It’s been a while since I’ve done a round-up of the books I have read, so here’s what has been keeping me entertained, inspired and amazed the past few months. As always, it may appear that I love every book I read, but that’s hardly the case. I just choose not to mention the books I didn’t love or couldn’t finish, because there are enough bad reviews in the world. So let’s concentrate on what I really enjoyed!
Oh, this brilliant fantasy! Set in an intricate quasi-Early Modern world where Eastern and Western cultures exist in an uneasy truce, PRIORY follows a large cast of characters in many nations as they prepare for the return of the Nameless One, the great evil dragon who was banished a thousand years ago, and who is now poised to make his big comeback and burn the mortal world to ashes. There are two basic types of dragons: the fire-breathing wyrms of the West (Bad dragon! Bad dragon!), who are considered evil demonic creatures only fit to be killed by chivalrous knights, and the noble water-and-sky-dwelling dragons of the East, who are revered as living gods. As you can guess, the Eastern lands and Western lands have a bit of a cultural disconnect over how they view their draconian neighbors. Centuries ago, the Eastern dragons fought with their dragon rider allies against the Nameless One, but that fact is lost on the Westerners, who consider all dragons to be evil. Now that the Nameless One is rising again, the world’s only hope may be if East and West can somehow work together, which seems unlikely.
The story is a tapestry of viewpoints, all of them lovely, but the main protagonists are two young women. In the West is Ead, a mage warrior from the Priory of the Orange Tree, a secret order charged with battling wyrms and protecting humankind in the name of the Mother, their founder who once battled the Nameless One. Ead is dispatched to guard Queen Sabran of Virtuedom, descendant of the Mother, who may be the key to stopping the Nameless One’s rise. Only one problem: Magic is not allowed in Virtuedom, so Ead must disguise herself as a handmaiden while ninja-ing around the palace and slaying assassins like a badass. Okay, maybe two problems: Hypothetically speaking, what would happen if Ead started to develop feelings for the queen she was protecting? That might complicate things just a bit . . . Meanwhile in the East, Tané has been training all her life to become a dragon rider, but when she finally gets her chance, everything seems to go wrong. She must overcome tragedy and disgrace if she is to save her own reputation, her dragon’s life, and the fate of her entire world, but no pressure. The scope of the book is similar to A Game of Thrones. The book is long, but never felt slow. If anything, the fast and furious pace made me want to take my time, because I sensed right away that I would be sad when I had to leave this world behind. What I really appreciated was the feminist worldview in which female knights and rulers were no more remarkable than dragons or mages. Gender equality was simply taken for granted. I learned a lot from that, and it challenged preconceptions I hadn’t been aware I had. Very much a stand-alone novel, Priory is an enthralling and complete read, but I still find myself hoping Ms. Shannon will revisit this world in future books. Highly recommended.
I loved Moreno-Garcia’s vampire novel Certain Dark Things, so I was excited to read her take on the Maya gods. Set in Mexico in the 1920s, the book follows Cassiopeia Tun, the ‘poor relations’ granddaughter of a small town patriarch in the Yucatan. Cassiopeia’s mother disgraced the family by eloping with Cassiopeia’s dark-skinned father, then had no choice but to return to her family when her husband died. Now Cassiopeia is forced to work as the family maid, while her arrogant cousin Martín misses no chance to boss her around and get her in trouble. Cassiopeia’s future seems hopeless and bleak until in a moment of defiance she opens a locked chest in her grandfather’s bedroom, and releases an imprisoned Maya god of death, Hun-Kame. Formerly the king of the Maya Underworld, Xibalba, Hun-Kame was overthrown by his treacherous twin brother Vucub-Kame, who charged Cassiopeia’s grandfather with guarding the box that held Hun-Kame’s bones. As extra insurance against Hun-Kame’s return, Vucub-Kame also took bits and pieces of his brother — an eye, a finger, a necklace — and scattered them across the land so Hun-Kame could never be whole again even if he somehow escaped. Hun-Kame rises from his prison neither man nor god, but determined to reclaim his throne. He enlists Cassiopeia as his comrade-in-arms, and the two set off across Mexico to restore Hun-Kame by finding his missing bits. Meanwhile, Vucub-Kame recruits Cassiopeia’s repugnant cousin Martín to stop them. The quest narrative is marvelous, with demons, evil spirits, sorcerers and flappers dancing the Charleston. The romantic tension is electric between Cassiopeia and her god of death companion, who cannot possibly feel love (or can he?) What I especially loved is Moreno-Garcia’s refusal to offer easy solutions, or to cast any of her characters as completely good or evil. We come to understand everyone’s motives, and to feel sympathy for the devil (or at least the gods of Xibalba). This is a delicious novel with Maya mythology seamlessly interwoven into a Jazz Age love story adventure.
I’m not sure why I picked up this book. It just sort of found its way into my hands. A historical novel set in Moscow from 1918 through the 1950s, it follows Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a cultured and well-educated Russian nobleman who rushes back to his country in the early days of the Revolution, only to narrowly escape the firing squad and get sentenced to life imprisonment within his hotel, the Metropol. He is given this small mercy only because he once wrote a poem that some Bolsheviks consider to be proto-Revolutionary, and because Rostov himself never took sides in the conflict. A novel spanning decades with the action all confined within one building might sound claustrophobic, but not in Towles’ hands. He brings the world to the Metropol, and gives us a fascinating look at the changes in Russia from the early days of Lenin through the Stalinist era and into the Cold War under Khrushchev. Rostov makes the unlikeliest friends: high Party members, CIA operatives, scholars, movie stars, and a precocious girl named Nina who ‘adopts’ him and shows him all the back corridors and secret rooms of the hotel which she has explored. Though this is not a fantasy novel, it reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, because Towles manages to contain an entire world in a building. In fact, there is literally a secret passage in the back of a wardrobe, which Rostov uses to good effect. It is a novel of humorous vignettes and deft character studies, held together by the reader’s constant concern for Rostov’s safety. In the tumultuous U.S.S.R., almost no one is safe. A hero one day can be shot as a traitor the next. How can our friend the Count possibly have a happy ending? Is he, in fact, as one friend proclaims, the “luckiest man in Russia” because he is confined to the Hotel Metropol? I won’t give away the ending, but I found the book sweet, satisfying, touching, and surprisingly funny. Towles is a consummate storyteller.
Some books sit on my shelf for a long time before I finally find the right moment to read them. Reading a biography of Dickens may not be for everyone, but after looking at this book on my shelf for about five years, I finally pulled it down and began reading. It was well worth my time. Not only does it give a fascinating look at life in Victorian England (which as a history buff, I loved) but it also provides a very readable, personable and accessible narrative about Dickens, so in the end, I felt as if I had actually met the man, or at least attended one of his many speaking engagements. It also opened my eyes as to how much, and how little, has changed in the publishing business, and in the life of a bestseller writer. I feel your pain, brother! I do!
Make no mistake: Dickens could be a ‘Grade A’ scumbag. Late in his marriage, he dumped his wife after she gave birth to a slew of their children, publicly shamed her for being stupid, fat and ugly, and started a tortured love affair with a much younger actress. Dickens could also hold massive grudges. Once you were on his bad side, you would most likely stay there forever. He could piss off entire countries. (Looking at you, USA). He got crazy ideas in his head — like the belief that he was a top-notch hypnotist who could cure people with his mind. He made giant sums of money and lost them in ill-advised business ventures.
At the same time, Dickens was a true sentimentalist who felt sympathy for the poor, the destitute, and the powerless of the 1800s. He went out of his way to try to help prostitutes find better lives, even funding a shelter in London that provided them with a safe place to live and new opportunities. He visits prisons, orphanages and hospitals on a regular basis, and used his writing to shine a light on the horrible conditions in these institutions. He became a beloved figure in England, France and beyond for his compassion and his understanding of the common person. He grew up in poverty, with a father who was always fleeing from creditors and spent time in prison, so Dickens knew what he was talking about. His fear of poverty lasted his entire life and drove him to be such a successful creator.
What I admired about him: The guy’s output was phenomenal. At any given time, he was working on a novel, editing a magazine, doing charity work, overseeing a huge family, writing articles for newspapers, and keeping a grueling travel schedule. He worked long days with an iron will, and walked miles every day, even when he started suffering from gout. He wrote indelible characters with perfect names: Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger. And despite the fact that he is now considered part of the literary canon and regularly shoved down the throat of high school students (sorry, high school students), in his own time, Dickens was dismissed by serious literary critics as a hopeless hack. His work was seen as sentimentalist populist tripe, but it sold like hotcakes. He was the J.K. Rowling of his time — a literary superstar. Tomalin’s look at this imperfect genius was a wonderful story in its own right, whether or not you were forced to read Great Expectations in high school like I was.
You think I torture my characters? Pffft. I am a rank amateur compared to R.F. Kuang! Set in an alternate Asia and inspired by the Opium Wars and 19th Century colonialism in China, The Poppy War is the story of Rin, a small-town orphan whose only chance to escape poverty and an oppressive arranged marriage is to score top marks on the government’s exams and earn a place at Sinegard Academy, where the Nikara Empire’s best and brightest are trained for leadership. Imagine a combination of West Point, Oxford and Hogwarts, and if that sounds intriguing, it is! Just don’t get too attached to the place, because Rin’s training at Sinegard is only the beginning of our story. Nikara (think Qing dynasty China), a vast but disorganized empire with out-of-date technology and many warring internal factions, is on the verge of war with its old nemesis the Mugen Federation (think Imperialist Japan). Rin and a few other ragtag misfits with an aptitude for shamanist magic may be the only secret weapon that can stop Mugen from completely destroying their homeland. The problem is the type of magic Rin summons cannot easily be controlled. It could drive her crazy, take her over completely, or, you know, possibly start Armageddon. But other than that, I’m sure everything will be fine!
Not really. Though the beginning of the book may read like the fantasy narrative we all know and love — obscure girl goes through training to discover she is the Chosen One — Kuang subverts that narrative and quickly turns our expectations upside-down. She shows us how sinister a training academy can be, how it can be used for nefarious purposes, and how easily the teacher-student relationship can turn abusive and traumatizing. Who are the good guys here? Are there any? Kuang gives us no easy answers, but she lets us feel sympathy for our young protagonist Rin and her comrades. The cruelty and horror of war are vividly described, so be prepared for violence — graphic and awful, but entirely appropriate to the narrative. The big question becomes what Rin will choose. Is victory worth the price of her soul? No one is spared in this book. Everyone is beat up, orphaned, traumatized, killed, gravely injured, driven insane, dehumanized, abused and/or tortured. I loved it! I mean . . . I didn’t love the horrors described, or the vast amount of suffering, but the stakes were real, the story was grimly compelling, and the characters stayed with me long after I finished the book. Highly recommended. Now I am going to take a deep cleansing breath and prepare myself for more painful enjoyment (enjoyable pain?) in Kuang’s two sequels!
Wow, Tana French can write. I appreciate a well-constructed mystery, and this is certainly one, but it is also one of those genre-transcending books that proves that the whole idea of genre fiction is an artificial construct. My ‘Rick Riordan Presents’ imprint buddies J.C. Cervantes, Rebecca Roanhorse and Rosh Chokshi all recommended this book, and as usual they did not steer me wrong. I was warned that I would want to throw the book across the room when I finished, so I was prepared for anger issues. I was imagining all sorts of twists and turns the novel could take, so actually when the end came, it wasn’t quite as twisted and horrible as I feared, but it certainly was a beautiful, unsettling read.
Our protagonist Rob Ryan is possibly an unreliable narrator. We can’t be sure. When he was a child, he was the sole survivor of a group of children who went missing in the woods near an Irish housing estate. Days later, Rob was found shivering, his shirt cut to pieces, his shoes full of blood and his fingernails clawing into the bark of a tree. The other children were never seen again and are presumed dead. Rob remembers nothing about the experience before being found, but he somehow survived the trauma and grew up to become a detective in the Dublin Murder Squad. He goes by Rob, rather than his childhood name of Adam, so no one will make the connection between the traumatized child and the adult he is today.
Then he and his partner Cassie Maddox get a new case — the brutal murder of a twelve-year-old girl in the same woods where Rob disappeared as a boy. Could the cases be connected? Should Rob come clean to his superiors about his own past? Against Cassie’s instincts, she and Rob continue delving into the case, which quickly becomes personal and perilous for them both. Their partnership will be tested like never before. The suspects in the case are not what they appear. Secrets are folded within other secrets. The novel is dark and wonderful, but will leave you feeling unsettled, looking over your shoulder. If you like a shivery good read with lovely language and deep shadows cast across your soul, this is your jam. I’ve also read French’s second Murder Squad novel, The Likeness, which is just as good.
I bought this book as soon as I read the premise, and the novel exceeded my high expectations. What happens to all those children in fantasy novels who come back from fantastic worlds — when Lucy emerged from the wardrobe, or Alice from the looking glass, or Max from the Land of the Wild Things? Surely that’s got to be a traumatic re-entry into mundane reality. Every Heart a Doorway takes that idea and runs with it, introducing us to Miss West’s Home for Wayward Children, where such young folk are given a safe place to recover and recuperate after their otherworldly experiences. Some of the children have been to lands of order, some to lands of chaos, some to dark, some to light. But all have been kicked out and forced to return home, and now they long to return to their fantasy realms. Miss West tries to console them, and convince them to accept the grim reality that they can never return. The home is part school, part orphanage, part addiction recovery center. Each child has been permanently marked and changed by their experiences. Our protagonist Nancy still yearns for her time in the realm of the dead, where everything seemed more peaceful, more ordered, more comfortable. She misses the silence and the shadows. She knows the lord and lady of death would welcome her back, if she could just find the way. Then, shortly after Nancy’s arrival, children at the school begin to be brutally murdered. Who is the killer, and why are these deaths happening? The story is poignant and sweet — a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre, while also serving as a great mystery. It is a short read, but powerful, and I especially appreciated the way Nancy was represented as romantic asexual. I just don’t see many characters like this in fiction, and I found her portrayal believable and well-done. I am glad this book is the beginning of a series!