In the Vanishers’ Palace Review

In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land…

A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.

A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.<

When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.

But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…

Rating: MoonKestrel Logo2 20px MoonKestrel Logo2 20px MoonKestrel Logo2 20px MoonKestrel Logo2 20px MoonKestrel Logo2 20px

This review has taken me a while to get to, and I have been putting it off. Not because it is a bad book, rather to the the contrary, I loved this book, which is why it is harder to review. I become an incoherent mess trying to write a review that does it justice.

After a lot of thought, this will be a review that may contain spoilers, however I will do my best to keep them minimal, as this way I can do a better job at the review.

I will start by saying that Aliette has a way with words. I felt so much reading this book. Every word was like poetry, and it radiated beatuy (even for the ugly things in the book, even for the hurt, it was raw and sad but also had a beauty to it). It is almost as if she was a word magician.

Another thing is how easy pronouns and ranks and self defining fits in this world. It just is and that’s it.

And the world is an interesting one, as it is what is left after the Vanishers took it and tried to make it into an image of their own, breaking the rules and taking, all the time. Obviously if you take and take, things slowly sicken or fail and this is the world they live in.

When Aliette signed my book she wrote “a new take on an old tale” and that is the perfect way to describe it. I have a soft spot for Beauty and the Beast retellings, with Robin McKinley winning this one (Bridig Kemmerer comes a close second), but with Vanishers’, it doesn’t compare. It isn’t a retelling as much as it is a new classic in the making.

The cast of characters is relatively small, but they are well formed, even the ones that appear little in the story. Everyone has a purpose, everyone exists for something and they are motivated by their own ideas rather than just for the plot or to make our heroine (or our dragon) do something (this does happen, but not for the sake of).

There is also a lot of focus on filial piety which made me curious to learn more. One of the other things that was interesting was the way Vũ Côn is maternal. How she has adopted this pair of young beings and is their mother. It was interesting to see the way she tries her best to protect them, at the same time as she is trying to help them fend for themselves and learn lessons and deal with consequences, and how this is a very fine line sometimes.

One of my favourite things was that when she makes a mistake (or several), she thinks about it, ponders and then attempts to fix the mistake and not only that but to avoid repeating it in the future. She may not be entirely human, but she’s also a being that learns, that grows, that errs.

Seriously, I devoured this book and at the same time didn’t want it to end because it is so beautiful, so comprehensive for such a relatively small book. It touches on so many things and it leaves you thinking. It also left me with some saudade for things that were (sorry, it is the best word I know to describe it). A melancholic nostalgia but also, some fondness and happiness.

I highly recommend reading this beautiful story.

The Power of the Masses, and of the Internet …

Heartstream

Heartstream by Tom Pollock

Amy is trapped in the house in which her mother died, and from which she’s been streaming the progress of her illness for all the world to see and feel. Now she’s all alone, even with millions of followers, and she’s on the brink of an emotional breakdown when, on the day of her mother’s funeral, things take an unexpected turn; Amy suddenly finds herself sitting in the kitchen, and drinking tea with a stranger, who’s literally about to blow her whole existence into pieces.

Cat is a superfan of the boyband Everlasting, and she lives for the fandom, a community largely run by her older friend Evie, and built around the assumption that the front figures Nick and Ryan are secretly in love with each other. But when a large group of fans starts to believe differently, and Cat finds herself in a potentially life changing situation, things rapidly starts spinning out of hers, and Evie’s, control.

When Amy’s and Cat’s stories eventually intertwine, one thing becomes unpleasantly clear: the power of the masses, and the internet, should never be underestimated.

Rating: 🐖🐖🐖🐖🐖

Heartstream has been said to be a “psychological thriller about obsession, fame and betrayal, for fans of Black Mirror”, and to my utmost pleasure I found that depiction to be utterly true. I’ve always been a big fan of Black Mirror, and of other sci-fi stories focusing on how near-future technical solutions could be used to do both harm and good; often at the same time. This novel by Tom Pollock plays around the very same themes as many of the Black Mirror episodes, and it is as interesting as it is frightening.

Without spoiling anything, I can reveal that this is a fast paced and thrilling read that was very hard to put down (you all know that “just one more chapter”-feeling), and that I was shockingly surprised with the twists and turns it took at the end of every. single. chapter. If you’re in for a gripping story that keeps throwing surprises in your face, go read Heartstream at once. But if you’re looking for clear and easy distinctions between bad and good, this may not be for you. The moral is more grey than black and white, just as it is with life (and the power of the internet) in general.

Dr. Bea approves

If you liked this book but are yet to watch Black Mirror, than what are you waiting for? Go do it already! As for books, I think Warcross, though it’s a totally different kind of story, can be said to revolve around similar dilemmas. Or, if you’re here for the puzzling parallel stories, Before We Were Yours might be the next read for you.

Magic warriors and transgender thoughts

Mulan

The Hand, the Eye and the Heart by Zoë Marriott

[TW: deadnaming and misgendering]

When the Chinese empire is under the threat of the cunning Leopard and his merciless men, every man and boy able to contribute to the protection of the realm are called into duty. Zhilan’s father Hua Zhou, also known as the Wild Tiger, is a retired man with a bad leg, who was severely injured during his time serving as an high ranked officer. Still, the army calls him once more. Zhilan’s mum and younger siblings are devastated, and Zhilan is fearing for both of her parents lives. In a bold move, she uses her very special gifts to transform herself into Hua Zhi, the Wild Tiger’s oldest boy, now ready to fight in his fathers place. From that on, the story is rapidly spinning into a carousel of lies and deception, but also that of a new understanding of oneself and others. And when the war is over, it’s not that sure that Zhilan will ever return.

Rating: 🐖🐖🐖

I’m a cis-woman, and I can only take on this book from my own, sometimes very narrow, experiences and understandings of gender. With that disclaimer put out there, I do feel like this is a very sensitive depiction about the fluidity of gender identity, rolls and norms; a story that tries to explore different perspective on sex and the perception of belonging, rather than trying to explain or “own” a certain point of view. It’s also a very emotional journey, that makes me relate to and feel for Hua Zhi in a way that I normally wouldn’t with a typical soldier and hero figure in this kind of tale.

The Hand, the Eye and the Heart is a retelling of the legend behind Mulan but, as described above, with a hundred more layers, dimensions and complications. The war, that has to be said to be at least one of the novel’s main conflicts, isn’t action-packed or filled with the kind of one-liners that usually makes me page forward until the word “sword” isn’t appearing twenty times in every sentence. It’s still a thrilling and exciting story, but the focus on identity and relationships makes it deeper and more low-key than other fantasy retellings of the like. However, it took me a long time to get through the book. It’s still a bit too epic for my taste, and even though it’s interesting and thought provoking, it’s not brilliant or especially outstanding.

Dr. Bea approves

If you’re in for more mythical retellings, have a look at A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston. Totally different story, but similar in style and feels.

Dream team adventures and time travelling paradoxes

StolenTimeStolen Time by Danielle Rollins

It all starts as an accident, when Ash unexpectedly crashes with his time travelling space ship in Seattle the year of 1913, on just the same day as Dorothy escapes from her own arranged marriage. Without Ash’s knowledge (or approval) she sneaks on board the shuttle, and soon after lands in Ash’s and his best friend Zora’s workshop, which is located in New Seattle year 2077. Unwillingly, but also excitedly, Dorothy becomes a part of the team that are looking for the lost Professor who can hopefully save them all, before the Black Circus, the escalating earhtquakes, or some tricky paradox kills off the entire Earth’s populations.

Rating: 🐖🐖🐖🐖

This is yet another book that I got from BookBox Club, that I was initially felt sceptical towards and probably never had picked out myself, but ended up very much enjoying. I was fearing this to be a mix of all the genres from my Big NoNo-list: historical fiction, space adventures and great life saving quests. But even though Stolen Time contains a good portion of the latter, it’s still dystopian in a very down to earth-kind of way that makes like it. There’s a bit too much action, and the book is a bit too predictable, but it’s still so thrilling that I’m really happy it’s just the first in a series.

Without spoiling anything, I also dare to say that the intrigue, on both the characters, the quests and the societal level, have much potential to develop and grow deeper in the coming sequels. But until that, this is just an exciting dream team adventure that I’ll recommend to anyone that enjoys a bit of time travelling paradoxes.

Dr. Bea approves

For more time travelling adventures, have a look at Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children-series. And if you’re searching for more sci-fi space drama, look no further than to This Splintered Silence.

 

Pretty Bad Liars?

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All of this is true by Lygia Day Peñaflor

Miri, Penny and Soleil have been friends since seventh grade, attending the same classes at the same private school, looking at the same boys, arranging the same hyped parties, and most important of all, sharing the love for the novel Undertow, and worshipping its author. One day the girls, together with their new friend Jonah, goes to an Undertow-signing. The author, Fatima Ro, is everything they hoped she would be, and as if that wasn’t enough, she want’s the little high school gang to become “her new people”. Hanging out at Fatima’s soon becomes the new normal, but all relationships isn’t what they first seems to be, and conflicts, lies, and hidden agendas are boiling right under the surface. It all comes down to the question: Who can you really trust to keep your secrets?

Rating 🐖🐖🐖

This is exactly the kind of page turning mystery story that I do l.o.v.e. It’s similar to Pretty Little Liars and a lot of other YA-books, with the plot building up around a well-kept secret that you spend the time reading to try to figure out. In All of this is true, this premise also shines through in how the book is disposed and written. It consists exclusively of TV-interviews with the girls, excerpts from Fatima Ro’s new book, email-conversations, and news paper articles about the unraveling scandal that’s at the center of the story.

I strongly liked this disposition, as it added to the jigsaw format of the plot itself. What I didn’t like was that the book felt a bit thin. Not in size or number of pages, but  plot wise. After all, the “big secret” in this one was quite easy to figure out, and once it was exposed, there wasn’t much more to the story.

This book could easily have been a five pigs-read for me, if there had been just a liiiittle more dept; to the characters, and to the events that took place, i.e. in terms of psychological explanations or theories. ‘Cause at the end of this books, all my “how’s” were answered, but all my “why’s” where just left there hanging. And that’s really like ripping out the last chapter of a really good thriller, isn’t it?

Dr. Bea approves

If you want more mysteries, I recommend you to read One of us is lying by Karen M. McManus. (Moral wise I had some troubles with that one, to be honest, but oh was it an exciting five pig-read.)

Mad or just utterly confusing?

 

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The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Alice has been living a shattered life, always on the road, and seemingly always on the run – although her mother Ella has always been vague about from what. Used to overstay their welcome, shifting schools and (in the best of cases) apartments almost as often as clothes, Alice is therefore somewhat surprised when Ella after a very short romance decides to settle down and marry, and Alice gains an extra sister, Audrey, that’s she’s actually starting to get some kind of relationship with. But after just a few weeks, Ella is suddenly missing, and Alice’s got a feeling that what’s always been hunting them is starting to catch up.

From that on, everything unravels quite quickly, as Ella’s disappearance is somehow connected to Alice’s mystical grandmother whom been writing creepy fairy tales, before recently passing away in her (very fairytaly) mansion located inside the Hazel Wood. Ignoring her mothers only instruction; STAY AWAY FROM THE HAZEL WOOD, Alice is fastly and spinningly knee-deep in this mad and mystical forest, where nothing is what it first appears to be.  

Rating: 🐖 🐖 🐖 🐖

When writing this review, I realize that I’ve got remarkably few notes written down from my reading of The Hazel Wood. One reason for that is that I’ve got a very vague idea of what I’ve actually read. I tend to like books that are unpredictable in the sense that I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen in the next chapter. The Hazel Wood has however taken this to a new level; throughout this whole read, I had absolutely no idea what was going to take place in the next sentence.

Language wise, this book is an easy read. Plot wise, it’s a nightmare. But maybe that’s the thing with Alice in Wonderland, of which this is a retelling (that sometimes feels quite far-fetched). It’s what I like about this book, but at the same time it annoys me. It’s first when I give up on the track keeping of things that I start to enjoy this story. And then, I really enjoy it.

I also reflect a lot around the original Alice in Wonderland story while reading. Maybe it’s just as confusing, but over the years and due to the literary canon, we’ve all kind of accepted it. When retold in a new format, I once again have to struggle with figuring everything out. Perhaps it’s just the non-classic retellingness that throws me off? ‘Cause part of me really like what I’m reading. It’s exciting, and sometimes creepy as hell. The Hinterland, as the Hazel Wood universe is called, is both uncanny and deeply fascinating. And it’s told in a very convincing way. Even though it’s “completely bonkers” as Cheshire would’ve put it, I buy it all. Maybe not the clichés at first, but then, what is a fairy tale without them?

What really bothers me though is that everything is so very real on the Hinterside, like obviously existing even to the people outside of the craziness. Part of why I like the whole Alice-dilemma is that it’s sometimes vague what happens in her mind, and what actually happens. Removing that thin line is removing something from the heart of the story. But by all means, The Hazel Wood is it’s own book. And, as Dumbledore would’ve said:

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

 

Dr. Bea approves

For those of you wishing for more Wonderland-related nightmares, and are up for an even creepier Alice-retelling, Alice by Christina Henry might be something for you.

 

The Girl in the Tower Review

As you know I loved The Bear and the Nightingale, so here we go on the next book.

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The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

Rating: MoonKestrel Logo2 20pxMoonKestrel Logo2 20pxMoonKestrel Logo2 20pxMoonKestrel Logo2 20pxMoonKestrel Logo2 20px

There is so much I’d like to say about this book but a lot of it would be spoilers, so instead I can insert lots of squeals and excitement. Some of the things that were left as question marks (like that gem Vasya has hanging around her neck) get answers, but some new things show up.

We also get to see what happened to Sasha and Olga, and it was interesting to see how their personalities and them as characters developed once they moved to their new environment.

Konstantin is still being annoying and part of me wishes he’d just disappear but then again he does add a lot to the story in his own weird way, wreaking havoc wherever he goes. Poor man.

And of course Solovey is still there as are new characters, and Morozko, the sweetheart nis still there too.

Moon recommends

To read this book, if you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale, then read that one first then this one. Come back and despair with me that we have to wait until August to read the conclusion book.