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!

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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: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

33656191Title: THE BEST KIND OF PEOPLE
Author: Zoe Whittall
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 356
Publisher: Anansi Press Inc.
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

Books like this are why I generally stay far away from “literary” novels, even award-winning ones like this one. The dialogue is awful, the overall tone is incredibly pretentious, and the novel is shooting for some kind of meaningful human experience type theme but fails spectacularly.

The premise of the novel is an intriguing one: a well-respected white man in a tight-knit wealthy community is accused of rape. The novel deals with the fallout of this accusation along with its effects on the accused George’s wife Joan, his children Sadie and Andrew, and the community. I love stories like this, which is why I was drawn to the novel. While it was a compelling read (in the sense that it was a page-turner), it wasn’t very good.

First and main issue: the dialogue. How is it that I’ve literally read obscure high fantasy works with dialogue more realistic than the one in this book? The dialogue is awful. Unrealistic is too weak a word. It’s stilted and robotic and like nothing any actual human person would ever say. Worse, at times I felt like I was being preached at, like the author was using her characters to have highfalutin intellectual debates on morality and the law. It felt like I was reading the rough draft of someone’s undergraduate thesis. I cannot count the number of times I rolled my eyes at the words coming out of these characters’ mouths. It was wildly banal and unsophisticated, like the author just wanted to cram every timely and controversial issue into the novel. Unfortunately, none of the thorny topics she brings up are ever really discussed properly or given the depth and breadth they deserve. And this is all in the dialogue, which means nearly every time a character spoke I was jarred out of reality. This was seriously a huge problem, and I don’t understand how an editor let slip this horrifically wooden dialogue.

Second issue: the characters. The author kept telling us things about them and their personalities but didn’t really show us anything. For example, we were told multiple times that Joan, the wife of the accused, is a strong, controlling leader, but I don’t think I saw a single example of this in the entire book. I couldn’t get a handle on any of them, which is a problem when you have a novel built on the notion of an accusation shattering a tight-knit community. I saw no evidence of any sort of community here. I mean, for God’s sake, one of the girls bringing forth accusations is the sister of Sadie’s best friend! Where is the confrontation between this girl’s parents and Joan? Where is the outrage? In fact, where are the family’s friends in this supposedly small, tight-knit community?

We’re constantly told things happening but are never shown these things, which means a lot of the payoff you would expect with a plotline like this is gone. Case in point: when Joan finds out about something from her husband’s past that all but proves he is guilty, I kept waiting for the explosive confrontation between her and George, but instead…nothing. The scene where Joan tells him she knows, George is literally unable to speak due to an injury, which leads to the whole thing being wildly anti-climactic.

Another issue I had is regarding Andrew, George’s son, who is gay. Apparently, when Andrew was seventeen he was involved in a sexual relationship with his twenty-something coach. I’m not quite sure what the author was getting at here. I think the intention was to show that Andrew is in fact more damaged by this relationship than he or anyone realizes, but in this particular case a little telling may have helped. Or perhaps it’s meant to be intentionally ambiguous? Whatever the case, the way this relationship is implied to be somehow less morally repugnant because it’s between two gay men rubbed me the wrong way and made me think of how queer relationships are always inherently sexualized. Something else that got under my skin was the frequent discussions of how many teens have highly sexual lives and in fact pursue adults and not the other way around – what didn’t get nearly enough emphasis was that adults are supposed to have impulse control and turn children away. Like, Andrews’s coach talks about how Andrew pursued him and that’s why he gave in, but like…as an adult you’re supposed to be the responsible one in this situation. That’s kind of the whole point, you know, that children aren’t good at making decisions.

One thing the book has going for it is its realistic ending. It is reflective of how actual sexual assault cases normally work out in real life.

I wanted more from this book. There was so much potential, with such a powerful topic, but ultimately it was a let down. This book is truly an example of “great concept, terrible execution.” There is so much missing from what really should have been a hard-hitting novel. Instead it’s bland and lukewarm and left me cold and uninterested.

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

Book Review: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

33574143Title: THE BEAUTIFUL ONES
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Release Date: October 2017
Pages: 320
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Damn, I knew I was right to be excited about this book. It wasn’t what I expected at all, but I was utterly enchanted, like, reading-on-the-subway-with-a-stupid-smile-on-my-face enchanted. I actually read half of this book in one day, reading into the night, so enamored I was. Moreno-Garcia has created captivating, vibrant characters in a novel written with grace and elegance.

Immediately upon beginning this book, I felt like I was reading a Jane Austen novel (well…I’ve only ever read a single Jane Austen novel, Pride & Prejudice, but you get the idea). This is fitting, considering the author, on her blog, describes this book as a novel of manners. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, a novel of manners is “work of fiction that re-creates a social world, conveying with finely detailed observation the customs, values, and mores of a highly developed and complex society. The conventions of the society dominate the story, and characters are differentiated by the degree to which they measure up to the uniform standard, or ideal, of behaviour or fall below it.”

To that end, the story is told from the perspectives of three very different characters: Hector, Nina, and Valerie. Hector is a telekinetic “talent” who has clawed his way out of poverty by becoming a stage performer. He is also, despite his aloof exterior, a shy romantic who has spent a decade pining for his first love, Valerie, who left him for a wealthier man. Valerie, the antagonist of the novel, is a bitter, jealous woman, shaped by her upbringing as the daughter of a family that has lost its former glory. Essentially guilted into marriage to a wealthy man who could uplift her family, Valerie is utterly resentful of Nina, who has a world of choices ahead of her. Nina, Valerie’s cousin by marriage, is a budding entomologist who seems to have little regard for the social mores of the world she lives in. She is honest and straightforward, naive and somewhat impulsive, and she is, like Hector, a telekinetic who resents being told her powers are not “ladylike.”

The story begins with Hector and Nina, in what I’m tempted to call a “meet cute.” Soon after, Hector realizes that Nina is related to the woman he is still pining over, and he begins courting Nina as an excuse to see Valerie. However, eventually, in a beautifully written-slow burn romance, Hector begins to fall for Nina instead. With excellent craft and technique, Moreno-Garcia traces significant character development for all three of her main characters. Hector comes to see the error of his ways as he slowly opens up and allows himself to care for someone again. Nina sheds some of her gullibility and youth, yet retains the open-eyed wonder of an ingenue. Valerie grows more bitter and cruel by the chapter, yet the reader is not totally unsympathetic towards her fall from grace as she elucidates her disappointment with the turn her life has taken (she reminds me quite a bit of Cersei Lannister, actually…make of that what you will).

As I said, this novel was not what I expected. I thought I was going to read something heavy on the fantasy, and I was definitely left wanting in that arena. I would have liked more emphasis on world-building; it’s not super clear whether this is meant to be a straight-up second world fantasy or some kind of alternate European country. In that same vein, I wish the existence of powers in this society had been expounded upon more, because for me it was fascinating to see telekinetics existing openly in a society that very closely resembled a mixture of early 20th century England and France. However, I do think that none of that was really the “point” of the novel; it’s a story about love and relationships, with a touch of the fantasy element to add some color. I was reminded, in a way, of the film Another Earth, in which the fantastical (or sci-fi, in that case) elements were really only window-dressing to the overarching story of love, regret, and redemption.

Despite its underdevelopment, the touch of the fantastical definitely added to the story. Nina is made even more of an outsider because of it, having grown up under the epithet of “the Witch of Oldehouse.” It has certainly shaped her character, perhaps even spurring her various acts of rebellion. In Hector I think she meets a kindred soul, a fellow telekinetic who has made something of himself because of his talent and not despite it. It is significant that Hector, I think, is the only person who never admonishes Nina for using her talent in public and being “unladylike.” For all his flaws (and there are many, which is what makes him such a fascinating and likable character!), he respects Nina’s autonomy and he loves her for who she is: an excitable, enthusiastic, and forthright young woman.

Minor characters were similarly endearing. Etienne, Hector’s only friend, somehow manages to read him like a book, commenting wryly on Hector’s various subtle changes of emotion throughout. Nina’s sister, Marlena, is only around in a few scenes, but her love for her sister in those moments is clear and shining. Luc, Etienne’s younger brother and would-be suitor for Nina at one point, is capricious and impetuous, but also childish in his innocence. Gaetan, Valerie’s husband and Nina’s beloved cousin, is seen as weak-willed and pathetic in his wife Valerie’s eyes, but is shown to be a kind, indulgent, and forgiving man. Garcia-Moreno brings all of these characters to life in a narrative style that straddles third-person limited and third-person omniscient.

If it hasn’t been clear amidst all this ebullient praise, I absolutely loved this book. I can see it as the kind of book to be read in schools one day as a classic, and I will definitely be recommending it for my library. More importantly, it has also inspired me as a writer. The vibrant characters, the deftly elegant writing style, the simple yet engaging plot – it has made me want to write my own novel of manners someday, in homage to this lovely book.

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