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Reviews: Adult & Young Adult Fantasy

When stressed, I tend to gravitate towards popular fiction – literary and non-fiction books become too much like work, as they do the opposite of helping me switch my brain off: they make me think too much. They make me think too much about work, especially. Not at all restful, and it’s been a hellish year. I thought last year was bad, didn’t know it could be topped, but compared to this year I’m all nostalgic for 2016! Last year, I couldn’t get into any book, really struggled to finish anything.

This year, I’ve taken refuge in romance and fantasy, especially – with a few more literary titles here and there. Of course, the other problem remains: finding the time (and energy) to maintain this blog. I haven’t posted since February, which makes me cringe, and have begun way too many posts to count over the last three years. However, I’ve also read some great books – and some really not so great – that I want to share with you. Let’s start with one of the great ones.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Pan Books, 2016) is a real gem, an original fantasy set in a land that is slowly being taken over by the Wood. I’m always drawn to stories where woods, forests, are sentient or something like it. Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood – now celebrating its 30th anniversary – is an old favourite of mine. Whether it’s a British- or European-style wood or the equally much-mythologised Australian Bush, I am fascinated and all a-tingle over stories about them. The wood of the northern hemisphere tends to be one that acts against human populations, spreading, manipulating, while the Bush of the Australian continent tends to be represented as a force that traps, beguiles, lures and vanishes people. Both are often depicted as oppressive, but in subtly different ways – and of course, our impression of the Bush is heavily influenced by the European woods, a cultural understanding that the settlers brought with them.

Novik’s Wood is a wood betrayed and determined to wreak revenge. Wizards and witches protect the realm as much as they can, but are often on the defensive, reacting to raids of creatures in villages. One touch of anything produced by the Wood and it spreads within them, like a toxin, destroying their humanity. Animals, too, are taken over. And the Wood keeps moving, taking over more land, more villages. Agnieszka lives in one of these villages. The people are dependent on the help of the local, ageless wizard, known as the Dragon, who lives in a tall tower. Every ten years, the Dragon comes out of his tower and takes a young local girl from her home, not to be seen again for the next ten years. Agnieszka isn’t afraid of being taken by the Dragon: everyone knows he will take her best friend, the beautiful Kasia. So there is no time to think or react when instead, reluctantly, he takes Agnieszka.

I enjoyed Novik’s adult fantasy His Majesty’s Dragon, an alternate history story about the Napoleonic Wars, but not enough to continue with the rest of the Temeraire series. Uprooted, though, held me entranced. It is not predictable, the characters are interesting – Agnieszka, the narrator, is a delight of unpretentious intelligence and earthy independence, and the Dragon, Sarkan, is both charismatic and unlikeable; a delicious combination – and the setting is tangible, seething with hostility. The Wood is, of course, the real draw here, and its story a tragic one.

If one thing frustrated me a bit, it was Agnieszka’s lack of thinking and reflecting on things – odd, for a first-person narrator. Perhaps I’m more accustomed to Elspeth Gordie’s style of musing? There were times when things really were her fault, and I wished, more than once, that she would acknowledge it, apologise, communicate – especially with Sarkan (the Dragon). While Sarkan comes across as cold, unfeeling, angry and impatient, he’s also often right, and Agnieszka lost a bit of my respect by never discussing what had just happened and reflecting on her mistakes. Some open communication – some communication at all – was missing. Still, it’s a small quibble about an otherwise excellent stand-alone fantasy. (read in September 2017)

I started reading Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor (Hodder& Stoughton, 2017) as a standalone novel, I’m not even sure why, but I had a panicky moment when it became apparent that in no way could the story be satisfactorily resolved in one volume, followed by sheer relief to learn that it is a new series. Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy is one of the best works of original fantasy I’ve read (begin with Daughter of Smoke & Bone and prepare to be amazed and delighted!), so as soon as I learned she had a new book coming out I put in my order straight-away. Strange the Dreamer did not disappoint.

It is the story of Lazlo Strange, an orphan of war who works in the library – a vast, impressive palace of a place, every bibliophile’s wet dream. He is obsessed by the story of Weep, a fabled city whose real name has been lost to time – or magic. Across the world, at the same moment, everyone forgot what it was really called. The passage there became barred to travellers: the magical, amazing city may as well have been utterly destroyed. No one cares about what happened there or if it still exists, no one but Lazlo, and he has no status.

So it is with amazement that the city receives visitors from Weep. Led by the legendary Godslayer, the men and women who arrive are looking for skills they have lost. Lazlo manages to get a place in the group through his intimate knowledge of Weep and ability to speak their language. But rebuilding the city of Weep and resurrecting their culture is not the aim: it is something that has to be seen to be believed. The home of the Gods hovers, unmoving, over the city of Weep, a giant blue statue of an angel; wings spread wide, it blocks the sun from the city below and barely anything grows. The people of Weep have lived beneath it for decades and it is time to find a way to be rid of it for good. However, the statue that they believe to be empty – because the Godslayer killed the Gods many years ago, after long servitude and years of cruelty at their hands – is still home to five young gods who live there in hiding. Only one can venture down into the city, through dreams that she turns into nightmares in revenge for the slayings, and it is in Lazlo’s dreams that she meets him, the first person ever to be able to see and hear her in a dream.

Taylor’s work is always original, fresh and exciting, and this is no exception. Richly detailed, populated with interesting, layered characters and a world that I could feel, taste, see, experience, Taylor remains one of my favourite authors. (Read in May 2017)

Angela Slatter’s debut novel Vigil (Jo Fletcher Books, 2016), and the first in a new series, is a welcome addition to the Urban Fantasy sub-genre. Set in Brisbane, the first-person narrator/protagonist, Verity Fassbinder, is half-human, half-Weyrd; as such, she’s able to straddle both worlds. The Weyrd world is an unseen one, existing alongside the human one, hidden behind glamours and wards. Verity works as a private investigator and is often hired by the ruling Weyrd council, of which her ex-boyfriend, Bela (Weyrd species not revealed, though possibly a type of vampire??), is one.

Vigil begins with some missing children and a winemaker – the product being dying children’s tears, illegal but much valued by wealthy Weyrd – but soon escalates from there to a golem that’s terrorising the city and some mysteriously murdered sirens. As Verity’s injuries increase in tandem with her ability to piss people off, the terrifying forces she is contending with turn their gaze on her and things become frightening personal.

Vigil launches you straight into this world and leaves you struggling to keep up, at first anyway. Exposition is doled out further on, so that when you do figure out what’s what in this world, you feel like you’ve earned it. But it does make it hard to follow at first, which makes it harder to care: about the characters, about the world.

Verity is a classic Urban Fantasy protagonist: smart-mouthed, lacking in tact but not in humour and with a satisfying penchant for disrespecting authority. There’s a past here that’s slowly being revealed: we learn about her father and what he did that made him so infamous, but there are blank or fuzzy details too that will hopefully be filled in in later books (I have the second ready to go: Corpselight).

While plotwise, Vigil becomes pretty engrossing once you get over the confusion of the early chapters, it is a little weak on relationship-building. Verity meets a guy called David (named after the author’s partner, I’m assuming) – she literally bumps into him, then encounters him again, seemingly randomly, but it made me suspicious of him. Their relationship moves pretty quickly and from what little we get to know of him, he seems like a great guy, but the problem is, we don’t really get to know him, or see what Verity is like in a relationship. It’s highly dissatisfying, to say the least, both in terms of building a believable protagonist who I care about (she needs to have people she cares about – and she does – but I need to believe that she has them, too) and in terms of building a believable relationship for her. It needed fleshing out, a bit more care – before you know it, they’ve moved in together, which is lovely, but who is this guy? He’s a token love interest, which meant that the ending lacked the emotional punch and tension it needed. (Read in August 2017)

Three Dark Crowns (Macmillan, 2016) is the first in Kendare Blake’s new Young Adult fantasy series. The author of Anna Dressed in Blood (which I have a copy of but haven’t read yet) has created what I can only say is a bizarre yet interesting new world. The island of Fennbirn is ruled by a queen; when the queen has an heir she always, always gives birth to triplet girls – and when those three girls turn sixteen, they have a year to kill the other two and claim the crown. Each sister is possessed of a different power. This time around, Mirabella is a strong elemental who came into her power as a child and has the backing of the Temple priestesses; Katharine is a poisoner who has not yet shown any resistance to poisons; and Arsinoe is a naturalist who, similarly to Katharine, has not yet come into her power – she has no familiar, so ability to make things grow.

There is much pomp and ceremony with the process, and the three girls have not seen each other since they were six; in the ten years since, their whole lives have been about preparing for this fight for the crown, and in developing a hatred for their sisters. Only this time, Mirabella remembers the brief childhood they had together, and knows she cannot kill for the crown; Katharine lacks confidence and is a pawn of the powerful Arron family; and Arsinoe is prepared to practice low magic to fake her powers – or make them come.

It is certainly an interesting, absorbing world and an exciting premise. The story moves along very swiftly and there are some unpredictable moments (and some predictable ones). However, it is written like a movie in prose form – or, rather, a contemporary television series. There are a lot of cuts between the three story lines, between major and minor characters, and not a lot of genuine, authentic character-building or world-building. The world is a thinly-sketched in backdrop, and some of it doesn’t make much sense (also, distance and time are played with liberally). There is a wide panoply of supporting characters whose personalities are quickly sketched in (or not – some are as unknown at the end as they are at the start, serving mostly as plot devices) without a whole lot of backstory. It’s not necessarily a flaw – many wouldn’t think so – but I worry that this new style of writing fiction that shows the direct influence of our television-saturated culture means we are losing the very qualities that separate fiction from television and make it a distinct and worthwhile medium. I don’t want to read a book as if I’m watching the telly – that’s what my TV is for. Fiction gives us something TV can’t. That’s not a problem to overcome, that’s something to appreciate.

I have the next book in this series and will start reading it soon. (Read in September 2017)

David Baldacci has a long career writing adult mystery-thrillers (with book covers indistinguishable from John Grisham, James Patterson etc. etc.), so I felt like I’d never heard of him when I saw this Young Adult Fantasy – in fact, I still have a hard time reconciling the two authors as the same man! Never having read anything by Baldacci before, I can’t compare writing or narrative styles between the genres, but was pleasantly engaged in The Finisher (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2014). With some very lovely (and dark) illustrations by Nathan Aardvark, this fantasy was not what I was expecting, both in terms of plot and setting.

Vega Jane is not quite fifteen years old but has already been working at Stacks as a Finisher for two years – education is not highly valued in Wormwood. Her younger brother John is still at Learning, as they call it, and is very intelligent. Their parents are in Care, and little more than living vegetables. Their grandfather, Virgil, suffered an ‘Event’ shortly after their grandmother, Calliope, died, when Vega was only six. An Event is a mysterious thing that no one has seen, which takes a person away, leaving absolutely nothing behind.

Wormwood is a place of rough manners, coarse values and vulgar patriarchy. It is encircled by a wood; beyond that is the Quag, a vast, dangerous terrain populated by terrifying monsters – some of which find their way into the village from time to time. Ruled by a powerful council, there is little reason to enjoy life, hardly any food for most who live there, and real terrors to keep people in line.

Vega’s life changes the night her friend and fellow Finisher, Quentin, flees Wormwood and goes into the Quag. He leaves behind a map of the Quag for Vega Jane, which she inks onto her body so she can destroy the physical copy. Despite being questioned by the Council, she maintains her secrets, not even sharing them with her best friend, Delph. The map itself doesn’t change anything for Vega – with a brother to look after and parents in Care, she has no interest in following Quentin to certain death – but it drives her to look for answers in places long barred: such as Stacks. The old, tall building with its hidden floors proves to be full of tricks and powerful objects, and in its rooms Vega discovers much more to her world than she ever knew.

There is much that still puzzles me about this story, particularly the setting, which doesn’t always make logical sense. They are one isolated village that is in possession of materials that they do not seem to produce, and certainly their are many questions as to its origins and its purpose – and why the Council are so determined to prevent people from leaving it. (It did, of course, bring to mind the film The Village, which I love, but this has little in common with that.) I had read it as a standalone novel, but have just found out that the author is working on the sequel. I’m pleased to hear it, mostly because there are way too many unanswered questions.

The story did not follow the plot that the blurb led me to expect; a disingenuous blurb! Rather, it is the story of Vega Jane’s discovery of village secrets and what leads up to her escaping – I don’t feel that mentioning that is a spoiler, as it’s patently clear that she will leave Wormwood. It takes the entire book, all 506 pages, to get to that point, though – had I known that, I would have read it differently, relaxed more into it. It’s interesting, reading a Fantasy novel by an author who doesn’t typically write fantasy: it does not always follow the rules, making it both fresh and also, at times, a bit confusing. It’s a tricky world to create and lead a reader through: the narrator is steeped in ignorance, on a journey of discovery, but there’s an even bigger gulf between the reader and knowledge. A bit more well-placed exposition might have helped smooth the way.

An enjoyable, often exciting read with a heroine I genuinely liked. (Read in October 2017)

Now we come to the ones that aren’t as memorable, or that I read earlier this year and just have general things to say about.

I’ll start with another YA speculative fiction novel. I was hoping for great things from Valentine by Jodi McAlister (Penguin Books, 2017), but while I liked it well enough, I found it to be a bit predictable. It brings old European myths and folklore to a contemporary setting and tells the story of Pearl, who is one of four teenagers in the same town who were all born on Valentine’s day. One of them is the Valentine: a changeling. The four teens are at the centre of an ancient war between Seelie and Unseelie, and because the Unseelie don’t know who the Valentine is, they’re targeting all four teenagers. Pearl finds a new ally and friend in handsome Finn – and I’m sorry, but it seemed too obvious that he was the Valentine, and equally obvious that Pearl’s mother is – was – not quite human. Why is Pearl so blind to things, when all this fae business has taken over her world view? It was odd.
That said, I enjoyed the characters and the story and gave it , so I must have liked it better than I remember. This is the first in a series; each one will take on a different myth. (Read in March 2017)

Ultraviolet, by Canadian writer RJ Anderson (Orchard Books, 2011), is as different to the usual American YA books as Australian ones are – always refreshing (I started reading Mila 2.0 several weeks ago and, oh, yawn, it’s paint-by-numbers formulaic in the worst possible way!). Anderson dares to take the story all the way through to an ending that made it all worth it, even as my eyebrows disappeared into my hair.

Alison is sixteen and a synesthesia – not that she knows that’s what she is, as her mother has long taught her to hide her true nature. She is also in a mental institute for teens, there for observation, psychiatric assessment – and as punishment for being involved in the disappearance of her classmate, Tori, a popular girl who looked at Alison like she was a freak. Did Alison have something to do with her disintegration into nothing? Alison is sure she killed Tori, and her synesthesia is only getting stronger and more paralysing.

Then Dr Faraday arrives at the centre, working on research which Alison can help with. It is he who gives her a name for her condition, and listens to her as if she weren’t mad, or dangerous. But Faraday isn’t who he seems, and their relationship crosses the boundary between doctor and patient. Was Alison wrong to trust him?

I wasn’t sure about this one; I seemed to read it with an expectation of disliking it, or being bored by it, but it only got more and more interesting as it progressed. I find it hard to read books in which characters are oppressed by other people’s stronger ideas of them, when they use language to confine who you are – I find it physically hard to read those scenes where people, such as her psychiatrist at the institute – and even her own mother – do that to Alison. The second half makes up for the slow pacing of the first, the synesthesia is fascinating, and if anything, I was disappointed to have it end just when I was really getting into it! (Read in May 2017)

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (Orion 2015) has an interesting premise and … that’s about it. Society in Norta is divided into Reds and Silvers: that is to say, the colour of your blood. The Silvers have silver blood and powers – sometimes deadly ones, from super strength to fire to controlling metal. With their red blood, the Reds are the commoners, the peasants or serfs, practically a slave class. Fodder for an on-going war with a neighbouring country that has been going on forever and with little purpose.

Mare is seventeen and a Red girl from the village of Stilts – so named because, as you can surmise, the homes are built on stilts to avoid flood waters. She is also a Red with a Power: the ability to control, even generate, electricity. Her entry into the Silver city as a servant leads to this self-discovery, as well as a new life as an elite, hiding in plain sight with the royal family. Her affiliation is staunchly with the Reds, though, and Mare becomes embroiled with the resistance – with disastrous consequences.

The premise is an interesting one (though I keep thinking I’ve come across it before somewhere), and I love stories in which characters have powers (which began in primary school when I discovered the Obernewtyn Chronicles and continued later with the X-Men), but the plot was a bit pedestrian, rather predictable, and the characters and the setting not very well fleshed out. The ending made me roll my eyes a bit. (Read in April 2017)

Throne of Glass begins strongly, with a heroine who has moments of charisma but who, overall, fails to be the deadly assassin she supposedly is. We’re told that Celaena’s the greatest assassin (yes, well before she turned eighteen, the age she is at the start of this novel), but we never really get to see it. She’s more of an American teenager in high school than super-villain/hero of a fantasy world, and that undermined the whole book.

I quite enjoyed aspects of the plot, especially the competition for king’s champion – several tests were skipped over entirely or shortened, but the ones that were featured were exciting to read – but the ending was quite forgettable (I have, literally, forgotten the ending) and I didn’t have any great interest in reading more of the series – but I will, since I already have Crown of Midnight. Maybe it’ll pick up, but I do wish Celaena didn’t talk like a twenty-first century American high school student. It jars with the fantasy setting and, while I guess it’s meant to make her sound like a smart-mouthed, sassy assassin, it just didn’t work. (Read in May 2017)

I have previously read two books by Caine, both the first of a series: Ill Wind – first in the Weather Wardens series – which I absolutely loved; and Glass Houses – first in the Morganville Vampires series – which I liked but, I confess, I’m less enthusiastic for stories in which vampires are creatures of cruelty, horror and ugliness. I know, I know. I hoped that Working Stiff would be more in the vein of Ill Wind – both of them being for adults, after all – but I wasn’t that engaged by the premise or the protagonist. I’m not sure why, it just didn’t ‘tickle my fancy’, so to speak, though it was a good urban fantasy novel.

The first book in the Revivalist series is about what you’d imagine, based on the title and the series name: people being brought back from the dead. These aren’t zombies, though; they’re just very reliant on a drug that was developed by a powerful pharmaceutical company. This reliance means that it’s lucrative on the black market – and someone from inside the company is doing just that: using a funeral home to inject the deceased, bringing them back to life then charging their family an arm and a leg to keep them that way. Not only that, but the company itself has started killing its employees and injecting them, to ensure their life-long loyalty.

Bryn Davis has just started working at the funeral home and she needs this job, but after she discovers what’s really going on her life becomes cheap. The company investigator, Patrick McCallister, is on the scene to stop the trafficking but too late for Bryn. His only choice is to leave her dead or bring her back to life with the drug: and a plan to use her to continue the operation at the funeral home, so that they can track down all the people who had been brought back to life. This turns into a battle against the company itself. (Read in April 2017)

I confess, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Captive Prince (Berkley Books, 2013) is interesting, with some fraught political machinations and satisfying tension, but I didn’t feel that this novel was as darkly, dangerously erotic in the writing of it as it is meant to be, in the setting. Pacat was either holding back or decided that verisimilitude isn’t all that necessary.

It’s about a warrior prince who is betrayed by his half-brother, sent as a pleasure slave to a northern country, Vere, where such things are de rigueur. There, he ends up a slave to Prince Laurent and gets caught up in their own political throne-snatching plans. I labelled this book ‘erotic romance’, and the publisher has likewise labelled it ‘romance’ rather than ‘fantasy’, but aside from some daring displays of men overpowering other men and raping them (Vere’s idea of entertainment for the aristocracy – a kind of sexual gladiator ring), I don’t recall any real romance or eroticism. It should be more memorable than that! But I liked it well enough, for all that it’s short and could have gone much further in its world-building. I’m undecided regarding reading more – and it doesn’t help that I can’t remember much that happened here! (Read in February 2017)

A Taste of Blood Wine (Titan Books, 2013) is quite unlike anything else I’ve read in the paranormal sub-genre of speculative fiction. This one is historical fiction as well as fantasy, and has the length and breadth that I enjoy – no swift pacing or too-sketchy character building here! The story is odd, though, a mix of quite riveting and 80s kitsch. There are moments of Dracula and others of conventional paranormal romance, which actually worked quite well. A vampire villain who is almost impossible to defeat brings it all together and drives the story forward. And the violence and darkness that strike when you least expect it give it the weight of history, that same quality that books about World War I or II have.

I should mention what it’s about, shouldn’t I. Charlotte Neville is the middle of three sisters; she is the quiet one, the one who has dedicated herself to helping her father, a scientist, in his research. And she’s good at it, too: it’s 1923 and she isn’t allowed to go to university herself (or maybe her father won’t let her go). She’s upset when he gets a new assistant, Karl, who both disturbs her and obsesses her. Karl is a vampire, an immortal, looking for a way to kill a vampire, but instead he falls in love with Charlotte and the two embark on a secret love affair. There’s more to it than that, of course. This is gothic horror – and gothic romance – of a kind that blurs genres, making it both more interesting and somewhat unsatisfying. Hard to put my finger on it. (Read in May 2017)

2 comments to Reviews: Adult & Young Adult Fantasy

  • Sorry to hear you’re having such a terrible year, but it was lovely to see your name pop up in my feed again 🙂

    Hope things get better soon, in the meantime, read whatever makes you happy!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Brona, Thanks Brona – thanks for putting a smile on my face! 🙂

    [Reply]

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