Tag Archives: romance

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.

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Witch Crag by Kate Cann

So here’s a problem with Witch Crag – there’s not enough book for the story. It’s odd, isn’t it? It’s as if there’s a massive story and huge character development crammed into too small a space so it can’t flourish properly. It’s like those tea flowers you buy all curled up and you have to drop into hot water to make them blossom. It’s a great story that hasn’t had the space to spread out properly.

Despite that, I really enjoyed it.

The blurb:

In a tribe where basic survival is the only priority, Kita must make a choice: to accept arranged marriages and being treated with less value then sheep, or escape and journey to the place that even the strongest men fear with their lives – Witch Crag.

But a common threat is facing the witches and sheepmen alike. The tribes must somehow overcome their prejudices and join together if they’re to win a war that threatens to destroy everything they hold as good.

I was given the proof of this one in a goody bag after the Summer Scream event at Foyles (which was ace), and I have no idea why I went for it first. It was one of those “I’ll just see what the first page is like” moments that slipped away and became two hours of being engrossed in the rather compelling scene-building that Cann very ably engages in for the first quarter of the book.

It’s an easy read, unsettling moments notwithstanding; Kita is dynamic and interesting to follow, though the other characters feel half-sketched for the most part. Arc, for instance, could have done with a bit more attitude in a scene or two more. Kita’s friends could have had just a touch more presence. Geegaw could have been coloured in a bit, made more vivid. There could have been more, really – more time in each place, more described, more filled in. It felt like we were skimming over a really detailed back story. Sometimes, that’s fine. It works. Our imaginations can fill in bits and pieces and make it feel more real. Other times, however, it just feels like we’re getting the bare bones of the story and it just feels distant and vague. Witch Crag leans towards the latter. It’s the sort of book I’d love to see a bunch of teens illustrate or write a bit of fanfic about, because there’s just such a strong feeling of there being more lurking beneath the surface. So much more. I did wonder how it would have felt if it had been written as an “adult” book, or aimed for a slightly older readership.

Arc was a particular highlight and lowlight. Towards the end everyone just seemed to stop being a character and started to become mouthpieces – little speeches sounding the same from every quarter about uniting against a common foe, doing what’s right. It got a bit preachy and Arc suffered in particular, seeming to become a completely different character in the last third of the book – not in a good-character-development kind of way, but in a way in which he became unrecognizable. It’s sort of lampshaded by Raff in a random comment, but it doesn’t feel like his arc (yes I know) makes much sense. It’s a shame, because he was one of the strongest elements of the tale. I would have loved to read it from his perspective. His character only really unravelled right at the end in the most rushed chapter – a shame, racing to a conclusion that didn’t need to be hurried and could have been open-ended in a way that tied in with the atmosphere of the book as a whole, but I get that a lot of readers want that kind of ending. I’m just annoying.

Otherwise, I loved it. I gave it four stars on Goodreads – it’s a good-hearted story which lets people change and mature and grow up, lets the main character be a girl but also strong, lets her rage and mope and whine and still be a hero, lets the love interest be a complete boy and yet seek comfort, and lets people both redeem themselves and strive to redeem others. It’s a book with an overly obvious message, which usually pisses me off in YA, but it’s done with charm and Kita is a bit of a marvel when it comes to YA main characters. It’s a great story to visualize and has a wonderful sinister undercurrent the entire way through that did make me fear for what Cann was building towards. When it’s out I know I’m going to be giving it to a couple of teenagers I know.

So yes, I’d recommend it whole-heartedly. There’s a tantalizing sense of what else could be revealed about that post-“Great Havoc” land and the people in it, and I wish Cann could have gone into more depth about the world and the history and the people and the characters and everything, but it’s a really good addition to the Dystopian YA genre, perfectly pitched to appeal to boys as much as girls. It’s one notch below The Hunger Games in my personal rankings, and two above Divergent, and I reckon it’s closer to The Knife Of Never Letting Go in tone than anything else I’ve read. So yes. I liked it.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel (4****/5)

CAN YOU TELL HE'S DEAD NO I DON'T THINK SO HE'S LOOKING GREAT FOR A CORPSE

This is a pacy, bloodthirsty, hugely entertaining teen zombie novel with an unconventional but tender love story at its heart. From the ruins of a cataclysmic ice-age a new society has emerged, based on Victorian customs. Nora Dearly, a feisty teenage girl and apparent orphan, leaves her exclusive boarding school for the holidays to return home – only to be dragged into the night by the living dead. Luckily for her, this particular crack unit of zombies are good guys – sent to protect her from the real nasties roaming the countryside and zeroing in on major cities to swell their ranks. Nora must find a way to defeat the evil undead with help from Bram, a noble, sweet and surprisingly hot zombie boy for whom she starts to fall…

For all it’s riddled with issues, Dearly, Departed is a really fun read that’s so over the top it’s actually mesmerising – given half a chance it carries you with it all the way through a crazy mess of plot, rotting corpses, zombie street battles and undead romance. It’s like this book was written with a checklist in mind – what’s hot right now in SFF/YA lit? Let’s see!

  • Zombies – CHECK! with a whole new spin on this which was REALLY appreciated
  • Forbidden romance – CHECK! with bits falling off (I loved Bram, I couldn’t even hate him for the blatant name thing, he’s such a sweetheart)
  • Dystopia – CHECK! only it was literally overkill to have so much apocalypse infodumped on us. Utterly crazy.
  • Steampunk – CHECK! except not the steampunk of the Soulless books or anything, it’s more faux-Victoriana, which was really awkward in most places because it’s been shoe-horned in and doesn’t feel right at all. Except I didn’t mind it past the first few chapters. It stops grating once you just assume it’s a technologically advanced Victorian age. There’s a wonderful idea about the Punks and their tech however, which I’d love to read more of in any future books.
So, yes, it’s an attention-grabbing conglomeration of ideas, you know?

Fans of dystopias and zombies will get more of a kick out of this than romance fans – and people who enjoy well-rendered characters who are willing to get stuck in and be pro-active will enjoy this too. It’s all lampshaded of course, with every time a girl-character acts in a way which does not suit her upbringing everyone notices it and points it out. The romance feels a bit unconvincing but I loved Bram and Nora was far from annoying so, again, I didn’t mind. Once things had clicked it felt much more believable.

It’s not structured very well, however; the viewpoints are a mess and only partially feel like they’re distinct voices, but I had so much fun reading this that I didn’t really care – I can totally understand why people didn’t get into or didn’t like this book, because you need to suspend disbelief from a very high place to even get into the setting of Dearly, Departed, let alone the basic premise. It was such tremendous fun and completely different in tone and style and painted in such vivid colours that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Seriously. Against my better judgement and everything.

It’s the most emphatically emphatic dystopian teen zombie romance you’ll ever see, and worth reading if you feel like going for an enjoyably deranged but hugely entertaining book. And yes, the horror elements were fun too. Strongly recommended if you like your YA to have a bit of backbone, decaying romance and a strong edge of dark humour to it. Anyone who liked it and wants MOAR! zombie love – Warm Bodies is your next port of call. Doesn’t have anywhere near the structural problems or the odd dialogue that DD does, and as a horror it’s a much stronger piece of work.

It isn’t, however, as much of a weird-ass dystopian teen zombie romance. With airships. Dearly, Departed has that down.

Switched by Amanda Hocking

The YA cover has purple butterflies, but I like this one more.

With her first book Switched described by Lauren Oliver in the NY Times as “The Princess Diaries” meets “Twilight”, and having sold over a million copies as a self-published author before switching to the more traditional publishing process, Amanda Hocking is a totally a hot topic now. Everyone’s talking about how the internet will change publishing as we know it – and Hocking’s name is wound up in that discussion to the extent that it’s easy to overlook the creative output that made her name. Selling a million ebooks of a work you’ve written, edited and designed the cover of yourself is no mean feat, after all. So, as I said in my earlier post, I was very interested to try her work.

I enjoyed Switched. It’s a very uncomplicated state of affairs: I read it really fast, had some issues with a few aspects, but it was enjoyable and diverting enough for me to have a positive overall view of it. It’s a book that settles into the Kelley Armstrong and Richelle Mead pantheon of authorship while being fresh enough for general teen audiences, and I recommend it heartily to anyone who liked those authors, but it does bother me a little that there’s a rather wonderful concept that isn’t developed more and better. It felt like an idea that was churned out too fast and needed more crafting before it was unleashed on the readership. It’s slightly inconsistent (more than one person’s pointed out how one moment she doesn’t like chocolate but the next loves it, which is so minor but jolts you out of the story) and a little uneven, with writing that doesn’t tell you much about the world because it’s painted in very broad strokes that leaves you to fill in the details yourself. Fancy clothes are left to your imagination, as are conversations where everything is completely glossed over. It’s not exactly wonderful writing, but I was okay with it; much as I’m the sort of person who loves gorgeous, rich, decadent writing, sometimes it’s nice to have things left vague, though it would have been better to have more detail about the larger Trylle community and Wendy’s dealings with Rhiannon, Rhys and the rest, as it would have added a lot to the world and Wendy herself.

One thing that’s divided opinion – Wendy. A few people have expressed dislike, which is entirely understandable, but it is so refreshing to have the first person perspective of a bit of a bitch in a YA book and to have her aware of it. She isn’t exactly nice, but nice is boring, and funnily enough she’s a convincing teenager-type compared to the usual. I was a bit taken by her attitude and her awareness of what her family goes through to make her happy and yet and yet she’s so ungiving and selfish, aware of being so, and feels guilt for it. She’s a perfect base level for some good, juicy character development – the sort of satisfying development full of tears and tantrums and embarrassments and little delights. It doesn’t quite happen in the book, but it’s hinted at in a slightly tangled way. I can’t say I liked her, but she was interesting, different and promising. The Anti-Bella, if you will.

On that note, one aspect that struck a hollow note was the romance. It was too swift, shallow, no real connection happened – in fact, I was more sold on the (unintended) romantic tension with another guy towards the end who had so much more texture to his character than the love interest and was in his own right an absolutely excellent creation. For readers specifically interested in it, it might be a satisfactory sort of love plot, but only satisfactory – I wasn’t reading the book for the romance though, so I wasn’t so very unhappy about it.

Despite all the issues, it’s worth reading If You Like That Kind Of Book. This book won’t bring more fans to urban fantasy/paranormal romance/teen fantasy/whatever we’re calling it this month, but it will satisfy some of the readers who are already there. Probably the most telling point is this: while it wasn’t an amazing read, and though there were niggling, bothersome problems, the world Hocking created was interesting enough for me to definitely intend to pick up the next book in the trilogy.

Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey Mysteries

I was in a charity shop a few months ago when a set of book covers leapt from the shelf and viciously attacked my person.

Well, in a nice way.

It was the most random book purchase I’ve made in months. Rarely do I buy a book that someone hasn’t recommended specifically, or that I’ve seen reviewed, so buying a book just because the cover looked cool felt all risqué and flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants and all that. It was a risk. Three books were there and I bought just the first, in case it turned out awful. I regretted that; the next two books were difficult to get hold of in the right editions, but I’m so glad I did!

The book was Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn and good heavens did I devour it. It might as well have come with a knife and fork and some ketchup, that was how fast it went. Raybourn has an excellent way with opening lines (I’d like to leave those for future readers to discover) and although certain aspects of the book felt too modern to fit properly into a Victorian setting, it was a vastly entertaining read that included great characters, wonderful writing and a murder mystery that I guessed ahead of time, but in doing so didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book in the least. Lady Julia Grey – the protagonist – develops wonderfully as the murder of her husband is suspected and then investigated by herself and the dark, mysterious Nicholas Brisbane; she goes from a mousey, elegant, typical Victorian ideal of a wife to someone who is unafraid to show her intelligence and faces up to the rather grim task at hand with great courage. Her family is a madcap lot that offer some entertaining asides (Perdita, her sister, probably the most recurring and scandalous of her many siblings) and all elements together made the story a winsome mix of amusing, exciting, tragic and intriguing.

Silent in the Sanctuary, the second book, continued in the same vein, albeit away from London, at the family seat. It’s a stronger book with a murder that did fox me more than the first book’s mystery did, and the more we see of Julia’s family the Marches the better – they’re a fantastic, chaotic crowd – and I was laughing out loud in various parts. These books are witty and smart, and yes, they have sizeable romantic elements too. At times I found it a tad soppy but the rest of the story – the murders, the family, the other entanglements – was so strong it barely registered.

The third book, Silent on the Moor, was rather oddly the weakest of the three in everything but plot. Without the marvellous March family to give it a bit of levity and character, the setting of a bleak, windswept, barren moor with a dilapidated grand manor and a properly gothic storyline felt too heavy and plodding, though it suited Raybourn’s writing. The humour was sparse, but as a gothic tale it was quite nice and creepy and satisfying in the way that gothic stories usually are. It was a convoluted crime, and the scene in which they uncover the contents of an ancient Egyptian coffin lingered in my mind for some time after. I finished it a couple of days ago and I’m glad to see there’s another book continuing the story as it did feel like despite the tidy resolution, there were enough loose ends for Raybourn to work her magic and conjure up another wicked plot.

It’d be a mistake to read these books hoping for Georgette Heyer levels of historical detail and precision. They have patches of being a bit dodgy in that respect but not so much that it disrupts the flow of the story – rather, it feels a slightly fantastical when considering the gypsy element, and I rather appreciated the pure escapism it offered (I really don’t consider escapism negative in the least).

Basically, my random book purchase that day was an absolute joy and I recommend the books to anyone who likes a good romance, a good murder mystery, a good bit of wit and intelligent plotting. There is a touch of the supernatural about the books, which I felt detracted a bit from the plots and the characters, but I can’t deny that as a plot device it was well (and in the first two books, sparingly) used.

Easily a 4/5. I enjoyed them so much.