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A Court of Thorns and Roses–series review

The_ACOTAR_series

 

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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Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

strangeI don’t think I could possibly pull a quote from this book–there are just too many. The book demands to be read in its entirety. Once again, Laini Taylor’s writing astounds me. She truly has a gift for describing her own odd, ethereal, beautiful, and sometimes ghastly worlds. One thing you can always expect to see in her writing are images of the vivid and surreal–no doubt her artist’s imagination informs the world of her fantasy. And I have to say, I will always love Dreamdark and Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but Strange the Dreamer might have dreamed its way into the title of my favorite Laini Taylor book. Maybe it’s because it’s about a dreamer and a librarian…and I am a bit biased.

In any case–I loved the world, the gods, the godspawn, the Mesarthim and Mesarthium. I loved that Lazlo Strange’s nose was forever broken from a book of fairytales. I can still remember Laini Taylor speaking about dreams to an eager audience at the Texas Teen Book Festival. This book was everything I hoped it would be after listening to her speak–she is a true champion of following your dreams and it is very evident in her novels–this one most especially.

I only had one major issue with this novel. Perhaps I’m being too critical or nit-picky–I really did enjoy it. BUT….I did feel that the big revelation of Lazlo’s identity was a bit too…..convenient. Or perhaps its because this big revelation of identity IS a major component of the YA novel. I’ve seen it done time and time again–sometimes masterfully and sometimes clumsily. On the spectrum, I felt this revelation inched toward the latter. Perhaps because it felt a little too Dickensian to me–that Lazlo instantly found out who he was and that he could save the day (almost). It was just too easy and yes there were some clues (his skin reaction to the Mesarthium, Nero’s discovery, and the white bird), but it seemed to be too much too soon for me there at the end.

I’ll have to say–it was the very ending and revelation of who Minya is that really saved the novel for me. I will wholeheartedly be looking forward to Muse of Nightmares. And despite my feelings on the identity, I definitely would recommend this book to any dreamer or fantasy reader.

 

 

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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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Persuasion by Jane Austen

persuasion “Who can be in doubt of what followed? When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they every so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be truth…” p. 175

I’m not sure I’ll ever meet with a piece of writing by Jane Austen that I do not like, whether or not I agree with what she is saying. I am so glad that I decided to read Persuasion at this very moment in my life, rather than when I was younger and would have missed being able to empathize, at least just a little bit, with Anne Elliot. This is a shout out to all the single ladies my age, who are in their late twenties. It may be the twenty-first century, but I’m not so sure the attitude toward single women nearing their thirties has really altered outlandishly from Britain in the nineteenth century. Not saying it’s exactly the same, but I do think there’s some similarity in being told to hurry up, your eggs are dying as we speak and Anne being considered the “old maid” because she’d rather read than party it up in Bath. She is also not quite as pretty or social as her sister Elizabeth, who seems to have decidedly better chances at marrying even though she is older.

I know that both Anne Elliot and Fanny Price have a bad rap (or little rapport, since we’re talking Jane Austen here) with critics because they are so self-sacrificing and seem to be in cahoots with the infamous Angel in the House–a later, Victorian literary stereotype of women that caused a lot of issues. But just like for Fanny, I will stick up for Anne. Anne is not as vivacious or witty or winning as Elizabeth Bennet. Perhaps she is not as easy to love because she seems to cower in the shadow of her vain and silly older sister (cue Ashlee Simpson song “Shadow”). I hated that she took the advice of Lady Russell, but at the same time…how could she not? Lady Russell was basically the only person with any sort of common sense that Anne knew. But you know what, we’ve all made mistakes, am I right? And who wouldn’t like a second chance to remedy those mistakes or those rash decisions we made 7-10 years ago? And that is what we, as readers of Jane Austen’s glorious novel, get to experience in Persuasion. Thankfully, Captain Wentworth is the one that got away that also comes back (Hello, Sailor!–for all my peeps who watched Gilmore Girls). I did enjoy the chapter where Anne and Captain Harville basically have a fight over who is more generally faithful/loving in relationships, men or women, and all the while Captain Returns-A-Lot is writing Anne a passionate letter about how he never forgot her and how he still has the same feelings for her as he did when they were formerly engaged!

I think Persuasion is very much so a masterful novel and I am excited to next (at some point) re-read Emma, which I haven’t read since I was in high school.

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Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge

Crimson Bound Cover

“What did you mean when you said the path of needles, not the path of pins?”
He remembers what I said. The realization slid through her, terrifying and sweet at once. He thinks of me when we are apart. “Something my aunt told me once. She said that you always have to choose between the path of needles and the path of pins. When a dress is torn, you know, you can just pin it up, or you can take the time to sew it together. That’s what it means. The quick and easy way, or the painful way that works.” ~Rosamund Hodge (p. 10)

Rachelle is an apprentice to her aunt–a woodwife, a wise woman of the village who weaves charms to keep the Great Forest, the woodspawn, the forestborn, and the Devourer away. But the Devourer is only growing stronger as sunlight is fading from the world and the woodspawn and forestborn attack humans more often. One day Rachelle wanders off the beaten path only to meet a forestborn–inhuman, beautiful, and predatory. She pridefully thinks she can trick him into telling her how to defeat the Devourer. He tells her and also marks her –she has three days to kill another human and become a bloodbound or she will die. She tries to hold out, but on the third day she kills. Rachelle runs away from home and becomes one of the King’s own bloodbound–killing woodspawn that attack people in the city of Rocamadour. Killing the woodspawn to protect humans is her lifeline to redemption. Until she sees the forestborn who marked her–and he tells her that the Devourer is returning soon. Now Rachelle’s only hope is to find the sword that can defeat the Devourer–but first she is assigned to protect and spy on one of the King’s illegitimate children–Armand. A man who is seen by the people as saint because although he was marked by a forestborn, he chose not to kill and instead of dying, only lost his hands. Rachelle hates him–not only because he is an obstacle in the path of her scouring the country for the sword, but he also was able to survive the mark of the forestborn without killing. But there is more to Armand’s story, even if he is partially telling the truth, and Rachelle knows it. Guarding Armand might just lead her to the sword and to finding a way to defeat the Devourer and also exacting revenge on the forestborn who forced her to become a monster.

Crimson Bound is a wonderful, gritty, and glittering retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. It is set in a surreal fantasy world based on 18th century France. The writing is light, fast-paced, and the book is impossible to put down for long. The morality and moral problems of the characters are complex. Erec works particularly well as the wolfish antagonist–t makes it all the worse because he does really love Rachelle in his own, sick, twisted way. Or perhaps it is that he wants to own her and so thinks he loves her.  It reminded me a little bit of the problem of Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park–although Fanny is not a bloodbound killer. In any case, I positively LOVED this book and I would expect no less from the author of Cruel Beauty, which was an instant new favorite. I recommend it–particularly if you plan to read it this fall, while the days are growing darker and Halloween is approaching.

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