Book Review: This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab

23299512Title: THIS SAVAGE SONG
Author: V.E. Schwab
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 464
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

This Savage Song is an urban paranormal dystopia (which I did not realize going in, actually). It takes place in a post-War US that has split into several territories with weird names like Verity and Prosperity. After something called the Phenomenon happened, it seems that violent acts are now begetting monsters, of which there are three types: Corsai, Malchai, and Sunai. Corsai eat you alive, Malchai will drain you of blood, and Sunai…are more like avenging angels, who play a song to suck the life out of you, but only if you yourself have committed a violence that has begotten a monster.

It’s an intriguing premise, but one fraught with unnecessary add-ons. Why do the Sunai need music to bring forth a soul? It just seemed like window dressing to an already interesting concept…then again, this may just be a personal hang-up, as I tend to really dislike music in my stories. The dystopic US world was poorly explained, and I was left unclear as to what exactly the dangerous “Waste” is or whether these monsters exists everywhere in the world or just in the territory of Verity. I hope it’s not the latter, because if so, why doesn’t everybody just leave? Why even stay in a city that, if not beset by monsters, has already been literally split at the seams due to a territory war between two men with different ideas of how to lead it?

The crux of the story focuses the children of the two men fighting for control over the city: Kate Harker and August Flynn. August, however, is not really anyone’s son, but a Sunai created in the wake of a school shooting. Kate is desperate to win her father’s approval, so she returns to V-City and puts her best brutality on display. Her father, Callum, has the monsters of Verity under his control, and in his part of the city citizens pay for protection. How and why Callum has the Corsai and Malchai under his control is unclear…did I miss that in my reading? Also, is Callum the governor of this city? Is there any other government in place? I needed more from the worldbuilding here to truly get a sense of this world.

Speaking of worldbuilding, it was odd how this seemed to be almost a post-racial society. There is one mention of one character being “dark-skinned” but otherwise everyone is white, with standard Anglo-Saxon names. Apparently Verity is meant to be the aftermath of the Midwest, but that still doesn’t explain all this abundant whiteness. It’s rather strange especially given that the text doesn’t only hint at pre-dystopic US, it explicitly tells us about the former United States (which apparently disbanded after the Vietnam War, for reasons that are not explained very well), so I’m not sure why there are so few cultural markers left over.

I guess the story is meant to focus more on Kate and August; I would definitely say this book is more character-driven than plot driven. August wants to be more human, Kate wants to be more monstrous. I guess there’s meant to be poetry in that, but it just struck me as rather cliche. Their characters were fine, I suppose, though they struck me as washed-out versions of Lila and Kell (of Schwab’s other series), and I didn’t enjoy them as much.

This is shaping out to be a really critical review, so I do want to emphasize that I did enjoy this book! It was definitely intriguing enough for me to read through it rather quickly; at no point did I even consider DNFing it. Schwab is definitely a talented writer, and this book is decently constructed. It just left me cold and indifferent.

What do you guys think? Did I miss something here? Does the sequel improve?

Top 5 Tuesday: Favorite Retellings

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Bionic Bookworm.  When I saw my friend Rachel at pace, amore, libri doing it, it looked like fun, so I decided to do it too, especially given this month’s Top 5 Wednesday topics are…not doing it for me.

Anyway, what I’ve discovered from this is I apparently don’t read a lot of retellings! I’m not sure why, as I quite like them. Let me know in the comments if there are any retellings you are fond of; I’m always on the lookout for Hades/Persephone retellings in particular, but I’m open to all.

 

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum
The original: The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers

I hesitate to call this a retelling.  The King in Yellow is a book of creepy short stories that were actually a precursor to Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos; Lovecraft makes references to the stories in his own work.  Downum’s work sort of…borrows that world for her own story rather than retelling any particular Chambers tale.  The important thing, though, is that she manages to capture just how fucking creepy the mythos of Carcos and the King in Yellow are.  It’s atmospheric and hella weird, and a great modern adaptation of this strange mythos.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
The original: Beauty and the Beast

I don’t know why I thought this was a Bluebeard retelling.  Though, I suppose, the two are rather similar.  Cruel Beauty’s strength is in its two main protagonists rather than its world-building (which is weak and derivative and confounding); Nyx and Ignifex.  Nyx (Beauty) is bitter and selfish and I love female characters who are unlikeable.  Ignifex is dark and witty and charming and rakish. Their interactions are delightful. The book reads like a fairy tale, so not everything always makes perfect sense, but it’s a treat.

The Kiesha’ra by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
The original: Romeo and Juliet

I only learned this was based on Romeo and Juliet very, very recently.  I would say this is an extremely loose retelling, with only the first two books really having much to do with the Shakespeare play.  This was one of my favorite series as a teen; I read it over ten times (though I suspect it wouldn’t hold up as well if I re-read it now).  It tells the story of Zane and Danica, who come from two opposing shape-shifting species, the serpiente and the avians, who have been at war for as long as anyone can remember. Zane and Danica decide to come together and marry in order to bring peace to their societies and they end up falling in love for real. This is straight-up high fantasy, with fantastic worldbuilding and characters. The third book was also my first experience with a lesbian character, and that was very formative for me as a youngster.

The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
The original: Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Snow White

These series has received a lot of well-received criticism for its portrayal of Asian cultures.  It’s true that its world-building is weak and somewhat nonsensical, but it’s a fun series nonetheless.  It gives me “Found Family” vibes and it’s basically one adventure after the other. It’s also a very interesting twist on the original fairytales; the world of the Lunar Chronicles is a dystopia with cyborgs.  In fact, Cinder, one of the protagonists, is part-cyborg herself, which is a super intriguing twist on the Cinderella story! I have yet to read Winter, the final book in this series, but it’s waiting for me on my Kindle.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The original: The Iliad

I have to mention The Song of Achilles, even though I don’t think I loved it as much as most people did, nor am I familiar with the source material.  Still,  this book deserves mentioning for the beautiful, loving relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and its lovely prose.  I hadn’t expected to enjoy this book when I first picked it up, but I was really pleasantly surprised that it kept me hooked.  It also featured some really entertaining side characters; I really hope Madeline Miller writes about Odysseus at some point, because his snark was hilarious.

 

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

29283884Title: THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 513
Publisher: Katherine Tegan Books
My Rating: ★★★★★ (4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

The first time I heard about this book I was attending a MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. It came up when one of the presenters wondered whether there were any YA books that actively critiqued white male privilege. That’s really all I knew about the book, but I added it to my TBR. Discovering it was an adventure romp though 17th century Europe featuring two queer protagonists was an added bonus.

This book is unabashedly queer, and I love it for that. Perhaps it’s anachronistic, but I don’t even care. Henry “Monty” Montague, privileged son of an earl, is heading off for his Grand Tour of Europe, along with hist best friend Percy (a biracial young man) and his younger sister Felicity. Things don’t go quite as planned, however. After Monty pulls an embarrassing stunt, he and his company are set on by bandits. As they flee, they end up caught in an alchemical conspiracy which leads them to run from Marseilles to Barcelona to Venice to Santorini.

Part of the fun of this novel is the descriptions of all these cities – Mackenzi Lee has visited most of them, and it’s clear in her writing. Her details just feel authentic, vividly bringing to life these wildly different places frequented by the gang. In addition to her spectacular writing, her dialogue is absolute fire! There are so many entertaining conversations between these characters. And of course I have to mention the narration itself – it’s first person POV and being in Monty’s head is like being at a comedy club run by a rather sardonic fellow.

I loved Monty. I loved him in the way you have to love rakes and scoundrels and unlikeable characters (to the Great Comet crowd: he reminded me of Anatole!). He grows over the course of his adventure, with the help of Percy and Felicity, who are constantly calling him out on his privilege. I adored sweet and sensible Percy as well! The pair balanced each other quite well and their romantic scenes together were so sweet (and sexy). And of course, Felicity! To illustrate how badass she is, let me tell you that at one point she nonchalantly begins stitching herself up without even wincing. I loved her friendship with Percy and the bonding moments she had with her brother Monty. I’m so excited the sequel is going to be about her.

This was an absolutely wild ride from start to finish, but it’s also a book with substance. Not only does it tackle issues of race and gender, but it looks at mental illness as well. None of it feels forced, either. Sure, the conversations the characters have regarding these issues might be a bit anachronistic, but I don’t care. They’re executed well and they only serve to improve the characters’ relationships. This was such great fun!

Book Review: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

33151805Title: INTO THE WATER
Author: Paula Hawkins
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 386
Publisher: Riverhead Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

Into the Water is the sort of book that would make an incredible BBC series, in the vein of Broadchurch. It’s set in a tiny and beautiful English town with a river running through it, which would provide us with ample gorgeous scenery. It’s a murder mystery, sort of – the main focus is this river/pond that women have drowned in throughout the years, stretching back to witchhunts in the 1700s. It also doesn’t focus on any one single character, but rather has something like ten different POVs.

I would say that is my one major criticism – there are way too many different POVs here. It works in something like epic fantasy, when you’re spread across different areas, but this is a tiny English town. We didn’t need to be in all those characters heads; several of the POVs (like Mark’s or Josh’s) added little to nothing to the plot. This would have been a much better, tighter book had it only focused on perhaps three characters (in my opinion the characters should have been Jules, Erin, and Lena, the latter two ended up being my favorites). The characters’ development would have been so much more satisfying, because I think the author truly has some great characters in Jules, Lena, and Erin. My other pet peeve regarding the POVs is that they alternated between third and first person. I’m not saying this can never work – N.K. Jemisin and Marie Lu have both done it well – but here it was simply jarring.

My other criticism – which goes hand in hand with the aforementioned – is that I think the author could have delved more into the mystery and symbolism of the drowning pool. I really loved the aesthetic of this novel; the few times the author delved into the meaning and metaphor of the pool and what it means to be in the water I felt like she was on the precipice of something truly profound, but she could never quite get there. I feel like there was so much more she could have explored particularly regarding water’s symbol as a purifier – but I suppose, in the end, this is a thriller, not a philosophical tome.

And thrilling it is! At the beginning of this book, it’s not even clear that there is a mystery to be solved: Jules receives a call that her older sister Nel is dead, but most people think it’s a suicide. It’s only after more and more secrets are dug up (mainly because of the determination of Erin, a newcomer to the small town) that the suicide turns into a murder investigation. The mystery is gripping and the reveals are all interconnected and layered atop one another, with one thread uniting them: the cruelty of men towards women.

Misogyny was explored pretty openly in this book, and while some people might think it was heavy-handed, I actually liked that it was tackled head-on. It felt very realistic to me and it was satisfying to see the book ending with a rather healthy relationship between two women who both need each other for support.

In general, I liked this much better than The Girl in the Train. While the two books share some similarities, I think Into the Water is more realistic, with the kind of reveal that makes perfect sense in a sad, quiet sort of way.

The Sunshine Blogger Award

sunshine_blogger_award-1024x1024

The Rules

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and link back to their blog.
  2. Answer the 11 questions your nominator has given you.
  3. Nominate 11 other people and give them 11 new questions to answer.
  4. List the rules and display the award

My friend Rachel @ pace, amore, libri nominated me! Thanks, Rachel, this was fun!

What’s the last movie you saw and what did you think of it?

I watched this random horror movie called The Void because I read some article that it was really good.  It…well, I don’t know how I would describe it.  It was weird in an unsatisfying sort of way.  Supposedly it was trying to tap into Lovecraftian cosmic horror but it also had many elements of a 50s B-horror film.  It was the type of movie that was trying to do too many things at once and ended up being kind of confusing.

Do you have any weird or random talents?

According to my brother my talent is making people want to puncture their eardrums when I sing…other than that, no, I don’t think so!

What’s your favorite song at the moment?

I’m currently obsessing over the entire soundtrack of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812!

What time of day do you do most of your blogging?

I probably shouldn’t say this on a public platform, but normally during the day, because those are the hours I’m at work and I’m usually most focused (and have the most free time, oddly enough).

What’s your favorite museum that you’ve been to?

So, the MET is amazing, but I feel like that’s a cop-out answer, so I’m gonna go with the Chester Beatty museum in Dublin.  It features some dude’s private collection of old texts, including old Qurans and stuff.  It’s a tiny museum but it’s set up really nicely and is very peaceful.

When’s the last time you went to a wedding?

Oh man…uhh….let’s see…I have no idea, actually! Wow, I can’t believe it’s been that long. Oh, no, wait! I just remembered! It was two years ago; my best friend’s sister got married.  I don’t go to a lot of weddings, haha. I don’t know very many people and all my family lives in Egypt!

Do you have a celebrity doppelganger?

Okay, so my family all insists I look like Donia Samir Ghanem but I couldn’t disagree more!

If you were a cat, what color cat would you be? (Very important question.)

Either all black or all white or all orange! I’m a fan of single-color cats.

Do you have a favorite publisher or publisher imprint?

I’m fond of ABRAMS Amulet Books because they always have really great book designs, but their content hasn’t always appealed to me.  Content-wise I’m a huuuuuuge fan of Tor and Orbit.

Have you ever dressed up like a fictional character? (Bonus points for photo evidence.)

Nope! Always wanted to cosplay, though.

What’s your favorite thing about your city (or state, or country)?

I’m not a huge fan of New York City, but I appreciate its diversity and convenience.

I’ll tag…anyone who wants to do it I’M SORRY I’m terrible at this tagging thing.

Book Review: Here and Gone by Haylen Beck

32336395Title: HERE AND GONE
Author: Haylen Beck
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 287
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is not normally the type of book I would read, so I went in with little to no expectations, and I was very pleasantly surprised! This is a book about a motherhood, and corruption, and the abuses of men, told in multiple points of view.

The book begins with Audra Kinney on the run with her two young children. For days she has been driving across the country from New York to escape her abusive husband. In Arizona, Audra is stopped by the sheriff seemingly for a minor traffic stop. The sheriff then “finds” a bag of marijuana in Audra’s trunk, arrests her, and then has his deputy pick up her kids. When the sheriff takes Audra to the station and she asks him where her children have been taken, he looks at her flatly and asks, “What children?”

And so Audra’s nightmare begins. She is denounced by the press and cops who assume she killed her children. She finds an ally in Danny Lee, a Chinese American man whose own wife endured Audra’s situation years ago. Together Danny and Audra attempt to save her children. They make a fun team; Audra is tough and resilient, and Danny is a deadpan hard-ass entangled with the Chinese mafia.

Honestly, I can’t believe this book was written by a white man. There are so many women in this book, of varied complexities, some strong, some weak, some corrupt. The book portrays the bonds between women and how they can trust and support one another. Not that all the women here are saints – again this book portrays layered, nuanced characters. And then there’s Danny, who could have easily been a white man but wasn’t, and that meant that the narrative presented certain questions about race that added depth to the story.

The story is tense and gripping and wastes no words; it moves quickly, the entire story taking place within the span of two days, which lends it the urgency of a thriller. But it doesn’t just rely on cheap thrills: Beck’s writing is gorgeous, elaborate and vivid, bringing to live the scorching, desolate Arizona desert and a dying small town. I finished this book in a single day because I was so drawn in by the plot and the writing.

This is not something I would have ordinarily picked up on my own, so thank you to Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy in exchange for a review!

Book Review: Shimmer and Burn by Mary Taranta

32333246Title: SHIMMER AND BURN
Author: Mary Taranta
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 352
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

I should have liked this book…in fact, from the very first chapter it felt different than most YA fantasy. Faris, a motherless young woman, already has a love interest. They are both trapped in the country of Brindaigel (which gave me serious Brigadoon vibes) by their king, who claims to be protecting them from a magical plague in the neighboring kingdom. Tragedy strikes fairly quickly for Faris and her beloved, and she ends up being blackmailed into taking a dangerous journey into the plague-ridden kingdom.

Faris is also not the only major female character; in fact, her companion on her dangerous journey, Bryn, features in equal amount. This too is unusual in YA and should have been spectacular, particularly as Bryn and Faris do not get along at all. But Bryn is…a weak attempt at crafting a villain. Everything about her is too bombastic and over the top; I get that she’s ambitious and wants to be queen, but I never really understood why.

I think my dislike of this book comes down to one thing: it’s hella confusing. I don’t know if this was just me, or if I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I frequently found myself having to go back and read paragraphs three or four times just to understand what was happening. The plot was ridiculously convoluted (honestly…I couldn’t even explain it to you if I tried) and the magic system made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. It kept getting harder and harder for me to keep track of characters’ motivations. Not only that, but big reveals are staged poorly and cryptically, so that I was never really sure if we had actually figured out something significant or not. By the end I found I did not care one whit what happened to anyone because I had no idea what was going on or why anyone was doing anything.

The basic idea here is…fine, I guess? It’s your standard “magic corrupts” and “kingdom poisoned by magic” only this magic apparently turns people into zombie-like creatures or…addicts? Or were they the same thing? I’m not sure; to be honest I stopped paying much attention halfway through the book and began to skim huge chunks. Like, it’s not a bad idea, but I’ve seen it around before and its execution here was pretty cut-and-dry. Also, magic is…transferred via skin to skin contact? Or something? And there’s four different types of magicians? But their powers aren’t always distinct? Or something? Again, major confusion, and I’m a seasoned fantasy reader, so I’m used to having to take on complex world and magic systems. This was just messy.

The other thing is that the bulk of Faris’ motivation is that she wants to save her sister Cadence, who is being used as collateral to guarantee her loyalty to Bryn. Unfortunately, we don’t get a chance to see them interacting. The single chapter/scene where they interact shows Cadence being kind of bratty and Faris somewhat annoyed. I mean, in conjunction with some other scenes this would have been fine, but on its own it doesn’t really showcase a beloved bond that Faris would risk her life for. I felt little for either of these characters, even though on paper I should have liked Faris. The only character I was interested in was the king’s executioner, Alistair, but he features for only a couple of chapters.

Overall I really did not connect with this book at all. I found it to be a run-of-the-mill YA fantasy complete with instalove, and I really struggled to get through it, The only things I appreciated were the writing, which was often beautiful if somewhat inscrutable, and that Taranta is not shy about blood and gore, which gave this a more mature feel than it would have otherwise had.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

Book Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

32718027Title: THE CITY OF BRASS
Author: S.A. Chakraborty
Release Date: November 2017
Pages: 528
Publisher: Harper Voyager
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Y’all.  READ THIS BOOK.  I’m gonna be recommending this to literally every single person I know because holy hell.

I don’t even know where to begin; I just finished this last night and I was an incoherent mess. I still am.  It’s been such a long time since I’ve been so hooked by an epic fantasy.  More than hooked, it’s been a while since I’ve felt so comfortable within a fantasy world.  Not that S.A. Chakraborty’s world is all warm and fuzzy (on the contrary), but she builds it up in such a way as to make it seem so sturdy and real that I feel like it has always existed, like if I return to Cairo and peek behind some kind of veil I will find the djinn.

Actually, that’s an appropriate place to start, isn’t it? The personal.  Because this book is deeply important to me on a personal level, as an Egyptian.  Besides building upon the myth of the djinn, stories which I grew up on, part of it takes place in 18th century Cairo, and the protagonist, Nahri, is Egyptian.  It’s hard to articulate just how amazing it was to see Cairo illustrated so beautifully and to hear Nahri speaking Egyptian Arabic.  Though only a single chapter takes place in Cairo, its influence is felt throughout the rest of the book in Nahri.  And in Daevabad, the city of the djinn, the Middle Eastern influence is strong.

But honestly, the main reason this book left me sobbing is because I developed such a deep love for the characters.  Within the first few paragraphs Chakraborty was able to make me fall in love with Nahri, a clever, pragmatic, and snarky con artist thrown into an unfamiliar world.  Nahri is the sort of person to make the best out of what she’s got; she’s level-headed and intelligent and she feels so utterly real. And, perhaps this is more personal, but Nahri’s decisions and thought processes all made so much sense to me; never did I throw up my hands in frustration at her. Like I said, sensible and pragmatic. She certainly balances out the two other main characters, who are much more intense.

There’s Ali, the other POV character, a second son and prince, a devoutly religious young man and trained soldier, with a fiercely formulated opinion on what’s right and wrong.  Ali gets caught up in the plight of the shafit (mixed human and djinn) in Daevabad, giving money and resources to a grassroots organization called the Tanzeem dedicated to helping the shafit (sometimes in increasingly desperate, violent ways).  Since Ali’s father the king is directly in opposition to this, Ali toes the line between loyalty to his family and loyalty to his own sense of right and wrong.  Ali is rigid and taciturn and self-righteous, but it is difficult not to like him because he tries so hard to do the right thing.

And then there’s Dara.  Oh my God, Dara. A seriously flawed person and an incredible character, Dara is arrogant, mercurial, prejudiced, stubborn, and dishonest.  While he’s had to endure some horrific suffering in all the centuries he’s been alive, he’s also caused horrific suffering: he is essentially a war criminal, with a fearsome reputation.  He’s the type of person you should hate on sight.  And yet.  As Nahri grows to care for him, so did I.  His fierce loyalty and protectiveness of her, his intense regret, his devotion to his tribe, his tenderness with Nahri and Nahri alone…all of these things made me fall utterly and completely in love with him even as some of his stupidly thought out decisions made me despise him.

Chakraborty brought these characters to life so well it was painful.  I could feel everything the characters did; their joy, their grief, their frustration, it was all my own, which meant that by the time I finished the book my chest ached and I felt like I myself was the one going through the characters’ adventures.  It takes a seriously talented writer to achieve this.

Then there’s the worldbuilding. Like I said, Chakraborty makes it seem as though Daevabad has been there forever and ever, almost as though she is describing a place that truly exists. Her unique, creative spin on the djinn resulted in a complex world with its own culture and history. There is definitely a learning curve to this book; I referred to the glossary multiple times and it was a while before I knew what everything was. The politics in this book are complex, to the point where I sometimes had trouble understanding where all the various factions stood. This complexity is indicative of how morally grey this world is; no one faction is ever truly in the right. Every side has committed atrocities, every side has dirtied their hands, and it makes for a deliciously engaging and realistic read. There are no heroes or villains here, only people trying to do what they each think is right.

I also have to mention the high quality of prose. I’m so glad I have a physical copy of this book so I can refer back to Chakraborty’s writing. It’s absolutely beautiful; she weaves vivid, colorful descriptions without falling into the trap of purple prose. Her dialogue is quick and engaging and she deftly sprinkles important information throughout without it turning into a history lecture. This is writing you can learn from.

There’s not much else I can say without giving away the excellent plot, so I will simply end by saying: this is an objectively good book. A great book. Even if fantasy isn’t your thing, it’s worth picking this up. Trust me. It left me in tatters. I read nearly all 528 pages of it in a single day, eight straight hours of reading, because I just could not stop. These characters are incredible. I read a lot of fantasy books, but I’m rarely this affected by any single one. Like, this is me gushing; it took everything in my power not to write this entire review in capslock, even though that’s what my thought process looks like at the moment.

The City of Brass comes out November 14th of this year. Thank you  so much to S.A. Chakraborty and HarperCollins’ Library Love Fest for providing me with an ARC of this book!

Book Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

25667918Title: BINTI
Author: Nedi Okorafor
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 96
Publisher: Tor
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I wasn’t as impressed by this book as I should have been. In order to discuss my displeasure with the plot, I will have to talk SPOILERS, so beware (I will try to be as vague as possible , but still).

Coming in at ninety-six pages, Binti has little overarching plot, but rather focuses on a single drawn-out event. Binti, a member of the reclusive Himba tribe, is the first of her people to travel to the prestigious Oomza University. One of the things I loved was the way Binti deals with other people’s prejudices, and the way POC-on-POC racism is portrayed (the Khoush, according to Okorafor, are meant to be Arab).

Soon into the journey to Oomza, the ship is attacked by the Meduse, who murder pretty much everyone on the ship except for Binti; she is saved by a strange object she picked up back home that seems to harm the Meduse. The rest of the book shows us Binti simply trying to survive the Meduse, figure out what they want, and then help them achieve this goal in order to save as many people as possible.

To cut the story short – she succeeds and prevents a bloodbath. However, what I just could not get behind and could not understand is Binti’s seeming lack of internal conflict about her relationship with the Meduse. She seems to have a lot of respect and some affection for them by the end, but these are the same beings who brutally murdered her innocent friends – murders that Binti witnessed. According to them they had a good reason, but it rang hollow to me that Binti would simply accept this. Things were wrapped up so, so neatly – the folks at Oomza apologized for what they did and peace was achieved, but there was no mention of the hundreds of young teenagers who were brutally killed for no reason.

I also wanted a bit more from this world; I had no sense of time or context. To be fair, this is a novella so the author has little page count to work with, and she did the best with what she had, but I was still left feeling quite confused. What exactly is an astrolabe? What is a harmonizer? What is the device Binti has that wards off the Meduse? I had so many questions that were left unanswered by the end.

I appreciate what this novella is and I love the diversity, but it just wasn’t for me. However, I’m definitely willing to check out the sequel at some point, since I hear the series gets better and better.

Book Review: And I Darken by Kiersten White

27190613Title: AND I DARKEN
Author: Kiersten White
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 475
Publisher: Delacorte Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

And I Darken is a clever gender-bent retelling of the tale of Vlad the Impaler. I actually hadn’t realized this when I started the book, so it was a pleasant surprise!

Lada Dragwyla, Daughter of the Dragon, is introduced to us as a fierce, ferocious young girl who grows into an even fiercer teenager. Her character was a joy to behold: she is truly ruthless and pragmatic to a fault. At her core is her intense loyalty to Wallachia, her country of birth, and her desire to one day reign there.

And I Darken starts at the very, very beginning: with Lada’s birth, quickly followed by her younger brother Radu’s birth. After a few chapters of adjusting to the setting and character, the story quickly moves on to the main plot: Lada and Radu are delivered to the Ottoman sultan as hostages by their father to ensure Wallachia’s loyalty. Teeming with fury at her father’s betrayal, Lada, unlike her brother Radu, never comes to see the Ottomon Empire as home, despite her love for Mehmed, the young sultan.

This book is unusual in a lot of ways, the first being the plot itself. The author accurately follows the thread of history, for the most part, bringing to life a largely unknown chapter in the lives of Vlad the Impaler and Radu the Handsome. Another unusual aspect is the various relationships in this book, which are intriguing and complex. Lada and Radu care for one another, but their relationship is fraught: Lada hates Radu’s timidity, and Radu is put off by Lada’s viciousness. At the same time, they are both in love with the same man, Mehmed, though Mehmed seems to only have eyes for Lada.

Something else I thought was wonderful was the portrayal of Islam. Upon coming to the Ottoman Empire, Radu almost immediately falls in love with Islam. Eventually, he converts, and his appreciation of Islam’s beauty was really refreshing to see. He talks often of the peace he finds in prayer and the call of the athan, while at the same time he worries about Lada perceiving him as a traitor because he embraced this aspect of their captors. It’s an intriguing personal struggle.

I absolutely loved Lada, an unapologetic and unlikable protagonist, but I also found Radu a fascinating character whose growth was deftly done. Though Radu starts out as naive and weak, he eventually grows into a skilled politician, able to navigate treacherous court politics in the subtle way Lada lacks. In the midst of it all he retains his loyalty and kindness; he actually reminded me a lot of Sansa Stark. He also struggles with his sexuality (insomuch as it is understood in such a way back then) as he comes to terms with his love for Mehmed.

The book also features some wonderful nuanced discussions of womanhood and what it means to be a woman in a world of men. Lada struggles constantly with the contradiction of who she is and how people want her to be because of her gender. She does not embody traditional femininity in any way and scorns this in many other women. However, this stops short of “I’m-not-like-other-girls” because of the way the narrative interrogates the various ways women carve space for themselves in the world. Lada muses on the ways in which women wield power, whether with a sword or with their femininity. She doesn’t necessarily come to any particular conclusion, but her confusion is sure to ring true with many young women who read this book.

One of the things that may perhaps be considered a weakness is the somewhat plodding pace. Personally, I didn’t have too much of an issue with this because I really enjoyed and connected with the characters, but it is not an exaggeration to say this book moves very slowly. Again, it begins with Lada and Radu being born, and the author does not spare details about their childhood. Pacing was odd as well; I couldn’t really identify any one particular moment of plot climax, but I think that might be because this book is very, very character driven. It is focused mainly on Lada and Radu’s growth and development and how they affect the history of the Ottomans and the reign of Mehmed. And of course the plot is constrained by history, which doesn’t follow traditional plot structure.

In short, I’m very excited to read the sequel!