Review: ‘A Corner of White’ by Jaclyn Moriarty

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The first in a rousing, funny, genre-busting trilogy from bestseller Jaclyn Moriarty!

This is a tale of missing persons. Madeleine and her mother have run away from their former life, under mysterious circumstances, and settled in a rainy corner of Cambridge (in our world).

Elliot, on the other hand, is in search of his father, who disappeared on the night his uncle was found dead. The talk in the town of Bonfire (in the Kingdom of Cello) is that Elliot’s dad may have killed his brother and run away with the Physics teacher. But Elliot refuses to believe it. And he is determined to find both his dad and the truth.

As Madeleine and Elliot move closer to unraveling their mysteries, they begin to exchange messages across worlds — through an accidental gap that hasn’t appeared in centuries. But even greater mysteries are unfolding on both sides of the gap: dangerous weather phenomena called “color storms;” a strange fascination with Isaac Newton; the myth of the “Butterfly Child,” whose appearance could end the droughts of Cello; and some unexpected kisses…

At the end of last year, fabulous teen blogger Emily Mead did a huge post with a mini-review of the 100+ books that she read in 2016. I added a bunch of books to my TBR pile as a result (curse you, Emily), and the first of these was A Corner of White.

This is actually quite a difficult book to review. It’s a parallel world story  (partly set in our world and partly in a fantastical other world — think Alice in Wonderland or, well, a bunch of other books). But it’s even more of a parallel world story than usual, in that the main characters, Madeline and Elliot, live very similar lives. Both live away from their fathers and are missing them. Both come to see what they believe are problematic elements of their fathers in their own personalities. Both of them are dissatisfied with their situation and want to leave it for one reason or another. Both are charming and loved by those around them.

But in some other ways, this book is quite baffling. I spent maybe the first third of it being dissatisfied and somewhat unengaged by Madeline’s real-world antics and her life, which was so quirky that it seemed, well, unrealistic. By comparison, Elliot’s life — in the magical kingdom of Cello — actually seemed more normal. Certainly he had more things going on than strange “homeschooling” classes and slightly deranged (albeit generally well-meaning) friends. His world and story were kept me guessing, whereas Madeline’s, well, didn’t.

If you’d asked me at 100 pages how I thought I’d be rating A Corner of White, it would have been three-star at best, despite the lovely prose and the unique world of Cello. Which made me sad, because I wanted to love it. Luckily for me, it turns out that once Moriarty got the bit in her teeth and got going, the story picked up and I raced through the rest of it. I didn’t see the plot twists coming, and I loved the way that Moriarty wove them all together at the end. I loved how Madeline’s introspective rambling about science and history drove Elliot nuts, but also taught him something valuable about his own world.

The way that the book ended, while not exactly cliff-hanger-y, definitely left me wanting more. Happily books two and three have already been released! Yay! (Now, hurry up, Mr Postman!)

Overall, this was a four-star read for me, based  on simple maths: three for the start, five for the end. I feel like Madeline would approve of that approach.

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Four stars


Review: ‘Nevernight’ by Jay Kristoff

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Destined to destroy empires, Mia Covere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death.

Six years later, the child raised in shadows takes her first steps towards keeping the promise she made on the day that she lost everything.

But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, so if she is to have her revenge, Mia must become a weapon without equal. She must prove herself against the deadliest of friends and enemies, and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and demons at the heart of a murder cult.

The Red Church is no Hogwarts, but Mia is no ordinary student.

The shadows love her. And they drink her fear.

Given the whole girl-goes-to-assassin-school vibe of the blurb, I had originally thought this book might be YA. You’d think the “assassin” part of “assassin school” would have tipped me off. Still, by the end of the first chapter I knew very well that Nevernight wouldn’t be for younger readers. Jay Kristoff doesn’t pull his punches.

The book is violent, and doesn’t make any excuses for that. There are sex scenes that are just shy of erotica in their level of detail, though I never found them gratuitous. And in the opening chapter we actually get both, the scene flipping back and forward in time between a sex scene and a stabbing, highlighting the, erm, rather obvious parallels.

There are a lot of flashbacks in Nevernight, especially early in the book. The main storyline picks up when Mia is 16 and seeking to be accepted into the Red Church (said assassin school), but we get glimpses into the formative events of her past. I found the flashbacks interesting, but they were presented in italics to differentiate them from the main story, and I found them harder to read as a result (physically harder; large blocks of italics are painful. Maybe I’m just getting old!).

The other stylistic quirks of Nevernight are the use of footnotes, where the narrator provides extra detail about the world — generally amusing anecdotes and trivia that don’t really have a place in the main story but give a glimpse into the narrator’s personality. The other quirk is that we don’t actually know who the narrator is, just that it’s not Mia herself. (My money is on her shadow companion, Mister Kindly.)

There is magic in the world of Nevernight, which is a lush combination of Ancient Rome and slightly less ancient Venice, but it’s the sort of magic that imposes a cost on the user. I really liked that as a mechanic; it stopped the various magic-users from being completely overpowered and silly.

As far as the characters go, Mia is — unsurprisingly — hard as nails. But there’s an empathetic side to her that is rather out of place in a school of murderers, and as a result she makes herself some good friends and snags a sort-of boyfriend among the other novices. Of course, there’s the obligatory mean girl (who has a very good reason for hating Mia, so she’s not your typical shallow archetype) and the Snape-like teacher (though he makes Snape look soft and cuddly). And the classroom politics and scheming tends to wind up with people dead.

Story-wise I won’t say too much, except to say that there’s a plot twist I didn’t see coming and all sorts of other awesomeness in there. I did have one head-scratching moment over Mia’s apparent inability to remember one particular event in her past — I wasn’t clear on the reasons for that, though maybe I missed something.

I’d recommend this book for people who like their fantasy gritty, their prose rich with metaphor and their heroines stabby.

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Four-and-a-half stars


Review: ‘The Alloy of Law’ by Brandon Sanderson

The Alloy of Law

Centuries after the Mistborn trilogy, Scadrial is on the verge of modernity — railroads, electric street lights, and skyscrapers. Waxillium Ladrian can Push on metals with his Allomancy and use Feruchemy to become lighter or heavier at will. After 20 years in the dusty Roughs, in the city of Elendel, the new head of a noble house may need to keep his guns.

The Alloy of Law is the fourth book (of six) in the Mistborn series, but — because the series is divided into two trilogies — it’s actually the first book in the second trilogy. As a result, you don’t have to have read the preceding three books in order to make sense of this one (though the religious references won’t be as interesting if you don’t).

I’m in more than a little awe of Sanderson. The first three books were a somewhat traditional (though not really) epic fantasy series. The Alloy of Law is set 300 years later in the same world — a world where technology has advanced to something resembling the 19th century. There’s still magic, in the form of Allomancy and Feruchemy, the metal-based Mistborn magic system. But there are also guns, trains and electricity. As a result, in some ways this book defies characterisation. Is it steampunk? Fantasy? An alternate world Western set in the big city? I don’t know … and that’s always an exciting thing to find!

Wax is your traditional Western action hero (with superpowers): highly competent and with a tragedy in his past that means he shies away from love. Wayne is a hilarious and crass master of disguise who “trades” for things rather than stealing them (although the trades generally occur without the other party’s consent). Both of them are fun characters, though I didn’t enjoy them as much as Sazed, Breeze or Elend from the first three books.

Lady Marasi, the noblewoman who is studying to be a legal attorney, is a lot more interesting, to my mind. She’s easily embarrassed but also a crack shot with a rifle, and she has a crush on Wax from before she meets him. She and he are well-matched in terms of both their interests and their intelligence, so Wax’s denial of the fact she’s clearly perfect for him is a little frustrating.

Overall, this was a fun book, though a little bit more predictable and less compelling than the first trilogy was. There was only one plot twist I didn’t see coming, and I wasn’t as invested in it as maybe I should have been. (That could be a result of the fact I listened to this book on either side of my son breaking his arm and spending a night in hospital, though — I had other things on my mind!)

Still, I enjoyed The Alloy of Law and have already started on the next book, Shadows of Self.

Four-and-a-half stars


Review: ‘The Hero of Ages’ by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages

Tricked into releasing the evil spirit Ruin while attempting to close the Well of Ascension, new emperor Elend Venture and his wife, the assassin Vin, are now hard-pressed to save the world.This adventure brings the Mistborn epic fantasy trilogy to a dramatic and surprising climax as Sanderson’s saga offers complex characters and a compelling plot, asking hard questions about loyalty, faith and responsibility.

To all those people who told me Brandon Sanderson is a man who knows how to write a mind-boggling story: you were right and I owe you a coffee. I don’t think I’ve ever read a trilogy with such intricate world-building, with so many layers and plot twists, and bits of what turned out to be foreshadowing in the first book that are only explained in the third.

The amount of plotting Sanderson must do before he starts writing that first page truly blows my mind.

The Hero of Ages is the third book in the series, and it nicely wraps up the trilogy, giving me explanations for questions I hadn’t even realised I was asking — not really. For example, I remember thinking pretty early on in the series that it was strange that burning tin lets an allomancer see through the Mists. It turns out there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason for everything! There’s even a reason for Sazed’s frustrating naval-gazing and waffling on about dead religions (because, oh my god, I wanted to shake him so badly; those waffle-y bits are actually what made me love this book slightly less than the other two).

Given I’ve been fully immersed in this trilogy in the past month, I had enough depth and currency of understanding to see a lot of the plot twists coming this time around. However, I feel a bit like Vin and Elend must have, fighting an all-powerful god like Ruin: like I thought I knew what Sanderson was going to do, but he only let me feel that way so he could lull me into a false sense of security. Then BAM.

That last plot twist is a doozy. I have an epic book hangover, and a need to buy another Sanderson trilogy ASAP.

Four stars


Review: ‘The Well of Ascension’ by Brandon Sanderson

The Well of Ascension

The impossible has been accomplished. The Lord Ruler – the man who claimed to be god incarnate and brutally ruled the world for a thousand years – has been vanquished. But Kelsier, the hero who masterminded that triumph, is dead too, and now the awesome task of building a new world has been left to his young protégé, Vin, the former street urchin who is now the most powerful Mistborn in the land, and to the idealistic young nobleman she loves.

As Kelsier’s protégé and slayer of the Lord Ruler she is now venerated by a budding new religion, a distinction that makes her intensely uncomfortable. Even more worrying, the mists have begun behaving strangely since the Lord Ruler died, and seem to harbor a strange vaporous entity that haunts her.

Stopping assassins may keep Vin’s Mistborn skills sharp, but it’s the least of her problems. Luthadel, the largest city of the former empire, doesn’t run itself, and Vin and the other members of Kelsier’s crew, who lead the revolution, must learn a whole new set of practical and political skills to help. It certainly won’t get easier with three armies – one of them composed of ferocious giants – now vying to conquer the city, and no sign of the Lord Ruler’s hidden cache of atium, the rarest and most powerful allomantic metal.

As the siege of Luthadel tightens, an ancient legend seems to offer a glimmer of hope. But even if it really exists, no one knows where to find the Well of Ascension or what manner of power it bestows.

The Well of Ascension is book two in Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, and I would strongly suggest not trying to read it as a stand-alone novel. I reviewed the first book here if you want to decide whether this series is for you. That review also largely holds true for book two. I’ve given this book 4.5 stars as well, though my niggles are different this time around. (I considered a 4-star rating instead for this one, but the plot twists deserved that extra half star!)

Still, let’s recap.

Things I loved

A little slice of a big  world. Despite the fact that almost the entire story is set in or immediately around Luthadel, there is a sense of a much bigger world out there, one that has an impact on Luthadel and the fate of the former empire. Still, I liked the narrower focus — sometimes, fantasy novels that involve army-scale warfare start to read like a book on military tactics. That is never the case here, which is — to me — a good thing.

A cast of characters who aren’t black and white. We gained a sense in the first book that even the Lord Ruler, the tyrant demigod who ruled for 1000 years, might not be 100% evil (maybe 90%? 85%?). On the other side of the coin, Kelsier, the supposed hero of the piece, had grand ideals but was just as brutal in his own way. That trend continues in the second book. Elend is sweet but idealistic to the point of foolishness, while Vin is highly competent but torn and indecisive. We get to see snippets from a much broader range of characters in The Well of Ascension, giving us a greater sense of what motivates them, why they think they are the good guy. My most unexpected favourite is Breeze, the lazy and manipulative soother who somehow turns out to be very sweet, in his own way.

The plot twists and turns (like a twisty turny thing). I thought I had a pretty good idea of where the second book might go, and in some ways I was right, but in others … yeah, there were some massive reveals in The Well of Ascension that I did not see coming. I love it when that happens! 😀

The ending struck a balance between completion and dun-dun-DUN. Writing a series with a meta-plot over three books can be tricky. But there is enough of a resolution in The Well of Ascension to make me happy, while there is also enough left unresolved (and we’re talking big ticket items here) to keep me reading. I expect I’d be less sanguine if I’d found this series back when it was first released, though. Knowing I have the third book sitting here, ready to go, really helps.

Things I was less fond of

I wanted to shake some of the characters. One plot device that sets my teeth on edge is when there’s a disconnect between characters that could easily be resolved if the two of them would just say what they are thinking. I know people aren’t always 100% honest in real life, and I can see how the misunderstandings came about in the book … but at the same time, gah! I wanted to shake both Vin and Elend until their teeth rattled. (But mainly Vin. Though she’d kill me in a messy fashion if I tried.)

I wanted to give some of the characters advice. There were times when I could see potential solutions to problems that the characters didn’t even seem to consider. For example, early on in the book, Vin and Elend discover there’s a potential shape-changing infiltrator in the palace, leaking information to one of their enemies. Vin discovers that said shape-changer is immune to emotional allomancy (magic); she also knows due to circumstance that Breeze, the best emotional allomancer in the city and probably in the world, absolutely cannot be the imposter. Why not tell Breeze about the issue, set him to testing people’s reactions? Even if it wouldn’t have helped in the end, it would have made the characters seem slightly less ineffectual at times. (Of course, maybe the goal was for them to seem ineffectual, in which case, good job, Sanderson!)

Final comments

The fight scenes are truly brutal, but if this were a romance you’d describe the heat level as “sweet”. I gather that could be said of all of Sanderson’s books, so if that’s what you look for in a fantasy novel — as well as an intricate world that focuses on people rather than large-scale politics — then you should definitely read this series.

Four-and-a-half stars


Review: “Mistborn: The Final Empire” by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn The Final Empire

In a world where ash falls from the sky, and mist dominates the night, an evil cloaks the land and stifles all life. The future of the empire rests on the shoulders of a troublemaker and his young apprentice. Together, can they fill the world with color once more?

In Brandon Sanderson’s intriguing tale of love, loss, despair and hope, a new kind of magic enters the stage — Allomancy, a magic of the metals.

After devouring and enjoying Elantris, I decided to pick up the first book in what may be Brandon Sanderson’s most famous series: Mistborn. And I can see why so many people recommended it to me. Holy wow.

Things I loved

The unique world-building. Instead of traditional wizardly magic, or magic that takes a formless power and shapes it via one mechanism or another, Sanderson based the magic in his world on the idea that some people can consume or “burn” certain metals and alloys to achieve defined effects. I’d love a glimpse into Sanderson’s mind, that he was able to come up with something like this! But I’m not sure you could convince me to swallow a lump of iron, no matter what the supernatural outcome…

A variety of characters that I grew to love. Despite what the blurb suggests, Kelsier and Vin aren’t trying to save the world alone — they are part of a crew of thieves contracted to do a “job”: overthrow the government. Even though some of the crew were crazy-impulsive (Kelsier), others were vain (Breeze), others were surly (Marsh), and some made cynicism an art (Vin), I loved all of the main cast to one degree or another. The fact that these characters — all of these characters — have flaws makes them seem more real.

Of all of them, Vin is the one that experiences the most character growth, probably followed by Kelsier and the nobleman Elend. This are the book’s three main characters (each sharing the POV at one point or another), so that’s to be expected.

The sense of a larger story. Because this is the first book in a trilogy, there are a lot of things left unresolved, most of them in the backstory. It gives the world a sense of depth and makes me eager for the next instalment. For example (note: very light spoilers follow), what happened to the Lord Ruler at the Well of Ascension? What’s the go with the ancient, apparently amorphous bad guy known as “the Deepness”? How is said amorphous, gloomy bad guy connected to the amorphous, gloomy mists that shroud everything come nightfall? Are the ash mounds really volcanoes that will erupt and kill us all?!

The plot twist. It’s one of those ones where you feel like you should have seen it coming afterwards, but that isn’t blindingly obvious beforehand. (At least, it wasn’t to me.) Nuff said.

Things I struggled with a little (especially at first)

The talking. A lot of time, the characters are talking, plotting and scheming. Sometimes they are confiding or manipulating too. This was often levied with humour or with emotion, but early on in the book I found some of the crew’s planning sessions a bit of a slog.

The metal magic. Once Kelsier explained how the metals work to Vin, I was fine. But there’s one scene from his point of view before that, where he’s doing all sorts of things with different metals, and I got really, really lost.

Other observations

There is no sex (there’s barely even a kiss); however, there is quite a bit of violence and some fairly grisly corpses. I wasn’t bothered but YMMV.

Four-and-a-half stars

 


Review: ‘Elantris’ by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris

Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all. Yet each of these demigods was once an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling.

Arelon’s new capital, Kae, crouches in the shadow of Elantris. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping — based on their correspondence — to also find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died and she is considered his widow. Both Teod and Arelon are under threat as the last remaining holdouts against the imperial ambitions of the ruthless religious fanatics of Fjordell. So Sarene decides to use her new status to counter the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell high priest who has come to Kae to convert Arelon and claim it for his emperor and his god.

But neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspect the truth about Prince Raoden. Stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden was secretly exiled by his father to the dark city. His struggle to help the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps reveal the secret of Elantris itself.

My high fantasy audiobook kick continues with Elantris. After I finished Patrick Rothfuss’s two books, I tweeted that I was after something similar: non-political high fantasy that isn’t too grim (ie not Game of Thrones). Pretty much every tweet recommended Brandon Sanderson. The friend who’d gotten me onto Rothfuss in the first place suggested I start with Sanderson’s debut. Since it’s that rare beast — a stand-alone epic fantasy novel — I figured, why not?

And I LOVED Elantris.

It’s a rare example of a split POV book that works — and there aren’t just two but three points of view, those of Raoden, Sarene and Hrathen. The chapters rotate between the three — in that order, something I admired from a craft point of view. Keeping the pacing going and making each thread interesting enough that you always have something to say with each character is hard, and Sanderson did an admirable job. I actually didn’t mind when it switched to a new character, where other multiple-POV books have lost me in the past. I also really liked the way he interwove the various plot threads and foreshadowing, with elements sprinkled through each character’s scenes.

As far as the characters go, Raoden is a sweetheart — a genuinely kind and positive person, something that serves him well when he gets to Elantris. Sarene is a strong-willed diplomat who is just looking for somewhere to belong. And Hrathen is the bad guy. Only actually not. In high fantasy, usually the villain is truly evil, and after Sarene’s introduction you expect Hrathen to be that sort of person. But he’s actually quite sympathetic, and his motivations are (despite the emphasis on world conquest) coming from a good place.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t villains in Elantris, just that Hrathen isn’t necessarily one of them. 😉

I also really enjoyed the magical system, which wasn’t your traditional spellbook memorisation. It’s a bit closer to the Will and the Word that Eddings used (way back when), but the word is written and precision is critical to the process.

I downloaded the tenth-anniversary edition audiobook and there was some extra content, including a deleted storyline and some discussion of the craft. I found Sanderson’s reflections on the book quite interesting. Sanderson commented that his craft has advanced since he wrote Elantris, and I can see the elements of the story that he’d probably fix if he re-did it now (such as Hrathen’s info dumps or some of the repetitive description — I lost track of the number of times we’re told that Sarene’s uncle has a scratchy voice). Still, the craft that went into Elantris is still admirable, and if he gets better in his future works, I’m definitely keen to read them next.

Four-and-a-half stars