Serena’s Review: “The Unbound Empire”

40618519Book: “The Unbound Empire” by Melissa Caruso

Publishing Info: Orbit, April 2019

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

Book Description: While winter snows keep the Witch Lord Ruven’s invading armies at bay, Lady Amalia Cornaro and the fire warlock Zaira attempt to change the fate of mages in the Raverran Empire forever, earning the enmity of those in power who will do anything to keep all magic under tight imperial control. But in the season of the Serene City’s great masquerade, Ruven executes a devastating surprise strike at the heart of the Empire – and at everything Amalia holds most dear.

To stand a chance of defeating Ruven, Amalia and Zaira must face their worst nightmares, expose their deepest secrets, and unleash Zaira’s most devastating fire.

Previously Reviewed: “The Tethered Mage” and “The Defiant Heir”

Review: I have loved this series from the get-go, so it was with very mixed emotions that I picked up and started this book. On one hand, I was dying to know how everything would be wrapped up in one, admittedly long, book. And on the other hand, I didn’t want it to end and had some concerns about whether it would stick the landing. The last book really does make or break a series, and while so far the books have only gotten better and better…you just never know. Luckily, this was a solid landing, and now I’ll just have to wait to see what the author has up her sleeve for a next book/series!

Amalia is coming into her own, heading up her first political action with the introduction of a new law that would grant the magic-wielding Falcons unprecedented freedoms. On top of this all, she is still balancing her complicated feelings for Captain Marcello and the witch-lord Kathe, whom she has been courting for months now. Add to that the mad witch-lord Ruven who is making increasing threats to the Empire and may finally push things to the point where Amalia and Zaira will have to confront the harsh reality of using Zaira’s balefire in combat. But nothing is too great a challenge for a Cornaro. Or is it?

What makes this series special has been the sheer number of points of interest and enjoyment that have pulled me in throughout story. Not only have I enjoyed Amalia as a main character, but I’ve loved her relationship with Zaira. The balance between political and military action has always been on point. The romance has gone in unexpected directions, somehow avoiding gaping pitfalls that many series fall into. And throughout it all, the story tackles larger questions regarding duty, loyalty, and the balance between freedom and safety. This book continued to deliver in all of these areas.

To start with characters (because we all know how much I love character-driven stories), Amalia and Zaira have traversed quite a journey throughout this trilogy and we see the dividends of this slowly built relationship pay off big time in this book. On their own, they are each excellent characters. Amalia’s sense of duty and her clear-eyed vision of her role in the world and the privileges, sacrifices, and burdens that come with it has never been more clear. She is so blessedly free of angst regarding this all. She sees the true dangers of her role (the hardening of one’s heart that comes with making life and death decisions), but doesn’t get caught up in any self-pity or dramatic indecision of the kind that we see all too often from YA protagonists. Zaira, too, is still her prickly self. However, she’s also come to value the relationships she’s built with those around her, and with these connections, she sees her own role in the Empire in a different light. She is still terrified of her balefire and its seeming control over her, but now, with people she loves in danger, she’s willing to risk herself in a way that would never have been true of the self-focused Zaira from the first book.

And together, Amalia and Zaira have come so far. They don’t where BFF bracelets or anything, but the respect and genuine love and friendship between them feels earned and true after the struggles of the first two books. And it’s only through that slow-growth that the almost impossible choices they must face in this book can be believable.

Ruven is also an excellent villain. Not only is he fun to hate, but he is actually given a bit more depth to make him, well, not relatable, but a bit more understandable. And his abilities are legitimately challenging to the point that a way through the threat he presents is never quite clear until the very end, and even then readers are left on the edge of their seat.

And then, of course, we have the romance. In the second book, the author somehow managed to introduce a love triangle that I didn’t hate. I honestly didn’t think this was possible. Much of it comes down to, again, Amalia and her dramatic-free, pragmatic approach to her life and the requirements that come with it. It is believable that she would have feelings for both Kathe and Marcello, and that these feelings could exist at the same time and still be wholly separate from each other. I was incredibly nervous to see how this would ultimately play out, and I was so pleased to find that the resolution presented felt natural and satisfactory. I guess this goes to show that even the most hated tropes don’t always hold true!

This is a long book, however, and it is this length that forces me to drop it down from a perfect 10. There’s a bunch of story here, and it’s not that I was bored at any point. However, especially in the beginning with the ins and outs of Amalia’s political actions to get her Falcon bill approved, there were a few points where I feel like a bit of editing could have been done to streamline the story. When there are all of these greater factors swirling around, this beginning portion almost felt like it was from a different book at times. But not a bad book, even then! Just a different one.

Other than that small, very tiny quibble, I absolutely loved this book and this series as a whole! I so hope that it gets all the attention that it so rightly deserves, and if you haven’t read any of these books yet, just you wait! You have an excellent ride ahead of you!

Rating 9: Perfectly sticks the landing in what turned into one of my favorite trilogies to read in a long time!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Unbound Empire” is a new book so isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Best Political Fantasy.”

Find “The Unbound Empire” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “A Dangerous Collaboration”

30518319Book: “A Dangerous Collaboration” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: a copy from the publisher!

Book Description: Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell is whisked off to a remote island off the tip of Cornwall when her natural historian colleague Stoker’s brother calls in a favor. On the pretext of wanting a companion to accompany him to Lord Malcolm Romilly’s house party, Tiberius persuades Veronica to pose as his fiancée–much to Stoker’s chagrin. But upon arriving, it becomes clear that the party is not as innocent as it had seemed. Every invited guest has a connection to Romilly’s wife, Rosamund, who disappeared on her wedding day three years ago, and a dramatic dinner proves she is very much on her husband’s mind.

As spectral figures, ghostly music, and mysterious threats begin to plague the partygoers, Veronica enlists Stoker’s help to discover the host’s true motivations. And as they investigate, it becomes clear that there are numerous mysteries surrounding the Romilly estate, and every person present has a motive to kill Rosamund…

Previously reviewed: “A Curious Beginning,” “A Perilous Undertaking,” and “A Treacherous Curse”

Review: It was a long wait for this book. This is always the challenge when I find a new series to love! On one hand, yay, a reliable series that I can depend on to deliver both excellent characters and a fun story. But on the other hand, the dreadful count-down of days and months until the next one in the series finally arrives. But this count-down was blessedly cut a bit shorter than I had expected when I received a review copy from the publisher, and I was able to begin reveling in it a few weeks early!

Veronica is unsure, for the first time in her life. At the end of the last book, she and Stoker were on the brink of…something. And that “something” is more terrifying to her than any of the murderers and mysteries she’s come across over the last few years. Throwing herself into her work, she begins a campaign of denial and avoidance, before, upon finally returning to London, she ultimately finds herself caught up in yet another mystery. This one taking place on a remote island inhabited by a small village and its possibly haunted castle. Now, in the midst of this emotional turmoil, Veronica and Stoker are once again on the case to unravel the disappearance of a bride on her wedding day several years ago. Where did she go and why? And did she even make it off the island alive?

I really loved this book. It’s not a surprise given my feelings over the first three, but by the end of the last book, I was starting to have a few questions about where the series was ultimately headed. This book not only answered those concerns, but also flipped the scrip on a few aspects of the characters that was surprisingly refreshing. Yes, the basic equation at the heart of these stories has always been strong, but it was such a thrill to find in this book that the story could push past that and offer up even more.

For one, we see a new side of Veronica herself. She’s still her usual supremely self-assured and confident self, willing to take her own life in her hands, make decisions and follow through on them, regardless of the opinion of others. But we also get to see how these same traits can be failings. Her own self-assuredness works against her here, and she’s forced to confront some harsh realities about the very real fears that still exist within her. Her justifications and modes of operation suddenly take on a new light under these reflections and we see her have to confront and grow through some of these before-unknown personal hindrances.

In this same area, we see Stoker come more into his own, becoming more self-assured about what he wants and how to best interact with those around him. Up to this point, Veronica has been the more self-aware character, so it was refreshing to see that turned on its head here, where of the two, Stoker is the one with a firmer grasp on himself and the choices before him.

I also greatly enjoyed the mystery at the heart of this story. There’s a very “Jane Eyre-esque” feel to the whole thing, with a healthy dose of the Victorian obsession with the supernatural and gothic noir. The setting of the story could, at times, be legitimately creepy, something that also felt new to the series. Up to this point, the books have been fun, but comfortably so. This book was also a blast, but there were definitely a few spooks around corners, here. And not all of the secrets and potentially supernatural events are fully resolved at the end, leaving a nice hint of mysticism and mystery left behind, shrouded on the desolate island.

I was so satisfied with this book. It perfectly hit upon any of the possible burgeoning concerns I had been developing after the last book, and upped its game as far as the mystery went, leaving me with some legitimate chills at times. In some ways, it feels like the series could have been wrapped up entirely with this one, but I see that another one is slated for publication in the next year or so. So, alas, I return to my torment of a wait.

Rating 9: Even better than the last one!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Dangerous Collaboration” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Best Victorian Historical Fiction Set In Britain.”

Find “A Dangerous Collaboration” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “Dark of the West”

32949202Book: “Dark of the West” by Joanna Hathaway

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, February 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Netgalley

Book Description: Aurelia Isendare is a princess of a small kingdom in the North, raised in privilege but shielded from politics as her brother prepares to step up to the throne. Halfway around the world, Athan Dakar, the youngest son of a ruthless general, is a fighter pilot longing for a life away from the front lines. When Athan’s mother is shot and killed, his father is convinced it’s the work of his old rival, the Queen of Etania—Aurelia’s mother. Determined to avenge his wife’s murder, he devises a plot to overthrow the Queen, a plot which sends Athan undercover to Etania to gain intel from her children.

Athan’s mission becomes complicated when he finds himself falling for the girl he’s been tasked with spying upon. Aurelia feels the same attraction, all the while desperately seeking to stop the war threatening to break between the Southern territory and the old Northern kingdoms that control it—a war in which Athan’s father is determined to play a role. As diplomatic ties manage to just barely hold, the two teens struggle to remain loyal to their families and each other as they learn that war is not as black and white as they’ve been raised to believe.

Review: I’m pretty sure I came across this book just by browsing through NetGalley one day and being intrigued by its rather simple cover. The fact that I couldn’t really guess what it was about based on the cover was mystery enough (this is a fun little game if you’re a book lover and have too much time on your hands: the match the cover with the general synopsis game). Then I read the description and became even more intrigued. Spies, and royalty, and…wait…fighter pilots? One of these does not go with the other!

The world is teetering on the brink, torn between a past that was ruled by a council of kings and queens who all regarded royal blood as the necessary component in leadership in their various countries, and a new world that, built on the back of technology, would suggest that leadership and charisma, regardless of the birthright of the one who carries these traits, are all that is needed. If the people follow you, your family history means nothing. Aurelia and Athan each come from opposing sides of this political stand-off. Aurelia has grown up a princess, confident in her place in the world, if still struggling to find a path forward that will fulfill her. Athan has had his life’s plan laid before his feet by his ambitious military leader father since the day he can remember. Neither fully understands the complicated history and political environment they have been thrust into, but in each other, they find a kinship that is as unexpected as it will be challenging.

This book took my so happily by surprise! Even with the book description, I had very little idea what I was getting into (part of the appeal, of course), so I turned to page one with a bit of hesitation. But immediately I was drawn in. For one, the writing in this is so solid. The very first chapter had me convinced that I had made the right choice in picking this one up. It’s one of those parts of reviewing books that I find most challenging: how to explain exactly what it was about the writing style that appealed to me.

For one, the book is a shared dual narrative between Aurelia and Athan. The challenge here, of course, is to effectively differentiate the voice between two characters who should read very differently. And right away, this is expertly handled. I think I ended up preferring Athan’s narrative style, but this potentially could have to do with his story being the one with the larger scale view of happenings in mind. Aurelia spends much of her time much more out of the loop. But either way, their voices were immediately distinct and their characteristics informed the way they spoke about and looked at the events unfolding around them.

From a more basic level, the writing is varied and complex. This is the weird part of evaluating writing where one feels tempted to start talking about the extent of the vocabulary used or the sentence structure. Again, not too sexy of a topic for book review material. But these are the kinds of things that you know when you see them, that make a book immediately pop out from the very first few pages.

All of this emphasis on writing is very important for a book like this. It’s a longer title and, as far as action goes, it’s a slow read. There’s a lot of complicated political and military tactics that are discussed, hidden, and revealed throughout the story. Our main characters are often only aware of the tip of the iceberg of it all, and that is felt by the reader. Schemes only become clear in the very end, and even then, one is never quite sure they have a finger on who all the players are in all of this. I believe there will be a map in the final version, but without that as well, the complicated geographical relationships between the various countries could also be overwhelming. To sum up: there’s a lot of talking and thinking in this book. Without strong writing, it could come across as pretty dull. But for me, it all came together perfectly.

This is also a strange book to assign to a genre. It’s technically referred to as a YA title and fantasy. But that said, I feel like this could easily be new adult or simply adult fiction; and any fantasy involved has to do with it being a made-up world. There aren’t any dragons or spells flying around here. Instead, the fascinating mixture of a completely invented world and history with very familiar, WWII level technology was refreshingly new.

There is, of course, a romance at the heart of the story. And I really enjoyed how this played out as well. Aurelia and Athan don’t simply fall instantly in love and all of their differences fade away. They come from different worlds, with different parental figures who have imparted very different lessons on their children. Throughout the story, no easy answers are provided and instead a slow sense of dread builds to what will be an inevitable clash.

As I said, this book took my completely by surprise. Luckily for me, it hit a lot of the tick boxes I look for in a story, but I can also see how the very unknown nature of it could leave other readers cold. If you go in with your typical YA/fantasy expectations in place, there’s a good chance this will feel like a slower, less interesting read. But for those looking for a more complicated, politically-focused story with a hard look at warfare and nationalism (with a dash of young love added in), this will be the perfect book for you!

Rating 9: Complicated and well-written, this book will appeal to fans of “Game of Thrones” who would be ok without all the dragons/white walkers stuff.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dark of the West” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Books Marketed as Young adult that might be New Adult, Adult Fiction” and “YA Second World Fantasy.”

Find “Dark of the West” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “His Majesty’s Dragon”

28876Book: “His Majesty’s Dragon” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey, March 2006

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

Book Description: Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors ride mighty fighting dragons, bred for size or speed. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes the precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Captain Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

Review: I loved both “Uprooted” and “Spinning Silver,” both fairytale retellings by Naomi Novik. I’ve heard repeatedly about her Temeraire series, and yet for some reason hadn’t picked it up. While I do like fantasy fiction that mixes together historical and military fiction as well, I think I always just read the book description for this one and was overwhelmed with flashes of “Master and Commander.” But when my last audiobook expired and I was perusing my audiobook list, the library must have been going through some high demand period and none of the books I had mentally lined up for next were available. But there was “His Majesty’s Dragon” with a glowing, green “available” next to it. So, with no excuses left, I checked it out. Only a few days later, I now have the same problem with trying to find a replacement audiobook because I blew through this one so quickly!

Laurence is proud of his career as a naval man. While impressed with the aerial corps, he’s always preferred this avenue of military life and has looked with wonder at those who live a very different life paired with their dragon companions. But when his ship captures another that carries an egg that is about to hatch, Laurence finds his life taking quite the turn. With the birth of Temeraire, a rare dragon from across the world, Laurence is introduced to an entirely different world, and one that is only marginally understood by society as a whole. Now, on the brink of invasion by Napoleon and his forces, Laurence and Temeraire must learn where they will fit in the challenging future that is unfolding before them.

So, no surprise given my introduction paragraph, but I loved this book! I really don’t know what my problem was. Novik is definitely a strong writer and this book routinely shows up on “best of” fantasy lists. Like I said, all I can blame is having only read a very different sort of fantasy from her in the past (fairytale fantasy) and my completely-unfounded-on-any-facts concern that the story would be mostly about military action with only a dash of dragons. And while, yes, there are highly descriptive battle scenes and the rules and regulations of life in the military are an important part of Laurence and Temeraire’s arc, there was also just a ton of great dragon stuff. Not only between Laurence and Temeraire and their wonderful relationship, but in the entire concept of what a world would look like if dragons were a common thing.

Novik includes tons of detail on the many different types of dragons that make up the world, both the ones native to England and the ones coming from other regions of the world. Their strengths and weaknesses are then used in very specific ways when it comes to military action. In her version of dragon riders, dragons are more like ships, big enough to have entire crews and to operate in coordinated maneuvers with the other dragons around them. In this way, Laurence is both a bonded partner with Temeraire, but also a captain who much command the group of other military personnel who also “crew” the dragon. The whole thing was so incredibly unique. As I just got done saying in my last review about phoenix riders, we’ve seen a lot of books with dragon riders. But here, Novik has come up with a truly original way of approaching the concept and there is so much room to use and expand on this idea.

But, of course, for me the most important thing often comes down to characters, and I absolutely loved both Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence is just a good guy: honorable, noble, able to adjust to his changed circumstances with grace and care. In the beginning, we get a good understanding for just what a life change it means for Laurence to suddenly become a dragon captain and have to leave behind a promising career as a naval captain. But through it all, he puts Temeraire first, always, and handles the skepticism and often out-right reproach of those who resent his new role with firm grace. In these ways, the book is almost as much a fantasy of manners story as anything else. My Jane-Austen-loving ways were all over the intricacies of honor and politeness that Laurence displayed.

And, of course, Temeraire was amazing. He’s a unique type of dragon, not one common to England, so much of the book is learning more about him and what his strengths are. It is clear from the start that he is incredibly intelligent, and Laurence and he form a quick bond based on mutual friendship and respect. He also expresses his own set of moral codes, something that Laurence must struggle to understand when it varies from his own sense of duty. Perhaps due to Temeraire’s unique attributes, but also largely due to Laurence’s not having been raised up in the aerial corps, the two of them see the relationship between riders and dragons and the mode of operation of the entire corp through a unique lens. Along with the reader, they are learning as much as we are, but also coming to see flaws that have long been accepted, challenging norms as they go.

The book does have some excellent battle scenes and even a few scenes that made me tear up. But it also definitely reads as an introduction to a series. Much of the story is made up of world-building and scene-setting, letting readers get to know Laurence and Tameraire slowly throughout the story and setting up conflicts to come. This is where Novik’s strength as a writer comes to play. In another author’s hands, this type of book, that reads largely as a set-up for books to come, could feel plodding and useless. Instead, all of the details and attention to character building were completely absorbing in their own right.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book. Fans of fantasy fiction, especially dragons (and for those looking for a unique take on the whole “dragon rider” concept), should definitely check this one out. If you like historical fiction and military fiction as well, that can only be a plus! For me, these books are already added to my mental list of long-running series that I will need to work my way through in the years to come!

Rating 9: With two incredibly endearing protagonists at its heart, this military fantasy series is sure to appeal to dragon-loving readers!

Reader’s Advisory:

“His Majesty’s Dragon” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories” and “Best Book With or About Dragons.”

Find “His Majesty’s Dragon” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Monday’s Not Coming”

35068534Book: “Monday’s Not Coming” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, May 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: An audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Monday Charles is missing, and only Claudia seems to notice. Claudia and Monday have always been inseparable—more sisters than friends. So when Monday doesn’t turn up for the first day of school, Claudia’s worried. When she doesn’t show for the second day, or second week, Claudia knows that something is wrong. Monday wouldn’t just leave her to endure tests and bullies alone. Not after last year’s rumors and not with her grades on the line. Now Claudia needs her best—and only—friend more than ever. But Monday’s mother refuses to give Claudia a straight answer, and Monday’s sister April is even less help.

As Claudia digs deeper into her friend’s disappearance, she discovers that no one seems to remember the last time they saw Monday. How can a teenage girl just vanish without anyone noticing that she’s gone?

Review: Tiffany D. Jackson, as you may recall, blew me away with her debut novel “Allegedly” back at the beginning of 2017. The story of Mary and her haunted past of being convicted of killing a baby was raw and unforgiving, and I knew that I absolutely needed to follow Jackson in her writing career because of her ability to weave modern themes of injustice into her stories. I thought that I was going to be ready for “Monday’s Not Coming”. I thought that I was going to be able to brace myself and handle whatever it was she threw at me given the gut punch that was “Allegedly”. And I was wrong, but wrong in the best way possible.

Jackson’s story about a missing girl and her determined best friend once again takes relevant social issues and applies them to a gritty and dark mystery. Claudia always comes off as a realistic teenage girl, her insecurities and her joys and her sadness and worry all culminating in ways that feel incredibly honest. Intense friendships in your childhood can be both magical and damaging, as while you have that person who may know you best, you also run the risk of relying too much on them, and the complicated center of that is very present as Claudia looks for Monday. I both wanted to shake Claudia and hug her as the story went on, as she makes so many bad decisions, but those decisions are rooted in very true to life realities. She wants to find her best friend, but there is only so much she can do on her own, so when those around her either can’t help or won’t help her powerlessness is painful and palpable. There is a sub theme in this book about her learning differences as well, which was a really refreshing theme to address. Perhaps it’s because I have a litany of diagnoses in this regard, but I loved how it made Claudia all the more well rounded, but never made her seem ‘special’ or used as a device to make her pitiable. Jackson just had it be part of her story, and connected it to why she was so reliant on Monday and how her disappearance is made all the worse for Claudia.

The story is told in a couple of different timelines, labeled as ‘The Before’, ‘The After’, and ‘Before The Before’, and while at some points it felt hard to follow it eventually becomes very clear as to how they all fit together. It adds another mysterious undercurrent to the centered ‘what happened to Monday’ aspect of this book, and while on audiobook it felt confusing at times (with no easy ability to go back and forth to remind myself which timeline I was in) I liked how it constructed the narrative. The clues about where Monday is are to be found in all of the timelines, and while I was pretty certain I knew how things were going to end up, I did find myself wavering in my deductions and speculations, enough so that it felt like every reveal was new and interesting. The mystery, too, is a very powerful way for Jackson to address an all too familiar reality when it comes to missing black girls in our society, in that they don’t get nearly as much attention as their white counterparts. Claudia is one of the few people actually trying to get to the bottom of where Monday is, and the fact that a missing teenage girl is so easily swept under the rug reminds us that there are still many racial disparities that need to be addressed in our society. So, too, is the very prevalent social issue of gentrification addressed in this story, as Monday’s family lives in a poorer part of town that is being bought up by real estate developers who want to bring in wealthier (i.e. white) tenants. This stress is just another factor that makes people more likely to look away from the situation at hand. I will say that with two kind of big reveals it felt a LITTLE bit overrun with twists, but ultimately I wasn’t upset with the two just because I bought them for the most part. I think that had this been written by a less talented author I may have been less forgiving, but as it is it didn’t hinder my overall enjoyment.

I should also note that the woman who narrated this, Imani Parks, did a wonderful job. Her voices were varied and she pulled out the right emotions from all of them. While I mentioned before that the audiobook format made it harder to keep track of the various timelines, I don’t think that I lost anything by listening to it as opposed to reading it.

“Monday’s Not Coming” was another emotional and wrenching novel from Tiffany D. Jackson. I was crying in the car as I listened to it, so if you do pick it up, make sure to have tissues on hand. Can’t wait to see what she comes out with next.

Rating 9: An emotional mystery with all too relevant themes, “Monday’s Not Coming” is another gut punch of a novel by the talented Tiffany D. Jackson.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monday’s Not Coming” is included on the Goodreads lists “Black Heroines 2018”, and “YA Missing Persons”.

Find “Monday’s Not Coming” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Wolf in the Whale”

39603796Book: “The Wolf in the Whale” by Jordanna Max Brodsky

Publishing Info: Redhook, January 2019

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

Book Description: Born with the soul of a hunter and the language of the gods, Omat is destined to become a shaman like her grandfather. To protect her people, she invokes the spirits of the sky, the sea, and the air.

But the gods have stopped listening, the seals won’t come, and Omat’s family is starving.

Desperate to save them, Omat journeys through the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When she meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, together they set in motion a conflict that could shatter her world…or save it.

The Wolf in the Whale is a powerful tale of magic, discovery and adventure, featuring an unforgettable narrator ready to confront the gods themselves.

Review: I was very excited when I received a ARC of this book. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but the brief description was immediately intriguing. I’ve found very few fantasy/historical novels (especially adult fiction, for some reason) that focus on the culture and history of the Inuit people. What’s more, the ancient trips of the Vikings to North America are included, another topic that I’ve rarely come across. And, now a resident of Minnesota where the Vikings and their previous trips here are kind of a big deal, this book felt like a no-brainer. And I’m pleased to report that not only did it live up to my excitement, but it surpassed it!

Omat’s being is made up of many parts, but most especially she carries the spirit of her deceased father in herself. This duel nature between a man’s spirit and a woman’s body has not prevented her from contributing to her small, family group, struggling to survive, mostly alone, out on the tundra. But when their small life is intruded upon by strangers, Omat’s role, shaman abilities, and future are suddenly, horribly, called into question. Now alone in the world, it is up to Omat to carve her own path to save her people and to merge the powerful spirits she’s walked with her entire life with the new deities being carried to her world from across the frozen sea.

One of the primary themes in this book is identity, most especially called into light through Omat’s journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. The religious beliefs of her people state that the spirits of the deceased can come to life again in a newly born person. That person is then both the new embodiment of that being but also still their new self at the same time. For Omat, this complicated balance is made more difficult by the spirit inhabiting her coming from her father, a man who had been an important provider for their poor family group before his unexpected death. Omat is thus raised as a man, developing both the important and necessary roles of shaman and hunger and garnering the respect that comes along with these duties, but also acquiring the same dismissal attitude towards the womens’ work accomplished by the women in their family. I particularly enjoyed how this tension played out throughout the story, as we see Omat’s struggles to retain the independence and respect that came with her man’s role, but slowly learns to respect and see with a new eyes the crucial roles that women play. The author also neatly avoids falling into any traps that would make Omat’s journey of self-discovery feel too modern or anachronistic. Instead, it feels like a natural path for a character in her position in the time. Meaning, of course, that while she comes to a balance for herself, she is still an exception, even in her own eyes, to the traditional roles assigned to each group. It was a fascinating journey.

The story itself neatly weaves in fantastical elements that pull from Inuit folk tales and religious beliefs. These then, eventually, mix with the Vikings’ own belief system, and we even see the beginning tendrils of spreading Christianity and how that rubs up against these two other, older beliefs. Again, the author presented an interesting balance between exploring faith but also presenting walking/talking gods in the more recognizable, fantasy-based way. The Inuit folklore was especially strong, with several of the tales introduced in the beginning of the book coming to life throughout the story and playing a major role in influencing the outcomes of certain events. I also enjoyed the romantic story that is introduced about halfway through, perfectly balancing itself within the greater story as a whole without overshadowing Omat or her journey.

This was almost a perfect read for me, but there were a few dings against it that came out mostly in the first half of the book. For one, it is slow to get started. There’s a good third of the book to get through before the real action begins to take place, and while this portion is laying important groundwork, it simply read slowly and delayed my full immersion into the story.

I also wish that the publisher had marketed this book differently. Since it’s all out in the open anyways, it’s no spoiler that Omat is a woman. But the way the story plays out, in the beginning chapters of the book, readers, and Omat herself to some extent, aren’t aware that the main character is female. The reveal is then ruined by our previous knowledge from the book’s marketing. I’m guessing this was just a risk the publisher didn’t want to take, but I think that it underestimates readers and severely undercuts what could have been a great reveal, and one that tied neatly to the major themes of the book (our perceptions of gender roles).

The last thing wasn’t so much a mark against the book as a general warning: there are a few fairly graphic scenes dealing with violence and assault against women. Readers can kind of get a sense that the story is headed in this direction, but these scenes were still very hard to read.

But, those quibbles aside, I adored this book! The setting felt fresh and new, and Omat’s journey was both exciting as an adventure and fascinating as an introspection into the roles of men and women. If you enjoy historical fantasy, and especially if you’re longing for something new, NOT set in medieval Europe, definitely give “The Wolf in the Whale” a try!

Rating 9: Simply excellent! I’ll definitely be on the look-out for more books from this author!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Wolf in the Whale” is a new title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Popular Inuit Books” and “Canadian Arctic.”

Find “The Wolf in the Whale” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “The Haunting of Hill House”

89717We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson

Publishing Info: Viking, 1959

Where Did We Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!

Genre Mash-up: Historical and Horror

Book Description: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “The Haunting of Hill House” in middle school, egged on by both my mother and my love for the 1962 film “The Haunting.” Even though I knew pretty much what to expect then, it still managed to creep me out, the story of a haunted house and the paranormal investigators within in giving me a serious dose of terror. Revisiting it for book club has been a real treat, especially with the recent (and VERY different) adaptation on Netflix being so fresh in my mind.

What struck me again as I listened to it is that Jackson does a really good job of not only setting up moments that are genuinely terrifying, but that she is just as good at writing the ‘down time’ moments. The slow build of the actual threat is fun to see, as Eleanor, Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague go from mildly skeptical, to amused, to anxious, to outright horrified. The escalation, starting with doors closing on their own and cold spots turning into banging on doors and hallucinations, is slow and it burns as such, and it builds up terror in ways that few authors can achieve. Jackson holds her cards to her vest, but as she lays them out at her own pace the reader is continually caught unawares and left breathless.

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And perhaps apprehensive of any type of bump in the night. (source)

I also like how well rounded our four characters are. While it’s mostly from Eleanor’s point of view, I think that we get a pretty good sense of Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague. The only focused upon characters (as opposed to one offs like Eleanor’s sister)  who are laughably awful are Dr. Montague’s wife, and her ‘friend’ Arthur (what is up with Arthur? Is he a lover of Mrs. Montague’s or just a weird hanger on?), as her prim condescension is laid on VERY thick and his toxic masculinity is overdone even for the original time period. But even this serves the purpose of banding our four together tighter, which makes the ultimate climax and fate of one of them all the more upsetting. My favorite is Theo, the empath with a snide streak, who may or may not be goading Eleanor on for her own amusements. Given that Eleanor is our primary character, and she is slowly slipping into obsession and madness, it’s hard to know just how manipulative Theo is, and I like the second guessing Jackson made me do (another side note: Is Theo coded as bisexual? If so, is that a facet of a too often trotted out trope of the untrustworthy bisexual? So many questions).

I quite enjoyed my second reading of “The Haunting of Hill House.” It’s a classic endeavor into the gothic/haunted house story, and I feel that it holds up pretty well after all this time. If you are interested in reading it because of the Netflix series, know that it’s VERY different. But don’t let that dissuade you. I think that it would give you a better appreciation of what the show did. In any case, it’s a spooky read for a dark night.

Serena’s Thoughts

Poor Kate is a real trooper about bookclub. As you may have noticed, our bookclub is made up of an over-abundance of fantasy readers, so that genre gets probably more than its fair share of representation in the titles we choose. Obviously this works out great for me! But it leaves Kate and a few of the others having to read out of their comfort zones quite a bit. And they’re great about it! But it’s also probably not as good for the fantasy fans among us, as well, since we’re often less challenged to read books that wouldn’t cross our paths anyways. Not so this month! We have swapped roles and here I am, in all of my magic system and unicorn-loving form, reviewing a horror novel! (Another shout out to Kate for finding an audiobook version of this for me on YouTube since the book is understandably pretty popular right now due to the Netflix adaptation and my place on the holds list at the library was getting me nowhere fast!).

Obviously, I don’t read horror stories, so I don’t have a lot of comparisons to draw from. Instead, sadly, what I do have are a lot of tired tropes that I’ve seen ad nauseum in the few horror movies that I’ve somehow watched (how, HOW, did I end up seeing not only “Saw” but several of its sequels?!). This has unfortunately tinged my perception of horror novels, and while I’m sure that the equivalent torture porn, jump-scare prone type storytelling can be found in horror fiction as in this genre of film, this was thankfully nothing like it. It feels almost insulting to type this out about what is known to be a classic work of horror literature, but I was so surprised and impressed by the writing itself.

It was through this immense strength in imagery and poetic turns of phrase that Jackson was able to rise about what is, now at least, a fairly familiar set up: a bunch of people going to a haunted house to “test” how haunted it truly was. I quickly became truly invested in the characters and the detailed descriptions not only helped create a strong sense of place, but obviously helped ratchet up the tension. And yes, tense it was! Again, I don’t have anything to compare this to as far as its creepiness level, but I, for one, was pretty spooked by a good bit of this. But because of the strong characters and even stronger writing, I was too invested to think of putting it down.

As Kate referenced as well, the ambiguity of everything that is happening only adds to the tension. Our main character becomes more and more unreliable and readers are left questioning everything they’re told. Is the house truly haunted? Is someone playing a game with them? Are they all just going mad? A lot of horror producers, mostly for film, often talk about how it’s what goes unseen that is the most scary. Once you “reveal” your monster, that original level of fear is hard to regain. And in this book, so much is unknown!

Ultimately, while this book completely freaked me out, I definitely enjoyed the push to get out there and read something that is so far outside of my comfort zone and not a book I would have ever picked up on my own. Frankly, if I wasn’t such a scardy cat, I think I could really like horror fiction, especially the type of horror that crosses over into the supernatural. Alas, I’m too chicken.

Kate’s Rating 9: A classic in horror literature that still brings readers back again and again, “The Haunting of Hill House” is a must for readers who want something scary.

Serena’s Rating 8: With no  bench mark to judge it from, I really enjoyed “The Haunting of Hill House,” especially the strength of Jackson’s writing.

Book Club Questions

  1. Why do you think each person was motivated to come to Hill House? What do you think motivates the Dudleys to stay?
  2. The house is a character itself—could some of the strange phenomena be explained by the strange construction? The history of its inhabitants?
  3. What parallels can be drawn between past inhabitants of Hill House and the current visitors?
  4. The author chooses to have several characters witness strange phenomena, making it very definite that they are happening. What do you believe?
  5. How does Eleanor’s past influence her choices and actions?
  6. What do you make of the repetition of the passage at the beginning and the end of the novel?
  7. For those that have seen adaptations of this story—how do they compare? What is good/bad/different about them?
  8. Would you spend a week in a “haunted” house?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Haunting of Hill House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Modern Gothic”, and “Haunted House Books”.

Find “The Haunting of Hill House” at your library using WorldCat!