Review: Touch of Power by Maria V. Snyder (Spoiler-Free)

Some years ago, a devastating plague broke out across the fifteen realms, and healers were blamed for the quick spread of the disease. Avry of Kazan was never able to complete her training as a healer, yet she now finds herself the only one of her kind remaining, as the never-large guild has been mercilessly hunted down, and its members executed. And this could easily have been Avry’s fate, too, had it not been for the interference of Kerrick – her rescuer, but also her captor, and sworn to a prince she despises.

I really, really wanted to like this book. The premise sounded interesting, and I loved Poison Study, so I know I at least am capable of enjoying Snyder’s storytelling – though none of the books of hers that I’ve read have quite lived up to the brilliance of that first one. And Touch of Power did start out quite strong; Avry was quickly established as a likeable character, living in times that were difficult for everyone, but for healers in particular, their persecution entirely unjust – at least as far as Avry can discern. The nature of Avry’s healing powers – taking the injuries of others upon herself – also lends itself to the possibility for some great internal conflict, especially when combined with the deadly presence of the plague…

Sadly, however, the vast majority of the story was just boring. A good chunk of the book was spent with our heroes wandering around various different (indistinguishable) forests, and occasionally going on a short mission, or visiting a town, neither of which (usually) added anything to the overarching plot… And almost all the major twists and turns of the story were utterly predictable, from Avry’s romance to what was clearly supposed to be a shocking betrayal near the end of the book, but was in fact obvious from the moment the character in question first opened their mouth.

In fact, Touch of Power‘s biggest surprise for me ended up being the reason for Avry’s reluctance to heal Ryne, and that’s only because it seems so petty. Granted, rumour doesn’t paint Ryne as the nicest man in the world, but we’re led for a long time to believe that Avry has a powerful, personal reason to believe that the world is better off without him in it – and it would have to be a strong reason, because it’s made clear that she’s willing to risk her life to heal others, even those she doesn’t know.

The worldbuilding – one of the greatest strengths of Poison Study – was also sadly lacking here. There are thirteen different kingdoms in Touch of Power‘s world, and although Avry and her companions only travel through a handful of them, the lack of distinct environments is notable. I’ve already mentioned that there’s a lot bland forests, but they’re accompanied by bland mountains, towns and caves, with the only places that really managed to set themselves apart being the healers’ hidden archives, and Tohon’s palace, which is unusual by virtue of being the only single place that Avry explores in detail. I did see some potential in the Death and Peace Lilies (giant flowers that are identical in appearance, but one is harmless, while the other will eat you alive), but while they were conceptually very cool, they seemed mainly to act as a deus-ex-machina in execution.

As a protagonist, Avry was reasonably likeable, but somewhat inconsistent. I said earlier that I thought her reason for hating Ryne wasn’t worth the amount of energy that she put into it, but since she did hate him so much, I found it rather frustrating that she seemed to change her mind about healing him so easily – and that malleability was a trend throughout the book…

In terms of character development, she (and Kerrick) had a token amount, but the supporting cast were entirely forgettable (it’s been a few weeks since I finished this book, and the only reason I remembered Avry’s name was because it was in the series’ title; everyone else I had to look up). Two of Kerrick’s companions – Belen and Flea – had a decent chunk of screen time, but Loren and Quain could have been removed entirely without consequence to the story progression or even character interactions. Lack of screen time was a problem for a lot of the other characters, too, as they tended to flit in and out of the story quite rapidly, leaving little time for the reader to get to know them (or even want to)… Except for Tohon, who was incredibly one-dimensional, but did at least feel genuinely threatening.

[A brief aside about Tohon: Why does his power make him so irresistible to Avry? Presumably it’s due to some kind of reaction between both of their magic, because it doesn’t seem like attraction/mind control is anything that would be intrinsically linked to a person’s life-force. And why does he even want Avry to sleep with him so badly? Just to annoy Kerrick? I wouldn’t be surprised, but the weird rivalry between the royals in this book was another thing that annoyed me, mainly because I found the boarding-school-for-royals idea so out of place in this medieval-style setting… Anyway, my point is that Snyder spent far too much of this part of the book on Avry trying to resist Tohon’s advances, which really derailed the (already kind of all over the place) story, right as it was supposed to be reaching its climax.]

Given everything I’ve said so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if you all thought I hated Touch of Power, but I didn’t; I just found it disappointing, and a big part of that disappointment is my own fault for expecting too much. It was a quick and easy read, and never completely unenjoyable, and although it left me feeling mostly apathetic, fans of Snyder’s other books (as opposed to just Poison Study) may be more inclined to like this one, too. And that glimmer of potential from the book’s original premise is still there, unrealised, so I won’t say that there’s no hope for the series going forward – even if I’m not likely to stick with it myself.

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Library Scavenger Hunt: May

I’ve taken the last couple of months off from the LSH due to what I’m finally ready to admit to myself is probably something of a reading slump, but since I had some time off work this month, and am feeling a bit less frazzled, I thought it’d be a good time to try to get back into the swing of things – and although this month’s challenge (to read a book with “away” in the title) wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, I’m pretty happy with the choice I made. 😊 The book I ended up reading was…

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
Melissa Pimentel

Years ago, Ruby and Ethan were in love, before she broke up with him without explanation. Ruby might still be in love, but she’s not holding out hope that Ethan feels the same way, after everything she’s put him through… Her resolve to stay away, however, is put to the test when they’re thrown together again and again in the lead-up to her sister’s wedding – and could this romantic atmosphere lead to a rekindling of feelings on Ethan’s side as well?

It took me a little while to realise that this was a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and even then it was only because I saw a review that mentioned the fact – but to be honest, I would consider this story to be loosely inspired by Persuasion rather than an outright retelling. The premise is obviously similar – two characters meeting again after a breakup that neither of them really got over – and there are a few resemblances between Austen’s characters and a couple of Pimentel’s, but the tone of this book is quite different, and many of the complexities of Austen’s story have been left out of The One that Got Away. Familiarity with the source material is certainly not necessary in order to enjoy this book (though, if you don’t know Persuasion, why not? It’s great! 😋). In terms of Austen retellings, The One that Got Away is much closer to Bridget Jones’ Diary than, say, something like Eligible (for which you can find my review here).

The story is structured in two parts – past and present – and yo-yos between the two with each chapter, and it’s a structure that works well, building on the main plot largely uninterrupted, while gradually revealing more of the backstory in a separate storyline; it does a good job of building suspense  for the big reveal of what exactly happened to break Ruby and Ethan up, which is explained to us at almost the exact same time as it’s explained to Ethan – though, being that we are in Ruby’s head for most of the story, a fair number of readers will have already guessed it by that point. Speaking of which, the entirety of the present-day storyline is seen from Ruby’s perspective, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the past storyline was partially told by Ethan, allowing us to get to know him on a more personal level than just through Ruby’s eyes, without ruining the mystery of his present-day view on her… Both timelines seemed very well-crafted, but I will admit that I found it a little easier to get into the past storyline, if only because I found the things that they were both going through at that time to be more relatable.

Ruby and Ethan both made for relatable leads, and although their (very cute) romance is the driving force behind the plot, their own personal growth was just as compelling. It was genuinely upsetting to see Ruby’s downward spiral of (what seemed to me to be) depression in the past timeline, especially when contrasted with the huge bright spot earlier on that was the beginning of her relationship with Ethan. And Ethan got less of a spotlight, but he was incredibly likeable, and grew a lot over the course of the story… Where they both ended up in the present-day timeline was completely believable, and I’m glad to say that their character development didn’t stop there, either.

As you can probably tell from the review so far, I really enjoyed most of this book, but it definitely also has its flaws. The very ending felt incredibly rushed: The chapter where Ruby finally reveals to Ethan why she broke up with him is only four pages long, and is mostly  just Ruby mentally building herself up to it; the actual revelation happens off-screen, which is fine because we as readers witness what happened to Ruby first-hand in the next chapter (which is set in the past timeline), but in the few subsequent chapters there’s very little follow-up to their discussion, especially on Ethan’s part. And Ethan’s reaction to Ruby’s confession is actually quite problematic, as it indicates either that Ethan is not as good of a person as we’ve been led to believe, or else a complete disconnect between what Pimentel thought she was implying about what happened to Ruby, and what she actually implied… and this disconnect (which I think is the more likely answer) left a really sour taste in my mouth, very nearly spoiling what was otherwise a really fun read.

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

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. 😅)

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).