Review: Crooked Kingdom

Crooked Kingdom
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

WHEN YOU CAN’T BEAT THE ODDS, CHANGE THE GAME.

In reviewing this novel’s predecessor Six of Crows, I made a point of saying that one of my favourite things about the world of Ketterdam and The Dregs was the pervasive darkness that seeped into every breath these characters took. It was a cruel, unforgiving world, populated with despicable people, our protagonists included. That’s part of the draw, however — after all, who wants to read a story about six wholly morally upright, righteous characters who trust each other implicitly on a heist? Yeah, no, me neither.

“There are no good men in Ketterdam.”

Human beings are inherently flawed — anyone who says otherwise is selling something and you should challenge him/her to the pain — and none more so than The Dregs. Our favourite motley crew of vicious scoundrels is back to pick up in the wake of where Six of Crows left off. I like that Bardugo has fully committed to and entrenched herself within these characters. They all get equal screen-time and individual journeys beyond the main plot and story, and their narrative voices all remain delightfully unique and easily discernible from each other.

“Don’t worry, Da. People point guns at each other all the time in Ketterdam. It’s basically a handshake.”

I suppose I could detail the story of Crooked Kingdom out to you, but it’s honestly rather complicated, so let’s just chalk it up to revenge. There’s a lot of revenge going on here, and while we root for The Dregs rather wholeheartedly, the concept isn’t glorified. It’s rather like watching Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas: you’re drawn into the violence, practically seduced by it, before you suddenly have to pause and take a few mental steps back. You have to ask what it is that you find so alluring, and start questioning yourself more than anything else. Even a few of the characters with Crooked Kingdom do just that, and the moments of introspection are absolutely top-notch, both in execution and what they bring to the novel.

“Sometimes, the only way to get justice is to take it for yourself.”

This has always been a novel about the characters — amidst all the heists and deceptions and action, The Dregs’ internal struggles have always been the backbone of this duology. These flawed humans are really put through their paces in Crooked Kingdom; every single member endures and confronts some kind of emotional trauma. Special shoutout to Wylan, Jesper, and Kaz for having my favourite moments in that regard — especially Wylan, who is just a little cinnamon roll and deserves a hug…several hugs, really. But I digress…

“Suffering is like anything else. Live with it long enough, you learn to like the taste.”

I cannot speak about this novel without commending its ending, especially its final chapter. Without any spoilers, it’s one of the most dark, and yet savagely delightful concluding chapters to a series I’ve encountered in YA. To go back to my Scorsese comparison, it really doesn’t leave you cheering, but it doesn’t leave you crying either. It leaves you tense and unsettled, something this series really needed from its ending. Given this world and its characters and everything that happens, darkness still prevails; cruelty and harsh reality still remain.

After all: NO MOURNERS. NO FUNERALS.

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Gods Forbid We Talk About Sex

Every year, I make a point to re-read one of my favourite book series’ of all time: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Consisting of three novels (Northern Lights — entitled The Golden Compass in the US — The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), this series marketed for young readers and young adults is a brilliant literary reversal of John Milton’s classic epic poem, Paradise Lost, even taking its own series’ title from the same poem:

Into this wild Abyss
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave–
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,–
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.

I love this series. I’ve loved it since I first picked it up back when I was in elementary school. However I often find it difficult to talk about this series without needing to acknowledge the…notoriety this series holds with many (usually religious) societies and people. One publication actually called the His Dark Materials the “stuff of nightmares Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.42.09 PM.pngand worthy of the bonfire.” Wow. Them’s fightin’ words — and, for the record: I think book burning is the stuff of nightmares and demonstrates nothing more than a level of ignorance and hatred so great, that there are not enough superlatives in the world that can, in any way, encompass it.

Bringing it more close to home, I can speak from experience the reactions that even seeing someone else reading this series can have upon the intolerant. While I spent my childhood in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, my young adulthood was spent in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. Now, when I started reading this series in New York at the tender age of around nine or ten, nobody bothered me about it. But come the age of seventeen-ish, when I picked up this book to re-read it? I got spewed with quite of bit of religious diatribe and verbal vitriol, a lot of it from people who hadn’t even read the books.

But despite all that, I don’t want to talk about the issues various religious groups have with these novels, or even the ridiculousness I have experienced over the years when people see me re-reading Pullman’s trilogy — you may take those as you will. Instead, what I want to discuss is the more insidious form of censorship that this series has experienced in North America: the invisible kind of censorship. I say invisible because, unless you were to own multiple versions of the series, or happen to like looking at books’ Wikipedia pages (as I do), you might not have known that several lines in the North American publication of the third novel in the series, The Amber Spyglass, were censored by the publishers. 

Spoiler-warning

CAVEAT EMPTOR: This post will contain spoilers for the His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, specifically details relating to the character arc of the protagonist in its concluding novel, The Amber Spyglass. You have been warned.

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Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m pleased to say that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of those cases where, upon re-reading this book. I got to change my star rating to one higher than the initial rating — in this case, going from around a 4/5* to a 4.75/5*.

This is due in large part to the 2015 miniseries adaptation put on by the BBC, starring Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as Strange and Norrell respectively. I cannot praise this seven-hour adaptation enough — you can see some of my ramblings on it here — and I will freely lay my cards out on the table to admit that I enjoyed the miniseries more than I did my first reading of the novel. But I will also attribute to my reasons for going back to the novel and noticing more of its charms this second go-round to the miniseries as well.

The novel is written in a pastiche of the 18/19th century novel, and so reads a bit like Dickens in that feats of magic or moments of tragedy are often described in an almost nonchalant, casual way. In terms of keeping with a consistent narrative style, this is right on the money, but I can’t deny that I oftentimes found it impeded my ability to immerse myself within the world. The style impeded my ability to engage and connect with the emotional epicentres of the characters, especially Jonathan Strange, who arguably undergoes some of the most emotional trauma of the entire novel. In the show, Bertie Carvel’s dynamic performance completely sold me on the journey of Strange in ways that the book did not, and I look at this pastiche-style — one of the things which makes this novel so unique — as the cause.

And yet, this second time, I did not have the same issue as the first read — well, not as much, as the very least. Sure, there were moments where I did not always engage and, so, fell back on what the miniseries elicited from me emotionally, but I truly did find it easier to slip into the pastiche style this time around, as if a hole had been blown through the metaphorical wall that got in my way the first time.

If there’s anything to possibly complain about on a narrative level, it is the openness of the novel’s conclusion. (view spoiler) There is no closure to that tragedy — no satisfactory, closure, that is, as the ending is truly bittersweet by virtue of its openness. Outside of (view spoiler), the ending is actually surprisingly hopeful, with (view spoiler) That’s my head!canon at least, if only so that my heart stops breaking for (view spoiler)

I’d be remiss not to mention Mr. Norrell in all of this. As you have probably gleaned from this review, I am a Strangite, meaning I fall more in line with Jonathan Strange’s way of thinking as it pertains to magic. I do also, admittedly, sympathise with his character mores o than Norrell’s, and this is because Clarke brilliantly takes a note out of Shakespeare, notedly Julius Caesar, and presents two opposite protagonists representing pathos and logospathos being appeal to the emotions of the audience, and elicits feelings that already reside in them (Strange); logos being logical, reasoned discourse that does not consider emotions (Norrell). Jonathan Strange is very clearly that Marc Antony-like pathos, easily imagined crying “havoc” to “let slip the dogs of war,” whereas Norrell is very much the logos. He constantly rationalises to the point of seeming callousness and lack of feeling or sympathy for others. But my greatest gripe with Norrell is his elitist, conservative attitude wards magic. While I can understand some of his intentions in wishing magic to be respectable, hoarding all the books of magic so that others may not learn and forbidding others to even call themselves magicians so that they may not study or even attempt to practice…it’s awful and does not sit well with me at all. So while Strange is certainly reckless in much of his impetuousness, I still prefer his attitude to Norrell’s.

Long story short: this book might take some getting used to stylistically, but it is rewarding to those who manage it. Then go block out seven hours for the miniseries because it’s bloodydamn brilliant.

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Review: Empire of Storms

Empire of Storms
Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hate to admit it, but I think I’m tired of this series.

Had you asked me a couple of years ago, when I’d first started this, I’d have told you this series was great. It was fun, fast and action-packed, and had plenty of problems yet was easily addictive — in other words, it was crack.

Throne of Glass and Crown of Midnight were very much like that, as the adventures of badass lady-assassin, Celaena Sardothien, and her friends — including a captain of the royal guard, a good prince with an evil king for a father, and a foreign princess — were a delight to read, and I eagerly awaited the day they would triumph over the insidious monarch and, essentially, save the world. The world expanded in Heir of Fire to include Ironteeth Witches (awesome!) and, most importantly, the Fae (kill me). And it is that faerie element to which I turn as being the point where this series began to lose me.

To be fair: I don’t hate faeries in literature. It’s more that I’m wholly apathetic to them; I don’t get particularly excited for them and, more often than not, I find them a nuisance. There are certainly exceptions to this general rule, and Ms. Maas herself has a faerie series (A Court of Thorns and Roses) which I particularly enjoy.

The issue with the Fae in this series is that Celaena’s time spent there in Heir begins to change her character in a way which I found particularly dull — and then top it off with the introduction of a new character whom I particularly dislike that becomes a (yet another) new love interest for Celaena. I don’t mind her having a healthy romantic life that involves numerous partners throughout her time, in fact I’m rather on board with it; but it’s what Ms. Maas feels she must do to the previous love interest in order to justify the new one that bothers me, as Ms. Maas writes what amounts to veritable character assassination as a result.

Queen of Shadows was the first time I knew I had to start admitting to myself that I wasn’t actually enjoying this series as much anymore, and this character assassination was one of the greater reasons. The other primary cause being that I could not justify the sheer size of that book, despite the satisfaction that came with the bulk of that novel’s finale.

And yet nothing compares to the slog that was reading this novel, ending in the most eyeroll-worthy (almost gag-inducing) groan of a cliffhanger I have ever read in a Sarah J. Maas novel. Perhaps my issue with the finale is the similarity to the ending of A Court of Mist and Fury, Ms. Maas’ other 2016 release that also involved the fae. (view spoiler)

So why does this book still get three stars from me? Well, because Manon and Aedion are great, and there are strong moments that shine through the slog. But my intense dislike of Rowan and everything to do with him makes Empire of Storms a bitter pill to swallow.

Just let it end. Please.

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Review: Ghost Talkers

Ghost Talkers
Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**A massive thank you to Tor Books for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purposes of review**

I’m a fan of Mary Robinette Kowal. I ate up her Glamourist Histories series like an addict, and upon finishing, I knew that I was on board for whatever she was to write thereafter. When this book’s synopsis was released, I knew that I would like it: an alternate history, set in WWI no less, involving a Spirit Corps of mediums who use the information gleaned from the ghosts of dead soldiers to aid the war effort? Brilliant. Love it. I am also, I should admit, a sucker for WWI — I don’t see enough of it onscreen or in fiction, so getting something so entrenched (no puns intended) in that world event was a joy. Throw in that wee bit of magic in the form of mediums and ghosts, and I’m practically leaping about with happiness.

If I were to describe the Glamourist Histories as “charming,” then Ghost Talkers is wholly “bittersweet,” but in the best way. The horrors of war are never shied away from, but nor are they glorified. The old saying that “war is hell” comes to mind, as it is the best way to describe the emotional roller-coaster that is Ghost Talkers. Very quickly, the novel lets you fall in love with characters before immediately snatching them away, sometimes in what can seem like a horrid, senseless swiftness. But that is war and that is death: it is swift, it is unforgiving, and, at times, it can seem senseless.

Now, the bulk of the novel is spent in trying to solve a mystery — who is the German spy in the British camp? — and it’s a solid plot. I guessed who the perpetrator was very early on, but I do not credit as a fault to Kowal’s writing. I think I’ve just seen and read far too many mysteries to the point that my first guesses are usually on point. So, yes, I figured out the mystery very early, but that meant that I could enjoy everything else about this novel all the more. I loved the small little details that were peppered in throughout. For example, the soldiers who report in to the Spirit Corps detail anything they might have seen before their death, usually providing some kind of vital intelligence about what the Germans are up to. When the Germans discover this, they begin blinding the soldiers in the Spirit Corps, a logical solution — but even better than that is the idea that’s posed about the use of mustard gas as a means to blind the soldiers and, thus, compromise their spirit-reports. I think that’s brilliant, because it perfectly blends real-world history with the magical concept.

And that is what I think makes great alternate history, especially alternate history that includes something magical or paranormal.

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Review: Dragon Tales

Dragon Tales
Dragon Tales by Bertie Carvel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5/5*

Yes, I listened to audio intended for children, and I regret nothing. In all honesty, I picked this up because it’s narrated by Bertie Carvel, whose turn as Jonathan Strange in the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is so inspiring, that I went ahead and got my hands on anything he narrated in some way.

These children’s tales about dragons are read with delightful charm, which really just makes you smile while you listen. Sometimes, you need to embrace your (not-so-)inner child and listen to something like this.

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