Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier

Black Dog
Rachel Neumeier


This is a review of a book provided to me by Strange Chemistry (the YA imprint of Angry Robot books).
 
The Premise: The Toland siblings, Natividad, Alejandro, and Miguel, have fled from their home in Mexico, all the way across the United States, and have just reached their destination in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Their father’s old enemy, Malvern Vonhausel, still stalks them despite already destroying their village and murdering their parents. Now the siblings are making a desperate gamble: that Dimilioc, a stronghold for shapeshifters called black dogs, will take them in. They have very little to convince Dimilioc’s Master — only that their father was once a Dimilioc wolf, and that Natividad is Pure. Their father told them that Dimilioc protected the Pure, but it never tolerated strays. Miguel may be granted amnesty because he’s human, but Alejandro is black dog and may not be treated so kindly.
 
Read an excerpt of Black Dog here
 
My Thoughts: Before reading Black Dog, the other books I’d read by Rachel Neumeier were two-thirds of The Griffin Mage Trilogy, and House of Shadows. These are all straight fantasy, and for some reason (probably my own obliviousness), I thought Black Dog was the same. I didn’t realize that until I began reading it that this is urban fantasy. This was not a bad thing. It felt nice to be surprised that Black Dog was Neumeier’s own riff on werewolf mythology. The world is not far off from our own as it is now, but Neumeier alters all we know by setting Black Dog right after a war. This war is one that is not necessarily fully explained, but what we do know is that it has wiped out all vampires, and vampire magic happened to hide the supernatural from regular people. It also has the devastating consequence of Vonhausel tracking down the Toland family and slaughtering everyone in their village. Black Dog opens in the midst of the siblings’ flight from home, with the plan to be taken in by the group of black dogs that their father once belonged.
 
Black Dog is narrated in the third person but focuses on Natividad and Alejandro, and as you would expect when a supernatural murderer is after you, this story has a desperate edge. First there is the fear of getting caught before they reach Dimilioc, and then there is the stress over what to say that would most likely keep them alive once they get there. After that the challenges just keep coming. So this has a quickly moving plot, but beyond that, the world building and the characters kept me engaged as well. The Tolands’ Mexican upbringing is part of the narrative (the dialogue is peppered with Spanish), and that mixed with their having to grow up quickly kept these characters real and vulnerable.
 
What black dogs and the Pure are, are organically introduced as necessary. It isn’t difficult to catch on that a “black dog” is a shapeshifter that turns into a monstrous dog, but Neumeier throws in her own touches, from the superficial (like their black fangs and claws, intense heat, eyes of “fiery gold and red”, and black ichor of their wounds) to the fundamental (that they are two separate selves, one human, one shadow, housed within the same body). The Pure, which Natividad is, is more difficult to grasp. Natividad demonstrates that she has powers that she uses to protect and hide her brothers from their pursuers, but as the story moves forward, it becomes clear that’s not all she’s useful for. Adding to the mystery is the strange relationship the black dogs have with the Pure. Black dogs are drawn to the Pure, but while one half of their nature wants to protect them, the other wants to destroy. It’s not certain that even the Pure and the black dogs know how they are linked.
 
The Dimilioc wolves believe in protecting the Pure. In fact, they are prized, which is one of the reasons Natividad and her brothers have decided to go to them. Here is where things get sticky though, because Natividad is willing to sacrifice herself in exchange for her and her brothers’ survival (“I’m not a puta; I won’t lie down with them all. But if you take us into Dimilioc, I will take any one of your wolves you say”). Whether Natividad really has any agency is one issue, that she is only fifteen years old (while the youngest of her options seem to be in their twenties, there are men much older than that here), is another. I suppose I should feel better that it’s one of the youngest who is most aggressive in the pissing contest over Natividad, but when you are fifteen, a five or six-year age difference is significant. Any further romance or consent would be questionable. On the other hand, things don’t progress far enough for me to really question what is happening. All this is sort of there, in the background, percolating, while the Toland siblings deal with more immediate life or death situations. Yes, there is attention and Natividad isn’t immune, but there is the sense she wonders whether it’s real. I feel hopeful, because of the thoughtfulness of the writing, that when this series continues I won’t be disappointed by what happens to Natividad. I am not completely against a romance, but I’d feel better if Natividad got to grow up first. I also wonder whether the controversial romance is deliberate. It’s interesting when you pair the situation with Natividad’s nature, which involves a lot of placating of the black dogs and defusing aggression with teasing jokes made at the right moment. I also noticed a mirroring of Natividad’s situation in another (male) character. Needless to say, I’m very interested in finding out where this is going to go. Unfortunately, Strange Chemistry has been discontinued, but it sounds like Rachel Neumeier still expects to be able to publish the sequel, Pure Magic, one way or another.
 
Overall: Every time I read a book by Rachel Neumeier, it becomes my new favorite by this author. I think this is because of a mix of super thoughtful writing plus an element of surprise. Black Dog is no different. This was the kind of read that you gobble up quickly, with a lot of life-threatening action squeezed into the space of the few days, but it was the quieter moments between the life-or-death situations, where the characters are planning and anticipating and arguing, that lingered long after the book was closed. For those looking for no more than action and adventure, you will find it here. For those looking for something deeper – Black Dog sometimes made me uncomfortable in a way that is never resolved. Depending on how things go, I think this series has the potential to be more subversive than you’d initially expect.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powells | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Bunbury in the Stacks @ Tor.com – “Black Dog is, like the characters within its pages, frightening and beautiful and solid right down to its core.”
Chachic’s Book Nook – “Rachel Neumeier made a successful foray into urban fantasy with Black Dog.”
On Starships and Dragon Wings – “I was excited to get to know some characters a little different from the typical young adult cast, but I was completely unable to connect to them for reasons I’m honestly still not able to pin down.”

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves
Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves was one of the more coveted YA books at BEA last year, and rather difficult to get (the publisher gave out the time to grab the book only to those who specifically asked, and then handed them out so quickly they were gone in 10 minutes). I was hoping to get an extra copy for book blogger friends who only asked for this one book, but I don’t think I had any luck. Anyway, this came out September 2013, and was another pick for the YAckers. They had a lovely chat about The Dream Thieves which is up online now. Of course, being the reprobate that I am, my contribution to this chat was something along the lines of “I’m still reading it, you guys talk about it without me.” This was the right thing to say because it took me a whole month to read this book, mostly thanks to the day job sucking away my time and attention, but I do wish I could have talked about it with the gang because I have the sneaking suspicion that I am the outlier again when it comes to this series. I’ve actually refrained from looking at the chat before I finish this review because I’m afraid of how far off my opinion is going to be.

This is the second book of The Raven Cycle. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I recommend you read my review of The Raven Boys instead of this one, because possible spoilers for that book lie ahead.

The Premise: Despite the freedom of summer break, a newly awoken ley line, and Ronan’s unveiled talent, the search for Glendower is no easier than it was before. Shady characters have appeared in Henrietta, drawn by the power spikes from its ley lines. The trail runs hot and cold as energy grows and dims without explanation or clear source. Similarly, the all is discordant amongst Blue and the Raven boys. Noah disappears and reappears with each dip and surge in energy. Ronan toys with more dangerous pursuits. And a lingering tension hovers between Adam, Blue, and Gansey that threatens to fracture the whole group.

Read an excerpt of The Dream Thieves on scribd (or pdf: here)

My Thoughts: When I look back at my review of The Raven Boys, I had problems with the fragmented focus – there are a lot of characters, each with their own individual back story, and it was difficult for me to tell who the main protagonists were and where the whole story was going. Then I reminded myself that despite having trouble with the meandering storyline, I loved the characters, enjoyed the writing, and would road trip to Henrietta in a heartbeat. I said to myself that this was the cost of set up when there were multiple characters involved and a dreamy supernatural backdrop to explain. And because the framework was taken care of in The Raven Boys, it seemed a reasonable expectation that I would fare better with The Dream Thieves.

Unfortunately, I had very similar issues with The Dream Thieves that I had with The Raven Boys. I don’t know what else to do but sigh over this, but before I go into why this book didn’t set my heart aflame, I want to point out it might do just that for someone else by reiterating what I said when I reviewed The Raven Boys: “If you are one who can sit back and enjoy a character-driven story with lovely prose and you don’t need to know where it’s all going, this will do quite well.” If you are one of those readers, this story is made of words that are simple yet arranged in very pleasing ways. It has characters who you want to follow around and learn what makes them tick. And yes, there is magic.

“In the shower, Adam scratched a thumbnail across his summer-brown skin. The line of his nail went from white to angry-red in a moment, and as he studied it, it struck him that there was something off about the flow of the water across his skin. As if it was in slow-motion. He followed the stream of the water up to the showerhead and spent a full minute watching it sputter from the metal. His thoughts were a confusion of translucent drops clinging to metal and rain trembling off green leaves.

He blinked.

There was nothing odd about the water. There were no leaves.”

If that’s enough for you, you can probably skip the rest of the review and go enjoy the book. Otherwise be prepared for my kvetching because I really wrestled over what exactly didn’t work for me. This was a review more to work out my own demons than anything else.

I feel a little despondent that what this book has going for it wasn’t enough for me, but ultimately it comes down to what kind of reader I am, and like I said when I reviewed the first book, I need structure. It doesn’t have to be all business right away, and The Dream Thieves started out promisingly with a continued search for Glendower and tantalizing hints about Ronan’s ability, but as I read on my enthusiasm slowly waned. I was surprised by the introduction of a morally ambiguous “heavy” (appropriately named The Gray Man), but he seemed interesting so I read on. By mid-book, I felt like things were moving slowly, but I was still hopeful I could like this story if I could just get some answers, such as what Declan really knew and where things were going. A bit after that mid-way point I began to question. Three-quarters of the way was where I realized I wasn’t going to get that direction I was hoping for and I was officially frustrated. Of course the last few pages of the book is where the story takes off, but by then I wasn’t as engaged as I wanted to be.

Thinking back on it now, if I had approached this as a side-story that was about Ronan and not a “traditional” sequel to The Raven Boys, my expectations would have been calibrated properly. Because I thought there would be progress with the Glendower search, it didn’t compute when the search was mired and another mystic concept, the Greywaren, was thrown in as if out of no where. Things were happening, but to me it was a slow inching trek toward an unknown destination, and I was in a frustrating place where I didn’t know if what I was reading was taking me anywhere. In my mind I was in the second book of a series feeling like I actually hadn’t gone beyond the set up stage of the story.

What compounds my problems with direction and plot is that this is a multi-character story with multiple focuses. Ronan has a bigger role in this second book (which I expected, based on the title and the cover), and I was looking forward to it because he’s so enigmatic in The Raven Boys, but because every chapter was a short flash on a single character before moving onto the next, his voice was one of many. It was easy to forget that this was “Ronan’s book” when the focus moved away from him so often. While Ronan’s power to bring dreams to life is explored, two new characters (the aforementioned Gray Man, and Kavinsky – an obnoxious street-racing-fellow-student) are introduced, and Blue, Gansey, Adam, and Noah continue to have their own problems. Not to mention what all the women living at 300 Fox Way get up to. Again I was reminded the first book, where the fragmented focus made me unsure of who the main characters were. In the end, the characters that get the most page time (Ronan and The Gray Man) were the characters I was happiest with because there was enough pulling back of the veil to see their inner workings, even if I wasn’t completely satisfied with their particular story arcs (that’s a whole other thing that goes into spoiler territory though). As for almost everyone else, it was as if there were too many characters for there to be more for the reader than to touch their outside edges, let alone grasp them whole.

Where I really felt this was with Adam, Blue, and Gansey, whose interrelationships are complicated by romance, rivalry, class, and a curse. What we got of them only makes the loss greater: subtle scenes between Gansey and Blue, a raw honesty between Blue and Adam, and tests of friendship between Adam and Gansey. Despite this, I had only my own guesses to things like why Adam’s character was so alien (more angry than vulnerable) from what he once was. I can’t help but feel like I’d trade one or more of the minor characters’ space in The Dream Thieves for more Adam, or Blue, or Gansey.

I know, I know. Due to my (faulty?) wiring, even though I kept thinking of certain wonderful bits and pieces of this book long after it was finished, I was just too bothered by all of the above for The Dream Thieves to be a hit with me. I’m sure I’m in the minority in this.

Overall: My reaction is the dreaded “I wanted to like this more than I did”. While I found a lot of things to like about The Dream Thieves, for each aspect about this story that I enjoyed, there was another that really didn’t work for me. One problem was my expectations and that I was approaching this story thinking that it was a continuation of The Raven Boys rather than something that was more of a companion piece that intertwines into the greater whole. Another was that I just don’t do well with a lot of characters and an unfocused destination. Since I had similar issues with The Raven Boys and hoped I would fare better in this book, The Dream Thieves rated lower than The Raven Boys on my visceral reaction scale, but would probably rate higher if I could repress my feelings and look at this with more neutral eyes. I suspect I would like this book more the second time around now that I know what I’m getting.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Angieville – “If you’re looking for a story worth living and breathing, The Dream Thieves will take you there.”
Book Harbinger – “When somehow the Raven Cycle comes to its impossible, filled-to-the-brim-with-potential conclusion, we’re in for a treat.”
Bunbury in the Stacks – “I am unable to find all of the proper words needed to express my love of book two of The Raven Cycle”
YAckers discussion

Yup yup, everyone liked this more than I did. I will go hide now.

Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley

Graffiti Moon
Cath Crowley


I think it was two (or was it three?) years ago when Graffiti Moon was enthusiastically recommended on almost every YA book blog I read. It’s been on my mental “one day” list for a long time, but I never actually got around to buying myself a copy (I think it was a combination of wanting a paperback edition and preferring the Australian cover to the American one). Finally, I had my chance to read it through Holly of The Book Harbinger. Thanks Secret Santa!
 
The Premise: (from the back blurb) “Senior year is over, and Lucy has the perfect way to celebrate: tonight she’s going to find Shadow, the mysterious graffiti artist whose work appears all over the city. Somewhere in the glassy darkness, he’s out there, spraying color, spraying birds and blue sky on the night. And Lucy knows that a guy who paints like Shadow is someone she could fall for — really fall for.
 
The last person Lucy wants to spend this night with is Ed, the guy she’s managed to avoid since punching him in the nose on the most awkward date of her life. But when Ed tells Lucy he knows where to find Shadow, the two of them are suddenly on all all-night search to places where Shadow’s pieces of heartbreak and escape echo off the city walls. And what Lucy can’t see is the one thing that’s right before her eyes.”
 
My Thoughts: This is a story told from mostly two points of view: that of Lucy, celebrating the end of year twelve with her friends Jazz and Daisy, and that of Ed, a high school dropout who has a few hours to kill before he and his friends Leo and Dylan plan to break into the school. Ed and Lucy know each other, but between them lies a gulf filled with awkwardness. They had one date that ended in humiliation, and neither of them have quite gotten over it. For Lucy, it cemented her belief that outside of books (and the possible exception of her obsession, Shadow), looking for a kindred spirit amongst the local boys only leads to disappointment.  For Ed, their date was yet another demoralizing event in a long string of demoralizing events.
 
It’s not really anyone’s fault. Lucy doesn’t know a lot of things about Ed because he never confided in her. And Ed is so used to hiding the truth that it’s led to a spectacular failure of a date and his dropping out of school. It doesn’t help that Ed and his mom were barely scraping by before he lost his job. Now he’s worried about the rent and making decisions out of desperation rather than good judgement. That brings them to where they are now: Lucy and her friends with nothing more pressing on their minds than a night of fun and possibility, Ed and his friends going along, but keeping their secrets.
 
What follows is a read that hit the sweet spot: not too short, but not overly long; sweet but not fluffy; predictable in a comforting way, but also utterly different from anything else I’ve read. And just the right amount of humor to keep everything going. I couldn’t help liking Lucy and Ed immediately. Lucy with her instant friendships and her take-no-nonsense edge, and Ed, who is a little bit lost and deserves a break. Most of this book was just Ed and Lucy talking, and their banter is pretty great, but also reading what each is thinking about the other as we switch back and forth between them makes their interactions even better. Ed’s unease with hiding things from Lucy makes for some parts particularly poignant.
 
The book that Graffiti Moon is probably most compared to is Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Music is to Nick and Norah, as Art is to Graffiti Moon. When the shared interest in creativity comes with a night-long adventure on the town, bumping into ex-girlfriends, and skirting from trouble, it’s no wonder that the two books are considered similar. But the similarities are superficial. These stories hit me in different ways. I feel like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist has a young adult world that’s separate from authority figures and responsibility; it exists within an intimate sphere and is about the magic that happens when people develop a  connection. In Graffiti Moon, that frisson is there too, it’s just that here the characters aren’t so separate from their day-to-day lives. This is particularly true for Ed, who is constantly struggling to just get through life because he worrying about money and helping his single-parent mother who’s making her way through nursing school. Ed’s mind is always in quiet turmoil, and there’s this tension in watching someone who knows better start to take the wrong turn.
 
I think that what really got me with this book was how being a dreamer and using creative expression was portrayed so positively, beyond just being the common denominator between Ed and Lucy. My sister is the artist in the family, and I can tell you that going to the MoMA with her is a whole different experience than going with non-artist friends. Because of this, I just loved reading Lucy geeking out over art. And I loved that art could change Ed’s life in a real, not just metaphorical way, if only Ed would let it. I also loved that Ed and Lucy have parents and mentors who encourage them instead of dissuading them. It was nice to read the interactions between Ed and Lucy and those adults. I loved all these things because every time either Ed or Lucy think about something that inspires them, their words became particularly poetic. It made me root for them to keep this.
 
Overall: Really good. I think this one will have wide appeal — its writing is unassuming and accessible, but if you want depth you’ll find it. Also this is one of those books that pleasantly lingers. It could be because of the beautiful artwork painted with words, or because certain things here make you ruminate afterward. I found myself thinking about how Graffiti Moon was about the juxtaposition between imagination and reality and when I saw that theme I couldn’t stop thinking of examples: in the way Lucy and Ed’s lives became the basis for their art, in Lucy’s expectations of Shadow versus the truth as Ed knew it, and in the way art affected both their lives. It was nice to think about art and life for a little while.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Inkcrush – 5 stars (“Somehow this book perfectly captures how I felt as a teen – that big dreaming scheming place in my head”)
need_tea – B+/A- (“My initial reaction was perhaps a bit tepid, liked it but it wasn’t that great, but over time I thought about it some more and my opinion of it rose”)
Bookchilla – 4/5 (“Lucy & Ed’s story unfolded very nicely and wrapped up in such a feel good way”)
Bunbury in the Stacks –  (“My experience with Graffiti Mooncould be summed up using a number of variations of the sentence: “I don’t like _________, but I liked it in this book.””)
Angieville – (“GRAFFITI MOON is a gem–a breath of fresh air.”)
 

House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier

House of Shadows
Rachel Neumeier

This is a review of a book provided to me by Orbit books.

The Premise:  In the town of Lonne, in the country of Lirionne, a merchant dies, leaving behind his eight daughters.  The women can’t own their father’s business, and without their father, they’re destitute. The only path is for the oldest to marry so her husband could own the business and let her level-headed sister run it. This way they should make profit in a few years. The only problem is that no marriage can take place without a dowry. To save their sisters, two of the women volunteer to be “sold”.  Karah, the second oldest and everyone’s favorite, secures a remarkable price at Cloisonné House, the best keiso house in the candlelight district. Eccentric Nemienne, the other sacrificing sister, turns her oddness into an asset when she goes the Lane of Shadows to become a mage’s apprentice. Meanwhile, a bard named Taudde is caught in Lonne (in violation of the the treaty of Brenedde) and is forced by his captors to carry out their agenda. As war looms between Lirionne and its neighbor, Karah earns a protector in Leilis (a young woman who is not a servant but also not a keiso) against the jealousy of the other deisa, Nemienne explores the mage’s house and is led to unexpected places, and Taudde struggles to escape the conspiracy he’s been entangled in.

My Thoughts:  House of Shadows is a multi-protagonist story where the point of view cycles between three main characters. The first chapter’s focus is on the sisters and their decision to sell two of their number, the second’s on Leilis of Cloisonné House, and the third’s on Taudde and his difficulties. Because of the rotating points of view, it takes a third of the book (about 100 pages) before a unified plot makes itself known. (This review is going to talk about the threads, but not necessarily explain how they interweave because I try not to give away specific details on plot if it happens after page fifty).

There’s always the danger with multiple protagonists that I’ll end up invested in one character’s storyline and want to skim everything else. At first I was afraid this would happen here because I really liked Karah and Nemienne’s storyline. The death of a merchant father, the eight sisters–each with their own unique ability, and the necessary sacrifice to sell their loveliest and their strangest, infused the story with a fairytale quality I wanted to explore. I saw Beauty and the Beast in the sisters trading themselves in for their loved ones’ comfort. I wanted to dive into a story that revolved around their training to be a keiso and a mage. The shift to Leilis, a servant who is not really a servant was a surprise, but she was still in the same orbit as Karah, and smooths Karah’s transition into the House, so it wasn’t a bad shift. Also, Leilis is mysterious and I wanted to figure out what was behind someone who could be unobtrusive and also navigate the in-house politics of Cloisonné. It was when the the story moves to Taudde in the third chapter that I struggled the most. That’s when I really had to accept that the focus wasn’t just on the two sisters forging new lives. On the other hand, with Taudde, the the scope of the story widened from personal drama to political intrigue. This wasn’t the story of two sisters that I was expecting, but the world building combined with wanting to know what was going on lured me forward.

What I liked about the world building in House of Shadows is that you can feel the influence of other stories on it, but it still remains distinct from them. I’ve already mentioned fairy tales when I talked about the sisters’ story, but there’s also hints of it elsewhere: an unexplained curse, enigmatic animal guides, a man with an iron will. The sense of fairy tale also compliments how the magic of Lirionne is described. Lonne seems to be seeped in magic, yet most of the city is totally unaware, so when it is encountered, it’s strange and secret. I felt like there was a sense of wonder and mystery because here was something complex and unpredictable. The best example of this (and my favorite) is the mage’s “oddly outsized” house built into the mountain, where rooms may move and hallways stretch and bend. I love the “magical buildings that grow at will” trope.

Another influence I could see was Japanese culture — appearing here as the keiso, Neumeier’s version of geisha, with an emphasis she says, on “their roles as artists and high status women”. Beautiful, respected, and independent thanks to their artistry, keiso are sought after and could even marry, becoming “flower wives” to wealthy men (their sons would be acknowledged by their fathers). I liked that this suggests a different kind of world building than the default Western-based one. The cover reflects that, depicting a girl with with Asian features, but in the book, race is actually hazy: Karah has blue eyes, “creamy skin”, and “clouds of twilight hair”, Leilis has “storm-gray eyes” and hair “so dark it was almost black”, while another character has “dark eyes” and “straw-pale brows”, his hair, “a shade lighter”. That this story nods at Japanese culture, but it’s only a facet of the world building, not all of the world building, is good too.

Overall: This was a nice multi-protagonist story and bonus: it’s standalone, which isn’t too common in Fantasy (the ending leaves the door ajar for further adventures, but I haven’t heard any news about a sequel). The one complaint I have is that I wouldn’t have minded getting to know individual characters more, but it didn’t feel like there was room for that and to have the plot threads interweave so neatly and so well-synchronized. Character development is a big part of my personal scoring system, but I loved the world building, so in the end this fit into a middle-ish “liked” category for me.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers –  8 (Excellent)
Bunbury in the Stacks - ” I enjoyed the fairy tale beginning, but it was from halfway through to the end of this book that I was truly glued to the pages and unable to put it down.”

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl
Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl comes out in September this year. This is an early review on an ARC I received at BEA.

The Premise: It’s fall semester of freshman year, and Cather (aka Cath, the Less Adventurous Twin), feels lost amongst the other undergraduates. Her sister Wren has basically abandoned her (“if we do this together, people will treat us like we’re the same person”); her dad is home alone and Cath worries about that; her roommate Reagan is scary, and comes with the too-friendly Levi, who is in their room all the time. All Cath wants is to be left alone to work on her massively popular and novel length Simon and Baz fan fiction, Carry On, but college is getting in the way, and college is hard.

My Thoughts: Reading Fangirl is a comforting exercise. It’s one of those books where you open it’s pages and don’t notice the words because it takes no time to be engulfed. What’s more, nothing extraordinary may be happening on the page — moving into the dorms, briefly meeting a new roommate, saying goodbye to relatives, but there is an engrossing quality to how the characters reveal themselves through their everyday interactions. Well, sort of everyday. It’s not every day you move away from home and have your support system disappear. Titular character Cath thinks that college is hard, but I think the real issue is having to do it alone. Without her twin Wren at her side, Cath is too anxious to even go to the cafeteria by herself and lives off a stash of energy bars rather than find out where it is. She sits in the bathroom stalls quietly crying while the other girls in her hall are meeting one another. She is a quintessential introvert, her mind focused on an inner world, and who doesn’t like to get out of her comfort zone. Her sister may call her 3 year (now long distance) boyfriend an “end table”, but Cath is content with things being as they are.

You know where this is going. Cath can’t have the world stay safe and easy, and it won’t pause for her. Eventually she has to interact with others and be absorbed into new people’s orbits, and no matter what she does, other people and their lives affect hers. First (and most obvious) to impact her is her sister’s desertion, a strange flip in loyalty that leaves Cath floundering, but her sister is not the only family member that can rattle Cath. In college itself, Cath can’t avoid her roommate Reagan or the ubiquitous Levi, but then there’s also people from her classes like Nick from Creative Writing and the assortment of new acquaintances Cath picks up because she doesn’t want to be rude.

What I liked though, is that Cath got to stay herself while having to accept change. This is not a story with the moral that being introverted does you no good; it’s perfectly fine to be that way. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the story is Cath’s private world and her devotion to the Simon Snow series.  Fan fiction is so popular now, it’s practically mainstream, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a story that embraces that subculture the way that Fangirl does. I don’t think of myself as part of that subculture, but even I know about ‘slash’ and ‘ships’, and there’s a certain joy in recognizing that Simon Snow is a riff on Harry Potter. Obviously (points at book blog), I get the whole fan and being into books thing, and any time Cath waxed poetic about characters she loves, or I read excerpts of Simon Snow or Cath’s fan fiction (placed like intermissions between chapters) and recognized elements, I grinned internally. I loved how this is important to Cath’s life and reflects as such in her conversations and relationshipsSimon or simply, “stories” and “storytelling” is shared ground between Cath and others and there are a lot of scenes where it is the bridge between minds.

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For all of Cath’s fangirl-ly-ness I connected with Cath while also not really connecting with her. The introverted, wanting-to-be-alone parts I could understand, but some of her more extreme coping mechanisms (like not bothering to find the cafeteria and essentially starving) I could not. It doesn’t matter though. What matters is that even if I didn’t always understand her, I always felt for Cath. It was the same for the secondary characters who didn’t always make the best choices but managed to make me care about them. This is what I want New Adult fiction to be–not a marketing term that means sex, but an extension of the coming-of-age tale into a post-adolescent bracket. Fangirl captures the awkward unsure side of tasting independence for the first time.

The last thing I want to say about Fangirl is that it is surprising. There were some things that I was expecting, but in the end, this story made it’s characters a lot more complicated than I thought they were going to be, and thus bucked all my predictions. This includes a blossoming romance that I thought was going to be smooth and sweet but defied me by being almost painfully uncertain instead (and was the better for it). If you think you know what’s going to happen after reading the first 50 pages, you’d probably be wrong. The plot is essentially about relationship growth, and every single relationship Cath began in safe little boxes and mushroomed out to be unique and nuanced and entirely different beasts from which they began.

Overall: Really, really, good. I found very little to complain about, and when I did, it was always a personal reaction to a character’s actions and no reflection on the actual writing or story — not worth going over in this review.  And it actually seems to get better the more I reflect on it after finishing it. I hadn’t read anything by Rainbow Rowell before but it hasn’t missed my attention how many fans she has in the book blogging community. I waited in line for a copy of Fangirl because of the hype, and it was a very long wait. I can tell you now: it was utterly worth it.

P.S. How about that cover? I felt proud of myself for recognizing the artwork of gingerhaze.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Not yet as far as I could tell (I searched amongst my book blog friends), but if I missed yours, let me know.

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Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell

Thief's Covenant
Ari Marmell

The Premise: Adrienne Satti was an orphan that was adopted into the aristocracy, an unlikely rags-to-riches story that turned sour when she became the sole survivor of a horrific massacre and had to disappear. Now she is a thief called Widdershins that regularly gets in trouble – both with the law and with her own guild. Unfortunately people are still looking for Adrienne Satti, and maybe one day someone will figure out that Widdershins and she are one and the same. Oh, and she is the only worshiper of the god Olgun, and he lives inside her head.

My Thoughts: This is a book that I bought for purely shallow reasons: the cover pleases me. I like the use of the white background, the title placement, and the unexpected figure hanging from a ceiling beam. It does have a bit of a young adult feel (young woman on cover seems to equal YA these days), but I didn’t really realize it was YA until I looked it up on the publisher’s website. Despite just wanting this book because it’s so pretty, I didn’t pounce until I found a nice used copy because of on-the-fence (not really stellar, but not hating it either) reviews from reviewers I trust.

So.  Thieves, guilds, remarkable orphans, and a pantheon of gods that can directly communicate with their worshipers (if they so wish to). These are very well-worn tropes of fantasy and they form the building blocks of the world within Thief’s Covenant. I don’t really find this a bad thing, it’s comfort food if it’s not new-to-you, and fun if it is. What I think this story does differently is that injects an entertainment to everything. What I mean by that is: no matter what grim thing is happening on the page, the prose manages to veer off into humorous territory. You can start a scene where grim Guardsmen are examining the grisly remains of a dozen aristocrats, the floor positively awash in blood, when the focus shifts to the rafters above them where a whisper-conversation is taking place between Adrienne and her god Olgun. They’re both in shock because, well what kind of secret cult keeps written records?!

I liked the humor to a certain extent. When the jokes were gentle elbow-nudges, I was on board, but it could get rather slapstick-y, which is less of my cup of tea.  Either way, there’s enough lightheartedness in here for me to appreciate the entertainment.  One running gag was how basically everyone was after Adrienne/Widdershins but she always manages to one-up them.  The Guardsmen are after Adrienne for one reason, and Widdershins for another. The Finder’s Guild are after Widdershins for her general cheekiness, and there’s a third group that just wants to find Widdershins/Adrienne to kill the survivor of the massacre. The whole book makes me think of a hall of doors chase scene mixed with elements of  ‘Home Alone’.  Whenever Adrienne is caught, I feel like she always turns it around, leaving her captors worse off.

What is surprising is how this type of humor is juxtaposed with violence. That’s where my one real complaint about the story stems from — strangely, more because of how the secondary characters suffered than for the violence itself (although that was also jarring in the midst of what is mostly a caper). I felt like with so many throw-away characters, no chance for something deeper than a set of archetypes as the supporting cast. I would’ve enjoyed delving further and seeing their relationships with Widdershins develop. Maybe the point is to keep Widdershins isolated, or to add grit to the story. I don’t know, all I know is I wound up feeling unfulfilled, and questioning if how things played out was how it had to go. The humor and adventure in the story mostly balances out this ruffled feeling, but didn’t erase it entirely.

I have the second book of this series, False Covenant, on the to-be-read pile. I plan to read it soon.

Overall: The world building is typical fantasy fare and the secondary characters don’t really get the development they could, but the prose and humor evens things out so what you are left with is something that falls squarely on middle ground. I would recommend this as something to try if what you’re looking for is simply entertainment.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – Joint rating was: 6 (Good, recommended with reservations)
Bitching, Books, and Baking – 5 beaters (out of 5): “There are WORDS in them thar pages!  Glorious, well thought-out WORDS!”
Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell – “The ever so cool Widdershins made this my fav Marmell book to date”

Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell

Man in the Empty Suit
Sean Ferrell

This review is based on a finished copy of the book sent to me by SOHO Press.

The Premise: Every year, a time traveler travels to the same time and place: the Boltzmann Hotel, Manhattan, 1st of April, 2071, and celebrates his birthday with different versions of himself. It’s a tradition he started when he was eighteen years old and invented his time travel raft. On his thirty-ninth birthday, the party is different. This time he discovers what the elder versions of himself have been hiding from the younger ones – that there’s been a murder, and the victim is his forty-year old self. Unfortunately, no one over forty can remember exactly what happened, and they are panicked. The time traveler has to solve the murder before he becomes the victim.

My Thoughts: I loved the convoluted mystery implied by the premise of Man in the Empty Suit. With one man the center of everything – the future victim, the investigator, and all the suspects, I thought I was going to experience something very surreal, like an M.C. Escher image where everything loops cleverly back to the beginning. This story starts promisingly down this vein, but doesn’t quite complete the circuit.

This is how it all begins in the first fifty pages: the time traveling narrator enters the hotel and he’s persuaded to go above the third floor (a rule he had previously not broken) with an older version of himself. Then the older him sneaks off by taking the elevator back down and is found dead despite being supposedly alone in the car. Suddenly our narrator is surrounded by the older contingent of his birthday party, the Elders, who are all ‘helpfully’ giving him information about the murder and laying the whole problem in his hands. Our narrator, surrounded by himself has to mentally nickname his future selves based on their distinguishing features: Screwdriver, Yellow, Seventy, the Body. They all form a sort of secret club within the party, helping the narrator as he scrambles from the body to the ballroom and up and down the floors, trying to find clues while keeping his younger selves ignorant. This was all very weird, in an awesome way, but then all of a sudden there’s this paradox thrown in. And then a woman.

Somehow, the focus is taken away from the murder, and what I’m reading isn’t really a murder-mystery. This is more like a strange tale that examines this one character, his relationship with himself, a woman, Time, and whether everything he’s doing is predetermined or if he can change his fate. In theory I should be having a great time, but in reality I found myself sort of drifting through the pages. This wasn’t a difficult book to read (I was never confused about what was going on), nor did it drag, but I did feel like there wasn’t really a point to everything and the plot was just muddling along. I think if I was the sort of reader who could be content with what I got, which was personal growth, independent agendas, and time travel strangeness, I would have fared better, but my problem was that I had expectations that weren’t met. That this was a murder-mystery, first of all. If that wasn’t going to happen, I would have settled for some clever Möbius plot. Neither really panned out for me, and this left me discontent. For a long time after I finished Man in the Empty Suit I wondered if I had actually missed some vital piece of information that would have satisfied these expectations, but I have flipped back and forth through the last hundred pages and haven’t found it yet. Maybe I should be satisfied with the quiet and reflective ending instead of wanting a flashier one, but I’m not. To me, the way the story ended revealed that there was no plan. I felt like this story was pants-ed and not plotted, and it bugged me.

If plot is something that doesn’t quite work for me, sometimes the characters make up for it. In this case, our narrator (he never gets a name by the way, which I actually like), isn’t the easiest to relate to.  I mean, who is the type of person to use their time-traveling raft to do nothing really special but study history, not for humanity, but for his own curiosity, and who likes to spend his birthday (for years and years!), with no one but himself? He’s so self-involved, that he wants to be the center of attention at the party where all the attendees are himself:

“Thoroughly frozen now, I rubbed my skin dry with my palms and then pulled my new clothes out of my travel bag: a suit, the Suit. At last my turn to wallow in the shit of self-adoration.
[...]
Every year the entire party — all my selves– paused in respect when the Suit made the Entrance into the ballroom. All my other visits to the party were tainted. I always tried too hard to be the center of attention, even with myself. Especially with myself. But the Suit was beyond that; everyone paid attention to him without any effort on his part at all. A few times I tried to get close to him, to get a sense of when I might be him, but I had never been able to get his attention. It was as if he were attending a party to which no one else was invited.”

This self-absorption is reflected in every character that is him. Granted, the younger members of the party are immature in obvious ways (drunk throughout the party, or openly resentful), but while the Elders are more concerned about the welfare of the group, they are still selfish in their own ways. And does our protagonist grow in this book? Well he’s forced to go through a period of growth and eventually sees his own flaws, but it takes him a long time. So long that I spent most of the book not liking him.

Maybe this review sounds like a rant, but I’m trying to work through what’s not working because there’s something here, something that could be really good, but it’s not enough. I’m really close to having some undefinable list of personal requirements met that would leave me satisfied, but this story and I, we didn’t quite click.

Overall:  My expectations led me astray on this one. I wanted one thing (crime solving, or time travel awesomeness), but I got something else (I’m not sure what to call it). The way this story bucked expectations is a positive, and I don’t think I could say I’ve ever read anything like this, but in the end I’m more of a feeler than a thinker when it comes to my reactions to things, and I just wasn’t getting what I wanted out of this story.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Dark and Stormy Knights anthology

Anthologies are basically perfect reading when you KNOW you’re going to be interrupted by relatives. With that thought in mind, I picked this one up while on vacation in Sedona and read it in between all the madness of the Christmas season. (Yes, I know it’s been a few months since Christmas.. still working on that review backlog).

Dark and Stormy Knights
edited by P.N. Elrod

Dark and Stormy Nights is an anthology of 9 urban fantasy stories with the theme of “knights” who do some questionable things for the right reasons. So basically urban fantasy heroes doing what they usually do, which is work in the grey area. I liked that the theme is so wide open, and that the anthology had a bunch of authors I have read and liked. Here’s a breakdown of what we get, followed by my brief (non-spoiler) impressions of each:

  • A Questionable Client by Ilona Andrews (also found in a 2-novella ebook here)
  • Even Hand by Jim Butcher
  • The Beacon by Shannon K. Butcher
  • Even a Rabbit Will Bite by Rachel Caine
  • Dark Lady by P.N. Elrod
  • Beknighted by Deidre Knight
  • Shifting Star by Vicki Pettersson
  • Rookwood & Mrs. King by Lilith Saintcrow
  • God’s Creatures by Carrie Vaughn

A Questionable Client by Ilona Andrews – Kate Daniels, a member of the Atlanta Mercenary Guild is offered a bodyguard job when two of her peers back out. This is a prequel the Kate Daniels series, which means it doesn’t require you to know anything, but fans of that series will enjoy learning the back story on how Kate met Saiman, a minor but unique character. I always understood that Saiman creeped Kate out from the beginning, and why that is is explained here.  Lives up to what I expect from Ilona Andrews, currently my favorite writing duo. Link to an excerpt

Even Hand by Jim Butcher – A powerful man agrees to protect a woman and child against a supernatural pursuer. This is set in the Harry Dresden universe, except the narrator is John Marcone. I haven’t read any of the Harry Dresden books, but I gather this narrator is not Dresden’s ally. He’s not a good guy, but he does have his own set of rules, and it was refreshing to hear a story from a character on the other side and who is sharp in a scary way. This was another strong story in the anthology and really hit the sweet spot in character development – I just loved the ambiguity in this one.

The Beacon by Shannon K. Butcher – This is a story about a weary hunter named Ryder Ward who kills Beacons – people who (through no fault of their own) attract monsters called Terraphages into our world from another dimension. The latest Beacon is a young girl with a single mother and Ryder feels wretched about his choices. This sounds like an original story though the Terraphages sound like the Synestryn of Butcher’s Sentinel Wars series. Although Shannon K. Butcher is known for her paranormal romance, this didn’t go there (although it did feel like there was the set up for it). There was something about these characters that I didn’t warm to – I think they just felt very standard issue: single mother in a small town, adorable child, tortured hunter, but I felt like there was a spark for something more there if this was a longer story.

Even a Rabbit Will Bite by Rachel Caine – This is another story that didn’t feel set in a bigger universe, but I really enjoyed the world building which was nice and comprehensive in such a small space. It’s about Lisel, a centuries-old woman warrior who has managed to survive and become the last living Dragonslayer, and she’s just been informed that her successor has been chosen (by the pope, as these things are). A young girl knocks on her door the next day. I loved this one for the characterization and dialogue. The grumpy old-school Dragonslayer (“Get your ass inside”) viewing the new guard with exasperation (“glowing with youth and vitality and health and a smart-ass attitude”) but having to train her anyway and maybe gets proved wrong was a fun concept. One of my favorites.

Dark Lady by P.N. Elrod – The Internet tells me that Dark Lady is part of the Vampire Files universe because its narrator, Jack Fleming is the star of that series. This didn’t bother me, all I needed to know was that Jack was a vampire, owns a nightclub, and on occasion helps out people, and this was explained in the first three sentences. This was a very noir-style story with a damsel in distress, a mob boss, missing money, and thugs galore, set in 1930’s Chicago. What I liked about this one was that there were surprises and a puzzle which is unexpected for the story length. Link to an excerpt

Beknighted by Deidre Knight – An artist named Anna gains a patron in order to pay for “living gold” which she needs to unlock a man from another world through her artwork, but there’s something that makes Anna question her patron’s motives for backing the project. This was another story that had more of a paranormal romance tint to the writing than an urban fantasy one. I found the concept of the living gold, Artist Guild and patrons in the context of artists actually “unlocking” things within their paintings interesting in theory, but the execution was confusing. It could be a reading comprehension fail on my part, but I just had trouble connecting some of the dots.

Shifting Star by Vicki Pettersson – Skamar is a woman made flesh by the focus of her creator, and her job is to protect a certain teen girl. This means investigating the abductions of girls around her age, working with a human, and dealing with human emotions. This is just as gritty and violent and a little bit heart rending as the rest of the Signs of the Zodiac series, and it focuses on side characters, but I think it would be a little difficult to follow the concept of the Zodiac, tulpas, and who Zoe Archer is unless you’ve read other books in this world. One of the darker stories in this collection.

Rookwood & Mrs. King by Lilith Saintcrow – A suburban wife comes to Rookwood, asking him to kill her husband, who is already dead. This is another short story of the pulpy vampire detective variety, except a more modern-day version and a damsel in distress who is a lot faster on the uptake than she might be given credit for. I liked the plot of this one, but I wish the story would have been from Mrs. King’s point of view instead of focusing on Rookwood’s interpretation of events.

God’s Creatures by Carrie Vaughn – Cormac is called to deal with a killer that has gutted some cattle. It is clearly a werewolf losing the battle against bloodlust, and it won’t be long before it moves to human prey. This is another story set in a bigger universe (Kitty Norville), but Cormac is a secondary character and on a side trip so you don’t need to have knowledge of the series to understand what is going on here. The concept of hunting a werewolf was straightforward, but God’s Creatures adds a human element and ambiguity to the whole enterprise that I liked. Link to an excerpt

Overall: As urban fantasy anthologies go, this is probably one of the strongest ones I’ve read. The reason for that is there seemed to be a concerted effort (for the most part) not to lose the reader with world building details they wouldn’t know. I think we’ve all read stories set in a world related to an author’s series and been lost before. It seemed like most of these were written from the point of view of a side character, or set the story before their series begins, or are original stories not related to some bigger world. This made things more accessible, which was refreshing to see. Also keeping things cohesive: no romance and stories that all kept with a theme of doing deeds for the “greater good” that don’t always leave our heroes looking entirely pure. A very solid lineup.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Temporary worlds book reviews – “although there are a few stories that didn’t work for me, I feel as if the good content outweighs the bad in this anthology”
Calicoreaction  – Worth the Cash: “On the whole, it’s a very solid anthology with stories that stand on their own two feet even if they’re set in established universes”

Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer

This was a surprise gift from generous fellow blogger Chachic over the winter holidays (thanks Chachic!). Seeing Me Naked is a book I’d been eying for a while and it arrived just in time to fulfill a craving for contemporary story with a bit of romance.

Seeing Me Naked
Liza Palmer

The Premise: Elisabeth Page is the pastry chef for a fancy restaurant in L.A. Her five-year plan was to one day open her own patisserie, but after the five years come and go, and then another five, Elisabeth wonders if that will ever happen. With a father who is world renowned novelist Ben Page, and a brother who is a publishing wunderkind, Elisabeth feels the pressure of unfulfilled expectations of her intellectual family. Her romantic life is no better than her professional one. Her relationship with Will, childhood-friend turned world-traveling journalist consists of a few nights of passion when Will breezes into town, then months of separation while Will is following a story. Then Daniel Sullivan wins the basket of pastries and private baking classes that Elisabeth donated to one of her mother’s charity events, and Elisabeth’s career begins to go in an unexpected direction. Can Elisabeth let go of her own expectations and try something different?

My Thoughts: I had to think a little bit to put Seeing Me Naked into a category.  Even though this story has an obvious romantic arc, Seeing Me Naked is a lot more focused on Elisabeth and her personal growth than it is on the relationship to be a strict Romance. It does focus on a single woman and her career and relationship with her family but it isn’t quite lighthearted enough to be put into chick lit (although there is some humor in it). I think the closest term might be “women’s fiction”, but that feels like it could be too big of an umbrella term. Really, this gave off the vibe of a mix between a literary novel and chick lit.

At first Elisabeth’s life was rather bland and lonely. She lives alone in an apartment close to work, follows a set routine every day, and doesn’t really socialize. Her life revolves around her stressful job making desserts at a high end L.A. restaurant with a tyrant for a boss. When she goes home to see her parents in wealthy Montecito, the dynamics there are similarly overshadowed by her father, a literary giant with a matching ego. While her high society mother (heiress to the Foster Family Fortune) is supportive of her children, Ben Page is a tougher, more critical parent. Dinner is a battle of wits and intellect with the great Ben Page presiding.  As for her relationship with childhood friend Will, Elisabeth hardly sees him and is tired of them leading separate lives.

As we say our goodbyes in the foyer, I look around at all that defines me. The rubric for success in my family has always been about legacy–what imprint will you make on this world. I have tired to live by these standards all my life. Measuring success and love by the teaspoon, always falling short, the goal constantly out of reach. My five-year plan has become an unending road to nowhere, both professionally and personally.

Despite all this, Elisabeth wasn’t actively trying to change her life. Instead she continued on while the stress made her stomach hurt. Elisabeth struck me as a steady type of character with a quiet creativity, a love of food, and gently sarcastic voice. But I was worried about a certain amount of ingrained judgementality she had. Maybe judgementality isn’t the right word — it was just that she seemed to have a self-imposed set of restrictions on herself and was trying to adhere to what she thought were her family’s unspoken expectations. For example, it felt like there was an assumption of who she should be and who she should be with. Any relationship outside these parameters is assumed to be temporary, like all of her brother Rascal’s “giant lollipop head” girlfriends. When regular guy Daniel enters the picture, he seemed to me like the most honest person in her life, but I wasn’t sure that SHE saw that. I think that this first impression could turn some readers off. I’m thankful that the back blurb of this book hints that the story is about Elisabeth having “the guts to let others see her naked…and let them love her, warts and all” because that made me trust that this story would go to a better place. That, and the setting of the story which kept me interested by giving me fascinating glimpses into a life that’s set in L.A. and revolves around food.

Seeing Me Naked takes its sweet time, but there is satisfaction in reading Seeing Me Naked all the way to the end. It’s enjoyable to sit back while the nature of the characters is revealed organically, their dialogue and actions and Elisabeth’s own reactions to them deftly sculpting clear personalities. And then there’s Elisabeth’s own character. She doesn’t actively seek change, but Elisabeth is smart enough not to fight it when a good things fall onto her lap. And the best part is she works to keep these good things. If you can handle Elisabeth in her rut, you will be rewarded by a very cathartic last few pages.  Where things ultimately go left me quite content.

Overall: I enjoyed this one but I can understand why this is an under-the-radar book. It’s not quite literary fiction, not quite chicklit, and not just about self-discovery, but it has elements of all three, so it falls in a difficult to categorize place which can mean you’re unsure as a reader what you’re going to get. Also, the story doesn’t start in the best point of Elisabeth’s life and rolls forward quietly, without much fanfare — so the reward of reading isn’t immediate. It’s much later in the story that the big gestures happen, so you have to be OK with waiting and watching characters grow, enjoying the way the writing builds the story layer by layer, experiencing food and L.A. through Elisabeth’s eyes and trusting that things will get good. They do though.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Chachic’s Book Nook – “I didn’t expect to get emotional over Seeing Me Naked but I’m glad that it surprised me.”
Angieville – “The characters are complex and carefully rendered. There is no black and white in the intricate web of family relationships they navigate.”
The Book Harbinger – ” wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Seeing Me Naked to casual and seasoned readers who like complex, multivalent chick lit.”

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys was chosen as December’s YAcker read. You can check out our discussion here.

The Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater

The Premise: Every psychic Blue Sargent has ever gone to tells her the same thing: if she kisses her true love, he will die. Other people might dismiss such claims, but Blue lives in a house with her mother Maura and a group of women who are in the business of telling fortunes, and she knows how accurate their readings can be.  Blue’s fate has hung over her head for much of her life, but when her aunt Neeve joins the household, she gives Blue a timeline. This is the year that Blue is going to fall in love.

If that isn’t a grave enough portent for the year, Blue also sees the spirit of a boy during St. Mark’s Eve, when the soon-to-dead march through the grounds of an abandoned church. The boy whispers that his name is Gansey. Blue has no psychic powers of her own (she only magnifies what others see), so seeing Gansey has one of two meanings: either she is responsible for his death, or he is her true love.

In the meantime, Richard “Dick” Campbell Gansey, III (Gansey to his friends) attends the nearby Aglionby Academy. Outwardly he has the ease and confidence of the rich and privileged and he leads a gaggle of Aglionby misfits: Adam, Ronan, and Noah. But inwardly, Gansey is more than he appears. He’s a finder of lost things, and he’s searching for something in particular, something ancient and magical: Glendower, a sleeping king who will grant a boon to whomever wakes him.

Read an excerpt of The Raven Boys here (pdf)

My Thoughts: 

“I should tell you,” Maura always advised her new clients, “that this reading will be accurate, but not specific.”
  It was easier that way.
  But this was not what Blue was told. Again and again, she had her fingers spread wide, her palm examined, her cards plucked from velvet-edged decks and spread across the fuzz of a family friend’s living room carpet. Thumbs were pressed to the mystical, invisible third eye that was said to lie between everyone’s eyebrows. Runes were cast and dreams interpreted, tea leaves scrutinized and séances conducted.
  All the women came to the same conclusion, blunt and inexplicably specific. What they all agreed on, in many different clairvoyant languages, was this:
  If Blue was to kiss her true love, he would die.


The Raven Boys
begins with a sense of anticipation. The first chapters follow Blue and Gansey separately, but because of fate, Blue’s curse, and St. Mark’s Eve, the reader knows these two characters are meant to cross paths. Blue sees a boy’s spirit whispering the name Gansey, and sitting on a ley line on the other side of town, Gansey picks up the very same conversation on his recorder. Obviously Blue and Gansey are part of a bigger mystery, a mystery that they can only see the edges of from different angles.

Blue was born into the strangeness in Henrietta. She is working class and lives surrounded by women who tell fortunes and are well aware of the ley lines that make her town special. Gansey couldn’t be more different. He was born into privilege and has never experienced life without the ease that money brings to it. Despite this, he leads a pack of misfit boys at Algionby academy and has an obsession with mystic phenomena and a king named Glendower. In spite of their differences, Blue and Gansey’s lives hold some parallels. Mystery swirls around them and they share their lives with people that hold secrets. While Blue lives with her mother and older women named Calla, Persephone, and Orla (in a set-up that doesn’t seem to be unlike what I imagine a coven to be like), Gansey lives in the husk of an old factory with a couple of boys that don’t fit anywhere else.  Her mother and her surrogate aunts warn Blue about kissing boys and avoid discussing Blue’s absent father. Gansey is is leader and support for his friends but there’s a line he can’t cross that keeps Noah elusive, Ronan surly, and Adam defensive.

I liked the way things were set up in this story: Blue’s world about to collide with Gansey’s. Wondering what would happen when these two finally meet had me turning the pages eagerly. Unfortunately, somewhere after the initial set up and the actual crossing of paths, something happened. I never felt fully captured by the story in the way I wanted. It took me a long time to parse out what happened there. My reaction was frustratingly in the middle-of-the-road, and I couldn’t help comparing it to my fellow YAckers who mostly loved the book. I know that reading is a personal experience, subject to mood and a myriad other factors, but while I knew what I liked, I couldn’t pinpoint what kept me from wholeheartedly loving The Raven Boys.

Cut to over a month later, some angst over separating my reading experience from the end of a stressful year, a reread of The Raven Boys, more angst, and I think I have a better idea of what my problem was. Technically, this should have been a winner: the writing is engaging and of good quality; there’s a mishmash of eccentric characters; and the main story centers on mysteries that reveal themselves in slow degrees. Individually each character had his or her own fascinating back story. But for me, some of these strengths also translated into weaknesses. Everyone had some personal albatross: Blue with her curse and her unknown father; Gansey and his obsession for which there is no explanation; Ronan’s father’s death and his subsequent broodiness; Adam with his poverty, pride, and miserable home-life. Even Noah, who is practically a non-entity at the start of the book turns out to be more than meets the eye. On top of that, the antagonist of this story has his crosses to bear. My problem was with so many complex/tragic/secret back stories, the focus felt fragmented. Blue and Gansey took the spotlight the most, but I felt like I was focusing on the other characters through them instead of focusing on them. I’m all for characters having depth, but when there’s a mystery or tragedy to everyone, it felt like too much to me.  You could argue it all links back to the phenomena surrounding Henrietta, but (for me) it created an imbalance. Every issue I had stemmed from this central one. The pacing in the first 150 to 200 pages feels meandering, and the narration hops between characters for some time before something vaguely plot-like appears. I think Gansey and Blue were the protagonists of this story, but I question if that assumption is correct. Then when the pace picks up and the story gathers focus, I felt like certain things like Blue’s acceptance into Gansey’s group didn’t get the attention I wanted. It took me longer than necessary to finish The Raven Boys because I felt adrift.

On the other hand – did I like these characters? Did I want to know what was happening to them? I did. The characters that I loved most are the ones where veil is pulled back a little more in the narration. When that happened, oohh, that’s when I adored this book. That’s why I think I have more of a soft spot for Blue, Gansey, and Adam than the rest of this group. We’re shown Blue’s prickliness towards the raven boys, and Adam’s self-consciousness about being poor, and Gansey’s good intentions that never seem to go right when he deals with either of them. I was half-irritated with Adam’s pride until I came to a realization that his parents failed him when they instilled an us-versus-them mentality in him (which really covers their sins and did Adam no favors), and I was kind of blown away by that epiphany. And then there’s this sweet fledgling maybe between Adam and Blue. It made me hope, but also fear a little, because thrown into the mix is Blue’s curse that points at Gansey. Everything in this story is so fragile and so breakable, and there is no certainty. I’d very much like to find out what happens next.

Overall: There were things I really liked about The Raven Boys and things I really didn’t and they balanced each other out. If you are one who can sit back and enjoy a character-driven story with lovely prose and you don’t need to know where it’s all going, this will do quite well. I think that I needed more structure though. In the end I enjoyed the characters more than the plot. But now that the set up is done, I think I’ll react better to the second book, so I’m planning to continue the series and I’m really looking forward to The Dream Thieves.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Bunbury in the Stacks
Charlotte’s Library
Pirate Penguin Reads
Fantasy Literature
Debbie’s World of Books
The Book Nut
Angieville

Other links:
The Raven Boys website