Last Coven Chat of 2016: Crooked Kingdom

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Dear readers,

You may have noticed that the frequency of our posts has gone down a bit. You’re not wrong! The witches have been waylaid by life, as of late, but we are not gone. We’ll be taking our traditional winter hiatus and will be
back with more Coven Chats after the New Year breaks.

Until then, please enjoy our chat about Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom. As always, remember that we are discussing spoilers for the book and the series at large, so if you haven’t read the books, don’t read the chat yet!

Nicola: I really liked the change in tone  in Crooked Kingdom, compared to the first book; the story flows really well from one to the other. In Six of Crows, while the characters are risking their lives and are doing something terribly dangerous and not entirely sensible, they are, broadly, in control. It was their decision to take on this heist, and they pull it off successfully. In Crooked Kingdom that’s turned on its head.

Allison: This is interesting and I completely agree. Six of Crows had a very slick, heisty feeling to it — almost like Ocean’s Eleven. All of the chaos and danger was really entertaining. This book turned that over in the best way possible. It complicated the characters in a way that I wasn’t expecting. It was more complex, emotionally.

Alyssa: True. Perhaps this has to do with how the characters overcome adversity. Even though the group’s conflict with Pekka Rollins and Jan Van Eck still drives the plot in Crooked Kingdom, the characters seem to struggle more substantially with their inner demons than they do in Six of Crows. Thus, their ability to overcome their internal conflicts is perhaps more important than their triumph over their enemies.

Nicola: I loved the re-appearance of characters like Zoya, Genya and Sturmhond (I loved all the little references to King Nikolai, too). It was done in a way that I think wouldn’t have made anything seem out of place to those who hadn’t read the original Grisha trilogy, but it added a nice touch for readers who had, especially seeing Nina’s relationship with them. I can so easily see young Zoya growing up into a stern mentor!

Nicola: Zoya and Genya, especially, were amongst my favourite characters in the original trilogy because they were so enigmatic. Neither was villainous, but likewise neither was a pure heroine. To see Nina in the same place they were – a young Grisha soldier who doesn’t always make the most sensible choices – viewing them as the responsible adults was interesting.

Allison: YES! This is one of the reasons I think Bardugo will come back to the Grishaverse. These books proved that she has a way of remixing her characters that is fresh and allows her newer story not to be overshadowed by the old. I think there’s a lot going on here that can (and will!) be developed. I know Bardugo’s new series will be in a different worldbuilding framework, but she has said she’s not done with the Grisha, so I’m looking forward to more storytelling like this.

Nicola: I really, really, really like the development of Kaz and Inej’s relationship. They both have a lot of trauma that would make it unrealistic if they were to suddenly fall into bed together, but in that sense the small intimacies they have are all the more powerful, because to touch another person for them like they do is a huge moment of vulnerability.

Allison: I thought this was a really great development, especially for a YA series. There are lots of teenagers (and people, in general), who for a variety of reasons may not feel as ruled by hormones as we sometimes get use to seeing young people portrayed. This was a complicated issue and I was so glad to see a different framework for sexuality portrayed here.

Alyssa: Yes! I also really like the development of Kaz and Inej’s relationship for the reasons both of you mention, and that these strong characters are struggling with trauma.  

Nicola: Speaking of Kaz, I really enjoyed the way we get a better understanding of whom he is in this book. I remember in our Six of Crows discussion we talked about how he was the character we all felt was the hardest to really understand, and I think that’s still true in this book, but to a lesser extent. I mean, there were times when I thought his brutality was purely for survival, but at the same time I was never quite sure if he really had kidnapped and buried Pekka Rollins’ young son. He manages to play the line between ‘brutal enough to survive’ and downright cruel.

Allison: I enjoyed the fact that we don’t get to push Kaz into a “white hat/black hat” place. Inej is firmly in the “criminal with a heart of gold” category. We understand her crime and can easily justify her actions because ultimately, she is noble. Kaz, on the other hand, doesn’t get “outed” in this book as secretly noble, which I love. He stays firmly in that “grey” area and refuses to get out. I think Inej’s understanding of that fact complicates her as well, in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Alyssa: I love that all of the characters–and especially Kaz–are complex and can’t be pigeon-holed. Kaz remains complicated and morally ambiguous, and he’s just as likely to act brutally as nobly. Jesper is also a complicated character who has done “bad things,” but he feels more shame and empathy than Kaz as a result. Jesper is not cruel in the same way that Kaz is. Perhaps, this has something to do with the fact that Jesper has a father who loves him, whereas Kaz has been abandoned or betrayed by those he’s loved.

Nicola: I loved Jesper’s father. In a story like this, the parents naturally can’t be present much because then there’d be no story, but in contrast to his friends, he’s the only one who ever had anything like a choice in the matter. Wylan’s father disowned him, Nina was taken to join the Second Army as a child, Kaz’s family is dead, and Inej was abducted and sold. Jesper, on the other hand, chose to avoid his father out of shame, and in spite of all that his father still loves him and tries his best to look out for him.

Allison: And it makes sense that he would come looking for him. It also puts the little world the crew has built for themselves into sharp relief. They are playing a dangerous game, an adult game, and the arrival of Jesper’s father complicates that dynamic significantly. We get to see that yes, they are still children, but also they’ve entered a world where there are no children. The underbelly of Ketterdam doesn’t allow for childhood.

This is part of what makes Kaz such a complex character, but really is what makes Bardugo’s characterization really masterful. She’s very carefully laid out for readers what happens when children are forced into servitude, sex trades, poverty and wars: they become adults, and often they become criminals. When Jesper’s father arrives, we see that very clearly.

Jesper had the opportunity to be a child and he chose against it, but the others did not and we get a chance to really see the horrors of the Grishaverse because they are contexualized in such a way that we understand that not everyone is having this same experience (as opposed to the Shadow and Bone series where war has taken over everyone’s lives and there are no “children”). However, there are university students in Ketterdam that are having a very “normal” late adolescence, which Jesper is supposed to be having. That experience exists right alongside what Kaz’s crew has always had. I think it’s remarkable commentary on how privilege and the lack thereof, so often exist literally on top of one another.

Nicola: Yes! And I think we see that in a different way with Wylan, too. Jesper doesn’t come from a wealthy background, but he comes from a loving one. Wylan, on the other hand, is more traditionally privileged, but because of his father he was also deprived of the chance to be a normal teenager, even though his father had the means to allow him to do so.

I cried when Matthias died. To be honest, Matthias was probably my least favourite of the group, so if someone had to die I’m glad it was him, but still! Nina’s one of my favourites so I felt sad by proxy.

Alyssa: Matthias is also probably my least favorite character of the group, but I may like his character development the most. While all of the characters have struggled with and overcome a lot of internal and external conflicts, Matthias perhaps evolves the most–because of his love for Nina.

I think this series needs someone like Matthias, whose personality we may not like, but who is transformed by his love for “the enemy.” Nina is also one of my favorite characters, and I felt sad for her when Matthias dies. And yet, I also like that Nina does not seem devastated by his death, and we are left feeling hopeful about her future.

Allison: I was sad about Matthias, but like both of you, Nina is one of my favorite characters so I’m hoping this means we’re going to see more of her. I’m hoping this twist is an opening for another series. I think it seems clear from this book that Bardugo isn’t done with the Grisha. It seems to me that there are too many big worldbuilding plotlines left open for her to be done with it.

Nicola: Yes! I definitely feel like the Grishaverse is Bardugo’s “Middle-earth”, so to speak, in that it’s her one world she’ll keep returning to.

Alyssa: I’m also hoping for another series set in the Grishaverse, and I’d love to see more of these characters. But I’m also glad that this series ends without a lot of ambiguity and loose-ends; we have closure. I also like that this series includes characters from the Grisha trilogy, so that we have a satisfying end to both series.

Allison: I feel like Crooked Kingdom gives us a close to one part of the story, but leaves open a whole world of storytelling for Bardugo’s future, which I confess, I love! Thanks everyone for joining us today. Warmest wishes for your holiday season and we’ll see you again in 2017!

Allison, Alyssa and Nicola


The Kiss of Deception, by Mary E. Pearson

This post originally appeared on The Prattle of Hastings on 02 April 2015. It is being re-shared now in anticipation of our Coven Chat on The Beauty of Darkness and The Remnant Chronicles.

The Kiss of DeceptionFleeing an arranged marriage to a stranger, Lia, youngest child and only daughter of the king and queen of Morrighan, runs away with her friend and settles in a village at the other end of the country. There she develops a new identity, living in a cottage and working in a tavern. Soon two men show up in town: the prince to whom she was betrothed, and an assassin sent to kill her to prevent the marriage from ever happening. Their identities are secret from Lia – and, indeed, from us.

The way Pearson deals with this is probably the cleverest part of the novel. The vast majority of it is told from Lia’s perspective, but we get a few short chapters from the points of view of The Prince, The Assassin, Rafe and Kaden. Rafe and Kaden are the names the two men give Lia, but, while we know that one is the prince and one is the assassin, we don’t know which man holds which role, and Pearson keeps it that way for more than half the novel, until the assassin makes his move and reveals his identity.

Lia’s voice is lyrical and contemplative; she reminds me quite vividly of Phèdre no Delaunay de Montrève from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series. Her voice befits not only her character, but the world she inhabits. That being said, it probably contributed to what I found to be the greatest weakness of the book: the pacing. At times it felt like the book dragged, particularly when Lia’s settling into her new life. Even so, I think that may have been a deliberate choice, much as it takes Tolkien absolutely forever to get his hobbits out of The Shire in The Lord of the Rings. In both cases, by showing the minor facets of life, we see just how much that life means to the characters, in a way we wouldn’t if it were rushed.

Pacing aside, this book sucked me into the world and the characters. I can’t wait for the sequel!

Nicola is drowning in books and tea, just the way she likes it.


The Raven King

17378527This post originally appeared in May, but as we are having our Coven Chat about the series on Friday, we are re-posting it now. -CBC

In September of last year, Nicola recommended Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle to you. At the time, we were in the long wait for the last book in the series, The Raven King. One of the things that Nicola touched on in her recommendation was how these books are complicated in that they are in many ways what folks would consider “typically” YA, but in the tradition of what we talk about a lot around here, they’re much more than that stereotype.

While I was reading The Raven King, I was reminded of how odd these books truly are. Stiefvater’s style of writing is slower paced than a lot of YA, but is also lyrical and mysterious, which draws the reader in. She rarely out and out tells you something, but instead shows it to you from a variety of angles. The Raven King is constructed in such as way that even though the plots points of the nearly 600 page book are fairly straightforward, the telling of them is not. The understanding of them is not. It’s good writing and I love good writing.

When I look at the way the events in The Raven King played out, I have to admit they were fairly predictable. Things I thought would happen did. Things I figured were true were. But none of this reduced my enjoyment of the novel a bit. In fact, it was the understanding of how they were true that was enjoyable. The trick is that Stiefvater told you what was going to happen in the first book, The Raven Boys. You’ve known from the beginning how things will end, and they do end that way, but they don’t end the way you knew they would the way you thought they might. The whys and the hows are different from what you might expect.

Some things about the book are disappointing, as all endings are, and others are so satisfying that I’ll think about them for weeks. One of the things I adore about these books and have from the very beginning is the way friendship and family are portrayed as nebulous, ambiguous and ultimately so complicated we often don’t know what’s happening right in front of our eyes. I’m afraid to say much more, because I’d like those of you who’ve been reading The Raven Cycle all along to have your moments with these characters.

What I’ll say is that I love the ways in which the four teenagers expand into adults in this book. I love the way that Stiefvater shows that they were children before these things happened and now they are not quite grown-ups, but that they are most definitely adults. Of course, Gansey has always been the most adult of the four, but even this is complicated in that his enormous sense of responsibility breaks down to the fact that he is a scared child who doesn’t want to die, no matter how kingly it makes him.

Ronan is still Ronan, stubborn and full of bravado, but he is also openly tender and loving.  Adam confronts his past with his parents and his desire for love and belonging and is able to grow into a man who believes he is worthy of such things. And our dear Blue Sargent comes face to face with her own self and the ways in which knowing and loving all three of these men has changed her, as well as the ways her roots run deep and she is more the same than ever.

I think if you’ve been enjoying the series you’ll be happy with the way things turn out. It’s the kind of ending that makes you satisfied you read the whole series. If you haven’t read the series yet, I encourage you to go back and read Nicola’s rec again and decide if these books are for you.

Allison Carr Waechter will be in her hammock reading until June. Send messenger crows if you need her. 


Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle

The Raven Boys

This post originally appeared a year ago but as we are having our Coven Chat about the series on Friday, we are re-posting it now. -CBC

A few weeks ago, Allison, Alyssa and I talked about the liminal space between YA and adult fantasy, particularly highlighting books we thought were more adult-oriented that had been classed by publishers, bookstores, or other bookish organisations as YA. Today I’m recommending a series that fits into that liminal space. It’s a firmly YA series, about a group of teenagers struggling with the demands of school (including finding the funds for university), troubles with parents (ranging from healthy rebellion to abuse and bereavement), and other themes that place it solidly in the young adult category.

In Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, Blue Sargent is the only woman in a house full of psychics with no supernatural ability. She’s distressingly normal, except for one thing: everyone who has ever read her fortune has told her that if she kisses her true love, he will die. When she meets a group of boys from a nearby prep school, she doesn’t consider herself at particular risk of falling in love with any of them – but she adheres to her strict no-kissing-just-in-case policy, regardless. Over time, however, she becomes wrapped up in their quest to find the tomb of the Welsh prince Glendower, befriending and coming to care for them and, just possibly, falling in love with one of them.

The Dream ThievesAlthough many of the themes are quintessentially YA, it’s also a series that I think would appeal to a lot of adult readers who have either been hesitant about trying YA or who have read a few YA books and found them not to their tastes. For one thing, the adult characters are given as much care and attention as the teens. Rather than being relegated to the periphery or antagonistic roles, as they so often are in YA fiction, the adults in this series are not only fully-developed characters, but also people who affect and are affected by the plot. They even get their own POV scenes at times, a rarity in YA books.

The use of multiple POVs is another way in which this series has a more adult feel than a lot of YA, which is so often told from a close first-person perspective. Though most scenes are told solidly from a particular character’s perspective, there are times when the narrative veers into third-person omniscient, as well as relating events from the perspective of a minor character, such as the wife of one of the teachers at the boys’ school. It’s a narrative choice many readers of adult fiction will be more familiar with than those who stick to the YA section, though I think it serves this story well.

Blue Lily, Lily BlueThe pacing, too, is more adult than YA, particularly the first book. It crossed my mind at one point around halfway through that, if pressed, I’d struggle to summarise what had actually happened so far, and yet I was utterly absorbed in the story. The small interactions between the characters, the magical quality to their pursuit of the Glendower myth, all these subtle elements create an overall atmosphere that draws the reader in.

The series’ strengths aren’t only in the ways it appeals to adult readers, of course. As I said before, it is a solidly YA series, and a wonderful one at that. It features rich, mythical world-building whose magic is enhanced by the real-world setting. It’s also the first YA book I’ve read since The Princess Diaries where the protagonist is not only an outspoken feminist, but one identified as such by herself and other characters.

Nicola lives and reads in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she’s eagerly awaiting the release of The Raven King. If you want to get in touch, your best bet is Twitter.


A Different Kind of Witch

26114389I’ve been looking for a good witchy read to get in the mood for fall (I am SO over summer right now). I love the A Discovery of Witches series, by Deborah Harkness and I’m constantly looking for something that evokes the same kind of high stakes drama, with a hefty dose of romance.

Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey wasn’t that book. At all. But I really, really liked it. It’s a book about grief, family and learning to love. It’s a unique book about witches in that it isn’t based on more typical Northeast U.S./Salem-ish witches, with spatterings of other more traditional magical creatures. Instead, Spells of Blood and Kin focuses on Russian folklore, which means that if you’re looking for something Salem-ish, move on.

When I scanned through Goodreads reviews, I found that the majority of people who didn’t like this book seemed to have trouble with the fact that the supernatural creatures in this book weren’t easy to pin down in terms of the usual fare. The “kin” aren’t werewolves or vampires explicitly, nor do we ever get a detailed definition of who and what they are, how many there are, or even the full picture on the primary kin character. No, this book does things its own way.

The book is told from a threefold POV: Lissa (our witch), Maksim (our centuries-old kin) and Nick (our brand new kin), accompanied by a small cast of side characters. When the story opens we find that Lissa’s grandmother has just died and she’s bound to follow in Baba’s footsteps as the local witch in her Russian-Canadian community. Barred from the church, but simultaneously respected and feared, Lissa is a bit isolated until her stepsister, Stella, crashes into her life.

Our second protagonist, Nick – and I kind of hesitate to call him a protagonist, as he’s the most unlikable and problematic character of the bunch – is a college student with a drinking problem. Even before his supernatural trip, he’s kind of a jackass and a bad friend. But his life gets turned upside down when he is mugged outside a bar, and a dark stranger randomly licks his bloody face. Yeah, that happens, which brings us to Maksim.

Maksim’s control over his violent urges are slipping, resulting in lost time and situations like the aforementioned oddity. Maksim is kin and when Lissa’s grandmother dies, he starts to lose his mind, which brings him to her for help. We get plenty of flashbacks into Maksim’s past to help us understand why he enlisted the help of a witch to begin with, especially when it seems his kind are largely repelled by them.

Sometimes I have a problem when multiple POVs exceed two perspectives, but in this case I think it works well. I’m not sure I would have understood the ending, which is a bit of a surprise, if I hadn’t had a close look at our three protagonists. I especially appreciate the way that Maksim’s perspective is a bridge of understanding between Lissa and Nick’s characters. Really, the book wouldn’t work if told from just Lissa and Nick’s perspectives, or Maksim and Lissa’s; you couldn’t understand the way the characters end up otherwise.

I liked that Humphrey doesn’t give us a “big bad.” Regular human problems like grief, family troubles, addiction and major life changes are all addressed with the amplification of the supernatural elements in the story. But honestly, all three characters are easy to relate to because they struggle with the kinds of things we’re familiar with: how the death of a loved one will change your life, the way some friends become family and some family will never fit into your life, no matter how hard you try to make it work.

I also appreciate that Humphrey writes Nick as the quintessential example of toxic masculinity. He’s angry at women, he’s violent, he’s entitled and a pain in the rear for everyone who’s trying desperately to help him. Sure, this is made worse by the fact that Maksim turns him into a supernaturally strong immortal creature, defined by rage. However, when we have Maksim and his companion Augusta to compare him to, it’s clear that becoming kin ramps up your “bad”side, but it doesn’t make you into a brand new person.

Even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, Spells of Blood and Kin went a long way to satisfy my witchy-read itch. It has a slower pace than a lot of books about supernatural stuff and is also a bit shorter. I was a little surprised when I glanced down to find I’d read 97% of the book in two evenings. I recommend it to folks who enjoyed Station Eleven’s unique, slightly slower feel, even though this is a much different book in terms of subject matter.

Allison Carr Waechter is off to the wild next week. Enjoy our conversation about Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle while she’s gone.