Joint Review: “The Raven King”

17378527This week we’re bringing to you a special, all-week review series of Maggie Steiefvater’s “Raven Cycle” books. Containing both fantasy and horror elements, we’ve both been independently reading this series, and with the release of the fourth and final book earlier this spring, we thought it was about time to share our thoughts! So each day check in to read our thoughts on the next in the series. To round out the week, on Friday we’ll be posting a more extensive list of other books/series that we recommend if you enjoyed the “Raven Cycle.” Today we review the fourth and final book in the series, “The Raven King.”

Book: “The Raven King” by Maggie Stiefvater

Publishing Info: Scholastic Press, April 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: Both got the audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Nothing living is safe. Nothing dead is to be trusted.

For years, Gansey has been on a quest to find a lost king. One by one, he’s drawn others into this quest: Ronan, who steals from dreams; Adam, whose life is no longer his own; Noah, whose life is no longer a lie; and Blue, who loves Gansey… and is certain she is destined to kill him.

Now the endgame has begun. Dreams and nightmares are converging. Love and loss are inseparable. And the quest refuses to be pinned to a path.

Kate’s Thoughts:

I waited long and not totally patiently to get to this, the conclusion to “The Raven Cycle”. The book version taunted me on the shelf at work, because I was determined to hear Will Patton give life to these characters one last time, and that is what I did. And boy was it worth the wait. When early in the story some strange, ethereal beings that looked just like Blue Sargent came walking through the woods saying ‘make way for the Raven King’, in a weird, strange way, I knew that I was going to enjoy the end of all things. And all of our Raven Boys (and Blue) are so completely burdened during this book that the way that this all shakes out is going to be very, very important and consequence filled.

I was mostly happy and satisfied with how it did, which is the good news! Stiefvater had a lot of plots to wrap up, but I feel like she addressed most of them and gave them closure. The reality of their situation has started to take it’s toll on The Raven Boys and Blue. Blue is coping with the prophecy that has haunted her her entire life, now that she has found a true love in Gansey. Gansey knows that he’s doomed to die in a sacrifice, and is trying to make peace with this. Ronan is still creating things and creatures and pulling them out of his dreams (including a little girl with hooves he calls Orphan Girl), but the responsibilities with this gift are weighing on him. Adam is a powerful scryer, but the loss of Persephone in “Blue Lily, Lily Blue” is still haunting him, as is his abuse filled past. And Noah seems to be wasting away before their eyes. Seeing all of this was both very sad, but very good in the sense that it was a good reminder that they are all teenagers. If they weren’t as affected by these things as they were, it would seem very disingenuous on Stiefvater’s part. It felt appropriate that they were all in their own little angst bubbles in this book.

It was also fun seeing Piper Greenmantle again, newly teamed up with Neve and a really disgusting demon that looks like a giant wasp. The demon always felt like a serious threat, and Stiefvater’s descriptions of it and the hell that it wreaked upon the characters in this book were very scary and made me squirm. But I think that this could tie into one of the weaknesses of this book. While Stiefvater did a good job of wrapping up most of the storylines, there were a few that felt very rushed to wrap up. I don’t want to give spoilers away, necessarily, but there were a couple characters who were brought back just to be thrown to the side. I went in thinking that these characters were going to be there for the remains of the book, especially the ones that have been gone since early in the series, to give them a large send off. But then they would be over and done with after, like, a chapter. I didn’t like how rushed that felt, and I think that sometimes it was done to make room for the new characters, which didn’t seem too fair.

That said, I LOVED a few of the new characters, Henry Cheng especially. We hadn’t seen very much of him in the previous “Raven Cycle” books, but he was given a prominent role in this book as he gets closer to Gansey and Blue. His friendship with Blue was especially nice, since in the previous book he highly offended her without meaning to and it caused a lot of tension between her and Gansey. By the end of this he kind of felt like Carol Cleveland’s role in the “Monty Python” group: not officially a part of the gang, but important enough and there enough that he was totally a part of the gang all things considered. I also liked the introduction of his mother, Sun, a dealer in magical and antique items, a fact that manages to tie a lot of the realties of this world and the conflict that is in it together.

There was another thing that I was worried about in this book, and that was Gansey’s ultimate demise. I, of course, hoped that there would be a way to make this prophecy not so, as I love Gansey, I love his relationship with his friends, and I love his relationship with Blue. But at the same time, this Death Kiss had been so hyped and so matter of fact, that if Stiefvater did some sort of cheap cop out or cliched solution, I would only be disappointed. I was worried and very skeptical that she would muck it up in some way. I’m not going to say much else on the matter, except that this was NOT the case at all, and that she was able to reconcile everything together in a way that I really, really enjoyed.

And Adam and Ronan. Oh my gosh, Adam and Ronan. I love everything about their relationship, and there were absolutely beautiful descriptions about each of them through the other’s eyes that felt so achingly romantic and tender that I got choked up a few times. You wouldn’t think that describing someone as an oil spill would be breathtaking in this regard, and yet Stiefvater managed to do it. Both of these characters are filled with so much anguish and pain, and they understand each other so well and so fully that it always hits the mark in the exact way that it should.

Overall I enjoyed “The Raven King”. I’m going to miss all of these characters and this world that Stiefvater has created, but I am so happy that she ended it the way that she did. Fantasy fans need to check this one out..

Serena’s Thoughts:

And so it ends. I was so nervous for this book. For one, sticking the landing is notably difficult for any series. And for two, Stiefvater had seemingly dug herself quite the hole to dig her way out of. Beyond the obvious prediction of Gansey’s death that has hung over the series as a whole from the very first chapter of the first book, none of these characters have had an easy time of it.

Blue, with her struggles to find a place for herself in a world that she doesn’t seem to fit within all while carrying this heavy burden with regards to love and death tangled in such a way that would break most adults. Ronan, so powerful and yet so trodden down with the burdens of his gift and the losses that just seem to keep coming. Adam, who has come so far, but still carries the scars of his home life, and the internal struggle to accept the gifts of friendship that he has been given, and now has to contend with the full extent to which his promise to be Cabeswater’s hands and eyes will affect his life. And Gansey, now aware of his doom, who can feel the end coming but doesn’t know how to get there or even what role he is to play, now surrounded by such supernaturally powerful friends as Ronan, Blue, and Adam have become. How does to end all of these stories in a way that is true to the tone of the book?

It will be very hard to review this story without spoilers, but I will say that I was immensely satisfied with the ending. These are incredible challenges to face, and I think that Stiefvater handled them all with aplomb. Further, and I really shouldn’t even be surprised any more by this, she adds another character, Henry, who comes with his own baggage and gifts and was slotted in so seamlessly that by the end of the story, I was just as invested in his outcome as the others. Seriously, how does she do this??

The horror in this book also reaches its peak. There were pieces of imagery that were incredibly disconcerting, and often the scene-setting even played hand-in-hand with the type of story-telling you will find in the best horror/thriller novels. At one point, a scene is described through a character’s perspective who cannot see what is happening around him. In many ways, the scene was exactly like one you would come across in a horror movie, when suddenly a room is plunged into darkness and all you have to go on is scuffling and the random shout of dialogue to piece together what is happening. Stiefvater, just like a director of a film scene like this, understands perfectly that sometimes our imagination will make the unseen a million times more terrifying than anything actually presented. It was excellent.

creeped_out_the_office
(source)

And, while I was satisfied with the ending, Stiefvater doesn’t fall into the trap of happily-ever-after. The villain in this story is a demon, and if that’s what you’ve got to fight against, a story can’t end with only rainbows and butterflies. A few villains from previous books make surprise appearances, and the background into Mr. Grey’s life as a hitman hired by an underground network of magical art dealers, essentially, is more fully fleshed out in a very creative manner. Sacrifices are made and there were times were I was definitely crying.

But like I said, it did end perfectly. The paths that are lain before the remaining characters were believable and true to the types of people they had all grown into by the end of the series. There was the possibility lain down for future stories for the characters, but I’m not sure how I would feel about a return to this series. This all felt wrapped up so neatly, and I am more than content imagining their future adventures without needing actual follow-up novels. But, at the same time, I’ve started out skeptical about how Stiefvater could pull of this series and live up to the hype, and she’s completely surpassed my expectations. Maybe I should be more trusting! Either way, this was a fantastic conclusion, and I highly, highly recommend this entire series to fans of young adult fantasy and horror.

Kate’s Rating 8: Some of the plot points are hastily tied up, but overall the characterization is spot on and the ending is very satisfying.

Serena’s Rating 9: Practically perfect ending.

Reader’s Advisory:

We’ll include a detailed Reader’s Advisory post for the whole series on Friday!

Find “The Raven King” at your local library using WorldCat!

Previous Reviews: “The Raven Boys,” “The Dream Thieves” and “Blue Lily, Lily Blue.”

Serena’s Review: “The Ghost Bride”

16248223Book: “The Ghost Bride” by Yangsze Choo

Publishing Info: William Morrow, August 2013

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

Book Description from Goodreads: Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.

Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.

After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim’s handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.

Review: This book has been hanging around on my TBR list for so long that I have zero idea where it came from, and honestly, had very little idea what it was even about. A historical book about Malaysia in the late 1800s? A ghost story? Fantasy book? Yep. Yep to all three. “The Ghost Bride” came out of left field and was everything I hadn’t known to look forward to.

There are so many things I could talk about with this novel, I’m not even sure where to start. First off, I guess, is the rich detail that Yangsze Choo brings to this story. The language, culture, and vibrancy of Malaya (now Malaysia) was so rich and nuanced throughout. It was like the most beautiful, most interesting history lesson on a part of the world and the merging of several cultures that I had very little understanding of to begin with. It was evident that Choo had meticulously researched her subject, and more impressively, she integrated these facts and details in a way that never felt unnecessary or distracting from what was, largely, a very action-packed story.

The story itself was also surprising. I guess if I had read the book description a bit more thoroughly, this might not have been as shocking. But the unexpected turn from a traditional, period piece story into a underworld fantasy adventure was a jolt to the system. And even throughout these more fantastical portions of the story, the narrative never lost sight of its foundation, even then laying more insight into the time period, culture, and religious beliefs of the people of Malaya. (It is worth noting that while elements of this story were created by the author, she includes detailed author’s notes at the end that explain her decisions and provide even more insight into the background of these elements.) Even the ending was unexpected. About one third of the way through the book, I thought I had a pretty good idea where the story was going. About two thirds of the way through, I had changed this slightly, but it was still pretty much the same. The last 50 pages? Nope, I had it all wrong the whole time and the story was even better for it!

The characters themselves were also well written and thought out. Li Lan is an endearing protagonist, Tian Bai a compelling villain, and side characters such as her loving, yet superstitious nanny, Amah, and Er Lang, a mysterious man who keeps crossing Li Lan’s path, add flavor and spunk to the story.

Additionally, I listed to the audiobook version of this story which was read by the author herself. She had a great voice, and her pronunciation was particularly useful for a book like this where I would have likely butchered half the words in my head had I been reading the book. If you enjoy historical stories with an fantastical element, definitely check out “The Ghost Bride.”

Rating 9: An  unexpected yet very welcome surprise! Just like the ending of the story itself!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ghost Bride” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Ghost Fiction” and “Chinese and Japanese Fantasy.”

Find “The Ghost Bride” at your library using Worldcat!

Book Club Review: “Warm Bodies”

9475392We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. 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 “Books with Movie Adaptations.” 

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

Book: “Warm Bodies” by Isaac Marion

Publishing Info: Atria, October 2010

Where Did We Get This Book: Serena owns it, Kate got the audiobook from the library

Book Description from Goodreads: R is a young man with an existential crisis–he is a zombie. He shuffles through an America destroyed by war, social collapse, and the mindless hunger of his undead comrades, but he craves something more than blood and brains. He can speak just a few grunted syllables, but his inner life is deep, full of wonder and longing. He has no memories, no identity, and no pulse. Just dreams.

After experiencing a teenage boy’s memories while consuming his brain, R makes an unexpected choice that begins a tense, awkward, and strangely sweet relationship with the victim’s human girlfriend. Julie is a burst of vibrant color in the otherwise dreary and gray landscape that R lives in. His decision to protect her will transform not only R, but his fellow Dead, and perhaps their whole lifeless world…

Serena’s Thoughts:

I read this book several years ago, and watched the movie right when it came out, so when bookclub decided to do a “book/movie” theme, this was an easy choice for me! I hadn’t re-read it since, and with the movie version being the more recent version I had experienced for the story, it was fun reviewing the original material and seeing the difference from the reverse perspective as well.

I think this book flew beneath the radar for quite a while before it was announced as a movie, and then when it was, everyone dismissed it as “zombie romance.” Which, really, shouldn’t that intrigue people, not put them off? But alas, judgement arose. And given that the new editions of the books have been released with the movie cover (a whole post could be committed to the subject of how much I hate movie-covers for books), I can’t even blame people who pass this over with that thought. I mean, look at this thing!

15842439

Can you get any more teen-pop-stereotypical-romance-looking than that? No, the answer is no. And this is a tragedy, because the story is not that at all. Sure, there is some romance, but it’s sad to see what is a very philosophical book be overlooked simply because of that inclusion.

R is such an intriguing narrator. For a character whose actual dialogue is limited to brief syllables, he’s quite verbose as a protagonist. While much of the changing that he goes through can be attributed to his run in with Perry’s brain (the teenage boy he eats on one scavenging trip) and Julie, the living girl he befriends, R is clearly a force of change himself. With brutal honesty, he evaluates zombie society, humanity, and the force of human will.

With so many pop-culture representations of zombie-hood currently, Marion’s version is very intriguing. Zombies are often just stumbling, groaning, beasts. But here, they have, at the most basic sense, a world of their own. Their attempts to re-create life through human constructs such as marriage, school, and religion, all while bereft of the inner feelings that accompany them is not only sad but deeply disturbing. Further, Marion succeeds at something that the poor, struggling writers of “The Walking Dead” tv series have been attempting for so long: connecting the dots between the living and the zombie-fied. “We are the walking dead,” and all of that, but done in a subtle and truly impactful manner (unlike certain shows…).

I haven’t spent much time talking about Julie, and I think she was the biggest surprise for me when I re-read this book. The first go around, I didn’t really put much thought into her as a character. This time, looking more closely, I appreciate the fine line that Marion walked when writing her. She could so easily fall into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl category. But for all of her snappy lines and crafty bedroom design (cuz of course, she’s a teen girl, then obviously she must paper mache her room!), Julie’s background is dark. Much darker than I had remembered. These struggles help round her out as a character and allow her to offer a unique perspective into the world of the Living, without getting too caught up in the super sweet, “hope is all you need!” naivety that she could have been reduced to.

All in all, I had a really fun time returning to this book!

Kate’s Thoughts:

Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that it wasn’t me who picked the zombie book for our bookclub, but our dear Serena. But that should just go to show that this book isn’t just for fans of the horror and zombie genre. I think that the nice thing about the zombie genre, when done well, is that it’s usually far more about humanity and the human psyche than it is about marauding monsters. The few exceptions I can think of are “Dawn of the Dead” (the original), in which zombies are drawn to a mall because of a instinctual need for the routine of their past lives, and “Day of the Dead,” in which Bub the zombie starts to relearn various human emotions and actions, and feels affection for the man who has “created” him in a way. So “Warm Bodies” kind of took that concept and ran with it. Marion takes it even further though, and deconstructs just what makes humanity in a person, and gets way existential about it. Which kind of surprised me in the best way possible.

It took me a little while to warm up to R, as I did, admittedly, have a hard time with how he just kind of took Julie under guise of keeping her safe, and hid from her that he had, uh, eaten her boyfriend. But as he went on, he really, really grew on me, and I became very fond of him and his journey of self discovery. His rumination about what it means to be human, and his descriptions of the zombie culture and how it functions on indifference and complacence, were so thought provoking and tragically beautiful that I was completely enraptured with his voice and narration. I love the idea that zombies aren’t really totally lost if they look for connections and seek out beauty in life (because of R and Julie and their own connection).

Julie too makes for a very good character, like Serena said. She never rang false and never felt like she was too perfect, or too understanding and good.  I really, really loved her relationship with R. Their connection grew and progressed in a natural way, and I never felt like it was unrealistic or forced as time went on. It was also very complicated and had many layers, as R did, indeed, kill and eat her boyfriend, Perry. But even that was resolved and reconciled in a way that I found believable, and I was thinking that there was no way that I was going to be satisfied with that whole thing. Joke’s on me, I guess.

And I also want to say that M, R’s best friend, was exactly the kind of pal that I aspire to be. Snarky and sarcastic (even as a zombie) but ultimately loyal, and pretty damn great. I also liked Julie’s best friend, Nora, who is pragmatic and thoughtful, but never feels like she’s just a second fiddle. It goes to show that Marion took great care when crafting his supporting characters as well.

I greatly enjoyed “Warm Bodies.” I am so glad that I finally got to it with Serena’s good taste in book club books!

Serena’s Rating 9: Really great, even better the second time around.

Kate’s Rating 9: Such a complex and enjoyable love story, and a very deep look at what makes a human a human.

Book Club Notes and Questions:

“Warm Bodies” came out a couple years ago, nearing the end of the paranormal romance phase of teen movies and right in the midst of the rise of dystopia as the new theme. As a film, it’s a bit more light-hearted than the original source material, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t a good adaptation. Nicholas Hoult plays R, a casting choice that makes almost perfect sense. First of all, his eyes are huge and expressive, and can convey so much emotion as R, even when he is still in the midst of being in his limited zombie phase. He is nuanced and subtle in his acting, and makes a believable zombie who is slowly evolving. Theresa Palmer plays Julie, and also brings justice to that role. Her back story isn’t as dark and depressing, at least it isn’t explored as much, and while it’s nice that things worked out a bit better for her, it’s too bad that we lost that character exploration. It’s also too bad that the decision was made to cast Nora, in the book a biracial woman, as a white woman. It’s not that Analeigh Tipton didn’t do a good job, because she is pretty great, but it’s a sad reminder that Hollywood is still fully into white washing characters.

1. Zombie stories have always arose from what seems to be society’s own existential fear. What is your perspective on the unique version of zombies and human society that is presented in this book?

2. It is never made quite clear what the “Bonies” are in this world. The human equate them almost to aliens and the zombies themselves almost fear them. How do you think they came to exist? Did they have their own inner society? Own goals and agendas?

3. The movie lightened up the story a lot and there were a few significant changes. What changes did you like? Were there ones you wished they hadn’t changed?

4. What notable differences between the book and movie did you see in the portrayal of the main characters (R, Julie, Perry, Nora, and M)?

5. Music, writing, and art are discussed a lot in this book. Does the story have anything to offer on the impact these things have on humanity? And the more fun question, if you were a zombie and had a favorite song, what would it be?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Warm Bodies” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Not your normal zombie!!!” and “Living On Their Own/On The Run (Teens/Young Adults).”

Find “Warm Bodies” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There”

13538708Book: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, October 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: September has longed to return to Fairyland after her first adventure there. And when she finally does, she learns that its inhabitants have been losing their shadows—and their magic—to the world of Fairyland Below. This underworld has a new ruler: Halloween, the Hollow Queen, who is September’s shadow. And Halloween does not want to give Fairyland’s shadows back.

Review: It’s another home run, folks! And, since I am not one for changing routine, I’m going to conduct this review in the same manner as I did the last: Insert beautiful quotes and weep at the author’s literary majesty. Here we go!

“A book is a door, you know. Always and forever. A book is a door into another place and another heart and another world.”

September is waiting anxiously to return to Fairyland and continue her adventures. But this time around, her return is marked not with the exultation of a savior, but the practical results of her previous actions. Her shadow, lost in exchange for aide the last go around, is loose and making trouble in Fairyland-Below and it is up to Septmeber, as the owner of said shadow and therefore responsible, to set things straight (or as straight as they can get in such a nonsense world).

“You know, in Fairyland-Above they said that the underworld was full of devils and dragons. But it isn’t so at all! Folk are just folk, wherever you go, and it’s only a nasty sort of person who thinks a body’s a devil just because they come from another country and have different notions. It’s wild and quick and bold down here, but I like wild things and quick things and bold things, too.”

September is also growing up, much to her own dismay. She is no longer a Heartless Child and her new, untried heart proves to be quite a struggle in this book. She must bargain away a first kiss as well as time itself, an even more precious and unknowable currency.

“For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it.”

This new heart proves troublesome with her friends as well, new and old. The realization that friends are different, individual people with their own thoughts, feelings, and priorities challenges September’s perception of herself and the world. But A-Through-L and the Madrid, Saturday, are as wonderful as ever. Her relationship with Saturday grows deeper and even more confusing for poor child-on-the-verge-of-adulthood hearts.

“And then she felt her Ell’s great strong presence beside her, and Saturday slipped his hand in hers. Oh. Oh. They would not abandon her. Of course, they would not. How silly she had been. They were her friends—they had always been. Friends can go odd on you and do things you don’t like, but that doesn’t make them strangers.”
 Valente continues her unique writing style of beautiful lyricism, grammatical twists, and deep truths masked in narrative gymnastics. I continue to enjoy her insertions of the narrator’s own voice on the story.

“Oh, September! It is so soon for you to lose your friends to good work and strange loves and high ambitions. The sadness of that is too grown-up for you. Like whiskey and voting, it is a dangerous and heady business, as heavy as years. If I could keep your little tribe together forever, I would. I do so want to be generous. But some stories sprout bright vines that tendril off beyond our sight, carrying the folk we love best with them, and if I knew how to accept that with grace, I would share the secret.”

As I’ve mentioned, the real joy of these books lies in the combination of nonsensical world building and creativity alongside very deep, and often sad, thoughts on life and living. This book, specifically, deals a lot with September’s father, his absence while fighting in a war in Europe, and the effects that war  itself has on a person.

“Her father’s shadow looked sadly down at her. “You can never forget what you do in a war, September my love. No one can. You won’t forget your war either.”

September learns several lessons regarding grief, friendship, love, betrayal and forgiveness all while cavorting in an underworld ruled by her own capricious shadow.  The shadow-selves in this story are a fascinating look at the unknown self, the better and worse aspects of each being that lie out of our own sight and awareness.

“For there are two kinds of forgiveness in the world: the one you practice because everything really is all right, and what went before is mended. The other kind of forgiveness you practice because someone needs desperately to be forgiven, or because you need just as badly to forgive them, for a heart can grab hold of old wounds and go sour as milk over them.”

All around, another amazing story featuring September and Fairyland. I loved this book almost as much as the first, the only detraction being my own rush to want to return to the beloved Fairyland characters from the first story, which is a hard thing to hold against a series that is themed around creative new ideas and worlds. Again, I will be rushing on to the third book and am pretty sure that this series will end up being purchased and added to my own personal library.

“A library is never complete. That’s the joy of it. We are always seeking one more book to add to our collection.”

Rating 9: Very excellent indeed!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” is included on these Goodreads lists: “The Best Fairytales and Retellings” and “Children’s Books I’ll Re-Read No Matter How Old I Am.”

Find “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Review of “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.”

 

Kate’s Review: “HEX”

25533076Book: “HEX” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Publishing Info: Tom Doherty Associates, April 2016; Original Dutch edition published in April, 2013.

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description from Goodreads: Whoever is born here, is doomed to stay ’til death. Whoever settles, never leaves.

Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a 17th century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters your homes at will. She stands next to your bed for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened.

The elders of Black Spring have virtually quarantined the town by using high-tech surveillance to prevent their curse from spreading. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town’s teenagers decide to break their strict regulations and go viral with the haunting, but in so doing send the town spiraling into the dark, medieval practices of the past.

Review: It takes a heck of a lot to scare me, guys. I’ve been watching suspense films like “Rear Window” and “Vertigo” since I was a kid, I started watching slasher films when I was in middle school, and my first venture into horror movies in the theater was when a chaperone took me and a friend to “The Blair Witch Project”the summer before freshman year of high school. Suffice to say, I’m a veteran at the horror rodeo, and it now means that the subject of horror I’m consuming needs to really pull out all the stops in very specific ways before I am affected by it. It’s good in that I’m not kept up late at night jumping at every sound, but bad in that I like being scared for funsies every once in awhile.

But “HEX”? “HEX” kept me up at night.

giphy
I don’t know why I thought reading it before bed was a good idea. (source)

I think that it was a combination of multiple things that made “HEX” such a scary read for me. The first is that Katherine van Wyler (aka the Black Rock Witch) just sounds like a really scary entity. She walks in silence, towers over people, just stands in place for hours on end, and has her eyes and mouth sewn shut. I mean jeeze, this is the stuff that my nightmares are made of. While the people in Black Spring are used to her, and while they pretty much know how to handle her, that isn’t to say that they aren’t living every day in fear of her and what she could do, and has done in the past. You do get Katherine’s backstory, but Heuvelt saves that for a little later. The book itself just opens with our protagonist family, Steve, Jocelyn, Tyler, and Matt Grant, going about their business as Katherine stands and blindly stares in their living room. I closed the book after the first chapter and just sat there for a moment, wondering what exactly it was I was getting myself into. There are scenes with her that took my breath away because I was so tense, and scenes where I was nearly shaking. She is absolutely terrifying. But Katherine is tragic as well. She has cursed this town for what it did to her back when Black Spring was still run by Dutch settlers, and as you find out more about what that is, the more sympathy you feel for this creature that everyone lives in fear of. Not to say that the reader isn’t still in fear of her as the book progresses. I mean, the description alone is just scary as hell, and there were moments of characters tromping through the woods at night that took me back to that summer before freshman year when I was practically pissing myself watching “The Blair Witch Project”. That is to say I had to nope the hell out and stop reading.

tumblr_mzvq6a4myn1reitwwo6_r1_250
Something about witches, man. (source)

But something that sets this book aside from other genre horror is that it is not The Black Rock Witch who should be most feared. The town of Black Spring has evolved in such a way because of this curse that they have turned into something far more unsettling. While I didn’t have as big of a problem with the HEX Group (the surveillance group that keeps tabs on Katherine’s whereabouts through surveillance and the vigilance of the townspeople reporting in on their phones), I most certainly had a problem with the Town Council. Led by a zealous old man named Cotton Mathers, the elders of the Town Council are determined to make sure that everyone in Black Spring keeps this life and Katherine a secret from the outside world, and anyone who goes against those rules are subject to unspeakable punishments. Black Spring is still stuck in an age that is very reminiscent of the Puritans, and their religious fervor and practices of atonement and groupthink were by far the most upsetting moments in this book. The way that the town gets whipped up into a frenzy out of fear of Katherine just reeked of the scariest parts of history, and while I sometimes had to put the book down because of the witch-related suspense, I was far more upset by the absolutist violence and terror that the humans in this book doled out, to their own citizenry and to Katherine alike.

The characters were also very well written. The members of the Grant Family were the main protagonists, with Steve and Tyler at the forefront. Steve and Jocelyn were unlucky enough to move to Black Spring from the outside and realize that they couldn’t leave for longer than a couple weeks, but Steve has since adapted to the ways of the town and believes in keeping the status quo as a way to protect his family. Steve loves his family to a fault, but most of his love is for his oldest, Tyler. Steve really just wants everyone to be safe, and is acquiescent to the life that they have found themselves in, even if that means that they are ultimately prisoners.

Tyler, on the other hand, has grown up in Black Spring, but has also had the Internet his whole life and has seen the outside world, and wants to live in it. Their conflicting views provide the main conflict at the heart of this book: the old ways being pushed against by the younger generation. Tyler is the one who wants to expose the Black Rock Witch Haunting to the world via his website and blog, thinking that if outsiders knew it may break the curse, while the elders of the town think that it would just spread it. I understood both sides of the argument, and what I liked best about it was that neither side was completely right, or wrong. Tyler has a hard lesson to learn in who to trust for such good intentioned (though ultimately selfish) sentiments, as one could argue it’s one of his friends, Jaydon, who sets of the events of this book. Jaydon has his own personal vendetta against Katherine, and that in combination with a childhood of abuse and rage set off a lot of very upsetting events and violence directed at Katherine that made me, as a woman, a bit sick to my stomach to read. Again, it’s the people of Black Spring that are the biggest villains of all in this book.

I also greatly enjoyed the character of Robert Grim, the head of the HEX Group and main tracker of Katherine’s movements. He’s brash and he’s sarcastic, but he’s also one of the few voices of reason in Black Spring. He’s a realist living in a town filled with superstition and fear, and he is noble to a fault when it comes to trying to protect the community he doesn’t really fit into, not at the heart of his being. It would have been so simple to make him just another antagonist, but Grim is quite possibly the most righteous of characters in Black Spring.

“HEX” was a fabulous, very scary read. Fans of horror really need to pick this one up, because it has everything you could ever want. But maybe don’t read it at night. And if you live by a wooded area like me, definitely try not to think about that either…

Rating 9: This book scared the dickens out of me. Definitely recommended but maybe not for those easily scared.

Reader’s Advisory:

“HEX” is pretty new and not on many Goodreads Lists as of yet, but I would put it on “Best Books Featuring Witches”, and “Boil Boil Toil and Trouble”.

Find “HEX” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Every Heart a Doorway”

25526296 Book:“Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire

Publishing Info: Tor, April 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads:

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children:
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

Review: I highlighted this novella as an upcoming release that I was anxiously looking forward to back in April. I have read some of Seanan McGuires other books and have liked her style. Beyond that, the premises is right up my alley.

When my sister and I were little (or maybe only a few years ago, too), we would discuss what we would do if we suddenly came upon a portal to another world. The conversation was always pretty short: we’d go through of course! Having grown up on stories where children visit places like Oz, Narnia, and Wonderland, this really seems to be the only option.

iljq1c9

Going is never in question and there are millions of stories that share these adventures. But what happens when these children come back? (I am restraining myself from going into a long, drawn out discussion about the existential trauma that the Pevensies children must have gone through after living full adult lives in Narnia only to suddenly topple back to their own world as small children. If you really think about it for a minute, the true horror of that situation really sets in. Ok, mini rant over.)

“Every Heart a Doorway” addresses this very issue.  This novella posits that every child who disappears to these different worlds is also matched to a world that fits an inner part of themselves that cannot be fully expressed here in the human world. And when those children (adults in children’s bodies, many of them) return, it is not by free choice. Nancy is one of these children. After spending the last several years in an Underworld, the “Halls of the Dead” world specifically, she has returned to the “real” world and finds that she’s not too happy about it. Her parents, confused and saddened by the loss of their daughter of before, a past person that Nancy herself does not mourn, do what many such parents have done: carted her off for “treatment.” Luckily for Nancy, this “treatment” consists of a boarding school operated by a woman who knows all too well of Nancy’s unique struggles, having herself traveled between worlds for much of her life.

It’s amazing how much ground McGuire covers in such a short story. The book is only 150 pages long and yet she lays out not only Nancy’s story, but several other unique characters as well. Such as Jack and Jill, twins who spent years and years in a land called “The Moors” which seems to be based on old horror movies such as “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” There’s Sumi, Nancy’s roommate, who traveled to a nonsense world, and perhaps has the most honest things to stay about these experiences from it. And Kade, a boy who was scooped up by fairies as a child, but who was kicked out when they learned that the little girl they thought they had captured identified as a boy and was much more interested in slaying trolls than in parading as their princess.

Alongside these fantastic characters, McGuire creates a unique system for cataloging these worlds, with axis of Nonsense and Logical with cross beams of Virtue and Wicked and many other offshoots as well. As a longtime reader of fantasy stories where characters world-jump, it was great fun looking at this mapping process and trying to apply it to other magical worlds from stories.

The mystery at the center of the story is also very effective and another huge mark in its favor. Again, the author had half the page count of a typical book to fit in all of these elements. I loved every minute of this book, and while I would love to have spent more time with these characters and this exploration of children traveling to fantasy worlds and their experiences after returning, the best compliment I can give any novella is to say that I felt fully satisfied with it as a short stand-alone.

Rating 9: Really great read! Fun characters, fun mystery, and most importantly, a great exploration of a typical fantasy trope.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Every Heart a Doorway” is included on the Goodreads list “Gender Non-Binary Fantasy & Science Fiction” and “2016 Speculative Fiction New Series And Standalones Books”.

Find “Every Heart a Doorway” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Providence of Fire”

The Providence of Fire Book: “The Providence of Fire” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The conspiracy to destroy the ruling family of the Annurian Empire is far from over.

Having learned the identity of her father’s assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace in search of allies to challenge the coup against her family. Few trust her, but when she is believed to be touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire, the people rally to help her retake the capital city. As armies prepare to clash, the threat of invasion from barbarian hordes compels the rival forces to unite against their common enemy.

Unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn, renegade member of the empire’s most elite fighting force, has allied with the invading nomads. The terrible choices each of them has made may make war between them inevitable.

Between Valyn and Adare is their brother Kaden, rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with the help of two strange companions. The knowledge they possess of the secret history that shapes these events could save Annur or destroy it.

Spoilers for the first book “The Emperor’s Blades”

Review: The second book in Staveley’s “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” series is like one of those scenes that starts zoomed in a on kid playing, and then zooms back and the kid is in large park, and then zooms back and the park is in a huge city, and so on and so forth. What I’m saying is that the world building goes from complex to wait…what now?? But Staveley’s control of his narrative, world, and characters never stumbles under this added mythology. If anything, the strength of this series only grows with the additional challenges and complications thrown in the mix.

What is the most impressive about this series is Staveley’s ability to handle his three main characters. Kaden, Valyn, and Adare have a more equal balance this time, as far as page time goes. Each is traveling such a distinctive path. Kaden’s is a cerebral journey pealing back the mysteries of the Shin, the portal-like doorways of the kenta, and the history between the Csestriam, the gods they sought to kill, and humanity caught within a struggle between power players completely out of their league. Valyn’s journey continues as the most straight forward. He is a man of action, and action itself becomes his motivation. While Kaden and Adare spend much of their time balancing the intricacies of the pieces on the world-sized board, Valyn sets a goal and moves towards it, even if reaching that goal means aligning with the Urghul, the savage enemies of his own Empire. Adare, the politician, is forced to re-evalutate her own role in this crumbling world. Betrayed by her own general, Adare is driven out of her city in desperate attempt to gain allies and a find new foothold to combat the roving Urghul armies heading her direction.

What is so amazing about this balance is also what is so frustrating. Kaden, Adare, and Valyn all are seeing limited parts of the story and reacting in ways that are consistent to their worldviews and preferred operating methods. But these choices and stories conflict, setting the three up against each other with misunderstanding and suspicion. While reading each chapter, I could completely understand and sympathize with each character’s decisions. But then once I switched to the next chapter it became clear that no, this other character had the right idea about things.

As the story progresses, each character made decisions that made me want to shake them. However, I see this as a strength of the story. Staveley’s characters are flawed and limited by the knowledge they have and their own personalities and tendencies that lead them towards one decision or another. It was perhaps more uncomfortable if only because I think many fantasy readers are accustomed to our heroes and heroines quickly evolving into specific tropes. Kaden should be all-wise, calm, and reasoned. Valyn should be completely heroic, using violence in only the most esteemable ways. And Adare should be clever, easily wrapping her foes around her finger and springing elaborate traps. When they fail to behave as we expect, it’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and frankly, awesome.

This book also made a lot of strides to improve upon the last as far as page time and use of its female characters. Adare is given an equal portion of the story; in fact, hers becomes my favorite of the three siblings. And a new character, Gwenna, a member of Valyn’s group of Kestrel fighters, gets her own sprinkling of chapters. This was particularly welcome. As I said, the three siblings become very caught up in the increasingly complicated web that is the Empire, and it was a relief to read chapters from the very straight-forward thinking Gwenna. She was brash, sympathetic, and highly entertaining. So, too, Triste’s role in the story is greatly increased.

And, as I mentioned, the amazing world building cannot be over emphasized. Most epic fantasy relies on a complex historical past for its world. In this book, it becomes more and more clear that this history is not as understood as it was thought to be. Not only that, but history is still unraveling even in the present. The Csestriam, the old gods, the new gods, the mad, power-hungry leaches of centuries past, the Atmani. They all weave in and out of the story in completely unexpected ways. By the end of the book, I was left questioning everything I thought I had understood from the first book.

All told, “The Providence of Fire” only improved on what was an amazing fantasy epic to begin with. The added complexity of the world and the characters left me constantly guessing and re-evaluating my opinions. While the previous book had slow sections, particularly in the beginning with Kaden’s chapters, this story moves at full throttle from beginning to end. “The Emperor’s Blades” laid out the threads of each storyline, and “The Providence of Fire” tangled them all up into such a mess that I have no idea how Staveley is going to wrap this all up. But I do know that I’m looking forward to finding out!

Rating 9: So good! So worried about what’s coming next!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Providence of Fire” is included in this Goodreads list: “Must Read Epic Fantasy.”

Find “The Providence of Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Review of “The Emperor’s Blades”