Book Review: The Binding by Bridget Collins

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Binding by Bridget Collins

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: William Morrow (April 16, 2019)

Length: 448 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

The Binding by Bridget Collins was an okay book, but it could have been better. In its defense, I confess I probably would have enjoyed this a lot more if my patience threshold hadn’t been so low when I started this; I’ve had a recent run of bad to mediocre reads lately which has made me extremely finicky, and unfortunately, there are many things about this one that make it a very mood-dependent book.

But first, I did love the novel’s concept. I’ve always had a thing for “books about books”, and I thought The Binding deserves points for tackling the idea quite a bit differently. That’s because books in this world are nothing like the way we think of them, neither for knowledge or for pleasure. Instead, they are magical devices handcrafted by specially trained artisans called Bookbinders, who use books as vessels to take away and store a person’s worst memories. All the secrets and the pain and hurt and guilt that one can’t bear to live with, a Bookbinder has the mysterious power to erase and lock away, which has resulted in much fear and mistrust around the profession, and not surprisingly, books themselves are anathema and forbidden.

This was a lesson protagonist Emmett Farmer learned early on, when he was a young boy punished by his father for bringing home a book from the Wakening Fair, not understanding the gravity of what he’d done. But for as long as he can remember, Emmett has always been drawn to books, and soon enough, we get to learn why. What he’s always thought of as a debilitating condition which has prevented him from working efficiently in his family’s fields actually turns out to be a sign of his potential to become a Bookbinder. Before long, a letter arrives from an elderly Bookbinder named Seredith with a demand for his apprenticeship, and despite his reluctance to leave the farm, Emmett knows deep in his heart that he has no choice.

Under Seredith’s tutelage, Emmett learns the delicate art of binding. He also discovers the truth behind the books she creates, watching as customers arrive at her doorstep, beseeching the old Bookbinder to take away their memories and lock them up. But not everything is as they seem either. Soon, we get to see that the business of bookbinding is rife for abuse, with some engaging in the illegal trading of books while others misuse the services for their own nefarious purposes. Which brings us to Lucian, a wealthy young patron who visits Seredith’s shop one day. We won’t find out how until much later, but Emmett and Lucian’s lives are connected in some way, and in time we learn how a great disservice has been done to them both.

I have to say, The Binding was a deeply layered book. Again, I suspect that I would have enjoyed it a lot more had I had been in a better mood for a story like this, but there was also plenty about its execution I found aggravating. For one thing, the book is told in three parts, with some accompanying perspective and time shifts that I didn’t feel were written all that effectively. I liked the first part well enough, mostly due to Collins’ amazing characterization of both Emmett and Seredith, as well as the development of their master-apprentice relationship. This section also introduced a world of mystery that I found very enticing, making it hard to resist reading more.

But then came the second act, told via a flashback. Emotionally, I found it challenging to connect with this section—very unfortunate, considering how so much of what was covered here would play directly into the crux of the novel, revealed in the third and final act. My enthusiasm already dampened at this point, my apathy only increased as we shift POVs for this concluding section, which felt a world away from the magic and allure of the first act. Instead, we mostly got a lot of drama and anguish. I don’t want to spoil things too much, even though many of the reviews have already mentioned the queer romance and the tale of star-crossed lovers (though honestly, it’s quite obvious that the book was setting up for it), but essentially, I felt this last act failed to deliver the emotional intensity such crucial dissemination of events required, or it’s possible I just felt too disconnected from the POV to feel much of it.

My final verdict? I really thought I would love The Binding, given its fantastic premise. However, I struggled miserably with the shifts between the novel’s three parts, and as such, things did not go as smoothly as I would have liked. On a better day, I might have felt a little more magnanimous, but lately I’ve been burned by too many books that show early promise only to fizzle out by the end, and I was disappointed when this one followed the same trend. In all fairness, this wasn’t a bad book, but I do wish it had been more emotionally satisfying.

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Book Review: Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey

Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Book 8 of The Expanse

Publisher: Orbit (March 26, 2019)

Length: 534 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

As the penultimate book in the epic Expanse series, Tiamat’s Wrath gives one the feeling of an entire galaxy holding its collective breath—things aren’t so much happening as they are preparing the field for the final play. And yet, if you’ve been on this train since the beginning, you’ll know that James S.A. Corey, the collaborative team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank writing as one, isn’t going to let that get in the way of telling a full-force, action-packed and dramatic story. Sure, the end is just around the corner, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still blow a lot of stuff up and put readers through the emotional wringer in the meantime.

Given that this is the eighth installment of the series, it’s going to be pretty damn hard to give even a brief rundown of the premise without spoiling anything from the previous books, so I would highly recommend being caught up all the way to Persepolis Rising before proceeding. In fact, I would say it’s even more imperative considering how the last book carried us three decades ahead, offering a new beginning of sorts. That said though, you’ll still need to know everything that happened to fully appreciate the sheer magnitude of the events Tiamat’s Wrath, because this novel is the culmination of multiple intertwined narratives and a lengthy complex history. Earlier threads in the series are being drawn together as characters old and new are swept up in the chaos of a fast-changing universe.

Some more time has passed since the end of Persepolis Rising. The Laconian Empire has since become the dominant force in the galaxy, with former rogue admiral of the Martian navy Winston Duarte becoming the High Consul. More importantly, Laconia also controls the thirteen hundred or so alien gates that have opened to solar systems around the galaxy, giving them full access to the transportation network. In addition, the intensive research Duarte commissioned into the protomolecule has paid off, giving his military the most advanced ships humanity has ever developed, with the High Consul himself attempting to use the technological findings to achieve immortality.

What’s left of the crew of the Rocinante, now scattered to the four winds, is forced underground, with Naomi, Bobbie, and Alex fighting for the resistance. Meanwhile, Holden is being held as a political prisoner on Laconia and Amos has gone off the grid to try and get him back, even in the face of impossible odds. Things aren’t looking good for our characters, leaving them doing the best they can while praying something unexpected will happen for them to catch a break. And what do you know, something unexpected is exactly what comes to pass. Beyond the thousands of mysterious gates that have opened, some of them lead to dead systems. In one of these, an alien presence is stirring, not content to stand by while humanity continues to expand. A Laconian scientist, Elvi Okoye, uncovers disturbing details of an ancient genocide that might be related to this new alien threat, and at the heart of the empire, Duarte’s daughter Teresa finds herself prematurely thrust into the limelight as something astonishing and unforeseen happens to her father.

As we make our way steadily towards the grand finale, I found myself wrestling with a storm of feelings swirling within me. As enthusiastically as I awaited this novel, a part of me also never wanted this ride to end. As soon as I read the first sentence, I literally wanted to scream, because fucking hell, what a way to start the book, knowing full well what these four little words would mean to longtime fans of The Expanse. Cruel as it was though, I also knew that nothing could have me better for the tone of what was to follow, and the “beginning of the end” that this book would signify. This is where we must start saying goodbye, and clearly, the authors are not going to be gentle about it, and it says much about their talent when in response, all I can say is, please give me more.

And hey, lucky us, the revelation in the prologue was just the first of many more shocks to come. As you know, something BIG always happens in each of these books. Some event that makes you drop your jaw and think, holy shit, did that really just happen? On the relative scale of things, the “big event” that happens in Tiamat’s Wrath might not be as horrifically destructive or sensational as some of what we’ve seen in the series before, but it does give the reader an eerie sense of foreboding and a sick realization that, wow, humanity is soooooo screwed.

There are many remarkable moments like this in the book, and in fact, one of the things Tiamat’s Wrath does best is making the story feel like it’s in constant motion and packed with action. What’s more impressive is that this is happening even as the authors are spending lots of time pushing plot points and maneuvering characters around the place like pieces on a chessboard. Granted, many of surprises and twists they end up inflicting on us are painful, hitting readers right in the emotions. Here’s where the relationships between characters come into play, especially if you’ve gotten the foundation from the first seven books. Coupled with the joy to see familiar faces return to new roles is also the heartbreak of seeing them make their sacrifices and say their farewells. And it’s not just the old characters appealing to our deepest feelings of sympathy and compassion either; there are some new perspectives here too, endearing themselves into our hearts, making us feel as if we’ve known them forever, and of these, Teresa Duarte’s voice was probably the one touched me the most.

Ultimately, I don’t think there’s been another science fiction series that has come anywhere near to consuming me the way The Expanse has. It is, in every sense of the word, a phenomenon, capturing the imaginations of readers everywhere with its space-operatic intrigue and daring action, its intense thrills and wonder, as well as its human tales of courage and resilience. Tiamat’s Wrath is a gut-punching, ass-kicking, body-rocking installment that will leave you breathless. Bring on the final book.

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of Abbadon’s Gate (Book 3)
Review of Cibola Burn (Book 4)
Review of Nemesis Games (Book 5)
Review of Babylon’s Ashes (Book 6)
Review of Persepolis Rising (Book 7)

Novella Review: Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Retelling

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Tor.com (March 26, 2019)

Length: 208 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Miranda in Milan isn’t so much a retelling than a sequel, reimagining of the events after The Tempest by William Shakespeare, picking up the tale at the play’s end where everyone including the magician Prospero and his daughter Miranda are getting ready to head back to Naples. But instead, they end up in Milan. Miranda and Ferdinand are to be married in celebration of their triumphant return, and Prospero himself is to reclaim his dukedom. Rather than the joy she expected, however, Miranda is met with fear and distrust at her destination, shunned and shut away in her chambers at the castle. Whispers of Miranda’s resemblance to her dead mother Beatrice follow her everywhere, and she is forced to wear a veil to hide her face whenever she ventures outside.

Isolated and friendless, abandoned by her father who has gone on to do bigger things and with no word when her wedding will happen, Miranda begins to lose hope. That is until she meets her new maid Dorothea. As a Moor, Dorothea is just as ostracized as Miranda, and she doesn’t seem bothered by the rumors about the duke’s daughter. The two of them start to grow close, with the friendship swiftly blossoming to become something even more. Meanwhile, it appears Prospero has not been entirely truthful in his proclamations to abandon his magic. As everything begins to fall under the threat of his dark schemes, Miranda and Dorothea must work together to uncover the truth and save Milan.

In the original play The Tempest, Prospero is the main character, portrayed as an unfortunate exile. Miranda is but a mere side note, her actions and behavior completely dictated by her father. In Miranda in Milan, however, it is she who gets to feature as the story’s protagonist, while Prospero is cast as its villain. Admittedly, I might have been more taken with author Katharine Duckett’s direction of these roles had I not read 2017’s Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey. While there are many differences between the two books, at their heart, both shine the spotlight on Prospero’s kind and compassionate daughter, both reimagine her in a coming-of-age romance, and both depict her father as a domineering and menacing figure in her life. There are just enough parallels to invoke comparisons between how the characters, relationships and themes are handled, and in almost every way—e.g. character development, romance, world-building, storytelling, etc.—I felt Miranda in Milan fell short.

Part of the issue could be due to its length. At just a sliver over 200 pages, this novella had a lot to convey and yet not enough time to do it. I hate to say it, but this is why I’m typically wary of short fiction because more often than not, I come away from short works wishing they had been more, and this was one of those cases. To wit, there’s a lot going on in this book: first, the Shakespearean elements, and contextual details of the original play that had to included; second, there were the relationships—and that means not only of the romance between Miranda and Dorothea, but also the complexities and nuances in the dynamics between Miranda and Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand, etc.; and third was the overall plot itself, which sought to incorporate a bit of mystery related to Miranda’s mother along with the intrigue and conspiracy of Prospero’s dastardly plans.

With all this in play, there was barely enough time to properly explore the world’s secrets or its magic, or go any deeper into characters’ backgrounds, personalities, and motivations. As a result of this, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I want to praise this book for its ambitions and its integration of so many interesting and rich concepts, but on the other, I can’t say it managed to develop any of them very well. This ineffectual build-up ultimately led to very little pay payoff and satisfaction, sad to say. For example, Miranda and Dorothea’s romance—which I considered to be the most notable aspect of this tale and thus expected quite a lot from—ended up being nice and sweet but also rather superficial and uninspired. As well, the ending which I thought contained several unique twists and revelations was nonetheless anticlimactic simply because the story’s foundations were not developed enough to make me feel much of anything for the characters or their conflicts. Miranda in Milan being Duckett’s debut, I also wasn’t surprised to run into pacing problems. Understandably, some things cannot be rushed, but I did feel the early sections of this book moved too slowly and were bogged down by unnecessary diversions.

All in all, I can’t say I loved this book, but that being said, I didn’t dislike it either. In the end, I think I just wanted more—more depth, more clarity, more detail. More feeling. It’s possible that tighter pacing and more pages could have provided all that, but as it is, Miranda in Milan gets an average rating from me, though I will keep watching to see what Katharine Duckett writes next.

Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads

Bookshelf Roundup is a feature I do every other weekend which fills the role of several blog memes, like Stacking the Shelves where I talk about the new books I’ve added to my library or received for review, as well as It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? where I round up what I’ve read since the last update and what I’m planning to read soon. Mostly it also serves as a recap post, so sometimes I’ll throw in stuff like reading challenge progress reports, book lists, and other random bookish thoughts or announcements.

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Received for Review

My thanks to the publishers and authors for the following review copies received, and be sure to click the links to their Goodreads pages for more details and full descriptions!

First up, a trio of titles that span a range of sci-fi subgenres: with thanks to Titan Books, I received Fleet of Knives by Gareth L. Powell, book two of the Embers of War space opera/military science fiction series which I’ve been enjoying a lot so far; with thanks to Tor Books, I received Luna: Moon Rising by Ian McDonald, the finale in a fantastic trilogy which has been described as Game of Thrones in space; and with thanks to Orbit, I received an ARC of The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind by Jackson Ford, a quirky mystery adventure of paranormal elements and superpowers.

Next, we have some epic fantasy, with thanks to Harper Voyager for sending along an ARC of Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estep, the sequel to Kill the Queen. I had a lot of fun with the first book last year, and I hope the trend will continue. A surprise paperback of Kin by Snorri Kristjansson also showed up earlier this month from the kind folks at Jo Fletcher Books across the Atlantic, I think because they had offered me an eARC of the sequel Council and I replied with a thanks but I haven’t read the first book yet. As you can imagine, I was thrilled because as you know I’ve been going on and on about how I wish this book would finally get an official US publisher. Needless to say I wasted no time in starting this book, and as of this writing I am about halfway through and enjoying myself immensely. And if you recall my Waiting on Wednesday feature a couple weeks ago, I was really looking forward to Shark Beach by Chris Jameson so it was to my joy and excitement that St. Martin’s Press replied to my request to say they would be sending an ARC. I probably won’t be starting this until closer to the release date, but I can’t wait.

From Henry Holt and Co. via LibraryThing, I was also lucky enough to score an ARC of The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe from their Early Readers program last month. Really looking forward to check this one out. And here’s something different: from Vintage Books came this gigantic volume called The Big Book of Classic Fantasy edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. It is exactly what it sounds like, an anthology of stories ranging from the fairy tales we first heard as children to the classic fantasy works that have always been with us. I’ll be honest, I don’t know how likely I’ll read this whole thing, but for those interested, here’s more from the publisher description: “There are the expected pillars of the genre: the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Mary Shelley, Christina Rossetti, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, L. Frank Baum, Robert E. Howard, and J. R. R. Tolkien. But it’s the unexpected treasures from Asian, Eastern European, Scandinavian, and Native American traditions–including fourteen stories never before available in English”. Pretty cool, right? And finally, from the awesome team at Subterranean Press, I received an ARC of a collection called The Best of Greg Egan, which should be of interest to fans of the author.

 

A rather light haul in the digital pile this week: courtesy of Harper Audio, I was able to snag an advanced listening copy of The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala, and from Del Rey via NetGalley, I downloaded the eARC of The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham because I thought it sounded interesting.

Reviews

Here is a quick summary of my reviews posted since the last update:

Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young (4 of 5 stars)
The Near Witch by V.E. Schwab (4 of 5 stars)
The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durst (4 of 5 stars)
The True Queen by Zen Cho (3.5 of 5 stars)
The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman (2.5 of 5 stars)
The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling (2.5 of 5 stars)
Inspection by Josh Malerman (1.5 of 5 stars)

What I’ve Read Since the Last Update

Here’s what I’ve managed to “unstack” from the TBR since the last update. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with my birthday last weekend, and unfortunately right after that I came down with a bad cough and fever. Despite the hurdles I still managed to finish a good number of books, some of which were pretty lengthy (though for some of these I had the help of audio during my recuperation). Reviews will be forthcoming.

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Have you heard of or read any of the books featured this week? What caught your eye? Any new discoveries? I hope you found something interesting for a future read! Let me know what you plan on checking out. Until next time, see you next Roundup!:)

Friday Face-Off: Longboat

Welcome to The Friday Face-Off, a weekly meme created by Books by Proxy! Each Friday, we will pit cover against cover while also taking the opportunity to showcase gorgeous artwork and feature some of our favorite book covers. If you want to join the fun, simply choose a book each Friday that fits that week’s predetermined theme, post and compare two or more different covers available for that book, then name your favorite. A list of future weeks’ themes are available at Lynn’s Book Blog.

This week’s theme is:

“Odin, Odin, send the wind to turn the tide.”
a cover featuring a LONGBOAT

Mogsy’s Pick:

Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton

This week’s theme’s a toughie, so I’m bringing back a book I read long ago by the late Michael Crichton whose books I could always count on to be entertaining and smart. Eaters of the Dead is a historical fiction novel set in the early 10th century about a refined courtier from the Caliph of Bagdad who is enlisted by a party of rowdy Viking warriors to help them hunt a flesh-eating monster. It’s not the easiest of Crichton’s books to get into, since it’s written in the form of a journal and is essentially a retelling of Beowulf from an outsider’s point of view. It was also made into a movie called The 13th Warrior.

There are a lot of covers for this book, so I’m mostly going to concentrate on the nicer ones as well as those featuring longboats.

From left to right, top to bottom:
Alfred A. Knopf (1976) – Arrow (1997) – Ballantine (1998)

Ballantine (1993) – Harper (2009) – Ballantine Movie Tie-in (1998)

 

Harper Paperbacks (2016) – Avon (2006) – Czech Edition (1994)

 

Spanish Edition (1988) – Estonian Edition (2009) – Polish Edition (1992)

 

Portuguese Edition A (1997) – Portuguese Edition B (2008) – French Edition (2005)

 

Italian Edition A (2010) – Italian Edition B (2018) – Hungarian Edition (2015)

 

Winner:

Nothing’s really leaping out at me this week. But I have to choose one, so I think I’m going to go with the 2010 Italian edition because it’s the only cover that would make me grab the book off a shelf without knowing anything about it. It also like the image and art style because it looks like it could be an oil painting in a museum.

But what do you think? Which one is your favorite?

Book Review: Inspection by Josh Malerman

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Inspection by Josh Malerman

Mogsy’s Rating: 1.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Horror, Mystery

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Del Rey (March 19, 2019)

Length: 384 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

While Inspection is only my second Josh Malerman, I’ve read enough and heard enough to know it is a crapshoot every time you pick up one of his books. With this author, you just never know what you’re going to get—an inevitable consequence of his creativity and unpredictable writing style. And unfortunately, this time I took a risk, but it didn’t pan out.

In a word, Inspection is strange. At the heart of this tale is a mad scientist couple seeking to raise a group of children to be the best that they can be, and in order to create these little geniuses, they have developed an experimental program called Parenthood and set up shop in the middle of the wilderness. As infants, twenty-six boys and twenty-six girls, each named for a letter of the alphabet, were placed in their respective facilities, separated by sex. Overseen by Richard, also known as D.A.D. to his charges, the Alphabet Boys have no idea that the girls exist—or any female, for that matter. Likewise, the Letter Girls who are tended by Marilyn, nicknamed M.O.M., are completely unaware of the existence of men or the outside world. Small differences in their education aside, both groups are raised without knowledge of the opposite sex, or any form of religion.

However, as the children gradually approach puberty, what happens when they start questioning their guardians and become more curious about the world around them? In the boys’ tower, 12-year-old J wants to be obedient and please his D.A.D., knowing that bad behavior gets children sent away to the “Corner” where they are never seen again. But at the same time, he can’t help but look out at the trees and imagine something more beyond. Meanwhile, in the girls’ tower, similar suspicions are starting to arise in K, whose boldness and intelligence has always led her to seek out answers. As expected, her quest for the truth eventually leads her to discover her male counterpart J, but it’s when their two storylines converge that things finally start to get interesting.

Still, as you can probably gather from the novel’s description alone, it’s complicated. To Malerman’s credit, his imagination knows no limits, and his ability to come up with these incredible ideas and push the boundaries of horror is what makes for fantastic reading for fans of the genre. I certainly don’t dispute the originality of Inspection, and I think that its premise makes for an intriguing thought experiment.

But that’s just it: this whole book is a singular great concept that sadly never materializes into anything I would call a coherent or engaging story. And yes, while I did say that things got interesting eventually, by the time it actually happens it was much too late. To call this book a slow-burn would be much too generous—it’s really more of a no-burn. If you were able to stay focused for the entire first half of the novel, then kudos to you. Unfortunately, I was unable to say the same, finding J’s depthless and rambling sections especially challenging to slog through. Only the occasional breaks provided by the perspective of Warren Bratt, an author hired to write all the “educational” books the Alphabet Boys read, kept me motivated enough to continue.

Also, calling this one a horror would be a bit of a stretch. It lacked the suspense and intensity I was expecting, which in turn fed into the slowness of the pacing. On another level, it put a distance between the reader and the characters, which made it even more difficult to get into the story. Things looked up once we were introduced to K’s perspective, possibly because I felt Malerman gave her a more compelling personality, but again, this improvement felt inadequate, coming in much too late in the game. The bloodbath of the ending was almost laughable in its absurdity and desperation, mainly because by that point, I just couldn’t bring myself to care anymore.

Honestly, I don’t know what could have made the book better. Its innovativeness and originality notwithstanding, the premise alone kind of dooms the story, I think. Some ideas are just better on paper than in execution, and I believe Inspection is a prime example. While this probably won’t prevent me from trying more of Josh Malerman’s books because I will always be drawn to unique stories, I’m sad to say I was sorely disappointed by this one.

Waiting on Wednesday 04/10/19

Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme that first originated at Breaking the Spine but has since linked up with “Can’t Wait Wednesday” at Wishful Endings now that the original creator is unable to host it anymore. Either way, this fun feature is a chance to showcase the upcoming releases that we can’t wait to get our hands on!

Mogsy’s Pick

The Night Country by Melissa Albert (January 7, 2020 by Flatiron Books)

Sometimes I feel like I’m in the minority when it comes to Melissa Albert’s debut, The Hazel Wood, but I liked it a lot and I’m glad we’re finally getting more details on its sequel, though it appears it won’t be arriving for a while yet.

“Can you ever truly escape the Hazel Wood?

In the sequel to her New York Times bestselling, literary/commercial breakout, The Hazel Wood, Melissa Albert dives back into the menacing, mesmerizing world that captivated readers of the first book. Follow Alice Proserpine and Ellery Finch as they come to learn that The Hazel Wood was just the beginning of worlds beyond, “a place where stories and real life convene, where magic contains truth, and the world as it appears false, and where just about anything can happen, particularly in the pages of a good book” (The New York Times).”

 

 

Book Review: The True Queen by Zen Cho

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The True Queen by Zen Cho

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 2 of Sorcerer Royal

Publisher: Ace Books (March 12, 2019)

Length: 384 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

It has been three and a half years since I read Sorcerer to the Crown and I was initially a bit worried about how much I remembered of the story and whether it would impact my experience with this sequel. Happily, when the blurb to The True Queen became available, it appeared that the focus would be on a new set of characters.

Indeed, while a few familiar names from the first book will crop up every now and again, indubitably the stars of the show here are a pair of sisters named Muna and Sakti. The girls’ journey together first began off the coast of the island of Janda Baik, after a storm washed the two of them ashore with no memory of who they were. The powerful witch and protector of the island, Mak Genggang, found them and took them in. Sakti, endowed with magic, immediately came under the witch’s tutelage, although that relationship remained strained. Muna, meanwhile, is magic-less, but has a much more favorable opinion of Mak Genggang.

However, one day Sakti approaches Muna with irrefutable evidence that they have been cursed—in the middle of the former girl’s torso is a void that will keep spreading as she fades away. Desperate, the sisters take it upon themselves to identify who cast the curse, but instead they wind up nearly causing a diplomatic crisis. To smooth things over, Mak Genggang decides to send Sakti and Muna abroad to meet with Prunella Wythe, Britain’s new Sorcerer Royal, who has also opened a magical school for girls. There, they will present themselves as a pair of international students, but also search for more clues as to who cursed them. But unfortunately, the quickest way to their destination is through the dangerous realm of faerie, and while two girls departed Janda Baik, only Muna emerges safely on the other side in London and Sakti is feared lost forever.

Similar to the first book, The True Queen explores the themes of racism and oppression. Apparently, despite the fact it is a woman who currently holds the prestigious office of Sorcerer Royal, attitudes towards women wielding magic have not changed that much since we last visited this world in Sorcerer to the Crown. “Proper ladies” simply did not involve themselves with the thaumaturgical arts, and thus even Prunella, who has come so far since the previous novel with her newfound wealth and status, still has to fight hard to be heard. And of course, this time we also have the perspective of a foreigner newly arrived in Regency-era Britain. Overwhelmed by the strange rigid rules of this hierarchical society, Muna finds herself simultaneously vaunted and condescended to by the upper class, and even those with the best intentions are sometimes guilty of prejudgment or lack of sensitivity.

But in many ways, The True Queen is also a very different book than its predecessor. When it comes to the plot, I don’t know that it captured my attention with the same combination of unique aspects and magical allure as the first book did. Yes, the beginning sections intrigued me with the introduction of the vivid characters of Muna and Sakti and the fascinating story of how they ended up with Mak Genggang, followed by the kerfuffle in the faerie realm which resulted in Muna alone in England meeting with Prunella and the women of the magical school by herself. Likewise, the final chapters were hard to put down because of the drama and suspense surrounding the conclusion. Where I felt the story faltered, however, was everything in between. Pacing was part of the problem, which slowed as we switched tack from worrying about Sakti to focusing on the “fantasy of manners” elements of the world. In fact, one thing that really turned me off was the general lackadaisical attitude towards Sakti’s plight, and I was especially disappointed in Prunella and Henrietta’s dismissiveness and horrible bedside manner in response to Muna’s concerns. It’s also hard not to feel that Muna was the less interesting sister. From the start, it was clear Sakti was the more forceful personality, being more strong-willed and impulsive than her meeker and more pensive sibling. Even though Muna is the at the center of this story, she had a way of being overshadowed by the supporting characters.

Overall, The True Queen was a solid read, even if it didn’t quite reach the heights of Sorcerer to the Crown. Simply put, there were no surprises this time around in that I found many elements of the plot predictable and the central character was probably the least interesting to me. That said, I had a good time catching up with some of the wonderful people I met in the first book and it was a delight to be back in this world.

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of Sorcerer to the Crown (Book 1)

Audiobook Review: The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 2.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Thriller, Suspense

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: HarperAudio (March 26, 2019)

Length: 8 hrs

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Narrator: Jane Oppenheimer

Every once in a while I’ll take a break from my sci-fi and fantasy and satisfy my craving for a good thriller, so when I saw The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman and took in its synopsis and cover, I thought it would be perfect. You see, I have something of a weakness for snowbound thrillers. And for a while, things were going great and I thought I’d found another gem on my hands. Regrettably though, that was until the second half, when the story’s carefully constructed premise started falling apart with too many absurd twists and coincidences. There’s also a paranormal aspect, which I’m usually all for, except I didn’t feel it worked quite as well here.

The story opens late at night in a bus station, following Alice as she places a frantic phone call to a social services hotline requesting help to get her away from an abusive relationship. Traveling with her is ten-year-old Oren, whom Alice is desperate to protect. She tells the woman on the other end that she needs to go somewhere no one can find her, and receives instructions to go to Delphi, New York, where Alice is assured someone will be meeting her and her boy.

Enter Mattie, a fifty-something social worker whom the hotline calls to do the late-night pickup. With a winter storm rolling in, however, the original plan to bring Alice and Oren to a local shelter had to be abandoned. Instead, Mattie breaks protocol in favor of safety and brings them to her house in the middle of the woods where she lives alone. It is also the house her parents used to own, before they died along with Mattie’s little brother, who was the same age as Oren at the time, to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Or that’s what Mattie tells people, anyway. The truth is a lot more complicated, but she doesn’t need anyone digging into her past.

As it turns out though, Mattie’s not the only one keeping secrets. Alice herself is hiding a few of her own, and she hasn’t been entirely truthful to the social worker about what she’s running away from. Lately, she’s also been noticing something strange about Oren. Somehow, he seems to sense or know things before they happen, but as much as it scares her, Alice is reluctant to tell anyone for fear they’ll take the boy away from her.

I’ll give The Night Visitors this—I reviewed the audiobook and it was a quick listen; at no time was my listening bogged down by any lulls or boring bits. That said though, part of the problem was the utter craziness that happens in the second half of the novel, when the plot practically implodes on itself and the author completely drops the ball on the ending. The beginning on the other hand was interesting and suspenseful, slowly teasing the mystery as we alternated between Alice and Mattie’s POVs. As the story unfolded, it became clear that not all was at it seemed. In the end, I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps, with all the characters’ lies being so carefully and methodically revealed, I had thought we would get a more complex and satisfying conclusion. Instead, all that build-up led to very little payoff, with an ending that felt brute-forced and trite.

Also, normally I’d say a bit of paranormal activity spices up a good thriller. Not so much in this case. Again, it was an element that felt awkwardly shoehorned in and doesn’t feel organically connected to the rest of the plot. As well, I found it difficult to get feel enthusiastic about the idea because its implementation came across as lazy and didn’t seem all that well developed. Needless to say, if you’re looking for any answers or clarity, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Finally, I had a hard time getting into any of the characters. A part of me understands that these kinds of thrillers and unlikeable characters usually go hand in hand, but at the same time, there’s only so much nastiness, ignorance, smugness, virtue signaling or judgmental self-righteousness I can take. That said though, I can appreciate how every character in this book is a flawed and unique individual. As the novel endeavors to point out, there is good and bad in everyone, and sadly, some people who have been hurt and damaged in the past end up going on to hurt and damage others.

Ultimately, this story is about Alice and Mattie both trying to break this vicious cycle by learning to open their hearts to each other—and in the end, that’s a message I can get behind. And quite honestly, The Night Visitors wasn’t all bad. I loved every moment early on as the story was meticulously laying down its foundations, but simply wished the second half hadn’t spiraled out of control the way it did. It’s passable if all you’re looking for is a standard thriller, but I just expected more from its early potential.

Audiobook Comments: Jane Oppenheimer did a perfectly fine job narrating, but the audiobook could have been improved with a second narrator. Not only would it have been less confusing when the story switched between the POVs, I think a narrator who sounded older would have been better suited to read Mattie’s chapters.

YA Weekend: Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Suspense

Series: Book 1 of Girls with Sharp Sticks

Publisher: Simon Pulse (March 19, 2019)

Length: 400 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

From the moment I picked up Girls with Sharp Sticks, I found myself drawn in by its spell and mysteries. Right away we’re thrust into a setting of what is ostensibly a school, except I was seriously weirded out by the major Stepford Wives vibes and surreal attitudes of its students. The young women in this all-girl elite boarding school are all beautiful, poised and well-behaved—unnaturally, painfully so. Their bizarre curriculum includes subjects and activities such as “Growing a Beautiful and Prosperous Garden”, while their report cards employ a scale to measure their level of obedience. The mostly male teaching staff have a creepy tendency to get too handsy and seem all too comfortable in taking advantage of the girls’ eagerness to please, hiding their true intentions behind patronizing smiles and empty warm words.

So, exactly just what the hell is going on at this so-called “Innovations Academy”? The need to find answers was what kept me turning the pages. The plot of Girls with Sharp Sticks follows Philomena (Mena to her friends), who is one of the dozen perfectly proper and physically flawless young ladies in her peer group at the school. The girls rarely get to leave the premises, except for the rare field trip where they are closely chaperoned. On one such outing, however, Mena manages to slip the notice of the academy guardian, chancing to meet a boy named Jackson while buying candy at a gas station. But their moment doesn’t last long before Guardian Bose catches Mena, berating her cruelly before violently dragging her back to the bus. From them on, she begins questioning the ways of the school and the behaviors of her teachers. Then when one of the girls is suddenly taken away for “Impulse Control Therapy”, Mena starts to fear for herself and her friends. What are the little “vitamins” the doctor dispenses to them each night? Why won’t their teachers allow them any interaction with the world outside the school? And why did Jackson look upon her with such confusion and horror when she told him what goes on inside its walls?

Gradually, the truth of Innovations Academy comes out as the story unfolds, in a way that almost sneaks up on you. Of course, the feelings of “wrongness” about Mena’s entire situation are present from the very first page, but they start off subtle—particularly because the reader takes their cues from the protagonist in response to the various scenarios. The genius is in the way Mena is written, and the progression of her character growth as her thinking and attitudes transform over time. She begins this tale as one of the academy’s top students, completely buying into their mission and methods. Instead of feeling frustrated with Mena though, I think this only made her a more likeable character and made it easier to sympathize with her—for even as when she was beating herself up over the gas station incident, I burned with indignation on her behalf, knowing that soon enough she will be looking back on this moment with a whole new perspective.

Indeed, despite the conditioning, Mena is a strong and tenacious girl with a curious streak that cannot be suppressed for long, no matter how hard the academy tries to control her life. It is only a matter of time before her eyes are opened and she realizes that not only are Innovations Academy’s methods unusual, the staff have also been lying to her and her friends about what they’ve been doing at the school. Speaking of which, one of the most notable strengths of this book is the bond between all the girls. While it was Jackson who first “awakens” Mena to the possibility that not all is at it seems, I was glad to see ultimately that his role was limited and that it was she and her friends who worked together to save themselves. At its heart, this story features a strong sense of female friendship and sisterhood, something we honestly don’t get to see enough in YA.

I also loved that Suzanne Young did not shy away from darker or more difficult themes, including physical violence or psychological manipulation and abuse. While this resulted in some distressing moments or scenes that made this book hard to read, the overall mood of eeriness and suspense created was very effective. There’s a dreadful anticipation in knowing that none of the girls are safe, that every time you turn the page is another potential for a bombshell twist that brings bad news for Mena and her friends. But if you feel angry, disturbed, or creeped out at anytime while reading this novel, then that means the author did her job right.

All in all, I had a great time with Girls with Sharp Sticks. I would take a look if you enjoy intense dystopian stories, but personally, what I loved best about this novel was the strong character relationships and reading about how these amazing young ladies banded together to support and protect each other. The ending was a little out of left field but not entirely all that shocking, considering all the other surprises in the plot. Regardless, this novel was absolutely worth the read and I look forward to Suzanne Young’s next installment in the series.