Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Every now and then you finish a book, close it, turn it over, look at the front cover for a while, caress the edges a little maybe, and in all likelihood give it a bit of a hug. Just a bit of one. It’s only a book, you know? Hugging a book is weird. So it’s only a bit of a hug. And then you put it down and get on with your day and find another book to read and life goes on.

Well, yeah.

All of that +10 for Stormdancer – except for the “read another book” bit because I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything else because mentally I’m still going “OH GOOD GOD I WANT A BURUU”.

The one on the left is mine and I luff it oh yes I do

Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she’s determined to do something about it.

Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?

If you’re not sure if this book for you, let me give you The Checklist Of Awesome.

  • Alternative feudal Japan. With mecha suits, and yokai, and oni, and other things that make my grounding in Inuyasha and Gundam Wing suddenly so worthwhile
  • Mythical creatures that aren’t dragons, unicorns, vampires, werewolves, mermaids or fairies AND can disembowel you as easily as look at you
  • Dieselpunk/steampunk (author says steampunk but I’d disagree) technology that makes sense in mechanical, ecological, social, historical and narrative contexts
  • A flawed main character – entirely human and sympathetic and who grows and develops and is entirely like a 16-year-old but at the same time has that potential to be more 
  • Bad-ass fight scenes that you (if you’re me) decide to read twice because the writing is exquisite and it should be ridiculous but ISN’T because I think Kristoff has CLEARLY made a deal with a writing devil
  • Speaking of making a deal with a writing devil, even the big chunks of description are so wonderfully done you can’t hate him for it (damn you sir, damn you)
  • OH HELLO FANTASY BOOK THAT HAS A YOUNG GIRL AS THE MAIN CHARACTER AND DOESN’T MAKE ROMANCE THE CENTRAL FOCUS OF THE PLOT AND TREATS SEX WITH THE FUN *AND* RESPECT IT DESERVES OH HELLO WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE CAN I HUG YOU AGAIN OMG THE FEELS YEAH I’M GONNA HUG YOU AGAIN
  • Did I mention that romance isn’t the main focus? Even though it has a bit of a love triangle that it untangles without being incredibly patronising to the readers? YES I KNOW IT’S GREAT and don’t go looking for a clean YA resolution because Toto I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more
  • How about the emotional backbone being the relationship between a father and daughter? Or friendships, or families? The healthy ones (Yukiko and her twin), the broken ones (aww Masaru), the dangerous ones (OH HEY SHOGUN), the profound ones (BURUUUU) and so on? It’s all about family and it feels so much better than being all about romance for ONCE
  • This also counts as a dystopia, just FYI, and it wins at dystopias because of p.366 of my edition which was a glorious crowning world-building moment of awesome (and ick)
  • CHAINSAW KATANAS
  • LET ME REITERATE
  • CHAINSAW KATANAS

Okay. It’s awesome, but there are issues. People have pointed out the problems with the terminology before – THERE’S A GLOSSARY AT THE BACK BY THE WAY AND PEOPLE MAY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT IT – and how it’s apparently full of inaccurate Japanese. As a fantasy reader I feel like those issues can be side-stepped because it’s *fantasy* and how knows how the Japanese language may have developed in this alternative reality, but they’re valid concerns regardless, and worth the attention (excellent review there, I highly recommend reading it). I wasn’t sure about some of it during the book but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story – this is an entirely YMMV topic, I reckon, but I want to bring it up because it is, after all, dealing with a real culture.

One of my issues with it concerns the tone it takes with regard to the blood lotus pollution. It’s not THAT it deals with the topic, but HOW. It’s a great thing to be writing fantasy about but those segments – ESPECIALLY when Buruu lectured Yukiko about the pollution of Shima – come off as being really quite patronising and odd. I wanted to compare it to Miyazaki but Miyazaki is subtle and clever about drawing links between films like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke and the modern world, where this felt like being walloped over the head with relevance and significance and it was just… it was jarring. Kristoff proved he can be elegant and clever in almost every other aspect of this story, but that, the element that should linger the longest in people’s’ minds, was awkward. We weren’t being guided by his writing, we were being lectured to. Buruu is incredibly cool but using him as the author’s mouthpiece tarnished him a little. I’d love to get behind this aspect of the book but I just felt, for all the good he wants to do with this message, it suddenly switched tone from SFF to very young adult and then back, which didn’t work, and jolted me out of the story.

My most pressing concern? Lady Aisha. What was that? She was my favourite character aside from Buruu. Did that seriously happen? That was enough to knock a star off on Goodreads. Huge amounts of this book are ALL ABOUT the male gaze – from descriptions of the characters to Kaori’s face to the SODDING BATHING HOUSE SCENE THAT NEVER GETS PUNISHED oh god that annoys me – and although there are lots of aspects of this book to encourage and praise, this isn’t one of them. Lady Aisha feels like a casualty of that pervasive attitude, and it’s troubling – all the female characters are completely defined by the men around them. All of them. It could be read as an extension of the Evil Empire if you want to be kind, but it isn’t just that; I’m tired of Blokey Fantasy tropes and Stormdancer has lots of them. None of them are dealt with. They’re part of the story. I enjoyed the rest of it so much that this really troubled me, and for all I liked it, reflecting back on it there’s a lot I’m not happy with.

Aside from that I loved it, and read it slowly to savour the writing. I raced through the last third far too fast for my liking. People have criticized the beginning with its stately pace and how detailed the writing and descriptions are – I love all of that, and was sad the book wasn’t twice as long. For all I was deeply unhappy with aspects of it, I loved it so much I’d rank it up there with The Name Of The Wind for sheer enjoyment. I can’t wait for the 13th September to come so I can sell it to everyone. “READ THIS,” I shall tell them. “IT IS FUN AND GORGEOUS AND KICK-ASS. Also the cover is well pretty.”

AND I WANT A BURUU PLUSHIE GODDAMNIT

And the Stormdancer book trailer if you haven’t seen it is worth a gander because it’s hi-larious:

Unless you’re Liam who has no sense of humour.

Throne Of Glass by SJ Maas

Every now and then I like to challenge the laws of physics by testing the aerodynamic qualities of my reading materials. Today I decided to see if SJ Maas’ Throne Of Glass could fly.

Reader, I chucked it across the room, and it did not fly.

I don’t usually throw my books around. I’m a bookseller and a book lover; I hug books when they please me and lend books to friends to spread the joy and, guys, I like books. A lot. So the fact that this book caused me to throw it is no small thing. It might have been a blip, a momentary short circuit in my usually placid personality. It probably was. But for one moment I was so enraged and disappointed and annoyed by this book that I had to lash out. I’m not proud. I’m not a child. I should be above this sort of thing. But I threw it, because for a moment there I was five years old and tantruming because the book didn’t make me happy.

Before I go on, I’ll say this – a lot of people enjoyed this book and I don’t doubt there’s much in it to enjoy. Maas has a decent writing style that is readable and engaging, and she can write pacy scenes. She has a good imagination and is more than likely capable of writing some really cool stuff. I don’t want to diss her writing or abilities at all. Throne Of Glass just totally didn’t work for me and although I wasn’t a fan, people whose opinions I respect thought it was marvellous.

It’s got great cover art, I can say that for it

The summary:

Meet Celaena Sardothien.
Beautiful. Deadly. Destined for greatness.

In the dark, filthy salt mines of Endovier, an eighteen-year-old girl is serving a life sentence. She is a trained assassin, the best of her kind, but she made a fatal mistake: she got caught.

Young Captain Westfall offers her a deal: her freedom in return for one huge sacrifice. Celaena must represent the prince in a to-the-death tournament—fighting the most gifted thieves and assassins in the land. Live or die, Celaena will be free. Win or lose, she is about to discover her true destiny. But will her assassin’s heart be melted?

A couple of months back I read Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study which had much the same set up and didn’t impress me much either: girl on death row gets her life back in exchange for using her skills to put her life on the line for political purposes. Romance is involved. Whereas Snyder’s heroine was trained to detect poisons, developing character as she went along, Celaena appears already trained and able.

To do everything.

I don’t mean just that she can do things – she can do everything. Brilliantly. She’s good at everything from archery to playing the piano to swordfighting to climbing to detecting poison to speaking other languages. AND she loves books. This means she’s a good person, doesn’t it? NO. At the age of eighteen she’s better than everyone around her – it’s one thing to have a precocious talent but the likelihood of being more than passable at all of these skills by the age of eighteen (also taking into account a year surviving in salt mines) stretches credulity to breaking point. Older, more experienced people are nothing compared to her literally incredible skills. Celaena is SO AWESOME YOU GUYS. And Celaena KNOWS IT.

I gave the overly heroic Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name Of The Wind a chance even though he and his skillset are far too good to be true. He was a nice guy, just about flawed enough to keep you interested, but someone you cheered on because you could feel his decency. Celaena is nothing like that. Jessie over at Ageless Pages diagnosed Special Snowflake Syndrome which is entirely apt; I’ll go a stage further and diagnose Serious Mary Sueism. I didn’t even click all the boxes that apply and she still got a score of 113. She’s snide, rude, arrogant and so far up herself she’s become a Moebius Sue.

She glared. “I hate women like that. They’re so desperate for the attention of men that they’d willingly betray and harm members of their own sex. And we claim men cannot think with their brains! At least men are direct about it.”

I lied earlier. I threw the book twice, once before I finished it. I picked it up to continue reading. Why did I throw it? That line. That horrible, bitchy, illogical line.

Kvothe worked also because he did things that proved he was kick-ass and cool. Locke Lamora in Scott Lynch’s books proves he’s a canny conman practically every other page. Arya Stark in Game Of Thrones also kicks ass in practically every chapter. Phedre no Delaunay is awesome all the damn time without resorting to violence. Katniss proves she’s got heart and skills with every day surviving the Hunger Games. Stephanie in Skulduggery Pleasant is forever being witty and brilliant. These guys all prove that they’re ace at what they do. More than ace – fantastic. Kvothe magics, Locke tricks, Arya scraps, Phedre outwits, Katniss survives to fight back, Stephanie saves the world.

Celaena, in comparison, does sod all. This book’s supposed to be the girl’s Game of Thrones (WHICH IS THE WORST THING EVER OH GOD I CAN’T EVEN BEGIN TO TACKLE THAT STATEMENT WITHOUT CAPSLOCKING) and the fantasy Hunger Games. It isn’t. The Hunger Games had great scenes full of nerves and clever writing that dealt with death, murder, heroism and self-sacrifice. There’s none of that going on here. Celaena never really proves that she’s the amazing assassin she thinks she is beyond two pretty good fight scenes and one dangling, daring rescue – some of the few scenes where I felt like the book was doing what it was supposed to do. We have all this guff about how handsome Dorian is (OH GOD NOT THE SAPPHIRE EYES AGAIN PLEASE GOD NO) or how beautiful Celaena is (GOLDEN HAIR RIGHT) or what they’re wearing (in quite some detail) but the same almost forensic level of narration isn’t given to the test the would-be assassins are put through. We don’t see enough of it, or the tons of people who die through it. It’s basically a backdrop, an afterthought, a MacGuffin. It’s the most diluted concept of violence and barely seems to matter to anyone – even those taking part.

AND there’s only enough background to act as wallpaper. The world is formed entirely around Celaena and the characters in her orbit and there’s no depth to it whatsoever. Almost everything we learn affects Celaena  in some way. Nothing we’re told about the worldbuilding is about the world itself; it’s almost all about Celaena. I’m usually okay with thinner characters set against a strong world, or a lot of strong characters set against a thin backdrop, but not both weak characters and weak worldbuilding!

When it comes to those characters in Celaena’s orbit obviously both Dorian, spoilt but very noble attractive princeling and Chaol, determined but very noble attractive guard (he’s a captain and he seems to be about Celaena’s age and to be training her which is INSANE because these skill levels MAKE NO SENSE and she’s awesome and he’s better but how? What? I don’t get this) are completely head over heels for her because she’s beautiful and good at everything. I spent half the book hoping Chaol would cop off with Nehemia. There’s a scene where Dorian gives our darling star a present and she’s immediately the rudest child ever in response, making demands before she deigns to accept this gift, and then there’s the line that just broke off all sympathy for Celaena that I’d been clinging to for most of this book:

He was kind – unnaturally kind, for someone of his upbringing. He had a heart, she realized, and a conscience. He was different from the others.

Oh good god no. She’s thinking things like this even though her best friend is a princess. A PRINCESS. Who is on the side of good. It’s been proved several times over that, no, not all the aristocracy are heartless fiends. So obviously Celaena as an inverse snob is a tremendous judge of character. OH WAIT. She can do EVERYTHING. Why am I doubting her? MY BAD. Everyone adores her even though there’s not much about her to like.

Nehemia would have been a far more interesting main character – she’s layered, clever, with a sense of duty and courage that Celaena seems to be missing. Her people are under threat and she’s prepared to do so much to protect them. She and her people have a proper story to tell that would fit an epic fantasy framework better – check out NK Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as an example of just that.

In fact I’m trying to resist the urge to list a load of books I’d rather recommend reading than this. As I said, lots of people have enjoyed it, and though this feels young like it’s written for the lower end of the YA market, I’d rather recommend some Maureen Johnson, Garth Nix, Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy or Sarah Rees Brennan. They have worldbuilding and emotional connections and main characters who combine attitude with flaws and skills and wit.

I really don’t think SJ Maas is a bad author. From some of what I’ve seen about this book online this started out as a darker, more mature story and I’d give my eye teeth to see what could have been made of that. If it had been aged up a few years, if Celaena had been given some texture, if that sodding love triangle hadn’t been shoehorned in. If the worldbuilding had had just a bit more work. If there’d been more action. If, if, if.

This book should have been exactly – EXACTLY! – the sort of thing that appeals to me. Strong heroine, kickass action, a new fantasy world, political upheaval, a good son of an evil king, mysterious histories, secret pasages, ghosts, drama, murder, snark. The fact that it fell so far short of the mark is sad. Maas is going to write more, write better, and create good work – but this isn’t it.