A Court of Thorns and Roses

16096824If you’re a lover of fantasy, faeries and romance, you’ve probably heard of Sarah J. Maas’ adult series A Court of Thorns and Roses. If not, and you are a fan of the previously mentioned things, you will not be disappointed in this series. Nicola, Alyssa and I discussed the first book shortly after its release and plan to discuss A Court of Mist and Fury later this week.

Fans of Maas’ other series (Throne of Glass) will enjoy many of the similarities between the series: fantastic heroines, loads of magic and fantastic worldbuilding, as well as a racing, almost addictive pace. However, while Throne of Glass is a series that has political drama and adventure at its core, with a side of romance, A Court of Thorns and Roses is definitely more adult and more overtly focused on romance. In terms of sexiness and violence, ACOTAR is categorically NOT a young adult series.

Even though the violence is darker and the sexiness is more explicit, these aren’t books that are primarily focused on getting to the juicy bits. The plot lines of both published books are robust and engrossing. Feyre, the series’ main character, is a human in a world that fears the Fae kingdom at its borders. When Feyre accidentally kills a Fae warrior, she is summoned to serve penance at the estate of a Fae lord, Tamlin. Once there, Feyre is drawn into a centuries old conflict between different Fae forces, which periodically has pulled humans into the fray.

Feyre falls hard for Tamlin, and even though the story is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Tamlin is anything but beastly. I’ll admit, the first half of the first book reads a bit more like a more traditional supernatural romance, but the second half complicates things completely. Everything you think you know is overturned and all of the series characters’ arcs become deliciously complex. I’m happy to say that trend continues into ACOMAF.

As a main character, Feyre is multi-faceted in a way that makes her easy to identify with. The books are told through a first-person POV and I find it pretty easy to be in her head. Feyre loves big, even when she has difficult feelings and I think that big heartedness, combined with some serious badassery is what makes me like her so much. Maas doesn’t sacrifice Feyre’s emotions for her ability to kick ass.

Part of what I love about this series is that is merges genres that I love seamlessly and satisfyingly, but if you’re looking for just one or the other, this might not please you. ACOTAR has strong roots in romance, with sexy interludes that will get your pulse racing and romances rooted in deep, abiding emotions. But it’s also a well built fantasy, with a mesmerizing worldview and engrossing political conflict.

One of my favorite things about what Sarah J Maas has started to do with ACOTAR is combine genres in a way that’s really pleasing for female readers. She allows Feyre to be wholly feminine, sexual and powerful, as well as deal with heavy topics like abuse, PTSD, and heartbreak without compromising her story. Feyre’s tribulations aren’t plot devices to make you like her or care about her more, they’re an integral part of the story, and who Feyre is at the beginning and who she’s becoming.

Feyre can be sexual and romantic. She is self aware enough to wonder about who her feelings make her and how her decisions affect others. Honestly, Maas’ Throne of Glass series made me admire her as a storyteller, but ACOTAR makes me admire her as a woman. Perhaps I identify with Feyre in a lot of ways, so I feel more strongly about this than I would otherwise, but I love the way this series is going and I hope you will too. Fans of Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty will enjoy this one.

Alyssa, Nicola and I are wrapping up our discussion of A Court of Mist and Fury as I write this and we’ll be sharing with you on Friday. Cheers!

Allison Carr Waechter will always root for the bad boy with a heart of gold and the broken-hearted heroine.

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Coven Chat: A Gathering of Shadows

A Darker Shade final for IreneA Gathering of Shadows FinalToday is our Coven Chat about V.E. Schwab’s newest book in the Shades of Magic series, A Gathering of Shadows (AGOS). As a reminder, in Coven Chats we assume that our readers have already read the book, so if you’re avoiding spoilers, don’t read on!

If you haven’t read any of the series yet, read Allison’s rec. If you’re looking for our chat about the first book in the series, A Darker Shade of Magic (ADSOM), read Allison and Alyssa’s fangirl ode to Lila Bard. 

The three of us agree that the Shades of Magic books are some of the most exciting books in adult fantasy right now, so please join us in the comments for further chatting about this awesome series. Brew some tea, pull up a cat and let’s get started…

Nicola: My biggest quibble with ADSOM was that I never really felt connected to the characters; I enjoyed the plot and the worldbuilding, but I was missing that intimacy with the characters that makes me truly fall in love with a story. AGOS solves that and I felt that strong personal connection to the main characters. Unsurprisingly, Lila is my favourite character, and I loved the scenes with her on the ship, particularly the opening chapters, but I also really enjoyed Kell and Rhys’ character development and their relationship with each other and their parents.

Alyssa: Lila is still my favorite character, even though I love Kell and Rhys too. I also loved those opening chapters with Lila and her shipmates, especially Alucard.

Allison: I still love Lila most, though I thought she lost her edge a bit this time around, but I think it’s a necessary character arc. I don’t want to see her bravado keep her from having relationships with people. She felt a little lost this book — like she’s looking for purpose, and I’m guessing that’s her overall arc: finding out who and what she is and where she belongs.

Nicola: Yeah, Lila’s arc features much more heavily in this book compared to ADSOM, to the point where the first 50-odd pages are entirely from her POV. I thought this was a good narrative choice, because until the tournament gets started Lila’s story is discrete from those of Kell and Rhys, so it gave a chance for the reader to get grounded in the individual storylines rather than jumping around between the ship and Red London.

Allison: I completely agree. I love that this book felt like “Lila’s” from the beginning, which made me really happy. I also thought AGOS moved a bit slower than ADSOM, which I thought was great. I talked in my recommendation about the fact that it feels like Schwab spent a good amount of time fleshing the characters out this time around and it was completely necessary.

My only “quibble” with it was that the tournament felt a little forced. I understand how it functioned as a narrative device and I’m interested in the fact that Schwab didn’t allow Kell or Lila to win, but if there’s some kind of significance to Alucard winning, it got lost in the big ending.

Alyssa: I agree that the tournament felt a bit forced. Mainly because including a (magical) game/competition is very popular and somewhat cliche. But AGOS treats magical dueling differently. Perhaps because the multiple worlds and magicians in this series are so unique, this tournament doesn’t seem trite. I love that it introduced us to characters from the other empires, so that now we have a better understanding of the geopolitical world of Arnes/Red London. I wish we had an even better understanding of Faro and Veska.

I also found it very interesting that Lila or Kell didn’t win, and I thought that was a clever way of avoiding being cliche. And I am curious to see what happens to Alucard, as well as his complicated relationships with Rhy, Kell and Lila.

Nicola: I think my favourite part of the tournament is Lila’s involvement, not so much because I adore Lila (though I do), but because of how it plays into her character development; she didn’t even know magic existed until a few months ago, she has almost no experience, she shouldn’t even be able to do magic at all, and she’s entering into a tournament against people to whom magic comes as easily as breathing. I’m glad she didn’t win, because that would have felt incredibly contrived, but it was interesting to see her enter and compete in the first place.

Alyssa: Yes, definitely. And I love how Schwab uses Lila’s inexperience with her abilities to emphasize the importance of magical balance. Like Kell, she struggles with the darker side of magic, when it becomes dangerous and chaotic; but, unlike Kell, she’s just starting to understand her own powers. I really like that Lila discovers she’s more powerful than she could have ever imagined, but that she’s still defeated in the tournament and realizes that she has limitations.

Allison: I completely agree with everything you both have said. The tournament itself is a great way for us to understand more about the series’ system of magic and its added bonus is that we get to understand all of the new characters better, as well as the way Red London is situated in the rest of its world. The set-up is great, it just seemed a little rushed to me at the beginning and Lila’s decision to participate felt very impulsive, even for her. Don’t get me wrong, I love how it all works out!

Alyssa: Yes, although the tournament is a bit rushed and abrupt in its execution, it’s an excellent way to introduce us to Arnes’s surrounding empires and a fabulous new cast of characters. Alucard is my favorite new character, and I’m glad that we can fall in love with him first, in those opening scenes with Lila, before we find out that Kell strongly dislikes him because he broke Rhys’s heart. But Kell’s negative feelings towards Alucard didn’t lessen my love for him. Now I find the lord-turned-pirate even more intriguing.

Allison: I love Alucard. I think he’s a fantastic character and there’s nothing I love more than a sexy pirate with a heart of gold. I can’t wait to know all his secrets. Or not know them… Just more Alucard, please!!

Alyssa: Yes, please. I love the scenes with him and Lila. They are some of my favorite parts of AGOS. Even though I love Lila and Kell, I also love Lila and Alucard.

Nicola: Okay, I confess, I’m totally shipping Lila and Alucard. I’m also shipping Lila and Kell, and Rhy and Alucard, admittedly, but I think Lila and Alucard have a lot in common, even though Lila grew up in poverty and Alucard comes from wealth; they both hide behind a mask of bravado and general badassery and pretend not to feel when they do in fact feel rather deeply, and I think for them to be themselves around each other requires more courage and personal growth than with other people, because it would be so easy for them both to hide and keep up the light-hearted banter.

Allison: I’m actually shipping Lila and Lila… I’m not altogether that interested in her having a romantic attachment. For me, the best endgame scenario would be that she gets her pirate ship and Kell gets his freedom, with perhaps the hint of promise that in the future they might have a future. Of course the next book will reveal a lot.

I think there’s so much between Rhy and Alucard that seems fraught and angsty, so I like that a lot. I do love a tortured love story. I’m also sort of hoping that Holland is going to somehow be a contender for Rhy’s love. Not sure why, but I feel like those crazy kids could make things work.

Alyssa: I’m shipping Lila and Kell, Rhy and Alucard. But, as much as I’m rooting for romance, I agree with Allison that I’d rather have Lila fulfill her own dreams of adventure and freedom aboard her own pirate ship than settle into a relationship by the end of this series. I don’t think it will bother me if the series ends without the love stories being resolved at the end.

However, I do want to know more about Lila’s and Kell’s pasts. When Kell asks the queen “Who’s my mother?” is an interesting moment and a substantial hint that the queen knows about his parentage and his past. We better learn more about Kell’s past in the next book. (Lila’s past, too.) What are you hoping for next?

Nicola: Yeah, I agree with both of you that the ending I want most for Lila is for her to get her pirate ship and to be honest, even though I’m shipping her with Alucard/Kell I don’t really see her settling into a solid relationship anytime soon. She’s got other priorities.

As for the rest of the story, I’m glad that Kell’s relationship with the king and queen is finally a bit more honest in AGOS. I had hoped a little that we’d get to know a bit more about his parentage, but his moment with the queen indicated that the subject hasn’t been dropped, so I expect we’ll get to learn more in the next book.

Allison: I agree, this book put us on the right track to understanding who these characters are in the moment, but I’m looking forward to understanding why they are who they are.  

Alyssa: Me, too. And I want to understand the worlds better. MAPS, PLEASE!

Nicola: OMG yes! I got really confused by some of the geography because I assumed these were parallel worlds, not just parallel Londons, so I expected Red London to be in the southeast of an island. It isn’t.

Allison: Oh yes. I’m needing a bit of clarification on how the “Londons” fit together, as well as how they’re situated in the four separate worlds. It was a bit of a game changer to realize that they aren’t parallel universes. Really, for me, just more about the four worlds altogether. That’s one of my favorite things about this series.

Nicola: Me too. And knowing that these are four separate worlds opens up a whole new slew of questions. Are there other cities in any of these worlds that exist in yet other worlds? Or is London an anomaly? And just wh
at is the rest of the world outside Black London like? I don’t expect to get answers to all these
questions, but I admit, I’m intrigued.

Allison
: Oh yes. I think there’s so much more to know and I know I speak for all of us when I say the wait feels too long until the204432352044320716069030 next book! If you’re looking for a series you can read start to finish right now, our next Coven Chat is about a series that’s winding down: The Winner’s Trilogy, by Marie Rutkoski. See you next week, book witches!


Uprooted: Fresh High Fantasy Canon

22544764“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik has been getting a lot of good reviews and I’m going to add my voice to the mix. At first, I wasn’t sure about this one. There is a lot of hype and I spent the first half of the book wondering if it was living up to it, which is my own readerly problem. I think it’s this way for me with a lot of hyped-up books. Lots of times I have a hard time paying attention because I’m wondering if I’ll like it as much as everybody else. Does that happen to you?

Eventually, the story got to me and by the end, I was ready to start all over and read it again. Uprooted is a great example of how great high fantasy can be in the hands of a skillful lady author. It’s got all the tropes you’re looking for: magic, epic battles, a deeply scary foe, a grumpy wizard and a talented heroine. However, while there’s lots of familiar high fantasy elements to Uprooted, and its familiarity is one of its charms, it’s not what sets this book apart from others I’ve read.

Uprooted is set in the kind of medieval-esque country you’d expect in a typical high fantasy novel. There’s a monarchy, villagers, magicians and a terrifying, deep, dark wood. Novik’s portrayal of the Wood is fantastic. It’s alive with horrors that kidnap passersby, fruit that poisons, and even brief contact with the Wood causes severe mental distress and corruption. And yet, people stay. The Wood creeps closer and closer to civilization, slowly but surely and people stay, with only the Dragon to protect them. The Dragon himself is a mixture of fantastic fantasy elements, he’s notoriously grumpy, he’s got a scary and mysterious reputation, he conscripts young women from the villages he protects to help him out in his creepy tower and he turns out to be sort of lovable and sexy. When it’s time for him to choose a new lady companion, our heroine Agnieszka, who is the novel’s narrator is taken, rather than her best friend Kasia, whom everyone is sure will be chosen.

All that is pretty typical. It’s Novik’s female characters that set Uprooted apart from many of its peers. One of the novel’s strengths is that Agnieszka is such a great narrator. Her voice is strong and reliable through all her adventures. Overall, Agnieszka is stubborn, somewhat difficult, and brave, which I admire. She’s the kind of brave that you see in strong women in your everyday life. You know the type: women who’ve experienced unexpected hardship and who’ve dug in their heels and persevered, even if it means making difficult choices that alienate them from the people they care for most. Agnieszka is reluctant to learn what the Dragon has to offer, but when push comes to shove, she does the right thing.

Learning magic separates her from her family and friends in a way that deeply wounds Agnieszka, but she doesn’t turn away from the way it isolates her because she has the capacity to help the people she loves. One of the things that I ended up liking most about this book is Agnieszka’s acceptance of the way people see her as she changes. She understands their fear of her and while it makes her sad, she goes on with developing her power. One of my biggest complaints about recent high fantasy is that often, female protagonists give up or “use up” their power in order to save the people they love (this often ends with the “reward” of fulfilling romance). I think this sets up a nasty standard for women in real life, the message seems to be “You can be powerful, but it has to serve others and true love can’t exist if you’re too powerful.” Uprooted has none of this and for that I’m really grateful.

Another thing I appreciated about Uprooted was Agnieszka’s relationship with Kasia. It’s complicated, like any true friendship, but the love between them is real. Though they have their rough moments, they draw strength from one another. Kasia becomes powerful in her own right and this doesn’t threaten their relationship at all, in fact, they collaborate to save their country (and maybe the world) from the Wood. I always appreciate awesome female friendships and too often it seems they’re few and far between in fantasy.

I think if you read lots of fantasy as a kid, if you enjoyed Tamora Pierce or Meredith Ann Pierce’s work, you’ll enjoy Uprooted. You’ll find the comforting fantastical elements you’ve always loved, but will find them told with a fresh perspective. Uprooted feels like a part of the high fantasy canon, paying homage to its forbearers, but bringing new kinds of adventures and ideas to the table that make it unique.

Allison Carr Waechter is mere days away from being done with teaching summer school and though she loves her students, she openly admits she’s looking forward to tackling the stack of books accumulating in the corner. Tweet at her if you want to add a recommendation to her vacation reading.


A Book for Book Lovers

Among-Others-Jo-Walton-191x300I haven’t read any of Jo Walton’s other books, but I probably will now. I don’t even know how Among Others blipped across my radar because I’m usually oblivious about the Hugos and Nebulas and general talk in the sci-fi/fantasy world. If I don’t see it on Twitter, it’s like it didn’t happen. If you like your books to come with  credentials, Among Others definitely has them: in 2012 it won the Hugo, Nebula, British Fantasy Award, the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award, and the Copper Cylinder Award. Additionally, it was nominated for the World Fantasy and Mythopoeic awards, but I didn’t know any of that before reading it. I didn’t know any of it until ten minutes before I started writing this recommendation. This is all to say that I knew nothing about the book when I read it or decided to recommend it, which I sometimes think is a good thing and that I’m absolutely ruining for you right now. So sorry, dear reader.

On her website, Walton says the following about Among Others:

The way I like to describe it is that it’s about a science fiction reader who has fantasy problems. It’s 1979, she’s fifteen, she’s just saved the world from her evil mother at great cost, the world doesn’t know and doesn’t care and she has to go to boarding school.  All she wants to do is read Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany and Poul Anderson and James Tiptree Jr and and and and… but her mother is still out there and so are the fairies. It’s semi-autobiographical. It was odd to write for that reason, and also publishing it was odd. While some people hate it, the overwhelming response to Among Others is for readers to identify strongly with the protagonist. One does not expect to discover in one’s forties that one is less odd than one had always supposed oneself — but it seems that I’d written about a quite common fannish coming-of-age experience of having books instead of people for friends and solace. Well, there we are then. Lots of us, apparently.

I think this is an almost perfect description of the book, though I would add: This book is a book for people who love sci-fi. Because I don’t love sci-fi the way Mori (the main character) does, some of it was lost on me. In fact, to really understand everything that happens in Among Others, I think I’d like to read it again, maybe having read some of the books that Mori loves. But even if you haven’t read the books that Mori mentions, if you love books, you’ll be able to strongly identify with her as a narrator.

I love that Mori’s narration, up ‘til the end feels precarious and unreliable. I love that I questioned her and the “reality” of her situation over and over again. I believed her, then I didn’t, then I believed her again, then I really didn’t and so on ‘til I understood once and for all what all that unreliability was actually about. If you read this you’ll see what I’m talking about; from the very beginning Mori’s narration seems off. At first I thought it was because we’re reading her diary, or memoir as she names it. As time wore on, I wondered if she was telling the truth about fairies. So many fairy narratives, set firmly in the real world are about mental illness and/or lies. And there’s certainly plenty of mental illness to go around in this book.

That part was complicated for me. I feel like there are so many ways in which we characterize mental illness as a manifestation of evil and paint the “mentally ill” with a broad, ugly brush. There is an ugly stereotype that this book, in one way, perpetuates: the insanely destructive witch. In another way, some mentally ill people certainly have the capacity to harm others, especially their children. I think when I understood that this part of the book was semi-autobiographical it made more sense to me. Walton isn’t using an ugly stereotype to characterize Mori’s mother, she’s drawing on her own experience. I recommend reading this livejournal post that inspired Among Others after you read the book, but if you’re concerned about this aspect, perhaps reading it before would help you. Definitely do not read the Q and A from Walton’s website about the novel until after or you will completely ruin your experience.

What makes this book so good, and why I would recommend it, is that it is an expression of how we all feel deep inside ourselves that we are special and different. When we are teenagers, we often believe that no one could possibly understand the ways in which we are different from everyone else and when we’re adults we learn to pretend we no longer feel this way. Anyone with a deep imagination and rich inner life knows this is an act. We all feel that we’re different from others until the day we die, I think.

Any book in which there is a first-person narrator will highlight what incredibly subjective creatures we are. Because when you’ve purposely invited someone else to sit inside your head for hours at a time, speaking, you can hardly avoid interjecting your own bias and experience. Among Others is brilliant from that perspective, because Mori’s voice is so relatable for those of us who grew up with big imaginations and as Walton puts it, books for friends. This book captures the idea that yes, we are all special and different, but in that we find we’re the same.

Allison Carr Waechter has always had books for friends, especially in moments when she couldn’t relate to people. Shout at her on Twitter if you want to commiserate.