Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

23734628Blurb:

Rainbow Rowell continues to break boundaries with Carry On, an epic fantasy following the triumphs and heartaches of Simon and Baz from her beloved bestseller Fangirl.

Simon Snow just wants to relax and savor his last year at the Watford School of Magicks, but no one will let him. His girlfriend broke up with him, his best friend is a pest, and his mentor keeps trying to hide him away in the mountains where maybe he’ll be safe. Simon can’t even enjoy the fact that his roommate and longtime nemesis is missing, because he can’t stop worrying about the evil git. Plus there are ghosts. And vampires. And actual evil things trying to shut Simon down. When you’re the most powerful magician the world has ever known, you never get to relax and savor anything.

Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, a mystery and a melodrama. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story — but far, far more monsters.

Review:

When Carry On was announced last year, I couldn’t help but feel a bit extra special. In my review for Fangirl, Rowell’s previous YA novel that featured the novel-within-a-novel that eventually inspired her new novel Carry On (did you get that?), I requested that she adapt the Simon Snow scenes to a standalone book. Because in Fangirl the Simon Snow scenes were bonkers: a mash-up of Harry Potter with an Edward Cullen-esque vampire thrown in for good measure, topped off by an astonishingly well-developed mythology for seemingly throwaway scenes.

So Rainbow wrote it (for me! And I guess the thousands of others who clamored for it), and here I am, deeply downtrodden, because I have to report that this special-order book was not what I wanted. And okay, I immediately recognize that “this book is not what I wanted” is not a valid criticism. Rainbow doesn’t know who I am and she is not writing for me and that is good! Authors tend to shoot themselves in the foot as soon as they write for an audience. But the criticism holds somewhat seeing as Carry On is not Rainbow’s first Simon Snow rodeo. These characters already existed elsewhere; Carry On, as I understood it, would simply be their movement towards center stage.

Simon, Baz, Penelope and the gang have not just found the spotlight, however. They are entirely different incarnations of the characters I recall from Fangirl. And in shocking ways too. Originally, Simon and Co. were thick, meaty characters, dripping with turmoil in the face of insurmountable obstacles, but always–always–surmounting them. They managed to shine so brightly despite the fact that their appearances were intermittent and brusque. With more than 500 pages all to themselves in this novel, I expected their stories to develop in more complex and epic ways. Yet faced with so many pages to fill, they deflate to dull versions of their Fangirl selves. Petty problems rule the day; the supreme villain is rarely mentioned. Which I suppose is true in other epic fantasy novels. Harry Potter was not always thinking about Voldemort. For serious swaths of the series, he’s more concerned with Quidditch.

But Rainbow Rowell does not have the same advantages JKR had writing Harry Potter. Carry On is as if she started writing the series at Deathly Hallows. There’s so much that happened before, but we don’t see it so the stakes are so much lower. The result is a sham, a house of cards she tries to convince us is an actual house. But the little gusts the pages made as I turned them faster–eager to get to the good bits and finally eager to finish because there were no truly good bits–blew the whole house down. And then I see that Simon and everyone was just paper, thin and lifeless paper.

2 out of 5 stars

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Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

22522805Blurb:

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…”

The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years.

Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in nearly a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge, and war.

Review:

Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant, a fablelike quest story set in the decades after King Arthur’s reign, I was struck by a desire for something I never wanted to see again after receiving my high school diploma: a reading guide. I wanted an old-fashioned English class worksheet full of questions that used to make me rage (What does the titlesymbolize? Can we describe the novel as a modern-dayallegory? Why or why not?). This vintage wish is not masochistic but simply necessary: there is allegory and symbolism and motifs and all sorts of nitty-gritty literary stuff to unpack here, so much so that I needed a guide. Or maybe just a fellow reading discussion partner to accompany me.

Alone, as a piece of storytelling, The Buried Giant fails. As a motor of thought, however, as a tool to provoke meditation, it succeeds. Which, using my personal calculator, says that as a literary work, it fails overall. The problem here is that the story doesn’t stand up. Essentially, Axl and Beatrice set off on a journey to find their son’s village. Along the way they meet a Saxon knight and start to grapple with the “mist,” no mere British meteorological phenomenon but a dastardly (or beneficent?) haze that fades the memories of all the medieval inhabitants. There’s also a dragon, of course.

Normally I’d be quite keen on any “literary” author’s attempt to retell legend, but the result here is flat, from the plot to the dialogue. (Brace yourself: one of the protagonist’s repeatedly calls his wife “princess.” And by repeatedly I mean every.single.time he has dialogue.) There’s excellent and timely stuff here about grudges and forgiveness, both after a lover’s quarrel or a bloody war, and if moving on really means moving forward, which means leaving the past firmly in the past. But the dull story inches toward an ending that we can predict, even if the final pages are on par with other masterful Ishiguro endings à la Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day.

The Buried Giant is evidence of Ishiguro’s continued fascination with memory. Is memory valuable or nefarious? Does it push us onward or pull us backward? Are we the lives we’re living or merely the lives we’ve lived? He’s normally a maestro with these topics, but it didn’t shine through here. With Ishiguro, however, my memory is merciful and short.

2 stars out of 5

Review: Deathless by Catherynne Valente

8694389Blurb:

Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.

Review:

The question is always who is to take and who is to give. I took first, that’s all. You will take last.

Everyone knows that the greatest stories are told in threes. Goldilocks eats the porridge of three bears, not two, not four. The Big Bad Wolf tries to blow down the houses of three little pigs, no less, no more. And in Deathless, a madcap retelling of bits of Russian folklore, the tradition does not waver. It pivots on the tragic interactions between three characters: Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, who is so desperate to keep the world alive that he’s surrounded by death; Marya Morevna, his stolen bride, whose every heartbeat pushes her towards death, away from the magical domain of her deathless husband; and Ivan the Fool, the human soldier who pitifully falls in love with Marya, a woman spotted with scars from loving and warring with another man more incredible than Ivan will ever be.

These three characters will bite, kick, chase after, flee from, kiss, maim, heal, hate, blame, love, and forgive each other all across Russia, both the “real” Russia and the fantastic Russia found in storybooks. There are two wars going on, one with Germany, another with the Tsar of Death. And yet communism, Stalin, and the Siege of Leningrad all fade beside the twisted fates of Koschei, Marya, and Ivan.

In writing that is clever, feminist, complex, and downright lush, Catherynne Valente asks: Can love be equal? Is it only true power when it’s given, not taken? Should colorful monsters be caged in the name of progress? Is life an end or a beginning?

I received no answers, but opaque maybes, grey sortas, honest but frustrating it-depends-on-the-situation. Deathless is wild, dark, and sexy. Even as people are dying all around, even as hope disappears, from now on only to exist in the lands of the Tsar of Death, Koschei, Ivan, and Marya push forward, together and apart; their deformed and pure love for each other deathless even as Death hunts them down.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

186074Blurb:

Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet’s hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.

Review:

In the strangest corners lurk the most surprising discoveries. Who knew I’d find a veritable nominee for most insufferable literary character of all time in a 2007 fantasy novel? Take these three examples, words spoken by Kvothe, a magician wunderkind:

Here, talking to a professor, he compares himself to his classmates:

Master Kilvin, I am better. I learn faster. I work harder. My hands are more nimble. My mind is more curious. However, I also expect you know this for yourself without my telling you.

Here, talking to his love-interest, he tries to woo by dripping condescension:

”If someone found a loden-stone made of brass would it be like other brass?”

“Maybe it would be like copper and zinc,” I said. “That’s what brass is made of.”

Word of advice, love interest, run to the freaking hills.

And again, what a loveable scamp Kvothe is, condescending once more to the girl he wants desperately to impress:

“But if one of us jumped off a roof, we’d get hurt because we’re heavier. It makes sense that bigger things fall even harder.”

She was right, of course. She was talking about the square-cube ratio, though she didn’t know what to call it.

A wonderful neologism has emerged in the past few years: “mansplaining,” i.e., when a man condescends, often unconsciously, to a woman because a concept is just too difficult or too important for her to wrap her pretty mind around. Kvothe is a mansplainer supreme, to be sure, but his condescension is not gender-choosy: he will be insufferable to anyone, though for him it’s not being insufferable, he’s just being Kvothe; sorry he happens to know everything!

I liked this book in spite of its protagonist. For fantasy fare, it serves up all the staples with gusto: minstrel songs, magical school, dragons, mysterious villains, warring nobles, journeys by foot or by horse, drinking ale in inns…you know, the regular. This is the first book in a planned three-part series, and in classic fantasy style, it discusses the protagonist’s quest.

Nothing excites me more than the word quest. Those five letters promise so much epicness, so many trials and so many tribulations, so much work in pursuit of an ideal ending. In short, a quest promises a story. The story presented here deserves the term quest. It spans centuries and inspires legends. However: is it really a quest if everything comes easy to the quester? If nothing is worked for—or maybe the quester must work a little bit, but his work is guaranteed to work out for him? Kvothe has no weaknesses. Sure the book discusses his poverty and his youth as barriers to success but poverty and youth aren’t true weaknesses! These are circumstances, not qualities. A weakness is arrogance. A weakness is stubbornness. A weakness is rudeness and condescension. Kvothe embodies all these weaknesses, and yet, the book acknowledges them as pluses, not character flaws.

Two books remain, so we shall see if Kvothe’s weaknesses are exposed for what they really are. But I doubt it, mostly because of Patrick Rothfuss’ interesting narrative choice: aside from a few brief intermissions, Kvothe is telling the story. He is in charge of what is presented and how he is depicted. I’ll be back for book two eventually to see if he learns (and it should be easy for him with that big enormous brain of his!) that refusing to accept any personal flaws makes someone perhaps the most flawed individual he can possibly be.

 

3.5ish stars out of 5?

Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

4407Blurb:

Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.

Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.

Scary, gripping and deeply unsettling, AMERICAN GODS takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You’ll be surprised by what and who it finds there…

Review:

Full disclosure:

I wikipedia’d the ending of American Gods. Because I was 70% finished and still utterly uninvested in the characters and unrolling of plot. Here’s what I discovered on the wiki: almost all the excitement must take place in the final 30%!

Evidence:
 photo e46dc30c-de2a-4a45-9488-6a699cabbaf5_zpsb8ffb8ee.png

Half of the wikipedia summary is devoted to the final quarter of the novel!

I’m a very forgiving person when it comes to litcrit, but one thing I can’t forgive in a book is boringness! And oh how I was bored! I read American Gods sporadically. The beginning caught my attention but as the book went on, nothing interesting happened. Worse, the protagonist’s personality has less flavor than the BRAT diet I’m currently consuming to recover from the stomach flu.

Like this protagonist is DULL. Another thing I can’t forgive: when things are super enigmatic and it’s obvious that questions MUST BE ASKED, but for NO APPARENT REASON, a character REFUSES TO ASK THESE MUST BE ASKED QUESTIONS. I think most authors use this lack of curiosity on the part of the protag as a way to increase reader interest. Obviously a story isn’t much fun if there is no mystery.

[Imagine the Harry Potter series with more forthright, less pussyfooted characters when it came to #realtalk:

Harry: Yo Dumbledore, why did Voldemort try to kill me but fail and then give me this bizarro lightning scar and now we seem fated to like, kill each other or something?

Dumbledore: Well young Harry, there is a prophecy…

Harry: …Oh]

But I find it hard to enjoy a story when I can feel an author purposely withholding information from me to serve his own storytelling purposes. Gaiman had some super ideas here. It’s an amazing metaphor for American belief and its paradoxical modernity/antiquity and its oft-discussed role as a ‘melting pot.’ I also have mad love for the Midwesterness at the core of this novel (Wisconsin!). Yet for me a story must excite, thrill, titillate…and as a story, American Gods fails.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

17910124Blurb:

When the emperor of Annur is murdered, his children must fight to uncover the conspiracy—and the ancient enemy—that effected his death.

Kaden, the heir apparent, was for eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, where he learned the inscrutable discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power which Kaden must master before it’s too late. When an imperial delegation arrives to usher him back to the capital for his coronation, he has learned just enough to realize that they are not what they seem—and enough, perhaps, to successfully fight back.

Meanwhile, in the capital, his sister Adare, master politician and Minister of Finance, struggles against the religious conspiracy that seems to be responsible for the emperor’s murder. Amid murky politics, she’s determined to have justice—but she may be condemning the wrong man.

Their brother Valyn is struggling to stay alive. He knew his training to join the Kettral— deadly warriors who fly massive birds into battle—would be arduous. But after a number of strange apparent accidents, and the last desperate warning of a dying guard, he’s convinced his father’s murderers are trying to kill him, and then his brother. He must escape north to warn Kaden—if he can first survive the brutal final test of the Kettral.

Review:

Here is a (not really) spoiler summary for the first 75% of The Emperor’s Blades: An emperor, dead; a plot to kill his three children, underway; breakneck action to match those high-stakes…completely missing.

We start the book with the death of an emperor—as auspicious a premise as there ever was—but until the final quarter, nothing of importance happens. It’s quite shocking actually: a book that is going to be published could stand to lose its first 300 pages. All that happens in those 300 pages is an extended montage scene. The two princes—one training to be an elite soldier, the other serving as a monastic acolyte—get into various unimportant scrapes that are described in painstaking detail. (Literally ‘painstaking’: the pain of these unnecessary details is comparable to the pain of impalement by a stake.) Now I can never resist a good montage scene. Upbeat music coupled with characters getting ready to chase their goals is a perfect combination. But after a while I was hoping for, then praying for, then sacrificing cows at a homemade altar for a conflict to maybe kinda sorta sometime soon appear. Please Zeus?

As I waited very patiently, I was subjected to simplistic and forced dialogue that merely served to push the plot along. I also had to suffer dumb characters. Get ready to scoff and eyeroll when a character neglects to notice a big fat whopping clue slapping him on the side of his face! It happens quite a lot, especially with soldier prince. It’s even worse because the story is so emotionally simplistic, it is impossible to connect with the characters.

But what bothered me most about this novel was its treatment of female characters. Now this rant does not entirely belong to The Emperor’s Blades. Rather it is the result of hundreds of fantasy books, normally written by male authors, committing the same error. There are three POV characters in this novel, but I’ve only mentioned the two princes. That’s because the princess’s chapters are very few. What’s worse, in each of her chapters we are constantly reminded that this girl cannot be emperor, that she has no role in this man’s fantasy world. I don’t like “strong” female characters who are constantly told that they’re a rarity, that sexism does not want them where they currently have fought to be. Because honestly this just reinforces the idea that it is unnatural for women to be in positions of power. It suggests, quite unconsciously but regardless, that ambitious and successful women are an aberration. Give me a fantasy novel where men and women are equal and absolutely nothing has to be said about it because it’s normal!

Despite all these gripes, The Emperor’s Blades is a mildly entertaining novel that will be appreciated by those who like their fantasy more popcorny and less meaty. Do know that this is a series beginner and there is absolutely zero resolution here. Will I be back for book two? Possibly, since the mythology of this world seems interesting and I didn’t learn enough about it for my taste (instead I was treated to another knife fight or something). But I’m going to read reviews carefully before coming back for more to make sure that all of the significant action isn’t stuffed into the final 100 pages.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Memory of Trees by F.G. Cottam

17415094Blurb:

Billionaire Saul Abercrombie owns a vast tract of land on the Pembrokeshire coast.  His plan is to restore the ancient forest that covered the area before medieval times, and he employs young arboreal expert Tom Curtis to oversee this massively ambitious project.
Saul believes that restoring the land to its original state will rekindle those spirits that folklore insists once inhabited his domain. But the re-planting of the forest will revive an altogether darker and more dangerous entity – and Saul’s employee Tom will find himself engaging in an epic, ancient battle between good and evil.  A battle in which there can be only one survivor.

Review:

I marvel at authors who can transform mundanities into atrocities. Axe-wielding murderers, spiky-jawed sharks, rabidly hungry wolves: these are everyday horrors, implicitly terrifying. But trees? What horror writer would ever endeavor to make trees—those limbed and leafy things we know from birth and walk beneath daily—as frightening as a deranged killer? Stephen King did it with the Overlook’s Hotel topiary animals in The Shining and F.G. Cottam does it here in The Memory of Trees.

He certainly creates an eerie atmosphere as the ill-fortuned protagonist replants an ancient Welsh forest, a well-intentioned act that awakens a centuries dormant curse. Among the yews and the elms and the willows, a decidedly malignant horror stirs, and it is this slow progression of evil that makes the novel quite the page-turner. Plotwise, I have very little to complain about. I found the ending underwhelming, but that’s expected. Horror novels normally revel in the exposition, the descent into madness, not the climax. I absolutely loved how Cottam chose to base the origins of the curse in medieval mythology. In fact, I would have preferred even more exploration of the history of the forest and its horrors.

What I appreciated less, however, was the writing. There are too many simple sentences and the dialogue is something awful. Particularly tiresome is Saul Abercrombie, the main character who desires to restore the forest, who frequently calls his hired arborist, “Tree Man”, and at the age of 70+ seriously uses phrases like “fucking cool” and “simpatico.” The lack of authenticity in the dialogue may derive from the weak characters who never feel real. They never seem to be anything other than players in a drama who have a role to fulfill. The writing is poorly worded to the point where some sentences require multiple readings before becoming comprehensible. For instance” “he did not delude himself he would enjoy the protection he did from the trivial nuisance Isobel Jenks had become when that confrontation occurred.” A few more thats and a few less sentence modifiers tacked on would have helped me decipher that monstrosity.

In spite of those misgivings, I enjoyed The Memory of Trees. I’m becoming convinced that horror is one of the hardest genres to write. Scary is scary—anyone with a word processor can do it. But to create a horror novel with a well-established backstory and an ingenious vector of terror? Well that’s rare and should be applauded.

3 out of 5 stars