Review- Crown of Midnight

DSC01749Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass #2)
by Sarah J. Maas
418 pages
Published 2013

From Goodreads:  “A line that should never be crossed is about to be breached.

It puts this entire castle in jeopardy—and the life of your friend.”

From the throne of glass rules a king with a fist of iron and a soul as black as pitch. Assassin Celaena Sardothien won a brutal contest to become his Champion. Yet Celaena is far from loyal to the crown. She hides her secret vigilantly; she knows that the man she serves is bent on evil.

Keeping up the deadly charade becomes increasingly difficult when Celaena realizes she is not the only one seeking justice. As she tries to untangle the mysteries buried deep within the glass castle, her closest relationships suffer. It seems no one is above questioning her allegiances—not the Crown Prince Dorian; not Chaol, the Captain of the Guard; not even her best friend, Nehemia, a foreign princess with a rebel heart.

Then one terrible night, the secrets they have all been keeping lead to an unspeakable tragedy. As Celaena’s world shatters, she will be forced to give up the very thing most precious to her and decide once and for all where her true loyalties lie… and whom she is ultimately willing to fight for.


My Thoughts

I read Crown of Midnight as a buddy read with Danielle over at Books, Vertigo & Tea. I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. I found the first book, Throne of Glassdisappointing, as Celaena read like a wish-fulfilling Mary Sue instead of a fully fleshed, dynamic character, and Maas’s writing was clunky and uninspired.

Crown of Midnight… is marginally better. Celaena has more depth this time around, and because the story is not lurching toward the end of a protracted contest there is more time to explore her growth as a person and develop her relationships, both romantic and platonic. She’s an assassin with a heart of gold, and it’s made clear early on that she’s only pretending to carry out the king’s orders. Celaena’s ruses go off without a hitch, so that even her closest friends believe that she’s killed all those people.

And, of course, her friends- Chaol, Dorian, and Nehemia- look at her sidewards because Celaena is an awful person for killing them (even though she hasn’t). Despite the fact that they already knew she was an assassin.

What did they think she did before they met her? Skip through meadows and pick flowers while singing to the animals?

*sighs*

Odd expectations of an assassin’s morality aside, the other characters did a little growing up, too. Dorian rose in my regard after he made a particular discovery, though he’s still content to sit back and watch his evil father continue to plan evil things. It seems his idea of ‘making a difference’ is to object to some of dad’s plans in the council chamber, but his objections hardly seem to make much of a difference. I’m sorry, Dorian, but you can’t just thumb your nose at authority and expect things to change on a fundamental level.

Nehemia continues to be one of the most interesting characters in the story, but alas, we hear more from a doorknob than we do the princess of Eyllwe.

Maas’s writing has improved since the first book though the prose is still workaday, walking from one event to the next and doing its job without much flair, like it just wants to get through the day so it can go home and take a nap. Plot twists are telegraphed so far in advance that you could use binoculars to see them coming. There’s no surprise to them, just the satisfaction of knowing you were right.

I have had an issue with the lack of specificity in the two books. We’re accustomed to fantasy novels having foundations in historical lands, whether it’s the Anglo-Saxon-based setting of Tolkien’s Rohan, the medieval Russia of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, or the late-Renaissance Amsterdam-like atmosphere of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. The world of Throne of Glass is harder to pin down and so it’s harder to get a sense of the place, as Maas pulls from a variety of sources to inhabit her world. The character of Baba Yellowlegs, for example, is analogous to the crone Baba Yaga from Russian tales, while the fae spoken of in other parts of the books resemble those of Welsh and Irish stories. In the first book Celaena listens to minuets, a type of dance popular in eighteenth century France. While I realize that Celaena’s world has a variety of cultures, the lack of specificity about any of them makes it difficult to get a concrete sense of the place and thereby get lost in the world. I kept coming across vague terminology (or things that were just used incorrectly) which would make me stop and ask, “What kind of weapon is Celaena using? It just says ‘sword’. There are a lot of different kinds of swords”.

And so, while the characters have grown more likeable in Crown of Midnight, and there is some political intrigue going on, I just don’t have enough interest in the story to want to go out and read the rest of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a snobby reader, but when there are so many amazing fantasy novels with more engaging stories than those of the Throne of Glass books, I just can’t see myself taking the time away from them to read about characters I only sort of like.

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.

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!

Sunday Sum-Up

I seem to have spent this week catching up on the number of books I’ve read for the month, because I started and finished three titles, and began reading three more.  Most of these books were eBooks I sent to my forlorn little Nook, after having neglected it for a few weeks. Once I updated all the apps. Again (does it seem to anyone else like you have to update the stupid things every twenty minutes or so?). I feel like I cheated a little on the books I finished. They were relatively short (around 200 pages), and had a lot of pictures and block quotes.

In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton discusses how a secular society can benefit from certain aspects of religious culture, establishments, and art. As modern society moves further from religion, de Botton talks about the various elements of religion- art and architecture, the social acts of charity, rules for behavior, forgiveness of human frailties, etc.- and how they can benefit a secular culture without requiring belief in a god or gods. It’s an interesting read, though sometimes it reads like de Botton assumes that non-religious people have somehow lost the ability to appreciate religious art or traditions, and so he can come off as a little arrogant.

The Book of Hygge discusses the Danish notion of hygge, which roughly translates to the quality of coziness. It’s a trend that blew up, as far as I can tell, last fall and winter and had people curling up with fluffy blankets and hot chocolate while reading books by candlelight. At its core, its a notion of living that helped (and helps) the Danes survive their long, dark, freezing winters. The Book of Hygge isn’t really a how-to book for the lifestyle. It’s more of an extended definition as it relates to things like wellness and the home. I almost think that you could check out a few blog posts (like this one), apply those concepts to whatever seems clever to apply it to, and just skip the book unless you’re really into photographs of fluffy towels and bread.

The Architecture of Happiness is another title from Alain de Botton in which he discusses how the architecture of our homes, offices, and cities as wholes affects our well-being. Unified, beautiful architecture helps makes us happy. He provides examples like London’s Bedford Square, Parisian residential streets, and places where modernist architecture was designed to seamlessly fit in with centuries’ old structures without losing out on the features of either old or new buildings. At the other end of the spectrum, ill-planned structures such as the giant apartment blocks favored by slumlords and Soviet city planners incite despair and destroy communities. I liked this book more than Religion for Atheists– there was more wit and fewer pretensions- but de Botton still seems to be looking down from his (arguably well-conceived) tower as he explains to us little folk down below what the Grand Architectural Concepts are all about.

My current reads:


Margaret of Anjou,
aka, Trinity (because it apparently needs two titles, just to be confusing) is the second book of Conn Iggulden’s ‘Wars of the Roses’ books. It picks up about a year and a half after Stormbird leaves off. I was initially confused at the start of the book, as it introduces a bunch of new characters, families, and conflicts. I think, though, that I might have been less confused had I not started reading it while waiting at a mechanic’s shop for one of my car’s tires to get fixed with the movie Bridesmaids blaring on the TV. Maybe I caught it at the wrong part, but I didn’t think ti was a very funny movie..

The Red Magician is about a little Jewish girl named Kicsi who lives in a Hungarian village, just before the outbreak of WWII. A magician comes to town with a prophesy of doom and seeks to protect the village, but is thwarted by the town’s rabbi. Then the Nazis arrive and change Kicsi’s world, and she must learn to survive as the battles between good and evil and the Old World and the New World rage around her.

Brief Gaudy Hour is a book I discovered while looking for historical fiction titles about Anne Boleyn for Danielle over at Books, Vertigo and Tea. I’d never heard of it or the author, Margaret Campbell Barnes before. Fortunately my public library had a copy available for download, and I dove right in. The prose is a bit old-fashioned (it was originally published in 1949), but once I got used to it, I was taken in by young Anne’s charms. It opens when she is eighteen and just starting out in the world of court intrigue in both England and France. She’s only a little naive and learns quickly, taking youthful pleasure in her ability to charm men. Margaret Campbell Barnes did not add any portentious elements to her story, but simply let events unfold through Anne’s eyes.

I don’t know how much time I’ll have to read this weekend. My plans changed overnight, so I’ll be doing a lot more driving than I anticipated. If the weather stays nice and everyone stays healthy, though, it should be a fun few days!

Stormbird (The Wars of the Roses #1)

17830079Stormbird (The Wars of the Roses #1)
by Conn Iggulden
Historical Fiction
482 pages

From Goodreads: King Henry V – the great Lion of England – is long dead.

In 1437, after years of regency, the pious and gentle Henry VI, the Lamb, comes of age and accedes to the English throne. His poor health and frailty of mind render him a weakling king -Henry depends on his closest men, Spymaster Derry Brewer and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, to run his kingdom.

Yet there are those, such as the Plantagenet Richard, Duke of York, who believe England must be led by a strong king if she is to survive. With England’s territories in France under threat, and rumours of revolt at home, fears grow that Henry and his advisers will see the country slide into ruin. With a secret deal struck for Henry to marry a young French noblewoman, Margaret of Anjou, those fears become all too real.

As storm clouds gather over England, King Henry and his supporters find themselves besieged abroad and at home. Who, or what can save the kingdom before it is too late?


I’ve been searching for an historical fiction author whose books I can sink my metaphorical teeth into (as opposed to literally throwing them at the wall) for some time now, and have mostly come up short. Sharon Kay Penman started out great, but Falls the Shadow got so choppy I abandoned it just under two-hundred pages from the end, Helen Hollick’s The Forever Queen suffered from too many POVs crammed into the opening few chapters, and don’t even get me started on Philippa Gregory. There have been others through the years, but I don’t remember authors’ names or book titles, as they were largely forgettable tales. Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon stories are well-written and memorable (I read The Last Kingdom earlier this year), but I haven’t felt like I need to sit down and devour the series asap to find out what happens.

So I was starting to despair of ever finding an historical fiction author whose books didn’t annoy me in one way or another. Enter Conn Iggulden.

Who hasn’t heard of the Wars of the Roses, whether it’s because that’s a darned catchy name for a decades long series of civil wars, or because you’re a history nut who can name every little political player in the whole conflict? I tend toward the latter, because history is awesome.

Stormbird begins early in the reign of Henry VI, who ascended the throne in infancy after the death of his martially-minded father, Henry V. Sadly for England, the younger Henry is hardly like his father. Weak in both mind and body, Henry VI (just Henry from here on) prefers to spend his days in prayer, leaving the ruling of the kingdom to other men- specifically to his spymaster, Derihew Brewer, and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. The two men walk a delicate line, as the Duke of York leads a power faction, and it takes very little effort to sway Henry’s opinion one way or another. So to try to wrest all control away from the Yorkist faction, Derry and Suffolk put together a plan to marry Henry to Margaret of Anjou, a French princess who is related to King Charles of France.

There is little room for error, though, and once it is discovered that lands held by the English will go back to French rule upon Margaret’s marriage, chaos ensues. Thousands of English families are forced off their lands in France. Many rebel, and King Charles’s response is to raise an army that will sweep every Englishman away from French soil.

Meanwhile, back in England, the treaty that turned over those initial territories has proven to be politically disastrous for Suffolk, though Margaret herself has suffered little from xenophobia, and indeed cares greatly for her new country, and especially for her husband, Henry, whose mental and physical health are still in decline. Though she is only fifteen when she’s crowned Queen of England, she quickly learns how to navigate the intricacies of politics and proves to be a fierce defender of her husband’s crown.

Her strength- and the crown’s- is put to the test, though, when Jack Cade leads a peasant rebellion to London itself. Stoked by widespread anger from rampant injustice, poverty, and the loss of the French territories, Cade’s army threatens to shake England apart.

This is, of course, a simplification of the events of Stormbird, and if you’re a fan of Shakespeare, English history, or both, the plot will sound very familiar, as the dynastic struggle is the subject of this historical plays, Henry VI, pts. I and II (beautifully executed in the Hollow Crown series produced by the BBC). There are, of course, a lot of differences, one of the primary points regarding the relationship between Suffolk and Margaret of Anjou. Shakespeare casts Margaret as a villainous, scheming, adulterous woman seeking power for herself and eventually for her son. In the plays, she has an ongoing affair with Suffolk, who is also a villainous figure.

Iggulden’s depiction of Margaret, I think, is more true to history. While it’s true that Henry was not in France for the initial marriage ceremony, and that Suffolk stood in his place, that alone doesn’t mean that he and Margaret were lovers. It just means that Margaret’s wedding was a little weird, and not where she expected it to be. Iggulden portrays the relationship as friendly, as they traveled together back to England, and I would daresay that she would have been inclined to favor Suffolk, given that he was a close adviser to her husband-to-be.

Above all, Iggulden’s portrayals of all the characters, whether they’re royal or lowborn, treat them like human beings, with a range of thoughts, feelings, and desires. No one here is specifically written as a villain, except perhaps the Duke of York (though he generally comes off as frustrated as to what is happening to his country), or even as specifically good. Everyone has nuances and even moral people can do bad things.

The prose is strong, as well. At points where some authors are prone to sweeping descriptions or over-the-top sentimentality, Iggulden keeps it simple and direct with elegantly crafted writing that keeps you in the story without becoming distracting in itself. He also manages to give the book a sense of history without lecturing the reader (or having one character ramble on to another about things they should both already know). King Charles might mention the ‘disaster at Agincourt’, or an English Duke might look at a cardinal and think, ‘he’s also the one who sent Joan of Arc to the pyre’, but that’s it. If you don’t know what Agincourt or Joan of Arc are about, you’re going to have to look them up, because the characters aren’t going to tell you.

And I suppose that’s one of the strengths of Stormbird– the fact that, while the characters have a place in our history, they didn’t know what their eventual fates were going to be during their lifetimes. Maybe they knew they would have a place in great events, but they did not know the effects their actions would have on history. There is, I think, a propensity for authors and filmmakers to place a great emphasis on a character’s destiny, as though the fall of Richard III or the ascension of Elizabeth I were fated to happen, and nothing could stop them. But at the time, those outcomes were not guaranteed. A minor twist of fate could have had Richard III winning the Battle of Bosworth, not Henry Tudor, and Elizabeth I would never have existed. Iggulden does not fall for that, though, and Stormbird makes you feel like anything could happen, even if you already know what happened.

I will definitely be looking for the rest of the books in the Wars of the Roses series. If they’re anything like Stormbird, they’ll be fantastic reads, too.

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

Monstress_01-1From Goodreads: Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steampunk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.


 

I don’t remember what I was looking for in the Comics section of the media borrowing app, Hoopla, but I didn’t find it. While I scrolled through the various offerings I came across a piece of cover art that caught my eye. Curious, I clicked on the description. Once I saw the words ‘steampunk’, ‘art-deco’, and ‘matriarchy’, I was intrigued. It wasn’t until I saw the recommendation by Neil Gaiman that I decided I had to read it. I mean, when Neil Gaiman says something is a remarkable, beautifully told story it’s almost a moral imperative to read whatever he’s commending.

This story is amazing.

It’s a complicated world, filled with multiple races- humans, arcanics, and cats among others. While the races once lived in peace, historical events tore them apart during terrible war that resulted in a wall being built across the land, dividing the humans from the other races. That was long ago.

The story picks up in the middle of things, plunging the reader into a world that is often confusing and continuously mysterious, full of magic, paranoia, and divided loyalties. The heroine, Maika, is on the verge of being sold as a slave before she is ‘donated’ to a scientist along with several other arcanics. The arcanics are part-human and part something else, and often have animal features such as wings, tails, or fox-ears. They are often murdered by the human scientists so they can study the animal-like features.

2015-10-15_at_10.58.33_AMMaika is determined not to end up as part of a science experiment, though, and she has a terrifying plan to escape and take back the item she traveled into the human lands to find. But is it a wise idea for her to search for this item, or is she making a mistake that could destroy the world as she knows it?

Though there are only a few points where the world of Monstress is explained, the world unfolds elegantly with ideas, histories, and culture placed in such a way that you can understand, but without allowing the world or its people to give up their secrets all at once. And despite the story changing from one set of characters to another to another, I didn’t feel that the pacing suffered for it. This is a complex, beautifully rendered world filled with complicated characters who are believable within that world. Its vital history is hinted at without being over-explained, and while the matriarchal setting seemed a little strange at first, I quickly got used to it until it wasn’t at all strange to find army units entirely made up of women.

And the artwork. That gorgeous, amazing artwork. There isn’t a frame of this story that is poorly drawn or colored or is inconsistent. Like any good comic or graphic novel, at least half the story is told through the artwork. In this case, it might be more than half. Marjorie Liu’s writing and world-building is impressive, but it is Sana Takeda’s artwork that sells the reality of it all. It is so complicated and so delicately rendered- in ink, watercolor, and probably with pencil drawings and CGI, as well- that it seems like it would take a team of artists to accomplish it all. I wish I’d heard of Sana Takeda before this week, as her illustrations remind me of Yoshitaka Amano’s work in Neil Gaiman’s The Dream Hunters.

Monstress is not for everyone, though. It earns its ‘Mature’ rating with violence, language, and nudity. But if you can handle that, Monstress is an enthralling work of fantasy storytelling both because of writer Marjorie Liu’s compelling world and story and Sana Takeda’s breathtaking illustrations.

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The Last Kingdom

last-kingdom-coverFrom Goodreads: This is the exciting—yet little known—story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms.

The story is seen through the eyes of Uhtred, a dispossessed nobleman, who is captured as a child by the Danes and then raised by them so that, by the time the Northmen begin their assault on Wessex (Alfred’s kingdom and the last territory in English hands) Uhtred almost thinks of himself as a Dane. He certainly has no love for Alfred, whom he considers a pious weakling and no match for Viking savagery, yet when Alfred unexpectedly defeats the Danes and the Danes themselves turn on Uhtred, he is finally forced to choose sides. By now he is a young man, in love, trained to fight and ready to take his place in the dreaded shield wall. Above all, though, he wishes to recover his father’s land, the enchanting fort of Bebbanburg by the wild northern sea.

This thrilling adventure—based on existing records of Bernard Cornwell’s ancestors—depicts a time when law and order were ripped violently apart by a pagan assault on Christian England, an assault that came very close to destroying England.


 

The first book I read by Bernard Cornwell was The Winter King, which is the first of his King Arthur trilogy. I think I made it through the first forty or so pages and didn’t like it, so I returned it to the library and didn’t give Cornwell another chance. That is, until I discovered The British History podcast, which got me interested in the Viking era and the time of Alfred the Great. Having at least a basic understanding of the history helped me enjoy the BBC television show, The Last Kingdom, much more the second time around, and so I decided to give Cornwell’s books another chance. The TV show is based on his Saxon Chronicles with the first season given over to the first two books, The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman.

I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would. As the book is narrated by an aged Uhtred, many years after the events described in the books, Uhtred is far more self-aware and able to acknowledge his bouts of dim-wittedness than the Uhtred of the TV series. This, I think, is an advantage that books have over screens- if you have a television character constantly rambling on about his life as he’s looking back on it, it quickly gets irritating.

With the book being a book, its able to include far more detail and isn’t confined to an episodic format. And because a book can go deeper into a character’s background without the audience losing interest, we get to see far more of Uthred’s childhood. It’s a treat to read and explains why Uhtred is so loyal to the Dane, above and beyond his own kin.

The historical detail in this book is amazing. From historical events to everyday (and not so everyday) objects, Cornwell has clearly done his research. He admits to having adjusted the date  of one battle by about a year so it would fit in with Uhtred’s storyline better, but because he tells you this in the afterward, the fact that he’s made the adjustment doesn’t bother me. I wouldn’t have noticed either way, but it’s good to see a writer of historical fiction admit when he hasn’t gone along with the known history. The rest of the details help breathe life into the story, from the differences between the Danish pagans and the Christian Saxons’ views on life and death to the weapons and coinage (Uhtred even carries a peculiar coin like this imitation dinar from King Offa’s reign) they would use from day to day. Place names are given in their Saxon forms but are still recognizable, especially if you check out the handy guide at the beginning.

There are, of course, many differences between the book and the television show, but the essential elements- Uhtred’s impetuous nature, Brida’s bristling at being treated like a non-entity among the Saxons, and Alfred’s bookishness among others- stay the same from one form to the next. There is, of course, more life in Cornwell’s books than there is in the series. That’s the nature of the screen. Certain things must be compressed or edited out completely in order to maintain an interesting, coherent narrative, and that’s what has happened with the TV show. It doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it different.

That said, Cornwell’s books, or at least The Last Kingdom, is far livelier, more descriptive, and funnier than the show. It’s also gorier than the show, since Cornwell didn’t have to worry about budgetary restraints and could write about the fights and battles Uhtred was in or witnessed. There were more politics, too. At least it felt like there was. This didn’t bog down the story at all. I thought it made it more interesting, especially where Alfred was concerned.

It’s also a wonderful entry into the history of England in the ninth century, as it helps to humanize such historical figures as King Alfred and Guthrum. I enjoyed The Last Kingdom and am looking forward to reading the next entry in the Saxon Chronicles.