Lirael

Please excuse me while I gush about one of my favorite books ever.

SO GOOD.

The world you get in Sabriel is amazing and beautiful and dark and you get EVEN MORE of it in Lirael. Not to mention a protagonist who you might be able to identify with a lot more, if you’re anything like me. I actually love Sabriel, but in a way that absolutely pales in comparison to how much I love Lirael, as soon as I read this book. I didn’t know what I was missing, and then there it was, and it was so satisfying.

Lirael’s journey starts out with less physical journey-ing in the beginning. Sabriel kind of sets off right away in her book, but Lirael doesn’t do that. For good reason. We get to spend some time really getting to know her fears, her motivations, her history, all the feels before we get plunged into more by-the-map journeying.

Mogget is still my favorite, but I know about half the population would like the predominant secondary character in this book more than Mogget. Dog is just—a whole different level. Fans of Ponch from the Young Wizards series will absolutely love her. I absolutely love her, though I still love Mogget just a tiny bit more throughout the books.

I think my favorite thing about Lirael, as a character, is that she’s so awkward. She’s realistic, she’s unsure of herself, but brave when she really needs to be. That rings true, for me. So much of this book hit home with me, right in the gut. There’s so much beauty and darkness warring in this world, and within the characters. Life can be sucky and awful sometimes but everyone is still fighting in the name of Life, metaphorically and literally.

There’s one particular scene where Lirael sort of finds out who she is, and it’s juxtaposed with another character, Sameth, finding out who he’s not, and it’s just beautiful. Perfectly timed, and perfectly at odds, and since you care about the characters you can feel both feelings.

You can probably tell that I enjoy re-reading these books every few years. It’s been awesome to re-read them with actual new content to look forward to, in the form of Goldenhand. New and old fans can be glad that Nix decided to continue this really fabulous series. Keep reading, because you’ll want to get to Goldenhand—spoiler: it’s really good.

Sabriel

The first scene of this book always gets me. It starts out so mundane. And then, all of a sudden, it absolutely isn’t. But in a sweet, introductory way that welcomes you into this amazing world with one of the most brilliant magic systems I’ve encountered.

I first read Sabriel in middle school, back when there was no Creature in the Case, or Clariel, or Goldenhand. It’s actually been pretty surreal, re-visiting this world because there are actual new additions to it. (Can someone go poke Mary Stanton to finish the damn Unicorns of Balinor series already? I’ve been waiting on that since elementary school…)

My doctor asked me what I was reading when I went in for an appointment while I was re-reading this recently, and surprisingly (do doctors have time to read, after all that schooling?) he said he’d read it, and he remembered it as pretty dark, and scary, with dead people, right?

I had to laugh. Though, I think I was pleased that he didn’t say “zombies.” This is NOT a zombie book. No way. The magic in this book is with necromancers, and those are very different things. Personally, I think magic and necromancy are way more cool than zombies.

When it comes down to it, everything about this book is cooler than you might be expecting. I say it’s Young Adult, and then you’re surprised when things get so dark with long-dead spirits and re-born demon creatures fighting to stay in the world of Life. Likewise you might be expecting a dramatic, angsty romance, which isn’t present in this book. I say magic, and some people might scorn it as escapist fantasy (though if you do, be careful about how you tell me that, because it makes me seriously question why I’m still friends with someone when they do that). Instead, you get one of the best magic systems, akin to the Earthsea cycle or The Name of the Wind. The system is actually similar to both of those, but instead of having to know the true “name” of something, you have to know the charter marks that describe all of life and the universe. You have to be able to use the right ones at the right time, and combine them in just the right way, to get the results you’re looking for. It’s an art form in these books, one absolutely at odds with the steady march into “modern” times that you see in the juxtaposition of the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre.

Sabriel is a kickass character. Her dad disappears, and she leaves school to travel into the dangerous Old Kingdom to try to find him. She meets mentors and villains along the way, and manages to stumble into some awkward yet fateful situations. She doesn’t falter, though. She doesn’t whine. She’s one of the most capable female characters I know of, and I appreciate that I got to read her as a young girl, because she’s a great role model.

I won’t say too much about him, because I don’t want to give you any spoilers, but Mogget is my absolute favorite. You’ll see why, when you read these books.

Oh, and speaking of—you’ll want to read all of these books. You can stop at Sabriel if you really really want to. The events of the next book, Lirael, happen a long time after the events of Sabriel, chronologically. BUT you don’t want to read Lirael without having read Sabriel, because Sabriel is a better introduction to the world. Lirael might be too much too quickly, if you don’t understand some of the more basic concepts about how this world works. And you HAVE to read Lirael. It’s one of my favorite books ever. Lirael is one of my favorite characters ever. It gives me that same indescribable feeling that certain sections of Miyazaki movies do. There’s a purity and a I’ll-never-forget-this-ness to Lirael.

The plot is well-paced in Sabriel, the characters are wonderful. The world is genius and the magic system is top notch, especially if you worried about things like Harry Potter spells not coming with any sort of cost from the caster. This magic system is balanced and beautiful, and well worth exploring. I’d say this book (and the Abhorsen series) is great for any reader, really, not just YA fans.

Morrighan

I haven’t read any Pearson before, but listening to this novella in audiobook format has me wanting to pick up the first of the books in the Remnant Chronicles. Pearson describes the awakening and growing yearning of a boy and girl in a post-apocalyptic world really well in this story.

There are clever bits of beauty woven throughout the prose. For example, Jafir handing Morrighan a handful of sky to make her smile. The diction and syntax felt carefully crafted. This is an old story, meant to feel like the beginning of things. A new beginning, built on the ruins of the old world. The writing style alone would encourage me to read more books by Pearson, but the characters were also compelling. They had a fire and passion to them that I always enjoy reading.

I would recommend this more to lovers of fantasy than post-apocalyptic fiction. Similar to the way I would recommend the Dragonriders of Pern books to fantasy lovers instead of science fiction lovers (even though, in that universe, Pern is a colonized planet, far in the future, and the dragons are genetically engineered from life forms native to the planet). It’s a sweet love story, two characters coming of age in vastly different lives, trying to come together and find a future. I’m going to read The Kiss of Deception when I can get my hands on it. I have high hopes for Pearson’s books, considering how good the writing was in this novella.

Ice Dogs

This book was obviously written by someone who has spent time with sled dogs and the Alaskan wilderness. It was smart, peppered with all these amazing little details that really put you in the world, battling the weather with Victoria and Chris.

This is survival YA, and a fairly short book, so there isn’t a lot of focus on the budding relationship slash potential for romance. These characters have better things to do than moon over each other. Like staying alive.

I thought the suspense couldn’t possibly ramp up higher, because I was guessing this was the kind of book where the characters would get home alive. Like, 99% certain of that. So there was no way to make it worse; they were about to find civilization. Right? Wrong.

Man, was I wrong. This author really captures the struggle super well, and the payoff when they survive is pretty great.

This would be a great book for anyone who likes a competent, outdoorsy female lead, especially in the Young Adult genre. Bonus points for anyone who enjoys a snow/ice/cold setting, and extra extra for sled dogs/huskies.

Life As We Knew It

I wanted to read this book because it has a similar apocalypse-trigger to the novel I’m writing right now. In this one, an asteroid hits the moon, it orbits closer to the Earth, and everything gets wonky, including major volcanic eruptions that throw enough ash into air to plunge everyone into a mini ice age. So, different trigger, but similar fallout, I guess.

Life As We Knew It is told in diary format, written by a 16 year-old narrator. Miranda’s life already feels kind of small at the start of the novel—she cares about her big brother and her obsession with a figure skater athlete who came from her hometown. Her world gets smaller as the fallout from the big event unfolds.

Typically, I don’t like diary-style writing. It’s too confessional, and if I don’t like the protagonist enough, it can absolutely make me rage-quit the book. I found myself drawn into this story, though, wondering what would happen next. There were a lot of good details about food hoarding, calories vs. nutrition, heat and plumbing, how much wood is really required to stay warm, etc. There’s no big romance, no love triangles. This is a character fighting for her life, learning things from her mom when her mom can’t hide the truth from her anymore. Being resentful of her younger brother. Growing up in strange and trying circumstances.

I’m usually drawn to YA that has a wider scope, and more fantastical elements. Characters who do more than just survive. I think it was really interesting reading this book on the heels of Ice Dogs, because the protagonist in that book is so competent. Whereas Miranda has to struggle not to complain, some days. Which if you think about it is probably more realistic for a teenager who grew up in a normal town with constant access to the internet and a sheltered life.

As far as apocalyptic fiction goes, this book deals with a small scale, very character-centric. You get caught up in the logistics of staying alive. You see sides of characters that you wouldn’t normally see, when all they have to do is sit quietly every night, trying not to use too many candles. Doing the laundry by hand. It’s a different pace, and an interesting story. Well worth a read if you want to expand your apocalyptic YA sphere.

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.

Kushiel’s Dart

Whew. There’s definitely some steamy goodness in this book. I’ve seen some people on the internet getting all huffy about it—she’s so young! She’s a sex worker! It’s BDSM!

And sure, if there’s just no pleasure sensor in your body that lights up with a little bit of consensual violence, maybe you’ll find parts of the story too distasteful for you to enjoy the rest.

As for me, I very much enjoyed reading about Phedre no Delaunay. Sold to one of the Houses of the Night-Blooming Court at a young age, Phedre’s marque is bought at ten by Anafiel Delaunay. He trains her in the arts of subtly and spying, and at sixteen Phedre uses her courtesan skills to uncover many secrets for the good of the realm.

When I first started reading, for maybe the first page, I was put off by the narrative voice. I could tell I was in for denser reading than most other Young Adult, and I could tell that the author was our very own main character, older and wiser and telling us her story. That sometimes puts me off, knowing that we might have certain things spoiled for us, the delightful suspense taken away because our narrator already knows how the story ends.

The writing is careful, though, and clever. And rather than detract, the narrative style actually adds to the story, building up more suspense as Phedre marvels at her ignorance at times, and drops sly hints to say that things were different, back then.

The narrative voice reminded me partly of Wraeththu, by Storm Constantine, and partly of The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe. It wasn’t an unpleasant reminder—I greatly enjoyed those books, and reading Kushiel’s Dart brought me back to being a teenager, reading books off my high school sweetheart’s bookshelf.

The amount of political intrigue in this book might be off-putting to some, and to be quite honest, I expected to get bored of it myself. I’m not really one for those types of stories, with all their twists and turns and subtle implications. I think there is probably quite a bit that went over my head, actually, though I don’t feel like I’m missing any essential piece of the story. However, the pacing of this story was extraordinary. I always wanted to know more. Secrets were unveiled at just the right time, or another delicious sexual encounter would occur, or a romance would take wing just when I might otherwise be finding my attention straying. I haven’t been glued to a book like that in quite some time, actually, and it was satisfying and wonderful.

I’m currently reading the second book in the series, and loving it as well. Major props to my Mama Bear from my graduate program, for putting me on to this series (her favorite). I’m glad to finally be reading them, and happy to find that they are so damn enjoyable.

Fangirl

Thank the gods for everyone who ever recommended Rainbow Rowell to me. What a fabulous writer. What beautiful stories.

Fangirl is no exception. In some ways, it was better even than Eleanor & Park, which you know I loved. The thing is, Fangirl speaks specifically to my generation. We are the generation that made midnight book-launch parties cool. We waited in line, in costume, for hours upon hours. Did you know that JKR started writing Harry in 1990, the year I was born? And that she published the last one in 2007, when I was seventeen, when Harry was seventeen?

We are the generation that learned to stay until the end of the movie credits. We’ve seen so many different remakes and reboots of familiar stories that we would laugh at anyone who argued that author-as-context literary criticism is the best lens through which to analyze something. Intertextuality is our life.

We were raised to think feminism was “extremist,” and we became feminists anyway, because we grew up to see through the lies. And we were raised on princesses, and body image issues, and trying to figure out who and what we are and where we fit in the world because existential nihilism isn’t in our DNA.

It feels like Rowell gets it. She has this amazing character, a twin, a writer, someone mature enough to play parent to her mentally unstable dad but whose social anxiety keeps her from going to the campus cafeteria. And she writes fanfiction, based on a story that is essentially the equivalent of my generation’s Harry Potter.

I don’t care that this genre of New Adult has such a crappy name—if every story in it were written like this one, it would be my new favorite. Yes, better even than Young Adult. (Maybe. I guess. Sort of. Okay, it would be like choosing between a puppy and a kitten. They’re both so awesome! Can’t I have both??)

The point is, Fangirl speaks to my generation.

It is beautifully written, and suitable for anyone, of any generation, to read. It is sweet and yearning and honest and real. If you’re of my generation, though, you owe it to yourself to read this book. You SHOULD NOT MISS OUT ON THIS. Seriously. Do yourself a favor.

(It’s like one of my writer friends telling me today that he’s never read Jurassic Park. I just—I can’t even. Who in the hell reads and writes books and hasn’t read Jurassic Park? It’s a fucking classic.)

You should read Fangirl. You can thank me later. (And the audio book production quality is quite fantastic, too, if you’d prefer to do it that way.)

Eleanor & Park

I spent all of yesterday with the Eleanor & Park audiobook playing while I nursed my post-bachelorette party hangover. I rehydrated to the two different voices reading Eleanor and Park’s parts (genius idea, really, to increase the emotionally impact by having two distinct voices in actual sound as well as diction). When I knew I should be going to sleep because tomorrow was the first day at my brand new job—I let the audiobook play for another two hours instead.

Rainbow Rowell captures the teenage voice so beautifully. My heart ached, and even the pop culture references that usually make me feel woefully out-of-touch and un-cool didn’t matter in that swirling mass of nostalgic teenage emotion. For a while I was worried, knowing what I do about stories, because the conflict of whether or not there is a romance was settled far too soon. Which foretold a far darker conflict later on—which Rowell delivered.  The body issues were explored with such grace. No heavy-handed moralizing here, just speculation. What would happen if you took a normal teenager, self-conscious and facing body-shaming from all sides, and made them feel temporarily safe with someone who loved them exactly as they were? And how true to life, that both Eleanor and Park felt the same way, that they just couldn’t imagine what the other saw in them.

I first heard about this book when Robin Benway visited one of my graduate school residencies with UCR Palm Desert’s MFA program. Someone asked her what she’d read recently that she loved, and she mentioned Eleanor & Park. Then a young adult editor a couple residencies later seconded that. I’ve seen people name it as their recent favorite fairly often since then, in articles and Facebook posts. With the wedding coming up so soon, I wanted a reminder of romance in its most passionate form. No one knows how to love more passionately than teenagers. We might love in healthier ways when we get older, but you have to admire the tenacity and intensity of teenage love.

If I had to pick a favorite, between Eleanor and Park, I think I would be completely stuck. That’s how well Rowell writes both of them. They are real and beautiful and unique. So real that you can’t say you like one more than the other. They both have flaws, they are both amazing. I did find myself frustrated with Eleanor sometimes, when she would pull away, or not say things that I thought she should. And then I would remind myself what it felt like to be a teenager, knowing the percentage of the time things actually worked out in your favor when you were brave or stupid enough to speak up. Knowing how often adults just didn’t seem to listen, or care. And when Eleanor started to trust Park, even if she still struggled, even if she still pulled away, it was so real. I don’t know many people who escaped childhood without trust issues of one kind or another, and of course Eleanor would have a harder time trusting in their relationship. It’s like any time I notice someone making a mistake—if I can see why they’ve done it, I’m not angry or frustrated anymore.

I would recommend Eleanor & Park to anyone. It brings back wonderful nostalgia, if you had a high school sweetheart you cared intensely for, and it’s so real that it could convince people who didn’t experience teenage love that they really knew what it felt like, just by hearing Eleanor and Park’s story. And I imagine as a teenager, it would feel like the truest story, like it really got me in a way other literature seldom did.

I hope I can pick up a physical copy of this one, as I’d like to be able to go over some sections a few times, to really savor them in a way you can’t when the audiobook just keeps on playing. It’s more than worthy of a re-read, and I’m going to see if I can slip it onto my soon-to-be-husband’s playlist for one of his long drives. I think he’d love it.