Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy

American Gods – Neil Gaiman Review

 

 

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks

Rating: ★★★★★

I said in a T5W post a few weeks ago that I was desperate to read more of Neil Gaiman’s work, and with the release of the television adaptation of this book, American Gods seemed like a good place to start. I was so excited to read this, and I was well rewarded for making it through the 600+ pages with a winding tale of mythology, fantasy, magic, murder, and American road trips.

At the start of the novel, Shadow is awaiting release from prison so that he can return home to his beloved wife Laura, however, days before his release, he is told that his wife has died suddenly and allowed to return home early. On the journey home, he meets the mysterious and charismatic Wednesday who offers him a lucrative job for him, and having no other options, Shadow agrees. This leads him on a journey with Wednesday that takes him to intriguing locations in small town America, and also introduces him to a vast array of gods, old and new gods, loved and forgotten gods, gods that he had never heard of.

It was impossible to not be drawn into the cast of this novel. There are so many interesting gods in this novel that I had mostly never heard of. While I had heard of big names like Odin and Loki, Mr Jaquel who was the Egyptian god Anubis, and Eostre, the goddess of Easter, I hadn’t heard of others like the Zorya sisters, Czernobog and the characters of Mad Sweeney and Whiskey Jack. What I loved was that the characters are often initially introduced as ordinary characters, and then we piece together what gods they actually are. I also really enjoyed the new gods, such as the technology kid and Media. The concept of gods dying if they are forgotten was interesting to read not only as a plot point but also as a sort of commentary of modern society, and it makes you think about what makes certain deities and beliefs fade away and what makes certain aspects of our modern lives like television and freeways take their place.

Second, I absolutely loved how this book crosses so many genres. There was fantasy, mystery, adventure, love, history, and my personal favourite, the murder mystery that takes place in the town of Lakeside. I always looked forward to the ‘Coming to America’ chapters, which take the form of individual short stories describing how certain gods were brought to America by all sorts of figures, from travelling tribes, to prisoners who were transported to America, to slaves and modern immigrants. Neil Gaiman did a really good job of developing these characters well so that you felt a connection to them even in a short time. My favourite was probably that of Salim and the jinn, but all of these stories are emotional and tell stories of people from all over the world throughout history.

I didn’t know how long this novel was, and at times it did feel quite dense, but it always paid off in the end. I think I am getting out of the habit of reading longer novels, but American Gods was overall a lot of fun with lots of plot twist that I didn’t see coming – maybe I am slow, maybe they were obvious to other people, but they definitely shocked me! I am definitely looking forward to continuing my journey of reading as much of Neil Gaiman’s work as I can get my hands on.

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Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Naondel – Maria Turtschaninoff Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks

Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

If you check out my review of Maria Turtschaninoff Maresi, the first book in the Red Abbey Chronicles, you’ll know how much I loved it. I had to read the second instalment in the series, and it was both more of what I wanted and something new and exciting. Maria’s writing is exquisite, and I love how she weaves her stories slowly and subtly, and the story in this book was so different to Maresi that it still felt new.

First of all, although this is the second book in the Red Abbey Chronicles, Naondel is a prequel to Maresi and not a sequel. It tells the story of the first women who founded the Red Abbey, the women-only society on the island of Menos that Maresi is set in. The majority of the story takes place in the palace of Ohaddin and starts with Kabira. She visits the Sovereign’s palace and meets Iskan, the son of the Vizier who sweeps her off her feet. Iskan is intrigued and obsessed by the mysterious source of magical power in Kabira’s lands, the spirit of Anji, and tricks Kabira into marrying him for control over it. Over the years, we see Kabira as well as Iskan’s subsequent wives, concubines, and slaves, as they suffer mercilessly under his rule, until they finally decide to escape. There is a reason why the Red Abbey Chronicles are being hailed as ‘feminist fantasy’, and that is because these novels focus on women – their strengths, their dreams, their fears, and their stories.

The novel is told through many different perspectives and these various stories take us to many different locations in Maria’s world. Sometimes I am apprehensive when authors do multiple perspectives as it can often feel confusing and the characters can feel superficial, but Maria Turtschaninoff does not fall into this trap. I have absolutely loved the way that she writes since I first opened Maresi, particularly in that her novel’s form is that of written accounts by the characters, looking back on their experiences. This novel consists of the written account of the women once they have arrives on Menos, and it is easy to believe that these are real women remembering their lives. You really get a feel for them as human beings through this structure, and this way of telling the story means that the story builds up over time, just as the characters become clearer and more distinct to you as the novel goes on. I also love how this format means you get a really good idea of the characters’ personal journeys over time. For example, when the novel begins, Kabira is a teenager, and we see her age until she is an old woman, and we see her not only through her own eyes, but through those of the other women as well, so we get a really well fleshed out image of her.

I’m constantly amazed by how Maria Turtschaninoff’s writing seems so effortless. I’m sure that endless hours go into crafting her work to make it so perfect, but as a reader, I felt like every choice of word was perfect, and even though the words are simple, there were many passages that blew me away. She also expertly manages to craft a unique magical world whilst not making it feel overcomplicated or confusing using the different characters to teach us this. Instead of having a huge info-dump, we learn through each of the characters’ different skills. Kabira has grown up with Anji, Garai has grown up with a close affinity to the land, Orseola is a dreamweaver (one of my favourite stories), and Sulani is a warrior woman. They each bring their own knowledge, talents and skills to the story and to the team, so that by the end of the novel, we see women who don’t even all like each other that much form a strong community together.

I honestly feel like I could talk forever about how much I love Maria Turtschaninoff’s writing. I enjoyed Naondel not only for the self-contained story within its pages but also because it adds another wonderful layer to the story that we see in Maresi. Learning about the origins of the Red Abbey and the way of life that Maresi lives was interesting and exciting. As I said with Maresi, I think a wide range of people could love this series. It has something for everyone, whether you are new to the fantasy genre or you have loved it for years as I have, whether you read adult or YA, whether you don’t read a lot at all. There is something in the Red Abbey Chronicles for everyone.

Book Reviews, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Flame in the Mist – Renee Ahdieh Review

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Rating: ★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I went into it. The only thing I knew was that I really, really wanted to read Renee Ahdieh’s previous series The Wrath and the Dawn, and so I hoped Flame in the Mist would grab my attention in the same way. Renee’s writing is really wonderful, and I liked the characters and the setting of this novel, but some aspects of the story and the fantasy system fell flat to me and didn’t feel properly brought to life.

Flame in the Mist is about Mariko, the daughter of a prominent samurai, who is attacked by the mysterious bandits the Black Clan as she travels to marry a man she has never met in the imperial city. Furious and determined to prove her worth to her family as more than a pawn to be sold in marriage, Mariko sets out on a mission to find the Black Clan, infiltrate them, and find out who paid them to kill her. She dons the disguise of a boy and does just that, and delves into a world of secrets, lies, intrigue and war.

I enjoyed Mariko’s character and the Black Clan as a group. At first, I thought that Mariko might be a typical feisty strong female lead, but she is more than that. I appreciated that her strength lay more in her mind than in her physical abilities – she is not a fighter, although she tries. I also liked that we see her grapple with doubts and questions, as well as with a desire to be brave even though she cannot escape the fact that she is terrified. Okami and Ranmaru are the other two central characters in the Black Clan, and Mariko’s brother, who we follow as he tries to track his missing sister. I enjoyed reading about the connections between these characters, and especially that there were different types of relationships. The romance does not overpower the story at all, but instead there is just the right amount of love for me, and there are also great friendships in the novel. My main issue was that the book swaps perspectives between these characters quite a bit, as well as some other minor characters, and sometimes the way this was done felt disjointed and confusing, and I felt like Renee Ahdieh spread the narration too thinly among too many characters.

I have tried to pick apart exactly why I couldn’t connect to this story fully, and I couldn’t find a single reason. The opening half of the story felt very flat to me, principally because I couldn’t really understand why Mariko was doing what she was doing. I understood that she resented being married off, and I understood that she wanted to prove that she was more than just a weak girl, but I couldn’t understand how she made the link from that to infiltrating the Black Clan to discover why they had tried to kill her. After the initial section of Mariko trying to find the Clan, we then have to sit through a large chunk which consists of her being treated as a sort of servant, and read as Okami and Ranmaru question whether they trust her. I think that because I was bored in this first section, I missed some vital details about the characters Okami and Ranmaru that made the second part harder to understand and get excited about, even though I felt like the story was picking up. I couldn’t remember the details about the pair’s history, and I’m still not sure I understand it.

The fantasy was also a bit vague. I found it so intriguing – there were trees that suck the blood out of people, and foxes made of smoke, and characters that could fly. But I had no idea where any of this came from and how it worked. I felt like the magical aspects of the book were quite randomly dropped into the book and for quite a large chunk of the book I wasn’t sure if this was a fantasy novel or a sort of historical novel. When magic did turn up, it was merely shown for a passage, then it vanished again. It felt so random that I felt like it could have been taken out of the novel altogether and the story would have still functioned equally well without it.

Overall, there were parts of this book that I liked a lot and others that, although I didn’t dislike, I just didn’t really get. I would have loved for the story to have picked up quicker and for aspects of the novel to have been a bit clearer, specifically the magic system and the characters’ pasts and goals. Although I didn’t love this book, I think that I will read the second instalment of this duology when it is released just to see where the characters end up and where the story goes.

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Maresi – Maria Turtschaninoff Review

 

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Rating: ★★★★★

This book is quite unlike anything I’ve read before. Everything felt different, from the setting, to the calm and soothing narrative voice of Maresi telling the story from her memory. I couldn’t recommend this more, whether you typically enjoy fantasy or not, this novel is so unique and wonderful that I wanted to disappear inside of it.

Maresi came to the Red Abbey when she was thirteen after a harsh winter. Since then, she has settled into the women-only community and can’t imagine leaving the sanctuary of their island again. Life at the Red Abbey, with its routine, safety, and knowledge is all that she wants. Jai’s arrival, after fleeing a violent home, only reaffirms Maresi’s view that life with the Red Abbey is the best option. However, Jai’s past has come back to haunt her, and the island is no longer safe from intruders. The women must fight to protect each other and her way of life, and Maresi must find the strength within her to face up to her destiny.

My absolute favourite thing about this book is the writing style. Maresi is the narrator, and she is writing down the events of the story so that they can be kept in the Red Abbey’s library for future reference. I really loved the tone of her writing, it felt very calm and assured, but you could also sense the emotion running beneath her retelling. You get a feeling that as Maresi is telling you the story, she herself is dealing with the events themselves. There is also a lot of foreboding because of this, because you know that something so big and important has happened to Maresi that she is being asked to write about it, you know that Jai is at its centre, and that this has made Maresi change her view on life, but you don’t know what it is for a while. This means you’re eagerly waiting for the action to begin.

This book starts off quite slow and descriptive. You learn quite a bit about the way of life at the Red Abbey as Maresi guides the newcomer Jai through her first few months on the island. We learn about their traditions and their routines, and also about Maresi and Jai’s lives before they arrived at the Abbey. I can’t really describe how the writing style in Maresi made me feel apart from comfortable. Turtschaninoff has a great way of making everything feel magical and wonderful but also cosy and homelike, so that I jut wanted to jump onto a ship and visit this amazing island. When the action does begin to pick up, the magical atmosphere of the island really comes to life. By the end, I was amazed at the depth and reality with which this entire culture and community was brought to life.

Overall, I absolutely adored this book. The writing style really made the characters and the location feel real, and I was really impressed at how there was such a good balance between a calm and quite reserved set of characters and daring action. It was nice to read about women who don’t have to be bold warriors wielding weapons to win, and about women working together. I was completely enchanted by this book, so look out for my review of the second book in the Red Abbey Chronicles: Naondel in the future!

Book Reviews, Historical, Sci-Fi & Fantasy

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – Natasha Pulley Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

Rating:★★★

This book was a bit like when you look at a recipe for a cake and when you read the list of ingredients you think ‘Well, that’s going to be the best cake I’ve ever had’ and then you eat it and it’s just plain, dry, and the icing-to-cake ratio is completely off. This is historical magical realism, with mystery, suspense, a hint of steampunk and romance, but all these aspects just didn’t sit right for me, and although Natasha Pulley’s writing was beautiful, I ended up finding this book confusing, slow, and difficult to finish.

The book starts in 1883, when Thaniel Steepleton, your average civil servant, returns to his tiny flat to find a costly golden pocket watch on his pillow. He tries to sell it, but nobody will take it, and so he appears to be stuck with it. However, he realises that there is something odd about the watch when it saves his life from an explosion that tears through Scotland Yard. He sets about investigating, and meets the Japanese watchmaker Keita Mori, whose creations are whimsical, unlike any clockwork he has ever seen, and who Thaniel suspects is hiding something. Elsewhere, Grace Carrow is battling her family’s expectations of her as she studies physics at Oxford and pursues her dream of making a scientific breakthrough that will help her gain her independence.

One thing that I loved about this book was the setting. Victorian London really comes to life, and Pulley makes you feel like you are there, among the grimy streets, at Whitehall, getting the tube, standing in the rain. At times, the book feels like Sherlockian, with a whimsical element to it that makes everything stand out just a little bit more. I also really enjoyed the Japanese elements that feature throughout the story. Keita Mori is Japanese, but he is far from a token POC character. Through flashbacks, we see his life in Japan, we learn about Japanese history, we see an entire Japanese community in London and a second Japanese character features heavily in Grace Carrow’s storyline. Mori’s shop was another favourite setting. I loved Pulley’s descriptions of all of the different clockwork creations, and despite being told repeatedly that they are just clockwork, you find yourself wondering whether there is something more to it.

There is an element of fantasy, but it isn’t in your face. A better term might be magical realism. There was clearly more to Mori than meets the eye, and I was eager to find out what it was. When we do find out, I was excited to see where the story would go. You do find out the truth, but unfortunately, I felt like all the fun was lost after this point, and the novel went from being magical and mysterious to being a bore. I was confused about how this ‘fantasy’ element worked, and how it fitted in with the characters’ storyline. Although I did get it, I felt like it was far too technical and confusing at times. Much like Mori’s clockwork, there were far too many different elements to understand, and I felt like it dragged the plot down a bit. A more simple explanation could have been better and given the story itself more room to shine.

Apart from these brilliant parts of the book, the simple reality is that this book was boring. It was so slow and I was just reading it without understanding what the characters were looking for, what they were trying to do and how they were hoping to get there. Even though the inciting action of this novel is the explosion at the start and Thaniel’s attempts to find out who was behind it, this fades into the backdrop of this story and when it stepped back into the forefront towards the end I was confused and a bit lost. I had basically forgotten all about it. I think that some storylines made the book too busy, like the scenes set in Japan, which would have worked better woven into the main storyline in my opinion

I’m gutted that this book wasn’t everything I thought it would be. I was really expecting this to blow me away, but it just fell flat in so many ways. I found myself fighting to get through it, and once I did, I wasn’t satisfied at all. I would have liked to have seen more character development for the characters, particularly Grace and Mori, and I might have enjoyed the story more if the plot was clearer throughout the book. I liked that the plot was mainly one of mystery and intrigue and that romance did not play a big part, but unfortunately, the romantic storyline that did feature fell flat in my opinion because the characters and the plot were so difficult to grasp.

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Uprooted – Naomi Novik Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

Rating: ★★★★★

There are so many great fantasy series out there, but it is quite hard to find a brilliant standalone fantasy novel. For that reason, Uprooted is so refreshing to read as a lover of fantasy – even though I love a good series, it was so much fun to see well-crafted characters, an exciting and complete storyline, a fascinating magical world with its own unique history and culture, all in one book!

uprooted-naomi-novikAgnieszka, our main character, lives in a valley that is bordered by a forest. However, this forest is unlike any others. It is full of dark magical powers that corrupt those that come into contact with it. By corrupting the people who live around it, the forest gradually grows and grows, taking up more and more space, and encroaching further and further on Agnieszka’s village. In return for fighting the forest and protecting the people in the valley, a wizard called the Dragon asks for one thing only: a 17-year-old girl to live with him in his tower for 10 years. Agnieszka is chosen to be this girl, much to the surprise of everyone in the valley, who expected her (prettier and sweeter) friend Kasia.

This was all I knew about the novel when I decided to read it, and I was surprised to find that all of this happened within the first chapter. I had hundreds more pages to read, and absolutely no idea of where the story would go! This made the reading experience so different to anything I had ever had before, because I went into most of the novel completely blind. In fact, the story was like a rollercoaster, with each chapter bringing a new challenge, a new twist, a new surprise. No part of this book’s story is predictable, and apart from a small section of a few chapters in the middle that lost me a little bit, none of it was boring.

The characters in Uprooted were also a pleasure to read. While the Dragon remains an enigma and quite vague the whole way through, this is part of his distant character, it is really Agnieszka and Kasia who stole the show. Their friendship is central to the whole book, and drives the entire storyline. I liked to see a close relationship that wasn’t romantic be at the core of a novel, even despite the fact that there was a romantic relationship. The ‘romance’ plot was very much a subplot, and I liked that you could have taken it out and the novel would have remained by and large the same.

This is also one of the best examples of world-building I have read in a standalone novel. I loved that the villain wasn’t a person, or a monster that could be easily identified, but the vast, spreading forest. This, together with Naomi Novik’s twisting plot, meant that there are plenty of times during the novel where I was sure that there was no way out. When we finally found out what the forest actually is and how it is stopped, I thought it was a beautiful explanation that perfectly wound in the history that Novik had crafted for the world. However, I would have loved to have seen more of the ‘forest’ as a proper character, as this only really became clear in the last few chapters.

I definitely recommend this if you love fantasy novels. The world and magic are interesting and unique, and Novik makes you root for the characters and genuinely fear for them as they face so many different and unpredictable trials over the course of the novel.

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy

A Promise of Fire – Amanda Bouchet Review

 

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

 

Rating:  ★ ★ ★

I read this book in two days, and while I consider myself to be a relatively fast reader, 400+ pages is not something I usually achieve in two days. I just couldn’t help myself. There was Greek mythology, a feisty protagonist with an intriguing backstory and powers, and an original setting with politics and magic woven in. This book wasn’t perfect, but I did really enjoy it and probably will read the sequel at some point.

The book is about Cat, who at the beginning of the book is a circus member (but not for long, because if there is one thing that this book does, it is move fast). One day, a war lord called Griffin shows up and senses that her magical powers are more than they seem, and kidnaps her. It turns out that this war lord has just taken over the kingdom and put his sister on the throne, upending a political structure that has been around for centuries and he needs Cat and her magical skills to help him keep hold of the throne.

I loved the setting and the magic in this story. It was unlike anything I had seen before. For one, the mix between Greek mythology and magic was so different. The book probably would have been good with just the one, but the melding of the two systems was really interesting to read. Secondly, Cat’s powers were so cool! She can not only sense when someone is lying, but she can also steal magic from other people and creatures, meaning that she can store it up for use later (she spends half of the book breathing fire, and how much cooler can you get?). The society itself was another thing that I loved; people are either Magoi (magical) or Hoi Poloi (humans). The Magoi have always ruled before, but now Griffin and his family have ended this. Towards the second half of the novel we see a lot of the politics of this taking centre stage of the story, and I can’t wait to see how this part of the story develops in the second novel.

kingmaker_landscape_mktpc-edit-700x394My issue with this book was the central relationship. I hate when male love interests are possessive and irrationally jealous, and especially when this is portrayed as being romantic or endearing. Even worse, I hated the passages where it seemed like Cat was being pressured into doing things that she really didn’t want to do, and where her concerns weren’t being listened to or respected properly. There was literally a passage where Cat (talking about having sex) says something along the lines of: “I should have known I couldn’t keep saying no.” I understand that people’s views can change, but I would have really appreciated seeing Amanda Bouchet more clearly highlight the issues of consent in the representation of the central relationship, especially as the novel gets quite steamy. If it wasn’t for this, which really rubbed me the wrong way, I would have loved this novel!