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A Court of Thorns and Roses–series review

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I’ve been reading Sarah J. Maas’s other high fantasy series, Throne of Glass, for the past couple of years and I have been a frequent and enthusiastic reader of Young Adult (and adult) fantasy for many years. For some time now though, I’ve been out of the habit of reading what is usually my first pick, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I needed to live somewhere else for awhile—in the world of murder mystery thrillers, period romance, and memoir (the bulk of what I’ve read this summer). However, I decided to end my summer reading by trying out Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series. And at first, I was skeptical. The very first book, eponymous to the series, seemed to be a retelling of two tales very dear and very familiar to me: The Ballad of Tam Lin and Beauty and the Beast. In other words, the first book did not wow me….until. Until our protagonist Feyre finds herself biting off more than she can chew—like young Janet from the Ballad she tries to save her beloved (Tamlin, in this instance) from the evil faerie queen, in this case Amarantha, in her horrible “court” (really just underground caverns where all the High Lords and other fae of Prythian are held captive) aptly named Under the Mountain.

It’s there, I think, that the story really begins for me. Feyre is tested, finds herself an unexpected ally in the High Lord of the Night Court, supposedly Amarantha’s right hand man and lover. It is Under the Mountain that Feyre changes—from vulnerable, young, pretty girl to now a major player in the world of the High Fae.

She returns “home” with Tamlin after the ordeal, only to find herself so unrecognizable, so altered, that she begins to realize her love for Tamlin, the safety he stood for and represented while she was human, did not survive her transformation. It is in the second book in the series, A Court of Mist and Fury, that she finds her place, her voice, and her strength at the Night Court with her former ally/enemy, Rhysand. The second book is nearly entirely dedicated to the relationship between Rhysand and Feyre, and Feyre’s realization that she does not love Tamlin…does not want the fairytale wedding with him or the role of being his safe, tame, pampered, and mostly ignored wife. The second book also provides a backdrop for the third, A Court of Wings and Ruin, which deals with the consequences of Feyre’s sisters also having been turned from human to fae, and the every looming war from Amarantha’s former master, the insidious King of Hybern—an island off the coast of Prythian that refused to yield any land to humans and is now bent on world domination (sorry Ireland).

Before I go further with my thoughts on the series, I will just say this. I haven’t been drawn into a story or a world in the way that this one drew me in in a very long time. The Court of Thorns and Roses series was a reminder—why I love books and why I love fantasy books in particular. For all its flaws—and there were many (constant phrase repetition—i.e. “clanged through me,” just made my inner editor cringe, also—she still didn’t escape the Big War Between Good and Evil trope that has been written into the ground by fantasy authors by now)—I really and truly could not put these books down. I haven’t read an actual series of books all the way through like this in a long time. Usually I am fine with putting a bit of space between the first book and the second. However, that just wasn’t an option here. Both the first and second books left me wanting more. The third ended on a note that made me wish that any continuing books in this world won’t center on our hero and heroine—that Rhysand and Feyre can have their adventures in peace.

One thing I will say for this series is that I’m not entirely sure I would classify it as Young Adult. It is sold in the Young Adult section and certainly labeled YA at the library. And that is fine—I think I probably would have enjoyed the series as a teenager. However, Feyre’s challenges and issues that she faces trying to end a relationship maturely, how to react to that person when they do not handle it well…I think this might belong to the newer, more slippery category of New Adult.

In any case—whether it is incorrectly categorized or not, I definitely recommend this series to readers who enjoy fantasy and romance. Even though I think some of the mechanics of the language could be improved, I have to hand it to Maas that she really does create a marvelous and monstrous world that I definitely want to return to by re-reading this series at some point in the future.

 

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

girlonthetrainAlthough perhaps not the most twisted, surprising whodunit/mystery thriller that I’ve ever read, I do give this book an A for atmosphere. Paula Hawkins did a wonderful job crafting the atmosphere of the novel—which was mostly set in a suburb of London. Yet with the rickety trains and the dark skies and Rachel’s (our primary narrator’s) inner demons, the atmosphere definitely feels a bit gothic. Also, I loved that Hawkins gave us not one, but the perspectives of three unreliable narrators. The first being Rachel, an alcoholic who has blackouts, the second being Megan, a young woman who we find out about a quarter of the way into the novel has died, and sometimes Anna—the woman who Rachel’s husband left her for. In the end, for me, I think the questions that the book poses are much more interested than the answer to the murder mystery. Can addiction be overcome? Is there such a thing as a second chance, a new start? Can you ever trust anyone, even the ones you love?
Hawkins does an excellent job weaving the three women’s perspectives together and creating the rules of her suburban London world. Honestly, though, I’m not a big fan of the thriller genre. I probably wouldn’t have read the novel if I hadn’t heard an interview with Paula Hawkins on one of my favorite BBC podcasts. I’d be interested to read her most recent novel, although I most likely won’t be picking up a mystery again for some time.

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And I Darken by Kiersten White

andidarken-cover “I am your father. But that woman is not your mother. Your mother is Wallachia. Your mother is the very earth we go to now, the land I am prince of. Do you understand?” Lada looked into her father’s eyes, deep-set and etched with years of cunning and cruelty. She nodded, then held out her hand . “The daughter of Wallachia wants her knife back.” Vlad smiled and gave it to her. ~p. 12

Radu and Ladislav (Lada) are born into a world of conflict–they are the children of Vlad Dracul, who rules Wallachia, an outlying province/principality of the Ottoman Empire. They are as different as night and day–Lada can be a terror, a bully, but she is also strong and fiercely protects what she considers to be her own (such as Radu). Radu is quiet, bullied, but kindness and cunning are his gifts. When their father, Vlad Dracul, allows them to be held hostage by the emperor, Murad, who rules the Ottoman Empire all to keep his throne in Wallachia, Lada remains fiercely loyal to Wallachia, if not her father, while Radu is ready to eschew everything about his former life. Radu loves the Ottoman Empire, Islam, and most of all their friend, the emperor’s son Mehmed. The bonds of their friendship are tested again and again as they grow up and Mehmed takes the throne. Mehmed will need both Lada’s ferocity and Radu’s quiet cunning to help him gain and keep the throne. But what of Lada’s destiny, and her strange place in society as a fighting woman, a woman who refuses what traditional womanhood means? While they are so different, both Lada and Radu don’t quite “fit” into the roles society has given them–Lada desperately wants to rule and protect Wallachia, and Radu desperately wants Mehmed–a desire that he knows is somehow forbidden though no one speaks of it. In the end, what will each of them be willing to sacrifice for what they want?

I have to say that I absolutely loved this book. I loved how bravely the author posed the question, what if Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) was a woman? How would this story change? Fair warning though, if you like your protagonists to be straightforward good guys, this might not be the book for you. White does an excellent job of complicating both Lada and Radu. And what a love triangle! I see that this is going to be a series and I can’t wait to read the next installment. I enjoyed the writing (subtle and sharp as Lada’s hidden knives), the characters, and even the setting of Wallachia and the Ottoman Empire. And I Darken earned my wholehearted recommendation.

 

 

 

 

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Emma by Jane Austen

emma Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. ~Chapter 1, Vol. 1

I first read Emma when I was in high school, and I can’t say that I finished the book just absolutely loving or hating it. I can say that as I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that Emma is very far from a favorite heroine of Austen’s, but that Mr. Knightley is generally one of her most popular heroes. Yet Jane Austen didn’t title the novel, Mr. Knightley, so on this re-reading I decided to pay more attention to Emma–what was it about her that made me dislike…or simply like her less than my favorite heroines (Anne Elliott, Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood). Upon first impression, Emma is spoiled, privileged–her help does more harm than good to Harriet Smith and for most of the novel she ignores Jane Fairfax, who would have made a better BFF. But you know what, I found that I liked Emma–she may not be the Austen heroine most in tune with reality–she often has her own vision of things, but she does care for her friends and family. And I have to say that I think Highbury/Hartfield is one of Austen’s best settings. It is much less stuffy than Mansfield Park and certainly better than any of the settings poor Anne Elliott must endure (“smoky” Bath, her sister’s and brother-in-law’s house–her only reprieve, really, is Lyme). The familiarity of Ms. and Mrs. Bates, Emma’s father (overly anxious about his health and the health of everyone else), Mr. Perry, and though we never meet him–the William Larkins that Emma teases Mr. Knightley about. I think Austen crafted some of her most lovable and equally frustrating characters in Emma and I am certainly glad I gave it a second chance!

 

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A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

torch “Skies,” Afya says. “I thought you told me you loved stories. Have you ever heard a story of an adventurer with a sane plan?”

“Well….no.”

“And why do you think that is?”

I am at a loss. “Because….ah, because–”

She chuckles again. “Because sane plans never work, girl,” she says. “Only the mad ones do.”

~p. 388

Note: Spoilers ahead

A Torch Against the Night is the sequel to Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. It continues the story of Elias and Laia, right as they’re beginning to escape the city of Serra and on their way to get to Kauf prison to free Laia’s brother Darin.
But on the way, they will meet with many unexpected guests. As with any good adventure story, friendships are tested, true identities are revealed, and destinies are made and challenged.
I have to say that I enjoyed the sequel to Ember every bit as much as I did the first book. Tahir’s writing is enjoyable and at times very beautiful. My only complaint is that it could be a little tighter. One of the characters which seemed completely nonessential (Keenan) turns out to be one of the core antagonists. But the love story between him an Laia seemed really extraneous and so the big reveal just wasn’t as devastating to me as it could have been with some tighter writing. In the first novel I seriously thought his only purpose was to be a secondary love interest for Laia–since there was already a triangle between Elias/Laia/Helene.
Speaking of Helene, I am actually very interested in her story arc. I think her story is the one I’m most looking forward to continuing to read in the next installment. I’m also intrigued by Avitas Harper–her former torturer and spy for the Commandant turned ally to Helene. And I’m also curious to see how all the new magical powers everyone has will play out.
Overall, I think I’ve found yet another YA fantasy series that I will be following. I’ve lost count of how many of these I’m supposed to be keeping up with–a very good problem to have, I’d say!

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Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

crooked Note: This review contains slight spoilers.

Inej almost felt sorry for her. Dunyasha really believed she was the Lantsov heir, and maybe she was. But wasn’t that what every girl dreamed? That she’d wake and find herself a princess? Or blessed with magical powers and a grand destiny? Maybe there were people who lived those lives. Maybe this girl was one of them. But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway. p. 460

Crooked Kingdom is the sequel to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. Friends, let me just tell you now that I love these books. Both of them. Crooked Kingdom did not disappoint, though I thought perhaps the construction of Six of Crows was a little stronger. Sometimes the pacing of Kingdom seemed to slow in just a few too many places. Matthias also appears to have completely changed his attitude toward Grisha. I do understand that he had a life changing experience at the Ice Court, and that he knows he loves Nina. But sometimes it seemed a little too easy. I did appreciate the guest appearance of Sturmhond and some of the other characters from the Grisha series. In places, the writing is breathtakingly beautiful. And of course, I still love that this is a series about a group of misfits taking on the rich and the powerful. I think Bardugo has created some wonderful, complex, memorable characters in Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Wylan, Nina, and Matthias. I certainly enjoyed the series and enjoyed the romances of Jesper and Wylan, Nina and Matthias, and Inej and Kaz. Each one non-traditional in some aspect.

I definitely recommend this series! No mourners, no funerals.

 

 

 

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An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

emberintheashes “You are full, Laia. Full of life and dark and strength and spirit. You are in our dreams. You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes. That is your destiny.” ~Sabaa Tahir, pp. 400-401

Note: does contain spoilers

 

I thoroughly enjoyed An Ember in the Ashes. I thought Tahir’s fantasy world was original and well-crafted and even more important–it was interesting. Her world of Martials (very similar to the Roman Empire) and Scholars (based on Sufis) and the Scholar resistance to Martial dominance all makes for a fascinating background to the central story–the story of one Martial (a Mask, or fully trained warrior from an illustrious family, no less) who hates the ways of the Empire and it is the story of a Scholar girl who is willing to become a slave and spy in order to bargain with the Scholar Resistance in order to save her brother. Elias and Laia have a lot to learn about each other, about trust, and how two very different people can be more alike than they know.

I was particularly interested in Elias’ story, of the tension with Helene and his mother’s own hatred of him. The chapters go back and forth between Laia and Elias’ points of view, which makes for some nice tension throughout the novel. One thing that bothered me–just a bit–was how Laia’s parentage was revealed to the Resistance. At the moment when they are ready to kill her–she reveals that she is the daughter of two of the most famous Resistance fighters. Perhaps I’m being persnickety, but that is just REALLY convenient.

However, overall I enjoyed the story, was fascinated by the world that Tahir built, and would definitely be willing to read the sequel.

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