Fiction: “The Ring and the Crown” by Melissa de la Cruz

ring and the crownJust before Christmas, I requested two books from the library – this one, and one I’d end up finishing in January 2018. Here’s the problem – I honest to god thought this was a different book when I requested it.

I had put this on my “Want to Read” list on GoodReads back in June, and I must have gotten it confused with A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, which is also on my “Want to Read” list. In the end, I’m kind of glad I read it, but I was expecting something a bit darker, and not … royal Gossip Girl on steroids and also ~magic~.

No. I’m serious. This book is like if Gossip Girl involved royalty (not counting that one prince Blair ended up marrying for like, half a season) and also ~magic~, and then the whole thing got turned up to 11.

This book is crazy.

It takes place in a weird alternative history – it’s pre-WWI, Britain and France are one united empire, Prussia is still a thing, and also, Merlins are real but a title and not a single person. And the entire place is overrun by horny 17-year-olds.

Let’s start off with Princess Marie-Victoria of England. She’s the only daughter of Queen Eleanor, who happens to be a sprightly 150 years old. That is not a typo. I can’t remember who Marie’s father is supposed to be, but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that a) Marie is suffering from the “wasting plague” (my notes describe that as “pretty consumption, like what Nicole Kidman had in Moulin Rouge“), and b) Eleanor wants to throw a ball to announce Marie’s engagement to Prince Leopold of Prussia.

Except Marie is in love with Gill, a commoner in the Queen’s Guard! (I had to double-check Gill’s spelling – I had taken notes longhand and looking back on them, I wasn’t sure if I had misspelled his name. But no, according to this amazing review by Goodreads user Khanh, his name really is spelled Gill.)

[Oh my god it’s so hot I’m typing this part on July 5 and I have not been able to get my apartment below 91° in more than 24 hours FUCK YOU SCOTT PRUITT I hope you live with rancid swamp ass for the rest of your miserable fucking little life]

[Note From the Future: Oh, July 5th!Alaina: honey, you have not lived the absolute hell that was the first weekend in August. Or last week. Or ANY OF THE NIGHTS BETWEEN JULY 5 AND AUGUST 31, because I don’t think my apartment dropped below 80° AT ANY TIME THIS SUMMER]

[Also, that punishment is entirely too light for Scott Pruitt. You can do better than that.]

ANYWAY. Prince Leopold has been having an affair with Isabelle of Orleans for a while. Isabelle thought he was going to propose to her, but instead, he breaks up with her so he can go marry Marie.

My notes remind me that, while reading the book, I had high hopes that Leopold was actually a Manchurian candidate-type character; no such luck. Leopold’s just a horrible person. An asshole, if you will.

Around the same time that Leopold’s breaking up with Isabelle, Marie’s childhood friend Aelwyn Myrddyn returns to the palace. Aelwyn, the daughter of Queen Eleanor’s Merlin, Emrys Myrddyn, was one of Viviane’s apprentices on Avalon. Aelwyn was sent to Avalon after she accidentally set Marie’s bedroom on fire, but she’s back now. Mainly because Emrys called her back, but also because she was in love with Lanselin (this book’s version of Lancelot) and needed to get out of that situation. It’s understood that Aelwyn will take over as Marie’s Merlin when Marie ascends to the throne.

However, Aelwyn doesn’t really contribute anything to the plot. She makes Marie prettier than she already is — seriously, the ~*magic*~ in this book is basically all the glamours and Sleekeazy potions from Harry Potter and none of the other spells. She does end up with a crush on Leopold, but it doesn’t really add anything to the love triangle between —

Well wait, it’s not a triangle. Because Marie loves Gill, Gill loves Marie, but Marie has to marry Leopold, who doesn’t give a shit, and Isabelle loves Leopold, until she realizes he’s a complete and utter asshole, and we haven’t even talked about three other people.

(Also – Jesus, poor Isabelle. Her parents are dead; she’s the ward of her horrible, molesty guardian, Lord Hugo; her best friend seems like he might have a crush on her, but once she gets over Leopold and decides to go after her friend, he’s dating some other chick. She may have also ended up pregnant by Leopold, but I cannot remember.)

Then there’s Ronan Astor, the best character. FIGHT ME. In this version of events, America is still a colony, and the Astors are destitute. Apparently, Daddy Astor invested in Science and Innovation, but ~*magic*~ didn’t go away like he thought it would and now Science is stupid, and now the Astors are broke. But they’re still rich enough to send Ronan off to England, where hopefully she can wrangle a rich, landed dude into marrying her.

When she reaches the boat, she’s embarrassed that she’s basically in steerage. But she meets this dude who’s name is Heath, and he trades her his luxury suite for her steerage tickets, and then hangs out with her the entire time. And they really, genuinely like each other!

But Heath is actually Wolf – and he happens to be Leopold’s brother! Wolf (short for Wolfgang, naturally) had been traveling across America because he doesn’t like being a member of royalty, but now he’s required to go back home for Leopold’s engagement. I think he proposes to Ronan but she turns him town, because she maybe didn’t know it was his luxury suite she ended up with? She needs to marry someone rich and she thought he wasn’t? It was a stupid reason, that much I know.

So all of these people converge on London for the ball for Marie and Leopold! Leo flirts with Aelwyn, who has agreed to pretend to be Marie via glamour so Marie and Gill can escape and be normal people! Ronan is surprised to see Heath, but really interested when she learns that he’s a prince!

You think that everything’s coming up Milhouse, and then —

[SPOILER ALERT]

Emrys Myrddyn manages to SHOOT LEOPOLD, who DIES.

AND IT WAS ALL PLANNED BY ELEANOR AND EMRYS FROM THE BEGINNING

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Yeah. I AM disappointed. Because not only is Leopold dead (which actually is totes okay), but now, WOLF has to marry Marie. And because Marie can actually stand Wolf a bit, she AGREES, leaving Gill. AND THAT MEANS RONAN IS ALONE AGAIN.

Like, what the shit is that?!

This was supposed to be the start of a series, but apparently the publisher dropped it? So the second book, The Lily and the Cross, was self-published for Amazon. I do not think I’m going to read it, unless Wolf decides to leave Marie and be with Ronan. (Which I’m pretty sure won’t happen.)

Grade for The Ring and the Crown: 1.5 stars

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Fiction: “The Invasion of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen

invasion of the tearlingY’all know how rare it is for me to read the next book in a series within the same year as the last one. I mean, at one point, I was reading a lot of series – Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, J.D. Robb’s In Death; hell, even Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, to name a few. To put in perspective how great-and-by-“great”-I-mean-“awful” at reading series I am, the last time I read any of the above series was 2015, 2016, and 2016 respectively. So the fact that I read the second book in the Tearling Trilogy only eight months after I read the first book – it’s kind of a big deal.

This book picks up relatively soon after The Queen of the Tearling left off.  (You might want to click that link and read what happened in the first book before going on with this review; Lord knows I had to, notes be-damned.)

[Also: I’m putting a warning out for this book. The book has detailed passages describing domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, and other nasty, awful things steeped in patriarchy and the removal of women’s rights. Some of the scenes are horrifying. Please be warned.]

Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, the Queen of the Tearling, is readying herself and her country to deal with the repercussions of her actions at the end of the last book: she stopped the Shipment of Tear citizens to the Mort, and now the Mort Queen wants revenge – or at least, for the Shipment to start up again. Kelsea is determined to be a better queen to her subjects than her mother, Elyssa. She has sent her scant armies to the borderlands, waiting for the Mort Queen to invade. Meanwhile, after discussing with her council (led by the Mace), she has ordered all her subjects to evacuate to New London, where she can attempt to keep them safe from the Mort Queen. She’s also nervous, because the sapphires she has have been dormant for a while – in the last book, she relied on the energy coming from her jewels as a reassurance that she was doing the right thing. With the stones quiet, her doubt increases.

During all of this planning, Kelsea is also learning about the past leaders of the Tear. Mace (or another guard, I can’t remember and didn’t write it down) take her downstairs to the royal gallery, where there are portraits of all of the royalty dating back to when William Tear was the first leader of his utopian Tear. She notices a couple of things: 1) Row Finn, a former prince of the Tearling, has been visiting her at night in the fire (yeah, it’s kind of weird and mystical – it’s revealed he’s also been the Evil Thing that was spurring the Mort Queen on in the previous book), and 2) there is a small child painted at the feet of the Beautiful Queen who goes missing from the rest of the paintings.

In addition to the incorporeal visits of Row Finn, Kelsea has also been experiencing fugue states, where she drifts off from the Tear and visits pre-Crossing America.

And hoo boy – if y’all thought Gilead was bad … I mean, pre-Crossing America is still very very bad, but it’s not quite as bad as Gilead, but GODDAMMIT NEITHER OF THESE DYSTOPIAS SHOULD BE SEEN AS OPTIONS FOR SURVIVAL

(And no, I haven’t even dared to begin to watch The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. Just the thought of it sends me into anxiety. No thanks. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. )

Oh, what’s Pre-Crossing America turned into?

Rich (deemed “private”) citizens are physically segregated from the public (read: “poor”) citizens. There are private roads, for the rich and powerful people, and there are public highways, for the poor and indigent.  America has been ravaged, no thanks to their President Freeman (excellent anvil, there, Ms. Johansen): women don’t have to work, because their property belongs to their husbands. People have identity chips implanted into their shoulders, and an elaborate Security system is able to track everyone’s movements.

Also, not surprisingly, fertility and the ability to have children is prized. Fathers get promotions, so husbands need to have babies in order to hold onto their power.

Lily Herman is married to Greg, who works for the Department of Defense (or the new version of it, whatever). They live in a fabulous, private house in the suburbs of New York City, and every month, Lily is driven to her doctor for fertility treatments. Except Lily has actually been taking black market birth control for years, and is hoping that she can keep up the ruse. She tends to hide all day in the room tricked out as the nursery, because it’s the only room Greg won’t venture into. It’s also the room where she’s been able to loop the video surveillance so it looks like it’s empty.

That is very convenient when Dorian, a young woman from the “Blue Horizon” group, crashes over Lily’s backyard fence with a gunshot wound.

Lily knows she should report Dorian to the authorities, but she can’t bring herself to do it. She remembers her rebellious younger sister who was taken by Security and never seen again. Lily enlists the assistance of her personal bodyguard, Jonathan, and they help bring Dorian back to health.

Greg’s childlessness is affecting his work performance and his ability to gain a promotion, and of course he takes it out on Lily when he gets home. Greg is abusive up to and including rape. Spoiler alert!: he ends up dead. Hooray!

At a dinner party, Lily learns that the Blue Horizon group is going to be targeted and potentially eradicated by Security forces the next morning. She manages to kill Greg and steal the car to meet up with Blue Horizon in Boston, where she officially meets William Tear, and they venture to the New World, via the Crossing.

Kelsea sees that entire plotline through her multiple fugue states throughout the novel. It’s harrowing, but also feels kind of disjointed at times.

There’s also a subplot involving Father Tyler of the Arvath and the new Pope-dude (look, I can’t remember what the High Priest is called and I’m not looking it up; “Pope-dude” is good enough). The Pope-dude is terrible, and basically threatens to burn all of Father Tyler’s books if he doesn’t manage to poison Kelsea.

But Tyler is able to escape from the Arvath – and he’s able to steal the true crown of the Tear, but he isn’t able to send it to Kelsea.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Kelsea also sentences Arlen Thorne, the previous head of the Shipment to death, and executes him in a violent rage in the town square. The Mace has taken a shine to Andalie’s oldest daughter, Aisa, and teaches her how to defend herself. Aisa dreams about joining the Queen’s Guard, and she’s only like, twelve.

At the climax of the book, the Mort Queen herself has journeyed with her army to the outskirts of New London. Kelsea names the Mace Regent and ventures out on her own to negotiate with the Mort Queen. She even allows the Mort Queen to take her sapphires, but in exchange, the Mort Queen will leave the Tear and its people alone for three years. The Mort Queen agrees; but then when she takes the sapphires, they do nothing – even though the Mort Queen is that missing child from the Beautiful Queen’s portrait, Evelyn Raleigh, and she believes that she is the right true heir of the Tear.

Lily’s plot ends at The Crossing, with William Tear and Blue Horizon.

So … there’s a lot of plot to this book. A lot. And while I was intrigued by the plot of Pre-Crossing, and I felt it gave a good origin to the Tear and to show how far it has come since its inception, I felt that at times, it detracted from Kelsea’s own story. I know that she needs to see Lily’s story to influence her own, but still – it felt like two different books in one.

It also seems like Kelsea all-of-a-sudden learns she has super rage powers, as evidenced by her brutal execution of Arlen Thorne. I can’t remember if she experiences remorse for her actions – or at least, the level of brutality she evinced. I’m not sure how I feel about her at the end of the book. I admire her for putting herself at risk over her subjects, but her slip into the dark side may not have been so … slippery.

Anyway. I’ll probably read the last book of the trilogy. Not sure when that’ll be, but I’ve made such good progress on this series that I’d hate myself if I stopped now.

Grade for The Invasion of the Tearling: 3 stars

Fiction: “The Gunslinger” by Stephen King

GunslingerEven though I’ve lived in Maine my entire life (save for freshman year at Franklin Pierce College), I’ve never been able to get into Stephen King novels. Love him as a person and as a representative of Maine — and one of my best friends had dinner at his house when he [the friend] was going to school at U-Maine! — but other than Hannibal, I’ve never been a huge fan of horror.

Up until this past year, the only Stephen King novel I’d ever read was The Dead Zone, and the only reason I ever read that was because Sean Patrick Flanery was starring in the USA series based on the book, and I loved Sean Patrick Flanery – he was my favorite Boondock Saint.

So anyway. I’m not jazzed about Stephen King. But then, The Dark Tower movie was announced, starring my second-favorite Next James Bond (after Gillian Anderson or Janelle Monáe), Idris Elba. And I like Idris Elba. And I got more interested in the movie than I normally would have been, because My Dear Friend Sarah was interested in the movie.

But, I didn’t want to go into something blind – especially where Stephen King is concerned. So I put a question out into the universe (y’know – Twitter) and asked whether I should read The Dark Tower.

My Dear Friend Sarah said (essentially), “Yes, you should absolutely read the series, but let me warn you, you’re going to get to a point where you throw one of the books across the room. Don’t let it stop you, pick up the book, toss a shot back, and keep going.”

So with that recommendation – and I’m not being facetious, Sarah tells it like it is, and I appreciate that; if someone knows you well enough that they know you’re going to get frustrated with something, give that person a heads-up! — I requested the first book in The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, from the Yarmouth Public Library.

Hoo, boy. Okay. So. *sigh* … how the fuck do I talk about this?

I have no idea what happened in that book.

Thanks to Wikipedia for the below five paragraphs, because seriously, I remember there’s a massacre at a town, and a lot of desert walking, a young paranoid kid named Jake, maybe a spider? and a scene in a mountain that reminds me of the mine car sequence from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but at the end of it Short Round dies.

There’s a Gunslinger. His name is Roland. And he’s searching for a Man in Black. He’s walking through a desert, and stops at this tiny rundown farm, and while he’s there for the night, he tells the farmer about the massacre he caused at the last town at the edge of the desert. The next day he continues on his journey.

Roland rolls into a way station, and meets a young boy named Jake. Jake’s about ten, and he tells Roland how he got there, and apparently he was hit by a car in Manhattan but then ended up at the way station, and it sounds like our universe is parallel to Roland’s, but also maybe it’s limbo or something? Then they defeat a demon in the basement and then Jake goes with Roland on his journey.

They get out of the desert and there’s this succubus in a forest, and Roland saves Jake from it and then Roland sleeps with the succubus so he can figure out what’s going on with his quest. There’s also a pretty substantial flashback to Roland’s childhood, which is not pretty or pleasant.

Then Roland and Jake run into the Man in Black, who says he’s only going to meet one of them on the other side of the mountain. Roland and Jake cross through the mountain, using a handcar. They run into some zombies or something, and then when they get to an abyss where only one of them can cross, Roland sacrifices Jake so he can continue on his journey alone.

He does meet up with the Man in Black on the other side of the mountain, as foretold. The Man in Black tries to convince Roland to give up his quest – which essentially was a revenge killing of the Man in Black – and the Man in Black also tries to tell Roland that Roland’s true enemy is the person controlling the Dark Tower, which they can see on the horizon. The Man in Black deals tarot cards and then there’s a sequence where they go whizzing past different planets, and then Roland falls asleep and when he wakes up the Man in Black has turned into a skeleton, so Roland keeps walking.

The only quote I captured from the book itself (and not from Stephen King’s afterword) is this:

“You asleep?” the gunslinger asked.

“No.”

“Did you understand what I told you?”

“Understand it?” The boy asked, with cautious scorn. “Understand it? Are you kidding?” [p. 174]

You and me both, boy.

So, even while I was reading it, I was checking out Wikipedia. And the Wikipedia page for the book has this as its second sentence:

The Gunslinger was first published in 1982 as a fix-up novel, joining five short stories that had been published between 1978 and 1981. King substantially revised the novel in 2003, and this version is in print today.

And I went, “wait a minute …”

The version I read – the one I got from the library – was published in 1988; an illustrated version of the original 1982 publication.

This entire time – I was reading the wrong version.

CURSE YOU, YARMOUTH PUBLIC LIBRARY!

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Now, there were a couple of cool things I could take from Stephen King’s afterword, which continues to prove that I like him as a person, but not as a teller of stories.

He said this about the process of getting The Gunslinger to completion:

[…] this segment, “The Gunslinger and the Dark Tower,” was written over a period of twelve years. It is by far the longest I’ve taken with any work … and it might be more honest to put it another way: it is the longest that any of my unfinished works has remained alive and viable in my own mind, and if a book is not alive in the writer’s mind, it is as dead as year-old horseshit even if words continue to march across the page. [p. 219]

Damn straight, Stephen.

And this argument brought me right back to … oh god, what was it freshman year, Advanced Reading 101? What the hell was that stupid fucking “English” course we all had to take with Ms. Ring, where we only read two books, one of which was Into the Wild, which I already hated, and she made us use the entire writing process toolbox every time we had to write something? Anyway, this statement gave me flashbacks:

Somewhere inside I know all of these things, and there is no need of an argument, or a synopsis, or an outline (outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses). When it’s time, those things — and their relevance to the gunslinger’s quest — will roll out as naturally as tears or laughter. [p. 224]

SERIOUSLY. Look, I have this “novel” I’ve been “writing” for almost seven years now, and my worry is that it’s just a series of conversations between people and there’s no plot. But since I’m not sure how the story ends (I’ve got options), I’m not about to start outlining the fucking thing. I’ll get there eventually.

And probably, eventually, I’ll try to find the “correct”, revised version of The Gunslinger. Sarah told me it’s worth it, and I’ll give it a shot, but let me be very clear: it’s going to take me a while to work up the will to try again. Because this book was the biggest disappointment of 2017 — at least, in the book-reading department.

Grade for The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger1 star (only for Stephen King’s afterword)

Fiction: “The Queen’s Poisoner” by Jeff Wheeler

Queen's poisonerI picked this up because I thought it would be similar to The Queen of the Tearling. I was wrong.

The Queen’s Poisoner is a young adult novel, and it takes place in a setting that isn’t exactly dystopian, but certainly not modern society or a utopia. This book deals with royalty as well, but from a different perspective. But most importantly, the protagonist in this story is an 8-year-old boy.

The kingdom is Ceredigion, and its ruler is King Severn. The parents of Owen Kiskaddon are like, duke and duchess? of a province in the northern part of Ceredigion. There’s a war going on, and Owen’s father betrayed King Severn in the Battle for Ambion Hill. As punishment as a form of control, King Severn conscripts Owen into his custody, and brings him back to the royal stronghold of Kingfountain.

Owen is a terribly shy child, and Severn relishes in the fact that he frightens the boy. All the palace’s children eat breakfast at the same time, and Severn would walk around the tables while the children ate, scaring them but also making sure that none of the food was poisoned. (We find out later that Severn has magic, and his power comes from feeding off of fear of others. Breakfast scare time is like, recharging his battery for the day.)

King Severn is also drawn very much as a Richard III figure. I believe he has a bit of a hunchback, and there are rumors that he murdered or sent away his two younger brothers.

Owen’s favorite place to hide is the kitchen. He makes friends with the cook and a couple of other servants. He also finds a bag of “tiles”, which I feel are akin to dominoes. He will spend hours stacking and unstacking the tiles – he uses the motion to help himself think.

One day, Duke Horwath brings his granddaughter to Kingfountan in the hopes that she’ll befriend Owen. His granddaughter, Elysabeth Victoria Mortimer – and yes, you have to call her by her entire name – is quite the chatterbox. Owen doesn’t quite know what to make of her, and basically hopes that she’ll leave him alone if he doesn’t talk. But nope – that just makes her talk more. Eventually, they do become friendly, and Owen is able to bestow upon her the nickname of Evie.

The other person that Owen meets is the mysterious Ankarette. She lives in the tower of the castle, but doesn’t leave. She goes to him in the kitchen one day and befriends him, and teaches Owen how to play Wizr (which I think sounds a lot like chess). She knows Owen is scared of King Severn, and she teaches him confidence and also about some of his abilities. Ankarette also held the position of Queen’s Poisoner; hence the title.

Because Owen is what they call “Fountain-Blessed” – he can have prophetic dreams, or he can see things in water that other people can’t… it’s a power. But Ankarette will take the gossip she hears in the castle and feeds it to Owen in the form of a story that she tells Owen to tell Severn at breakfast the next day. And it’s usually masked in the form of a weird dream – the wolf fell over a waterfall, and when he survived, a fish was in its mouth. But that actually meant to Severn that one of his armies was close to … who knows, I can’t remember. But you get the gist.

Meanwhile, Dickon Ratcliffe is keeping an eye on Owen. Dickon is the head of the Espion, which is King Severn’s band of spies. It turns out he’s actually a traitor to King Severn – oh, shit, spoiler alert. But he’s a bad dude.

Owen and Evie go on a few adventures – jumping into the castle cistern to cool off on a hot day, sneaking through secret passageways – all sorts of shenanigans. After Severn is able to find out Ratcliff is a traitor via Owen’s “dreams”, he rewards Owen by passing the dukedom from Owen’s parents directly to Owen, making Owen duke immediately.

This was … it was weird, to me. There were a number of moments where I wasn’t sure Owen was acting appropriate for his stated age. Meaning, he’d do something that an older kid would do, but then revert right back to a different way of speaking or not speaking at all and cowering behind someone. Now, I’m not near children routinely, and I certainly couldn’t speak to how an eight-year-old is supposed to act (if there’s even such a thing). But … I don’t know, I noticed it and thought it wasn’t consistent.

I also thought Evie was too headstrong for a nine-year-ish-old, but again, I don’t know kids.

King Severn’s heel-face turn also seemed very abrupt. We went through the majority of the novel thinking Severn’s evil, and it turns out he was just misunderstood or projecting evil as a way to shore up his power.

So there you have it. This is the first book in a trilogy, and apparently each book in the series is supposed to see Owen at a different age with a different set of problems. Unlike other YA series I’ve read, there doesn’t seem to be a pressing obstacle that Owen et. al. needs to overcome, so that might be interesting. If I decide to read the next book, that is.

Grade for The Queen’s Poisoner: 2 stars

Fiction: “The Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen

queen of tearlingThis is an instance where the library actually came through. They have a table that displays new and notable titles, and The Invasion of the Tearling was on that table back in late April, early May. I picked up the book and learned almost instantly that the book in my hand was the second in a trilogy. I marched over to the Fiction shelves, already cursing the library’s inability to purchase the first book in a series, when, lo and behold, the first title, The Queen of the Tearling, was sitting on the shelf.

Reader, I grabbed it.

Note From the Future: Now, before you grab it, I should warn y’all: while I don’t think this review would be subject to any trigger warnings, this book would be. There are scenes involving sexual assault and sexual intercourse without consent, and scenes where rape is discussed. Violence is rampant as well. Even though I liked it, the book could trigger people, so I want y’all to know that up front.

The titular Queen of the Tearling is Kelsea Raleigh. The Tear is a ravaged country, operating centuries after something called The Crossing, where people crossed an ocean to found a better world. (Spoiler alert!: through clues in the text, we are to learn that the world Crossed from is our own! This is a book about the future!)

Since The Crossing, the rulers of the Tear have lived very short lives. I’m not sure what causes the short life expectancy (other than murder – none of the other rulers have died of old age); the Tear is supposed to be a utopia. But Queens don’t live very long. Kelsea’s mother, Queen Elyssa, sent Kelsea away to live with Barty and Carlin Glynn when Kelsea was very tiny, in the hopes of shielding Kelsea until she was of age to take the throne. Meanwhile, Elyssa’s brother, Thomas, was Prince Regent of the Tear, and he was pretty much an asshole. Can’t remember how Elyssa died, but it wasn’t pretty, I’m sure.

The story starts on Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, when the Queen’s Guard arrives to bring Kelsea back to New London to ascend the throne. Kelsea is a plain girl, and headstrong, but she frets about being a good leader.

I can’t remember the full series of events that gets Kelsea to New London, but on her camping trip (essentially), she runs into a mysterious Robin Hood-type figure known as The Fetch. The Fetch was familiar with Kelsea’s mother, and says something that a) gives Kelsea faith in her confidence and learning, and also b) gives Kelsea a bit of a crush on The Fetch.

Kelsea had a bit of idolatry when it came to her mother, growing up. She wanted to be a good Queen, like Elyssa. But Kelsea quickly learns that Elyssa was not a great Queen.

During Elyssa’s reign, the neighboring country of Mortmesne, led by the Red Queen, attacks the Tear. And Elyssa’s only chance of survival for the Tear is to agree to a monthly shipment: a number of the Tear population to be sent to Mortmesne, where they will be used as slave labor and, in many cases, worse than slave labor. In Elyssa’s absence, Regent Thomas continued the Shipment, because it means there’s no war and he’s able to remain secluded in The Keep, surrounded by concubines.

When Kelsea arrives at New London, (I believe) she arrives on the same day as The Shipment is scheduled to leave. She stops the Shipment, against the advice of her Guard and other advisors – even when they tell her that a late shipment is cause for invasion from the Mort. She doesn’t care, because she can’t believe her mother would have done something like trade her people for safety.

The story alternates between Kelsea, the Red Queen wondering where Kelsea is, and a couple of other characters. There’s a subplot about the religious aspect of the Tear, a hyped-up form of ultra-conservative Catholicism known as The Arvath, and there are Fathers and a Pope-like figure, and Kelsea doesn’t truck with religion but she kinda has to as, y’know, Queen, so … Father Tyler and the Arvath play a slightly larger part in the second book (which I just finished reading, after Christmas, so … keep an eye out for that review in seven months?).

I had to read the Goodreads reviews (again, my notes are … not great. If I’m going to commit to being bad at this, I have to at least commit to taking better notes and not just jotting down character names and quotes) and … I forgot a lot about this book before reading the second one. I also apparently didn’t get the same feeling from a lot of the reviews, which haaaaated this book. I don’t know, I thought it was okay? People got really pissed that it was touted as a Hunger Games-meets-Game of Thrones and no, it’s not, but I still thought it was interesting.

Other reviews state that since the book is told through third person omniscience that we only see Kelsea reacting to things and not actually experiencing them, but other reviews complain that we see Kelsea thinking about things she’s about to react to first, and, to that I say, make up your mind? Either a character reacts with no thought process so we, the reader, have no idea what led the character to that reaction, or we see each thought racing through a character’s mind leading up to that reaction, which makes the reaction almost an afterthought or some other type of nonentity. You can’t have it both ways, readers! Pick one complaint and stick with it!

Oh shit, I never mentioned the sapphires! So Kelsea begins the story with one sapphire, the Tear Sapphire. I think it may have been one of those things that signify the person’s truly of regal birth? I don’t know. But Kelsea wears one and when she has it on it tries to protect her from shit. Like, it’ll burn when she gets pissed or something. She gets another one from somewhere – maybe the Fetch? – and when she puts the two on together (the jewels are on necklaces) she has super powerful magic. Like, “lay waste to an entire army outpost” powerful. (Oh shit, spoiler alert.)

The Red Queen is an awful person. She uses slaves for everything, including sex. She also talks with a demon or something in a fireplace, and in order to gain power she bleeds children dry. She’s kind of a monster. But she’s obsessed with Kelsea and getting the sapphires, so – next book?

Now, for all of the complaining people did on the interwebs about how stupid Kelsea is, I thought this was pretty smart, to be honest. She’s in the Keep, and getting ready for her bath with her lady’s maid, Andalie, nearby:

Andalie stood in her accustomed spot at the door of Kelsea’s chamber, holding out a clean towel. Kelsea had made it clear that she didn’t require help with her bath (her mind boggled at the sort of woman who would), but still, Andalie always seemed to know when to have things ready. [p. 255-256]

Halfway through her bath, Kelsea is attacked by an assassin. (This act brought a whole bunch of grousing from the Interwebs, wondering where the Queen’s Guard was at that point? They’d secured the area, dude!) And this happens:

“Lady?” It was Andalie. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Kelsea replied easily, steeling herself to feel the knife go in. “I’ll ring when it’s time to wash my hair.” [p. 259]

See? That’s … you gotta admit, that’s pretty smart. Kelsea knows that Andalie knows that Kelsea doesn’t need to have any help with her bath, but the assassin doesn’t know that. So that was a signal! I’m sorry I’m Alaina-splaining this, but I thought that was pretty smart for a nineteen-year-old.

And I thought Andalie was a very wise character. She also has a bit of the Sight, but it’s not overused. I really liked this conversation, where Andalie asks Kelsea about her crush on The Fetch:

Andalie shook her head, chuckling mirthlessly, then leaned down and murmured in Kelsea’s ear. “Who’s the man, Majesty? I’ve seen his face in your mind many times. The dark-haired man with the snake-charmer’s smile.”

Kelsea blushed. “No one.”

“Not no one.” Andalie grabbed a hang of hair over Kelsea’s left ear and sheared straight through it. “He means very much to you, this man, and I see shame covering all of those feelings.”

“So?”

“Did you choose to feel this way for this man?”

“No,” Kelsea admitted.

“One of the worst choices you could have made, no?”

Kelsea nodded, defeated.

“We don’t always choose, Majesty. We simply make the best choices we can once the deed is done.” [p. 352]

It’s like Andalie can look right into my teenaged soul from fifteen years ago! *quickly does math* oh god, twenty years ago. oh my god.

ANYWAY. At the end of the day (or May, when I finished reading this), I did like the book. I liked it enough to read the second book in the series within the same year. I liked it enough to recommend it to a friend for a Christmas present. It’s not quite a YA novel; there are some themes throughout the novel that are pretty violent and icky, and honestly, I’m going to go up to the top of this review and add a trigger warning for the novel, because that should go at the top and not the bottom. It is not as intimate as the Hunger Games trilogy, and while I’ve only read 200 pages of A Game of Thrones, I don’t think it comes close to that epic, either. But I liked it, and I hadn’t read YA in a while.

So, your mileage may vary, but I thought it was good.

Grade for The Queen of the Tearling: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch

locke lamoraBefore I get into the meat of this, AN UPDATE on: THE FRIEND’S CAR

You may not be aware, what with the terror incidents, the indictments, and all the other shit circulating in the news right now, but Sunday night, Maine was hit by a particularly hard windstorm. Gusts over 60 mph, driving rain, and from the southeast direction. Generally speaking, when Maine gets hit with storms, they come from the northeast. (A “nor’easter,” if you will.) But with this one coming from the southeast, it hit trees at particularly weak spots, and … yeah. It was gross.

My house lost power early Monday morning. I’m writing this paragraph just before 8 p.m. on Tuesday night, and I’ve been told I shouldn’t expect power before Thursday. (Thank goodness for generators.) We’ve got an actual state of emergency up in here, so … things are rough.

[NOTE FROM THE FUTURE: I’m posting this entry after 10 p.m. on Friday, November 3. We just got power back a little after 7 p.m. We were without power for nearly five full days. I have done so much reading this week – I also have two reviews stored up to post, so, silver lining, I guess.]

So anyway, on Tuesday, I returned my friend’s call tonight to see how he’s doing, and …. he tells me, that on Sunday night, during the wind storm from hell –

a tree fell on his new car. right through the moonroof.

ironic smirk.gif

Like, I can’t even, you guys. I can’t with this. I just. I am laughing so hard at this, again, some more, five days later. I mean, karma, you guys – CARMA.

I guess the only good news is that this car can’t be abandoned in a parking garage, because he’s payments on it? I just — *sigh* it’s too good. It’s hilarious.

Needless to say, however, I won’t be covering his still-abandoned vehicle with Jerry Maguire VHS tapes anymore. That would be beyond the pale; I’d practically be pouring salt into the wound at that rate.

Okay. So that’s the update. Thank you for indulging me in my “horrible person” persona. And now, a poorly-written review.

When I get bored with the endless circle of Facebook, Twitter, and now, the Washington Post, I’ll check out Buzzfeed. Up until what feels like very recent times, Buzzfeed would occasionally post book recommendations. (Unlike last week, where an actual post is titled “Pick Six ‘90s Foods, Then We’ll Correctly Guess Your Age.” I picked Toaster Strudel, Dunkaroos, Handi-Snacks, Capri Sun, Flintstone’s Push-Up Pop, and Lunchables. Buzzfeed thought I was 22 to 25. I am 34.)

Back in 2015, Buzzfeed posted a list of the 51 Best Fantasy Series Ever Written. I’ve ventured into the fantasy genre on occasion, but never more than a title here or there. I’ve wanted to read more fantasy lately, and so I browsed the Buzzfeed list, and came across the description for the “Gentlemen Bastard Sequence” by Scott Lynch:

Thieves, pirates, and a beautifully planned series of heists that are a delight to watch unfold. This series is not without its share of heartbreak and loss, but the tribulations of its protagonists are tempered with a joyful sense of mischief, cunning, and a fair amount of swashbuckling. Oceans 11 meets Pirates of the Caribbean meets Robin Hood.

DUDES. That is right up my alley! Ocean’s Eleven? Pirates? HEISTS?! I love all of those things! On one of my lunchtime trips to Barnes and Noble, I found a copy, purchased it, and forgot about it – until January, when I needed to read something on the plane from Boston to Vegas and back. The book is over 700 pages long, and I thought it would keep me occupied.

I slept through all the flights. I read maybe sixty pages? It was weird – it was one of those books that felt like it took forever for action and plot to start, but I’d think it was “starting too slow” and look at the page number and found I was on page 145 or something. If I can make it past page 50 I’m in it for the long haul.

So what’s The Lies of Locke Lamora about? Uuhhhh….

Look, I’m sorry: this is a dense book, and there’s no way I’m going to do it proper justice. I read it almost ten months ago. I can give you what details I can remember, but please know I’m not being very good at it. What I can tell you is that if you like fantasy novels (or, really, epic novels) and sarcastic thieves with hearts of gold (or at least plated with it), chances are you’re going to like this book.

The story takes place on the island city of Camorr, which is made up of the thievery class and the rich upper class. There are sects in the thieves as well. When Locke is a little boy, he is sold to Father Chains of the Gentlemen Bastards, and taught to be a thief along with the Sanza twins, Calo and Galdo, and Jean, a young ruffian and excellent fighter. The Gentlemen Bastards grow up to be great Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich through crazy schemes (like, counterfeiting whisky from another island, and then asking for investment money).

Meanwhile, there’s a character known as the Grey King, who has been killing the capos of the thief gangs in Camorr in an attempt to consolidate power. (He is not actually a king.) And the Grey King ensnares Locke into his plot: Locke must pretend to be the Grey King and have a conversation with Locke’s good friend (and boss, of sorts), Capo Basarvi. Well, that plan goes tits-up pretty much immediately, and Basarvi and his family are murdered by the Grey King’s army, and Locke only just manages to escape with his life.

The rest of the book is Locke and Jean going for revenge on the Grey King. They succeed (spoiler alert? I mean, there are more books in the series, guys), but not without losses.

The book also jumps back and forth between present-day and the past, showing us how Locke came to be in the employ of Father Chains and the Gentlemen Bastards, some of their earlier escapades, and other tales.

Locke is a very sarcastic and witty character (after my own heart), but he uses his sarcasm to mask his emotions and seem detached. It allows him to do terrible things when necessary. But always for the good of the Gentlemen Bastards.

It was an interesting story – very dense, and not a lot of magic. There is someone called a Bondsmage, who is able to illusion people to do his bidding – or, actually, the bidding of the Gray King, who is the Bondsmage’s boss. But there aren’t wizards or other races (like Orcs or elves) to deal with – all the characters are human.

I wish I could remember more about the plot (or at least, had internet right now so I could look up the Wikipedia entry), but at the same time …

My Dear Friend Sarah and I had a discussion last year, driving back from New York late at night. I can’t remember how we got onto the topic – I think we started talking about Breaking Bad again and then spoilers – and what came out of that discussion was that she and I read books (and watch TV) differently than I do.

She views authors as telling us a story. And she puts her faith in letting the author develop that story enough to draw her interest. In relation to Breaking Bad, she couldn’t really get over that she was not interested in the story at all. Whereas I let my curiosity take hold and that was what propelled me through the series: I knew what was going to happen, and I wanted to see how the story got there.

When Sarah was growing up, she read primarily from the fantasy genre. Game of Thrones, the extended Star Wars universe, and others. Meanwhile, I was reading Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, and eventually graduated to Kinsey Millhone and other mystery novels. She was reading books that took you on a journey; I was reading books that led to an answer or solution. And I think that’s why we came at Breaking Bad differently – she wanted a journey to enjoy, but I was looking for the solution.

Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t know how I feel about Breaking Bad, other than that I know I’m never going to rewatch it.

So I struggled reading The Lies Of Locke Lamora a bit – I’m not used to being taken on a journey like this. I think the modern parlance of the characters helped me enjoy it more than if I had been reading Tolkien or something. I’ll probably read the next book in the series, but it probably won’t be any time soon.

Anyway. That’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. I’m sorry I did a shitty job reviewing it, but I’m going to try and get better.

Grade for The Lies of Locke Lamora: 2 stars

Fiction: “Egg & Spoon” by Gregory Maguire

If the theme song isn't stuck in your head, I don't know what you're even doing.

Erica (of NYC Bookworm) and I finished reading Egg & Spoon early last month, so at least I’m within the 30 day mark for being behind.

egg and spoon

Egg & Spoon is the story of Elena and Cat, two Russian girls from very different lives. Elena is the youngest daughter of a very poor family, whereas Cat (short for Katerina) is the daughter of very rich parents who leave her with her very old aunt, Sophie. Cat, Sophie, and the rest of her retinue are traveling to St. Petersburg to meet the prince when their train comes upon a broken bridge that needs repairing, just outside of Elena’s village. Elena, who had never seen a train before, goes to see the spectacle and meets Cat, and the two become … not friends, but they share things about each other and tell each other stories.

One of the stories comes from a book of Cat’s – one about Baba Yaga, the mythical witch. Elena has her own opinions of Baba Yaga, but Kat dismisses them. In return, Cat shows Elena a Fabergé Egg that she and her Aunt Sophie are going to present to the Prince.

Well, one day, they’re sitting in the train – Cat’s holding onto the Fabergé Egg, Elena’s holding Cat’s storybook – and then the train jumps to a start. Cat falls off the train, leaving Elena behind.

And here is where the two characters make the first of many defining decisions. Elena decides to remain on the train instead of running after her friend – because the train is going to St. Petersburg, and now she has the opportunity to ask the Tsar to release her brothers from military duties and return to their home in the village. But instead of identifying herself and her needs right away, she instead decides to take advantage of her physical similarity and pretends to be Kat on the rest of her journey.

Cat, meanwhile, decides to follow the train tracks to St. Petersburg so she can return the Fabergé Egg and reunite with her Aunt. Except that on the way there, she gets chased away from the tracks and ends up in a strange hut that walks on chicken legs with a talking cat and owned … by Baba Yaga.

Now, Baba Yaga is not, at first sight, a hideously scary creature as the fairy tales would have us believe. Erica’s vision of her as Mad Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone is so on point, I can barely stand it. As I said in my tweet to her (which I will now paraphrase because it’s been so long, my tweets during the Tweetversation have disappeared into the ether, only to be discovered five years from now after I get tapped as the next host of The Daily Show), I knew I saw Baba Yaga as something like that in my head, but as soon she said that, it immediately clicked and that’s exactly how I pictured her; I just hadn’t found the right words.

I liked that the plot didn’t devolve into a rote Prince and the Pauper-esque routine. In fact, the way the characterization went, the reader was made to feel sympathy for Elena – think that she was going to be the protagonist, that we were going to root for her journey – but as the book progressed, Elena became less sympathetic: more sarcastic, sullen, and not quickly willing to revert to Elena as opposed to Cat. Whereas Cat quickly became very sympathetic – she worked with both Baba Yaga and the Prince in order to rescue Russia.

Because yes, Russia is dying – there’s a whole subplot about Baba Yaga, the Firebird, an Ice Dragon, and the Fabergé Egg. The Egg is decorated with the above-mentioned items, but halfway through the book the Firebird disappears from the Egg. So then Baba Yaga, the talking cat, Cat, Elena, and the Prince journey up to Siberia and find out that the Ice Dragon has been awake longer than he should be, because Russia’s seasons are determined by when the Ice Dragon sleeps and when the Ice Dragon is awake.

The novel is written in a very specific style – Mr. Maguire definitely holds to the tone of a typical fairy tale or myth story. There are mystical elements – namely, the Firebird – but overall, the story doesn’t descend into a typical supernatural story. I’m not sure whether to put this into a fantasy genre or the young adult genre, because it’s not really either. It was pretty good, however.

Ugh, I have got to get better at this! It’s been so long since I’ve read it that I can’t really compliment it the way that I want to. I’ve been fascinated by Russia since watching Anastasia (no, you shut up, this is my warped childhood, not yours!), and I really liked the descriptions of St. Petersburg and the Ice Dragon. I loved the conceit of making Baba Yaga an anachronistic, humorous version of what Mother Russia should be; I loved the talking cat. I liked the relationship between Cat and Prince Anton, and I liked how both of them wanted to subvert their traditional roles and pursue their own dreams.

Oh my god – I just now realized that if I had been better at this, I would have been able to make a whole analogy between Elena and Cat and Elena and Katherine from The Vampire Diaries. I mean, I haven’t watched that show in two years, but I’m sure I could have made something out of it.

Okay, I’ve now finished watching the fourth season of Bob’s Burgers, and Mad Men returns in a hour and a half, and I have ruined my chances of making deadline on That Thing I Keep Obliquely Mentioning, but rest assured, That Thing is what’s coming up next, and it will be a doozy.

Grade for Egg & Spoon: 3 stars