Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Read: 15 July, 2018

Set in the early part of the 19th century, this book does a magnificent job of capturing the narrative style and tone of books from that period. Of course, that means that it’s a bit of a slog – at around 800 pages, this book makes a great door stopper, and the pacing is very slow.

However, I found that listening to it on audiobook was perfect. I got to sit back, relax, and absorb the atmosphere of the period and worldbuilding – which is what most of this book is. There is a rescue/defeat the baddy near the end, but it’s not particularly climactic. For the most part, the book is about creating an alternate 19th century England with plausible magic.

I adored the worldbuilding. Clarke did a really good job of blending magic into the real world world history. Best of all, she did so in such a very British way – with a magic system that draws from both the common fairy stories as well as the more “noble” pursuit of alchemy.

The world felt complex and alive, and the slowness of the narrative gives the reader a change to settle into it. I do, however, recommend the audiobook, as the book is heavy enough to put wrists at risk.

Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

Read: 9 July, 2018

I’ve read a few of the Star Wars books now, and I haven’t been overly impressed. For the most part, the books are fine, but I wouldn’t read them if they weren’t Star Wars.

This one, however… this is the Star Wars book I’ve been waiting for.

Both main characters – Thane and Ciena – start off believing in the Empire. They willingly enter the academy, even working hard to get there. They fight on the Empire’s side. Throughout, their reasons are believable. Even when Thane becomes disillusioned, Ciena stays on, making excuses for the bad side of the Empire, and overemphasising the good. Even when the evil of the Empire becomes more visible and personal, Ciena’s reaction is so recognisably human.

It’s so timely (perhaps it’s always timely) to see how good people can serve evil power structures, and how interlaced their reasons can be.

I enjoyed seeing the major events of episodes 4-6 again through new eyes. Finally, we get a frank discussion of the Death Star, and the moral calculus that went into destroying such a powerful weapon at the cost of so very many lives.

I would have enjoyed Lost Stars without it being set in the Star Wars universe. As it is, that only makes it better.

Throne of Glass #2: Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas

Read: 6 July, 2018

Friend and I are still deep in discussions about the pronunciation of Chaol. Since the guide Maas provides gives it as “Kay-all”, I started calling him “Kale”, which then led to calling him “Salad”.

I noticed a definite improvement in the storytelling from the first book. The anachronistic elements (whatever that means in a fantasy setting) that bothered me in Throne of Glass – like the pool table – are entirely absent here. Characters are also starting to get a bit more depth, and I appreciated how raw Celaena’s emotions were.

I like how much more of the worldbuilding is evident in this book. I’m still rather uncertain about how each part connects (I’d like more details on the Crochan family, for example), but the stitches are starting to form and I’m now fairly well invested in finding out.

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Throne of Glass #1: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Read: 19 June, 2018

A friend is a huge fan of this series and has been singing its praises for long enough that my curiosity was piqued.

When I began reading, I complained about the main character. She struck me as a fairly weak character – petty, arbitrary, made choices that didn’t make a whole lot of sense in context. My friend agreed that she’s a tough character to like, “but she grows on you.” More than that, however, she explained that Celaena’s big flaw is her ego – she can’t make the “right” choice in a given situation because she has to be seen to be the best. Once it was phrased that way, Celaena started to make sense; she wasn’t being arbitrary, she was being flawed. And, honestly, I liked her a lot better once I had a better grasp of who she was.

My friend and I both agreed that Chaol is an unfortunate name. The pronunciation guide says it should be said “Kay-all”. Which is better than the “Chay-ole” I had going, but is still rather unattractive. Here’s Celaena swooning off this gorgeous guy and his name is Kale? Hm. My friend proposed pronouncing it as “Cole”, which suited much better.

The book is fluff – the characters do spend rather more time on romance and gowns than a life-or-death struggle strictly warrants, and the worldbuilding could do with some more work. There’s also not a whole lot going on thematically. And while this may not be strictly fair, I really struggled with a fantasy setting that has a billiards table.

That said, it’s compelling fluff. The book is a page-turner and, however frustrating they could be, I really did care about the main characters by the big climax.

I might not have given this a chance without my friend’s passion to prod me, but I enjoyed it, and I definitely will be seeking out the sequels.

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Tensorate #2: The Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang

Read: 11 June, 2018

One of my complaints about The Black Tides of Heaven is that the story was something of a whirlwind – we were whisked through the lives of Akeha and Mokoya, catching only glimpses along the way. This has been fixed in Red Threads, the entire plot of which takes place in only a handful of days. And while the goal of Black Tides was somewhat nebulous, Red Threads establishes its plot from the very first scene. It made for much tighter story.

I loved the exploration of gender in Black Tides, in which each character is gender neutral until they choose their gender for themselves. With that already established, we get a look at how imposed identity can clash with self-identity, as Rider is misgendered by another character.

Red Threads spent a lot more time delving into the magic system (the ‘Slack’) and how it works. It was nice to get a bit more detail, and I especially liked that different cultures might have completely different understandings of the same magic.

My main complaint is the same as it was for Black Tides – so much of the story could be explored in much more depth. I want to know more about Rider, I want to know more about their past, I want to know more about what Mokoya is thinking… Things happen, and it’s clear that Yang has a much bigger story imagined in their head, but those details just don’t seem to be making it down onto the page. So while I’ve enjoyed every bit of this series that I’ve read, I’m frustrated that the world isn’t coming to life for me the way it clearly is for the author.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Read: 15 May, 2018

I picked this book up without knowing a thing about it, except that I was somehow under the impression that it was autobiographical. In fact, I put off reading it for a while for that exact reason – I almost always enjoy Gaiman’s writings, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the author himself.

Some weird stuff started happening, but it was all fairly plausible. And I figured it was just some writerly hyperbole.

Then some really weird stuff started happening, and only then did I figure out that I was reading fiction. So that was a pretty fun trip!

On the story itself, I loved the realism of it – how well the mythology was integrated into the “real world” of the story. I would have liked a more active protagonist, and I think that the Hempstocks did a bit too much infodumping (two problems that could have solved each other, if the protagonist could have used all his reading about mythology to figure out some of what was going on), but it’s a small complaint.

Overall, this is a lovely little story with some surprisingly dark turns.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Read: 8 May, 2018

I read this with my seven year old. About half way through, he told me that the book was giving him nightmares. When I asked him if he wanted to stop, he said: “No. Like, good nightmares.”

And I think that just about sums up the book. Good nightmares.

The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

Read: 16 April, 2018

My kid is still an early reader, which means that he does best when there are pictures. Unfortunately, a lot of books for his reading level aren’t at his story level, so I’m always struggling to find things that will actually hold his interest while he practices his literacy. Turns out that graphic novels are perfect for this, because he can easily read books that are written for much older children, and therefore have more risque scares and complex plots.

The Witch Boy is exactly all of that.

The story is just scary enough to be a thrill, and I loved the message of being yourself – outside of social boxes like gender. This is a wholesome story to share with kids, and I loved the amount of representation the author was able to cram in.

Plus, we got a huge kick out of the fact that the main character is watching Steven Universe in one panel. My son literally squealed and ran the book over to show me when he caught that!

Having now read it myself as well, we’re both hoping that this will become a series.

Winternight Trilogy #2: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Read: 9 April, 2018

It’s really quite hard to imagine how a book could be more up my alley. I love the culture and the religion, I love the historical fiction aspects, I love the fairy tales… This book is absolute literary luxury for me!

Just to make it even better, I found that the pacing and plot were, if anything, improved from the first book.

I did manage to guess who Kasyan was almost immediately, but I still enjoyed seeing how that would play out. Especially as Kasyan kept going back and forth between threatening and ally.

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Southern Reach #2: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 17 March, 2018

Now out of Area X, the mysterious focus is shifted to the Southern Reach organisation. But while Area X was surreal and freaky, many of the issues at Southern Reach are human – such as inconsistent funding, personal loyalties and resentments, and the backroom politicking of faraway superiors. And while I’ve enjoyed books like that, it just didn’t fit the Lovecraftian tone set by Annihilation.

The other issue I had with the book is that it’s just so looong. Throughout almost the entire thing, the main character just circles the same set of questions without finding answers (or, even, more questions). So while the writing style is good, and the atmosphere is creepy, and characters are interesting, there simply isn’t enough there to sustain interest for that long. Annihilation worked, in part, because it was short. I feel like longer works, if they’re going to keep audiences engaged, need to either provide the occasional dog bone of an answers, or at the very least swap out old questions for fresh ones every so often.

And that, I think, is what my complaint boils down to. I think this would have been a much stronger entry for the series at 3/4 (or even half) the length.

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