Book Review: And I Darken by Kiersten White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

27969081Title: LABYRINTH LOST
Author: Zoraida Cordova
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 324
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (2.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I wanted so badly to love this book, but I couldn’t. From the very beginning I couldn’t get into it, and completing it was a struggle. I literally had to force myself to keep reading. And it sucks, because there is so much to love about this book! Unfortunately, I found it was overwhelmed by the negatives, which mostly encompass two things: the writing and the oddly paced plot.

So, the plot. This may have more to do with my own tastes than anything else. I’m really not a fan of Alice in Wonderland style tales, where heroes journey through a strange land. I suppose some authors could do it justice, but in Labyrinth Lost I was just bored to tears. The plot was formulaic and unoriginal. There were few surprises or twists, and the ones that were there were either predictable or contrived. It was so, so boring.

The writing is my other main issue. I don’t normally comment on writing styles, but here it was just awful. I just could not get past how clunky and juvenile it was. Sentences were all so simplistic and repetitive; I felt like I was banging my head against a wall. It was so jarring and uncomfortable.

I’m disappointed, because this book had the potential to be excellent. There are some incredible things here!

Latina witches in Brooklyn! Already the concept is intriguing and fresh and comes with the promise of rich traditions and lengthy histories. With the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, I was reminded strongly of the Sweep series, one of my favorites. This book was so close to coming alive with magic.

Then there’s the characters. Despite the stilted writing, the characters were all endearing and believable. The author managed to give each and every one of them their own authentic personality; the characters came to life on the page. Even the Devourer, the villain of the story, was intriguing, with a fascinating past.

There’s also a really neat subversion of a common YA trope along with a f/f relationship! You expect Alex to fall in love with the “mysterious brujo boy” but instead she is in love with another woman, which honestly blew me away.

But…all of it ultimately falls short because of the writing and plot. The plot would have worked better had it taken place in our world rather than a secondary fantasy one (never thought I’d hear myself saying that). And the writing…man, I am drawn to the characters and would be interested in seeing them have an adventure in our world, but…is it enough to get me to suffer through this writing again? Probably not.

Book Review: The Graces by Laura Eve

28818369Title: THE GRACES
Author: Laura Eve
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 336
Publisher: Amulet Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I really wanted to give this a higher rating, because I truly enjoyed it, but unfortunately it also had a lot of issues. I think it had plenty of potential, but it just couldn’t quite get there. A lot of people are comparing this book to Twilight, but I have to say I don’t agree. The basic plot is this: a new girl who calls herself River moves to a new town after a mysterious incident with her father. She becomes obsessed with Fenrin, Thalia, and Summer Grace, a family everyone else is obsessed with as well. She becomes their close friend and things escalate. On the surface, there are some middling similarities with Twilight, but I honestly wouldn’t have even thought of Twilight at all if I hadn’t seen it mentioned so often in reviews. So while I did like this book, I think it could have been better.

A book like this needs atmosphere. You would think that would come easy. New girl moves to a small, seaside English town, meets mysterious people who may be witches. But none of the atmosphere came through. I could never really picture the town, when it should have been a character in its own right (especially considering the Graces have lived there forever). Then there’s the Graces – the author kept trying to make them seem witchy and New Age, but they just…weren’t. I’m a diehard Sweep fan, you see, and those books were ALL atmosphere. That’s what drew me to this book. I thought I would be getting Sweep again, but it wasn’t as rich and colorful as that series, not at all.

The pacing in this book is way off. It’s not that this book isn’t interesting, it is, but there is very little plot. The entire story hinges on an anticipated twist that comes with finding out what happened to River’s father, but that’s not enough. There were a lot of scenes I thought were kind of extraneous. This book should have been tighter, faster-paced.

The only person of color in this book is demonized, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Niral, a South Asian girl, is made out to be a homophobic bully. You know, this is Writing Cross Culturally 101. If you’re going to only include a single person of color, they shouldn’t be a villain or a trope. Otherwise, I would say don’t even include them. The rest of this book is white people – which, fine, small English village, blah blah, I’ll buy it – but then why include Niral? What is the point? It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The major “twist” in this book involves the reveal of a character’s bisexuality. If that is literally all your book hinges on…and to comment on the pacing again, after this twist is revealed, things move at a wickedly fast pace, as opposed to the rest of the book.

There were other things that really bothered me, but they make sense given the progression of the plot. For example, River is self-centered, arrogant, pretentious, seems to hate other girls…take this oft-referenced quote:

“But I was not like those prattling, chattering things with their careful head tosses and thick, cloying lip gloss. Inside, buried down deep where no one could see it, was the core of me, burning endlessly, coal black and coal bright.”

Yeah, it’s gross. It is. Worse, it’s cringey and cliched, a tired trope that I’m really sick of seeing. Given the fact that River is revealed to be a nightmare of a person, I guess it’s intentional, but I wish it had been more subtle, especially as it is said in the very beginning of the book, when readers are still finding their feet.

Another issue is some of the dialogue. God, talk about emo teens. I’m sure this was intentional, to make it seem like River and the Graces were special and different from other teens their age, but it was just unrealistic and jarring. I rolled my eyes a lot when I first started reading this book, so much so that I almost considered giving up on it. It was that cringey.

I really enjoyed the path this book ended up taking, though. I thought it was rather unexpected and it made me understand River a lot better. I still think she’s a terrible person, but now I enjoy her villainy (and she is a villain, this book totally reads like an origin story). However, the end of the book should have come way sooner. I hear this book has a sequel (which I’ll probably read), but I think a single book would have been much better paced and more enjoyable. Since we wouldn’t have had to meander through so much of River being an obsessive weirdo without really understanding why, we probably would have enjoyed her way more.

River is such a fascinating character. She’s so fascinating, all on her own, that this book really did not need the ridiculous subplot of having her be obsessed with Fenrin. The reveal at the end provides a much better reason for her to be obsessed with the Graces, a reason that makes total and perfect sense and makes me actually empathize with River. I mean, yes, her crush on him does play a significant part in bringing about the book’s climax, but I’m certain the author could have written around that and come up with something much better. But anyway, back to River: she is…something else. Not particularly likeable, she is selfish, narcissistic, manipulative, a committed liar, and an unreliable narrator. In other words, just the sort of character I love. And I did like her, especially by the end, but I just think she could have been more, certainly more than her crush on Fenrin.

Another issue I had was with the Graces themselves. The entire town is obsessed with them, but like…why? They’re all so completely ordinary. The only interesting thing about them is that people think they’re witches, but even the Graces aren’t sure of that. They’re not bad characters, they’re just ordinary. River blows them all out of the water, honestly. I’m excited to see what she becomes, and I hope we see just as much of her in the next book.

Book Review: A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

20764879Title: A GATHERING OF SHADOWS
Author: V.E. Schwab
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 512
Publisher: Tor
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m going to be a Fangirl of Olde for a moment, if you’ll forgive me:

OH MY GOD OH MY GOOOOOOOD!!!! THE BADASS OPENING CHAPTER!!! THE ELEMENT GAMES!!! HOW FREAKING CHARMING IS ALUCARD??? KELL AND LILA AND THE SEXUAL TENSION AND THEM BOTH WANTING TO SEE EACH OTHER AND RECOGNIZING EACH OTHER FINALLY AND THEN *THAT SCENE* THAT HAD ME SCREAMING INTERNALLY!!!!!!!

/okay, I’m done, I think.

Clearly, I loved this book. Despite the fact that, like the first book, it starts slow and takes a while to get to the main plot (the Element Games start 60% into the book), it works better here. We already know and love all the characters, so even if they’re not really doing much, reading about them doing anything is still going to be enjoyable.

The book opens up with Lila seemingly stranded in the middle of the ocean and about to be picked up by pirates. What you at first think is a desperate situation turns into something so goddamn awesome that sets the tone for all of Lila’s chapters in the remainder of the book. I definitely enjoyed her POV a hell of a lot more than anyone else’s: she’s freaking badass, reckless, and hella confident. There’s something straight-up awesome about a character like Lila, who is special and unique and powerful and knows it and owns it. I love seeming a female character who is just powerful and completely embraces it, rather than shying away from it or denying it. God, I just love her so freaking much. What an incredible character. Truly, what an absolute gift of a character Victoria Schwab has given us.

Lila’s chapters also introduce us to Alucard, a (bisexual?) privateer/pirate captain who I’m sure is going to make most readers swoon. He’s dashing and charming and slick, but he’s also fussy and friendly and loves his cat. Victoria Schwab takes a character that could have been just another trope, and makes him utterly real. His interactions with Lila are delightful; they at first have a will-they-won’t-they dynamic that kept me hooked. After Lila makes her way aboard his ship, Alucard begins to teach her magic, which Lila picks up on quickly (she’s a maverick, that one).  Though the development of their close friendship is subtle, by the end of the book it’s clear as day that these two are birds of a feather.

Throughout the book you can feel Kell and Lila pining for one another, even if neither of them really wants to admit it. Schwab plays with dramatic irony to up the tension of their eventual meeting, and it crescendos into an explosive climax that literally had me screaming on the subway. I love these two. I love them together and apart. I love their dynamic and I love their opposite personalities and I love it when they clash and I love it when they have each others’ backs.

Everything about this book was amazing. I have absolutely nothing to complain about. I know I was somewhat lukewarm about the first book, but this second one absolutely blew it out of the water. It’s tense, exciting, an absolute page-turner, features awesome new characters like Alucard, builds on old characters, develops a plot within a plot rather deftly, and ends on a wicked cliffhanger. Lucky for me, I already have the third book on my Kindle and will begin reading it immediately.

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: 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.

Book Review: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

25203675Title: THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Release Date: April 26, 2016
Pages: 342
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

It’s strange going into a book when most of what you’ve heard about it is negative. Mainly, I’d heard that the writing is too purple, the main character is stupid, the romance is terrible, and overall the book is uninteresting.

None of that is true.

First of all, the writing is beautiful. I mean, I will admit, I’m partial to purple prose, but Roshani Chokshi’s writing is like a dream come to life – she laces words and images together with such skill. I literally had to pause and reread so many paragraphs because I was just awed at how she spun words together to create a gorgeous image.

Second, the main character is not stupid, or any of the other negative things I’ve heard. I liked Maya a lot, actually. She’s kind of bitter, kind of cynical, but it makes sense that she is – it makes sense that she doesn’t trust people easily. But I found her a riveting heroine, particularly given that this book is driven by her decisions. Too often protagonists simply react to events, but here, Maya is the one who instigates, and the plot reacts to her. This book is all about Maya finding herself – the main conflict is really within herself, which is what makes this book a slower read than most. Things happen, sure, but plot comes secondary to Maya’s growth and personal realizations. This is, in a way, a coming of age story, done deftly through a clever Hades and Persephone retelling seeped in Indian myth. It’s really about a girl coming into her power, finding her confidence, and becoming who she is meant to be.

As for the romance, it was actually really well done? Normally romances frustrate me, particularly these types of over-the-moon romances, but I thought it worked well here. It made sense, given the plot, but also – it’s not like Maya falls head over heels and stops using her head. She’s attracted to Amar, but is still incredibly suspicious of him (as she should be). It is her distrust of him that spurs the second half of the book, in fact.

Finally, to the criticism that the book is meandering. I will say, I wouldn’t call this book a page-turner. It’s definitely more of a slow-burn, but it also felt kind of like a fairy tale. The gorgeous prose helps to elevate this to a kind of ethereal, not-really-there kind of story where not everything has to make perfect sense, where you’re expected to suspend your disbelief just a bit because this is magic and myth. Sometimes that can seem like the author is taking the easy way out, but it works really, really well here.

Overall, I think this is a really well-written book, and I use that phrase very specifically. I think this isn’t what you usually find in YA, and it’s a lot more cerebral and introspective. In a way, it kind of reminded me of The Bone Witch, but I liked this a lot better, mainly because Maya was a more fully realized character.