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The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones — book review

36524503._SY475_.jpgThe Bone Houses is a delightfully creepy and atmospheric book that makes for a quick and entertaining read.

“The things that crawled from the lake were sinew and rotting flesh. They were silent, with hollow eyes and bodies that caved in.
They were called bone houses.”

The story follows a quest of sorts in a medieval-inspired fantasy setting. Although the landscape is vaguely

 

reminiscent of Wales, the world in The Bone Houses is a unique product of Emily Lloyd-Jones’s imagination and therefore isn’t tied down or restricted by historical accuracy.
The novel opens in the quite literally ‘off the map’ village of Colbren. Seventeen-year-old Aderyn, who goes by Ryn, is the daughter of the village’s gravedigger. After her father’s disappearance and her mother’s death, Ryn, alongside her younger siblings, struggles to make ends meet. The graveyard isn’t doing too well as most of the villagers are aware of the rumours of the ‘bone house‘, the dead who don’t stay dead, so they prefer to cremate their loved ones, Ryn spends her days loitering in the forest, and finds herself in more than occasion face to face with a ‘bone house’. Thankfully for Ryn, her trusted companion happens to be an axe which she can use with skilful dexterity, especially when in peril.
The arrival of a stranger in the village, a young aspiring map-maker, provides Ryn with the opportunity to venture into the forest and to see if the ‘bone houses’ are indeed the result of a decade-old curse.
The two main protagonist were both compelling in their own ways. They each had their own distinctive personality with character arc. Their relationship progressed at a slow yet convincing pace.
The novel has a surprisingly amount of humour, so that there are many moments when the characters’ banter or a dark joke adds an entertaining note to some of the more action or suspenseful oriented scenes.
Emily Lloyd-Jones’ writing style resonated with the fairy tale gone wrong atmosphere of her novel. Her prose is that of a storyteller whose careful pace and use of repetition gives a delightful rhythm to her story.

“When the man said the cauldron would make his fortune, people laughed at him.
The man was right.
Terribly, horribly right.”

The curse and Ryn’s quest reminded me a bit of The Black Cauldron, except instead of a pig with have a very stubborn goat who accompanies our heroes in their journey to break this curse. There is also a certain Over the Garden Wall quality to it that makes it into a rather perfect Halloween read.
While I enjoyed the story and characters I think that the tone of the book was a bit too middle-grade for me…maybe if I’d read this believing that it had indeed been marketed as MG I wouldn’t have hoped to read of a story with more horror or darker content.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow — book review

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“Reason and rationality reigned supreme, and there was no room for magic or mystery. There was no room, it turned out, for little girls who wandered off the edge of the map and told the truth about the mad, impossible things they found there.”

Readers who have yet to dip their toes in the vast sea of YA fiction will probably enjoy The Ten Thousand Doors of January more than those who are well acquainted with this popular genre.

In spite of its first promising chapters, The Ten Thousand Doors of January never quite reaches its full potential.
The premise of the book called to mind Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series—which also stars ‘magical’ doors—and the more adventure/travelling oriented YA such as Alexandra Bracken’s Passenger. The start of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, with its focus on the relationship between a young child and her guardian, held echoes of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and Cornelia Funke’s The Inkheart Trilogy: Inkheart, Inkspell, Inkdeath. What followed sadly lacked the magic of these two series and throughout my reading of The Ten Thousand Doors of January I had the impression that it’s the kind of book that doesn’t know wherever it’s aimed towards middle-grade or young adult readers…it stars cartoonish characters that would be more suited to a MG while also trying to address more serious themes, all the while attempting to establish a complex ‘magical’ system.

The Good
Occasionally I do like to first address the good things—or to be more accurate, the things I personally liked—in a book. In the case of The Ten Thousand Doors of January that would be the writing style. Alix E. Harrow’s writing style was the best aspect of her debut novel.

“Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, of literary weight or unsolved mysteries.”

The first-person point of view allows for a compelling and engaging narrative, a narrative which our protagonist is aware of:

“I ought to introduce Mr. Locke properly; he’d hate to wander into the story in such a casual, slantwise way.”

This awareness creates many charming moments as she intersperses her narrative with many amusing asides, for example telling us what she thinks of certain words or sayings: “After that, our fates were more or less sealed (a phrase that always makes me picture a weary old Fate tucking our futures into an envelope and pressing her wax seal over us).”
The openness of January’s storytelling is incredibly effective as it holds the reader’s attention and makes us sympathise with her.

“But, as Mr. Locke so often complained, I could sometimes be quite improper, wilful, and temerarious (a word I assumed was unflattering from the company it kept).”

That she often refers to existing stories/tales of children wandering into magical realms or such places acknowledges the intertextuality of her own story.

“People never got to stay in their Wonderlands, did they? Alice and Dorothy and the Darlings, all dragged back to the mundane world and tucked into bed by their handlers.”

And it is the very way that January recounts her own story that kept me interested…it was also nice to follow her character growth. Due to her father and her own appearance (she is described as having coppery-red skin) she is pegged as ‘no good’. Because of this, January does try to meet expectations of respectable femininity, an attitude which—as she herself notes later in her narrative—will hinder her future independence. We could see the way her circumstances affected and shaped her.

The Not so Good
Although I loved the portions recounted by January herself, incorporated in her narrative are sections from a book that she is reading…called The Ten Thousand Doors. These sections were boring and led to a very predictable reveal.
The magical doors that we are promised in the summary of….do not really make a ‘proper’ appearance as we are told of the adventures of other characters in a very rushed and indirect manner.
I was hoping that the story would follow January’s adventures but that wasn’t the case. She reads of other people’s adventures, and it is only it last 20% or so that she actually gets to do something more enterprising.
The book she reads is supposedly written by a scholar but it just seemed pale when compared to January’s own narrative. While her voice is engaging and genuine, the book she’s reading never really convinced me. It seemed to be trying for a similar effect as January’s sections but the ‘author’s’ voice failed to come across as believable or even as belonging to an actual individual.
The magic system, in other words the Doors, was poorly explained and explored. Parts that should have been more detailed and fleshed out are rushed over so that we never get a clear picture of how a Door works. We know that they introduce “change”, which is a very generic way of defining them.
There is little to no action and, with the exception of January, the characters we are introduced to never seemed very fleshed out. Some had very inconsistent personalities while others, such as the love interest, were painfully dull additions. And it isn’t great when as soon as we are introduced to a character we know the role they will play. Take for example this love interest. As soon as the words “childhood friend” and “boy” appeared on the page it was quite obvious that he would form a romantic attachment to January. His main two qualities are: he is Italian and he likes January. That’s about it (his name/appearance/personality are pretty much irrelevant).
I think that having more characters would have filled up the backdrop of January’s non-adventures a bit more. Maybe it could have detracted from the overall one-sidedness of two or three people in her life. Other than January there are mainly two other female characters, and they seem to share the same I-am-sort-of-empowered personality. With the exception of January’s father and her love interest all men sort of suck, seeming closer to caricatures of evil men rather than actual evil men.
While I loved January’s narrative voice, I disliked the way the writing would sometimes use metaphors or description that seemed to exist merely to meet certain YA aesthetics (we have the typical overabundance of colours: “I dreamed in gold and indigo”; as well as descriptions alluding to ‘glitter/shards’: “The thought was dizzying, intoxicating—I’d already broken so many rules tonight, left them smashed and glittering in my wake—what was one more?”).
The plot seemed to predictable and undeveloped…less sections from The Ten Thousand Doors would have given more page-time to January and her story.

Overall
The summary and first few chapters lead to disappointment. The simplified vision of evil, the boring and wafer-thin side characters, and the poorly developed ‘Doors’ all left me with a not so great impression of this book…which is a pity as I really really enjoyed the first few chapters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay — book review

Untitled drawing (5).jpgPerhaps if Guy Gavriel Kay had paid more attention to his story and his characters, rather than devoting himself to the cadence of his carefully orchestrated prose, I would have been able to enjoy reading A Brightness Long Ago more than I did…the first few chapters are compelling but what follows is a repetitive, wearisome, and occasionally pedantic tale.

The story is supposedly set in a fictional world vaguely reminiscent of Renaissance Italy however, for the most part, Guy Gavriel Kay often chooses to create his own ‘Italian-sounding‘ names and words rather than using ones that exist in the Italian language. Although ‘fictive‘ the historical setting of his novel provides a convincing backdrop to a story of intertwining fates and a feud between two opposing mercenaries (which is the recurring narrative that connects the characters’ storylines together).
While there is an emphasis on how this is a polyphonic novel, the characters’ voices do not all have the same weight or page-space. For example, only one character is allowed to narrate his experiences directly, through a first person perspective, so that he can relate the events surrounding his involvement in this ‘feud’ in an intimate and immersive way. We follow the others through a somewhat detached third perspective which made for a rather imbalanced portrayal of these characters. The switch between 1st and 3rd perspective could at times be a bit jarring…often Kay would relate the same event from different characters’ pov, which made for a few repetitive scenes…
The beginning of the novel introduces us to some of the ‘players’ of the story, and while there is an emphasis on them being ‘side-characters‘ to the main conflict of the overall narrative—the feud between these two mercenary—they actually have quite an important impact on the outcome of this drawn-out fight.
Time and again we are reminded by Danio or by the omniscient narrator that small choices—made on the spur of the moment—will often have life-altering consequences. Often the narrative will make the point of saying that an individual’s fate can be shaped by a small decision. This actually felt like the main ‘argument’ of the story: the paths of these characters are shaped by chance decisions…I understood this 25% percent in, so it was a bit tiresome to be reminded of this throughout the entire novel.
Ambition and freedom of choice are the recurring themes in the ‘seemingly’ ordinary characters of this novel. The stakes never felt that ‘high’ in that the narrative reported important moments in a distant, almost objective, manner. A lot of these characters never seem to be guided by strong emotions, seeming instead puppets in the narrative’s hands. If the narrative wants to make a point about faith or luck it will do so by making the character say or do something, regardless if this fits with the characters’ storyline and/or personality.
I wish that Kay had spent more time on fleshing out his world rather than half-relying on his readers’ vision of the Italian Renaissance. He does not inform us on the prominent religion of his world (once or twice a few characters allude to a nondescript god) or the culture prevailing in each city. There is a ‘race’ in one city and that’s about it. I wanted to know more about the food, the dialects, the history…pretty much about everything. But Kay seemed more focused on spinning carefully phrased paragraphs…and the thing is that he can write beautifully contemplative phrases which often articulate with clear-cut precision the importance of each choice his characters made…however, a pretty and intelligent prose does not compensate a drawn-out story which lacked both emotional depth and a bit of ‘sizzle’.
I’m not sure I will try to read a book by Kay again…or at least not anytime soon.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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

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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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