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.

Sunday Sum-Up

Another week has come and gone, and once again I’m wondering where all that time went. I really need to get that temporal vortex out of my closet. I know some of the time was spent in finally watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and a little bit was spent watching Will. As for the rest of it? I dunno. Not nearly enough of it was spent sleeping.

*sighs*

DSC01749I only finished one of the books I started the week with, and that was Sarah J. Maas’s Crown of Midnight, the second book in the Throne of Glass series. I’ll have a longer write-up later this week, but for now I’ll just say that, while Maas’s writing has improved somewhat, I’m still not a fan. It was fun to do the buddy read with Danielle from Books, Vertigo & Tea, though, and I’m hoping she’ll want to do it again.

 

The other book I’ve been reading is Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, which is one of my all-time favorite books. If you want a master class in world building and political intrigue in a fantasy setting, then this is the book for you. The characters are beautifully written and utterly believable, and even the villains have logical reasons for what they do. And while the world of the five gods has more books, The Curse of Chalion can act as a standalone novel if you’re not in the mood to embark on yet another lengthy series. I’ll have a further review when I finish it.

In other news, I picked up a couple more books this week, because why not? One was a ‘blind date with a classic’ from one of the indie bookstores downtown. My last experience with a ‘blind date’ book was dreadful, as I ended up with Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which remains the only book I’ve ever thrown at a wall. This one sounded more interesting, though, and given that it was in the classics section I figured another Philippa Gregory incident would be unlikely.

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So what did I get?

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It looks fascinating. I’m debating taking it to Iceland with me to read on the plane. We shall see.

I bought two books in all last night. Passing because of the intrigue factor of the ‘blind date with a classic’, and The Ramayana, because I want to develop a better understanding of more literature from around the world.

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What’s up for this week? Lots of preparation. I leave for Iceland on August eighth, and while I’m prepared as far as reservations, passports, and currency, I will need to do laundry and give my apartment a good cleaning so I don’t have to do that when I get home and am exhausted and jet-lagged. I’ll also need to figure out how to pack my camera gear, since I’m taking most of it with me and security restrictions regarding electronics are higher these days. C’est la vie.

As for books, I’ll read what I can. I should finish up The Curse of Chalion in the next day or so, and then it’ll be on to Ann Cleeves’s Raven Black, a mystery series set in the Shetland Islands off the northern Scottish coast. I have a friend who grew up in the Shetlands, so I’m interested in where he’s from. Also, there’s a great TV series based on the books, Shetland. I think there are only about eight episodes, but it’s fantastic. It’s available on Netflix streaming, though you’ll probably want to turn on the subtitles as their accents are quick thick.

I started listening to a new-to-me podcast today. It’s called Writing Excuses, and features four writers who discuss various elements of writing and how to do things like world building and pointing out that descriptions of a thing can change drastically based on a character’s point of view. It’s entertaining and three episodes in (they’re all about 15-20 minutes long), the hosts have given me a lot to think about regarding my own writing and in the books I’d reading.

Sunday Sum-Up

I am pleased to report that I did not melt this week after dealing with heat indexes approaching 108°F (42°C), and actual temperatures that didn’t drop below 90°F until after 10:00pm. I felt like I swam to work yesterday morning through 90% humidity. But thanks to several coffee shops and bookstores with their wonderful air conditioning, I survived the heat wave. This morning is much cooler, and without my window unit rattling away, I’ve been able to properly listen to my podcasts, in particular, LeVar Burton Reads. The newest episode is, ‘Graham Greene’ by Percival Everett. It’s an intriguing story set in Wyoming, about a man contacted by a 102 year-old woman who wants him to find her son.

6260576It felt like I didn’t read very much this week, and part of that is due to the heat and the humidity frying my brain and making it difficult to sleep. I started and finished Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul To Take, which was fine. I didn’t find it to be particularly creepy, as the reviews say it is. But then, my reaction to creepy stuff has always been rather blase. I doubt I’ll read any more of this particular series. I didn’t object to the writing, translation, or the pacing, but the MC, Thora, just didn’t interest me very much.

After getting excited upon hearing that they were going to be releasing a series of comics based on the Showtime series, Penny Dreadful, I sort of forgot about it until something reminded me of it the other day. I did a quick search through my Hoopla app, and there they were! Volume 1 is a prequel to the series and does a good job of fleshing out certain questions I had regarding the first season, namely, ‘What happened to Jonathan Harker and the others who were in Dracula?’ and ‘What brought Malcom and Sembene together?’ and ‘Why is Malcolm not phased by this supernatural lunacy going on around him?’ The art is fine, though it doesn’t approach the brilliance of Sana Takeda’s work in the Monstress series.

The second set of comics deals with the aftermath of the series. While the show ended they way I always thought it would, it felt a bit abrupt. So it’s good to see that they’re continuing the story (and not pulling any punches). Once again, the art is fine, and while the dialogue is true to the Victorian nature of the show, the pacing leaves out much of the poetry and the quiet scenes many of the characters shared. I’ll be curious to see if future issues flesh out those quiet moments more than the current ones have.

 

Because Danielle over at Books, Vertigo & Tea and I have been planning to do a buddy read of Sarah J. Maas’s second Throne of Glass book, Crown of Midnight, I bought a digital copy, since I didn’t want to have to wait for a library hold to come through. I’ve written before about how disappointed I was in the first book in the series, so I’m hoping that the second book takes a big leap forward quality-wise, as I have yet to see why so many people say that Maas is ‘one of the best fantasy writers out there’.

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I had to go downtown on my day off to run some errands. I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t have made some pit stops at the two independent book stores there. They offered me free iced tea when I walked in the door at Francie & Finch, and Indigo Bridge Books has always had a great little cafe with both hot and cold drinks. I bought an iced coffee and spent about an hour wandering around looking at all the books. I picked a book at each shop- Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant and volume 2 of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s graphic novel series, Monstress. They go along with the copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man I bought at Barnes and Noble the night before. The heat may make it hard to sleep, but at least I have some new books to read while I’m lying awake at night!

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I intended to do a lot of things when I got home last night, but it was so hot and gross, and I was so tired after a week of lousy sleep that I ended up not doing much of anything. What I mainly did was discover that the entire current season of The Great British Baking Show is available through Nebraska’s PBS streaming service. I have an NPR membership, which gives me free access to the service (yay NPR!) I had been watching an episode every Friday night, thinking that they were premiering on the streaming service when the episodes were playing on TV. But they weren’t! The whole season was available right from the start! So I binge-watched the remaining few last night, and was thrilled to see that my favorite baker won the whole thing!

I have not caught up on TNT’s Will. I meant to last week, but it didn’t happen. I blame the heat and general fatigue for that. It’s hard to get excited about anything when, outside of work, you feel like you’re trying to breathe soup. This week? A little cooler! I might have some energy!

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:

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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:

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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!

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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!

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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.

Sunday Sum-Up

I can’t complain about the weather this time. It’s been absolutely gorgeous. No one is running their air conditioners, everyone’s windows are open, and the neighborhood kids are spending their evenings outside. Fireflies are everywhere, and so too, it seems are playful dogs. In other words, it’s practically paradise around here. I’ve been taking advantage of the break in the hot weather by taking walks around a nearby college campus. With classes out for the summer, it’s incredibly quiet and full of singing birds, chirping crickets, the nightly cicadas, and the chatter of the occasional offended squirrel.

I’ve gotten a lot of reading done this week, finishing up both The Soul of the Camera by David duChemin and The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. They are both excellent books.

The Soul of the Camera stays away from technical information. There is no talk of aperture or shutter speed or back vs. front-lighting. The camera itself is treated like the tool it is, and duChemin talks about the photographer’s importance in the making of the image. It’s your vision that creates the photograph, he says, it’s your ability to be patient and wait for the right moment to unfold in front of you. It’s your ability to see the world around you and pay attention to how things are that makes a memorable photograph. The camera is secondary to that. If you’re interested in the art and craft of photography beyond the basic technical skills, I would highly recommend The Soul of the Camera.

My current reads are Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain, a book I downloaded during an exceptionally slow and boring day at work today, and Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas which downloaded automatically after being on hold for me for several weeks. I keep hearing about Sarah J. Maas’s books and about how  much people like them, so I figured I would give them a try. I haven’t started on Throne of Glass yet, but I should be able to start it fairly soon, since I’m three-quarters of the way through Medium Raw. 

I have to admit I’m a bit dubious about Throne of Glass. I mean, it involves a tournament of thieves and assassins, people who would logically be doing their best to not be found by royal officials. There is also a love triangle, which makes me roll my eyes, but I’ve heard that it’s relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. I haven’t really read any other ‘teenaged assassin’ books so as long as it’s better than Robin LaFevers’s Grave Mercy, it will be the best of that particular type of book I’ve ever read (note: I hated Grave Mercy. I thought the main character was a temperamental dolt who should have been taken out by one of her fellow teenage-girl-assassins, because the other girl was far more interesting and way more intelligent).

But in the spirit of trying new things, I’ll give it a go.


I did not finish Glen Cook’s The Black Company. I gave it about 80 pages, but I never could connect with any of the characters- not even the narrator, Croaker- and it always felt like things were coming out of the blue, event-wise. Like, they’d be chilling in their quarters, and someone was suddenly poisoned, and then half a page later they were conducting a raid on a rival company’s stronghold. I never could get a grasp on the world, its geography, or its history, culture, or ideals. Not really, anyway. It just seemed like everyone was trying to kill everyone else, and then, ‘look! Were-creatures are on the loose! We’re going over here now so we can ignore the were-creatures!’. I know a lot of people love this book and the ensuing series, but it just didn’t connect with me. There is an upcoming television show based on it. I’m hoping it will be a good one, and that I’ll like it more than the book.