Kate’s Review: “The Disaster Artist”

17404078Book: “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside “The Room”, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero, Tom Bissell

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, October 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it on audiobook!

Book Description: From the actor who lived through the most improbable Hollywood success story, with an award-winning narrative nonfiction writer, comes the inspiring, fascinating and laugh-out-loud story of a mysteriously wealthy outsider who sundered every road block in the Hollywood system to achieve success on his own terms—the making of The Room, “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” (Entertainment Weekly).

In 2003, an independent film called The Room—written, produced, directed, and starring a very rich social misfit of indeterminate age and origin named Tommy Wiseau—made its disastrous debut in Los Angeles. Described by one reviewer as “like getting stabbed in the head,” the $6 million film earned a grand total of $1,800 at the box office and closed after two weeks. Now in its tenth anniversary year, The Room is an international phenomenon to rival The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Thousands of fans wait in line for hours to attend screenings complete with costumes, audience rituals, merchandising, and thousands of plastic spoons.

Readers need not have seen The Room to appreciate its costar Greg Sestero’s account of how Tommy Wiseau defied every law of artistry, business, and interpersonal relationships to achieve the dream only he could love. While it does unravel mysteries for fans, The Disaster Artist is more than just an hilarious story about cinematic hubris: It is ultimately a surprisingly inspiring tour de force that reads like a page-turning novel, an open-hearted portrait of a supremely enigmatic man who will capture your heart.

Review: As a bad movie connoisseur, it will probably come as a huge surprise to people that I have not actually seen “The Room” in it’s entirety. My first experience with “The Room” was while at a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, as they were advertising a special screening of this piece of cinematic napalm. I’ve seen plenty of clips online. I’ve seen lots of references to it, gifs, parodies. And I had heard of the book “The Disaster Artist”, written by Greg Sestero. Sestero was one of the stars in the movie, and decided to write a memoir about the making of it, as well of his friendship with Tommy Wiseau, the man behind the film. With the new movie out based on this book, I felt that before I saw it, I needed to read the original memoir to get the full effect. So I got my hands on the audiobook, read by Sestero himself.

And it was more surreal than I ever could have imagined in the history of surrealness.

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No, Mark, that’s a compliment!! (source)

Okay, for the super uninitiated, “The Room” is a nonsensical, poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted vanity project written, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. I would say go watch it, but… HERE, see some scenes for yourself. Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in the movie, had known Wiseau for some time before he was emotionally manipulated asked to appear in the film by him. The memoir he’s written takes two different timelines and juxtaposes them into the narrative: the actual making of “The Room”, and his strange friendship with Wiseau, from it’s inception in an acting class to the moment Wiseau decided he was going to make his own movie after success eluded him. I had heard plenty of stories about the bizarre antics of Tommy Wiseau on and off the set, but none of prepared me for the ‘what the FUCK’-ness that was this memoir. I walked away from it thinking that either Sestero has the patience of a saint, or has found himself totally within the clutches of an incredibly toxic friendship and doesn’t know up from down anymore. I really hope it’s the former.

So many of the stories in this book read like they should be fiction, and yet I have no doubt in my mind that they absolutely occurred the way that Sestero said they did. They are just too outlandish and random to have not. Be it a moment where Wiseau reads a key code to Sestero telling him it’s very complicated, only for it to be ‘1234’ (and written down because Wiseau ‘can never remember it’), to descriptions of Sestero coming home to find Wiseau hanging upside down from a pull up bar and just kind of lingering in stasis, to Wiseau telling Sestero to meet him in downtown San Francisco, only to surprise him by saying they are running The Bay to Breakers Race THAT VERY MOMENT (poor Sestero was only wearing sandals), the anecdotes are stranger than fiction. And laugh out loud funny. I had it on my phone as I was setting up for work one morning, and one of my coworkers needed to know why I was laughing so hard. And, of course, the descriptions of the antics on the set itself were mind boggling in their hilarity. Wiseau would take hours upon hours to get a seven second line correct; he would perform his suicide scene, and then writhe around and moan in spite of the fact his character had just eaten a gun; he would insist upon green screens for simple shots that end up looking out of place at best, ridiculous at worst. And he had a knack for getting the absolute worst performances from his players. In the moment it had to be absolutely maddening; but Sestero tells it in such a way that the humor is always there, and it is entertaining as hell.

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What a story indeed. (source)

But along with that, Sestero does a great job of capturing the darker and more poignant sides to Wiseau and their complicated friendship. Behind the oddities and eccentricities, there is definitely a dark side to Tommy, one that is hard to completely understand, if only because he is so private with his past and his personal life. He is desperate for friends, he is desperate to be loved and admired, and he latches onto Sestero out of what appears to be sheer loneliness. Unfortunately, like most of the time, this makes for a very tempestuous, and unhealthy, friendship. Wiseau could switch from being supportive and whimsical, to threatening and abusive should he think that Sestero, or anyone, was crossing him. Hell, “The Room” itself seems to be a reflection of how Wiseau sees himself in the world, as the one truly pure person who is taken advantage of by the people he loves. Wiseau insisted that Sestero play Mark, the best friend of Johnny (played by Wiseau), who betrays Johnny by having an affair with Lisa, Johnny’s fiancee. When you look at that in the context of a deep resentment that Wiseau potentially had for Sestero due to his perceived ‘success’ in Hollywood pre-“The Room” (booking a few roles here and there is success in this case), the casting makes perfect sense. There were moments where I felt deeply uncomfortable about the toxic nature of their friendship, as in some ways it hit a nerve. I’ve been in Sestero’s shoes before, as I’ve been in the position of having a friend who is so completely draining and yet you don’t know how to extricate yourself from them. One review I read thought that Sestero either had to be lying, or downplaying his own ‘leech’ status to Tommy (who provided him with an apartment at a reduced rate), because how could he continue to put up with the abusive nature of their friendship for so long if there wasn’t something in it for him? To that reviewer, I say that it is far more realistic than one would think. To Sestero’s credit, this could have been a complete hatchet job towards an unstable and narcissistic asshole. But instead, by giving some insight into what sort of (potential) experiences Wiseau went through in his early life, he writes of him in such a way that while you are repelled by some of his actions, you also understand why he acts in certain ways. I don’t feel that Sestero ever makes excuses for it, either, as he is VERY clear when Wiseau goes over the line against him and others. But he’s made peace with this relationship, and shows the good with the bad.

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Patience. Of. A. Saint. (source)

As mentioned previously, I listened to this book, and Sestero reads it himself. I HIGHLY recommend it. At first he sounded a little bit wooden and I wasn’t totally sure… but the moment that he started imitating Wiseau, well, that sold it for me. It’s pretty much the perfect imitation as only a friend can do.

“The Disaster Artist” was easily one of the most bizarre and entertaining books that I’ve read. It says a lot about the need for acceptance, the desperation for fame, and how sometimes being just off the wall wacko can pay off, even if it’s in ways you never intended.

Rating 10: A hilarious, outlandish, and at times incredibly pathos ridden and disturbing romp about dreaming of stardom, acceptance, and success… no matter how you define it or achieve it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Disaster Artist” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books ABOUT Movies”, and “Best Eccentric Characters”.

Find “The Disaster Artist” at your library using WorldCat! And here is the link to the Audiobook version because TRUST ME.

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Girl in the Tower”

34050917Book: “The Girl in the Tower” by Katherine Arden

Publishing Info: Del Ray, December 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from Bookish First, and an e-ARC from NetGalley

Book Description: Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

Previously Reviewed: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Review: It wasn’t even a year ago when I, on a slight whim, picked up “The Bear and the Nightingale.” It was in the middle of winter, and here in Minnesota, that’s a real thing, so the gorgeous cover with its deep, cool blues centered around a girl, out in the cold, facing inwards towards the cozy warms hues of hearth and home, struck a particular cord. But nothing could have prepared me for the sheer joy that was reading that first debut novel by Katherine Arden. This time, I was prepared. And yet…was I? Once again, I’ve somehow been blown off my feet by the sheer scope of Arden’s abilities and the story she is weaving together in this series.

“The Girl in the Tower” opens with a few chapters from the perspective of Vasya’s siblings. These first glimpses highlight not only that life has gone on outside of the strange and magical happenings in Vasya’s remote home village, but that in this time period, across all of this space, word does not travel fast. And her siblings have their own concerns. Olga, living the life of an aristocratic woman in medieval Russia, constrained to a tower and seclusion, is trying to raise her two children, particularly her willful young daughter, while looking forward to the birth of her third. And Vasya’s brother, Sasha, a wandering warrior monk, brings news of villages being raided and burned, their daughters stolen, to his close friend the Grand Prince.

Within this framework, we return to Vasya, almost immediately after the end of the previous book, still set on her plan to wander the world, accepting neither marriage nor a convent as reasonable choices. Even in the face of Morozko’s, the frost demon and god of death, open skepticism of her plan, she sets off. Only to discover that he is both right and wrong. The world is filled with much more danger than she had expected, but oh so much more beauty, as well. Along the way, she takes on the appearance of a young boy for further safety, and rescues two girls from the same group of bandits that Sasha had discovered. After running into her brother and the Grand Prince hunting these bandits, Vasya finds herself living a lie that is full of freedom but doomed to not last. Olga and Sasha, alone, understand the true, political dangers of what their young sister has gotten them all tangled up within.

As I said, I loved the first book in this series, and while I was hopeful that this book would continue to show that same strength, I never expected it to exceed it. And exceed it did, in almost every way. This book was by far more action-packed. The romance was increased. The danger and horror were there. And the characterization, allowed to build on what came before without the pressure of introducing completely new characters, blossomed. By being exposed to the world and its realities, the beauties and, more importantly, dangers and restrictions that confront women, Vasya’s former naivety is brutally stripped away. And yet she never loses her fierceness or her conviction that, whatever anyone says, this is wrong. Seeing their fiery, brilliant sister’s struggle, Sasha and Olga, not the most conservative individuals themselves, are forced to confront the lives they are leading and the expectations and assumptions they’ve made about themselves and those around them. One of my favorite quotes, from Sasha:

Witch. The word drifted across his mind. We call such women so, because we have no other name.

Further, I continue to love the mixture of historical detail of a time period and location that is rarely explored, with Russian folklore and fairytales, some of them recognizable, some completely, refreshingly, new. The tower from the book’s name, for example. In the author’s note, Arden discusses how locking aristocratic women in remote towers or wings of castles, completely removed from society, was a common practice in this time period. But perhaps most interesting, no one fully understands why this was done. And here, she ties this aspect of Russian history so neatly into a full-fledged fantasy novel that includes frost demons, magical talking horses, and firebirds.

And, like the first book, Arden’s prose is simply beautiful. While this book has more action than the first, this in no way detracts from atmospheric style of writing. Again, the cold of winter, the darkness of the woods, the bustle of the cities. It is all gorgeously drawn landscapes across which her characters romp.

The story also fully succeeds as a middle step in a trilogy. It takes concepts and interest points from the first story (particularly the romantic undertones with Morozko) and expands on them, tells a complete and compelling story of its own (the bandits, and a surprising tie-in to Vasya’s own familial history), but also lays the groundwork for the next and last in the trilogy. Vasya’s place in the world is by no means defined, and where she will go, and what role she will play in the ever-fading mystical world to which she is so closely connected is still yet to be determined.

Lastly, as a horse lover already, Solovey stole the show in this book. He was the primary source of much of the humor of the story, but it is also clear that without him, much of what Vasya accomplishes would have been impossible. As much as I love the bittersweet romance with Morozko, I’m all in for the horse/girl relationship as my primary bread and butter.

Honestly, I can’t recommend this book enough. And like with “The Bear and the Nightingale,” I want to share the love! Enter the giveaway to win an ARC copy of “The Girl in the Tower.” The giveaway is open to U.S. entrants only and ends on November 28, 2017.

Congrats to Kara for winning our giveaway of “The Girl in the Tower!”

Rating 10: Somehow even better than the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl in the Tower” is a new title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists except for  “Young Adult & Middle Grade Historical Fiction set in Russia.”

Find “The Girl in the Tower” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “City of Brass”

32718027Book: “City of Brass” by S. A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, November 2017

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

Book Description: Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.

But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass–a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.

After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for . . .

Review: In addition to my e-galley, I nabbed a copy of this while Kate and I were sneaking around early exploring the exhibit hall. I really knew nothing about it beyond the fact that the cover was beautiful, and it had a blurb that referenced ‘The Golem and the Jinni,” which is a historical fantasy novel from a few years ago that I absolutely adored. So I went into this one with practically no expectations, and wow. I mean…wow. S. A. Chakraborty is a new author to sit up and pay attention to!

First off, the description above is a bit misleading. Yes, we do follow the story of Nahri, a street con woman who finds herself to have a mystical heritage and one that is paramount to the future of a vast and complicated fantastical world where djinn, marids, and many, many others roam and war with each other. However, chapters alternate between her adventures and those of Ali, a young, second son of Ghallan, the current ruler of Daevabad. Ali has been trained as a warrior to serve as a general, essentially, for his older brother when he takes over. But Ali is also a deeply religious young man, and when he looks at his family’s dealings with the shafit (half human, half djinn), he sees only oppression and wrong doings.

There is so much to praise about this book. It is atmospheric, bringing to life large swaths of the Middle East. We travel from the streets of ancient Cairo, to the foothills of what is likely Persia, across desserts and great rivers, and finally, into a fully-realized magical realm that seamlessly blends creative magical elements (like bizarre illnesses, strange creatures, and fantastical architecture) alongside traditional, historic middle eastern touches. And Chakraborty has peopled this world with an equally diverse and well-drawn cast of characters. Yes, there are magical beasts, liked winged lions. But there are also various types of humanoid-beings. The djinn are a fire people. There are the rumored Marid, a water people. And, the most powerful of all,  a people of the air. Among these, roam the shafit, whose complicated history with the djinn sits at the heart of this story.

This history is perhaps one of the most impressive parts of the story. Not only is it complicated enough that I was still fitting pieces together towards the end of the book (in this case, this is a compliment, as it was complicated for important reasons, not due to poor writing, which is often the case behind lasting confusion), but the author successfully challenges readers at every step to evaluate and re-evalutate and AGAIN re-evalutate who are the heroes and villains in each version of history we hear. And the best part: this is never made clear. I love this nuanced take on storytelling, as I feel it reads the most honest to true history. The stories are told by the winners, and often the winners have contributed their own atrocities to succeed in the first place. And in this book’s case, we have such a long history presented, that the winners of one historic conflict, are the losers of the next. One side is oppressed at one point, only to oppress the other at the next, while that oppressed group now holds the keys to peace going forward. There are no simple “good guys” and “bad guys” in this story. And by the end, I’m firmly rooting for three different characters who all fall on one extreme, the middle, and the other extreme of a very complicated spectrum.

And this brings me to my last point. All of this history and world-building is supported by an amazingly strong cast of characters. To support this kind of ongoing conflict that is constantly questioning the morality of one group’s choices or the other, you must have sympathetic and interesting characters to make you care. Nahri is the exact type of heroine I love. She’s well-rounded, has a distinct personality, is sassy, but also knows when to bend, and, importantly, she is flawed. Ali, the second protagonist, is also incredibly strong. He had more work to do as he took me by surprise, but I found myself equally enjoying his earnest and often naive view of the world he lives in and the role he is expected to play. And then lastly, we have Dara, a djinn warrior of legend who befriends and protects Nahri. Even by the end of the story, we’re not sure who exactly this character is. But the sweet romance that begins to develop between him and Nahri is the exact sort of slow burn love story that I like, and I’m curious to see what will happen with this particular character and plot line moving forward.

I honestly can’t recommend this book enough. As I said, I picked this up because it sounded like “The Golem and the Jinni.” Turns out, I loved it even more than that one. For those looking for a smart, complicated, fantasy novel set in a unique environment, definitely check out “The City of Brass.” Now I’ll just frantically stare down the calendar while I wait for the sequel!

Rating 10:  The best kind of surprise. I honestly have zero criticisms for this book, and that’s a feat on its own!

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Brass” is on these Goodreads lists: “Muslims Represented in Literature” and “2017 SFF by Authors of Color.”

Find “City of Brass” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Sing, Unburied, Sing”

32920226Book: “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

Publishing Info: Scribner, September 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Review: Every once in awhile, a book comes along that just blows me the hell away. One that feels like an elevated experience just reading it, pouring over it, immersing oneself in it. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward did that for me, and I am still staggered by how fantastic it was. I’ve come to expect nothing less from Jesmyn Ward, one of the best writers out there today, bar none. I’ve read two of her other books, both of which are transcendent and incredibly emotional. The first is the novel “Salvage the Bones”, a story about a rural and poor African American family living in Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina lurches and looms towards them. The other is “Men We Reaped”, a memoir about the numerous black men in Ward’s life who all died far too young, brutal casualties of overt and systemic racism that is all too present in the U.S. When I heard she had a new book coming out, I requested it, and then steeled myself for it as I picked it up.

The first thing that I must mention is the characters and characterization in this novel. We follow a couple main perspectives. The first is Jojo, a thirteen year old boy who has been raised mostly by his grandparents (Mam and Pop), as his mother is addicted to drugs and his father is in prison. He has also taken on the caregiver role to his little sister Kayla, wanting to keep her safe from the ills of the world. Mam is very ill with cancer, and Pop tells Jojo stories from the past in hopes that Jojo can learn from them. The second is Leonie, Jojo and Kayla’s mother. Her boyfriend Michael is getting out of prison soon, and her all encompassing love for him blinds her to most other things. Her drug addiction is fueled in part by the fact that she sees visions of her dead brother Given while she’s high. The final perspective is from Richie, the ghost of a thirteen year old boy who died at Parchman, the prison Michael is at. Richie knew Pop when he was alive, and he has unfinished business with him. Jojo starts seeing Richie on their travels, as Richie knows that there’s a connection there. All of these characters are well rounded and explored, and I got a feel for every one of them (as well as a number of the other characters like Mam and Pop). I understood the motivations of each of them. I was especially moved by Leonie, as while she makes terrible and selfish decisions when it comes to her children, I completely understood why she made those choices, and how factors both within her control and outside of it have made her into the person that she is.

The themes of this book also blew me away. For one, I’m a huge sucker for a ghost story, and this one has the feel of a Southern Gothic novel with the isolation and wide open spaces that still feel claustrophobic. But Ward brings in other ghosts that haunt this country and our culture, as the setting and characters are still plagued by the racism that has so infected this country. From the remnants of Jim Crow laws to the consequences of the War on Drugs to police brutality and violence, the journey that this family takes, physical and emotional, always has the specter of racism hanging over it. Ward doesn’t offer any solutions or answers or happy endings of conclusions to this, and all you can hope for is that this family will continue to survive in face of explicit (Michael’s family) and implicit racism that surrounds them. It’s really the perfect use of a ghost story, as the all too true horrors of our racist culture and society still haunt us, as much as we may hate to acknowledge it.

And the writing is just beautiful. Ward has a serious talent for creating a story and an imagery that leaps and flows in the pages of this book. I felt like I could see everything that was happening in my mind’s eye, and I was so engrossed I devoured this book in a day’s time. Ward is an author who is being called a ‘modern Faulkner’ by a number of people, and while I understand the sentiment (examinations of the American South are a commonality between the two), I think that she easily stands in a league of her own. This book is exactly why, and I urge everyone to give it a try and see why, because nothing I write here will be able to do it justice.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is one of the best books I’ve read this year, no question. Please please please go read it and see for yourselves.

Rating 10: I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. A heart rendering story about literal and metaphorical ghosts, family, the South, and Americana.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2017”, and “Anticipated/Best 2017 Literary Fiction”.

Find “Sing, Unburied, Sing” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Stone Sky”

31817749Book: “The Stone Sky” by N. K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC provided by Orbit

Book Description: The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women.

Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene child can grow up safe.

For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed.

Previously Reviewed: “The Fifth Season” and “The Obelisk Gate”

Review: At this point, I’m honestly baffled by N. K. Jemisin. The fact that the previous two books both won Hugo awards is awe-inspiring enough. But to not miss a single step in a complete trilogy? Crazy impressive. What’s more, as I was reading this book and unpacking the many, many more new layers being added to an already impossibly complex  history and world, I was seriously questioning my own mental capacity to even keep track of it all, let alone write an entire trilogy with all of these details in mind from the first. All of this, she had to have all of this in her mind when she started the first book! These aren’t tiny little breadcrumbs that could be sprinkled in early with only vague ideas for how they are going to be used later. This is an entire history, on top of another history, on top of ANOTHER HISTORY and our slow-revealed narrator, Hoa, has been talking about it all right in front of our faces since the very beginning! I really can’t express my bafflement at the mastery that one needs to possess to juggle this type of storytelling.

But I should probably start a more coherent review at this point. When we finished off “The Obelisk Gate,” Nassun and Essun were set up on opposite sides of a final confrontation that would determine the future of the world. Nassun, broken, hurt, and disillusioned to the point of hopelessness about humanity, sees only one way forward: it can’t be fixed, so let’s just end the bad things. Essun, on the other hand, has only recently begun to see that through all the brokenness, through all the loss of children, family, lovers, and communities, there still might be a way forward, a way to change things and fix what isn’t right.

These two dynamics are so incredibly strong. Through these three books, we’ve seen a lifetime of pain and horror through Essun’s eyes. She has been devastated, horrified, apathetic, furious, and here, in the last, she still manages to find hope. Her time with the comm of Castrima has opened her eyes to a new way of life where orogene and still can live and work together. It’s not perfect by any means, and there are a million fights ahead to make progress, but here, in the end, she sees that fight as one that is worth having and saving.

Nassun sees nothing worth saving, but for Schaffa, and even he is plagued by a life riddled with pain and confusion. Wouldn’t it be best for it all to just end? Her story has been the most tragic in this series. Essun at least has been an adult for the majority of it, and to some extent (while very small at times), she’s had the ability to choose and make a path for herself, even if that path leads into more darkness. Nassun is a child, and while she’s had to grow up much too fast, she still sees the world through eyes of a person whose only lived 11 years on it, and those 11 years have been filled with nothing but abandonment, horror, and no signs that things will ever improve. After killing her father at the end of the last book, Nassun is done. If even a father sees only a monster in his orogene child, then she will be that monster and end it all, for the sake of all monsters everywhere.

Nassun and Essun’s stories are poignant and beautiful, and by setting the two on opposite sides of this fight, as a reader, you’re caught wishing for the impossible. And Jemisin delivers it! The conclusion to these two’s story ended in the only way it could and was immensely satisfying.

But this isn’t only Nassun and Essun’s book. While in the last book we learned much more about the stone eaters and their involvement in this war for the future of the Earth, here we go even farther back in time, back to the great civilization in the past that understood magic just well enough to become greedy, building the Obelisk Gate in an attempt to tap the life magic of the Earth as well and triggering the Shattering. This is Hoa’s origin story, finally. And with it comes, you guessed it, more tragedy and evidence of the brokenness of humanity, the shortsightedness that comes with greed and small lives, and the ever present fear for those who find themselves in power and are frantic to keep it. We learn how and why the Obelisks were created, we learn more about the living Evil Earth itself, we see the history of the Guardians and who they were, and we see that the same terrible choices have been made again and again.

Not only do I not want to spoil the many reveals presented in this book, I’m fairly certain that I need to immediately re-read the entire series to fully appreciate the story that’s been told and finally connect all of the dots of this complicated world. If you asked me to  storyboard this series in chronological order, I’m pretty sure I’d struggle. But that is absolutely no criticism of the book. The best books, in my opinion, are the ones that are so fully alive that you can’t possible fully understand them in one (or even two!) go-arounds.

So hopefully by this time you’ve already read the first two in the series, because here’s your chance to get your hands on the final book in this amazing series! Enter to win a paperback copy of “The Stone Sky!” Giveaway ends Sept. 21 and is open to U.S. entries only. Happy reading!

Enter the Giveaway!

Rating 10: If this doesn’t win another Hugo, I’ll be shocked.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Obelisk Gate” is on these Goodreads lists: “#ReadPOC: List of Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color” and “Best Picks: Adult Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Novels of 2017.”

Find “The Stone Sky” at your library using WorldCat

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “City of Blades”

23909755Book: “City of Blades” by Robert Jackson Bennett

Publishing Info: Broadway Books, January 2016

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

Book Description: The city of Voortyashtan was once the domain of the goddess of death, war, and destruction, but now it’s little more than a ruin. General Turyin Mulaghesh is called out of retirement and sent to this hellish place to try to find a Saypuri secret agent who’s gone missing in the middle of a mission, but the city of war offers countless threats: not only have the ghosts of her own past battles followed her here, but she soon finds herself wondering what happened to all the souls that were trapped in the afterlife when the Divinities vanished. Do the dead sleep soundly in the land of death? Or do they have plans of their own?

Previously read: “City of Stairs”

Review: It’s been over a year now since I read the first book in this series, “City of Stairs” and in that time the third and final book, “City of Miracles” has been published. I’d like to say I plan my reviews like this, as I have a preference for reading series in a binge-like style and this works best when that series is completed. But the honest answer is that I get distracted by the million other good books out there, so when I am reminded of a good series by a more recent publication…it just a lucky coincidence for my binge-reading style!

That said, “City of Blades” is not a direct sequel to “City of Stairs,” picking up several years after the fact and re-focusing the story on General Turyin Mulaghesh who we met in the first book when she fought off a resurgence of Gods in Bulikov alongside our heroes of that book, Shara and Sigrud. Now, years later, Shara has been elected Prime Minister, Sigrud has been roped into a delegate role, representing his nation of origin, and Mulaghesh has retreated in retirement, suddenly quitting, for unknown reasons, the political atmosphere in which she had been steadily rising. But things are not all well on the Continent and Shara, whose popularity has greatly waned (turns out many people can’t and won’t just forget a past that was ruled by cruel Gods), calls on one of the few people she still trusts to discover what has been going on in the city of Voortystan, the capital city of the late Voortya, Goddess of War. So Mulaghesh is off, albeit grumpily, to a city that is in the midst of a forced transformation to the modern, but whose past is perhaps more close than anyone would have guessed.

I had really and truly forgotten just how excellent this series is. This book, like “City of Stairs” before it,  checks all the boxes for fantasy I love. World-building is excellent. The characters are complicated, interesting, and, importantly, have a wicked sense of humor. The themes are drawn upon using masterful technique.

While Shara’s story was one of a young woman discovering her dreams are not quite what she once thought, Mulaghesh’s story is that of a middle-aged woman who feels that the imprint she’s left on the world is not one to be proud of. Throughout the story, we have a slow reveal of Mulaghesh’s past history with the military, the choices she and her troops were forced to make, and the influence these choices have had on her life since. Throughout this all, Mulaghesh’s voice is strong, surly, and darkly witty.

Her own story ties neatly into a larger discussion of what it means to be a soldier. Voortya, the Goddess of War, and her followers created a complete culture around this question. War was art. War was life. War was at the center of every choice her people made. And now, decades after the Gods have been killed off, is this fact any different?

One thing that particularly stood out as I was reading this, and that makes Bennett’s writing and his characters so excellent is that he never dumbs things down. Not the mysteries or history for the reader: there were many times that I had to stop reading for a bit to re-order my thinking of the timeline of this world, or how this one magical element or another worked again, as it had been explained chapters ago. And, especially, not his own protagonist. All too often I’ll read a story where the heroine fails to ask the most obvious questions. This is, of course, necessary by the author’s thinking to draw out the mystery or the suspense. In reality, all this does is frustrate the reader and make your characters seem stupid. Mulaghesh is a smart protagonist, and it was beyond satisfying that at multiple points in this story, right when I came up with a theory about what was going on, she almost immediately voiced it herself. This might seem like a small thing, but I truly think that when it comes to the general enjoyment of books like this, it is one of the most crucial elements.

The fantasy elements that are tied up with this complicated history of the Continent and their Gods almost played even better in this book than in the first. Here, we have a deep-dive into one specific divinity and how her influence shaped a people and a city. And, as can be expected with this series at this point, the lingering remains of these long-gone Gods are not quite as distant as the people would wish. I particularly loved the way Voortya’s legacy was brought to life in this book. After the first story, there seemed to be only one path laid forth for bringing these Gods’ stories back into this world and I was half-expecting Bennett to simply recycle this process. Oh me of little faith.

Beyond Mulaghesh herself (who is an utter joy), this book saw the return of our protagonists from the first book, as well. Shara makes a few brief appearances, but Sigrud plays a vital role. Alongside these familiar faces, we get an excellent cast of new characters, including Signe, Sigrud’s long-lost daughter who is a brilliant technician and hopes to restore the city of Voortaystan to a place of influence and innovation.

It’s hard to say whether I liked one of these book more than the other. While “City of Stairs” laid forth an enormous new world and history, full of lost Gods and a bright-eyed leading lady, “City of Blades” presents a darker, more intricate look at one city, one God, and one woman who struggles to define herself and to determine what it means to have lived a life full of violence.

While technically you could probably read this book without checking out the first in the series, why would you?? But for those who were wondering where the story could go from there, never fear. “City of Blades” is a worthy successor and now I’ll move right along to “City of Miracles,” thank you very much. Binging commence!

Rating 10: If you love detailed fantasy stories with a strong dose of action and a grumpy but lovable heroine, this is the book for you!

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Blades” is on these Goodreads lists: “Favorite Epic Grit” and “Best Sci Fi Books with Female Main Characters.”

Find “City of Blades” at your library using WorldCat

Serena’s Review: “The Obelisk Gate”

26228034Book: “The Obelisk Gate” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: The season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night. Alabaster Tenring – madman, world-crusher, savior – has returned with a mission: to train his successor, Essun, and thus seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

It continues with a lost daughter, found by the enemy.

It continues with the obelisks, and an ancient mystery converging on answers at last.

The Stillness is the wall which stands against the flow of tradition, the spark of hope long buried under the thickening ashfall. And it will not be broken.

Previously Reviewed: “The Fifth Season”

Spoiler warning!

Review: “The Obelisk Gate” holds the dubious position of needing to tell the middle of the story. The scene has been set. The characters have been introduced (or, in this case, most of the characters are now realized to be the same person). But we can’t get to the finale yet. Many series in many different media formats have struggled with how to tell this portion of the story. But, as we’ve recently seen with its win of a second consecutive Hugo for the series, “The Obelisk Gate” falls into none of these traps.

And the biggest factor contributing to the avoidance of this “mid series slump” is Jemisin’s decision to double down on her characters. We now have Essun’s full story, knowing her to be the woman at the center of all three storylines in the previous book. With this knowledge, Essun’s struggles to make a life for herself in yet another comm hit that much closer to home. We’ve seen her try and fail, try and fail, always defined and burdened by her own power and the fear and hatred that she and other orogenes inspire in others. Having found Alabaster once again, only to know that she is losing him slowly to strange process in which his body is changing to stone, Essun’s journey in this book is one of self-acceptance. Whether it is wanted or not, Alabaster’s grand mission, to return the Moon to its regular orbit, is falling on her shoulders, the only orogene now living with the power and training to take up this mantle.

Through Essun, and Hoa (our recently discovered narrator and stone eater companion to Essun), the mysteries behind the obelisks, their connection to orogenes, and the history of the long-fought battle between Earth, stone eaters, orogenes, and humans slowly unravels. As I mentioned in the last review, Jemisin is a master at revealing answers to questions slowly and steadily, all too often bringing with these tidbits of information even more questions. This story is not for the impatient. It is for those who wish to bask in an immense, complicated world with a fully-realized, and half-forgotten, history, alongside characters who are often still just as much in the dark as we are.

Further, in this book we are given the added perspectives of Nassun, Essun’s lost daughter, and even a few chapters from Schaffa, the Guardian who tormented and tracked Damaya/Syenite/Essun all those years ago.

Nassun’s story takes us back to the beginning of the first book, with her discovery of her father standing over the body of her little brother whom he had just finished beating to death after discovering his powers. Through Nassun’s eyes, we see a child trying to re-align a world that has fallen into chaos, confusion and fear. To survive, she learns to manipulate those around her (most tragically, her own father), and struggles to understand her own abilities and why she is so hated. Is she a monster? And if she is, is it wrong that she loves what makes her monstrous? Through Nassun, we see what life is like for “undiscovered” roggas, those who must do whatever it takes to simply survive, without the so-called protection of the Folcrum that Damaya/Syenite/Essun grew up within. But Nassun does have  Guardian: Schaffa.

But this is not the Schaffa we knew. To survive the reign of destruction that Syenite brought down around her in grief and rage at the loss of her little family so many years ago, Schaffa commits the sin that no Guardian is ever meant to: a closer deal with Evil Earth himself. Through this process, however, Schaffa both loses pieces of himself but also gains a new sense of self through this loss. This new self fights against the horrors that his kind are meant to inflict on the orogenes, and when he meets a young girl who looks achingly familiar, and whose father is in the midst of slowly rejecting her, he takes her under his wing.

This is at true testament of steady, sure-handed characterization, to take a character as hated as Schaffa was in the first book and to make him sympathetic, even a hero (antihero?) in his own way. Through Schaffa, we see the role that the Guardians could or perhaps more importantly, should have played in the lives of their young charges. He teaches and guides Nassun, and, most importantly, provides the one sure place that she feels safety as her complete self.

As I briefly mentioned above, now that Hoa has become a more fully-understood character in his own right, we also begin to unbury the many layers of stone eater culture and history. Surprising no one, it is all much more complicated than anyone had thought. The fight for the future (the fight for whether there will even be a future) is one that involves many factions, all working to gather support for their own cause. There is a reason that powerful orogenes attract stone eaters…

It is almost impossible to review this book as its own work. In many ways, this series is reading like three long chapters in one book. To discuss this story is to discuss the first and to predict the third. And while this presents a challenges for analyzing this book in the traditional sense (with a beginning, middle, and end), it makes for a sort of comfort going into the last book in the series. After all, the first two chapters has been rock solid (ha!), why on earth (ha!) wouldn’t the last? We’ll find out soon enough! And what’s more, I’ll be giving away a copy of “The Stone Sky” alongside my review so keep an eye out for that coming up soon!

Rating 10: Second verse, strong as the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Obelisk Gate” is on these Goodreads lists: “Post-Science / Next Age Fantasy” and “Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color.”

Find “The Obelisk Gate” at your library using WorldCat