Serena’s Review: “Gods of Jade and Shadow”

36510722Book: “Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edeweiss+

Book Description: The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own. 

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Review: It’s no secret that I love fairy tale fantasy fiction, and while the genre is definitely getting a lot of attention recently, many of its stories are fairly familiar. At best, they may be pulling from lesser known tales, but many are still set in a European setting of some sort. The description of this story promised a fairy tale of a very different sort. And, wow, did it deliver.

Casiopea has grown up wishing to be anywhere but where she is, the lesser family member in a small village removed from a world that is moving ever forward, full of music, dancing, and fast moving cars. She has dreams of driving one of those cars one day, swimming in the ocean, and so much more. Adventure finally does arrive on her door, but in no manner that she could have expected. Now, bound to the fate of a god who is in the middle of a battle with his brother for the throne of their underworld kingdom, Casiopea begins to realize that the world is even bigger and more strange than she had ever imagined.

There are so many things I loved about this book that it’s hard to know where to start. I guess, with the writing itself, probably. What I’ve always enjoyed about fairy tale fantasy is the freedom it gives authors to simply write beautiful stories. While I appreciate a good magic system as much as the next person, there’s something particularly beautiful about wondrous and strange scenes that require no explanation for the whys and hows. The author perfectly capitalizes on this freedom while deftly avoiding the pitfalls of flower-y or saccharine writing that can often come hand in hand. Particularly, the scenes in the underworld were fascinating. Beautiful, yet treacherous. Dark, mysterious, and filled with creatures and beings that were out of this world but written in such a way that they seemed to simply appear in the mind’s eye, fully formed.

I’m not familiar with any of the Mayan folktales that inspired portions of this story (though there is an interesting afterward from the author that goes into a few details), so it’s hard to know which of these fantastical elements are traditional to these stories and which were objects of the author’s own imagination. I guess it doesn’t matter as the most important test has been passed simply by the fact that I couldn’t distinguish. Moreno-Garcia’s story feels as if it could be as well-known as some of the European fairy tales we all know, complete in every way.

I’ve only read one other book by this author, “The Beautiful Ones,” which I also very much enjoyed. The books are completely different, but there is one connecting factor that also seems to be a unique aspect of this author specifically as I haven’t seen used often (or well) by other authors. That is in both of these books we are given chapters from the villains’ point of view. What’s so great about these chapters is that while they do give insight into the mindset of these characters, they don’t ask readers to like them, in the traditional sense, or forgive them for the wrongs they have done or, often, are in the midst of still doing. It’s a tough feat to pull off, humanizing them just enough to be understood but not so much that one feels guilty about siding completely with the hero/heroine, even though they are often operating on less knowledge than the reader, not being privy to the villains’ thoughts and feelings. In this book, more so that “The Beautiful Ones,” the villains are not even villainous in the traditional sense. They each have major flaws, but by the end of the book, I was satisfied that their characters had a satisfactory arc of their own.

As for the heroine of our story, Casiopea is excellent. She is intrepid, bold, and compassionate, meeting the challenges set before her, bizarre as they often are, with acceptance and courage for the role she must play. The relationship that builds between her and her god-companion is perfectly real, full of individual flaws and pain, but gaining in mutual respect and regard as they make their way across the country.

I also really loved the setting for this book. I haven’t read many books that take place in Mexico (let alone fantasy novels that do). And I also haven’t read many books that take place during the Jazz Age. In many ways, the cities they visit, vibrant with the signs of the local culture and this point in history, are just as magical feeling as the actual fantasy locations that are introduced. The story feels just as colorful and vibrant as the buildings and people its describing.

This was a wonderful book. If you enjoy fairy tales, this is definitely a must. But I also feel that fans of historical fiction will appreciate this story simply based on the strength of its setting and time period. Really, there’s no excuse not to check this book out!

Rating 10: Rich, vibrant, transporting the reader into a time and place that feels magical, and I’m not only talking about the fantasy elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gods of Jade and Shadow” is included on these Goodreads lists: “2019 Latinx/Latin American SFF” and “Fantasy Novels by Women of Color.”

Find “Gods of Jade and Shadow” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Sorcery of Thorns”

42201395Book: “Sorcery of Thorns” by Margaret Rogerson

Publication Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: All sorcerers are evil. Elisabeth has known that as long as she has known anything. Raised as a foundling in one of Austermeer’s Great Libraries, Elisabeth has grown up among the tools of sorcery—magical grimoires that whisper on shelves and rattle beneath iron chains. If provoked, they transform into grotesque monsters of ink and leather. She hopes to become a warden, charged with protecting the kingdom from their power.

Then an act of sabotage releases the library’s most dangerous grimoire. Elisabeth’s desperate intervention implicates her in the crime, and she is torn from her home to face justice in the capital. With no one to turn to but her sworn enemy, the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his mysterious demonic servant, she finds herself entangled in a centuries-old conspiracy. Not only could the Great Libraries go up in flames, but the world along with them.

As her alliance with Nathaniel grows stronger, Elisabeth starts to question everything she’s been taught—about sorcerers, about the libraries she loves, even about herself. For Elisabeth has a power she has never guessed, and a future she could never have imagined.

Review: “An Enchantment of Ravens” was a book with a pretty cover that I just happened to nab at ALA. And then it quickly turned into one of my favorite original fairytale fantasies in quite a while. So I was thrilled when I saw a new story coming out by this author (and with another gorgeous cover to boot!). And I was not disappointed; I may have liked this one even more than the other!

Elisabeth is a child of the library, an orphan who has been raised with in its walls, surrounded by the magical, and sometime dangerous, grimoires that also call it home. She has been raised to protect the realm from the threat that is posed by sorcerers and the magic that rest in these books. But when a grimoire goes bad, becoming a monstrous beast, Elisabeth gets caught up in a conspiracy that is much larger than she ever could have suspected. And to get through it she has to rely on the help of a sorcerer himself, the mysterious Nathaniel Thorn and his demon companion, Simon.

Authors and librarians have a symbiotic relationship. Many authors grow up going to libraries which is where they develop their love for reading. They go on to write, and it makes sense that they would often write about they love, and thus we end up with a good number of books about libraries. Librarians, for their part, love nothing more than reading books about libraries and librarians (we’re a self-interested lot, it seems) and will rush out to get our hands on any title that focuses on our beloved profession. The cynical side of me could say that authors might suspect this love on librarians’ parts and figure their books have a better chance of being purchased and stocked en masse in libraries if they focus on this topic. But I choose to think that mostly it’s the former: an act of real love for reading and libraries as the source of so much of it.

This book takes this all one step further, making its librarians not only purveyors of knowledge, but literal warriors who protect both the books within the library walls as well as the people throughout the realm should those books’ worse nature take over. It’s an interesting concept, and beyond just being a blast of fantasy action adventure, there are some parallels that can be drawn for the wonder and danger of books. There is an argument presented at one point that questions whether protecting the grimoires is worth it, if they have potential to become so deadly. But the librarians’ answer is always this: the knowledge they hold is unique and precious, even if it can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and thus must be protected.

As for the characters, Elisabeth is a fantastic leading lady. She’s brave, not a little reckless, but so full of heart that you can’t help but fall in love with her immediately. Her story is one of self-discovery as well as reconciling what she has been taught growing up with the reality in which she suddenly finds herself, once outside the Great Library’s walls. Her connection with the Great Libraries and the grimoires is a mystery that plays out deliciously.

As her supports, Thorn and Simon are excellent as well. Written with the trademark wit that I now associate with this author, the dialogue between Elisabeth and these two is quick and snappy. Simon, especially, was developed as a nuanced and mysterious character. And as the romantic interest, Thorn checks all of the boxes for me. He is powerful in his own right, but never outshines Elisabeth, and both come to realize that only together will they be able to defeat the evil that is rising around them. While the romance is not the focus of the story as much as it was in “Enchantment of Ravens,” I think I enjoyed this balance even better, with it playing a more minor role to the Elisabeth, Thorn, and Simon’s mission to save the world more at the heart.

The story itself was pure fun. It romps along from exciting action piece, to witting repartee, to touching emotional moments. All caught up in a unique fantasy world that feels lush and colorful. Potentially killer books or no, this is a world I’d like to visit. I mean, hey, I’m pretty sure all of us librarians would be happy to adopt the word “warrior” before our title.  Readers looking for an original fairytale adventure are sure to enjoy this!

Rating 10: Just excellent, checking every box for me: a superb heroine, a swoon-worthy romance, and an adventure story that pulls you along from start to finish. Featuring libraries, none the less!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sorcery of Thorns” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Magical Books, Libraries and Bookstores.”

Find “An Illusion of Thieves” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World”

40698027Book: “A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World” by C. A. Fletcher

Publishing Info: Orbit, April 2019

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

Book Description: My name’s Griz. My childhood wasn’t like yours. I’ve never had friends, and in my whole life I’ve not met enough people to play a game of football.

My parents told me how crowded the world used to be, but we were never lonely on our remote island. We had each other, and our dogs.

Then the thief came.

There may be no law left except what you make of it. But if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you.

Because if we aren’t loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?

Review: Let me tell you, a raging debate took place in my mind when deciding whether or not to place a request to read this book. On one side we have the fact that the book description sounds right up my alley, and I’m almost always looking for a good post-apocalyptic story, especially one that seems to be trying to do something new and avoiding the over-saturated realm of dystopian fiction. On the other hand, the book description references a dog being stolen….and I would NOT be ok if something happened to the dog. And let’s be real, this is a tragic world we’re entering, chances are good something would happen to the dog! But in the end, I let my better angels persuade me that fear of pet-related tragedy wasn’t a good enough reason not to read what otherwise sounded like an awesome book. And I’m so glad I did!

Generations have passed since the end of the world as we know it. But while everything is different, much is still the same, like the love of Griz’s small family and the special connection between Griz and his dogs. In a world gone quiet, made up of brief sailing trips to scavenger for more supplies, the dogs provide crucial support not only in their rabbit-catching abilities but in the happy-go-lucky, loving relationship that has always marked the special bond between dogs and humanity. So when Griz wakes to find one dog has been stolen away, he knows what he must do. What follows is a harrowing tale of endurance in the face of impossible odds, small beauties to be found in emptiness and tragedy, and the special place family, be that human or dog, holds in what could otherwise be a bleak existence.

There was so much to love about this book that it’s hard to know where to start. I think one thing that really stood out to me was the world itself. From the very first page, the emptiness and quiet of this new world was apparent. What also stood out was the fact that our narrator, Griz, has come on the scene several generations after the event that struck down the world we know. That being the case, Griz is piecing together the remnants of a foreign world and society, to varying levels of success. The reader is often left guessing as to what exactly Griz is referencing or describing, since he doesn’t always know the purpose behind the things or places he discovers. There was also a character who spoke a different language and the way this was handled was especially clever. The determined and curious reader will have a lot of fun unpacking these bits.

Griz is also a very effective narrator. The story is written in first person told from a Griz who is relating his story from some period in the future. That being the case, there are often references to the fact that some choice or another will have some impact down the line that past-Griz wouldn’t have known about but that present (and narrating) Griz now reflects upon through different eyes. As for the character, Griz was a lovely combination of being innocently naive while also supremely capable in the face of numerous challenges. There is a sense of sadness woven throughout the story, but Griz’s reflections throughout are poignant and often hopeful in the face of some very sad things. I often found myself wanting to highlight various quotes throughout and will definitely be going back to note a few to reference later.

The story is also both what I expected and much more. There is a lot happening throughout, but it also read at a slow, measured pace, giving ample time to focus on, again, the beautiful, quiet reflections of Griz. I really enjoyed how well-balanced the story felt. There is real danger to this world, and we get a few really great action scenes to highlight this fact (but not necessarily the danger you would expect, which, again worked in favor of keeping the story feeling new and original). But there was also time spent highlighting the strangeness of human interactions and relationships in a world where very few humans even exist.

I won’t spoil anything, but there’s definitely an interesting twist towards the end. I ended up guessing it, but I still think it was done very well. In fact, it’s the kind of follow through on a surprise that I wish we had seen in another book I reviewed recently. If you read this one, you’ll know what other book I’m talking about! I also won’t give away what happens with the dog. I will say that there were tears on and off throughout the book, but I still left it feeling incredibly satisfied and immediately passed it off to my friends and family. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic stories, this is definitely one worth checking out!

Rating 10: I loved this book, heart-wrenching and heart-warming at the same time.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World” isn’t featured on any relevant Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Best Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.

Find “A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Carrie”

126459Book: “Carrie” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Doubleday, April 1974

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Carrie knew she should not use the terrifying power she possessed… But one night at her senior prom, Carrie was scorned and humiliated just one time too many, and in a fit of uncontrollable fury she turned her clandestine game into a weapon of horror and destruction…

Review: It was the Fall of 1997. I was in eighth grade, and I had just finished “The Stand” by Stephen King. My Dad had handed me his copy after we’d watched the re-broadcast of the miniseries, assuring me I would like it. He was right, and I still consider it one of the best moments I’ve ever had with my father, because he opened me up to the world of Stephen King. And while he didn’t have anymore King to share (he’s not a horror guy at all; “The Stand” is his kind of dystopian dark fantasy thriller), I knew that I needed to get my hands on more. And my next choice was “Carrie”. For a vaguely isolated and bullied eighth grade girl, “Carrie” was exactly the kind of book I needed in that moment. While “The Stand” was the book that introduced me to King, “Carrie” changed my life. And on a whim, I decided to revisit it, twenty one years after having first read it. I had my fears that it wouldn’t be as profound to adult Kate as it was to thirteen year old Kate who needed a catharsis from her awful classmates. But I was wrong.

“Carrie” is still a relatable and unnerving horror story from the master of horror himself, and even 45(!) years after it was published it still tackles issues of bullying, zealotry, social isolation, and teenage angst in believable ways. Carrie White is an unconventional protagonist in that she is a constant victim, and is perpetually beaten down and weakened by her peers, her community, and her own mother. Carrie isn’t particularly two dimensional as a character; true, she finds her telekinetic powers and does find some bouts of self confidence that manifest every so often, but she never achieves what she wants to achieve, which is acceptance. Or at the very least, being left the hell alone. And yet even though she is for the most part mousy and passive except for a few moments, and then Prom night, you still feel for her and ache for her. King does a really good job of creating a lonely teenage girl who we pity and care for, and yet ultimately fear (note: We do have to give some credit to King’s wife Tabitha, an author in her own right and complete bad ass. She helped him with the infamous period scene, and helped him with the viciousness of teenage girls). But it isn’t just Carrie White who King so amply brings off the page. Many of his supporting characters are developed and well thought out, and sometimes it’s the real life horrors in this book that will upset you the most. While the bullying is awful, I’m more put off by Carrie’s zealous Mother, so devout and obsessed with her religion that she perverts it into the physical and emotional abuse of her only child. King makes it very clear that Carrie isn’t the real monster in this novel, or rather, if she is she’s a monster who didn’t stand a chance to become anything else.

But I also need to give kudos for how well King captures teenage life for not just Carrie but for the other teen characters. I knew girls like Chris, the cruel and insecure spoiled princess who is used to getting her way, even when she’s at her most rotten. I knew boys like Tommy Ross, a popular but ultimately sweet guy who was just doing his best (side note: I am still in full belief that if Prom Night hadn’t ended the way it did, Tommy and Carrie would have ended up together. HE WAS FALLING IN LOVE WITH HER, GUYS!). And Sue Snell, the girl whose guilt led to her good deed of getting Carrie a date to the prom, is almost more interesting than even Carrie herself. Sue’s comfort in her conformity is tested at the beginning, and her slow realization that there is life after high school, and that she wants more than people would expect from a pretty, popular girl in a small town. On this re-read from an adult’s eye, I found Sue’s arc to be incredibly compelling and bittersweet.

The narrative of “Carrie” is also a slow burn of suspense, told in a combination of third person and epistolary sequences. The perspective may be from that of Carrie or the various people in her life, or it may be through police interview transcripts, book excerpts, or scientific papers. The jumps sometimes feel a little jarring at first, but once you get in the rhythm of them they flow together in a cohesive way. I feel like we haven’t seen as much epistolary experimentation from King as of late, and this throwback to that style from him was fun to see, especially since it’s used so much in thrillers these days. It also casts a wide net on perspectives, and it gives a very well rounded picture of not only Carrie’s life, but the lives of those around her and how the Prom Night and aftermath affect those who come out of it alive. One of the most fun things that I completely forgot about it in this style was the ‘scientific paper’ excerpts, where a scientist is talking about telekinesis and how it applied in this case. But, in another masterful touch by King, even in these epistolary excerpts many of the adults just don’t get what life is like for the teens involved, and the contrast between the speculations and the realities make the story all the more sad.

I may be looking at this through a biased lens, as “Carrie” was a book that got me through a lot during my darker years of adolescence. But I find it to be so effective and well done that I’ve been known to recommend “Carrie” to teenage girls who are looking for a bit of a challenge beyond the YA shelf, and who don’t mind a good scare or two. King’s first is still one of his very best.

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Rating 10: This remains one of my favorite books of all time. “Carrie” is not only a suspenseful and truly scary book, it also captures the horrors of being a teenage outcast that still feel timeless and relevant.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Carrie” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Horror Novels”, and “Bullying”.

Find “Carrie” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Winter of the Witch”

36621586Book: “The Winter of the Witch” by Katherine Arden

Publishing Info: Del Rey, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from Edelweiss+

Book Description: Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.

Previously Reviewed: “The Bear and the Nightingale” and  “The Girl in the Tower”

Review: I don’t want to write this review. Writing this review is the last step in having to acknowledge that this trilogy is truly finished and I want to keep pretending there is more to come! I mean, obviously, Arden has accomplished something incredible with this fantasy series, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from her soon. But…but…what about this world and these characters?? Ok, I’ll try to pull it together and get through this.

The story picks up almost immediately after the events of “The Girl in the Tower.” Moscow almost burned and there is chaos and confusion in the streets. Blame is going around in spades and Vasya once again finds herself in the midst of a tumultuous situation. Even escaping the immediate threats to life and limb, larger forces are moving and lines are being drawn not only between the peoples of the world but also the magical beings who inhabit the unknown.

This entire series has been such an incredible journey of womanhood for our main character. In the first book, Vasya is young, wild and confident. In the second, we see here venture out beyond her comfort zone and build even more confidence in herself and her choices, even when those fly in the face of convention; however, some of this confidence leads to mistakes. And in the third, we see her as an adult, one who has faced her own failings and will hold those scars deep inside of her, but will not be defined by them. She begins to see the greys in the world and understand the weaknesses of herself and those around her. And through her acknowledgement of those weaknesses, she finally comes into her true power and potential. It’s an incredible arc, and this final act really nails the landing. Vasya is at her best in this story. These same flaws and fears that come to the forefront finally round her out as a complete character (this isn’t to say that I didn’t adore her before), and I think now having this finale in hand, I could re-read the first two and get even more out of those portions of her journey.

The story itself almost plays as three short stories, all drawn together through Vasya herself. The first third reads as an extended ending of the second book. The middle portion deep dives into the fantastical realms of the magical beings in a way that we’ve never experienced before. And the third brings us the resolution to the larger war taking place in Rus itself. All three were fantastic, but I think I enjoyed the middle portion best. The rest of the series has largely existed in the “real world” with magical elements interacting with humanity in various ways on that front. This story takes us “through the wardrobe” essentially. There were some classic Russian fairytale characters who show up, but also an introduction to several new ones (I don’t know enough about Russian folklore to know whether these were traditional elements as well, just less known to most readers, or creations of Arden’s own). I particularly enjoyed the magical horses, of course!

At the end of the second book, I really had no idea where Arden was going with the relationship that was being set up between Vasya and the Winter King. That  book did a good job selling the idea that maybe that relationship was truly doomed, not so much in a tragic way, but in a “growing up” type of way. No spoilers for how things resolve here, but I was surprised with the direction it took, but ultimately quite pleased.

There were also a lot of surprises in store with some of the larger themes of the book and series as a whole. For the most part, we’ve had “good guys” and “bad guys” in the past books. Each story has touched on the complications of it all, but this one really tackles the idea of balance and what that truly looks like. Vasya must make sacrifices and compromises that she would never have imagined before. And readers will come to see certain characters in entirely different lights.

I could go on and on. The highest praise I can give this series is to say that I want to re-read it immediately and suspect that it will be even better a second-time around. It started out strong and got progressively stronger with each entry, a rare find in any series and a testament to the strength of the story and author.

Rating 10: January was a strong month for me; chock this one up as another shoe-in for next year’s “Top 10” list!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Winter of the Witch” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Russian Folkloric Fantasy.”

Find “The Winter of the Witch” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Kingdom of Copper”

35839460Book: “The Kingdom of Copper” by S.A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss +

Book Description: Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.

Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of the battle that saw Dara slain at Prince Ali’s hand, Nahri must forge a new path for herself, without the protection of the guardian who stole her heart or the counsel of the prince she considered a friend. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family and one misstep will doom her tribe.

Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid-the unpredictable water spirits-have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.

And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

Previously Reviewed: “The City of Brass”

Review: Obviously, I was excited for this book. I’ve been patiently waiting and waiting for its release, and the second I spotted an e-copy available, I rushed to snag it. And then…I delayed reading it! Mostly because I was so excited that I wanted to ensure that I had as much uninterrupted time as possible to read major chunks of it. I’m typically fairly good about being able to pick up books and read a few pages here and there throughout the day and enjoy them as much as reading any other way. But, like every avid reader, I feel, there’s nothing like having a solid chunk of hours/days solely devoted to reading. And the cherry on top of that cake is having what is sure to be an excellent read to fill it! So I waited until my husband and I headed up north for a cabin trip and then whizzed through this book in blissful, quiet hours reading by the fire.

The story picks up a few years after the events of “The City of Brass.” Our two main protagonists from the first book, Nahri and Ali, are both making due with a life that hasn’t gone to plan. Nahri, married through a political alliance to the heir to a throne that had been stolen from her family generations ago, has continued to learn to master her own healing abilities and navigate the unfamiliar historical and political upheaval at the heart of djinn society. Ali has made a quiet life for himself living in a small village, banished from his beloved home city. There, he has been diligently trying to hide the residual water powers that he has developed after his experience with the marid in the lake around Daevabad. Joining our main two narrators, we also have chapter perspectives from Dara, a character that is believed dead by Nahri and Ali after the events of the last book.

What struck me most forcefully in the first book was the complicated and detailed world and history that the author had built. This wasn’t simply a story of the now, it was a story of how hundreds and thousands of years shaped what is the current situation. Similar to the true history of the Middle East, nothing is so simple as what can bullet pointed with current tension points. No, you have to dig back through centuries to understand a complicated history that more and more begins to resemble an impossible knot. So, too, in this fantasy version of the region. The first book laid the foundation, but this one really dives into the bigger questions that arise in a situation like this, where wrong-doings have been being committed for centuries and no party is innocent. Where is the line between justice, revenge, pride, and simple violence? When atrocities have been committed for centuries, one people to be repressed by another, only to rise and switch the roles for a few more centuries, who’s “wrongs” outweigh the other’s? There is no easy answer, and Chakraborty does a masterful job of portraying just how challenging finding peace and resolution in situations so whetted in historical conflict can be.

And to tackle all of these complex themes, we have our main characters. Nahri continues to be the stand-out character for me in this series. Not only is she approaching this situation from an outsider’s perspective, often giving her the most healthy and balanced outlook on the situation, but she is an eminently practical and resilient character. Where other books would get bogged down in the angst and drama of an arranged marriage, Nahri has persevered. She knows where her power lies and recognizes the powerlessness of those around her as well; for everything else, she will make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. I can’t say how relieved I was to find that the book didn’t get caught up in relationship drama, as far as her arranged marriage goes. Too often I think this type of romantic drama is misidentified as action in and of its own. But here, it’s clear that Nahri’s priorities are much bigger than worrying about her political marriage. She has a proper perspective on not only her own challenges, but the challenges of her people and city.

Ali, too, was still a fantastic character. If anything, I grew to like him more and more as this book continued. He, too, has had to face the realities of his own idealistic tendencies. While he still had moments where I wanted to slap him around the side of the head (because again, Nahri sometimes seemed to be the only adult in the room), his arc was compelling. I particularly enjoyed the deeper look into his relationship with his siblings.

Dara, our new character POV, was also a fantastic addition. He operates outside of the main action of the city for the majority of the story, but through him, we can see the conflict coming that both Nahri and Ali are ignorant of. Further, Dara, more so than the other two, truly understands the horrors of the past, having lived through much of it. His wrestling with these issues felt that much more poignant for having residual PTSD, essentially, from his own actions. It was heart-breaking reading him come up against some of these same terrible choices once again.

I also can’t say enough good things about the general strength of the writing in these books. Chakraborty pens her words with a solid, confident stroke. Not only is the imagery beautiful, but the dialogue is snappy and the philosophical explorations are cleverly drawn. It’s a big task to try to address such large and complicated issues as the ones presented in this book. But to do it, while also not losing sight of her characters and presenting a compelling book that feels fast-paced throughout? Incredible! Fans of the first book are sure to be happy with this one (though I will say, you have to be patient for the Dara/Nahri) re-union! The story also leaves off with a fairly sizeable cliff-hanger, so beware of that. But don’t let that put you off!

Rating 10: Simply excellent. No second-book slump here!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Kingdom of Copper” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy of color.”

Find “The Kingdom of Copper” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles”

36686229Book: “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Heavens to Murgatroyd! Hanna-Barbera’s very own Snagglepuss is reimagined in a brand-new series, EXIT STAGE LEFT: THE SNAGGLEPUSS CHRONICLES, by author Mark Russell (THE FLINTSTONES)!

It’s 1953. While the United States is locked in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the gay Southern playwright known as Snagglepuss is the toast of Broadway. But success has made him a target. As he plans for his next hit play, Snagglepuss becomes the focus of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And when powerful forces align to purge show business of its most subversive voices, no one is safe!

Written by Mark Russell, the critically acclaimed mastermind behind the award-winning PREZ VOL. 1 and THE FLINTSTONES, EXIT STAGE LEFT: THE SNAGGLEPUSS CHRONICLES, enters the Hanna-Barbera reimagined universe! Collects issues #1-6.

Review: A special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

Though I feel like I watched a good amount of Hanna-Barbera cartoons as a child, one character that I don’t have specific memories of is Snagglepuss. I remember him existing, and I remember a few of his quirks (like his catch phrase ‘exit, stage left!!’ and his smooth personality), but I don’t think I ever saw a full cartoon with him as the star. But even with my passing familiarity of the character, I still knew that I ABSOLUTELY needed to read “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles”. It’s not exactly an obvious premise: Snagglepuss is a closeted Southern playwright in 1950s New York during the McCarthy Witch Hunts and the Lavender Scare, and finds himself and his friends targeted for their lifestyles. Is this a story I thought I’d see Snagglepuss in? No. Is it one of the best, if not the very best, graphic novels I’ve read this year. Heavens to Murgatoyd, yes.

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No longer is my go to Snagglepuss reference a throwaway “Simpsons” joke! (source)

The thing about Snagglepuss as a character is that he was written at a time where gay characters were coded into entertainment, and they were usually portrayed as villains, buffoons, or, if people were feeling progressive, tragic victims who couldn’t survive the story if they wanted to be true to themselves. Snagglepuss is fussy, dapper, has a smarmy affectation, and acts ‘flamboyant’, so it’s probably safe to assume he was coded as gay, and meant to be laughed at. So to take this character and to give him this story is a very neat deconstruction of what the character was initially, especially since this story is set within the same general time frame that Snagglepuss first was introduced to the world (if not a little before). Mark Russell, the man responsible for other DC/Hanna-Barbera edginess like his take on “The Flintstones” and “Scooby-Doo”, has given Snagglepuss a similar, dark treatment where people thought darkness couldn’t possibly be found. But darkness there is, as Snagglepuss finds himself caught up in the fear of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, with it’s head Gigi Allen setting her sights on him specifically. Through this backdrop we get to explore and examine the hypocrisy, corruption, prejudice, and rampant fear that had the American Government and people in an uproar. Snagglepuss himself is reluctant to become a symbol of rebellion; on the the contrary he’s perfectly content living his life as a success on Broadway, meeting up with his lover at the Stonewall Inn and basking in his fame as an intellectual elite. What I liked the most about him as our main character is that he is thrust into this role of rebellion, and his complicated feelings about it make him a well rounded character who has his OWN privileges that he hides behind when others can’t. He is a compelling iteration of the original character, and someone who can’t accept how bad things have gotten until it’s too late. 

Other familiar faces pop up in this story, from Hanna-Barbera stallwarts to actual players during the Red and Lavender Scares. We get cameos from the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, and the Rosenbergs, whose execution is one of the darker plot points within this book. At the end of the graphic novel Russell has put together a handy dandy set of notes on various people and moments he includes in the story, and I found that to be very helpful and thoughtful of him (I had never heard of the great Cornfield War between Khruschev and an American farmer. Look it up, it’s hilarious!). On the Hanna-Barbera end, Quick Draw McGraw and Squiddly Diddly play key roles and have their own forms of prejudice to contend with (Quick Draw being a closeted cop on the Stonewall beat and Squiddly being an immigrant), but the stand out is Huckleberry Hound. Huckleberry is Snagglepuss’s childhood best friend, and has become a well known Southern Gothic novelist whose marriage has fallen apart because of his sexuality. They are exact opposites, with Snagglepuss being flitty and carefree and Huckleberry being anxious and depressed. The way that their relationship grows and changes, and how they cope, or don’t cope, is one of the saddest aspects of this book, and the one that had me weeping openly of Hanna-Barbera characters. I never thought I’d see the day. But that just goes to show how excellent Russell is as a writer: he takes two dimensional cartoon characters and breathes life into them, redefining them and bringing relevant social concepts to life through them.

The artistic style that Mike Feehan brings to this story is also incredibly compelling. The characters look realistic, with Snagglepuss absolutely designed like a mountain lion in stature and gait, but not out of place within the real world they are mingling in. The animals are the right amount of anthropomorphized without feeling uncanny or eerie.

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(source: DC Comics)

“Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” feels timely because the rise of paranoia and corruption within our current administration, and the constant Othering of various groups that don’t fit into the mold that they deem as ‘true Americans’. It feels like a warning, and it makes it all the more intense and powerful of a read. But it also feels like you’re reading about familiar friends, and are learning a great deal about them that you never knew, even though they were always like this. It’s ingenious and effective, and I loved every bit of it. And it’s stories like this that make me run back to DC Comics, because this is by and large one of, if not the, best graphic novels I have read in a very long time. I have my issues with DC, but I stand by the fact that I find some of the stories they tell to be incredibly ambitious and outside the box. And, heavens to Murgatroyd, I cannot recommend “Exit Stage Left” enough.

Rating 10: This brilliant and poignant story takes a well known character and gives him depth, heart, and complexity. Snagglepuss and his friends jump off the page in a story that feels as timely as it does foreboding.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” isn’t on many specifically relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it has a place on “My Country, The Enemy”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” at your library using WorldCat!