Serena’s Review: “The Star-Touched Queen”

While I make an effort to complete most books I read, every once in a while I come upon one  that I just can’t get through. When I find myself repeatedly putting down a book to the point that attempting to finish it is taking up weeks of my time, I sometimes come to the conclusion that a book is a book, not a life and death contract to read until completion. There are too many books in the world that I will never get to to spends days on end trying to finish a book that I already know will not be my cup of tea. Sadly, one such of these books came across my desk recently.

25203675Book: “The Star-Touched Queen” by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, April 2016

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

Book Description: Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.

Review: Thankfully, it’s been a while since I’ve had to write a DNF review. There have been a few stinkers here and there, but usually I was able to push through for one reason or another. In all honesty, I’m not quite sure what makes up the real difference between a very low rated book that I managed to get through, and one that I just put down. But with this one, since it was an audiobook, I had the extra discouragement of looking down at my book and seeing how many hours, and hours, and hours were left of it. And I just couldn’t.

The story is one that we’ve all (those of us who read fantasy/fairy tale fiction, at least) read before. And that’s not a mark against it! I love “Beauty & the Beast”/”East of the Sun, West of the Moon”/Hades & Persephone stories. They’re probably my favorite of the typical fairytale inspiration pieces out there. And luckily for me, there are a lot of them. But unluckily for this book, there are a lot of them THAT ARE BETTER.

As Kate and I have said many times, each reader has their book and each book, its reader. What’s more, this was a very popular book when it come out so I know this is an unpopular opinion. And I can even see some of the aspects that would have drawn other readers to it. For me, the best part of this story was its connection to India, its traditions, food, clothes, and own fairytales and legends. This setting and cultural connection provided a unique stage upon which to set a very familiar story. And if it had been successful in other ways, I would have been praising this all the day long for pushing the conventions of what we’re used to seeing for stories like this.

However, it was not successful in other ways. There were three main flaws that lead me to reaching a breaking point with this book: the main character, the instalove relationship, and the writing style itself.

Maya is a terrible leading character. If you asked me right now to name personality traits for this character, I couldn’t. Is she brave? Does she have a good sense of humor? What drives her? I don’t have an answer. In the very beginning of this book, we get a few hints that she has an interest in scholarly pursuits, but this never comes into play throughout the rest of the story, leaving it less as a character development piece and more of a “oh, well Disney’s Belle loved books, so…” What’s worse, the entire story is driven by events happening around her and her being lead by the nose by others. She literally decides to kill herself because someone tells her to. And then five minutes later, marries a complete stranger because he tells her to. She also has strong tendencies towards the “too stupid too live” trope. What’s that? The castle is dangerous and might tempt me down bad paths? Yes! I will immediately run away from those I know and not tell them about a mysterious door that is COVERED IN BURN MARKS AND CHAINS that is calling to me. Nothing suspicious there!

This all leads into the instalove. Amar arrives out of no where, tells her to marry him, and then proceeds to wax poetic about his great love for her throughout the rest of the story. But why. Not only can I not identify a single personality trait that Maya can call her own (besides cow-like docility, perhaps), but given the nature of their “marriage” they know nothing about one another. It’s not flattering to have a complete stranger proclaim undying love, it’s creepy. What’s worse, the “happy ending,” as it were, is arrived at about halfway through the story. But, again, because Maya is an idiot, she must make terrible decisions and ruin this. Again, because a complete stranger tells her to and against all of the “love” that she has for Amar.

The older I’ve gotten, the more curmudgeony I’ve been about instalove stories. I never liked them, but now it’s almost an immediate death knoll to any enjoyment I might find in a book. Do you know what readers mostly like about romance? They like reading about how it develops! What makes these two people form this incredible and rare connection with each other? How do they learn to know, trust, and rely on the other? What challenges do they overcome, either plot-wise or emotionally to make this burgeoning relationship work? I only need about a paragraph tops of them fully in love telling readers about how great it is. Authors like this have taken literally the most boring part of the story and made it the ENTIRE story.

And this ties neatly to the writing itself. This book takes purple prose and melodrama to a whole new level. If you cut out the metaphors (and that’s a generous term for what’s going on here) and sugary drool of prose out of this book, you’d be left with maybe half? a third? of what the book is now. Let me put my English major nerd glasses on for a moment here. A metaphor or simile or comparative description of some kind is meant to draw an image in the reader’s mind. It might not be the common image associated with whatever you’re discussing, but it must be clear and make sense.

“I want to measure eternity with your laughter.”

“I see only night and smoke, dreams and glass, embers and wings. And I would not have you any other way.”

What does this mean. Seriously. What. And that’s only two examples. When it wasn’t straight out not making a lick of sense, the insta-love congealed with the prose to form a sappy, saccharine, gushy mess. Amar (again, after knowing Maya for a day) says that he would literally trade anything…for a strand of her hair.

His voice echoed with all the desperation of someone who has not slaked his thirst in eons and had just spied a goblet of water sweating beads of condensation, thick as planets. His voice lulled me, coated me.

Sentence, after sentence, after sentence of this. It was exhausting. If, as an author, you just want to string together pretty words that sound pretty together, perhaps write a nice poem. A novel requires more. Words that makes sense together is a very low bar.

I did not enjoy this book at all. The Indian setting was unique and there was a horse friend that I liked, but neither were enough to get me past the overly wrought language and a heroine who I began to actively root against shortly into the book. There was a very distinct decision that she made about halfway through the book that cemented my decision to put this down, and I really have no regrets. There are too many books in the world. And, most notable in this case, there are too many books in the world that tell almost this exact same story but do it well. I actually moved straight on to “Cruel Beauty,” a book this has been compared to, and am already enjoying it so much more. And I’m on page 30.

Rating: DNF

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Star-Touched Queen” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Hades and Persephone” and “South Asian YA/MG.”

Find “The Star-Touched Queen” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Sweet, Far Thing”

While I make an effort to complete most books I read, every once in a while I come upon one  that I just can’t get through. When I find myself repeatedly putting down a book to the point that attempting to finish it is taking up weeks of my time, I sometimes come to the conclusion that a book is a book, not a life and death contract to read until completion. There are too many books in the world that I will never get to to spends days on end trying to finish a book that I already know will not be my cup of tea.

127459Book: “The Sweet, Far Thing” by Libba Bray

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, December 2007

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

Book Description: It has been a year of change since Gemma Doyle arrived at the foreboding Spence Academy. Her mother murdered, her father a laudanum addict, Gemma has relied on an unsuspected strength and has discovered an ability to travel to an enchanted world called the realms, where dark magic runs wild. Despite certain peril, Gemma has bound the magic to herself and forged unlikely new alliances.

Now, as Gemma approaches her London debut, the time has come to test these bonds. The Order – the mysterious group her mother was once part of – is grappling for control of the realms, as is the Rakshana. Spence’s burned East Wing is being rebuilt, but why now? Gemma and her friends see Pippa, but she is not the same. And their friendship faces its gravest trial as Gemma must decide once and for all what role she is meant for.

Previously Reviewed: “A Great and Terrible Beauty” and “Rebel Angels”

Review: As I said above, I try to push through most books, and those I can’t, I often choose not to review on this blog. After all, I rarely have much positive to say about the experience (and we do try to include positives in most of our reviews, even for lower rated ones), and…I didn’t finish the book! Can I really accurately speak to the book as a whole in a review? But since I’ve reviewed the previous two books in this trilogy, I didn’t want to leave the series hanging without a conclusion to my thoughts. So here they are.

The thing I most enjoyed about the first book was the juxtaposition of these young girls growing up in a very prim, restrained Victorian boarding school against a wild and mysterious magical backdrop made up of an organization of powerful women who have operated behind the scenes throughout history. Gemma and her friends are challenged to re-think their position in society, their own abilities, and the way they relate to each other and those around them. The magical world was unique and by no means “fluffy,” full of lurking danger and unknowns. By the end of the story, our main characters had learned that they did know all that much in the grand scheme of things, and perhaps there were more important things out there than petty, girl fights. They had lost a friend, discovered a new enemy, and seemingly grown closer, knowing that together they must face the challenges ahead.

The second book squandered all of this excellent set up, dialing back any growth the characters had gone through in the first book, making their decisions and thought processes confusing and frustrating. They still focused on the silly, bickered as if they had learned nothing, casually dismissed warnings, knowing full well the major consequences this type of behavior had lead to before, and generally behaved as if the first book had not happened, other than knowing that magic existed. Beyond this, the author introduced a terrible love triangle and some truly problematic scenes about consent.

So, with this second book as an example, I did not have high hopes going into the third. My only reassurance was that, after the events of the second book which were even more dire and traumatic than the first, there was no way that the author couldn’t address the growth and new outlook on the world that Gemma, Felicity and Anne must now have gained. How wrong I was.

I made it about a third of the way into the book before realizing that nothing had changed. Absolutely nothing. The girls were still caught up in petty nonsense, made decisions that made no sense, and behaved as if nothing had happened in the previous two books now that would influence the choices they made going forward. The author actively walked back on all progress that had been made in book two. I quickly realized that I was simply reading the same book over again.

Pippa was turning to the dark side? Nope, she’s still just there in the Realms, hanging out and making Gemma feel guilty for a decision that Pippa made herself back in book one. Gemma had decided to share the magic with everyone in the Realms? Nope, best to re-debate that decision AGAIN for huge chucks of this book,too. Kartik had decided to support Gemma and the girls? Nope, he’s distancing himself again and, of course, won’t tell Gemma why. Learned that when others much more experienced with the Realms warn you about something then you should really listen? Nope, Gemma will stop listening to others (when did she ever??) and maker her own choices!

It was truly incredible how neatly and quickly the author pulled back any and all progress that had been made in the last book and quickly seemed to start re-writing that book all over again. It was inexplicable to me. That last point, where Gemma once again refused to listen to warnings given to her by those in the Realms, was the point where I put down the book. Gemma does not read as a real person, or at least not one whom I could have any respect for at that point. Somehow she had learned nothing, and I’m not interested in reading another 700 pages about a character who is nothing more than a device for the author to indulge herself in a writing exercise that badly needed an editor.

I can’t speak to the end of the novel, but I’ve read a few reviews that further justify my decision to set it down. I won’t speak to these ending issues, as I didn’t technically get to them myself, but it doesn’t surprise me that the author ended up scrambling to pull things together and then missed the mark. How can you end a story when you haven’t really told a story? A story involves characters who learn, grown, and come out the other side as different people than they went in. That just didn’t happen in this trilogy.

Bray is an author with ideas, but she couldn’t write a single character arc for any of these girls. In a stand alone book (or the first in a series, like in this case), limited abilities with characterization might be passable. But it’s unacceptable for a trilogy. I’m having a hard time thinking of another trilogy that started as promising and then plummeted so steadily over the next two books.

Kate read only the first book in this series and liked it, as did I. For those out there in the same boat? Just stop there. Turns out you’ve already read books two and three as well in one go! Why waste the time re-reading that one again for another 1400 pages?

Rating: DNF

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sweet, Far Thing” is included on these Goodreads lists “Thickest Books Ever” and “Worst Ending.” Yes, I know those are negative lists, but that’s how I feel about this book and others seem to agree.

Find “The Sweet, Far Thing” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Serena’s Review: “RoseBlood”

While I make an effort to complete most books I read, every once in a while I come upon one  that I just can’t get through. When I find myself repeatedly putting down a book to the point that attempting to finish it is taking up weeks of my time, I sometimes come to the conclusion that a book is a book, not a life and death contract to read until completion. There are too many books in the world that I will never get to to spends days on end trying to finish a book that I already know will not be my cup of tea. Sadly, one such of these books came across my desk recently.

28818314Books: “RoseBlood” by A.G. Howard

Publishing Info: Amulet Books, January 2017

Where Did I Get these Books: the library!

Book Description: In this modern day spin on Leroux’s gothic tale of unrequited love turned to madness, seventeen-year-old Rune Germain has a mysterious affliction linked to her operatic talent, and a horrifying mistake she’s trying to hide. Hoping creative direction will help her, Rune’s mother sends her to a French arts conservatory for her senior year, located in an opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.

At RoseBlood, Rune secretly befriends the masked Thorn—an elusive violinist who not only guides her musical transformation through dreams that seem more real than reality itself, but somehow knows who she is behind her own masks. As the two discover an otherworldly connection and a soul-deep romance blossoms, Thorn’s dark agenda comes to light and he’s forced to make a deadly choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or face the wrath of the phantom who has haunted the opera house for a century, and is the only father he’s ever known.

There will be spoilers in this post!

Review: I included this book as one of my highlights in January’s post and even there I expressed nervousness going in. The expectation game plays a large part in books like this. I love everything “Phantom of the Opera,” so this being the case I have a critical eye for stories related to it. And while this was definitely part of my struggle with “RoseBlood,” it was combined with some other flaws to the point that I put it down about two thirds of the way through.

This book tries to do two things with “Phantom of the Opera:” present a sequel while also re-telling the classic tale in the modern day featuring our two teen protagonists. As a sequel, nothing about this book worked for me. Perhaps if had simply been a retelling I could have gotten on board, but as a sequel, the author wrote herself into a corner where she had to re-create and “modernize” the Phantom himself while also providing backstory into the original story that would make it fit with her new version. So the Phantom, Erik, becomes a…wait for it…psychic vampire whose method of feeding is siphoning off the emotions of others. And the way he does that is…wait for it…owning a rave where he shows the audience his face nightly and feeds off their fear. Yes. This is a real thing the book does. I can barely take it seriously enough to type it out.

Next, the author creates a paranormal “soulmates” device (but she calls them “twin flames” because apparently she can’t take the term “soulmate” seriously, but somehow “twin flames” is a more acceptable term?) where not only are our main characters “twin flames,” but so were Erik and Christine in the original story. Only she wasn’t “mature” enough to understand the deep love and soul connection she shared with the Phantom. So, now beyond the ridiculousness factor of psychic vampires who own raves, we’ve got a backstory that completely misses the message of deep tragedy in the original and throws Christine under the bus. The relationship between Christine and the Phantom was never a healthy one, and that was the whole point. Erik’s life was one of such deep tragedy that he was broken as a person, not knowing how to express real love for another or how to exist in society. At no point should Christine have ever stayed with him, and to paint her as an immature character who threw away true love does a huge disservice to the character and to the message of the original story.

So those were my concerns with this book as far as it goes as an adaptation of “Phantom of the Opera.” While I can’t say whether or not I would have continued reading had these been my only stumbling blocks, the fact that the novel as a whole reads as a “paint by numbers” YA fantasy was the final nail in the coffin of my ability to complete it.

In other reviews I’ve discussed some of the over-used tropes that can be found in YA fantasy that now feel so tired that they need to be shelved immediately. But this book manages to hit every single one of them, reading almost like a “Twilight” rip-off with only the aforementioned “Phantom” tie-ins differentiating it.

We have a main character with a ridiculous name who is gorgeous and has a special talent that she was born with but can’t control. She goes to a school that she hates (though it’s in Paris and full of rich, beautiful people), and immediately, through no effort of her own, becomes friends with everyone. The popular girls of school also immediately dislike her because they envy her beauty and talent. She meets a mysterious boy who wears a mask even though he, too, is incredibly good looking (this also felt like a very poor use of a “Phantom” tie-in, again missing the point of original that beauty is found beyond one’s face). She discovers they are soulmates, and they immediately fall in love (no stakes in the relationship, no growing to know, appreciate, and love each other, they’re just “destined”). Powers, magic, an attempt on her life. The end. There was just nothing there.

The unique aspects of this story were the connections to the original, and after they were used so poorly, there was nothing left to grab on to. The fact that the book was also over-written and overwrought with pages upon pages of flowery, descriptive language just really killed any interest I had in the story.

Now look, we here at The Library Ladies try to always include positives. And the positive for this is if you are a reader who truly enjoys the formula I described above, then this book will be great for you. And that’s fine! But, for me, nothing about this story worked. And while there are clearly readers who still enjoy this type of story, I also sincerely hope that we begin to move beyond these overly tired YA fantasy staples. They have been so over-used that they almost feel like a parody of themselves at this point. YA fantasy can do (and be) better.

Rating: DNF

Reader’s Advisory:

“RoseBlood” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Retellings of Classic Novels for Children and YA”and “Phantom of the Opera.”

Find “RoseBlood” at your library using Worldcat!