Review: A Torch against the Night by Sabaa Tahir (Spoiler-Free)

[Warning: This is a spoiler-free review, but I will be referencing some events from the first book in the series, so if you haven’t started it at all yet, beware. Click here for my review of An Ember in the Ashes.]

Laia and Elias have narrowly escaped from Blackcliff with their lives, but are now the most sought after fugitives in the Empire – an Empire which is vast, and which they must cross in its entirety if they are to reach Kauf prison before Laia’s brother is executed. And close behind them is the Emperor’s most elite fighting force, the Black Guard, with Helene Aquilla now at its head, Elias’ closest friend.

A Torch against the Night picks up exactly where An Ember in the Ashes left off, throwing us straight back into the frenzied action of Elias and Laia’s escape, and although there are quieter moments later on in the book, the high tension – and the incredibly high stakes – is something that is maintained throughout. And despite the bulk of both Laia and Elias’ chapters being concerned with travelling, the plot has plenty of game-changing twists and turns, both in terms of what’s currently going on, and in terms of backstory. We also have a new POV character in the form of Helene, which as well as keeping us in touch with the Empire’s side of the story, gives us a fascinating insight into her character… and as a result, I found myself rooting for her a lot more than I did in the previous book.

There is a lot more of Keenan in this book, too, and like Helene, his character benefits from the extra screen-time. I found his growing relationship with Laia somewhat awkward – especially considering the simultaneous deepening feelings between Laia and Elias, which I was much more in favour of – but had managed to shed almost all of my former distrust of him by the time the story reached its mid-point, and even grew to like him (but not for Laia! 😠). As you can probably tell, I’m not huge fan of Keenan as a romantic rival for Elias, but I do think that the plot implications of his relationship with Laia are very interesting, and didn’t find myself bothered all that often by Laia’s uncertainty over her feelings for them both.

New characters Shaeva and Harper also both have prominent roles in this book, and I find myself very much looking forward to seeing what Tahir decides to do with them in the next one. In particular, I hope that Harper’s part in the series is going to grow rather than diminish, and I’m pleased that it looks likely that that will be the case.

Tahir also does a great job of expanding on the world of An Ember in the Ashes in this book. We still haven’t learnt much about the world (or races) outside the Empire, but Laia and Elias both spend a significant amount of time among the Tribes, even visiting their cultural centre of Nur. And the magic and supernatural creatures of the world are also emerging more and more from the woodwork, making it clear that they will become even more prominent as the series goes on, while still not making magic the solution to every problem, something that I appreciated about the first book (… but am slightly nervous about going forward).

I can’t say that I liked A Torch against the Night quite as much as An Ember in the Ashes, but I am definitely looking forward to reading A Reaper at the Gates – though who knows when that’ll be, considering how long it took me to pick this book up. 😓

Advertisements

Summer Catch-Up

Seeing such a long list of books makes me much more satisfied with my reading than I have been for my last few wrap-ups (/catch-ups), though I know it’s a slightly artificial satisfaction (but not entirely! Booktubeathon meant that I read a lot more this summer than I would ordinarily have); three months naturally results in more books read than one, after all… 😅

Also, I find myself liking this new format. It’s kind of labour-intensive (I had to completely re-code it last night, which was a chore), but I expect that it will become less so as I get more used to it. And it looks very tidy, which I appreciate. 😊

FAVOURITE OF THE SEASON*

LIBRARY SCAVENGER HUNT PICKS

29748925 Ann Leckie//Ancillary Mercy

JUNE

[REVIEW]

mary beard//women and power

JULY

[REVIEW]

robert harris//fatherland

AUGUST

[REVIEW]

OTHER BOOKS I REVIEWED

Adam Silvera//History Is All You Left Me

[REVIEW]

Catherynne M. Valente//The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

[REVIEW]

sarah prineas//ash and bramble

[REVIEW]

jack london//White Fang

[REVIEW]

Kiersten White//Bright We Burn

[REVIEW]

Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff//Obsidio

[SERIES REVIEW]

BOOKS I DIDN’T REVIEW (INDIVIDUALLY)

29748925Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. [AUDIOBOOK; Narrator: Steve West]

The first book in a new series of the same name, which follows the orphaned Lazlo Strange, who has always been fascinated by the lost city of Weep, which was one day erased from the world, as if by magic, leaving few who even remembered that it was ever more than a myth. I liked Daughter of Smoke and Bone a lot, but this may be my favourite thing that Laini Taylor has written so far. I really loved both Lazlo and Sarai (the book’s second protagonist), and the supporting characters were all incredibly memorable, despite there being quite a few of them. The conflict at the centre of the book was fascinating, too, and the world-building amazing. I’m very much looking forward to returning to Weep, and am glad that I only have a month more to wait for Muse of Nightmares, which is unsurprisingly my most anticipated autumn release – and which I will definitely also be listening to, rather than reading in print, as Steve West’s performance of Strange the Dreamer was fantastic.5 stars

35037401Dragon Age: Knight Errant by Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir. [COMIC; Illustrators: Fernando Heinz Furukawa & Michael Atiyeh]

A brief (and self-contained) story set in the Dragon Age world, about Vaea, the elven squire to drunken knight Ser Aaron Hawthorne – and, unbeknownst to her master, a thief. I’ll admit that I’m inclined to enjoy every foray into this world, regardless of length (or even story or writing quality), but Knight Errant surpassed all my expectations. It’s very short, but did a great job of making me care about Vaea and Ser Aaron, the two main characters (who are original to this comic), and although the plot is simple, it’s also solid, and a lot of fun. Varric and Sebastian from the games also had fairly significant roles, and it was great to see them both again (as well as Charter, who made a brief appearance). 😊 In terms of timeline, this takes place after Inquisition, but is not directly connected to the events of that game.4 stars

8146139The Call of the Wild by Jack London.

The tale of a domestic dog called Buck, who’s stolen from his owners in California and taken all the way to the Yukon, where he lives a much less comfortable life as a sled-dog, but is drawn to the wild places that exist just beyond the borders of his new life. This was a really interesting read! I picked it up a few days before Booktubeathon, because I was hoping to read White Fang for one of the challenges, and mistakenly thought that the two were directly connected, but I actually ended up liking this one a bit more, as the pacing was much more consistent, and the story a little gratuitously violent… Buck’s life in the North is a harsh one, but London doesn’t dwell on the brutality of it quite so much as in White Fang. Still, for such a short book, it packs a huge emotional punch.4 stars

Sabaa Tahir//An Ember in the AshesAn Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. [AUDIOBOOK; Narrators: Aysha Kala & Jack Farrar]

An excellent, Roman Empire-inspired fantasy following two leads: Laia, a teenage girl who becomes a slave in order to spy for the Scholar resistance, and Elias, a Martial soldier who wants only to be free of the Empire. I first read (and reviewed) this book a couple of years ago, and my feelings on it haven’t changed in the slightest. 💕 The audiobook was a new experience for me, but also a good one; both narrators did an excellent job, though I feel like the communication between them might not have been particularly great, as there were several words that they each pronounced differently. It wasn’t usually too jarring, and the most significant pronunciation disagreement was corrected after a few chapters, but it’s something that really should have been addressed by an editor or director (or whoever is in charge of voice work) before recording… especially when it’s the name of one of the main characters!5 stars

Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff//ObsidioObsidio by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff.

The final book in The Illuminae Files, which introduces two new protagonists: Asha, Kady’s cousin who was left behind on Kerenza IV when the majority of the population fled, and her ex-boyfriend-from-before-Kerenza, Rhys, who is now a technician for the invading BeiTech forces. As the conclusion to the trilogy, the plot of this book was much less self-contained than the other two, and it wrapped up the plot really nicely, and made for an incredibly powerful ending – though at the expense of some development for Asha and Rhys, who had to share their screen time with the series’ previous four protagonists (or five if you include AIDAN). However, I do think that they were both very well-fleshed out characters regardless, and the Kerenza-based perspective that they both provided to the story was essential. The pacing of the story was fast and tense, and only became more so as the stakes got higher and higher towards the end… and although I didn’t like this book quite as much as Illuminae, it was a near thing. A truly great ending to this fantastic series!5 stars

Jane Austen//Pride and PrejudicePride & Prejudice by Jane Austen. [AUDIOBOOK; Narrator: Lindsay Duncan]

The classic tale of Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy, who meet at a ball and absolutely do not hit it off. 😉 This is one of my favourite books, and always a joy to re-read, but I decided to buy the audiobook to listen to with some friends on our recent pilgrimage-of-sorts to Pemberley! (Or rather, Lyme Park, which played the part of Pemberley’s exterior in the 1995 BBC adaptation, i.e. the best adaptation.) There are several different audio versions of this book, so much deliberation went into the choice of this one in particular, and I’m pleased to say that I was not disappointed! Lindsay Duncan’s performance was incredible, and I especially liked her take on Mrs. Bennet. 🎶5+ stars

*Not including re-reads.

Upcoming Releases: Autumn 2018

If summer is the season of YA, then autumn is definitely the season for sci-fi and fantasy (and even horror, with Halloween coming up), something that this list unintentionally reflects… This is great news for me, however, since that’s all I ever really want to read once the weather starts to get cold; give me a hot cup of tea, some nice warm socks, and a book I can sink my teeth into, and I’ll be happy for the rest of the year! ☕️🧦📚 With that in mind, here are (some of) the books I’m going to keeping an eye out for in September, October & November:

[All dates are taken from Amazon UK unless stated otherwise, and are correct as of 30/8/2018.]

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White (25th September)

A retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as told by Victor Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth Lavenza. I’ll admit that nothing about this book makes it seem like something that I would particularly want to read (from the basic premise, to the synopsis, the the incredibly off-putting cover), but I thought the same thing about The Conquerors Saga, which turned out to be amazing, so I’m cautiously optimistic about this one, too. My fingers are crossed; don’t let me down, Kiersten White! 🤞 Excitement level: 7/10

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor (2nd October)

The sequel to Strange the Dreamer, which follows the orphaned librarian Lazlo Strange, who is unexpectedly at the forefront of a conflict between humans and godspawn, in the tormented city of Weep. Probably the book on this list that I’m most excited for, as Strange the Dreamer ended on such a cliffhanger – and I’m extremely relieved that I don’t have much longer to wait! As with it’s predecessor, I will probably be getting this book in audio-form rather than in print, partially for continuity’s sake, but mainly because Steve West’s narration of the first book was incredible. Excitement level: 10/10

The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (25th October)

A new bind-up of the entire Earthsea series, including three short stories (one of which has never been published in print before), and 50 illustrations by Charles Vess (whose work includes the amazing illustrated edition of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust). I already have a bind-up of the first four books in this series, and haven’t read all that much of it, but if I end up liking Earthsea as much as I anticipate I will, then I am much more likely to replace it with this beautiful edition than to just buy the last two books on their own… Excitement level: 6/10

brandon sanderson//skywardSkyward by Brandon Sanderson (6th November)

The first in a new sci-fi trilogy, which follows a young aspiring pilot by the name of Spensa, who finds an ancient – and sentient – spaceship. In addition to having loved everything I’ve read by Sanderson (though I haven’t read nearly as much as I would like to have), sentient A.I. has become something of a favourite topic of mine since reading Ancillary Justice, so this seems right up my alley. 💕 Hopefully it won’t disappoint! Excitement level: 6/10

george r.r. martin//fire and bloodFire & Blood by George R.R. Martin (20th November)

A history of the Targaryen family from Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire series… My excitement for Fire & Blood is tempered somewhat by the fact that it is not The Winds of Winter, and by my general dislike of Danaerys (the main series’ primary Targaryen representative), but on the other hand, what’s already been written about the family intrigues me, and I’m also looking forward to the extra detail that this book will undoubtedly add to the already-very-well-developed world of Westeros. Excitement level: 7/10

& some honourable mentions:

  • 9 from the Nine Worlds by Rick Riordan (2nd October) – short stories from the Magnus Chase universe
  • Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell (4th October) – the fourth in the Spellslinger series
  • Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J. Maas (23rd October) – the final Throne of Glass book

Library Scavenger Hunt: August

This month’s LSH challenge was to read a book that was recommended to you, and I’m sorry to admit that I cheated (just a little bit) once again. 😳 This was a genuine recommendation, but that recommendation was also accompanied by a gift of the book in question, so I’m afraid that I haven’t actually set foot in the library this month… 😓 (I will do better next time, I promise!) But in any case, my pick for this challenge was:

FATHERLAND
Robert Harris

It’s 1964, just one week before Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday – and the body of a high-ranking Nazi official is found floating in a lake. Was it an accident? Suicide? Or is that just what it’s supposed to look like?

On the surface, Fatherland is your basic murder mystery (unusual setting notwithstanding), which I’m generally not a fan of, and I probably wouldn’t have ever chosen this book for myself – but I’m grateful for the recommendation that led me to it! The mystery is of course an integral part of the plot, but Harris seemed less concerned with the murder that occurred than with the political implications of it, which were fascinating, and utilised the Orwellian backdrop excellently.

In fact, I found myself reminded a lot of 1984 while reading this – or rather, of what I hoped 1984 would be. The two books share their unsettlingly close-to-possible style of dystopia, but while I detested everybody in 1984Fatherland’s protagonist, SS Sturmbannführer Xavier March, was sympathetic despite his (reluctant) Nazi affiliation, and there was a memorable and compelling supporting cast. As the book went on, I became particularly invested in March’s relationships with his partner Jaeger, and with the American journalist Charlie Maguire.

It’s an excellently-crafted world: Picking out the differences between Harris’ alternative history and our true history was an interesting experience, but the similarities were also very striking (again, in a rather unsettling way), and I was impressed by how well Harris was able to play off my expectations of which things would and wouldn’t have changed.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Series Review: The Illuminae Files by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Spoiler-Free)

Caught in the middle of a conflict between two corporate giants, the residents of the illegal mining colony of Kerenza IV find themselves forced to flee through deep space, pursued by people who will kill to keep their crimes a secret. Potentially more dangerous, however, is the quickly-spreading virus aboard the colonists’ already-damaged ship – and the ship’s A.I., which will do anything within its power to save them.

The Illuminae Files is comprised of three books: IlluminaeGemina and Obsidio. The summary above only describes the first book, but the plot of the later two goes on to describe the continuing struggle between the the aforementioned corporate giants (the Wallace Ulyanov Consortium – or WUC – and BeiTech Industries), and the roles of two more pairs of protagonists in it. Each book’s plot is relatively separate, but they are blended together perfectly to create an overarching storyline that is incredibly powerful, and feels truly epic in scale.

The most immediately noticeable thing about these books is their formatting: The entire series is told in the form of data-logs, emails, IM chats, and beautiful word art, along with descriptions of security footage, which are the most conventional parts of the series to read, but from an obvious outsider perspective. Hanna, one of the main characters in Gemina, has a talent for drawing, so in the last two books we also see a lot of extracts from her sketchbooks. (These illustrations are – in the non-fictional world – by Marie Lu, who did a fantastic job.) This was one of a couple of reasons why I didn’t start Illuminae with high hopes; these all seemed to me to be barriers that I would have to overcome in order to really get to know the characters, and as someone who is primarily drawn to character-driven stories, that preconception was a massive turn-off.

Thankfully, however, it was also a massive misconception. True, we didn’t see directly into their heads all that often, but the challenge of portraying fully-fleshed-out characters mainly through conversation and body language was one that the authors rose to, to great effect. I laughed, I cried, I raged and I yearned as I read these books. Additionally, I found that this formatting lent itself really well towards fast paced action, and did a particularly great job of portraying the confusion and chaos of warfare. There’s a couple of pages near the end of Obsidio that are entirely made up of jumbled-up radio transmissions of people trying to figure out what’s happening in a battle, and it doesn’t tell a story in any traditional sense, but it does make its point very vividly; that everything is happening all at once, and everyone involved is confused and frightened, despite their determination. Granted, if the whole book had been like those to pages, it would’ve been unreadable, but Kaufman and Kristoff managed to strike a very nice balance between styles, so that each one had its own powerful impact.

Of the three pairs of protagonists, I found myself more attached to Kady and Ezra than either Hanna and Nik or Asha and Rhys, but because – as the lead characters in the first book – I spent much more time with them over the course of the series than with the others, rather than because they were any better written. Correspondingly, I was much less invested in Asha and Rhys, who were only introduced in Obsidio, where they were already sharing screen-time with the other four – but they were all excellent, compelling characters. As was AIDEN, their A.I. kind-of-ally, whose presence was felt in almost every twist and turn of the plot (and who I loved).

Each pair also had their own romantic sub-plot, which both sweet and very believable, and (unusually for YA, at least in my experience) all of these were either built on pre-existing relationships, or at least pre-existing feelings. This could have made us as readers feel disconnected from the romances, but I found that the characters’ feelings still grew and changed enough that that wasn’t the case, and I also appreciated the fact that less time spent building the relationships from scratch meant that more time could be spent on developing the main story.

This whole series was incredibly emotionally draining, in the best possible way, and Illuminae and Obsidio were particularly intense (there were a few places in both of them that brought me close to tears). Gemina was probably the weakest of the three, as it felt a little less connected to the series’ overarching storyline (its plot was kind of a “meanwhile, these other peripherally-connected things were going on nearby”), but that’s really not saying much, as the other two were so incredible; all three books were definite five-star reads for me, and Illuminae was my favourite of them.

Review: History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera (Spoiler-Free)

Even after their breakup, Griffin was determined that Theo would be his endgame; they couldn’t be together just, but they’d both acknowledged that they really wanted to be. Now, all the hopes he had for the future are moot, as Theo is dead, leaving Griffin with only one person who fully understands his grief: Jackson, Theo’s new boyfriend from university.

I really, really wanted to love this book, but although I did end up enjoying it, I also found that it was something of a let-down. Griffin was a very difficult protagonist to like, especially in the early stages of the book, as every time he spoke to anyone about Theo, his internal monologue seemed to turn into a grief-off of sorts, as if he felt like the validity of his own grief was actively threatened by anyone else having similar feelings. He pushes away Theo’s best friend Wade (though there are reasons for this that eventually become evident), and viciously derides Jackson, even though he barely knows him. And his feelings towards Jackson are not unrealistic, but when Jackson is the only one of the two boys who seems to be making an effort to be civil (and is also far more likeable than Griffin), it’s hard to hear him being so unfairly attacked.

And Theo is another character who it’s very difficult to care about. We’re mainly exposed to him through snapshots of his relationship with Griffin, which take up every other chapter of the book (appropriately titled “History”), but everything we learn about him is from either Griffin or Jackson, both of whom clearly have their rose-tinted glassed on at all times, so he never really comes across as real. Near the end, we finally see a few of Theo’s flaws, but this actually made me like him less… the real Theo was kind of a jerk.

Given all this, it might not surprise you that halfway through the book, I was almost ready to give up on it, but I’m glad I didn’t, as it actually got a lot better as it went on. True, I liked Theo less and less, but I appreciated the added dimensions to his character. Griffin also improved as he got to know Jackson, and I felt that the relationship that grew out of their shared grief was the real heart of the novel. The History chapters that occurred after Theo and Griffin’s breakup went in an unexpected direction, too, which I enjoyed – and the truth about Griffin’s avoidance of Wade was, for me, what finally pushed this book from a “meh” to a “good” in terms of rating (Wade was the best character in the book, and I just wish he’d been in more of it).

I also liked Silvera’s portrayal of Griffin’s OCD (though I am not qualified to comment on its accuracy); I’ve read a couple of books recently with characters with OCD, and it always seems to be treated as just some endearing character quirk – and although History Is All You Left Me does do the same to an extent, it also called itself out for it, which I appreciated.

Final verdict: I didn’t dislike the book, but found it difficult to connect with, at least until near the end, and my disappointment was no doubt enhanced by my expectation that it would be fantastic (I definitely let myself fall victim to the hype this time). I’m beginning to think that YA contemporaries are just not for me any more, but I hope that I’m wrong about that.

#BookTubeAThon2018: Update 4 & Review

JUST FINISHED: Bright We Burn by Kiersten White.

[Warning: This is a spoiler-free review, but I will be referencing some events from the previous books in the series, so if you haven’t started it at all yet, beware.]

Lada has reclaimed her throne, but holding onto it will be another challenge entirely, and one she’s not nearly so suited for. Radu, meanwhile, returns to Mehmed’s side after the siege of Constantinople, haunted by his experiences there – only to find himself once again caught in-between his sister and his beloved friend.

An excellent conclusion to an excellent trilogy! Lada and Radu are such great characters, and their differing world-views balance out the story perfectly. I’m not usually a fan of very dark stories (and it’s probably not a surprise to anyone that I like Radu more than Lada), but White does a great job of showing how her actions affect people differently; a scene that is horrifying to Radu and his Ottoman companions in one chapter, is a glorious show of defiance to Lada’s Wallachian fighters in the next…

Lada is also a very sympathetic character. While I’m sure that nobody really agrees with her actions, it’s still very easy to understand where they come from: Pure rage at a world that refuses to take her seriously, whatever she seems to do (and a fair amount of bloodthirstiness, too). Lada is the phrase “great and terrible” given form, but she still manages to be human at the same time.

Radu’s chapters provided a much needed respite from his sister’s anger, though he is not without his own conflicts; they are mainly political, where Lada’s are military, but they are no less thrilling for being less action-driven. His internal struggles – of which there are many – are also incredibly heart-wrenching, from his attempts to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, to his complex feelings about both Lada (now his enemy) and Mehmed (who he may finally be accepting can never be more than his friend)…

Beyond its primary characters, the plot escalated and concluded in a very satisfying way, and the story as a whole remained as fast-paced and surprising as its predecessors (i.e. a lot). Unusually for me, I don’t think I have a favourite book in the series, as they were all truly fantastic.

CURRENT BOOKTUBEATHON STATUS: Finished, and dead tired. 😪 I didn’t manage to get too much reading done yesterday, as I spent most of the day on a bus (and even thinking about reading on the bus makes me a little queasy), failing to sleep. But I did manage to finish off an audiobook while I was packing (An Ember in the Ashes, which I started before the readathon, hence the “.5” in my book count… though I shan’t be reviewing it, as I already did so for Booktubeathon 2016), and start on another: The Secret Life of Bees.

Books Completed: 4.5
Pages Read: 1402
(+ Hours Listened: 8:34)
Challenges Completed: 6/7