YA reading update

I had the flu in January and ah, my friends and oh, my foes, please get the flu shot if/when you can, for my seven days of misery was followed by several weeks of exhaustion, all due to my own laziness and stupidity. The flu left me unable to read anything demanding–all I wanted was juicy plots sans navel gazing and happy endings, preferably in paperback so I could balance the book on my stomach while lying down flat.  (I could’ve done that with hardbacks but the covers cut into my tummy.) YA fantasy, in the form of strong girl protagonists kicking sorcerer butt over the course of a trilogy seemed the order of the day. Well, there’s an abundance of those books, and yes, most of them are painfully derivative and you could’ve saved your money for wine or acetaminophen, but I did find some winners. And I’m posting this piece in March because I finally finished all instalments of all these trilogies last week.

1. The Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson: 16-year-old Elisa, the overweight and underconfident younger princess of  a made-up-name kingdom has a special stone in her navel (ha!) that gives her magic powers. The Godstone is a gift from God, and as the stone-bearer, Elisa is fated to do a special act of heroism in service of God. Over the three books, Elisa meets dudes, becomes more confident and smarter, rises up to the challenge to save her kingdom, and becomes thin.

As you might have guessed, there was a bit too much God-talk for my liking, but overall, these are fun, engaging books, whose strong finish made up for their shaky start. And apparently I can live with navel gazing when there’s a pretty blue stone to look at. The only other real downside was the emphasis on weight loss. Can we have a plus-size protagonist without making her a teachable lesson already?

2.  Agent of Hel trilogy by Jacqueline Carey: If you are looking to gift this trilogy to your 12-year-old mighty girl, be warned: Carey’s protagonist Daisy has sex, with a different person, in each of the three books. There.

Daisy Johanssen was inadvertently conceived when her mom had a run-in with a Ouija board; her dad is a demon who wants to tempt her to the dark side. Daisy. Must. Resist. or she’ll cause Armageddon. Daisy is currently employed as the goddess Hel’s liaison with the mundane world in a small American town, where she solves paranormal crimes and banishes otherworldly evildoers.

The series is powered by excellent pacing and strong secondary characters, but Daisy’s tedious love life slows the books down, and her ultimate squeeze has all the appeal of week-old guacamole. Also, if you love Carey’s Kushiel books, note that the writing in AoH isn’t anywhere near half as good, and the romance is fathoms weaker.

3. Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas: Three books in this series have been published so far, with more to come, but let’s agree to call it a trilogy for the purposes of this post. Celaena Sardothien (yeah, I know) is the official Royal Assassin of made-up-name-kingdom–she won the Hunger Games in Book 1, see?  But Celaena is hiding a big (as in world-altering) secret, and her new position is fraught with an extra supply of supernatural danger.

Lots of political intrigue, painstaking world-building, a strong assassin heroine, and a thrill-a-minute plot make this series a true page turner. I did prefer the second and third book in the series to the first though–it’s like Maas stopped trying so hard to make her protagonist likeable and relatable, and instead trusted her enough to let her be. Maas’s strength lies in her kick ass action scenes that power her narrative–there’s an episode in the third book featuring a witch and a wyvern that is packed with surprises and intense emotion (and yep, lots of cliff falls and battles to the death). I flipped back and re-read that section immediately after I’d finished.  Yes, the writing is occasionally uneven, but when Maas is good, she’s phenomenal.

4. The Bone Knife by Intisar Khanani : This is one of those free-on-Kindle short stories for which I had floor-level expectations, but oh, I was so wrong. Khanani’s disciplined, tight prose is a joy to read, her pacing excellent, and her setting and characters are executed with grace and ease. Oh, and the story features some very necessary (and refreshing!) diversity; most YA novels seem to be set in Europe with an occasional sandy desert thrown in, and their covers favor ethereal blondes holding phallic weapons.

Rae, the oldest of three sisters, is hard-headed and sensible and wary of things that seem too easy. When a supernatural visitor threatens to inadvertently reveal the secret the sisters guard, Rae must put her formidable common sense to use to protect her family despite the danger she personally faces.

It’s a very short short story, be warned! But it’s good enough that I immediately bought Khanani’s novel Sunbolt for the princely sum of $ 1.99, and I’m going to start reading this weekend. Go buy this indie author’s books here!

5. His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin LaFevers: LaFevers cleverly incorporates mysticism and romance into a slice of real-life fifteenth century history, wherein the young duchess of Brittany sought to protect her domain from enemies within and without–powerful France sought to gobble up the region, and many in the duchess’s court would have been glad to see it happen. In LaFevers’s imagining, there’s a Brittany convent serving Saint Mortain, the God of Death, which trains young girls (who are said to be marked as Death’s Daughters) in the art of killing. Each novel in the trilogy features a young assassin who helps the duchess maintain her position–and finds love on the way. The books are a satisfying marriage of political intrigue with an assassin-coming-of-age arc, and I enjoyed the (historical) happy ending; perhaps *you* don’t need Wikipedia to learn that  Anne of Brittany finally married Charles VIII of France, and managed to ensure a measure of independence for her duchy?

LaFevers is a very fluent writer, and I zipped happily through these books. (If I found the last instalment a tad too precious, it’s probably because I passed Young Adulthood many moons ago.) But oh, that series title. None of the books prioritize the appearance of the protagonists over their skills or character; calling the series “His Fair Assassin” make the books sound shallow, and does a significant disservice to the plot and the writing.

6. Snow like Ashes by Sara Raasch:  Published late 2014, Snow like Ashes is the first instalment of a planned trilogy. The Kingdom of Winter was conquered several years ago, and its citizens’ magic stolen by Spring. Eight survivors, including the heir to the throne, escaped, and have been working to regain their magic and their kingdom. Young Meira is one of the eight, and she hopes to be the one who’ll steal the magic locket that’ll help the Winterians rise again. Meira’s weapon of choice in her battle against the occupiers is the chakram (pictured below).

Serious points for the cover, which dares not to showcase the blonde skinny heroine, but I’m afraid I found this book derivative and bit ho-hum. The big plot twist was hugely predictable, there are too many info-dumps like “The Feni river gurgles off to my left, marking the northern border of Spring before it flows out to the Destas sea”, and fatally, the world-building is borderline silly. The evil guy is called Angra, the capital of Winter is Jannuari, and the Autumn Kingdom’s capital is Oktuber. Am I the only one who reads the last as an acceptable potato? The characters didn’t grab me at all, and so I flipped to the end to confirm my plot twist thesis before quitting this book midway.  One DNF out of 14 reads doesn’t seem too bad though.

Recent reads and reviews

If we met during the Christmas holidays past, odds are I thrust a copy of Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon into your hands, and then held a cleaved sword over your head till you began to read. “But I don’t like fantasy,” some burbled. “You’ll read this,” I replied, “because it’s set in a fantasy Middle-East where the locals are the heroes rather than the villains, because the writing is kick-ass and because the world-building is delicious.  Because NPR called it The Lord of the Rings meets the Arab Spring. And because I’m interviewing Saladin Ahmed.”  That interview was published in the February issue of Bookslut; here’s an excerpt.

The novel features a fat old hero, and a warrior-priest swordsman who’s all of five feet tall… You subvert so many conventions about masculinity and heroism that dominate this genre. Did you have a particular agenda while planning the novel, or did it all flow organically from the plotting process?

I’m glad someone finally noticed that Raseed is short. That was very intentional, and few have remarked upon it! Yes, I had — that most dreaded of things! — an agenda: look at other (Other?) criteria for heroism and follow the sorts of heroes we don’t usually follow. But to me, that’s not mutually exclusive to flowing organically. A writer starts out writing with a set of suppositions and questions in her head — even if she is unaware of them. But as one writes, these, one hopes, shift and squirm a bit.

[…]

Writers don’t tell stories in a vacuum, however much we might wish to pretend otherwise. So what already-told stories are your stories re-inscribing, which ones are they countering? Since long before 9/11, US culture has been saturated with stories about Arabs and Muslims as villains, as fanatics, as worthless, as better dead than alive. So yes, I aim to tell different stories in my work, and Throne is a part of that effort, however cloaked in swash-and-buckle it may be. […] in general, Throne very consciously aims to re-center the traditional western fantasy map, and to interrogate attendant cultural assumptions in the process. But, again, via monsters and magic rather than polemic.

Read the interview here, buy the book here, and visit Ahmed’s website here.

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I reviewed a couple of books for Herizons which I though I’d mention on the blog. Lilian Nattel’s Web of Angels is an unflinching yet compassionate exploration of Disassociative Identity Disorder (better known as multiple personality disorder).  Nattel never sensationalizes the condition, and the plot unwinds very delicately. The protagonist Sharon is a Toronto wife and mother who has successfully concealed her condition for decades, but when a young pregnant girl in the neighborhood commits suicide, she decides to take action, even at the cost of revealing her DID. “And it all seemed so ordinary except it wasn’t” observes a character, and this line serves as a fine precis of the novel.  Nattel demands that we re-evaluate our conception of normal–whether applied to ourselves, our near ones or our society–and the results are unsettling, to say the least.

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(you) set me on fire by Mariko Tamaki nails the miserable angsty insecurity that most teens wear like a second skin. Allison Lee opts to attend St. Joseph’s College because no one from her high school will be there–she was picked on in school, had a messy love affair with a fellow student Anne, accidentally set herself on fire twice, and now bears burn scars running from her hairline to her shoulder; re-inventing herself in college is a seductive idea. But then she meets the beautiful, crazy Shar, and their relationship soon turns abusive. Allison’s voice is remarkably wise and funny and she has a finely-calibrated bullshit detector for society’s strictures, but she’s so spectacularly misguided in her relationship choices that you want to leap into this book howling “WTF are you doing!” There’s an enviable alignment of authenticity and skill in Tamaki’s new book; this is stuff of classics.

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And now, for some exciting literary happenings, aka a nude author calendar. Twelve Canadian authors will display their beautiful…minds for a 2014 calendar, whose proceeds will go to PEN Canada (an organization that supports freedom of expression). The calendar is produced by Bare it for Books, and the line-up includes  Farzana Doctor, Miranda Hill, Terry Fallis,  and Yann Martel, who I hope will pose with a tiger covering his bits.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Seeing as I loved Graceling, I was a twitchy wreck till I got my hands on Fire, the companion book.  If you’re wondering (as I was) as to what a companion book is: it’s kinda sorta related to the first, but not a prequel or sequel; the books are essentially independent of each other, but work nicely together (like  real companionship, eh?)

Fire is a human monster whose great and terrible beauty makes most men into dribbling idiots. Much of her allure is to do with her hair–a multi-hued crimson mane she covers  up  (cutting does not help, as it grows back within the hour). Fire has the ability to read and  influence minds, but she’s scared and ashamed of her power,  believing that her skills amount to trespass. And then, when war seems imminent, she must decide whether or not to use her powers to save the kingdom she lives in.

I found the central conceit of equating excessive beauty with  monstrosity so interesting.  Of course, my first thought was of the trope of beautiful women as dangerous objects causing men to risk life and limb and sanity. It’s a notion that pervades every culture–think of Helen of Troy or Sita or Mata Hari (of course, men tend to be absolved of blame for their actions in such scenarios).  Also, a woman’s hair has always been viewed as a device to seduce and ensnare men, which is why hats are worn in churches and Hindu widows, not long ago,  were required to shave their heads bald. So having Fire’s beauty so explicitly related to this feminist issue made me very excited as to Cashore’s plans for Fire.

Sadly, my excitement was interred by the fourth chapter. The main impression I have of Fire is that it was written in a rush. There are some brilliant ideas, some beautiful writing, but the book itself is bit inchoate.  Many themes–rape, illegitimacy, the imperative to procreate–are touched upon but not explored in enough depth, and after finishing the book, I felt Cashore hadn’t done justice to either her intelligence or skills in the  execution of her ideas.

(MILD SPOILERS ALERT)

I had three main issues with Fire.  First, the lack of character development for anyone but Fire. There’s  a huge cast of mostly unmemorable secondary characters–fathers, brothers, guards, illegitimate children, and animals. (Fire’s romantic interest Brigan, who is written flatter than a pancake, unfortunately falls into this category. ) And I didn’t find Fire all that appealing. Her self-doubt comes across as myopia, and her bravery seems more like sacrificial do-gooding designed to make the readers love her. For a monster, Fire is a lot like an EMO girl,  with a whiff of talk-show confessional about her “I forgive myself”. Also, to my dismay,  Cashore did very little with the hair and seduction trope. When Fire finally stops hiding her beauty, she does it with the purpose of beguiling the enemy into revealing their secrets. Ho hum, here we go…

And the romance, which is an essential part of this book, is a weak-kneed, weepy mess. Brigan is such an unmemorable character that I feel I air-kissed him at some party and then moved on; I actually had to look up the book to remember his name while writing this piece. Brigan doesn’t inhabit this book–he visits to show how brave and heroic he is, and then goes away somewhere to fight some more. The pacing of their relationship is so poor that I still don’t understand why he and Fire fell in love. Oh, and I hate that there’s a misunderstanding of the “keep away from my brother, monster” sort followed by  “I can’t help myself” love. I hate that Brigan falls in love with Fire when she is weeping in distress–she’s saved him from death, saved his army from being eaten by monster raptors, but somehow, she’s most lovable when she’s vulnerable?  Yuck. And then there’s lines like “I don’t want to love you if you’re only going to die,” [Fire] cried, burying her face in his arm. “I don’t love you. ” The restraint that made the romance in Graceling so powerful is grievously absent in Fire.

And the plotting was just meh. There’s a war, because there needs to be a war in such books,  you know? I feel as though Cashore needed a conflict to heighten Fire’s situation and plumped on war as an easy solution. There’s no attempt to make us acquainted with the perpetrators–it’s just a bunch of greedy kings with weird names who covet Brigan’s kingdom, and I frankly didn’t give a damn who won. I was also really irritated with the series of reveals towards the end of the book. The whole  raison d’être of a reveal is that it makes the reader re-look at everything she believed about the prior narrative; a reveal that causes no shift in the reader’s perceptions of the characters’ behaviors and actions is redundant. The last third of Fire, IMO, was peppered with pointless reveals. Graceling was a character-driven story, but Fire relies on plot twists for most of its momentum.

(END OF SPOILERS)

As I said earlier, there is much that is good about the book, notably some really skilled prose,  and I’m still a Cashore fanwoman.  I won’t be revisiting Fire though; I’m pinning my hopes instead on the third installment–Bitterblue,  out in 2011. Bring back the magic, please!

Note: The only character from Graceling who appears in Fire is Leck, and a child Leck at that, and only peripherally. The book doesn’t have any other connections to Graceling, apart from a brief mention of the Seven Kingdoms, so if you are looking for more Katsa, you’ll have to wait for Bitterblue.