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.

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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.

book review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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THE POPPY WAR by R.F. Kuang
2018, Harper Voyager
★★★★★

Well, this exceeded all of my expectations and then some. Despite a childhood love of Harry Potter which has persevered into adulthood, I very rarely get excited about fantasy. Even my ‘favorite’ fantasy novels tend to fall under the category of ‘it was objectively very good even if it wasn’t really my cup of tea.’ But with absolutely zero reservations, I loved this.

It helps that it’s a very ‘me’ kind of book. It’s darker than dark, it features an utterly merciless antiheroine who’s sympathetic enough to root for, it fuses fantastical elements with Chinese history and culture – especially drawing from the Second Sino-Japanese War – in a positively brilliant way (I’ve always had a thing for Chinese historical fiction which is what drew me to this book to begin with), it features a magical military academy and so much political strategy, and it’s so firmly rooted in compelling characters that the worldbuilding never overwhelms. In short: just about everything I could ever ask for.

The Poppy War follows Rin, a war orphan determined to get out of an arranged marriage, who tests into Sinegard, the most prestigious military academy in her country of Nikan. It turns out acing the challenging test was the least of her worries; now Rin is mercilessly antagonized by her peers and some of her teachers for her dark skin and for the fact that she comes from one of the country’s poorest provinces. Things finally start to turn around for Rin under the tutelage of her one of the school’s more eccentric masters, but soon the students at Sinegard are thrown headfirst into a war that’s ravaging Nikan.

I didn’t even feel like I was reading fantasy for the first couple of chapters; the fantastical elements are slowly introduced as you’re drawn further and further into this nuanced magical system that Kuang has invented, which involves gods and shamans and a spirit world. I hate when a book is filled with fascinating concepts but they aren’t presented in an approachable way: that is certainly not the case here. This is every bit as readable and engaging as it is complex and intelligent.

But this isn’t a perfect book. Others have mentioned the drastic tonal shift between the first and second halves, and I have to agree that it’s rather dissonant. The first half feels a bit Harry Potter meets Chinese history, and admittedly the half of the novel that took place at Sinegard was the half I preferred. Then this book gets brutal – just about every trigger warning imaginable can be applied here – and while I was fully on board for that and understood how the violence depicted ultimately did serve the narrative, I don’t blame others for being a bit taken aback.

So it’s more of a 4.5, but I’m rounding up because I really adored this – I found it so engaging that I dropped everything else I was reading this week so I could focus on this (which I rarely do – I usually jump around between multiple books when I read). But this is just a stunning and stimulating piece of fantasy that asks difficult questions about religion, power, imperialism, war, and violence, and takes the reader on such an unexpectedly dark and compelling journey, I just can’t help but to love it. As someone who almost exclusively reads standalone novels I can’t remember the last time I said this, but I cannot wait for the sequel!

book review: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

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THE OBELISK GATE by N.K. Jemisin
★★★☆☆
Orbit, 2016

Last year when I read The Fifth Season for a book club, I was glad to have taken a step outside my reading comfort zone, because I ended up really loving it. I think N.K. Jemisin is a really brilliant writer, and it was one of the most original fantasy novels I’d ever read. I was expecting to love The Obelisk Gate even more, since I was going to be able to dive straight into it without the “what the heck is going on” feeling that plagued me for a large part of The Fifth Season until everything fell into place, but I think The Obelisk Gate fell victim to Second Book Syndrome. There was just so much filler and transition in this novel.

Hardcore fantasy fans probably love the way science and magic play off each other in this series – but I am not a hardcore fantasy fan. For me, Jemisin’s world building crosses the line from ‘thorough’ to ‘punishingly intricate.’ I’m awed by the complexity of this concept of orogeny that she’s created – I just don’t think she’s always able to communicate the nuances to the reader in an accessible way. That was my main hangup with this book – I got tired of feeling like I was groping around in the dark. But again, take that with a grain of salt – seasoned fantasy readers are obviously the target audience for this series.

But let’s move on. Jemisin’s characters are brilliant. I loved getting to spend more time with Essun and Alabaster, and enjoyed all the new characters who were introduced. Jemisin’s writing, as always, is superb – she creates a tone that’s tense and cynical and completely engrossing. The last 50 pages or so were epic – I just felt the book was rather stagnant until it got to this point. At any rate, I am looking forward to reading The Stone Sky and seeing how Jemisin concludes this series – I’m sure it’ll be amazing.

book review: An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis

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AN ARROW’S FLIGHT by Mark Merlis
★★★★★
St. Martin’s Press, 1998

I loved this book, but I’m not really sure who I’d recommend it to. Having some kind of knowledge or passion for Greek mythology seems requisite going in – I can’t imagine getting much enjoyment out of this if you aren’t familiar with the original stories that Merlis is adapting and expounding on and subverting – but this is not your run of the mill Homeric retelling.

You start the novel with Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, and you think you’re going to Troy. That’s how the story goes, anyway – Achilles dies, Pyrrhus takes his place as leader of the Myrmidons, and with the bow of Philoctetes, Pyrrhus takes Troy. Mark Merlis has other plans.

What starts as a (granted, wildly unconventional) retelling of the tale of Pyrrhus quickly morphs into something bigger, via a detour to Sophocoles’ Philoctetes – an allegorical commentary on the AIDS crisis in 1980s America. And it’s just weird enough that it works, beautifully. This is a quietly powerful and unsettling story that starts with the Trojan War and ends up having a lot to say about fate and free will and gay identity.

We’re held at arm’s length from our anti-hero Pyrrhus for the majority of this story. Self-centered, lazy, and apathetic, Pyrrhus is ostensibly difficult to root for. And yet. He gets under your skin, as do all of Merlis’s characters. In that way, this isn’t necessarily an easy book to love. It’s deliberately provocative and graphic, and it shows an ugliness to human nature that isn’t easy to stare in the face. But it’s an even stronger achievement for that, I think. Merlis is able to take this dark and cynical story and infuse it with just enough hope and romance that you’re compelled to see it through to the end – with beautiful payoff once you do.

Merlis’s prose is witty, droll, and surprisingly incisive. It ranges from mildly amusing to positively breathtaking. There were so many lines I had to stop and reread just to take in the full effect. Passages like this:

Did they just not believe it, the Trojans? Or did they believe it the way you believe you’re going to die? With certainty and utter incredulity so perfectly balanced that they fight to a draw, leaving the ignorant animal in you free to get out of bed in the morning.

And this:

The most terrifying thing that could happen to anyone: to have to stand there and hear, from someone who knew everything, the worst you’ve ever thought about yourself.

If you’re looking for a modern but slightly more straightforward Greek mythology retelling, try The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller) or Ransom (David Malouf) or Alcestis (Katherine Beutner) or Bright Air Black (David Vann). If you’re looking for a powerful gay epic that touches on the AIDS crisis, try Angels in America (Tony Kushner) or The Heart’s Invisible Furies (John Boyne) or Tell the Wolves I’m Home (Carol Rifka Brunt). If your interests are niche enough that you’re looking for a combination, boy do I have some great news for you about An Arrow’s Flight.

book review: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

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CROOKED KINGDOM by Leigh Bardugo
★★★★★
Henry Holt & Co, 2016
(Six of Crows #2)

I LOVED THIS. Crooked Kingdom is everything that was great about Six of Crows – fast paced action, characters getting out of impossible situations in unexpected ways – but it built something even better upon its already solid foundation, thanks to some truly phenomenal character development. In Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo digs into her characters’ backstories to create even more depth and dimension to this already flawed and fascinating group of individuals, and I came out of it with an even greater appreciation of each of them.

Where the plot in Six of Crows is much more straightforward and I can see where some people may prefer it for that reason, Crooked Kingdom is where Bardugo shows her complete mastery of weaving together intricate plot threads. I was mesmerized by the fact that every time there appeared to be a straightforward outcome to a situation, Bardugo still managed to veer the narrative in an unexpected direction. And it was never a cheap trick or a deus ex machina – just Bardugo cleverly staying one step ahead of the rest of us.

I wasn’t really fond of That One Thing that happens toward the end – I thought it was sort of rushed and thrown in for shock value, and I think Bardugo could have been capable of writing that in a much more satisfying way.

But on the whole, I loved this. I love Kaz. I love Inej. I love Wylan. I love this group of flawed characters looking out for each other and wreaking utter havoc. This duology was such a fun ride, and I’m sad for it to be over.