Nothing like a spooky read to get into the Halloween mood!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
This July I am participating in Camp Nano, with the goal of writing for 500 minutes. I’m doing okay so far with devoting time to writing, but I’ve only written two scenes! Ugh! I think this is because I didn’t have a strong outline like I usually do, so I’m kind of floundering. I’m a plotter, not a pantser!
I’ve started on a new project this month, and surprising to me, I’m back to writing fanfiction! I used to write a lot of Cardcaptor Sakura and Star Wars fanfics back in high school and college, but I haven’t done any in over 10 years now.
Consequently, I’m kind of out of the loop on where to post fanfiction online. I used to use fanfiction.net (my stuff is still there), but maybe that’s not as popular anymore? Of course, I do have this blog as well, but I don’t usually post my writing here, and I’m especially hesitant to post fanfics because of the dubious legalities.
Here are some brief reviews of what I’ve been reading so far this year.
Wayward Children series
The Wayward Children series consists of four novellas, starting with Every Heart a Doorway, which is set in a boarding school for young people who went through various magical doorways to other worlds and then came home again (shades of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, but with less whimsy and more therapy.) The other novellas tell a bit more about the adventures of the various characters in the other worlds.
I tried reading the Hugo-winning Every Heart a Doorway a year ago and had trouble getting into it because I felt it was too dark. But it’s really not all that dark, considering that the plot revolves around murder and mutilation of corpses (also I was post-partum at the time and reading at odd hours of the night). It actually has a really nice ending with a theme of being true to yourself. It has a great cast of characters, including several LGBT+ characters, which really adds an extra dimension to the themes about self discovery and belonging. I’m reading through the rest of them now, and I’ve been enjoying picturing Jack, one of my favorite characters, as looking like Moonbyul of the K-pop group Mamamoo.
Elle Katharine White
This book is billed as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, and that is exactly what it delivers. In fact, it starts out as a beat-for-beat retelling of P&P (same characters, scenes, conversations, etc.), which was a bit boring, but as it continues it deviates further and gets more interesting. Its strength is its world building of dragons (and dragonriders) and other creatures.
I’m waiting for the sequel Dragonshadow on hold at the library now.
The Other Einstein
This was a book I wanted to like more than I did. On the surface, I was thrilled to read the story of a female scientist, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, the first wife of Albert Einstein. But I struggled with several aspects.
I am a bit uncomfortable with the use of recent historical figures as the focus of a fictional novel. I applaud the author’s intent to shine light on Mitza, but I personally would have chosen another way to do it. (This is the kind of thing that alternate history fantasy was made for.)
The book wants to treat Mitza like a Madam Curie figure, when in reality she failed her undergraduate final exams, never achieved a degree, and never worked professionally as a scientist. I say this not to disparage Mitza, who was clearly a brilliant woman (also dealt a bad hand by society), but to emphasize that the book is fiction. Though she undoubtedly collaborated with Einstein on his early works, there is precious little evidence that Mitza had a significant role in formulating the theory of relativity.
It makes for a good story, though. It very nearly reads like a tragedy, but the book injects some hope right at the end. There was nothing particularly beautiful about the prose, but it did have a good sense of drama.
I realized partway through that I would rather have just read the letters between Mitza and Einstein; the author helpfully provides the link to them here: https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/. (You can in fact read all of Einstein’s papers and correspondence.)
Also, have you noticed a trend in historical fiction covers recently?
I was very excited to get my hands on this sequel to the supervillain revenge story Vicious, which I loved last year. However, I hit some roadblocks in that until recently, my library only had the audiobook, not the ebook, thanks to a targeted campaign by the publisher (my library did not happen to have a print copy either). I have been trying halfheartedly to get into audiobooks, and I did not think this one was great. The narrator sounded perpetually wistful, and I was not impressed with his female voices (though his accents were good). It is also not a linear story, so I didn’t like that I couldn’t just skim back a few pages to the chapter break to check where in the timeline I was.
The story itself however was nearly as good as the original, just maybe not quite as tight. It went in a different direction than I expected, and I enjoyed the journey. Victor and Eli’s roles are a bit switched in this one, plus there are some great new female characters including the powerfully ambitious mob wife Marcella Morgan and the mysterious June. The book once again has a satisfying ending but with enough threads left hanging that there could be another installment (yes, please!). So if you really like grey characters or stories that make you root for sociopaths, I highly recommend this series.