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.

book review: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

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SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo
★★★★★
Henry Holt & Co, 2015

I was so afraid that I was going to dislike this book and that I’d be ostracized from the bookish community, but my trepidation about Six of Crows was all for naught. This was just as awesome as everyone says it is.

I’ll have to admit, I had a slow start with Six of Crows. Here’s where I clarify for those who are not familiar with my reading habits: I do not read a lot of fantasy. So when I’m thrown into a world with all sorts of new vocabulary to learn with such a large array of characters, I’m a little unmoored, to say the least. Leigh Bardugo integrates her invented vocabulary seamlessly into the narrative without pausing to explain what everything means – you’re able to discern the meaning through context, and it’s expertly done. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been thinking ‘wait, I’m dumb, though, can’t you just explain it?!’ on more than one occasion. It probably took me longer than it should have to figure out just what a Grisha is, exactly.

But I think at about 20% it really began to hit its stride, and my confusion finally abated. Before I knew it, I was completely sucked into this fast-paced, exciting adventure, and I fell in love with this group of flawed yet compelling characters. Notable to me were Kaz and Inej, two of the most complex and intriguing and heartbreaking characters that I’ve ever encountered in YA lit, Kaz in particular. He’s the first character who really grabbed me in this story, and I just fell more and more in love with him as his devastating backstory was slowly revealed.

The twists in this book were all kinds of exciting. Bardugo keeps the tension high, and every time it looks like things are finally, finally going to turn out okay, another obstacle arises. It never gets monotonous, though, because the stakes are high enough that you’re constantly holding your breath for a positive outcome.

4.5 stars just because of my difficulty getting into it at the beginning (but again, that’s more down to my incompatibility with this genre than Leigh Bardugo’s storytelling, which I admit was technically very well done). I ended up loving this, and I can’t wait to read Crooked Kingdom.