[Currently Reading] The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett.

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The first in a series of Discworld novels starring the young witch Tiffany Aching.

A nightmarish danger threatens from the other side of reality. . . .

Armed with only a frying pan and her common sense, young witch-to-be Tiffany Aching must defend her home against the monsters of Fairyland. Luckily she has some very unusual help: the local Nac Mac Feegle—aka the Wee Free Men—a clan of fierce, sheep-stealing, sword-wielding, six-inch-high blue men.

Together they must face headless horsemen, ferocious grimhounds, terrifying dreams come true, and ultimately the sinister Queen of the Elves herself. . . .

Goodreads

As part of my drive to get off the ground running with my 2016 bookish resolutions, I’m currently working my way through Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series, which remains the sole group of blights on my TP Read list.

Knowing that it’s a series meant for younger audiences, I was initially worried that these books would be watered down and missing the trademark witticisms that place him firmly on the top of my Favourite Authors list but it’s surprisingly funny while managing to be lighter than his usual larger scale Discworld titles.

It’s been a bit slow-going, though, thanks to Life and I’ve been going at this for more than a week. I hope to be able to finish it within the next few days and start on the next one!

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[Library Haul] Of Witches and Immortals.

Because apparently having more library books than I have fingers on loan at one time is my new norm, I borrowed several new titles over the last two weeks to my permanently thick pile.

Wolf-speaker:

Daine’s magic must save her friends—both wolf and human—in this second book of the Immortals series, featuring an updated cover for longtime fans and fresh converts alike, and including an all-new afterword from Tamora Pierce.

When Daine is summoned to help a pack of wolves—dear friends from her old village—she and Numair travel to Dunlath Valley to answer the call. But when they arrive, Daine is shocked to learn that it’s not only animals whose lives are threatened; people are in danger, too.

Dunlath’s rulers have discovered black opals in their valley. They’re dead set on mining the opals and using the magic contained in the stones to overthrow King Jonathan. Even if it means irreversibly damaging the land—and killing their workers. Daine must master her wild magic in order to save both her animal friends and her human ones.

Emperor Mage:

Daine must confront a powerful leader in this third book of the Immortals series, featuring an updated cover for longtime fans and fresh converts alike, and including an all-new afterword from Tamora Pierce.

When Daine is sent to Carthak as part of a Tortallan peace delegation, she finds herself in the middle of a sticky political situation. She doesn’t like the Carthaki practice of keeping slaves, but it’s not her place to say anything—she’s only there to heal the emperor’s birds. Her worries only expand once she learns that her own power has grown in a dark and mysterious way.

As the peace talks stall, Daine puzzles over Carthak’s two-faced Emperor Ozorne. How can he be so caring with his birds, and so cruel to his people? Daine is sure he’s planning something—a terrible, power-hungry scheme. And she knows that she must fight this powerful Emperor Mage; the life of her beloved teacher is at risk.

The Realms of the Gods:

Daine controls the fate of Tortall in this thrilling conclusion to the Immortals series, featuring an updated cover for longtime fans and fresh converts alike, and including an all-new afterword from Tamora Pierce.

During a dire battle against the fearsome Skinners, Daine and her mage teacher, Numair, are swept into the Divine Realms. Although they are happy to be alive, they are not where they want to be. They are desperately needed back home where their old enemy, Ozorne, and his army of strange creatures are waging war against Tortall.

While trapped in the perilous realms of the gods, Daine discovers her mysterious parentage. But as the secrets of her past are revealed, so is the treacherous way back to Tortall. And so Daine and Numair embark on an extraordinary journey home, where the fate of all Tortall rests with Daine and her wild magic.

Having finally finished the Song of the Lioness series (which I was supposed to have read before this one but which I only found out about after having completed Wild Magic), I managed to get the three remaining titles in The Immortals quartet and am quite excited to start on. That is, after I’ve worked my through the intense stack from the last haul.

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On a continent ruled by three empires, some are born with a “witchery”, a magical skill that sets them apart from others.

In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble—as two desperate young women know all too well.

Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lie. It’s a powerful magic that many would kill to have on their side, especially amongst the nobility to which Safi was born. So Safi must keep her gift hidden, lest she be used as a pawn in the struggle between empires.

Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see the invisible ties that bind and entangle the lives around her—but she cannot see the bonds that touch her own heart. Her unlikely friendship with Safi has taken her from life as an outcast into one of reckless adventure, where she is a cool, wary balance to Safi’s hotheaded impulsiveness.

Safi and Iseult just want to be free to live their own lives, but war is coming to the Witchlands. With the help of the cunning Prince Merik (a Windwitch and ship’s captain) and the hindrance of a Bloodwitch bent on revenge, the friends must fight emperors, princes, and mercenaries alike, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.

Goodreads

I’ve seen this previewed and reviewed across several Booktubers, with everyone clamouring about how awesome it is, but I thought it was yet to be released. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this at a library I don’t often visit, all fresh and pristine on the New Arrivals rack.

[Book Review] The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen.

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An untested young princess must claim her throne, learn to become a queen, and combat a malevolent sorceress in an epic battle between light and darkness in this spectacular debut—the first novel in a trilogy.

Young Kelsea Raleigh was raised in hiding after the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, far from the intrigues of the royal Keep and in the care of two devoted servants who pledged their lives to protect her. Growing up in a cottage deep in the woods, Kelsea knows little of her kingdom’s haunted past . . . or that its fate will soon rest in her hands.

Long ago, Kelsea’s forefathers sailed away from a decaying world to establish a new land free of modern technology. Three hundred years later, this feudal society has divided into three fearful nations who pay duties to a fourth: the powerful Mortmesne, ruled by the cunning Red Queen. Now, on Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, the tattered remnants of the Queen’s Guard—loyal soldiers who protect the throne—have appeared to escort the princess on a perilous journey to the capital to ascend to her rightful place as the new Queen of the Tearling.

Though born of royal blood and in possession of the Tear sapphire, a jewel of immense power and magic, Kelsea has never felt more uncertain of her ability to rule. But the shocking evil she discovers in the heart of her realm will precipitate an act of immense daring, throwing the entire kingdom into turmoil—and unleashing the Red Queen’s vengeance. A cabal of enemies with an array of deadly weapons, from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic, plots to destroy her. But Kelsea is growing in strength and stealth, her steely resolve earning her loyal allies, including the Queen’s Guard, led by the enigmatic Lazarus, and the intriguing outlaw known simply as “the Fetch.”

Kelsea’s quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun. Riddled with mysteries, betrayals, and treacherous battles, Kelsea’s journey is a trial by fire that will either forge a legend . . . or destroy her.

Goodreads

[Warning: this book contains adult themes and language. Reader discretion is needed, especially for younger audiences.]

Normally, my initial impressions of a book tend to last for the rest of it but sometimes my final feel about it takes such a drastic turn that it’s almost like I finished a title altogether. In my Currently Reading for The Queen of the Tearling, I mentioned that it had a decent pace and was action-packed but I guess I must have been a bit off my rocker since, upon final reflection, the book is one of the slowest I’ve read in months. It doesn’t help, too, that nothing actually really happens for the whole book. There is a lot of travelling, with smatterings of fights and some vaguely sassy political intrigue (that…isn’t very intriguing).

The plot and pacing isn’t unreadable per se – I am crazy impatient when it comes to reading and I still managed to finish this long tome with tiny fonts. It’s just that Johansen seemed to spend too many words describing too little things. Everything could have just as easily been accomplished in half the number of pages.

Much of the book is quite unbelievable too (a rather remarkable feat, considering the amount of disbelief suspension that usually accompanies fantasy titles). The queen’s royal guards are comically inept at actually protecting her, despite the narrative posturing that seems to puff them up at any opportunity (save a coin every time it is mentioned how fearsome Mace is and see if you don’t end up with enough to buy yourself a treat by the time the book is halfway through) and the queen’s jewels seem to be able to do any exact thing the story requires to resolve a particularly sticky situation. And then, there is Kelsea herself.

Firstly, it’s quite ridiculous how everyone seems to be so enamoured by her Queening abilities from the moment they set eyes on her, without any actual evidence of the fact. Then, despite professing not knowing what to do or how to handle many of the problems thrown at her (and having no actual experience in politicking), Kelsea always seems to be able to say and do the exact right thing at the exact right time (even if that that thing happens to be her acting like a spoilt brat that somehow ends up showing that she has backbone).

Johansen seems to be confusing strength of character with acting irrationally due to rage – gumption and assertiveness is not the same as recklessness. Most of the time, Kelsea doesn’t have concrete plans on how she is going to solve a particular issue, relying instead on the classic narrative cliche of “Acting/Speaking without Thinking, and Letting the Plot Sort Itself Out”. For such a celebrated queen who increasingly impresses those around her with her actions, she makes a remarkable amount of hasty, ill-thought-out decisions that don’t stand up to any sort of logical breakdown and that just turn out to be the right ones because Story. I mean, the moment she stepped into power, she undid an ages-long practice simply because she couldn’t stomach the emotion of it, despite the fact that, deplorable though the practice was, getting rid of it without any kind of follow-up plan would lead to an even more horrifying eventuality – war against a more powerful army. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t have done it. It’s just that doing it for her reasons, and without having spared any thought to what would happen and what would need to be done after, is plain stupid.

Equally unbelievable is the worldbuilding. A large chunk of the book seems to be written as a pure fantasy, until the sudden mention of ebooks, Lord of the Rings, and J.K. Rowling abruptly point to the fact that this series is set in what appears to be some sort of dystopia. That strange shift is never fully explained, and the fact that the book just continues trudging on its clearly medieval setting (replete with melee weapons like swords and maces, armour, and horses as the main mode of transport) while randomly throwing up concept like genetics and organ transplant surgeries is plain disorienting. While I’m all for novel settings, it’s unsettling to do so without any explanation as to how and why it came to be this way.

To be fair, the book is clearly not written to stand on its own. There are more questions raised every chapter that will presumably be answered in the next few books, the most pertinent of which is how this strange fantasy dystopia came to be and what exactly the Queen’s jewels do beyond being the Most Convenient Plot devices since Christopher Reeves flew around the world to reverse time in Superman.

Despite the reasons listed above, I inexplicably still finished the book (which I don’t always do with slow pacers) and I still want to give the sequel a go. It may be pretty terrible, but something, an extra-strength suspension of disbelief (and common sense) maybe, just made me continue reading till the end. It still leaves a terrible aftertaste though, getting worse the more one thinks about the holes in the story.

I shall reserve full judgment of this series until I’ve read the later books but regardless of how the rest of the series might go (and despite the fact that I continued reading it despite not thinking great of it), this title definitely won’t be appearing in my 2016 favourites list.

Rating: buy/(a very low) borrow/bin

[Currently Reading] We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

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Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.

And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.

Goodreads 

This kind of book is not something I’d usually read but it’s been sitting in my TBR for the longest time so when I came across it in the library in almost mint condition, I had to grab it.

So far it’s been an interesting read. The timeline jumps all around and the prose is a little too Quirky for my tastes but it has still made for a captivating read. It’s a rather hectic week for me school-wise though, so I guess it will take me a while to get through this.

[Currently Listening to] Hexed by Kevin Hearne.

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Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, doesn’t care much for witches. Still, he’s about to make nice with the local coven by signing a mutually beneficial nonaggression treaty—when suddenly the witch population in modern-day Tempe, Arizona, quadruples overnight. And the new girls are not just bad, they’re badasses with a dark history on the German side of World War II.

With a fallen angel feasting on local high school students, a horde of Bacchants blowing in from Vegas with their special brand of deadly decadence, and a dangerously sexy Celtic goddess of fire vying for his attention, Atticus is having trouble scheduling the witch hunt. But aided by his magical sword, his neighbor’s rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and his vampire attorney, Atticus is ready to sweep the town and show the witchy women they picked the wrong Druid to hex.

Goodreads

I liked the audio version of the first entry in this series enough to rank it as one of my best reads/listens of 2015 so I’m planning to return to the chronicles every few audiobooks.

Having set up the main characters in the first book, this sequel, set almost directly after the events of the last, hits the ground running. Hopefully, it keeps this speed up. The narration, just like in the last, is great, full of character and animation and provides a comfortable familiarity.

It’s been a neat ride so far and I can only hope it continues this way.

[Book review] Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger.

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It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners–and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, young ladies learn to finish…everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage–in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education.

Goodreads

As I said when I mentioned listening to this, I love Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series and this bears many of the same marks – witty dialogue, the intriguing Victorian steampunk setting (which is not normally my thing), and the cast’s ridiculously over-the-top affectations.

This book falls short of its predecessors in some ways, though. It’s apparently written for younger audiences and it shows – the plot isn’t as exciting or as epic as Parasol Protectorate‘s -nothing really happens- and the characters are mostly one-dimensional (the most extreme being the supremely unlikeable Monique de Pelouse) and caricatural.

While the book itself would be a middling borrow (if that), the audiobook is much more delightful due to the amazing narration of Moira Quirk. She pulls off Carriger’s quirky prose with aplomb, throwing up distinct voice after distinct voice, hammering in the funnier parts of the dialogue with satirical effusiveness, and infusing the characters with more, well, character than they frankly deserve. For that, the audio version of this title merits a buy.

It remains to be seen, though, how much better the series will (hopefully) get. After all, jokes and great voices can only go so far.

[Book Review] The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce.

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[…] the Song of the Lioness quartet is the adventurous story of one girl’s journey to overcome the obstacles facing her, become a valiant knight, and save Tortall from conquest. Alanna douses her female identity to begin her training in Alanna: The First Adventure, and when she gains squire status in In the Hand of the Goddess, her growing abilities make her a few friends — and many enemies. Books 3 and 4 complete Alanna’s adventure and secure her legend, with the new knight errant taking on desert tribesmen in The Woman Who Rides like a Man and seeking out the powerful Dominion Jewel in Lioness Rampant.

Goodreads

I’ll put it out there right now: the Song of the Lioness quartet is the best series I’ve read all year.

Granted, it’s only a fortnight into 2016 and that proclamation doesn’t actually mean much but the series is still really good. Really good, that is, with some caveats.

The quarter is obviously written for younger readers: the story is relatively simple (if quite eventful, spread out over four books), with few truly surprising twists and turns. In fact, Pierce seems to take great pains to spell out everything for the reader, from what is possibly going to happen next to who the villains and heroes are. She doesn’t so much as hint at who the baddies are as straight out tell the reader.

Speaking of bad guys, the characters are quite one-dimensional. The heroes are perfect and noble while the bad nuts are stereotypically diabolically. The sheer fact that the characters can be so neatly categorised (other than Robin Hood King of the Thieves George who, despite his vocation, is such an unfailing paragon of perfection that it’s quite obvious which half of the pie he falls in) serves as a reminder of who the audience of these books is. There is minor character development across the series (most notably in the titular character) but more often than not, the characters so strongly epitomise their tropes that most deviations in behaviour end up feeling contrived and out-of-character rather than showing nuanced dimensions.

Despite that, I’d still recommend the series heartily. Why? The writing.

The Song of a Lioness quartet is a masterclass in how to tell a story. As I mentioned, the plot is quite simple but she tells it in such an effortlessly engaging way that I was still kept to the edge of my sofa. She writes simply, hooking the reader in using elegant, rather than over-flourished, language and great pacing (although I feel like she was trying to cram too much plot into too short a space at times).

As a testament to her abilities, I finished the entire quarter within a week, which is an almost miraculous clip for me (short as her books are) considering how slow I read and how my reading times for that week were confined entirely to the hour before bed.

Plus, I love that despite (or because of) the younger demographic the series targets, Pierce doesn’t pull the punches when it comes to themes and real-world ideas, filling the book with notions about feminism, choice-making, and the meaninglessness of violence and warfare, all of which are highly educational and still (if not even more) relevant to our current social climate. She also doesn’t sugarcoat the endings, which gives the books a more realistic slant.

Her world building, too, is fantastic, with a believable, immersive environment for the reader to get lost in (quite literally, especially at the start, thanks to the many many names to learn).

Even her characters, while one-dimensional, are written in such an endearing way that one can’t help but feel attached to them. Every time I finish a reading session that features her confidant/cat Faithful, for example, I would end up spending some time playing with my own (significantly less verbose and unfortunately less affectionate) feline.

The biggest mark of a book series’ excellence, though, is how it makes me feel straight after. With most books, even good ones, I usually just feel satisfied that I have finished the tome and am raring to move on to the next title. With this quartet, however, I actually felt a pang of sadness that the adventure was over and wanted badly to continue staying with Alanna (which, thankfully, I can with the next quartet set in the same world).

While this quartet definitely isn’t without its flaws and is a much simpler read meant for younger readers, it is still a series I would totally recommend to fantasy lovers of any age and is a definite contender, for now, to be in my 2016 wrap-up post.

Rating: buy/borrow/bin