The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The blurb on the front cover of this book by Neil Gaiman really sums it up nicely: “A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom.”

This book is like a combination of J M Barrie and Neil Gaiman, with generous heaps of The Phantom Tollbooth thrown in, and plenty of references/allusions/respectful nods to The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Narnia, and any other fairy tale you can think up. It’s a delight to read, and surprised me by being dark and wicked at times, which is so fitting for a true fairy tale.

The narration style is definitely in line with Peter Pan, and the characters are closely modeled after Wonderland characters. There’s clever wordplay like you would expect from Norton Juster—a wyvern whose father is a Municipal Library so he’s really a wyverary, for example. It’s clever and sweet.

Parts of the story reminded me of The Magicians trilogy, which isn’t too surprising considering its roots in Narnia. The narration style lends itself to a flavoring of metafiction. Our protagonist is aware of other fairy stories that came before hers, and aware that she’s in her own story. But she’s never aware of the narrator, which is good because I’m not very fond of breaking the fourth wall. It pulls me right out of the characters and tells me I’m not them, however much I relate to them or want to be them. And a story someone else tells you is never as exciting as the story you’ve lived yourself.

Probably my only gripe—and it’s small enough that it hardly bears mentioning—is that the protagonist, September, has a companion named Saturday eventually, and their names are too similar, being long and both beginning with the letter S.

My favorite part came near the end, something that Saturday says to September. Clever, and sweet, and just a little terrifying and portentous.

There are a million places in this book where you want to hold on to what you just read. A sentence or a phrase that just rings beautiful and insightful, that seems to describe yourself better than you thought a story that wasn’t about you could possibly do. I very much enjoyed all those little starbursts of connection.

Before I picked up this book I thought the ship of her own making was, for some reason, a steampunk-worthy airship. It isn’t. I wasn’t disappointed. You won’t be either.

After reading the interview with the author at the back, I think Valente is clever and fun and the kind of person I’d love to get to know, because we could probably get on great as friends. I’m glad she wrote this book, and glad I got to read it. You should go read it, too. You won’t be sorry.

Four

If the ending of Allegiant didn’t make up my mind for me, that Roth likes Four more than she likes Tris, then this book surely did.

Frankly, Four isn’t interesting enough for us to benefit much from getting his side of things.

Was it interesting? Yes. Was it a quick read? Yes. What it kind of cute, seeing a few more of the layers to his relationship with Tris? Yes.

Would I recommend it to anyone to read? Maybe only the diehard Divergent fans. It was probably a good writing exercise, and there were some good details about Four that make you understand him better and believe that he’s got much more of a part in everything that’s happennig. So, if you were reading the trilogy thinking “I just want more Four!” then this collection of stories is absolutely for you.

Again, the writing is solid, it’s just the idea that seems a little lacking. Four just isn’t as great as Tris.

Allegiant

So, I think I was right about the direction the trilogy was headed in. This third book introduced a bunch of new characters who I could care less about. They don’t have a lot of depth or complexity, and we don’t spend enough time with them to get to know them.

The new setting is fairly boring, as it offers a lot less moving around and war-zone type action than in the previous two books. And the entire time it feels like Tris and Four and the others just came in halfway through someone else’s battle, and they take it up because there isn’t anything else left to fight for, and they were groomed to fight by their past experiences in the city.

In this one we see a greater disintegration of the relationship between Tris and Four, as well, one that was pretty good in books one and two. Now it feels played out and repetitive.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t think people should read these books. Or watch the movies. The first movie is actually pretty great, though the second one felt to me like it was dropping the ball majorly. I wouldn’t count these books as a waste of time, more like frustrated hopes. There was so much potential, and to watch it leach away as the trilogy progressed was just–disappointing.

I think I’d still love to read other work by Roth, though. Her writing is good, I just want to see her with a story that doesn’t peter out.

Insurgent

I see it so, so often in trilogies nowadays. I think I first noticed it when I was reading the Chaos Walking trilogy. Book one is fantastic. Fast-paced, intriguing world, exciting characters. Then book two is kind of a journey, obviously a bridge to get to the finale, but already things are getting sort of bogged down and complicated. And by the time book three comes out, you hardly care anymore, because everything is convoluted and just too much. I was super bummed to feel Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy going in that direction—enough so that I’m so hesitant to read the third book now that it’s out, even though I think his sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph writing is superb.

Insurgent feels like the bridge to an epic finale that I’m not going to care about because everything has gotten way too complicated. When everyone’s in the city, just fighting one particular enemy with a very clearly defined end-goal, it’s great. Throw in more politics, more locations, more types of people, new characters, new enemies…and you’ve pretty much lost my interest.

I think the problem might be in that writers often lose their protagonists while they’re trying to make the world stuff work. All I want is more Tris, and instead I get convoluted busy-ness. And a sneaking suspicion that Roth likes Tobias more than Tris. Which was a total bummer for me, because I like Tris so much more. Even Four is better than Tobias, if that distinction makes sense.

One thing Roth really does well, though, is action scenes. They’re snappy and have a great back-and-forth balancing act that keeps the suspense up. She writes them really well, and that was basically what kept me reading. The action scenes and wanting to know what happens to Tris. These books are quick reads, and it definitely isn’t a waste of time to read them. I just got that sinking feeling during this one that I was entering more convoluted, confusing territories, and that Tris was edging away from center stage.

Divergent

There’s good and bad parts of this trilogy, and a large portion of the good ones happen in the first book. Which isn’t to say that people shouldn’t read them all—but the first book is the best, in my opinion.

I know the story well by now, having read the first book a couple times and having enjoyed the movie. It’s pretty fantastic, the world that Roth created. I love the idea of the factions, even though it all seems to be a bit flawed in practice. I like to think I would be Dauntless, but then, bravery is a most desirable quality, if we consider the number of Harry Potter fans who want to be Gryffindors (whether they actually would be or not). Tris is great, too, as far as protagonists go. She’s strong and smart and very brave. Almost too smart, though.

Roth’s writing takes a little getting used to. Her sentences are short and to the point, which keeps the pace up. It’s similar to Hunger Games, but not quite as good at keeping me 100% invested in every detail.

Following in the wake of the Hunger Games craze, I’d say Insurgent isn’t quite as good. But then, Suzanne Collins is hard to beat. Anyone looking for a brave female protagonist who drives a lot of action sequences and fulfills the “chosen one” role will probably like Divergent. There’s some romance thrown in for flair, and I actually really like Four in this book. He’s dark and still mysterious, something that we lose in books two and three. Dystopic YA sort of blew up after Hunger Games made it big, and there’s a lot of not-so-great stories out there. Divergent is solidly in the you-should-read-this-even-though-it-isn’t-quite-The-Hunger-Games camp.

Beauty and the Werewolf

This was my first Mercedes Lackey book. I know, I know. How can someone give their graduate lecture on fairy tale re-tellings and NOT include some Mercedes Lackey? In my defense, there are just way too many fairy tale re-tellings out there. I couldn’t hit them all.

This particular one is a clever mishmash of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, primarily. There are some other tales referenced as well, but those are the main ones. The protagonist has a strong will, and enjoys her independence–something you would expect from the Beauty trope. She’s interesting, and there are enough subversions of normal fairy tale stories that you’re kept guessing, and intrigued.

There were times where I had strong suspicions about the final outcome, only to find myself doubting those again in the next chapter. Lackey keeps you on your toes, definitely, trying not to give you the same predictable tale you’ve heard a thousand times.

The first half of the book was more enjoyable for me than the second in some ways. Around halfway things start getting sort of…well, meta. The characters aren’t so much aware of being in a book as they are aware of an outside force dictating their destinies to make them align with traditional fairy tale paths/endings. It felt a lot like Lackey was using her characters to describe the difficulty of writing this kind of story–being so tempted to take it in one easy direction, but managing to rebel and take it in another.

Still, that awareness on the parts of the characters meant that they tried even harder to choose their own destinies, working for what they actually wanted rather than accepting the first easy path that came along. That felt genuine and gave them complexity and good motivations, so I ultimately enjoyed it.

One thing that was done exceedingly well was the werewolf parts. I don’t think I’ve encountered any other Beauty and the Beast retelling where the beast is a werewolf, though it makes so much sense I have to imagine someone else out there has done it. It was a delightful play on the story, and the transformative nature of werewolves meant that the character got to be human and interact normally with the protagonist most of the time, which helped make their relationship relatable and interesting.

There was also enough of the fairy/magical elements to keep me comparing this work to others of a similar nature, like Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses or Pattou’s East.

This is the first of the 500 Kingdoms books I’ve read (and the first Mercedes Lackey I’ve read), but I’ll definitely be seeking out more now. She’s a very good writer, with clever ideas and solid execution.

Clariel

My husband and I finally went to our local library to get new library cards. We’ve been living here for almost two years, so it was about time. It’s a small town, with a small library, but it’s dialed into the greater Central Coast network of libraries, so you can request any book at any of the various libraries. Our location is pretty small–I can’t imagine how they choose what goes on the shelves, because there’s just not enough room.

We got our shiny new library cards (with access to new Overdrive materials, so that’s fabulous for audiobooks for our long car rides!), and then we walked around a bit. On the featured “New” YA bookcase I saw a familiar looking design, and went to it right away.

I have an interesting love affair with the Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix. It’s dark, edgy, has some absolutely fantastic characters, and escalates in a beautiful way. My cousin dislikes what he thinks of as the formulaic fantasy escalation of “Fix something small in book one, introduce a bigger conflict in book two, save the whole f-ing world/universe in book three.” I love it. And the Abhorsen trilogy does it SO WELL.

(Other notable trilogies that do the same thing: The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, in a lot of ways the Young Wizards series, leading up to Wizards at War…)

Lirael is my favorite character by far, but I’ve never disliked Sabriel. I was actually really surprised when my husband listened to the audiobook and said he wasn’t crazy about her. She’s smart and resourceful and teaches herself how to become a master at something. Much like Lirael.

So when I read Clariel, I was expecting much the same thing. An intelligent, resourceful, go-getter type of young woman who figured out how to fix her own problems, and ends up saving the world in the bargain.

For those of you who have read this, you realize now how disappointed my expectations were.

Not much happens in the entire first half of the novel. It’s mostly Clariel whining and being pushed around by a whole host of other characters whose motivations drive the plot. Clariel has a motivatation, sure, but she never does anything to try to achieve it. And then she sort of throws it out the window eventually and switches to revenge. It’s all rather strange, considering that Nix’s other protagonists are so much more consistent, believable, and likeable.

There was one sort of fan-service moment that kept me going–a favorite character from the original trilogy had the first half of his name mentioned. And that was honestly enough to keep me going through all the boring parts, because I was hoping he would show up again.

When things do start escalating, the protagonist makes a lot of strange choices, and by the nature of the differences between Free Magic and Charter Magic, she doesn’t have to employ the same kind of intense study that Sabriel and Lirael do. Unfortunately, the study and practice and sheer effort involved in getting good at something is what makes me love those characters so much. Clariel is just–not that compelling, in comparison.

Now, given all that, I actually am not at all sorry that I read this book, nor do I think it was a waste of time. I think as a prequel it definitely should NOT be read before the original trilogy–but rather read in order of publication, so that the reader can see where it fits in to the greater universe and issues at play in the main trilogy and beyond. It offers interesting new information, and a friend of mine with an Advanced Reader Copy of Goldenhand (which comes out next month!!) says she can see why Nix published Clariel, because it gives you background on things that will come up in Goldenhand.

Ultimately what Clariel did was submerge me in the world again, and get me excited to re-read and then buy Goldenhand at its release. I think that’s pretty effective. It may have been better served as a novella, like The Creature in the Case, but it is still a valuable and interesting addition to this fictional universe.

Now I’ve got to finish these other library books before I can go off to re-read Sabriel et al…

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

The trailer for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children looks pretty good. The first time I saw it I got excited about the look of the hollowghasts (the baddies). They look so much like a favorite artist of mine’s style that I actually turned to my husband and said, “I wonder if Brom was the concept artist for those?” And before I see the movie, I wanted to read the book.

I was expecting something fairly light and whimsical, even with the scary look of the hollowghasts. So when the book started in modern times and was obviously going to be about a rebellious male teenager, that took me by surprise. I don’t know if it makes any sense, but this book feels like you’re reading in black and white. In a good way. Once you start getting into the action of it, you get lost in the feel of the desolate, remote locations and the slipstreams through time.

I can’t say any of the characters were particular favorites of mine. They’re all intriguing in their own ways, and the disparity of what makes them peculiar is clever and engaging. They feel unmoored from time, though, and as if they are pretending that Jacob is really his grandfather, which feels strange.

There’s a sort of unreality to all of it—a tilt that makes everything peculiar. For me, that also meant I felt slightly distant from the characters and action—but I was definitely intrigued enough to keep reading.

As far as the photographs go, which were apparently Riggs’ inspiration for a lot of the characters, I can’t say they added much to the story for me. But then, I’m not a photography buff, nor am I into historical items like old photographs. Mostly I think they just contributed to the feel of the oldness of everything.

Ultimately I am interested enough to want to read the second and third books, but not quite to the point where I had to rush out and buy them so that I could find out what happens next.

The Assassin’s Blade

I was really curious, after reading Throne of Glass, to learn the details of Celeana’s past that are alluded to so often. The stories in The Assassin’s Blade didn’t disappoint. You learn more about Celeana, her relationship with her master and with Sam, and even get to see a friendship between her and another teenage female that helps give some history to how Celeana is with Nehemia in Throne of Glass.

My favorite story in the collection was “The Assassin and the Desert”. Celeana travels to the Red Desert to be trained by the Mute Master of the Assassins. It has a feel to it similar to those mentor/mentee movies where you get a nice training montage of time passing.

Each story in this collection furthers your understanding of Celeana a little bit, all in ways that help you understand her actions and motivations in Throne of Glass. Maas is really good at action sequences, too, so to have her narrative broken up more often with action like it is in these stories is nice. I sometimes felt like I had to wait too long before the next action scene in Throne of Glass.

I still think it’s interesting how Celeana can be considered the best of the assassins, but still manages to make mistakes because of her pride and anger. And her mistakes cost her—big time. It doesn’t seem quite right, even though she is very young and therefore wouldn’t have all the experience/wisdom necessary to always see the misfortunes ahead. She seems to be betrayed a whole hell of a lot for a young kid. To Maas’ credit, none of the characters doing the betraying felt two-dimensional. They all had compelling reasons to act the way they did. It just felt like a pattern after a while, of people continually betraying her and Celeana being too trusting because she wanted to believe in people.

After finishing these stories I went to Crown of Midnight, hoping that my increased understanding of Celeana would help me enjoy the sequel to Throne of Glass even more. Unfortunately, the characters in the main series aren’t anywhere near as cool to me as the ones in The Assassin’s Blade, so I found myself disinterested. I’m still going to hit A Court of Thorns and Roses, though, because I like Maas’ writing and I think a Beauty & the Beast tale would be right up my alley. I guess I should have guessed that I wouldn’t be that into a story inspired by Cinderella themes.

Throne of Glass

I’m not particularly fond of the Cinderella fairy tale in any of its forms, so as a loose retelling of it there were bits of Throne of Glass that bugged me. I was drawn to this book because I’m always on the lookout for badass female protagonists. A female assassin MC sounds wonderful. Did this book deliver on my expectations? I’d say maybe 50/50.

As a capable, kickass chick, Celeana Sardothien doesn’t disappoint. She can totally hold her own, and she works really hard to be the best. A point of pride, with her. But then there’s the fact that she’s still very much a naive teenager. She’s got some major PTSD from being in a prisoner labor camp for a year, but above and beyond that she just makes stupid decisions sometimes, or acts really girly/silly, or is too blind to what’s going on around her for my tastes. To some extent I can believe that she wants to live in denial because of everything she’s been through prior to the events of this book—but I read Throne of Glass before the prequel stories in The Assassin’s Blade. I didn’t know the full details of her past and therefore didn’t know why exactly she was being so obstinately blind.

As far as the writing goes, my only real complaints were the girly silliness. Maas does an awesome job with battle scenes. She really captures the back and forth, the seesaw balancing act of a good power exchange that keeps us guessing who will win. Which is important, when your main character is fighting or performing daring acts of physical prowess pretty darn often.

I wasn’t crazy about the love triangle angle, but I think I’m a little burnt out on love triangles in YA right now. I haven’t seen anyone do it quite as well as Hunger Games in a long time, so it tends to underwhelm. Actually, the more intriguing bits were all the allusions to her past, and relationships that ended tragically. I might not have wanted to read more, not being crazy about Cinderella-esque stories, if it weren’t for all those teasers about what happened in her past. Pretty much directly after reading this book I checked out the prequel stories to read, and then from there was actually invested enough in the character to want to read the second book in the series.

I’m still way more eager to see what Maas does with her loose retelling of Beauty & the Beast, it being my favorite fairy tale, but while I wait for that to become available on OverDrive I’m enjoying the Throne of Glass series. Worth a read for anyone who likes kickass female protagonists in YA, though I would definitely encourage people to read The Assassin’s Blade collection first, or at least not to just read Throne of Glass. By itself the first book leaves a little to be desired, but the prequel collection is pretty excellent as far as breadth of setting and character development go.