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.

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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: 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 Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25489134Title: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
Author: Katherine Arden
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 322
Publisher: Del Rey Books
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

On a cold winter night in a northern Russian village, a mother of four dies giving birth to her fifth child: a young girl born with the promise of magic in her veins, a predetermined fate nipping at her heels.

So begins the tale of Vasilia Petrovna, a wild, willful child who grows into a spirited, brave young woman. Arden tells her story slowly, gradually, from birth to adulthood, but the narrative is no less compelling for it. Arden wields words like a painter, crafting a lush atmosphere that makes you feel warm, as though you are reading a book by the fire. That is what I first noticed about this book; it immediately drew me in and made me feel cozy.

Despite the third person semi-omniscient narration, I was able to get a good sense of the characters. I usually despise this type of narration, especially when viewpoints flit between characters in a single chapter as they did here, but Arden does this masterfully. Nowhere did I feel that her writing did not cohere beautifully. The sweeping fairy tale feel evoked by the narration does not take away from the characters, each of whom comes to life in their own way.

Vasya is the strongest character of them all, a girl so strange and willful as to be branded a witch by her village. Born with the ability to see domovoi, her friendship with these strange Russian spirits is a direct contrast to her step-mother’s terror of them. Anna, whom Vasya’s father marries at the behest of his prince, is gifted with the sight as well, but unlike Vasya she fears the domovoi “demons” so much that she is constantly on the precipice of madness. She finds solace only in church, where domovoi cannot enter, and so when an egotistical young priest named Konstantin is sent to Vasya and Anna’s village, Anna latches onto him and his fear-mongering.

Konstantin the priest is a fascinating character; holy and devout but arrogant and vain. He lives for the love of the people and nurtures a desire to be worshiped by them. At the same time he is tormented by his desire for Vasya, whose willful spirit both tempts him and infuriates him. Throughout his years in her life he alternates between love and hatred of her, and he stokes the villagers’ suspicions of her, cementing her as an unholy witch in their minds.

But Vasya is protected by her family, among them her father Pyotr, an honest, hard-working, honorable man who wields an iron fist of justice. Though he loves his daughter he is frustrated by her strangeness, her unwillingness to fit in the world, the way she throws off the shackles of womanhood in medieval Russia. Alongside Vasya as an ally is her older brother Alyosha, whose love for and protectiveness of his sister shone through more than any of his other traits, making him a memorable character in his own right. Even Irina, Anna’s daughter and Vasya’s half-sister, who could have been merely an afterthought, grows in complexity as she breaks away from her mother’s hold and comes to ally with her sister in small but significant ways.

This tale is steeped in Russian folklore, the remote, pastoral setting lending a mythical feel to the story. Like most fairy tales Arden’s tale reads like magical realism. Christian reality integrates seamlessly with Russian folklore, all coming to a head in the climax of the novel, in which Vasya finally confronts the evil that has been haunting her village and maddening Konstantin the priest, making him believe he was listening to the voice of his God.

This is a delightful tale steeped in richness and atmosphere. The evocative moods shift from tense and terrifying to comedic to uplifting, conveying the various tenors the harsh northern setting itself evokes. This is something else I must mention: Arden writes of the seasons with such utter grace, illuminating the icy danger of winter as much as the heavy heat of summer. Her lyrical descriptions are bursting with vivid color, which boosts the novel immensely, as the setting is such a significant part of the narrative.

This has been one of my favorite reads of this year: comforting, thrilling, inspiring, and utterly beautiful.

Book Review: Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

28818313Title: IRON CAST
Author: Destiny Soria
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 384
Publisher: Amulet Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

This book takes a long time to find its feet. Though it opens with an asylum breakout, the plot slows down from there. Hints are dropped as to what the main conflict is, but it builds up very slowly, as the author takes her time to establish the setting (Boston, 1919) and introduce the magic system. Ordinarily, this would be the type of book I would abandon, but what pushed me to keep going were the characters, which are really the best thing about this novel. Every single character was vibrant, complex, and compelling, and many of their narratives subvert common tropes and stereotypes. The word “diversity” is used a lot these days as kind of a nebulous buzzword, so I try to shy away from using it, but it really fits here. I was ecstatic to be reading a about a 1920s Boston that wasn’t all straight white people.

There’s Ada Navarra, daughter of a Portuguese father and a Mozambican mother, both immigrants. Ada is biracial, and her struggles with this are alluded to in the novel, but never in ways that feel ham-fisted. Ada ruminates on her place in the world because of the color of her skin. The narrative doesn’t shy away from this; incidents of discrimination against Ada are mentioned more than once throughout the book. And though she’s got a quiet strength, she is also allowed to be vulnerable and hurt by what she endures. She is also in a steady relationship with a black boy, Charlie, a musician who is several times described as Soft and Sweet. Patient, sensible, methodical, and reliable, Ada is a steady presence.

Then we have Corinne Wells, the opposite of Ada in so many ways. Corinne is white, wealthy, loud, impulsive, and sarcastic. She has a little bit of a chip on her shoulder, but it makes her endearing. She rushes into things headfirst and doesn’t often think things through – she leaves that to Ada, her best friend. The girls’ bond was so wonderful to read about – they love and support each other wholly. One thing in particular I liked was that Corinne’s privilege over Ada was alluded to several times throughout the book, and Corinne was, in a way, called out (and calls herself out) for various microagressions.

Another character is Saint, a young gay man who takes some time to find his courage (not to “come out” or anything). There’s Gabriel Stone, a terse, seemingly aloof guard who develops into a love interest, but is given his own backstory (he reminds me a little bit of Grant Ward, but I digress). There’s James and Madeline Gretsky, a delightful married couple who run a theater, only James is in love with Saint and his marriage is one of convenience – for Madeline. There’s Eva Carson, who is a minor character, but also the head of a gang and shines like the moon on a cloudless night.

Then there’s the families of all these characters! Ordinarily, in YA, parents and/or families are dead, nonexistent, or flatly written. Not so in Iron Cast. Though Ada’s father is in prison, her mother features prominently. Corinne’s family is initially presented as your typical wealthy white snobs, but towards the end Corinne’s mother is shown to have independent political opinions and to be much more perceptive than Corinne has given her credit for. Corinne’s older brother, Phillip, is also initially presented as a stereotypical, power-hungry white man, but his layers are peeled away to reveal a compassionate brother who loves his sister dearly.

And on and on and on! There are a lot of characters in this book but they all stood out to me so clearly I felt like I had known them all my life. Every single one of them is vivid and memorable, and uplift what is an otherwise somewhat dull plot. Even as I was reading about Corinne and Ada simply talking to each other or going to dinner parties, I was enjoying myself, because I had so quickly come to care about these characters.

So: the plot. Well, it definitely had the potential to be exciting, but I’m not sure what happened. Ada and Corinne are hemopaths, which means they have the power to craft illusions using words or songs (or other forms of art). It’s certainly an interesting and original magic system, but for some reason it never really grabbed me. Hemopathy is illegal in Boston and hemopaths are being persecuted left and right – by “ironmongers” who deliver vigilante terror, by HPA agents who arrest them, and by doctors who want to perform experiments on them. Ada and Corinne are caught up in some of these dangers, but the way the plot is structured makes it difficult to keep your attention for very long. However, as I said, the characters make it compelling, and admittedly, there are some good twists and turns throughout to keep you engaged!

Overall, a solid little book! I will definitely be reading whatever Destiny Soria writes next.