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.

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.