Drowned Country, by Emily Tesh

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2020

Summary: Drowned Country is the stunning sequel to Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh’s lush, folkloric debut. This second volume of the Greenhollow duology once again invites readers to lose themselves in the story of Henry and Tobias, and the magic of a myth they’ve always known.

Even the Wild Man of Greenhollow can’t ignore a summons from his mother, when that mother is the indomitable Adela Silver, practical folklorist. Henry Silver does not relish what he’ll find in the grimy seaside town of Rothport, where once the ancient wood extended before it was drowned beneath the sea—a missing girl, a monster on the loose, or, worst of all, Tobias Finch, who loves him.

Thoughts: Silver in the Wood left readers with a change in stewardship within Greenhollow, the mantle passing from Tobias to Henry, with Tobias now a mortal man and free to leave the Wood. Henry hasn’t exactly taken well to his new role, though, isolating himself in his old house, which is now more of a crumbling ruin than the home he once knew, tending to the Wood mostly by forcing plants to grow when and where he wants them, regardless of the plants’ or Wood’s needs. It’s a visit from his mother that shames him (or perhaps just frustrates him) into leaving where the Wood is and going to where the Wood was, in order to help find a young woman who disappeared in the vicinity of a powerful old vampire. It turns out that Henry is more the vampire’s type than the missing woman, so his mother and Tobias mean to use Henry as bait to lure the vampire out, kill him, and rescue his victim.

I’d say that unsurprisingly, things aren’t quite what they seem, but to be honest, the twist was a bit of a surprise for me. I had settled in for a nice story involving the defeat of a vampire, and what I got instead had more to do with faeries. I can’t say that I saw that coming.

Whereas Silver in the Wood dealt largely with themes of betrayal and purpose, Drowned Country has strong themes of destructive obsession running through it. Maud’s obsession with returning to Fairyland caused problems in her mundane life, resulted in her essentially steamrolling the people sent to help her, but also positioned her to be consumed by a force that would similarly destroy anything to get what it wanted. Henry’s destructive obsession was himself, his own self-indulgence and inability to think beyond, “I am the lord of the wood and have these powers to do with it as I please.” Neither Maud nor Henry were particularly malevolent; it was more that the destructive aspect of their obsession came about because they focused on themselves, to the exclusion of all else, and couldn’t break free from that pattern of thinking to see that their actions had consequences that rippled beyond them.

That’s not to say that a person should be beholden to everyone else’s expectations, especially when those expectations are unreasonable. But there’s a certain amount of give-and-take that can be expected, and ignoring that has its consequences. Maud worried her parents, drawing strangers into the story so that she could be rescued, and her insistence that she was right while everyone else was wrong nearly got multiple people killed, just in the attempt to keep her safe. Henry’s refusal or inability to look outside himself and see that being the Wild Man of Greenhollow involved more than just sitting there and watching/making grass grow was hurting the denizens of the Wood, hurting Henry himself with his isolation and anger and grief. Obsession doesn’t always have to be destructive, but there comes a point where it can become so, where it becomes selfish and harmful, and I think Tesh did a good job of presenting different situations in which this happens.

For most of the story, the relationship between Henry and Tobias was… strained, to say the least. The two had a falling-out, and for good reason, and Henry wavered between trying to rekindle what had once been between them and then deliberately reminding himself that this wasn’t how things were anymore. I have to admit, I wasn’t too keen on that. It does get resolved more toward the end of the novella, but for much of it, I felt like it was going into, “queer people can’t be happy,” territory. Their relationship had failed, their lives would be bitter and lacking without each other, but for legitimately good reasons, trust had been spoiled and being together wasn’t an option for them anymore. And yes, that absolutely happens in relationships, both straight and queer, but it can be tiring to read so many stories where queer couples go through what seems like an inevitable breakup just to bring some tension to the mix. I do like that it was resolved eventually, but the lead-up to that resolution wasn’t exactly enjoyable to read, and I feel like it didn’t really add much to the story.

As interesting as Drowned Country was, I think I liked it less than Silver in the Wood. Partly because of the relationship issues, as I just mentioned, but also partly because in the end, the resolution felt handed to the characters. “Here, have your happy ending, regardless of the fact that you only worked for it for maybe a week, and also the thing causing friction is just gone now so you never have to worry about it again.” It would have been more interesting to see Henry properly come to grips with his new role in life, to pull himself out of his destructive spiral and actually thrive within it, or at least make his peace with it the way Tobias had. Or to take Tobias up on his offer to switch places, for Tobias to resume his role as the Wild Man since he took to it better than Henry did, and for the two of them to live happily that way. Instead, it was just, “Okay, now neither of you has to do this anymore, isn’t that great?!” It felt like a just clear way to wrap up the story, and I do know that this was intended to be a duology and not continue beyond this point, but it was far from satisfying.

I gave this book 3 stars, but if I were to give half-stars in my ratings, it would be 3.5. It wasn’t a bad story, it was well-written, and it definitely had things to say. But the relationship issues and that abrupt ending rather spoiled a lot of it for me, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the previous novel. Still a good read, and I think most people who liked Silver in the Wood will also like Drowned Country, but for me, it didn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor.

(Book provided in exchange for an honest review.)

Flame in the Mist, by Renee Ahdieh

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 16, 2017

Summary: The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place–she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort–a political marriage that will elevate her family’s standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love–a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Thoughts: I am very much torn on my opinion of Renee Ahdieh’s Flame in the Mist. On one hand, I’d had it recommended to me as being really good, and I did enjoy much of the story. On the other hand, I found the world-building distractingly shoddy, which detracted from my overall enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Long-time readers of my reviews may know that I’ve repeatedly gotten burned out on YA novels, and while I do dip my toes back into those waters now and again, it’s with mixed results. I may find something good, but most often, it seems I find something that I can best describe as lackluster. Something I wanted to enjoy more. I don’t go into books expecting to dislike them. If I think that I will actively dislike a book, I won’t waste my time reading it, and instead will seek out something I think might be more to my taste.

And Flame in the Mist could have been more to my taste. But as I said, the world-building kept pulling me out of the story and making me question the amount of research that went into the writing of this book, because to be perfectly blunt, it feels like a good half of said research was just reading and watching Memoirs of a Geisha.

Allow me to elaborate. First, I’d had this book described to me as “Japanese-inspired fantasy.” Websites listed the book as “set in Feudal Japan.” Neither of these really holds true, at least in my eyes. If it was meant to be set in a secondary world inspired by Japanese history, then it made too many mentions of real places and historical figures to fall comfortably into that realm. If it was meant to be historical fantasy, then it had too many anachronisms to be properly set in the time period it was meant to be.

Best I can figure, Flame in the Mist is set roughly in the 1200s, or there abouts. I’m estimating this based on mentions of actual historical figures. But, there are a number of other things that don’t fit on that timeline, such as the shamisen (not introduced to Japan until after the 1600s) and what awkward mention of what I assume is the Tatsumura Textile Company (not established until 1894). I’d generously say that maybe this novel was actually set in the early 1900s, except that doesn’t fit at all with Japan’s situation at the time. So, this book remains set in some time that didn’t actually happen.

Which is why I can only class this as bad historical fantasy. It draws too many specifics from real people and places to be passed off as a fantasy inspired by history, and gets too many things wrong for me to settle into the historical setting. To put it in context, it would be like reading a novel set in England in the time of Alfred the Great, only people are mentioned drinking tea. It may seem like a small thing, but when you see it, you can’t unsee it, and it definitely doesn’t fit. You can say it’s merely inspired by that time and place, but when you bring in actual historical figures, you kind of commit yourself to the same kind of accuracies, and if you can’t follow through on that commitment, it’s going to trip some readers up. Too much of the real world to be fantasy, and too many anachronisms to be the real world.

There are only certain things I know enough about to be this picky, but Japan is one of them. I don’t know everything, of course, but I know enough to spot these problems when they crop up in what I read. For someone who is interested in Japan but who doesn’t have the kind of in-depth interest that would make the inaccuracies stand out, then there won’t really be a problem. But from my standpoint, I do have that depth of interest, and the problems did stand out.

I made an earlier accusation that half the research done for Flame in the Mist was the author reading and watching Memoirs of a Geisha, and I’d like to elaborate on that. I have read that book and seen it’s film adaptation I don’t know how many times at this point, it remains one of my favourites, and from that perspective, it was easy to see the influence. The awkward mention of the Tatsumura Textile Company I mentioned earlier was two in-novel mentions of “Tatsumura silk,” which isn’t any particular kind of silk, but just silk processed and woven by Tatsumura Textiles. But “Tatsumura silk” was mentioned in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, an the context given was that it was used for very fancy kimono.

There’s more than that. The protagonist, Mariko, is described as having her personality be very much “like water,” echoing the same pronouncement of Chiyo’s personality (the protagonist and narrator of Memoirs of a Geisha). A description of this in Flame in the Mist was at one point given almost word-for-word like part of Mameha’s dialogue in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie. Or how about the line, “I’d rather chew sand,” which was said by Pumpkin in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, as well as Okami in Flame in the Mist. There is a Japanese idiom that translates that way, and it was used correctly, but when it comes to English-language media relating to Japan, I’ve pretty much only ever seen that phrase used in that way in this novel and that movie. Combined with the other things I mentioned, it was honestly a surprise to me to not see Arthur Golden mentioned in the acknowledgements.

So what did I like about Flame in the Mist? The story itself was pretty interesting. It follows Mariko, a young woman on her journey to her husband-to-be, only that journey gets cut short when she and her entourage are attacked in the forest. She alone survives, and is dead certain that the ones who slaughtered the others are the Black Clan, enemies of her family. She makes the decision to disguise herself as a boy in order to infiltrate them, to gain their trust and let their guard down so that she might have her revenge. She manages the first parts of this, at least, but in so doing, not only does she come to suspect that perhaps the Black Clan wasn’t actually behind the attack after all, but also falls in love with one of its members.

I’m not quite sure I’d call this a coming-of-age story so much as an eye-opening story, one in which Mariko starts off so certain of everything, only to later be revealed as one of those characters who is startlingly ignorant about many things while the whole time believing she sees more than most. It’s a story of a young woman trying to make her way in the world in her own way, pushing back when the world tries to stop her, but also a story in which she herself, her own mind and understanding, is one of the things she has to overcome. I admit, while I don’t like characters who are as brash and falsely self-assured as Mariko started out, I do like stories in which such characters come to understand that there’s more to the world than what they thought they knew. There’s a scene in which Mariko sees workers in the fields, harvesting rice, and sees just how hard they’re working, how worn out they all look by their labour, and reflects that she’s seen all these same people before, doing the same work, and never once came out of her own thoughts to actually see them. She assumes they were content, because she was content.

I have to say, it was also nice to have a female YA protagonist who wasn’t a virgin, too. Not that I have problems with virgins or anything, but I’ve seen a number of YA novels where part of the romantic and sexual tension comes from, “I want to get it on with you, but I’ve never done that before and I’m too nervous we either have to stop Right Now, or else you need to convince me because that’s sexy.” Which is fine, and lots of people are nervous and unsure and don’t have sex the first time their hormone start raging, and it’s good for people to see that you can say no and have that respected. But I think it’s also good for people to see examples of characters who have done it before, and gone on with their lives because that’s just what people do. Your life isn’t over if you have sex for the first time with the person you don’t end up permanently partnering with. Nor does having sex with more than one person make you promiscuous or less deserving of anything. Both of these are tropes I’ve seen handed down in fiction over the decades, neither are tropes that I particularly like, and each does its own kind of harm, so I was really pleased to see that Flame in the Mist fell into neither of those categories.

In the end, what I can really say about this book is that it was okay, but in an unbalanced way. The story was good, especially after the first few chapters had passed and Mariko really started to show who she was. The writing was fine, even if the author used some odd turns of phrase every now and again. But what really spoiled it for me was the historical aspects, the pieces that were out of place and pulled me out of my reading groove whenever I came up against them. Plus the cribbing from Memoirs of a Geisha. It got increasingly difficult to hand-wave some of those issues. As I mentioned earlier, if these sorts of things don’t bother you, or you don’t have the same kind of oddly obsessive-compulsive knowledge-seeking that I do about beloved topics (I’ve long suspected it’s an ADHD thing…) then what bothered me likely won’t bother other readers. For my part, though, I can label Flame in the Mist as… okay. Not something I’ll likely read again, not part of a series I’m likely to continue with, nothing I can say was either so good or so bad that it made much of an impact on me. What it did well, it did well, and where it fell, it fell hard. I guess your mileage may vary as to how much either of those aspect affect you.

The Hills Have Spies, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 5, 2018

Summary: Mags, Herald Spy of Valdemar, and his wife, Amily, the King’s Own Herald, are happily married with three kids. The oldest, Peregrine, has the Gift of Animal Mindspeech — he can talk to animals and persuade them to act as he wishes. Perry’s dream is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Herald Spy, but he has yet to be Chosen by a Companion.

Mags is more than happy to teach Perry all he knows. He regularly trains his children, including Perry, with tests and exercises, preparing them for the complicated and dangerous lives they will likely lead. Perry has already held positions in the Royal Palace as a runner and in the kitchen, useful places where he can learn to listen and collect information.

But there is growing rural unrest in a community on the border of Valdemar. A report filled with tales of strange disappearances and missing peddlers is sent to Haven by a Herald from the Pelagirs. To let Perry experience life away from home and out in the world, Mags proposes that his son accompany him on an expedition to discover what is really going on.

During their travels, Perry’s Animal Mindspeech allows him to communicate with the local wildlife of the Pelagirs, whose connection to the land aids in their investigation. But the details he gleans from the creatures only deepen the mystery. As Perry, Mags, and their animal companions draw closer to the heart of the danger, they must discover the truth behind the disappearances at the border—before those disappearances turn deadly.

Thoughts: I’ll get this out of the way right from the get-go: I’m getting a little bit tired of the books about Mags. It’s not that he’s a bad character, or uninteresting, or anything like that. He’s fine, as characters go. But as I started to read the first book of the Family Spies series, I began to realize that of all the characters who appear in all the Valdemar novels, I think Mags appears in more than any other single character. Closely followed by Elspeth, who, for those who might not know, is a Herald (as is Mags), is of royal blood, and who was instrumental to bringing true magic back to Valdemar, and whose very birth was part of an international plot to strike at the heart of the kingdom. Mags is a spy and so gets wrapped up in many political affairs, but no more than most Heralds who are the stars of their own books. Lackey’s continued focus on Mags is starting to make me feel like she’s running out of ideas to get readers interested, and so is just sticking to one guy and his family because they’re familiar and don’t require figuring out other sections of the timeline (which, let’s be honest, she’s not that great at keeping straight). She can write stories about a character that readers already know, and so we don’t have to ask ourselves why we’re supposed to care, why this new person and their story is important enough to learn about.

But I am a sucker for this world, and so read I do, even when I consider the latest books to not really be a patch on some of the more classic Valdemar novels, even when I wish she’d start telling more stories about people who aren’t Mags.

The Hills Have Spies involves not just Mags, at least, but also his son Perry, who is training in his father’s footsteps to be a damn good spy and agent for the crown. Perry isn’t a Herald, but he doesn’t let that stop him from doing what he can to be useful. He does have a Gift, though, in the form of particularly strong Animal Mindspeech, so he can communicate with and influence animals around him. When Mags gets word that people on the very borders of Valdemar keep disappearing, he sees an opportunity to test his son’s skills and usefulness, and the two set out to try and unravel the mystery. They’re joined by Herald Arville, Arville’s kyree friend Ryu, along with another kyree who bonds to Perry, named Larral.

I… have extremely mixed feelings about how kyree are handled in this book, and that can be traced back to the short story in which Arville and Ryu are introduced. Lackey decided, at one point, to write a short story about a group of four Heralds encountering a kyree who could use human verbal speech rather than just Mindspeech, and did so, albeit with far more R’s at the beginning of words, and if this is already reminding you of Scooby Doo, that’s intentional. I found that concept pretty ridiculous when I first read the story, and I still find it ridiculous now. Only it’s more annoying, because where most of the short stories have questionable canon value, The Hills Have Spies puts it very firmly as canon. It can’t be ignored.

It turns out Larral can do the same thing. Which surprises nobody in the story, even people who’ve never encountered kyree before. Perry is more surprised that Larral has Mindspeech than he is over Larral’s ability to speak out loud, despite Perry only having just learned about kyree, and presumably nothing in the single book he read on the subject mentioned they could speak. Ryu goes from being an oddity to, “Oh yeah, some kyree can do that now, I guess.”

Two problems with this. One, you’d think this would have been mentioned in one of the other Valdemar novels that take place later on the timeline, because we most certainly encounter kyree in many of those books. None of them ever mention this apparently not-uncommon ability. The downside of writing books that take place in the past after you’ve written books that take place in the future. Heck, there’s no real indication even in this particular book whether Ryu and Larral’s ability is common, uncommon, nothing. No context. Context only comes from having read other books, which has the unfortunate effect of leaving readers wondering what’s even going on, why these kyree are so different from literally every other kyree mentioned elsewhere.

The second problem is that… Well, imagine reading a transcript of a Scooby Doo episode. With all of Scooby’s lines written out exactly as he speaks. Now try to wrap your head around what he might be actually saying, because just replacing initial consonants with R doesn’t always get the point across. Larral’s first words are, “Ry Roose Rerry,” which took me for-freaking-ever to understand as, “I Choose Perry,” and not something else that could equally fit there given those sounds, like, “My goose berry.” Larral doesn’t do this often, thankfully, but the few times he does, it’s ridiculous and rather pointless, and so I cant help but feel it was done for comedic effect.

Which, well, failed. I wasn’t laughing.

The Hills Have Spies is one of those novels that isn’t bad, per se. The story is solid, I was invested in Perry’s adventures and misadventures and I wanted to know just how it was all going to resolve in the end. Knowing this was the first book in a new series, I wanted to see whether this was more of a one-shot story (it was) or whether it was the set-up for some new epic threat to Valdemar (it wasn’t). The Valdemar novels, for all their flaws, are still often novels that I can sink into like a hot bath, and I can enjoy being in the world even if I have issues with some things.

But it was admittedly spoiled by things that are in some ways pretty small, but in other ways reflect what I see as a bit of a come-down from where this whole expansive series used to stand. The general refusal to not write stories that don’t involve Mags in some way, the inconsistencies when comparing them to things established in previous novels, her odd insistence on bringing in more real-world elements in order to make commentary that doesn’t always fit but is clearly something she wants to say something about… While I am going to read the rest of the books, I’ve started viewing them with more trepidation than excitement, and most of the reasons why can be seen in The Hills Have Spies.

And so I’m left in the awkward position of not knowing whether or not to recommend this book. I’d say that fans of the other Valdemar novels will probably want to read it, but I can’t really say that I recommend they do so. Not unless they feel that they absolutely have to read all of the series novels, like I do. While it can absolutely be a fun story in places and there is definitely suspense and intrigue and writing that’s easy enough to engage with, it also adds nothing to Valdemar’s history, and neither does it really expand on Mags’s story all that much. I can’t pretend I’m not disappointed, but I also can’t pretend that I expected this book, or even this series, to make up for the disappointments I saw in other Valdemar novels that Lackey has written over the past decade. In the end, mostly what this book made me want to do is go back and read the earlier novels, the ones that made me fall in love with the world in the first place.

Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2015

Summary: They came after the Diseray. Some were terrors ripped from our collective imaginations, remnants of every mythology across the world. And some were like nothing anyone had ever dreamed up, even in their worst nightmares.

Monsters.

Long ago, the barriers between our world and the Otherworld were ripped open, and it’s taken centuries to bring back civilization in the wake of the catastrophe. Now, the luckiest Cits live in enclosed communities,behind walls that keep them safe from the hideous creatures fighting to break through. Others are not so lucky.

To Joyeaux Charmand, who has been a Hunter in her tight-knit mountain community since she was a child, every Cit without magic deserves her protection from dangerous Othersiders. Then she is called to Apex City, where the best Hunters are kept to protect the most important people.

Joy soon realizes that the city’s powerful leaders care more about luring Cits into a false sense of security than protecting them. More and more monsters are getting through the barriers,and the close calls are becoming too frequent to ignore. Yet the Cits have no sense of how much danger they’re in-to them, Joy and her corp of fellow Hunters are just action stars they watch on TV.

When an act of sabotage against Joy takes an unbearable toll, Joy uncovers a terrifying conspiracy in the city. There is something much worse than the usual monsters infiltrating Apex. And it may be too late to stop them?

Thoughts: It’s been a while since I first read this book, and I admit, I wasn’t too fond of it the first time around. Knowing that I can get this way with Mercedes Lackey’s more recent books, though, I deliberately let it lie for a while, then picked it up again recently to reread it, to see if my opinions had changes any with the passage of time.

I did enjoy it more the second time around, which I’m happy to say. However, the problems I had with it the first time remained for my second reading.

Hunter was written during the YA dystopia boom and it really shows. Now, Lackey has shown no problem is the past with writing books in popular genres primarily to pay the bills, and in general I have no problem with that, because writing is art and art is work and work deserves to be paid for. I think perhaps it was published a bit too late to really capitalize on that boom, but it hit enough of the tail end of it to still do decently, as both of its sequels have been published between then and now.

A few hundred years in the future, the apocalypse (known as the Diseray, a corruption of Dies Irae) happened, and now the world contains all sorts of malevolent and destructive beasties from the depths of worldwide mythologies. Protecting the remains of humanity from these creatures are the Hunters, people with not only magical talents but also the ability to summon guardian beasts known as Hounds, a pack to guide and fight alongside in the war against Othersiders. In North America, Hunters are required to go to the city of Apex to do their jobs, and that’s where the story begins with Joy, on her way to Apex for the first time.

Once in Apex, Joy finds that not only does she have to protect the citizens there from incursions of Othersiders, but she also has to do so while essentially being a streaming celebrity. Watching Hunters fight monsters is entertainment to the citizens of Apex, and Hunters gain improvements to their lives by rising in the rankings of the entertainment industry. Joy rises quickly through the ranks, but it seems that somebody objects to what she’s doing or how she’s doing it, because she quickly finds herself a target, and whoever has their sights set on her doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.

It’s not difficult to see the real-world inspirations for certain aspects of Hunter. People today stream aspects of their lives through sites like Twitch and YouTube, and become celebrities for it, giving people a way to live vicariously through others, and also providing comfort and inspiration to viewers. “Those celebrities started off with no more advantages than I have; I could be just like them one of these days.” It’s a sentiment I know well. It was employed in an interesting way in Hunter, since drone-cameras follow Hunters nearly everywhere to catch the exciting aspects of their lives, but also the broadcasts are on a delay, allowing editors to change or remove footage that doesn’t play into an established narrative. The governing body of Apex doesn’t want people to know that Othersiders are getting closer and closer to the city’s barriers every day, and so alter footage to make it look like Hunters are further away than they really are. Here we have the “circus” aspect of “bread and circuses;” keep people entertained so that they never wonder about broader complications; make them think they see everything, so they never question what’s happening behind the scenes. The way Lackey handled the discourse on whether stream celebrities are authentic or not was heavy-handed in places, but not entirely unwarranted.

I think my biggest problem with Hunter is its main character, Joy. She’s one of those exceptional can-do-no-wrong characters, and that much is made clear very quickly. She has a larger-than-average pack of Hounds, he’s proficient with multiple weapon types, she’s encountered things that Hunters in Apex haven’t and so gives advice to people who have been doing the job as long as or longer than she herself, right from the get-go. She ascends to near the top of the ratings ranks within a few days of arriving at Apex, she makes friends with powerful people, and she does things that have never been done before, such as acquiring someone else’s Hounds after that person dies, because she’s just that special. She’s no-nonsense and has little time for frivolities, she’s earnest about wanting to protect people when many Hunters want the perks that come with the job, and of course this makes her at least one enemy, especially when she decides she wants to push for Elite ranking after having been in Apex for, what, less than a month?

Frankly, this kind of character gets extremely tiring to read about, because they aren’t remotely believable outside of myth, and for an experienced author like Lackey to write somebody this way feels incredibly amateurish. There’s the oft-repeated advice that characters ought to have flaws, believable and relevant flaws, and no, a character who is beautiful and popular and talented at nearly everything but who, for instance, can’t sing, isn’t a believably flawed character. It doesn’t matter that she can’t sing. That’s not really a flaw. That’s just the lack of a talent. The two aren’t the same. The worst flaw I think Joy has is that she doesn’t suffer nonsense, but it’s handled in such a way that even then, she comes off as somehow the winner. If somebody got in Joy’s face and accused her of not knowing something, she’d just tightly point out that she knows how to figure it out and name off all the resources she’d use, and then people would be impressed by how well she handled the situation. She is (and I hate to use the term) the very image of the Mary Sue that is endemic in so many bad fanfiction pieces, the sort of character aspiring authors are cautioned to avoid writing.

Dislike of character types is a highly personal thing, so I admit that Joy’s presentation won’t bother everybody, but it definitely bothered me. I felt less like I was reading about a real person and more like I was reading about somebody attempting to humanize a hypothetical future fictional hero, and that’s is far more complicated than it needs to be.

For as much as I found the presentation problematic, I am, at least, interested in how the rest of the story plays out in later books. I don’t think they’re books I’ll go out of my way to track down, but if I come across them, I’ll probably give them a try, to see if Joy becomes a more interesting character or if any interesting story elements override my annoyance with her. The city of Apex, as a character, is of more interest to me, because it seems to have many layers to it, most of which depend on keeping citizens ignorant and entertained in equal measure, as well as keeping those who know better either in appalling living conditions and scrabbling to eke out a living, or in plush comfort in exchange for their silence. This riding on the coattails of the dystopian wave, I want to know what’s in store for the city, its ruling body, the systems that keep it running, and I’m more interested in that than I am in Joy McSpecial over here.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 6, 2018

Summary: They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Thoughts: In this African-inspired novel, magic has been eradicated fairly recently, but the physical signs that would once have marked someone as a magic-user remain, drawing ire and violence from many and making them outcasts. Children of Blood and Bone sees a hot-headed young woman, her reluctant brother, and a runaway princess on a quest to restore magic to the people, to revolt against the king who killed and ruined so many lives, and to take back the power that the people once held for themselves.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I ended up liking it. I mean, it wasn’t a bad book, and it definitely had a lot going for it, but I found myself often growing bored with some of the repetitive narrative. The protagonists go somewhere, the antagonist finds them, the protagonists make a narrow escape. Repeat that at least 2 more times in the first half of the book alone. At first there was tension in that, because narrow escapes almost always bring tension. But after multiple narrow escapes, it lost any edge it might have had. Combined with the second half of the book having a lot of, “Is this the truth? Yes, it must be! Oh no wait maybe things aren’t like I thought! It must be lies! Oh but I want it to be truth, so it must be truth!”…

I’m sure a lot of it was meant to be tense for readers too, dealing with the unknown and trying to muddle your way through a complicated situation where you don’t know all the variables, but for my part, he constant flipping back and forth once again started to get boring, grating on my nerves after a time.

The characters, at least, were great to read about. I loved Zelie’s hot-headed impulsive nature, which got her into trouble more often than not. She had to deal with consequences of her actions, though admittedly a lot of them boiled down to, “Dangit, Zelie, you need to be more considerate of people, you’re causing so much trouble!” but then it gets overlooked until the next impulsive action because the trio had to run away from something. Her brother’s constant frustration over the way Zelie reacts without thinking, the way she frequently brings trouble down around her, was one of the most relatable things to me, not because of a sibling connection (I have none), but because good lord, don’t we all wish, at times, that we could just snap at the people who act without giving a damn to the consequences and seem to keep getting away with it? His frustration and anger were eminently understandable!

But also where the characters were concerned… The romance. Amari and Tzain I can get behind, because their budding romance was pretty adorable to read. But with Zelie and Inan? Nope. I’m very much over the whole, “They’re enemies so they must fall in love” trope; it was stale in the 90s and it’s not any fresher now. Attraction, I could maybe see. Fascination, sure. Inan’s eye-opening experiences regarding Zelie’s life, yes, absolutely, I can understand that. But Inan turned from hated enemy to guy-I-love-because-he-understands-me very quickly, and a lot of that understanding was borderline noncon because Inan had access to Zelie’s thoughts and emotions, and that whole dynamic made the whole, “Is he good or is he bad?” thing even more painful to read. Zelie doubting Inan’s commitment to her and her cause gets questioned so often, and usually for good reasons, that it’s a wonder to me why Zelie kept fanning flames for him. It felt contrived, and I’m not on board with contrived romances.

I did enjoy the premise of the story, when when Children of Blood and Bone focused on that aspect, I found myself quite attentive. Those who can use magic have been systematically killed or had their heritage and training denied to them, so that they can’t rise up and overthrow a ruler who despises it. Since this happened less than a generation ago, the wounds are still open, discontent festering within them. Through circumstance, Zelie and her group are tasked with bringing back magic to the people, to take down an oppressive government and to restore the history and culture of her people. Not a small task to put on the shoulders of a young woman who, while wanting to raise her people up, finds it understandably daunting. With very little information about just how she’s supposed to do this, she sets off on her journey, gaining companions along the way, finding pockets of resistance fighters to aid her, and having her world turned upside down in the process. This aspect of the story, I enjoyed, and even though the inspiration for it all came from a culture and events that are not personally familiar to me, it was easy to feel the fire of resilience and resistance burning, that light inside that tells you to counter injustice in small and large ways.

But in the end, I had too many issues with Children of Blood and Bone to consider it worth recommending strongly, and I really did want to enjoy it more than I ended up doing. The world-building is very interesting, and there’s definitely some good stuff here, but that appreciation was overshadowed by the problems, and in the end I didn’t find it that enjoyable a read, and I’m kind of disappointed by that.

The Lady Rogue, by Jenn Bennett

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 3, 2019

Summary: Traveling with her treasure-hunting father has always been a dream for Theodora. She’s read every book in his library, has an impressive knowledge of the world’s most sought-after relics, and has all the ambition in the world. What she doesn’t have is her father’s permission. That honor goes to her father’s nineteen-year-old protégé—and once-upon-a-time love of Theodora’s life—Huck Gallagher, while Theodora is left to sit alone in her hotel in Istanbul.

Until Huck arrives from an expedition without her father and enlists Theodora’s help in rescuing him. Armed with her father’s travel journal, the reluctant duo learns that her father had been digging up information on a legendary and magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler — more widely known as Dracula — and that it just might be the key to finding him.

Journeying into Romania, Theodora and Huck embark on a captivating adventure through Gothic villages and dark castles in the misty Carpathian Mountains to recover the notorious ring. But they aren’t the only ones who are searching for it. A secretive and dangerous occult society with a powerful link to Vlad the Impaler himself is hunting for it, too. And they will go to any lengths—including murder—to possess it.

Thoughts: When I first heard this book described as something that fans of A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue would enjoy, my attention was caught. Despite me having problems with it’s sequel, I really enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide, and the idea of a book in that vein but with the legend because Vlad the Impaler thrown in, The Lady Rogue sounded like something I would similarly enjoy.

And it wasn’t bad, really. It just wasn’t something I was able to get into as much as I had hoped.

The Lady Rogue is primarily told from the perspective of Theodora, daughter of a wealthy adventurer who is frequently left behind in the care of tutors and caretakers while her father travels the world on grand adventures, seeking lost artifacts and mysteries. Suddenly reunited with her previous boyfriend, who was supposed to be traveling with Theodora’s father, she finds herself caught up in an adventure of her own as she not only attempts to track down her missing father, but also a lost ring connected to Dracula’s legacy and the dark power that runs through her veins.

In between many of the chapters are short interludes from her father’s journal, where we see the entries dated in the late 1930s. I will be completely honest here — I spent a good amount of the novel thinking that the reason Theodora’s father was missing was because he had somehow traveled back in time. I came to this erroneous conclusion because none of Theodora and Huck’s sections were dated, and they both talked as though they were far closer to today than to almost 80 years ago. Almost nothing was given to indicate the time they existed in, and I based my cues on their behaviour and speech, and it wasn’t until I noticed that I wasn’t seeing any indication that time travel was actually going to be a plot element that I had to look up when the entire book took place.

Now yes, there are some things that do indeed indicate the time period, but I think many of them, to a reader less inclined to look things up, might just assume that they could be explained away by east Europe being, well, not North America. Of course rural European settings would use small mail delivery planes. Of course people would take trains and buses rather than going by car. That’s just how it’s done over there.

It didn’t help that I found two instances (at least, two that stand out in my mind) of characters using slang that is entirely inappropriate for the time period. At one point, Theodora is telling her father off, and comments that, “FYI, [thing].” Now, FYI as an abbreviation for “for your information” did certainly exist in the 1930s, but primarily in a journalistic sense, from what my research has led me to conclude. You would see it in marginalia and in newspaper corrections, that sort of thing. It’s hardly something you would have heard many people say aloud as though they were 90s teens.

The second instance that comes to mind is Huck saying toward the end that he was getting “hangry,” and no, I’m sorry, but that portmanteau gained popularity in the 90s, even if it was used as far back as the 50s, and neither of those decades are the 30s.

Now, I admit that I read an ARC of this book, and those issues might not be in the final release, so I admit that those particular problems might not even be problems in the version that most people will read. However, that doesn’t eliminate any of my commentary on why I was confused about the time period of the book. Neither Theo nor Huck talked or behaved as though they came from any time period but “timeless modern,” and considering this book is meant to be historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural to it, so much felt so out of place for so long.

I did, admittedly, enjoy the story of The Lady Rogue, when I was getting distracted by how anachronistic many of the characters acted. The mystery of Theodora’s father’s disappearance powered most of the book, though along the way, as they made their way from Istanbul to various Romanian cities and towns, the subplot of the ring slowly overtook all else. Theodora’s father was initially searching for the ring, on the premise that 3 identical rings were made but only 1 was real, and supposedly connected to dark magics that gave the wearer great power but also brought death and ruin down around them. In this, I can see how the comparison to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue were made; both are historical fiction, and both feature a possibly-magical item as a motivation for the characters to progress through the story. Whether that item is actually magical or not is irrelevant; what matters is that people believe it to be, and act accordingly.

The ring was magical (the rest of the legend surrounding it wasn’t quite accurate, though I’ll refrain from giving too many details so that at least something in this book isn’t spoiled for future readers), though it really only proved itself to be at the very end. There were signs building up to it, signs which certainly convinced Theodora even if they didn’t quite convince Huck, but similar to Gentleman’s Guide, the magic itself wasn’t what compelled people. It was the belief in the magic, the legends themselves that made people seek it out, committing sometimes terrible acts in the name of legends and folklore, and I find that sort of thing fascinating. It interests me, to see what people will do in the pursuit of perceived power, what they might be motivated to do to get closer to something they only believe is the truth but don’t have definitive proof of. It’s a testament to the power of myth and belief, and I’m glad to have seen this appear in multiple novels over the past few years.

Unlike Gentleman’s Guide, however, there was no queer element to this story at all. It shares the same element of historical adventure with a supernatural element, but that’s where the similarities end, and I know many people enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide because it was all that and more, a good piece of queer representation. Readers looking for something similar in The Lady Rogue are only going to find superficial resemblance, I think.

The Lady Rogue is certainly an adventure, with a few interesting mysteries that the characters must solve along the way, usually employing a bit of cryptography and sleuthing. The characters are decently developed, though I admit that if you asked me to describe them outside of the context of the story within this book, I’m not sure they’d be that recognizable. Theodora is hot-tempered, intelligent, and in many ways spoiled. Huck is… Irish, and Theodora’s ex-boyfriend-but-it’s-complicated. Theodora’s father is… I don’t know here. An adventurer. Selfish and thoughtless. That’s about it. But within the context of the novel itself, they are distinct from each other when it comes to tone, dialogue, behaviour, and so it wasn’t difficult to tell who was doing or say what if you picked a random line in the middle of a random page.

But on the whole, I didn’t close out The Lady Rogue with many positive feelings toward it. Not many negative, either, for what it’s worth. I had an awkward start with it due to the anachronistic issues I mentioned earlier, but I enjoyed the mystery of the ring well enough, and I think the two sort of cancel each other out, leaving me with a rather neutral impression overall. I don’t think this is one I will ever get the urge to reread, and I think I can feel confident in recommending it to those who enjoy YA historical fiction with a bit of a twist, but that’s likely a fairly niche group, and I’m not sure it has much appeal beyond that. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not one I’d recommend going out of your way to read.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, by Mackenzi Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 2, 2018

Summary: A year after an accidentally whirlwind grand tour with her brother Monty, Felicity Montague has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.

But then a window of opportunity opens—a doctor she idolizes is marrying an old friend of hers in Germany. Felicity believes if she could meet this man he could change her future, but she has no money of her own to make the trip. Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid.

In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.

Thoughts: After thoroughly enjoying Mackenzi Lee’s previous novel pertaining to the Montague siblings, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, I expected to like this book just as much. In the end, though, I can’t say that I did. Oh, I definitely enjoyed my time with it, and it certainly has its strengths and is worth taking the time to read if you’re a fan of YA historical fiction, but it didn’t captivate me in the same way as its predecessor, and after that strong introduction to the author’s writing, this one felt like a bit of a let-down in comparison.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy allows Felicity (Monty’s sister and semi-unwilling traveling companion from the previous book) to take centre stage as she tries to gain admittance into the grand masculine halls of higher education. Unsurprisingly given the time period of these books, she is unsuccessful, with her gender being held against her as making her “unfit” to study medicine. Because girly parts and wandering uteruses and blah blah fragile masculinity blah. Felicity is not so much upset as she is angry about this. So when there’s the slim hope of a chance to study under a man she admires, Dr. Platt, she launches herself head-first forward. Even if it means reuniting with an old friend she fell out with years ago. Even if it involves getting mixed up with pirates and murky schemes.

Even if her idol isn’t quite the man she thought he was.

For all that The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy maintains a similar sense of adventure as its predecessor, that adventure didn’t grab me in quite the same way. It wasn’t that I wasn’t invested in Felicity’s journey or her discoveries about the world and herself, but Monty’s starring role in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue meant that a delightfully irreverent sense of humour was there throughout the pages, and his general absence here meant a lack of the same. Felicity’s narration is very different from Monty’s, filled more with anger and stubbornness than wit and baffled privilege. Felicity viewpoint is absolutely important, and still relevant today (much to my chagrin), but as far as entertainment value, I do have to say that Monty’s narration really gave the previous novel an edge over this one.

Felicity’s position is undeniably a hard one to be in. She’s intelligent, driven, passionate, and she wants more for her life than just to settle down and be the wife to a man who would expect her to put away childish things like the desire to learn and be respected in the same way and for doing the same things that a man would. Felicity doesn’t want to be a man, but she wants what men have, and who can blame her? Society dictates that she, her very essence, is unseemly, that she should have abandoned her desires as a childish conceit, or at least done what her friend Johanna did and become more acceptably feminine even if her academic interests remained the same. Through the story Felicity wrestles time and again with whether pursuing her goals is even worth it, whether she can say that it brings her happiness or peace to do so even with the knowledge that she will very likely fail, or whether she should shunt all of that to the side and aim for more social acceptance and put on the mask of civility so that she stops rubbing everyone around her raw.

Honestly, it’s a debate I’ve had with myself multiple times, so I can very much understand and appreciate Felicity’s dilemma. Is it better to hide the deepest part of oneself and to conform in the name of making life more harmonious, or is it better to be true to oneself even if the cost is social cohesion and connection? Which brings greater satisfaction? Which is more important? Though it may seem to the reader that Felicity comes off as flip-floppy or indecisive regarding something we already know she feels strongly about, that indecision is, in fact, a very realistic aspect to the lives of many who don’t fit in, who are too passionate or odd to adapt to society’s mold. Frankly, I’m in my 30s and I still wrestle with this from time to time. It’s a debate that doesn’t just end after one decision. There is always something around the corner that makes you doubt whether self-denial might be worth it after all.

Once again comparing this novel to the one that came before it, the supernatural element seemed stronger and more overt this time around. In Monty’s story, the mere rumour of a magical or alchemical panacea drove a lot of the plot forward. Here, while for a while the story is about Felicity reaching Dr. Platt and then uncovering his true motives, there’s also the issue of Sim, whose presence comes and goes but is ultimately tied to her family’s legacy of keeping the secret of the sea serpents whose scales act like a drug when ingested. Once Sim reveals that information, Felicity can look back on her interactions with Platt and see that he already knew about the serpents and their scales, and that the otherwordly (so to speak) element was present the whole time within the story.

Honestly, this didn’t really do anything for me. Felicity and Johanna’s encounter with the sea serpents and their theories on how they live were interesting and reminiscent of Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, but the execution of that plot element didn’t feel as deft as the similar element in the previous book. As I said, I was intrigued by how much Monty was driven by the rumour of the alchemical panacea, to the point where it frankly didn’t really matter whether there was truth behind the rumour or not. The possibility sparked both adventure and misadventure, and it was a great example of what a person can do with mere whispers in their ears. Here, though, it was like Felicity’s goal changed repeatedly, that she had nothing until she had everything, and there wasn’t a great mystery to solve, no wondering as to the truth of what she hears. There are sea serpents, Platt is after them, the scales do exactly what Felicity had been told they do.

If it had been more akin to what The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue had presented, Sim’s family would have believed the dragons to be real but wouldn’t have show undeniable proof, Felicity and Johanna would never have found the dead beached serpent nor its orphaned offspring, a serpent wouldn’t have risen from the depths to crush their enemies, and the whole journey would have been Felicity trying to reach her mentor, then going off on an adventure with her childhood friend to discover whether or not the rumours of such miraculous creatures had any truth to them, and they would have found nothing concrete but seen something under the ocean’s waves that we’d all know to be the sea serpent, but that’s as close as anyone would come to concrete evidence. The journey sparked by personal ambition, changing to include the desires of or for a childhood friend, rumours pushing them on, and in the end both nothing and everything changed.

Since I’m sure it’s on the minds of anyone reading this review, yes, there is once again queer representation in this book, though it’s not exactly as positive as before. Felicity isn’t precisely disgusted by the relationship between her brother and Percy, but she acts often as though she doesn’t want to see it and doesn’t want to be around them when they’re acting like a couple. She accepts that they’re in love and that they make each other happy, but she herself is happiest when they’re not around her being happy with each other. Frankly, that was rather unpleasant to read.

Sim is undeniably attracted to women (less sure about whether she’s attracted to men also; that wasn’t really touched on), and I honestly would read an entire novel about her because she’s a great character with lots of potential, although as I mentioned previously, she dips in and out of the story when the plot needs her to, so she’s not present as much as she could be and as such didn’t get as much development as some of the others. And I know it’s likely to be a case of Unfortunate Implications rather than anything deliberate, but when Sim is a Muslim woman who vanishes from the story at intervals because it’s not convenient to have her around and doesn’t get the development of characters like Johanna, it can come across a bit as saying that the openly-Muslim characters aren’t as important as the white Europeans. Or that they’re only good to have around when they’re needed to advance someone else’s story. Again, probably not the author’s intention, but it can read that way at times, and it’s something that’s worth paying attention to.

As for how Felicity relates to queer representation… It’s not said explicitly, since the terms weren’t really in common use with modern connotations during the time this book is set, but Felicity is probably either asexual, aromantic, or both. I’m not even entirely sure, if Felicity were given those terms and modern knowledge, whether she would know. Neither man nor woman has been able to light a fire in her, so to speak, but that doesn’t narrow it down, and it might just mean she doesn’t like kissing. It’s not a universal like, after all. And while it was good to see a potentially aro/ace character in a YA novel, I do have some issues with the presentation.

First, it’s not concrete. As I said, her experience has mostly been that she hasn’t been interested in anyone so far and isn’t that into kissing. Compared to her brother’s clear and self-expressed attraction to men and women, it’s easy for readers who don’t want to see more aro/ace characters to just not read that in Felicity, and to downplay it as her just not having found “the right person” yet.

And believe me, I wish I could properly convey the sour feeling associated with those words, because I’ve heard them from many people in regard to myself, and there’s a lot of bitterness surrounding the idea that asexual people just need somebody to awaken latent sexual desire within them. Like we’re all “late bloomers,” sexually immature, and that we need sexytimes to prove to ourselves that we want sexytimes, and yes, “you’ll want it after you’ve had it,” is a common idea and is just as damaging and creepy as you might think it is.

Secondly, a lot of presentations of asexuality in media come across as more a matter of a character not knowing what they want and less as knowing what they don’t want. Asexual people do go through a journey of discovery when it comes to their sexuality, absolutely, and we don’t always instantly know, “Ah yes, I absolutely have no sexual or romantic desire for people,” but very often the formula seems to break down as:

Am I interested in the opposite gender? No.
Am I interested in the same gender? No.
Well golly, there must be something wrong and weird about me. Why can’t I decide which I like?

The idea that sexual or romantic attraction is innate rather than just being common is one that prevents asexual and aromantic people from accepting themselves. And society backs up this idea, because there’s so much even now that tells us we have to define ourselves by what we are, by what we like, that nobody every considers that not liking a thing is a thing in itself. If someone didn’t like living in apartments, we wouldn’t automatically assume that they do like living in houses, but we go that route with sexuality all the time. If someone has no attraction to either gender, they often struggle defining themselves because this culture and this language doesn’t really have much call for expressing who we are by what we don’t have an interest in. That seems negative,and so must be discouraged. We can’t say that we dislike living in apartments; we must say we like living in houses, even if that isn’t really the truth of the matter. Even if the dislike of apartments defines us more than liking to live in houses, our identity must stem from what we like, what we are, what we do, or else we’re curmudgeons and negative and nobody wants to be around a Negative Nelly.

Where am I going with this? Essentially, to the point that Felicity’s sexual orientation in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is hinted at only by telling us what she doesn’t like. We’re meant to follow that to the conclusion of asexuality or aromanticism, but its never said. Felicity never says, or thinks, “I have no romantic or sexual desire for anybody.” She just expresses that kissing men didn’t appeal to her, and kissing Sim was better but still not that appealing, and so the reader is meant to reach the conclusion through a series of if/then coding. If not this, then that. If not that, then the other thing. Saying it without saying it, because even if a clever author could easily find ways to express that a lack of desire is still something, there was no such cleverness here, and it was disappointing.

Third and final, Felicity’s potential asexuality and/or aromanticism is tied to her personality of not having much time for anyone and anything that doesn’t suit her and her goals. She’s impatient, driven, passionate, and at times extremely single-minded, and it’s too easy to read that her lack of desire for sexual or romantic connection is just another facet of that “no time for anything else” personality, rather than something that can and does play a part in the lives of many kinds of people with a variety of different personality types. It’s a trope at this point. The asexual characters is nearly always the one that’s asexual due to trauma or religion, or they’re the obsessive goes-against-the-grain type that often can’t see outside their own narrow scope.

And once again, it was disappointing.

Similar to the issue with Sim, I feel that this was less the author’s deliberate intention and more a case of unfortunate implications. But these implications are once again things that can damage and delay acceptance. I can all too easily imagine a teen reading this book and thinking, “Felicity’s just like me that way, I’m not interested in sex/romance either, but oh wait, Felicity’s not interested in anything outside of her focus and drive to get into medicine, so maybe she’s got so time for romance just like she had no time for Johanna’s pretty dresses.” Instead of someone seeing themselves in a book for possibly the first time, they see someone who might be like them, maybe, but it’s so easy to explain away, and it’s never even explicitly stated to begin with.

I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy this book. I will say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor, and that I found the previous book to be better on a multitude of levels. I can see The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy appealing to people who enjoy historical fiction, and to those who are interested in historical aspects of feminism. But where The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue shone, this book merely glitters in comparison, and I think it could have stood a couple more sensitivity readers going over the material to smooth over some of the rough edges that might scratch at people who need to be met with better. It’s easily skippable even if you really enjoyed the first book of the series, though in fairness, a third book is still on the horizon and might well build off certain things established here, so I can’t say for absolute certainty that this will remain my opinion in the future.

The Walled City, by Ryan Graudin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2019

Summary: 730. That’s how many days I’ve been trapped. 18. That’s how many days I have left to find a way out.

Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there traffic drugs or work in brothels–or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself.

Thoughts: I’d heard so many good things about The Walled City, and the concept certainly intrigued me. A city cut off from the things and people outside it, a lawlessness that had its own rules, people caught up in schemes far bigger than they could imagine, all intersecting to bring their stories together. It seemed like a great starting point for an epic story.

So what went wrong?

I suspect in many ways the disconnect I felt for this book is purely a personal thing, because most other reviews I read for it don’t mention the particular aspects that were problems for me. Everyone’s got their individual tastes, and that’s fine. But in the interest of full disclosure, and because there’s always the possibility that there’s someone out there who will have the same problems, I feel that they’re worth discussing.

The Walled City of Hak Nam is based on Kowloon Walled City, an old fort in Hong Kong that was essentially left to its own devices and became a sort of city within a city, a place where the usual rules don’t apply, and where drugs, murder, prostitution, the whole nine yards were run often without any interference from outside forces, because Kowloon both was and wasn’t within Hong Kong’s jurisdiction. It was a complicated situation, just as it is within The Walled City, with Hak Nam replacing Kowloon, and Seng Ngoi replacing Hong Kong.

You might think, then, that The Walled City is a small sample of a much larger world, the story that we get to see set in a secondary world that is most decidedly not the world we know and live in. But no, not really. Or if it is, it’s the same in every respect except for two place names being different. The world within The Walled City has 747 airplanes, Mercedes cars, television. Seng Ngoi and Hak Nam are in the eastern part of the world, and English is a language. It seems, for all intents and purposes, that The Walled City is set in this world, only, as I said, with 2 places having different names than we’re used to.

This comes across an awful lot like the author wanted to write a story set within Kowloon, but didn’t want to commit to writing something about a place that actually existed, and so instead set the story in a place that was identical for all intents and purposes, but with an easy out in case something ended up not being historically accurate to the places that inspired the book’s setting. A way to say, “Well, it’s not really Kowloon, not really Hong Kong, so there’s nothing to really be accurate about.”

Which left this world wide open for so much creative execution, so many ways to change a few things here and there and make it a wholly original world, even if it was heavily inspired by something real. Television could still happen in this world, but just leave out the mentions of brand names. The setting can be in the east, but change English to, I don’t know, some language that isn’t real and that you don’t have to deal with beyond giving it a name. Then suddenly Hak Nam and Seng Ngoi become real within their own world, a self-contained part of a much broader reality, instead of being fake places based on real places, set in the real world.

It would have been a small change but it would have made so much difference, at least to my reading of the book. It felt like unused potential, and it dogged the footsteps of the story throughout.

As for the story itself, rather than the setting, it was interesting enough. The book follows three primary characters: Dai, a rich boy who was exiled to Hak Nam and now seeks to find evidence against a drug lord to barter for his freedom; Jin, a girl who disguises herself as a boy for her safety and whose goal is to find her sister within one of the city’s brothels; and Mei Yee, Jin’s sister, working within one of the brothels owned by Hak Nam’s most powerful drug lord. Jin and Dai’s paths cross and they begin working together, mostly for Dai’s purposes but it also dovetails nicely into Jin’s plan to find and free her sister. Naturally, Dai ends up meeting Mei Yee along the way, conversing with her through her window since Mei Yee isn’t allowed outside, and the two develop a crush on each other as they learn more about each other’s lives and goals.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, and their voices are distinct enough that it’s easy to tell them apart despite all chapters being written in the first person. Mei Yee has more poetic imagery in her observations, Dai is confident and cocky, and Jin’s sentences are often shorter and to the point, which ties back well to her life on the street filled with abbreviated experiences and frantic lifestyle. You can turn to any random page in the book and within a few sentences get a very clear idea of who is narrating, and credit where credit is due, that’s a tough thing to manage and I think the author pulled it off quite well.

The romance between Dai and Mei Yee was fairly predictable, and though it wasn’t given much time to really develop on the pages, it still was somewhat sweet. The two do fall for each other without knowing much about who the other really is and what they really want at first, and I think much of their attraction was based on who they each wanted the other to be, a sort of aspirational crush, as it were, but it was still rather cute to read their budding romance and to wonder how long it would last once they experienced the world beyond Hak Nam’s walls and their own immediate wants? Would it survive? Would they remain compatible with each other? Were they even as compatible as they assumed they were? Honestly, I can’t answer any of those questions, because the focus of the story wasn’t on their romance. But I will say that their interest was believable, realistic, and didn’t immediately go into the realm of obsessive attraction, and for that, I was thankful.

In the end, The Walled City wasn’t a bad story, and it had enough action and intrigue to convince me to read the whole thing through, but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have easily been so much more. The world-building felt nonexistent at best and confused at worst, and as I previously mentioned, it felt like the author was afraid to commit to telling a story about people in the actual Kowloon Walled City. It ended up making a novel that was somewhere between historical fiction and speculative/secondary-world fiction, fitting in neither and so being very hard to categorize. This is one you read when you want something you don’t want to look deeply at, because then the cracks become obvious and you start to ask more questions that can’t be answered. Its lack of easy categorization makes it difficult to recommend: “people might enjoy this if they enjoy… books, I guess?”

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Shards and Ashes, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong

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Armstrong’s website / Marr’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 19, 2013

Summary: Gripping original stories of dystopian worlds from nine New York Times bestselling authors, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong.

The world is gone, destroyed by human, ecological, or supernatural causes. Survivors dodge chemical warfare and cruel gods; they travel the reaches of space and inhabit underground caverns. Their enemies are disease, corrupt corporations, and one another; their resources are few, and their courage is tested.

Powerful original dystopian tales from nine bestselling authors offer bleak insight, prophetic visions, and precious glimmers of light among the shards and ashes of a ruined world.

Review: In every dystopian novel, there are countless characters who do things that aren’t worthy of a full book, but are no less interesting to read about. Sometimes authors come up with dystopian settings or concepts they’d like to play with but that can’t really be expanded into a full world as is. And quite frankly, I think an anthology of dystopian stories is a great idea. As burned out as I can get on YA dystopian fiction, I admit that part of that burnout is due to the stories often being transparent until they get ridiculously convoluted. Or else being an idea that is interesting in its own right but when stretched out to novel-length, becomes tedious and pondering. Short stories are a great way to get around this, and even people who feel that the genre is on its way out can find a fair bit to enjoy within a book that takes us to multiple different dystopian worlds to explore multiple different ideas.

Of course, as with any anthology, stories can run the gamut between meh and amazing. So it is with this one too, unsurprisingly. But there were still a few memorably stories in here that I feel are worth pointing out.

Veronica Roth’s Hearken takes place in a world where not only is bio-terrorism a sadly common occurrence, but also certain people can hear songs of life and death with the aid of a special implant. Everybody has such a song, from the moment they’re born until they die, as we all have life and death in our existence. These musically-inclined individuals can play and record the song of someone’s life or death, as requested, a sort of musical record of some of the most existential concepts we really have. The story focuses on Darya, her difficult childhood, and her life leading up to her decision as to whether she wants to focus on songs of life or songs of death. It’s an interesting concept that Roth played with here, and as I mentioned earlier, I doubt it’s one that could fill an entire novel, but it certainly made for a decent short story.

Margaret Stohl’s Necklace of Raindrops was one that I have mixed feelings about, if I’m being honest. The story takes place in a world where life is measured by beads on a necklace. The more beads, the longer your life will be. But people “spend” beads for memorable experiences, like skydiving, or trips to interesting places. A person’s life is a balance between being long and being interesting. You can live for a long time if you don’t spend your beads, but the question is whether such an uninteresting life is really worth it. Taken literally, there are so many logical problems with this story that I don’t even know where to begin. Who decided this? How does the bead system work? Do the spent beads go to someone, who redistributes them? Who decides what experience is worth what cost? And so on. But taken symbolically, it’s a lot more interesting. Stohl writes a metaphor come to life, and to hell with the logistical conundrums! While I like knowing the ins and outs of how a dystopian world is supposed to function, sometimes those details get in the way of a good story, and I commend Stohl for experimenting like this.

Carrie Ryan’s Miasma is set in a world filled with sickness and death, and medicine as we know it has failed. To keep contagion from getting out of hand, there are old-fashioned plague doctors wandering the streets, their bird-like masks hiding more than just their faces but some deeper agenda. They bring with them animals that can sniff out disease like prey. The protagonist, Frankie, knows her younger sister is sick but uses tricks to keep her from being taken away, like bathing in scented water to mask the smell of illness. Pleasant smells, after all, are believed to keep away the evil disease-causing miasma, similar to very old European theories on disease. Of all the stories in this anthology, this was the one I most wanted to see more of. More of the world, more of the characters, more of the deeper plot that’s hinted at as the story goes on. A lot of the others were one-shot short stories, but this one feels like there could be so much more to it, and I’d love to read that.

The other stories in the collection were okay, but none of them really made an impression on me the way these three did. There were plenty of big name authors here to catch your attention if you’re a fan of YA novels (Melissa Marr, in addition to co-editing this collection, also wrote a story for it, as did Kelley Armstrong), but I’ve read surprisingly few of those authors myself, so that wasn’t what pulled me in. I was looking for a quick read and some interesting ideas. This book certainly was a quick read, and there were some interesting ideas indeed, but there were also a number of pretty predictable ones. Definitely fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I think I went into this book expecting something else. It wasn’t bad, not at all, but it also wasn’t something that made a particularly deep impression on me, aside from a few of the stories. As I said, if you’re a fan of the authors whose stories are included here, or you’re a fan of YA dystopian stories in general, then this anthology might be right up your alley, and I encourage you to check it out if you’re able to. But if you don’t fall into those categories, I don’t think you’ll find too much here that will appeal to you. So, mostly for YA and YA dystopia fans, I think.

 

Marked, by Sue Tingey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 6, 2015

Summary: In a world filled with charlatans, Lucinda “Lucky” de Salle’s psychic ability has always made her an outcast, even as it has also made her a sought-after (if reluctant) investigator of paranormal phenomena. With no remaining family and very few friends, she has only one “person” she can rely on–Kayla, the ghost girl who has been her constant companion since she was born.

When Lucky is called in to investigate a spectral disturbance at the all-girls school she attended as a child, she isn’t surprised. She herself had had a terrifying confrontation with the troubled spirits of two girls who died in the attic room. But when Lucky goes up to the attic, she discovers that the vicious little girls are the least of the problem–a demon has been released into this world, a creature of such malevolence that even the spirits of the two girls are afraid. When the demon demands that Kayla be handed over to him, Lucky realizes that this case will be like no other she has ever experienced.

For one thing, it seems that her chatty, snarky spirit companion is not what she has always seemed to be…

Review: Sue Tingey;s debut novel, Marked, centres around Lucky, a paranormal investigator with psychic powers, and quite frankly, she doesn’t want them. They haven’t done her much good in life, and her abilities have served to alienate her from friends, family, and any potential romantic relationships she may have developed over time. She isolates herself, sticking instead to the company of Kayla, a ghost who has been Lucky’s friend and companion for years. Ghosts, she’s used to.

Demons, not so much.

And demons now seem to want to get very familiar with her.

Sue Tingey’s Marked is one of those books where, just when you think you get a proper handle on where the story is going, it changes direction and you end up in a different place entirely. It’s not out of the question to think, from the early pages and the back-of-the-book description, that this is going to be a book mostly about investigating a haunting, or hauntings, and maybe things escalate when it turns out it’s not just ghosts involved but actual demons. Only then new information comes to light which shifts the tone and sends the plot spiraling in a new direction. This does well to keep the reader engaged, to keep us wondering what plot twist will be just around the next corner.

In my opinion, the book really takes off once Lucky’s heritage is revealed, and the Underlands come into play. I tend to enjoy books that involve “fish out of water” experiences, especially where culture is involved, so seeing Lucky try to navigate a new society and figure out what’s going on around her when social norms are different from what she’s used to was just plain entertaining, at least for me. That being said, though, it did create some awkward moments when Lucky companions, mostly male, kept telling her not to do things, or outright blocking her from doing things, “for her own good.” I understand that they knew the society and world better than she did, but scenes like that always make me cringe a bit, because they echo so many incidents in the real world, where men tell women how to do things “for their own good,” without any thought to what they might want or need. Especially when most of the advice for Lucky was, “Stay quiet and let us do the talking for you.”

In many ways, Marked feels like a typical YA novel written up for adults. Which is no bad thing, really. Plenty of adults enjoy YA. I enjoy YA sometimes. No shame in it. But what I mostly mean is that Marked follows a fairly standard SFF YA novel formula. “Main character is different, discovers something about them that makes them even more different and special, is involved in a love triangle, and is part of a book written in first-person POV.” Props to Tingey, though, since I was at least interested in the love triangle this time around; most of the time, I roll my eyes and wish that trope could die a death. Rarely does it actually add any tension or interest to the story, and it’s been done so many times that it’s pretty much an industry standard, and I’m rather tired of that. If an author has to rely on, “Which guy will the girl pick?” as a way of manufacturing tension, then the rest of the story isn’t actually that interesting. Give me tension cause by the plot, not just the romance.

Which Tingey does, to be fair. And the characters are far more than just pretty faces and their positions within said triangle, which helps. Jaime and Jinx each had their own motivations beyond an interest in Lucky, and vice versa, so I can let this trope pass because it wasn’t the all-consuming issue that a lot of authors make it.

So why isn’t this book rated higher than 3 stars? Honestly, I think I’d give it 3.5 if I have half-star ratings here, as I think it’s somewhere between good and very good. While it definitely has moments of good creativity and some interesting characters, and even threw a curveball or two, it was still pretty formulaic in a lot of ways. I like Lucky’s sass, but I’m not so fond of yet another story being told about a woman who’s super special, most special of all the special people. Stories don’t often get told about mundane people, sure, but this story could have been told in the same way without Lucky also inspiring the loyalty of multiple different factions of supernatural entity, as well as being given a dragon. A freaking dragon.

(Don’t get my wrong. I love that dragon. It’s awesome. But it’s another sign of Lucky’s super specialness, and when combined with everything else, it actually loses some of the special value because damn near everything about her is special and unique. Pyrites becomes part of Lucky’s uniqueness overload.)

Is Marked a bad book? Not at all. It was a fun read, and there’s plenty to enjoy about it. I enjoyed reading it. It was well-paced, written quite well, and full of interesting characters and situations to move the story along. But it did suffer in some areas, and when it did have flaws, they were pretty glaring flaws.

Other people might not have the same problems with it that I did, especially if they’re more fans of the formula than I am. I’m interested in read the sequel at some point, to be sure, because I do want to see where the story leads and how everything plays out. I can overlook a lot of what I didn’t like about the book because other parts have such appeal. I think that says a lot. I’d call it a light read, the kind of thing I’d turn to when I’m in the mood for a book that doesn’t tax me or make me think too deeply about things, something where I just want to get lost in the action and ignore heavier issues. It’s definitely good for that.

So if you’re a fan of YA paranormal novels but fancy something that’s written more for adults, then definitely take a look at Marked.

(Received for review from the publisher.)