Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval-150x225‘Welcome to Caraval, where nothing is quite what it seems…’

Throughout last year, this was probably the debut I heard about most. It was all over social media, at YALC we were constantly being alerted to contests to win proof copies. This is a book that was published really, really well. I was not lucky enough to win an advance copy, but when I finally picked it up I did understand why so much weight had been thrown behind it.

Synopsis

Scarlett has lived on her tiny isle of Trisda all her life, protecting her sister Tella and trying to survive their ruthless, abusive father. From a young age she writes to Legend, the enigmatic man at the centre of the mystical Caraval, a travelling, week-long event, begging him to come to visit their isle. When she turns eighteen, and she writes to tell him she is getting married and if he was planning to finally come to Trisda then he shouldn’t bother, he finally writes back.

Legend sends her an invitation to join him at Caraval as his special guest, promising adventure, intrigue, danger, and self-discovery.

When Scarlett and Tella arrive, Tella vanishes, and Scarlett must solve the riddles of the Caraval and navigate its winding world to find her sister before the last day of Caraval.

Remember, it’s only a game…

Things I liked 

I suppose the thing that stands out most is Caraval itself. Garber embraces the carnivalesque and adds her own twists. There are fortune tellers and tricksters, strange and magical rules, a Carousel of Roses, a Glass Tavern, and the prevailing sense that nothing is as it seems. Scarlett and her unlikely guide cannot trust anyone, even each other. One scene I feel is representative of the weirdness and originality of the Caraval world involves Scarlett paying for an item with days of her life. This kind of thing happens quite often in fantasy writing, but it’s not so often they take the days there and then.

There is some excellent YA romance writing in this. It does all the right things – it’s a bit dangerous and there’s some mistrust, but there are acts of kindness and loyalty, too. Mostly it’s just quite sexy, which is always a winner.

The mystery of Legend himself. Ever present yet inaccessible and unseen, Legend watches over Caraval and controls all the players. There are stories about him, his life, how long he has lived and whether he has done some awful things. If he is truly a magician or a fraud, if he is a good man or a villain. Scarlett and Tella are both drawn to different sides of him. I love a character like that.

Can I say the cover design? The designs of the proofs and the finished books are GORGEOUS. In the UK edition of the hardback, there are four foiled designs concealed under the already stunning dust jacket.

caraval four covers.jpg

Things I didn’t like

I love the idea of the sisterly love at the centre of this, however I didn’t feel totally convinced by Scarlett and Tella’s relationship all the time. I liked both of their characters separately, I liked them a lot. But I don’t know, something just…didn’t feel right.

Along the same lines, their dad felt a little two-dimensional. There was an attempt toward the end to humanize him a bit, but ultimately I wasn’t convinced.

 

Should I read this?

I was going to give this 3 or 4 stars on Goodreads at first. I thought it was good, atmospheric, and enticing, though a bit flawed. Then I realized I spent over an hour in an increasingly tepid bath just to race to the end, so I bumped up the rating.

So if you’re looking for an addictive YA adventure with romance and mystery and a wonderful carnivalesque setting, then you could definitely do worse than to spend a few hours lost in these pages.

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Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

three dark crowns covers.png

I’ve been reading some reviews of this over the past few weeks and found very few I could fully agree with, so I thought I’d throw my own review into the mix. I bought this book for many reasons – partly because Jay Kristoff recommended it on his twitter, partly because the blurb had me utterly hooked, and partly because I found a proof in an Oxfam bookshop (ssh). Here’s a quick recap of the plot:

Three sisters. Three queens. One crown. Rumours abound around each of them.

Katherine is a poisoner, skilled at mixing deadly concoctions and able to withstand even the strongest of poisons.

Arsinoe, the naturalist, can bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest lion.

Mirabella, the strongest elemental in generations, able to conjure up flames and storms on a whim.

Each sister must fight the others for the crown. Only one will survive.

If only it were that simple. Katherine is indeed a skilled poisoner but, despite years of training, cannot stomach even mild poison, let alone anything stronger. Arsinoe is unable to help even a weed to grow. They, and the people around them, have been keeping their vulnerabilities a secret. But as the time for battle draws closer, who will survive?

So I absolutely love the concept for this book, and overall, I think it is really well executed. Immediately, I loved the idea that two of the three sisters have no natural talent for their destined gifts at all. However, it didn’t play out at all as I expected.

Many other reviewers have noted the slow burning narrative, some longing for more action and less of the dramatic build up. For me, the slow storytelling was great. It allowed me to get to know the world of this absurd island, Fennbirn, with its insane traditions that sets sibling on sibling. It also allowed me to get to know the secondary characters, who were absolutely my favourite part of this book.

Each sister is placed in a different area of the island, surrounded by those who can aid the development of their gifts – Arsinoe is sent to naturalists, Katherine to poisoners, and Mirabella to the temple. Each sector is desperate for their queen to win the contest, but they are not merely ambitious. Arsinoe’s friends/adopted family are the most openly loving to their queen, and they were some of my favourite characters. The poisoners with which Katherine is placed are much colder and much sneakier, keeping secrets from her and teaching her how to seduce the suitors who come to the island for a chance to become a queen’s consort, but in their own way, they obviously care for her (one thing I enjoyed about the poisoners – they treat poison like spices, any dish is duller without a touch of poison). The temple, however, are much crueller and more controlling of Mirabella, the only one of the three sisters with any actual power.

The dramas, romances, heartbreaks and rumours that built up within each camp and between them were all enticing and believable.

None of the queens was what I was expecting from the blurb – I’d be interested to know how other people reacted to them. Arsinoe and her cohort were probably my favourites, or at least the ones I identified with the most.

There were also a couple of things that didn’t 100% work for me which I will briefly detail here..:

  • occasionally a side character would say something about one of the queens, denote a specific quality as though it were obvious, which would then not necessarily play out in the action
  • the ending… I’m excited to see where this goes, definitely, but that was the only time I felt the pacing was a little off and there was something of a rush to the cliffhanger reveal
  • naturalist and elemental are a little bit too similar to be two different sets of powers…especially when poisoner is so far removed from either of them. In my opinion.

OVERALL I really enjoyed this. I’m very excited for the sequel and looking forward to re-entering this world when it comes out, although I am quietly worried that all of this excellent build up might lead to an unsatisfactory ending (don’t let me down, Blake!). Despite my reservations I gave this four stars on Goodreads (follow me here). It was so different from what I expected, much darker and richer in characters, history, world, and intrigue than I was anticipating. If you’re at all intrigued by this one, I say go ahead and try it.

Also, don’t you love that they made three different covers to represent the three queens? I always fall for stuff like that.

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

nevernightcover.jpgThis.

Book.

Though.

Stop what you’re reading – are you reading right now? Put it down. Go pre-order this book. Then go finish your book ASAP so you can be ready for the first installment of Jay Kristoff’s new fantasy trilogy. It’s gonna be a good one, guys. Oh boy. I can’t believe I have to wait for the next one.

Considering it is now a week before the release date for this book, and I spent all weekend ranting to my friends about how good it is to the extent that they all bought it for themselves at the HarperVoyager stand at YALC and could recite the release date themselves, unprompted, I felt it was finally time for a full review.

Synopsis

Mia Corvere is ten years old when she experiences death for the first time. When her father is executed as a traitor, Mia barely escapes his failed rebellion with her life. Swearing vengeance on those who destroyed her family, she fights to survive and makes her way to the Red Church, the school for assassins. In order to become a Blade, Mia must best her classmates in the arts of steel, poison, thievery, and the subtle arts (seduction, steeeamy). But there is a killer on the loose at the Red Church, and Mia must be extra vigilant if she wants to fight to the top of her classes, become a Blade, and ultimately, just stay alive.

Things I liked

We’ll start with the basics.

The setting: The Red Church is a twist on the classic magical school, the ruthless anti-Hogwarts for the post-Potter generation. The world itself is a collision between Ancient Rome and Merchant Prince Venice (as described by the author), an imagined world as if the Republic had never been overthrown. Religious fervor dominates the republic, and its leaders are determined to destroy the Red Church and its Blades once and for all. Coincidentally, it is these same leaders upon whom Mia has sworn vengeance for executing her father and destroying her family. She certainly does not lack ambition.

The freaking front cover: Am I allowed to include this? What a stunning work of art. Designed by the incredible Kerby Rosanes (whose Instagram you should follow, here). What I haven’t mentioned so far is that the world of this book is lit by three suns, meaning that true night rarely falls – unless you’re at the Red Church, of course. The three suns begin on the front page and wrap around the back. I hear they’ll be moving around as the next books in the series come out, like orbit and stuff (thank God there will be more books in this series).

Moving on to the characters.

Mia Corvere: what a protagonist. Never flinch, never fear, never forget. It is not just Mia’s determination and ruthlessness that make her an incredible character to ride along with. It is also her companion, Mr Kindly, the cat-who-is-not-a-cat, who makes her fearless but not to the point of stupidity, and the way she forms relationships with other characters. This is not the story of a friendless, brave hero, the outcast. Mia and her classmates all have their own tragedies, their own reasons for joining the Red Church. They all had to fight to get there and they all have to fight every day to stay. Mia lives her life in the shadows because the shadow answers her when she calls, but she is also funny, bright, clever, sometimes warm and, surprisingly often, kind. She also smokes cigarillos like a bleedin chimney.

The tutors at the Red Church: but I won’t talk too much about them. You should meet them for yourself.

The potential Blades, a.k.a Mia’s classmates: Tric, Hush, Ash. Their stories. Their tragedies. Their triumphs.

I could go on and on here, so I’ll just talk about one more thing.

The narrative voice: the worldbuilding takes its time, it lets you in little by little, as you need to know – but there was no sense of deus ex machina here, no convenient get-outs. The narration is nuanced, gentle when it needs to be gentle, rich when it is rich (steamy when it is steeeamy), and sharp in the midst of action. There are some extremely dark moments in this story but the humour when it comes (which it does, frequently), is excellently judged. The story and worldbuilding are aided by Pratchett-esque footnotes, which sometimes fill in histories you didn’t know you wanted with amusing anecdotes – usually ending up with someone getting themselves killed through a disaster of their own making – and sometimes simply revel in the occasional absurdity of what is happening to our protagonist. I thought these footnotes might be intrusive and break up the flow, but I was happily mistaken.

Things I didn’t like

Um.

Yeah. Um.

I’m sure it’s going to be a very long time until there is another book and I don’t know what I’ll do until then? That’s kind of a thing I don’t like?

Should I read this book?

Please, please, please do. I’m pretty sure this is the best fantasy book I’ve read since The Lies of Locke Lamora, which is no mean feat. Make this the next fantasy you read.

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And I Darken by Kiersten White

andidarken

Last week I was on holiday and I read four books – so stay tuned for more reviewing!

Contrary to my usual format, I don’t know if there’s going to be a ‘what I didn’t like’ section for this book. I blasted through this in a day, even though it is 400…500? pages long (I don’t have it with me, awks). This book was released the day before I went on holiday, and I stayed in all day (partly doing dissertation work and packing…partly in anticipation) to wait for my pre-order to arrive. I’m so glad it did, this was a highlight of my reading month. Let’s get into the review.

Synopsis

And I Darken is a retelling of the life of Vlad the Impaler – but in this case, Vlad is a girl, Lada. The blurb markets her as a princess the likes of whom you have never experienced. And while I was initially doubtful this book would deliver on that promise, I can safely say it did. Lada is fierce and fiercesome, determined, proud, loyal but not blindly, and entirely self-centred. Against the rich backdrop of the Ottoman Empire, Lada and her exact opposite brother, Radu the Handsome, must navigate the complicated political terrain, wrestle with their own constantly warring feelings toward each other, and figure out once and for all where their own loyalties lie. Initially, they are unwilling to trust Mehmed, who is after all the son of the sultan who holds them hostage against their father, but soon the three of them come to love and rely on each other in an environment where they can trust little else.

What I liked

Let’s start with the obvious: Lada. She was just great. Flawed in unexpected but un-irritating ways. Quite human, and yet utterly inhuman as well. I related to her more than I thought I would. Radu and Mehmed too, are wonderfully crafted characters. Radu and Lada hold the main third-person narration, and while I connected with each of them in different ways I didn’t find myself placing my own character on them – I liked them, as if they were people I knew and I was invested in what they were trying to achieve. Brilliant characterisation.

The setting. This is a period in history (and geography) I know very little about. Fascinating reading – can’t comment on the accuracy of the research but it was flawlessly utilised in the storytelling, not imposing or overwhelming but (certainly from the perspective of a know-nothing Ottoman-ignorant like me) felt real. Well-composed, narratively astute and complementary to the story.

The length. This is an odd one to choose, probably. But as much as I love a chunky book, this one was on the short side of an epic and the long side of a YA novel. It was just the right length for a day of sofa-bound reading when I got sick on holiday. It didn’t drag, and it didn’t rush.

What I didn’t like

Had to put this section in here just for standard formatting sake but do I have anything I didn’t like?

Not really. I felt pretty good about most aspects of this.

I guess, could have had a bit more of the Dad? Prince Vlad of Wallachia The whole conflict on his side of things sounded quite fun, with forces amassed against him, and him an uncaring, spineless and selfish leader. BUT I reckon we’re going to get more of the conflict in Wallachia in the next book, and through a more interesting lens too (but here there be spoilers, so I shan’t elaborate).

Should I read this?

If you’re in the market for some historical epic, without conventional romances or history itself quite as you know it, or if you want to complex, engaging, and morally dubious characters, or if you have been hearing about this and weren’t sure whether to pick it up, then YES. Do read it. Then let me know what you think. Can’t wait for book two.

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This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab

Last year I read V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. As soon as I finished that I sought out another of her books, Vicious. This year, she has released two more books. One was a sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, called A Gathering of Shadows, which was also excellent. The other was This Savage Song, the first in a new dystopian-YA-urban fantasy series, said by the author to be partly inspired by the Sandy Hook shooting.

SavageSong.jpg.size-230Synopsis

Verity is a city divided. Following a catastrophic event, it is overrun with monsters and divided in two – those who pay Callum Harker for protection from the monsters whom he allows to run free, and those who don’t.

Kate is Harker’s only daughter, relegated to boarding school after boarding school, kept out of Verity and her father’s life. The first chapter opens with Kate methodically burning down the chapel of the painfully forgiving Catholic boarding school, an act which sees her finally sent to a public school in Verity. Kate is determined to prove to her father that she is as ruthless as he is.

August Flynn is one of the monsters feared by the citizens of Verity. Born from a tragedy of human violence, he is constantly warring with a darkness within himself that, when unleashed, leaves a trail of death in its wake.

The fraying truce between the Flynn and Harker families begins to crumble when an assassination attempt forces Kate and August into an uneasy alliance, and between them they begin to uncover secrets in both their families that will change their understanding of the world in which they live.

Things I liked/LOVED

I loved August and Kate. I liked their awkward friendship and how they help each other, even before they are forced to team up. And I also enjoyed the castlist of other interesting characters, particularly those in Flynn’s camp, although Schwab definitely knows how to write a compelling villain.

I loved the interesting monsters, the different types, what they do and how they behave, and what they mean. In particular, I liked the human element to the creation of the monsters.

I loved how different this was to all of Schwab’s other books, she is a chameleon of fantastical YA fiction. Also, so far removed from all other YA dystopian series that it was incredibly refreshing.

Things I didn’t like

I came to this fresh out of a month of essay-writing and found that the slow exposition of what the monsters were and what certain little signifiers meant difficult – I was all in for immediate gratification, and while I was reading this before bed or on the bus it wasn’t quick enough. I resolved this issue by sitting still for a few hours on my day off and finishing it in one go. If I’d been feeling more luxurious and languishy I think I would have appreciated the art in the drawn out reveal.

I also felt that there could have been more development on the other students August becomes friends with at school, they felt a little bit like padding rather than actual people. However this is more than made up for in the complexity of the central cast.

Should I read this?

Yeah. Go on then. Then go read all of V.E. Schwab’s other books. I don’t have enough people to talk to about them.

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A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

Long time no see, bookworms. Beware, here there be spoilers.

I like Sarah J. Maas. She writes great rollicking adventures with a varied cast of characters, fun villains and interesting leads. Last year I read A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first in her new trilogy, a beauty and the beast retelling set in a world where humans and fae are separated only by a wall. It’s hard writing a review for a sequel, so here’s a little spoiler-y synopsis of the first book. As a bonus.

In A Court of Thorns and Roses, our herione, Feyre, a 19-year-old human huntress who despises the fae people and is struggling to feed her family, ends up killing a fae and in return must go to live on their side of the wall. She lives within the Spring Court, under the dominion of Tamlin, the High Lord there. Beauty goes to live with the beast, so you know how that story goes. However, there is another, darker power on the fae side of the wall, in the form of the fae conqueror Amarantha. Late in the book, Tamlin is held captive by Amarantha. Feyre risks everything for him, making a bargain with Amarantha and undergoing many life-threatening tasks, at one point forced into making a deal with Amarantha’s pet High Lord, Rhysand, reminiscent of Hades and Persephone – that if they defeat Amarantha, she must spend one week of every month with Rhysand at the Night Court. With his help, Feyre defeats Amarantha but dies in the process. BUT the High Lords of all the courts, united by their shared experience of Amarantha’s tyrannical rule, band together and use their power to resurrect Feyre. However, when she wakes, she is no longer human, but fae.

ACOMAF

Synopsis

A Court of Mist and Fury begins with Feyre and Tamlin at the spring court, soon to be married. Feyre and Tamlin are both suffering from the events that took place in Amarantha’s keep, Under the Mountain. Nightmares and high stress punctuate their previously idyllic relationship. Passions still run high and, unlike many YA books, they explicitly have regular sex. But Tamlin’s fear makes him controlling, he prevents Feyre leaving the grounds while he rides out to protect them. He keeps all manner of dangers and secrets from her. Three months after Amarantha’s defeat, the day of Feyre and Tamlin’s wedding, Feyre finds that she wishes she could escape from the impending marriage, the duties of being a consort to a High Lord and all the restrictions that come with them. And, as she hesitates walking down the aisle, Rhysand appears to make good on his bargain, to whisk her away to the Night Court.

Rhysand, despite his efforts and good looks, fails to charm Feyre on her first visit, but insists on her learning how to read and write, so she spends much of her time alone. When she returns to Tamlin and the Spring Court, she is quizzed on everything she saw and heard. Tensions escalate, Tamlin is barely able to contain his rage and fear for Feyre, despite her new, stronger, fae form. Finally he crosses line Feyre cannot forgive, and is rescued by one of Rhysand’s inner circle. She remains there, and learns more about the Night Court and the secrets of its mysterious High Lord.

Things I liked

The change of romance. I was all team Feylin in the first book. Tamre. Whatever the correct portmanteau is (the internet can’t seem to decide). Many people thought early on that there should be a Feyre-Rhysand ship. But I was all about Tamlin. The early stages of this book showed how the trauma of what happened under the mountain exposed cracks in their relationship. The attempts of both Feyre and Tamlin to maintain what was good about their relationship before are there, but their respective inabilities to deal with their trauma drives them further apart, when they could have found comfort with each other. That leads me onto another thing I liked…

The portrayal of trauma. Many heroes have an enormous traumatic experience and are fine the next time we see them. These characters went through an ordeal, and they have to cope with what happened to them and what they did under the mountain. It’s nice to see.

Feyre as a heroine. Despite now being fae, she is very human in her emotions, her flaws, and her talents. I believe her, as a character.

There were some big steamy moments. That was refreshing.

Things I didn’t like

I dunno. I had a great time reading this. Wasn’t expecting to write a review. It was..quite long? But I still devoured it in a few days.

Oh – the ending was a little anti-climactic perhaps. The old second book in a trilogy issue. But it was a great lead up to the final instalment…

Should I read this?

Obviously not if you haven’t read the first one. But if you have read it, and maybe you thought it was good but not great, maybe you thought it wasn’t what you wanted after reading Maas’s Throne of Glass series, maybe you were all about Feyre and Rhysand from the very beginning, I urge you to pick up the second one.

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Ready Player One

In the mood for some sci-fi? I have been this summer. This was recommended by various booktubers who have been right about things I’d like in the past. Ready Player One was no exception.

ready player one Synopsis

This is the debut novel from American author Ernest Cline. In the not too distant future, the Internet has been combined with simulation gaming to be the ultimate interactive experience – not just used for shopping, games, and social networking, but now you can even attend schools online. It’s called the OASIS, and the novel opens with the death of its creator, James Halliday, and the consequences of his death. As he started out as simply a game designer, he leaves behind an Easter Egg in the OASIS, accessed by finding three keys that open three gates. It’s a contest for the whole world. The prize: his entire fortune.

Our narrator, Wade Watts, is a poor, fat, orphaned teenager, who unhappily lives with his aunt and attends school in the OASIS. He has dedicated his life to hunting the Easter Egg, studying the creator’s life, his obsessions, his hobbies, for clues to the keys. At the end of chapter one we find out why Wade is telling us this story: because he’s the player who found the first key.

Things I liked

As a sci-fi novel that is heavily centred in a simulated, computer-generated environment, this is a completely approachable world to step into. It’s not overly-laden with alienating jargon, and what there is, is either explained or specific to the book – my favourite is ‘gunters’, the name given to the egg hunters.

The handling of the online identities vs the real people. Wade’s avatar, Parzival, his best friend, Aech, the lead female gunter, Art3mis, most clearly represent the diverse ways in which people represent themselves online. Another nice touch by Cline was that Wade was still limited in his online avatar, by having no money in real life. Once the Internet becomes an interactive, immersive, universal experience, it is governed by many of the same social restrictions as the outside world.

Likewise, the relationship between the gunters and the ‘sixers’ – members of an enormous corporation dedicated to finding the egg. The gunters work alone or join forces, going up against the sixers in the race to find the egg. If the sixers find it, they intend to stop the OASIS being free to join. Disaster for people like Wade whose lives revolve around the OASIS but have no money to spare.

The light-hearted tone compared with the very real danger Wade finds himself in.

The 80s references. Dear God, the 80s references. So many. I’m sure I only got about half of them, but someone who grew up in the 80s or loves things from that era (and I mean, any things: films, games, music) would have so much fun with this book. Because Halliday grew up in the 80s, many of the tasks are related to the games he played growing up, his favourite films and comic books. 

***Just been clued up on some slang slightly before my time. Halliday’s avatar, who still lives in the OASIS, is an archmage called Anorak. Anorak is apparently a name for a nerd/geek. Apologies to anyone who knew this already, obviously I’m just a noob, but it adds a nice layer to the jovial self-deprecation of the quest and the gunters.

Things I didn’t like

Occasionally felt like the odds were too stacked against the protagonists for any kind of happy ending. But not sure that can be a bad thing.

To be honest it was several weeks ago that I read it… I can only say that while I read it I was recommending it to people, and once I finished I bought it as a gift for my sci-fi coach, Motorbike Man, who tells me he enjoyed it. 

Should I read this?

Why not? If you’re looking for some approachable but immersive sci-fi, a novel that is not too long, not too short, with a compelling story and relatable but futuristic universe, then go for it. It’s the guy’s debut, too. I reckon we can expect some great things from Ernest Cline.

* * * * *

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Because I am trying not to use Amazon in my own half-arsed protest-y way, I’d like to recommend to people that they check out The Book Depository, which is a great, user-friendly site with affordable books ranging from brand new releases to classics, and in many different editions at less-than brand new prices. As I am now officially an affiliate of The Book Depository, I gain a small commission if you use my affiliate link to buy books! Please do check it out, even if you don’t buy anything right now.

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