Seraphina and Shadowscale

seraphinandshadowscaleRachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadowscale. Ah, what to say about this duology. I read both of these books this past July and I have been unable to write a review ever since. Even now, as I type, I really have no clue how to articulate my thoughts, so let’s start with the overarching plot shall we.

Dragons and humans have been at peace for forty years after an era of war between the two. When the story begins, the dragons and humans are about to celebrate the anniversary of that treaty with a delegation of dragons visiting the human-run city of Lavondaville in the kingdom of Goredd. Seraphina, as assistant to the wonderful Viridius, court composer, is at the heart of preparations. She becomes further embroiled in the affairs of dragons and humans when she finds herself in a position to aid the prince and princess in their efforts to solve their uncle’s death and decapitation, suspected to be the work of a dragon, an event which could severely harm the tenuous-at-best relationship between humans and dragons.

And so begins the two-book tale which revolves around Seraphina’s role as mediator and peacekeeper between the world of dragons and that of humans, and in the civil war between two groups of dragons, those who want the treaty to continue and those who would much prefer to go back to the old ways. SPOILERS LIE AHEAD Seraphina is half-dragon, half-human, and much of the duology revolves around her trying to find and gather together others like her. Their unique perspective and their unique abilities position them to end the growing tensions and attacks between the two warring parties. Her attempt to bring them all together is complicated by one of her kind, an insidious and frustrating half-dragon who can worm her way into the minds of others and who does so with the express intent of, like Seraphina, drawing all the half-dragons together. Unlike Seraphina, Jannoula’s interests do not lie in peace, but in domination. I loved this focus. I loved the way both Seraphina and Jannoula are, on the most basic of levels, looking for family, looking for others like them. Both are operating from a position of almost desperation for acceptance and love; however, their very different upbringings has shifted their ultimate desires quite drastically. SPOILERS OVER

The world Hartman has created is wonderfully and intricately built, the characters are heartbreakingly complex, and the story feels perfectly illustrative of many real-world problems we have today. I think my problem articulating my thoughts for so long is directly related to how amazingly complex this story is. If you haven’t yet read it, I suggest doing so!

Girl in Translation

girlintranslationGirl in Translation by Jean Kwok was the One Division, One Book read for the Spring 2019 semester where I work. Basically, that means we were encouraged to assign the text in our classes and we held events around the themes of the novel. I chose to include the text in my American Literature since 1865 course – which worked out perfectly as I was determined to teach only one white male author in the entire semester.

The story is, in essence, about a rather quintessential story of modern day immigration. Kimberly Chang and her mother move to Brooklyn to be near Kimberly’s aunt, a detestable woman I will probably rage about later on in this review. But back to the summary. They do not find a land of opportunity; instead they find themselves living in squalor, working in a sweatshop, and struggling to stay alive.

The story is an odd and wonderful combination of the naivete of a child as Kim talks about boys she likes and the struggle to make friends and the hardship of a poor immigrant as we see Kim working and living in conditions so far outside the acceptable range of experience as to be horror-inducing. Then we throw in the difficulties faced by so many trying to balance acclimation, acculturation, and tradition. And an Aunt like Aunt Paula. Okay, so I didn’t even make it very long before talking about the elitist, snobbish, selfish, horrible, horrible woman. She pays for her sister and niece to emigrate from Hong Kong and then promptly puts them to work in her garment factory while housing them in a vermin infested apartment with no heat. I can’t imagine treating people the way this woman does.

Kim, and her Ma, knows that the only way they will survive is if Kim saves them by “making it” in America (i.e. kicking ass in school and becoming a doctor or a lawyer), so Kim studies and studies, all the while working at the garment factory as well so that she and her mother can eat. At times, this exceptionalism did annoy me though. Kim is brilliant, and thank god she is because this story would have been quite different had she been of average intelligence. While I appreciate the idea of life-improvement through education – I am, after all, a college professor – I also sometimes get annoyed at hardship-to-success stories that have geniuses as their central characters. While Kim certainly studies hard, she has a natural intelligence that is her true lifesaver. We see her succeed in the full knowledge that without this, she would miserably fail – as so many others in her position have throughout history.

The students in my American Lit class appreciated reading a book from a very different perspective than their own – and they really enjoyed the comparative discussions we had between this, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the film Winter’s Bone. They did, however, feel the book was a bit tedious at times, and many of us had conflicting feelings about the ending.

V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series

shadesofmagicV.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic is one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in ages.

In the first book, A Darker Shade of Magic, readers are introduced to Kell, one of the last of the Antari. While everyone in Kell’s London is capable of magic, the Antari are like the gods of magic, capable of traveling between worlds, specifically three different Londons: Red, Grey, and White, all set in 1819, all geographically similar, but all wildly different. Long ago, the doors between the worlds had been open, but when a fourth London, Black, was overrun by magic in a very concrete demonstration of absolute power corrupts absolutely, the doors were closed to save the other three worlds – or at least to save Red London. Kell travels between these worlds, serving as an ambassador for the kingship of Red London and sidelining as a purveyor of otherworldly items – which is strictly forbidden. When he unwittingly smuggles an item from Black London into Red London, he sparks a chain of events with far-reaching consequences.

Kell is joined on his adventure by Lila Bard, a thief with dreams of being a pirate, who finds herself embroiled in a world she never imagined as magic does not exist in her London, Grey London. The antagonist in this installment, Holland, is the only other Antari Kell knows of, the Antari of White London, a brutal land run by Athos and Astrid (two of the most wretched characters ever).

I think, at its core, this entire series is about the possibilities, responsibilities, and dangers of power, and the first book does a great job setting this up. The second book, A Gathering of Shadows, furthers this theme as Red London gears up for what is in essence a magical Olympics, the Element Games, also known as a great event to bring all our main characters together. But the darkness awoken in Black London will not rest until he has consumed the other worlds, and Kell et. al. have a lot of work in front of them to save Red London. In the final book, A Conjuring of Light, the darkness finally reaches Red London, bringing the fight right to Kell’s front door. I wish I could tell you more, but honestly there is just no way to talk about these books without spoiling something. There is so much to love in this series – the strength of all characters regardless of gender, sexuality, or status, the extremely complex and real relationships, the number and depth of the subplots alone is extraordinary.

The writing is superb, the world building is intricate and imaginative, and the characters are simultaneously relatable and wholly unique. I cannot recommend this series enough.

Quiet: the Power of Introverts….

quietbookcoverSusan Cain’s look into the world of the introvert is downright fascinating. This book was suggested to me ages ago – I think back when I was blogging at eclectic/eccentric – but it languished upon my shelves for a decade until my cousin Hannah recommended I read it. We both have introverted daughters and it seemed like a way to understand them, and ourselves, better.

I am an introvert. You can check out my personality type post if you’d like. Much of this book spoke to me. I prefer being alone; I get exhausted by social events and large crowds – although I do not dislike them nor am I uncomfortable in them;

What I found fascinating was Cain’s explanation of how we came to the Extrovert Ideal. She provides an overview of the path that led us to idealizing and idolizing those who are extreme extroverts which consequently has us diminishing the importance and respect given to introverts. We quite literally train our children to be extroverts through education and culture.

I was very happy she included a section explaining that not all introverts are shy. I am not a shy person; I’m actually a TMI person who will talk to you about personal information at our first meeting. I might even touch you as I am a touchy-feely kind of gal as well. Things change a bit if we are not one-on-one though. I can sit in a group of 20 people and join right in the conversation – if it’s on a subject I am passionate about. For example, conferences in my field of study are fantastic opportunities to delve in to critical conversations. BUT, but. If you want me to make small talk at an evening out with acquaintances, I’m slightly anxious and quite bored. And finally, I need my alone time. Desperately. That’s how I know I’m an introvert. I feel horrendous if I don’t have time to myself daily.

I have learned how to pretend to be an extrovert quite well, and Cain spends a lot of time talking about this phenomenon. She even uses a college professor as an example which works perfectly for me. When I tell my classes I am an introvert, they don’t believe me. How can I be a professor if I (and I quote here) “don’t like people” or “am scared of people”? Ah, the misconceptions about introversion.

Cain does a great job of both dispelling those misconceptions and offering great anecdotes and profiles of introverts who have made a difference. I highly recommended reading this…introvert or not.

Stephen King’s The Gunslinger

gunslingerI am embarrassed to admit that I read this book, the first in King’s The Dark Tower series, way back in December 2017. This was before I started to get back into blogging but considering the timing, it seems like it should have been one of the first books I reviewed…and yet here we are, 10 months after finishing the book and I’m finally writing a review.

Roland Deschain of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger, is the protagonist of this epic tale which spans 8 novels – King thinks of them as one novel. Deschain is set up as a good man who has been thrust into extraordinary circumstances, a man on a quest to defeat the man in black, a sinister bringer of destruction. The story takes place in a world that feels like our world turned upside down, a futuristic western in which the world is dying and has been for a very, very long time. Our world still exists and it is even possible to travel between worlds, which happens to young Jake Chambers who finds himself stuck in the middle of Deschain’s revenge narrative.

I fell in love with this slow-roll of a story. Even if we ignore the fact that the characters are absolutely fascinating – which we shouldn’t – we have a setting so intricately designed, so essential to the story, and so oddly mirrored in our own that it is worth reading for that alone. For example, the song “Hey Jude” by the Beatles appears in Roland’s worth with slightly altered lyrics

Also, this book is like a mash up of some of my favorite genres. I mean it’s a post-apocalyptic western fantasy novel focused on one man’s obsession. It’s people with extraordinary powers fighting their way through a desolate landscape with a laser-sharp focus I find intriguing. And to top it all off, what’s happening is remarkably unique. I am, in no way, capable of predicting this story. I do not at all feel like it is a regurgitation of the same old-same old.

Many people do not at all feel the way I do. The book is criticized for being too slow, for being too disjointed, and on and on. Others, however, love this book to the point of fandom. This seems to be a remarkably divisive book. You’ll love it or you’ll hate it.

Anyone who wants to sum up the book, hell the series, uses the opening line of this installment, and I just can’t help but do the same:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I suggest you follow as well.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

curiousincidentWritten from the point of view of an autistic 15 year old boy, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time shows readers a very unique perspective on family, relationships, trust, and taking the train to London. I fell in love with the main character, Christopher; his not-quite-perfectly logical nature, obsession with math, desire to be a detective, and bravery combine to create a personality that is simultaneously heart-warming and heart-breaking.

The book is a quick read; simple sentences are used and words and ideas are expressed efficiently and clearly. As narrator, Christopher does not pontificate needlessly on the veins of a leaf on a tree. In fact, he only includes descriptions because his teacher told him to.

The world is a difficult place for Christopher. He desires nothing more than to be left alone. Readers can feel his frustration with adults who want to talk all the time and yet never say what they mean. But I can also feel the frustration of the adults Christopher comes into contact with. The difficulty of autism exists within and without the spectrum and Haddon did a wonderful job, in my opinion, of expressing that difficulty – the opposing desires of the two sides, the inability to communicate effectively with each other. I felt for Christopher, and for his parents and neighbors.

The unique perspective inspired me to assign this novel as one of the three read for my Introduction to Literature course. I haven’t quite figured out exactly how I’m going to use it yet, but I have a few ideas. Obviously, analyzing the text from a narratological standpoint works well, possibly even from a sociolinguistic oral storytelling perspective. I have some half-formed ideas on using Russian Formalism and defamiliarization. Then I think I’ll finish it all up with Reader-Response.

If you have any thoughts on how to use the text in the classroom, please let me know in the comments!

Lady Audley’s Secret

As we get started with the RIP season, I thought I’d share a review of Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a strangely swirling tale that certainly meets the eery qualities required. In the novel, Lucy, a governess, marries Sir Michael Audley, a much wealthier man. It is their story. Simultaneously, Robert Audley reunites with an old friend, George, recently returned from Australia and looking for a happy homecoming with his wife. It is their story. And it is the marriage of these two stories that really sets off the mystery.

This is one of those books that is difficult to talk about for fear of revealing anything that will be more exciting if revealed by the text. Of course, the mystery itself is actually not much of a mystery in my opinion. I – and I think most readers – knew very early on what Lady Audley’s secret is. Sort of like Victoria’s secret, Lady Audley’s is not exactly well hidden.

What is so intriguing about this tale is not the mystery, it’s watching Robert decide if he wants to actually solve it and it’s contemplating Lady Audley’s actual culpability and motivation. Despite the relative obviousness of the text’s twists, the novel remains suspenseful throughout, and I was flipping the pages as fast as I could without losing the intricacies of the plot.

The novel brings up very powerful points regarding womanhood in the Victorian Age and specifically the role of a wife and mother – the two roles a woman was encouraged (required?) to strive for and succeed at according to a strict set of guidelines and traditions. Still, this is a sensational novel, not a realist one, and any social commentary is secondary to the spectacle which is the focus. A thinking reader can see the difficulty of Lucy’s position and pontificate on what Victorians called “The Woman Question“. The problem of direct social commentary on the role of women is complicated by Braddon’s – and many other author’s – contrary desires: to say something important and to have a bestseller, an issue I may actually tackle in a future post.

Of course any discussion of the novel would be remiss without pointing out the amazingly obvious, in my opinion, homosexual undertones in the relationship between Robert and George. An even more controversial issue than The Woman Question, homosexuality, or at least homosocial desire, abounded in Victorian literature, and yet it was a subtle inclusion, a suggestion, a coded language even. Perhaps a Victorian can read the novel and see a simple friendship, but many a modern reader sees much, much more in the relationship between Robert and George.

Ultimately, this is a riveting tale that is both a landmark novel in Victorian and sensationalist literature and also simply good read, so I recommend giving it a go if you haven’t already.

If you are looking for an RIP book, I highly recommend this one.

Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Series

grishaseries

I read Shadow and Bone way back in 2012, but as the next book wasn’t out yet, I sort of forgot about it as my reading time was overwhelmed by my kids. Then, at a used book store, I saw Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising on the shelves, and got all, re-excited. I re-read Shadow and Bone and then read the other two installments within five days of each other. Total. World. Immersion.

Yay!

The Grisha series is set in Ravka, a country divided by a huge expanse of darkness wherein lie carnivorous beasts of terrible origin. The Fold, as it is called, is the result of a magical ‘accident’ perpetuated long-ago by a Grisha. Our protagonist in this world is Alina Starkov, an orphan of limited appeal or abilities who primarily follows around and half-moons after best friend Mal who is a skilled tracker and quite popular with, like, everyone. Everything changes when Alina displays extraordinary power, shedding light on the Fold, powers unlocked in an effort to save Mal and other members of her Army regiment. Her ability to summon light, to summon the sun, may be the key to destroying the Fold and bringing peace to Ravka.

The series revolves around Alina’s progression from a shy, unknown cartographer to one of the most powerful people in Ravka, worshipped as a Saint by some. Along her journey, she engages in numerous, interesting interpersonal relationships, and readers are privy to some of the most fascinating characters, both minor and major, of any series I’ve read. The story is fast-paced without losing world-building or character development, and I will, honestly, miss this world.

And it is written well. Bardugo has a way with language, her writing the perfect combination of clean and rich, and she maintains it throughout all three installments. I’ve read a few series lately where the writing fell off a bit in exchange, I’m guessing, for speed and excitement.

Of course, this genre is not complete without a love triangle, (I hate superficial love triangles if you don’t know that yet), but damn did I like this one. The Darkling-Alina-Mal struggle is nothing like the majority of triangles out there. And of course, the series then throws in a third possibility, Nikolai, who complicates things not because Alina loves him too but because he may just be the right choice for, you know, the world.

All in all, very well done.

Ashes Trilogy

I began this series by reading the first book, Ashes of Twilight, last summer. I enjoyed it and even ordered the next two books….but then they languished on the shelves for a year. Since it’s been so long, I don’t have any remarkably insightful comments on the first book, just a few vague remembrances.

The story revolves around Wren, a teen working the coal mines of a glass dome constructed 200 years earlier to protect English royalty as a comet plummeted to Earth. The dome functions, unsurprisingly, on a caste system which horribly subjugates the many for the betterment of the few. The dome itself is opaque so the majority of the inhabitants have no clue what’s happening outside, simply taking their leader’s word that the world outside is on fire, uninhabitable. Then, dumdumdum, Wren, and others, start a revolution to escape the dome.

Ashes of Twilight covers that revolution and an eventual escape, at least by a few of the lower caste. Shadows of Glass picks up exactly where Ashes left off and moves the story from initial revolution to a more organized revolutionary approach as those who escaped grapple with life outside the dome as well as what to do about those who are still trapped inside. While I appreciated Tayler’s ability to write a second installment that is at once an entirely new story with an entirely new world while maintaining consistency within the environment she created in book 1, I did get rather annoyed at the insistent and persistent focus on Wren’s emotional and psychological obsession with the lives lost in the revolution she believes she is responsible for. She definitely has reason to be upset, to feel guilt, but oh-my-god does the novel harp on and on about it. And on. And on.

Still, I enjoyed the story itself and appreciated the introduction of new characters and the fleshing out of the world outside the dome. Those characters and ideas are furthered in the final installment, Remnants of Tomorrow, which quite satisfactorily wraps up the series.

Now, there is obviously a love triangle…because is there ever not a love triangle. I found this one to relatively realistic and engaging. Wren meets Pace and works with him towards revolution in book one, falling in love quickly. Once outside, Wren’s guilt and fear….perhaps….drive her away from Pace and into the waiting arms of Levi, an American who never lived inside the dome. In this particular love story, I was quite taken with the appeal of the you-know-he’s-not-going-to-end-up-with-her boy. Usually, it’s so obvious and so obviously right who the girl should choose that it’s almost pitiful. In this case, not so much. Both of Wren’s love interests had their strengths and their faults.

Anyone else read this one?

 

The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead

glitteringcourtRichelle Mead’s The Glittering Court was…meh for me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know. But I can’t help it. Let’s back up a bit…

The Glittering Court is a sort of Pygmalionish, Gold Digging slash mail-order-bride concept. The Court, run by the Thornes, takes attractive, poor girls and trains them up to mimic the behaviors of the aristocracy. Once the girls are re-acculturated, trussed up, and judged ready, they are shipped off to Adoria, a frontierland of a New World where faux aristocracy is better than no aristocracy.

Adelaide, our protagonist, is a pampered Osfridian countess determined to thwart her arranged marriage. When the opportunity arises, she pretends to be her servant and joins the Glittering Court – where she will be submitted to a freaking arranged marriage. A wealth of oohs and awwws over dresses, money, men, and fancitudes ensues.

I am, quite clearly, not the audience for this book. I am a mid-30s, not-at-all girly, academic who didn’t even care about dresses when she was in high school. The book reads like a very young girl’s fantasy, lacking the flaws one acquainted with love understands and the badassery a strong woman expects.

I will not be reading the rest of the series.