book review: Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

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DAUGHTER FROM THE DARK by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
★★★★★
Harper Voyager, February 11, 2020

 

Daughter from the Dark is the latest offering from Ukrainian husband and wife team Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated brilliantly from the Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey.  Their 2018 release, Vita Nostra, is one of the most bizarre, exhilarating, mind-bending things I’ve read, and while I cannot wait for the next installment of that series to be available in English, this standalone was a lovely treat in the meantime.

For those who haven’t read Vita Nostra yet, I’d argue that Daughter from the Dark may be a slightly more palatable place to start.  It’s a shorter book, for one, and its ideas are much more easily digested.  But that’s not to say that it’s a traditional, predictable book by any means – these are the authors of Vita Nostra, after all – and it’s not a simple book to summarize.  But, roughly: it follows a DJ called Aspirin, who one night finds a young girl, Alyona, standing alone in the dark, clutching a teddy bear; she won’t tell him where she came from so he takes her home with him, and one she’s in his apartment, she refuses to leave.  And also, her teddy bear might be a vicious monster.

Daughter from the Dark is thrilling and enchanting, and the dynamic between Aspirin and Alyona is nothing short of brilliant.  The pace is slower and more meandering than that of Vita Nostra, but it wasn’t to the book’s detriment as the Dyachenkos excel so much at atmosphere.  This is a dirty, grungy book, which paradoxically reads like a fairy tale, and that tension between beauty and horror is exactly what makes it so unforgettable. I can’t recommend this author/translator team enough to anyone who likes their fantasy light on plot and heavy on the sort of ideas that won’t leave you alone long after you put the book down.

Thank you to Harper Voyager for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of Daughter from the Dark here on Book Depository.

book review: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

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THE DREAM THIEVES by Maggie Stiefvater
(The Raven Cycle #2)
★★☆☆☆
Scholastic, 2013

 

I think I may have to throw in the towel with this series.  In my weirdly negative 4 star review of The Raven Boys I more or less said ‘I didn’t love this, but I think it has the potential to grow on me as I get more invested in the characters.’  Instead, the exact opposite happened when I finally picked up the sequel: I became even less invested, and the characters became even less interesting to me.

To be fair, I was always going to struggle with The Dream Thieves (which I’ve seen widely hailed as the strongest book in this series) because its very premise hinges on something I can’t stand: fictional dreams.  But honestly, I didn’t care for a single one of the subplots, dreams or no dreams.  And something else that surprised me is how much I’m disliking Maggie Stiefvater’s prose in this series, given how strong I thought it was in her standalone novel The Scorpio Races.  Maybe I should stop trying to make YA happen for me?


Book Depository links: The Raven Boys | The Dream Thieves | The Scorpio Races

book review: Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

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ROYAL ASSASSIN by Robin Hobb
(Farseer trilogy #2)
★★★★★
Harper Voyager 2014
originally published in 1996
[Assassin’s Apprentice ★★★★☆]

 

A 5-star rating feels a little disingenuous seeing as it took me over 6 months to finish this book, but the best books aren’t always the ones you race through.  I liked taking my time with Royal Assassin, the second book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, which I enjoyed so much more than the first now that I was properly invested in the characters and the conflicts.

Is this book perfect, no; is it about 200 pages longer than it needs to be, YES; but there’s just so much to love here.  I think Fitz is an incredibly complex and sympathetic protagonist, his bond with Nighteyes was fascinating, and I absolutely adored that all of the female characters (namely Patience, Kettricken, and Molly) were so much more fleshed out here than they were in Assassin’s Apprentice.  (I’m gathering from scanning some other reviews that people really don’t like Molly?  I don’t understand that; I think she’s a great character and I don’t think her relationship with Fitz is framed as something we’re meant to root for, at least at this stage – I think it’s painfully clear to the reader how blind he is to the suffering their situation causes her, and that is very much the point.)

Anyway, I can’t wait to continue this series and then hopefully move onto the Liveship Traders soon after.  I think 2020 will be a big Robin Hobb year for me. It’s been a while since I’ve been this excited about a fantasy writer.


Book Depository links: Assassin’s Apprentice | Royal Assassin

book review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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THE DRAGON REPUBLIC by R.F. Kuang
(The Poppy War #2)
★★★☆☆
Harper Voyager, August 6, 2019

 

I was never going to love The Dragon Republic as much as The Poppy War, so let’s get that out of the way; The Poppy War is a book of two halves, and I preferred the first. However, it was still a 5 star read for me (review here), and with Kuang’s assertions on Twitter that The Dragon Republic was an objectively superior book, I was still cautiously optimistic about the sequel. And I didn’t hate it, but I’m disappointed.

Pacing is an issue in both of these books; in The Poppy War, things happen too fast; it feels like two books crammed into one. But I really didn’t mind that – I read a lot of literary fiction, so when I venture into genre fiction it’s with entirely different expectations and needs to be met – I like a bit of nonstop action in my fantasy as long as it doesn’t get too overwhelming, which I don’t think it did. But with The Dragon Republic the issue is the exact opposite. Nothing – and I cannot stress this enough – happens for the first three quarters of this book. Where The Poppy War feels like two books for the price of one, The Dragon Republic feels like a novella stretched out thin across 500 pages. Things of course do happen, technically, but there is so much filler. Stakes feel low (a problem that The Poppy War certainly did not have), because for the major part of this book, it feels like you’re spinning your wheels and still waiting for the main players to enter the ring.

But let’s talk about what I did like: the characters and the setting are some of my favorites from any fantasy series that I have ever read. The returning characters are as complex, endearing, and frustrating as ever, and the new characters shine as well – Vaisra in particular is a brilliant creation. And if The Dragon Republic has one thing that’s superior to The Poppy War, it’s the world building and the magic system, which is infinitely more fleshed out here with some truly fascinating developments.

It took me three months to read this, but I want to stress that every time I did pick it up, I enjoyed it. The issue is that I just seldom reached for it. I really hope this is just second book syndrome, and I do think one thing that Kuang was able to achieve with this book was laying a really solid foundation for whatever is to come next (and with that ending, I can promise you that the third book is going to destroy me). But even though I would still recommend this series wholeheartedly, this just wasn’t as good as The Poppy War, much as it pains me to say it.

Thank you to Netgalley and Harper Voyager for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of The Poppy War here on Book Depository, and The Dragon Republic here.

book review: Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

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ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb
Farseer Trilogy #1
★★★★☆
Harper Voyager 2014
originally published in 1995

 

Something that I’ve often heard said about Robin Hobb is that her Farseer trilogy is one of her weaker series, but that it’s worth persevering in order to get to the good stuff. So with that in mind, Assassin’s Apprentice was pretty much what I thought it was going to be: at times maddeningly slow and expository, but a promising introduction to something that I believe has the potential to develop into a much stronger story.

Assassin’s Apprentice introduces us to a very generic medieval fantasy world, where we follow Fitz, the bastard son of a prince who retires in ignominy once it comes to light that he fathered Fitz out of wedlock. Though Fitz is raised at Buckkeep, the royal palace, he’s reviled by most of the nobility from an early age, and he takes solace with his connection to animals, until one day he’s approached by the King’s royal assassin, who tells Fitz that he’s to train him as an apprentice.

So let’s start with the one major downside: on a scale between fast paced and slow burn, this book scores off the charts on the slow side. Fitz is a relentlessly thorough narrator, who sees fit to inform us of every thought that enters his head between the ages of 6 and 14, and while I liked Fitz as a character and found him sympathetic, I wouldn’t have minded a highlight reel of the first half of this book. I’m a little concerned about the fact that this book is half the length of the next two in this trilogy, as the consensus seems to be that it’s only worth pushing through this series in order to get to the next one. I’m willing to persevere, but as it took me nearly three weeks to finish this book I’m a little apprehensive.

But let’s move onto the things I did like, the reasons why I am interested in continuing with these books: Robin Hobb’s writing is just lovely. Sometimes it’s detailed to a fault, but more often than not the detail does do wonders in bringing the setting to life. The world-building may not have been terribly thorough (which I actually don’t mind, as world-building is one of the elements of fantasy that I’m least interested in), but the atmosphere of this book is immersive from start to finish. But what I liked even more was the character work, which was remarkably solid all around. Fitz was a compelling protagonist, and the background characters were all intriguing and well-crafted. Enough of their motivations remained hidden from the reader that this aspect dovetailed fantastically with the book’s central theme of loyalty – Fitz’s loyalties are laid bare for the reader from the beginning, but the question of which characters are loyal to Fitz in return remains nebulous throughout. This culminated in an uncharacteristically pacey last couple of chapters, which gave us a simply brilliant conclusion to the groundwork that Hobb had spent a few hundred pages laying.

So overall, I’m pleased, I’m intrigued, I’m a little nervous about this book’s slow pace continuing on in a 800-page sequel, but check back with me in a year and I think I’ll have found a new favorite fantasy author in Robin Hobb.

You can pick up a copy of Assassin’s Apprentice here on Book Depository.

book review: Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

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VITA NOSTRA by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
★★★★★
Harper Voyager, November 2018

 

At the start of this novel, 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina is on a seaside vacation with her mother, where after a few days she finds herself stalked by a mysterious man with pale skin and dark glasses. She is eventually confronted by this stranger, who entreats Sasha to wake up at 4 am every morning, go to the beach, take off all her clothes, and swim to a buoy and back. She reluctantly agrees to this strange task, and as soon as she’s back on shore that first morning, she starts to vomit gold coins.

Thus begins the wildly unconventional journey that the Dyachenkos take the reader on in Vita Nostra, which has safely earned its distinction as the most unorthodox book I have ever read. This doesn’t follow any kind of narrative formula that will be familiar to many western readers – it’s bizarrely lacking in conflict, resolution, plot twists, and structure. But it’s also the most singular and enchanting and darkly horrifying book I have ever read.

Honestly, the marketing team has my sympathy for this one, because I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that so staunchly defies categorization. There are recognizable elements from traditional coming of age novels, but it isn’t a bildungsroman; there are hints and whispers of magic but it isn’t really fantasy; there are some classic Magical School tropes but it isn’t remotely comparable to Harry Potter; and it’s filled to the brim with philosophical references but its maddeningly esoteric approach is strangely alienating even to readers who are interested in its central themes. A large part of this book is just stumbling blindly alongside Sasha and waiting for everything to be made clear, which it never really is.

It’s proving to be quite the challenge to explain what the appeal exactly is of a book like this, and I fully accept that this isn’t going to be for everyone. This isn’t really for readers who need to be entertained by plot or readers who need to be invested in complex character dynamics. This is more for the readers drawn equally to a compelling atmosphere and big ideas; readers who are both thrilled and terrified at the idea that their own worldview is more limited than they ever could have imagined. This book mesmerized me from the very first page and proved to be the most unexpected reading experience I’ve ever had. At times it’s frustrating and incomprehensible but never for a single moment does it fail to stimulate. This is one of the most exceptional things I have read in a very long time, and one of those books that will absolutely reward the effort you put into it.

Thanks so much to Harper Voyager for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

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THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater
★★★★☆
Scholastic, 2012

 

I’m going to do something a bit odd here and base my rating for this book more on what I think it has the potential to become than how much I actually enjoyed it. Because this feels more like a 400 page prologue than it does an actual book. But I’m willing to overlook the spectacularly poor pacing and haphazard plotting if the rest of the series actually builds on the foundation Stiefvater set up here, and she definitely hooked me enough that I want to keep going with it.

I’m still not totally sure what to make of this premise (apparently this series is about a group of students trying to find a dead Welsh king, WHO KNEW, not me), and I think the execution was a bit of a mess. The first 200 pages are total filler; the villain’s backstory is awkwardly shoehorned in without much exploration; perspective shifts aren’t employed effectively (sometimes I couldn’t tell whose head we were in until the end of a chapter); information that could have been withheld in order to build tension is readily offered up to the reader at all times; and the ending just kind of… plateaus without much of a climax. Stiefvater can clearly write (though I actually preferred her prose in The Scorpio Races) but I don’t think The Raven Boys is a well-constructed book at all.

But the characters I think are intriguing. By ‘intriguing’ I mean ‘have the potential to become interesting.’ Because right now a lot of them still feel like tropes – you’ve got the quirky loner girl, the leader, the asshole, the one with money problems, and… that’s just about it – but judging from others’ assessment of the series, it does seem like some character development is on the horizon. But what’s compelling me more than the characters themselves are the dynamics between them. So even though I wasn’t totally wowed by this book, it has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes me want to keep going with it… hopefully the second book picks up.