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

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November Reads: Six of Crows


23437156A few weeks ago,
Nicola recommended Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy to you. Like Nicola, Alyssa and I both loved the trilogy and were very excited to learn that Bardugo would write another series in the Grishaverse. Turns out that Six of Crows was a little different than what we expected — and what a lovely surprise it was!

As a reminder, our discussion posts often reveal spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet, better go do that before forging on. If you have read the book (lucky you!), leave us your thoughts in the comments!

Allison: So, like both of you, I loved Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising). I’ll admit that I was a *wee* bit worried, but also crazy-excited that she decided to write another series in the same “verse.”

What I loved about this book was that it sets us down in the same world as the Grisha trilogy, so we know how the “magic” works, but since the Grisha books don’t give us a full picture of how the world is getting on outside of Ravka, Ketterdam is new to us. It’s a fresh perspective.

Nicola: I think setting it in a different part of the world was a good idea, as it helps distinguish Six of Crows from the Grisha trilogy, and because the events of the Grisha trilogy only peripherally impacted the characters in Six of Crows you can pick it up without having read the prior series (though if you read the Grisha books after you may be a little confused by Inej’s Sankta Alina dagger …). Similarly, the Grisha trilogy is about big ideas like civil war and oppression, while Six of Crows keeps to the edges of those concepts and is instead more focussed on the personal aims of the crew.

That being said, I found that the new setting made it hard to connect with the story at first. I picked it up right after Ruin and Rising and expected to feel like I was sinking into a familiar world, as you do when you start the fourth book in a single series. Instead, it was a different culture entirely, and after the prologue-esque first chapter there’s barely a hint of any Grisha until Nina appears.

Allison: I had a similar reaction. I read the first chapter and it didn’t hit me quite right. I actually read another book in between before returning to it. I’m so glad I did! I think this is always the risk of staying within an already-structured world, but plopping characters and readers down into unfamiliar territory.

It reminds me a little of how I felt about The Infernal Devices series, by Cassandra Clare. I loved The Mortal Instruments and was at first a bit put off by the completely new aspects Clare introduces by setting her satellite series in the past of the first series. In the end, I liked The Infernal Devices better. I can see the possibility for the same thing happening here.

Alyssa: I also really like that Six of Crows is set in a different part of the Grishaverse than the Grisha trilogy and that you don’t have to have read the trilogy to understand the characters and events of Six of Crows. Honestly, I was surprised by how much that’s the case, and it also took me a little while to adjust to a different series.

I re-read the Grisha trilogy right before Six of Crows because I thought that having the events of Ruin and Rising fresh in my mind would be necessary. I assumed Six of Crows would be a continuation of the Grisha trilogy and take place simultaneously or right after the events in Ruin and Rising. I thought Nikolai, Alina, Mal, etc, would have more of a presence in Six of Crows, even though it focuses on different characters, setting, and events. I assumed Six of Crows would be more obviously related to the trilogy, but I was wrong. Six of Crows is really the beginning of a stand-alone series, and while I recommend everyone read the Grisha trilogy before picking up Six of Crows, it’s not necessary. At first I wanted Six of Crows to be more obviously connected to the Grisha trilogy, but now I’m really glad Bardugo chose to write such a different companion series.

Nicola: What did you think of the ensemble cast in Six of Crows? It’s quite different from the first-person narration of the Grisha trilogy.

Alyssa: I generally like ensemble narratives, but even so…six POV characters is often too much! (I can only think of a few authors who do ensemble narratives really well: George R. R. Martin, Sarah J. Maas, Marissa Meyer, Morgan Rhodes, and now Leigh Bardugo.) I really enjoyed getting inside Six of Crows’s multiple characters’ heads versus a main character’s head, such as Alina’s. Even so, I usually don’t like third-person narration as much as first-person narration and, at first, I missed the first-person narration of the Grisha trilogy. But I’m really glad Bardugo wrote Six of Crows with a third-person ensemble cast, which makes adventure and romance dynamic, thrilling, and fun–perhaps even more so than in the Grisha trilogy.

Allison: Ensemble narratives with multiple POVs are really hard to pull of and this was excellently done. I can see how it will build momentum for several subsequent books.

Nicola: It took me longer to really get into it because of the ensemble POV, but once I did I really loved the characters – as individuals and as members of the team. The only one I didn’t really feel like I knew at the end was Kaz, but I think he’s meant to be a bit of an enigma, in the same way we never fully get into Poirot’s or Sherlock’s mind as it spoils the fun.

Allison: Yes, I agree that Kaz was a bit of an enigma — I cared about him a lot more at the end than I did at the beginning, though. My first favorite was truly Inej and I still think she’s probably the most well developed thus far, which is brilliant, given the ending. If we’re most invested in her, then we definitely care about the Dregs getting her back! I loved Nina from the beginning, and I think she’s our link to the the Grisha trilogy. She feels like a very familiar character, even though we don’t know her from previous novels.

I have to say that liking both Matthias and Jesper was a bit of a surprise for me. At first, it seemed like Jesper just wasn’t that interesting, but he really started to shine in the second half of the book. Matthias on the other hand… I hated him at the beginning. Witch-hunters aren’t high on my list of people to care for and I tend to dislike oppressed/oppressor relationships, but I think it becomes clearer in this book that the fear of Grisha is somewhat justified.

Nicola: Yeah, I hated Matthias, too, to start with. That said, I’m a sucker for bigot-sees-the-light narrative arcs, so him growing to respect the Grisha and view them as human beings was something I really enjoyed seeing.

Allison: That moment where we think he’s sold Nina out in Fjerda was so poignant for me. I truly believed he’d turned her in, that he’d finally chosen a side and it wasn’t hers.

Nicola: Speaking of the ensemble cast, wasn’t the diversity of it great?

Alyssa: Definitely. I love how Six of Crows has a diverse ensemble cast, but not in a stereotypical way. Their diversity seems natural rather than forced.

Allison: Yes. Yes. Yes. There’s been such an ugly discussion of diversity, tokenism and “agendas” in the YA world lately. I think this is a fantastic representation of how diversity should and could be, with a little effort. Bardugo’s playing with a lot of slow reveals here, and one of my favorites in this book was Jesper’s sexuality — I got the impression he might be bi, but we’ll have to see.

Nicola: Yeah, it’s not clear on if Jesper’s attracted to women or not, but he definitely likes men. I’m not sure Ketterdam/Grishaverse have the same kind of distinctions as we do, though, so it might be that Jesper’s never really considered a label for it.

Allison: That’s one of the nicest things about fantasy. Even when you’re working with a world inspired by the “real” world (like the Russian/European influences in the Grishaverse), there’s absolutely nothing saying you have to replicate it exactly. If you want fluid sexuality to be a part of things without a label, you got it. It’s fantasy, anything actually can happen. You just have to choose it.

Alyssa: I agree. I love that about fantasy, too…that Six of Crows doesn’t label sexuality or diversity.

Nicola: Speaking of diversity, I thought the treatment of Wylan’s learning disability (dyslexia?) was well done. I love how it’s so obvious to everyone but Van Eck that Wylan has an absolutely brilliant mind. It’s a really good example of how some people look at someone like Wylan (or Kaz!) and see nothing but the disability.

Allison: Yeah, I’m not sure if it’s dyslexia or another kind of processing disorder, but the reveal that Wylan couldn’t read was astounding to me. I can’t remember the last time I saw disability portrayed quite this way. One of the things about writers is that we prize literacy so highly that being literate often makes its way into our narratives as the ultimate flag that a character is “smart” or that another character isn’t. To allow a space for Wylan to be absolutely, out-of-this-world, crazy smart and then drop that he can’t read, was one of the best shattered-perception moments I’ve seen in a long, long time. I actually did a little “woo-hoo” arm pump for Wylan (and Bardugo).

Nicola: That’s a really good point, about how readers and writers subconsciously equate literacy with intelligence. The other thing I appreciated about Wylan’s characterisation is the way he brings a lot of more feminine traits to the team: it’s his brains, not brute strength, that are his biggest asset, and he also tends to serve as the moral compass or ‘heart’ of the team, which is usually a role assigned to female characters (often the only one in an ensemble). All in all, he defies expectations and stereotypes.

The thing I loved about the Dregs is that the diversity of their group actually reflects the kind of friend group many teens have these days. There’s still this assumption that the average reader is straight, white, cis-gendered and able-bodied, which erases all those readers (more than a quarter of the population of the US) who aren’t, but by populating the entire cast with them it doesn’t reflect the realities of the readers who are, either. Teens from all backgrounds are more likely to see their circle of friends reflected in the Dregs than in a monochromatic cast.

Allison: I agree. As someone who works at a majority white, American university, I can say that even in that very limited scope, most of my students have friend groups that have more diversity than a 100% normative crew. It’s nice to see diversity represented by a white author in a way that isn’t tokenism or god-forbid, have an “agenda,” but rather as a nuanced portrayal of how different people from different backgrounds have a variety of of strengths and weaknesses based on those backgrounds. That’s, like, the way real human experiences work and it’s nice to see a white author being careful and thoughtful with these ideas.

I’ll also applaud Bardugo for incorporating intersectionality into this whole idea. Instead of taking a “one of each” approach, it’s more of a “everyone is a mixed up mess for lots of complicated reasons” — which I think is really realistic feeling. So even though this novel has a very fun, heisty feel to it, there’s a deeper level of emotion here. With each gradual reveal that the cast is more than just what they bring to the crew, Bardugo draws us into the story, giving us multiple levels to identify with her characters and we become very invested in each of them.

I know I speak for all three of us when I say I’m looking forward to the next book, Crooked Kingdom, in Fall 2016. Bardugo has promised that one of our favorites, Wylan will get his own chapters and Nicola especially is looking forward to those moments.

If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, have a wonderful holiday and if you’re not, then have a great Thursday. Thursdays are wonderful whether you’re stuffing your face full of food or not. Until next time.

Yours in magic, mayhem and merry adventures, 

Alyssa, Nicola and Allison

 


Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy

Shadow and BoneAlina Starkov’s one constant in life has been her best friend, Mal. Raised in a brutal and harsh orphanage, they could have been torn apart as children when they underwent the mandatory testing for Grisha powers. Neither of them revealed any, and they grew up and began their service in Ravka’s First Army, only for Alina to display an ability to summon sunlight. Taken from the life she knows, Alina is brought to the capital and instructed with the other Grisha, but the Little Palace is full of secrets, and none is more enigmatic than the Darkling himself, leader of the Second Army.

If you’ve been considering reading the Grisha trilogy, now’s the time. With the recent release of Six of Crows, the first book in a companion series, the Grishaverse is on everyone’s radar, and we’ve got a discussion post on Six of Crows coming up here on Coven Book Club.

Siege and StormRavka resembles pre-Revolution Russia, which I love because a lot of fantasy takes place in societies that resemble pre-Industrial Europe. Russian peasants at this time did have pre-Industrial lifestyles, so by basing Ravka on early 20th-century Russia Bardugo creates a world where the common folk have pre-Industrial, ‘standard’ fantasy lives, but the military has access to rifles and the king’s court is sumptuous. In comparison to Ketterdam and Fjerda, which we see in Six of Crows, it seems that Ravka is, in general, further behind in terms of technology, which again reflects Russia’s standing a century or so ago. The parallels with Russia make Ravka stand out amongst other fantasy cultures and provide much of the background for the conflict between Alina and the other Grisha.

The central conflict, however, centres on the Grisha as a whole, and the core of this is another reason I love this series so much. The Grisha are those with supernatural powers. You’d think this would mean they carry political and social power, are perhaps even revered, but in fact in Ravka they are effectively conscripts, while in other countries in their world they are hunted and murdered as ‘witches’. I loved reading about a world where characters with such supernatural power (and they are powerful; some Grisha, for instance, have the capacity to stop a person’s heart) are ultimately so powerless when it comes to their own fates.

Ruin and RisingIt is this powerlessness, the way Grisha are abused and taken for granted, that serves as the reason behind many of the antagonist’s actions. His mother taught him to stand up for himself and that he deserves respect, but he takes her teachings too far. We learn all this from her, for she blames herself in part for the destruction he’s wrought; she strives to redeem him not only because of her own guilt, but because she loves him all the same. I really appreciated the nuance this added to his character, that we got to see him through the eyes of someone who loves him unconditionally, but is not blind to his faults.

If you’re looking for an epic fantasy set in a richly-developed world and featuring compelling characters, you’ll want to pick up the Grisha trilogy.

Nicola lives, reads and drinks copious quantities of tea in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can find her on Twitter.


YA Horror: Slasher Girls & Monster Boys

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Slasher Girls & Monster Boys is an anthology of fourteen horror stories by many of my favorite YA authors. Seriously. Look at this list of contributors and try not to drool!

We have Nova Ren Suma (The Walls Around Us), Carrie Ryan (Daughter of Deep Silence), Cat Winters (The Uninvited) Leigh Bardugo (Six of Crows), Megan Shepherd (The Cage), Danielle Paige (Dorothy Must Die), April Genevieve Tucholke (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea), Jonathan Maberry (Rot & Ruin), Jay Kristoff (Illuminae), Stefan Bachmann (A Drop of Night), Marie Lu (The Young Elites), McCormick Templeman (The Little Woods), A.G. Howard (Splintered), and Kendare Blake (Anna Dressed in Blood). I recommend reading every creepy story in this anthology, but I’m focusing here on the eleven written by women.

The first story, Suma’s “The Birds of Azalea Street,” opens with birds flocking at a murder scene. The parents in the neighborhood don’t understand why Leonard (“a perfectly nice man, an upstanding member of our community”) is dead, while their daughters (“who sense danger when everyone’s telling us it’s fine”) know he’s a creep. Ryan’s “In the Forest Dark and Deep” draws from Alice in Wonderland: Cassidy’s fun tea party in the woods becomes a series of scary encounters with the March Hare.

Winter’s “Emmeline” is about a dead girl in Northern France, 1918, who lures soldiers to join her in what’s left of her bombed out bedroom. A teen celebrity’s rehab is much more than her mother paid for in Bardugo’s “Verse Chorus Verse.”  In Shepherd’s “Hide-and-Seek,” Annie plays a game with Crow Cullom, death’s harbinger, after her stepdad nearly kills her. A dreams-come-true romance between “Marnie Monster” and the perfect boy becomes sinister in Paige’s “The Dark, Scary Parts and All.”

In Tucholke’s “The Flicker, the Finger, the Beat, the Sigh, “ a couple’s perfect future is jeopardized when a joyride turns nightmarish on a rainy night.  Lu’s “The Girl Without a Face” is about a Harvard boy with a dark past who’s haunted by a vengeful ghost. A group of boys from a plague-stricken community seek salvation in a shaman girl they’ve captured in Templeman’s “A Girl Who Dreamed of Snow.” In Howard’s “Stitches,” a girl dismembers her “sinful” father, selling his “offensive” body parts to “The Collector” and replacing them with a “good person’s” cadaver pieces. In the final story, Blake’s “On the I-5,” a murdered girl seeks revenge.

This anthology pays homage to classic horror films and literature, urban legends, fairy tales, and myths; yet these stories are original and disturbing in their own right. As the book’s website says, “Each author draws from a mix of literature, film, television, or even music to create something new and fresh and unsettling….There are no superficial scares here; these are stories that will make you think even as they keep you on the edge of your seat. From bloody horror, to the supernatural, to unsettling, all-too-possible realism, this collection has something for anyone looking for an absolute thrill.”

Alyssa Raymond is a YA blogger for Coven Book Club and its sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss, the publisher, and the Boulder Book Store for providing her with a digital review copy of this book for review purposes only, and her opinions are her own. Please follow Spellbinding BooksonTwitter and Tumblr.