Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

Every Heart a Doorway

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This book was everywhere a few years ago. Since then there has been about one new book in the series per year. If you know me, you know I love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Inkheart trilogy, or anything where a kid finds himself/herself somehow in another world. “Portal fantasy” appears to be the term thrown around to describe these novels and Every Heart a Doorway, so we will go with that. Every Heart a Doorway is a portal fantasy with a boarding school setting, a murder mystery, a diverse cast, and some hints at romances to come. On paper, it sounds great. In reality, it was a bit of a disappointment to me.

Nancy arrives at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Nancy is under the impression that this is simply a boarding school her parents have sent her to because they do not believe that she has traveled into another world. However, the school is specifically for children who have traveled to other worlds. Their parents think that their children have ran away, been kidnapped, or abused, while the children all know that their experiences in various fantasy worlds were real. The Home for Wayward Children helps kids who have returned from their portal world either find their way back to their doors or come to terms with their lives in the “real world.” Nancy meets the proprietor, Ms. West, as well many of the other children staying at the school. While Nancy went to a world very much like the underworld, many others went to candy lands, nonsense worlds, rhyming worlds and worlds with vampires, goblins, insect queens, and the list goes on. Just as Nancy starts to understand her peers and the school, brutal murders begin happening, endangering all of the students. Nancy and her newfound friends must figure out what is going on in order to save their school from possibly closing down, which would leave all of the children without a place to call home.

The characters were probably the strongest part. Nancy and her friends were all good characters. Some of their banter was entertaining, and the cast was diverse with asexual and trans characters. I praise the representation, but some of the conversations about sex felt slightly forced. Especially when the book as a whole is so short, it feels odd to have characters take so much time to talk about sex, sexuality, and masturbation in a fantasy novel. Is it cool that we talk frankly about sex in a YA novel? Definitely! Is it cool that it takes up more time than other aspects of the plot and characters? Maybe not. Again, I truly appreciate that the author spends time on these topics (the author also writes about sexuality/gender issues very beautifully and with respect), but give me all of that in addition to more of the fantasy, magical, creepy school goodness I was promised in the blurb.

This is a novella-sized story that tries to fit in a lot in a short number of pages, and it does not work perfectly. The pacing feels odd. We start with Nancy arriving at the school, we get to know her, she gets to know a few students, then all of the sudden MURDER. The murder mystery consumes the plot from then on. I was looking forward to getting to know the fantasy aspect of how these portals or doors to other worlds work. I was looking forward to exploring the school building (What huge mansions and expansive grounds in a fantasy novel do not have secrets?), the classes, the students, the teachers, and the various worlds more, but there just wasn’t time to develop anything fully. Now, I know that there are several more books in the series, and you cannot expect everything to be explained in the first book of a series, but there was so little here that I do not feel inclined to pick up the next book. The ending also felt abrupt. The murder mystery is rather quickly and easily dealt with at the end. The author drops some hints about how the magic/doors work in the final scenes, but it is too late in the plot to get any actual answers.

I liked a lot of what Every Heart a Doorway had to offer, but it just needed more— more descriptions, more details about the plot/mystery, more character development, more information about the school, magic system, etc. Is this an incentive to read more of the books? Maybe. I am curious about the rest of the series, but I am not sure if I will read them all. If you’ve read any more of the series, let me know your thoughts in the comments. Am I complaining about things that get better in the next books? Tell me! As of now, I gave Every Heart a Doorway a rating of three out of five stars.

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

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One of my goals for my blog this year is to review more new releases. This book got a lot of buzz from the start because the author, Marlon James, won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings. I haven’t read that book, or any of his other work yet, but I could not resist the fact that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an African myth-filled epic journey of a sort of anti-hero. I’ve seen marketing calling it “an African Game of Thrones.” Um… well, no. When I think of A Song of Ice and Fire, I think about complex political maneuvering, multiple characters’ point of view, Euro-centric myth and creatures, etc. Black Leopard, Red Wolf does not quite fit that description, which– I think– is a very important distinction to make. In fact, I would not even recommend this book for your general fantasy lover. It is also very dark and perhaps controversial. If gore, violence, homosexual relationships, descriptions of genitalia or sex acts, or rape (of basically everyone and everything) bothers you, beware of this book.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf focuses on one main character, Tracker. There are many, many characters throughout the novel, but the book is written in first person with Tracker as our main character and narrator. All we know about Tracker is that he has a nose that smell out anyone, and one of his eye’s is a wolf’s. The novel begins with Tracker speaking directly to you, with “you” being an inquisitor. We are given small hints about Tracker’s current situation and about this inquisitor throughout the tale, but Tracker tends to skip around in his storytelling. We learn about Tracker’s childhood a bit, his life in the African bush and with other tribes, how he met some of his companions, and a few tales of his past feats. However, the majority of the novel deals with Tracker being hired to find a mysteriously missing boy in the company of witches, shapeshifters, demons, spirits, and gods.

Trying to give a synopsis of this one is challenging, but I would highly advise reading a few pages before you buy it. Again, this isn’t your average fantasy novel. It is very, very lyrical and descriptive. The language and scenes are often surreal, and some reading between the lines may be needed to discern what is actually happening. I had a hard time at the beginning of the novel because I honestly had no idea what was going on. However, once I became accustomed to the writing style, characters, and plot, it became overall very enjoyable to read, if still challenging. I would not say that this is a novel that you can lose yourself in the world. The setting is amazing and unique, but the book is a little lax about explaining the hows and whys of the world. There’s no tidy Brandon Sanderson magic system here. Having some knowledge of African folklore might help you though. There is also a list of important characters/creatures that can be helpful to refer back to as you read.

The plot and characters are both very interesting. As I said, there are quite a few characters that come and go throughout the novel. It might be hard to remember everyone, but the main cast stays somewhat constant once you get to the main journey. Tracker and a few of the characters close to him are well written, but secondary characters often make an impression too. They all have distinct personalities with their own motives to drive them. One thing I like about Tracker being the narrator is that there are a lot of “holes” in the story. Tracker sometimes becomes separated from his comrades or knocked out, he may choose to leave something out of his narrative, or characters leave and return from their own journeys. In these moments we simply don’t know what happened to the other characters unless they tell Tracker and he tells us. This not only adds character depth but it also adds a lot of “off the page” plot, which sometimes pops back up later in the story and other times remains unexplained.

The plot could be confusing, especially early on. Tracker skips around a bit at the beginning of the novel. Once he begins talking about his quest for the missing child things start to make more sense and become more linear. This is going to be a trilogy, so it should be no surprise that this first books spends a lot of time setting up the plot, the world, and the characters. Much of the book is a mystery in that we do not know who this missing boy is or why everyone wants him. Each character Tracker encounters seems to have their own story about the boy. Who is lying? Who can Tracker trust? Most of the book is spent chasing the boy’s scent, which means a lot of traveling. If you don’t like travel adventures, you may dislike this first book, but in my opinion, enough happens in each location that it does not become boring.

Yes, this book has political maneuvering, but it is not quite to the scale of A Song of Ice and Fire (yet?)Yes, it has multiple characters, but they don’t have their perspectives. Yes, there is a lot of myth and magic, but it all feels very different than European-based fantasy. There is a raw, feral, and unforgiving feel to this novel. If you already like fantasy or magical realism and you also like surreal descriptions, lyrical writing, dialogue with dialects, don’t mind a little work to get into a book, and you don’t mind some dark themes, this might be a book for you. I would not go into expecting Game of Thrones or any other more mainstream fantasy. As someone who really likes unique fantasy and loves slightly overwritten novels, this is a pro for me, but I hesitate to say it is a book that a general fantasy lover would be interested in reading. Black Leopard, Red Wolf gets four solid stars out of five from me. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy in the future. It was certainly a memorable experience like nothing else I have ever read.

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism

The Kingdom of Copper

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I don’t usually review sequels here because to care about the sequel, you probably need to have read the first book. It’s also hard to talk about a second book in the series without spoiling anything, but my reading time has taken a big hit this year because of work, so we can’t be too choosy about what we review! But, I have to say, The Kingdom of Copper helped me get out of a bad reading slump because it’s just a fun, creative series that I genuinely enjoy.

Nahri thought she was just a regular orphan girl from Cairo with some… odd powers. But one day she accidentally summoned a djinn who whisked her away to a whole new, mythical world. In The City of Brass we followed Nahri and her friends as she became accustomed to her magical home of Daevabad and her new life as part of its royalty. In The Kingdom of Copper there is trouble brewing in Daevabad. The various tribes of djinn have always had their grievances about each other, but now the city has become a tinderbox looking for a spark. When everyone has their own motives for power and peace, Nahri must confront both her friends and enemies for a happy future in Daevabad for her and her people.

I would say that author S. A. Chakraborty stepped up her writing in this sequel. I mentioned in my review of The City of Brass that the book read a little on the Young Adult side and would be a good series for readers who are looking for something to bridge the gap between YA fantasy and adult fantasy. The Kingdom of Copper still has a slightly younger leaning to its writing and characters, but overall, both the writing and characters have matured a lot. Since there appears to be a gradual maturing of the writing and characters, I maintain my judgment about this series being great for readers who are just getting into adult fantasy from YA fantasy. There’s still a bit of a love triangle in this book, but it does not get in the way of the plot. In fact, I would even say that slightly awkward romantic asides in book one were practically absent in book two. In my opinion, this is a good thing, but if you like a good bit of  romance in your fantasy, this series might not be the best choice.

I really like the characters in this series. Nahri has a lot of spunk, but she isn’t stupid or reckless. She is a smart, resourceful girl who knows when to bide her time for sweeter revenge later. She was a little too headstrong and emotional in book one, but Nahri was the character that I felt grew the most in this sequel. Ali, a prince of Daevabad, has also matured as both a warrior and diplomat. He is still very rigid in his beliefs, but he has learned to use his brain and brawn much more carefully. I would say that all of the main cast (and there are quite a few) are well written with a good amount of depth. The secondary characters (again, quite a few of them) have less purpose and depth and seemed to be there mostly to have a sad death scene. Maybe some of them could have been utilized more, but it would have been difficult to give them all a good amount of “page time” without derailing the story or making it overly complex.

Probably my favorite thing about this novel and this series is that it is so politically intricate. I would not say it is as complex as something like A Song of Ice and Fire, but I loved how every single character had their own independent agendas in addition to their tribe’s or group’s plans. Even if Character A is on one side of a fight, Character A may still sympathize with another group’s plight in some specific ways. In short, it felt realistic. War is never completely black and white because of all of the different lives that get tangled up in it. The Kingdom of Copper just does gray areas well. I rooted for specific characters instead of taking just one side, which made my feelings about certain events mixed– both happy and yet sad. And although I do not want main characters I love to die, I hope the author considers the possibility in book three so that this does not become a series in which everything and everyone has a happy ending. It would not feel as realistic as I have come to expect from the first two books.

I really look forward to the last book in this series. I feel like it will come to another happy/sad conclusion, but it will be a realistic and fulfilling conclusion. A lot of bad things happen in this series, but there has yet to be a big event where justice is served. I am hoping that book three will give me the closing I am craving. When the time comes, I will be on the lookout for an ARC of the last book, and you’ll probably see a review. But, here’s to at least a year of waiting.

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism

The City of Brass

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I looked at my shelves the other day and realized that there was nothing on my there that I was truly interested in reading at the moment. This has been a big problem for me in the past year, so I took a couple of bags of books and sold them to a secondhand bookstore. While I was there and because of my reading slump, I decided to buy one book that I was interested in reading right that second, take it home, and read it immediately. So, I did.

Nahri scrapes by in 18th century Cairo by being a little shady in her business dealings. She steals, lies, and cheats her way to a meager living every day. It helps that she has some magical abilities like healing small wounds and instantly understanding most languages she hears. When she attempts a ritual to remove the supposed spiritual possession from a child, she accidentally summons a real djinn. Dara the djinn introduces Nahri to a hidden, magical word populated by the djinn, their descendants, and a whole host of strange mythological beings. Nahri quickly learns that she has a stake in this magical world that she never asked for.

I haven’t had this much fun reading a book in a while. In many ways, this book is nothing too ground breaking or special, but there’s actually quite a bit going on under the surface. To begin with, this is a novel based on Middle Eastern mythology and Islamic beliefs. The author herself is a Muslim convert. The novel is told in third person perspective with a focus on the perspectives of Nahri and Ali, a prince in the djinn’s world. The world is expansive and the characters are interesting, but the novel suffers from a few issues and tropes common to recent fantasy releases. However, it has a lot more complexity and heart than many overly hyped reads in the same vein.

Although this book is classified as adult fantasy, it reads a little younger. The writing itself, some of the plot devices (read: tropes), and some of the characters come off a bit “less adult” than I usually read. There’s actually quite a bit of violence and some adult themes though, so don’t be too turned off by the slight YA feel. If anything, it just reads more quickly because of this, but it does not feel overly childish. If you usually read adult fantasy, you may have some issues with the writing, but if you usually read YA and are looking to dip your toe into adult fantasy, this would be an excellent starting point.

A few common complaints I see from other reviewers are that the world is too confusing (there’s a glossary in the back of the book!), there is a lot of information dumping, and that the plot becomes too slow in the middle of the novel. I would say that I partially agree with all of those comments, but I feel like the book deserves a little defense in those respects. The world building of the novel is actually quite good in my opinion. The world feels “off the page,” meaning that it feels like it has a long, rich history intertwined with some of familiar real-world history. Does the mythology and history of the world get “dumped” on the reader all at once? Maybe.

The book is packed with action and adventure, but near the midpoint there is a definite dip in action. There is a long travel sequence in the early to middle part of the book. During the traveling, the characters discuss the history of the world at length. Because this information about the world is sandwiched between so much action and because of the complexity of the world, I can see why many readers complain about the slowness of the middle of the novel. While I do wish that the travel scenes were shorter and that the world building was woven more smoothly throughout the novel, it isn’t a major issue in my opinion. However, I do feel like too much of the history/mythology of the world was packed into the first book in the series. The end in particular felt as if the author was throwing a lot of mythological curve balls at the reader to add twists and complications to what you thought were the rules of the created world. This was a bit confusing, but it also intensified my desire to read the sequel so that I could hopefully get some answers.

Remember when I mentioned tropes earlier? As with many fantasy novels, we have the “normal girl finds out she is special and has to save the world” plot. Although the first book is not yet focused on saving the whole world, it hints at larger evils and problems to come in the subsequent books. To me, the more egregious trope is the dreaded love triangle. I hope that the sequel dispels the implications that a love triangle is developing, but it is a possibility that it may become more integral to the plot as it moves forward. There’s also (unless I am reading it completely wrong) some hope of a bi/gay relationship between a couple of the characters. Despite all of the romantic speculation, I would not say that this book is a romance masquerading as a fantasy, as some YA and adult fantasy seem to be guilty of doing. Although the romantic pairings have some importance to the plot, it does not distract from the major plot devices so far.

This review actually turned out to be pretty long, so I think I will wrap it up. The final verdict: The City of Brass is an imperfect but extremely entertaining and interesting fantasy novel. It gets tangled up in a few tired tropes, but it is overall worthy of some recognition for its representation, creativity, world building, and endearing but flawed characters. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The City of Brass, and I plan to pick up the sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, released on the 22nd of January in the U.S. I gave The City of Brass a rating of 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism

Deathless

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So, I really like fairy tales, folklore, and mythology. I also like the fantasy genre. If you give me a fantasy novel that has a lot of inspiration from the fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, I am almost certainly going to love it. Meet Deathless, a fantasy novel with a heavy dose of Russian folklore and fairy tales.

Marya Morevna is a human girl living in Russia during the Russian Revolution. Throughout her childhood, Marya occasionally saw glimpses of what she called “magic.” Her sisters married birds who turned into men before her eyes, and she has seen domovoi meetings within her family’s home. So, when another bird-turned-man shows up at Marya’s door asking for her hand in marriage, she isn’t too surprised. In fact, she expected it and waited eagerly for the day. However, her husband to be isn’t quite what she pictured. What she does not yet know is that her future husband is Koschei the Deathless.

I could say more. I could say a lot more, but just know that this novel is packed with Russian myths, history, and culture. I will admit that a lot of it went over my head in the early chapters. Since I never studied much Russian anything in college, I was torn between looking up the tales and avoiding them like the plague because of possible spoilers. If I could go back in time before I started the novel, I would probably brush up on the stories about Koschei as well as other Russian mythological creatures and figures. Doing this might help add some context to the references and make it easier to picture some of the other creatures/characters. Even though the author takes her own creative liberties with certain details, having some foundation of what she is describing would have helped me at least.

OK, onto the regular stuff. How are the characters, plot, and everything else? Pretty great, actually. Marya grew as a character at a believable and nonlinear pace. She started out as a young, naive girl, and even though she did something brave, strong, or clever, that does not mean she will always be brave, strong, or clever in the future. Sometimes she regressed a bit as she progressed, and I found that to add a lot of depth and realism to her character. She also struggled with morality, power, and relationships. Marya is flawed and imperfect, but it is impossible not to cheer for her and her fiery spirit to succeed. The other “demons” in the story, like Koschei, were lively and well written, but some of Marya’s less important friends and allies didn’t make as much of an impression.

I admittedly struggled with the plot of the novel, but I think that was more of a problem with my own mindset than it was with the book itself. I got into a horrible reading slump at end of November and start of December that made me not want to pick up anything. The beginning of Deathless went a bit slowly as we are introduced to Marya and watch her grow up. When Koschei entered the picture around fifty pages in, the plot sped up, as did my interest. Without my reading slump, I would likely have had no issue with the pace.

Deathless is a very unique read that fans of Russian folklore or general fantasy might adore. My verdict is a rating of 4 out of 5 stars, but I would not be opposed to changing my rating to a 5 when I inevitably reread this one.

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

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Another Murakami, another weird and wonderful book. I will start by saying that I still prefer the first Murakami that I read, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but this one was of course in no way bad.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World follows two seemingly separate story lines. In one, we have a man who is a split-brained data processor. He goes into an unconscious-like state in which he processes data for living. He begins to work for a strange professor and his granddaughter, but that is when his life is suddenly turned upside down. In the other plot line, we follow a man in a strange town called the Town. In the Town, there is a giant wall, strange beasts, and dreams that need reading, but no one in the Town has a shadow. Their shadows are sentient, but in most cases, their shadows have disappeared.

Confused yet? Yeah, me too. To be honest, I read to the halfway point of the novel and began to wonder when or if the two plot lines would come together. They seemed so vastly different from one another that I could not imagine how they were related. But, this is a Murakami, so I had faith that it would all make at least a little sense by the end. I wasn’t disappointed. The book is very surreal, so if this is your first foray into surrealism or Haruki Murakami, I’m not sure I would recommend starting here. However, if you can stay confused and simultaneously engaged, this is a fun adventure story with some deep, psychological considerations.

As for the characters, I find them secondary to the plot and overarching metaphor of the novel itself. Still, I liked the professor and his granddaughter. They are both weird, wonderful characters with interesting motivations and personality quirks. Our main characters seem like many male Murakami protagonists in that they are rather faceless and average. The characters in the Town are a bit flat as well, but it seems intentional since they have a part of them missing.

I gave Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World around 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4/5 on Goodreads. An experienced surrealism/Murakami fan will enjoy it, but it may not be for new readers of the genre/author.