Review: Sleep Donation

Note: A draft went up yesterday instead of the actual review. Many apologies!

20 Books of Summer: Book 9

Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation has all the same problems as Swamplandia! but with a fraction of the page count. Don’t spend your time on this book. Its premise may entice you and the first quarter may draw you in, but the rest is mess of plot holes and weak characters. There’s no closure either, so there isn’t a prize for reaching the last page. This review is a mini So Bad, I Read It For You post and contains lots of spoilers. I would have done a full write up, but I didn’t want to reread Sleep Donation to pull quotes. Summary from Goodreads:

A crisis has swept America. Hundreds of thousands have lost the ability to sleep. Enter the Slumber Corps, an organization that urges healthy dreamers to donate sleep to insomniacs. Under the wealthy and enigmatic Storch brothers, the Corps’ reach has grown, with outposts in every major US city. Trish Edgewater, whose sister Dori was one of the first victims of the lethal insomnia, has spent the past seven years recruiting for the Corps. But Trish’s faith in the organization and in her own motives begins to falter when she is confronted by “Baby A,” the first universal sleep donor, and the mysterious “Donor Y.”

Sleep Donation explores a world facing the end of sleep as we know it, where “Night Worlds” offer black market remedies to the desperate and sleep deprived, and where even the act of making a gift is not as simple as it appears.

Sleep Donation has a strong beginning. Russell writes about fatal insomnia in a terrifying way. Usually, creepy books make me worry I won’t sleep well, but Sleep Donation made me worry I might never sleep again. Russell has long passages detailing the staring eyes of people desperate for rest. The main character, Trish, shares the tragic story of her younger sister’s death again and again to convince people to donate a portion of their sleep. Sleep transfusions are the only hope for the afflicted:

During the early trials of the sleep donation procedure, Gould’s team made an astonishing finding. For roughly a third of patients, full recovery from the orexin-disorder is possible after a single ten-hour transfusion. (Loc 241)

Though it takes a small number of transfusions per patient to cure them, the National Sleep Bank is always running low. As many as 250,000 people are on wait lists for transfusions and no one knows the cause of the disorder. Russell throws in some poetic and well-written theories:

According to these professional Cassandras, sleep has been chased off the globe by our twenty-four-hour news cycle, our polluted skies and crops and waterways, the bald eyeballs of our glowing devices. We Americans are sitting in an electric chair that we engineered. What becomes of our circadian rhythms, the “old, glad harmonies” that leapt through us like the vascular thrust of water through leaves of grass? Bummer news, Walt: that song’s done. (Loc 179)

When the book begins, Trish is camped outside the Harkonnen’s house, waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Harkonnen to sign the consent forms that will allow her to draw their child’s sleep. Their daughter, “Baby A,” is a universal donor. Her sleep is free of impurities (nightmares, etc.), but no matter how much she donates, it’s never enough. Whenever the Harkonnens’ worry about possible aftereffects on their daughter’s health, Trish trots out the story of her sister’s death with a lamentation that a single transfusion would have saved her.

Trish’s inner narration hints at a cost to Baby A’s frequent donations, but the risks of donating are never articulated. Instead, there’s a lot of ominous handwringing about what might happen to Baby A. At first, I thought passages like the one below were overwrought foreshadowing, but they’re really teasers for questions the novella leaves unanswered. What happens to Baby A in the end? No idea. However, Trish believes:

…Baby A’s life would have been far better off, I’m certain, if I’d never found her. (Loc 407)

But WHY?

The story takes an ominous turn when Donor Y makes a donation contaminated with a horrific nightmare. It’s such an awful dream that the people infected with it go to extremes to stay awake. Insomniacs at death’s door start refusing transfusions because they’re so frightened of catching Donor Y’s infectious nightmare. What now? It’s one thing for people to choose death over sleep when they know what the nightmare entails, but the people who choose death over the possibility of a bad dream seem a little nutty. Details of the nightmare are kept secret because no one wants the idea getting out and spreading faster (somehow, no one posts it on the Internet). If you’re curious about the nightmare, Russell provides no description of it—nothing could live up to the hype, anyway—but Trish admits the people willing to die rather than have a nightmare are making an unexpected choice:

People are confused by the new taxonomy of insomnia: Wait, these twenty insomniacs make a full recovery in Cuba, they have one bad dream, and they give up on sleep for good? So they are infected with a nightmare; what in God’s name could be so frightening that death seems preferable to sleeping? What are they seeing, at night? (Loc 624)

Through all this, Trish continues to recruit people for donations. The way she whips out her sister’s death, channels her grief, and converts her listeners is mentioned again and again, but it’s strangely hollow. No one responds to her story with one of their own. Given the scale of the crisis, why do so few people have their own tales of loss? Why do they need to hear about Dori before they decide to donate? Isn’t the nature of sweeping pandemics that everyone knows someone affected, if only through gossip in their circle—“A friend of my friend knows someone who died…” Why is Trish’s story so isolating? No matter, though, because it’s an effective story and Trish tells it just right.

Whenever the Harkonnens start waffling on whether or not their daughter’s sleep should be drawn, Trish lays Dori’s story on Mrs. Harkonnen again and it works for a little while. Soon the Harkonnens are fed up with Trish’s relentless begging:

“She thinks that one day you will stop asking.” [said Mr. Harkonen]
“But we will! When the neuroscientists figure out a way to synthesize what she produces naturally…” (Loc 1185)

So that’s the goal: to synthesize Baby A’s pure sleep. Slumber Corps will syphon a little sleep from Baby A’s donations to research/recreate it while parceling out the rest as cures. This is what any reasonable person would assume, right? Even if you haven’t read this book, you know that 1) Baby A can’t cure the insomnia single-handedly because she’ll never produce enough sleep to meet demand, 2) synthesized sleep is the answer, and 3) Slumber Corps can’t synthesize Baby A’s sleep without examining it to see what makes it so special (Baby A is the only universal donor).

With all this in mind, it might shock you as much as it shocked me that the PROBLEM, the HORROR that emerges near Sleep Donation’s climax is when Trish learns Slumber Corps gave some of Baby A’s sleep to a lab in Japan for them to synthesize:

“Their team approached me. They’ll clone her sleep before we manage it, I guarantee it. They are working to make an artificial injection right this second.”
“All that money—”
“Went right back into our organization. Nothing traceable to us, or to the Harkonnen baby. Anonymous donations,” he says smoothly, and I don’t know whether to believe him. (Loc 993)

Well, selling sleep could become a slippery slope. Maybe Trish is right to be worried. How much is being sold?

“Only a portion of her donations has gone overseas. The rest, as you know better than anybody, we’ve distributed in this country.”
I’m grinding down so hard my jaw is pulsing. An artificial injectable. How much money does he stand to gain, I wonder, if the Japanese team succeeds. (Loc 1001)

But money isn’t Trish’s main concern:

“Look: I took the Harkonnen gift, and I multiplied it. Can you imagine what it will make possible if they synthesize her sleep? In the grand scheme, the benefits that accrue to every living person will be extraordinary.”
My head has been shaking no, I realize, possibly since this conversation began.
“But I’ve been telling her parents that her draws go straight to the National Sleep Bank. That we need every drop of her sleep to save lives—” (Loc 1006)

I don’t think Trish and I are reading the same book… Trish has been telling the Harkonnens that the goal is to synthesize their daughter’s sleep. I know this because she tells them that synthesis is the goal more than once. She calls it “the dream”:

“How far away are we from… from synthesis?” Mrs. Harkonen wants to know.
“Oh, goodness. That’s the dream, isn’t it.” (Loc 1491)

This is the point when I gave up on Sleep Donation. Baby A’s sleep is a finite resource, and who knows how long she will be able to donate? So why not take a few drops and multiply them into a cure? And it’s not like this is my personal solution to this ethical quagmire; it’s also Trish’s perspective. Or, it was, until it was more dramatic for her to be against synthesis. This premise raises real ethical concerns—there’s such demand for Baby A’s sleep that the few drops siphoned away could be the difference between life and death for some people. What a waste that Sleep Donation leaves this completely unexplored in favor of Trish’s objections of “but I promised!” when she has been stringing along the Harkonnens already. What will happen if Baby A’s sleep develops a fault or the family learns the donations harmed her in some way and withdraws consent? Sleep Donation takes place some time in the near future. Perhaps “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is no longer a saying.

So there’s not really a conflict here, just a narrator who would spurn a cure if someone made a buck from it or if she looked foolish. Notice that Trish isn’t concerned that the wrong hands might monopolize the cure and sell single doses for tens of thousands. If she was fighting for accessibility and transparency, she’d have a case. As it stands though, why is she so opposed to some money flowing back to her company? Does she think their donation vans grow on trees? That billboards and TV networks advertise sleep donation from the goodness of their hearts?

Is Trish really going to track down a news crew and say, “Baby A can’t provide enough sleep so there’s an international effort to synthesize her sleep so that we can cure everyone! Those MONSTERS!” Maybe if she had done this, the novella might have had an ending instead of just trailing off. A silly ending is still an ending.

I was willing to forgive this lame plot turn because Trish’s thinking is less clear in the last quarter of the book. I thought maybe she was becoming an unreliable narrator and I had a front row seat to the negative effects of too much sleep donation (Trish donates the same amount of sleep as Baby A, per the Harkonnen’s request). But just as I began to consider this a valid (albeit dark) theory, I reached the last page.

So the premise is great, the execution is rubbish, but how is the writing? Well, it’s hard to judge. Some passages are brilliant and moving because Russell has an expansive vocabulary and endless ways to describe insomnia and the wide, staring eyes of the sleep-deprived. Her continuous harping isn’t repetitive so much as immersive—I was genuinely frightened by this sleep disorder. But some of Russell’s more inventive descriptions kicked me out of the book. Consider:

Genevieve murmurs something, softer than orange juice sucked through a straw… (Loc 855)

Genevieve is one of many terrified insomniacs waiting for sedation. She’s desperate and pulls at her skin throughout this scene. Given her sad predicament, it’s sufficient to say she “murmurs.” Clarifying that this murmur is “softer than orange juice sucked through a straw” is one of the stranger bits of writing I’ve seen lately. Russell is straining so hard to be unique she might pull something. As I read this, I jumped out of the story and wondered whether this orange juice was low- or high-pulp. I imagine the amount of pulp would affect the way it sounds being sucked through a straw. (“Some pulp” is delicious, by the way.) Given the intensity of the scene, though, an evaluation of orange juice consistencies should have been the last thing on my mind. There are many passages like this.

Overall: 1.5 This score wouldn’t be so low if the first quarter of the novella hadn’t been so promising. But Trish is incompetent in a bad-story way, not a this-is-a-story-about-an-incompetent-person way. In summary, Sleep Donation has a strong premise/opening, garbled middle, and nonsensical ending. What other book is like this? Oh, right: Russell’s Swamplandia! When I dislike two books by the same author for the same reason, I suspect I would be happier not reading any of their other books. Alas, I have one more book by Russell on my TBR. Third time’s the charm?

Translation: Don’t read it. And, if you read all the spoilers in this review, you don’t have to. You’re welcome!


11 to go!

  1. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  2. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  3. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  4. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  5. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  6. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  7. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  8. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  9. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  10. The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri
  11. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  12. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  7. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein
  8. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien

Review: The Intuitionist

20 Books of Summer: Book 6

The winner in the Most Unique Book of the Summer (so far) category is Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. (There’s no prize, of course, unless you count this review.) I’d be lying if I said I understood every word/reference/theme of this book. The Intuitionist is deeply strange with glimmers of Pynchon, but Whitehead is cleverer and more entertaining. I’ve borrowed the Goodreads blurb because it’s hard to summarize a book that’s [mystery] + [philosophical treatise on elevator maintenance] + [noir thriller (maybe)] +[social commentary] + [???].

Verticality, architectural and social, is the lofty idea at the heart of Colson Whitehead’s first novel that takes place in an unnamed high-rise city that combines 21st-century engineering feats with 19th-century pork-barrel politics. Elevators are the technological expression of the vertical ideal, and Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black female elevator inspector, is its embattled token of upward mobility.

When Number Eleven of the newly completed Fanny Briggs Memorial Building goes into deadly free-fall just hours after Lila Mae has signed off on it, using the controversial “Intuitionist” method of ascertaining elevator safety, both Intuitionists and Empiricists recognize the set-up, but may be willing to let Lila Mae take the fall in an election year.

As Lila Mae strives to exonerate herself in this urgent adventure full of government spies, underworld hit men, and seductive double agents, behind the action, always, is the Idea. Lila Mae’s quest is mysteriously entwined with existence of heretofore lost writings by James Fulton, father of Intuitionism, a giant of vertical thought. If she is able to find and reveal his plan for the perfect, next-generation elevator, the city as it now exists may instantly become obsolescent.

The premise is silly at first because it’s hard to see how Intuitionism ever gained traction. If I owned a building and had a choice between two elevator inspectors, I wouldn’t pick the one who stood in the elevator and had feelings about its mechanical fitness. Amid my chuckling, though, the story won me over. It’s not really about the elevators and, when it is, it’s more interesting than it should be. Whitehead peppers the book with oddball trivia and a nuanced look at a world where the schools for elevator maintenance spend as much time on philosophy as mechanics.

Each detail is carefully considered, right down to the screwdrivers, the only tool needed by an Intuitionist:

For the new screwdrivers were quite beautiful. Ever since the city granted license to the Department, bulky and ungainly screwdrivers had poked and bulged in the jacket pockets of the elevator inspectors, completely ruining any attempts at dapperness and savoir faire. It’s difficult to look official and imposing while listing to one side. The new screwdrivers have mother-of-pearl handles and heads the exact width of an inspection-plate screw. They fold out like jackknives and lend themselves to baroque fantasies about spies and secret missions. (13)

Secret missions to save elevators? And yet, this book makes that tangible. The Intuitionist is so unique in both subject and tone that the only writer that comes to mind for comparison is Thomas Pynchon, or maybe Michael Chabon. For the record, I don’t enjoy Pynchon or Chabon and rarely finish their books (have no idea why I keep picking them up). Both writers excel with witty one-liners, but punctuate them with long tangents and asides that almost (but not quite) remove you from the story. At times, The Intuitionist wandered a bit far for the sake of an interesting image or clever point, but Colson always manages to pull the story back on track—something Pynchon and Chabon struggle to do.

It helps that there’s a mystery and quest to keep the story moving on a linear track—the quest for the perfect elevator:

“If we have decided that elevator studies—nuts and bolts Empiricism—imagined elevators from a human, and therefore inherently alien, point of view, wouldn’t the next logical step, after we’ve adopted the Intuitionist perspective, be to build an elevator the right way? With what we’ve learned?”
“Construct an elevator from the elevator’s point of view?”
“Wouldn’t that be the perfect elevator? Wouldn’t that be the black box?” (62-63)

There’s a lot of social commentary built around this, primarily on U.S. race relations. As Lila Mae is the first black female elevator inspector, she’s mocked and underestimated by her peers. I like books with social commentary, but I like them best when the social commentary doesn’t come at the expense of the plot and surface characters. With elevators as a base layer, I was nervous when picking up the book—you can’t assume an elevator-based plot will be convincing or interesting.

This review is vague, but I’d rather keep it that way given how many of the story’s twists and details surprised me. At times, I wanted the writing to tighten up, but many passages were beautifully or cleverly written and I didn’t resent the time spent away from the main story. Some sidebars about elevator maintenance were confusing at first; I couldn’t see how they fit into the story, but reading about Lila Mae’s studies and work ethic defined her character. She’s smart and competent and she legitimizes the story when it starts to get weird. If anyone can intuit an elevator’s fitness by riding in it, it’s Lila Mae.

I picked up this book because I wanted to read The Underground Railroad but don’t like finding an author via their latest book. The Intuitionist was Whitehead’s first book. I look forward to reading his others and seeing him develop as a writer.

Overall: 4.7  Sometimes the pretty writing threatened to wander too far afield, but the story was otherwise tight and often fun, despite a few dark turns. The level of detail devoted to the development of elevator philosophy contained excellent world building. The social commentary was insightful and poignant.

Translation: Read it.


14 to go! with some amendments…

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology has replaced Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein has replaced Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell has snagged the TBD slot. Warning: The Sleep Donation review may be a rant—it’s coming in with a 1.5 and there hasn’t been a 1.5 on this site since The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  3. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  4. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  6. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  7. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein
  8. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  9. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  10. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  11. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  12. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  13. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  14. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Review: Breathing Lessons

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 3

Many people say the most terrifying villain in Harry Potter isn’t the semi-immortal, power-hungry dark lord, but the pink-clad, doily-obsessed Professor Umbridge. She’s petty, meddlesome, and uses her power to harass, threaten, and bully the teachers and students at the school. She’s not an abstract embodiment of evil or power like Voldemort, she’s recognizable: We’ve all had a terrible teacher or boss who used their scrap of power to mock and demean the people beneath them. And so…

Even though she doesn’t kill anyone or seek world domination or do much of anything outside her familial sphere: Maggie Moran of Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons is my most-loathed fictional character. Are there more awful characters out there? Yep. But Maggie feels more like a person than most of them which means she provokes a stronger feeling of irritation. For the spoiler-y rationale: see page 2.

It’s hard to rate this book a 4.6. Someone might read this review and want to read the book. No one deserves to have Maggie inflicted upon them. She’s not a character whose scenes you can skip/skim then forget once you close the book. Reading Breathing Lessons is the same as being introduced to her. When you finish this book, you’ll know it’s not over. Somewhere out there, Maggie is finding new ways to needle poor Fiona and Jesse with her lies and manipulations. She can’t help herself.

Like all Tyler books, Breathing Lessons features a fully-realized (and dysfunctional) family living in Baltimore. Maggie and Ira have two children, one a lead-singer in a band who bounces between day jobs (Jesse), and the other a goody two-shoes leaving for college (Daisy). Maggie, faced with an empty nest, turns her attention to her former daughter-in-law, Fiona, and son, Jesse. If only there was a way for her to push them back together…

Maggie’s meddling seems harmless and well-intentioned at first, but it soon involves gigantic lies and fabrications. When Ira intervenes with the truth, Maggie turns on him for ruining things with “boring facts.” But, unlike Maggie, he isn’t willing to watch people make momentous decisions based on her half-truths. Her selfishness is startling at times and even cruel.

The writing is extraordinary. Even though Tyler’s prose is simple as ever, it conjures vivid imagery:

To find any place in Deer Lick, you just stopped at the one traffic light and looked in all four directions. Barbershop, two service stations, hardware, grocery, three churches—everything revealed itself at a glance. The buildings were set about as demurely as those in a model-railroad village. Trees were left standing and the sidewalks ended after three blocks. Peer down any cross street; you’d see greenery and cornfields and even, in one case, a fat brown horse dipping his nose in a pasture. (Loc 765)

The story begins with Maggie and Ira traveling to a funeral. There, the widow confides to Maggie:

“And then Linda’s kids started teasing the cat. They dressed the cat in their teddy bear’s pajamas and Linda didn’t even notice. She’s never kept them properly in line. Max and I used to bite our tongues not to point that out. Anytime they’d come we wouldn’t say a word but we’d give each other this look across the room: just trade a look, you know how you do? And all at once I had no one to trade looks with. It was the first time I’d understood that I’d truly lost him.” (Loc 909)

This is one of those tangible descriptions of grief that hits like a sucker punch.

It’s hard to talk about this book with my anti-spoilers posting philosophy, which is why my spoiler-filled rant was moved to page 2. It’s “safer” than posting spoilers after a break since you won’t see them unless you click the link. May this discovery of pagination herald a new dawn of tech-savvyness on this blog!

In short (and without spoilers), if you’re a fan of Anne Tyler, you’ll like Breathing Lessons. Her characters are as well-drawn as ever, but there’s more at stake than in her recent A Spool of Blue Thread. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant remains my favorite because its larger cast gives Tyler more to work with—she tackles romantic, parental, and sibling relationships across multiple generations. Here, Ira and Maggie are the stars and, to a lesser degree, Fiona and Jesse. As for the relationships between the parents and their son Jesse, more is implied than directly stated. I’d have liked to see more of his character and his interactions with Maggie, perhaps even a section from his perspective.

Overall: 4.6 out of 5  Technically, this score puts Breathing Lessons just above Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant which I preferred. Though Breathing isn’t as far-reaching or as moving, it does have Maggie. She and Ira feel authentic. I can’t say that another character has been such an irritant to my imagination. There were several times when I threw down the book and shouted: “Who do you think you are, Maggie??!” Usually the only people with the ability to bother me this way are people. Actual people. Technically, this book functions at the highest level, but Dinner is the better reading experience.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

17 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  4. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  5. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  6. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  7. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  9. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  10. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  12. She by H. Rider Haggard
  13. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  14. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  15. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  16. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  17. ??? (To Be Determined)

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 2

V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic holds up pretty well to all the hype around it. The end was a little anti-climactic, but that’s almost to be expected since it’s part of a series. The ending of the final book has a higher bar to clear now.

(from the dust jacket)
There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad king—George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered—and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London—a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cutpurse with lofty ambitions. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

It took me a while to warm up to Lila. Her introductory chapters are alright, but the initial scenes between her and Kell make her seem awful. When they meet, she mistakes Kell’s injured stumbling for intoxication and lifts a rare, magical stone from his pocket. He finds her hideout where she plays an irritating game of keep-away, using the stone’s ominous power to create a fake Kell which she compels to strip and dance around. Inevitably, the fake Kell attacks her and the real Kell saves her. As he’s saving her, it’s obvious to everyone (except Lila) that he could have confiscated the stone at any time by force. He’s just not that kind of guy.

From this point, Lila blunders around for a while and doesn’t behave like the intelligent person we’re told that she is. Fortunately, Kell always shows up in time. Lila never exists for the sole purpose of being saved (a la damsel-in-distress clichés), but she does need a fair amount of saving because she conducts herself poorly when outmatched. But hey, it’s not easy to be a non-magical person in a magical world. When she smartens up and does a little saving of her own, the book improves. I don’t like reading how smart a character is while watching them do dumb things.

Here is the part of the review where I should clarify that A Darker Shade of Magic is a YA book. If I were reading this as a high-schooler, and not as a curmudgeonly adult on the workday commute, I’d probably like Lila more. At 19, she’d be a little older than me and her overconfidence would be less obvious because I’d be entertaining my own feelings of invincibility. Back then, I would never have said “Stop wandering off!” or “Listen better!” to a worldly 19-year-old like Lila.

But there are some positives, quite a few, actually. I really like the world-building in this series. If I keep reading, it will primarily be to find out more about Grey/Red/White/Black London. At times, the setting is more interesting than the characters. By extension, Kell is the most engaging since he knows the most about the four Londons. Also, he has the greatest coat of all time (Schwab rightly starts the book with its description). Some readers are upset that there’s no origin story for how the four Londons became connected, but this type of parallel universe might collapse under too much backstory. At its heart, A Darker Shade of Magic is a “return-the-dark-thing-to-the-dark-land” story; it needs the extra pizazz.

The other, and more surprising positive, is how dark the story is in places. When Kell and Lila are in danger, it feels genuine. There are some creepy moments early on when I worried about Kell. Logically, I knew he wasn’t going to die a third of the way through the first book of a series, but I fretted and gripped the book tighter nonetheless. There’s memorable imagery and plenty of clever details. The writing is much stronger than I expected and the Required Fantasy Words aren’t overused like in other books. Question: Has anyone ever “freed” a knife outside of a fantasy novel? (The Sword of Truth series is an outlier; there, Richard “clears” his sword in its sheath at every opportunity.)

Overall: 4.5 out of 5  I’m surprised too, given how rough I was on Lila, but like I said: I would have liked her more back in the day so it doesn’t seem fair to slide off too many points for her grating presence. Especially since she gets better as the book goes on. Why, though, do I have a sinking feeling she’s going to be overpowered in the next book…

Translation: Read it, but don’t take it too seriously.


20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

18 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  5. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  6. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  7. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  9. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  10. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  11. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  12. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  13. She by H. Rider Haggard
  14. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  15. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  16. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  17. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  18. ??? (To Be Determined)

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie