book review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton




THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton
★★★☆☆
Tor, 2018


The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of King Lear, focusing on the young generation characters (primarily Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund) in a fictional kingdom called Innis Lear. It starts off as a faithful adaptation (think Lear but with magic)–the titular King is abdicating the throne, and he makes a shocking choice to split the crown equally between his three daughters, provided that they pass the test he sets out for them: to each declare that they love him more than their sisters. Goneril (Gaela, in Gratton’s novel) and Regan (still Regan), manipulative and self-serving, both pass his test, but his youngest and most loyal daughter, Cordelia (Elia), refuses to participate and is banished.

To say I love this play is an understatement (hi, if you’re new here, King Lear is my favorite play) and I’m finding it nearly impossible to untangle my thoughts on how I feel about this as a novel from how I feel about it as a retelling, so we’re just going to go into an aggressive amount of detail and hope something coherent materializes. Mild spoilers forthcoming (mostly about the narrative roles of the characters within the novel, not about specific plot points).

Tonally and thematically, Tessa Gratton accesses a lot of what makes Lear so special and I found that I mostly enjoyed my reading experience for that alone. I always say that Lear is a simultaneously cosmic and intimate play, concerned both with Nature and human nature, and the way Gratton literalizes these themes into her magic system and her worldbuilding is done tremendously well. The writing too has a rich, indulgent quality that suits the tone of the book; it’s slowly paced and thoughtful, which felt appropriate to the story, though I imagine others may get bored early on without a love of Lear driving you forward.

Though, that love of Lear (along with how intimately well I know this play) did end up being a double-edged sword. Gratton had my investment from the very first page without really needing to earn it, and that certainly helped me devour this 600 page book in a little over a week. But on the other hand, I started to become more and more frustrated with the ways in which Gratton engaged with this play.

First is a rather specific annoyance, that luckily only occurred four or five times, but it was jarring enough that I have to mention it. The first half or two thirds of this novel follow the plot of Lear very closely, to the point where entire scenes from the play were acted out in this book. In theory that’s not something that bothers me; what does bother me is Gratton taking word-for-word dialogue from the play and modernizing it so I felt like I was reading No Fear Shakespeare. 

Here are a couple of direct side-by-side comparisons so you can see what I mean. Gratton’s sentences are first, Shakespeare’s are second:

“He has always loved Astore rather more than Connley.”
“I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”

“Nothing will come from nothing. Try again, daughter.”
“Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.”

“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth, Father. I love you… as I should love you, being your daughter, and always have. You know this.”
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty/ According to my bond; no more nor less.”

“It is only a note from my brother, and I’ve not finished reading it. What I’ve read so far makes me think it’s not fit for you to see.” 
“I beseech you sir, pardon me. It is a letter from my brother that I have not all o’er-read; and for so much as I have perus’d, I find it not fit for your o’erlooking.”

It’s this but it would go on for entire conversations. Here’s the thing: this is pointless and distracting and when you go up against Shakespeare on a sentence by sentence level, you’re going to lose every time. 

Now, let’s get into the characters, because that’s where my real problem with this book lies.

I found Gratton’s portrayal of the Edmund character (Ban) endlessly frustrating. You could see her bending over backward to humanize Edmund, making these minor, pointless adjustments (Ban being older than his legitimate brother rather than younger, meaning his bastardy is the only thing standing in the way of his inheritance; Gloucester [Errigal] insisting that Edgar [Rory] inherit even after his alleged betrayal of his father) to amp up the reader’s sympathy, but frankly, a lot of Edmund’s charm was lost in the process. Edmund is my favorite character and I know I’m not alone in holding that opinion: the reason people love Edmund is because of his complexity and contradictions; he’s already deeply human in the play and I felt that Gratton flattened that out of him in an attempt to make his transgressions to come from a play of moral purity.

The parallel/inversion between Edmund and Cordelia in the play is fascinating to me–both youngest children, both loved by their fathers, one good, one evil, their fates intertwined in a chilling way. That Gratton chose to explore this connection was an exciting choice for me, but I felt that turning it into a romance added nothing, and in fact lost quite a bit, especially when it came at the narrative expense of what I think a lot of readers find to be a much more compelling dynamic; that between Ban and Morimaros (the King of France figure). (That’s another thing. This book had every opportunity to be explicitly queer, but there were only ever hints and whispers of queerness on the page, which I found frustrating.) 

If I were to detail every single character-related annoyance I had we’d be here for a while, so here are some other highlights: I felt that Edgar (Rory) was underutilized and misrepresented when he was on the page. Aefa is the single most pointless character I have read in anything, ever, and the fact that her POV chapters weren’t cut suggests to me that the editor just gave up. The old generation characters were all incredibly one-note; if you want to write a retelling focusing on the younger generation, that’s fine, but King Lear himself shouldn’t need to have a POV chapter to be a complex and interesting character. 

But we’re getting rather nitpicky now so let’s zoom back out. This book was marketed as a “feminist King Lear retelling” and a word that I’ve seen a lot of people use to talk about it is “subversive.” But my issue is that it was not, at all. As I mentioned above, the first half of the book follows Lear with dogged faithfulness, and after that, things start to go off the rails. Which is fine, fun, exactly what I’m here for! If I wanted to read King Lear I’d just read King Lear. But when Gratton started taking control of the narrative, her choices, to me, started to become more and more unwieldy. Nothing she did felt to me like a direct, deliberate subversion of the play; it felt like she had more interest in telling her own story with these characters than doing so as a means to engage with the original text, and that’s something that I think makes for an unsuccessful retelling. I don’t think you need to have complete and utter reverence for the original, but I think a love for the play coupled with a clear vision for how to engage with it is necessary. I felt–especially after reading an interview with Gratton–that her aim here was as nebulous as ‘King Lear but with better female characters’, and as a staunch Lear fan, I was rooting for this book but it really let me down in the end.

But I will end on a positive note (sort of): while I felt that Elia was as stiff and uninteresting as cardboard, I thought Gratton succeeded in doing some very interesting things with Gaela and Regan; Gaela particularly. The ways in which Gratton played with gender in Gaela’s chapters were dynamic and exciting and I think that along with the aforementioned magic system, Gaela’s character is this novel’s primary strength. 

This is already the longest review I’ve written in ages and I’m not sure how to end it. Bottom line, do I recommend this book? While I appreciate you sticking with me for this long, probably in hopes of me answering that question, I’m sorry to say that I really don’t know. I think you should be interested in Lear but not love Lear, maybe that’s the key to unlocking the optimal reading experience.

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: Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

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SUICIDE CLUB by Rachel Heng
★★☆☆☆
Henry Holt, July 10, 2018

 

Suicide Club is a book full of brilliant concepts that never develop into a convincing or engaging narrative. It’s a speculative novel set in a near-future New York society in which death is illegal and the pursuit of immortality is all-consuming. 100-year-old Lea Kirino is a model citizen; she has a high-level job on the New York exchange, which now deals in trading human organs, she has a genetically beautiful fiancé, and she’s being considered for a promotion. But things change for Lea when she spots her estranged, fugitive father for the first time in 88 years, and she comes in contact with a group called the Suicide Club, which advocates for the right for everyone to live and die on their own terms.

So it pretty much goes without saying that this is a fantastic premise; where Suicide Club falls apart is in the execution. It starts out on a promising enough note – the worldbuilding at first seems impressive, and Rachel Heng does a good job of integrating her new terminology into the narrative so that it doesn’t overwhelm. It’s not until you get a decent amount of the way in that numerous holes begin to develop – and it’s not so much in the nitty-gritty details as it is in the overarching concept. If society is still comprised of so many “sub-100s” (people with a ‘normal’ lifespan), how has death become such a cultural taboo? And why don’t these groups revolt against those in power to gain access to their technology? Why is Lea so closely monitored for a supposed suicide attempt after she’s hit by a car; does no one ever have a genuine accident in this society? In some ways this reminded me of Felicia Yap’s Yesterday, another underwhelming speculative novel whose premise falls to pieces if you look too closely.

But the biggest problem with this book was the protagonist, Lea. I don’t even know where to begin. I was sort of buddy reading this with my friend Hannah, who at one point said that the only logical explanation she would accept for Lea’s behavior was if she were revealed to be an alien at the end of the book. Spoiler alert: she isn’t. But I think that just about sums it up. Even though Lea has a lifespan of 200-300 years (so she’s technically only middle aged), she’s still 100-years-old, so you’d think we’d see some wisdom and life experience occasionally reflected in her behavior. Instead, she is the world’s most wooden, immature, simple-minded character, who makes the most incomprehensible decisions and shows absolutely zero critical thinking skills. This would be convincing characterization for an 11-year-old girl; not a 100-year-old New York businesswoman. Her backstory too is laughably incongruous with her characterization, and her character development is hackneyed and unrealistic. Despite the questionable worldbuilding and positively dull narrative, I think this book could have been saved if we’d been focusing on someone other than Lea.

Which brings my to my next point, which is that we follow another character for a few chapters, Anja, a Swedish immigrant living in New York with her mother who is being kept alive in a vegetative state. Anja is vulnerable, complex, sympathetic – everything I hoped Lea would be – and it makes no sense to me why we follow Lea’s journey so closely at the expense of Anja’s. The split between their chapters is probably 70/30 in Lea’s favor, which makes me wonder how Lea can come across as so under-developed when she has more than twice the narrative that Anja has.

So all in all, a disappointment. But it’s worth noting that this is a debut novel, and a rather ambitious one at that. The writing itself was solid, and again, the premise was brilliant, so I think Rachel Heng shows promise. I’ll be interested to see where she goes from here – though hopefully it’s somewhere with a more convincing and sympathetic protagonist.

Thank you to Netgalley, Henry Holt, and Rachel Heng for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

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: 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.