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 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: “A Countess Below Stairs” by Eva Ibbotson

countess below stairsAfter I finished The Lies of Locke Lamora, I went to the library. And folks, I went to the library a lot this year. A LOT A LOT. I realize I finished reading this book in March and I’m writing this post (in a Word document, because of the no power) on Halloween night, so I can’t talk about 2017 as a whole yet, but so far, out of the 22 books I’ve read to date, 12 have been from the library. That’s actually pretty good for me!

So this is a title I picked up on a whim. I thought it would be cute! It claimed to be about Russia! Why I would be curious about the Russian Revolution I’ll never know, said the girl who got All The President’s Men from the library on the same trip, but WHATEVER. The short answer is: I was wrong on many counts.

A Countess Below Stairs tells the story of Anna, a Russian countess who emigrates to England following the Bolshevik revolution. She and her family are forced out of their home (being of the ruling class), and when she comes to England, she decides to be a maid in an English country house to earn money for the family. Her mother and cousin (or brother? I’m not sure) don’t want her to degrade herself, but Anna refuses to relent.

Anna is also the happiest displaced Russian countess I’ve ever come across, and I watched Anastasia maybe a hundred frillion times when I was a kid. I mean, nothing got her down at all. She is excited to learn how to scrub floors! She entrances everyone who she comes in contact with! The gardener names a new type of rose after her! It’s all very twee.

So she’s been working at Mersham (the English manse) when the owner, Rupert, comes home after being in the hospital following the end of World War I. He is engaged to Muriel, and while he (thinks he) is in love with her, Muriel has also offered to help pay for repairs to Mersham, so that’s cool.

Ooo, want to play When Did Alaina Get Really Concerned About Muriel And This Book Overall? The answer is Page 54, where Robert described Muriel to some of his friends or maybe the butler:

“It wasn’t just that I knew she was an heiress – you know how people gossip in a hospital – but she’s also extremely beautiful. And an intellectual! She has this passionate interest in eugenics.” [p. 54]

Eugenics! Oh – that’s great. Just – peachy.

Let me very clear on this point: Muriel is a Nazi!

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You guys, I am serious. This was another book I’d bring to the gym to read on the recumbent bike, and multiple times I had to stop pedaling so I could gape and the outright horror I was reading.

Muriel subscribes to the beliefs of Dr. Lightbody, another “believer in eugenics.” Let’s see what he sounds like!:

Briefly, the doctor believed that it was possible, by diet, exercise, and various kinds of purification about which he was perfectly willing to be specific when asked, to create an Ideal Human Body. But this was not all. When his disciples had made of their bodies a fitting Temple of the Spirit, it was also their obligation to mate with like bodies. [p. 91]

Their obligation to mate with like bodies. Hoooly fuck.

Apparently, most of the followers of Dr. Lightbody were female, as evidenced by this snippet of a speech he gives:

“All of us, ladies and gentlemen,” declaimed the doctor, looking round to see if, among the sea of swelling bosoms, there were, in fact, any gentlemen, “have it in our power to acquire – by Right Diet, Right Living and the avoidance of lechery and vice – a body that is flawless and an unsullied chalice, a hallowed temple for the human spirit. Can we doubt that, having acquired it, it is our duty to pass it on to our unborn children and make of this island race a nation of gods? Valhalla is in our grasp, ladies and gentlemen. Let us march toward it with confidence, unity, and joy!” [p. 92-93]

Seriously. This whole aspect of the novel is so gross. I actually looked up when it was written – y’know, maybe, like with the Ian Fleming novels, I can handwave the racist/Nazi overtones by claiming “it was a product of its time”?

NOPE. According to Goodreads.com, this book was published in 2007. TWO THOUSAND SEVEN.

So instead, this character choice was made to emphasize how awful these people (Muriel and Dr. Lightbody) are. I can only assume Ms. Ibbotson wanted NO ONE to even THINK of sympathizing with the villains in her novel. Which, fine, great, whatever, but you didn’t need to make them Nazis, Eva.

(This is where some of those “fine folks” chime in and tell me that Muriel and Dr. Lightbody aren’t Nazis because they didn’t belong to the Nazi party as the Nazi party wasn’t fully established until 1918, and also, they just have a fond belief in eugenics, that doesn’t mean Nazis, but actually YES IT FUCKING DOES YOU TWAT NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY LIBRARY)

I mean, Muriel is a horrible person even without her Nazi tendencies. Rupert’s best friend, Tom Byrne, has a younger sister, Olivia. Everyone loves Olivia – she’s a sweet, precocious kid who happens to have a slight limp. Rupert has asked Muriel to make Olivia (“Ollie”) her flower girl in the wedding ceremony, and Muriel agrees. And then, Muriel meets her at the dress fitting:

Muriel seemed not to have heard. Ever since Ollie had appeared in the doorway she had been staring in silent fascination at the child. Now she drew in her breath and as Anna, guided by some instinct, stepped forward and Tom Byrne entered to fetch the bridesmaids, she hissed, in a whisper which carried right across the room:

“Why did no one tell me that the child was crippled!” [p. 155]

Oh, and lest you start to agree with the “fine folks” that you can’t be a Nazi unless you hate Jews, guess what; Muriel does.

Tom Byrne is in love with Susie Rabinovitch. This is Muriel speaking about the Byrnes (probably to Dr. Lightbody):

“And even socially … they entertain Israelites of a kind that would not have been permitted over my father’s doorsteps.” [p. 178]

Susie’s mother, Hannah, sends a wedding present to Muriel, and while we don’t get to read Muriel’s thank-you note in full, we do get to see Hannah’s reaction to it:

Hannah was standing by the window, the letter in her hand. She looked, suddenly, immensely, unutterably weary and as old as one of the mourning, black-clad women in the Cossack-haunted village of her youth. And indeed the hideous thing that had crept out from beneath Muriel’s honeyed, conventional phrases was as old, as inescapable, as time itself. [p. 223]

At the end of the day, Muriel and Dr. Lightbody are just disgusting characters. Here, we see Dr. Lightbody trying to find a costume for the costume ball, and contemplates going as the Egyptian Sun King:

 It was closer, much closer – but there was something a little bit effeminate about the whole ensemble. Not surprising, really – when all was said and done there was a touch of the tarbrush about the Egyptians. [p. 243]

Now, the good news, is that Rupert catches wise to the fact that Muriel is truly awful. He also falls in love with Anna, not knowing she’s a former countess. They have great conversations, and Anna’s optimistic joy infects Rupert.

He also has a bit of a fetish when it comes to Anna’s hair. She wants to cut it in the flapper style, but Rupert doesn’t want her to touch the length of it. One day, he’s in town visiting his solicitor (or whatever) and happens to see Anna go into a hair salon. He immediately runs across the street and confronts Anna:

“I wish to be attractive for your wedding,” she went on pleadingly, lifting her face to his. “Is that a crime?”

“Ah, yes; my wedding.” The word reared up to meet him, banishing the last traces of lunacy. He became aware of René staring at him salaciously, of Elsie, with her mouth open, clutching a towel … “You will be very attractive for my wedding,” he said lightly. “For my funeral also, je vous assure.” He lifted a hand, laid it for a moment on the rich, dark tresses where they mantled her shoulders, then turned it, letting the backs of his fingers run upward against the shining waves. For an instant he felt his touch on her cheek; then he stepped back. “There, that was my ration for all eternity. People have died for less, I dare say.” [p. 263]

I mean, slightly creepy, yet compared to the Nazi of it all, strangely sweet.

In the end, Rupert leaves Muriel – or, rather, forces her out of the relationship by pretending to have mentally deformed cousins, which is also just terrible – and he declares his love for Anna, just as she discovers the family jewelry that was nearly lost in their escape from Russia, so she doesn’t have to be a maid anymore and everyone lives as happily ever after as they can, considering there were Nazis involved.

I still can’t believe that this is marketed as a Young Adult novel. Well, okay, maybe I can. But I can’t believe there wasn’t a single editor along the way who thought to point out that maybe, making the villains Nazis was just on the side of “too much”.

Aaanyway. At least it’s over.

Grade for A Countess Below Stairs: no stars

Fiction: “Alanna” by Tamora Pierce

alannaGood morning to everyone, except members of the State of Maine’s Executive and Legislative branches!

So … the good State o’ Maine is shut down. If you’re on your way up to the state for the Fourth of July weekend, your good news is that the governor deemed state park workers as “emergency”, so you’ll still be able to have your cookout on the beach.

(PLEASE, keep in mind as you travel that any state workers you see out there – state park rangers, state troopers, toll booth collectors – they’re all working unpaid right now, so please, be extra extra nice to them, okay?)

As for me: the people in my entire division were deemed “non-emergency”, so you’re looking at a girl who has an unpaid vacation of indeterminate length on her hands. But instead of bitching about how we wouldn’t even be IN THIS SITUATION if the goddamned APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE had DONE their FUCKING JOB THREE MONTHS AGO, I’m going to look on the bright side: I’ve got some money in my savings account, bills are paid for the month, and I’m probably going to be out for enough time to have some free adventures, so be sure to follow #ShutdownAdventure on Twitter and Facebook to see this week’s shenanigans.

Also: I have no reason to not get caught up with this backlog! So let’s dig in!

Not sure why I requested this book from the library – I may have seen it on a list somewhere about someone’s favorite young adult novels, or who knows why. Whatever reason it was, I requested it from the library and then it came in, so I read it.

Alanna: The First Adventure is, well – the first adventure for Alanna. There are four books in the Song of the Lioness series, and when I was a kid, I read three out of the four. I believe I was in fifth grade when I started reading them, and I’m not sure why I never finished. I may have decided to graduate to “adult” novels that year?

Well, actually – I know it was fifth grade when I started to sneak-read some of Mom’s romance novels she kept around the house, so my tastes probably matured quickly. I know it was seventh or eighth grade when I began reading Sue Grafton, Dick Francis, and John Grisham, so – it was probably a confluence of many events.

Regardless, I know I first picked up the book more than twenty years ago because her name was so close to mine. In classrooms surrounded by Tiffanys and Jessicas, seeing another name so close to mine was novel.

Alanna is the twin sister of Thom – which was another reason I thought the whole series was a shout-out to me at the time; I’ve been friends with Thomas since we were six, so to have a book where two of the main characters could almost be analogues for me and my dear-friend-almost brother? And my analogue was a pretty badass teen, learning how to fight like a dude? I latched on pretty hard.

Anyway. Alanna and Thom are growing up in a medieval-esque society, where the boys go off to be knights and the girls go off to be nuns or something. Not nuns – but they study stuff and don’t learn how to fight or do anything particularly rowdy. Alanna’s kind of a brute as an eleven-year-old, and on their way to their respective new schools, Alanna convinces Thom to go to the convent-thingee in her stead, while she’ll go to knight school as “Alan”.

Alanna/”Alan” makes friends and shows promise as a knight over the years – she works hard, and doesn’t let any tiny bit of failure deter her from her goal. Some of her friends include a thief named George, who manages to get her a horse. She also makes an enemy in one of her fellow trainees, Ralon. A bully, he pummels “Alan” every chance he gets. So Alanna sneaks out of the castle to train with George, and eventually she beats Ralon on her own. Ralon leaves the castle, but not before swearing revenge.

Alanna has magical healing powers (not like Wolverine, though), and when the city is beset by a Sweating Plague, she uses her powers to heal Prince Jonathan when he’s on the verge of death. In doing so, she reveals her gender to her mentor, Sir Myles. The rumor is that the Plague was sent by a powerful sorcerer – not only does it nearly kill (or kill) the sufferers of the Plague, but Healers get their power drained when they attempt to heal the victims. Alanna doesn’t lose any power when she heals Jonathan. But she does suspect Jonathan’s cousin, Duke Roger, who had just returned to court.

Once Jonathan regains his strength, he starts seeing visions of a Black City, which is a city overcome by demons or something. Jonathan enlists “Alan” to go with him – or “Alan” refuses to stay behind, I can’t remember – but both of them go to find out what’s up with the city. At first it appears abandoned, but there’s some big evil living there (Wikipedia tells me its name was Ysandir), and Jonathan and “Alan” combine their powers – but not until after Ysandir reveals to Jonathan that “Alan” is really Alanna. Wisely, Jonathan decides to ignore the fact that his best friend is actually a girl and they both get the job done and defeat Ysandir.

Alanna thinks that Duke Roger sent Jonathan to the Black City on purpose; Jonathan agrees, but believes that Roger hoped that Jonathan would defeat the evil in the city. Alanna thinks Roger doesn’t want Jonathan alive. In the end, Jonathan chooses “Alan” as his squire, even though he knows she’s a girl, and they’re off to the next adventure.

I still recall loving this book when I was a kid. Returning to it twenty-ish years later, it is absolutely written for older elementary kids. It’s almost … pre-YA? It was the first wave of Young Adult novels. (It’s also an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for the generation of girls who like swords and fighting – in one chapter, Alanna gets her first period and freaks out. That’s how George learns that Alanna’s a girl!)

I might continue with the series just to see how it ends up. I’ve read on GoodReads that the writing matures with the character, so by Book 4, it should be very similar to today’s YA genre. But even though I’m slightly disappointed with it as an adult, I still agree that it’s an excellent book and series for the right age group.

Grade for Alanna: The First Adventure: 2 stars

Fiction: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

wrinkle in timeGood evening! I’m drunk. Trivia was earlier tonight, and I decided to go with gins and tonic as opposed to Pub Style brew, and … yeah. Good night. We lost, be tee dubs. We got trounced. So next week, I’m definitely going back to beer, because while the quinine in the tonic water may have settled my stomach (which has kind of been upset for an entire week), it did nothing for my intelligence. And my partner-in-trivia will be the first to admit that of the two of us, I’m the brains of the operation (he gets most of the sports stuff. Except for tonight, when we were off on the baseball strike by one year. BUT STILL), and when I’m not operating at 100% … it’s not pretty.  Great Odin’s Raven was not great tonight. We were Mediocre Odin’s Raven at best.

Anyhoodle. I decided, “hey, let me go home and bang out another review, because I’m so fucking behind, and why don’t I pour myself another gin and tonic while I’m at it because why the fuck not?”

… When did I add ABBA’s “S.O.S.” to my iTunes? the fuck?

SO I READ THIS BACK IN SEPTEMBER. I had just read the news about the movie adaptation, directed by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, and the amazing casting choices: Meg Murry played by Storm Reid! Gugu Mbatha-Raw (HOLY SHIT I SPELLED THAT RIGHT ON THE FIRST TRY WHILE DRUNK YESI’MAWESOME) as Mrs. Murry! Chris Pine as the missing Mr. Murry! I mean, the Casting Gods really came through on this one.

But that news was in September. And I was staring down the barrel of a flight and then an overnight train back to Maine so I could attend My Dear Friend Sarah’s bridal shower in D.C. (P.S.: Dear Friend Sarah: I want to apologize for my poor time management on that weekend – in retrospect, I should have just traded in both train tickets for JetBlue, but … hindsight. I won’t be making that mistake again. But I also want to thank you for your hospitality.) Anyway, I thought the weekend trip would be a great opportunity to revisit A Wrinkle in Time.

Because I had read this back when I was a kid, and now, all I could remember from it was “tesseract” — mainly because I’d joke that characters on TV shows would tesseract all over the place (see: Alias especially. No wonder I have problems with the space-time continuum!).

A Wrinkle In Time is the first book of a quintet starring Meg Murry, the elder daughter of scientists Mr. and Mrs. Murry. Her younger brother is Charles Wallace, quite precocious at age 5. Mr. Murry has been missing for some time, and Meg is feeling out of place in her family. Meg learns that Charles Wallace has befriended a strange old woman in their neighborhood, Mrs. Whatsit. Mrs. Whatsit informs Mrs. Murry that there is such a thing as a tesseract, which causes a reaction.

Meg becomes closer with high school student Calvin, who is sweet and feels like an outsider despite his popular status. One afternoon, Meg and Calvin follow Charles Wallace to Mrs. Whatsit’s house, where they meet Mrs. Whatsit’s housemate, Mrs. Who. Their other companion, Mrs. Which, who is pretty much incorporeal, tells Meg and Charles Wallace that the women will help the Murrys find their father.

The strange women help the children tesseract – essentially, jump through a wormhole, or, if you will, a wrinkle in time – to the planet Camazotz, which looks what I imagine North Korea to look like. The inhabitants of Camazotz are regimented in everything: all houses look the same, everyone acts the same, has the same schedule. The planet is run by a disembodied brain, called IT, which can control people through telepathy.

In his escapade, Charles Wallace becomes controlled by IT, and it takes all of Meg’s strength to overpower IT to rescue both her brother and her father. By being an outcast and, most importantly, by being capable of love – something IT does not have – she is able to rescue Charlies Wallace from IT. The reunited family – Meg, Charles Wallace, Mr. Murry, and Calvin, the newest member – return to Earth and reconnect with Mrs. Murry and the twins. (Meg is the oldest, then there are the twins, and then Charles Wallace. I did forget to mention that up higher, thank you. But — gin.)

Having reconnected with the book, I felt … underwhelmed. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have a cozy memory associated with A Wrinkle in Time. Not that I had bad memories – I just had no memories. Growing up, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s other series, about the Austen family. The series included the titles A Ring of Endless Light and The Arm of the Starfish. While I don’t remember anything about the first time I ever read A Wrinkle of Time, I distinctly remember having a nosebleed all over the Curtis Memorial Library’s copy of The Arm of the Starfish, and I’ll bet you ten American dollars that I can go into that library, find that same copy of the book, and find my faded blood still in it. (I wiped it up as best I could.)

My Dear Friend Sarah, however, stated that A Wrinkle in Time was one of her favorite books growing up. So while I still enjoyed my re-read of this book (Amtrak disasters bedamned) and while I’m quite looking forward to the upcoming film adaptation, I’m not sure I’m going to go forward with the series. I might.

I also feel bad that I’m not doing this book as great a service as I could. First of all, I read it seven months ago; and secondofly, while I’m no longer shithoused, or even really buzzed — no, I’m still slightly buzzed. And while I was drunk enough at the beginning of this review to think that drunk!reviewing would be a great idea!, and maybe that’s what’s been keeping my backlog from getting better, in … what’s the opposite of retrospect? In reflection, maybe I should have waited to write this when I was more sober.

But that may have been so far in the future that I may have had to read the book again, and I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for that.

Grade for A Wrinkle in Time: 3.5 stars