Book Review: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan

34017058Title: THE BLOODPRINT
Author: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 425
Publisher: Harper Voyager
My Rating: ★☆☆☆☆(1.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Ugh. That was painful. Actually, physically painful, and I am so disappointed. This book was one of my most anticipated releases of the entire year. I actually pre-ordered this book! I purchased it! Paid money for it because I was sure I would want to have it on my shelf forever to read and reread! Instead, from the very first chapter I found myself struggling to get through it. This is a novel with great potential that was executed terribly. Let’s go through the problems one by one:

→ It is undeniable that Khan has created an intriguing world, though much of it is based on ours. The parallels between the antagonists, The Talisman, and Daesh/ISIS, are painfully obvious and heavy-handed. The Claim, ancient religious words inscribed with power, is clearly meant to be the Quran. Now, there is nothing wrong with any of this – in any other book I might have relished it – but here everything is so confusing and mashed up together that I had a difficult time following along. The main character, Arian, is a First Oralist trained in the power of The Claim – and yet it is never exactly clear what precisely the Claim is or how its magic works or how Arian uses it against her enemies. Given that Arian’s powers make up the crux of the plot, leaving it unexplained greatly hindered my understanding of the overall plot. This is not the only bit of worldbuilding that was left unexplained, or touched on only vaguely. Khan throws a lot into this book and very little of it makes sense until the very end.

→ Despite the aforementioned, this book also somehow constantly delivers plodding exposition to explain worldbuilding rather than revealing it organically. The narrative comes to a shuddering halt to explain something (and not very well, either). It’s very jarring and is the mark of an inexperienced writer. There is just so, so much telling rather than showing, and it’s not even a little bit subtle.

→ I suspect it is the lack of skill in writing that makes the whole book so very, very bland. From the first chapter, which should have been a harrowing, nail-biting scene as our protagonists endeavor to save a group of women from slavery, is dull. From the get-go I just Did Not Care. And I tried, oh did I try. I wanted to care, I wanted to like this book. But there were no characters I cared about (Arian, the lead, is painfully, painfully bland) and the stakes were established properly to get me to give a damn about anything that was happening. The writing isn’t technically bad, but there’s just no spark to it. This book is lifeless.

→ The author uses omniscient narration, but she does it very, very badly. First of all, it took me a while to figure out it was omniscient narration, because the book at first gives the impression that it’s in third person limited, with most of the POV given to the protagonist, Arian. But there are throwaway chunks and sentences that are in other characters’ perspectives, even very minor characters, that just shove their way into Arian’s thoughts. And then the narrative will flit back to Arian’s POV. It’s clumsy, messy, and confusing.

→ The overall plot was terrible. First off, I’m beginning to think that ~journey~ stories take a supremely talented author to pull off, and the ~journey~ in this book was very badly paced. It’s taken me over a month to finish this book because it was just so damn boring. I literally had to force myself to finish it. And not only was the overall plot uninteresting, but even the few scenes that should have been exciting felt empty because they were written so badly! Big, action moments that should have been exciting were barely given a sentence (sometimes I barely even noticed that something huge had happened). What should have been big reveals were not revealed properly, and so they didn’t deliver any punches.

→ This is clearly being marketed as a ~feminist~ story, but unfortunately even that falls flat. Our two heroines spend the whole book ogling handsome men and having their fates controlled by them. Daniyar is introduced as Arian’s love interest and an extremely handsome man, and the author won’t let you forget it. His beauty is constantly referenced, Arian’s companion Sinnia is constantly talking about how desirable he is, and Arian herself is in love with him for reasons that baffle me, since he’s very much an asshole. This obsession with handsome men and the women in love with them doesn’t just feature with our protagonists, but with various minor characters as well, making the book not only borderline misogynistic but also shockingly heteronormative (there are NO queer characters here).

→ Arian’s companion, Sinnia, is black. The author doesn’t let you forget this either. References are constantly being made about the strangeness of her dark skin, how ~exotic~ she is, how pale Arian is in comparison, how jealous Sinnia is of Arian, etc, etc. And she is the only black character. It was extremely fetishistic and made me very uncomfortable, especially given that Sinnia’s entire existence seemed to be rooted in being Arian’s loyal companion. We are given little to nothing of her backstory, her wants or desires, despite the omniscient narration.

→ I want to touch again on how utterly boring and lifeless this book was. The author just couldn’t make me care about anything in this book. The plot was a fairly straightforward journey, with little to no intrigue or suspense. For me, this book only got mildly interesting in the very last ten pages, when there were two big reveals and twists, one of which I’d been expecting since the last third of the book. And then the book ended on a cliffhanger that I don’t particularly care about because I don’t care about anything in this book.

I don’t have much else to say. I really disliked this book, I nearly DNF’ed it multiple times, I had to drag myself back into reading it, and I’m just so relieved to be done with it.  What a damn shame.

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Book Review: The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman

26061581Title: THE DARK DAYS PACT
Author: Alison Goodman
Release Date: 20167
Pages: 490
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★★★(5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Once again, this series astounds me with the immense amount of historical detail present! As a history nerd, and a huge fan of 19th century England (well, and the 19th century in general), I was delighted to learn about things like bathing machines and French spies.

This book picks up right where we left off, with Helen in Brighton with Carlston and the gang, training to be a Reclaimer. Their holiday is not as idyllic as it should be, however, with Carlston slowly descending into madness and an old nemesis with the power of the Home Office comes with a confidential mission for Helen and Mr. Hammond.

While the first book was somewhat languidly paced to allow for worldbuilding, this simply powers through with a fast-paced, thrilling plot with high tension and very high stakes. This plot doesn’t neglect character development, however; Helen grows in strength and confidence in this book, and other characters, such as Margaret and Mr. Hammond, are further fleshed out as well. Even Carlston does well, though I still don’t like him as much as I think the author wants me to. Alas.

This series has single-handedly reignited my interest in historical fiction, which is a pretty impressive testament to how awesome it is.

Book Review: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

15993203Title: THE DARK DAYS CLUB
Author: Alison Goodman
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 482
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★★★(5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I. Love. This. Book. You know when you’ve come to enjoy a book so much you don’t want it to end? I was torn between finishing this book quickly to find out what happens, and reading it slowly to savor every scene. I was hooked from the very first chapter, where the setting is quickly and fastidiously established as Regency England. A fascinating time period, and the skill of Alison Goodman’s research shines from every page! I truly felt like I was in Regency London; Goodman pays close attention to fashion, smells, common foods, popular dances, weather, locations, and so on. It all lends the book an extreme authenticity that makes it an absolute pleasure to read. I feel like I’ve just received an intriguing history lesson on Regency London! When I say this I don’t at all mean to indicate that this felt dry or textbook-like! On the contrary! But as a history nerd I do enjoy all the little details that popped up.

In The Dark Days Club, Lady Helen Wrexhall discovers that there is more darkness in the world than she first thought, and that she is inextricably bound to it. As she is introduced to this underbelly she discovers her new powers and abilities, all under the guidance of the mysterious and detested Earl of Carlston, a man who shares Helen’s powers but is also suspected of killing his wife. He and Helen share a budding but unresolved romance – in true Regency fashion, it is quite a slow burn and for the most part remains within the bounds of propriety. I think he’s a little bit of an asshole, but for me that’s what makes him interesting, that he’s so imperfect – he’s a good person, but he doesn’t have great bedside manner, so to speak.

Helen is a much more pleasant character – bright, curious, kind, but also not the stereotype I expected. She is more realistic than that: not quite rebellious, not quite so eager to shirk the boundaries of normal life and society, merely tiptoe around them. She’s a modern day women magically inserted into a Regency-era world to be the ~Exceptional Woman~. Rather, she is a realistic Regency-era woman who is heavily shaped by the customs of her time and place. She also shares a camaraderie with her maid (who becomes her partner in crime in a way), which was so refreshing to see! Female friendship is always appreciated.

The mythology here is fantastic! Not supremely original, but executed brilliantly, in a way that makes sense but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details. Goodman created such an interesting world here, one with suitably high stakes that kept the tension high throughout the novel. By the 80% mark I was walking around my house doing things with my Kindle in my face because I simply could not put the book down! I absolutely love books that turn into compelling page-turners, and I love books that feel like home, which this book did. I’m a sucker for period drama set in England, and this book hit on everything I ever wanted: high-society drama, historical accuracy, the supernatural, loads of gory murder, sardonic dialogue, and nail-biting mystery!

I’m going to stop babbling because this review is long and effusive enough, but hopefully it has managed to convey the depth of my enjoyment of this book!

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

18498558Title: BIRD BOX
Author: Josh Malerman
Release Date: 2014
Pages: 262
Publisher: Penguin Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I both love and hate dystopic fiction. I love it because it’s a fascinating exploration of survival. I’m always intrigued by how humans manage to survive without technology, without society, without order. Does the social contract break down? Where do people get food? What becomes important in a new world? Is survival enough?

I hate dystopic fiction because it’s depressing as fuck, and Bird Box certainly delivered on that.

I loved this book’s concept, which had notes of Lovecraftian horror all over it. Basically, there is something – some creature, some unknown, just something – outside. When you see it, you go mad and start tearing yourself apart until you die. Nobody knows what it is or where it came from or what it wants. Or how to stop it. But it’s trapped the survivors indoors, and if they venture outdoors they must have their eyes shut at all times. There are certain passages which were absolutely seeped with Lovecraftian influence – characters talking about our minds having a ceiling and the unknown creatures being beyond that ceiling, beyond human capacity to understand…it’s juicy, creepy stuff.

The narrative is centered on Malorie as she and her two children row a boat down a river attempting to find better shelter. The story is told in alternating timelines, between Malorie in the present and Malorie in the past, with a ragtag group of survivors who have holed up inside a house together and are just trying to survive. Even ordinary scenes in this book drip with tension; I was completely sucked in. When reading this book the world around me ceased to exist. There were some scenes that had my heart racing with anticipation. There is plenty of gore, but there is also a ton of psychological horror, building on the fear of the unknown.

I have some criticisms. The dialogue I found was often stilted, a bit unnatural. Malorie’s ragtag group of survivors were difficult to tell apart. There was Tom, the leader, and Don, the combative one, and then…a bunch of other people who were just there. In horror novels like this it’s important for characters to be distinct and interesting, and they weren’t. We don’t know what these people look like, what they did in their old lives, how they think and feel now. And there is zero diversity – all the characters are white. I felt like they were all cardboard cutouts, not characters but plot devices, there as a means to an end. Even with Malorie, I felt like I had a hard time getting into her head and getting a sense of her as a person. I felt her fear and desperation, certainly, but everyone in this world is afraid and desperate – what more is there to know about her?

Otherwise, I loved this book. I could not put it down for a moment, and it made my 90 minute commute feel like 10 minutes. I missed my train stop when reading the ending, because it was just so damn intense! I had been in an utter reading funk lately, and this book wrenched me out of it. Highly, highly recommend this creepy, intense, and thrilling read!

Thanks to Rachel @ pace, amore, libri for the recommendation!

Book Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

15994537Title: WUTHERING HEIGHTS
Author: Emily Bronte
Release Date: 1847
Pages: 360
Publisher: Penguin Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(2.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Upon finishing this book, my first words were: “Well, that was pointless.”

And it really was. You hear so much about Wuthering Heights being all about this great and toxic love between Cathy and Heathcliff, and yet we only see glimpses of it! It’s just a long miserable book about miserable people. In order to complain properly, I have to include SPOILERS, so you have been warned!

I’ll start off with the one thing I did kind of like: the setting. Bronte was deftly able to convey Wuthering Heights as a dark, depressing abode. From the get-go the tone is moody and atmospheric, with the isolated Yorkshire moors seeming to reflect the characters’ lives. More than once I wondered where the hell everyone was – where are all the other people? Civilization? The characters in this book never interact with anyone but each other, almost as though they are living their lives entirely removed from their surroundings.

My primary annoyance was with the narration. The story is told through Nelly, a housekeeper, who tells the tale to a Mr. Lockwood, a character whose utter pointlessness completely blew my mind. Nelly’s narration completely removes any immediacy and intimacy the narrative may have contained. I wanted to see more of Cathy and Heathcliff’s feelings for each other, and yet I only got tastes, though Nelly’s eyes.

My second issue is with the prose. I got used to it after a while, but I did not like it. I don’t even know how to describe it. Clunky? Overly complex? Superfluous? I don’t know, but it made the book a damn slog. I enjoy dense prose, but only if it’s pretty, and as a general rule I don’t like to read my novels with the same amount of concentration as an academic text.

I have no doubt that this is a book with great literary and historical merits, but I am more interested in literary criticisms of this book than the book itself. I’m fascinated by what Emily Bronte was trying to do with her characters and what she meant to convey, and I can appreciate its brilliance from that angle, but this was not a particularly enjoyable reading experience overall.

Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

33958230Title: FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS
Author: Julie C. Dao
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 363
Publisher: Philomel Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I had almost forgotten that this is supposed to be an East Asia-inspired retelling of Snow White’s Evil Queen. In the beginning there are few allusions to the tale, but as the story progresses the narrative reflects the fairy tale in subtle, clever ways.

Xifeng is beautiful. Growing up in poverty with her abusive aunt Guma, she clings to her beauty, her only power as a woman in a world of men. But according to Guma, Xifeng has a great destiny: she is fated to become Empress of Feng Lu, if she plays her cards right. After some prodding from Wei, Xifeng’s childhood love, she finds the courage to flee Guma and head to the palace, planting herself in court and clawing her way to the top.

Some minor technical complaints first: the story takes a long time to get going. This is partly necessary, as it is the first in what I assume will be a trilogy, and Xifeng needs time to leave her old life behind and rise to become Empress. Still, it was a bit slow, and most of the action takes place in the last third of the book, with reveals and plot advancements occurring in nearly every chapter. It felt a bit unbalanced.

Otherwise, damn, I love my complex unlikable anti-heroine stories! Xifeng is selfish, vain, arrogant, and ruthless. Eventually, she becomes a murderess. In short, she’s not someone you want to have much to do with. But she revels in her power and ambition, she is unapologetic about what she has to do to claw her way to power, and I loved her. She’s such an unusual protagonist; we don’t see too many women like her in YA. Speaking of unusual, this book does away with a lot of YA tropes. It’s quite adult in a lot of ways. Xifeng chooses power over love and ends up with a man much older than her. The violence in this book is bloody and raw; it was spectacularly gory.

Others have mentioned Xifeng’s disdain of all other women, so I have to mention it. This is a very prominent thread running through the book, but it makes sense: Xifeng is deliberately unlikable, deliberately arrogant, and the reader is left with the certainty that Xifeng is unreliable in her determinations of these other women. They are all humanized by the narrative despite Xifeng’s scorn. Even Xifeng’s foremost enemy is humanized in such a way that her cruelty is understood to be her shield; in fact, in this antagonist I saw a reflection of Xifeng.

The worldbuilding ties in directly with Xifeng’s plot (and the Snow White tale), and it was gloriously epic. Xifeng maintains her youth and beauty by eating hearts, a gift granted to her by a dark god who longs to rise again. I won’t say too much because spoilers, but it seems like this series is foretelling the reincarnation of an ancient feuds between gods in the form of a feud between two women, one of them Xifeng. I am so here for this.

In short, this book is gory and creepy and features a delightfully unlikable anti-heroine who chooses power and ruthlessness over love and goodness again and again, while becoming hopelessly mired in a dark god’s vengeance plot. While this first book was dragged down somewhat by the inauspicious beginning, I’m certain the second book will be even better, now that Xifeng has been established and we can do away with all that exposition. A promising beginning to a promising series!

Book Review: Roar by Cora Carmack

29939048Title: ROAR
Author: Cora Carmack
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 380
Publisher: Tor Teen
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆(1.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Never in my life have I seen such a fantastic concept executed so, so terribly.

The first few chapters had me hooked. We are introduced to a world ruled by storms, forces of nature like hurricanes or tornadoes that attack randomly and can only be controlled by Stormlings, who are normally the ruling families (this reminded me a bit of the world in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but it veered off in another direction at the end). The mythology behind storms and Stormlings is so utterly fascinating too, and there’s even a creepy cult that worships them! The book hits the ground running, with protagonist Aurora preparing for her arranged marriage to Cassius Locke, a Stormling prince. It is revealed that Aurora is powerless, with no ability to temper storms, and so she must be married off to Cassius so that her kingdom can have a Stormling’s protection.

It’s a fantastic premise. I even was fascinated by Cassius; it seemed like he was being built up to be a super problematic dude but possible ally and anti-love interest. From the get-go he was domineering and controlling and just plain gross, but it almost seemed like the author was gearing up to deconstruct the trope of this kind of YA love interest, since Cassius was built up as the villain. I was even more fascinated when it is revealed that Cassius may have an ulterior motive for wanting to marry Aurora. So, one night, Aurora follows him to try to learn something, and this is where everything went downhill, and a promising fantasy devolved into an eye-rolling, nauseating romance. (This makes so much sense now that I know this author has previously only written romance.)

Basically, Aurora learns that Stormlings are not the only people with storm abilities, that in fact you can gain abilities by acquiring the heart of a storm (at least I think – the explanation on this was a bit shaky). So she joins a band of “hunters” – people who hunt storms – in order to acquire magic for herself so she doesn’t have to marry Cassius. What follows is a bunch of pointless, boring chapters of Aurora “training” to fight storms and falling in love with Locke, one of the hunters.

The romance is sickeningly heteronormative and misogynistic. Locke is possessive and domineering, frequently making references to how much he wants to “own” Aurora and how he wants her to belong to him. There are also several instances where he talks about being unable to control himself around her and forcing decisions on her. He’s a moody asshole a lot, with changes in temper that remind me strongly of abusive behavior. When they’re training, there’s a scene where he becomes sexually aroused when he physically overpowers her (yeah, I’m serious). At so many points I literally stopped reading and said aloud, “That is so fucking gross.” One example that nearly had me retching was when Aurora tells Locke she’s a virgin, and he says, verbatim:

“I’m the first to touch this mouth? To taste it?…That means it’s mine. My territory. And I’m prepared to protect it, every hour of the day if I must.”

If I hadn’t been reading on my Kindle, I think I would have physically hurled the book away at that point.

Just as disturbing are the constant references to Aurora’s body by the men around her. I feel like I know more about what she looks like than anything else in this world, and what she looks like is the embodiment of a traditionally beautiful thin white woman. There is so much emphasis on her thinness, her slim fingers, the curve of her waist, her hips, her perfect white skin, her gorgeous blue eyes, her red lips…and this happens constantly, to the point of being fetishistic. It’s fucking creepy, almost like a horny teenage boy was writing this. It constantly took me out of the narrative to roll my eyes.

Aurora, the protagonist, is bland as hell. She could have been likeable! In fact I was intrigued by her at the start, a bookish and shy princess trying to put on a brave face for her husband-to-be. She’s naive and extremely sheltered and idealistic, but it makes sense given her upbringing, and it works well. I got Sansa Stark vibes, and Sansa Stark is one of my favorite characters of all time! But Aurora’s personality development falls victim to the romance, which completely overtakes the book. There are entire chapters (chapters! plural!) devoted only to Locke and Aurora flirting and talking about how much they want to get in each others’ pants. In between these chapters Aurora spends a lot of time doing absolutely nothing but traveling aimlessly (I’m really starting to hate ~quest~ novels).

There are some scenes that take us back to Aurora’s home, where Cassius and his family have taken advantage of Aurora’s absence. Aurora’s childhood friend Nova, who helped Aurora fake her kidnapping, is imprisoned by Cassius after being suspected of having helped kidnap her. These scenes of Nova and Cassius were ten times more interesting than anything happening with Locke and Aurora. Nova is a fascinating character with her own secrets and her own power. Her scenes with Cassius were some of the most engaging in the whole book.

And a technical issue: the dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. Besides being peppered with laughably dramatic declarations, it constantly lacks contractions. Perhaps this is a personal annoyance, but nobody speaks without contractions; it’s stiff and stilted and just plain weird. And why would common people in particular be speaking it? Not that I like it when authors do this to try to differentiate upper-class from lower-class, but at least then it would make some sense. Instead, in this book, dialogue switches between super casual and super formal, to the point of being disorienting.

Everything about this plot is bland and cliche, which is such a shame, because this concept is too good to waste like this! I’m literally sitting here grieving about how this book decides that two horny teenagers are more interesting than potentially sentient natural disasters! At least if the romance were well done it might have been bearable, but instead we have a boring caveman male love interest who falls head over heels for a mysterious beautiful girl at first sight and then constantly talks about how he wants to possess her. No thanks.