Library Scavenger Hunt: December

The final LSH challenge of 2018 was to read a book with a lamp on the cover, and although I had a backup pick in the form of The Bedlam Stacks, in case my reservation didn’t arrive in good enough time, I knew pretty quickly what my first-choice book was going to be, as I’ve been wanting to read more from this author for a while now. And as luck would have it, my library came through for me again this month, so I’ve spent the last week or so reading (and pondering)…

THE TRANSMIGRATION OF BODIES
Yuri Herrera
(translated by Lisa Dillman)

An epidemic is spreading across the city, and a young man and woman have died, but whether it’s by chance or design is up to the Redeemer to discover – and his also is the faint (and growing fainter) opportunity to keep their feuding families from all-out war.

My decision to pick up The Transmigration of Bodies was based primarily on my previous enjoyment of Signs Preceding the End of the World; it’s a very short book, with a heavy focus on crime, and none of these are things that I would usually gravitate towards, but I was drawn in by my appreciation for Herrera’s writing (and further reassured to see that Transmigration and Signs also share a translator)… And although I didn’t like this book as much as Signs, I’m glad to have read it.

As I almost expected, I didn’t really like a lot of the characters. The Redeemer – our protagonist – grew on me after a while, but I particularly disliked our introduction to him, where he comes across as an old man perving over his young neighbour (though in fact I don’t think we’re ever told how old he actually is), and most of the other characters came in and out of the story very quickly, which is to be expected from a novel this length, but disappointing nevertheless, as some of them seemed quite interesting. (The sister of one of the two deceased, known only as the Unruly, was my favourite.)

That said, what I was hoping to get out of Transmigration was not pure enjoyment, so much as a thought-provoking reading experience, and that was something that Herrera delivered in spades; he’s an absolute master of making a huge impact in a tiny amount of space. In this case, the story’s dark premise allowed for some really interesting discourse on violence and its consequences, and the eerie emptiness of the unnamed, plague-ridden city makes for an excellent backdrop, and was a huge highlight of the book for me.

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

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Review: Darkbeast by Morgan Keyes (Spoiler-Free)

In a world where every child is bound at birth to a darkbeast – a creature that will take their faults through childhood, before being ritually killed – Keara is preparing to leave her childhood behind. But Caw, her darkbeast and her oldest friend, will not be an easy sacrifice to make.

Keara was a really great protagonist, and she – and the relationships she formed throughout the story – were by far the best things about Darkbeast. The book is structured around the different flaws that she’s (tried to) offer to her darkbeast, but those flaws are also her strength, making her feel incredibly realistic. Individually, Caw was less developed, but Keara’s affection for him was clear, even though she spent much of the book trying to hide it. I also really enjoyed her friendship with Vala (and, to a lesser extent, Goran), although I didn’t always like her that much – and their contrasting views made for some interesting plot developments.

The defining trait of this world is its strict religious society, which was interesting. Unfortunately we’re not shown much about the belief system beyond the darkbeast tradition, but the role of the Inquisitors, who find and punish the Lost (those who go against religious tradition), was given some emphasis, lending the book an almost dystopian air – and when they appeared in the story, Keyes did a good job of making their presence genuinely threatening. As much of the story takes place in the midst of a travelling troupe that performs religious plays, there were  a lot of opportunities to expand upon the history and mythology of this world that could have made it feel a lot more real and fleshed out, but these were sadly missed.

The plot was mostly focused on Keara’s life with the Travelers, which I enjoyed, but I didn’t find myself particularly invested in what looks like it’s going to be the series’ overarching storyline; either about finding a place where darkbeasts don’t have to die, or else social and religious reform… Probably the latter, since the sequel is called Rebellion, but I don’t know if I’ll be sticking around to find out.

Although on the whole Darkbeast didn’t really resonate with me, I do think it’s a good book, and reading it made for an enjoyable few hours. I didn’t feel that it was quite up to the same standard as, say, Tamora Pierce’s books (which I found myself comparing this to as I read), but it will likely appeal to a similar fanbase, and to the younger part of that fanbase in particular.

Review: The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green (Spoiler-Free)

Deep into the forbidden territory of the Northern Plateau, Tash and her partner Gravell are hunting demons for the smoke that’s released when they die; a drug that causes euphoria, and will earn them a fortune. Meanwhile, Princess Catherine of Brigant prepares for a marriage that may forge an alliance with her country’s former enemy; the royal guard Ambrose finds himself under scrutiny when his sister is executed for treason; March, a servant, prepares to betray his prince for the sake of revenge; and Edyon, a merchant’s bastard, meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have been sent by his absent and unknown father.

The story of The Smoke Thieves centres around an old conflict between the kingdom of Brigant and the small principality of Calidor, which King Aloysius of Brigant believes should be his, but was instead left to his younger brother upon their father’s death. When the book begins, a war has already been fought – and hard-won by Calidor – but rather than raising his troops to try again, King Aloysius has made the baffling decision to instead focus on strengthening the bonds between Brigant and the neighbouring country of Pittoria – by betrothing his only daughter to Crown Prince Tzsayn. Each of the five protagonists has access to a different piece of the puzzle of what’s going on and why, and none of them will be able to put together the whole picture unless they are willing to work together.

Naturally, seeing things from five perspectives instead of one, it’s not a difficult task for us to figure out the mystery long before any of the characters do, but thankfully it’s not then just a tedious wait, as each of the protagonists also had their own individual struggles to contend with – though some of these were more compelling than others.

Of these characters, the most important – and the most likeable – is undoubtedly Catherine, Aloysius’ daughter, whose actions have the greatest influence on the events of the book. Her storyline is sadly held back by the fact that Aloysius and his son Boris (the book’s primary antagonists, whom we see mainly from Catherine’s perspective) are so comically evil that it completely breaks immersion, but is otherwise interesting. Tash is probably the most fun character, though she comes across as one of the least-connected to the main plot, and Ambrose has the opposite problem: His journey is very story-significant, but he’s incredibly bland.

Edyon is a slightly more interesting case; when he’s introduced, Green seems to imply that he’s a kleptomaniac, which plays an integral role early on in his storyline, but is completely dropped a few chapters in with no explanation. And last of all is March, who I really wanted to like, but who made so many terrible decisions – and was being so blatantly manipulated throughout the book – that I mostly just found his chapters frustrating. I do somewhat question March’s presence as a protagonist, as his perspective doesn’t really advance the story at all except to introduce Edyon, and Edyon’s storyline might have been improved by featuring March as a truly mysterious figure, rather than somebody whose goals and motives we’re already familiar with…

My favourite thing about this book, however, was the relationships. I wasn’t able to get really invested in March and Edyon’s relationship since I didn’t really like either of them that much, but I really enjoyed all Catherine’s different interactions, from her late-but-sweet friendship with Tash, to the unexpected respect between her and Prince Tzsayn, her betrothed. I also found myself liking the hints of actual romantic feelings between the latter two that were scattered about the last few chapters, as a relationship between them could prove interesting in the later books, but with even the book’s synopsis declaring Ambrose as her “true love”, it seems unlikely that Catherine will stray from that far less interesting romance.

I did like this series, and don’t think the series looks devoid of promise, but with so many exciting books out there (even just in the YA fantasy genre), I don’t know if this book has given me enough incentive to come back for a sequel. Which is a huge shame, as I really would like to see where the story will go next, and in general, I have a lot of faith in Sally Green’s storytelling ability. We’ll have to see, I suppose.

#FallIntoFantasy: Update 2 & Review

JUST FINISHED: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan.

[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 The Hidden Oracle.]

Betrayed by his demigod master, and still shockingly mortal (even after all the uncomfortable questing he’s already been subjected to), Apollo sets out with the demigod Leo Valdez and the (also newly mortal) sorceress Calypso in search of one of the most dangerous Oracles of all, the Cave of Trophonius. But their journey is a tricky one, and Commodus – former Emperor of Rome, and Triumvirate member – will stop at nothing to keep them from reaching their destination.

After reading The Hidden Oracle, I remember thinking that Apollo was probably my least favourite of Riordan’s protagonists so far. He grew a lot, however, over the course of the book (and I definitely liked him a lot more by the end of it), and I’m pleased that this continued in The Dark Prophecy. He is still incredibly arrogant, but I found that the relationships he formed in this book and the last humanised him a lot. That includes his friendship with Meg, of course, but we are also introduced to several characters in The Dark Prophecy who were important to him before he became mortal, which made his backstory a lot more sympathetic.

I also thought that Leo and Calypso made excellent companions for Apollo. He and Calypso, in particular, provided an interesting contrast to one another; both of them former immortals, but reacting to their new mortality in very different ways. Additionally, it was just nice to be spending time with Leo and Calypso again. Theirs is one of my favourite romances in any of Riordan’s books, but it’s also one of the least-showcased, so it was wonderful to see them develop as a couple.

It took me a long time to finally pick up this book, as I was really worried that I wouldn’t enjoy this series as much as I usually do with Riordan’s work, but I’m happy to have been mistaken. I didn’t quite mesh with The Hidden Oracle, but my enthusiasm for The Trials of Apollo has definitely been re-invigorated by this book – and hopefully it won’t take me nearly so long to get to The Burning Maze!

CURRENT READATHON STATUS: Well, this is up later than it should’ve been! 😅 But no matter! Next up is The Smoke Thieves, which looks pretty promising from the first thirty pages, so I will be spending (what’s left of) today immersed in that. 😊

Books Completed: 2
Pages Read: 772
Challenges Completed: 7/8

#FallIntoFantasy: Update 1 & Review

JUST FINISHED: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho.

Zacharias Wythe hasn’t been Britain’s Sorcerer Royal for long, but he’s already close to buried in problems: The dangerously dwindling supply of magic in the country, the government pushing for him to involve himself in foreign affairs, and the Society of Unnatural Philosophers itself ready to revolt over having a black man as their leader. And the sudden entry of Miss Prunella Gentleman – prodigiously talented, despite her lack of training – into his life brings a whole new set of problems… but perhaps a few solutions, too.

Zacharias and Prunella are incredible protagonists; both charismatic and compelling, both talented magicians, both somewhat tenuous in their positions, and with completely distinct voices. I was drawn first to Zacharias’ dogged desire to do the right thing – whether he’s considering the good of British magic, or how to best honour his predecessor’s memory – but Prunella was quick to win me over with her ambition and nerve. She’s quick to see how to get her way, and won’t hesitate to manipulate good-natured sorcerers like Zacharias, if that’s what it takes. 😋 The relationship that builds between the two of them is lively and unpredictable, and frequently hilarious.

I also really enjoyed Zacharias’ heartwarming relationships with his guardians (particularly the wonderful Lady Wythe, who is his greatest supporter), as well as Prunella’s conflicted feelings for Mrs. Daubeney, to whom she was something in between a daughter and a servant. And their London friends – and enemies – were a brilliantly colourful lot (but the practical Damerell and the charming Rollo were my favourites).

The plot, too, is a delightful whirl of intrigue and backstabbing, social reform, magical experimentation and learning, and near-death experiences, all while somehow managing to retain its coherency. And with so many different threads of storyline going at once, I thought a few of them might get lost or be neglected, but instead they all came together, not neatly, but in a wonderfully chaotic manner.

I picked this up hoping that it would be somewhat like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, only more readable, and I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Conceptually, the two books are similar – as is obvious just from the synopses – but Cho’s novel is considerably shorter, much more immediately engaging (in terms of both story and characters), and has no less rich a world. And I say this as someone who enjoyed Clarke’s novel immensely (eventually), despite my struggles with it. Certainly, more time could have been spent exploring Fairyland, or the vampire-infested Janda Baik, but it seems likely that these will be expanded upon in the sequel, The True Queen, and for now I am content to wait for its 2019 release.

CURRENT READATHON STATUS: Done for today, but excited to spend the whole of tomorrow reading The Dark Prophecy, since I have the day off work. 😊

Books Completed: 1
Pages Read: 371
Challenges Completed: 4/8

Library Scavenger Hunt: November

My tiredness laziness overcame me somewhat while assigning this month’s challenge, which was to read a book chosen by someone else, but thankfully I have good friends who are willing to put up with this kind of nonsense. 😊 I prevailed upon my friend Grace to pick something for me to read, and she very kindly came up with (and lent me) a set of journal entries from her favourite Antarctic explorer, which had a couple of advantages, those being 1) extreme shortness, and 2) ticking another continent off on my personal challenge to read a book set on every continent this year… The journal in question (from the anthology The Ends of the Earth, Volume 2: The Antarctic) is:

MAWSON LIVES
Douglas Mawson

In January 1913 – towards the end of the Australian Antarctic Expedition, which he led – Douglas Mawson found himself stranded on his return to the Hut (the expedition’s base of operations) only a few days before they were due to leave Antarctica, his companions and dogs dead, and the vast majority of his food lost. For the ten days chronicled in this extract from his journal (Home of the Blizzard; 1915,1930), he struggled his way through the snow on foot, alone and starving.

I always find it somewhat challenging to review non-fiction, as there’s no way to talk about plot or character development in regards to real people and events. What’s left is the writing – something that Mawson does very well. He is well-spoken, his descriptions are vivid, and paired with the life-or-death situation that he was in, the journal is both gripping and engaging. Personally, I could have done without the stomach-turning description of the condition of his feet, but my reaction to it certainly proves its effectiveness. I’d definitely be open to reading more of his journals, though, realistically speaking, I don’t know if it’s something that I’d ever get around to.

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

Library Scavenger Hunt: October

As soon as I decided what this month’s challenge would be (a retelling), I knew exactly which book I should be looking for, both because a retelling of a classic horror novel would be particularly seasonal, and also because this book keeps catching my eye when I’m at work (I work at a bookshop, if you didn’t already know), yet I never seem to be able to make reading it a priority. Well, I’m glad to say that that’s finally changed! And the book in question is…

THE HISTORIAN
Elizabeth Kostova

When a young girl discovers a strange old book in her father’s library, printed with the curious image of a dragon, she is compelled to confront her father about it… but she doesn’t expect it to lead to a tale spanning continents and generations, concerning a great evil that has haunted her father since his postgraduate days, and which may even be connected to the mysterious, long-ago disappearance of her mother.

I struggled quite a bit with this book, but it’s difficult to put my finger on why, except that it is a very long book that also feels very long, and the plot – though interesting – is not quite gripping enough to make up for its incredibly slow pace. The payoff at the end of the book was significant, and the last hundred pages or so were incredibly engrossing, but it was definitely more of a challenge to get there than it ought to have been.

The book is more concerned with scholarship than action (all of its primary characters are academics), and is full of interesting tidbits about the life of Vlad the Impaler, as well as vampire lore, which was of particular interest to me as I’ve been somewhat fascinated by this era of history since reading Kiersten White’s Conqueror’s Saga – but it may not be quite so appealing to somebody less so. Kostova also pays a great deal of attention to the history and culture of the different countries that her characters visit (mostly in Eastern Europe, but a significant portion of the book is also set in Istanbul), and her descriptions are vivid and full of character…

I do think that this is a novel way of retelling the tale of Dracula. Like its source material, much of the story is told through letters, retaining the feel of the original even though the story is quite different. And lastly, it occurs to me how appropriate it is that I borrowed The Historian from the library, as so much of it is set in, and concerned with libraries and librarians. 😊

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