Book Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up.  (Definitely not for anyone who isn’t in high school yet, as there’s sex and other grossness.  I would actually recommend this to a lot of twenty-somethings I know, as the characters are older and the writing fits in to the fast and easy grown-up fantasy genre.)

Does everyone remember how I feel about sharp and twisty fairy stories?  Before reading this review, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with my love for such triumphs of fairy world weirdness as The Darkest Part Of The Forest by Holly Black, Chime by Franny Billingsley, and especially any re-tellings of my all-time favorite ballad Tam Lin.  Be they magical worlds which entwine with ours or completely new fantasy realms, I get unreasonably excited whenever a story of fairy courts and immortal strife bleeps on my fae-dar.

And, yes, the main dude’s name is Tamlin in this book, but despite a few nods to that legend, it’s best to banish all expectations from that reference right out of your head before reading.  I’m learning that lesson again and again.  Sarah J. Maas has combined the structure of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale with the style of magic and characters most often found in Celtic faery legends like Tam Lin.  I actually found the Beauty and the Beast parallels to be more obvious, excluding the faery court drama and occasional references to Tamlin’s “heart of stone.”

A Court Of Thorns And Roses is set in a fairly typical fantasy world, with peasants and wolves and frightening borders. The village where we begin is small and winter-bound; while we don’t get much in the way of world-development for this first setting, the isolated townsfolk live in a way we can recognize from other such stories.  They’re on the border of Prythian, the faerie realm.  Feyre, our heroine, hunts for food in the dangerous woods to support her father and two sisters.  Aside the occasional tryst with a local boy, Feyre’s life is defined by cold, hunger, and frustration.  If it weren’t for a promise she made to her dying mother as a child, she would be completely justified in abandoning her lazy, demanding family and taking care of herself first.

This is the sort of story where promises are important, unbreakable rules in both moral and supernatural matters. When Feyre kills an unusual wolf with an ash arrow, she brings the wrath of a monstrous High Fae upon herself and her family.  To fulfill the Treaty between human kind and the faeries, Feyre must live out the rest of her days in Prythian, at the Spring Court with Tamlin.  It turns out that Tamlin does not always take the form of a beastly claws-and-teeth-creature.  He’s actually a decent fellow, though his manners as host aren’t very polite and he prefers to keep Feyre uninformed about so much of her new home. She also has no idea what his face looks like, since he and all other members of the court had masks cursed onto them permanently.  (Bummer.  But, rest assured, this is the sort of YA novel –alas – that makes it clear how the rest of him is very handsome and his face certainly will be, too.) The Spring Court isn’t a prison, though Feyre can never leave.  Some blight is draining faeries and High Fae alike of their powers, so she spends her time more as a neglected house guest, trying to piece together her host’s history and the state of Prythian on her own.

Exploring in the forest with Lucien, Tamlin’s haughty and flippant emissary, Feyre discovers just how sinister the faerie world can be.  What few details she can learn about the blight are disturbing enough, but the fear that some of these malevolent beings might cross the border into her village, bringing back the reign of cruel servitude once imposed by the ancient High Fae, is too dreadful to consider.  Her father and sisters may have been awful while she lived with them, but she will protect them at all costs.  So despite the comforts afforded by Tamlin’s estate and the marvels all around her, Feyre plans her escape, tries to take courage, and keeps her hunters instincts trained on everything – seen and unseen – around her.

As she finds out more about Tamlin’s home and the other courts, Feyre finds herself drawn into a dangerous and twisted game of personal politics. There are other High Fae who can be so gleefully evil, they make the violent specters in the woods look positively humane.  And her time with Tamlin has turned apprehension into rather devoted affection, so every hard choice threatens to break either her mind or her heart or both.

Whew, ok.  That’s a lot of plot-splaination, and I’ve barely even covered the basics.  A Court of Thorns and Roses has sort of a three-part story:

1) Feyre’s life with her family and her internment in Prythian.  Tamlin is awkward and Lucien is a bastard.

2) Adventures of the magical and frightening variety in The Spring Court.  Tamlin is romantic and Lucien is a #1 sarcastic bro.  All this love and togetherness is broken apart when Tamlin forces Feyre to flee to safety once faerie politics start getting seriously out of hand.

3) Meanie-pants Fae Queen tortures everyone for the laughs.  (Yeah, I didn’t even get to mention her in my long-as-hell summary up there.  But this is a faerie courts story, so naturally there needs to be a cruel and beautiful queen!  And wow is she a jerk.)  Feyre undergoes a series of miserable and hopeless tests for the evil court’s amusement, expecting to die, all in a desperate bid to save her true love.

I liked the first 1/3 of this novel a lot, enjoyed the middle bit with some reservations, and found nose wrinkling in disappointment a few times in the home stretch.   Feyre’s miserable life sets a great precedent for the marvels she will witness in Prythian.  Impoverished and under-appreciated, she might seem like a typical passive heroine, but her hunting skills and occasional ruthlessness gave me hope that she could be an active participant in whatever adventures awaited.  For the most part, Feyre is a realistic protagonist who makes solid decisions of both the brave and catastrophic variety.  One great little touch was her illiteracy: growing up poor and focused on getting enough food for the winter, she never learned how to read, and there are some scenes of embarrassed struggle in the library which proved her to be resourceful yet realistic.  I also liked how Feyre’s habit of painting tinged her view of all the new beauty around her, and how even in the most horrifying situations a “useless” part of her terrified brain would notice pretty details through the terror.  I was with Feyre for the ride until her love and devotion and general swoon-y attitude towards Tamlin made veer her towards hysteria and despair.  In fairness, the last part of the book contains a level of cruelty that would otherwise be unknown to our heroine, so I can understand why she clings to her love as one emotion she can trust.  I liked her fine in the beginning of the book, but despite acts of reckless bravery I found her change of personality rather jarring by the end.

Tam Lin himself didn’t do much for me.  (Too bad because Tam Lin from songs of yore is my faaave.)  He was a little too overtly Aloof And Terribly Sexy Despite The Matters Weighing Heavy On His Lordly Brow for my tastes, and I knew quite quickly that there would be some yearning and dark hallways and unlocked bedroom doors in his future with Feyre.   Since unlocked bedroom doors are extremely NOT my cup of tea, I kind of skimmed over most of those scenes, so you’ll have to ask someone else if they’re any good.  However, I did appreciate how his character was often preoccupied with the Very Faery Problems of broken promises and eternal grudges, and how desperately he wanted to preserve the lives of those faeries who existed with him in the Spring Court, despite the encroaching evil.  There are a few instances in which his sense of humor or fun attitude shine through from before Prythian started going to shit, and that’s when I understood Feyre’s devotion.  If only he weren’t so predictably smoldering.  If only we weren’t reminded too often that he can also transform into a beast and therefore has rather ferocious tendencies towards romance.  Just not my cup of tea.

And, though it pains me to admit this, the evil Fae Queen Amarantha was not that impressive.  Yes, she’s cold and beautiful and can hold a MEAN grudge, but she just felt like a bit of a stand in.  Her cruelty was appalling but lacked emotion.  Her challenges did fit in with the old tradition of riddles and mazes, but the glint of gleeful malice in her eyes were more told than shown, and more shown than felt.

The minor characters and settings were pretty great, actually.  Particularly Lucien and the few lesser faeries we meet at the Spring Court.  The foxy emissary (I mean it literally) is an expat from the Autumn court who throws Tam Lin’s nobility into needed relief by first being distrustful of Feyre’s presence, then by impelling her to develop a sense of humor and helping her sneak around behind Tamlin’s back sometimes.  Lucien can be impulsive and dangerous, but he’s exactly the sort of fellow you might expect to come from a land where the hum of Autumn energy is always in the air.  And, as I learned with a few tears threatening, his life before joining Tamlin was grim as heck.  His friendship with Feyre, as well as her interactions with the faery servants, were mostly rewarding.  If we ignore one handsome-but-evil High Fae who appears as a villain – a personality which I found to be entirely gratuitous and unnecessary, though he may redeem himself in future novels – the supporting characters were good additions to the lovely and menacing world Maas has created.

There’s a whole maze of unresolved issues and unexplained plot points by the end of this book, but I can see how any sequels will build off the most pressing of questions.  The wider world will probably make more sense as Feyre gets to understand it better.  I’m not a huge fan of series, usually, but will probably pick up the next one someday, because I liked the story enough to stay curious.

In the end, there was a lot to enjoy about Sarah J. Maas’s foray into faery stories.  Trading one life for another, ancient treaties and forgotten wars, a world divided by seasons and times: all good things.  Looking at A Court Of Thorns And Roses as a slight retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” I would call it mostly successful.  And it’s even a decent, though not awe-inspiring, opening to an original fantasy series.  My own qualms about all those sexy-times and incongruous characterizations may just be the picky bitching of a prude who has read too many faery legends.  Give the book a try if you like dangerous romance in cool fantasy worlds, tricky faery mischief that plays with mortal lives like they’re nothing but ants, and young people being put through a series of impossible tests by vindictive higher powers.

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3 New Books I Recommend This Month

Happy February! I hope you all have tolerable months, or that at least all your troubles will be confined to the mere 27 days left stretching ahead of us, and thus over soon.

“February is the shortest month of the year, so if you are having a miserable month, try to schedule it for February.” – Lemony Snicket

There are a ton of exciting books on the horizon for this spring, and I can’t wait to see them on the shelves at my bookshop.  Prepare yourselves to have hardcovers lobbed at your heads.  (Can we really count February as early spring?  It’s more the depths of an unfeeling, cheerless winter, just with blessed daylight past four in the afternoon.  Whenever the sun can get through the gathering snowclouds…)   I get so focused on new and wonderful children’s books every season, sometimes I feel like the books for grown-ups don’t get nearly enough celebration.  So here are three non-children’s books that will be released into the world this month, and I’ll be recommending them right and left.  Loading them into cannons and aiming at likely readers.  I’ll volley  them at certain teens, too, because age barriers are for the unimaginative.  And anyway, each of these books feature young people in some context or another, struggling against forgetful families; ocean storms; or chess pieces made from butter.

(A note: the copies I read of Of Things Gone Astray and Get In Trouble were advanced reader’s editions, and some details may have changed before publication.)

thingsgoneastrayI read Of Things Gone Astray many months ago – before the Christmas craziness and in a much more peaceful frame of mind – so the magic of it has had some time to settle.  Several characters, seemingly with little to no connections to one another, wake up one morning to discover that they’ve lost something important to them.  Their sense of direction, or the keys on their piano, or the front of their house, or their connection with their child.  I think my little blurb for HarperCollins sums up my thoughts.  The book takes place in London, and oh boy do you wish you were in England as you read it.  Very charming, very thoughtful, and wonderfully strange; you need many cups of tea and a sunny armchair for this reading experience.

The elements of magical realism in Of Things Gone Astray are enchanting but mostly subdued.  It was fun to see how each different character tried to cope with the sudden, inexplicable losses.  Some get flustered.  Some turn into trees. Some bake cake in case of tea-time visitors. I’ll be recommending this book to people who don’t usually go for a touch of fantasy in their stories, as the all-too-feasible personal dilemmas that drive the intertwined plot appear in every recognizable corner of every day life.

I’ve been a fan of Kelly Link’s writing for a while.  Her collection Magic For Beginners delighted me beyond measure from the first story (“The Faery Handbag,” which is actually set in a thrift shop I used to frequent), and her stories for young adults in Pretty Monsters are pretty indeed.  And pretty twisted, too.  Get In Trouble will come out on February 10th, so get ready for some of the weirdest short stories to ever parade in front of your eyes.  And good luck turning your gaze away, because they’re mesmerizing in their oddity.

Short story collections are usually a little hit-or-miss in their quality, so naturally there are a few pieces in Get In Trouble that stand out as the best, and one or two with which I had trouble connecting.  A few of my favorites: “The Summer People,” opens the book and appealed instantly to my creepy-faery-story loving self, with its strange house and enticing illusions.  “Secret Identity” is a new twist on the Superhero genre, poking fun at themed conventions and involving the aforementioned butter chess set.  “Valley Of The Girls” features a cast of spoiled young people hanging out in the lavish pyramids, built early for their eventual afterlives.  Take Bret Easton Ellis’s reprehensible characters and stick them in futuristic ancient Egypt (yes I understand the paradox there), and you’ll get a taste of this opulent, satirically awkward, and inventive story.  “The New Boyfriend” was about teenaged girls and ghosts and secrets.  I would have read a whole novel based on that short story.  If Kelly Link and Maggie Stiefvater ever got together to collaborate, I feel like those unnerving events would come true just from sheer force of those ladies’ awesome powers. Finally, “Two Houses” is a layered cross-section of tales, each one so quick to drag you down you forget what brought you to such a scene in the first place.  Dreamlike; horrifying; tragic; and set in space, I’ve carried the after-effects of that story with me ever since I finished reading Get In Trouble.

There’s so much here that’s worth re-reading.  This collection might be a hard sell to people who don’t find themselves drawn to the wackier side of magical realism (unlike Of Things Gone Astray, which even staunch realists might enjoy), but I’m going to keep recommending it anyway.

source: goodreads

And now we’ve come to We Are Pirates.  This book has simultaneously ruined my year and entertained me to no end.  The premise sunk me into the pits of despair, but the writing perfectly put my own thoughts onto paper in sentences that were a damned joy to read.  This book is my sworn enemy, but I wish it had been around when I was a teenager, because it is exactly what I needed back then.

Here’s the dilemma: Daniel Handler has written a modern pirate story almost exactly like the modern pirate story I was writing.  The main character is a restless and disenchanted fourteen-year-old girl. Same.  The rag-tag crew of scallywags against the world steal a rigged-out ship and fail spectacularly to sail it into the distance. Same. Their chosen victims refuse to prepare to be boarded. Check mark in the ledger for stuff being the same.  Even the boots and coat our heroine Gwen sports during her life of small crimes are spot-on.  They quote from classic works of pirate fiction all over the place!  So many references, even, that I’m sure to have missed some.  I know that in the acknowledgements, Mr. Handler mentions Captain Blood and A High Wind In Jamaica specifically.  The latter of those is my bloody staff pick at the bookshop, by Jove!  My own 3/4 of a drafted novel is full of those very same references, trying to capture the very same sentiment. That sentiment being: Life is a mess and adults have no clue what they’re doing.  Piracy might be the only tolerable option.

I suppose there’s a sort of welcome commiseration to be found in the knowledge that one of my favorite authors dwells on the same anachronistic notions of violent, salty glory as me.  In a way, he has put teenaged Sarah’s troubles into words.  But only, if only, We Are Pirates had been released a decade ago, I might not have labored so hard on my own documentation of that same zeal for the old stories, and the craving for a knife in the hand and the wind at one’s back.

To stop whining on about my own misfortune: We Are Pirates is actually an adult book (mine will someday be for middle-schoolers) and deals with some other more mature themes than ransacking the “high seas” of San Francisco.   Half the book focuses on Gwen’s father, Phil Needle, who is having – if possible – an even harder time navigating the fraught waters of radio production, extra-marital affairs, and parenthood.  There’s that constant theme of grown-ups refusing to take young people seriously until it might be too late: a.k.a. my favorite subject for all fiction.

I don’t honestly know how many other people will react to We Are Pirates as enthusiastically as I did.  I ought to challenge Daniel Handler to a duel for sneaking thoughts out of my head while I was sleeping, but at the same time I was pleased as a pufferfish to read a story I could relate to so strongly. (Gwen’s chapters were far more interesting than Phil’s, to me.)  None the less, I feel it my duty as a fellow buccaneer to recommend We Are Pirates to people this February, in the hopes that at least now fewer customers might ask that tiresome question: “Why are you dressed as Charles II?” when I’m wearing my captain-y boots and coat on a Friday.  The answer should be obvious.

Finally, A Bonus Book I Haven’t Read Yet:

Neil Gaiman’s new collection of “short fictions and disturbances” is out this month.  I haven’t had a chance to look at a copy yet, but rest assured that any and all plans will be cancelled the first day I see it on the shelves.  If you have lunch plans with me that afternoon, or expect entertaining conversation in the evening, sorry but I’ll be reading.  And I’m not even that sorry, because if you’re friends with me, you’ll probably be reading too.

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up (contains torture and language)

I’m still recovering from the madness of the holidays; selling books at Christmastime doesn’t leave much brain- or will-power left at the end of the day for actually reading them. This will be a woefully shallow review, then, of a complex fantasy novel that I heartily enjoyed.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is Scott Lynch’s fun and smart addition to the world of big-ass fantasy books. Winter is the time for the Big Fantasy Novels waiting on your shelf. (Max Gladstone suggested as much in his nice article for The Book Smugglers here, so we know it’s true.) Perhaps the week before Christmas is not the best time to get embroiled in a 700-ish page chronicle of crime and religion and disguises and betrayal. Once I realized – about fifty pages in – that the twists and turns would be nagging at my mind for hours after each lunch break, it was too late to turn back.

In Scott Lynch’s rollicking and elaborate first installment of the Gentleman Bastard series, traditional fantasy meets the film “Casanova” meets The Count of Monte Cristo and even “The Sting.” Layer upon layer of cons and deceptions raise ever higher stakes in the expertly crafted plot, featuring a team of anti-heros who will steal your heart as they make off with all the money they can get their hands on.

The setting is reminiscent of Renaissance Italy – complete with extravagant mob bosses and descriptions of mouthwatering Mediterranean-style feasts. But it builds on a foundation of unknown, and possibly alien, origins that I’m anxious to learn more about as I continue reading the series. It’s not necessarily a pleasant city, though the rooftops owned by Camorr’s wealthiest citizens boast enchanted alchemical gardens, and the glass structures left over from before this era of men make for some impressive surroundings. The slums are horrifying and the upper crust festers just below their shining surfaces. Somewhere in between the grime and the glitz, the “Gentleman Bastards” steal from the rich and give to themselves, following the unscrupulous principles and meticulous training they received as wayward children.

Locke Lamora grew up on the streets of Camorr: an orphan with more guts than glory, trained up by the Thiefmaker from a very young age to cut purses and trick the gullible. His ambitious nature gets the better of him a few too many times, though, and the Thiefmaker sells the boy to Father Chainsthe “eyeless priest”, begging at his temple door – to get rid of this living liability. Father Chains is not the pious servant to the god Perelandro that he pretends to be for the benefit of generous passers-by, though. They are priests to the “nameless thirteenth” god: The Crooked Warden, Thiefwatcher and Father of Necessary Pretexts. (How great is that last title, eh?) Chains’s little band of bastards learns how to fake their way through the fanciest of dinner parties and fight their way through bad streets, all for one constant goal: relieving the dons and donas of their copious wealth.

Camorr has a duke, but he’s barely a side-note compared to the mafia-esque Barsavi family; the wealthy money-changer who has a hand in every deal; and the sinister branch of law enforcement known as the Spider. Locke and his friends swindle every single one of these powerful figures, and in doing so find themselves tangled up in more dangerous politics than they bargain for. The “Thorn of Camorr” might have all the best disguises and the self-confidence of a man twice his size, but the mysterious “Grey King” has taken an interest in their expert methods. By the time this first book shudders to an end, all the glory that goes along with each intricate con will be tainted and splattered with the trouble that the Grey King’s involvement brings to this family of friends.

The rough and winsome team of con men have to charm (or bludgeon) their ways out of some very sticky situations. Sticky with blood, expensive alcohol, fake-beard glue, and more blood. I had to speed-read through a few torturous scenes in Capa Barsavi’s floating fortress, and not only the pages about hungry sharks. The good humor that binds Locke, Jean, Bug, and the Sanza twins together is good for several laughs and frequent wry smiles, but this book is not a comedy. Senseless deaths happen, as they so often will in a fast and short life of crime. Bad men fortify their reputations with body parts. I’m easily grossed out, but the plot, characters, and world-building were good enough to keep me going through the nastier interludes.

On more than one occasion, I would flip back a few chapters to double check which name Locke was using, or which of the duke’s favorite dons was which. The names were a little hard to keep track of, and there are quite a lot of characters. But these complexities make the multiple deceptions all the more delicate, and therefore more exciting to watch as they unfurl and – sometimes – explode. The several hundred pages pass by quickly, because so many conflicts seem to involve a dangerously ticking clock, and Scott Lynch keeps the cogs turning at just the right pace. Locke and Jean’s past is revealed through short interludes interspersed throughout the immediate action, and I never wanted to leave either time line behind at the end of a section. Don’t tear through the story too fast, though, because even the conversations that don’t involve knives against anyone’s throat can be enlightening and entertaining. Irreverent repartee in the face of likely death never fails to make me smile, and the Gentlemen Bastards have a knack for it.

Also: strong bonds of friendship drive most of the book’s emotional impact, with no real romance to speak of. Hurrah! There are hints to Locke’s connection with an absent female member of the Bastards, and I’m hoping to read about her soon enough, but it’s all brotherly loyalty and family ties that cause the heartbreaks in The Lies of Locke Lamora.

I always keep an eye out for what sort of roles female characters fill in fantasy novels, and I have high hopes that Scott Lynch will continue to give his ladies the same capacity for both noble and self-serving actions as the characters he introduces here. I hear there are some rather swashbuckling dames in following books, and I can’t bloody wait. While none of the few main characters in this first offering were female, several major players in the plot were women of very varied morality and means. Educated alchemists, a bossy mafia daughter, and calculating old ladies – all as vivid as the ragtag group of men we follow most closely. Of course, the politics of a whore house had to be included, and I’m tired of whore houses in fantasy worlds, but at least these working folks got to take revenge on brutal men. And otherwise, I would say that Lynch is more in touch than many of his counterparts with the need for female characters of varied moralities and with diverse motivations. (I particularly like his response to a question on the subject here. Again, hurrah.)

I first came across Scott Lynch’s writing in the anthology Rogues, which I reviewed here. His short story was about a group of criminals who have to somehow steal an entire street, while a violent sorceress gleefully messes things up. It was a nifty story with characters I wanted to hang out with for a longer time. Now I want to spend more time with the Gentlemen Bastards, too. If the rest of his writing stands up to what I’ve read, then I’ll probably need to clear some shelf-space for the many pages full of heists, horrific mis-steps, friendship, and duplicity. I’m keen to read more, and look forward to a winter daydreaming about whatever scrape our not-quite-heroes need to get out of next.

Book Review : The Quick by Lauren Owen (coming out June, 2014)

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

(Let it be hereby stated that I read an advanced reader’s edition of The Quick, which may still be waiting on final edits.)

When a friend and colleague of mine at the bookshop insisted that I read The Quick the moment she finished it, I knew right away that I would have lots to say about this debut novel. It’s one of my favorite kinds of story, in one of my favorite settings, but there are a few twists which caught us both off guard.  The Quick is a complex novel with a Victorian setting, a Gothic atmosphere, and a sweeping narrative. It’s also a monster story of sorts. I would have been utterly puzzled to realize – a hundred pages in – that there was some serious slaying to come, had my friend not mentioned her similar surprise. Neither the title nor the package revealed much about this book’s nature from the start. Since I have the galley and not the finished product of the book, I can’t help but wonder how heavily Random House intends to advertise the supernatural bent. On the back of my copy, it only says: “An astonishing debut novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures all the magic and menace of Victorian London”. Well, there’s menace aplenty and a grim sort of magic alongside what I can only call the “creature aspect” (to avoid spoiling too much). I was held in suspense once I finally got engrossed in the story, but it took me much longer than usual to immerse myself in Owen’s writing. As for the “epic scope,” I suppose that the many intertwining narratives and the multiple main characters prove that statement to be true.

The Quick starts out in Aiskew Hall, one of those large and drafty mansions in the English countryside which set the scene for so many sprawling novels. James and Charlotte are very young children when we first meet them, orphaned after their father’s death, and subject to uncertain futures. The scenes about the children’s games and fears were picturesque and I was charmed by their environment. I guess Lauren Owen grew up in an old Yorkshire boarding school, and her descriptions are excellent. From the secret passages indoors to the gardens outside, Aiskew Hall is a wonderful location. It’s too bad we don’t get to read more about it, as soon enough the setting switches to London.

Oh, Victorian London. So many distinctive tales have tramped up and down your streets – Dickens spin-offs have strolled alongside grisly horror stories. Sassy steampunk heroines now follow the same footsteps as eccentric detectives. There’s no real shortage of Gothic mysteries or supernatural horror crammed into that city’s ever-expanding boundaries of fiction, and I’m not sure if The Quick added anything too terribly new to the landscape. But there’s such an extensive literary heritage to late 19th century London that I do understand the appeal in borrowing the city’s peculiar brand of storytelling magic. While she doesn’t really break any new ground by setting her debut novel around a mysterious gentleman’s club in the darker parts of London, Owen does have a talent for creating atmosphere. I read the book over a couple of dreary late-November evenings and I was surprised every time I stepped outside to see neither hansom cabs nor top hats. I’m still keeping an eye out for ragamuffin pickpocket children (often my favorite characters in these sorts of books). When James and Charlotte experience the bustling hubbub of city life for the first time, their confusion and awe made the disorienting metropolis seem immediate and real.

After graduation, James moves to London and gets rooms with an eccentric friend-of-a-friend. He tries his hand at writing poetry, then moves on to plays after they see a production by some bloke named Wilde. Christopher Paige is lively and dashing while James is more of a reserved, respectful sort of fellow. Their personalities clash nicely and as their friendship deepens we get an entertaining glance at life in London for gentlemen with money enough to make society’s expectations the most pressing of their problems. It took a while, but eventually I found myself absorbed into the details of domestic issues and witty banter.

Right as their story started to get really interesting, though, Part II of The Quick introduces an entirely new point of view and style. I felt marooned and disoriented to be suddenly presented with The Notebooks of Augustus Mould in Chapter Six, and not only because the heading reminded me a little of The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (a very different sort of book indeed, though equally British). At this point, Owen started to take a Dracula-esque approach to her narrative. By treating the excerpts from Mould’s notebooks as an active component of the story, and by using shifts in perspective to take the plot in an entirely different direction, the novel introduces four or five new plot lines and main characters.

A threatening presence causes gossip in London, haughty idealists take charge of a secret society, a little girl learns why some streets are off-limits, and a shared tragedy brings two unlikely friends together to face an evil which is damned difficult to kill. As the story progresses we do come to understand how everyone will eventually interact to create a high-stakes confrontation, but I spent half the book trying to find connections rather than giving my full attention to the plot. Much in Stoker’s style, Owen uses her structure to show how menace can unite people and affect a great many lives. I do wish she had brought the different groups of characters together earlier on, though, especially since the men and women themselves were distinctive and their interactions were downright fun to witness. The pacing was stilted at times, which detracted from the strong descriptions and appealing aesthetic. In the second half of the book, I found some redemption when the many different threads eventually did come together to propel us towards an exciting conclusion. The focus was just a little off – too many influences from the genre’s long history were vying for attention – and I felt that the novel couldn’t quite contain its own scope.

The author has borrowed an awful lot from her literary predecessors: The Quick contains distinctive elements of Dickens, Stoker, Shelley, Poe, Anne Rice, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The editor’s note which came with the galley mentioned that Lauren Owen started out writing fan fiction of Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager. Push through the slow start and clunky narrative shifts to where the action begins, and you’ll see how Joss Whedon has made his mark. Even though I had a hard time getting comfortable with the balance between the book’s Victorian style and its eventual supernatural standoffs, I had a great time with each of those aspects in their own way. Some characters seemed straight out of Great Expectations, what with their moral qualms and social hardships. Others were gunslingin’ badasses with tragic pasts. I was happy to read about violent little kids and a mysterious occult library, though there were times when I wondered if I should be reading two different books instead of this one.

Now that I’ve finished reading The Quick, I’m intrigued to see what sort of reaction it will get once it’s released into the wild. I think there’s some strong writing and great characters, and while the premise isn’t particularly original it was interesting and fun. The target demographic of readers is difficult to define, though. You’ll need to have an appreciation for Victorian sensibilities in order to get through the first half of the book, but you can’t be too picky about style or easily annoyed by clunky narrative structures. On the other hand, it might appeal to readers of dark and violent Gothic adventures like The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – tense stories which don’t rely too heavily on historical realism – but the language might make the pace drag on for fans of that genre. I happen to be right in the middle of that spectrum and did enjoy The Quick. Anyone picking up the book will find it necessary to suspend their judgement and expectations along with their disbelief. If you can do that, then the interesting descriptions; absorbing atmosphere; and memorable characters will keep you reading right through to the book’s mysterious ending.

If you liked that show “Ripper Street,” I think you’ll feel right at home in The Quick. If you were enchanted by Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus (Rosie and I reviewed it here) you will probably enjoy it, too. The Quick is less stunningly magical than The Night Circus was, but I think the characters were more believable and the personal relationships were handled better. I read books for the atmosphere more than anything else, and I’m happy I stuck with The Quick. You can definitely tell that it’s a first novel, and I hope that Lauren Owen will develop a style which is more distinctly her own as her writing progresses. I will absolutely be keeping an eye out for any of her future work, and I hope she continues to write darkly aesthetic stories which transport us to a more mysterious time and place.

Thoughts: A Book Hangover after The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This isn’t a proper review.  I don’t know if I’m smart enough to write a real review of The Secret History, and I’m certainly not feeling eloquent or organized enough to attempt one right now.  Instead, here’s an excerpt from my latest blog post about how hard it is to return to the real world after getting sucked into a really good book.

All week, a significant chunk of my attention was always absent from the task at hand, because I was reading an extremely compelling book.  Any time I wasn’t reading I was wishing that I could, and it was quite a busy week for me so there was less spent with the actual novel and more time spent cursing at my steering wheel about the impossibility (or, rather, the illegality) of reading during one’s commute.

The Secret History was written bloody ages ago, published when I was but two years old, but I only got around to reading it just now.  For years, my bookish friends have been insisting that I should pick it up ASAP, because it’s about everything I love.  Mysterious young people with secrets!  Pagan activities in the woods!  The perils of academia; tragically wasted youth; manipulative teachers; well dressed young lads; hilarity in country homes!  Heck, it even takes place in rural Vermont, where I’ve been spending so much time lately.  And it starts with a murder!  I trust my friends’ judgement, and they know what kind of stories I love, so I’m not surprised that this book seized hold of my brain and wouldn’t release it back into the mundane world until I finished the last page two days later.  (I would have happily read it in one day, with rare snack-breaks and without speaking to anyone, but as Bernard Black so aptly points out: “Books must be sold, and money made.”)

So why did I wait to read The Secret History until now; twenty years after its publication?  I tried to read it in my third year of University, even packed it in my barely-containable suitcase of books to bring to Scotland with me for that express purpose, but I found that I couldn’t bear to read about other college students floundering in situations over their heads when my own academic career was fraught with peril.  I mean, I never had to wash human blood off myself and then translate ancient Greek passages for the morning, but I did struggle with my medieval Scottish poetry class now and then…

Now that I’m free from perilous Academia, though, I can sometimes feel downright nostalgic for those happy days of learning and seclusion from the real world.  The Secret History sucked me instantly into its world of pine forests, secretive country homes, literary allusions, and a vivid (if a bit culturally un-diverse) cast of characters.  The ensemble made my most outlandish friends seem tame and one-dimensional in comparison.  It was so strange to read about a time when students had to borrow each others’ typewriters and call each other on payphones, and reading it made me feel rather young.  I like feeling young now and then.  And the plot, while steeped in elbow patches and slow burning cigarettes rather than fast-paced action, was so tense I couldn’t help but snap at any family members or friends who dared to interrupt me while I was clinging, white-knuckled, to the heavy book.

When I finished reading it, I had such trouble extracting myself from the fictional world I had been inhabiting.  This happens frequently when I get immersed in a great book, but I can’t remember the last time I had such trouble re-adjusting to the real world.  I probably sold five or six copies of The Secret History that week, because I felt a dreadful need to throw other readers’ minds and souls into Donna Tartt’s story.  Sort of like that movie The Ring?  But I hope they’ll enjoy reading it on their plane rides and holidays.  It’s an interesting story to be trapped in – so picturesque, smart, and twisted – and a hard one to escape.

Review of The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

 

Star Ratings

Characters: ****

Character Development: ***

Plot: ***

Writing: ***

Overall: ***

Age range recommendation: 16 +

I picked up The Daylight Gate to give Jeanette Winterson a second chance to impress me. When I saw that she had just published a new novel based on the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 I thought it sounded more interesting than Written On The Body (1993), which I found to be an unbearably contrived love story – not at all my cup of tea. The Daylight Gate was decidedly more interesting and infinitely more memorable despite the fact that it is a short novel, only slightly longer than 200 pages. Since I’ve always been interested in the history of witch hunts and superstition I was excited to learn that nearly every major character in the book is based on real figures from this rather horrifying chapter in British history. William Shakespeare even makes a brief appearance as a voice of reason when some characters go to see a production of The Tempest. Winterson states, in her introduction, “The story I have told follows the historical account of the witch trials and the religious background – but with necessary speculations and inventions… . The characters are real people, though I have taken liberties with their motives and their means.” She gives us a dark and unflinching look into the miserable lives of poor women in England’s early 17th century, describing the fear; violence; filth; and religious uncertainty which governed the daily existences of those ordinary people who suffered most keenly from King James I’s obsession with eradicating witchcraft.

It’s always difficult to read a piece of historical fiction without constantly wondering which details are faithful to the events and which have been invented for the sake of storytelling, but Winterson manages to create a gripping tale out of mostly historical fact by asking one fascinating question: what if the accused women really had been holding a witches’ Sabbat that diabolical night on Pendle Hill? By adding chilling supernatural elements to a series of events which were already rife with superstition, she challenges our perceptions of religion’s effect on the course of history. A woman’s loyalty is tested, and the conflict between a man’s faith in God’s law and his own moral standpoint threatens the lives of several remarkable characters from history. Alice Nutter has lost her certainty about the spiritual world, despite her own experiences with magic and alchemy in her past, and the townsfolk of Lancashire believe she has the Devil’s help in keeping herself youthful and prosperous. Roger Nowell wants to treat the rising accusations of witchcraft with a firm grasp on reality, but the presence of lawyer Thomas Potts in his jurisdiction – the real life author of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire and a truly insufferable fellow – pressures him to use the gruesome force of royal decree upon the growing list of imprisoned witches.

There are no real heroes in The Daylight Gate; the imprisoned women have no qualms accusing each other in turn and one woman actually turns a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of her young daughter. Even the levelheaded Alice Nutter puts the safety of her loved ones above the law.

Winterson reveals the uncomfortable truth that the only way to survive in this time period was to look out for yourself before thinking of others. We get a sense of this horrifying time in history through the repulsive acts which are performed to summon the Devil’s assistance, but also through the desperation which shines through even mundane encounters. The dangerous period is invoked with as much careful precision as the ghastly setting, and the attention to physical detail which annoyed me in Written On The Body was more appropriate in The Daylight Gate, though it did get stomach turning as the depravity continued. As despicable as the characters seem, we grow to understand the motives behind their actions, which makes their various grisly ends even harder to read about, despite the fact that their fates were sealed long before Winterson took up the challenge of shaping them into a story.

The prose sometimes seemed more focused on shocking the reader than on balancing the book’s suspense, and I must admit that I could have done without some of the gory or sexual details, but I do understand how these moments were important to Winterson’s examination of the witch trials. There are a few moments of violent revenge which satisfied my need for justice, but The Daylight Gate is a generally hopeless story, so don’t pick it up looking for a historical adventure which will lead to a gratifying conclusion in which bravery triumphs over ignorance. A few characters are brave and loyal, but those traits had no chance against the fear which ran rampant in 1612. I happened to like the ending, though some readers may find it disappointing, but be forewarned that – despite the presence of magic in Alice Nutter’s unusually long life – this novel is not the sort of fantasy in which magic can undo reality. Reality was unpleasant in the 17th century. The aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot inspired men and women to distrust their own families, death and misfortune claimed children without justification, and faith was tested and shaken at every turn of fortune’s wheel. The Daylight Gate shows how the hysteria of one town can provide a window into the horrors of a time period which is too often glamorized in contemporary fiction.

By the time I finished The Daylight Gate – and it is a short read – my impression of Jeanette Winterson’s writing abilities had been improved. I still think that she should waste fewer words on grisly details and give her characters more room to develop, but the setting in this novel was well-wrought and her handling of recorded facts was impressive. The balance between historical trivia and invented plot was good, for the most part, and I would highly recommend The Daylight Gate to anyone who is interested in the 17th century witch trials and doesn’t mind having their comfortable illusions about Jacobean England trampled a little. If you tend to dislike historical fiction but enjoy very dark “low fantasy,” with occult and horror elements, this might also be a good choice. Despite the book’s brevity there are some good moments of creepy magic. But, if you have a weak stomach and no fondness for devilry, I’d avoid this particular novel. It’s not a comfortable or pleasant read, but it’s well-written and interesting, and I appreciate its effectiveness at revealing the grim realities of England’s past alongside an imaginative story.

 

Also posted to Dark Lady Reviews on Tumblr.

Archived Review: The Earth Hums In B Flat by Mari Strachan

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on April 16, 2013

 

Characters: *****(4 Stars)

Character Development: **** (4 Stars)


Plot: *** (3 Stars)


Writing: **** (4 Stars)


Overall: **** (4 Stars)


Age range recommendation: 16 +

I read this book in two sittings, so it’s clearly got plenty of excellent qualities. I love child-detective stories, especially when those intrepid youngsters are the protagonists of adult novels and, therefore, their deductions about the complex world around them can be completely off track, often to hilarious or poetically tragic results. Despite Gwenni’s tender age of twelve, The Earth Hums in B Flat is about a grown up mystery: yes, there’s a disappearance and death and useless police officers, but the real plot revolves around the little mysteries which flourish in silence to engulf families and entire towns. Our odd little heroine narrates the novel in first person, providing an endearing perspective on events which might be only depressing, rather than intriguing, if they were reported through a more down-to-earth point of view.

Gwenni’s home life is difficult with an unstable mother and a cruel sister; her best friend and she are growing apart as they disagree about the importance of boys vs. magic plans; and to top it all off the intimidating father of two children she takes care of has disappeared, pursued by a mysterious “black dog.” Mr. Ifan Evansdisappearance causes little ruptures in the every day order of Gwenni’s small Welsh town, and when she decides to take matters into her own hands like the detectives in her books, she uncovers more secrets than answers and learns that some stones are best left unturned. The Earth Hums in B Flat is an easy and delightful read, and I enjoyed watching Gwenni’s observations about human nature develop from naivety to somber comprehension without ever losing the innocent edge which make the betrayals of the real world even more poignant. It’s not an uplifting story, though, so while fans of The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie by Alan Bradley will enjoy the similar narrative style, don’t expect an up-front story where the murderer is evil and a clever child’s perseverance necessarily prevails. The family in The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie is dysfunctional in an amusing way; but the families in Gwenni’s town are just plain messed up. There are a few intriguing minor characters, and the setting – a Welsh-speaking village in the 1950s – is seamlessly described to create a unique stage for story’s events. Some elements of social awkwardness around language, war, and class are seamlessly woven into the small-town plot, placing the story in a wider context which should appeal to anyone with an interest in British cultural history.

While I found the writing to be captivating and the characters compelling, there were a few things about The Earth Hums In B Flat which left me feeling a little let down once I reached the novel’s end. Namely, the end of the novel itself. While I was prepared for a pessimistic ending – meaning, I knew that this was not the sort of mystery which would end with peace for the village, justice for all, and due credit going to the amateur detective – I can’t help but feel that Mari Strachan could have let Gwenni receive a little more credit for the hardships she experiences at the hands of her mother and the small minded town. Some characters were sympathetic and kind, especially her memorable grandmother and absurdly saint-like father, but many of the people who made her life difficult never really get their just deserts. Of course, this is how the world works: a child might be in the right, but those who were wrong might never admit or even realize their faults.

Life isn’t fair, and although the unfairness of this novel left me feeling unsatisfied, I can see that it was an important element in the book’s message. Strachan is honest about how ignored young people can feel, how adults never listen even when they should, and this is a point made time and time again in children’s books but not nearly enough in fiction aimed at adults. There’s nothing wildly inappropriate here, some domestic violence and intimated deviancy, but younger readers might be disappointed by The Earth Hums in B Flat because the plot is driven by subtle relationships rather than action, and the writing expects that readers would have passed the point in their lives when they thought like Gwenni does. We must be able to see where she’s mistaken in her judgement to understand the story’s full scope. I enjoyed this book – it was the perfect cure to a day of feeling generally unwell – and I’d recommend it to someone who wanted an absorbing and self-contained story, a mystery which doesn’t follow the patterns we’ve come to expect, and a reminder of how magical life can be when you’re young and how strange it is when life fails to meet your fantasized expectations.

Archived Review: Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on February 3, 2012.

 

Star Ratings
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 Stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 15+

The cover art and title of Mr Toppit proved to be slightly deceitful, I learned, for I picked it up on a whim expecting a mysterious gothic tale full of dark deeds and murky gloom. Upon reading the novel – and it is a quick, engrossing read – I found gloom aplenty and mysteries of a sort.  However, the murk and horror I was looking for were replaced with incredibly dry British wit and a series of dark family secrets paraded through the disparate settings of London, an English country home, and sunny California. The misery and tension arise not through willful villainy but through the difficulties which a relatively modern English family fails to overcome when Arthur Hayman – the narrator’s father and fictive author of a popular children’s series – gets run over in London and dies in the arms of an American tourist.

The whole plot of Mr Toppit revolves around the family’s inability to function after Arthur’s death, the sudden popularity boom his children’s books – The Hayseed Chronicles – experience as a result of the tragedy, and the American Laurie’s sudden emotional connection to the Haymans. The characters are extreme but realistic in their strengths and weaknesses; Charles Elton does a fine job of writing as a teenage boy, a frazzled woman, and a whole slew of other distinct characters who never lose their voice or seem too over-the-top. Luke Hayman makes an excellent narrator as the jaded inspiration for the child hero of his father’s Hayseed Chronicles, his sister Rachel is a tragic and manic hot mess, and their mother Martha (my personal favorite character) is the most stereotypically English manipulative bitch ever written. Laurie’s chapters did not appeal to me so much since I thought she was pretty unlikeable, but one could argue that she is the most human character. I just have an exaggerated dislike of stories about dumpy, emotional, middle-aged women struggling to find themselves.  I can’t say that the prose itself was particularly memorable but the Hayman family, and their secrets, will stick with me for quite a while.

The title of the book refers to an enigmatic character in the fictional series of children’s books which hold the plot together. Mr Toppit himself is a dark and mysterious figure who lives in the woods where Luke Hayseed (the Christopher Robin-ified Luke Hayman) has all sorts of adventures.  People in the novel speak of Mr. Toppit the way one might refer to Lord Voldemort or Marley’s Ghost.  If there was one aspect of the novel which didn’t quite grab me, it would have to be the portrayal of the Hayseed Chronicles. They seemed like a mixture of the Narnia series, Winnie the Pooh, and Grimm’s fairy tales; if they truly existed they might in fact turn out to be wonderful, but as a major factor of this novel’s plot they weren’t real enough. Walk-on characters consistently mention how influential the books were on their childhood, at one point they purportedly save lives on a hijacked plane, but at no point is the reader given a chance to understand why everyone in Charles Elton’s world loves the series so much. Why are The Hayseed Chronicles as popular as Harry Potter and as well loved as Peter Rabbit? There are a few interesting “excerpts” in Mr Toppit but it is sometimes hard for an author to invent what claims to be great literature without sounding forced. I had a similar problem with Tanya Egan Gibson’s novel How To Buy A Love Of Reading. (For the record, I liked Mr. Toppit way more.)

The tag-line on my library’s copy of Mr Toppit reads “Once upon a time a book broke a family.” I’m not sure Charles Elton managed to convince me of the book’s power, but he certainly invented an intriguing, funny, and often infuriating family of characters who can easily carry the weight of the book on their own. Even the characters I wanted to punch in the face like the pathetic Laurie, several greedy bastards in the film industry, and Lila the intrusive German illustrator perfectly illustrate the fundamental point of Mr Toppit; everyone wants to claim a special connection with the legacy left behind by someone who dies. In the end, despite my initial disappointment that Mr Toppit wasn’t about a dapper Victorian serial killer (an expectation that may have been entirely unfounded, though “Toppit” does call that image to my mind), I think that the novel succeeds in portraying the breakdown of a family that is at times hilarious, tragic, and consistently compelling.