Book reviews, Fantasy, Lgbt Characters

Book Review | Red Sister

red sister review

by Mark Lawrence — I loved this book. There wasn’t a single thing I didn’t enjoy about it. The characters were a delight, from the lovable to the despicable, they were all unique and their voices unmistakable. The world was fascinating, and so gripping that I swear I could hear the Corridor wind whistling in my ears, rustling my hair. I didn’t want to leave, and I put off finishing this book for a long time — for me that’s the highest form of praise. The books I speed by are entertaining, and fun, but the ones I take my time with are truly special.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…”

Nona is a fantastic protagonist, you just want to peel all the layers that make up her personality and get to the heart of her. She’s as outwardly cold as the frozen world of Abeth, beaten down by the harsh weather and an even harsher life, but that outward layer is like a warm cloak that protects her from the elements – and her rage is hot and incandescent, a glorious thing to watch – that hides the lonely 11 year-old girl who is so desperate for companionship, for friendship, that she won’t think twice about laying down her life for a friend. She might be a nun in training, learning under the blessing of the Ancestor, but friendship is Nona’s religion, and loyalty her prayer. I felt her struggles keenly, I wanted her to succeed at all costs, even as she was hot-headed and impulsive, risking her life but always mindful of the dangers to her friends’.

I loved Nona, she is the perfect protagonist, in my opinion. But the title of most fascinating character definitely goes to Abbess Glass who is everything J.K. Rowling wishes Albus Dumbledore was – I’m at once compelled to trust her, trust that her student’s well-being is a priority to her, but I’m also suspicious of her motivations. She is a master manipulator, and she uses everything and everyone to her advantage, to protect the convent and its students, sure, but you’re always left wondering how far is she willing to go, and is there even a limit if the end result is the greater good? Her voice is at once maternal and ruthless, it’s such a hard line to walk but Mark Lawrence does it beautifully.

This is grimdark fantasy, and while the students are 10-12 years-old they don’t sound like it. They live in an extremely unforgiving planet, with only the warmth of the “focus moon” to melt a thin corridor of liveable land around Abeth’s equator. The harsh realities of life don’t leave much room for carefree childhoods, but some of the natural innocence of children still shines through in some moments — few and far between, but that only makes them more poignant. That being said, the Convent of Sweet Mercy is still a comforting space, in the way all magical schools should be, even with danger lurking in every corner. The classes and the magic system were a highlight for me, even as many of the powers Nona, and a few others display, are still unpredictable. Walking the Path especially was very engrossing, and very easy to visualise, which speaks well of Mark Lawrence’s wonderful writing.

The only real complain I have about this book is that while Mark Lawrence is amazing at writing women, really from the despicable to the sweet they are all fascinating, he isn’t nearly as good at writing men. The few men that show up in Red Sister are rather one dimensional, and while one antagonist is appropriately menacing, that’s all there is to him. The other male antagonist, and Nona’s nemesis…I don’t think I remember a word he said. I sincerely hope that if there’s going to be any romance in future books (besides the side romance between two adult nuns at the Convent) it remains between the female cast, because the men in this world aren’t at all memorable. And again it speaks volumes about how great this book is, that it didn’t detract in the least from my enjoyment.

I still haven’t managed to talk about how beautiful the prose in this book is. Red Sister has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read in grimdark fantasy. It’s lyrical without being purple. Some turns of phrase were so stunning that they stayed with me long after I’d read them. There really isn’t enough I can say to express how delightful this was to read. If the grimdark label doesn’t give you pause (and trigger warnings for violence/abuse against children) do yourself a favour and pick up this book.

Rating: ★★★★★
Author: Mark Lawrence
Publisher:  Ace

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Book lists

Books I’m afraid of

books i'm afraidI should probably start by clarifying these aren’t horror books that I find really scary, but books that have been on my TBR or my shelves for years, and that for one reason or other I’m too afraid to start reading. I’m interested in these books, but I also find them daunting, for whatever reason.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is the book that motivated this whole list, really. It’s been sitting on my shelf for around three years and I still haven’t found the courage to start reading it. I picked it up on a whim without knowing much about it. After reading up on it I realised it dealt with some hard themes, like child abuse, paedophilia and rape. That made me reticent to read it because those are issues I tend to steer clear of — I realise the importance of writing about them, but often I find them too upsetting. I can deal with them being one part of a character’s journey, but reading a whole book about the traumatic life of a character who these things constantly happen to, feels like more than I can handle. Recently I also learnt, that what happens to the protagonist, Jude, is more similar to a trauma conga line than to the actual experiences of a survivor. Apparently that was Yanagihara’s intent, to exaggerate Jude’s abuse to grotesque proportions in order to start conversations, and highlight the horrific nature of all sexual violence. I’ve read that some people think it has the opposite effect — they can’t take the events seriously because they’re so exaggerated. I’m very unwilling to read a book dealing with such sensitive subject matter if there’s a chance I won’t find it respectful. On the other hand I know some people really love this book, and found it absolutely moving and that’s why I haven’t completely given up on it.

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

This is another book that scares me for some of the sensitive themes it deals with. Like with a Little Life, there’s paedophilia in this one, and rape, and child abuse, and at least one severely mentally-ill character who I’m not sure won’t be vilified. So that’s the main reason why I’m reticent. I really have to think long and hard before delving into books like these, and while I have in the past, they were usually recommend  by people I trusted and who knew how important it is to me that these topics be dealt with in a sensitive manner, and not exist merely for shock value. If I remember correctly I bought this book in some type of book fair, it was buy 3 for 10€ or something and I picked this one up randomly just to have three books. I haven’t touched it since, and I’m not sure I ever will.

 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

To be honest I’m scared of this book because of its size. It’s 1000 pages long, and while I usually like large books, in this case it seems a bit excessive for the premise. This is a fantasy book, but not high fantasy, so the length is more daunting than exciting. This is also set in Victorian England which is probably the time period I hate the most, it’s been beaten into the grave. I can’t find it in myself to care about it. Books either focus on how dreary things were for the poor and marginalised or sing praises to British Imperialism — and while I can sometimes stomach the former and deal with the overdone cliches, I have no patience for the latter, and I’m afraid this book will focus on exactly that. So, those are the reasons I’ve been putting it off for years, because while parts of it sound exciting, I’m afraid it will be a slog to get through on top of being set in a time period I really could not care less about.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

29056083Well this one is easy. I love Harry Potter and by all accounts this book will ruin that. A well-intentioned family member gave it to me as a gift, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought it myself. I know the whole plot and I guess I could say this one is actually horrifying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And’t that’s my list of intimidating books (and one legitimately scary). I’d be interested in knowing if some of you own similar books, that feel like unclimbable mountains for some reason. Ping me back if that’s the case, because I love this kind of list. And also if you have any arguments why I should read any of these books please let me know!

Book reviews, LGBT Books, Young Adult

Book Review | The gentleman’s guide to vice and virtue

gentlemans guide to vice and virtue

by Mackenzi Lee — It’s been a while since I’ve read historical fiction, one of my favourite genres when I was younger, later to be replaced by fantasy, and now only revisited when it’s set in Ancient Greece, by far my favourite historical period. Anyone can tell by the cover that this book is not set in Ancient Greece, though. That’s okay, because it’s not really historical fiction, either.

Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this year-long escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Witty, dazzling, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an irresistible romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue‘s biggest quality is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. When I say this isn’t historical fiction I mean it in the literal sense, the author sets the time period as “17–“, as in vaguely 18th century, I’ve seen reviewers place this book in the 19th century, others further back, it obviously doesn’t stick to anyone’s mind, nor are there any defining characteristics to tether it to the reality of a specific year, or even an age. I find I don’t have a problem with that.

This is a mostly character driven, coming of age story, with a romance at its centre. The time period is merely a backdrop to the character development, and it works well with the tone, the themes and the narration. The protagonist and narrator, Monty, is a privileged young man from a wealthy family, whom he doesn’t particularly like, and feels mostly detached from. His closest relationship is with his best friend Percy, and at the beginning of the novel the two are set to go on their Tour of Europe, before settling into their respective roles in society. They are to be accompanied by Monty’s sister Felicity, who is going to be dropped-off at a “finishing school”, a type of institution that mostly teaches wealthy young ladies good manners and little else.

The three of them embark on an adventure of increasingly unlikely proportions, which at one point includes pirates — this is where the humour of the book serves it best, because if this was trying to be an accurate depiction of the Tour, it would crumble under the ever increasing shenanigans.

I liked all of the characters, who were all very different. Monty is superficially charming and has a brand of caustic humour that he uses to mask his deep insecurity about his bisexuality, as well as his distrust of the high society people he’s expected to interact with. On the other hand, Percy who is half-black (and from what I read elsewhere, based on the real person Dido Elizabeth Belle), is unfailingly polite and cordial because he’s aware of just how tenuous his social standing is. Felicity shares some of her brother’s fiery temper but is also constrained by her role as a woman in a deeply patriarchal society.

While the issues of inequality and discrimination were addressed, and some of the character’s growth dealt exactly with overcoming biases about themselves and others, and challenging a deeply flawed society, this was done with the heavy-handed approach typical of Young Adult books — which is to say with a lot of exposition through dialogue. Monty, as the audience stand in, was often the most ignorant of other people’s struggles and only focused on his own. This resulted a lot in characters having to explain to him that “other people have problems too, you know”. It would have been better, and more satisfying for him to realise that on his own, through the events of the novel, instead of having to be told. His moments of introspection often followed a talking down from either Percy or Felicity.

I liked the romance, I was rooting for both characters and wanted them to end up together pretty much from the beginning of the novel. But some of the romantic conflict felt a bit forced in my opinion. There was one situation at the end, where both characters are apparently happy and have sorted out all their differences, and then a single conversation completely throws them out of sync. It wasn’t totally believable in my opinion, but at least it didn’t overstay its welcome, and the issue didn’t drag for the sake of building up angst.

Overall, I enjoyed myself with The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, it was a fun light read, that I finished over the course of two days at two different, but equally beautiful, river beaches. I have to admit I was more impressed by the landscape and crystalline waters than by the book. But it was still whimsical and heartwarming, and perfect for reading under the shade of  an oak tree that’s probably been around since the 17–‘s.

Rating: 3.5 stars
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books