Book Review: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

26074170Victoria Schwab creates a very vivid atmosphere in This Savage Song, which is delightfully dark, suspenseful, and creepy. I definitely enjoyed this one more than The Archived, but the story and characters are not nearly as well-crafted or compelling as Vicious. Still, This Savage Song is an enjoyably dark, gritty read.

I really liked the concept of the novel, that violent crimes spawn physical manifestations of evil in the form of monsters, so that even unpunished crimes have real consequences. The “sinners” who commit the crimes that allow these monsters to spawn are forever stained by their actions. These monsters terrorize Verity City, and are at the heart of the civil conflict that has divided the city into two very different factions: the North City led by Callum Harker, who has established somewhat of a contract with the monsters, and the South City led by the Flynns, who have zero tolerance for monstrous presences.

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the children of these two families, who meet in a very star-crossed, Romeo and Juliet story, except there is no real romance in the book, and August is actually a monster who wants to be human and Kate is a human who wants to appear monstrous — or at least ruthless. I really liked how these two protagonists mirror each other in their desires for themselves, and both dance along the difficult line between good and evil, and what is monstrous and what is not. This theme is similar to one that is explored (to a deeper degree) in Vicious. Here, the struggle between good and evil, humanity and monstrosity is not nearly as complex.

In the past, I have struggled with getting into Schwab’s writing and by extension, her characters, even though her ideas and stories are so fresh and unique. With This Savage Song, I ran into a similar issue. I could not get emotionally invested in the characters, but there was enough action to keep me hooked. Schwab writes suspense very well and the atmosphere she creates is palpable, and that’s enough to make a good, entertaining read for me.

Book Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I recently read a New York Magazine article describing how climate change will have a catastrophic impact within the next decades, likely within my lifetime. The reality that we live in makes books like Ship Breaker (and Want, another recent read) seem more near-future and predictive than science fiction and is part of what makes this novel so effective.

Ship Breaker is set along the Gulf Coast in a near-future America full of drowned cities where city-killer storms can radically change the coastline in a day. Nailer is a teenage ship breaker, small enough to crawl into the dark depths of beached oil tankers and strip them of metals like copper that are shipped out and sold. He and his fellow inhabitants of Bright Sands Beach are dirt poor and work in what is essentially indentured servitude. They live in shacks and lack access to necessities such as enough food, protective working gear, and antibiotic medicine. His father is a violent, abusive drunk and his mother passed away from illness years ago. One day, Nailer and his friend Pima discover a beached clipper ship–one of the modern ships they often seen in the distance that only the rich can afford–and while stripping it of the excessive wealth that they find, they discover a swank, a rich girl, and must decide what to do with her: kill her and take their plunder, or save her and hope that she can lead them to a better life?

The only novel I’ve read from Paolo Bacigalupi before Ship Breaker was The Water Knife, one of his adult novels that has a similar theme examining the devastating effects of climate change. Although I found Bacigalupi’s themes and content interesting, I struggled to engage with his writing, and ran into the same problem with Ship Breaker. It took me several chapters before I was hooked, but there was sufficient action so that when I was in, I was all the way in and Ship Breaker ended up being a pretty quick read.

Ship Breaker has many elements common to a poor-boy-meets-rich-girl story, but differentiates itself in the complex way it handles morals vs. money and the post-apocalyptic setting. The changing climate has exacerbated income inequality and money is almost a vice, becoming the driving factor in people’s lives and outweighing moral principles. The rich believe themselves to have morals while the poor are all too willing to do whatever it takes to get some money and improve their lives. Nita, the girl that Nailer and Pima discovers, takes pride in her company’s commitment to “clean” industry, but her company also directly contracts and benefits from “blood buyers” who profit from the blood, sweat, and tears of poor workers like Nailer. He voices the complicated relationship between morals and money when he tells her, “The only reason you think you’ve got morals is because you don’t need money the way regular people do.”

Throughout the novel Nailer struggles with his own moral principles. Ship breakers run on their on moral codes where breaking blood oaths means social exile. But the ship breakers are also willing to turn their backs on those they do not have oaths with, and aren’t afraid to shed blood for self-preservation or self-promotion. In multiple instances Nailer must make a decision between self-preservation, doing what he thinks is “right”, and getting ahead in life.

Ship Breaker is a strong novel and good read despite its slow start with a warning message about climate change that is worth heeding and a little more complexity and depth than your usual young adult novel.

Book Review: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Rebel of the Sands because of some mixed reviews that I’ve read online, but I really enjoyed the story and zipped right through the novel. Rebel of the Sands is a well-written and entertaining young adult fantasy romance with a strong female protagonist who is easy to like.

The novel is set in a magical fantasy world and focuses on a vaguely Middle Eastern/Persian-inspired kingdom, Miraji, where young teenage heroine Amani Al’Hiza is trying to escape her oppressive life in a tiny town in the desert. She manages to escape with the help of a dashing young foreigner named Jin, and tries to leave him behind, but the two end up getting entangled with each other on their respective journeys as they try to evade the soldiers who are after them.

Most of the criticism of Rebel of the Sands (that I’ve read) have been about how it’s boring or about cultural appropriation. I think the boring aspect is a matter of personal taste — I never got bored and was quickly reeled in by the smooth writing, folklore, and magic. As for cultural appropriation, I recognize that as a risk of any young adult novel that tries to use other cultures that are foreign to a writer (most commonly, a white author writing about a non-white culture.) Making a world fantasy but appropriating real cultures doesn’t make it “okay” but I would also as a reader just read with the awareness that cultures in reality cannot be reduced to the simplifications and stereotypes that often appear in stories. As someone who has not personally experienced the culture being appropriated, it’s difficult for me to judge the offensiveness of cultural appropriation, so I just try to be an aware reader.

I got a lot of Under a Painted Sky and Walk on Earth a Stranger vibes from Rebel of the Sands, mainly because of the Western vibe of the opening parts of the novel. There is a similar theme of an oppressive culture and sexism forcing a girl to escape her current life and go on a journey in order to do so. They all end up cross-dressing and on the run from someone. I also got some Star Wars vibes, because part of Rebel of the Sands involves a rebellion led by a dethroned prince and a mega-weapon subplot. Seem familiar?

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting mash-up of genres: it involves some Western gun-slinging, shooting, and journeying, but is also a fantasy full of mythical beings and folklore rooted in reality. I thought this mash-up worked really well, and it also showed some of the clash between technology and nature/magic, progress and tradition. Despite the comparisons with Walk on Earth a StrangerRebel of the Sands feels very much like a fantasy whereas Walk on Earth a Stranger barely felt like a fantasy at all.

The protagonist Amani is an easy character to like. She is strong and independent, and in a world imbued with magic, I like that her greatest skill, shooting, is one built up with practice and time. She is a self-made woman.

Her relationship with Jin, a classic different, bad-boy, rebel type of love interest, has a healthy dose of insta-attraction built into it that raises of the question of whether their relationship is built on teenage hormones or a true deep connection. But he does give a pretty little speech on how he likes her because of how she “taught herself to shoot” and “made herself matter” that made him just a little more appealing.

Overall, Rebel of the Sands is an entertaining and enjoyable read good for anyone who likes a good fantasy.

Books: Want

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Want wasn’t originally on my to-read list, but I was browsing books at the library and the Asian male face on the cover caught my eye because it’s so rare to see POC in the young adult genre. I’ve read Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix and while it didn’t blow me away, I love that she’s introducing something new and different to the YA genre in the form of Chinese culture (in that particular instance.) With Want, she moves away from fantasy and into a more sci-fi territory.

Want is set in near-future Taipei where the air quality has gotten so bad that the rich, the you (literally those “who have”), have purchased special suits in order to venture outdoors. Meanwhile, the mei, the common folks who can’t afford suits, are plagued with short lifespans and succumb young to various diseases because of the toll that the environment has taken on their health. Jason Zhou was orphaned at 13 when his mother passed away from pneumonia, lacking the money and good health in order to fight the disease off. Now, he and his friends have made it their mission to take down Jin Corporation, the manufacturer of the suits, in order to open the eyes of the legislators and rich to the plight of the environment, because that’s the only way change can be made.

What I love about the world of Want is that while there is a certain futuristic quality to it, with the suits and whatnot, the danger of such a toxic environment is a very real and imminent threat to everyone on Earth. The novel is set in Taipei, but as of right now, the air quality there isn’t even as bad as it is in other cities like Beijing, which makes the world of this novel so much more impactful because if Taipei is that bad, then what does Beijing look like?

Unfortunately, when it comes to the actual plot and writing itself, Want is very average for me. It feels very over-familiar and done-before, and despite the novelty of having a POC cast and non-Western setting, the actual characters and plot itself feel a lot like every other similar vaguely-sci-fi, heist-centered young adult novel I’ve read. I got some toned-down Red Rising vibes mixed in with your choice of teenage heist novel (Heist Society, perhaps? or Six of Crows?) But in writing and storytelling Want fails to distinguish itself.

It took me several chapters to get into the story and characters, and even then there would be stretches where I just was not interested in the writing or story. The writing is very visual and movie-like, but too much visual description bores me when there isn’t enough other content to give the story and writing substance. A lot of parts of the story are glossed over very superficially (things happen as if by magic) and I would’ve liked to see more nuance or complexity.

Despite my personal inability to get into the novel, I do appreciate that we’re getting more non-white characters (and writers) in the young adult pool and I like that Pon hit some very relevant (and buzzword) topics such as the environment, privacy, and income inequality. I’ll be looking out for the sequel because I want to support and encourage racially diverse YA novels as a reader, and there are a couple of loose ends that still need tying up. Also, I’m pretty convinced that even though Jason treated his connection to the rich Lee family of California very casually, there is sure to be much more to this family relationship than a photograph that he disregards with a one-sentence thought.

Books: Magic Study

1265703.jpgI really enjoyed Poison Study, the first book in this series, so I had high hopes for Maria V. Snyder’s Magic Study. Unfortunately, I found Magic Study to be a disappointment. It failed to entertain and engage me, and felt at once both too broad and too narrow.

At the end of Poison Study, Yelena had essentially been exiled to Sitia and had planned to go there anyway in order to learn more about her magic. In Magic Study, she finds her family in Sitia, but her time with them is fleeting as she must go to the Magicians’ Keep to learn more about her magic. Of course, Yelena can never stay away from drama for too long, and she becomes involved with a man who has claims to the Ixian throne as well as a darker plot involving rogue magicians.

As I mentioned, Magic Study felt both very broad and very narrow to me. The breadth came in terms of the plot: we essentially see the development of two or three plotlines in this story. There is the introduction of Cahil Ixia, the supposed nephew of the former King of Ixia; then we have the Ixian ambassador’s visit to Sitia and the tensions related to that; and finally we have the real main plot, involving disappearing magicians and threats of a dark magic.

For a book of only about 400 pages, there is a lot going on, and the story as a whole suffers because of it. The magician plot ends up feeling a lot like the plot of Poison Study, and Yelena spends so much time traveling from place to place that we don’t really get to learn much more of the world or the new characters in it even though we get to see a lot of different places and characters. This is where the narrowness comes in. For all the breadth of settings and characters that we see, the only character that we get to know more of is Yelena. The supporting characters are underdeveloped and don’t have much depth, which makes it less tragic when they are captured or tortured or die. Former favorites from Poison Study make cameos but barely have a presence. Which would be fine except that it stole “screen time” (or page time) from the development of new characters.

Like a lot of second books in trilogies, Magic Study felt like a lot of transition and set-up for a finale of a third book. I hope that the final installment, Fire Study, is everything it is set up to be.

Books: The Archived

10929432I’ve really enjoyed Victoria Schwab’s adult works that feature a lot of fresh ideas and premises (ViciousA Darker Shade of Magic), so I had high hopes for The Archived. But even though the novel had a strong finish and was overall a solid read, I found that it was slow to start and felt like just another YA paranormal romance, with little to distinguish itself.

The premise itself at first seems fresh: Mackenzie Bishop is a 16-year-old Keeper whose job is to hunt down escaped Histories, which are essentially ghosts. She works for the Archive, where the dead are kept on shelves like books. This angle is interesting, but some of her abilities–such as being able to read the histories of objects, and occasionally, even people–are not so unique. The Archived is very introspective at times, showing Mackenzie both reeling and healing from her younger brother’s death, but also features a lot of action, with Mackenzie trying to solve the mysteries of her new hotel-turned-apartment home.

While I could appreciate Mackenzie’s struggle over the loss of her brother, Ben, I found it difficult to connect with her or feel her loss. We don’t know much about Ben beyond a few fragments of memory, and instead are often told about how much Mackenzie misses him or how much she and her family are still hurting. This is part of the reason why I found the book slow to start, because much of the beginning is Mackenzie grieving over her brother while we are simultaneously introduced to her job as a Keeper. It was some pretty dry stuff.

We do get some fun characters, such as her new friend (and love interest?) Wesley, and her Librarian mentor of sorts, Roland. I really liked Mackenzie’s dynamic with both. Mackenzie is also a great, strong female lead character. But while fun, the characters lacked memorability, perhaps because so much of the novel is focused on Mackenzie’s personal struggles. She is very much an independent woman and that shows, but I struggled to connect with her personal struggles, so that made reading some of the sequences a bit of a chore.

The second half of the book and ending tighten up quite a bit. Schwab feeds us more interesting parts of the world of Keepers and Archives and doors, while leaving enough to explore further in a sequel, and also picks up the pace in terms of plot. There are some twists and turns that you may or may not see coming, and overall we get a really solid finish.

The Archived is a really enjoyable novel if you haven’t read a lot of similar young adult novels before, but does not feel quite as special if you’re familiar with the genre.

Books: And I Darken

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So good and so not what I expected. I’ll admit that I judged And I Darken by its (beautiful) cover and pegged it to be some sort of light fantasy, but I was mistaken. Although the book sometimes feels like fantasy with the way the story unravels, it is very much rooted in history and the Ottoman Empire, the only “fantasy” twist being that the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler is now a female, our main character, Lada Dragwlya. And I Darken is a stunning and well-written alternate version of history, and, as promised in the title, the book gets dark and gritty and is hardly “light” fantasy.

And I Darken follows the lives of two Dracul siblings, Lada and Radu, as they grow up in Wallachia in the shadow of their cruel father, and later are essentially sold to the Ottoman Empire as a guarantee of peace between the two states. The two eventually befriend Mehmed, the son of the sultan, which lands the three of them in a complicated triangle of relationships involving romance, friendship, and family. In the meantime, the three must also navigate the complicated politics of the court and the Ottoman Empire, where there is danger around every corner and loyalties are uncertain.

 

Our main girl Lada is the star of the show here. She is a “nasty woman” in the best sense of the word, one who demands respect, but also manages to demand the reader’s sympathy. She is such a strong character, but also flawed. She’s proud, ruthless, and unforgiving, a difficult person to like, but one who still managed to steal my heart. She attempts to resist change, clinging through all the years to a fierce loyalty toward Wallachia, and the difficult lessons she learned in childhood of not showing weakness and never allowing herself to love. But at the same time, the ways in which she changes and develops across the story and years is so clear, most evidently in her relationships with the two men in her life–her brother and Mehmed, their friend and love interest–and the way in which she even allows herself to have a relationship with them. She is fascinating, defiant, and isn’t afraid to make difficult decisions for a vision of some greater purpose.

Radu, Lada’s brother, is an equally as interesting character. He starts out as an innocent youth who is eventually hardened by bullying and his sister’s harsh treatment of him, but also never loses that desire to love and be loved by his sister. While Lada could win any fight with her ferocity, Radu is much more subtle and adept at navigating politics, easily ingratiating himself with the members of the court. While Lada is extremely independent and seems to embrace her solitary existence with the Ottomans, constantly holding herself apart and reminding herself (and everyone else) that the Ottoman Empire is not home for her, Radu has constantly sought to find a home to belong to, and eventually finds one in Islam and the Ottoman Empire.

Both siblings have a fierce love for Mehmed, but also each other, and the novel explores the different kinds of love that are possible: love for mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers, homes, and countries. The love triangle in And I Darken is extremely compelling because all three members of the triangle are connected to each other (unlike others in which a single love interest links the other two), and the biggest struggle is that of each sibling’s love for Mehmed against their love for each other.

But I’d say that while love is a big theme of the novel, romance is not. It exists but is periphery to the greater questions of relationships and political intrigue. I really liked that romance doesn’t exist for the sake of romance, but instead is simply a component of some of the relationships, and the relationships are part of a greater context of personal struggle and politics.

My only previous experience with reading Kiersten White’s novels was nearly seven years ago with Paranormalcy, a somewhat cliche and classic paranormal teen romance. And I Darken could not be more different. It is dark and gritty, researched and well-written. I highly anticipate the sequel and await to see where our characters will go and how closely Lada’s story will follow history.