Serena’s Review: “Dragonslayer”

40045979Book: “Dragonslayer” by Duncan M. Hamilton

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: Once a member of the King’s personal guard, Guillot dal Villevaurais spends most days drinking and mourning his wife and child. He’s astonished–and wary–when the Prince Bishop orders him to find and destroy a dragon. He and the Prince Bishop have never exactly been friends and Gill left the capitol in disgrace five years ago. So why him? And, more importantly, how is there a dragon to fight when the beasts were hunted to extinction centuries ago by the ancient Chevaliers of the Silver Circle?

On the way to the capitol city, Gill rescues Solène, a young barmaid, who is about to be burned as a witch. He believes her innocent…but she soon proves that she has plenty of raw, untrained power, a problem in this land, where magic is forbidden. Yet the Prince Bishop believes magic will be the key to both destroying the dragon and replacing the young, untried King he pretends to serve with a more pliable figurehead. Between Gill’s rusty swordsmanship and Solène’s unstable magic, what could go wrong?

Review: While, like Kate, I prefer my dragon stories to have the dragons on the good guys’ side, I’ll take what I can get as far as they go. And the title was obvious enough! I also really like this particular cover art illustrator who does a lot of work for books published by Tor, so whenever I see one of his works, I’m often even more interested. But, while this book did deliver on what it promised, it sadly didn’t do much else.

Gill has it fairly well settled that his heroic days are in the past. Content to spend his days drinking and mourning the loss of his family, he’s shocked when he’s call upon by the Prince Bishop to kill a dragon. For one, aren’t dragons gone? And for two, why on earth would the Prince Bishop choose him of all people? But every good hero needs a companion, and Gill finds his in an unexpected place: a witch burning. While Solene has very little control over her powers, it is possible that her abilities could be necessary to dispose of the dragon. And so this odd couple sets out on what could either be a grand adventure or a grand disaster.

This is one of those strange books to review. I know it, and the other two books in the series, were very positively reviewed, and I understand why. The writing is solid. The characterization is interesting and fleshed out. And the adventure is just what is says it is: two oddballs on a dragon-slaying quest. There’s nothing technically wrong with any of these things, and I think I can say with some confidence, judging on all the positive reviews, there is definitely an audience out there who wants this type of straight-forward, non-challenging fantasy adventure. I can even be one of them sometimes, as I know I’ve definitely come across books that haven’t pushed the limit much but still scratched a particular entertainment itch. For me, though, I just wanted…more.

In many ways, we’ve seen Gill and Solene many, many times before. Especially Gill. He’s the drunken, ex-hero who lost his family and lost his vaulted position in society until he gets an unexpected call-to-arms. I get that personal loss is a deep well of emotional motivation and exploration, but man, the drunk dude who loses his wife and kid, sinks into drinking, but then once the adventure starts never gives them a second though? Seen that guy a few too many times. If you’re going to kill off the family and make the loss still poignant enough that your main character is essentially drinking himself to death over it still, I want to see the story address his actual emotional arc for getting through that. Not just have an adventure happen and have it seem like all he really needed was a distraction to put those pesky deaths out of his mind.

Solene, too, was fine enough. But again, we’ve seen the magic user with no control of her powers in a land that hates magic a million times before. The fact that others may want to use her powers for their own ends is no shocker and a theme that has been run to death. Like Gill, she’s a likable character on her own, it’s just that there wasn’t much there to make her stick out from the massive crowd of characters just like her who came before.

I think one of the best and most unique things about this book were the chapters from the antagonist’s perspective, the dragon’s perspective. This was probably one of the few major twists and interesting takes the story had to offer, and I thought the author pulled it off very well. The dragon had a very interesting voice, and hearing that side of the equation is definitely not something I had seen before in this type of book.

Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with this book. I’ve just read this type of swords and staffs fantasy adventure a million times before. The main characters didn’t have enough to make them stand out, and while the adventure was fun enough, it never seemed to dive any deeper than the surface level on any given theme. In many ways, it’s a beach read fantasy story. And that’s not an insult! Sometimes we all just need a solid, expected, non-challenging story to get us through the day. I think I had just hoped for more from this one.

Rating 6: A bit of a let down and not adding much that is new to the genre.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Dragonslayer” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Fantastical, Bingeable Backlist.”

Find “Dragonslayer” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Merciful Crow”

36483378._sx318_Book: “The Merciful Crow” by Margaret Own

Publishing Info: Henry Holt, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: A future chieftain.

Fie abides by one rule: look after your own. Her Crow caste of undertakers and mercy-killers takes more abuse than coin, but when they’re called to collect royal dead, she’s hoping they’ll find the payout of a lifetime.

A fugitive prince.

When Crown Prince Jasimir turns out to have faked his death, Fie’s ready to cut her losses—and perhaps his throat. But he offers a wager that she can’t refuse: protect him from a ruthless queen, and he’ll protect the Crows when he reigns.

A too-cunning bodyguard.

Hawk warrior Tavin has always put Jas’s life before his, magically assuming the prince’s appearance and shadowing his every step. But what happens when Tavin begins to want something to call his own?

Review: As with many popular YA fantasy series (there are just too many!), I often don’t get around to them until I see the sequel start popping up on early release sites. And then in a temporary lapse of judgement I request the sequel only to quickly realize that means, oh wait, I have to get my hands on the first one, get it read, and review it before I can even start the book I just so eagerly requested. I do this again and again, and do I ever learn? Nope! It’s even more frustrating when I read the first book and don’t care for it, knowing I’ve already committed myself to the sequel. Luckily, that’s not the case with this one!

Fie belongs to the lowest of the low, a caste of people whose only job is to care for the dead and dying of a deadly plague that sporadically grips various villages and townships. While completely necessary to the function of society, Crows are at best ignored and at worst hunted in the night. So, when one of their typical jobs caring for two dying young men ends up with Fie and her fellow caught up in a plan of an escaping prince and his comrade, Fie takes the opportunity for all its worth, bargaining for a better future for her and her people. But first, she must find a way to deliver these two to safety, despite everything set against them.

Every once in a while when I read an audiobook, I’m aware of how my reading experience is probably affecting my overall take on the book in hand. This can go two ways, of course, with a poor narrator sinking a book almost immediately, and a skilled one catching my in more quickly than I might have been had I been reading in the traditional manner. I think this is one of the latter experiences. The narrator for this book was excellent, giving many characters, especially Fie herself, unique accents and ways of speaking. The book was certainly written to suggest that Fie had a Scottish accent of sorts, so it was great that the narrator was able to fully capture this aspect of the story. She was also able to add a lot of understated tension and emotion to Fie, something that I think probably wasn’t as obvious just on the page itself.

The book obviously had certain things in its favor regardless of media format. I really liked the bird-based caste system and world-building that the author set up. There were interesting connections and powers that neatly aligned with the type of bird that was used to represent a certain caste. Crows, obviously, deal with the dead. Hawks are skilled hunters and warriors. And so on.

While overall I understood the role the Crows played in this society, I did question the vehemence at which they were often hated by those around them. They seem to perform a pretty essential task, dealing with the plague-ridden, and as the only caste that doesn’t suffer from this plague, they’re really the only options for people. We also learn that pretty dire things happen if a plague ridden body isn’t dealt with properly. Given all of this, I can get how a Caste like this might inspire wariness from the general public, but how do we get to the state where they’re literally hunted down and killed at times? Seems pretty backward for really the only Caste that is actually necessary to the ongoing survival of a people. There were bits and pieces of the world-building like this that I never felt were fully explained or lined up properly. It was often distracting when these questions came up, as I was usually able to sink into just enjoying the main character and her journey and was only jarred out of it when these moments arose.

Fie herself was an excellent main character. She’s rough and tumble and perfectly exemplifies the type of no-nonsense person that would survive and grow into a leadership position in this type of society. She’s seen things and has no time for the nonsense of others. Her very different relationships with Tavin and Jasimir are also very interesting. The romantic relationship was perhaps a bit too easy and obvious. But I enjoyed the struggles that she went through in understanding the prince and of them both coming to a place of mutual respect. Each had to learn of the restrictions placed on the other and how their own worldviews influenced how they saw change happening going forward.

While I was interested in Fie’s own personal story, the book did drag a bit in the middle. There’s a lot of traveling.  A lot. And often if felt like not much was really happening in between some of the bigger scenes. It’s also the type of book that, while I enjoyed it in the moment, it hasn’t stuck with me as much as I had hoped. Even now, only a week or so after I finished it, I’m struggling a bit to remember exactly how things lay in the set-up for book two. That said, however, I definitely enjoyed it enough to be looking forward to the sequel and conclusion of this story. It will be interesting to see how it does not in audio format as well.

Rating 7:  A bit forgettable with some questionable world-building, but a strong main character and audiobook narrator really sold this one for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Merciful Crow” for some reason isn’t on many interesting Goodreads lists, but it is on “Crows and Ravens.”

Find “The Merciful Crow” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

My Year with Jane Austen – “Emma” [1996]

mv5bn2e1ytuzzdatodq2ys00mwnjlwezmzatzjgwy2m3ztcwotjhxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynje5mjuyotm40._v1_uy268_cr00182268_al_Movie: “Emma”

Release Year: 1996

Actors: Emma – Gwyneth Paltrow

Mr. Knightley – Jeremy Northam

Harriet Smith – Toni Collette

Frank Churchill – Ewan McGregor

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

This and the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” were probably my earliest adaptations of Jane Austen books that I watched repeatedly. Since the release of the 2009 version of “Emma,” I’ve preferred that one, but much of that comes down to its longer length and my never-ending love for Johnny Lee Miller. I ultimately still enjoy this version and can appreciate Paltrow’s version of the main character.

The movie definitely stays more true to the book in the first half of the story, covering the Harriet/Elton/Emma love triangle pretty effectively. Once Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax arrive on the scene, the story diverges more and leaves about a bunch of fairly critical information/scenes that really establish the situation going on there. While effectively changing the way that story line plays out and the fallout of that situation, overall, given the time restraints of this movie, things still seems to come together well enough. If you were going to cut back on a portion of the story, it makes sense that it would be that one. It really does take all of those extra scenes and little side comments from Frank Churchill to establish the full history of between him and Jane and why she would choose to pursue being a governess. There’s no way to really include all of that without either cutting back on Harriet’s story or cutting back on Knightley and Emma, which would be inexcusable.

The movie keeps a few important lines of dialogue, but definitely strays pretty far from adhering to close to the original. More often than not, it will cover similar scenes and topics of conversation but mildly tweak the actual dialogue itself. Most of this works well enough, though I didn’t care as much for this version of the final romantic exchange between Mr. Knightley and Emma. Instead, I appreciated more the added small jokes that the movie threw in between these two characters which I thought worked very well and highlighted the good chemistry between the two actors.

While I still prefer the 2009 version (it’s really just impossible to compete with a version that can devote literally two times more time to the story), I do like this adaptation overall. I don’t have any real complaints with Paltrow’s interpretation of the character or much of what is cut. I also think the music, costuming, and many of the outdoor sets are also excellent and tie well together with the overall tone of the movie.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Since this film’s release, Gwyneth Paltrow has developed a certain reputation that often plays against her. I’m not quibbling with that, as she has definitely said and done some things that deserve all the raised eyebrows. But as a performer, I’ve never had a problem with her. And in my opinion she’s pretty perfectly cast as Emma. Even the weirdness of the actress kind of makes sense for a character like Emma!

While she definitely plays Emma a bit more cool than some of the version we’ll see later on,  I do think that this interpretation is pretty close to the book’s description and to what one could expect of a lady of the time in her position. She’s polite and proper for the most part, but we do see small breaks that show that she’s still a flawed young woman: snapping a bit at Mr. Elton at the Christmas party, deferring performing at the party until Jane is suggested as an alternative, etc.

The movie also includes a bit of inner narration for the character which I think is an interesting and almost necessary aspect to really get at Emma’s inner thoughts and all the flaws in her own reasoning. To make up for where this tactic doesn’t work, the movie adds in more talks between Emma and Mrs. Weston that further elaborate. Emma confesses to Mrs. Weston the mess she made of the Elton/Harriet situation, swears off matchmaking, and then promptly begins wondering aloud who would be right for Harriet. She also confesses her realization about her own feelings for Mr. Knightley to Mrs. Weston later in the movie. Here, in something that I think is unique to this adaptation, we see Mrs. Weston give Emma instructions that exactly match what Emma had told Harriet to do with regards to Harriet’s love life earlier. It’s a nice touch that highlights just how much of Emma’s true wisdom came from Mrs. Weston originally, as we see in this later exchange that these instructions must have been things she had said before to Emma.

I also liked the way that Emma experiences the fall-out of her cruelty to Miss Bates. The event itself is made pretty heart-wrenching with Miss Bates commenting that she must be pretty intolerable for an old friend to say something like that. Mrs. Weston shoots her many disapproving looks. And, of course, the lecture from Mr. Knightley is harsh, and we see Emma immediately break down under the crushing disappointment of her friend. To make matters worse, in this version, Miss Bates refuses to see Emma the next day when Emma attempts to visit to make up for things.

I also really like Toni Collette’s version of Harriet. She’s immensely likable, and it’s impossible not to feel for her as she suffers from Emma’s nonsense. Another interesting change in her storyline is that Emma thinks up Harriet and Frank as a couple before the interaction with the gypsies. I’m not sure exactly why they changed this, as it seems much more random this way. Though we don’t hear any dialogue, I like that we see a small snippet of Emma having to confess to Harriet that she has yet again become the object of love of the man Harriet has been pining for. We see Harriet run from the room and it really help it hit home how hard this would have been for both Harriet and Emma.  To balance this out, I really like that we get an additional scene, later, where Harriet herself tells Emma about her new engagement to Robert Martin, and the two make up. It’s a bit more happy and seems to set up a future of friendship between the two than the more distanced ending in the book, but I don’t mind the change.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Jeremy Northam definitely brings his own take to the character of Mr. Knightley. I’m not sure how accurate I feel it is to the book version, however. Not that this is a huge complaint, as I think the version he brings works well with the overall tone of this movie. He’s much more teasing and laughing than the more generally serious Knightley we see in the book. The movie adds a number of additional quips and jokes between Emma and Knightley, and I think the chemistry between the two actors works well to establish this type of familiar, teasing friendship. Northam has a great way of laughing with his eyes whenever the camera cuts to him after one of Emma’s more silly moments. It’s a nice way of seeing him “in” on some of Emma’s plans that probably go unnoticed by most of the other people around them. Even their fight over Harriet and Robert Martin is more light-hearted than what we see in the book, with a few of the more heated exchanges getting broken up with humor.

The age difference thing was pretty weird, however. The movie goes out of its way to include a very specific line about how these two are 16 years apart in age, but this age discrepancy doesn’t hold true at all when actually looking at the characters involved. I’m not sure why they chose to even include this line as it wasn’t necessary in any way to the story they were telling and just threw me out of things since it seemed so glaringly inaccurate with the casting.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

I guess we’ll throw Frank Churchill in this section, though I think one of the bigger changes this movie makes is in really scaling back his storyline and making him much less “villainous” than he was in the book. For one, when he goes to confess to Emma in the first half of the movie, he ends up being interrupted and the way it is played makes it seem much more like he was actually planning on telling her the truth about him and Jane.

From there on out, he’s much less flirtatious with Emma than the version in the book. And he’s also much less cruel to Jane, both in secret jokes with Emma and in public. The Dixon joke goes nowhere, and we never see Emma and Frank put Jane on the spot over this. They don’t fight at the strawberry picking. Frank doesn’t flirt obnoxiously with Emma at Box Hill, instead spending his time distracting Mrs. Elton from her persistent haranguing of Jane about her future as a governess. And then due to all of this, Jane never takes the extreme step of actually reaching out to an employer and making plans for her future down that path. In the end, this leaves much of the harm from the Frank/Jane secret fairly toothless. Emma rants for a bit to Mrs. Weston about Frank’s being lucky that she wasn’t more attached, but from what we saw, Frank’s behavior to her wasn’t that extreme to begin with. All told, he gets off with much less criticism (particularly from Mr. Knightley) and behaves better here than he does in the book.

Ewan McGregor’s performance is solid, and he has a way of making his charm slightly sleazy at the same time, which immediately sets him apart from ever being considered a true love interest for Emma. He gets an opportunity to sing, as well, which is always a bonus!

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

The romance is nice enough in this movie. I think it plays second fiddle to much of the comedy, however. Even Emma and Mr. Knightley’s relationship plays better in their teasing friendship stage than the actual romance itself. There’s this weird running commentary of them being like brother and sister and then not actually brother and sister that I just found off-putting. I don’t need the mental image of them being like siblings ever introduced in the equation, even if they set it aside later. Just leave it be.

The dance scene is also a bit of a let-down. The dance they used in particular had Northam needing to prance about a bit more than is becoming. And the way it is filmed is never very intimate, undercutting what is usually one of the more romantic (or at least important) scenes in any Austen story. The camera stays at a distance for much of it, and while I get the symbolism of Knightley and Emma always coming together and then moving apart, it didn’t really hit home the way other dance scenes in other Austen adaptations have.

Lastly, the proposal/love confession scene at the end of the movie. I liked the awkwardness at the lead up and the way Emma shuts him down only to catch him back up and continue the conversation. The movie does include the pivotal “if I loved you less maybe I could about it more” line, but this is one of the few moments where Northam’s winking smile undercuts the sincerity of the line that makes it really hit home. They also had to add in more lines to make up for the fact that Austen never actually wrote a response for Emma. It’s ok, but I wouldn’t list this scene as the best original writing in the movie, which is too bad.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Miss Bates is quite good in this version. She adds a few tics, like shouting random words at her elderly mother, and continuously interrupting herself to fetch napkins, that really work well. She doesn’t have tons of screen time, but she works well with what she has and sets the character up well enough that the viewer really feels the cruelty in Emma’s throwaway comment at her about talking too much.

Unfortunately, Mr. Woodhouse has even less screen time so much of his humor is drastically cut back. They still include the cake moment in the beginning of the movie, which is always funny. But for much of the rest of the movie he kind of fades into the background.

Instead, the Eltons, both Mr. and Mrs., really hold the spotlight on the comedy side of things. This version of Mr. Elton really leans in to the ridiculousness of the character. He’s not made out to be very handsome or charming at all, something that the character is noted as being in the book as Knightley comments that Elton won’t waste these advantages in marriage. One almost feels sorry for any potential future Harriet would have with this version of the character. His pestering of Emma at the Christmas party is quite funny. And his cruelty towards Harriet at the ball is equally harsh.

Mrs. Elton is pretty great all around. Her constant interrupting of Mr. Elton really cements the unfortunate future he has ahead of him with this woman he deemed better than the sweet Harriet. She doesn’t have tons of screen time, so we miss some of her good moments from the book, but the movie does what it can. Instead of having her lord her position as a new bride over the ball, the movie shows various characters spotting the Eltons coming and making quick escapes, another glance into the future these two have before them. She also gets the only break of the third wall in the entire film when she speaks directly to the camera/audience, criticizing Emma’s wedding for having a deplorable lack of satin.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

The same dance used for Emma and Mr. Knightley is also used in the 1995 version of “Pride and Prejudice” for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. We see much less of it here, of course. I will say that I think it was much better suited for the latter film. The rather stuffy, overly regal tone of the dance fit better with Elizabeth’s perceptions of Darcy at the time. And the less intimate style of dance also suited the awkwardness of that situation for those two characters at that point in the story. In this story, the dance between Emma and Mr. Knightley should be one of the first overtly romantic moments we see. And, if nothing else, we should have a style of dance that highlights the close relationship these two already have, not something that distances them.

Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates are real life mother and daughter, though it was just chance that they were both cast. They are also mother and sister to Emma Thompson, so yet another Austen adaptation with some connection to that actress (the third)!

Ewan McGregor regretted being in this movie. It’s not super clear why, but he disliked his performance and noted that the atrocious wig was definitely not doing him any favors.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

Mr. Knightley’s line here is “Try not to shoot my dogs.” This is part of the scene where they’re fighting over Harriet’s future and her turning down Robert Martin. It’s a nice example of the teasing approach to the character that Northam has.

In two weeks, I’ll review the 2009 version of “Emma”

Serena’s Review: “The Empire of Gold”

46033842._sy475_Book: “The Empire of Gold” by S.A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Voyager, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Daevabad has fallen.

After a brutal conquest stripped the city of its magic, Nahid leader Banu Manizheh and her resurrected commander, Dara, must try to repair their fraying alliance and stabilize a fractious, warring people.

But the bloodletting and loss of his beloved Nahri have unleashed the worst demons of Dara’s dark past. To vanquish them, he must face some ugly truths about his history and put himself at the mercy of those he once considered enemies.

Having narrowly escaped their murderous families and Daevabad’s deadly politics, Nahri and Ali, now safe in Cairo, face difficult choices of their own. While Nahri finds peace in the old rhythms and familiar comforts of her human home, she is haunted by the knowledge that the loved ones she left behind and the people who considered her a savior are at the mercy of a new tyrant. Ali, too, cannot help but look back, and is determined to return to rescue his city and the family that remains. Seeking support in his mother’s homeland, he discovers that his connection to the marid goes far deeper than expected and threatens not only his relationship with Nahri, but his very faith.

As peace grows more elusive and old players return, Nahri, Ali, and Dara come to understand that in order to remake the world, they may need to fight those they once loved . . . and take a stand for those they once hurt.

Previously Reviewed: “City of Brass” and “Kingdom of Copper”

Review: Oh man, I’ve been looking forward to this book for so long! It’s pretty funny to think that I discovered the first book in this excellent trilogy when Kate and I were accidentally trespassing early in the main room of the convention hall at ALA several years ago. I nabbed a copy before we figured out that we weren’t supposed to be there. (By the by, we had planned to go to ALA again finally this year as a reward for surviving our first year as mothers…damn you, Covid!!) Anyways, there was an even longer wait between this book and the last, a year and a half compared to the usual year, so I was really excited when I nabbed an early review copy. And, best of all, this is the perfect ending to such a great series!

The wheel of violent retribution has turned, and like so many other revolutions and wars of the past, Daevabad must suffer through it. But while tragedy and violence are nothing new to a city that throughout history has been fought over, this time is different, as much more has been lost then ever before. And Dara, Nahri, and Ali are the keys to moving forward. But to do so, they each must grapple with the truths of their past: the unknown, the forgotten, and all of the things buried deep in themselves. What they each discover will not only reshape who they are but will reshape the future of Daevabad itself.

The last book in this trilogy left off on a massive cliffhanger. Daevabad had just been horrifically invaded by Dara and Nahri’s mother who used a dastardly plan that involved mass genocide of Ali’s father and people. Nahri and Ali fled the city and somehow ended up back in Nahri’s homeland of Cairo, Egypt, the powerful ring of Suileman in their possession. The stakes were nothing if not high. And given the incredibly long history of tensions between the various daeva tribes, the shafit (their part-human progeny), and the various other magical players on the board, it was almost impossible to imagine how all of the various threads would be tied up in this final book.

And obviously I won’t spoil it for you! There are so many surprises and twists and turns to this book that completely blew me away. I had a few ideas about what could come to pass. But let me just say, I’m so pleased I wasn’t the author, as not only did none of my ideas happen, but they were all massively underwhelming compared to what we were given! This book not only tackles the tangled web of politics and horrible tribal tensions within Daevabad itself, but it expands the world out so much further than we’ve seen in previous books. We spend more time in Nahri’s Cairo. We travel down the Nile and meet crocodile kings. We get captured by pirates and end up in a wondrous jungle empire. And that’s all probably in the first half of the book, before things really go crazy!

In my past reviews for this series, I’ve talked a lot about the dark history that is laid out before us in this trilogy. And all of that is here as well, with a few extra knife twists to just make it all the more grim. But what stood out to me in this book was just how incredibly funny Chakraborty’s writing is as well. As I was reading, I found myself agian and again highlighting passages on my Kindle that made me laugh out loud. I’m sure this was present in the first two books as well. Indeed, it kind of must have to balance out said darkness. But for some reason, the casual and effortless humor really stood out here. Especially with regards to Nahri and Ali’s characterization, and their tenuous relationship.

Nahri concludes this series as probably one of my all-time favorite fantasy heroines. She never loses sight of who she is throughout this entire series, and she’s just the sort of level-headed, pragmatic, no-nonsense character that I prefer. And, like I said, she’s hilarious. But Ali is really the character to go through the biggest arc in this book. In the first book, I remember being slightly put-off when I discovered I had to give up page time with Nahri to hear about this rather ridiculously idealistic princeling. But over the course of the trilogy, Ali has really come into his own, and it’s in this last book where I really fell in love with him and his story. With the world crashing around him, Ali is forced to finally confront the balance between his ideals and the world that is before him. Not only this, but his is the story that holds the most mysteries and goes to the most unexpected places.  I really loved how both of these characters’ story turned out in the end.

Dara, on the other hand…oof. We all knew his story was tragic, and it’s more of the same here. His lows are just so much lower than anyone else’s that it’s hard to know how he gets through it. He’s half villain, half victim, but you can’t help but feel for him at every turn. Really, though, any villainous acts that he commits are so out-shown by the main villain, Manizeh that it pales in comparison. The villains have always been strong in this book, but wow, she takes the cake.

The writing and world-building is just as strong here as it was in the first two books, so there’s not much new to report here other than the fact that excellence remains excellent. It’s a testament to the strength of the author though that she managed to pull out this conclusion. Like I said before, it was almost impossible to see how she would write herself out of the seemingly inescapable corner the story was in at the end of the last book. It looked like there was no possible ending that didn’t result in death and despair for at least one of our main characters. And while we did still have some of that, I will say that I was completely and utterly satisfied with the conclusion of this story. If you’ve been gobbling up these books like I have, you’re in for a treat with this last one!

Rating 10: A feat of masterful story craft, exploding out the world while also never losing sight of the intimate moments driving its main characters. Simply excellent.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Empire of Gold” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Upcoming 2020 SFF with female leads or co-leads.”

Find “The Empire of Gold” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Obsidian Tower”

50147675._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Obsidian Tower” by Melissa Caruso

Publishing Info: June 2020, Orbit

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: The mage-marked granddaughter of a ruler of Vaskandar, Ryx was destined for power and prestige at the top of Vaskandran society. But her magic is broken; all she can do is uncontrollably drain the life from everything she touches, and Vaskandar has no place for a mage with unusable powers.

Then, one night, two terrible accidents befall her: Ryx accidentally kills a visiting dignitary in self-defense, activating a mysterious magical artifact sealed in an ancient tower in the heart of her family’s castle.

Ryx flees, seeking a solution to her deadly magic. She falls in with a group of unlikely magical experts investigating the disturbance in Vaskandar—and Ryx realizes that her family is in danger and her domain is at stake. She and her new colleagues must return to the family stronghold to take control of the artifact that everyone wants to claim—before it destroys the world.

Review: I really loved Melissa Caruso’s original trilogy, rating and reviewing them all pretty highly. So I was excited to see that she was coming out with a new series so quickly, and one that is set in the same world, no less! Vaskandar and its very different society and approach to magic was one of the more intriguing aspects of the original series, so I was particularly interested to see how that would work in this new story. While I wasn’t quite as blown away as I was with the first book in her other trilogy, overall, I still very much enjoyed this one.

While Ryx’s life has never been ordinary (her broken magic that kills anything she touches has prevented that), she has managed to make a place for herself in her powerful grandmother’s land. She not only manages the large familial estate that houses an ancient secret, but she’s become adept at political maneuvering and negotiation. These skills become all the more important when things go deadly wrong the eve before important negotiations between Vaskandar and Ravera. But they won’t be enough to combat the ancient evil that has been unleashed, forcing Ryx to turn to a society made up of magical experts in whose hands might rest the future of both nations.

As I said, I was really interested in checking out this book when I learned it was set in Vaskadar. That country had played a fairly large role as the villains in the previous series, and their approach to magic, culture, and societal structure differed greatly from Ravera. Ryx is an interesting entry point into this world. She is born into a powerfully magical family and does have the important ring in her eyes that designates her as a magic user, a marker that distinguishes her as someone important. However, her experience with magic has been the opposite of that of most everyone else’s. Instead of opening doors and leading to a  life of power and influence, her magic has done nothing but close them. With anything she touches dying on contact, the only life she can make for herself is one that is strictly guided by distancing rules and made up of people who know to keep their distance. Where in the previous book, we saw mages struggle against the restrictions that wearing a jess (a magical tool that contains a magic user’s power) brought on, Ryx has always longed for the freedom that one would grant her.

Her story throughout this book was very compelling, learning more about her own magic and the unexpected roles she can play in a world that she had thought off limits to her. We see a character who has never felt like she belonged in her powerful family, but whose very identity is caught up in the guardianship of the land and people that family holds dear. She’s a novice at forming relationships with new people, and we see her struggle to learn how to have friends and, maybe, even romantic relationships.

I also liked the greater exploration of Vaskandar and the rules and cultural norms that were so different than what we saw of Ravera in the previous series. The power structure is built into every aspect of Vaskandar society, and we see both the strengths this gives their society as well as the weaknesses it opens up. Because their power and long lives are connected to the land, Vaskandar has an uneasy relationship with borders, and it’s easy to see why tensions have historically been high with its neighbor nations. But here, the book veers off the expected course, and we see a new enemy arise. This was a nice switch from the Vaskandar vs. Ravera tensions from the first series which would have felt like a retread had it been repeated here.

I did struggle with the pacing of the story. Thinking back over it, while there are definitely tense moments, action-packed scenes, and a nice climax at the end of the book, while reading it, I felt like it was moving very slowly. The first half in particular seemed to really strain to get going. Some aspects of the story felt rushed (the building of character relationships, for example), but many of the actual plot points were talked about quite a lot before they actually happened. I think it could have been edited down and streamlined a bit.

But, like I said, other bits felt rushed. Ryx seems to meet the members of this magical society, and then in a hot minute become instant friends with them all and implicitly trust them. She shares crucial information with them and seems to be immediately accepted on the same level. I get that her joining up with these folks was a large point of the book and the series as a whole, but it kind of felt like the author was in such a rush to get to that, that she just skipped the natural build that is needed in developing these types of relationships. I had similar problems with the romance which seemed to kind of come out of nowhere. Ultimately, I was able to get on board with it, but it was a bit jarring.

While not the perfect start to a new series, this book definitely set the stage for what could be an excellent series. Ryx is a great main character, and the author has expanded the world-building out quite a bit with the introduction of the new evil force they will be working against. I found some of the twists and turns slightly predictable, and the pacing felt off at times. But I think if you enjoyed the author’s first series, this one is well worth checking out as well!

Also, don’t forget to enter our giveaway to win a ARC version of “The Obsidian Tower!”

Rating 8: Not without flaws, but a solid start to what promises to be an interesting new series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Obsidian Tower” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “2020 Queer Sci-Fi Fantasy.”

Find “The Obsidian Tower” at your library using WorldCat!

Giveaway: “The Obsidian Tower”

50147675._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Obsidian Tower” by Melissa Caruso

Publishing Info: June 2020, Orbit

Book Description: The mage-marked granddaughter of a ruler of Vaskandar, Ryx was destined for power and prestige at the top of Vaskandran society. But her magic is broken; all she can do is uncontrollably drain the life from everything she touches, and Vaskandar has no place for a mage with unusable powers.

Then, one night, two terrible accidents befall her: Ryx accidentally kills a visiting dignitary in self-defense, activating a mysterious magical artifact sealed in an ancient tower in the heart of her family’s castle.

Ryx flees, seeking a solution to her deadly magic. She falls in with a group of unlikely magical experts investigating the disturbance in Vaskandar—and Ryx realizes that her family is in danger and her domain is at stake. She and her new colleagues must return to the family stronghold to take control of the artifact that everyone wants to claim—before it destroys the world.

Giveaway Details: I really enjoyed Melissa Caruso’s original trilogy, so I was super excited when I saw that she was coming out with a second series set in the same world. Her first trilogy stood out for its amazingly competent and practical leading lady, the strong female friendships, a completely unique world, and an interesting take on a love triangle. From this description, it looks like we’ll have at least one of the same: an interesting-sounding young woman protagonist!

This description doesn’t really clarify when this story is set in comparison to the original, but I have to imagine it’s some time after. One of the things I’m most intrigued by is the fact that it is set in Vaskandar and our heroine hails from that nation. In the previous series, Vaskandar was largely an enemy nation. Their vivomancers wielded incredible power and their succession system was full of conflict. It will be interesting to see what this story has to offer featuring a main character from this land. Are the political tensions the same? I’m assuming she will feature in some type of heroic role, so how will that feature in Vaskandar’s competitive and sometimes brutal society?

I’m also really interested to learn more about Ryx’s broken powers. In the previous book, our main character herself didn’t have any magical abilities, but instead was a Falconer for her powerful, fire-wielding friend. And we know that Riverra and Vaskandar place very different values on those with and without magic. How will Ryx feature in this when she technically seems to have abilities, but they’re so dangerous that she accidentally kills her fellows?

I’ll have my full review for this book this Friday. But in the mean time, make sure to enter to win an ARC copy of “The Obsidian Tower.” The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends on June 17.

Click here to enter the giveaway!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Guinevere Deception”

43568394Book: “The Guinevere Deception”  by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: There was nothing in the world as magical and terrifying as a girl.

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom’s borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution–send in Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife . . . and his protector from those who want to see the young king’s idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere’s real name–and her true identity–is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.

To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old–including Arthur’s own family–demand things continue as they have been, and the new–those drawn by the dream of Camelot–fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land. Arthur’s knights believe they are strong enough to face any threat, but Guinevere knows it will take more than swords to keep Camelot free.

Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

Review: I’ve been a big fan of White’s work since I read her re-imaging of the life of Vlad the Impaler, gender swapping the main character and creating a tension-filled and deeply stressful (but fantastic) trilogy. From that reading experience, when I heard of this book, a re-imaging of the Camelot story from Guinevere’s perspective, I knew the author was up to the task! And I wasn’t wrong!

Guinevere arrives at Camelot with a mission: to marry Arthur. But that’s only the beginning of her story, for she’s not really Guinevere at all, but a protector sent by Merlin to watch over Arthur himself from all magical threats. While well-versed in magical protections and wards, Guinevere soon learns there is much more to this task than simply being on the look-out for threats to the king. She must actually be the queen, as well, something she feels much less suited for. And as she begins to peel back the layers of the mysterious Camelot and its political maneuverings, she starts to see that there is more at stake than she had thought, and that even she, the woman sent to protect Arthur, may not know the whole story.

This book surprised me in many ways, not least of all in its protagonist herself. We soon discover that Guinevere is not a reliable narrator. I love it when books can pull off an unreliable narrator approach as it opens up so many new doors for discovery as the story unfolds. Here, Guinevere herself isn’t aware of her own unreliability, and in many ways, the reader begins to put together pieces before she does herself. We know that she is an envoy sent by Merlin to protect Arthur. But we don’t know much more than that. It’s only as the story begins to move forward that the layers in Merlin’s plots become clear, and Guinevere begins to suspect larger things at play than a simple protection task.

She’s a very sympathetic character, a necessity for one of fiction’s most vilified female characters. Like she did with Lada Dracul, White builds open and adds to the original character blocks in such a way that the character is easy to understand and root for. Beyond that, the author doesn’t hold back from re-imaging all of the characters involved. If you suspect you know the role that any given familiar name will play, prepare to be surprised. I saw a few of these twists coming, but there were definitely one or two that took me by surprise. Luckily, one of the biggest twists towards the end was one of those surprises.

This was also one of the books I referenced a few weeks ago that has a love triangle that I miraculously didn’t hate. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised since White also included an unconventional love triangle in her “And I Darken” series. But, again, here I was very pleased with the direction this love story ended up taking. Again, knowing the author’s way, I won’t pretend that this book really establishes any end game as far as the romance goes, but for this book, I was satisfied. It’s always nice to be reminded that even much-detested tropes can be done right by a skilled writer.

The story also doesn’t answer all the mysteries it sets up. There are still a bunch of questions on the table, and I have my own theories about Guinevere’s past and the role she will play going forward. The stage has been set with magical mysteries, old villains and new, and a main character who has only now realized just how under-prepared she really is. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here!

Rating 8: Another excellent twist on a classic tale from Kiersten White!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Guinevere Deception” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Retellings of fairytales, legends and history” and (just for kicks) “Covers With Beautiful Art.”

Find “The Guinevere Deception” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Into the Crooked Place”

INTO_THE_CROOKED_PLACE6Book: “Into the Crooked Place” by Alexandra Christo

Publishing Info: Feiwel and Friends, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The streets of Creije are for the deadly and the dreamers, and four crooks in particular know just how much magic they need up their sleeve to survive.

Tavia, a busker ready to pack up her dark-magic wares and turn her back on Creije for good. She’ll do anything to put her crimes behind her.

Wesley, the closest thing Creije has to a gangster. After growing up on streets hungry enough to swallow the weak whole, he won’t stop until he has brought the entire realm to kneel before him.

Karam, a warrior who spends her days watching over the city’s worst criminals and her nights in the fighting rings, making a deadly name for herself.

And Saxony, a resistance fighter hiding from the very people who destroyed her family, and willing to do whatever it takes to get her revenge.

Everything in their lives is going to plan, until Tavia makes a crucial mistake: she delivers a vial of dark magic—a weapon she didn’t know she had—to someone she cares about, sparking the greatest conflict in decades. Now these four magical outsiders must come together to save their home and the world, before it’s too late. But with enemies at all sides, they can trust nobody. Least of all each other.

Review: I never got around to reading Christo’s “To Kill a Kingdom,” but I heard a lot of good things about it. So when I saw she had another book coming out this fall, I was eager to jump in and see what the fuss was about. I’ll admit, I was a bit wary when reading the book description, because I think these ensemble/gang/YA fantasy stories ala “Six of Crows” have become the number one genre to regularly burn me recently. But I thought I’d still give it a go based on the recommendations for the author herself. Unfortunately, my wariness was deserved, and this book wasn’t the hit I was hoping for.

Creije is both a wondrous and dangerous place. But whether if is dangerous or wondrous depends largely on one’s own abilities. And four different individuals know that with the right combination of magic, wits, and guts, the streets are where you make a life for yourself. Each with their own role to play and their own proficiency, a simple misunderstanding will quickly draw them together in an adventure where no one can be trusted.

Confession: I read this book back in the fall closer to when it was actually published. But I had also just reviewed (rather negatively) several other books that were very similar to this (ensemble, YA fantasy novels that centered around gangs/heists) and was, frankly, too tired out to want to right up yet another review. But as I did receive this book from a publisher, I thought better late than never. Alas, all of that leads to the obvious point: this book was not my jam and was way too familiar to a million other books that I’ve read just like it.

Look, I loved “Six of Crows.” But in retrospect I’m starting to hold a serious grudge against the deluge of similar YA titles that have now flooded the market. I swear, there was a point where I read about five of these in a row and was beginning to confuse them all (there’s at least two others that I’ve read and *sigh* will get around to reviewing at some point). I mean, the genre has always had trends that come and go, but for some reason this one seems worse than others. I think its because, other than “Six of Crows,” I’ve yet to come across a version of this trope/subgenre that I’ve actually liked.

I hate love triangles (a previous trope found all too often), but I can name at least two books I’ve read in the last year that had this trope and were still good! Because the authors still managed to make it their own and add new and interesting twists to the concept. But for some reason, with these ensemble, YA gang stories…they’re all almost literally exact copies of each other. To the point that some of the staple characters could be interchanged between books with a simple name change and not much would alter. Their personalities are the same. Their relationships are the same. The general mood/banter in the group as a whole is the same. It’s just…exhausting. I don’t know if there’s just not enough to plum with this this particular subgenre or whether “Six of Crows” just set too high of a bar. But something has gone wrong here, and it needs to stop.

And look, I’ve written two entire paragraphs without even talking about this book itself. And that’s because it’s just the same as all of the others. The characters feel like bland re-imaginings of characters we’ve seen before. The dialogue was tired and familiar. The relationships were…ok, I liked that they added the relationship between the two women, but the other was super familiar and predictable. The plot did pick up about half way through the book, but it never felt like it was really coming into anything of its own. Instead, it feels like the author just cobbled together a bunch of things that have been popular in other stories and whipped this one out there as fast as she could. There’s really not much to say in reviewing this book that I haven’t said before about similar books in the past that have tried and failed at this plot.

Eventually, I guess, I’ll have to get around to reviewing the other two books like this I’ve read. One I won’t be continuing and the other I already have the sequel to (though this more a case of “not as bad as the others” than anything else). But I have to space them out so my poor readers don’t have to just re-read the same review from me over and over again. I’m sorry! I just seem to keep reading the same book over and over again, and this is the result!

Rating 5: Adds nothing to a tired and needs to be put to bed subgenre of YA fantasy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Crooked Place” isn’t on any relevant lists (other than ones having to do with the year of its publication), which I think is telling. But it probably should be on “Villain Protagonists.”

Find “Into the Crooked Place” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Glass Magician”

45046558Book: “The Glass Magician” by Caroline Stevermer

Publishing Info: Tor Books, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: What if you could turn into the animal of your heart anytime you want?

With such power, you’d enter the cream of New York society, guaranteed a rich life among the Vanderbilts and Astors, movers and shakers who all have the magical talent and own the nation on the cusp of a new century.
You could. If you were a Trader.

Pity you’re not.

Thalia is a Solitaire, one of the masses who don’t have the animalistic magic. But that is not to say that she doesn’t have talent of another kind—she is a rising stage magician who uses her very human skills to dazzle audiences with amazing feats of prestidigitation. Until one night when a trick goes horribly awry…and Thalia makes a discovery that changes her entire world. And sets her on a path that could bring her riches.

Or kill her.

Review: I was intrigued by the original sounding premise of this book. Set in New York, turn-of-the-century time period, and some type of new class system that is based around one’s magical ability to turn into an animal. All sounds like cool concepts and all put together, I really had no idea what to expect from this book. Unfortunately, it didn’t really turn out to be much of anything at all, so no expectations was about right.

After inheriting her father’s magic business, Thalia has been making her living as a stage magician. Not blessed with actual magical abilities that would vault her into the upper class of New York society, she is still managing to make a name for herself by performing wondrous and dangerous tricks in her act. One night, however, a trick goes wrong and Thalia discovers there is more within her than she had ever known. Now with abilities she doesn’t know how to control and a murder added to the mix, Thalia’s life is beginning to change. Will it be for the better or for the worse?

For the pros for this book, I will say that I still liked the uniqueness of the time period during which it was set and the choice to have it take place in New York City. It’s always a breath of fresh air to find a fantasy novel that isn’t set in some generic “medieval times” setting. And even more so to find one that is set in a city that exists today. However, I do think the author left a lot on the table with regards to what all could have been done with these two elements. The other positive worth noting was the writing itself. It didn’t stand out to me in any particular way, but it was of the sort that is strong enough to get the job done without distracting the reader. And, considering that I didn’t love much about this book, I think it’s a real strength of the writing that it was strong enough that I didn’t ever really feel like just putting the book down for good.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned with the time period and the setting, it felt like the author came up with some cool, individual ideas, but didn’t spend any time really building up the world or system around them. Like, people have this magic to turn into animals and society has been built in such a way that possessing this ability puts you into an elite class. But the why or how of this is never really explained. The history of how this system came to be in place is lacking. And there is really not magic system of any kind to explain the rules, limitations, or even, to some extent, the benefits of having these abilities. The entire world that has been created depends on these magical factors, and yet we get next to nothing about what they really are. It felt like the author simply didn’t want to bother with the details of these things, instead wanting to just jump into her heroine’s own story.

But there, too, I had problems. Thalia is an interesting enough character on her own, but the book simply didn’t have enough story for her. The entire book feels made up of either Thalia struggling to learn to control her new abilities or making small bits of progress solving a murder mystery. I was pretty surprised, actually, when the murder mystery aspect of it became apparent since there wasn’t any hint of that in the general description. But I’m all for historical murder mysteries, so this should have been a benefit to the story. Instead, again, it felt like only the most basic aspects of this part of the story were really explored. Things all come way too easily to Thalia, with people often behaving against their own best interest or out of character to help her on her way.

To make up page time for the lack of world-building, magic system, or complications in the murder mystery, we instead spend an incredible amount of time just in Thalia’s mind exploring her feelings. I don’t have a problem with books that center largely around the introspective thoughts of a main character, but there just has to be more to the story itself to support this. I also didn’t love the romance we were given. It felt forced and lacked chemistry.

I also have to spend a moment on that cover. Yikes. It’s the kind of thing that immediately attracts the eye (indeed, I clicked on it in NetGalley just because of the swan motif), but the more you look at it, the worse it gets. It’s all kinds of creepy with the teeth and eyes, and I’m not sure it really represents well the book we have. Instead, if I had noticed these details when choosing the book off the shelf, I think I would have most likely put it back just due to how unnerving I find it all.

Overall, I wasn’t impressed with this book. It felt like the author had some really neat ideas at the very core of it, but didn’t spend enough time to fully develop anything. The writing was strong enough, but there wasn’t enough story to go around.

Rating 6: Lack luster and thin, this book didn’t hold up to the promises of its premise.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Glass Magician” is a newer title and isn’t on any relevant lists. Bizarrely (and inaccurately) it is on “Historical Fiction 2020.”

Find “The Glass Magician” at your library using WorldCat!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma” Part I

6969Book: “Emma”

Publication Year: 1815

Book Description: Emma Woodhouse is one of Austen’s most captivating and vivid characters. Beautiful, spoilt, vain and irrepressibly witty, Emma organizes the lives of the inhabitants of her sleepy little village and plays matchmaker with devastating effect.

Note: Yes, this is out of order. I blame the quarantine and general craziness of watching over a one-year-old, but I finished reading “Emma” about a week or two ago, and only then realized that I had skipped “Mansfield Park.” I probably could have banged “Mansfield Park” out in this last week, but I didn’t want to rush my read of that rather hefty book. And then when I would finally get to “Emma,” around July, I’d be several months removed from my actual read through. So, I think this is better than doggedly sticking to my original order. It is what it is!

History – “I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”

Jane Austen wrote “Emma” between early 1814 and the spring of 1815. Once she was ready to publish, she decided to switch publishers and went with the well-known London publisher, John Murray. It is thought that she hoped to get a better copyright deal with this publisher and had been put off her previous editor after he refused to publish a second run of “Mansfield Park.” After originally being offered a fixed copyright price for “Emma, “Mansfield Park,” and “Sense and Sensibility,” Austen opted to go with a commission option instead for both, taking on printing and advertising prices. “Emma” had an original first-run of 2,000 copies, Austen’s largest first-run to date.

The book also included dedicated to the Prince of Wales. A fan of her previous books, her identity had been made know to the Prince Regent and his librarian dropped the not-so-subtle comment that she was free to dedicate any future books to him, a hint Austen didn’t feel she could ignore even though she didn’t personally care for Prince Regent

The book was met with middling success at the time, but has grown to be one of her most popular titles with modern audiences. And, despite the author’s fear that readers would not like Emma herself, many fans have connected strongly with the character, faults and all.  (source)

“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” – Jane Austen

Part I – Volume 1, Chapter 1 – Volume 2, Chapters 11

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Emma Woodhouse is the wealthy second daughter of the eccentric Mr. Woodhouse. Her family and their good family friend, Mr. Knightley, share the role as the most prominent families in their small community. A new family group is about to come on the scene, however, with the marriage of Emma’s good friend and former governess to Mr. Weston. Though sad to see her friend go, Emma takes credit for the match herself. Mr. Knightley scoffs at this idea, but Emma is sure of her own abilities.

The marriage also brings up a new topic of gossip, that Mr. Weston’s son, a young man who grew up with his aunt after the death of Mr. Weston’s first wife when the son was young, will likely have to come to visit finally. Mr. Frank Churchill has been long looked for, but due to the sickly and ill-spirited nature of his guardian aunt, he’s never actually visited his original home. But it comes to nothing, and he doesn’t come. Mr. Knightly is the only one to raise an eyebrow at what he sees as poor behavior of an independent man who must know what is due his father on the occasion of a wedding.

To make up for the loss of Mrs. Weston’s daily presence, Emma makes a friend of Harriet Smith, a young boarder at a nearby school. Her parentage is not known, but Emma sees her as a great project. She is dismayed, however, to find that Harriet has already formed a connection with a local farmer family, the Martins, and in particular with the son, Mr. Martin. To ward off the evil of Harriet marrying below what Emma has in mind for her, Emma sets her eyes on Mr. Eldon, the local parson as a better marriage option for Harriet.

Soon enough, however, it comes to a head when Harriet shows Emma a letter from Mr. Martin in which he asks her to marry him. Emma deftly maneuvers Harriet to what she deems the appropriate response: a resounding no. When Mr. Knightly hears of this, he is appalled and he and Emma fight. He says that she is playing with people like they are dolls and that Harriet had a happy future ahead of her with Mr. Martin. Now, Mr. Knightley worries she will look too high and be disappointed by the lack of men who will want to risk a marriage with a girl whose family is unknown. Emma counters that Harriet is beautiful and pleasant, two qualities that are the most important to men, seemingly. And that since Harriet associates with gentleman’s daughters, it is only right to assume that Harriet is a gentleman’s daughter as well. Mr. Knightley also warns that if Emma is thinking of Mr. Elton instead, he’s not all that and it will come to nothing. The two part in unhappy spirits.

Over the next several months, Emma makes great work to throw Mr. Elton and Harriet together, thinking she sees many signs of attachment. He praises, almost to a ridiculous degree, a painting that Emma does of Harriet. And later contributes a riddle to Harriet and Emma’s collection of romantic ditties. The riddle itself makes out the word “courtship,” and though Emma is confused by his references to Harriet’s “ready wit,” she still sees this as a good sign.

Around Christmas, Emma’s older sister and her family, who is married to Mr. Knightley’s younger brother and lives in London, come to visit. They entire group is invited to a party at the Weston’s; Mr. Elton and Harriet are invited, as well. Harriet, however, comes down with a bad cold and has to miss the party. On delivering the news to Mr. Elton, Emma is confused by his seeming lack of real concern for her friend. John Knightley, on seeing the exchange, warns Emma that Mr. Elton seems particularly interested in her. Emma scoffs at the idea. But at the party itself, where Mr. Elton makes a nuisance of himself trying to ingratiate himself with her, Emma is forced to begin to worry about her plans for him and Harriet.

She ends up in a carriage alone with him on the ride home, and her entire plan crashes down around her when he proposes to her. She is appalled, but soon learns that all of the signs she had thought were directed to Harriet were instead meant for her. Worse, Elton reveals himself as an arrogant, rather scheming man who looks down on Harriet for being too much below him but doesn’t seem to equate the situation with himself and Emma, an equally un-equal match. Emma sees it for what it is: he’s only in love enough to see the his gains in a marriage with her. She turns in down soundly. The next day she learns that he has left Highbury, and Emma has to break the terrible news to Harriet.

Around this time, Highbury gains a new person in the form of Jane Fairfax, the niece of Mrs. and Miss Bates. While Miss Bates is rather silly and prone to talking excessively, Emma knows it is her duty to call on Jane. She finds Jane to be too reserved to appeal as a potential close friend and is content not putting much effort into the relationship. Shortly after, Mr. Churchill finally arrives on the scene and Emma is much more struck by his charming, open disposition. The two quickly form a friendship, and it is clear the Westons would like nothing more than an even greater attachment in the future.

As they all circulate within each others’ circles and through various dinners and parties, Emma and Mr. Churchill find great amusement in coming up with scandalous histories for Jane Fairfax that would explain her shutting herself up with her less appealing relatives. Jane receives a piano as gift from an anonymous giver and this only adds to Emma and Mr. Churchill’s fun, trying to guess who would have given her such a great gift. Mrs. Weston suspects Mr. Knightley, but Emma laughs at this and says Mr. Knightley would never do anything in secret.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

It is easy for readers to understand why Austen was worried fans might not connect with her character. For one thing, Emma is anything but an underdog, very unlike previous Austen heroines. She is wealthy, charming, beautiful, and has no material concerns before her, with a future secured by an independent income and a beloved place in a loving family and happy neighborhood where she is highly esteemed. What she says to Harriet, that a lack of income is all that makes spinsterhood so abhorrent, isn’t quite true in that she is underselling many of the other privileges that make up her existence. On top of that income, she has friends in Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston. She is highly valued as a connection to the general public of Highbury. And, of course, she is loved above anything by her father. Compared to Austen’s other heroines so far who have all been held back by finances to some extent, and by family members in other ways, Emma is sitting pretty.

But it’s also easy to see how this very distinction is one of the things that makes Emma such a popular character to modern audiences. Marriage is by no means the goal and, in many ways, Emma herself sees it as more a hindrance than anything. Instead, she’s fully independent and takes joy in the various roles she plays in her community. Her love story is purely based on the joys of a long friendship discovered to be more with no aspects of gratitude, luck, or necessity sprinkled on top to lessen the romance for modern readers who like their love stories to be “pure” like this. Even “Pride and Prejudice,” the most romantic of the previous three books, has a few pretty straightforward lines about Elizabeth feeling a lot of gratitude towards Darcy for taking any interest in her. Joined with the rest of the romance, this is fine. But to modern audiences, again, there is something appealing about Emma’s story having zero strings attached to it other than mutual affection and love. Neither Knightly or Emma need the other, and it is easy enough to see them living out the rest of their lives single and happy.

The other obvious turn-off is Emma’s meddling, the main focus of the entire story. But I think Austen under-estimated how many good qualities Emma has and how much they balance out much of her nonsense. Beyond which, I think many readers like their main characters to have flaws that they overcome throughout the story. Elizabeth Bennet, the other most beloved Austen heroine, definitely has a story arc that involves her overcoming a personal shortcoming. Emma’s flaw hurts more people than Elizabeth’s, however. But like I said, we see important moments that help counterbalance this. Particularly in the way she truly loves and cares for her father, putting forth a lot of effort to fill his days with activities and people he enjoys and attempting to keep family gatherings cordial and not upsetting for him. We also see enough of Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston to know they are sensible, kind people and that if they can vouch for Emma’s worth as a friend, there is more to her than the blatant meddling we also see.

This first half, of course, sees Emma commit probably her biggest sin: persuading Harriet to turn down Robert Martin. Beyond that, we see the pain that is caused by her major error with Mr. Elton and the lasting hurt it inflicts on Harriet who falls into a fairly deep depression for several months over his “loss.” But we also spend a lot of time in Emma’s head and do see that she is genuinely distressed over the way this situation unfolds. If still not distressed enough not continue in her ways to some extent throughout the rest of the book.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I love Mr. Knightley; he’s one of my favorite Austen heroes. But, I’ll be honest and say that after watching the 2009 “Emma” with Johnny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, I have a very hard time not simply picturing him and his performance for all of the Knightley portions. But beyond that, I do always like romantic heroes like his character, those who are stable, reliable, and always there for the heroine, even when she doesn’t know she needs him.

There are none of the dramatics of Mr. Darcy, and none of the indecisive weirdness of feelings for other women, like Edward Ferrars or Edmund. (Technically, I should have read “Mansfield Park” before this, so Edmund gets thrown in the list of Austen heroes who came before Knightley, even if we haven’t covered him in this reread, yet.) No, Mr. Knightley is that long friend of Emma’s who has always been there. He clearly cares about her welfare, worrying to Mrs. Weston about Emma’s friendships and future. And he understands her family, seeming to be pleased to spend quiet evenings at her home with her and her father.

He also is completely spot-on with his views on people. Unlike Emma, we’ll see in the second half that Mr. Knightley is the true match-spotter in the neighborhood when he catches on to the Jane/Frank thing before anyone. But in this half, we see that he values hard-workers like Mr. Martin and sees him as a good match for Harriet. Unlike Emma, Knightley is aware of the precarious situation that Harriet is in and sees all the good in her marrying Mr. Martin. He also is spot-on with his estimation of Mr. Elton, a fact that Emma herself will have to admit to later on in the book.

We also see Mr. Knightley make an effort to befriend and care for Jane, understanding the strains that must be on her living 24/7 in the Bates’ house. He is empathetic and kind, sending his carriage to bring that household to local parties when he knows they’d have to walk anyways. Emma sees all of this and appreciates it in the sense that “of course, that’s what he’d do!” but doesn’t really stop to think how rare of qualities all of these are and how much they should not be taken for granted.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

In many ways, Emma herself is the biggest villain in this first half. We see the entire arc of Harriet’s tragic love story play out, all at the hands of Emma. And while we do believe that she was honestly confused by Mr. Elton’s behavior, truly thought she was doing right by Harriet, and felt terribly once the truth came out, there’s no denying the real harm done here. We know how it turns out for Harriet in the end, but things could have went a very different way and followed the dark path Mr. Knightley laid out in which Harriet ends up at the boarding house forever, a spinster living her days at the mercy of others. Turning down the genuinely nice-sound Mr. Martin could have had lasting consequences, and it is clear that, coming form her own privileged position, Emma has not thought about these dangers to her friend whatsoever.

Further, Harriet suffers for quite some time after the loss of Mr. Elton. We know enough about her character to see that she doesn’t have the same resources of self that Emma has, and therefore it is very difficult for her to move past the depression of finding herself not preferred by Mr. Elton. Emma had her fully convinced of a happy future with him, and its loss is felt wholly by poor Harriet.

The other main villain would be Mr. Elton himself at this point. Villain is probably too strong of a word for him, but he still fits best in this category. As readers, we take more heed of Mr. Knightley’s warning about Mr. Elton and his search for a wealthy wife, so it’s less of a surprise when he fully exposes himself. It’s also easier to see how ridiculous and over-the-top Mr. Elton is from the very start. To her credit, Emma sees much of this too, but figures that he’s just so in love with Harriet that his senses aren’t quite right. She’s even more horrified when she realizes that these obnoxious flirtations had been meant to attract her, not Harriet. And, of course, Mr. Elton doesn’t make himself look very good in proposal scene itself. He’s cruel to Harriet and clearly not really in love with Emma at all. Again, knowing how it turns out, and with future Mr. Knightley’s words in our heads, that “Emma chose better for [Elton] than he did for himself,” we know that Mr. Elton will create a punishment of his own by marrying the obnoxious Mrs. Elton.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.

Other than poor Harriet’s tragedies, there is really no romance in this first half. Knowing the outcome and knowing the secret hearts of characters who aren’t even aware of themselves, it’s easy enough to see romantic tension between Emma and Mr. Knightley, but there really isn’t anything on the page itself to justify it. There fight is the sort that could be had between any good friends, and the compliments that Mr. Knightley pays Emma when speaking to Mrs. Weston about his concerns about Emma and Harriet’s friendship are, again, of the sort that don’t really raise eyebrows. Mrs. Weston herself doesn’t bat an eyelash at it.

There are other small indicators here and there for Mr. Knightley’s attachment. His dislike of Frank Churchill from the very start is a pretty clear sign, before Frank is even on the scene in person. But, at the same time, Mr. Knightley seems to also be the only one objectively seeing some of the fairly questionable missteps in Frank’s behavior, all the way from the start when Frank failed to visit the new Mrs. Weston. So, it’s kind of half and half to see his dislike as motivated by the knowledge that many people are matchmaking Emma and Frank in their heads or to see it as just another example of Mr. Knightley’s good sense about people and their behavior.

One small moment that stood out was when many of the main characters are gathered at the Bates’ to view Jane’s new piano. Miss Bates sees Knightley riding by and asks him up. Once he hears that Emma is there, he seems to be about to come up, but makes a quick about-face when he hears that Frank is also there. Emma is the temptation, but Frank is the deterrent, especially when Frank is around Emma herself.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Mr. Woodhouse is just the kind of lovable fool that Austen does best. His concerns and worries about health add the perfect levity needed to some of Emma’s more serious failings. Not to mention, he’s a main source of good in showing Emma’s loving side. There are bunch of small lines thrown in here and there about some of his worries: his concern about the cake at the wedding and dismay at the doctor’s children eating much of it, his worry about the hassle of his driver having to get a carriage ready for this and that small trip, endless frets about the temperature. As a reader, it’s very amusing. But we also see how it could be trying for family members, especially in-laws. During their visit, we see that Emma’s brother-in-law, John Knightley often struggles to deal with Mr. Woodhouse’s eccentricities. Mr. Woodhouse is clearly not aware of how intrusive some of his “concerns” can be into the choices of another person’s family. But we also get to see a lovely example of Emma and Mr. Knightley working in tandem to keep their respective family members polite and to avoid familial conflict.

The other main source of comedy comes from Miss Bates. Austen doesn’t hesitate to devote paragraphs and paragraphs to the dialogue for this character so that readers can truly understand what it would be like to be the listening party, trapped in a one-sided “conversation” with Miss Bates. She’s clearly well-meaning, but man, it can be exhausting just reading her unfiltered, scattered speeches. While Emma clearly over-steps later in the book and could do better in general with regards to Miss Bates, it’s also easy enough to sympathize with her desire to avoid getting trapped in long visits with Miss Bates.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School – not of a seminary, or an establishment, or anything which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems.

This quote stood out to me as yet another example of Austen’s wit striking on aspects of life that still hold true today. Having worked for many years in academia, the line about “refined nonsense” in the way that colleges and universities try to sell themselves is spot on.

“And till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed; till they do fall in love with well informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after…”

While wrong overall, Emma does makes some good points in her argument with Mr. Knightley about Harriet’s future prospects. This then leads, of course, to a general favorite quote when Mr. Knightley comments that it might be better to be without wits than misapply them as Emma does here.

“I lay it down as a general rule, Harriet, that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him.”

Again, this is a rather wise line being used in service of a poor scheme overall on Emma’s part. And I think there is a bunch of wiggle room to be made with the word “doubt.” But, in general, if there are doubts, that at least is a sign that more thought needs to be given before the “yes.”

In two weeks, I’ll review the last half of “Emma” and share my final thoughts on the book as a whole.