Review: The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan

thewakingfirefinalThe Waking Fire
(The Draconis Memoria #1)
Anthony Ryan

Publisher: Orbit
Publishing year:
2016
Pages: 679
ISBN: 9780356506364
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5

I’m always up for an interesting story involving dragons. Honestly, who doesn’t love these powerful fire-breathing lizards? Though the inclusion of dragons doesn’t necessarily guarantee a compelling fantasy novel, but with excellent world building Anthony Ryan thankfully succeeds in his next fantasy series.

Contrary to most high fantasy, or at least most fantasy involving dragons (there are exceptions, I know), Ryan’s world does not involve monarchies or knights in shining armour. Though there is a neighbouring empire and (of course) the threat of war, the country the protagonists hail from has done away with obsolete practices of kings and nobility, and is instead ruled by corporations. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is fine and dandy; there’s corruption, there are people living in slums, and the dragons (drakes) are exploited in breeding pens or are nearly hunted to extinction in the name of profit. Basically: capitalism.

What’s the point in exploiting these dragons? Well, their blood has magical properties that certain gifted people are able to use; they’re called blood-blessed. Depending on their affinity and which type of drake the utilized blood comes from, the abilities can range from powering ships to telepathy, to increasing muscle output. It’s an interesting magic system that comes with clear limitations and boundaries for the characters, something that I can always appreciate. The existence of these people and their abilities make Drake blood a valuable commodity, and the economy of this world thrives on harvesting these creatures for their blood. Moreover, the technology of this world is reminiscent of the late 19th century with steampunk elements, which also sets this fantasy epic apart from other works involving dragons. It’s a very unique combination.

The Waking Fire has three protagonists. The first is Clay, a thief from the slums who is secretly a blood-blessed and is forced to go on an expedition to find the mysterious White Drake. The second is Lizanne, a spy who has to infiltrate an enemy country to further the agenda of the Ironship Trading Syndicate she works for. Finally, there is Hilemore, the second lieutenant on a navy ship who finds himself having to work with a badass female pirate. Both Clay and Lizanne have ample character development. Clay goes from a largely self-serving thief trying to leave the mission he’s forced to undertake to wanting to save the world, and Lizanne begins to question her mission as well as her mentor. These characters also frequently interact with one another, which allows for their storylines to intertwine.

Unfortunately, Hilemore appears to be more of a loose end. Not only does he get fewer chapters compared to the other two characters, but his storyline does not feel as connected or even as important to the rest of the plot. His interaction with the female pirate Zenida is interesting and it sheds light on events taking place elsewhere, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of impact. Moreover, his lack of screen time does not showcase any character development other than an honourable navy officer being forced to work with a pirate. The significance of this character might change as I expect him to become more involved, but it’s still a pity his story felt a little underwhelming compared to the others. And while I’m nitpicking: I also felt a certain reveal by the end of Clay’s story involving a certain character and the White Drake was not as well-reasoned as I would have liked, but I can’t say much without spoiling anything.

Still, The Waking Fire is a compelling read. Though Ryan has done a great job with building his world and its magic system, I think the greatest element is the sense of mystery. The built-up is slow, but tension continues to rise as the novel progresses. This is especially evident in Clay’s storyline; though the other characters experience the consequences of all the strange events that are happening, it’s Clay who draws closer to the mystery behind the White Drake. The pacing is crucial to pulling this rising tension off and Ryan has done this perfectly. This mystery, along with the fluid writing style, made it impossible to put this book down.

However, I can’t help but wonder whether this element will hold up for the second installment of this series, The Legion of Flame. One of the draws of The Waking Fire was the mystery behind the White Drake and the strange occurrences happening everywhere. By the end of The Waking Fire, the mystery has been largely resolved, which seemingly ‘only’ leaves our main characters to find a way to save the world. I suppose I’ll have to read Ryan’s second installment to The Draconis Memoria to find out whether the series has more in store than initially expected. In the mean time, if you’re looking for an original take on a high fantasy novel involving dragons and a real sense of mystery, The Waking Fire is a recommended read!

On Readathons and Reading Challenges

Ah, Readathons and reading challenges. I’ve seen plenty of them around even before I started this blog; people are doing them on BookTube and I occasionally stumble upon them on GoodReads. A friend/co-worker of mine loves doing them as well, and yes, the themes are quite fun and interesting, varying from Pokémon to a reading challenge dedicated to diversity. Posts by Nerd in New York and Drizzle Hurricane Books inspired me to write my own opinion about Readathons.

But, before we get started: what’s a Readathon or a Reading Challenge? Well, basically, it’s a challenge to encourage you to read as many books as possible. During a Readathon, you usually do so in a certain amount of time. There’s also a Bingo or a list format that earns you a mark/list-filler whenever you read something that suits the topic. Sometimes, these challenges have a theme, which can vary from reading books about LGBT to reading books with blue covers.

There are pros and cons to reading challenges. The obvious pro is: you’re likely to get more reading done! The competitive spirit motivates you to read more books, which is a good way to get through that endless TBR pile. It also allows you to connect with people who also participate in the challenge, as you’re probably reading the same kind of books which encourages discussion and exchanging recommendations. Finally, a challenge can make you read books you wouldn’t have picked up otherwise, which can not only broaden your horizon and let you step out of your comfort zone, but also lead to unexpected favourites.

So yes, I can obviously see the merit in doing a reading challenge or Readathon. It’s a fun way to get through your TBR pile!

Still, I don’t do them.

Okay, there’s one exception, and that’s the annual reading challenge on GoodReads. I pick a number of books I want to read that year, and I try to read that amount of books. However, that still allows me to select whatever book I want to read, and I tend to pick a number that I know is realistic for me.

And that brings me to the reason behind me not doing any other reading challenges or Readathons: because a lot of these tend to have a theme, I’d feel pressured in reading a certain type of book. I tend to pick a book based on what I want to read next, and I feel a themed reading challenge would eliminate that sense of spontaneity. I also like to keep things varied, which makes me switch genres a lot. Not very compatible to a themed challenge — if I were to read, say, 7 thrillers one after another, I’d be sick and tired of thrillers before I reach the 7th book. Basically, for me, a Readathon or reading challenge would needlessly pressure me into reading books I feel like I have to read, rather than reading what I want to read. In other words, a very fast way for me to get into a reading slump.

And, knowing me, I tend to want to read books ‘not allowed’ for the challenge when I do participate in one.

Moreover, as a rule, I don’t own enough books to match a certain theme. A library subscription costs money in my country, and buying everything is even more expensive. As it is, I unfortunately don’t have a magic tree growing money in my back yard. And honestly, I don’t need even more excuses to buy more books. My space isn’t endless, either. But I’ll leave the discussion about space management for another day!

And finally, I don’t have the time to read a lot of books in a short amount of time. My job, other hobbies, and my social life tend to interfere from time to time.

But, like I said, nothing wrong with Readathons or challenges, or the people who love participating in them. I like the idea and some of those themes certainly do seem fun. Plus, the excitement of others is fun to see in the community! I just prefer not to do them myself.

What about you? How do you feel about reading challenges?

Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

half-a-king-uk-mmpbHalf a King
(Shattered Sea #1)
Joe Abercrombie

Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publishing year:
2014
Pages: 376
ISBN: 9780007550227
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 3/5
This review was originally written for ToTen Magazine.

In a kingdom that values physical strength and skill in battle, the crippled Prince Yarvi is the royal family’s embarrassment. His maimed hand doesn’t allow him to hold a shield properly, much less avoid another beating on the training ground.  He was more than ready to renounce his right to the throne and spend his life as a minister, but when his father and older brother are murdered, Yarvi has no choice but to take the crown. His reign proves short-lived when he is betrayed by his family and left for dead. He survives only to be sold as a slave, manning the oars on a merchant ship with only a single good hand. He swears vengeance on those who wronged him, but that road isn’t without its hardships and sacrifices.

Half a King is part of a trilogy, but this novel stands well on its own. Though the novel hints at an underlying concern that might appear in the trilogy’s subsequent books, most issues are wrapped up in a neat little bow. That said, this is very much the story of an underdog. Despite the character’s flaws and his initial cowardice, you can’t help but root for the disadvantaged prince Yarvi as he attempts to survive and even navigate an unkind world. It’s satisfying to find that Yarvi manages to utilize his training and his wit to reach his goals. He really comes into his own and grows as a character, which is the best part of the book.

Interestingly, Yarvi’s growth makes him cunning and pragmatic. He screws people over. He lives in a hard world, so he consequently grows into a harder person because of his experiences and the goals that he wants to achieve. Having sworn an oath, Yarvi comes to realize that fulfilling it means making sacrifices to do what needs to be done – and despite the doubts he has, he pulls through. This makes his growth realistic and interesting, and though his actions are sometimes deplorable, you can understand where he’s coming from. Yarvi’s persona is complimented by the cast of secondary characters that he meets and who join his cause. Though they help and support him – most of them selflessly, as a result from surviving hardships together – Yarvi also manages to alienate some of them with his decisions. At the same time, however, these secondary characters are the novel’s main flaw; though they seem interesting enough, they do not appear as complex and well-developed as Yarvi which feels like a missed opportunity. The exception, Nothing, was an enigma throughout the story. Still, these secondary characters were instrumental to Yarvi’s growth and their interaction was entertaining enough.

The narrative itself is fast paced, action-packed, and contains some twists. However, people who are used to something like George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would not find the back-stabbing and cunning manipulations in Half a King as complex. The world building is also fairly sparse for a fantasy novel, but what’s there is sufficient enough to get a sense of the world Yarvi lives in – just don’t expect anything overly extensive. There is some gritty subject material, but with the underlying sense of hope it never becomes bleak. The prose was also enjoyable to read; detailed, but not long-winded.

Half a King is a good book if you’re looking for a fast paced fantasy novel that does not become overly complicated, but still contains some grittiness and great character development. If you’d rather have something more complex, however, you might want to look elsewhere.  As enjoyable as Half a King is, Yarvi himself is pretty much the only complex element in the book.

My Bookish Dream Crate

I was invited by Loot Crate to put my own Dream Crate together. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the idea: a box of awesome goodies, often with a certain theme in mind. So, what would I like to find in such a crate? Though I do love various aspects of popculture (hello video games), I’m going to focus on books. Partly to make it easier for myself, partly because, well, this is a book blog.

That still leaves a lot of things to consider. Now, I could spell out the theme for you, but it might be more fun to just see it for yourselves. Enjoy!

The Book:

A bookish dream crate without a book seems silly, so including a book is an obvious choice. My pick:

bacigalupi_shipbreaker

A book on my wishlist: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, the first installment of a series by the same name. I’ve read The Windup Girl by this author, and he painted a very interesting dystopian world. This one is also a dystopia: a teenage boy named Nailer scavenges broken oil tankers for metal to sell. It’s YA, but that hardly matters to me.

Goodies:

doandroidsdream_socks_outofprint

These Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep socks from Out of Print Clothing! So we don’t get cold feet!

vonnegut_literarygiftcompanyA mug is always a good idea. Of course, we all enjoy a hot beverage of choice during our reading sessions, so a suitable mug is always wonderful. This mug featuring quotes from Kurt Vonnegut over at The Literary Gift Company is great!

orwell_doublethinkI can’t make a list with this theme without something Orwellian, so, this little pouch by The Strand is nice and simple.

hungergames_notebook

A ruled journal is always a good idea, so we can write down our thoughts about the book we’re reading. Or other thoughts. As long as they’re yours!

blossombooks_fightevil

And finally, a fitting quote for dystopian fiction on this magnetic bookmark by Blossom Books! Because you can’t make a bookish crate without at least including one bookmark.

I hope you liked this post! It was pretty hard to find the goodies, actually. There’s a lot of neat stuff out there, but I wanted to stick to a theme. Speaking of which, selecting a theme was also difficult, because I like so many things! Fantasy or Arthurian would have been exciting as well, but alas, decisions have to be made.

Feel free to create your own; click here to see the stuff you can find in Loot Crate — to find some inspiration, or gift one!

Review: A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray

thousandpiecesofyougrayA Thousand Pieces of You
(Firebird #1)
Claudia Gray

Publisher: HarperCollins
Publishing year:
2014
Pages: 360
ISBN: 9780062278968
Language: English
Genre: Young Adult, science fiction, romance
Rating: 2/5
This review was originally written for ToTen Magazine.

Marguerite’s parents are brilliant. Their most recent invention, the Firebird, allows people to travel to  other universes. But her father is murdered and the culprit, her parents’ research assistant Paul, has fled to another universe. Marguerite and Theo, another of her parents’ research assistants, give chase and end up in the lives of different versions of themselves.  As she travels through these different universes and meets alternate versions of people she knows, she begins questioning Paul’s guilt. It seems that the truth behind her father’s death is far more complicated than she initially thought.

The premise seems interesting enough. Hopping to alternate universes? The ethical considerations of taking over the life of another you? These science-fiction elements are, unfortunately, not the focus of this novel.  But, to be fair, A Thousand Pieces of You briefly touches upon the ethical considerations near the ending. Marguerite finds herself considering the repercussions of taking certain decisions in another Marguerite’s stead. After all, this other Marguerite has been robbed of her agency and is now forced to live with the consequences of a decision she has never made. Unfortunately, these considerations are brief and superficial —  they are not the focus. As A Thousand Pieces of You progresses, this young adult novel turns out to be a romance novel in disguise.

The presence of a romance element is hardly anything new in the genre. In titles such as The Hunger Games or Divergent, however, the elements of their dystopian settings are still very much a part of their respective narratives. In A Thousand Pieces of You, the romance is its centre piece while its science fiction elements, world building, and even its plot are mostly sidelined. For a novel supposedly involving alternate universes, this lack of exploration is unforgivable. We only get to see a few worlds, one of which is a little ridiculous (in which Marguerite finds herself as the daughter of the Russian Tsar, which also happens to be the dimension in which they spend the most time). The main disappointment for this novel lies in the fact that the element of alternate universes is never utilized to its full potential. The same could be said about the Firebird. Marguerite is frequently described as an ‘artsy’ person, which feels as an excuse to avoid explaining the workings of the Firebird or the physics and relations between the alternate universes. Things work because they do, and they are not explained because the main character wouldn’t understand anyway.

Unfortunately, this novel also falls short in the romance department. Marguerite is a bland heroine who does not stand out as a character. Her actions are also extremely foolish, as she tends rush into things and believes people without wanting proof. She goes from hating a person to falling in love with that person nearly at the drop of a hat (or a facial expression, as it is), which makes her annoying and wishy-washy. The two love interests, Paul and Theo, are no compelling characters either. They’re flat and hardly seem to possess any flaws. There is a love triangle, but with uninteresting characters and no tension because it becomes obvious who will be the first choice quite soon, the romance falls flat. When the only good thing to mention about the romance is that, at least, the characters knew each other before the story began…something is quite wrong. The characters lack chemistry, which is a fatal flaw for a narrative focusing so heavily on romance.

A Thousand Pieces of You has an interesting concept and hints of interesting world building. It also briefly touches on the ethical considerations of taking over the body of an alternate you. Unfortunately, Gray never expands on these elements and instead allows them to be buried by an uninteresting romance plot with bland characters. If you like romance fiction, you might still want to give this a try, but if you’re looking for science fiction…you should look elsewhere. A Thousand Pieces of Missed Opportunities!

Review: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

guestcat_takashihiraideThe Guest Cat
Takashi Hiraide

Publisher: Picador
Publishing year:
2014
Pages: 140
ISBN: 9781447279402
Language: English
Translator: Eric Selland
Genre: contemporary literature
Rating: 4/5
This review was originally written for ToTen Magazine.

An unnamed childless couple in their thirties rents a cottage on a larger property in a quiet neighbourhood in Tokyo. They’re both freelance writers, but despite the fact that they work from home, they don’t have much to say to each other. One day, a stray cat wanders into their cottage. Though the cat, Chibi, is adopted by their neighbours, she keeps visiting the couple’s house. The couple aren’t even cat people, but Chibi brings them small pleasures and allows them to reconnect with each other. Ultimately, this book is about the way Chibi affects the couple’s lives; the joy and meaning she brings, as well as how fast these moments of joy can change.

With barely 140 pages, The Guest Cat is not a very long read. The prose of this originally Japanese novella is, despite its philosophical passages and literary references, quite simple and sparse. At the same time, however, the descriptions are beautiful and even lyrical – I wasn’t surprised to learn that Takashi Hiraide is a poet. This balance of simplicity and lyricality allows for vivid prose that is never bogged down by any unnecessary words and descriptions. Though some elements of the writing might have been lost in translation, Eric Selland has done a wonderful job conveying this in the English version.

Not much actually happens in this story. Most of the narrative takes place in the cottage or the garden it is situated on, and with the exception of the cat, none of the characters bear any names.

The prose focuses on people and places, not so much on events. Though there are descriptions of Chibi’s antics, the novel does not revolve around the cuteness of the cat (though Chibi is still very much at the centre of the narrative). Ultimately, this is a very quiet story in a quiet neighbourhood with quiet people. This, along with the prose, is why this novel appears so simple at the surface.

All this simplicity belies a depth in the narrative that is executed in a subtle way. The Guest Cat explores the small things that affect people’s lives and the way it connects them. The beauty and serenity of nature also takes a prominent place in the novel’s themes, which Chibi is very much a part of. At the same time, the story also conveys the fragility of nature as well as these small things and connections. Despite any attempts at preservation, life, and the people and moments that are part of that life, are transient. Nature itself is also subject to change. This sense of temporality is what makes this novel so moving.

However, the quiet and subtle nature of The Guest Cat might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you want something more eventful, you might want to skip this. But if you’re looking for elegant prose, a short read that has a bit more depth, or even just a story about how a cat brings meaning to the lives of a Japanese couple, you should give this a try. You don’t even need to be a cat person to appreciate it.

Harry Potter Exhibition

Last week, I went to the Harry Potter Exhibition in Cinemec in Utrecht. Though this is a book blog and the props on exhibit are technically part of the movies, I think we can all agree that Harry Potter is relevant enough. So, because I’ve been a little sparse with updating, I figured I’d write a post about my visit instead.

Anyway, upon entering the cinema, I immediately stumbled upon a very familiar sight:

harrypotterexhibit_flyingfordanglia

Yes! The flying Ford Anglia from The Chamber of Secrets! I suppose it was only fitting for it to be parked outside of the exhibit. Before entering, there was also the opportunity to don a cloak and scarf and pick a wand to have your picture taken, but I felt this was a little expensive (and I didn’t like my face on this picture anyway).

Upon entering the exhibit, there was a little introduction film. Eventually, someone showed up with the sorting hat and some of the visitors had the opportunity to be sorted in one of Hogwart’s houses after answering a couple of questions (what is your favourite book? What is your favourite character? Why?). Naturally, I was sorted in Slytherin.

After the sorting ceremony, someone showed up with a lantern and the Hogwarts train became visible. For the rest of the exhibit, you were pretty much free to wander wherever, but I felt this was a nice introduction!

The exhibit itself was split into different sections not necessarily in chronological order of the books/movies: Gryffindor, teachers, Forbidden Forest, dark magic, Quidditch, Hogwarts dining hall, and so on. I really liked the way the different sections were presented, because each section had its own atmosphere. They also played with lightning and sound effects to further present a mood. The Forbidden Forest actually smelled like a forest (and had some smoke effects going on). I also liked the sheer variety in items: there were costumes, props, but even items part of the decor. When displaying items related to Umbridge, for example, it was on a backdrop reminiscent of her sickingly pink office. Some parts of the exhibit were interactive as well: you could sit in Hagrid’s chair, and you could pull out the Mandrakes from their pots.

I’ll share some pictures here to give you an impression of the exhibition. It by no means includes everything, but it should give you a bit of an impression of what to expect. Hit the “read more” below to see them!

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