Books: Bright We Burn

22817368Bright We Burn by Kiersten White
Published July 10, 2018
star-4-half
Continuing the saga of siblings Lada and Radu Dracul, the final volume in Kiersten White’s Conquerors trilogy brings their stories to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Lada has won her rightful throne and serves as Prince of Wallachia, but although her reign has created a country free of crime, she won’t rest until Wallachia’s borders are safe and her country free. Her acts of aggression leave Radu and Mehmed with little choice but to go to war against the girl they both love.

Although Bright We Burn didn’t hit me quite as hard, or leave as lasting an impact on me, as the previous book in the series, Now I Rise, it has the arguably more difficult task of intersecting and closing out these parallel stories in a believable and satisfying way. There’s always some trepidation involved in reading the last book of a beloved trilogy or series, but Bright We Burn delivered everything I hoped it would. Without getting into specifics or spoilers, I found the book thrilling, moving, and ultimately a realistic portrayal of two headstrong, similar personalities intent on power, tempered by a third who seeks something entirely different out of life.

A minor complaint I had about the other sweeping historically-based saga I read recently, R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, was that while I loved the protagonist and some of the minor characters, I felt that some of the minor characters were underdeveloped and I failed to connect with them in any meaningful way. I can honestly say that I’ve never had that problem with White’s Conquerors saga. Every character is just SO WELL DEVELOPED! Not just Radu and Lada, who continue to be complicated, flawed protagonists, who sometimes do awful things for a cause they believe in, but also the minor characters.

Radu’s wife Nazira remains a ray of sunshine in sometimes bleak times and a voice of reason for her family, and her relationship with Radu and the rest of what becomes a family unit made me so damn happy! The faithfulness of characters like Fatima and Bogdan is set in opposition to the shifting alliances and betrayals that characterize the rest of the series, and Mehmed’s struggle between his public persona as the sultan and his private isolation is sympathetic. Characters in this series are not always likable, but they’re always compelling.

Of course my heart remains with Lada and Radu. Radu doesn’t see quite as much action in this volume, but this gives him a chance to try to reconcile his actions in Constantinople and to move past the guilt he continues to feel. I loved his inner struggle to obtain, at long last, a balance between the devotion he has to Mehmed as Sultan of an empire he believes in, and his desire for romantic love. It is such a joy to see Radu finally make peace with himself! Lada, on the other hand, is more brutal in his book, crossing beyond anti-heroine territory to arguably become a villainess at times. Yet I always understood the motivations behind each of her choices and she has touching moments of vulnerability. As someone who loves morally ambiguous characters, history, ruthless heroines, and politicking, this series hits all of my buttons!

Although saying goodbye to Lada and Radu and all of the assorted other characters who meant so much to me over the course of the series, was bittersweet, I am so glad that the series ended the way it did! The ending felt earned and appropriate for each character involved, but most importantly, Bright We Burn brings us back to the relationship between Lada and Radu that is at the center of the series. The scenes between the siblings were so charged that I wouldn’t have put the book down even if you paid me! This is a very solid end to a series that I know I’ll be re-reading in years to come.

 

 

Books: Things A Bright Girl Can Do

33876596Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
Published September 7, 2017
star-4
Things a Bright Girl Can Do is a charming and heartfelt novel about the suffragette movement in England during WW1. Spanning the years from 1914 through 1918, the novel is written from the perspectives of three young women from different backgrounds. Well-off, sheltered Evelyn joins the Suffragettes as much to annoy her parents as out of any great devotion to the cause; May, a Quaker and pacifist like her mother, is committed to the suffragists but refuses to use violence to further their cause, while Nell, whose family is just scrapping by, seeks an equal wage for equal work. The fight for equality challenges all three women, and as war looms they must ask themselves how much they’re willing to sacrifice.

What a breath of fresh air this book is. I picked it up because it vaguely looked interesting and wound up hooked! All three of the teenage protagonists are engaging and grow over the course of the novel. It’s likely partly the 1914 setting, but Evelyn and May at times reminded me of Sybil Crawley or Rose MacClare, sheltered, but well-intentioned and passionate young women.

Evelyn comes from a privileged background, with a fiancé and a good education, but she loves to learn and wants to broaden her mind at Oxford. As this is not socially acceptable, her parents forbid it, and she falls into the suffragette movement out of frustration and a desire for equality. It’s empowering to follow her journey, as she joins the suffragette movement out of a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the lack of options available to her as a woman and becomes a committed part of the efforts, even enduring a brutal hunger strike when she is arrested.

May is, in some ways, the most worldly of the three, with a mother who is open-minded, even when it comes to May’s romantic inclination towards other women. May’s aware of and accepting of her identity as a gay woman, and has an infectious optimism towards life. But while her stubborn commitment to her principles is an admirable quality, it also makes it difficult for her to view things from another’s point-of-view. It’s only later, with the wisdom of experience, that she discovers things aren’t so black and white as she had always believed.

For Nell, who dresses in boys clothes and has always felt like an outsider, a chance meeting with May opens a door. Nell is a working-class factory girl, one of six children living with their parents in a two-room flat. The suffragist movement was a practical application. She’s paid half as much as male workers and wants to earn an equal wage to support her family. Life is hard, but as Nell discovers her Sapphic inclinations for the first time, she finds some refuge in May.

I felt attached to all three characters and, importantly, to both of the central relationships that develop. Evelyn and Teddy are friends from childhood who have always presumed that they will marry, but as first Evelyn’s growing interest in the Suffragette cause and then WWI threaten their wellbeing, Evelyn and Teddy discover just how deep their feelings for one another run. Nell and May come from different upbringings and hold different values, but their shared identity as lesbians grows into a sweet story of first love. Although I rooted for both couples, I also appreciated the fact that romantic love is not the sole focus of the novel.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do is obviously well-researched and sheds a light on different spheres of the suffragette movement, including the pacifist Quakers in the form of May and her principled mother, who refuses to pay taxes until women are represented in parliament, and suffers the consequences. There is a subtly rendered lesson in here about walking a mile in another person’s shoes.

Author Sally Nicholls doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of the suffragette movement, or from detailing the hunger strikes that imprisoned women undertook in an effort to be treated as political prisoners. She is also unflinching in her depiction of the impact of WWI on both soldiers and their families and loved ones , portraying the social consequences and the physical and psychological effects of the war.

Although at times it goes to dark places, the novel is ultimately uplifting. I really enjoyed Things a Bright Girl Can Do and highly recommend it as just the kind of feminist book that can pull you out of a reading slump.

Books: Now I Rise

22817331Now I Rise by Kiersten White
Published June 27, 2017
star-4-half
Like the first book in the series, And I Darken, White’s novel is a gender-swapped YA re-imagining of Vlad the Impaler as a young woman named Lada Dracul. Determined to sit on the throne of Wallachia, which she believe to be her birthright, fierce Lada leads her men on a quest to win allies to her cause and reclaim the Wallachian throne. Her narrative is paralleled with that of her brother Radu, who is working as a spy inside Constantinople and reporting to the Sultan Mehmed.

It did take me a bit to get back into the world, but this is likely because I didn’t re-read And I Darken before diving into Now I Rise. Ultimately I found it the more engrossing book, one that takes the Dracul siblings on separate but parallel journeys. I loved the symmetry of a brother and sister with different strengths who are keenly aware of each other’s gifts and of their absence.

Both characters are utterly fascinating. Lada is fierce and often downright mean. Her methods, at least initially, involve force, but she begins to long for her brother’s skill at subtlety and politics as the road to the throne proves more difficult than she had expected. In contrast, while he feels guilt about his deception, Radu effectively uses subterfuge and skillful persuasion to help the Sultan bring about the fall of Constantinople. However, he often thinks of his sister and her more straightforward methods of obtaining the same result.

I enjoyed the first book in the series, And I Darken, giving it a solid four stars on goodreads, but I loved Now I Rise. Judging from others’ reviews, I’m not alone in this. I suspect this difference is because the first book introduces the world and two interesting and completely different protagonists, but Now I Rise sees Radu and Lada make choices based on what is important to them, be it power, religion, love, etc., and then feel the weight of the consequences. With each character there is a distinct sense that they have blood on their hands. These are people who have been forced to make terrible choices, and who must live with them, wondering if they have done the right thing. It’s a rough progression into adulthood, from which neither will emerge unscathed.

As someone who enjoys stories about difficult choices, and about situations where characters make decisions that are morally ambiguous, Now I Rise really appealed to me. Radu especially, but Lada as well, begin to see that things are not so simple as good and bad, and question whether the ends justify the means. Although it’s said in a different context, there’s a quote from my favourite series of books, The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, where a character gives the protagonist a piece of advice to “Speak as you would write: as if your words were letters of lead, graven there for all time, for which you must take the consequences. And take the consequences.” It’s that last line that has stuck with me over the years and I think it’s relevant here, where Lada and Radu find out the hard way the bittersweet cost attached to getting what they want and must live with it.

The minor characters in this book, on all sides, are wonderful. I loved the father-daughter relationship between Hunyadi and Lada, the friendship and feelings between Radu and Cyprian, and the support and love that Nazira (I could write paragraphs about my love for Nazira!) and Radu share. Of course there are also the complicated relationships that each Dracul sibling has with Mehmed, the Sultan.

Lada and Radu both change over the course of their journeys, becoming less naive about the way things work. By the end they are no longer content to be pawns who are used/manipulated by others. While I adore Lada, her unabashed ferocity and desire to go after what she wants, it is Radu who stole my heart. His journey is especially devastating to read about as he doubts himself and all that he is doing to people he has begun to care for. Now I Rise is that most wonderful of things, a sequel that improves upon its predecessor. I cannot wait to find out the fate of the Dracul siblings when book three in the Conqueror’s Saga is published next summer!

Books: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

292838841The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Published June 27, 2017
star-4
As a fan of musical theatre, the combination of a rakish, devious, but lovable main character named Monty, and the similarity of the title to that of one of my favourite musicals, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, meant that my first impulse was to burst into one of its song (Perhaps “It’s Better With A Man”?). Once I suppressed this urge though, I found a quick-paced YA historical fiction novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring issues of race and sexuality in 1700’s Europe.

Part of the appeal that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue held for me was the setting. I’m a sucker for a good hist fic book, but surprisingly there are still relatively few YA historical fiction books out there. Even more unusually, The Gentleman’s Guide is set in early eighteenth century Europe, not in one of the more popular time periods (such as the Renaissance, Victorian era, or the Regency). The story follows Henry “Monty” Montague, a young gentleman who enjoys gambling halls, alcohol, and trysts with both men and women. Monty is expected to settle down and take over his family’s estate, but first he gets to embark on a final hurrah, a Grand Tour of Europe. He’s accompanied by best friend, Percy, who he is secretly in love with, and his practical and bookish younger sister Felicity.  Monty’s light fingered approach soon turns the trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt though, and secrets are revealed on all fronts.

Monty is definitely a flawed character. Although he has dashing good looks, dimples, and is sometimes a quick thinker, he’s also impulsive, reckless, and an insatiable flirt who dulls the pain of his seemingly unrequited crush on Percy through alcohol. More than once Monty lands the travelling group in trouble because he hasn’t stopped and thought about his actions. Yet his ardor for Percy is real, and it’s this earnest emotion that makes Monty a character that we root for, despite his flaws.

Percy, on the other hand, is a hard character not to like. His heritage and identity as the ward of nobles, but also a biracial man in a time when slavery still existed, is deftly handled. My only complaint is that because Percy is so proper and has learned to act in accordance with social customs, because as a man of colour he can’t get away with Monty’s wild actions, we don’t get as much insight into Percy’s thoughts as I would have liked.

The great surprise was Felicity though. Barely mentioned in the summaries for this book, this lone central female character is an absolute delight. Monty’s capable younger sister longs to study medicine, can always be found with her nose in a book, and acts a bit as the Hermione of this trio, practical and collected in a crisis. I loved her slightly abrasive, but genuinely loving underneath sibling relationship with Monty and how she doesn’t shrink away from what needs to be done.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue does rely heavily on one of the oldest tropes in the book, miscommunication. However in this setting, where a man choosing to reveal his love for another man could not only result in the loss of a friend but also a fate at the end of a hangman’s noose, the miscommunication is effectively employed.

The story itself is a tremendous amount of fun. Once The Grand Tour goes off the rails, the resulting adventure involves robbery by highwaymen, imprisonment, pirates, poisoning, and more. Author Mackenzi Lee moves the action along at a brisk pace, but gives us quieter interludes where Percy and Monty can share a moment, or reflect on themselves. Remarkably, although the novel generally has a light tone, it discusses a wide range of serious issues that effect our characters, such as homophobia, abuse, racism, disability, and sexism with the appropriate consideration they deserve. The friendship between Percy and Monty is deep and affectionate, and it develops believably, although both characters have wounds past and present to overcome.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an enjoyable YA historical fiction read that uses its 1700’s setting to explore serious issues of race, disability, and homosexuality. I loved the relationship between Percy and Monty, and this book also features one of the best central trios I’ve ever encountered. I also loved the fact that the end includes detailed author’s notes that place the book into its historical context! Definitely recommended, especially as a fun summer read.