Books: Wonder Woman: Warbringer

29749085Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo
Published August 28, 2017
star-4
I have a confession to make. When I added this to my goodreads list and placed it on hold at the local library, I didn’t investigate very closely; I looked at the cover and assumed it was a graphic novel. As someone who plans her library holds with precision, carefully ensuring that I don’t have more books out than I can read in the allotted three weeks, I viewed the holds shelf with surprise and disappointment when it came in. “Ah, it’s a book,” I said. I already had out a few books that I knew I couldn’t renew and that I was more interested in reading. After all, I had only picked this up because it was written by Leigh Bardugo. Friends, I’m happy to report that even for the most casual of Wonder Woman fans (aka. those who saw the recent movie and enjoyed it), Wonder Woman: Warbringer is worth reading!

I enjoy comics and comic-based movies but I’m more of a Marvel fan than a D.C. fan. I’ve always found Superman and Batman to be a little too perfect, without enough flaws to compensate for, say, being incredibly rich, and your only weakness being a space rock from your home planet, respectively. The idea of a female-led superhero movie (and, let’s be honest, the appeal of Chris Pine) was too great for me to pass up though and I saw, and enjoyed, the Patty Jenkins’ directed Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman: Warbringer is certain to appeal to people like me, fans of the superhero genre who don’t have a strong attachment to Wonder Woman, but who do enjoy empowering novels about kickass women.

The premise features a teenage, unproven, Diana who worries that her status as the only resident of Themyscira who has not been tested in battle, will always make her lesser in the eyes of her companions and family members. Yet when her chance for glory in a grueling foot race comes, Diana breaks Amazon law by rescuing a mortal girl, Alia, instead. Unfortunately the girl is the latest in a line of Warbringers, direct descendants of Helen of Troy, who bring about an age of bloodshed and warfare. Unable to let Alia die, Diana embarks on a race against time quest to break the chain of Warbringers by bringing her to Helen’s resting place in Greece.

Bardugo proves why she’s an author that I will read absolutely anything by with Wonder Woman: Warbringer. Diana is a heroine to root for. She’s naive, as befits a girl out of her comfort zone for the rest time, but also kind, brave, and loyal. She’s joined by Alia, a young Greek/African-American woman who is shy and unwilling to put herself out there, but also has a bright scientific mind. I loved Nim, Alia’s best friend, as well. An overweight, gay, brown girl, Nim exudes confidence, is a brilliant fashion designer, and a loyal friend. I loved how the characters interacted with one another, and how they were always supportive, sticking up for and helping one another, as women should. I was less thrilled with the male characters in the book, but still found them interesting.

Much like the other books I read in November, That Inevitable Victorian Thing, and Provenance, Wonder Woman is a coming-of-age story. Tackling themes of identity, it forces its teenage heroines to confront their fears and to figure out where they fit in the world. Ultimately both Alia and Diana Prince come away from their quest with a stronger sense of self and an assurance about their strengths and their place in their respective worlds.

Bardugo retains tension throughout, as Diana and the others race against both the clock and external forces, such as enemies who would rather see the Warbringer dead. The plot is full of twists and turns, and those familiar with Greek mythology will undoubtedly get an extra thrill out of some of the references throughout the novel.

My favourite thing about the novel is how empowering I found it. The majority of the characters are female, and they’re all unique from one another, but supportive and talented. The twists to Greek Mythology (something that usually bothers me, but here they’ve been well-researched and are presented as credible) also have a feminist slant, as Helen is examined not just as Helen of Troy, the beauty who launched a thousand ships, but as the woman she was before her famous suitors. As you would expect from a Lerigh Bardugo novel, Wonder Woman: Warbringer is a delightful YA take on one of DC’s most famous properties, and is recommended even for those who aren’t big on DC Comics heroes.

 

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Books: Little Fires Everywhere

34273236Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Published September 12, 2017
star-4
Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere provides an intimate look at class, motherhood, and family in an elegantly written and well-crafted package. As in her breathtaking debut, Everything I Never Told You, a vague mystery is introduced in the opening pages, but this time around the question is less about whodunnit and more concerned with the motivation behind the crime.

Celeste Ng takes the old adage about writing what you know to heart, setting Little Fires Everywhere in 1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio, the neat suburban neighbourhood where she grew up. In some ways Shaker Heights is a progressive town, but over the course of the novel it becomes clear that it is not, in fact, a place where no one sees race, as Lexie Richardson naively professes based on her experience dating a black man. Shaker Heights is rendered with care by Ng as the picture of suburban perfection. Maintained with care so that it will remain a utopia, residents of Shaker Heights are fined if their lawns become unkempt, while garbage disposal is at the back of each house so as not to impact curb appeal.

Into this idyllic bubble come Mia Warren, a free-spirited nomad who goes wherever inspiration for her art strikes her, and her shy, but brilliant, fifteen-year-old daughter Pearl. Mia and Pearl’s existence is unsettled but happy; They have little in the way of material possessions, but are resourceful , able to repurpose thrift store and curbside finds. The Warrens rent a house in Shaker Heights from the wealthy Richardson family, who view renting their property to good people they can do a good turn for as a form of community service.

Pearl is quickly captivated by the easy confidence of the Richardson children, developing a crush on eldest son Trip, and friendships with the middle children, Lexie and Moody. In turn, the Richardson’s rebellious younger daughter Izzie is drawn to Mia and the freedom that she represents. But when Mrs. Richardson and Mia take opposing sides in a custody battle between the impoverished Chinese immigrant biological mother of a one-year-old daughter, and a naïve but well-intentioned white couple looking to adopt the child, it sets them on a collision course.

One signature of a Celeste Ng book is the effortless, flowing prose. Ng always seems to have chosen the best possible word for the idea or mood she’s trying to convey. The teenage characters sound age-appropriate, the prose conveys the 1990s suburban setting, and the omniscient third person point of view allows the authors to dip in and out of the minds of both major and minor characters as required, creating a subtle intimacy. Ng also has a gift for writing characters who are flawed, yet deeply sympathetic. I enjoyed reading about Mia, whose individuality, resourcefulness and artistry, I admired, even while I didn’t always agree with her choices, but I was also interested in Elena Richardson’s life of order and structure that Mia deliberately eschews.

At its heart, Little Fires Everywhere is a novel about motherhood and family, that touches on biology, race, and class. Ng guides us to see both sides of a custody case. Does the poor immigrant who gave her child up in a moment of desperation when she was destitute waive any claim to her child? Should custody be granted to a couple who obviously have the means and love to provide a stable home, but who can never truly comprehend and properly introduce the child to her Chinese heritage? At times the emphasis on biology feels a little heavy-handed, but the complicated dynamics of the custody battle are handled with tact and empathy.

As much as I enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere, and would recommend it to others, I have to admit that it didn’t leave a strong impression on me the way that the author’s debut did. Weeks after reading Everything I Never Told You I found myself still thinking about it. I remembered the pressures that led to Lydia’s death and how deftly Celeste Ng depicted each family member’s grief. Little Fires Everywhere provoked a more immediate reaction in me. I loved it, I found the ending satisfying and beautiful, but even a week later I had trouble remembering each character’s name. None of the Warrens or Richardsons had the impact on me that Lydia, Nath, Hannah, Marilyn, or James did. I don’t know that I’ll ever re-read Little Fires Everywhere, but that doesn’t make the first read any less enjoyable.

Books: Provenance

25353286Provenance by Ann Leckie
Published September 26, 2017
star-4-half
Set in the same universe as her critically acclaimed Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie’s standalone novel Provenance is hard to classify. Part political thriller, part mystery, and part coming-of-age story, Provenance shifts from the tea-drinking, glove-wearing Radchaai to the Hwae, a people who place enormous importance on “vestiges”, documents and artifacts that commemorate a specific event of personal or historical importance.

As a librarian who considered becoming an archivist seriously enough that I concentrated in archives courses, I’m a little embarrassed that it took me as long as it did to consider the significance of the title. “Provenance” is a fundamental principle in archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. However other definitions of the word refer to 1) the record of ownership of an antique, used as a guide to authenticity, and 2) the beginning or origin of something’s existence. How exceedingly clever that Leckie’s novel encompasses all of these meanings. Initially “provenance” refers to the vestiges that are so highly valued on Hwae, but it later becomes clear that “provenance” can also refer to a people’s desire to document where they came from and how it shapes their civilization.

When the narrative reveals that many of the vestiges that the Hwae hold dear are actually fakes, Leckie’s novel asks questions about the way we document historical events. Does a document need to be genuine to be important? Or can it gain significance through what it represents, even if it is based on a lie?

As is the case with her Imperial Radch trilogy, Provenance demands the reader’s attention. This is not the kind of book that you can read half-asleep on autopilot. For one thing, you’ll want to be fully alert to take in the complexity of Leckie’s astounding world building. I loved the Radch Empire, where androgyny is the norm and spoken language uses only one set of gender pronouns – she/hers. Here, Leckie gives us the Hwae, who use she/hers, he/his and gender neutral e/eirs pronouns. It’s a world where individuals come of age by choosing their adult name and the pronouns they wish to use, when they feel they have reached adulthood (although there is some social stigma attached to taking too long to decide).

The politically-charged society revolves around important families who periodically run for election. Each mistake made in the public eye or heroic action taken is viewed in terms of political gain or loss of face in the near-constant campaign for office. The head of each family names their successor, an heir who will, in time, take their name and duties. Protagonist Ingray Aughskold is an aristocratic young woman, adopted by one of society’s leading families as a young child. Seeking her foster mother’s approval, Ingray invests the last of her savings into a desperate gamble to show up her elder brother Danach and be named Netano Aughskold’s heir.

Ingray bribes a broker to smuggle Pahlad Budrakim out of “compassionate removal” in hopes that e will reveal where e hid valuable family antiques, known as the ” Garseddai vestiges”, that e stole from eir family. However, the criminal arrives in stasis and Captain Tic Uisine, the ship captain Ingray’s hired to transport her and her passenger home, refuses to take a person who isn’t awake anywhere without eir consent. Unfortunately, the person who emerges from the suspension box denies being Pahlad Budrakim, the thief central to Ingray’s plan.

These are just the first complications Ingray encounters, as she’s soon caught up in a murder investigation, allegations of fraud, and being stalked by the Geck Ambassador, who believes she knows where to find a stolen Geck ship.

Without meaning to, I’ve read a few books this month that revolve around a heroine’s journey to understand her place, both within her politically important family, and within society as a whole. Provenance is certainly the most successful book I’ve read on this theme.

Ingray Aughskold is an immensely likable character. Certain that her elder brother will be named their mother’s heir, she seeks initially a way to best him, and then a place for herself in the universe. Ingray often sells herself short, but she’s a resourceful protagonist, capable of getting herself out of any mess that she gets into. Ingray is also immensely human. I identified with and rooted for this young adult woman. Although she remains focused on the task at hand, and ultimately comes up with some daring plots, she also experiences realistic emotional reactions to extreme stress, including crying. The supporting characters are also rendered with care, from enigmatic Garal Ket and the forceful Geck Ambassador, to thief and pilot extraordinaire Tic and sweet Taucris.

As ever, Ann Leckie’s social commentary is subtle, but adept. Garal Ket’s biting criticism of “compassionate removal”, a euphemistic term for a prison where the exiled prisoners are declared legally dead, hits home amid news articles on the mistreatment of prisoners in North American jails.

Additionally, Ingray, who was adopted from a public crèche but has grown up in privilege as a daughter of one of the planet’s aristocratic families, says at one point, “I had never really thought about it that way before. Who are we if our vestiges aren’t real?” and the Deputy Chief she’s speaking with, who belongs to an ethnic minority, responds, “You never really thought of it before because nobody has ever really questioned your being who you say you are. No one has ever told you your own vestiges are false, or that they mean you’re not really entirely Hwaean.”

There’s a great deal that’s refreshing about the way Provenance depicts gender, identity, and relationships. From the Hwaean custom of choosing your adult name and pronouns at a time when an individual feels comfortable doing so, to the acceptance of all three sets of pronouns (including the gender neutral e/eirs), to the inclusion of same-sex relationships.

Ultimately, Provenance is a deeply satisfying coming of age story about finding your place and your family, and about recognizing that the road everyone expects you to take is not always the right one.

 

Books: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

25528808That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston
Published October 3, 2017
star-3-half
That Inevitable Victorian Thing is based on one of the best alternate history concepts I’ve ever ever seen. The young Princess Victoria grows up, as in our world, under the Kensington System, a strict set of rules designed to render her dependent on her mother, and her mother’s attendant, for everything. She could not even walk down a flight of stairs in her own home without holding the hand of an adult guardian. The system backfires spectacularly and, upon becoming Queen, Victoria fiercely asserts her independence, pushing parliament to consider progressive ideas. In the world of That Inevitable Victorian Thing, she pushed for her eldest child, a daughter, to become her heir, not her eldest son, and sought out a stronger Empire by marrying her children and grandchildren not to their cousins in the royal houses of Europe, but farther afield in Hong Kong and elsewhere across the world. This creates a present-day Empire that combines traditions, religions, and genetics from across the world.

The story itself focuses on three protagonists, each with their own secrets. The Princess Victoria-Margaret, posing as the common Margaret Sandwich while abroad, is beginning a summer of freedom in Canada, before she seeks a genetically appropriate match and takes on duties as heir to the throne. In disguise, she makes friends with August Callaghan, heir to a lumber shipping firm that has been besieged by American pirates, and his longtime friend and likely match, Helena Marcus, the daughter of prominent geneticists. Although I liked all of the characters, I found August underdeveloped in comparison to the female characters, and wish we had seen more of his perspective. Pragmatic, but spirited Helena, and the reserved but game-for-anything Margaret are both very likable though and I loved watching their friendship develop.

As a proud Torontonian, I loved seeing my city as a major setting for this book. Places like Union Station, The Royal York, and the Princess of Wales Theatre are all locales that I pass frequently and it gave me a tiny thrill to see their names in print. My family have never been cottage people, so Northern Ontario was less familiar, but obviously rendered with love by the author.

The blending of the old and the new is a welcome bit of world building. The largely teenage cast of characters prepare for the ‘season’ of social events, beginning with their debut into society. They fuss about dresses that include crinolines and corsets, and about knowing the steps to dances (amusingly including “The Log Driver’s Waltz“). Yet at the end of their debut, they receive their personal chip to the genetic internet, or ‘g-net’, which contains their genetic code and the ability to search for and chat with genetic matches in a sort of high-tech dating portal that determines the health of any potential offspring. Characters also compose letters to family members, but these are sent via tablets.

Speaking in vague terms to avoid spoilers, the representation in this book is also fantastic. In this world’s Empire, the Royal Family is ethnically diverse, with both Princess Margaret and her mother, Queen Victoria-Elizabeth, exhibiting brown skin, natural hair, and epicanthal folds. Similarly, August is from an Irish-Hong Kong Chinese background. Passing mentions to Sikh men in turbans and Muslim hijabi during the balls are also made. That Inevitable Victorian Thing treats diversity as a strength that keeps the Empire healthy, and there is seemingly no discrimination based on physical traits. The book also contains queer characters, and makes mention of the fact that one member of the Royal Family (an aunt, not in the direct line of succession), with the full blessing of the church, marries a woman.

It sounds fantastic, right? But the book falls flat in the world building and plot departments. On the surface the world building is great, this unique multicultural world of technology and Victorian-era tradition, but there’s little in the way of depth here. I wanted to know so much more about how the eldest child instead of just the eldest son inheriting changes things. I wanted to know more about this genetic search for matches all across the globe, and most of all I wanted some deeper insight on the acceptance of LGBT couples, couples who don’t want to have children, and asexuals, in a world where the entire matchmaking system is based on the prospective health of offspring.

The plot is also very thin. There’s the opportunity for conflict, with each character holding secrets that should, when they come to a head, result in some fireworks, but dramatic tension isn’t maintained throughout. It’s almost as if the characters forget they have these problems when convenient, and then pick their woes back up again when needed to drive the story. That Inevitable Victorian Thing definitely reads on the younger end of YA, which isn’t something that appeals to me personally. POVs change constantly, sometimes within a few pages, so it feels like we don’t delve too deeply into any one character’s thoughts.

My biggest disappointment though was the ending. Everything wraps up a little too quickly and tidily, resulting in an ending that’s neatly tied off with a bow. I get the impression that this is intended to be a happy ending, but it reads as bittersweet at best and at worst as entering into a situation that cannot possibly work or be happy for all parties involved in the long-term.

I still think a lot of people will be absolutely over the moon for this book, and I recommend it as a very original work of YA fantasy based on a unique concept, but personally it didn’t hit all the right notes for me.

Books: War and Peace

635222War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
originally published in 1868
translated by Anthony Briggs
star-2
Reviewing a book as celebrated as War and Peace is no easy feat, especially when you’re going against the crowd, so let me emphasis that this is not an objective review of War and Peace or where it stands in the annals of literature, but a summary of what I thought of the book. In short, as much as I wanted to like War and Peace, and even thought that I would based on the first 700 or so pages, I found the second half to be a tedious slog that focused increasingly on detailed descriptions of the Napoleonic Wars while the characters took a backseat.

I decided to tackle War and Peace for a few reasons. One, a few friends (Hadeer and Rachel, who both finished before me and have posted reviews on their blogs) were doing a group read and it seemed like the kind of project book that could use a support system. Two, I had recently seen and loved Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a musical based on the 70-page excerpt of War and Peace that focuses on Natasha’s affair with Anatole Kuragin. Since the excerpt is drawn from the middle of the book, I was left with questions about how these characters came to be in their situations, and what happened to them after the musical ended. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was that the characters in the book only ever felt surface-deep.

Part of my frustration stems from the fact that the novel is extremely unbalanced. The first half of the book is undoubtedly stronger as Tolstoy’s early war passages contain both a wry sense of humour and commentary on how young men romanticize the war and the emperor. These are balanced with engaging peace scenes that develop the characters, from poor bewildered Pierre to selfless Sonya and spirited Natasha. By the time Tolstoy hits the midpoint he seems to abandon all pretense that he’s writing a novel though and focus decidedly on the war.

As the only other nineteenth-century, brick-sized epic I’ve read, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast War and Peace with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Unfortunately, War and Peace comes out poorer for the comparison in every way.

Although the characters in Les Misérables are archetypal (Fantine as The Fallen Woman, for example), they’re given such depth and empathy that you can’t help but feel for them. I liked Tolstoy’s characters initially, but it’s difficult to form a connection or to feel like you know people who barely seem to know themselves. As a commentary on society, creating characters who are so mutable that their minds, romantic attachments, and entire worldviews shift in an instant if someone voices a dissenting opinion, is interesting. In practice it makes for characters who are hard to understand and care about.

You’ll hear no argument from me that both of these books could have used a more disciplined editor, but Hugo’s digressions, tangents on The Battle of Waterloo, the Paris sewer system, and argot, among others, are somewhat interesting and, much like a distracted university professor, he gets back to his original thought. In War and Peace, it feels like the characters and any semblance of plot are the digression. Tolstoy rhapsodizes about the war and presents his detailed thoughts on the Great Man Theory and every hundred pages or so someone reminds him that there are characters besides Napoleon and the soldiers and Tolstoy grudgingly gives the reader a hasty interlude before he returns to writing passionately about the war. Sadly, this is true even of the epilogue. Tolstoy presents twenty or so pages of domesticity to sum up the characters’ lives, but the remainder of the hundred pages reads more like the conclusion to a dissertation than an epilogue. For those with a keen interest in military history I imagine this makes for a fascinating read. As someone who reads for characters above all else, I found this immensely frustrating.

At the end of Les Misérables I felt a great swell of emotion and love for these characters who had become so dear. When I finished War and Peace I mostly just felt relieved that it was over.

For all my negativity, I’m not sorry I read War and Peace and it hasn’t entirely put me off Tolstoy. At some point (many moons from now, I need a break!) I’ll probably still read Anna Karenina, and hope that it touches me more than War and Peace. However, I can’t imagine ever wanting to read War and Peace again and I think it offers more from a military history perspective than it does from a story standpoint.

Should you attempt the behemoth and read War and Peace? If you have a great love of military history then yes, this might just be the book for you. If not, do yourself a favour and choose another nineteenth century epic, I’d suggest Hugo’s Les Miserables, instead.

 

Books: Elegy

32322796Elegy by Vale Aida
Published September 28, 2016
star-4-half
Sometimes you come across books that feel like they were written for you. They include tropes or plot points you love, characters who are definitely your “type”, and prose so rich that it that fills you with jealousy. That was my experience with Vale Aida’s debut novel Elegy when I read it last year. The conclusion to her Magpie Ballads duology, Swansong, was released a few months ago, and although my print copy seems to be stuck in Canada Post Hell (seven weeks and counting since I ordered from Book Depository) I can’t wait to see how it all ends! Re-reading Elegy, I was pleased to find that my admiration and delight for this queer fantasy novel remain intact. It’s a lushly-written book with multi-faceted, unique characters and an abundance of political machinations. In other words, it’s exactly the type of book I love to read.

Set in the realm of Cassarah, where peace rests on the edge of a knife, Elegy opens with the death and funeral of the beloved Governor Kedris. All signs point towards foul play by an old enemy, Queen Marguerit of Sarei. With the Council in chaos, the burden of revenge falls on the Governor’s son, trickster actor- turned-soldier Savonn Silvertongue. However, Savonn harbours secrets from a mischievous past, and his one-time lover and current adversary, known only as The Empath, threatens to bring them to light. Meanwhile, Savonn’s closest friend Iyone Safin wages a dangerous battle of wits in order to stop a string of unexplained incidents, protect the woman she’s falling in love with, and save Cassarah from the Saraians.

The character work in this novel is exceptional. It’s hard to feel apathetic about any of these multi-faceted, flawed characters. There are characters I dislike, characters I adore, but there’s no Matthias situation here – no major character that I feel meh about.

Savonn Silvertongue belongs to that category of sharp-tongued, mutable, and intensely capable protagonist comprised of Francis Crawford of Lymond and successor Laurent of Vere. He’s every bit as frustrating as he is intriguing, and his motives at any given time can be difficult to ascertain. A fellow Lymond Chronicles fan, author Vale Aida employs the Dorothy Dunnett method of primarily showing us her protagonist through the eyes of other characters, most of whom don’t have the full story.

This viewpoint character is most commonly Savonn’s squire, Emaris. A precious cinnamon roll of a character, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to love Emaris. Not yet eighteen, blond, and a soldier prone to accidently forgetting his sword, he’s also kind and fiercely loyal. The not-so-merry band of soldiers is rounded out by Hiraen, a close friend of Savonn’s since childhood and keeper of some of his darkest secrets. Although they often disagree, their regard for one another is clear and Savonn and Hiraen have the kind of brotherly bond that means they would do anything to protect the other.

The female characters are just as well-written, as they engage in a game of wits. Calm and inquisitive Iyone might just be my favourite, but I also loved Shandei, the impulsive daughter of a soldier who has more skill with weaponry than most, including her little brother Emaris. Josit, mistress to the murdered Governor and chessmaster extraordinaire is also fascinating to watch. My one criticism is that The Empath remains an ambiguous, though dangerous, figure who we know little about, and I would have liked to see more of his dynamic with Savonn. However, I’m certain there will be more of him in the second volume.

The relationships in this book too are beautifully depicted. There’s the beginning of a slow-burn connection between Iyone and Shandei, depicted subtly as Iyone sentimentally keeps a flower the other girl gives her, and seeks to return the favour by protecting the brave young woman. There is the deep bond of friendship between Savonn and Hiraen, the kind that make your heart hurt when they are at odds. There are parent-child relationships, mentor-mentee relationships, and adversarial relationships. All are messy, complicated, and ring true. The LGBT representation is also wonderful to see, as sexual orientation never hinders or results in discrimination, and Vale Aida clearly lays the groundwork for same-sex relationships.

My personal preference is definitely towards political-intrigue fantasy (see Seth Dickinson’s fabulous The Traitor Baru Cormorant, C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy, Katherine Addison’s standalone The Goblin Emperor, and Lois Mcmaster Bujold’s space opera The Vorkosigan Saga for some great examples) and Elegy delivers. The game of wits between Josit and Iyone is rich in twists and turns, and the author maintains tension by revealing information with subtlety. I’d love to see more complex world-building, but Elegy lays a solid foundation, particularly in its depiction of Cassarah, with its many bridges.

The wit and complexity of the writing style is also impressive, especially considering this is the author’s debut novel! Dorothy Dunnett’s influence is keenly felt, and I feel confident in saying that if you loved Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and/or C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince saga, you will undoubtedly enjoy this duology as well. Certainly Dunnett’s influence is a major part of why I fell in love with this book, so I don’t expect every reader will be quite as enthused as I am, but Elegy is a firm 4 or 4+ star book that should definitely be added to your TBR if you enjoy snarky intelligent characters, witty and evocative prose, and a plot that twist in delighted and unexpected ways.

Books: The Language of Thorns

34076952The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
Published September 26, 2017
star-4-half
The Language of Thorns is a charming and beautifully illustrated collection of short stories set in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. Drawing inspiration from established fairytales and folktales, ranging from “Beauty and the Beast” to “Hansel and Gretel”, Bardugo crafts her re-imaginings with care, adding elements of the fictional cultures of Kerch, Ravka, and Fjerda, and providing resolutions not always sweet, but far more satisfying than happily ever after.

Part of the magic of this short story collection is in the illustrations by Sara Kipin. Working with an alternating limited colour palette of teals and reds, Kipin frames the pages of each story with patterns and designs that change and grow over the course of the tale, culminating in a final two-page spread at the end of each story. I really can’t say enough about how beautiful these illustrations are, particularly in the last story “When Water Sang Fire” where reds and teals entwine for a vibrant and otherworldly effect.

I have to admit that fairy tales have never been my thing. I know some of the basics sure, but as a child I was more taken with D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths than with Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. I haven’t read many re-tellings for exactly this reason, but if there was ever an author who could win me over, it would be Leigh Bardugo. Sure enough, this wildly inventive collection has me singing a different tune. Like the King spellbound by Scheherazade, I would happily read any fairy tale Bardugo deigns to tell!

The six stories highlight Bardugo’s keen storytelling ability, as she takes the tropes and stock characters at the heart of most fairy tales and twists them in unusual ways. If there’s a common theme or lesson to take from these tales, it’s a cautionary one about the dangers of perception and the folly in underestimating others based on their appearance alone.

My one criticism is that I thought the short stories where Bardugo draws inspiration from existing properties and twists them were more effective than her original tales. “Beauty and the Beast” variant “Ayama and the Thorn Wood” may wrap up a little neatly, but it offers an underestimated heroine and storyteller who wins a place and position through courage and clever words.

My favourites of the collection are both retellings. The evocative “When Water Sang Fire” draws inspiration from “The Little Mermaid” for a tale about betrayal, love, and ambition, while “The Soldier Prince” retells perennial Christmas favourite “The Nutcracker” from a unique point of view, in a tale that meditates on selfhood and what it means to be alive. In contrast, when I began writing this review and tried to remember each tale, I completely forgot about original story “Little Knife”.

I also have to put in a quick word for the diversity Bardugo incorporates into this collection. Zemeni tale “Ayama and the Thorn Wood”, features a dark-skinned protagonist, and other stories follow the example set in her Six of Crows duology by involving queer characters in organic ways.

This beautifully illustrated collection contains something for absolutely everyone. No knowledge of Bardugo’s previous books, or of fairy tales and folktales, is required to enjoy The Language of Thorns, although a passing familiarity with the classic stories that inspired this collection may help readers to appreciate the unique spins she puts on characters and tropes. Despite not being a fan of short stories or of fairytales in general, The Language of Thorns swept me away with its combination of sheer storytelling craft and accompanying illustrations that set my imagination aflame. I imagine other readers will be similarly enchanted.

 

Books: The Good People

The Good PeopleThe Good People by Hannah Kent
Published September 27, 2016
star-3
Hannah Kent’s literary debut, Burial Rites, blew me away last year with its atmospheric setting and strong, flawed female protagonist, so I had high hopes for her latest novel. Unfortunately I found The Good People to be something of a disappointment. Although Kent’s new novel is rich in historical detail and provides an excellent window into rural nineteenth century Irish life, I never fully connected with her characters and thought the plot lagged.

Set in County Kerry, Ireland in 1825, the story follows the efforts of three women in a superstitious community to heal one’s ill grandson. Recently widowed Nora, and her hired girl Mary, are informed by Nance, an elderly recluse who is believed to have knowledge of healing gifted by the fairies, that the boy is a changeling child, and together they attempt to restore the true Michael and banish the fairy child through folklore and rituals.

The Good People is impeccably researched historical fiction. Even before I read the acknowledgements it was obvious that Kent had thoroughly researched Irish history, culture, and folklore. The result is a richly detailed world where the characters, settings, and customs feel authentic. As someone who likes my historical fiction heavy on the history, this really appealed to me. I love that I could practically smell the turf fires burning, and feel the cold of the river in winter. If I had to sum Hannah Kent’s writing up in a word it would be atmospheric, and she delivers here again, evoking a mood that is tense with superstition and suspicion.

I also love that Kent’s subject matter is once again the every woman. Much of historical fiction tends to focus on nobility and the upper class, so stories written about the rural laborer and working classes are a welcome divergence, and an important one.

One of my issues with the novel is that there was no character I truly connected with. I certainly sympathized with the plight of characters in The Good People, but none of them grabbed me in the same way that characters in Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, did. Women like Nance, Mary, and Nora all feel authentic and three-dimensional, but I can’t say that I grew attached to them, which prevented the book from tugging at my heart strings in the way that it should have.

My biggest complaint is that The Good People just doesn’t have enough of a story to tell. Despite being under 400 pages, it feels long. Very little in the way of plot happens throughout and the emphasis on folklore and superstitious healing is initially interesting, but grows dull after a few hundred pages of focus. Honestly, I thought The Good People would fare better as a (long-ish) short story or a novella, instead of the full-length novel that Kent has stretched the thin story into.

Even though I found The Good People a bit of a let down and would have preferred it in novella form, I’m still enough of a fan of Hannah Kent’s well-researched style and atmospheric writing that I’ll be picking up future works of hers, and for those who haven’t yet read Burial Rites, I highly recommend it to fans of atmospheric, character-driven historical fiction.