Review: The Trees by Ali Shaw

Life was pretty busy, so apologies for the radio silence. I bring you a new review to make up for it.

thetrees_alishaw

The Trees
Ali Shaw

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publishing year:
 2016
Pages: 487
ISBN: 9781408862308
Language: English
Genre: Magical realism, apocalyptic
Rating: 4/5

One downside of working in a bookshop is that cover buys are likely to happen, especially if you’re unpacking or shelving books. This was most certainly the case for The Trees. A face of a fox made of leaves certainly caught my eye. This, along with the blurb on the back, made me purchase it by the end of my shift.

The Trees takes place in England for the most part, where trees suddenly spout from the ground, destroying houses, streets, and human lives in the process. The people who didn’t get skewered on tree branches are faced with the instant collapse of society and have to survive in an unfamiliar world. Protagonist Adrien Thomas is one of the survivors, and he is quite overwhelmed by the sudden change. Luckily, he meets nature-loving Hannah and her son Seb. Together, they set out to find Adrian’s wife, who was in Ireland for work at the time. The forest seems to go on forever, though, and they not only have to face the cruelty of nature, but also their own demons.

To be fair, Adrian is not a protagonist I’d normally like. He is passive, prone to self-pity and tends to give up easily. He is well aware of his faults, which is an unending source of self-loathing for him. When the trees first arrive, he clings to the idea that help will arrive and would be content to wait it out in his comfortable armchair. He meets Hannah and Seb by chance, and it’s fear that eventually propels him to join them. Still, Adrian managed to be a sympathetic character that I was rooting for, which paid off in his character development. Though he doesn’t become some assertive, ambitious leader (that would have been weird), he does grow as a person and ends up doing things by the end of the novel that he wouldn’t have done at the beginning.

Hannah and Seb also grow throughout the book. Though Hannah is initially thrilled with the coming of the trees, she is eventually faced with how cruel nature can be which forces her to come to terms with her views on nature. Seb initially starts out as a somewhat sullen teenager who is robbed of a life that was primarily defined by technology, but he really comes into his own. Eventually, the trio also meet the Japanese schoolgirl Hiroko, who had been on a school trip at the time of the trees arriving and has some formidable survival skills. Finally, there is the fox kit Yasuo, who is adorable. The Trees also introduces some antagonists, but they all have a human quality to them.

Speaking of qualities, the endless forest is not simply a collection of trees providing a stage for the cruelty of nature. There is a certain mystical aspect to the forest as well. It tends to change paths or direct the people wandering among the trees. It has hallucinatory qualities that are never quite fully explained, allowing the woods to remain mysterious and sometimes even eerie. The woods also cause the Kirin appear, who act like some sort of guide, and the whisplike Whisperers, whose purpose remains unknown for a large part of the novel. Even though The Trees is mostly apocalyptic with significant character building, the woods and the new creatures give it also a fairytale-like quality, albeit a very dark one. Nature is not only cruel, but also beautiful, and the two go hand in hand.

This brings me to the one negative point. Though the purpose of the Whisperers is revealed, and their presence looms over the narrative and the characters (or, more signficantly, Adrien), I feel a bit more could have been done with them or the mysterious eeriness of the woods. Regardless, The Trees is a character-driven novel with a lot of atmosphere and some beautiful and heartwarming scenes. It’s not as creepy or action-driven as most apocalyptic fiction, but if you don’t mind this is definitely worth a shot.

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Review: Champions: At Fire’s End by Charlotte Jain

atfiresend_charlottejainChampions: At Fire’s End
(Champions #1)
Charlotte Jain

Publisher: N/A
Publishing year:
 2017
ISBN: 9780992586935
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Rating: 1.5/5

Note: I’ve received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my review in any way. 

The Titan and the Olympians are at war. To resolve this endless battle, four mortals are given the power to control the elements so they can fight amongst themselves. Teenagers April and Kyle are two of these Champions. Controlling fire and water respectively, they must uncover the identities of the other two Champions and fight them to the death. Unfortunately, with their powers taking a heavy toll on their bodies, time is running out.

This book begins with a note on the mythology in the Champion series, stating that the author has been inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, but that the mythology is freely adapted. The Immortals are named after various Greek gods. Athena embodies wisdom, Hades is Lord of the Underwold, and the twins Apollo and Athena wield bows. These similarities are superficial. Still, I believe it is necessary to point this out; it’s not so much a twist on modern mythology as the synopsis promises, but simply characters sharing names and some other superficial traits. I wish I was able to tell more about these characters, but unfortunately, they are just there. Three of them guide the main characters, but the others don’t leave a lasting impression other than being uncaring Immortals. This feels like a wasted opportunity.

Which brings me to the other problems of At Fire’s End: it was very unpolished. The plot gets right into the action, which on itself wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t so much confusion. The exposition doesn’t happen until halfway in the story, when Kyle and April finally inform the other two Champions of their predicament, which is way too late. Though the characters go to a normal modern school, the world isn’t fleshed out either. Considering the world represents the stakes, the lack of fleshing out eliminates the urgency. What are the effects of the war on the population? Are there other supernatural creatures than the Furies they fought? If so, why weren’t they mentioned until they appeared? Why weren’t the Furies mentioned until they appeared? Where did they come from? The story was scattered and there was barely any foreshadowing, which leads to terrible pacing and the feeling things happened just because.

Even the main characters aren’t fleshed out well, which makes it difficult to care about them or their struggle. Their interactions seem overly dramatic and forced, which is underlined by the big chunks of speeches the characters blurt out in the middle of supposedly intense situations. Disregarding the issue of ‘time and place’: character exposition happens almost solely in these speeches. Despite the drama, the characters still remain shallow. I never got a real sense of who they were, what they were like, and how they would develop or change throughout the story. There was a lot of telling, but no showing. Kyle was supposed to be cunning, but I never once saw a situation where this cunning quality was displayed. Instead, Kyle makes some very rash and illogical decisions, which even disproves what we’ve been told.

The story was told through the POV of both Kyle and April, but their voices were not distinct at all. The other two Champions, Kim and Noah, barely got any exposition or development; again, they were just there to be the other Champions. I couldn’t help but wonder: why should I care about these characters? This is, unfortunately, a fatal flaw.

That is not to say that there wasn’t some promise. I did like the aspect of the characters genuinely struggling with their powers; that these powers were taking a toll on their bodies and that the characters had to be trained. The idea itself is also interesting enough, but the execution makes for a tedious and confusing read. If the pacing would be fixed, the setting and characters fleshed out more, and the story overall be more polished, then Champions: At Fire’s End would be a lot more engaging.

Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Apologies for the radio silence; life caught up with me for the past few weeks. But this isn’t supposed to be a “sorry I haven’t posted much”-post, so here’s a new review to make up for it!

drsleep_stephenking

Doctor Sleep
(The Shining #2)
Stephen King

Publisher: Hodder
Publishing year:
 2013
Pages: 499
ISBN: 9781444783247
Language: English
Genre: Horror
Rating: 3/5

I always enjoy reading books by Stephen King. I love how he builds his stories and develops his characters; King does not do flat characters. They may not always be likable, but you usually get a sense of their motivations and why they do what they do, even if you sometimes see that train wreck that resulted from their actions coming from a mile a way. Yes, that tension. Stephen King is a master of building tension, of having a story go along with a threatening sense of foreboding looming in the background up to the point where everything goes to shit in the last 100 or so pages.

Yes, you could say I’m a fan of Stephen King.

Which brings me to Doctor Sleep, which is a sequel to The Shining.  Always wanted to see how Danny Torrance fared after the traumatic events at the Overlook Hotel? Well, you’re about to find out. Danny, now Dan, has been drifting for decades, following his father’s footsteps into alcoholism to drown out his gift. It’s certainly tragic to see how Dan deals with his demons, so it’s with relief we see that he eventually settles down at a nursing home where he helps people pass on. At one point, however, he meets Abra Stone. With the brightest ‘shining’ he has ever seen, she’s powerful, but she also attracts The True Knot. These supernatural people live off the ‘steam’ that kids like Abra produce when tortured and killed. Of course, at one point, Dan has to confront his own demons if he wants to save Abra.

As a story of Dan dealing with the aftermath of the events in The Shining, Doctor Sleep works well. Like his father, he became an alcoholic. A lot of the narrative is dedicated to Dan’s reflections; why he’s drinking, his mistakes during a life of drifting and his attempts to make things right again while fighting the temptation of the bottle. There are frequent references to The Shining, so you can’t really read this book without reading its predecessor.

As a horror story? Doctor Sleep falls flat. The premise is promising enough and the stakes are clear, except The True Knot is just not very threatening. Of course, they kidnap kids. They torture them. They are untouchable because they are rich bastards. They have set their sights on Abra and they aren’t necessarily incapable. Mostly. Okay, most of them die very quickly for supposed villains. I think the character known as The Crow came the closest to being a threat, however. The rest? Abra manages to outsmart them and she’s a teenager. A brilliant teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. Especially with the help of Dan, who does his fair share of outsmarting The True Knot as well. Helped by the supporting cast, Dan and Abra have comparatively little difficulty in overcoming their obstacles. Even the leader of The True Knot, Rose the Hat, falls flat. She becomes increasingly unhinged and vengeful, but she and her gang are pretty easily defeated. Their silly names could have been a contrast to the threat they should have been posing, but now they just seem difficult to take seriously.

And because there is no threat, no tension, and no real sense of foreboding, I wasn’t worried for the main characters. There weren’t even any scares. For a novel by Stephen King, I had expected a bit more, especially for a sequel to The Shining. As a story about Dan coming to terms with his past and his inner demons, Doctor Sleep was an interesting story and worth reading. As a horror story with unsettling moments and that sense of foreboding looming over you? Doctor Sleep unfortunately falls very short.

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!

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.

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.