Thematic Recs: Loathsome Villains

Most of the villains I’ve come across in the last few years have been sympathetic ones, and while there’s definitely something to be said for reading about a villain that you like, or understand, or even feel sorry for, the book I’m reading at the moment has reminded me just how great it is to read about a villain whom you utterly despise; to be outraged by every terrible thing that they do, and satisfied by all the poetic justice that (hopefully) comes their way. So, for today’s post, I’ve compiled a list of books with some of my favourite fantastically-written horrible people! 😋

1) The Poldark series by Winston Graham. The series that inspired this post’s main antagonist is George Warleggan, but while he’s pretty hateful at times, he has nothing on Osborne Whitworth (known as Ossie), who is present in the early books as an admirer of Demelza, but becomes an important part of the plot in the fifth book, The Black Moon. I won’t tell you exactly what makes him so repulsive, as that would be a fairly major spoiler, but in The Four Swans (which I’m currently reading) we get quite a few scenes from Ossie’s perspective, and every jaunt into his head leaves my skin crawling.

2) The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. Alexander’s so-called friend Dimitri is a stand-out character in the first book of Simons’ dramatic, emotional trilogy, as a character who claims to be a friend, but never behaves like one – something which is always frustrating, but is particularly awful in this case because of how often he plays the “if-you’re-my-friend-you’ll-do-this-for-me” card, and how much danger his “favours” (which are actually demands) put Alexander in. And let’s not forget how he refuses to take no for an answer when it comes to Tatiana, even though the only reason he’s really interested in her is because he knows that Alexander likes her… 😤

3) The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. This novel tells two stories: that of a Chinese-American woman called Pearl, and, at greater length, the tale of her mother Winnie’s life in China, and the events that led her to flee to the US. The truly horrible character in the book is a part of Winnie’s tale; her first husband Wen Fu, in fact, whom she is given little choice in marrying, and who treats her – and their children – abominably throughout their relationship, to the point where his memory haunts her long after she’s free of him. This is such an intense, wonderful story, and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who’s even remotely interested in the subject matter. It starts a little slowly, but it’s well worth pushing through those first couple of chapters.

4) The A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. And of course, I couldn’t possibly write a post about loathsome villains without mentioning A Song of Ice and Fire, where even the heroes are not always what you’d call good people, and so the villains have to be truly awful in order to provide a significant contrast… To be honest I could have made this whole list up of characters from this series: Ramsay Snow, Roose Bolton, Walder Frey, Melisandre… but for the sake of brevity I decided to go for Joffrey Baratheon, the cruel and sadistic prince – and later king – of Westeros; there’s no character I love to hate quite so dearly. 😉

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Review: Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce (Spoiler-Free)

[This is a spoiler-free review, however I may allude to some events from other Tortall-based series – particularly The Immortals quartet, to which this book is a prequel.]

Numair Salmalín is one of the world of Tortall’s most powerful mages, but at the age of 11 – then a student at the Lower University of Carthak, and going by his birth name, Arram Draper – he was only just beginning to learn the magic that would help him so much in later years. Talented, but frequently in trouble with his instructors, Arram’s life is changed forever when he is befriended by the charismatic Prince Ozorne and his lovely friend Varice, now two of the University’s brightest students, but who will eventually go on to become the dreaded Emperor Mage and his head of entertainment.

This is the first book in a new trilogy called The Numair Chronicles, which acts as a prequel to the Immortals quartet by explaining the history of one of its most prominent but enigmatic characters: Numair, and focuses on events that are alluded to parts of that series, but never really explained in much detail. The nostalgia comes across very strongly in this book, with plenty of cameos from the original series, including one particularly great one that snuck up on me (the gladiator Musenda, who I had thought was a new character, but was suddenly revealed later on to be a familiar face), and although the young Arram is very different from his older counterpart, we can clearly see his character being shaped over the course of this book, from his growing doubts about remaining in Carthak, to his fascination with obscure magic that many more academic mages refuse to believe in…

That said, the story itself is quite fragmented. There’s no strong overarching plot, and there doesn’t seem to be much indication of one to come in the later books. What there is is a few strong story arcs, such as a brief murder mystery towards the end, and a couple of vaguely medical-drama-y sections, while the bulk of the novel concentrates on character and relationship development. There’s also quite a bit of political intrigue, but it’s focused on Ozorne rather than Arram, and so mostly stays in the background.

(An aside: Of these mini-arcs, I probably enjoyed the medical sections the most. My favourite Pierce books are actually the Emelan-based ones, and of those, I like Briar’s stories the best – something that I’d assumed was primarily because I like Briar. But although I do really like his character, reading this book has also driven home for me just how good Pierce is at writing engrossing historical sickroom-based stories.)

While I do hope that there will be a stronger plotline in the sequels to Tempests and Slaughter, I also found that the slow start to the series really gave me time to get to know these characters in their present incarnations, while still providing enough interesting action to keep me engaged throughout the book. After all, most readers will know how things are going to turn out for Arram before they even open the book, and the interest in reading it is seeing all the little things that lead up to that point. Perhaps there will also be one giant straw that breaks the figurative camel’s back (in the form of an overarching story), but even if there isn’t, I think that more of what Tempests and Slaughter has already offered will be enough for me to love this series. 💕

January & February Wrap-Up

My reading year didn’t exactly get off to a great start (at least in terms of quantity); I only managed to finish two books in January, both of which I wrote full reviews for, which is why I decided to hold off for another month on posting this wrap-up. February was a lot more promising. 😊 In total, over the last two months, I got through four excellent novels, two graphic novels, and an audiobook! (I re-started my Audible subscription, and it’s amazing! 💕 Though I’m finding it very difficult to be patient while I wait for my next credit…)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. A novel about a young woman called Rosemary, who one day came home after staying with her grandparents to find that her sister Fern was gone. The book deals mainly with how what happened with Fern affected their family over the years… This was such a fascinating story! I really wanted to write a review of it, but wasn’t sure how to go about it without spoiling a plot twist that really makes this book what it is. But even beyond the twist, this is an excellent novel; I really enjoyed Rosemary’s perspective, and her relationships with her parents and siblings, and Fern’s part in the story was heartbreaking in places. 😥 The non-linear narrative greatly increased the effectiveness of the story as well, and I had a great time trying to puzzle out everything that had happened to Rosemary’s family, while she herself danced around the subject, leaving little breadcrumbs for us to follow.Grayson Volume 1: Agents of Spyral by Tim Seeley & Tom King. The first in a DCU-based comic series, wherein Dick Grayson (a.k.a. Nightwing, a.k.a. the first Robin) is undercover in the mysterious organisation Spyral, and reporting to Batman on their activities. Perhaps I would have enjoyed this more if I were up-to-date on the Nightwing series (which I believe this is supposed to follow on from), but as it was I found the plotline pretty incoherent, the characters (including Dick) boring, and the artwork not compelling enough to make up for the book’s flaws… I was initially quite excited by the appearance of Helena Bertinelli, but sadly in the New 52, she seems to have traded in her Huntress persona to become the bland Spyral agent known as Matron. 😑 It’s a shame, because my fondness for the Robins (all of them) makes me predisposed to like their solo titles, but doubt I’ll be continuing with this one.Wolf-Speaker by Tamora Pierce. The second book in the Immortals quartet, which is part of Pierce’s Tortall universe – wherein Daine is called upon by her old wolf friends to negotiate with the local humans on their behalf, and discovers a sinister plot against the king and queen while she’s there. The Immortals is a familiar (and beloved) story to me, but this was my first time listening to the audiobook version of it – which was excellent! The voice acting really brought all the characters to life, and although the difference in speed between Pierce’s narration and the rest of the cast’s speech took was a little jarring at first, I got used to it quickly – and (on principle) I do like it when authors narrate their own books… 😊

BOOKS I ALREADY POSTED REVIEWS FOR:

 
 

Upcoming Releases: Spring 2018

Once again, I had a pretty hard time picking out just a few books to look forward to this spring, as there seem to be a tonne of exciting things coming out in the next few months – and in particular, lots of books from series or authors that I really love… Narrow it down I did, however, so these are a few of the books I’m most excited for in March, April & May. 😁

[All dates are taken from Goodreads unless stated otherwise, and are correct as of 25/2/2018.]

Obsidio by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (13th March)

The final book in the Illuminae Files series, in which we will be returning to Kerenza (where the first book began) and joining new protagonists Asha and Rhys. I absolutely loved Illuminae when I first read it, and although I didn’t like Gemini quite as much, I still really enjoyed it… At this point I’m not sure how I’ll take to the new protagonists, but I’m willing to give Kaufman & Kristoff the benefit of the doubt, and the likelihood of me buying this as soon as it’s available is close to 100%. Excitement level: 9/10

The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green (1st May)

The first in a new high fantasy series with four main characters: a princess, a thief, a hunter, and a traitor. I know very little else about it, but since I loved Green’s Half Bad trilogy so much, I’m interested to see what she’ll be doing with what looks like a more traditional fantasy setting. Excitement level: 8/10

I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman (3rd May)

A standalone contemporary novel about the lead singer of a boyband called The Ark, and a teenage girl who owes a huge amount to her experiences as part of their fanbase. I only discovered Oseman’s writing recently, but I was super-impressed by it, so I’m really eager to see what she’s come up with next. This also sounds like its going to be more on the fluffier side of things than most of the other books on this list, but (although I wouldn’t be disappointed if that were the case) judging from Radio Silence – and, I hear, Solitaire, too – I expect that it’ll get heavier at some point. Excitement level: 6/10

Season of Storms by Andrzej Sapkowski (22nd May)

A spin-off, standalone novel set in the Witcher universe, some time around the events of The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny (the two prequel short story collections), if I’m not mistaken. I remember being super-excited when I heard (sometime last year, I think) that Sapkowski was going to write another Witcher book, but, given that the main series has only just finished being released in English, I’m surprised that this one was translated so quickly! I’m definitely looking forward to reading it… as soon as I’m done with Lady of the Lake. 😋 Excitement level: 7/10

Library Scavenger Hunt: February

This month’s LSH challenge was to read a book with pictures in it, and since I’ve been craving Batman comics recently, I thought it’d be fun to try out some of the Gotham-based series that I’m not already collecting… There were two series in particular that I considered reading for this challenge, but although I borrowed them both (and I intend to read the second of them very soon, too), the one that I decided to review this month was…

WELCOME TO GOTHAM ACADEMY
Becky Cloonan & Brendan Fletcher
(Illustrated by Karl Kerschl)

Gotham Academy is home to the best and brightest students in Gotham… as well as a whole slew of strange secrets. Olive Silverlock just wants to get on with her life – and hopefully puzzle out what happened over the holidays that’s got her jumping at bat-shaped shadows – but unfortunately the world has other ideas, as she (along with Maps, the new student she’s supposed to be showing around) becomes drawn into investigating a series of school-wide ghost sightings.

This was a really fun read! The plotline (and the little mysteries that it presented) was both interesting and engaging, and surprisingly self-contained; though I am intrigued by the hints at a larger storyline in Gotham Academy, this first volume is quite satisfying to read as a standalone. It’s definitely lighter in tone than many of the other Gotham-based comics that I’ve read, but I found that that made for a really lovely change of pace…

The two main characters, Olive and Maps, played off one another wonderfully, with Maps’ innocent exuberance proving a nice counterpoint to Olive’s more serious character. (Maps was probably my favourite thing about this book, though – she’s just so cute! 😆) The cast of secondary characters wasn’t large, but those that we were introduced to seemed interesting, too, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them all better. And the tease at the very end of the book that Damian Wayne may be joining the Academy is another reason that I’m very likely to continue reading this series.

I also really enjoyed Kerschl’s artwork, which was incredibly expressive, super-cute, as well as consistently high-quality throughout the book.

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

Thematic Recs: The Batman Family

(One day, I will probably do a Thematic Recs post for superhero comics in general. This is not that day.) I love the Bat-family. My love for it knows (almost) no bounds, and this list compiles some of my favourite titles so far – though I’ve probably missed some great ones, as I certainly haven’t read the whole lot!

And for the record, I consider basically all the Gotham-centric heroes to be part of the Bat-family in some small way, so long as they are – or have at some point been – acknowledged by Bruce Wayne, the original Batman.

Scott Beatty & Chuck Dixon//Batgirl: Year One1) Batgirl: Year One by Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon. A mini-series chronicling the beginnings of the first Batgirl, Barbara Gordon. I only read this on a whim, but I ended up really loving it, much to my surprise – I’ve never been a huge Barbara Gordon fan.

Peter J. Tomasi//Batman & Robin vol. 12) Batman & Robin by Peter J. Tomasi. The only series on my list since the New 52 rebooted the DC universe (though I do still like some of the other New 52 titles…). This series shows Bruce Wayne teaming up with his son Damian (the fifth Robin), and having to find a balance between fatherhood and crime-fighting.

[This series is collected in seven volumes: Born to KillPearlDeath of the FamilyRequiem for DamianThe Big BurnThe Hunt for Robin and Robin Rises.]

Bryan Q. Miller//Batgirl vol. 13) Batgirl by Bryan Q. Miller. Probably my favourite comic series, this run of Batgirl follows Stephanie Brown, the third Batgirl, as she teams up with Barbara Gordon (now in the role of Oracle) in order to fight crime, and hopefully get some recognition from the Bat-family’s main players.

[This series is collected in three volumes: Batgirl RisingThe Flood and The Lesson.]

Paul Dini//Streets of Gotham vol. 14) Batman: Streets of Gotham by Paul Dini. A sadly short-lived series featuring Dick Grayson (the original Robin, now the new Batman) and Damian Wayne trying to deal with a Bruce Wayne-imposter in Bruce’s absence. The series ended up being cut short, but the storyline was wrapped up in the Batman Incorporated series.

[This series is collected in three volumes: Hush MoneyLeviathan and The House of Hush.]

Judd Winick//Under the Red Hood5) Batman: Under the Hood by Judd Winick. Bruce Wayne deals with a new, incredibly violent, vigilante in Gotham, who calls himself the Red Hood. This is one of my all-time favourite Batman storylines – the big mystery he has to figure out is the identity of the Red Hood (my favourite character in the DC universe, and an important figure from Bruce Wayne’s past). The animated film was also incredible (which was called Under the Red Hood, like the bind-up of the comics), though it presented a rather different backstory from the original comics.

Judd Winick//Red Hood: The Lost Days

+1) Red Hood: The Lost Days by Judd Winick. Just a little bonus recommendation, since this is a spin-off of the Under the Hood storyline, and serves as a prequel to it. It tells the story of the Red Hood’s time training, and his return to Gotham, and gives an interesting new perspective on the events in Under the Hood.

Review: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Spoiler-Free)

Malcolm Polstead spends his days working at his parents’ inn, helping the nuns at the convent across the river, and tending to his beloved canoe, La Belle Sauvage. But strange things are afoot in Oxford: Mysterious disappearances; children joining the sinister League of Saint Alexander; a threatening man with a three-legged hyena daemon; talk of a flood the likes of which England hasn’t seen in decades… and the charming baby Lyra being brought to the convent for protection from the great number of people who would see her harmed.

first read His Dark Materials when I was about ten or eleven – back when I’d only just realised that reading could be fun – but despite the many great books I’ve read since then, it’s remained one of the most impactful stories I’ve ever come across, and this new entry into the series (a prequel) does a really great job of re-capturing what made the original trilogy so enticing. It’s not just the daemons, but the subtle hints of magic, too, and the constant sense of some dark, looming threat… revisiting this universe is always a delight for me. The plot is a slow-burning one, and some may find that the pacing is too slow, but it’s not really any more so than in many of Pullman’s other novels – and, to be honest, I found that it mattered very little, as the build-up to the action was just as enjoyable as the action itself.

Malcolm made for a wonderful protagonist; curious and bright and well-meaning, as protagonists are prone to being, but he really shone through his bonds with the people around him, from his daemon Asta, to baby Lyra, to his slowly-developing friendship with Alice, the surly girl who works in the kitchen at the inn… I found his interactions with Lyra and Sister Fenella particularly charming, and I loved the camaraderie between him and Asta (there was a scene near the end with the two of them that nearly reduced me to tears). The chapters from Dr. Relf’s perspective were also very interesting, and I really enjoyed the way her and Malcolm’s mutual love of learning was able to forge a genuine friendship between them despite their difference in age and situation, and the contrived nature of their first few meetings.

In regards to villains, there were a few different antagonists featured, or antagonistic organisations, but while most of them lingered ominously in the story’s background (the CCD, the League of St. Alexander, and so on) and will presumably come more to the forefront as the series goes on, the spotlight in La Belle Sauvage fell on Gerard Bonneville and his disfigured daemon. While Bonneville’s reputation seemed to precede him in Oxford, I found it interesting how the initial contrast between his own appearance of friendliness and his daemon’s aggressive behaviour was slowly inverted, until I almost found myself feeling sorry for the hyena, for being stuck with such a monstrous other half.

Since this is a prequel, it would be surprising if there weren’t a few callbacks to the original series beyond the presence of baby Lyra, but while not all of these cameos are essential to this new story (though some of them definitely are), none of them felt as though they’d just been shoe-horned in for the sake of fanservice… And they’re very enjoyable! I felt a definite thrill when I checked the end of The Amber Spyglass and realised that, yes, my hunch that Dr. Relf and Dame Hannah were one and the same was correct! 😁 And Lord Asriel’s tenderness towards Lyra in this book is a nice counterpoint to his severe countenance in much of His Dark Materials.

I also found myself surprised – and a little unsettled – while reading this book by the realisation of just how much His Dark Materials has influenced my views on organised religion… but although both La Belle Sauvage and Pullman’s original trilogy contain a lot of examples of organised religion gone wrong, it was nice that in this book we were also given a look at its more positive side, in the form of the nuns who were caring for Lyra.