Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spell Bound

"Just as Sophie Mercer has come to accept her extraordinary magical powers as a demon, the Prodigium Council strips them away. Now Sophie is defenseless, alone, and at the mercy of her sworn enemies—the Brannicks, a family of warrior women who hunt down the Prodigium.  Or at least that’s what Sophie thinks, until she makes a surprising discovery. The Brannicks know an epic war is coming, and they believe Sophie is the only one powerful enough to stop the world from ending. But without her magic, Sophie isn’t as confident.
Sophie’s bound for one hell of a ride—can she get her powers back before it’s too late?"

Oh honey, it's already too late. Far, far too late. In fact, I'm pretty sure the clock ran out somewhere in the first few chapters of the second book.

I'll admit to really liking Hex Hall, the first in this series. After all the sappy, drippy, formulaic YA paranormal romance out there, it was fun to see someone poke fun at that template while still working within it. Sophie herself was a likeable and nicely sassy character. It was also a relief to see a girl reacting with a bit of spirit rather than rolling over and asking for more when the male lead is playing his first-few-chapters-total-tool character. Interesting scenery, fun secondary characters, nuanced villains (ish, I mean, Hawkins is no Penman after all). But this isn't a review of that first book. It's the review of the third book wherein all those wells have run dry and we must cling to a fast paced plot as we tumbled over the rapids toward the vapid finish (contradicting water metaphors? sorry.).

Somewhere along the way the series stopped being light satire of the genre and bought into the formula lock, stock, and barrel. All that was left was Sophie's sarcasm, but even that got stretched until she was practically telling bad puns for most of the book. Also, somehow most of the other characters weirdly started saying the same sorts of things, and suddenly everyone in the book has the same sense of humor.  Of course, the idea is that Sophie et al are trying to deal with the stress through humor, but that seems like an opportunity wasted, to me. The girl is supposed to be walking to hell and back, and all we get are a few odd jokes? 

Luckily, as I said, the plot moves quickly and that plot-driven quality got me through it. I was not emotionally attached to Sophie and somewhere along the way I  completely forgot why I ever cared about Archer, but it's action packed so you get to the last page. And then we wrap everything up with a nice bow, because we've totally given up on the genre-satire bit we had going in book one. Just kill of one corner of the love triangle, remove all nuance from the baddies before whacking them off in one fell swoop, reassemble the paranormal "counsel" out of thin air, and crown our girl queen-of-awesome. And then there was Elodie.

Oh Elodie. Such an interesting character with such potential. I truly enjoyed reading her, at times liking her infinitely more than Sophie. She's got such an arc here, too. Her history with Sophie's man, her own issues with Sophie. She's a tragic little thing with attitude. And then she very conveniently falls for the axed portion of Sophie's love triangle and get a very disappointing "happy" ending of her own. I wanted to believe there was more to Elodie than the desire to make out with a nice ghost guy. Oh well.

Rating: Two glittering demon fairies.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Twixt Firelight and Water

"Long ago, the sorceress Lady Oonagh cast a curse over her own child. Now a druid, an ill-tempered raven and an adventurous young woman are drawn together as the time approaches for the evil magic to be undone. Fans of the Sevenwaters series will love this new episode, which fleshes out the history of druid Ciaran and his constant companion Fiacha."

Ahhhh, Juliet Marillier. Have you read Ms. Marillier yet? Read her, my dears. Read her for her imagery, her emotional finesse, her character clarity. Read her because once you were a little girl who believed in fairy tales, and she makes those fairy tales real again.

This isn't a long work, and it isn't her best. She dedicated almost no time to the emotional development of the female lead. But in this case, the girl need not take center stage. The broken boy within the man within the bird is the real story here. One imagines that if those ancient tale spinning druids were to tell their tales today, this is what it would look like.

Rating: Four notes of birdsong.

Falls the Shadow

"This is Simon de Montfort's story--and the story of King Henry III, as weak and changeable as Montfort was brash and unbending. It is a saga of two opposing wills that would later clash in a storm of violence and betrayal, a story straight from the pages of history that brings the world of the thirteenth century comletely, provocatively, and magnificently alive. Above all, this is a story of conflict and treachery, of human frailty and broken legends, a tale of pageantry and grandeur that is as unforgettable as it is real."

I'm not sure how I feel about posting about sequels to books for which I've already posted. I guess we'll see. I'm also not sure how I feel about Falls the Shadow either, so grab a glass, ambivalence all around!

Penman is a master at what she does, and I won't really go into that again here. She uses the same episodic style in this as she did for Here Be Dragons, and it worked with that same efficiency. Unfortunately, this book came up severely lacking in what will henceforth be known as the King John Department. There were no characters here that really grabbed me and held on until the end, as he did. Ellen ferch Llewellyn did for a bit as did her brother Daffyd, but neither featured in even the full first half of the novel. After that, Wales took a clear backseat to the action happening in England and my interest suffered for it. I think perhaps I was meant to latch on to Nell or Simon de Montfort at some point, but I just couldn't. There is nothing wrong with them, but then maybe that's the problem, not enough weakness for my sympathy? I don't really know. All I do know is that I felt for the entire last half of the novel that we were approaching doom and I didn't have a character to hold my hand through it. I had no Joanna to root for. No romance with Llewellyn Fawr cheer on. Nothing but a doomed, if just, cause and a white knight to fight for it.

It's possible the doom bit was my real issue with this novel. Penman paints a clear good v. bad picture in this one, with far less subtlety than in the former novel, and the whole time you know team good is going to get its little fanny kicked. And there is nothing you can do about it. King Henry is a dribbling fool, but he'll win. And unlike his father KJ (Do you mind if I call him KJ? I feel we've reached this point in our relationship.), he isn't an interesting villain. You don't care about him at all. You hate him. He's a fool and a weakling and entirely without redeeming qualities. KJ was the spawn of the devil, but at least he was clever and you respected him even while you hated him. I'm hoping Edward can bring a little more nuance to the "Evil English King" role in the third novel. Hints of his being KJ's grandson in various ways have been dropped along the way, so we'll see.

Honestly, it took me a while to finish this one because I knew the good guys would loose and the closer that loss came the harder it was for me to go on reading it. In the end, Penman let her characters sign off with dignity and humanity, so it was worth forcing myself to keep going. I'm not sure I'm ready for the third one, though. I also feel that Llewellyn is a stranger now. I knew him as a small boy, and a bit as a young man, but then he sort of...faded away. Here's hoping when we meet again in the last installment he'll have lived up to my earlier memories of him.

Rating: Three KJs.

Girl in the Arena

Lyn is a neo-gladiator’s daughter, through and through.  Her mother has made a career out of marrying into the high-profile world of televised blood sport, and the rules of the Gladiator Sports Association are second nature to their family.  Always lend ineffable confidence to the gladiator.  Remind him constantly of his victories. And most importantly: Never leave the stadium when your father is dying. The rules help the family survive, but rules—and the GSA—can also turn against you. When a gifted young fighter kills Lyn’s seventh father, he also captures Lyn’s dowry bracelet, which means she must marry him... For fans of The Hunger Games and Fight Club, Lise Haines’ debut novel is a mesmerizing look at a world addicted to violence—a modern world that’s disturbingly easy to imagine. 
How Suzanne Collin's did not get a credit in this work is beyond me. I mean, she basically wrote the template for it. And I have to hand it to the author, it's a move well played. Take a wildly popular book, decompose it to its basic elements, rename characters, mix with a slightly new setting, bake at 350 degrees for ten minutes and serve immediately. 
I'm not exaggerating the similarities here, either. A strong teenaged girl loses her father, her mother can't cope, she needs to look out for a beloved younger sibling or they'll both starve and be homeless, she's got ambiguous feelings for a beefy male BFF, the establishment wants to turn her life into mass entertainment and has the ability to take everything from her if she doesn't go with it, and she's developing "feelings" for the guy she's supposed to face in the arena. Reads like a check-ist, doesn't it?
Unfortunately, this time the plot and character motivations just didn't gel. First off, the culture of the Glads (ouch, right? I know) is thoroughly unbelievable. Rather than building a post-apocalyptic scene or an alternate world or any other slightly more plausible explanation, Haines wants us to imagine this Gladiator culture happening in the hear and now. Then she whips out a dowry bracelet? Honey, please. And then there were those plot points and character motivations that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Why does Lyn think becoming a gladiator is any less grotesque than marrying one? She is honestly going to march into the ring and kill a man she has come to think of as a friend? Because the thought of marrying a gladiator is beyond the pale? She's smart and resourceful and completely unable to see a more sane way of dealing with this mess? Honey, please.
Strangely, overall Lyn is a likeable character. She's got that nice mix of sarcasm, teenaged angst, beyond-her-years wisdom, and badassery that makes reading her both enjoyable and familiar (she's a lot like all the other action fighting women you see in YA these days, so it's template but done well even so). So the fact that she follows the prescribed plot actually makes the whole thing worse.

Lyn's relationship to her autism-spectrum brother is sweet and well written. Her relationship with Uber (Yes, his name is Uber. I know.) even has some potential. But again, that potential is unrealized, in this case because this is based on another work and dare not break the given mold (wherein the female lead cannot resolve her angsty lovey-dovey feeling in the first book, because that would kill the angst). I loved Uber as a character. An awkward, clumsy dork in thick glasses and sandals who can't help but profess his undying love for a girl is pretty hard not to love, if we're being honest. However, we are not being honest here. If we were honest, very nearly all of Lyn's decisions are ridiculous. As is the name Uber. (I know)
And then there was that ending. Look, we all know both Lyn and Uber will survive because, again, it's in the template, but if you thought the "dowry bracelet" was an insult to your intelligence wait until the last slap-dash few pages. Suddenly, out of the blue, Lyn gets hit with the stop-acting-like-an-idiot stick and does what she should have done the moment her mother bowed out of the scene. Somehow, the rationality of that decision makes the rest of the plot all that much more unbelievable. I just don't have any suspension of disbelief left in me for this one.
Rating: One strappy Glad sandal.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Cathup Ketchup

No, that is not a real book title. (Yet!) There were several weeks between the last two posts and in full disclosure I feel I should admit to having read a few books in those weeks. Most of this gap was my own laziness in not wanting to post. However, one purpose behind the creation of this blog was to hold myself accountable for the sort of books I choose to spend time reading, goes.

I re-read These Old Shades. Re-read as in I've read that puppy more than two times already. It's not that it is such a fantastic book either. Georgette Heyer was a master at what she did, but this was hardly her magnum opus. The truth is I can't really explain why I re-read this one instead of something else except that I finished the other book I had been reading while on the train and I needed something else to get me through the commute home and this was already on my kindle and it just happened. Again. Rating: Three out of five powdered wigs. Seriously, though, if you like regency stuff, better than average romance, and a few laugh out loud side characters, pick up any one of Heyer's dozens of books.

I also read The Warrior's Maiden. Go ahead. Judge me. Mock my taste. I deserve it. With a title like that, what did I expect? Realistic characters? An actual plot? Oh honey, they don't make those for less than $1. Rating: The hem of one torn bodice. Oy.

I tried to read The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning because it sounded pretty funny. Turned out it was crass and horrible. I won't bother rating a book I didn't finish.

And I finally caved and read...or rather devoured....The Scourge of Muirwood  and The Blight of Muirwood. And they were each better than the first. Better atmosphere somehow, same great characters, and even more epic plot twists. Loved both, to be honest. Except for Colvin. I just don't get that character. Who is this grumpy man? Why does Lia love him? He is an mystery wrapped in an enigma, my friends. Oh, and the LDS mythology thing didn't bother me as it was tempered by some other fairly awesome religious mythology and did not involve any more Nephites...much. Rating: Four out of five splotchy apples.

I guess I also read A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections. I don't know why I would need to guess about that, I know I read it. I was there. And so was Campbell, and it was trippy. And then we both leaped over the chasms in our lives and found the warrior within. Groovy, man. Rating: Three out of five bright shiny souls.

Other than that it really did take me a few days to get through Here Be Dragons, so that took some time. And I'm now halfway through the sequel we go again!

Here Be Dragons

"Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England’s ruthless, power-hungry King John. Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce by marrying the English king’s beloved illegitimate daughter, Joanna, who slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband. But as John’s attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales---and Llewelyn---Joanna must decide where her love and loyalties truly lie.
The turbulent clashes of two disparate worlds and the destinies of the individuals caught between them spring to life in this magnificent novel of power and passion, loyalty and lies. The book that began the trilogy that includes Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, Here Be Dragons brings thirteenth-century England, France, and Wales to tangled, tempestuous life."

Honestly, I don't generally read so very much historical fiction, but since the start of this blog I've been all over that genre like a blister on a plague victim (too graphic? sorry). And then Sharon K. Penman walked in and blew my mind.

This is the first split-perspective book I've ever read that I did not at one point toss aside in exasperation at yet another unwanted perspective shift. Generally when authors choose to switch between two different character viewpoints to tell concurrent story lines, the story feels uneven. One character's plot will invariably be more compelling than the other and I find myself resenting the second plot line and investing zero emotional effort into its characters. To say Penman pulled it off would be an understatement. She rocked it. I never minded when the scene changed to Wales from England or to England from France. I cared just as much for Llewellyn as I did for Joanna before their stories joined, and whenever King John entered the page I ate it up. Is it wrong that I loved him best?

And how could I not? Penman's treatment of John was nothing short of genius. The man has been vilified for centuries now, and even his contemporaries hated him. Unless they didn't. Unless they were his daughter or son. Unless they saw how viciously, unrepentantly clever he was. Unless they loved him. It would have been all too easy to let John be a caricature, to paint him as the mustache twirling villain or the misunderstood champion of the common man. But he was neither and both of those, and Penman breathed life into that dichotomy. She showed us John from the moment of his first betrayal to his final moments of dying alone and betrayed. She didn't gloss over his more heinous sins or sweep his vindictiveness under the table. But when the curtain closed on his life, I chocked up a bit. True, he did some blatantly horrible things in that life for which not even his daughter could fully forgive him. And yet he was compelling, daring, generous, and so very, very clever.

This book is thick and full to the brim with historic detail. Penman chose an ambitious timeline to fit into a single novel. Decades of historical intrigue and wars should have made this tomb unremittingly boring. Her list of characters along should have sunk the ship. But it didn't, because she's oh so very good at what she does. She wrote it as a sort of compilation of vignettes. Short scenes that manage to tell us everything we need to know and not bog us down with unnecessary filler. We see glimpses of the main characters rather than drawn out sagas of them. Here Llewellyn is starting his first campaign for Wales, and there little Joanna sits trying desperately to please a mother who hates her. We do not need to hear about every battle Llewellyn fights or every week Joanna manages to survive, the glimpse is enough. That is perhaps why her characters seemed so real. Penman chose her moments well, each chapter was like another thread in a complex tapestry that, when you stood back and looked at the whole, was stunning.

I like a little romance in my literature, and Penman delivered that nicely. How refreshingly new, too, to read a love story that lasts decades rather than months! Most romantic plots rely on a few sighs of unrequited love or romantic obstacles that must first be overcome before a single moment of epiphany-like bliss is reached. Not this time. Joanna's relationship with Llewellyn lasted more than twenty years and was a complex thing, fraught with troubles and joy both. When the eventual (SPOILERS!) adultery happened, she had me in tears more than once for both of them.

Another reader posted elsewhwere about not wanting to give the author too much credit since, let's be honest, she didn't come up with the plot on her own. It's history! Wikipedia basically did the work for her. Really? REALLY? Let me introduce you to King John, honey. I hear he has some lovely dungeons.

Rating: Five our of five troths plighted.