you can get properly invested in because you know what you're signing up for. I really hope YA publishers start noticing that stand-alone books are just as valuable as series and start to bring them back.

Like a lot of my favourite authors, what Ryan specialises in is people. Well, people and her worlds; she often has futuristic twists on various eras in our world, but in a way that they end up feeling new and unique. With Invictus, that side of the coin is already solved with the time travelling aspect, but the characters are their own element. What pushes this story at times when it might otherwise drag is the dynamics between the crew members and their ability to be believable but still young and, at times, irresponsible and wild. They're not exactly rebels (you're not fooling anyone, Far) but they're young people free to jump around history. Their likeability pushes what is a story that becomes a bit silly at times, but you can buy into it because it suits the characters and fits into its own canon. The worst thing a book can do is misunderstand what it is and take itself too seriously or not seriously enough. Invictus strikes a good balance between the two.

I'm generally not the biggest fan of sci-fi or time travel in books, but Invictus was still great fun for me. The whole crew-relationships and crime-heist thievery with a futuristic twist is always a winner. People are comparing it to Firefly, and while I politely say that it can't touch Firefly's genius, add a little dash of Star Trek, Roman Mysteries and Back to the Future and you get pretty close.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Power

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Book Title: The Power
Author: Naomi Alderman
Date Started: September 16th 2017
Date Completed: September 26th 2017
Genres: Sci-Fi, Thriller
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Three Star
Final Rating: Three stars
Review:

The Power is a science-fiction(ish) thriller through and through, that's stepped out of its bounds into some gender politics, but without conviction. It's a victim of its own success in the way that it's not the kind of book that it's been made out to be - which is a shame because what it actually is in concept isn't a bad novel.

The big hype around this book is its look at women and their relationship to power when suddenly they all develop the ability to strike electricity from their bodies. It definitely makes you think about misogyny when the roles are reversed; men having to have registered female guardians; men being harassed on the street because the women feel powerful; women thinking that men want to be shocked during sex because it's 'excitingly dangerous' etc. But I wouldn't call it feminism. Yes, the conclusions we might eventually draw in some way support the desire to get rid of stiff gender roles and expectations, but the events that happen are women becoming superior to men - which is not feminism. What worries me about this book is that it's being heralded as a work of feminist literature but it's showing the wrong way to deal with gender violence, and some people aren't going to read the satire underneath.

Alderman is clearly a thriller writer - and a good one in that respect. But I don't think thriller was the right genre to explore this story in. Yes, the 'power' strongly influences and drives the events in the book, but half of the time we're looking at the drug trade and journalism in war zones, just with the gender swapped around. It doesn't make much of a difference in the end. I almost wish a different writer had taken this idea and ran with it, because I think a more focused exploration on what's actually happening to the politics and culture would've been more interesting. In all fairness, I don't think this was ever intended to be a literary comment on misogyny. But, again, it's a victim of its own success in that way, and now isn't able to stand up to what people expect of it.

There were so many different directions this story could've gone in. There was so much you could've done with it, that I'm a little puzzled with the choices that Alderman went with. Again, the thriller angle didn't fit it for me, but I think she knew there was a lot to be done with the idea. But instead of choosing the best bits and focusing on them, or even trying to give a brief view over lots of diverse areas, we end up with a book that simultaneously tries to do too much with too many characters, and ends up doing very little at all. We've got six(ish) protagonists that are in different places in the world but actually have somewhat similar backgrounds and desires. I would've been interested to see what women in absolute poverty went after they got the power - and not just in one chapter where the journalist writes an article about them. Because of this, when we reached the end, I was underwhelmed because I hadn't really connected with any of the characters (either through their lack of diversity from each other or because I never got to spend enough time with each of them). Not that there was any sort of clear triumph or tragedy by the end anyway. I'm all for quiet endings, but I'd all but settled on the fact that this was a thriller novel by then.

I'm left with the confusion that I can't tell if the female rebellion of dominance was at the centre of this book, or a means to an end. In basic terms, all I can see the reversal of roles being used for is to create a tense environment. It's not really saying anything (constructive, anyway) about gender roles. And in that way it's successful: the mix-up of hierarchy puts the reader on uneven footing, where we're not completely sure how things are going to work out because it's not what we first expect. But at the same time, in our culture when you write something that so graphically addresses gender violence and aggression, you have to accept that it means something. I feel like The Power doesn't own up to the responsibility of what it's saying. Does it even know what's it's saying? Is it actually saying anything?!

I was interested in reading The Power mainly because it won the Baileys prize, as I'm sure a lot of people were. It probably won it as one of the more accessible books from the selection, but that's because it's not literary fiction. Not that it should have to be, of course, but I think that while this novel might be a gateway book into more complex literary stories, it falls short in too many places to stand up to what people are calling it.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The History of Bees

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Book Title: The History of Bees
Author: Maja Lunde
Date Started: September 6th 2017
Date Completed: September 16th 2017
Genres: Historical, Mystery
Quality Rating: Three Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Two Star
Final Rating: Two stars
Review:

◆ Thanks to NetGalley for this ebook for review ◆

I got 27% through this book and gave up not because it was terrible, but because I was genuinely uninterested and was avoiding reading as a result. Nothing happened nor started to happen in what I read, so I was terribly motivated to carry on.

The big thing that turned me off of The History of Bees is how little worldbuilding we're given. I think it was so important to how well this book was going to be pulled off since we have only one story actually told in our historical canon, and the other two in progressively worse states of a dystopian-ish/sci-fi-ish future (the fact that I couldn't really work out which of those genres it was supposed to be similar to proves my point). It made it really hard to sympathise or even really follow the characters, as many of their dilemmas were circumstantial; providing for the family, dealing with a child who doesn't want to follow your footsteps, raising a child who you know essentially doesn't have a future. I wasn't given enough of an idea of how significant these things were in the context to feel anything for them.

You could rename this book 'Bad Parenting in Three Different Centuries'. From what I read, that was the crux of the story. I would like to think that it develops somewhat further than just that, but I wasn't prepared to carry on and find out. Everyone was dislikeable for me, and as such when mashed together with the lack of contextual information it became three family dramas in a world where I couldn't understand the motivations of anyone. It just felt like three sets of parents making questionable decisions and feeling sorry for themselves.
Another issue I found for the early parts of the book was the lack of cohesion between the stories. I'm all for split stories or multiple perspectives, but if you're going to do that there needs to be a link in situation, story or at least tone. You can't just use it as a way to cut somewhere else when things get boring or you want to extend tension. You start to feel cheated as a reader and have even less of a chance to connect with the characters.

This book gets comparisons to Station Eleven, understandably. Multiple stories across decades where humanity goes into a somewhat apocalyptic scenario, all linked (apparently?) and named after a book that happens to be in the story itself. Personally, I don't think The History of Bees has the spirit and imagination of Station Eleven, but perhaps if you're more into science than performance arts you might prefer it.