Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters, #1) by Juliet Marillier

Rating: – – – – –
Date read: May 1 to July 15, 2017

I’m leaning toward 4 stars overall but with lots and lots of reservations which I can’t go into without hitting on spoilers. So beware of spoilers.

This book was Beth‘s pick for May and I just finished it today. In July. I’m not even sure where she is because we kind of let it drop after hitting a wall, but I think she’s still pushing on. I’d like to say it was my fault, because I’m usually the one dropping out of buddy reads, but this time it’s a combination of bad timing and a brutal rape scene that put a nail in this buddy read.

The story loosely follows the Six Swans fairy tale and it’s set in Medieval Ireland. There are druids, magic, and mysticism, and the writing does a lovely job of setting the scene and creating an otherworldly atmosphere. We follow Sorcha, the youngest and only daughter of a lord, and her six older brothers through their lives from when they lived at the castle in the middle of a strange magical forest to when tragedy struck and tore their family apart.

I had known of the rape scene going in–it’s part of some retellings of this tale–but I didn’t know about the aftermath, that the main character Sorcha had to live with it, alone and in silence, as she was in the middle of her vow of silence that she had to make to the fae in order to save her brothers. And then her dog, her only companion, was brutally killed. How much worse could it get, right? Not much worse, but bad things did keep happening. Sorcha had to continue knitting six sweaters from nettles to save her brothers and break the curse that turned them into swans.

I don’t like fantasies featuring the fae as it is, so when this scene happened, followed by the dog’s death and Sorcha’s suffering in silence and the fae’s meddling and the nettle knitting, I checked out. It was too much and the amount of brutality seemed somewhat unnecessary. But I get it–objectively, intellectually, whatever. I get why Marillier had Sorcha suffer in silence; I understand it from a big-picture perspective and see the need to portray the aftermath of rape, but still. It was too emotionally consuming, too close to real life, so I checked out and set the book aside. Every time I picked it up, I could only get through a couple of pages, and that’s why it took over two months to get to the end.

I’m glad to have read it because Juliet Marillier’s writing is always lovely and the stories she’s telling are much needed in fantasy. They exist in that tenuous border between folktale and historical fantasy, and Marillier weaves those elements so well, but this is one of those books I don’t think I’ll revisit. And I will pass on the rest of the series too, even though I know I’ll be giving up on an amazing world rich in history, culture, and magic.

Reading this book was kind of like a coming of age experience–I appreciate it and am glad I got through it, but I’m more glad it’s behind me now.

* * * * *

My first Marillier was Heart’s Blood, a retelling of the beauty and the beast fairy tale, and I loved it. I went into Daughter thinking it was like Heart, and in many ways, it is. The setting, time period, prose, magic, and atmosphere are very similar, but the amount of suffering the main character is put through is incomparable.

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The Book of Jhereg (Vlad Taltos, #1-3) by Steven Brust

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Jhereg: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Yendi: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Teckla: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: December 16, 2016 to April 30, 2017

Amazing books. Amazing journey. Very memorable characters. I love Vlad and this world of dragons and dragon people and their layered politics, and I can’t wait to get started on the second omnibus.

I have a thing about reading series in order, and it was with a lot of reluctance and much hand-wringing that I read this series out of chronological order. I had gotten almost the whole series in these omnibus editions that “organized” the books in publication order (i.e. definitely not chronological order), and figuring out where to start or jump in took up too much time. So I just started with the first book of the first omnibus, which was Jhereg, and soon found that the order was not that big a deal for this series, as many people have told me before.

The order in which you read doesn’t affect your enjoyment that much because each book could be read as a standalone–sort of, “technically.” I could explain further now that I’ve read the first three books, set in three different points of Vlad Taltos’ life and career, but the explanation is… gonna get complicated, more complicated.

Suffice it to say I really enjoyed all three books, maybe the third one a little less than the previous two, but that’s only because it contained too many real life implications that mirrored some of my own and reading about those things are never fun.

The writing is great, however, and I never felt it faltering once. This doesn’t mean much unless or until you take into account the series’ complete timeline and you see where each book falls (how years apart they are, how much happens in between). Only Then you would realize the depth and complexity of this world and how writing a series out of order like this is unbelievably difficult. Steven Brust did this all the while maintaining continuity and coherence AND not letting the overarching story line falter, not even once.

It’s amazing, and I’m nothing short of impressed.

* * * * *

Some thoughts on my first read of Jhereg:

Satisfyingly good. The kind of good that makes you anxious to get to the next book. The kind of good that makes you glad there are over ten books in the series. The kind of good that makes me not care about book orders. Maybe it’s a good thing these books are written out of order?–is a thing I never thought I’d say. But I have a good feeling about Steven Brust and I trust he’ll deliver.

It’s been awhile since high fantasy has been this good for me, and it’s been even longer since I liked a POV main character in high fantasy enough to know that I’ll like whatever trials and tribulations he’s put through. And I like Vlad Taltos. Thus far, he’s already shown himself to be a multifaceted character full of nuance, and I can only imagine he’ll get more complex with each book.

Plus, there are dragons everywhere.

Full review to come when I get through the entire series.

* * * * *

Trying to figure out the order of this series is giving me a serious case of involuntary twitching. So far from what I’ve gleaned on various forums and reviews, the publication order is completely different from the chronological order.

*more twitching*

But the order in which you read these books does not matter. At all. Because they were purposely written out of order.

*bangs head on desk*

Why.

(I have a thing for publication order)

* * * * *

Publication order goes like this:
Jhereg
Yendi
Teckla
Taltos
Phoenix
Athyra
Orca
Dragon
Issola
Dzur
Jhegaala
Iorich
Tiassa
Hawk

But chronological order goes like this:
Taltos
Dragon
Yendi
Jhereg
Teckla
Phoenix
Jhegaala
Athyra
Orca
Issola
Dzur
Iorich
Tiassa
Hawk

The only book I have is Jhereg, so I’m gonna start there.

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1) by Genevieve Cogman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: April 5 to 17, 2017
Recommended by: book clubs’ pick
Recommended to: 

A combination of The Rook, which I liked a lot, and The Eyre Affair, which I didn’t really care for. This one falls right in the middle.

There’s a secret library hoarding books, immortal secret agents of the library who are sent out to steal books, multiple alternate worlds and timelines in which these agents enter with the sole purpose of stealing books and bringing them back to the library (for safe keeping and language evolution, as we’re told), a much sought after alternate Grimms’ fairytales, plucky young heroines, dragon shapeshifters, murderous fae, former agents who defected for reasons not yet clear, an alternate steampunk London setting, and quite a few literary references. All well and good. I enjoyed it and will most likely pick up the second book.

While this book lacks some of the humor and comedic timing of The Rook, it has much better pacing and characterization than The Eyre Affair. The beginning kicks off with the main character Irene in the middle of a mission. She has gone undercover as a cleaning girl at a magical boarding school so that she could relieve the school of a first edition copy of an ancient magical text. After completing the mission with some close calls, Irene returns to the library only to be sent out again, but this time with Kai, a librarian in training. They are to enter an alternate steampunk London to retrieve a Grimms’ fairytales. This assignment turns out to be more complicated and dangerous than either anticipated, and when the defector shows up to take the book for himself, it becomes a deadly game and chase around steampunk London.

I was immediately pulled into the action, and if it had kept up, I would’ve liked this book a whole lot more. But unfortunately, the middle faltered and got somewhat boring. It was muddled by too many explanations and long-winded conversations between all the characters trying to figure out their next moves or what the defector’s next moves are. Much of these moments felt to me like they led nowhere because, while they did work to expand on the action, characters, and steampunk London, they failed to add much to the world or worlds at large. I’m not convinced there’s much out there that exists outside of multiple alternates of London. The writing is rather myopic in this regard now that I think about it.

Since the story is told from her POV, Irene has a knack for overstating the obvious, which bored and bothered me because, personally, I don’t think this world or these worlds are complicated enough to warrant such long info-dumping passages that slowed the story down. I think it would have been perfectly fine to leave some of the mysteries of the library, its purpose, and all these alternate Londons up to the imagination.

Another thing that hindered the writing is the main characters, Irene and Kai, coming off as younger than I expected. This gives the story a YA feel that I’m not a fan of. I would have liked for them to be a bit older and wiser in their thoughts and actions since that would have made more sense in the context of the library and immortality and time immemorial and whatnot. But since Genevieve Cogman is somewhat a YA writer, the YA-ness of the writing is unavoidable.

Lastly, there are a few plot holes and details that don’t quite work in light of the ending, but they didn’t bother me enough during the read to dwell on them, mostly because Irene is an unapologetic book lover and book hoarder, and the idea of an endless library that exists outside of time and space that hoards books is very amusing to me. A personal favorite of mine is reading about book lovers and all the ways in which they profess their love for books.

[T]he deepest, most fundamental part of her life involved a love of books. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to shut the rest of the world out, and have nothing to worry about, except the next page of whatever she was reading.

[…]

And she didn’t want great secrets of necromancy, or any other sort of magic. She just wanted—had always wanted—a good book to read. Being chased by hellhounds and blowing things up were comparatively unimportant parts of the job.

[…]

“[A]ll of us who are sealed to the Library are people who have chosen this way of life because we love books. None of us wanted to save worlds. I mean, not that we object to saving worlds…” She shrugged, picking up her teacup again “We want books. We love books. We live with books.”

[…]

Getting the books, now that was what really mattered to her. That was the whole point of the Library: as far as she’s been taught, anyway. It wasn’t about a higher mission to save worlds. It was about finding unique works of fiction, and saving them in a place out of time and space. Perhaps some people might think that was a petty way to spend eternity, but Irene was happy with her choice.

And this book hits the spot. Well… not quite, but it’s close enough to keep me interested in the next installment.

The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: March 28 to April 3, 2017

Another winning tale by Patricia McKillip. This is only the second book I’ve read by her, but I’m convinced she can do no wrong. There’s something delightful and magical about the way she writes that pulls me into her stories, and I don’t surface until the last page is turned.

It doesn’t happen often to me, but once in awhile I come across a book and wish I was young again to enjoy it with an open, less burdened mind, and to enjoy it in the spirit it was written and, just for a moment, be its target audience again. This is one of those rare books in which the magic is real; I just can’t feel it anymore.

Even though I enjoy it now and really like the writing, it’s a cold, intellectual kind of enjoyment. Lovely prose, lovely story. I love the way it reads on the page and can methodically deconstruct all the things that I like about it and appreciate the parts as much as the whole story, but it doesn’t hit me right in the feels like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Yet I’m certain I would have loved this book more when I was younger, when I would have been eager to be fully immersed in the mystique of the sea and its mysterious magical pull. I think, back then, I would have been able to hear it calling as clearly as Peri.

“Be happy now,” she whispered, aware of all the shining waves behind him reaching toward him, withdrawing, beckoning again. She added, feeling the pain again in her throat, “When I’m old–older than the old women who taught me to make the hexes–come for me then.”

“I will.”

“Promise me. That you will bring me black pearls and sing me into the sea when I am old.”

“I promise.”

[…]

“Your heart sang to the sea. I heard it, deep in my coral tower, and followed the singing. Humans say the sea sings to them and traps them, but sometimes it is the human song that traps the sea. Who knows where the land ends and the sea begins?”

“The land begins where time begins.”

[…]

“It’s an odd thing, happiness. Some people take happiness from gold. Or black pearls. And some of us, far more fortunate, take their happiness from periwinkles.”

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date Read: March 25 to 28, 2017
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

This book gave me chills. Still does.

I went in knowing nothing about it. I mean, I did skim some of the reviews, so I knew it was highly rated and people seemed to love, but other than that, I had no idea what it’s about or what to expect, and I had never read Patricia McKillip before.

And that was the best way to approach because the writing blew me away. It is simply SO GOOD and has a beautiful fluidity to it that makes it so easy to fall into.

What impresses me most is that the prose is neither purple nor flowery; it’s just lovely to read. There’s a dreamy, poignant, lyrical quality to it, yet it’s so easy to read and so concise. There’s not an unnecessary scene or line or moment anywhere. Every word serves a purpose, and not once during the read did I feel like the story was wandering around aimlessly. Nothing is out of place, and so much happens in so few pages. And I just love that kind of writing–purposeful and minimalistic in execution.

So what is this book about?

Briefly: Sybel, a young powerful sorceress who knows nothing of the world below her mountain and wants nothing to do with it, is pushed into the affairs of two warring sides within a kingdom when a baby is brought to her to raise.

On one side, there’s an insecure king who fears being dethroned. On the other side, there’s family of nobles who would like to dethrone the king. Their animosity toward each other go way back. Both sides want Sybel and use her powers for their own, but only one seeks out a way to break and bind her to their will. What follows is an all consuming tale of near destruction.

Well… not exactly, but that was what it felt like during the read, like everything was coming apart at the seams, and I could not turn the page fast enough.

Sometimes, after a string of bland genre picks, I would forget what it’s like to read well written fantasy, but then something always comes along to remind me. McKillip was the perfect reminder.

“What, in years to come, will you have in your life but a silence that is meaningless, ancient names that are never spoken beyond these walls? Who will you laugh with, when Tam is grown? Who will you love? The Liralen? It is a dream. Beyond this mountain, there is a place for you among the living.”

[…]

“You can weave your life for so long–only so long, and then a thing in the world out of your control will tug at one vital thread and leave you patternless and subdued.”

[…]

“Be patient. It will soon be over.”
“Soon is such a long word,” she whispered.

The Emperor’s Edge (The Emperor’s Edge, #1) by Lindsay Buroker

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: March 15 to 24, 2017
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

A decent, light fantasy.

It was easy to read and kept the pages turning, and that was all I was looking for this week.

Since this is the author’s first book, there are various things in the story that aren’t as polished or fully developed as they could have been, like the “steampunk” setting and world building, but I found myself not too preoccupied with figuring them out or trying to make sense of the technology or politics while reading because the story was entertaining and it didn’t seem to take itself too seriously.

The main character, Corporeal Amaranthe Lokdon, is one of the few female enforcers (police) in an imperial city that only just recently allowed women into the force. Lokdon is a hard worker and fairly good at her job, but she continues to be ignored by her superiors and thus gets passed over for promotions. Meanwhile, her slacker partner gets noticed and promoted.

At the beginning of the book, Amaranthe is investigating an arson case when she catches the eye of the young emperor who quickly becomes attracted to her. Because of this attraction, she’s marked for death by Hollowcrest, the emperor’s right hand man, who just happens to be controlling the throne behind the scenes. Hollowcrest sets her on a mission to bait and kill the infamous Sicarius. When she unravels his plan, Hollowcrest has her captured, and that sets the rest of the plot in motion.

Amaranthe goes on the run and teams up with Sicarius, all the while coming up with a plan unmask Hollowcrest and save the emperor. She puts together a rag-tag team of misfits to help her carry out her plans. Sometimes annoying, other times endearing; nevertheless their interactions and misadventures in the city are amusing to read. I can see the potential for them becoming an interesting team later on.

Where he had found the outfit, she did not know, but everything from the boots to the gloves to the parka and fur cap fit reasonably well. And there were no grizzly bloodstains to suggest he had killed someone to get it. That was something, at least.

[…]

“Do you have…” A list? A pamphlet? A room full of naked men lined up like pastries on the shelf at Curt’s Bakery? “How does it work?”

[…]

“If we’re discovered, I’ll do everything I can to make time for you and the others to escape.”
“Sicarius too?” he asked with a hint of amusement.
“If Sicarius is discovered, I’ll have to try and make time for the enforcers to escape.”

[…]

“Any assassin who allows himself to be distracted by his word deserves a knife in the back. It’s not professional.”

With that said, I should mention there’s some suspension of disbelief required to enjoy this story. Like for instance, I still have a hard time figuring out

  1. why Hollowcrest wants Amaranthe dead almost immediately–there really is nothing threatening about her
  2. how Amaranthe isn’t recognized more often if her face is on wanted posters plastered all across the city
  3. how she’s gotten so lucky recruiting just enough men for her elaborate plan
  4. that “elaborate” plan…
  5. and why so many men

Anyhow.

Although this book doesn’t really give you a good sense of the scope of the story arc, the empire, or the world in general, it does lay the groundwork for something bigger with the promise of more depth and adventure to come. I’m hoping the next few books will provide that, and I’m willing to give this series a few books to find itself and get going.

Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: January 31 to February 13, 2017
Recommended by: buddy read with Beth

Recommended to:

3.5 stars, though not sure if I should round up for the subversive narrative and character-driven writing style because I feel like I should judge this book by the standards of the time period in which it was written–the 80s–and not judge it by what I normally like/prefer in high fantasy–books written much later in the 90s and beyond.

Even though it’s called Dragonsbane and the Dragonsbane is a knight named John Aversin, the whole story is told from the perspective of his mageborn partner, Jenny. It’s through her that we see and come to understand this Medieval Scotland inspired world, the magic within it, and the dragons. And it’s through her that we see the hardship of the mageborn and we see who holds the true power, in this story and in this world.

As for John, he’s not only a knight, but a country knight and a pig farmer too, which comes much to the surprise of Gareth the crown prince when he comes seeking the Dragonsbane to slay the dragon. John is not at all what he expected, and all the hopes and dreams he had of the Dragonsbane as a noble knight in shiny armor are shattered upon their first meeting. It’s quite funny. I laughed all the way through that first scene of them together, and afterward every time John speaks, there’s cause for snickering.

John and Jenny have been together for awhile; they have two sons and have slain a dragon together. All in all, they’ve been through a lot together, and there’s a sense of ease, strength, and security in their relationship, the kind that can withhold all kinds of storm together. You don’t often see this kind of lasting bond in genre fiction, and it’s yet another thing that sets it apart from other of its kind.

Although neither John nor Jenny is what we expect of a knight and mage, Gareth the crown prince is exactly what we expect of a sheltered, inexperienced, starry-eyed young prince. At least in the beginning of the story, he’s like that. After meeting John and Jenny, he comes face to face with the reality of his dragon problem and grows up quickly. And then he accompanies them on their quest to slay the dragon and grows up some more, so that by the end of the quest there isn’t that much of that starry-eyed young prince left in him, for which I was grateful because that guy was annoying, especially when looked at from Jenny’s perspective.

The only weak link in this story that I could find is the man-eater antagonist Zyerne. She’s a bit too muahahahaha for my taste. I prefer villains to be subtle and to withhold information instead of flaunting it. Unfortunately, Zyerne is definitely in the flaunt-it camp. There’s not much depth or complexity to her, and I wished there had been more, more layers or more sides or more personality. Something to give her more purpose than just being the force of darkness out to get our heroes.

I liked this book a lot more upon first finishing it than I do now. But now? Now that I’ve some time to process the story as a whole, my interest and enjoyment of it is waning. I think it’s the combination of the slow pace–it took over half the book for me to get into the story and characters–and Zyerne’s shallow characterization that kept me from being fully engaged. But since this is the first book of the series, I understand the necessity of the slow pace and gradual world building effort Barbara Hambly had put in to lay the groundwork for the rest of the series.

One of my favorite scene is Gareth meeting John for the first time and realizing he’s the Dragonsbane:

Still Gareth had not spoken. Aversin, interpreting his silence and the look on his face with his usual fiendish accuracy, said, “I’d show you my dragon-slaying scars to prove it, but they’re placed where I can’t exhibit ’em in public.”

It said worlds for Gareth’s courtly breeding–and, Jenny supposed, the peculiar stoicism of courtiers–that, even laboring under the shock of his life and the pain of a wounded arm, he swept into a very creditable salaam of greeting. When he straightened up again, he adjusted the set of his cloak with a kind of sorry hauteur, pushed his bent spectacles a little more firmly up onto the bridge of his nose, and said in a voice that was shake but oddly determined, “My lord Dragonsbane, I have ridden here on errantry from the south, with a message for you from the King, Uriens of Belmarie.” He seemed to gather strength from these words, settling into the heraldic sonority of his ballad-snatch of golden swords and bright plumes in spite of the smell of the pigsty and the thin, cold rain that had begun to patter down.

“My lord Aversin, I have been sent to bring you south. A dragon has come and laid waste the city of the gnomes in the Deep of Ylferdun; it lairs there now, fifteen miles from the King’s city of Bel. The Kind begs that you come to slay it ere the whole countryside is destroyed.”

The boy drew himself up, having delivered himself of his quest, a look of noble martyred serenity on his face, very like, Jenny thought, someone out a ballad himself. Then, like all good messengers in ballads, he collapsed and slid to the soupy mud and cowpies in a dead faint.

Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date Read: December 26, 2016 to January 12, 2017
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

Ever have a moment or several when you’re looking for something new to read and all you see are the same old stories and arcs being retold in marginally barely noticeable slightly different ways? That all you’re seeing is just the same stuff over and over again? I’ve been feeling that way for some time now, and I admit I’m more than fed up with fantasy’s preference for young protagonists and their foolhardy ways–not referring to just YA, I mean the majority of genre fiction. Every time I visit a bookstore, there’s a ton of coming of age stories, new and old, starring a special teenager or twenty-something or a group of them, and they’re always varying shades of stupid foolish, and it gets to a point where I’m like… get the hell off my lawn. Seriously. All of you. Gtfo.

Then this book came along at the right time and reminded me that, if I wanted to find books that actually interest me, that mean something to me, I had to look harder and dig deeper. The kind of stories I’m looking for are out there, they’re just buried under piles and piles of sh–stuff I can’t stand. And they’re most likely out of print or have been for decades now. So now, I’m gonna make an effort to look harder for lesser known genre fiction and dig ’em out.

Another thing that made this book the perfect read at the time I picked it up was its unconventional setting–reminiscent of ancient South Asia, most likely India–and its unconventional cast of characters–all of them older and world-weary and all have lived experience and sketchy pasts. It was refreshing to read about characters that have lived and lost and lived on to fight another day. And it was good to see that world-altering stories and callings don’t just happen to the young and “special.”

Maskelle used to be a priestess of the highest order in the city of Duvalpore, but then she had a falling out with the royal family and was banished from the city. It’s been years since her exile, and at the start of the book, she’s making her way back as a favor to an elderly priest to help solve a problem with an ancient rite/ritual that the city performs every century. Unsure of her welcome and the new political leanings within the city, she arrives quietly, meaning to stay out of people’s way, but then she finds evidence of sabotage that could ruin the ancient rite and destroy the world. Figuring out who or what is behind it takes up the rest of the book.

It’s an interesting mystery and I’m in awe of Martha Wells’ world building and plotting prowess, particularly how much she achieves in so few words. Her sense of world building is unique and succinct, and her prose concise. All scenes and dialogue are necessary and have purpose. I never get the sense I’m reading a meandering plot or pointless characterization or manufactured drama.

Although the stakes are high for Maskelle, there’s an unexpected humorous undertone running through the story that I really like. It keeps it from being completely downtrodden. And while there are serious moments, like the ending serving as a moment of reckoning no one saw coming, much of the story is wry, funny, and easy to read. Maskelle and her endearing ragtag companions run into and/or trip over trouble wherever they go. I would have liked to read more about their time on the road and in the city because it’s just shy of slapstick comedy.

Overall, this was a satisfying read and a good mix of fantasy and otherworldliness, but I already knew that going in because it’s by Martha Wells.

The reaction was more violent than she had anticipated. The counterweight smashed right through the floorboards, knocking her backwards. The arm swung and toppled, taking the railing, part of the gallery, and a dozen yelling rivermen with it.

“I meant to do that,” Maskelle muttered to herself, stumbling to her feet.

[…]

“So, there’s no chance of just stopping and drowning here, say?”

“No, I think we’ll keep moving for now and drown a little further up the road.”

[…]

“I suppose attempts on the Throne happen more often in the Sintane?”

“The Holder Lord executed two brothers, a sister, and a cousin for trying to take the Markand Hold, just in the time I was there, and that was a slow year.”

[…]

Maybe I’m too told for this, she thought. Too old for war, too mean-tempered for peace.

Review: A Promise of Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles #1) by Amanda Bouchet

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: December 24 to 26, 2016
Recommended by: Vaginal Fantasy Group’s alt pick
Recommended to:

Blech.

*ahem*

I mean, it’s not for me.

More on this later.

* * * * *

It is now later, and while I’ve had time to process, my initial kneejerk reaction still stands. This book just isn’t for me, in so many ways. I won’t go into lots of details because that could take awhile, but the main thing is the writing does not work (for me). I found it too awkward and modern, and it clashed too much with the culture and setting of the story.

This story takes place in a world that’s heavily influenced by ancient Greece–think ancient Greece plus sword & sorcery–but the characters’ speech and personalities are very distinctly modern. Not just their sentiments and motivations, but their actions and behavior too. I struggled with this all through the read and never got past it enough to get into the story, so I wasn’t able to connect to any of the characters… or anything else.

While the setting was supposed to be ancient, the speech and interactions were decidedly not what you’d expect people from that time to sound like. Sure this is a fantasy, so of course you can mix modern speech with an ancient setting–lots of authors have done it, or so people keep telling me. Maybe, maybe so, but that doesn’t make it any less awkward or jarring. I found it distracting and it kept me from taking the story seriously.

Something else about the writing I found awkward was the author trying too hard to work in references to ancient Greece. Olives, goat cheese, agora, cyclops, minotaurs. It was like yes, I got it–very very Greek indeed. The whole book is jam-packed with these very, very Greek things, plus references to the gods, to remind you that this is, in fact, almost like ancient Greece. Almost, but not quite.

“Now that that’s settled, you’re coming with me.”
“Never in a billion suns. Not even if Zeus showed up as a swan and tried to peck me in your direction. I wouldn’t go with you even if my other option was Hades dragging me to the Underworld for an eternal threesome with Persephone.”

[…]

“You either have an Olympian-sized sense of self-importance, or you’re overcompensating for a lack of confidence.”

[…]

Our gazes collide, and something in me freezes. His eyes remind of Poseidon’s wrath–stormy, gray, intense–the kind of eyes that draw you in, hold you there, and might not let you go.

[…]

If looks could kill, I’d be dead. I don’t respond well to threats, even ocular ones, and my spine shoots straighter than Poseidon’s trident.

[…]

Have I cheated death again? Hades must be allergic to me.

[…]

I cheated death again. Hades must really not want me.

There’s a ton more, but I didn’t highlight them all–that would take weeks. If I remember correctly, the phrase “dive-bombing” was used to describe a reaction to falling in love. And now I’m just nitpicking, so I’ll stop there.

Overall, not a terrible book, but it’s definitely for the more romance-inclined reader who can overlook these things.

Review: The Last Wish (The Witcher, #1) by Andrzej Sapkowski

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: August 12 to 20, 2016
Recommended by: Milda
Recommended to:

A fast fairytale-filled book of short stories that’s just right for anyone looking for subversive retellings with a wry humorous undertone. A big thanks to Milda for the rec.

Last summer, I had an odd, several-month long fairytale craving and just had to read my fill. The odd thing about it was I was specifically looking for Beauty & the Beast retellings, which led me to that boring Court of Thorns and Roses thing. Fortunately, I branched out after that and found Beauty by Robin McKinley, which was a nice pleasant read and a throwback to the days when I used to read Robin McKinley for fun–Beauty & the Beast retellings are Ms. McKinley’s specialty; then there was Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, which was another pleasant read and a huge surprise because it’s got the same look and feel and marketing as ACoTaR but the writing was so much better; and finally Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier which was so lovely and amazing and easily the best of the bunch.

In the midst of that fairytale-filled summer, there was this Witcher book that a friend recommended. Fun fact: it’s actually the inspiration for the video games, not the other way around. I didn’t know that at the start, so I think I went in expecting something similar to Assassin’s Greed but with magic and magical creatures, and that’s basically what it is. But to my surprise, there was a lot of depth to the world and characters and an assortment of mythological and fairytale creatures, and the writing was good. I’m not a fan of short stories, unless they’re part of a series I’m currently following, but I enjoyed these short episodic adventures of the Witcher’s and found that they work really well for this particular character and the life he’s led.

A witcher is a magically trained and transformed exterminator of the supernaturally wicked. He travels alone from town to town getting rid of monsters, many of which are straight from fairytales and folklore. But the world is a different place now than it once was in the time of previous witchers, and these “monsters” are no longer a threat to everyday life like they once were, some of them even live among people.

Geralt is a witcher going through an existential crisis because he is one of the last of his kind in a world that no longer needs his expertise or services. We follow him through six stories in which he has to face down and defeat something supernatural, as well as confront himself and his dwindling place in the world. Each monster makes him question the purpose of his job and life. Sounds like a downer, but it’s not. It’s a fast, adventurous read, interspersed by unsettling bouts of an existential crisis, but you know, minor details.

I don’t remember what I expected–Assassin’s Creed with magic maybe–but I know I didn’t expect the writing to have any depth or to be a lot of fun, while at the same time quietly poignant. Existential crises in a high fantasy setting can ruin everything run the risk of being too maudlin or comical or both. It wasn’t the case here. I found both the short stories and Geralt to be engaging and strangely realistic, within the context of his world but also outside of it. There’s something about him that rings true.

“I manage because I have to. Because I’ve no other way out. Because I’ve overcome the vanity and pride of being different, I’ve understood that they are a pitiful defense against being different. Because I’ve understood that the sun shines differently when something changes.”

[…]

“Justice will be done!”
“I shit on justice!” yelled the mayor, not caring if there were any voters under the window.

[…]

“The demand for poetry and the sound of lute strings will never decline. It’s worse with your trade. You witchers, after all, deprive yourselves of work, slowly but surely. The better and the more conscientiously you work, the less work there is for you. After all, your goal is a world without monsters, a world which is peaceful and safe. A world where witchers are unnecessary. A paradox, isn’t it?”

Like Geralt, I too had to spend a lot of time questioning my job and purpose in life and whatnot, etc etc. So I empathize with him on many levels. And if I had to kill monsters to make ends meet but the rest of the world no longer needed to have that done, then I’d probably empathize more.