The Faerie’s Princess: Chapter Two: The Fated Princess

Click here for Chapter One

Lush green fields raced by in a blur as the dappled gray mare pounded down the path. Thick purple clouds, pregnant with rain, blanketed the sky, stretching beyond the verdant farmland all the way to the sea and its endless horizon. Thunder growled low in the distance. 

The gray mare veered around a bend in the muddy country road, flinging clods of wet earth behind her. Her sides heaved with exertion, and her flanks were flecked with white lather. Seated on the mare’s bare back was a figure in a blue woolen cloak.

Ahead of the horse and cloaked rider, the lane ended in a stone wall nearly five feet high. The rider pressed soft leather boots into the mare’s sides, urging the animal on to greater speeds. The horse responded eagerly, surging into a full gallop as they barreled towards the border wall at the edge of Dunnhawke Castle.

A flock of sparrows took flight in agitation as the mare pounded towards the fence. Her rider leaned forward, digging thin fingers into the animal’s silvery-dark mane. A breathless gasp was lost to the wind and all her muscles clenched in unison as the horse gathered powerful muscles and launched over the wall. 

She came down easily on the other side, barely breaking stride. The rider in the blue cloak came to a seated position, and the horse gradually slowed to a stop. For a moment, all was still except for the pair’s heavy breathing. Then a fierce cry of victory pierced the stillness of the countryside. 

The hood of the blue cloak was thrown back to reveal a young woman with a wild mop of curly auburn hair. Her blue-gray eyes were alight with excitement and triumph.

Princess Gwendolyn Setterwind of Dunnhawke leaned forward, patting the mare’s sweaty neck. “We did it, Aoife! You were incredible!” Beads of perspiration gathered on her brow, and the woman wiped them away with a careless hand.

She sat straighter on the horse’s back, taking in the rich, loamy smell of rain and freshly turned earth. Thunder rumbled again, closer this time, and the wind swirled her hair about her waist and shoulders. Triumph still glittered in moss-green eyes as she looked back at the crumbling stone wall they had cleared.

Let’s see Ronan take that jump, she thought with a smile. 

A brilliant streak of lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the swollen purple thunderheads that were rapidly gathering in the distance. The crash of thunder was immediate, booming overhead with a force that reverberated through her skull.

The horse shied, whinnying with fright. Tremors of fear rippled under the dark gray skin, and the woman leaned forward to lay a calming hand on her neck. “Shhh Aoife. You’re right. Let’s get home. This storm is coming in fast.”

With another gentle nudge of her knees, the horse started off at an uneasy trot that soon melted into a smooth canter. Raindrops began to fall, darkening Gwen’s bright red hair until it lay soaked and almost black against her head. Within minutes, the pair rode through the open gates of Dunnhawke Castle and into the stables.

A tall, broad-shouldered youth of about sixteen was standing near the entrance, his arms crossed and one leg propped against a thick wooden pillar. He looked up and gave the woman a devilish grin when she trotted in.

“Ha! Gwen, there you are! Mother thinks you are at your music lessons but I saw you sneak away,” the boy said, his brown eyes twinkling with mischief. 

The woman dismounted, handing her reins to a nearby stableboy. “I jumped the fence at the border of the Varne’s farm.” she replied, her grin a mirror of his.

“You did not! Not in this mud,” he challenged, looking past her to the pouring rain.

“Truly Ronan, I did. Aoife is as light-footed as a deer, no matter the weather.” Gwen patted the mare’s sleek neck approving, and the horse shook her head as if in affirmation.

The boy looked skeptical, but he cast an approving glance at Aoife. Only a year Gwen’s  junior, her brother was quickly growing into a fierce warrior and there was a never-ending competition between them to see who could best the other.

“I still don’t see why Father gave her to you. I am the eldest son,” Ronan said with a mock sigh.

Gwen shook her head, casting droplets of water over both Aoife and Ronan. “But I am the eldest child. So for now, I get the first choice of the yearly foals.”

Her smile turned wry. “Who knows, perhaps the king will give Aoife to you once I am gone. I doubt that horses are welcome in the lands of the Fae.”

Her brother’s face twisted. He ran a hand through his cropped brown hair. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Gwen sighed. “I know, Ronan. I’m sorry. It’s just all this waiting has me unnerved.” She saw a groom hurrying with a hot bran mash for Aoife and nodded in satisfaction. Certain that the horse was well attended, she turned and began heading towards the castle itself.

“How are preparations coming for the party?” Ronan said, his long limbs easily catching up with her. 

Gwen rolled her eyes. “What party? It’s more like a wake.”

They passed through the heavy oaken doors that stood nearly twenty feet tall at the main entrance to the central keep. As always, Gwen’s eyes went to the many chips and splinters that had been gouged into the wood.

My father’s war to reclaim the throne of Dunnhawke left many scars upon the land, even so many years later. 

I would know better than most.

 

***

 

Gwen remembered clearly the day her father, King Cormac, had come into the nursery with a grave face. It had been a week before her fifth birthday. She was playing with her baby sister, Kaleigh, then only a few months old.

“Gwendolyn, come and talk with me for a moment,” her father said, extending a roughened hand towards her.

Her red curls bouncing, four-year old Gwen ran to her father and placed her tiny palm in his. His presence was a rare occasion in the nursery and she drank in every ounce of his weathered face. 

Despite his relatively young age, King Cormac’s gingery beard was streaked with gray, and there were deep shadows under his eyes. His nose was hooked, making a silhouette not unlike the hawk that flew on the flags above the castle. But his blue eyes were kindly, and if today they were tinged with sadness Gwen was too young to see.

She had never been alone with her father, and a shiver of apprehension went down her spine as he led her by the hand. They went into one of the many small courtyards that were spaced evenly inside the castle keep. 

The afternoon sun streamed through the open space, and wildflowers blossomed in the sunnier patches, filling her nose with their sweet fragrance.

King Cormac led Gwen to a low stone bench. For a moment they sat there in silence, watching the colorful blooms of late spring bursting to life around them.

“Your mother does not wish for me to share the tale I am about to tell you,” he began.

“Is it a scary story, Papa?” Even then, Gwen had been fascinated rather than frightened by the grisly legends that the nursemaids often told to scare the children into staying in their beds. 

Her father had grimaced. “Yes, daughter. I’m afraid it is quite a scary story.”

With that King Cormac had told his young daughter the events that had transpired on the night of her birth. 

How he had saved her mother, secured the realm, and brought peace and prosperity to the people. 

But at a terrible price.

How one day, a member of the Fae court would arrive to take her to their realm beyond the winds. What awaited her there, no one knew. None who had ventured into their lands had ever returned.

When Gwen first heard her fate she’d crumpled inwards, tears of fear and childish woe welling into her eyes, but her father gave her a sharp look and she immediately straightened her back, blinking away her tears.

From the time she could walk and talk, Gwendolyn was taught the proper decorum for a Princess of Dunnhawke. Even at the tender age of four she had learned to master her emotions.

She swallowed back the sob, her small hands pressed into the cold stone of the bench. “When will they come?” she finally managed to ask.

He sighed deeply, and she felt a strong arm hug her around the shoulders and pull her close. Despite her efforts, a tear slid down Gwen’s nose and onto her dress.

She did not dare to glance at her father as he began to speak.

“We do not know. This is why I have defied your mother’s wishes by telling you of the Fae and what they intend. So that you will know what is coming, and can look it in the eye.”

“Why?” her voice quavered as she spoke. 

“So that you might survive.” had come his quiet response.

“And so that you might forgive me.”

 

***

 

Ten years later, Gwen had learned to view everything from a practical standpoint.

Her days had been numbered from the moment she was born. There was nothing anyone could do to change this. Everyone knew that they would die someday, but her fate lie down a far different path.

She might as well accept life as it was.

In the early years, her nurses had kept a constant vigil in the nursery, fearing that at any unguarded moment the Fae might whisk away their infant charge and replace her with a changeling, a vile doppelganger from the fairy realm.

But no emissary from the Fae had come to claim her as a child.

By the time Gwen grew older and learned what fate had in store for her, the story of King Cormac’s bargain had already spread beyond the walls of the castle and into the village of Dunnhawke. Whispers began circulating of the cursed princess and the king who bargained his firstborn daughter for the sake of his realm.

The villagers were initially been outraged at the idea of their king sacrificing his own flesh and blood, but as the rains fell and the crops grew rich and prosperous in their fields, any cries for justice died to a low murmur.

It was hard to be indignant when your children’s bellies were full after months of starvation. 

When Gwen’s brother Ronan was born only eleven months after herself, the people had rejoiced at the healthy heir to the throne of Dunnhawke. Barely a year later, Queen Bronnagh gave birth to twin sons, Seamus and Sean, thus providing plenty of sons to provide a secure lineage. 

Season after season, the rains arrived on time and lasted well into summer. The autumns were mild and dry, perfect for the farmers who reaped bountiful harvests of grain and wheat, more than enough to sustain the kingdom through the winter months. Under King Cormac’s rule, the village grew and thrived.

The royal nursery grew as well. Queen Bronnagh proved as fertile as the Fae had predicted, and Gwen’s brothers and sisters tumbled from every corner of the castle, forever followed by their despairing nursemaids.

By the time Gwen was ten, any whispers against the King’s bargain had died down, and instead the villagers eyes merely followed her whenever she rode her horse down the dusty road. The people of this land were a pragmatic folk, and they were willing to turn a blind eye to one doomed girl in return for the safety and security of their families.

But that is not to say that they felt grateful, or even comfortable around Gwen. Quite the opposite, her presence reminded them up the price they were willing to pay for prosperity. Over time, this evolved into a kind of superstition against the young princess. As a girl, whenever she had tried to play with the farmer’s children they had run from her, many of them hissing, or clutching their thumbs between their first two fingers in the age-old ward against magic.

They all feared to get to close, lest her doomed fate infect them all.

At around twelve-years old, when her figure had begun to ripen, there had been a sudden burst of activity around the court. Rumours pervaded that the Fae intended to claim her on the night of her first bleeding, and the court of Dunnhawke held its breath for Princess Gwendolyn to flower into womanhood. Her chambermaids would hold their breath when they changed the sheets each morning, finally annoying Gwen so much that she had asked the castle’s cook for some duck’s blood and sprinkled it on the white linens to shock them.

Her mother had not enjoyed the joke. But when Gwen began her monthly courses two weeks later, no emissary from the Fae had come to take her away. Life had gone on as before.

 

***

 

Indeed, by that time, Gwen had decided that she simply didn’t care when the Fae would come for her. She couldn’t care, or it would consume her entire life. From her earliest memories she had been known as the fated princess, the doomed princess, the one whose destiny lay in a land that none had ever witnessed and spoke of only in whispers.

Fighting against it would do no good, nor would consulting the various fortune-tellers and soothsayers that occasionally traveled through the kingdom.

Her mother had tried that once, inviting a woman renowned for seeing the future to the castle. The wizened old hag took her coin and—after slaughtering a chicken and studying its entrails—gave the date of Gwen’s fourteenth birthday. The three months that followed were a nightmarish haze of anxiety, anticipation, fear, and excitement. Gwen had stopped eating, stopped playing with her siblings, stopped sleeping as she restlessly paced the echoing stone halls of the castle. 

The eve of her fourteenth birthday arrived, and Gwen spent the entire day vomiting her panic into a chamberpot. That evening in the common room with her family, her mother clutched her hand so tightly Gwen thought her bones might crack beneath the heavy rings. Queen Bronnagh had been heavily pregnant at the time with her third set of twins, and Gwen feared that her departure for the land of the Fae might cause her mother to go into early labor.

The late summer evening was still and hot, the air lying thick and heavy around them. Dusk came early at that time of year, and watching the sun finally sink beneath the horizon of the cobalt sea seemed to take an eternity.

The evening passed in tense silence, her younger siblings escorted to bed by their nurses until it was just Gwen, her parents, and Prince Ronan, who at thirteen years of age was deemed old enough to keep vigil with them. Gwen drew comfort from her brother’s presence; they had been close since their earliest days and Ronan was the closest thing she had to a confidante.

The minutes and hours passed by endlessly, one bleeding into the other until the moon was bright against the velvety black sky. King Cormac spent the evening grinding his teeth, barely able to look at his teenage daughter. Ronan sat quietly on the floor by Gwen’s feet, staring into space.

Gwen had spent her time gazing into the fireplace, her gaze unfocused. She watched for so long that the flickering flames turned into dancing hearth sprites that whirled and twirled around one another in an endless waltz.

Eventually, dawn had broken across the land. The fortune-teller had been wrong. Fortunately for her sake, no trace of the woman was ever found. And fortunately for Gwen’s peace of mind, this was her mother’s last foray into the unsteady world of prophecy and predictions.

In the three years between that day and this, Gwen had been left very much to her own devices. The strict rules of formality that guarded the words and actions of her royal sisters simply did not apply to her, it was not as if she were being prepared for marriage to a foreign prince, or a high-born duke.

From that moment the sun had crested the horizon on her fourteenth birthday, Gwen had an opportunity to do something that few women in the kingdom of Dunnhawke experienced.

She was allowed to become her own person. While her sisters were bound to their dancing classes and music lessons, Gwen rode wild across the springtime meadows, thick with heather and honeysuckle.

She began showing up to the daily lessons between Prince Ronan and Lorcan, the king’s master swordsman.

Lorcan Wolfsbane had gotten his nickname at the age of twelve, when he had been attacked by a pack of four starving wolves in the forests outside his native Andorral. He had slaughtered them all with only a small dagger and dragged their pelts back into his village.

Perhaps it is because he knew what it meant to face great odds, but Lorcan did not object to Gwen’s desire to fight. Knowing that King Cormac’s guilt-riddled leniency might not extend to the sight of his eldest daughter sparring with grown knights twice her size, Lorcan arranged for she and Ronan to practice outside of the castle grounds, in a wide meadow surrounded by a thick copse of trees.

Here they could wail on one another until they were both drenched with sweat, Ronan’s natural competitiveness quickly winning out over his reluctance to strike a girl. They would battle for hours, at first with clunky wooden swords and later, once Gwen had improved, with blunt-edged practice swords.

 

***

 

As Gwen grew older, her curves blossomed and bloomed into those of a woman while her muscles grew lean and toned behind the skirts she was still forced to wear. Her untameable red curls had lengthened until they reached her waist. But her blue-gray eyes took on a flinty, unapproachable look.

Last year, as Gwen neared her seventeenth birthday, a new rumor had come to her ears. She had been bringing Aoife—then just a yearling—into the stables when she passed by a group of three washerwomen who were so involved in their scrubbing and their gossip that they didn’t notice their hooded princess holding the reins of the dappled mare.

Gwen always strained her ears when she heard the castle staff speaking. 

More often than not, it was the grooms and the gardeners who knew the true secrets of the realm. 

Her instincts pricked when she heard her own name.

“Princess Gwen is out riding again. I swear that girl must be completely wild at this point, like a feral cat.” said one of the laundresses under her breath.

“Till the Fae come to claim what’s theirs.” said a second, a plump woman with a rosy face.

“Shhh Dara. They’ll have your head for whispering such things.” the first responded.

Gwen’s heart pounded. It was rare to overhear anyone discussing her at all, let alone in the same breath as the Fae. The first woman was entirely correct, King Cormac’s wrath would be truly fearsome if he found out that members of his staff were chattering openly about his daughter.

“All I’m saying is that the girl should enjoy the pleasures of the world before she is taken.” the plump woman replied, chafed knuckles submerged in a basin of soapy water.

“I do wonder how much pleasure of the world she has enjoyed, if you take my meaning.” the third woman, this one tall and thin as a broom handle, chimed in.

Gwen’s face heated. She twined her fingers into Aoife’s pewter-gray mane. At sixteen, she had some idea of what the washerwoman was referring to. Enough to know that her father would have all three of these women whipped if he learned they had dared question her chastity.

“If she has any sense at all, the princess will keep her virtue until the end of her days. Everyone knows the Fae cannot harm a virgin.”

At the old woman’s words, Gwen dug her fingers so hard into Aoife’s mane that the skittish young horse had stamped a foot, throwing up her head in objection.

All three of the laundresses looked up at the sound. In unison, the blood drained from their faces. They bounded to their feet, though only one still had enough presence of mind to curtsy.

A dark, bitter corner of Gwen’s mind told her to summon the castle guards and have them all thrown into a dungeon for a few days.

But she had no quarrel with these women. It wasn’t their fault that they lived in a castle with an accursed princess. Plus they had unwittingly given her a valuable piece of information.

The Fae could not harm a virgin. At least, that was the rumor.

She merely nodded politely at the washerwomen, and led her horse away. They collapsed, pale and stricken, back onto their low stools.

She handed Aoife over to Andlan, one of the castle grooms. As he took the reins, Gwen looked Andlan over from head to toe. He was perhaps a year or two older than her, with straw-blonde hair and a spray of freckles across his nose.

The Fae could not harm a virgin. Were they waiting to come for her until after she had surrendered her virtue? If she remained a virgin forever, might they never come? 

That night, Gwen had tossed and turned, burning with her newfound knowledge. The tower room in the southern corner of the castle was tiny, but it was her own. She had been given it as a gift after the Fae neglected to show up on her fourteenth birthday. Another symbol of King Cormac’s guilty conscience. 

Finally, when the stars were bright against the night sky and the rest of the castle was asleep, she crept out of bed and down the castle stairs. Long ago, she had borrowed a simple muslin gown from one of the chambermaids. She’d actually stolen the garment–but left behind a purse of silver heavy enough that she felt assured the maid would not weep overlong. She donned the scratchy gown and padded on silent feet into the stables.

Years of useless waiting, of neverending anticipation, made her impulsive, heedless of risk. 

If the Fae would not take her as a virgin, perhaps she could speed fate along through her own devices.

Andlan had been dozing in a bed of hay when she pressed a finger to his lips. With her vibrant red hair tucked under a linen cap and her maid’s disguise, he did not recognize her as a princess of the realm. He’d never asked, too surprised and thrilled of his brilliant good luck to do more than whisper his affirmation to her insistent urgings.

A few kisses, a few pumps of the boy’s hips, and a stab of pain was all it took to make Gwen a woman. 

Afterwards, she’d taken the scraps of bloody muslin from the stolen dress and thrown them into the fire.

“Well!” she’d screamed into the flames, watching the scarlet-stained fabric curl into cinders. “What are you waiting for!”

She fell to her knees in front of the carved fireplace. There was a deep, tearing ache within her center. Tears finally came to her eyes.

“I am a virgin no longer. You are free to do as you will. What are you waiting for!” she hissed to the fire, knowing that there was no one listening.

No one had come that night. Or the nights that followed. It had all been for nought.

If Andlan ever realized that he had actually bedded a princess, he gave no sign of it. Perhaps he understood the necessity of silence on the matter.

Castle life went on around her. She rode her horse. She sparred with her brother. Every day that passed, she felt a little less, became a little less involved in the world around her. 

Eventually, the rumors began circulating that they would come for her on the eighteenth birthday. Like clockwork, the court had sprung into action, and a flurry of whispering preceded her every entrance and followed every exit.

Now, three days before that date, Gwen bid farewell to her brother and climbed the narrow stairs to her tower room.

A celebration had been ordered, not a quiet, fear-filled evening like that of four years ago, but a true party that included the entire court. 

Surely, this would be it.

Surely they would come.

And her life could begin. Or be snuffed out, if the immortal Fae chose. 

At least the waiting would finally be at an end.

Gwen strode up the stairs to her tower room and looked out over the kingdom of Dunnhawke. She both loved and loathed every inch of those fertile green fields.

For her entire life, Gwen’s fate had been out of her hands. As she looked out on the crops of wheat and barley for which she had been traded, she laid another brick around the wall she had slowly built around her heart.

 

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden (2019)

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Review 2.11

 

Note: I highly recommend reading The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower before reading this review.

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen. [Source]

The Winter of the Witch has all of the ingredients necessarily for a dark, mature fairy tale. There is a twisted villain, a mysterious king, an enchanted forest. There are swordfights, helpful sprites, and magic horses. Front and center of it all is the courageous heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna. Vasya is a marvel, at once vulnerable and indomitable. Her journey from a scared girl in the snow to a crusading warrior-witch has made the Winternight trilogy one of my favorite finds in recent years.

Of course, all these elements would amount to nothing without the beautiful and poetic writing of Katherine Arden. She has constructed a world that feels simultaneously ancient and immediate. The best fairy tales exist in a world of misty morals, and The Winter of the Witch is no exception. No one, no matter how seemingly good or evil, is ever quite what they seem. This comes as a natural development rather than a sudden cheat, and I never felt as though Arden had sacrificed her characters for the sake of a easy ending.

After the climatic events of The Girl in the Tower, Vasya has just risked everything to save Moscow from the flames. Her secrets are now exposed, and the obsessed priest Konstantin has her cornered. After suffering a devastating loss, she flees into the realm of Midnight, a land of eternal darkness. Weakened and grieving, Vasya must search the midnight lands for Morozko, the king of winter.

I won’t say anything more, for fear of spoiling the surprise. I am definitely looking forward to buying the entire Winternight trilogy on hardcover once it’s released. These books swept me away.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Winter of the Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (2015)

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Review 2.10

 

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries. [Source]

If you’ve ever seen AMC’s The Walking Dead,  you’ll have noticed that episodes of the show tend to follow a very predictable pattern. Something really interesting and surprising happens in the first ten minutes, which grabs your interest and makes you excited to keep watching. This is followed by roughly thirty minutes of aimless wandering, idle chatter, and speeches about the unfairness of life, during which time you zone out and mostly stare at your phone. Then, in the last three minutes there is another interesting and surprising event which leaves you hungrily awaiting the next episode.

The Fifth Season is the high fantasy novel equivalent of an episode of The Walking Dead.

The set-up is narrated in the second-person and introduces you to the main cast of characters. A woman is mourning the death of her son at the hands of her husband. A mysterious figure in a shining city causes untold destruction. An ambitious acolyte takes on an undesired task. It is written in a way that reminded me of death’s narration in The Book Thief, distant but personal at the same time. Things were off to a good start.

The problem comes when Author N. K. Jemisin continues to employ that second-person narrative style in every chapter focused on Essun, the main female protagonist. Rather than adding an extra layer to the story, switching back and forth from the second to the third voice was incredibly jarring. It pulled me out of the story time and time again.

After its promising beginning, The Fifth Season spends the bulk of it’s 350+ pages moving various characters from one place to another. This offers multiple opportunities to explore the land and peoples inhabited in this world, but also becomes increasingly tedious as time goes on. At some point my curiosity dwindled, and I no longer cared very much about the fate of the broken Earth or its residents.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Fifth Season here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Kingdom of Ash (ToG #7) by Sarah J. Maas (2018)

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Review #103

The long-awaited conclusion to Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series, Kingdom of Ash sees Aelin and her friends risking everything they have to fight against the dark armies of Morath and the vicious Queen Maeve. Effort was made to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but some key plot points may be revealed.

Aelin has risked everything to save her people―but at a tremendous cost. Locked within an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin must draw upon her fiery will as she endures months of torture. Aware that yielding to Maeve will doom those she loves keeps her from breaking, though her resolve begins to unravel with each passing day.

For her final installment, bestselling fantasy author Sarah J. Maas wants to make sure that she harnesses every available drop of tension and substance from the world she has worked so long to build. I commented in an earlier post that the first installment of ToG felt rather flat and one-dimensional, with the heroine boasting about her prowess a hell of a lot more than demonstrating it. In the six books following Throne of Glass, the world of Erilea has taken on sharp definition and an emotional weight that builds satisfyingly to a final conclusion.

As always, Maas gets major props for having a diverse cast of kick-ass female heroines at the forefront of her novel. Aelin’s journey comes full circle here, and the readers have been with her for so long as she struggled towards her destiny that to see her reaching her potential was a wonderful moment. Maas has a tendency to use very dramatic writing when narrating Aelin’s point of view. It gives the proceedings a very operatic feeling, but occasionally goes too far to where it begins to feel like self-parody. The character arcs of other important female figures such as Elide and Manon Blackbeak are also brought to a satisfying conclusion.

As strong as all these characters are, Maas certainly does make sure that they are all happily settled in their committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationships by the end of the novel. I wasn’t necessarily bothered by the very traditional “happily ever afters”, but I definitely did notice that the plot would not allow for such-and-such characters to end up apart from one another. It ended up giving the final climactic scenes a predictable feel, since I knew that any of these matched-up characters would not be permitted to die.

At nearly one thousand pages, the rising action of this novel encompasses nearly two-thirds of the book’s length. There are periods when Kingdom of Ash spins its wheels a bit, and feels the need to check it with various characters even when there is no new information to report. It takes nearly seven hundred pages for all of the main characters to finally get together, which gives the middle section a bloated feel, like some of the slower episodes of Game of Thrones.

Overall, I have fully enjoyed my time in Erilea. These novels aren’t perfect but they’re a lot of fun and creative addition to the YA fantasy genre. I continue looking forward to reading more from Sarah J. Maas.

Full disclosure: I skipped Tower of Dawn, the sixth installment in the ToG series. I didn’t want to spent six hundred pages with Chaol, who I always thought was completely boring. I did not regret my decision, and was able to follow the plot of Kingdom of Ash without difficulty.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Kingdom of Ash as well as the rest of the Throne of Glass novels here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Off to be the Wizard by Scott Meyer (2014)

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Review #83

Martin Banks is just a normal, everyday guy who enjoys digging into the depths of the internet in his spare time. On one of these nighttime expeditions, he stumbles across a discovery that will change his life forever. The world as we know it is nothing more than a computer program; a computer program that Martin is able to change at will. He vows that he will use this newfound power sparingly and with great care. This vow lasts for approximately forty-eight hours before Martin finds himself fleeing back in time to medieval England. He decides to pose as a wizard and make a life for himself in the tiny village of Leadchurch.

Author Scott Meyer makes the smart decision early in this novel not to waste time on how any of the plot elements work. The computer program controls everything about the world because it does, and Martin is able to use this to alter his appearance, his bank account, and his location by teleporting. There is very little time given over to trying to apply logic to an inherently illogical premise, and Meyer avoids getting bogged down in the details.

Instead, he offers up a wildly silly story of a man who tries to fool a village of 11th century English villagers that he is a wizard. Martin downloads the computer code into his phone, and uses it to make himself hover, emit sparks, and speak in a booming voice. Don’t bother asking how his phone continues to work in the past, it just does. This process is laid out in a highly enjoyable montage that reminded me of The Matrix, if Neo were learning break-dancing instead of kungfu.

Overall, Off to Be the Wizard was smart, irreverent, and short enough that it ended before the situational comedy began to wear thin. It never made me laugh out loud, but instead caused a kind of perpetual smirk from beginning to end.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Off to Be the Wizard here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: Lost Boy by Christina Henry (2017)

 

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Review #73

Have you ever wondered what sparked the endless hostility between Peter Pan and Captain James Hook? What is Peter wasn’t the happy-go-lucky boy that everyone loves and remembers? In this revisionist fairy tale, the world of Neverland is explored as never before, through the eyes of a boy named Jamie and his best friend, Peter.

J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s novel has remained popular for more than one hundred years. Since 1904 kids and adults have been captivated by the story of the boy who never grew up and instead had thousands of adventures with his troop of lost boys in the woods of Neverland. One of the many factors that have contributed to Peter Pan’s enduring popularity is the ambiguity surrounding its main character. Peter has been depicted by both male and female actors. He has been the brave hero, rescuing his friends from the clutches of Captain Hook. He has been the coward who flees from responsibility in favor of his eternal games. My favorite adaptation, 2003’s Peter Pan starring Jeremy Sumpter and Jason Isaacs, shows Peter as a boy on the brink of puberty who lacks the maturity to deal with adult emotions such as love and instead hides behind a false bravado.

In Christina Henry’s re-imagining of the Neverland world, Peter is portrayed as an emotionally indifferent sociopath who lures boys away with promises of a life filled with fun and adventure. Countless years of fighting pirates, crocodiles, and the enigmatic creatures known as the Many-Eyed have left Peter twisted and morally decrepit. His lost boys exist only to admire and love Peter and to participate in the violent and dangerous games he invents. If the boys become sick, injured, or homesick for their former lives, Peter turns a blind eye to their suffering and often orchestrates for those boys to meet with some fatal “accident”. His oldest and most loyal friend, Jamie, is the one who has shouldered the burden of caring for the lost boys and trying to keep them alive for as long as possible.

Henry’s vision of Neverland differs wildly from the version we’ve seen in the past. Certain elements such as the fairies and the mermaids are barely recognizable from the original source material while other characters aren’t present at all. This is a dark and dangerous Neverland that presents a daily struggle for survival. The rivalry and violence between the lost boys is often more reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies rather than the cheerful Disney characters we remember from childhood.

At under two-hundred pages, this is a relatively short novel. I honestly found myself wishing that I could have spent more time in Henry’s version of Neverland. The climax in particular, felt rushed. Going in, we all know how Jamie’s story is going to end, but getting there was a wild, exciting, and often sad journey. After all, all little boys grow up…except one. Never has that sentence sounded more sinister.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Lost Boy here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh (2015)

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Review #64

 

Every night the boy-king of Khorasan receives a new bride. They are married, often without setting eyes on one another. The new wife is then escorted to her rooms. In the morning, she is dragged from her room and strangled with a silk code. Nearly seventy girls have died so far. Sixteen year old Sharhzad volunteers to be the next victim for this monstrous Caliph, but she has a secret. Her dearest friend was one his murdered wives, and Sharhzad is out for vengeance. Not only does she not intend to die at the break of dawn, but she plans to end this cycle of violence once and for all.

This is a re-imagining of the tale of Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights. This collection of Middle Eastern folklore is from unknown origins and contains the popular legends of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad. The beginning chapters of The Wrath and the Dawn follow the legend of Scheherazade pretty closely. Every night the Caliph (King) visits his new wife, intending to have her executed at dawn. And every night Sharhzad spins out a little more of a story, being sure to reach a climax or an interesting twist just as the sun breaches the windows of her bedroom. Hoping to hear more of the story, the evil king allows her to live another day.

Author Renee Ahdieh draws a sumptuous portrait of life in ancient Arabia. Sharhzad’s life in the royal palace is filled with colorful silks, rich damask, and tables laid with fresh fruits and cheeses. Conspicuously absent from the narrative is the inherent sexism of the culture during this time period, allowing her protagonist a level of freedom and expression that would almost certainly not have been tolerated from a woman. Sharhzad is a strong, outspoken woman who never hesitates to speak her mind. From the onset of the novel, her every fiber is focused on wreaking vengeance upon the man who stole her friend from her. She is determined to survive at all costs.

Until all of a sudden she is magically transformed into a lovelorn girl. This metamorphosis comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t seem rooted in logic. Sharhzad begins to fall in love with the Caliph for reasons that are never fully explained. He has murdered dozens of women but by the end of day three her heart is fluttering? It seems to be a case of a character performing an action simply because it is needed to further the plot. This is meant to be a love story, therefore Sharhzad must fall in love whether or not it fits in with everything we know about her so far.

Ahdieh attempts to soften the king by allowing him to open up to his new queen, sharing stories of his early life and giving him opportunities to defend her honor and whatnot. There is also a mystery surrounding his decision to kill all of these innocent women, which we are led to believe will absolve the king of responsibility for his actions.  But the bodies of seventy dead women cannot be denied, and Sharhzad’s sudden and inexplicable decision to throw her lot in with a man who has allowed these acts of violence rings false.

Somehow, despite my objections to the love story presented in this novel, I found myself drawn into the story of Sharhzad as she struggles between the pulling of her heart and the revenge in her mind. And when I finished The Wrath and the Dawn, I immediately put the sequel, The Rose and the Dagger, on a wait list at my local library. So kudos to the writing style of Renee Ahdieh, for drawing me into this story almost in spite of myself.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Wrath and the Dawn here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Side-note: I’ve never actually read One Thousand and One Nights. How does it compare?

 

Book Review: A Court of Frost and Starlight (ACOTAR #4) by Sarah J. Maas (2018)

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Review #55

Warning: Contains mild spoilers for Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) series

Still reeling from the violent events of A Court of Wings and Ruin, Feyre, Rhysand, and their friends are looking to recover and rebuild the Night Court. As the Winter Solstice approaches, Feyre is attempting to navigate her first major festival as High Lady. Despite the festivities, the scars are still apparent both on her and the citizens of Velaris.

I am a huge fan of Sarah J. Maas. I’ve read all the installments of ACOTAR as well as her wildly popular Throne of Glass series. Her novels are pure escapist fantasy, blending romance with action in a wonderfully imagined world of magic and beauty. There are a few glaringly obvious flaws in her writing style (I began a tally of the amount of times she uses the phrase “vulgar gesture” and the word “prick”), but I have always found myself transported wholly into the world of Prythian.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the fairies of ancient folklore have been largely stripped of their malevolent power. This series was foremost in my mind when I made that comment. The High Fae of Maas’ novels are magical, powerful immortals who reign more or less benevolently within their own realms, having little or nothing to do with the mortals who live outside their territory. These are the “sexy” fairies as opposed to the devilish tricksters depicted in mythology.

Maas does run the risk of giving her characters what I refer to as “Superman” syndrome. Superman is the most boring of all the superheroes because he is without flaw. For literary examples, one could look towards Edward Cullen of Twilight, or Christian Gray of Fifty Shades. One could say the same about Rhysand. He is handsome, chivalrous, generous, and treats Feyre as a true equal. Not to mention he’s rich. And apparently quite well-endowed. But as I said before, this is all meant as escapist fantasy for young women which wouldn’t be nearly as fun without some deliriously unattainable example of the male form.

I have yet to actually say anything about the plot, but that would be because there simply isn’t much to say. A Court of Frost and Starlight is meant to act as a stopping point on the way to the continuation of the ACOTAR series. At only a little over two hundred pages, it is much shorter than most of Maas’ novels, and does little to advance the overall plot of the series. At some point it began feeling like one of the Direct-to-Video Christmas stories that Disney releases in order to maintain interest in their popular franchises until the next major film is ready to be released. They tell a self-contained story that does not affect the larger story, and therefore can be either enjoyed or ignored without fear of missing something.

For what it is, the central plot revolves around Feyre and her friend’s preparing for the Winter Solstice, a festival that involves much merrymaking and gift-giving. Maas makes an attempt to liven affairs up by giving her readers a few different perspectives. The bulk of the narrative continues to be from Feyre’s perspective, but we are also treated to chapters from the point-of-views of Rhys, Cassian, Morrigan, and (briefly) Nesta. After three novels of Feyre constantly comparing every single thing to a painting she would like to create, I was eager to branch off into the mind’s of a few other key characters. Unfortunately, these alternate narratives are used so sparingly that they seem more like a tease than anything else. We get maybe four chapters with Rhys, three with Cassian, and only two with Morrigan. I’m hoping that the next installment of ACOTAR expands upon this idea though. To be honest, Feyre is becoming a bit dull. She only ever talks about theoretical artwork. Or about how much she loves Rhysand. And let’s not forget more half-assed allusions to painting.

Overall, A Court of Frost and Starlight was a bit like sitting down in hopes of a major meal and being served chicken broth instead. While the chicken broth will certainly suffice, but it left me feeling unsatisfied. Considering that the next installment will likely be released next year, perhaps that was the Maas’ point. To give her readers just a taste, but to keep them wanting more.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find A Court of Frost and Starlight here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: The Invasion (The Call #2) by Peadar O’Guilin (2018)

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Review #54

Warning: Contains spoilers for Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call.

Shortly after the life-altering events of The Call, Anto and Nessa are looking forward to relaxing away from the survival school and beginning their lives together. Nessa is on the bus to meet Anto when she is abruptly arrested and accused of collaborating with the Sidhe. If found guilty, her punishment will be eternal exile back to the nightmare of the Grey Lands. Meanwhile, Anto tries to search for Nessa but finds himself fighting alongside a group of soldiers as they desperately try to fend off attacks by the Sidhe and their legions of mutilated monsters.

I read and reviewed The Call a few months ago, and I really enjoyed it. Much like vampires have been defanged and werewolves declawed in their modern interpretations, so have the Fae been stripped of the mischief and malice that made them a force to be feared in ancient Ireland. A native of County Kildare, Peadar O’Guilin restores the “fairy folk” to their proper place as cruel and mysterious beings who were banished by the kings of Ireland to a bleak and desolate world. I felt that the first novel did an excellent job of establishing a world where the Sidhe have found a way to drag children into their realm to torture and twist them into living weapons. It was an unsettling and suspenseful novel that made me eager to learn more about Irish mythology.

The Invasion picks up shortly after the events of The Call, as Nessa and Anto try to adjust to a world that has left them very changed. Anto finds that his arm, mutated by the Sidhe, seems to have a mind of its own that is bent towards violence. Nessa’s new control over fire lands her in hot water when she is accused of treason by the corrupt remnants of the Irish government. Many new characters are introduced, but sadly they are not given a lot to do. The Professor, for example is said to be a convicted murderer who has been given reprieve due to her expertise on the Sidhe. I would like to have spent more time fleshing out her backstory, but she is only given a few short chapters. A few of the supporting characters from The Call make an appearance, but none make a terribly strong impression.

If The Call was about setting up a convincing world and introducing the people in it, then The Invasion is more about action. Nessa and Anto aren’t really given the opportunity to grow as individuals, which I had been looking forward to once they were away from the dangers of the survival school. The various battles and engagements depicted in this novel are lopsided. A story like this is only as compelling as its villain, and here the Sidhe fall strangely flat. Seen as a large and blurred army, their individual menace has been diminished.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy the second installment of O’Guilin’s series as much as the first. It had some really interesting aspects, but it lacked the suspense and sense of dread that the Grey Lands delivered the first time around.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Invasion here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book vs Film: Ready Player One

 

Last week I sat down in my living room to watch Ready Player One. Twenty minutes in I was ready to throw in the towel, but decided to stick out the two-hour running time in the hopes that things might improve.

 

Things did not improve.

 

As soon as the credits rolled, I picked up my copy of Ernest Cline’s novel and began to read it for the third time in the hopes of scrubbing the events of the evening out of my mind. I began taking notes as I read, trying to pinpoint the exact reasons why I found myself so enraged by Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the book. In no specific order, here are my thoughts on Ready Player One the film vs the novel. I would recommend either watching the film or reading the book before viewing this review. Spoilers abound.

1. It was like watching  a completely different story. Prior to watching, I had been told by several people that the movie was relatively enjoyable as long as you didn’t expect it to follow the book too closely. I took that to mean that there would be minor plot points that varied from the books in order to make the film flow a bit smoother. For example, in the Harry Potter films, it makes sense that they chose to omit certain characters and most of the Quidditch games; if they hadn’t every movie would be a long rambling mess. However, Spielberg seems to have taken the original source material for Cline’s novel, ripped out approximately thirty pages of it and used that to build his narrative. The heart of Ready Player One was completely lost in translation.

2. The opening scene did not instill me with confidence. During the exposition of the film, instead of a series of puzzles that require the characters to rely on their intelligence and problem-solving skills, we are treated to a twenty minute action sequence. There are giant dinosaurs, King Kong, and countless CGI explosions that must be navigated for the heroes in order to make it through the first gate. Right away, I could see that something had gone horribly wrong. The film leaves out the equal playing field that James Halliday set up for all the users of OASIS. In the novel, he placed the Copper Key on a planet where a) everyone had free and unlimited access to travel and b) violence was not permitted. This essentially meant that no matter how strong and high-ranking your avatar , the only thing that would allow you to reach the first key was your wit and your obsessive knowledge of obscure pop culture. In the film, all of that has been replaced with yet another generic car chase.

3. Spielberg missed the point of the Easter Egg hunt. Speaking of obscure pop culture, let’s talk about that. Ernest Cline’s novel delved so deeply into the realm of 1980’s music, television, film, and video games that one would need a submersible to follow after him. While reading the book, I found myself having to Google Japanese anime from the 1970’s. I had to familiarize myself with the fundamentals of text-based video games. When Wade or one of his fellow gunters finally solved one of the riddles, it was  genuinely impressive, because who the has the energy to devote their time and energy so completely to learning about this stuff? How many people can read a limerick and understand that it is referencing the limited edition cover of a thirty year old video game? In the novel, the difficulties that Parzival, Art3mis, and Aech face are actually difficult. When watching the film, all I saw was the growing trend of referencing things in a nostalgic way so that viewers will feel smart when they understand the references. Literally everyone watching the film knows the Tyrannosaurus from Jurassic Park. Or the Iron Giant. Or a DeLorean. There’s no challenge there. Spielberg dumbed down the pop culture references to the point where my six year old nephew could have found Halliday’s egg. It seems like he was so afraid of alienating any part of his audience, perhaps specifically the overseas audience, that he was unwilling to take even the smallest risk. Instead he chose to pander to the lowest common denominator.

4. He also missed the point of all the pop culture references. Let’s keep talking about pop culture. As I mentioned earlier, it takes a certain kind of individual to commit themselves so entirely towards one goal. In the novel, Parzival notes that he has seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail something like 178 times. He’s beaten every classic video game. He’s watched every episode of every season of every series that was even remotely popular in the 1980’s. Multiple times. Who does that? Answer – a person who has become mentally unhinged. What Ready Player One fails to truly depict is that the people searching for Halliday’s Egg are deeply unhealthy individuals. Outside of the OASIS, where your avatar can be as handsome, fit, and powerful as the you wish, the actual people are described as overweight, sallow, and anti-social. Ernest Cline’s novel can be seen as a cautionary tale against people living their entire lives in a virtual reality. The film does attempt to address this by having the main characters interact in the real world far sooner than in the book, but at the end of the day this is still Hollywood. Wade isn’t exactly a fashion model, but he’s reasonably healthy and good-looking, and does not seem to be crippled by the type of shyness that exists when you never interact with a person in a real environment. Same goes for the other characters. For a group of people who live their entire lives in isolation, they’re remarkably well-rounded.

5. He missed the point of the entire book. My biggest problem with Spielberg’s interpretation of Ready Player One is that the stakes just don’t seem that high. Parzival and his fellow gunters are searching for the egg so they can get rich. There’s also the situation with the “Sixers” who are trying to find the egg so that they can use the OASIS to make a lot of money by selling advertising space and charging fees for users. This is all very sad and capitalistic and greedy. But also, so what? It would be like if everyone who was currently online went to digital war over net neutrality. If we won, awesome. But if we lost, it’s shitty but it’s not the end of the world. The film fails to convey the novel’s premise that the global society we now know and enjoy has fallen apart. Global warming is causing widespread famine. The rural parts of America are lawless Mad Max style wastelands. People are being sold into indentured servitude for failing to pay their bills. And in the midst of all this poverty, hunger, and destitution is an escape from reality in the land of the OASIS. Not only that, but it offers free school for the entire nation. Let me repeat that. It offers free school for the entire nation. So in Cline’s novel when Parzival and the others explain that if the Sixers get the egg it will have a drastic and negative impact on society as a whole, we as readers understand the stakes. In the film it comes across more like a millennial wet dream of sticking it to the man. To be fair, Spielberg includes the scene where Sorrento and his cronies blow up Wade’s housing unit and kill hundreds of people. But the scene has absolutely zero emotional weight because not five minutes later we are introduced to Samantha and the resistance and no one stops for even a moment to grieve for the lives lost. The romantic subplot of the novel becomes the driving force of the film. Other significant deaths from the book are omitted entirely, which only underlines the fact that Spielberg was willing to take absolutely no risks with his nice, safe, family-friendly motion picture. The final battle has all the urgency and intensity of a boss-fight in a video game. It’s frustrating if you lose, but it’s not the end of the world.

6. On a lighter note… I’ve ragged a lot on the film, so I need to take just a second to talk about the few aspects that didn’t piss me off. The scene that took place in The Shining was visually amazing. Implausible, since Aech would most definitely have been aware of the the film’s plot-line, but it looked really cool. Crap, turns out I can’t even give a compliment without unintentionally back-handing it. The movie looked very…expensive? I did like the gravity-free dance sequence. Okay I give up.

A friend recommended Ready Player One to me a few years ago, and I became an overnight fan. The book is fun, inventive, smart, and exciting. When I heard that the film was going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, I immediately felt uneasy. To be honest, I haven’t trusted Spielberg or his artistic vision since he Crystal Skull-fucked the Indiana Jones series. So there was definitely an element of bias when I sat down to watch Ready Player One last week. At the same time, I did try to give it a fair shot. In the end, I was remarkably disappointed. I do not think I will be re-watching that film any time soon. And to anyone who hasn’t read it yet, I cannot recommend the novel highly enough.