[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

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[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