Review: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness

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Rating: ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: July 17 to 20, 2013
Read count: 1

One star for the story and ½ star for reminding me how much I miss my alma mater, though it was no Oxford.

A good friend suggested this book. She and I have overlapping tastes in urban fantasy, and since she enjoyed this book, I thought I would too. The premise sounded interesting, what with elemental magic, a long lineage of witchcraft, historical tie-ins, a love of old books, and—of course—vampires. What’s not to like, right?

What I was expecting:
Something along the line of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic but with more otherworldly creatures.

What I got:
Twilight, but written for people who think they’re too good for actual Twilight.
Twilight, but written for people who want a grown-up version of Twilight.

Well, that’s not fair. It’s better than Twilight, though only in the grammatical sense. Sentences are fully formed and rarely interrupted by inconsequential thoughts, but that’s not to say the writing doesn’t suffer from quirks of its own. The word “scholar” is thrown around a lot to remind readers that the main character, Diana, is in fact a scholar—at Oxford! no less, which is a big deal! Otherwise you’d never guess she’s an academic; no way to tell based on how little she knows of actual research. These little reminders only highlight how juvenile and shallow the writing is.

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Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: July 08 to 17, 2013

What more can be said other than everyone should read this book. At least once. Get a feel for the beauty of language and images in motion. You won’t be disappointed. Guy Gavriel Kay is a great prose writer. It doesn’t even matter if fantasy isn’t your thing because this book does not read like fantasy. It reads like the sort of well-written historical fiction that weaves in myths to tell the tales of a lost time. A personal favorite combination, I must admit. Also, I’m coming off of a dramatic final battle confrontation scene that had me on the edge of my seat for the last three days… so this is a hugely biased review.

There isn’t much that can be said about this book without giving the story away, but I’ll try to sum up the foundation on which the story is built.

The Palm, where the story takes place, is a peninsula that Kay modeled after Renaissance Italy. Music plays a big part in the narration, and at times, you can almost hear music in the prose. There’s a somber tone and a Mediterranean feel to the atmosphere that’s hard to describe, but you feel it when you read.

The main players are:
Brandin of Ygrath, a sorcerer, king, and tyrant from the West
Alberico of Barbedior, a sorcerer, barbarian, tyrant from the East
Valentin, a prince of Tigana, a small corner of the Palm.

On the eve of the battle that would later wipe Tigana from existence, we learn that Brandin came with force and magic to take over the Palm. Prince Valentin, who had already foreseen his fate and knew he couldn’t win, killed Brandin’s son on the battlefield–he had no other choice. This led Brandin to unleash all of his wrath on Tigana, ultimately wiping it off the map and from the memory of everyone who wasn’t born in the land. Only the people born in Tigana before the fall remember its name and history. Brandin renamed the land Lower Corte, as an insult to the people of Tigana because Corte was a former formidable enemy, and he enslaved the whole population.

That is just the prologue. The rest of the story is set twenty years after Tigana’s fall with the rise of a quiet rebellion. Alessan, the only surviving son of Valentin, leads a small band of rebels across the Palm to do the impossible, overthrow both Brandin and Alberico at once to take back the land. It has to be both at once because, if one tyrant falls, the other would easily take his place and continue his reign of terror.

Somewhere on the other side of the Palm, on a similar path, Dianora, the daughter of Valentin’s close friend and adviser who was also killed by Brandin, has plans for a quiet upheaval of her own that starts at the heart of Brandin’s court, but she goes at it alone. I think it’s because she’s alone that she fails in executing her plans, and because she’s alone, it’s easy to fall for Brandin after having lived with him as a concubine for twelve years.

The plot is revealed gradually as you learn more about each character, their inner turmoil and redemption, and the history of the Palm. The tyrants get almost as much time on the page as the other main characters. There is a lot of grief, loss, and pain in this book. As a reader, a casual observer, you feel most, if not all, of it because the writing is just that good. It’s poetic and lyrical, like Alessan’s music. At times I could swear I can hear music playing in the background.

What Kay does extremely well is capture the loss of a homeland, history, culture, and the name of a group of people. Only they alone have memory of this piece of land that no one else remembers. When they try to speak of it, people born outside of the land can’t even hear the name because it’s been magically erased from the collective memory. In essence, this is a story of the side that lost the war and the consequences they suffer because they lost. This particular narrative transcends genres, I think, and we don’t often see it told, or rather told well, not in fantasy. Because narrative belongs to those who win wars and capitalize on their success.

I’m certain there are a couple things I didn’t like or had trouble imagining in the book. I just can’t think of any right now.

A few memorable moments:

She would be near the water by now. She would not be coming back this time. He had not expected her to return on the morning of the Dive; she had tried to hide it, but he had seen something in her when she woke that day. He hadn’t understood why, but he had known that she was readying herself to die.

She had been ready, he was certain of it; something had changed for her by the water’s edge that day. It would not change again.

[…]

“She lifted her hands and closed them around his head… and it seemed to Catriana in that moment as if that newborn trialla in her soul began to sing. Of trials endured and trials to come, of doubt and dark and all the deep uncertainties that defined the outer boundaries of mortal life, but with love now present at the base of it all, like light, like the first stone of a rising tower.”

[…]

“And in that moment Dianora had a truth brought home to her with finality: how something can seem quite unchanged in all the small surface details of existence where things never really change, men and women being what they are, but how the core, the pulse, the kernel of everything can still have become utterly unlike what it had been before.”

[,,,]

“He could guess, analyze, play out scenarios in his mind, but he would never know. It was a night-time truth that became a queer, private sorrow for him amid all that came after. A symbol, a displacement of regret. A reminder of what it was to be mortal and so doomed to tread one road only and that one only once, until Morian called the soul away and Eanna’s lights were lost. We can never truly know the path we have not walked.”

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I received this book as a gift and have had it sitting on the shelf collecting dust for about a decade, and now I can’t think of a good reason why I kept putting it off for so long. Other life things always got in the way, I suppose. Other book things got “priority” status. I simply forgot I had the book. Anyway. I regret not having read it or any of Kay’s other books all these years, is what I’m saying. I still can’t believe I’ve suffered through scores of weak to mediocre fantasy series, but not once did it occur to me to start reading this book until recently. Not once. Such a huge fail. So don’t do what I did.

Review: A Time of Myths by Chris Blamires

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Rating: ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Date read: July 05 to 11, 2013
Read count: 2

The story, or rather stories, takes place in the US, England, and Greece during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Five English students cross paths at Woodstock, then something big happens to them (each of them are affected personally), they part ways and occasionally run into each other again several times throughout the years at several different locations. There is a central mystery that brings these five characters together repeatedly. I can’t say what it is or even hint at it because–this is the only time you’ll ever hear me say it–the fun is in not really knowing what it is… until the end, that is. You’ll find out at the end. (Don’t visit the Amazon book page if you don’t want to be spoiled.)

“But how is that mythic?” asked a bunch of people who wanted to know what I was reading on break and on the light rail.

The modern day events echo mythological tropes.

The myths in the story refer to classic/canonized mythology–think Joseph Campbell–that serve as backdrop to the modern day stories. The mythic aspect of the stories comes in the form of interweaving the past and present together to tell a story (with multiple subplots) and piece together a mystery. So of course there is time travel, but it’s not convoluted, which is a testament to the narration.

The mystery is pretty good, and that’s the reason most people are drawn to this book, but for me, it was the writing that held my attention.

The only thing that keeps this book from a 5-star rating is the beginning. It was slow to start and didn’t hold my interest much. I didn’t become invested until near the end.

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Must admit it was the cover that drew my attention to this book and made me enter the giveaway, of which I won a signed copy.

Original review can be found here.

Review: The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date read: July 01 to 05, 2013
Read count: 1

The Hamids are a Palestinian family living in the West Bank. Once they had a good life, but then the Israeli government took over and forced them from their home and business. They, along with thousands of families in similar situation, had to relocate to the West Bank and live in refugee-camp-like settlements. This, though, was only the beginning of Israeli oppression. The book goes on to describe daily hardship Palestinians face under Israeli rule, such as strict curfews and regulations, airstrikes, harsh punishments for petty crimes, direct and indirect discrimination, systematic destruction of Palestinian cultures and religious practices, forced labor camp sentences, imprisonment, false treason convictions, and the list goes on.

Ichmad Hamid was only a young boy when his father was taken away to prison. He has to grow up quickly on his own. Fortunately he is intelligent, excels in school, and has a love for math and science. He grows up to become a prominent member of his town/settlement while facing all sorts of Israeli opposition along the way.

The story is mostly told through Ichmad’s experiences and puts the Palestinian struggles in focus. Many of the atrocities described in this book do happen every day in the West Bank. The author didn’t make them up just to tell a story. Readers who aren’t aware or familiar with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians find themselves shocked. Although it may seems like the Hamids and their neighbors are an unfortunate group of people to have so many horrible things happen to them repeatedly, this is what every day life is like for Palestinians.

While I liked how the story weaved fact into fiction, I didn’t like how simple and two-dimensional the characters were. Although readers are able to empathize with the Hamids’ and other families in the settlement, empathy without understanding is ultimately empty. The book’s expositions explain the context in which some of these unfortunate situations happen, but they don’t explain enough.

On the other hand, it would be somewhat confusing for someone without some prior knowledge of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to follow this book. So the expositions are necessary, though I don’t think unfamiliar readers would get a true picture of how complex and weighed down the situations in Palestine are. So perhaps plan to do some extra reading before starting this book?

Also, while this book is well written, there are a few moments when the writing takes on a propaganda-like style when describing unfortunate events happening consecutively to the Hamid household. This is unfortunate because we rarely see the Palestinian side of the conflict depicted in books, and a book about Palestine to be seen as propaganda would only strengthen certain prevailing prejudices that a lot of people already have. (I’m trying really hard to stay objective in this review. Can ya tell?)

I see many reviewers lamenting that they regret this book is fiction and not fact. I don’t have this problem. Facts are hard to swallow. Statistics are cold. Death tolls do not tell you about the people who died, why they died, or what killed them. That’s why a story such as this one would leave a bigger impression than news reports. (It’s usually just a blurb because, let’s face it, media outlets don’t cover Palestinian stories for more than a few seconds.)

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I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway.

Original review can be found here.