Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: Uprooted (Naomi Novik)

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Fantasy / Standalone

“We were of the valley. Born in the valley, of families planted too deep to leave even when they knew their daughter might be taken; raised in the valley, drinking of whatever power also fed the Wood.”

The woods near Agnieska’s hometown are dark and sinister, corrupting people who are caught too close or too careless. The town’s only protection is the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives nearby. As his price, he takes one young woman from the village every ten years. Everyone is sure the next girl he takes will be Agnieska’s beautiful and talented best friend, Kasia – but when the time comes, he chooses Agnieska instead, and she finds herself face to face with the power and mystery of both the Dragon and the malevolent woods.

There are so many good things about this book. It is beautifully and cleverly written. I enjoyed the name, and how “uprootedness” comes back again and again both metaphorically and literally through the book. I appreciated the system of magic, and particularly the anti-classist themes that were explored by it. The Dragon looks down on Agnieska’s magic because it is rural, primitive, and intuitive, only to find it is more powerful – magically and emotionally – than his own. And I am always really pleased by the depiction of a complicated but strong female friendship like the one between Kasia and Agnieska.

But ultimately Uprooted felt unsatisfying for me, in spite of all the good things I can say about it. One reason, sadly, is the hype burnout effect. Having fallen in love with her Temeraire series, and then seeing the pretty much unanimous praise for Uprooted, I had enormous expectations for this book. I undoubtedly would have appreciated it much more if I had read it without any knowledge of Novik’s work and without having read any reviews. I went in fully expecting to love it to pieces, and that’s a tough bar for any book.

The second reason is the somewhat indefinable question of resonance – that is, do the story or characters resonate with me in a meaningful way? For whatever reason, this is where the book fell flat for me. Nothing about the book’s thematic content, or the characters, or the plot moved me particularly, and I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why when so many other people have found them so compelling.

The best I can do is try to compare and contrast with a similar book I read recently which did resonate with me, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn. There are countless similarities between the two books: a young girl who is ‘uprooted’, a Dragon who is actually a human man; a vain, narcissistic but strangely appealing love interest, and the mysterious, sinister woods who the protagonist feels both connected to and threatened by. Both books kept me excited and entertained throughout, but it was A Creature of Moonlight that left me in tears at the end. Uprooted has stronger writing, especially in the comparable sections with the young country protagonist adjusting to life at court, which was much more interesting, exciting, and nuanced in Uprooted. And yet I ended up connecting to the character much more in A Creature of Moonlight. I felt the book was so much about respecting the agency and choices of young women, and I related to it so forcefully. There were such obvious and tragic consequences for not respecting the decisions and values of young women in A Creature of Moonlight; the same consequences weren’t present for anyone in Upooted. And I’m especially referring to the Dragon, of course – I don’t feel like he ever has to face consequences for his condescending and disrespectful treatment of Agnieska.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with the book: the main relationships. I didn’t like the Dragon at all, and his relationship with Agnieska horrified me. I should clarify that I think he’s an interesting and well-written character – but an ass, and so I had no investment in Agnieska’s relationship with him. There is no chance I would pursue a romantic relationship with someone who had insulted my intelligence, habits, and appearance so casually for so long, and it was hard to watch Agnieska do just that. Kasia, on the other hand, I liked a great deal, but I wanted more out of her relationship with Agnieska. I would rather have spent more time exploring her emotional state and connection to Agnieska (and less time with the Dragon).

So that was Uprooted for me; I’m glad I read it, I enjoyed it, but I  wish I had loved it the way I wanted to.

If you like _____________, I recommend checking out Uprooted:

  • Eastern European folklore
  • Atmospheric fairytales
  • Coming of age stories about young women
  • Strong female friendships
  • Standalone (completed) epic fantasy

If you dislike____________, you might want to avoid Uprooted:

  • Content including attempted rape/sexual assault and abusive relationships

Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic (V. E. Schwab)

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
Tor / A Darker Shade of Magic #1

“I’m not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying here.” She swept her hand over the room, the tavern, the city. “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”

Kell is one of the Travelers—people who can use magic to travel between parallel universes. He lives in Red London, where magic is bountiful, the monarchs beneficent, and life generally good. His counterpart Holland lives in White London, under the thumb of a brutal brother and sister and in a corrupt and cruel land. Kell’s new partner in crime, the thief Lila, is from Grey London—our London, more or less, magic-less and dull. And no one speaks of Dark London, the dead city that was sealed away, and whose nearness is what corrupts White London.

The idea of the four Londons—the crucial concept behind the book—is an excellent one. I feel like there is a fantastic foundation here for future books, because we spent most of our time in Red London and Grey London, whereas White and Black London were the ones I was most interested in seeing. Both make me think of Fallen London, the the game which has some of the most detailed, thorough, and vibrant world-building I’ve ever experienced. I think having that comparison made me want more out of White London; I wanted a better sense of the class and power structure and details of day to day life. But like I said, there is a lot of groundwork laid here that I am intrigued to see built on.

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Book Review: Dreamer’s Pool (Juliet Marillier)

Review: Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier
Fantasy – Blackthorn and Grim, #1 of ?

I fished out the rusty nail from under my pallet and scratched another mark on the wall. Tomorrow was midsummer, not that a person could tell rain from shine in this cesspit. I’d been here a year. A whole year of filth and abuse and being shoved back down the moment I lifted myself so much as an inch. Tomorrow, at last, I’d get my chance to speak out. Tomorrow I would tell my story.

An imprisoned former healer, Blackthorn makes a bargain with a stranger that she will return to her old profession for 7 years, during which she will give help to anyone who asks for it and only use her gifts for good. In exchange, he helps her escape. With a fellow prisoner, her strong and silent cell-mate Grim, she settles near the village of Winterfalls… but Blackthorn and Grim are left bitter and traumatized by their pasts, and the two of them struggle to rebuild their lives. When Prince Oran and asks for their help in a delicate matter, Blackthorn is unable to turn him down. 

Dreamer’s Pool seems very thoughtful and slow at first, which is why I was completely caught off guard when I realized, somewhere along the way, that the plot had taken off like a bat out of hell and I was completely hooked. I started it in an afternoon, had trouble putting it down so that I could go eat supper, eschewed a delicious homemade dessert afterwards so that I could get back to reading, and finished it later that evening. I was completely drawn in by the writing and hopelessly addicted to the plot.

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Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Historical fantasy / Standalone

“I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other. The eyes of all the world will be on two, uncertain which of them to follow.”

Hundreds of years have passed since the decline of English magic, which is believed to be gone now. Everything changes one day in the early 1800s when the secluded, antisocial Mr. Norrell shocks a group of scholars with a display of magic that catapults him to fame as the only magician in England. When he finds a protégé in the younger and more charming Jonathan Strange, the two form an uneasy friendship and mentorship. But their partnership is threatened by Strange’s interest in faerie magic, more dangerous and volatile than what Norrell purports to practice, and by the dark forces that the return of magic to England has unleashed…

I’m sure everyone has already heard a lot about this much-loved book set during Napoleonic Wars.  I will add my words of praise: this is a really wonderful and unique book. It’s like Jane Austen with dark magic, the characters often trading witty and barbed remarks through a veil of excessive politeness. It’s both laugh out loud funny and desperately creepy, sometimes almost simultaneously. And it’s incredibly quaint, with the occasional bit of old English spelling dropped in, all while being suffused with the darkness and eeriness of the book’s system of magic.

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Book Review: Cold Magic (Kate Elliott)

Review: Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
Fantasy – #1 out of 3, Spiritwalker Trilogy

“A drowned land stretched beneath the waves: a forest of trees, a road paved of fitted stone; and a round enclosure, its walls built of white stone shimmering within the deep and pierced by four massive gates hewn of ivory, pearl, jade, and bone. The curling ribbons rippling along its contours were not currents of tidal water but banners sewn of silver and gold.

So does the spirit world enchant the unwary and lead them onto its perilous paths.”

Kate Elliott describes Cold Magic as an “Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendents of troödons”, and I really don’t think I can top that fabulous description. Cold Magic is set in an alternate version of Europe that has been colonized by the Mali Empire and the Celts, and seems to be in the throes of both an ice age and the Industrial Revolution. Protagonist Catherine Hassi Barahel leads a pretty comfortable, middle class life, going to school and gossiping with her cousin about boys… until (there’s always an ‘until’, right?) she ends up the victim of a contract signed by her family and is handed over to Andevai, a dangerous, powerful cold mage. She is immersed in the highly political power struggles of the mages, and begins to discover that she has a unique affinity for the spirit world.

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Book Review: Howl’s Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones)

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Fantasy/Young Adult – #1 Howl Series

“‘What do you mean by having this great ugly castle rushing about the hills and frightening everyone in Market Chipping to death?’

Howl shrugged. ‘What an outspoken old woman you are! I’ve reached that stage in my career when I need to impress everyone with my power and wickedness. I can’t have the King thinking well of me. And last year I offended someone very powerful and I need to keep out of their way.’”

As the eldest of three daughters, Sophie has resigned herself to an unadventurous life taking over her parents’ hat shop in the town of Market Chipping. Then one day, she somehow incurs the wrath of the evil Witch of the Wastes, who punishes her by turning her into an old woman. Taking this unexpected turn of events well in stride, Sophie decides to seek help at the home of the powerful and narcissistic Wizard Howl, well known for both his mysterious moving castle and his apparent penchant for stealing (and possibly eating) the hearts of young girls.

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Book Review: The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood)

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Fantasy/Mythology – Standalone

“Hadn’t I been faithful? Hadn’t I waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation – almost the compulsion – to do otherwise? And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been?” 

I want to start this review by noting that Librarything.com suggested this book is often tagged ‘children’s stories’. THIS IS NOT A CHILDREN’S STORY! Seriously! Who is giving this to children to read?! Do you want to scar your children for life???

Now that we have that out of the way… The Penelopiad is the story of Homer’s epic the Odyssey, retold from the point of view of his doting wife, Penelope. After the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus’ travels home are constantly waylaid. As he spends years adventuring around the Mediterranean, at home Penelope waits for him, hearing tales of his heroics and fending off increasingly insistent suitors who hope to acquire Odysseus’ land and wealth.

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Book Review: A Creature of Moonlight (Rebecca Hahn)

Review: A Creature of Moonlight, by Rebecca Hahn
Young Adult/Fantasy – Standalone

She knew, as I knew, that you don’t stop a story half done. You keep on going, through the heartbreak and pain and fear, and times there is a happy ending, and times there isn’t. Don’t matter. You don’t cut a flower half through and then wait and watch as it slowly shrivels to death. And you don’t stop a story before you reach the end.”

Marni lives on the edge of the woods in her grandfather’s cabin. These woods have a powerful and possibly sinister attraction for young women, many of whom are lost to the forest each year, and Marni struggles to resist the creatures of the woods that call to her. Complicating her life further is her position as one of the only living relatives of the King; for different, but equally compelling, reasons, she is drawn to both the woods and the King’s court.

This was a super confusing book for me. I fell in love with it immediately. Then I fell out of love with it along the way – only to fall very hard for it again towards the end, so much so that it suddenly and unexpectedly brought me to tears. The plot is meandering but the prose charming. It’s slow-paced, with minimal dialogue – and there is a lack of clarity (descriptions that could be either literal or metaphorical, characters and places whose names we never learn) that could be either frustrating or intriguing, depending on your mindset.

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Thoughts on Across the Nightingale Floor (Lian Hearn)

Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn
Fantasy – Tales of the Otori #1

When young Takeo’s peaceful village is massacred, he is rescued by a mysterious stranger. From this stranger, he learns that his father was an assassin of great skill, and Takeo too possesses his preternatural combat skills.

I was attracted to the book’s feudal Japanese setting, and had heard great things about it. Sadly, aside from my one-sentence sum up, I can’t speak much further about the plot; this book is the first one since I began this project that I did not finish.

Continue reading Thoughts on Across the Nightingale Floor (Lian Hearn)

Book Review: Shadow and Bone (Leigh Bardugo)

Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Fantasy/Young Adult – Book #1 in The Grisha Trilogy

Bardugo’s trilogy, set in a fantasy world inspired by Czarist Russia, ended up on my to-read list after I began searching for fantasy outside of the typical Western European medieval setting. It begins, as many fantasy stories do, with a disadvantaged orphan who displays a unique magical talent that vaults her out of downtrodden obscurity. She is taken to train under the wing of the Darkling, Bardugo’s answer to Rasputin and the leader of an elite group of magic users called the Grisha.

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