Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: City of Lies by Sam Hawke

39808535City of Lies is one of the few books longer than 500 pages whose pacing isn’t actually terrible. That’s the thing I liked the most about it: it never dragged, and even when the story itself wasn’t really captivating – but it usually was – I always wanted to keep reading, because the mystery element was really intriguing.

In all the other aspects, this book was a solid debut, but I can’t say it stands out. I really appreciated that, despite being set during a siege (and we see the story from within), it didn’t stand out for being incredibly depressing like other hyped 2018 debuts, but I feel like it could have been so much better.
It wasn’t bad, I just wanted more from the characterization, the worldbuilding and the ending.

City of Lies follows two PoVs, Jov, the new Chancellor’s poison taster, and his sister Kalina, who didn’t become the poison taster herself because she was too sickly.
I really appreciated seeing disabled characters in a fantasy novel (Jov has anxiety and OCD, Kalina is chronically ill), but as characters they were pretty unremarkable: Jov is anxious and loyal to his friend Tain, now the Chancellor, and knows a lot of poisons; Kalina is physically weak but also mentally strong and very stealthy – and their characterization never becomes more than that; the characters of a book of 500+ pages should be much more developed.
I liked seeing their friendship with Tain and with each other – I love stories about siblings – but as I said, that wasn’t enough.
Also, I wanted more poisoning! Each chapter starts with the description of a poison (and I always loved these parts), but most of them were never relevant to the story and that was disappointing.

The worldbuilding had some aspects I absolutely loved and some that didn’t work as well as they could have.
Let’s start with the good: City of Lies is the only book I’ve ever read whose worldbuilding was explicitly not amatonormative, as in, families aren’t based on romantic love and people don’t marry – instead, people raise their children with their own siblings, and it’s considered bad luck for men not to have sisters because that means they won’t have nephews to raise. It’s a very interesting set up, and I really wish it was explored more, possible bad consequences included (if you have an awful blood family, you’re stuck with them, even more than in our world?)
This book also explores themes of privilege and religious hate, but does so only from the point of view of very privileged characters. Yes, there’s a relevant side character who is not, and I liked her, but I can’t say this is a kind of narrative I’m that interested in.

Another thing I liked was that there wasn’t any homophobia in this world – there are women who are in relationship with women and men who like men – and many of the side characters were queer. But.

Spoiler-y negative thoughts on the queer rep

All of the queer characters were underdeveloped, and when all main characters are straight (or: it isn’t stated that they’re queer, I don’t know if heteronormativity is a thing here?) and the only relevant romance is m/f, I really don’t want the traitor character to be (explicitly, this time) queer.

Also, the villain was very underdeveloped, and so were their motivations – from what I knew, they didn’t make that much sense. The mystery wasn’t predictable for me, and I usually love when that happens, but the political intrigue here managed to be underwhelming anyway.

On the more positive side, I can say that while I wanted more from this world and the characters, I did like them, and I loved everything about the poisoning plotline but its resolution – enough that, for most of the story, I didn’t want to put the book down.

My rating: ★★★¼

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

40691177Spinning Silver is a standalone retelling of Rumpelstiltskin and the perfect winter book, which makes me wonder why it was published halfway through July.
It’s an atmospheric, slow-paced wintry story, and I loved almost all of it; what surprised me the most about it was how subversive it was.

I have read a lot of fantasy books, both adult and YA, and if Spinning Silver can be in a way considered a “crossover”, I can say that I had never read a book similar to this one in either age ranges.

Spinning Silver, just like Uprooted, incorporates many elements from different fairytales and Eastern European folklore, and while the plot is completely its own, it feels like a fairytale while you read it. It’s not easy to maintain that kind of atmosphere in a book with multiple PoVs, but Novik does it effortlessly with six of them, each one with its own distinctive voice. I never confused them, and all the main characters were as developed as they needed to be.
But that’s only one of the reasons Spinning Silver stood out to me. There are many others: the Jewish representation in a fantasy novel, the subversion of antisemitic stereotypes, the way the many plotlines came together, the writing, the unforgettable characters.

❄ Miryem is a young Jewish woman and the daughter of a moneylender – a bad one, as he never asks people to repay their debts. Miryem’s family is starving, and because of that, Miryem starts to collect money herself, until the Staryk (faery-like creatures of winter) start to notice her. Is she truly able to turn silver into gold?
❄ Irina is the ugly, unwanted daughter of a duke, but because of magical Staryk jewels, her father is able to marry her off to the Tsar. I rarely see heroines who actually know what they’re doing when there’s political intrigue involved, so reading about Irina was refreshing. She has to make a lot of difficult decisions, and her chapters were my favorites.
❄ Wanda is a girl who lives in Miryem’s village. Her father is abusive, an alcoholic who wastes all his money on Krupnik, and Wanda is working in Miryem’s house to repay her debts.
❄ Stepon is Wanda’s younger brother. He, Wanda and their brother Sergey have to work together to survive their father and the winter, which never seems to end.
❄ Magreta is Irina’s nursemaid. We rarely get the point of view of old women in fantasy novels, and I really liked having her perspective.
❄ Mirnatius, reluctant Tsar, evil sorcerer and possessed boy, is a character I can’t say much about without spoilers, but I loved how his storyline was developed.

Spinning Silver is a story about women, women we don’t often see in fantasy novels – older women, Jewish women, women who are neither fighters nor pretty – and about marriage, and in a way also about being a daughter, or a mother. It’s one of the most refreshing fantasy books I’ve read in a long while.

In this book, the magic system isn’t explained, and the worldbuilding is not developed past “fantasy Lithuania” – the way Uprooted was inspired by Poland – but I didn’t have any problem with it. Spinning Silver is meant to feel like a fairytale, and I feel like explanations would ruin the magic.

The only thing I didn’t love about this book was the pacing. For me, it was too slow and it had barely any plot for the first 100 pages. Also, not all points of view were as interesting – I flew through Irina’s and Miryem’s chapter and put down the book every time I had to read about Wanda or Stepon, even if I liked them.
I may not have liked Spinning Silver exactly as much as Uprooted because of this, but I loved its complexity and atmosphere, and I feel like it’s perfect for everyone who liked Novik’s previous book, The Bear and the Nightingale or Girls Made of Snow and Glass.
(also, if you liked Spinning Silver, check those books out!)

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

Edit [June 2020]: After seeing Mark Lawrence’s sexist behavior and comments on the internet and his treatment of reviewers who don’t like his books or dislike his treatment of female characters – and let’s not even mention the Bury Your Gays that happens later in the series – I can’t recommend this book anymore.

35715280Grey Sister is dark, bloody, brilliant… and not as good as the first book. A worthwhile read, of course, and I can’t wait for Holy Sister, but it could have been better.

Second books in trilogies are not my favorites. Not because they’re inherently lesser or filler, but because many of them tend to backtrack. We solved something with the end of book one? No, that’s actually still an issue – maybe a villainous character wasn’t actually dead like the ending led you to believe, maybe the main character overcame a challenge once but can’t again. This is a cheap way to create conflict. We already had that character development, we already had that arc, I don’t need to see it again. The plot should never feel like Penelope’s shroud; in this book, it kind of did.

Grey Sister starts with the introduction of a new character, Keot, who shouldn’t have appeared out of nowhere. Why wasn’t he in the end of Red Sister? That’s when Nona “met” him, after all, so…
To end the negative section, I can say that some of the things I liked the most about Red Sister were the school setting, the lack of girl hate and the lack of romance. Grey Sister, however, starts with the introduction of an irredeemable (or so it seems, so far) mean girl, continues outside of the convent, and also introduces what could be a set up for a very boring m/f romance (really: why would anyone pay attention to Regol when there are Arabella and Zole? Unrealistic.)

But! There are many things I liked about this book, so I can’t really say I was disappointed; Grey Sister is still a very solid novel.
The more I know about this world, the more I’m intrigued. Half of this book isn’t set in the convent anymore, which means we get to see more politics and what’s actually up with Sherzal and all the horrible people around her. Also, I can’t wait to see how the focus moon plotline ends. It’s probably the aspect of this world I like the most; it’s almost a sci-fi element in a fantasy setting and I’m curious.

While the first book was narrated only by Nona, here two PoVs are added: Abbess Glass’, which is mostly politics – seriously, that woman is a great chessmaster and I love her a lot; some of her chapters were kind of boring, but the ending? Totally worth it – and Kettle’s. I really liked Kettle in the first book – her and Apple are the best couple – and I liked her even more here. She’s not special like Nona and Zole, she is just very well-trained.
And about Nona and Zole: we all know how much I love Nona, she gets more awesome with every page, but I was surprised by how much I liked Zole in this book. I didn’t feel strongly about her during the first one, but here? I loved her. She almost never talks, but when she does… she almost made me cry with one line.
The friendships are still the best part of this series.

The writing was as good as it was in Red Sister. It’s a bit heavy, and this may not work for some, but I don’t mind the many descriptions and details if this means I get these beautiful action scenes. Most of the book isn’t set in the convent, there was almost no Blade Path, but the action scenes are still very interesting to read. They’re never the same in this series; also, the scenes that were set in the convent were perfect. The plotline about the caves was kind of terrifying and I loved it, and the shade trial was my favorite part of the book.

This may not have been perfect, but it’s a very good setup for the third book, and I can’t wait to see which path the story will take next.

My rating: ★★★★

 

Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Review: The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

33099586The Red Threads of Fortune is the second novella in the Tensorate quartet. It’s set after The Black Tides of Heaven, but it can be read independently.

While all of Black Tides was written in Akeha’s PoV, Red Threads follows the other twin, Mokoya. She has left her husband Thennjay after the death of their daughter, and now she’s chasing a giant Naga trough the desert with the help of a pack of raptors.
Yes, that wasn’t what I expected (giant raptors?), but it worked.

I loved Red Threads even more than the first one. This novella had everything I love in fantasy short fiction – complex worldbuilding explained without infodumps, magical creatures, beautiful, vivid writing that flows well, short but detailed descriptions, and relatively well-developed characters.

I loved how this book focused more on the magical creatures. There were some in Black Tides too, but they were never really developed and they definitely weren’t the focus of the story. This time, we saw a lot of magical, terrifying beasts.

This is not only a fast-paced adventure, however. It’s also a story about grief. Mokoya wants to stop running away, but at the same time she can’t – she lost her daughter a few years ago, and living won’t ever be as easy as it was before. As it turns out, she’s not the only one grieving, and grief is a monster in his own right.
Red Threads is also a story that shows how life doesn’t end there, even if it may seem that way. Nothing will be the same, but it’s worth it. (Mokoya considers suicide, so trigger warning for suicidal ideation.)

I loved Rider. When Mokoya meets them for the first time, they’re on the back of a Naga. The two get close really quickly, but it felt natural. The romantic relationships in the first book felt rushed, and I was never really invested in them. This time? I liked Mokoya and Rider as a couple, and I was rooting for them after a chapter of their interactions.

I wasn’t expecting to love Mokoya so much. I liked her in the first book, but reading in her PoV was a totally different experience. This time there were no time jumps to disconnect me from her or the story. And she changes so much in a short span of time, but it never felt forced.

In Red Threads, the magic system is slightly more explored and explained, and now that I understand it more, I love it.

Know the ways of the five natures, and you will know the way of the world. For the lines and knots of the Slack are the lines and knots of the world, and all that is shaped is shaped through the twining of the red threads of fortune.

As Mokoya discovers, there’s more to it. (And now I’m wondering if “Tensorate” has something to do with tensors as in the ones in math and physics. It would make sense, in a way.)

I want to see more of this world. While I think that the novella format is right for the story, sometimes I wish there was more of everything – the magic, the creatures, the characters. Because I loved everything I saw, and I can’t wait for the next two books.

My rating: ★★★★★