Review: The Near Witch

Nothing like a spooky read to get into the Halloween mood!

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The Near Witch was actually VE Schwab’s first published novel, now republished in a new edition containing a companion short story, “The Ash-Born Boy.”  While it is not as strong as her later fantasy novels that I have read and enjoyed, The Near Witch had a wonderful atmosphere as well as some good characters and themes that were reminiscent of classic YA dark fantasy tales.

The story begins when a stranger comes to the village of Near, a place where there are no strangers, and soon children begin to be called away to the moors in the middle of the night.  The main character Lexi must hurry to find the children and keep her sister safe, but to do that she must first unravel the mystery of the stranger and the local legend of the Near Witch.

There were many things I liked about the story, including the setting and the fantasy elements.  The magic has a vague, fairy-tale-like quality. Lexi had some really good moments, and the villain is at once creepy and relatable.  I really liked the theme of how fear of the unknown can hurt rather than help. Overall, the story brought to mind elements of The Hunger Games, CLAMP’s manga Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, the movies of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and the stories of Diana Wynne Jones.

However, the book is not as epic or sophisticated as her later novels.  I thought the plot meandered a bit, moving in fits and starts, and sometimes was a bit frustrating and repetitive.  And while the romantic elements were sweet, it definitely is a case of insta-love.

I enjoyed the short story at the end as much if not more; it reveals the backstory of one of the novel’s characters.  It has a slightly different feel but was a good addition.

So, if you’re looky for a spooky read this October, The Near Witch definitely fits the bill, but I wouldn’t call it a must-read unless you are a really big fan of VE Schwab.

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

20191009_091115-1Guys, I am not sure I have ever seen another book hyped like this one.  Where the Crawdads Sing, the debut novel of Delia Owens, has been out for just over a year now and was at the #1 spot on the NYT bestseller list for about half of that time (it’s currently sitting at #5).  It is the top-selling book of 2019 so far with over 1.5 million copies sold.  It catapulted to fame when Reese Witherspoon picked it for her book club, and the movie rights have already been acquired, with Witherspoon producing.

After waiting many months for it at the library, I am happy to report that it is indeed an excellent book and I happily recommend it, though I wouldn’t say it was the best book ever, or even the best book I read this year.

Crawdads is the story of Kya, abandoned as a child by her family in the marshes of North Carolina during the 1950s, interspersed with the 1969 investigation of the murder of a popular young local man.  The back-and-forth between the two plot threads is wonderful, though the payoff when they finally connect was a little underwhelming to me.

The writing in general is excellent, though at points it does feel like a debut novel.  The world building is really special, with a unique setting and atmosphere.  There also is a sweet young love story that I was head-over-heels for.

But what did I really love?  The biology!

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Photo by Wendy Wei on Pexels.com

Kya grows up in the marshes, swamps, and estuaries of the coastal South, and comes to see Nature as her real family.  She sleeps outside and lives off the land.  She knows all the plants, birds, and fish of the region.  She collects flowers, nests, and bird feathers which she then sketches and categorizes by species.  She feeds the gulls on the beach and names them.  Many people have said that the marsh is treated like a character in the book, and it’s really true.

The descriptions of all these ecological details are like catnip to a biologist like me.  As someone with a background in animal behavior, I loved the way Kya approaches human relationships from the lens of the animal behavior she has observed and read about.  She always looks for comparisons between animal and human social behaviors; sometimes they correspond well, like with certain male and female mating strategies, and sometimes slightly less, like with certain maternal behaviors.

Owens is a biologist herself, having already published books about her time spent studying wildlife in Africa.  (She’s also been published in Nature, which is a pretty big deal for a scientist.)  As a biologist and aspiring novelist, Owens is a big inspiration to me, along with other biologists such as Diana Galabdon (Outlander) and Stephanie Laurens (Regency romances) who have gone on to have phenomenal careers as fiction writers.

If you are looking for a quick, engaging read with some new perspectives but nothing too groundbreaking, I think Crawdads is for you.  I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t think it quite lived up to the excessive hype.  Since many of you reading this have probably read it, what were your thoughts?

Spinning Silver: From Short Story to Novel

Back in December 2016, I read a nice compilation of fairy tale retellings called The Starlit Wood, which was anchored by Naomi Novik’s Rumpelstiltskin tale “Spinning Silver.”  It was one of my favorite stories from the collection.   So I was a bit confused when I heard last year that Novik had a new novel out, called…Spinning Silver.

I read the book’s description and realized it was the same story: the short story had been reworked into a novel.  This was fascinating to me!  It made me even more interested in picking up the novel.  (I had also enjoyed Novik’s original fairy tale novel Uprooted.)

The short story was kind of a twisted take on Rumpelstiltskin (hence the title, referencing the original tale where the miller’s daughter must spin straw into gold).  Miryem is a young Jewish moneylender who turns silver to gold for an elf-like Staryk using her business sense.  There is no overt magic in this version, and Miryem ends by outsmarting the Staryk and taking charge of their bargain.

The first quarter or so of the novel is this same story, sometimes even using the exact same text.  But at the end of it, Miryem and the Staryk make a different bargain in this version, and the rest of the novel spins out from there.  It actually ends up being pretty epic, with the fate of two kingdoms at stake.

My first hint of differences came with the inclusion of new viewpoints in the novel.  Wanda, a village laborer, and Irina, the duke’s daughter, join Miryem to give a trio of female viewpoints that form the backbone of the story.  All three women are struggling to gain control of their own fates, rather than being controlled by men (fathers, husbands, the Staryk, the tsar).

Eventually we get even more viewpoints: Wanda’s brother, Irina’s old nursemaid, and even the tsar himself.  Though the chapters aren’t labeled with the narrator’s name, I was always able to tell who was speaking within a sentence or two, so well-defined were the characters.

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Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com

I was intrigued by the way Miryem and Irina have parallel storylines, the differences informed by their different religions and stations in life, yet they are tied together by their shared sense of justice and strong wills.  The book makes an interesting distinction between justice and fairness.  The idea of “fair value” comes up frequently, mainly from the Staryk, which reminded me of Lundy’s world from the Wayward Children novella In An Absent Dream.  But even if a bargain is fair, it still might not be right; Miryem is concerned with both these things.

I also liked the way Miryem and Wanda gather a blended family around themselves.  It was wonderful to see how a family was created by all the members giving from the heart, whether it was reciprocated or not.

Though there are further hints of the Rumpelstiltskin story throughout (the power of names, bargaining away a child), Spinning Silver moves away from the original tale to incorporate other fairy tale tropes, like a mother’s spirit in a tree and a cottage that exists in two worlds.  It also brings in some arcane magic as a method of turning silver to gold.  It almost seemed closer to an original fairy tale in an Eastern European tradition, like Uprooted.  I actually think I liked it more than Uprooted, because I liked the Staryk and the tsar better than the Dragon, and I really enjoyed how incredibly understated the romance was.

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And I guess it’s kinda fitting that I had pictured the Dragon as looking like Rumpelstiltskin…

In short, I would recommend both “Spinning Silver” and Spinning Silver, especially if you love fairy tale retellings; each has its own strengths, but the excellent characters, themes, and writing they have in common.

Review: We Hunt the Flame

I heard a lot of hype about this YA debut fantasy; its Arab-inspired setting was a huge draw for me.  But ultimately, my feelings about We Hunt the Flame were complicated.  In short, I’d probably give it 3 / 5 stars, and I’m not planning to read any future books in the series.

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From Goodreads:

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king.

When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.

The world building did end up being my favorite thing about this book.  I loved the setting of Arawiya and its countries, based on ancient Arabia.  We learn a lot about its government and culture, including food and rituals.  The author drops in Arabic words frequently, which I liked.  Some of the fantasy even ties into the cultural aspects with appearances by mythological creatures like ifrits.

The story was pretty engaging.  Although a bit slow to begin, it really picks up about a third of the way in, once Zafira and Nasir meet on their quest.  There are some nice twists at the end, several I saw coming and several I didn’t.  The characters were all pretty interesting, but I can’t say I really fell in love with any of them.

The fantasy and romance aspects were fine, nothing really special or new.  Zafira reminded me strongly of Katniss from Hunger Games because of her home life situation, her prickly personality, and her talents with a bow.  The overall tone of the book as well as some of the fantasy elements reminded me of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series.

The prose was one aspect of the novel that did stand out to me, being rather pretty and flowery, even going almost into poetical forms at times.  While it was nice, it also was not particularly easy to read.  I frequently had to stop and re-read sentences or even whole paragraphs to figure out what had actually happened.

Occasionally, the writing seemed overly detailed in a confusing way.  For example, one of the side characters I ended up liking the most was the young general Altair, but during his introduction scene I couldn’t get a read on him at all.  He is described, all within about a page, as having a “cheery voice” and a “wolfish grin,” while “anger feathered his jaw” and he spoke “hateful words,” yet “he acted as if everything were a jovial affair” and had the “eyes of a hawk.” Huh?

Overall, I enjoyed We Hunt the Flame, but I didn’t feel that it really stood out among other current YA fantasy except for its setting and world building.

Slightly Subpar Sequels

There’s nothing better than getting sucked into a series where you just want to keep reading book after book.  But for every series like Girl of Fire and Thorns, where I found the second book to be a huge improvement on the first, there is also a series where the quality dips after the first, or the story goes off in a completely different direction.  I read a couple of books recently that, while perfectly fine books, did not live up to their predecessors in my mind.

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Dragonshadow

By Elle Katharine White

I enjoyed the initial book Heartstone (billed as Pride and Prejudice with dragons) earlier this year; however this follow up went in a bit of a different direction and lost my interest.

For a series where the first entry adhered almost completely to the plot points of P&P, the second book takes a hard left and, aside from the characters of the previous book and an occasional “sir,” has no relation to Austen or the Regency whatsoever that I could tell.  The closest connection I could make is Northanger Abbey, both involving a visit to a mysterious house of secrets, but since everything that Aliza imagines at Castle Selwyn is actually true, the lesson seems to have been lost.

As much as I wasn’t crazy about the slavish adherence to P&P in the first book, without the Austen connection the sequel lost one of the things that drew me to the series and became just a decent generic fantasy. (I did like that it incorporates further mythological creatures instead.)  Another issue is that without the P&P backbone, this story is not as tightly plotted and seemed like it was stretched out to make a trilogy. It takes the entire first half of the book for Aliza and Alastair to get where they are going, which seemed like a very slow start to me.

But as a last note, it does take a serious and mature look at some difficult aspects of married life that I think is great for a YA novel to explore.
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Suitors and Sabotage

By Cindy Anstey

This YA Regency intrigue was entertaining but kind of forgettable. I discovered the first two books when I was on a Regency romance kick, and really enjoyed them, but I didn’t really feel anything special about this one. Perhaps the formula is getting old for me? (Though these 3 books are similar, they are more companion novels than a series; there is no overlap in characters and no overarching plotline.)

I think the level of tension and drama was not quite up to the level of the first two books.  For comparison, the first book Love, Lies, and Spies begins with the heroine hanging off a cliff; this one starts with a lovely picnic among some scenic ruins.  It was also less epic in scope, nothing to do with international espionage or even kidnapping, just some vaguely threatening events.

 

Overall, I’d give these two sequels 3/5 stars, while I probably would have rated their predecessors around 4 stars.  While I enjoyed reading them, I doubt I’ll continue with either series, or ever revisit them in the future. On to better books!