Top 5 Wednesday: Books Without Romance

I thought this topic would be difficult,  but it was actually rather easy! I ended up finding about eleven books I adore that don’t feature romance at all.  Narrowing them down to five was actually the hard part.

Here we go!

25036395The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst: This rich adult fantasy set in what appears to be Avatar the Last Airbender’s Spirit World.  Spirits inhabit nature and select women have the ability to control them.  These women train and then compete for the chance to be the next queen.  One of these women is Daleina, who loses her entire village at a very young age to an attack of spirits.  She is not particularly talented, but she is especially determined, and her progression from young girl to competent woman is something to see.  Now, there is a relationship in this book, but it features so little it’s almost tossed in as an afterthought.  Much of the book focuses on Daleina’s growth and training.  The most prominent relationship is between her and her trainer, which is kind of a father-daughter dynamic.

29241322A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby: This is an interesting historical fiction novel about Joseph Merrick, more popularly known as the Elephant Man, an Englishman who exhibited severe deformities.  The novel is written from the perspective of Joseph’s nurse Evelyn, who also suffers a deformity.  The two develop a powerful, touching friendship that becomes the crux of the novel.  While this book does become somewhat repetitive after a while, it writes very descriptively of nineteenth century London and features many interesting and layered characters.  I also think it’s quite a refreshing idea, fictionalizing a short time period in the life of a man who was known only for his appearance in freak shows.  It humanizes a historical figure through the eyes of a similarly anguished female character.

26200137The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne: I barely know how to describe this book.  It follows a young Indian girl named Meena, who decides to return to her birthplace of Ethiopia by traversing The Trail, a strange energy-type bridge that connects India to Africa over the Arabian Sea.  Her perspective is interspersed with that of Mariama, a young girl from Western Sahara who journeys across the Sahara with an enigmatic woman named Yemaya.  This is a very strange book set in a very odd future.  There is no romance whatsoever because the plot is entirely focused on these two women and how their worlds come to intersect.  The end left me absolutely reeling.  I feel like I have to go back and re-read this book twice in order to fully understand it and comprehend all the symbolism and analogies.

22609208Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum: In an homage to weird fiction, this horror novel brings forth Carcosa and the King in Yellow.  Liz Drake, a woman with prophetic dreams, journeys to Vancouver to rescue her friend Blake from the clutches of the Yellow King. In her dreams, which are quickly becoming real, she must journey to the mysterious Carcosa to pull Blake out.  This novel is thrilling and bloody and will send shivers down your spine.  Liz is in a relationship, but it’s a minor point in the book.  More prominent is Liz’s friendship with Blake and her increasingly disturbing dreams of Carcosa that are swiftly transforming her reality into a phantasmagoria she can’t seem to escape.

23307808City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett: Shara Thivani, a spymaster posing as diplomat, journeys to Bulikov, a city that ruled the world before its Gods were killed, in order to investigate the murder of a historian.  Her search leads her to suspect that perhaps Bulikov’s Gods are not as dead as they seem.  City of Stairs debuts an incredible female character in Shara, and the world-building is dense and original.  In particular the focus on religion and Gods was intriguing and chilling.

Top 5 Wednesday: Hate to Love Pairings

This Wednesday’s prompt is couples who started out hating each other.  I didn’t realize I had so many contenders until I realized I had to cut this post into two: book couples and TV couples.  TV couples to come soon, hopefully.

 
tumblr_n2ngzh1iiL1qilgsoo2_r1_500Sansa & Petyr (A Song of Ice and Fire NOT the garbage show which takes a completely different and unwarranted direction with these two): Initially I thought this prompt indicated not pairings that went from hating each other to loving each other, but pairings that I love even in the face of blistering shame. Sansa Stark and Petyr Baelish fit that category rather well, because, well, have you ever seen a more messed up dynamic (well, there’s Jaime and Cersei, who happen to be my other favorite pairing from ASOIAF – do you see a trend here?)? Sansa is the daughter of the woman Petyr once loved.  She didn’t love him back in the same way, and ended up marrying someone else.  Petyr never moved on. Now, he has attached himself to Sansa, who happens to be the spitting image of her mother.  Petyr’s interest in Sansa alternates between fatherly love and lovers’ lust, a rather disturbing contradiction.  This bizarre combo is also interspersed with Petyr’s ambition: he claims to want to marry Sansa off in order to help her win back Winterfell, but whether he is doing this for Sansa or to further his own power (or both) is not quite clear, though he is certainly vocal about declaring his love (and lust) to her, and her consent to his sexual advances is dubious at best. Sansa’s feelings for Petyr are equally ambiguous – she admits she cares for him, but also recognizes that there are two sides to him, one kind and friendly, one scheming and ruthless.  She has trouble telling the two apart.  At the same time, he’s the only person she has left in the world, so she can’t help but rely on him. Their relationship is so bizarre, so complex and twisted, so multi-layered, so dark and creepy and inappropriate, that I can’t help but be utterly fascinated by it.

darklingalinaAlina & The Darkling (The Grisha Trilogy): Remember what I said about loving messed up pairings? Alina and the Darkling don’t start out hating each other either, not exactly, but their relationship certainly devolves into a complex interplay of hatred and attraction.  Initially believing that The Darkling is a force for good, Alina allows herself to be swept up into his seduction of her.  He beguiles her with his declarations of their similarities, their burgeoning powers, and how they are going to change the world together. Alina is drawn to his power and his stature, the fact that they are indeed two of a kind, but she quickly realizes The Darkling is bound to be her enemy. Despite this, I don’t think she ever forgets the hold he had on her.

22077289Jannik & Felicita (House of Sand and Secrets): These two are interesting because they didn’t start out hating each other at all.  In the first book, they’re friends well on their way to becoming more, but tragedy tears them apart. In the second book, they are in a marriage of convenience.  Even at this point, neither of them hates the other, but their relationship is fraught with their tenuous social status and Jannik’s precarious position as a hated minority.  Misunderstandings blossom like thorny flowers between the pair, leading each to believe that they are hated by the other, when in fact they are so in love with each other they can barely see straight.

11774295Hanani & Wanahomen (The Shadowed Sun): I always thought I hated romance until I read N.K. Jemisin’s Shadowed Sun.  In this book, she crafts a love story that I didn’t even realize was a love story until nearly the very end.  It starts with Hanani and Wanahomen on opposite sides of the spectrum in status and personality – Hanani is the only female Sharer-Apprentice from Hetawa, and Wanahomen is a prince-in-exile fighting to take back his kingdom.  Hanani is calm, level-headed, compassionate, while Wanahomen is rash, hot-tempered, and ruthless.  Their relationships starts out quite tense, as opposite personalities clash, but as they live together among the Banbarra tribe, both as outsiders, their feelings for one another intensify from intense dislike to intense love.  Jemisin’s talent shines through here; this is such an incredibly subtle and well-crafted romance.

tumblr_opnz18MwPY1toedf8o1_r1_1280Alabaster & Syenite (The Broken Earth Trilogy): Yes, another N.K. Jemisin example.  I swear, this lady is brilliant at everything she does, and if one day she decided to forego fantasy and just write straight-up romance, I would totally be there for it.  Initially, Alabaser and Syenite don’t like one another at all.  They have two competing worldviews, though Syenite’s is born more out of naivete and lack of experience than anything else (Alabaster is significantly older than her). The two are sent on a dual mission, to answer the call of a city that fears a geologic anomaly, and along the way, to get pregnant.  What begins as a fraught relationship burdened by mechanical sex blossoms into a we-only-trust-each-other type of thing.  As Alabaster and Syenite embark on a relationship with another man (yes, all at once) and have a child together, their bond strengthens and deepens.

Honorable Mention: Hades & Persephone

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Shout-out to the original hate-to-love pairing, am I right? Though there are many interpretations of the myth, the one I hold near and dear is that Persephone went to Hades of her own free will in order to acquire power, something she never had with her mother.  Though initially she and Hades were not so fond of each other, their feelings deepened into mutual love and respect, with Hades falling head over heels first.

Top 5 Wednesday: Favorite Unlikable Protagonist

I haven’t done Top 5 Wednesday in a while, but this prompt pulled me in.  I love unlikable protagonists (I’m writing one right now)! There’s something so intriguing and compelling about a character who is fundamentally unlikable.  Despite that, I found this list quite difficult to amass! I guess either I’m just not aware of which protagonists people find unlikable or I just don’t notice unlikable protagonists.

Anyway, here we go:

136251Severus Snape (Harry Potter): I had to start out with the apex of unlikable characters, didn’t I? Snape is a horrible person.  Abusive, borderline racist, selfish, bitter, just an all-around terrible person.  I wouldn’t even want to be in the same room with him, let alone be his friend.  And yet Snape is undeniably fascinating: he has spent nearly all of his life regretting and attempting to atone for getting the love of his life killed.  None of his intentions were honorable – he thought he was getting another family killed, and even when he realized it was Lily he didn’t give a damn about her husband and infant son dying.  He just wanted to save her, and whether his feelings for Lily were love or obsession is, I think, irrelevant.  Lily died anyway, and Snape switched sides to atone.  He also – and this is just my personal headcanon here – isolated himself and did everything he could to make other people hate him, because he believed he deserved it.  He kept fighting not necessarily because he believed in the cause, but because he felt he owed it to Lily.  Like I said, fundamentally not a good person, and that’s not even getting into how horrible of a teacher he was (he was Neville’s worst fear for God’s sake!).  But so, so multi-layered, complex, and fascinating.

20821111Adelina Amouteru (The Young Elites): Adelina grew up with her sister and abusive stepfather.  With a parent like that, it is no surprise that Adelina is reserved, wary, and bitter.  However, as her powers begin to manifest and the friends she thought she had abandoned her, Adelina swerves sharply into villain territory.  She sets out to get revenge, abandoning any and all morality in the process.  She wants revenge and she wants power, and she will do anything she can to get it, even as she struggles not to lose her mind.  Being in Adelina’s head is one hell of a  trip; the girl is half insane at this point.  She’s such a compelling, dynamic character.  I’m excited to read the final book in this series!

6296885Isyllt Iskaldur (The Necromancer Chronicles): I don’t know if Isyllt would be considered widely unlikable by everyone, but I find her an unusual female character. She reminds me a bit of a noir detective.  She’s taciturn, pragmatic, and no-nonsense.  After spending her teens in the streets, Isyllt was taken in by the King (sort of) and turned into a kind of spy/necromancer/magician (in other words, she’s super cool).  She’s kind of closed off in a way that female characters usually aren’t, which makes her super intriguing.

 

26228034Nassun (The Obelisk Gate): Essun’s daughter Nassun is not necessarily unlikable, but pitiable.  After experiencing the unimaginable trauma of witnessing her father murder her brother, and then being kidnapped by him as he struggles not to kill her for simply being who she is, Nassun transforms from an ordinary young girl to an unbelievably cold, cynical young woman.  By the end of the book she has veered into such strange, nihilistic territory that being in her head becomes pretty uncomfortable.

 

7762777Petyr Baelish (A Song of Ice and Fire): This is kind of cheating, since I don’t know that I would call Petyr a protagonist, necessarily, but whether we like it or not he is essentially the lynch pin of the entire series.  He set most of the events in the series in motion.  Some thing he did just to create chaos, to see what would happen, in true chaotic neutral form.  Petyr is sneaky and subtle and brilliant (forget TV show Petyr, I’m talking about book Petyr, who is a fundamentally different person).  He’s one hell of a strategist and he’s incredibly ambitious, but like Snape, he is also caught up in a past romance which pushes him from “ambiguously motivated” to “supremely creepy” territory. Despite that, the dynamic Petyr has with Sansa Stark, his lost love’s daughter, is the most fascinating in the entire series.  The pair of a somewhat disturbing dynamic, but I love it all the same, just as I am fascinated with Petyr Baelish.

Top 5 Wednesday: Favorite SFF Cover Art

I think I may be cheating a little bit by including various covers and pretending a series is one book, but…alas. There are too many pretty covers for me to choose just five.

1. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I read this book when it first came out in hard cover, so, the middle cover. I was so pleased to see that the covers of the following editions similarly conveyed the old-world fairy tale feel of this novel.

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2. The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin

I’ve mentioned this series before, but it bears mentioning again! These covers are absolutely gorgeous.  Bright, vivid colors, contrasting symbolism of moon and sun, clean typology, and an old-school fantasy feel. The Dreamblood duology is probably my favorite Jemisin work. I don’t actually own these books yet, but I will soon!

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3. The Mara Dyer Trilogy by Michelle Hodkin

I’m not going to shout about the quality of these books, as that is dubious, but I have to admit that what first drew me to this series was these beautiful, compelling covers.  Whether or not this series qualifies as fantasy is dubious, I think, but eh, these are great covers.

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4. The Diviners by Libba Bray

This is probably more of a historical fantasy novel, as it takes place in the 1920s New York City, but the covers are so lovely I’m including it anyway.  This is an entertaining book, but it also managed to give me chills down my spine. I really need to read the sequel, but I should probably do a re-read first, since I’ve forgotten most of what happened.

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5. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This is an absolutely magical book that I really need to re-read one of these days.  I always loved the hardcover version, but I really hated the paperback version that came out right after, so I’m pleased to see that another paperback version has come out! I’ve been meaning to buy this book, so I think I’ll go with this new paperback edition.

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Honorable Mentions:

Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson is a delightfully creepy Southern Gothic novel.  I absolutely love the strangeness of the cover, with the bleak background and the oddly tilted girl. The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco has a gorgeous design, but also, look at that incredible shade of purple!

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Top 5 Wednesday: SFF Books on my TBR

To say writing this post was difficult would be a ludicrous understatement. 95% of what I read consists of SFF, both adult and YA, so my TBR for these genres is gargantuan. Narrowing it down to just five books felt like an impossibility, but I managed to do it (sort of – I’ve got two honorable mentions). However, I definitely did not go through each of the literal hundreds of books on my TBR, so these books simply represent the ones that stood out to me for whatever reason, not necessarily the books I think will be the best or that I will like the most.  (Which I guess makes perfect sense for the prompt!)

All summaries in italics are from Goodreads!

7564251Secrets of the Sands by Leona Wisoker: Cafad Scratha, a powerful desert lord with a persecution complex, believes everyone is lying to him. When his obsession collides with the king’s efforts to rebuild the shattered realm, the orphaned street-thief Idisio and the king’s emissary Alyea become pawns in their multilayered game. The secret world into which Idisio and Alyea are drawn will not only change their lives: it will change them.

I’ve had this on my TBR list forever, but I’ve struggled in finding it, so it’s remained unread for now. As sick and tired as I am of white people co-opting Middle Eastern cultures for their stories, the setting is so beloved to me that I seek it out anyway. With a mad ruler and a young noblewoman caught up in political intrigue, it seems to have everything I need for an enjoyable read. It’s also got that classic epic fantasy feel, which I love.

55399Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erickson: The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting, and bloody confrontations. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen’s rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins. For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, surviving cadre mage of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the many dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, yet holds out. It is to this ancient citadel that Laseen turns her predatory gaze. But it would appear that the Empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister, shadowbound forces are gathering as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand….

When we talk about the greats of epic fantasy, it’s impossible not to hear Steven Erickson’s name. The Malazan series is typical classic fantasy, with a huge cast of characters, but it is also an in-depth look at how reality works; that is, Erickson doesn’t shy away from the details of things like how an army gets fed or how trade in a small village works. His work also comes highly recommended by Daniel Jose Older, which is a plus. I’ve been putting it off because it’s a gargantuan series; reading this book is truly a commitment that I’m just not ready for yet, but soon I will be!

18952341The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu: Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

I’ve been hesitating to read The Grace of Kings because reviews have told me that the female characters in this novel are lacking in both quantity and quality. Normally, a book like that gets an automatic NO from me, but I’ve read and enjoyed Liu’s other work, and this book has received heaps of praise in fantasy circles. Liu has been credited with creating the genre of “silkpunk” and I’m curious to see just what that is!

26114337Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley: Seventeen-year-old Anglet Sutonga, makes a living repairing the chimneys, towers, and spires of Bar-Selehm. Dramatically different communities live and work alongside one another. The white Feldish command the nation’s higher echelons of society; the native Mahweni are divided between city life and the savannah. And then there’s Ang, part of the Lani community who immigrated there generations ago and now mostly live in poverty on Bar-Selehm’s edges. When Ang is supposed to meet her new apprentice, Berrit, she finds him dead. That same night the Beacon, an invaluable historical icon, is stolen. The Beacon’s theft commands the headlines, yet no one seems to care about Berrit’s murder—except for Josiah Willinghouse, an enigmatic young politician. When he offers Ang a job investigating the death, she plunges headlong into new and unexpected dangers. Meanwhile, crowds gather in protests over the city’s mounting troubles. Rumors surrounding the Beacon’s theft grow. More suspicious deaths occur. With no one to help Ang except Josiah’s haughty younger sister, a savvy newspaper girl, and a kindhearted herder, Ang must rely on her intellect and strength to resolve the mysterious link between Berrit and the missing Beacon before the city descends into chaos.

I haven’t heard much about this book, but what I have heard tells me that this book is diverse, creative, and different. It seems to be an intriguing combination of steampunk, fantasy, and science fiction, with a fantastic female protagonist. I look forward to exploring the worldbuilding here!

448873The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner:  The king’s scholar, the magus, believes he knows the site of an ancient treasure. To attain it for his king, he needs a skillful thief, and he selects Gen from the king’s prison. The magus is interested only in the thief’s abilities. What Gen is interested in is anyone’s guess. Their journey toward the treasure is both dangerous and difficult, lightened only imperceptibly by the tales they tell of the old gods and goddesses.

This is quite an old book compared to the others on this list, having been published in 2005, but it’s one of those classics that you hear about in YA circles. At a recent writing retreat I heard many good things about Turner’s characterization and worldbuilding, and it was suggested to me as an example to emulate. Plus, as I understand it this series is simply one of the “greats” of YA.

Honorable (unpublished) Mentions:

Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser: (from goodreads) Caroline Oresteia is destined for the river. For generations, her family has been called by the river god, who has guided their wherries on countless voyages throughout the Riverlands. At seventeen, Caro has spent years listening to the water, ready to meet her fate. But the river god hasn’t spoken her name yet—and if he hasn’t by now, there’s a chance he never will. Caro decides to take her future into her own hands when her father is arrested for refusing to transport a mysterious crate. By agreeing to deliver it in exchange for his release, Caro finds herself caught in a web of politics and lies, with dangerous pirates after the cargo—an arrogant courier with a secret—and without the river god to help her. With so much at stake, Caro must choose between the life she always wanted and the one she never could have imagined for herself.

In many ways this sounds like a very generic YA fantasy novel, but it comes highly recommended by one of my favorite reviewers. Plus I love any stories that have to do with the sea, sea voyages, or gods.

When We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor May Mejia: (from goodreads) This debut novel is at the Medio School for Girls, where young women are trained to become one of two wives assigned to high society men. With revolution brewing in the streets, star student Dani Vargas fights to protect a destructive secret, sending her into the arms of the most dangerous person possible – the second wife of her husband-to-be.

A promising debut from a promising debut author whose insight on Twitter I value very much, When We Set the Dark on Fire looks to be an intriguing story with two female protagonists who fall in love (I’m guessing). Plus, give me a magical boarding school and I’m already sold.

Top 5 Wednesday: Books You Felt Betrayed By

(Yes, I know it’s Thursday! Shhh!)

This week’s (well, last week, actually) on Top 5 Wednesday: Books You Felt Betrayed By. Beware the Ides of March! What books (or characters) did you feel betrayed by, for whatever reason…big or small.”

30095464The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco: This was one of my most anticipated books of 2017. Fantasy, diversity, necromancy – pretty much everything you need to draw me in. While the writing was lovely and the story atmospheric, I was disappointed by the pace. Very little happens in this book, which would be fine if it were written as a character study, but it’s not, and I struggled to get a feel for the protagonist until the very end. Not only that, but one of the imagined lands in this worlds is heavily coded as Arab/Middle Eastern, and it is seen as the barbaric/backwards land. This is a very tired trope that I did not expect to see in a book like this.

 

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The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley: I picked this book up mostly because of Hurley’s reputation. I was expecting something truly incredible. I really wanted to like it. Unfortunately, I really, really didn’t. Though at the time, I thought the worldbuilding was good, looking back I now realize it’s incredibly forgettable. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what this book is about or who the main characters are. Furthermore, Hurley seems to have allowed setting and world-building to overshadow everything else. The plot is only marginally interesting, most of the characters are dull and flat (and there were far, far, far too many of them), and the writing is stiff and stilted. I understand why this book is such a big deal in the fantasy world, and I am glad it exists (though the gender dynamics do make me uncomfortable, and I suppose I should examine that), and I appreciate what it is doing; I just wish I had enjoyed it more than I actually did. I’m not even the least bit interested in picking up the second book in this trilogy.

165089The Vine of Desire by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: This is the only non-YA/fantasy book here, and it is also the only sequel. The first book in this series, Sister of my Heart, I loved wholly and completely. Telling the story of two girls growing up alongside one another in India as close as sisters, it is a powerful, beautiful story of the bonds between women. The sequel, unfortunately, took all that and demolished it, as it proceeded to destroy this incredible relationship by shoving a man into the middle of it and then centering his role in the women’s friendship. It also moved the setting from India to the United States, and the book definitely suffered for this – part of the charm of the first book for me was reading about Indian culture, which is so very similar to my own in many ways. The first book was a paragon of complex female friendships, while the second book read like pulp.

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Adaptation by Malinda Lo: I’ve loved everything Malinda Lo has ever written, so reading Adaptation was quite the disappointment. Though I loved the bisexual protagonist, I thought the plot was lackluster and predictable; everything I thought would happen, happened. I kept expecting some kind of twist, something to surprise me, but nothing did.

 

 

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The Mara Dyer Trilogy by Michelle Hodkin: This was the biggest letdown of my entire life. I suppose part of the problem was with my own expectations. See, when I started the first book, for some reason I assumed I was reading a tense psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator. About 400 pages in, the book, heretofore rooted in realism, introduces a supernatural element. And not just any supernatural element, but one that grants the protagonist practically Godlike powers. Even as I finished the book, I could hardly believe this, but I moved onto the second, and then the third, desperate for answers. Things only got more and more confusing and unbelievable until the trilogy ended…decently enough, I suppose, given its set up and in-world logic, bu to me personally, it was a huge disappointment. The weird thing is, I plowed through this trilogy! I enjoyed reading it so much! I savored it! I just kept expecting something more.