Review- Red Sister

25895524Red Sister
by Mark Lawrence
469 pages
Published April 4, 2017

From Goodreads: I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive


The teenage-girl-assassin theme feels likes it’s all over the place these days. Or it might just be because a few books get all the press, making it feel like it’s all over. I don’t know. I haven’t read All The Books, so maybe it’s a new trope that I’m only brushing the edges of.

I had much higher hopes for Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister than I had for Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass since I’ve heard nothing but good things about Lawrence’s books.

“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.”

– Mark Lawrence, Red Sister

An opening line like that carries with it a promise of a strange story. Who would want to kill a nun, and why would you need an army to do so? The nuns of this story, of course, are not the sort we would think of today, in crisp black and white habits. The sisters of the Sweet Mercy Convent are trained as warriors, whether with weapons or with magic, and it truly takes an army to bring one of them down.

The nuns’ training takes ten years to complete, and it is at the beginning of this process that we meet Nona Grey, one of the newest and certainly the bloodiest novice at this peculiar convent. Nona has secrets. A lot of them. They’re what took her from her home, nearly to the gallows, and finally to the relative safety of the Sweet Mercy Convent.

I say ‘relative safety’, because, in spite of the Sisters’ abilities, danger swirls around the nuns and their students. From day one, the girls’ lives are in danger while the abbess plays a risky political game. Through all this, Nona must learn who to trust– and when.

It should be disturbing to read about girls as young as ten learning how to kill people. They’re children, after all, and should be taking lessons about reading and writing, but the world of Abeth and the Corridor in the ice is a brutal one. Their sun is dying, the ice is encroaching, and powerful men don’t care if the target of their vengeance is a skinny little girl. To keep themselves alive, these girls must learn the tricks of their deadly trade. Sending a young girl off to learn the assassin’s trade is obviously not a new thing. In both Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass  and Robin LaFevers’s Grave Mercy, the worlds those heroines face are also dark and dangerous. But Mark Lawrence succeeds with Nona where Maas and LaFevers failed with Calaena and Ismae because Nona is a flawed character. She is young and naive, though she thinks she understands the world because her life has been hard. She has trouble making friends, and she has trouble with her lessons. She assumes things about other people that  aren’t true, and then she acts on those assumptions- often with terrible consequences. In other words, Nona acts like you would expect a girl to act in her shoes. Lawrence lets his main character act like an idiot and be beaten (and take a beating), then lets her pull herself together and learn from her mistakes. Just like a normal person would.

I think that letting your characters fail is one of the marks of a great writer. It’s easy to fall in love with one of your characters. They start to feel real after a while, and it’s hard to let them be humiliated. Who wants that to happen to their precious creation? But if humiliation (or injury or even death) are what the story demands, then that should happen. I didn’t think Nona was going to die, but there were times where I wasn’t sure she would come out the other side of whatever trouble she found herself in. Or something could have happened to one of the other girls, like Hessa, Ara, or Clera. There was a constant tension– whether it was a childish rivalry for another girl’s attention or a fight to the death– that kept me fully engaged in the story. I hated to put it down and came back to it as soon as I could.

The rest of the elements are expertly handled, as well. The worldbuilding is completed in multiple ways, and the way it is presented feels perfectly natural. Nona, being an uneducated child, must learn about the world she inhabits and so the reader learns along with her. There is the sense that this is a very old world with a complex history, but Lawrence never delves into a hundred generations of begats, nor does he have his teachers drone on about this king or that. The politics are introduced as Nona sees them and while they’re important to the story, they’re often secondary to it. The relationships between the girls drive the events, not some far away Emperor’s pronouncements.

And while I’m mentioning relationships, I’m going to turn back to the characters because the relationships the girls in the Sweet Mercy Convent have are wonderfully realistic. They’re a disparate group of girls with differing skills and strengths, flung together almost at random. They share sleeping quarters, meals, and sometimes clothes, and while this draws many of them into lifelong friendships, it pushes others apart. There are rivalries to match just about anything in Game of Thrones, and hard lessons about friendship and trust.

Another important thing? There is no love interest. There are no love triangles. Nona isn’t some great beauty from the wilderness, just waiting for someone to wash off the dirt and give her a pretty frock to turn her into the pretty, pretty princess of the prince’s dreams. That falls to one of the other girls before the issue of beauty is dropped on the wayside behind their training. The girls don’t have time to stress out over tangled hair and make-up. Nor do they have the energy or inclination to worry about boys. Not that they would have boys to pine over in an all-female convent, but they’re aware of boys, of marriage, and of the things that men and women do together. But there’s no romantic love in this book, only the love between friends, a relationship that is all too often cast aside when a hint of romance enters the picture.

As dark as it can be, Red Sister is an incredible book. It’s plot structure, world-building, characterizations, and writing are hard to beat in the dark fantasy genre. I started reading it a little after midnight on Monday and finished it on Tuesday afternoon. It’s a rare book that is so enthralling that I will spend all my spare time reading it, and Red Sister is one of the few.

Review- Practical Magic

22896Practical Magic
by Alice Hoffman
286 pages
Published 1995

From Goodreads: “[A] delicious fantasy of witchcraft and love in a world where gardens smell of lemon verbena and happy endings are possible.”—Cosmopolitan

The Owens sisters confront the challenges of life and love in this bewitching novel from New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape.

One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic…

“Splendid…Practical Magic is one of [Hoffman’s] best novels, showing on every page her gift for touching ordinary life as if with a wand, to reveal how extraordinary life really is.”—Newsweek



My Thoughts

The more of the Goodreads Monday tags I do, the more I’m grateful for having started doing them because they’re reminding me of some great books that have been languishing on my TBR list. The Glass Universe was like that, and so was Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic. I’ve written before about how much I enjoyed the movie when I finally sat down and watched it (I still want to live in the Aunts’ house, or even just have their yarn winder). The book, of course, is different from the movie, but both are wonderful.

The basic plots are the same- Sally and Gillian are sisters who are raised by their Aunts Frances and Bridgett. They’re close as children but then grow apart. Sally, the dependable and dutiful sister stays home, falls in love with and marries a local man and has two daughters with him before he is struck and killed by a car. Gillian leaves town as soon as she’s eighteen and runs from one disastrous relationship to the next until events force her to return to her childhood home. One of the film’s biggest departures from the book is that Sally continues living with the Aunts in the movie. In the book, she moves away to build her own life with her girls, away (she thinks) from the witchy happenings in the old Owens household. Another major departure is that Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie, are little girls in the movie, and in the book you see them grow into teenagers.

Again, I think both book and movie are fantastic, and I can see why they director made the changes for the movie. The book, being a book, is better able to delve into complex issues of love and loss, the bonds of family, and why women might make the sorts of mistakes they do when love and infatuation are involved. There is a lot about growing up, too, and how strange and upsetting it can be to wake up one morning and realize that you’re not a little girl anymore.

“Trouble is just like love, after all; it comes in unannounced and takes over before you’ve had a chance to reconsider, or even to think.” 

-Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic

Love is at the center of this book. The love that sisters share, lost love, a mother’s love for her children, and love that isn’t really love at all. What sets the book apart from the movie is the book’s ability to get into the heads of the characters to see what drives them and why they make the choices that they do. Gillian’s choice to stay with her abusive boyfriend, Jimmy, makes a sad kind of sense when seen from her point of view. She doesn’t believe she deserves happiness, and thinks she can change him. Sally’s grief at her husband’s early death drives her away from the Aunts and into something like a normal life, but you can see why she doesn’t really go and live her life. She’s consumed by the idea that her little world will fall apart without her and having that illusion shattered nearly undoes her.

Sally’s daughters, on the other hand, are only starting to learn about the world. Antonia is a selfish sixteen year-old who torments her little sister, but then has her world turned upside down when Kylie turns thirteen and starts to blossom. Kylie herself is baffled by this change, and it nearly wrecks the only real friendship she has. Everyone in the Owens household is, at one point or another, so focused on their envy, frustration, and misery that they can’t see the outside world and its effects on them. They, like real people, have a hard time swallowing their pride enough that they can talk to the people around them and work out the problems that are making them unhappy.

All of the characters in Practical Magic are beautifully drawn and complex. They have good points and flaws and they learn and grow throughout the book. Their relationships are such that the magic of the title is almost secondary to everything else, even though Hoffman scatters folk wisdom and magic throughout the story, whether it’s the Owens women’s beguiling beauty, their magical soap, or giant lilacs blooming out of season.

Hoffman’s writing is gorgeous, too, creating a believably magical world out of ordinary neighborhoods and revealing the issues the Owens women face without getting sentimental or dull about them. Their fear, misery, happiness, and love feels as real as if it’s happening to you, making Practical Magic impossible to put down. Almost like someone’s cast a spell over you.

Review- Throne of Glass

514nd2R1-rL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Throne of Glass
by Sarah J. Maas
404 pages
Published 2012

From Goodreads: After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king’s council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for four years and then be granted her freedom. Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilarating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her … but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead … quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.


 

My Thoughts:

I don’t like to dismiss things out of hand just because they’re popular. That’s lame, and I don’t like to be That Guy over in the corner, whingeing about how Such-And-Such thing was great before it was popular, but now it’s been ruined by fame. No one likes That Guy.

So after seeing Sarah J Mass’s books pretty much everywhere online and in bookstores, I decided to give it a shot. It couldn’t be worse than Grave Mercy, after all, and I thought I might be pleasantly surprised, though the synopsis didn’t give me much confidence- a royal competition involving assassins and thieves, after all, doesn’t sound terribly likely as a premise, and I tend to despise love triangles.

Still, I carried on. Perhaps the characters were super interesting, or the world building allowed for a competition between assassins to make perfect sense. And the love triangle, people said, was not a major part of the story. So off I went into the world of Adarlan.

And I have  to say, I was not impressed with the place or its people.

Let’s start with the main character, Celaena Sardothien. At seventeen, she was the most feared assassin in Erilea until she was betrayed and sent to the salt mines of Endovier. After a year in a place where most people die within a month or two, she’s dragged out of it in order to compete against a bunch of assassins and thieves so Adarlan’s king can find himself an assassin to do his dirty work. Celaena emerges from a year in a salt mine bony and dirty, but otherwise healthy. And perfectly capable of drawing a bow, wielding a sword, throwing knives, and climbing sheer walls after resting up a little. The part of my brain that cries out for reality went off a hundred times, but I ignored it and carried on only to discover that, not only is Celaena young, feared, the very best at what she does, and able to recover from deadly situations in record time, she is also exquisitely beautiful, loved by animals, can pick up pretty much any weapon and use it expertly, and, oh yeah, the Crown Prince and his Captain of the Guard are both in love with her.

Of course.

Now, the big problem I have with flawless characters like this is that they’re boring. If they’re accomplished at everything, then what can they learn? How can they grow? What is it about them that’s going to change by the end of the book? If they’re already flawless, then where’s the tension? I knew going into Throne of Glass that Celaena was going to win the competition. How could she not? No one else could hold a candle to her abilities, and no one had a snowball’s chance in hell of beating her, because she was the novel’s wish-fulfilling Mary Sue.

So I looked to the other characters for interest. Crown Prince Dorian, for example, for Captain Chaol Westfall. Neither of them were the male equivalent of the Mary Sue character (a Marty Stu, if you will), but their interesting qualities waned at exactly the same time that they fell for Celaena. Suddenly they were no longer players in a larger game. They served only to be Characters Who Adored Celaena.

The one who proved to be the most interesting was Princess Nehemia, a resident ex-royal from a kingdom recently conquered by Adarlan. She is smart and beautiful, too (because everyone in Adarlan is, apparently, smart and beautiful, except for the thieves and assassins Celaena competes against), but she has a head for politics and it is difficult to tell how, exactly, she is serving her people. Is she merely a political representative/hostage from her homeland of Eyllwe? Or is she quietly aiding a rebellion against Adarlan? It’s hard to tell, and while Maas devotes some ink to the subject, she only touches on it now and then. Perhaps it’s fleshed out in the next book. I don’t know. I haven’t read that one.

The characters aren’t the only disappointing element of Throne of Glass. The prose is clumsy and often awkward, with many words and phrases used in such as way that I would stop reading mid-sentence and think, ‘is that how that phrase is supposed to go?’ or ‘I wonder if Maas knew the meaning of that word, because that’s not how it’s normally used’.  I don’t demand that every sentence be graceful and perfect in every grammatical way, but if the prose itself knocks me out of the story, then that’s a problem.

I can understand the appeal of Throne of Glass. Who wouldn’t want to imagine themselves in Celaena’s shoes and be fearless, young and accomplished, as well as beautiful and beloved by two handsome and accomplished men? But ultimately, I found the characters to be uninteresting, the story predictable, and the world building to be lackluster at best. Maas’s writing did improve as the book went on, but in the acknowledgements at the end she says she spent ten years working on this book. For all that time spent on the writing, I would expect Throne of Glass to be far better than it is.

If you’re looking for a fantasy trilogy about a teenaged assassin, I would recommend Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, by now a classic fantasy story about a prince’s bastard son taken into the palace and given to the royal assassin and spymaster. Hobb’s writing is excellent, the story is tightly knit and believable within its well-crafted world, and for all his flaws and mistakes FitzChivalry Farseer is a far more interesting and sympathetic young assassin than Celaena Sardothien.

 

 

 

 

June Summary and July Preview

Is there anything more fun to do on a Friday night than spending forty-five minutes trying to figure out what has gone terribly wrong with your camera or editing software before figuring out that you merely changed a camera setting, and that’s why things are wonky?

So that was my Friday night. Part of it, anyway. Some of it was fun, like photographing clouds and going to the cafe for a pizza-stuffed pretzel and a latte. Also, a bookstore. Who doesn’t love a good trip to the bookstore?

Anyway. I read eleven books in June! Not too shabby, considering that I read only five or six in May. They are as follows:

  1. The Snowman by Jo Nesbø
  2. Bloodline (Wars of the Roses #3) by Conn Iggulden
  3. Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes
  4. Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey
  5. The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel
  6. The Star-Touched Queen by Rakshi Shosani
  7. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  8. The Soul of the Camera by David duChemin
  9. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
  10. Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain
  11. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

My Favorite Book of the Month:

bear

Katherine Arden’s beautiful debut novel brings medieval Russia to life- along with its fairytales- with the story of Vasilisa, a young woman who must defy her family and her culture in order to save her people from the onslaught of the winter demon. There was never a moment where I wasn’t fully drawn into Vasya’s world, and though many of the spirits were unknown to me before I read the book, they felt like familiar faces by the end. I was even moved to pity the human antagonists instead of merely hating them, and that is a rare occurrence. I was happy to discover that Arden has a follow-up book in the works, due out next winter.

My Least Liked Book of the Month:

514nd2R1-rL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

I went into the reading of this book with a feeling of ‘meh’, and after many eyerolls and a lot of skimming, I finished it with a feeling of ‘meh’. All too often, the prose let me down with its clumsiness or poor word usage, often kicking me right out of the story while I tried to figure out what, exactly, Maas meant by a particular phrasing. Calaena was not interesting, nor what I ever worried for her safety. Of course she was going to win the competition. And of course Darion and Chaol were going to fall for her. There was never any doubt about that, and that killed any tension that might have been building. What would have made this book more interesting? If it had been about Princess Nehemia instead.


An update on an earlier post, Must See TV- Kinda Sorta: I finished the first seasons of Victoria and The Shannara Chronicles!

TEMP-Victoria-poster2

Victoria ended on just the right note- with the birth of Victoria’s first child and the royal couple as happy and as powerful as they could be. Their rivals have been cast down, the people adore them (mostly), and even disputes within the extended family have settled down. Things couldn’t be better for Victoria and Albert. Not so for the rest of the characters, who have spurned possible love interests, left the palace to seek better lives, or have otherwise made bad decisions that have made them unhappy. The season ended beautifully, and if you went back to watch the first episode all over again, the changes the first few years of her reign have wrought on Victoria would be obvious, but they developed naturally across the season, with nothing that felt forced or rushed. I can’t wait for the next season!

shannara

The Shannara Chronicles is another story altogether. I was honestly surprised to find that it had been renewed for a second season given how lackluster the first season was, with too many repetitious plot elements, lousy scripts, and changes in relationships that felt completely unnatural. While other shows such as Game of Thrones effortlessly handle a vast cast across multiple plotlines, Shannara struggled to do the same. I think it would have benefited from a smaller cast in its first season. The showrunners could also have gotten rid of the internal plots of a few episodes and spread the main story arc across them instead. The overall story would have been better had they not been almost constantly introducing one-off places and characters that were never intended to last more than an episode. The next season starts in September, and while I think the events of the (lackluster) finale point to a tighter, more interesting show the next time around, if things don’t improve soon, I won’t continue watching.


What’s next for July? Another five books that I will intend to read, but may or may not get to, depending on what pops up between now and the end of the month.

  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  2. IstanbulMemories and the City by Orhan Pamuk
  3. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
  4. Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić
  5. Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt

I’ve been intending to read Pride and Prejudice and Istanbul: Memories and the City for the last couple of months. Will I actually get around to reading them? Who knows?

I’m actually about a quarter of the way through Practical Magic at the moment, thanks to a quick download from the public library. I am enjoying it so far! Dictionary of the Khazars and Little Black Book of Stories have been sitting on the shelf, looking sad for quite some time. They are, I think, getting lonely up there, so I am going to make a concerted attempt to read them, too.

I realized the other day that I have a little over a month left before I leave for Iceland! Woohoo! The excitement is building! But first I have to get through July, which is usually a long, hot month.

The Bear and the Nightingale

bearThe Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
322 pages
Published January 10, 2017

From Goodreads: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.


I had seen this book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, but for some reason, despite the fact that the cover art is so simple and beautiful, I didn’t pay it much mind until Danielle over at Books, Vertigo and Tea read and loved it. I put in a request for it via my library’s digital library and fortunately did not have to wait terribly long for it to arrive.

This is an amazing book, and all the more so because it’s Arden’s debut novel. It takes place in the northern reaches of late medieval Russia, deep in the forest where winters are long and harsh and summer is short but beautiful. Though they are Christian, the people pay homage to the old spirits of the forest, and so they are protected from the demonic forces that would bring them misery and death. When Vasilisa’s father brings home his new, very devout wife who in turn summons a new priest to minister to the people, the old ways are frowned upon. The protective spirits are weakened, allowing the demonic forces to rise up, threatening to bring destruction upon them all.

Vasilisa, or Vasya and she’s usually called in the book, is easily my favorite heroine I’ve encountered this year. She’s smart and strong, and though her appearance is captivating to those who would claim her for their own, she’s never described as particularly beautiful. Our heroines are almost always beautiful, as though their inner strength must always translate into outer beauty, so it’s nice to see a heroine who isn’t gorgeous by default. Rather, her strength comes from her ability to see and accept the spirits around her– the ones that appear in children’s stories, but are largely dismissed by adults. Because Vasya can see the spirits and doesn’t see them as malevolent creatures (as her step-mother Anna does), she talks to them and learns all sorts of things, like how to ride horses and move quickly and silently through the forest. It is not entirely a gift, though, as Vasya’s abilities make her desirable to the demon looming at the edge of Winter.  It gives her courage, though, and it is Vasya’s courage that see her through danger, especially when the villagers are set against her.

The rest of the characters are wonderfully written, too. Even those who are largely against Vasya and her wildness are sympathetically rendered, and instead of hating them for their intransigence, I felt sorry for them. The step-mother, Anna, for example, is a prisoner of her circumstances, sold into marriage when she wanted nothing more than to become a nun, she sees demons everywhere except for the churches she find sanctuary in. All she has in her life is her faith and her young daughter, and she would do anything to please God and her priest and protect her child– to the point where she would sacrifice Vasya. The priest, Konstantin, is also a victim of his circumstances. He quickly falls for Vasya- though it’s hard to say if that feeling is lust or love- but his situation will not allow him to act upon his wishes, and so he condemns Vasya for being what he cannot be- wild and free.

The pacing of this book is solid throughout, except perhaps for one section, where Vasya’s father Pyotr takes his two elder sons to Moscow to present them at court and find himself a new wife. There are a few bits I could have done without, or that might have been a bit shorter. But now that I’m thinking about it, the section where Vasya’s brother Sasha visits a monastery might actually be necessary to show the strength of the Christian faith to the people of Rus’. That is pretty much my only gripe with the story, though, and it’s so minor overall.

Arden’s writing is beautiful throughout, blending Russian fairytales, history, and Christian lore into a gorgeous story that I both wanted to finish in a hurry (so I could find out what happened) and linger over (because the world is so intricate and realistic). Vasya is a hero who can defend her family and her people in spite of their hostility to her nature. She refuses to be anything but true to herself even when it causes conflict with her father, because she knows she’s doing the right thing.

The end of The Bear and the Nightingale leaves things open to more adventures for Vasya, and there is indeed a second book due out next January- The Girl in the Tower. It’s already on my To Be Read list, and you can bet I’ll be picking up a copy as soon as I can!

The Star-Touched Queen

queenThe Star-Touched Queen
by Roshani Chokshi
342 pages
Published April, 2016

From Goodreads: Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.


I’ve seen multiple reviews of this book here and there, always rated very highly, and so I thought I’d give it a try. After a short wait from the library, the eBook showed up on my Nook one day, so off I went into a mythology I am only vaguely acquainted with. I have encountered the Hindu mythos here and there- it’s touched upon in other fantasy novels I’ve read, I’ve heard it spoken about in the various travels shows I’ve watched, and we read a section of the Mahabharata in my Epic Tales class (Classics 389) in college. So Maya’s world wasn’t utterly unfamiliar to me.

But it was still strange. Maya’s horoscope foretold  a dark future of death and destruction for her, and so the women she grew up with and around in her father’s palace treated her terribly, blaming virtually every misfortune and death on a girl who, really, had nothing to do with these things.

And yet, there was something odd about her in the way that she smiled or the fact that sometimes her shadow refused to appear when the sun was high. She would frighten her tutors away and sneak off to watch her father as he ruled his lands, content to learn about politics and perhaps someday become a scholar. One day, though, her father declares that Maya must marry, and she will do so within a few days.

The man that Maya ultimately marries is a mystery to her, and he brings her to a strange realm full of locked doors and distant voices. He treats her as an equal, with his only demand being that she must trust him.

Of course, Maya’s trust falters to her misfortune, her husband’s, and perhaps all the worlds above and below.

One of the comments I kept seeing about The Star-Touched Queen was how beautiful the commentors thought the prose was. I agree to a degree. Compared to many of the YA books I have read or tried to read over the past couple of years, the prose is more poetic. Chokshi’s metaphors didn’t sweep me off my feet, though. What kept me reading was Maya and her characterization, and later on, the mystery of the realm she became the queen of- Akaran.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have my moments of, “Maya, don’t be a dingbat… oh, there you go. Being a dingbat. Go figure”. I had several of those. Fortunately, they weren’t so aggravating that they made me want to put the book down. Amar, the king of Akaran, was mysterious enough to make me want to keep reading, if only to find out what he was all about.

From here, we get a bit spoilery, but I don’t know how to best discuss my thoughts without giving away certain plot elements, so here we go.

.

.

.

.

  1. I realize the whole thing with Nritti was set up early on, but somehow it didn’t quite feel like Nritti’s early, unnamed appearances were part of her story. It felt like she appeared out of nowhere in Akaran.
  2. While I’m aware that reincarnation is part of Hindu beliefs and that it was mentioned in various parts of the book, given that Maya’s realization about her own past lives and how they intertwined with Nritti’s, the occasional mentionings of this idea didn’t meld enough into the story to make Maya’s discovery of her past lives feel completely natural.
  3. I know this is a fantasy, and it is based on various Hindu myths and beliefs, but the section where Maya is going through the kingdom as a sadhvi felt a little like it came from a different book altogether- one that was more of a surrealistic or magical realist story.
  4. I’m not sure how the reunification with her sister Gauri was necessary to the overall, and why Maya was helping her to escape. Her conversation with the old harem-wife felt more relevant to Maya’s journey.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. It was a quick read with interesting characters and locations, but I don’t think it will leave a very deep impression when I look back at the list of books I read this year. There is a second book that just came out, A Crown of Wishes, but the synopsis indicates that it’s about Gauri, not Maya. I’m still trying to decide if I’m interested enough to read that one.

The Red Magician

23117749The Red Magician
by Lisa Goldstein
192 pages
Published in 1982

From Goodreads: Winner of the 1983 American Book Award, The Red Magician was an immediate classic.

On the eve of World War II, a wandering magician comes to a small Hungarian village prophesying death and destruction. Eleven-year-old Kicsi believes Vörös, and attempts to aid him in protecting the village.

But the local rabbi, who possesses magical powers, insists that the village is safe, and frustrates Vörös’s attempts to transport them all to safety. Then the Nazis come and the world changes.

Miraculously, Kicsi survives the horrors of the concentration camp and returns to her village to witness the final climactic battle between the rabbi and the Red Magician, the Old World and the New.

The Red Magician is a notable work of Holocaust literature and a distinguished work of fiction, as well as a marvelously entertaining fantasy that is, in the end, wise and transcendent.


I found this book by browsing through my library’s eBook selection during a bit of downtime at work, and I have to admit that the little ‘National Book Award’ medallion on the cover image helped sway my decision to download and read it. The library’s synopsis was interesting, but only described the first few chapters. The Goodreads synopsis better describes the whole story, though it just touches the surface. The Red Magician is much deeper than its synopsis indicates. There’s a good reason it won such a prestigious award.

Life is perfectly normal for Kicsi when the book opens. She goes to school, she puts up with her older sisters, she resents the fact that she never gets to have new clothes (she gets hand me downs from her sisters), and she dreams of the wide world outside her little village. Things start to turn strange, though, when the local rabbi lays a curse on the school because they’ve started teaching Hebrew, a language the rabbi feels is blasphemous.

That’s when Vörös shows up. He is a wanderer who Kicsi immediately likes, and it turns out that he is a magician, just like the rabbi. Vörös removes the curse from the school, and at the rabbi’s daughter’s wedding, making a dire prophecy about the future and advises everyone to leave. When they don’t leave, Vörös tries to build protections for the little town he’s come to love. The rabbi shows up then, and whether out of spite, fear, or a little of both, he destroys the protections that Vörös has built.

Then the Nazis show up.

I won’t go further into the plot, because that would spoil it, and there are a lot of things I’ve left out. But suffice it to say that Kicsi survives the Holocaust and finds Vörös again, and the rabbi finds them, too.

I wouldn’t say that The Red Magician is a coming of age story, thought Kicsi certainly grows up. That label doesn’t tell the whole story of the story, though. The Red Magician is about growing up, learning to appreciate what you have, learning to live with guilt- and indeed, it’s about learning to live again after surviving horrors- and so many other things, too. There is a lot packed into this little book.

The prose is lovely, too. It had a ‘once upon a time…’ feeling to it, like a Brothers Grimm tale, where deep issues are written about so lightly you don’t realize you’ve absorbed the story’s lesson until you look back at it later. Goldstein isn’t a spendthrift when it comes to her words. They are chosen carefully and seem to effortlessly spin a beautiful tale about love, loss, and why we should choose to live after witnessing the worst humanity has to offer.