book review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater
★★★★☆
Scholastic, 2011

 

The Scorpio Races is a wonderfully bizarre little book about a horse race on a mythical Irish island… each year capaill uisce (Irish Gaelic for ‘water horses’) come out of the ocean – larger, fiercer, and deadlier than land horses – and a brave few ride them in a race for a significant sum of prize money. Nineteen year old Sean has been riding in the races for years, ever since his father died, and he’s won four times on his stallion Corr. Puck has never ridden a capall uisce in her life, but she enters the races in a desperate attempt to save her family house from repossession. (Incidentally, I used to be a horse girl and my nickname used to be Puck, so all things considered, I immediately had a connection with this book.)

I’d never read any Maggie Stiefvater before, but consider me hooked. This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read – with the dreary November setting it almost begs to be read in the fall. Stiefvater’s prose is so immersive I could practically feel the wind whipping across my face when Sean and Puck were riding their horses across the Irish cliffs. One element of this story I loved was the fusion of Irish Catholicism with the fictional island of Thisby’s own mythos – the way the two coexisted in this narrative was fascinating to me.

These characters quickly and easily won me over. Puck instantly became a favorite (maybe it was the name thing at first, but she turned out to be pretty awesome), and her relationship with her two brothers was one of my favorite things about this story. Unfortunately I found Sean rather bland for the most part, but one element that I appreciated was the contrast between Sean and Puck’s relationship with the capaill uisce. Both of them had parents who had been killed by the water horses, but where Puck was repulsed by them as a result, Sean formed a stronger connection with them. While the story is leading toward an inevitable romance between Sean and Puck, I was glad to see that the romance never really took center stage. It’s more a book about belonging, and surviving, themes which are rendered subtly throughout the novel.

This was at a 4.5 star level the whole time I was reading, and whether I rounded up or down in my review was always going to depend on the ending, which unfortunately left me a bit dissatisfied… Too many plot points were rushed and tied up neatly in too few pages, and for me, the emotional climax of the story happened with about 30% of the book left… While on some level I do think the conclusion was tonally appropriate, I guess I had been hoping for a bit more pain to see out the novel. But that probably says more about me than the book. I really enjoyed this, and look forward to reading more from Stiefvater.

[This was a buddy read with Steph @ Lost: Purple Quill – read her excellent review HERE.  And if you aren’t already following her blog what the heck are you doing??]

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.

book review: When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

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WHEN THE SEA IS RISING RED by Cat Hellisen
★★★☆☆
US pub date: 2012
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
My review on Goodreads

I’m sure I raised a few eyebrows when I added this to my currently reading shelf. If I’m not into YA and I’m not into fantasy, I am really not into YA fantasy. However! I am someone who’ll read anything that’s been suggested to me, so in an effort to expand my reading horizons, I heeded the recommendation of my friend Hadeer and decided to give it a go. And I’m glad I did!

When the Sea Is Rising Red is a paranormal fantasy with a vaguely Dickensian vibe. Think Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol, and then throw in some magic and vampires. This is a moody and evocative book whose real strength lies in the atmosphere that Cat Hellisen creates. And on top of that, the world building in this novel is impressively extensive. Hellisen has a really phenomenal imagination.

The problem is, she wasn’t always able to translate her visions into a cohesive narrative. There are so many incomplete elements to this novel that are full of promise, but they just… never manage to come together in a satisfying way.

For about 90% of this book, nothing happens. And that was fine with me, because I’m someone who prefers character-driven stories to plot-driven stories anyway. My problem is that most of the characters were paper-thin, and that the ending was incredibly rushed and dissatisfying.

The heroine of the novel, Felicita, is easily the most three-dimensional character. She’s understandably youthful and naive, and I like that after she runs away from home she frequently considers going back. It’s just realistic that a girl who grew up being waited on in a lavish home wouldn’t be aware of just how difficult it is slumming it, sleeping on a hard floor and scrubbing dishes for ten hours a day. Her feelings toward her two potential love interests, the charismatic low-born Dash and the vampire Jannik, are likewise believable. She’s a solid protagonist that holds the story together nicely.

But really, she’s the only character I even begin to understand. I’m left with so many questions that I doubt will be answered in the sequel, all having to do with secondary characters’ loyalties and allegiances. If you’re going to sacrifice plot for the sake of depicting character dynamics, your reader shouldn’t be left wondering what the characters are thinking, or how they feel about one another.

One of the worst examples of this is the relationship between Felicita and and her brother Owen, which was disappointingly underdeveloped. I didn’t understand the impetus behind Felicita’s decision regarding Owen at the end – it involves a change of heart that’s never fully examined. The whole ending was wrapped up entirely too quickly and neatly – it’s like the whole book was building up to a scene that ended up lasting about two paragraphs.

But ultimately, I enjoyed reading this. Hellisen’s prose is incredibly mature for YA, and the world she creates here is rich in history and mythos. On the surface level, this book is gorgeous and strange and unique and fascinating. It’s in the details that it starts to fall apart. Regardless, I’ll probably be interested in checking out the sequel at some point.