Serena’s Review: “The Rithmatist”

"The Rithmatist"Book: “The Rithmatist” by Brandon Sanderson

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, May 2014

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

Book Description from Goodreads: More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students learn the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery—one that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever.

A “New York Times” Book Review Notable Children’s Book of 2013.

Review: Full disclosure: Brandon Sanderson is one of my all-time favorite authors. I think I’ve read almost everything he’s ever written, which is actually saying a lot as the man is known as a speedwriter. He published 2 novels just this year! And is writing another series that is made up of 900+ page books at the same time! I think he may have no life? Another fun fact, I got to meet him last year at a book signing here in Minneapolis!

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First and foremost, Sanderson is known for creating elaborate, unique magic systems. No lazy wand waving here! Rithmatics is comprised of a complicated system of chalk diagrams, essentially. As I was listening to the audiobook, each chapter would start with the narrator describing one diagram or another, all based around a system of circles. It was a bit challenging to picture it all: 9-point circles based on inscribed triangles, 2 point ellipses, jagged lines used for attacks, etc. But then, when clicking to hear the next chapter one time, I noticed that on the cover image it included illustrator information. *sigh* So, this was probably not the best book to be listening to as an audiobook. Live and learn! Considering that, I’m even more impressed by the fact that the narrator was mostly successful with these descriptions and that by the end of the book I had a fairly good understanding of the whole thing.

Essentially, Rithmatists are able to “activate” chalk drawings to accomplish different tasks. A circle is for protection, certain jagged lines can be used to break through circles, and you can draw “Chalklings,” little creatures who can be instructed to perform certain tasks, such as protecting a circle or attacking a circle. In school, Rithmatists will hold duels to practice these skills with the end goal of being prepared to guard the United Isles (in this world the United States is made up a series of islands based on state names essentially, like “New Britannia” and the “Floridian Isles”) from Wild Chalklings, vicious creatures that will attack and eat people if not warded off.

The whole concept was a very fun idea. It was even more fun to have our main protagonist, Joel, NOT be a Rithmatist, but instead a regular student who just happened to be obsessed with the whole idea and befriends a Rithmatics professor, Professors Finch, and student, Melody. This was a clever way of introducing the audience to the world, through a narrator who, while knowledgeable, is still an outsider like we are in many ways. Joel was a good protagonist, but a little flat, I felt. He seened a bit like a paper cutout version of a YA hero. Good enough, but his personality didn’t stand out to me in any really interesting ways.

However, Professor Finch and Melody were amazing! Professor Finch is the typical bumbling, wise mentor. Combine Dumbledore with Dobby and you get Finch. Wise, kindly, but not self-confident. And Melody had all of the personality that Joel lacked. An unskilled Rithatmatics student herself, Melody is also an outsider who is taken in by Professor Finch. She’s dramatic, witty, and just the right foil for straight-laced Joel. She also loves to draw unicorn Chalklings, much to Joel’s continuous dismay.

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“The unicorn is a noble and majestic creature!”

The mystery itself was good. There were a few moments towards the end where I began to think Sanderson was going to take the easy way out, and I’m glad to say he didn’t. For the most part, the revelations were a surprise.

One criticism I have, however, is that after reading this and the first book in Sanderson’s other YA series, “Steelheart” I’m beginning to think he struggles just slightly with adjusting his tone for YA. While overall I liked this book, Joel is not fully fleshed out, and in some ways this feels like a result of the author’s discomfort with writing teenage characters. The story itself suffers from a similar feeling of slight “offness.” Again, maybe a discomfort with not knowing how to tone down a story for young adult audiences? It’s very hard to put my finger on exactly what it was. But having read his other works, this just felt like slightly…less.

Overall, however, I still enjoyed this book and think it would be a great recommendation for fans of YA fantasy/sci fi.

Rating 6: Strong concept and fun story, but had a few weaknesses

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Rithmatist” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Most Unique, Original, and Interesting Magic Systems” and “The League of Extraordinary Kids.”

Find “The Rithmatist” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Court of Thorns and Roses”

A Court of Thorns and Roses Book: “A Court of Thorns and Roses” by Sarah J. Maas

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury’s Childrens, May 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin—one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow grows over the faerie lands, and Feyre must find a way to stop it… or doom Tamlin—and his world—forever.

Review:  Last year our bookclub read “Throne of Glass” by Sarah J. Maas. The series was wildly popular with young adults, so we were diligent and added it to our list. Long story short, I was not a fan. I’ll refrain from getting on my soapbox for that book, but I make no promises that it won’t get pulled out again later in this review! Either way, when I saw that Maas’s next book was going to be a fairytale retelling, and one of my favorites, I decided to give her another go.

Fairytale snob moment: this book is often referred to as a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling. But actually! It is more accurately retells the fairytale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” (“Beauty and the Beast” is a more recent retelling of this older story) in which a girl is stolen away by a polar bear king, and after failing to save him from his curse (in the traditional version she actually makes things worse), she must travel to an ogre queen’s castle and perform three impossible tasks to rescue her prince. It’s all quite lovely and romantic. I’ve always been particularly fond of this fairytale, especially the fact that it boils down to the prince being a damsel-in-distress who must be saved by the heroic maiden. Fun times!

So, first off, I really liked that aspect of this story. It does follow the fairytale in many ways while also adding its own creative twists. There were large segments in the middle and sections of the end where I was just breezing along enjoying the heck out of the story. Feyre is a great main character. She is flawed, but courageous. Her prejudices against fairies are given the proper amount of time to recede, and her emotional journey is believable. I particularly enjoyed a moment in the book where she has to completely readjust her opinions of her two sisters. In the beginning of the story, they are presented as the typical evil sisters that we are used to seeing in these kind of stories, and I was very disappointed that the book seemed to be going the “other women characters must be bad to make the heroine even more special” route. But, much to my surprise, this gets turned on its head in a way that is very emotionally satisfying.

The love story had the potential to be insta-love, but it was able to just walk that line enough that I bought it in the end. Your own tolerance level for that kind of thing will largely determine how successful this aspect of the story is. Tamlin is your typical hero, not much to say there, really. I honestly liked his companion Lucien much more.

But, as much as I loved parts of this book, I equally hated other parts. It was a very uncomfortable pendulum swing, honestly. I’m going to try to limit my rants, but man, some of the choices made in this book were so frustrating. First, there were small choices, like referring to women as “females,” that were so jarring that I almost put the book down.

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What is this decision? What does it add to the story overall to use this type of terminology that is so inherently dehumanizing? I mean, is it as simple as that? Some weird attempt to not use the word “woman” as a way to differentiate them as fairies rather than humans? If so, it doesn’t succeed. Especially when it is paired with another one of my biggest complaints about the book.

This might be a spoiler, but the section I’m going to talk about now ultimately has no affect on the plot, which is actually a large part of the complaint itself. Towards the middle of the book, Maas sets up this whole fairy festival which essentially boils down to Tamlin being “taken over” by magic until he’s a sex-crazed beast who must choose from a line of fairy females to sleep with that night to replenish the kingdom’s magic. It is so awful! Pair this thought with the overuse of the term “female” throughout the book. Maas has essentially lined up a bunch of fairy women, reduced them to “females” with no characteristics other than their function as a sex objects, and had her hero lose his humanity to beast magic, then select one of these women (she has no choice if she’s selected) to breed with. And Maas go further! Having Lucien explain the ritual to Feyre as unpleasant because Tamlin “won’t be gentle.” Umm…so icky. And at the end of the whole bit, there is zero, I repeat ZERO, impact on the ultimate story by having this scene. Other than, maybe, giving Tamlin an excuse to go all “dominant” and bite Feyre on the neck when she wanders out of her room the same night as this festival. Can you say “not worth it” loud enough? Especially since he goes back to being the sweet, caring love interest the reader is used to the very next day and for the remainder of the book. The whole thing is just gross.

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And sadly, this type of weird sexual objectification continues towards the end of the story with Feyre herself. I’ve always loved the ending of the original fairytale with the heroine attempting to complete her three impossible tasks. And, again, when this story is sticking to these origins, it’s very strong. I loved the tasks that were set up and Feyre’s struggles with them. So, why?! Why do we need to introduce what I can only assume is going to be the third character in the seemingly required love triangle, Rhys? A character who, even while helping Feyre through the tasks, in the mean time, has her dressed in lingerie each night, has her entire body painted so that he can tell if anyone else touches her, refers to her as his property, and then drugs her with fairy wine so she loses her senses and seductively dances in front of the entire fairy court and sprawls around on his lap. Again, I say, why?! What does any of this add to the story? Maas has already set up the fact that this court is terrible, and that Feyre is suffering getting through these trials. What does it add to have this element?

And, as these books can never just be stand alones, there is going to be a sequel, which this book sets up to strongly feature Rhys. Ugh. And this is where my main problem with this type of love triangle lies. Love option one: a man you’ve grown to love over months of time spent with him, someone who has proven his love to you through self-sacrifice and respect, and a person who you’ve now literally gone through hell to save. Love option two: a man who has, sure, helped you out a time or two, but in repayment has forced you to become his “love slave” essentially for two weeks every month for all eternity, and has dressed you up, drugged you, and humiliated you in front of hundreds of people. Yeah. Those are equal options. How could she ever choose?! It’s obnoxious. And yes, I see the clever Persephone/Hades thing you’re setting up there, Maas. It’s not cute.

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Ok, that was long. All in all, I was more upset by the fact that at times I was thoroughly enjoying this book. Honestly, if you just took out these bits I’ve mentioned you’d have a kickass fairytale retelling that I’d probably be raving about. But these other parts kept hitting like buckets of cold water being repeatedly dumped on my head throughout the story. Very disappointing.

Rating 4: The bad parts were a 1, but the fact that there was so much potential and parts I truly enjoyed, I bumped it up. Sadly, I couldn’t get past these flaws.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Court of Thorns and Roses” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Retellings of Beauty and the Beast”and “Best Books about Faeries.”

Find “A Court of Thorns and Roses” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “City of Bones”

City of Bones

We 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: “City of Bones” by Cassandra Clare

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, March 2007

Where Did We Get this Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder― much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air. It’s hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to everyone else and when there is nothing―not even a smear of blood―to show that a boy has died. Or was he a boy?

This is Clary’s first meeting with the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the earth of demons. It’s also her first encounter with Jace, a Shadowhunter who looks a little like an angel and acts a lot like a jerk. Within twenty-four hours Clary is pulled into Jace’s world with a vengeance, when her mother disappears and Clary herself is attacked by a demon. But why would demons be interested in ordinary mundanes like Clary and her mother? And how did Clary suddenly get the Sight? The Shadowhunters would like to know…

Serena’s Thoughts:

As the professed fantasy-lover on this blog, I feel like it’s a bit unfortunate that this happens to be the first fantasy novel I’ll be reviewing. Ah well! I will blame my bookclub friend who chose this as her selection for bookclub and leave the regret with that.

I approached this book with what can by only described as extreme trepidation. It’s a staple in the YA fantasy genre and one I knew I should be getting around to, even now, many years after its publication. Cassandra Clare is nothing if not prolific with her writing given the number of sequels and prequels she’s rolled out! And, alas, my trepidation was warranted. While I love fantasy and young adult novels, “City of Bones” was not my cup of tea, and by the end I was frankly skimming along.

Positives first! I can definitely see why this book took off the way it did. Clare’s writing is fast-paced, her characters are witty, and the story includes every fantasy angle a reader could ask for. Negatives? The writing is so fast-paced that the story seems frenetic, ALL the characters are eerily similar in their witticisms, and the story includes every fantasy trope there is in the book. Vampires! Werewolves! Zombies! Hidden fantasy world in a major city! Heroine is more than she seems! It was a bit much. Don’t even get me started on the tired love-triangle trope. *sigh*

And, full disclosure, I came into this book having heard about the trials and tribulations of Clare’s fanfiction history. And while I’m not here to delve into that, I read a good amount of Harry Potter fanfiction in my day, and Jace? Jace was fanfiction!Draco. Clary’s connection to Ginny was harder to spot which was only a disservice to Clary, as Ginny is by far a more appealing protagonist. Clary did grow on me towards the end of the novel, but it was a bit too little, too late. And honestly, “Twilight” has forever biased me against a YA novel where the heroine describes herself as “clumsy” within the first 20 pages.

If you haven’t read this book by now and are a completest about YA fantasy series, than purely for the sake of popular relevance, you might want to check this book out. But for me, I won’t be continuing on.

Kate’s Thoughts:

Gosh, I’m not even certain of where to begin with this book. I had heard of it around the time that it first came out, but since back in 2007 I hadn’t really discovered YA Fiction and since it hadn’t really taken off yet as its own industry I wasn’t interested in reading it. But then it was picked for our YA Book Club and I found myself finally about to fill the void that not having read it admittedly left in my YA repertoire. But having gone through it now, I think it probably would have been just fine if that void had not been filled.

My main problem with it is that even though it was probably one of the first series to do the things that it does, coming in almost ten years after it was published made the themes and tropes seem VERY old hat. I can’t say that I was a fan of Clary being not only the point on a love triangle, but also a ‘chosen one’ figure AND incredibly snarky and witty and quirky. These themes are so commonplace now that I can hardly abide them anymore. I do think that there is some potential in this world, however, as I think that the magical system does have a pretty strong foundation. The Shadowhunter mythology is something that does intrigue me. It’s just that the focus is too much on Clary and how special she is when she was convinced that she wasn’t special at all. I liked Jace enough as a character, though knowing that this story is derived from a Harry Potter Fan Fiction that Clare wrote made it all the more clear to me that Jace is really Draco Malfoy, at least what he is seen as within the Harry Potter Fan Fiction Fanon. It’s too bad, because I wanted to see more ‘Jace-ness’, less ‘Draco-ness’.

The most intriguing character to me was Isabella, a female Shadowhunter (apparently such things are rare in this world. Hi, mild sexism, how are you?) who comes from an elite family and is used to all the male attention being on her. So of course she’s going to be threatened by Clary, who is so plain yet all the boys love her. What I liked about Isabella is that she did have glimmers of being pretty interesting, and it was evident that she cared about her cause and those around her. I have nothing bad to say about Isabelle, and I would probably read the entire series if it was about her. I can definitely see why this book could and would appeal to teenage readers, though. I know that when I was a teenage girl living a pretty normal, sometimes stressful, life, I would have loved the idea of having a completely different life, with two hot guys in love with me and a set of special powers to boot. And besides, I’m pretty sure that this book wasn’t written for me. So all in all I can’t fault it too much for being what it is. I just think that it could have been better.

Serena’s Rating 3: Too many YA fantasy tropes, not enough substance

Kate’s Rating 4: Predictable and shallow, but had some merits

Book Club Notes and Questions:

We also watched this movie, per the instructions of this bookclub season’s theme. It was what one would expect. The cinematography was beautiful, it adhered to the plot as much as a movie can within its time frame, and it had many of the same failings as the book did. It also bombed in the theater which is actually a bit of a surprise given the series’ popularity and the fact that most popular YA book-to-movie adaptations have been met with success. Sadly, since a sequel is not in the works, movie-goers will be forever left with…that ending…you know the one I’m talking about…

  1. “City of Bones” came out in 2007, and is nearly ten years old. Given that YA literature has changed so much in that time, do you think that this story would follow a similar path if it were written today? If not, how do you think it would change?
  2. What did you think of the magical world and magical system that Clare created for her series? Did it feel well thought out and complete? Did you want more?
  3. Was Clary a relatable protagonist for you? Did you find it easy to sympathize with her? If not, how could she have been more relatable?
  4. If you have read the book and watched the movie, how do they compare? Were there choices that the movie improved upon? Failures of omission?
  5. This book was influenced by Cassandra Clare’s very popular Harry Potter fanfiction writing. Were there resemblances between this world and the Harry Potter world that were easy to spot? Did it stand well enough on its own?

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Bones” is included in these Goodreads lists: “All The Great Guys Books Have to Offer”, and “If You Love Harry Potter, Read These!” 

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