Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas

77493_originalA Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas

Rating: 3/5 stars

Synopsis: In this Beauty and the Beast retelling, huntress Feyre must pay the price for killing a fairy (she wasn’t sure if it was a wolf or a fairy, and she didn’t care). Her life is forfeit, but the high lord who comes for her offers her a deal: live at his court instead of being executed and her family, for which she is the sole breadwinner, will be taken care of. Feyre agrees, thinking she might find a way to escape and return to them. But the land of the fairies is dangerous even for a skilled hunter, and Feyre starts to realize the fairies aren’t all evil like she grew up believing. Particularly the high lord, Tamlin.

Even as Feyre comes to sympathize with the fairies and fall for Tamlin, she learns that there is a mysterious blight in the fairy realm that may soon have dire consequences for humans. And … she just sits there like a useless lump, painting and laying about in fields in an endless montage of romantic scenes with no conflict instead of learning to read and write to send a warning to her family. And then Tamlin sends her home to protect her and … she just goes along with it. Until she realizes (aka her badass sister, who was a much more interesting character, yells at her) that she made a huge mistake and goes back. Only to discover that there is a curse on Tamlin and only she can save him.

As a reader: This novel had such a promising opening. Feyre is a badass who learned how to hunt to keep her family from starving, and her hatred of the fairies that leads her to kill one is a wonderful dark side to the character. This is a young woman who is doing whatever it takes to survive a harsh life. It took me by surprise because the first few chapters didn’t sound like the back of the book and I wasn’t sure how she would get from here to there, but it was fantastic.

And then this beast shows up at her front door. I hadn’t known that this was a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but Tamlin’s beast form (he’s a shapeshifter) reads exactly like the Disney character and I figured it out as soon as he was introduced. Unfortunately the Disney character has more personality than this Fabio wannabe. I kept hoping she would fall for his best friend, who was a more interesting character and better matched to Feyre’s dark side. Eventually one of the villains does turn into a potential love interest and it made me so happy because I want her to drop Tamlin back into the starlight pool where he tried to seduce her in one of the stupidest scenes of the novel. But that’s not gonna happen in this book because the whole book is about her learning to love a fairy enough to risk her own life to save him.

As soon as Tamlin enters the story the fight goes out of Feyre. She is still ornery, naturally, because she hates fairies, but her half-hearted attempts to find a way to leave are cut in with scene after scene of her and Tamlin falling in love and it dragged on way too long. At one point she drinks fairy wine and does a psychedelic dance for him as he plays the fiddle and then they watch the sunrise. That was the scene that made me want to put the book down, but I wanted to see if she would ever get to the intriguing conflict described in the blurb so I kept slogging on. Shortly after, Tamlin makes Feyre leave and she barely protests and her sister has to convince her to go back. There she discovers that Tamlin had been lying to her and trying to seduce her to break a curse and she isn’t even mad. He was using her, and she’s like “whatever, I get why he was doing it.” This character has just given up all agency and human emotion.

Once she returns to the fairy realm and decides to save Tamlin she suddenly grows a spine again and the book redeems itself. I ended up giving this three stars: one for the awesome beginning, one for the awesome ending, and one for the fact that the ending left me wanting to read the sequel despite my frustration with the middle.

As a writer: This novel was a good lesson in the fact that plot and conflict aren’t the same thing, and every scene needs conflict.

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Review: Born from Fire (Tales from the Longview #1) by Holly Lisle

longview-01-born-from-fire-final-cover-artx750x1200Born from Fire (Tales from the Longview #1) by Holly Lisle

Rating: 1/5 stars

Synopsis: In a society where love is a criminal act, one man is sentenced to death for having a child with the woman he loves, while another was exiled as a boy for kissing a girl but eventually finds his way to working on The Longview, a ship that takes aboard prisoners sentenced to death and does… something mysterious with them.

This society, the We, suppresses individuality and punishes anything that is not considered “fair” and politically correct. When someone is caught committing a crime they can repent and rejoin the We by jumping into a lake of fire (and thus dying) or they can be sentenced to death and sold to the death circus where they will be worked to death or turned into gladiators or put in stasis if no one wants to buy them. The Longview is full of prisoners in stasis, and appears to be doing something with them though we don’t know what.

As a reader: The novella has two points of view, “this criminal” and Kagen, a crew member on The Longview. The point of view of “this criminal” (that is literally what he is called in the narrative) gets annoying quickly. I want a point of view character to have a name. The text does eventually explain that he never felt a part of the We so he felt like his name We-39R was a lie, but then why didn’t he come up with a name he secretly called himself before becoming a criminal?! His story also ends abruptly after he is bought by The Longview and put in stasis. Since this is a series I’m guessing he must return in a later installment, but I don’t really care if he does and his point of view felt unnecessary to me. All of the plot happens in Kagen’s scenes.

Kagen isn’t much better as a point of view character, however. Through his point of view we learn more about the horror of the We, and it becomes apparent that the We is a thinly veiled portrayal of a libertarian’s nightmare society. It also involves *a lot* of violence against women for no apparent reason, including gratuitous gang rape. Kagen, meanwhile, is an idiot. He gets caught up in politics between an officer and his immediate superior, and with one tiny misstep becomes convinced that his career is over and acts rashly as a result. It made no sense why he jumped to such an extreme conclusion over a minor thing other than the fact that the plot required it.

The only reason I finished this is because it is so short. By the time I decided it was terrible I only had one chapter left so I figured I might as well read it, and maybe the ending would provide some sort of satisfying conclusion that would improve the story overall. It didn’t.

As a writer: It felt as though the “this criminal” point of view was an attempt to show rather than tell the world building, but the character lifts right out of the story, the plot wouldn’t change if his scenes were cut, so it’s not a good example of how to avoid information dumps. The world building was also way too heavy-handed with libertarian politics. This is a good example of why writing with an agenda instead of themes doesn’t work (and why you need to look carefully at whether your themes might read as an agenda to someone else).

I was again frustrated by Lisle’s use of sexual violence in ways that are very refrigerator girl and unnecessary to the plot (there are so many other things she could have used to make this society horrifying). Throughout the story I kept thinking of what I would have done differently, and it was pretty much everything.

I would usually feel terrible writing such a scathing critique, but, honestly, between the libertarian bunk and the gang rapes I’m not inclined to be nice.

Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

9781595148049An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Rating: 4/5 stars

Synopsis: After her brother is arrested and their grandparents killed, Laia will do anything to rescue him. In desperation she turns to the Resistance, a group working to overthrow the Martial Empire that conquered their people, the Scholars, centuries ago. The Resistance agrees to help her on condition that she turn spy for them and pretend to be the slave of the commandant of the military academy that trains Masks, the deadly assassins of the empire.

Elias is training to become a Mask, but he hates the future he faces and plans to run away the day after graduation when people will least expect it. However, the emperor of the Martial Empire is aging and childless, and come graduation Elias finds himself selected to participate in a competition that will name the new emperor. And an oracle tells him that if he runs, he will never be free of the empire. Competing is the only way for him to escape.

As a reader: The novel is told in alternating first person POV, which I found jarring at first and though I eventually got used to it, Tahir’s penchant for ending scenes at cliffhangers and switching to the other point of view got annoying. The novel is fast-paced and hard to put down, the world is vivid and well developed (and based on the Roman Empire!), and Laia and Elias both have very compelling stories.

The book heartily embraces YA tropes, including the time-honored love triangle. BUT WAIT, because it’s dual POV, there are TWO love triangles. It’s like a love trapezoid, and both of the other love interests are clearly terrible matches (when Laia’s first love interest is introduced he’s a grade A jackass, and then she comments on how close his body is to hers as he’s being a jackass and I knew – he’s the guy she likes but doesn’t end up with because it would be a terrible thing for her to end up with him). Meanwhile Laia and Elias are interested in each other but a Mask could never have a relationship with a slave, it would never work. (Except that he’s totally planning to run away and not be a Mask, and she’s not really a slave…) However, it is never obvious how they will find their way to each other and ditch these other crappy high schoolish romances, so it works.

Following in the tradition of Emily seems to only read books that involve sexual violence, this society has a strong rape culture. From the beginning, Laia is under frequent threat of rape, and it does culminate in a rape attempt that remains in her point of view for about a page too long. It was obvious what was happening, the tension was already built, so showing another page of gruesome violence felt unnecessary.

That is my biggest complaint about this otherwise enjoyable novel, and why I gave it 4 stars instead of 5. An Ember in the Ashes is extremely violent, and while the violence works with the world and the rape culture felt very real and was generally well handled, certain violent scenes last longer than necessary. When surrounded by scenes with the protagonists’ raging hormones, the violence reads like torture porn. For example while Laia is fighting a would-be rapist, Elias is having fighting-as-foreplay with his other love interest. We cut from Laia being beaten nearly unconscious to Other-Love-Interest straddling Elias and their kiss is interrupted by Laia’s scream. It would have been dramatic, it would have been gripping, but I was still reeling from the graphic violence so instead it felt icky.

As a writer: I really admire what Tahir did with this novel. It is well structured and paced, she heartily embraces tropes but makes them feel new, and her characters feel like real people, down to their very real flaws. In particular, Elias is somewhat (and sometimes very) unlikeable but still sympathetic with compelling conflict, which I appreciated. That is a difficult balance to strike and something I struggle with in my own writing. He is a character struggling to hide his true beliefs and desires in a hostile environment, which naturally lends itself to sometimes doing despicable things. This is the kind of novel I would love to write, just making a couple particular scenes end sooner.

Boskone 54

This year I went to my first ever Boskone! I hadn’t realized how small Boskone is, and I loved that kids actually attend. While that meant that the Q&As didn’t reach the level of academic depth of some Readercon panels, it was wonderful to see kids actually engaging with authors and stories and asking great questions.

Having only ever gone to Readercon before, I wasn’t sure what to expect with the panels and was pleasantly surprised. There were more general interest panels, which lessened the risk of them relying entirely on the moderator to come up with good discussion questions, and with the anniversaries of both Harry Potter and Buffy this year there were a bunch of panels related to my two main fandoms!

The fact that this was more general interest and less in-depth discussion of a very narrow subject meant that I don’t have the analysis I usually do after a con. However overall I had a blast and I look forward to going again next year!

Review: City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson

9780399547584 City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson

Disclaimer: In the Acknowledgements in a long list of names you’ll see Emily. That’s me! Natalie is a member of the BSpec writing group and I read early drafts of the beginning of the novel.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Synopsis: Tina is a thief. A really good one. And she wants to use her skills to get revenge against the man who killed her mother, Mr Greyhill. One problem: she doesn’t have any proof. Another problem: Tina knows very little about her mother’s life in the Congo before they came to Kenya as refugees, but Mr Greyhill’s motive was somehow connected to that past. The solution: the Goondas, the gang Tina works for, are eager to access a mining executive’s bank accounts and help her enact her scheme.

Everything is going according to plan until Tina is caught mid-break-in by Mr Greyhill’s son and her childhood friend Michael. Michael is eager to prove his father’s innocence and agrees to help Tina find the proof she needs, but the Goondas are breathing down her neck to complete the heist and get their payday. And as Tina learns more about the mystery of her own past more questions are raised than answered.

As a reader: This is one of the few books I’ve ever read where the twist actually surprised me. That alone earns City of Saints & Thieves five stars.

Although set in a fictional city, the world in which Tina lives feels very real, from small details like giving her sister pencils for school and Tina’s many tattoos to the violence and danger of being in a gang. And it is a GANG, not some YA plot device.

Tina is also an incredibly interesting character to read. She has a strong voice, framing the narrative as a series of rules for thieves that she is giving to the reader. She is confident and competent and hard. She pushes people away, she lashes out and makes herself hard to like, but she is still so sympathetic and her voice sucks you in from the very first rule.

As a writer: I’ve never written first person present tense, but this novel makes me itch to try it.

Books I finished reading this* year (Part 2)

I had a mad scramble at the end of December to reach my goal of 12 books for the year (a small goal, I know, but here is why), and I made it! Plus one extra!

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon – Grady Tripp is an aging man-child who chain smokes pot and can’t seem to ever reach the end of his ever-expanding novel. His life is a mess – he’s been sleeping with his boss’s wife, who is now pregnant, his own wife just left him, and his editor is visiting and asking to read the unfinished novel. And he is one of the most delightful narrators I have ever read. Grady makes bad decision after pot-addled bad decision but he would be great to have a beer with.

Preludes & Nocturnes (The Sandman #1) by Neil Gaiman – I wish I had read Gaiman’s notes at the end before deciding to read this volume because he acknowledges that it wasn’t until the very last tale in the collection that he finally found his footing with The Sandman. And indeed, the last one was the best one. The layouts were often confusing and unintuitive so that I frequently realized I had read the panels in the wrong order, stories were told in a disjointed way so that I forgot who characters where when they appeared again, the multi-arc villain was dull, the side characters were trying to be intriguing but fell short. Usually when I read a Gaiman story at the end I find myself wishing I could write like him, but that was not the case with these stories. The one time I found myself going “wow, that’s a really interesting idea” was the horror story of Dr Destiny trapping a random group of people in a diner and playing with them to restore himself to full power. The idea of a supervillain engaging with everyday life was intriguing but the story ultimately didn’t work, and of course because this is my aggravating year of reading things with gratuitous sexual violence in them, there was a rape scene. I may try another volume of The Sandman at some point, but first I need to forget I ever read this one.

Remalna’s Children by Sherwood Smith – Each of the novellas in this collection felt like a prequel to a novel. I hope Smith gets around to writing those novels some day, as I would very much like to read them.

Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie – As with any collection of short stories, some of these were delightful and some were less successful. Alexie’s style is simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking. Many of the stories were about grief, many were about love and family, all of them had rich, complex characters. The collection ranged from traditional narratives to rambling free-writes of anecdotes and biographical details of a character. In trying to think of my favorite story from the collection, three different ones come to mind, each for different reasons. There is the couple coping with a sick baby by filling his hospital room with drumming and singing and a laugh out loud prop I won’t spoil, the homeless man who found his grandmother’s ceremonial clothes at a pawn shop and needs to raise money to buy it but also needs to eat, and the businessman who bonds with his taxi driver over the driver’s unlikely life story. A very enjoyable read.

Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies; Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists; and Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide (Pottermore Presents #1-3) by J.K. Rowling – I was delighted by these three collections of short articles and essays. While the first volume felt two short, the latter two had wonderful complements of in-depth information about important characters and subjects paired with shorter pieces on relevant topics. The essays by Rowling (“J.K. Rowling’s Thoughts”) following many of the articles meant these read less like an encyclopedia of the wizarding world and more like the author saying to readers, “Here. I think you will find this interesting.”  Overall very enjoyable, and I hope Pottermore produces more of these!

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty – I was hoping for a general writing guide on finding structure as you write and writing as a pantser without the frequent interruptions of having to figure things out when you don’t know what happens next, you didn’t think through that bit of world building or character development, etc, but instead this is a guide on how to win NaNoWriMo. Keyword win. This isn’t a guide to getting a solid 50k start on a novel, and there is a lot of junk advice if you are hoping to ever publish. But there are also some useful nuggets and a good emphasis on letting go of your inner editor.

This wraps up the list of books I finished in 2016. My goal for 2017: 24 books! Fingers crossed.

Books I finished reading this year (Part 1)

Given the usefulness in my exercise on looking at the books I started but didn’t finish this year, I thought it would be interesting to similarly look at the ones I did finish and why. I haven’t yet met my pathetic goal of 12, so this is Part 1. Part 2 will be whatever I finish between now and 11:59 PM on December 31st (hey, I have a week off, I can dream).

Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 1) by George RR Martin – This was the third or fourth time I’ve tried to read this book, and every previous attempt I gave up around 150 pages in. The main problem is that there are *a lot* of point of view characters and half of them are unsympathetic. I actually watched the show this year, found the characters that I liked, and then went back and made a final attempt to read the book. And I discovered three things: 1) with the exception of Danaerys every sympathetic character in their first (and sometimes second) chapter reads as one dimensional and a trope*, but in their second or third chapter their complexities start to emerge and they become much more interesting to read but there are so many points of view that these chapters don’t happen until after the point at which I always stopped reading; 2) the secondary characters are just so gosh darn interesting that once they show up they carry the scenes they are in even thought Catelyn is annoying, Ned is a self-centered, sexist ass, and Jon needs to get over his emo crap; and 3) some of them very, very slowly improve. Ned eventually won me over with his love for his daughters and acknowledgment that Arya is not a delicate lady, and Bran’s struggle with his disability was a lot more compelling to read than his rambling philosophy of climbing. I also discovered that Dany’s scenes are a lot more creepy in the books and I slowly stopped liking her as a POV character, but the rest of the characters kept me reading. I think the main problem with this book is the sheer amount of time it takes to do a minimal amount of world building and introduce backstory really slows down the beginning, and changing points of view every 10-15 pages further slows it. Once you get past that 150 page hump, it gets better.

There is also the problem of the rather extreme sexism and the frequent sexual victimization of Dany, made all the more unsettling because she doesn’t realize that none of this is okay. But it becomes apparent that the sexism is part of the world-building-driven plot rather than the author’s belief system, and the women all have agency and are working to take control of their lives in whatever ways they can. This creates one of my favorite villains in any series I have ever read, as well as a wonderful examination of what really makes a female character strong. Sansa is frickin unbreakable. There are no refrigerator girls in this book.

* When I have mentioned this criticism to others they have argued that Martin originated the tropes. However, this isn’t true. Tyrion bears a striking trope-level resemblance to Beldin, a character from The Belgariad which was published a decade earlier and at the time was famous enough to be trope-defining. Similarly, the trope of the girl who wants to be a knight and goes about doing just that despite people saying to her “but you’re a girl” started with Alanna in The Song of the Lioness (and that’s just the first one I know of), also published a decade earlier.

Pawn of Prophecy (The Belgariad Book 1) by David Eddings (and Leigh Eddings, unattributed) – I read all of the books set in this world back in middle school and *loved* them. In struggling with my own revisions I decided to revisit this classic epic fantasy as homework. I was both rewarded and disappointed. The book is a fun, quick read with plenty of action and a very dry sense of humor. Unfortunately most of the characters are one-dimensional. I seem to recall them slowly becoming more complex over the course of the series, which is an even graver offense than Martin’s problem, but I like the narrator, which kept me reading.

Reading through all the sexism and stereotyping of ethnic groups. I was shocked to discover one of my favorite books was so problematic, and decided I shouldn’t reread the rest of the series when there was casual discussion of marital rape and a total glossing over of the woman who was obviously traumatized (like, her characterization was actually consistent with a domestic violence and rape survivor, but other characters kept telling her to just get over it). I was sad to discover a former favorite was so problematic, but at least now I know to stop recommending it to people.

Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix – Another middle school favorite, I always loved how independent and resourceful Ella is in this book. In rereading it, I discovered that the world building is pretty thin (e.g. all of the kingdoms have made-up names suggesting a secondary world fantasy, and yet sophisticated people speak French) but in a fairytale retelling I was willing to forgive that. So I kept reading and reading and then BAM. Yet another book that uses rape or rape threats to motivate a character when literally anything else could have been used. They could have threatened to execute her, torture her, disable her in a way that would ruin her hopes of future employment. Nope. They threatened her with rape. I finished the book because it was extremely short and there were only a few chapters left, but I contemplated putting it down. How did I not notice that so many books I read in middle school involved rape?

How to Make Out by Brianna R Shrum – Completely implausible plot, love interest is a manipulative ass and total Nice Guy until the final chapters, but I loved the character’s voice. Also, unsurprising in a book called How to Make Out, there were plenty of steamy scenes involving making out that frankly are a good tutorial on how to write romantic scenes well in YA.

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson – A reference on writing with deep point of view. A lot of the examples of deep POV that Nelson gives are, well, bad writing, but the examples of shallow POV are extremely useful in spotting those problems in your own drafts.