Review – The Rogue Knight

The Rogue Knight, Middle Grade Fantasy by Brandon Mull

Series: Five Kingdoms #2

My rating: ⭐⭐

I hate that I read this after sharing with a friend how much we both loved the Fablehaven series. The Rogue Knight was such a chore to get through that I started to hate reading anything and couldn’t even take refuge in a better book. It feels uncomfortable to dislike so passionately something as popular as Mull’s books. I know many people who love all of his work indiscriminately and I thought I was in that camp too. But it’s impossible to ignore the entitled perspective just to try to enjoy a book that is a tedious retread of the first book–which was itself dangerously close to outright boring.

After noticing a few problematic elements in the first book, I was apprehensive starting this one. They got much, much worse. Credit where it’s due, it looks like Mull did his best to mitigate and not be sizeist. The depiction of a dwarf knight still felt sizeist to me. And the sexism is twice as bad as in the first book. It is sinister and pervasive. Cole encounters two kids he knew in Mesa, a girl named Jill and his friend Dalton. They are in the same job in different parts of the kingdom. Cole finds them individually at different times and in different places. In both cases, he offers to rescue them. It feels like a comparison is very deliberately drawn between them to imply the conclusion that Jill, a girl, is too afraid to fight for her freedom and instead accepts literal slavery, while Dalton, a boy, exhibits the courage necessary to escape his situation easily and with no visible qualms. This is not unlike when a girl was the one to rat out Cole and get him captured in this first book. It hurts to see casual, thoughtless sexism from the person who gave us Kendra in Fablehaven.

Just as casually, we get a case of a pointlessly antagonistic female character pitted against another female character, in Skye’s mother. Despite the fact that Elloweer is a created world that doesn’t share the real world’s history, she is a sneering, judgmental mother who has money and social position reminiscent of English aristocracy.

“She inherited most of her fortune,” Skye said. “Father worked with a local bank. He passed away more than ten years ago. My great-grandfather was a well-regarded alderman. He accomplished a lot of good for Merriston and for Elloweer. Mother keeps a busy calendar, but doesn’t really do much. She knows everyone, though.”

(emphasis mine) I could break down all of the ways this one paragraph demonises her and shits on women, but I’m just too tired and sad.

Women and girls are largely absent otherwise. Positively portrayed female characters are rare on the ground and tend to be kidnapped or killed. Mira lacks agency and personality when this really ought to be her story. I don’t know why Cole is even there, let alone the hero. He does a better job of not completely forgetting about his enslaved friends this time, but the bar for that was pretty low. Even Jace makes more sense as the main character. Cole is just there to force a fish out of water story that doesn’t work. He doesn’t miss his home or family–he doesn’t even seem to have feelings. He only exists so that people can explain things to him all the time. He gets special powers and everything revolves around him, but it feels nonsensical.

Maybe Mull didn’t know how to present a magical world without having a stock audience proxy who isn’t from the world. He certainly seems to have had trouble crafting the magical world in this book. At a certain point near the end, the illusory magic of Elloweer seems to mimic the matter creation/manipulation of Sambria, when it’s expressly meant to be different.

This series just isn’t as good as Fablehaven. The books are overwritten, the style is clunky and overly dependent on telling, and the characters are boring. There could have been a sense of wonder or noble heroic impulse, but most of that is killed by the unnecessary enslaved friends subplot and the depressingly dull main character. My saddest realisation reading this was that Mull isn’t actually a skilled writer. He has fun ideas and in Fablehaven he proved to be a good storyteller. But in this series, he seems to have focused on just the fun ideas. The best parts of the book are set pieces divorced from character and plot. I don’t even know if he had fun writing this, as the climax of the second book is basically the same as the climax of the second book.

I have the rest of the books and I hate to leave a series unfinished. But I’m just going to shelve it for now.


Review – Duels & Deception

Duels and Deception, YA Regency Romance by Cindy Anstey

My rating: ⭐️

This was not so much a book as it was a veritable flood of period turns of phrase, misused clichés, and smugly written dialogue lazily patched over places where any other type of writing would have been better suited. The main character is obnoxious and flat, suffers from a severe case of Not Like the Other Girls, and the romance is about as exciting and engaging as tapioca without any raisins.

The plot is so scattered and thin that I could make another food metaphor–smashed corn chips spread over too much plate–made up of the boring, the ancillary, and the outright stupid. But it hardly seems to matter in the face of how much I utterly loathed the writing. Throughout, my mind continuously recalled this thought from Going Postal:

“It was garbage… You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency and then sent to walk the gutter…”

At best, the writing in Duels and Deception is merely tedious. There’s a very clear attempt at using language to evoke the time, however it is also an over the top, desperately unsuccessful attempt.


At worst, there are clichés just dumped in as if they’ll help the setting look authentic merely by virtue of their inclusion. One paragraph contained such an unsightly glut of them I put it in my notes.

“But the die was cast–the deed was done, in for a penny, in for a pound. Might as well take the bull by the horns. Lydia was fully aware that in her anxiety she had overused her metaphors.”

The appended “fully aware” comment does not help.

Usually, I try to find something I liked about a book, no matter how much I didn’t enjoy it overall. Did I think the kidnapping was dramatic and original? Nope. I found it out of place and badly handled. I suppose the villain was interesting, however late into the book we learn their identity. I have to write this off as Very Not For Me and live with the sour taste in my mouth.

Bleh, I feel bad now that I’ve vented, but I don’t want to revise my opinion. I’d rather be honestly irritated than politic, I guess. I just expect more from Historical Fiction than this.


A Whole New World – DNF

Liz Braswell’s A Whole New World is such a waste of potential. As with any book that has more than one attractive cover–I particularly like the style of the reprint covers for the series–the contents being less attractive is a major let-down. But it’s also a waste of a fun idea. The series is called “Twisted Tales” to reflect the concept that each book is basically a Disney animated feature film book adaptation with a what-if plot twist. The twist for the first book, based on Aladdin, is that he never got the lamp.

I’m assuming that Jafar did get the lamp and his reign of terror simply took place sooner. I didn’t get that far. For a long time, I had better things to read, or higher priority books like ARCs. I did suffer through the saccharine prologue about Aladdin’s unrealistically sainted mother a couple of times. It holds hints of the book’s many, many failings, but I didn’t want to dump it based on that alone. Fans of Renaissance Disney have this weird inclination to imagine the dead mothers of protagonists as idealised women who are perfect the way that a poorly written Yamato Nadeshiko is perfect: flawless, meek, and selfless to the point of lacking even healthy self-interest. The idealised Disney mother, if she’s ever alive, is written in such a way that she is quite obviously doomed to die, probably beautifully. It’s kind of gross. Dehumanising a character and thinking it poetic.

One thing the prologue has going for it is that it’s original. It has pathetic, incredibly forced callouts to recognisable things in the Aladdin franchise (comprised in my view of the three movies and the animated series) like Rasoul and Aladdin’s mother decides to get him a pet. Because when you don’t have enough money to eat, a pet is a thing you want. But it’s still more like fan fiction and less like a straight up novelisation. After the prologue, the book becomes a novelisation.

A breathtakingly dreadful novelisation.

Although I can see where quoting the movie verbatim would be irritating to some readers, I would have preferred it. Some lines of dialogue sound like they were in the movie, but since I grew up watching it, I could correct the changed lines in my head. They weren’t as good as the original lines, nostalgia notwithstanding.

Action was streamlined to the point of being outright removed, and I felt more like I was being told about the movie by someone who had both barely watched it and had hated what they did watch. In the movie, the guards who chase Aladdin during the song One Jump are ugly bumblers, but they’re still effing ARMED and he’s running. This communicates to the audience that they are a threat.

Braswell chose to remove all tension from the chase and instead reduce it to the same adverb-heavy navel-gazing as every other part of the narrative.

​He scooted around Rasoul and managed to duck past the rest of the guards as they grabbed at him ineptly. Ten of them weren’t worth one of Rasoul–thank goodness. He was the only one Aladdin needed to worry about–and he knew the streets almost as well as the boy did.

This is the only mention of the guards who are not Rasoul. All of Aladdin’s dialogue during the chase is broken up by heavy breathing and too much thinking. He gets injured, which did not happen in the movie and cannot be chalked up to the “twisted” what-if that the book is supposed to deliver.

At this point, I was fatigue-y and in a lot of pain, so I’d asked my husband to read to me so I could maybe fall asleep after a bit. But I couldn’t fall asleep when every few sentences I had to stop him to ask if the book actually said that or if he was bamming me. His disbelief was about as constant. Why is there an allusion to prostitution? Because there was a visual reference in the movie? That could come and go without comment because it was a visual reference. Written references are far more overt, and they have to be justified. The small moment of kindness when Aladdin gives his bread to the tinier orphans becomes this overwrought drama with waffling contradictions about how street rats treat each other. “Oh we look out for each other!” And then he thinks, “I know what it’s like to be picked on by the bigger kids who stole my food!” Which is it?? Honour among beggars/thieves or everyone for himself?

Then there is the research fail. It’s painful. If any research of Middle Eastern countries went into this book, it must have come from the back of a cereal box. Baklava! Turban! Effendi! Dates! If Abu hadn’t been in the movie, I’m sure the author would have felt it necessary to add a monkey on her own initiative. Braswell apparently has an anti-monarchy streak in this series, and it looks like woefully uneducated American revisionism, because this is so obviously not her culture. Aladdin made a random mental observation about the fat sultan playing with his toys instead of seeing to his people. …which… no.  This was what ultimately drove both Hubby and me to just stop trying and DNF. He literally handed me the book and said, “Reading this is making me uncomfortable.”


Review – The Gunslinger

The Gunslinger, Western Fantasy by Stephen King

Series: The Dark Tower #1

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️

Before this, the only thing I read by Stephen King was The Colorado Kid. Reading that novella should have prepared me for this. It was an uninspiring and entirely pretentious attempt to be profound by intentionally telling a story with no resolution.  But King’s status as a writer is such that there are five stars reviews lauding it as “a character study of” blah blah and basically buying bullshit wholesale.

The Gunslinger is more bullshit. Just read the foreword and introduction in the revised edition–the author himself admits to it. Re-reading it compelled him to apologise aloud and tell stories about being an arrogant nineteen-year-old. I’ve been beta-reading and giving advice to amateur writers since high school, and it all sounded like a very familiar song. Amateur writer bears some weird conceit (say, mystery is more important than clarity) and refuses to listen to anyone tell them they’re wrong. They defend the weird conceit despite logic and counterargument. The safest thing to do is let it lie until they figure out they’re wrong on their own. Argue too much and the weird conceit will become a deep-seated belief about all writing.

I wish I knew what he changed, because what I read didn’t feel like it had seen an editor, let alone an author revisit. Thanks to the conceit that mystery is more important than clarity, nothing is established, earned, or explained, and thusly everything seems to happen because it popped into King’s head at the time. The closest we get to an establishing shot is foreshadowing, which in the case of the boy just flops sadly like a deflated pool toy. A literal prediction of the future tells the gunslinger that the boy is his key to finding the man in black, but it’s implied that the boy will die as a result. This happens, but there is no direct, practical, or even physical link between the boy’s death and anything else. He just dies when they find the man in black. That’s… not… how stories work.

My personal reviewing policy is to find something, anything I liked. There was nothing here. I ought to have DNFed it, but I was too stubborn. The main character’s name is obscured for literally no reason, used quite late into the book and sparingly after that. Poetic language that tells you nothing loses its beauty by being useless. Not that I noticed any poetry in the language. It was often vulgar just to be vulgar. I got so tired of hearing this guy talk about his crotch that I dropped the book a few times. The level of mysogyny throughout nearly made me physically ill. Every single female character is nothing but a sex receptacle, dies horribly, and/or is dismissed as evil (most likely thanks to the actions of a man). Only one female character is actually treated as sexless, and she belongs to the boy’s very brief narrative. There is literally a part of the book where all women are reduced to a single body part, when the gunslinger says something about “losing himself in c**ts and killing.”

I should have stopped reading there. This book is pointless, boring, and disgusting.


Review – The Raven Boys

#1 in the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater


Disclaimer: Back when I tried to read Shiver, I found it boring and the main character repellant in every way. The only reason I decided to give the Raven Cycle a try at last is because someone told me they also hated Shiver and that reading The Raven Boys was a polar opposite experience. It wasn’t that magical for me, but two stars instead of throwing the book against a wall is a marked improvement.

Extra Disclaimer: I vented more than I expected to in this review. I think anyone who enjoyed this book is entitled to, and I’d be more than happy to hear them rave about it. As long as no one tells me I’m “wrong,” because no one is wrong about a book unless they make a weird statement like, “Twilight is a VCR manual that can raise the dead.” …even that would be an opinion I’d like to see elaborated upon.

That said, I’ll start with what I liked. Ronan is one of those characters with a load of negative traits, disliked even by the other characters, whom I just adored. Sometimes I just have to love the unrepentant asshole who is also a troubled bad boy. I’m only human. I liked the otherworldliness that came in when they finally followed the corpse road, and I liked the family of psychics. Calla reminded me of Amethyst from Steven Universe, for some reason. That’s a good thing. While I wasn’t a fan of the relationships among the core cast, I actually like the girl joining a group of guys on a quest thing. I’d like to see it without said girl being a romantic interest for a guy in the group, but that was not too bad here. The antagonist is intriguing and legitimately threatening when he needs to be. I loved the way he was set up so early and occasionally bolstered. This is one of the few times that I thought the multiple perspectives were pulled off pretty well.

My biggest problem with The Raven Boys is something I was afraid of and half-determined not to do: I hated the only female main character. I tried to like her. I don’t want to be one of those people who reads a book with a predominantly male cast and hates the token girl just because she’s female and there. I liked all of the other female characters, even Persephone, who is yet another cheap, phoned-in expy of Joss Whedon’s Drusilla character type. I even liked Blue’s name until I realised that rather than invoking Aerith and Bob, almost every name could easily be found on a fancy dog collar. Possibly Helen was one of the characters I wasn’t supposed to like and wouldn’t have if I were an obedient reader, but I liked her too. (and no, her being a helicopter pilot was not my sole reason)

So what’s wrong with Blue? She’s kind of a bitch, but it isn’t that simple. It would have been obnoxious enough if she’d just been another super-speshul fatherless wish fulfilment girl who makes her own clothes and even rebels in a “unique” way, despite having a witch/hippie mother. That would have simply been eye-rolling. But pretty much from the word Go, Blue lays out the one thing that made me want to slap her and later Adam: the nasty prejudice against people with money.

This drove me insane. She damns all rich people and any traits she can pin on them as Bad. Never mind that none of the rich people she meets do anything to validate her views or to deserve her nastiness. Wear anything she can identify as expensive? Guess what, she’ll call you a privileged asshole. Even if she assumed incorrectly. She treated Adam liked this just for going to the rich boy school. Of course, when she realises that he’s One of Her People, she can’t praise him enough–especially so she can compare him favourably to those Awful Rich Guys. (and boy do those two ever act like this is an issue of race)

The worst of it for me was that it usually boiled down to anti-intellectualism. I’m defo not rich, but I have endeavoured to be well-educated, so I will admit that this part felt personal. Gansey has a large vocabulary. The guy goes to a pre-Ivy League high school, and his central motivation in the book is seeking the tomb of a Welsh King. NO FUCKING DUH HE USES BIG WORDS. It has nothing to do with either of them. But both Blue and Adam correct him if he uses a word they don’t know and make it clear that they think he’s wrong for doing so. There wasn’t a single time that either of them accused Gansey of being condescending where he was actually guilty. He could not win. If he said something and defined it, he was called or thought of as condescending. If he said something and didn’t define it, Blue decided he was making her feel stupid on purpose and called or thought of him as condescending. The guy is seeking something supernatural and she acts like his owning an EMF reader is just more rich asshole posturing. The hell?

Adam has an inferiority complex that has basically zero to do with Gansey himself. But Adam blames Gansey for it, and takes it out on him pretty much constantly. I couldn’t stand Adam’s complaining, hateful ass either. He was supposed to have this deep brotherly relationship and fierce loyalty to Gansey, but all Adam ever did was bitch about him. There came a point where I was only reading to see if Gansey would ever stand up for himself (spoiler, he doesn’t) and the scraps of times that Ronan would come in and be the only character I gave a shit about anymore. Noah is sketched so thinly that his entire character arc thing was a bit insulting. It was a good read, but not a moment of it felt like it had been earned, so it either rang false or looked cheap.

Sometimes, I wondered if Stiefvater is just not any great shakes as a writer. The style and voice are dull pretending to be profound. Chekhov should shoot this book for the details that take up significant time only to come to nothing–I don’t care if they’re going to be important later in the series. They belong in the book in the series wherein they become relevant. Fight me. There are also a lot of dumb mistakes that I would think a decent editor would’ve caught. I could live with Llywelyn’s name being spelled wrong, since the king they were looking for was Owain Glendŵr. But saying that Ronan “flaunts” school rules rather than “flouts?” Explicitly stating that a phobia is only an irrational fear? What about acrophobia? Two seconds of looking at a dictionary will tell you that a phobia is an “extreme OR irrational fear.” Then there’s the cringe-inducing misinformation about epipens. While I can believe Blue being stupid enough to think that epinephrine is used to “restart the heart” rather than to reverse the effects of anaphylaxis, I refuse to believe that a rich boy doesn’t carry these on his person as well as keeping a few in his room and car. I know they expire incredibly fast compared to other drugs (I think even etanercept lasts 24 months as long as you keep it refrigerated), but he has a lot of money and is clearly very scared of succumbing to his allergy. No way he has just one epipen in the glove compartment. For heaven’s sake, don’t they come in packs of two?

If there’s anything I find next to impossible to forgive in a book, it’s when the author tells me how to feel. It’s particularly egregious here, where the telling is more of a demand that says if I feel differently, I must be wrong. I think that might turn out to be a problem I will forever have with Maggie Stiefvater. I’m going to read the next book in this series, because someone pointed out that it’s “Ronan’s book” and he’s the only one I still like. But any further than that will be 100% dependent on how much I like that one. I’ve got a feeling the ice is gonna be thin.


Bad Cover Representation


I’ve been buckling down to finish this 5-book ebook bundle for a series that I have lots of feels about. HOPEFULLY I’ll be done and have it reviewed before I die of old-age, but who knows. Pregnancy fatigue also knocked me out for hours today…

Some of my feelings on this series are positive, and the negative ones all have to do with disappointment. Without getting into specifics, the covers and titles make promises that are not fulfilled. Sadly, this reflects badly on the entire series, which is almost unfair. ‘Almost’ because I assume the titles were under the author’s control, but I know covers tend not to be. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t actually apply to books in real life, either. The POINT of a book cover is to help a consumer judge whether or not they want to buy it.

Particularly when one is talking about an entire series. Twilight themes its titles by using terms for celestial events, or in the case of the first, at least a time of day. The covers have a small, very recognisable palette and share the same style throughout. But how well do they represent the content?

From a target audience and marketing perspective, the brief titles and minimalist design say “YA” and “drama.” The use of red contrasted with black can mean romance and/or horror, and the theme naming suggests supernatural elements. Twilight is a paranormal YA romance with a pensive tone and heavy atmosphere, which primarily uses drama for conflict.

The level of quality is not a question that can be answered by the cover. If you love Twilight but hate the covers, that doesn’t change the fact that they do tell you what kind of book you’ll be reading. If you love the covers but hate Twilight, the same applies. The question was, how well do the covers represent the content? The answer is, quite well indeed.

You can browse the list of examples on TV Tropes’ Covers Always Lie page in the Literature section in search of covers telling lies, but they are not necessarily bad representation. Since I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, I’ll make one up based on something Hubby said on the subject using the plot of Assassin’s Creed 2.

The covers are all whimsical cartoon renditions of a boy in Renaissance Italy, always depicted in or in front of a bank. For example, sitting at a desk covered in paper and stacks of coins, or in mid-pratfall dropping an armful of ledgers in the street as he’s tripping over his own feet. Every title contains puns on accounting or banking terms. But the story is about a young man whose family is murdered in the second chapter of book one, driving him to go on a decades-long journey of graphically depicted murderous revenge. His father simply happens to have been a banker who worked closely with the Medici family–the boy himself was never even interested in joining the family business.

In that imaginary example, the covers say “Middle Grade” and “comedy.” The consistent setting and props tell us he will be deeply involved in financial matters and stay in a fixed location while depicting a fairly regular daily life that probably won’t show off much historical detail or accuracy, and the naming suggests that nothing dark or serious will occur. But this is obviously historical fiction with a mystery component intended for an adult audience, with a nigh atramentous atmosphere, lots of death, and exploration of complex themes. People would buy these books for younger readers and be distressed if not pissed.

Bad cover representation absolutely affects a reader’s enjoyment. …and I just thought of an example: the first two books in Moira J Moore’s Hero series. But I already made my point, so I’ll just link to them on Goodreads.


Why I Don’t Like Up


Listening to: Lilac Wine – Jeff Buckley

I think we should stop using the word theory for fan theories. Theory implies that it’s an idea one feels to be true, when there is not really such a think as truth in fiction–only accuracy, intention, or honesty. My thing about Up is not a fan theory, it’s a way that I have analysed the repulsing affect this movie has on me. I apologise if I’ve repeat anything I’ve said before. Also, I probably spelled names wrong and totally forgot one of the character’s names, but I’ll just have to be forgiven. I want to post this and if I don’t put Owen to sleep right now, he’s going to IMPLODE.

This morning, Owen was watching Up, a movie that I have never cared for, and he watches on effing repeat. A lot of people say that the beginning is too sad, and I agree, but probably not for the same reasons. After the tearjerker open, the rest of the story tugs gradually less at the heartstrings. It actually parallels fairly well with the increasing levels of silliness. At the saddest possible moment, when Mr Frederikson is seconds away from being forced to leave his home (which he seems to have as a placeholder for his wife, to the point of conflation, in an emotional sense) the whimsy kicks in.

It’s a great moment, but everything that happens afterward is zany. I hate that word, and it describes exactly what it’s like to watch this movie. As in a dream, elements of Mr Frederikson’s life are combined and spat back out in unlikely ways that give him things that he wanted in his life, which were never possible.

Russell’s character is obvious. The Frederiksons wanted to have children, but were unable to do so. So his mind takes the actual child he met and crafts a believable fantasy. Not just a kid to bond with, but one who slowly erodes whatever defences he built up when he learned he wouldn’t be a father (“I don’t like kids anyway” kind of thing) and then provides a fulfilment of the protective instinct by needing a father figure where his expected one failed.

A blurry one is the dog, Dug. From what we saw of Mr Frederikson’s family, they appeared to be repressed and strict, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he was one of the many boys who wanted a dog and couldn’t have one. It also looks like he lived in a city (I assumed Manhattan for some reason) so there’s another reason a dog might not happen. And don’t even get me started on the significance of dogs in dream interpretation.

The last and zaniest fantasy is that of meeting his childhood hero. This one is a giant Torgue-y level of explosion noise, psychologically speaking. Mr Frederikson doesn’t just go to that long-promised vacation spot. He meets the explorer whom both he and his wife admired as children. This is basically what brought them together. And upon meeting the man, he discovers that he is psychotic, murderous, and although his accomplishments remain the stuff of admiration, the man himself goes from hero to threat.

Where to even start with that one? I could liken the childhood hero to Mr Frederikson’s marriage, relationship with his wife, and/or the inspiration and drive to just live every day. His wife’s death was like finding out that the hero was evil. What good is love, if it ends this painfully, one might say. (I wouldn’t, but other people do think that way) I thought that the plot point where Mr Frederikson has to throw out a bunch of his material possessions so that he can save the day seemed tacked on, an extraneous message that didn’t need to be there.

But what if. What if it isn’t just an anti-materialism message? What if the hero/villain does represent the pain of Mrs Frederikson’s death, and letting go of all of the things meant that in order to save himself from that pain, he had to stop living in the past? Maybe he was forcing himself to stop using his wife’s possessions as a crutch to avoid accepting her death. Eventually, the house “dies” with the villain.

The ending is idealistic and the sense of scale is insane. There aren’t any consequences for spending days in South America. The only important thing is that Russell gets to have his father figure fulfill a specific need. The mind is not rational in fantasy. None of this is real.

To me, though, it doesn’t come off like a funny fantasy story, not with a beginning like that. To me, it looks like the last spinning dream of a man who has given up. Manic, frenzied, telling jokes that aren’t funny and then laughing at itself. Nothing feels real because it isn’t.

I don’t like this movie because it feels like watching someone hallucinate while he lies dying.