Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (Spoiler-Free)

As a child, Jude witnessed the murder of her parents at the hands of a mysterious stranger, who then stole her and her two sisters away to the High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, she lives a life of privilege as his daughter, attending balls in beautiful dresses, attending school with the children of Faerie’s elite… but her mortality sets her apart from her classmates in the most degrading way, and the desire to prove herself above her tormentors consumes her.

I picked this book up purely on a whim. I thought I remembered seeing mediocre reviews for it (though looking back at the reviews now, I think I must have had it mixed up with a different book), so my hopes weren’t particularly high in terms of quality, but I was in the mood for faeries, and melodrama, and improbable romances, and venomous villains (however well-portrayed), which the book seemed to promise. But although I was right on most of those counts, it’s actually a really good book! The plot was full of intrigue and politics (and, yes, romance as well, but that mostly came across as secondary) that was really interesting, and although I didn’t always like Jude all that much, I did find her situation sympathetic.

Her relationship with her two sisters – Vivi (her older half-sister who is the true daughter of the faerie who murdered their mother) and Taryn (her human twin) – was also very interesting, as was the way her closeness to each of them, and her trust in them shifted over the course of the story. Whereas one would expect the shared trauma of having to live with their mother’s murderer would bring them together, their different approaches to dealing with their situation are one of the biggest alienating forces between them, and make for some fascinating familial drama – though that’s definitely not all that the book has going for it.

The other character who really needs to be talked about is the titular Cruel Prince, Cardan, who is the youngest prince of Faerie, and the chief of Jude and Taryn’s tormentors. Given his moniker, I was expecting him to be rather crueller than I actually found him to be; except on a few, brief occasions, he was little more than your typical entitled teenager, petty and rude more than actively cruel, and certainly nowhere near the level of viciousness that some of the other characters reached. Later in the book, he even seemed to be the one in his group of friends who’d put a stop to the bullying (or at least limit it) rather than instigate it… (Don’t get me wrong, he was definitely a git; I was just expecting worse) I also felt that the reasoning behind his fixation with Jude was rather obvious, and it was a little frustrating that Jude herself took so long to figure it out – though perhaps it was just something that she was not able to wrap her head around. I did, however, really like his character arc over the course of the story, as well as the way his relationship with Jude developed, and that’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to seeing more of in the next book – especially given the dramatic turn it took towards the end.

(An aside: Weirdly, the two stories I was most reminded of while reading this were a K-drama I was watching a little while ago, Boys Over Flowers – though The Cruel Prince is a lot more serious in tone – and Jane Austen’s Emma – for a specific reason that I won’t go into because it’s super-spoilery. They seem like they should be pretty far apart on the fiction spectrum, but somehow it works. 😅)

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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. 💕

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!]

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.

Review: A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond (Spoiler-Free)

Claire and Ella are the best of friends, and always will be, and not even Ella’s disapproving parents are going to stand between them. But when Claire introduces Ella to Orpheus – a wanderer with an unworldly talent for music – she begins to fear that their romance may be taking Ella down a path which will separate them forever.

A Song for Ella Grey is a retelling of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, but set in the modern-day North of England, and focusing on the tale from the perspective of Ella’s (who takes the role of Eurydice) best friend Claire. I’m familiar with the original myth, but I don’t know it inside out, so I can’t comment on any specific changes Almond may have made to the narrative. From what I do know of the story, however, this seems to be a very faithful retelling (barring the modern setting, of course). I also found the choice of Claire as a narrator interesting because it gave us a somewhat sinister view of Orpheus; while Claire is not immune to the draw Orpheus seems to have over all living things (and many non-living ones, too), her admiration of him is tempered by her feeling that he poses some sort of threat to Ella…

The relationship between Claire and Ella, and how it contrasts with Orpheus and Ella’s relationship, is probably my favourite thing about this book. While the Orpheus/Ella dynamic is very clearly defined, (although it’s never outright stated) there are also strong indications that Claire’s feelings for Ella are not strictly platonic, which makes the objectivity of her narration somewhat doubtful. It’s difficult to tell how much of her suspicion of Orpheus is due to her seeing something in him that the rest of the characters aren’t able to see, and how much is just her fear that she is losing Ella. And despite the original myth being entirely about the love between Orpheus and Eurydice, Almond’s portrayal makes it clear that Claire’s love for Ella is no less powerful than Orpheus’.

I also really loved the magical atmosphere in this book; it’s nothing particularly unusual in a David Almond book, but that’s more of a compliment to all his other books than a criticism of this one. The characters talk early on about trying to bring Greece to Northumberland, and although they’re mainly talking about warmth and sunshine, I believe that they did succeed in bringing the otherworldly feeling of the ancient Greek myths there  – as is evidenced by Orpheus’ presence in the first place. Almond’s use of dialect was occasionally a little overdone, but I was mostly able to ignore it, since I was so invested in the story and the characters.

I doubt that any David Almond book will ever make me feel the same wonder that I felt when I first read Skellig and Heaven Eyes (two of my favourite books), but I will always love the beautiful way that he crafts his stories, and – flaws and all – A Song for Ella Grey is no exception to that. I’d recommend this for mythology lovers and magical realism fans, or to anyone who really enjoys Neil Gaiman’s writing, as his books are often quite similar in tone to David Almond’s (though Almond’s books tend to skew a little bit younger).

Library Scavenger Hunt: January

This month’s LSH challenge was, in honour of it now being the year of the dog, to read a book with a dog on the cover. Creative, I know, but upon consideration (and after reading a few of the suggestions on the LSH discussion thread), I was surprised by the number of books I was able to think of that fulfilled the challenge that I had already been hoping to read: The HumansThe Art of Racing in the RainSpill Simmer Falter WitherMy Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, and so on, and so on. Sadly, my library had none of these, so my first trip there ended up with me coming home with a book that I had no interest in, and then regretting it so much that I eventually decided to just request a book to be sent over from another library. So the book I finally ended up reading (which arrived in the nick of time) was…

THERE IS NO DOG
Meg Rosoff

Ever thought that the world is far too chaotic to have been created by a sensible god with a plan? Well, that’s because it wasn’t. God, it turns out, is a self-absorbed, sex-crazed teenage boy called Bob, and after all these years, the only part of his creation that still interests him is the beautiful girls. Lucy is human, and wants desperately to fall in love. One day on the way to work, she sends out a prayer for love that she hopes will be heard – but unfortunately for Lucy, Bob thinks that the ideal man for her is none other than… Bob himself.

I’ve read three of Meg Rosoff’s books so far, and all of them are very original – distinct both from other works with similar themes, and from one another – but this is quite possibly one of the most bizarre books I’ve ever come across. It’s also really, really enjoyable, with a cast of wonderful and awful characters whose stories are all connected, but each with their own troubles. There’s Bob, of course, who causes catastrophe wherever he goes; his long-suffering assistant Mr. B; his mother Mona, seemingly the bane of Bob’s existence; and his pet Eck (a kind of sentient, penguin-y creature), who is despairing over his seemingly inevitable death-by-being-eaten; as well as Estelle, who’s on a mission to save Eck from being eaten by her father. On the less divine side of things, there’s also Lucy, an assistant zookeeper whose main concerns are finding love, and avoiding her grumpy supervisor at work; along with the aforementioned grumpy supervisor, Luke; Lucy’s interfering mother; and her godfather Bernard, a vicar who’s questioning the value of his work.

As you can see, the cast is huge, which might have presented a problem if the characters were any less memorable and entertaining (I won’t say likeable, because not all of them are, or are even meant to be), but in this case really doesn’t. The narrative moves fluidly between characters, and although their different concerns made it difficult to pin down any one main plot, I really liked all the miniature storylines that the book presents… It really comes across more as a snapshot of all these people’s lives with a potentially apocalyptic backdrop, rather than a cohesive story. (My favourite parts were probably Eck’s friendship with Estelle, any scene that involved Mr. B, and Lucy and Luke’s brief moments of bonding towards the end of the book.)

There Is No Dog is a comedy of wonderful absurdities, but I can definitely see why people would dislike it. The silliness could easily become too much for someone (even I was glad that Rosoff didn’t try to make it any longer than it is), and if you’re looking for some kind of deep message in this book, then you’re not likely to find one – unless it’s that, if there is a god, let’s hope they’re a Mr. B and not a Bob. 😅 I would also definitely not recommend this to anyone who’s super-serious (in the not-to-be-joked-about sense) about religion, as they’d probably find it more offensive than funny…

Also, for the record: This book has nothing to do with dogs.

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

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (Spoiler-Free)

With only one more year of school to go, Frances is more focused than ever on what’s been the goal of the last few years of her life: Cambridge University. And she’s well on her way to achieving it, with an excellent work ethic, consistently high grades, and the position of head girl, but very few friends who truly know her. One evening, however, a boy she knows drunkenly lets slip that he’s the mysterious creator of her favourite podcast, and they discover a friendship like neither of them have ever known… but this new relationship is tested by Aled and his podcast’s sudden rise to internet fame, and Frances’ feeling of responsibility over the disappearance of his sister, Carys.

The backdrop to this story is the podcast Universe City (a Welcome to Night Vale-esque narrative about somebody who’s trapped on a campus that’s full of monsters, and trying to escape), and the community that builds up around it. Frances’ love for the podcast is evident almost from the very beginning of the book, and I feel like it provides a really nice insight into an aspect of fan culture that I haven’t seen explored in YA lit before… That said, this book is not about Universe City, it’s about Frances and Aled, and Universe City is, more than anything else, the medium through which we are able to best know Aled.

Speaking of the characters, both Frances and Aled were fantastically written, with very relatable struggles, and I loved the way that it was only in finding each other that they were able to truly find their own selves, and their own voices; each of them only needing somebody who had no specific expectations of them in order to come out of their shells – and those shells were pretty thick… Frances had put so much effort into making herself into “Cambridge material” that realising that the other parts of her might be just as important became incredibly difficult, while Aled was trapped under layers and layers of hurt that he didn’t know how to (or, it seems, believe that he deserved to) escape from. That’s not all there was to the characters, of course, but part of the joy of reading Radio Silence, for me, was getting to know them both for myself, so I won’t say anything more about them except this: They’re both wonderful characters individually, and are made even more so by their love for each other.

And I don’t mean romantic love, by the way; that was another great thing about this book. I don’t think I would’ve minded if Oseman had decided to go the romance-route, because I loved their relationship so much, but I can’t over-emphasise how wonderful it felt to be reading a book (particularly a book for teenagers) that gave such precedence to friendship, with no expectation of (or desire for) it ever becoming anything else. And I say “else”, rather than “more”, because I feel that Oseman does a really great job of showing that friendship can be just as important a driving force in a person’s life as romance. Platonic soulmates is a term that springs to mind when I think about these two, though I’m not sure if the term was used in the book itself, or if I’m just projecting… There is a very well-executed romantic sub-plot, between Aled and another character, but it’s so far from being the focus of the story that I almost forgot to mention it.

Apart from friendship, major themes in this book included communication and its failure, of which there were ample examples on Aled’s part (whether its his attempts to reach out through Universe City which go unheard, or the inability to talk to Daniel about his feelings that’s making their relationship fall apart), and the feeling of being trapped by the expectations of others, which is demonstrated by Frances and Aled both – though in Frances’ case, the expectations that trouble her are ones that she’s actively cultivated, while Aled’s constraints are blatantly unfair. Both these themes do a lot to further flesh out characters who are already well developed and incredibly sympathetic.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Carys yet, and that’s deliberate. A lot of work seems to have gone into building up her disappearance as a huge mystery, and its even implied (on the back of the book as well as in the narrative) that Frances may have somehow been involved in it – or at least knows some dark, crucial secret – but the eventual revelation is quite underwhelming, as is the solution to the (smaller) “February Friday” puzzle that’s presented in Universe City. I wouldn’t say that this is a problem with the book, exactly, as the resolution of Carys’ storyline ties in quite nicely with the rest of the book’s themes, but I do think that putting so much emphasis on it was something of a marketing misstep… There are little mysteries here and there that are interesting to see unfold, but the huge, We Were Liars-style twist that I was half expecting doesn’t exist.

I did have one problem with the book, however, and that was the extreme overuse of the word “literally”, both in Frances’ narration and the dialogue. I haven’t read Oseman’s previous book, so I’m not sure if this is just her writing style, or if it’s an attempt to accurately portray modern language (I’m aware that “literally” is a word that is often overused in real life, too), but if the former, it really should have been picked up by an editor, and if the latter, I can’t imagine why she’d choose to replicate a speech pattern that’s so irritating… Obviously, it wasn’t enough to stop me from loving this book, but extreme pedants might want to be aware of it before reading.

I only originally gave Radio Silence four stars, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and then it ended up being one of my top books of 2017! It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, and one of the most relatable books I’ve ever come across, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone who’s even vaguely intrigued by anything I’ve said about it… I feel like I was barely able to scratch the surface with this review, even though it’s already gone on for far too long, so here are some random, leftover thoughts that I couldn’t find a place for in the main review:

  • The cast is incredibly diverse, in terms of both race and sexuality. This is also one of only two books I’ve ever read that discusses asexuality, and it does it extremely well.
  • I loved Aled so much. Frances was great, too, but Aled needs all the hugs in the world.
  • The intensity of their friendship makes me miss my own best friend even more than I already did. (She lives a long way away.)
  • I wish that every YA parent was as amazing and supportive as Frances’ mum.
  • Universe City should be a real thing, even if it’s in book form rather than a podcast. It sounds really interesting. (We got Carry On, so it’s possible, right?)
  • I may add this to my favourites list…