What I’ve Been Reading 2

June 4, 2013 at 7:53 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

You know that thing where you really do intend to do something regularly, Best Intentions and all that, and you just kind of…don’t?

Welcome to What I’ve Been Reading.

So we’ll hit the highlights, rather than be wholly inclusive.

Dream Thieves I just last night (very nearly this morning, I stayed up WAY too late reading this one) finished The Dream Thieves, by Maggie Stiefvater, and YOU GUYS! I am utterly incapable of talking intelligently about this book. Every Stiefvater experience just keeps getting better. This book is smart, and funny, and devastating, and so brilliantly put together that as soon as I finished it, I wanted to go back through to see if I could figure out how the frack she does it. I love that the shifting perspectives let us see such varying elements of each character, and yet every perspective shares some common threads- for example, Blue, Gansey, Adam, and Ronan all see some different specifics of Gansey, and yet they’re all simply shading in subtleties of the same person. Even as they each see something (not quite someone) different, each perspective is still distinctly recognizable. Even down to a structural level, the use of parallel sentences is brilliant, leading the reader into a solid impact that’s no less strong for falling into a rhythm. And the beauty isn’t just in the language, or in the characters, though both elements have more than their share of beauty- seriously, the characters are astonishing, gorgeous and rich and so very, very broken, each in their own ways, and we see not only the way they make each other whole but they way they all poke at those sharp, prickly, dangerous edges- but also in the subject matter, the Great Quest, and the history that’s woven through. This was one of the handful of books I was REALLY hoping to get at BEA, and thanks to the folk at the Scholastic booth kindly telling me when to come back, I was able to come home with one. It comes out in September, and seriously, if you’ve haven’t read The Raven Boys, DO IT NOW so you can read this one as soon as it comes out.

Dark Triumph Dark Triumph, by Robin LaFevers, is also a sequel, in this case to last year’s Grave Mercy. I totally gushed about that one when I read it, but as a refresher: assassin nuns in the 15th century Breton court. It was dark and elegant and riveting, and so seamlessly, flawlessly woven through real history that I gave it a second reading purely so I could compare it to a few non-fiction sources. Totally mind-blowing. Its sequel does not disappoint. We follow Sybella this time, Ismae’s sister-friend from the convent, who’s only ever clinging to sanity in some ways. Even in the midst of her private war with the abbess of St. Mortain’s, the convent was a refuge, and on the orders of the abbess, Sybella has gone back into the not-so-private hell that is her family’s house. This book is terrifying in some respects, largely because of the serious abuses Sybella endures and the desperation with which she clings to fragile threads that might be more ephemeral even than hope, but by the same measure, it’s perhaps more redemptive than Grave Mercy as well. Ismae’s journey was hard, a self-discovery and a true independence, but Sybella’s journey is hellish and raw and beautiful, and the trust and hope that shimmer together into a single being is amazing to watch. It’s a well-balanced story, with action and grace and the full range of goodness (and not) of which Man is capable. If you enjoyed the first book, this one is absolutely not to be missed.

Summer Prince I mentioned this one a while back as one I was still in the middle of, and WOW. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson, was kind of a weird book for me. It’s one I thought about putting down a hundred times, and yet couldn’t quite do it. That changed a little over halfway through, and suddenly the only reasons I wanted to put it down were lines and images to savor. It’s a sneaky, sneaky book, its darkness hidden for a long time beneath bright lights and festivals, and yet the decay is always there, much like the lowest layer of the city. The characters are strong and bold and almost frantically drawn, almost too alive in this fragile moment, where life and prosperity and order is brought about by a season of chaos and a ritual of death. It’s sexy and sharp-edged and so very, very sad, and I love that it deals with an amalgamated Brazilian culture, love that we get this glimpse into something that, even as it strains to move beyond its roots, clings to them in culture and tradition. The music comes off the page, the drop-dead sexy dances, even the tangy stench of the algae vats and the copper tang of blood. Be patient with this one- it takes a while for the language (the slang) to feel natural, and it cuts in and out of things for a bit, but it is totally worth the effort. This book blew me away.

Hero's Guide to Storming the CastleAnother sequel, but a Middle Grade this time, and TOTALLY AWESOME. The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, by Christopher Healy, picks up not long after The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. Most of our Princes Charming (rather than Prince Charmings) have separated back to their home kingdoms, but soon Princess Briar’s delightfully shrewish ways have them yanked back together for a chance of saving everything as they know it- if they can stop arguing. Accompanied with incredible illustrations, this volume has the same tongue-in-cheek love of the absurd that made the first one such a stand out, including (but not limited to): correct grammar, un-lawful de-kidneying, hysterical nicknames, and so much more. It’s a great spin on classic characters, each one standing out, each richly drawn (often literally, in the corners of the pages), and each with a strong mix of virtues and flaws- some more obvious than others. It’s an unusual Middle Grade in that most of the characters are adults, some of them in fact married, but they’re hugely fun and we still get to see them grow. This book is a magnificent adventure from beginning to end, and the idea of waiting another year for the next one is kind of painful.

School for Good and EvilThe School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, proved to be my mixed-bag-book for this round. It’s a fantastic concept- two kids kidnapped from a village in the woods and taken to the schools for good and evil, one to each, where they learn to be the type of fairy-tale characters they’ve grown up reading- only pretty, pink Sophie, spoiled and passionately-convinced of her own princessness, is taken to the school for evil, whereas bug-eyed, drab, greasy haired Agatha is taken to the school for good. Convinced that there’s been a mistake, the girls are desperate to make things right- only they have a very different idea of what their goal should be. In a lot of ways, this book was amazing. The schools are beautifully creepy, and there’s a world of fun in the details, and Sophie and Agatha are incredibly well-drawn, giving the reader a much clearer view of both girls than either have or themselves or each other. There’s a prophecy, an enigmatic and potentially dangerous figure, a series of challenges…this book really does have a lot of amazing elements to it. Really, there were only two things that bothered me. One: the ending. Without spoilers, it seemed very…I dunno. Not quite abrupt, more like it forgot it had to wind things up and so the curtain came down before the actors were really ready. Like the story was so much fun that the characters (or the author) didn’t want it to have to end. The second prickle was the bigger one, though- this books comes off as strangely homophobic, at least in hints. The friendship between Sophie and Agatha is both complex and complicated, and there exists a very real, very strong, and very one-sided love that doesn’t have to be given a name. The book alternates between avidly avoiding calling it love and throwing itself at an attempted definition that comes off as both awkward and off-putting. Love is a complicated thing, romance being only one rather small facet of it, and truth be told, their friendship didn’t need a name. The realizations they both make in the course of the book, the understanding each in her own way gains (especially Agatha- she’s unabashedly my favorite, even though there is a character named Dot who’s always eating chocolate), they didn’t need to be nailed down into something awkward. It left me closing the book and going “huh” rather than cheering as I had spent so much of the book wanting to do. I enjoyed most of it, but the unsettling bits linger. If any of you read this, I’m very curious to know what you think.

Maid of SecretsLast one for this round, Maid of Secrets, by Jennifer McGowan. Set in the early court of Elizabeth I, newly ascended to her throne, this book follows Meg Fellowes, an acting-troupe raised thief and con-artist kidnapped into the queen’s Court to serve as a spy for the queen and two of her shadow advisors. I never completely fell in love with this book, and I think that’s more due to stress while I was reading it than anything else, but I did really, REALLY enjoy it. I come from an acting background, and part of that was in Renaissance faires, so opening the pages kind of felt like coming home. I liked that the language gave away its origins and yet always remained accessible to a modern audience, and the attention to detail in clothing and small customs was brilliant. Meg is smart, resourceful, unabashedly ignorant of the larger social graces, and totally over her head in Court. I loved that the Spanish Court, largely a source of enigmatic animosity through the book (and history), is never drawn as a caricature. Those characters are just as distinct as the English players, and those we get to know are well-rounded. Meg’s fellow Maids are unique, each bringing different strengths to the group, and we actually get to watch them finally become a team, rather than just a group. It weaves through the very real intrigue that marked so much of the Elizabethan nobility, especially the troubles that came of having a young, resolutely unmarried, unswayably Protestant queen in a largely male, Catholic world of power. It sounds like this might be the first of a series? I HOPE, and I very much look forward to more of Meg’s adventures.

Currently, I’m reading another BEA prize, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. How ’bout you? What are you reading right now?

Until next time~

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Book Review: Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers + Giveaway

March 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm (Book Reviews, Giveaway) (, , , , )

The world is changing. Religion and politics shape the fate of entire nations, as new religions crowd out or subsume old ones and kingdoms are devoured by others. Into this world, Ismae’s father sells her into marriage with a brute-handed villager who nearly kills her when he sees the red scar on her back that marks her as being sired by Death Himself. Rescued by an herbwife and the village priest, she’s spirited off to the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters follow the old ways and the old gods, serving as Death’s handmaidens to ply His will and His justice. Trained in the myriad arts of the assassin, Ismae revels in a life unfettered by the dictates of a man.
Then she receives an assignment that thrusts her into the royal court of Brittany, a nation struggling to retain its sovereignty with a twelve-year old duchess against a grasping French regent and the ever-shifting alliances of Europe. Unable to trust anyone, uncertain how to interpret Mortain’s intentions, Ismae struggles to keep her footing in a den of treason, where not just her body but her heart is in danger every moment.

You guys, this book absolutely blew me away. In setting, in characters, in the things you carry away from it, this is an astounding book.

Even before the first page, you know this book stands out. The rich detail in the costuming, the mottled sky like a painted background, the castle behind her, all immediately inform you of the historical nature of this book. But in her hand? A crossbow. She’s holding a frickin’ crossbow. Even the title is provocative-Grave Mercy. But is it referring to mercy of a solemn nature, or the mercy of death? It’s not a question we ever get an answer to, but it’s a debate that runs through nearly every discovery in the story.

This book takes place in a very interesting part of history. Brittany was still a sovereign state but struggling to remain that way after their loss in the Franco-Breton war and the death of Duke Francis. Twelve-year-old Anne needs a strong marriage to protect her sovereignty but there’s no simple solution- her official fiancee, a prince of England, disappeared from his tower prison (yes, one of those princes). A treaty signed by her father requires the consent of the Crown of France to any marriage she might make, and Madame la Grande (Anne, Regent of France for Charles) is not inclined to give permission to an alliance that will strengthen Brittany against the French Crown. It’s also a time of great religious change- the Grand Inquisition is about to start and the papacy was making a great effort to strengthen its hold on the religious heart of the people and nations it touched. In nations like Brittany and Navarre, the old religions faded slowly and reluctantly, often adapting in appearance to avoid closer scrutiny by inquisitors of the church. All of that is actual historical fact.

It’s also a large part of the story. This book is brilliantly researched and the history comes alive within the pages. It isn’t he did/she did; it’s high stakes and it’s personal, every step of the way. The characters are rounded and dynamic, many layered, and defined by the roles into which they’ve been born.

In a sense, this could be called a feminist story. There are a number of female characters, each reacting to a sense of societal helplessness in different ways. Some, like the sisters of the convent of St. Mortain, escape from the world of men to make their own decisions. Some, like Duchess Anne, struggle to balance their duties of rank with a society that expects men to rule. Some seek to play men, some to merely endure them, and still others try to please them. No matter which path they choose, the women are still defined by the men. However, they’re not on a crusade to change that, not on a grand quest to liberate women from the bonds of an uneven societal and personal relationship. These women are too busy trying to simply survive.

Ismae is an amazing character, rich in strength but aware of her own weaknesses and slowly awakened to the dual nature of vulnerability. She doesn’t hate men like Sybella, nor she does have any particular love of them. She’s intelligent and resourceful, with generous faults, and a sincere belief in what she does. That her Crisis of Faith is in the service of an older god doesn’t change the basic fabric of the decisions she has to make. She has a genuine love her for tasks and abilities, not because she glories in the act of death but because it’s something she can do, a talent and a set of dearly bought and finely honed abilities. She’s appealing as a character, someone with whom we can easily sympathize. The fact that we sympathize with an assassin simply makes it an example of stellar writing.

And then there’s Duval: Gavriel Duval, bastard half-brother to the duchess and her sworn protector, stands at the heart of the dangers in the Breton court. It’s Ismae’s job to learn the exact nature of his position there. He’s a complicated man, a riot of emotions and seemingly conficting actions, with a web of information that frequently skirts the gray areas of moral inquiry. He plays things close to the chest, parceling out only what information he must, trusting minimally, but trusting effusively in those very few who’ve earned that. He’s a man consumed by what he does, but we spend most of the book uncertain about what, precisely, he’s doing.

The details in this book are gorgeous. Whether it’s the depths of the political intrigue or the different poisons or even the (completely realistic!) ways in which one might hide a variety of weapons in clothing, it’s the details that really make this book. That it’s woven so seamlessly through real history and characters is just…just…gorgeous. Unutterably, instrinsically, mind-blowingly gorgeous.

Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers, out in stores 3 April 2012. DO NOT MISS THIS BOOK.

In fact, want to win my ARC? Easy-peasy, US only, open through Tuesday, 20 March, all you have to do is answer a question below: if you could read an historical fiction about any person or set of events, what would it be?

Until next time~

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