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The Dark Days Deceit by Alison Goodman

To say that I am incredibly disappointed by this final instalment would be pretty accurate.
I enjoyed The Dark Days Club and I thought The Dark Days Pact was the perfect sequel. Goodman’s writing painstakingly depicted the Georgian era, its customs and language. Lady Helen, our main character, was both sensible and diplomatic, and she could also kick some serious ass. The slowest burn of them all, her infatuation with Lord Carlston was thrilling. Throw in some demons, action, and a lot of letters, and you get the perfect ‘Fantasy of Manners‘.
Or so I thought…
After reading The Dark Days Deceit I no longer feel fond of this world. This last novel left me with a bitter taste: nearly everything that I loved in previous instalments…I now sort of hate.

Positives:
Goodman’s writing is still par excellence. She makes the setting come life. Each scene that takes place is described with extreme detail, and the elegant prose resonates with the historical period itself. While there are plenty of dramatic and serious occasion, the style often comes across as satirical, poking fun at traditions and beliefs of that era.

Negatives
Where do I start?
It might be because the previous instalment came out nearly two years ago but it took me quite some time to readjust to this world. There are plenty of characters or things that have happened that I could not remember. The terms used to refer to the ‘supernatural’ elements were easier to remember but I was not a fan of the whole ‘Grand Reclaimer’ bond between Helen and Carlston. All of a sudden they seem able to share telepathic conversions?! And other people sort of notice?! Are they just obviously staring at one another? Subtle. Why even bother with the silent conversations.
Helen acted in such an irritating manner. The whole marriage plot was pointless and a real drag. Why save the world when you need to prepare your wedding? The world can wait. Worst still is that she was such a horrible friend. Carlston ‘s jealousy and short-temper made him just as likeable as Helen. Helen’s friends and the other members of the Dark Days Club seem to fade in the background, only to be (view spoiler)[ killed off (hide spoiler)] to make Helen feel as if ‘she had failed them all’.
The worst thing however is the ‘twist’ which made the whole plot ridiculous.


MY RATING: 2.5 of 5 stars


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The True Queen (Sorcerer Royal #2) : Book Review

Untitled drawing (7)
The True Queen
by Zen Cho
★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

Now this is what I call a great companion novel.

“Relations are a terrible burden to a girl with magical ability.”

It’s not easy to describe this series. A mad fantasy romp? A comedy of manners? A fantasy of manners? A pastiche 18th– and 19th-century literature? Fun quests?
I strongly recommend reading Sorcerer to the Crown before embarking on this one. I actually think I enjoyed this novel more because I started this knowing more about Zen Cho’s style and magical world.

The story focuses on Muna and her sister, Sakti, both of whom have lost their memory. Waking up after a storm they remember only their names and that they are sisters. The two travel from the island of Janda Baik (where Sakti is trained by the powerful witch Mak Genggang) to England. Sakti however is spirited away during their shortcut through the unseen realm (aka fairyland), and Muna arrives alone to England.
Here we are reunited with familiar faces such as the Sorceress Royal (Prunella!), her husband, Zacharias Whyte, and Henrietta Stapleton (a schoolmate of Prunella).
The novel follows different characters, and Cho easily waves together their different storylines. Muna remains the central figure of the story and I was utterly absorbed by her determination to rescue her sister.
Along the way she will have to lie (something she doesn’t like to do), adapt to a society which is not friendly towards women practicing magic or foreigners (more than a few ‘respectable’ members of the British society refer to her as a ‘native’), trick a number of magical creatures, and forge an unexpected friendship (which might blossom into something more).

Cho’s pays incredible attention to etiquette and modes of behaviour. She includes a lot of archaic English words (mumchance might be a new favourite) and really brings to life the old British empire without romanticising it. Yes, her world is enchanting but the society she focuses on has very conservative social mores (our protagonists are judged on the basis of their ethnicity, race, sex, and class). Yet, it isn’t all gloom and doom! Quite the opposite in fact. Humour and wit underline this narrative and I was smiling throughout.

Do you know that food must only speak when it is spoken to?

Cho combines different mythologies and folklores creating a unique compendium of magical beings and traditions: there are fairies, dragons, lamias, vampiresses, as well as Malaysian spirits and supernatural beings such as a weretigers, bunians, and polongs. The unseen realm is richly imagined and I loved the parts set in it (those scenes gave me strong Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland vibes).

The more the polong said, the less reassured Muna felt. “But are not spirits famously changeable?”
“I will have you know that is an offensive generalisation,” said the polong. “No one could accuse me of inconstancy.

The way in which magic works in Cho’s world is just as interesting as I remembered (more cloud-riding, yay!).
The characters were another delightful aspect to this story. Regardless of their standing (wherever they were old fogeys or angry dragons) they were portrayed in an almost endearing way. Muna was probably my favourite character. I loved the way she looked up to Mak Genggang, her bond with her sister, her sense of duty, her sheer determination…

This is escapist fiction at its best. It provided me with a brilliant story, an interesting mystery, magic, funny mishaps, balls, a dash of romance, and non-stop entertainment.

“When I have mislaid my things, murder is not my first course of action,” said Prunella. “What I do is look for them—and quite often I find them.”

One of my favourite scenes features a depressed dragon:

“No one ever saw a longer face on a dragon.
He had never been overly fond of the usual draconic pursuits and in the circumstances they lost all their savour.
At most he might dutifully pick off a unicorn that had wandered away from its herd, but he had not the heart to finish devouring the carcass before his appetite failed him. ”

Another brilliant scene was when Muna told off a bunch of rude fossils paintings:

“I am a guest in your country, I am entitled to your hospitality, and instead you hoot like monkeys. You dishonour your white hair by your conduct. Men so old should know better!”

My review of Sorcerer to the Crown.

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HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON: BOOK REVIEW

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars of 5 stars

You would think that dragons + the Napoleonic Wars = entertaining story . . . yet His Majesty’s Dragon managed to be consistently boring.
I was expecting something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Sorcerer to the Crown but I soon realised that His Majesty’s Dragon lacks the spark that animates those novels. 
Novik is a good writer but she seemed to be restricting herself to the same two or three scenarios throughout the course of her novel. It seemed that Novik was focused more on making the dialogue and Laurence’s reactions believable (as to be consistent with the time the story is set in) than to write an actual story. If I were to replace the dragons with any other animal, eg. horses, very little would change. These dragons lacked the fantastic or alluring aura that dragons should have. I understand that within this universe dragons are ‘normal’ but the story could still make them interesting. Novik’s dragons are basically giant winged cats.
The story, if I can call it that, revolves around this Laurence guy, a good old 17th century man (so he is obviously both righteous and conservative) who ends up having to give up his life at sea so he can become an aviator…his new ride is Temeraire a relatively cute dragon who talks in a contrived manner…but hey. Laurence washes his dragon, he rides his dragon, he has some minor quibbles with other aviators…and that’s that.
The plot was mainly concerned with ‘theory’ and not practice. The characters discuss strategy and tactics, they have a few fights, but all of these scenes lacked the sense of urgency and or suspense that they should have .
This concept would have worked better in a novella rather than a full length novel. The story is boring, the dialogues are monotonous, and the characters are just as bland as the dragons. There are a few scenes that I could consider ‘cute’ but they didn’t really make up for the rest of the novel.
Lastly, in spite of the seeming accuracy of the time (dialogues & customs) I don’t think Novik evoked the 17th century really well. Her depiction of this period is flat and the story lacks a sense of place. And, what about the actual war? Laurence – or any other character for that matter – has very little to say about it…
If the author wanted to take a lighter approach to the Napoleonic Wars then perhaps a bit of humour could have salvaged her story. Jane Austen, for one, knew that wit could go a long way…

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Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory offers similar feelings as the ones experienced during a rollercoaster: it has its ups and downs but overall it is a mostly enjoyable ride. The book is named after its protagonist, Karen Memory, who narrates her past adventures with a fresh and fun voice. Her vocabulary which is full of slangs and humorous expression give an unique approach to an otherwise predictable storyline. In fact, it is mostly due to Karen being such an engaging and amusing character that make you want to read more.
Karen Memory mostly focuses on Karen’s particularly witty storytelling: she addresses the reader, foreshadows future events and knowing the outcome of her own story she is also able to criticize and comment her own –as well as other characters– previous behaviours and actions. Karen’s ‘unpolished’ prose narrates to the reader her very own story. It is then Karen’s own storytelling and her rather direct narrative style that make certain portions of Karen Memory particularly absorbing.
The heroine of her own story, Karen, could be both incredibly stubborn and insecure. She knows her worth and is capable of recognizing wherever she has acted rashly or not. Her funny and clever commentary make her into an entertaining and likable character that is easy to root for.
The other characters are mostly caricatures of the Old Western genre. However, despite this, the author was able to create an inclusive and likable cast of characters. Karen’s interactions with them can be incredibly lively and funny. Karen’s romantic relationship with Priya, the young girl who sets in motion the chain of events that become Karen’s ‘adventure’ – is perhaps the most noteworthy: it offers something more heartfelt than just a simple easy-laugh.

The plot mostly relies on Karen’s upbeat storytelling. With its ‘Old West’ vibe and the many references to the Western genre, Karen Memory is exactly what it claims to be: a lighthearted and playful adventure yarn. It is far from being a serious and intense read; it’s an action-adventure sort of Western with girls and guns and steam-powered trappings.
The ‘bad guys’ are recognizable as being as such right at the very start of the story. Soon certain scenes seemed a bit repetitive and predictable. So much so that the whole book feels like a series of chase scenes. More problematic is that a lot of the action is just a ‘reaction’: there is nothing complicated about it, the main characters are simply retaliating to the bad guys.
While Karen Memory succeeds in containing larger-than-life heroes, scheming villains, and gritty action it does not offer a complex narrative with difficult characters and provocative concepts. The author favours a fast-snapping plot over deep or poignant themes.
Karen Memory does not have a thoughtful plot or multi-layered characters. The book did feel a bit flat and predictable but in a way it is so because of its wanting to make homage to the ‘Western’ genre. While it does rely too much on the genres common tropes by having a young female protagonist who falls head over heels for a young Indian girl, it does also satirizes it. Steampunk elements also add a nice little touch to the setting, although at times descriptions of these ‘elements’ were a bit unclear.
Overall, Karen Memory reads a lot like a movie. It relies on its quirky storytelling and action scenes rather than including a unique setting or a complex story.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

“The great tragic love story of Percy and me is neither great nor truly a love story, and is tragic only for its single-sidedness. It is also not an epic monolith that has plagued me since boyhood, as might be expected. Rather, it is simply the tale of how two people can be important to each other their whole lives, and then, one morning, quite without meaning to, one of them wakes to find that importance has been magnified into a sudden and intense desire to put his tongue in the other’s mouth.”

A sweet and fluffy read that follows Monty – the son of an earl – and his misadventures through Europe. Monty, our protagonist, is the force of this novel. His voice is incredibly funny and, often, too honest: even when he acts like a prat, it was hard not to like him. He is just so engaging and fleshed out that by the end of the third chapter I already felt as if I knew him. His escapades in Europe are, for the most part, pure entertainment: highwaymen, pirates, angry dukes, alchemical compounds…this book has them all.
Percy and Felicity make for some more sensible company, although that doesn’t make them any less likeable. Despite the highly hilarious scenarios our main characters finds themselves in, most of the time because of something Monty has done or said, Lee still manages to address more serious issues: Monty doesn’t realize his own privilege, causing him and Percy to argue, given that Percy’s epilepsy and skin colour cause him to be ill-treated, while Felicity, being a female, is unable to pursue the medical studies that fascinate her so.
Monty’s character growth and adventures make a winsome combination. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an absorbing read that is both cute and bittersweet. Go read this!

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

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The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman

“Would you say you are a person who follows her head or her heart?”
She stared at him, momentarily diverted. Such an odd thing to ask. “I am rational person, sir. I believe I follow my head.”
“I see.” The Comte boed. “Then I wish you good luck.”

After having recently read a few sequel that suffered from the dreaded ‘second-book-syndrome’ I am more than happy to say that The Dark Days Pact was perhaps even better than its predecessor.
I think I have read that this series is being called a ‘Fantasy of Manners‘, and I couldn’t agree more. Lady Helen is a must for any fans of authors such as Jane Austen. Not only does Goodman paint an incredibly vivid and detailed picture of Regency England but, she has also included a cast of complex and realistic characters.
It was hard to put down. Helen’s world is simply beguiling: the atmospheric setting is combined with dialogues that can be both full of wit or quite moving. It is the kind of book that makes you smile like an idiot, laugh-out-loud, and clutch your paperback copy very hard.
In short The Dark Days Pact is a gripping and delightful read.

‘Every moment of every day she was having to pick her way through lies and secrets to find a pathway over a deadly and muddied morality. And it was never going to end. This was her life now.’

I found this sequel to be a bit darker than the first one. It had a more mature vibe to it. Helen no longer is a naive girl, and the world she inhabits is far from pretty or safe. Her new position in the Dark Days Club asks a lot of her and to be Reclaimer means to abandon the ways in which she was raised: rules that restricted her life as a ‘lady’ are no longer valid. Still, Helen is far from free.

“Indeed I think that everyone is of the belief that a woman’s world is always lesser and smaller than a man’s. Perhaps they are right. It is what the Church teaches us, after all. But you, my lady, cannot abide by that belief. You must live the kind of woman’s life that has never been lived before.”

She is soon made to learn how to pass as a man: the way they talk, walk and act. Goodman makes many clever observations in this regard. The freedom of men at the time is somewhat exhilarating for Helen. She enjoys walking in their comfortable clothes and the privilege of saying more or less whatever she wants. In fact, Helen starts liking being in charge. She likes her powers and the strength and advantages they give her.

“I will not let you disappear,” she said, tightening her hold. “You kept me sane when my strength came upon me. I will do the same for you.”

Helen herself grows a lot in this book. Carlston isn’t always there for her and she faces quite a lot all on her own. She has the best intentions at heart, but she isn’t a softy. She pushes her fears away when needed. In brief, she is a tough yet sweet cookie. Both level headed and passionate.

“There have been many times when I have wanted to walk away,” Carlston said softly, as if he had read her mind. “But you and I have been brought up with the same immutable knowledge: without adherence to our word, we are worth nothing.”

Since Helen comes really ‘into her own’ in this story, her relationships also ‘grow’ alongside her. Her interactions with other characters could be in equal parts amusing, witty and sweet. Despite Helen’s lack of control over recent events, she is not one to back down. Her steadfast behaviour inspired and surprised others; Darcy, her maid, is her number one fan. Mr Hammond thinks of her as a comrade whom he admires deeply.

Mr Hammond bowed his head. “Of course he knows. How could he not? But there is a chasm between what is said and what is said.”

And Carlston…Well, I am glad to say that despite not dominating the story, we get to see a lot more of him. He was a bit of cypher in The Dark Days Pact, but here, we suddenly start to understand him. His relationship with Helen was a deliciously slow burn.

‘[…]she could feel his gaze upon her skin like a whisper touch. It seemed she could not please him whatever she did; either she was too much the warrior or too much the woman.’

Their feelings for one another are sadly not their priorities. Carlston isn’t doing so well while Helen is forced to obey Pike’s orders – despite despising having to. Still, Goodman offers us a few heartfelt moments between Carlston and Helen.

She cupped his jaw, his breath warm against her fingers. Slowly, he turned into the curve of her palm, cut lip pressed against her skin. She heard two whispered words, felt them kissed into her flesh: amore mio. My love. Two words: the shock of them held her still.

As far as the ‘baddies’ of this book, it is hard to say. There aren’t any, not really. Most of the characters fall somewhere onto a morally ‘gray-ish’ area. Deceivers are not always as evil as Helen was made to believe. Helen herself will be forced to discover a darker side to herself.

“Your sense…mon Dieu. You humans do not appreciate the glory of your senses. To taste food, to touch skin, to hear music.”

Goodman’s writing is detailed and evocative. She meticulously depicts the social behaviours and moral conventions of the time. Each scene was made incredibly vivid by her carefully thorough descriptions.
The theme and settings often reminded me of typical Gothic novels, however, Goodman never falls into any clichès of that genre. If anything she is mocking the most stereotypical tropes by having a strong – and powerful – female character such as Helen.

“Oh my,” Delia breathed. “Stolen bodies, energy whips, feeding upon human energy. It is all so,” her shoulders twitched, “Gothic.

Once again, I want to stress just how exciting The Dark Days Pact is. It has it all: humor, drama, action, mystery and romance. And, as the cherry-on-the-top, it also has an interesting and complex main character. Go read it!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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