Review – The Islands of Chaldea

The Islands of Chaldea, Middle Grade Fantasy by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In the first half, it looks like many a questing journey story with a load of bumblers in the party. At first, the goal seems fairly tame and the bumblers all seem to be comprised of DWJ character archetypes. The main character, Aileen, is a no-nonsense young girl who believes she has none of the magical talent that she’s expected to have by birthright. Her mentor Aunt Beck takes “no-nonsense” to an insane degree, basically an authority figure who feels love but generally shows scary discipline. There are two boys the main character’s age: Prince Ivar, who is a spoiled brat with no redeeming qualities aside from not actually being evil, and Ogo, the foreign boy who is as sensible as Aileen but ill-treated. Their quest is to follow a sort of prophecy that says they need a Wise Woman and a man from each island to take down the barrier that’s cut off the island Logra from all outside access. Once they do this, they will hopefully find men who were taken hostage years ago, among them the Crown Prince Alisdair and Aileen’s father.

There is a point before the halfway mark where things pick up, and they pick up like a monster truck lifting a mountain. Plot twists abound, some of them quite unexpected, threads start to tie up in preparation for the explosive ending, and the world’s mythology starts to really pay off. After the initial party, each new addition is fun and outside the box. One thing I didn’t see coming that I quite liked was that Aileen had family from her father’s side on the last island before Logra. I loved them. The big family atmosphere reminded me of the Montanas from The Magicians of Caprona, but not in a derivative way.

Wherever the transition to Ursula’s contribution was, I didn’t see it. Entirely seamless. Maybe I could make a guess, but I don’t think I’d even want to. Any posthumous book feels like a gift. A gift that makes you sad. So whenever it needed a little help to get finished, I can fully appreciate all of the effort that went into making it look like it didn’t need any help.

Still not up there with Diana Wynne Jones’s mind-blowing books like Archer’s Goon or Dogsbody. But I doubt it was ever intended to be. This is an entertaining fantasy journey through a magical version of the British Isles–although Logra is more Mediterranean, thanks to the implications ofMinoan bull worship, water features, and depictions of the food, particularly olives. I loved it, I would read it again maybe. And I don’t tend to reread.


Review – Lily

Lily, Dark Fantasy by Michael Thomas Ford

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Yet another book where I cannot easily come down on one side cleanly. Did I like it? Did I dislike it? I could say yes to both of those questions and not be lying.

If there’s one thing this book does crushingly well, it’s atmosphere. The illustrations are amazing, haunting even, but even without them, the whole thing feels like a starkly black and white inked drawing. The world is dark and painful to inhabit. Comparisons to fairy tales are obviously intended, and earned as well. Each character is well crafted, but no further defined than any one of them needs to be. Things other books would have to spread out over arcs, such as romance, are simplified down to their most necessary ingredients.

However, beyond the artistry of it all, there’s not really anything new on offer here. Lily is cursed to see the deaths of anyone she touches, which sends her and her mother out into a world that is foreign to Lily. She winds up as a rebranded circus act for a sinister and predictably evil faith healer who uses both of them. What is new about portraying an innocent being taken  in by a con man who uses a twisted brand of religion as a weapon? What is new about women and young girls being brutalised by men with only a sainted (and dead) father figure to temper the message that all men are evil and all women are victims? Nothing.

I’ll be honest, I am not a fan of stories that build their foundation in the supposed shock of human evils. I don’t blind myself to them or hide in sunshine and fairy cakes, but I also do not feel a need to examine ugliness as if it will enlighten me somehow. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like watching a slasher movie. If it’s to your entertainment tastes, then consume it and gladly, but I don’t see any justification in lauding the gore as artistic. None of the villainy in Lily is shocking. Of course all of the men are rapey assaulters who reach lustily for anything with breasts regardless of age or consent. Of course they’re all ex-cons who are using this farcical carnival to hide in. It’s almost boring in its attempts to shock and horrify. I just felt annoyed that it took Lily as long as it did to see past the lies and prove victorious.

There are two major saving graces to be had, though. The first and best is the character of Baba Yaga. Although her chapters are short, they’re always fascinating and the only unspoiled fun to be had. Her disaffected otherworldliness and attempts to understand this god that everyone keeps talking about are wonderfully nonhuman even as a bit of human softness creeps into her. Then there is the ending, which is better than I hoped, while also delivering an expectation set. up early in the narrative. I particularly loved the riddles, which made for a lovely bookend after being mentioned in the beginning. There isn’t a lot of “everything” to wrap up, but it’s still satisfying that everything is indeed wrapped up quite nicely.

I can only think of a small handful of people I’d recommend this to, aside from possibly a blanket statement that it’s in a class with Tender Morsels. Anyone who read that would find kinship here, I think.


Review – Soundless

Fantasy by Richelle Mead

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️

What a disappointment. This was the first book I’ve ever read by Richelle Mead, of whom I’ve heard lots of good things. I hope that since this is a standalone, it isn’t indicative of whether I’ll like any of her series. I don’t want to write her off as a Not For Me author based on this book. The writing isn’t bad, per se, but the story is a letdown.

Soundless looked like all of my catnip for YA. Asian mythology, mysterious happenings in a cut-off mountain village. A micro world where no one possesses the ability to hear. I expected something special from this mix as well as each individual element.

Instead, my impressions while reading can be summed up in three words: tedious and lazy. The setting is unbelievably weak. If you changed the names, it could be any imaginary low fantasy or pseudo European medieval world. This became most apparent in a scene where the man character Fei describes eating a noodle dish like a tourist. She has reasons to find it unfamiliar, but I just didn’t buy it. The story doesn’t earn anything because it doesn’t work for anything. There’s a blonde woman who appears out of nowhere, I guess to show that the township is metropolitan and has immigrants. She doesn’t do anything or serve any purpose.

The mass deafness of the villagers was mostly confined to their having no concept of hearing as a sense and to let the only hearing villager behave like Spiderman. Mead seemed to constantly struggle with depicting a culture with no sound. In the scrolls that Fei consults to learn what hearing is like, almost all of the descriptions of sounds rely on a knowledge of sound to be understood. Fei herself points this out, but it’s not Better Than a Bare Bulb. The worst bungle is that although the villagers all use sign language to communicate, it was always too much like audible speech in construction. They use too many words and they sign in times when they should be using their hands to do something else. At best, it came off looking like telepathy.

My saddest face came from realising that the mythology/supernatural elements don’t show up until the end. Seriously, the world is mundane until the second to last chapter, and then the magical stuff solves everything. Magically.

Pros: Fei is likeable enough, if somewhat bland, and although I found her view of her artistic talent to be twee and pretentious, it is a legitimate talent which she actually uses to solve more than one problem. Not simply informed or never used. The romance is fine. Technically, there is a love triangle, but I found it to be Blink and You Miss It. I thought that the obstacle keeping the couple apart was cheap and ill utilised (different castes, but it totally didn’t work), but I believed in their mutual feelings and they complemented each other nicely. The ending is suitably lovely.

I’m terribly picky, so even though disappointment is my reigning feeling/opinion, I would hardly “warn” other readers away from this book.


Review – The Glass Sentence

The Glass Sentence, Historical Fantasy by SE Grove

Series: The Mapmakers Trilogy #1

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

I have mixed feelings about this one.

The premise is undeniably cool: an event referred to as The Great Disruption broke time and separated the world into different Ages. I haven’t gotten to read a lot of Historical Fantasy (outside of Romance) so I was pumped. …until I realised that none of the Ages resemble actual real world historical periods. I could have sworn that places like Boston were mentioned, and there were real places on the maps at the front. The locations seemed more like stuff out of Oz books or Furthermore. It didn’t really matter that it was 1891 in Boston.

But the writing is quite good. Some of the descriptions are truly great, it all flows well, and I liked the more poignant twists especially. Even though the supporting cast is rather more mild than they are interesting, with the weird uniting aspect of all being boringly good people even if they were pirates. Theo being willing to lie and steal honestly made him a bit of a breakout character. As a main character, I found Sophia capable and likeable.

Sadly, aside from the premise only half-delivering by giving us what is basically an original magical world, it doesn’t even have consistency rules/method/logic to the most central magic of its world–map-making. For all that there’s a tonne of discussion of cartology (like cartography wasn’t a good enough word?), I never got how or why it worked. Or even what it actually did. What practical use are memory maps? They seemed like cool things that were hard to make and completely useless despite everyone talking up how useful they are.

I think when it comes down to a basic question like, “Would I recommend this or not?” the answer is Sure. It isn’t a difficult read, nor is the language or story insultingly simple. I would add the caveat to expect nothing, though. There are a lot of red herrings–the worst of which is made much of at the beginning and hand-waved in the epilogue–and to be honest, there isn’t a lot here that you can’t find in another book.

Maybe if someone could amend the description to tell you what you should actually expect. A plucky young girl goes on a quest to rescue her kidnapped uncle and makes a lot of friends in different magical lands. There’s a guy named Mazapán who makes edible props like chocolate teapots. I have always wanted a chocolate teapot.


Review – The Glasswrights Series

Fantasy series ebook bundle by Mindy Klasky

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This was a hard review to write. I thought about writing a paragraph about each book and then some overall notes. But the books are available separately, with quite a few reviews for each. What I concerned myself with was delineating why the series is great. This bundle is when you want/need all of it at once. It’d certainly be a good thing to pick up before a long relaxing holiday.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I requested an early review copy. I left it a little late, because these books are quite dense. Going by the titles, I thought this would be a cute YA series in the vein of things like the Midwife’s Apprentice or maybe something more complex and serious but still rather whimsical, like Fly by Night. Silly me.

The Glasswright books are not YA. The main character Rani begins at the age of thirteen, but time passes quickly from book to book, and the themes and events of the book are intense and incredibly dark. There are consequences throughout for deaths that occur in the first book. The second book has a child army, which I felt a bit dubious about at first, since it felt unsustainable and a bit ham-handed for drama, but it took a turn I didn’t actually expect. As a whole, this series is great at delivering surprises. I never knew what to expect, usually in a good way.

I would have liked more about glassmaking and the guild, which I think could be a common sentiment among readers. I wasn’t always into the romantic subplots, however, I got the feeling that they were an extension of other uncomfortable things in the books. They made me think. Just like a lot of Rani’s more despicable or harsh actions. She makes a lot of bad decisions. This could get frustrating, except when she got hit with the consequences for them.

There were many locations, and they all had their own cultures, with the unifying theme of different kinds of castes. I loved all of the faction and political intrigue, although I was confused whenever the good guys were characterised by their desire to keep the oppressive status quo, and the first book’s villainous organisation was characterised by the desire to break down the caste system and allow the people to live as equals. Perhaps it’s simply my culture showing, but that didn’t make any sense to me. The antagonists were threatening evil villains, but their goal was noble and not really diminished by any of their behaviour. Of course, things turned out to go deeper than that.

If I were to compare this series to anything, it would be classic fantasy of the 80s as well as more modern dark fantasy. The only weird thing is that there were previews for the next book after the last chapter/epilogue of each book. That worked out quite nicely for me though–I tended to finish a book in the wee hours of the morning, so I couldn’t get to the next one right away without losing more sleep than was technically healthy. How nice that I could force myself to stop at the end of the preview and pass out.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)


Review – East

Fairy Tale Retelling by Edith Pattou

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Like a lot of people, I count East of the Sun and West of the Moon as one of my favourite fairy tales. I might even like it better than Kari Woodengown / All-Fur and their variations. So I could be a little biased in this book’s favour. However, I could also be overly critical towards adaptations of my favourites. I guess it all comes out even in the end.

Rose, the youngest of eight children, is a little wild but ultimately a good kid. She enjoys weaving and after a strange encounter with a white bear when she was young, included an imaginary version in her childhood adventures. Her father is a map maker turned farmer, and her mother is a ridiculously superstitious person whose belief that birth direction influences a child’s life causes rather a lot of problems. Rose was supposed to be an east-born child, but there was some confusion at the time of her birth. Evidence points north, which is supposed to mean a wild, wandering person.

Some people have said the book is too long, and that may be true. The story covers a lot, and it doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to cover the fairy tale point by point without expanding. (the opposite, in fact) The beginning goes all the way back before Rose was even born, which is accomplished by her father and next oldest brother Neddy being narrators as well as Rose. There are five narrators total, which might bother some readers. However, the chapters are generally quite short, and I do think Rose ends up having the majority of them. I didn’t mind the many POV shifts, but I think it’s a valid complaint.

Everything that happens is interesting, from stories about Rose’s birth and early childhood, to establishing her love of and talent for weaving, as well as developing quite a few important side characters. But it does take quite a while to get to the white bear and Rose’s going away with him.

As a retelling, East does a good job of following the story of the fairy tale faithfully while also adding content and context for explaining things that in a fairy tale would simply be left out or assumed. Perhaps as a result of so much addition, plot points that might be expected due to familiarity with the original story can feel like they’re being strung out or “kept from” the reader.

I loved the background for why the white bear had been transformed, and the method of changing him back worked wonderfully well. It draws from the fairy tale without seeming out of place or tacked on. The Inuit people whom Rose met and the shaman who travelled with her up to the final stretch of her journey are some of the best parts of the book. An upside of the greater length of this book is that all of the subplots come to a satisfying end, with no threat of being forgotten or failing to wrap up.

If you like East of the Sun and West of the Moon, you’ll probably want to read this regardless of anyone else’s opinion. Fortunately, I can say that it is, at the very least, worth your time, and at best will be a beloved retelling.


Review – Sign of the Dove

Middle Grade Fantasy by Susan Fletcher

Series: The Dragon Chronicles #3

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️

On the whole, this series is incredibly uneven. This is the last instalment that I read, and it will remain so, as I picked up the fourth and found it such a bizarre departure that I lost interest about ten pages in. As is evidenced by my rating, I didn’t particularly care for this one either, but it certainly wasn’t a DNF, and my ratings go by Goodreads’s elaborations. Two stars = It was okay.

Chronologically, Sign of the Dove takes place several years after Dragon’s Milk, and it also takes after the first book in style and intent. Writing-wise, it’s a bit of a mess. Not so bad that I had to force myself to continue, but definitely a let-down after the writing had improved so much in Flight of the Dragon Kyn. Not only did the stilted Ye Olde High Fantasy Speak style of word choice and bad dialogue return, but there was the inclusion of a “harper’s tale” inserted between each chapter.

I was not a fan of the harper. He added next to nothing, his character is an obnoxious cliché, and the style of his chapters is so “Now hear ye, gentle listeners, as I, your amazing yet humble harper elucidate this grand and enchanting mystery.” The pomposity was stupid. If it weren’t for the point at which he exposited what happened to characters who’d been separated from the main character, he would have absolutely no reason to be there at all. Not that we even needed to know what those characters were doing.

There are also a few small but weird contradictions to continuity. This book is the story of Kaeldra’s second-sister Lyf. Like Kara, Lyf was saved from vermilion fever by dragon’s milk. For some reason, this gave her the ability to ken with birds, but when Lyf does it, the kenning is a dangerous thing that removes her self from her body and traps it in the bird. Their other sister is married, but not to the young man she granted her amulet in the first book. Lyf also makes no mention of an amulet of her own, which means that an entire aspect of the story world’s culture is just gone.

When Queen’s men come to the house looking for Kaeldra, who is in hiding, Lyf is determined to be in similar danger and so the grandmother sends Lyf to stay with Kaeldra. Thanks to her hand-wringing mother, Lyf believes herself too weak to do or be responsible for anything. When she arrives, she won’t just be sheltered and coddled. The rest of the dragons are hatching, and Kaeldra works with a kind of underground network that identifies itself by a dove sign to get the draclings out of the world.

Lyf is left on her own to help in this goal. Indeed, she finds herself responsible for more then ten draclings as well as her small nephew. She has to learn to depend on herself and not look to others to take care of her. She is forced to become something of a parent, and is not always successful. Things can get pretty dark, but the end is ultimately a happy one, although it’s a long time in coming.

I loved the theme of growing up. There are a lot of ways for a coming of age story to go, and this one does not shy away from failure, consequences, or just plain ill fortune. Lyf toughens up because she needs to, but she also continues to feel like what she is–a scared young girl–in the way that she keeps wishing for someone to step in and help her. She’s in her over head, and she knows it. She’s a great character, struggling without descending into whinging.

The pacing is good, Lyf’s nephew is actually a good example of a child character who is not a plot moppet or speaking piece of furniture, and the ending feels final in a nice, satisfying way.