T5W: Hate-to-Love Relationships

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Review: Now I Rise (The Conqueror’s Saga #2)

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

**Thank you to Random House Children’s for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via Netgalley for the purposes of review**

Lada knew punishing Transylvania for everything that had gone wrong in the past year did not make perfect strategic sense. But it felt better than anything else, and so Transylvania burned.

I made a point in my review of this novel’s predecessor, And I Darken, of noting that it was a rather long novel, but that, if you stuck with it, you would be rewarded. This novel follows that same process: it’s a long, slow-moving book that, should you stick with it, will reward you on several levels.

Mainly in that Lada is one of the best, bloodiest, most wrathful heroines to grace us in ages and I am absolutely here for it. Perhaps it makes me a terrible person, but I love the fact we have a “fight first, (maybe) talk second” heroine who is the very definition of a momentum. Once she starts, she’s more than just a little difficult to stop, so you’d best just get out of her way. While her singleminded fury would be terrifying in reality — and, trust me, it’s still a little terrifying in fiction — it’s also admirable beyond belief.

But there’s weight to it. Nothing ever feels easy for Lada, and even though I’m not trying to take back a kingdom, I can empathize with Lada’s quest because of how such bloodshed and violence affect her. Even when it doesn’t affect her. But I’m not complaining, because this is a girl who is more than a little acclimatized to traumatic violence. She’s been on the delivering and receiving ends of it so often that it’s just a part of her life and who she is.

<blockquote>She had done what was necessary. She watched as each body was removed. She would mark their passing, and acknowledge their unwilling sacrifice. Because with each body they drew closer to her goal. She clutched her locket so tightly that her fingers ached.

She was a dragon. She was a prince. She was the only hope Wallachia had of ever prospering.

And she would do whatever it took to get there.</blockquote>

This girl goes almost literally through hell and back and, by sheer force of will — and a great company of men who follow her — becomes Prince of Wallachia. That’s right: Prince. You go, girl. You take that title and you put it right in Radu and Mehmed’s faces.

The “love triangle” is more of an irritant than it was in the first book, and that is because, again, Mehmed — our triangle’s centre — is the weakest character. He’s not particularly interesting, and I am left utterly baffled as to what it is about him that so heavily infatuates Radu. I mean, yes, I’m willing to go with the idea of “different strokes for different folks” as it pertains to the people to whom we are attracted…but I just don’t get it. Mehmed is nothing more than a prat and deserves to go die alone without his harem.

The only bonus of the Radu/Mehmed portions is Radu’s wife, Nazira. This ball of sass is a regular spitfire and a great addition. I’m just sort of hoping she manages to rip Radu away from Mehmed, drag him to Lada and say, “Hi. We’re here to join your bloody campaign.”

Granted, whether or not Lada would listen…

To Radu, my brother,

I do not acknowledge your new title, nor Mehmed’s. Tell the lying coward I send no congratulations. He sent none to me when I took my throne in spite of him.

You did not choose right.

Tell Mehmed Wallachia is mine.

With all defiance,
Lada Dracul, Prince of Wallachia

…yeah, that’s up for debate.

I really can only just say how impressed I am with this series thus far. I went into it braced for something gimmicky that made me want to pull my hair out, and have been, instead, blessed with a dark, viscerally violent historical-fiction series that details the rise of a conqueror and other rulers in way that’s hypnotic. It requires patience and a good attention-span, but it earns its page-length in a way that many longer YA novels don’t.

Review: Den of Shadows (Gambler’s Den #1)

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My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

**Thank you so much to HQ Digital for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via Netgalley for the purposes of review**

This book took me a while. At first I was really disappointed by this — after all, despite knowing next to nothing about this novel, I was still pretty excited to read it based solely on its pitch. After all, who doesn’t want to read about a traveling gambling den that exists on a train that promises wild characters and a Western vibe?

Sign. Me. Up.

Cards on the table (no puns intended): I’m a massive fan of the Western. It’s one of those classical American film genres I grew up loving — I even took a Genres course at university that spent a third of the semester just on the evolution of the Western. I try not to consider myself as picky with this genre as I am with, say, Classical Mythology…but, yeah, I’m probably going to be judging on a slightly higher curve when it comes to the Western than I would be with, say, just a generic action-adventure story.

And this book?
It’s alright.

There are some interesting things being done in here, and you won’t hear me say that Byford isn’t adept at atmosphere — he is. His creation of the world of the Gambling Den and its inhabitants is spot-on. The characters may be borderline archetypal in how operatic and “big” they come across at times, but it fits the mood of the world he creates.

Now if only he had a plot that lived up to this atmosphere.

The word that comes to mind is “unfocused.” It’s as if Byford spent so much time creating this world and its inhabitants, he didn’t quite work out what exactly he wanted to do with them, and, as a result, this book plods along with no clear direction. This is, understandably frustrating because, while the atmosphere is good — really good, at times — it’s not enough to keep me from wondering, “So…when’s something going to happen?” It shouldn’t have taken me over three months to finally finish this book.

Perhaps, in the next novel of this (apparent) series, Byford will focus more upon a tightly-constructed plot to complement his interesting world and wild characters.

Review: Pierce Brown’s Red Rising: Sons of Ares #3

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

*screeches in delight…before it turns into sobs*

It’s just not gonna end well for anybody involved and I am just preparing myself for the moment this series tears my heart out of my chest, lights it on fire, and then stomps on the ashes.

This is, without question, the best issue yet. I think that each issue has steadily improved upon its predecessor, but this is the first time I read an issue and didn’t feel like I was cut off mid-sentence. Yes, I understand that is kind of how issues work — they depend, many a time, upon the cliffhanger-effect — and while the story is still incomplete, I didn’t feel left in the lurch. I felt like this ended at a natural pausing point.

BRYN. WE HAVE FINALLY MET BRYN. I love this woman, and I can see not only how Fitchner falls in love with her, but how she, too, falls in love with Fitchner. But even more so, I like how the circumstances around their meeting informs us even more about the society of Red Rising, by showing us how truly ingrained the societal pyramid is within the minds of the people.

The fact that during an emergency situation, Fitchner would behave like, oh I don’t know, a decent f-ing human being and leap in to save people who just so happen to be lower colours (predominantly Reds), on instinct is mind-boggling to the Reds who, in turn, have to then rescue him. The inherent inequality is completely lost on them (so it seems) and it’s just…it’s borderline astonishing to read because, as someone who is obviously not in this world, Fitchner’s actions seem like something anyone would do. But, in the world of Red Rising, his behaviour is a massive exception and not the rule.

And yet Fitchner’s behaviour during this emergency incident feels perfectly in line with his character, because we see a person not only disillusioned with the society in which he lives — especially the petty social politics of the Golds — but someone who is also still (clearly) dealing with trauma he sustained during his tenure at The Institute. And it makes perfect sense: The Institute is a highly stressful, traumatizing environment. Not only must you kill someone to even truly make it into The Institute, but once there, you endure “mock” War Games that feel anything but “mock.” People hurt, people kill, people die. Now, yes, as a Gold, Fitchner is expected to bury any sort of emotions related to such events in the name of power and glory…but that’s an awful lot of trauma that’s being forcibly repressed. Clearly, it’s not working out well.

Fitchner goes to Triton to escape the world full of people he hates and ghosts of people he no longer has, only to find that his ghosts has followed him. When he meets the people of the mine he will be managing, regardless of their colour, he describes seeing the faces of people he lost in The Institute. And it is a powerful as hell set of panels. Again, we’re seeing the long-standing traumatic effects of The Institute, but we’re also setting up Fitchner’s later actions when the mine suffers an emergency because he’s already superimposing the faces of Golds upon other Colours beneath him in his mind, i.e.: he’s not really seeing Colour.

Its’s so beautifully done, and also helped me, I think for the first time, truly appreciate the art going on in these graphic novels. Yes, it’s always been good, but this is the first time I really looked at it and thought, “That’s beautiful.” I think it’s because I’m more interested in faces, and this issue is made up of a lot of medium shots-to-closeups on people’s faces.

BRING ME ISSUE 4 (please!).

Review: Pierce Brown’s Red Rising: Sons Of Ares #2

 

Pierce Brown's Red Rising: Sons Of Ares #2
Pierce Brown’s Red Rising: Sons Of Ares #2 by Pierce Brown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sons of Ares Issue #2 picks up right where Issue #1 left off and is…just as short as Issue 1.

I’m dying. I swear, I’m dying.

Issue #2 loses no momentum from Issue #1 — which is good — and gives us a huge chunk of Fitchner au Barca backstory — which is even better.

I’ve got to admit, as exciting as the “current” timeline of the Sons of Ares mission is, I’m far more invested in the Fitchner backstory timeline. I think it’s because everything I got from him in Brown’s original trilogy means I find his story — something I’ve admittedly always wanted — so, so fascinating.

Not only does it inform his character, but it also gives us some more insight into the social and familial politics of the Golds, something that was integral to Brown’s initial trilogy.

So…can someone just give me Issue #3 right now and tell me more about Fitchner? That’d be bloodydamn brilliant.

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Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book…

…it’s not often that a book moves me to such personal, vicious anger that I start to cry. That I rage, rage against something that offends and wounds me to my very core. That makes me want to scream at its pages, gnash my teeth and pull my hair like some kind of deranged madman.

While I have liked previous novels by McEwan — specifically Atonement — I don’t actively seek out his books. I had never heard of this one until it was softly recommended to me by someone close; I say it was a “soft recommendation” because it was more like this person really wanted my take on it.

You see, I am demisexual — I identify on the asexual (or, ace) spectrum, and the female character of this novel, Florence, is said to be asexual. Representation of asexuals is rare — hell, even getting recognized as part of the LGBTQIA spectrum (we’re the “A”, if you haven’t guessed) can be a struggle, as the “A” is frequently mistaken for “Ally” (it’s not). I have been called “too queer to be straight” and, by others, “not gay enough to be queer.” Now, look, I’m not going to sit and bemoan everyone with a “woe is me” story because I don’t have any angst over my own sexuality. I am demisexual and that’s that. I shrug and move on and don’t expect it to change people’s opinion of me because my sexual preference doesn’t define me as a human being.

With that in mind, I went into this novel with an element of trepidation. About 1% of the world population identifies on the ace spectrum, and if any of them have had my experience in trying to talk to people about it…there’s a lot of either misunderstanding of just full on lack of knowledge as it pertains to the topic. I, for example, have been explicitly asked, “How do you know if you’ve never had sex?” How do I know? Because I have no interest in sex; my body does not respond to the idea of sex and it never has — well, okay, it has once, and it was with a person for whom I had a long-standing, emotionally intimate relationship. Hence, the demisexual self-identification. But asking someone that question is like asking someone who is heterosexual, “How do you know if you’ve never had a boyfriend/girlfriend?” You know. It is not a choice, it just is.

Florence in this novel may be asexual…but McEwan has also made her a victim of previous sexual abuse. This in and of its self wouldn’t necessarily be a “problem” if it weren’t for the way in which McEwan so completely intertwines these two things. Florence isn’t just asexual — uninterested in sex — she has physical reactions to the very thought of it. She is very literally repulsed by the idea, which McEwan frequently describing her lips curling in disgust, her having feelings of nausea, squeamishness, and pure dread. And this is just at the thought of sex.

“…her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated.”

That is not asexuality. That is a trauma response. There is a very clear, very distinct difference between not feeling sexual attraction (or, as in the case of the gray-A/demisexual community, maybe feeling it only after a long period of deep emotional intimacy), and being actively repulsed by or downright afraid of the idea of sex to the point that you feel sick.

One of these things is a sexual identity…the other is a trauma response. They are not the same thing, nor will they ever be the same thing.

Again, it is possible to have both. I’m not saying that asexuals cannot experience sexual trauma and, therefore, experience completely valid PTSD as a result. Sexual assault, sexual trauma are valid reasons to have negative reactions to sex.

But in the execution of this story, McEwan’s interweaving of what should be two wholly unrelated things creates a sinister case of implied causation that made me uncomfortable and so blisteringly angry that I completely lost my composure. Because it implies that Florence is, in some way, “broken” — she certainly believes that about herself, and while I’m willing to go, “Okay. It’s a period piece, so there was a different mentality” and not be up in arms over that, I will be frustrated that this is the kind of representation my spectrum has.

For a group that is so wholly underrepresented, this is not the representation I want or need. We don’t need something that implies that, because I uninterested in sex, it is because of some kind of trauma and that, in not desiring sex, I am somehow defective.

Because I am not broken. I am not defective. My lack of interest in sex is not due to some kind of horrific past trauma, and to imply such is downright insulting.

Had McEwan completely abandoned the trauma/PTSD angle and every response related to that, perhaps this could have been an interesting story of a couple that falls apart because the guy can’t understand the girl’s asexuality. After all, at the end of it, Florence (apparently) goes off to live a very full and rich life; it’s all telegraphed to us through her now-ex-husband’s perspective, so we see, too, that he is left with nothing.

If nothing else, the prose is evocative. But then again, pretty prose does not necessarily speak to the content. And while I don’t think everything I’ve critiqued was necessarily McEwan’s intent, it is unfortunate that the ending — which should have been this great moment of empowerment — is undercut by everything that precedes it. The empowerment of the final pages is far too tinged in my own bitterness and bile at everything that led to it.

It was a valiant effort, and there are time when McEwan seems to “get it,” as it were…but they are few and they are far between, inextricably linked with something darker to the point it’s oftentimes difficult to see where one ends and the other begins…and I am ace.

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