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

Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories

haroun-and-the-sea-of-stories_coverIn college, I skimmed a terrible book* by Salman Rushdie and crossed my fingers that it would be relevant for two days of discussion then forgotten. It wasn’t and I tanked multiple papers in succession. This sour experience struck Rushdie from my list of intriguing authors. It wasn’t until a decade later when I perused a list of his books that I realized he didn’t write The Terrible Book. Only now do I realize how much I’ve missed out. Rushdie is brilliant!

By the time I turned to the second page of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I was grinning ear-to-ear, feeling like a ten-year-old in anticipation of a bedtime story. I’m so stoked over this first page (page 15 in my edition) that here it is, [nearly] in full:

There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue.

In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the chimneys of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.

And in the depths of the city, beyond an old zone of ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts, there lived a happy young fellow by the name of Haroun, the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, whose cheerfulness was famous throughout that unhappy metropolis, and whose never-ending stream of tall, short and winding tales had earned him not one but two nicknames. To his admirers he was Rashid the Ocean of Notions, as stuffed with cheery stories as the sea was full of glumfish; but to his jealous rivals he was the Shah of Blah. To his wife, Soraya, Rashid was for many years as loving a husband as anyone could wish for, and during these years Haroun grew up in a home in which, instead of misery and frowns, he had his father’s ready laughter and his mother’s sweet voice raised in song.

Then something went wrong. (15)

If you’re still here (and not off reading Haroun, where you should be), I’ll provide a quickie synopsis: Haroun’s father, the Ocean of Notions, runs out of stories. No one knows why until Haroun runs into a water genie disconnecting his father’s subscription to the Great Story Stream of Kahani (an invisible moon). He confiscates the Water Genie’s Disconnecting Tool and holds it ransom until his father’s connection can be restored. What follows is a bizarre adventure with telepathic hoopoes, tone-deaf regals, and shadow warriors from the dark side of Kahani. In trying to restore his father’s subscription, Haroun is pulled into a larger battle to save the story sea from being poisoned by Khattam-Shud:

“Khattam-Shud,” he said slowly, “is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech. And because everything ends, because dreams end, stories end, life ends, at the finish of everything we use his name. ‘It’s finished,’ we tell one another, ‘it’s over. Khattam-Shud: The End.'” (39)

Haroun runs according to its own logic. Does it make sense that Rashid Khalifa’s stories come to him via an invisible tap? Nope; his subscription is managed by a P2C2E (Process Too Complicated To Explain) while mechanical miracles are handled by M2C2Ds (Machines Too Complicated To Describe). In the hands of a lesser writer, these P2C2Es and M2C2Ds would be improperly deployed as deus ex machinas. Instead, Rushdie makes heaviest use of them at the story’s outset to define his world’s curious logic and cue the reader to expect anything. They’re not used to fix things in a clumsy, too-convenient way. They explain why things are the way they are and provide a jumping-off point for the actual story.

Rushdie constructs his story differently than your typical coming-of-age-via-trip-to-magical-realm fantasy and the people of Kahani mirror those from Haroun’s real life. This adds a dreamy quality and allows him to flesh out multiple characters at once. That the two worlds complement each other makes the return to the real world at the story’s close feel satisfying instead of like a cheap “and then they woke up” coda. Each character speaks in a unique, defined voice which enables a reader to more easily track characters between the two worlds.

Overall: 4.4 This book was fun with lots of clever wordplay. The shifts from wonderment to suspense are well-managed. It reads in a single sitting and is vivacious and fresh.

Translation: Read it and then read Luka and the Fire of Life.

Careful readers with keen observational powers may notice that this review makes no mention of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge I’m participating in. I read Haroun a week before the challenge started and kicked it off with Luka and The Fire of Life. In writing my review for Luka, I realized I needed to start here as the books are linked and reading Haroun first allows the reader to more fully appreciate Luka’s adventure.

*I wonder if the book is as bad as I remember or if I was too busy sulking over the professor’s teaching style. She liked to spout her highbrow/pretentious theory at the start of each book with a lecture to “think about this as you read” and despised counter-theories that attempted to make sense of the book as a whole instead of cherry-picked passages.

Review: Coraline

coraline_cover20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 5

Desperate to make progress in the reading challenge hosted by Cathy746books, I grabbed a short one. Coraline, by Neil Gaiman, clocks in at 162 pages and a 90 minute reading time. Even if you’ve seen the movie, there are enough differences that the book is superior. Book-Coraline doesn’t rely on an irritating sidekick; she’s cleverer and self-reliant. There’s a cast of helpers behind her, but Coraline must sort out their cryptic help alone. The film, by making Coraline a supporting character in her own story, overlooks the fun and adventure of the original.

From the back cover:
When Coraline steps through a door to find another house strangely similar to her own (only better), but full of fantastic turns and things seem marvelous. But there’s another mother there, and another father, and they want her to stay and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go. Coraline will have to fight with all her wits and courage if she is to save herself and return to her ordinary life.

I’m going to keep this review vague. The story is simple (predictable, in some ways), but contains precise turns and beautiful details. The less you know going in, the more enjoyable it is to read. Coraline’s life with her real parents isn’t unhappy, but it’s filled with the annoyances that populate the kid-leaves-home-to-appreciate-home genre: busy, inattentive parents; new house/neighborhood; having to finish dinner. This section is so pat that the reader is happy to meet the other mother quickly. Of course, she’s contrasted with Coraline’s actual family:

“Yes,” said the other mother. “It wasn’t the same here without you. But we knew you’d arrive one day, and then we could be a proper family. Would you like some more chicken?”
It was the best chicken that Coraline had ever eaten. Her mother sometimes made chicken, but it was always out of packets or frozen, and was very dry, and it never tasted of anything. When Coraline’s father cooked chicken he bought real chicken, but he did strange things to it, like stewing it in wine, or stuffing it with prunes, or baking it in pastry, and Coraline would always refuse to touch it on principal. (29)

It’s the initial normalcy of this other world that’s intriguing. The other mother’s house is parallel to Coraline’s own and familiar, but new enough to offer places to explore and something to do. The other world breaks up her summer tedium and feels fresh and welcome, even as she greets it with suspicion. The best scenes are her interactions with the other mother. These exchanges allow endless avenues for the story because the other mother is so… well, other. It’s tricky to get a read on the extent of her capabilities or MO. She’s everywhere in the tiny world that she created to ensnare Coraline and the setting illuminates her ability (or inability) to understand Coraline and offers hints to her character.

The detail that everyone grabs onto in this book is the button eyes of Coraline’s other family. It’s a great detail and shown to great effect in the film. I was lucky enough to hear Gaiman speak about this book a few years ago and someone asked about the button eyes. Gaiman described them as a spur of the moment, tiny decision that grew to a large thing within his fan base. You never know the detail that a readership will respond to. That’s part of the fun of writing. Here’s a great clip of Gaiman talking about the fear of buttons:

Don’t you want to read his book now?

Overall: 4.3 It’s a light, fun book that feels like it’s missing…something. The details are original, but the baseline story is something that has been done many, many times. Gaiman does it better than most (if not all), but it’s not the most satisfying thing he’s written.

Translation: Read it. What, you don’t have 90 minutes? Read it before bed; that’s the best time for it.

Review: A Game of Thrones

AGameOfThronesDespite the formidable length of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the book is mostly a set-up for the sequel. It’s no surprise that Martin’s intended trilogy ballooned into a seven-book extravaganza — focus isn’t his strong suit. I’m not sure if I will continue in the series. It might be best to hold off for now since Martin is fond of big gaps (up to six years) between books. There are so many story lines, characters, and plot twists that I’d want to reread the series before each new book and it’s just not good enough that I’d relish the thought of rereading for the sixth book, and again for the seventh.

In short, the focus of the book is the power struggle over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros told through a variety of viewpoints. The Starks of Winterfell are pulled south into a political tangle with the Lannisters. The daughter of a deposed king is gathering an army. Behind a mammoth wall of ice to the north, the Others are stirring. And a ferociously long winter is coming.

There are loads of positive things I could say, but just as many negatives. I could build a case for a rave review as easily as a middling one. I’m in a good mood, so let’s start with the positives.

Good:
-Not typical fantasy. Magic takes a back stage and is largely relegated to the past. It is not used as a get-out-of-trouble card by an irritatingly virtuous main character.

-Influenced by the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years’ War, there’s a nice historical ring to the story, a sort of legitimacy that is lacking in most fantasy. Additionally, Martin’s world seems as dirty and rat-infested as the Middle Ages probably were. There’s no romanticism or silliness. The absence of [most] magic adds to this.

-Lots of grey characters. The “good” guys aren’t completely good and the bad guys aren’t completely bad. (Except for Joffrey. That little runt pisses me off.)

-Decent writing. Strong enough to carry the story and balance the multitude of viewpoints. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character. This allows a situation to be viewed from multiple angles and motives.

-Good potential for story to continue. A Game of Thrones ends right when it’s becomes interesting. (You could argue this is a bad thing, but this book doesn’t pretend to stand on its own.)

-Jon Snow. If it wasn’t for Jon Snow’s sections, I don’t know that I would continue reading.

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Bad:

-The story isn’t terribly focused. The reader is treated to too many perspectives for the writing to be lean. Subplots everywhere. At times, this book seems like an Encyclopedia of Everything Happening Everywhere. Arguably, it’s all important, but Martin doesn’t roll out the story in a controlled way; it feels like he’s spinning the tale in front of you instead of handing over something tailored and edited.

-There are an awful lot of unlikable characters. A lot of reviewers treat this surplus of rats as a testament to Martin’s ‘originality’, but there are times the book seems poorly balanced. Sure, the good guys can’t always win or survive the day, but success should seem attainable. They frequently lose because their virtue has little place in Martin’s gritty, bitter world. They’re also not very bright. That said, the good guys are usually down at this point in a series. This is a standard rule that transcends genre. Remember how Apollo Creed won at the end of Rocky?

-The cast of characters is unwieldy. It’s not a matter of having a slew of names to remember that boggles the reader, but the mess of identifying details Martin will use to identify someone in lieu of their name: their house, their lineage, their seal, or some physical aspect. For some reason, Martin believes it is essential for the reader to know the color of each character’s cloak. The glut of detail also slows the plot.
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I got a deal on the first four books, so even though I said I didn’t want to mess with the sequels until they’re all published…I feel like I should press on through the first four at least.

But if Martin becomes another Robert Jordan and publishes one bloated tome after another with the next book always hyped to be the good one…I will post one heck of a rant. I’m not even going to put it in the So Bad I Read It For You section; I’ll just whine here. Do you know how long it would take to summarize all the backstabbing and intrigue of a book in this series? I don’t have that kind of time.

Overall: 3.8 It’s entertaining enough. It’s good enough. If you have some time, go for it.