Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

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Golden Girls

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna, published February 2021 (in the US).

The story is your obvious YA story. A young girl who used to be not very popular in her village, due to her heritage, has hidden powers with which she can help the emperor’s army defeat the demonic creatures that befall the land. Of course, everyone, even the emperor, has a hidden agenda. Soon it’s clear that Deka, the main character, has to become the saviour of all, especially of oppressed girls and women.

In this case the story has a west African background. The world-building is good. The main character, Deka, is strong and her character arc is interesting. But, sorry to say, it is a YA fantasy that distinguishes itself only by not being based on European or North American fantasy blueprints.

Break a Curse, or two, or three…

In order to properly review the third book in Brigid Kemmerer’s Cursebreaker series, I made my way through the first two books on audio.

  • Book 1: A Curse So Dark And Lonely, published 29 January, 2019.
  • Book 2: A Heart So Fierce And Broken, published 07 January, 2020.
  • Book 3: A Vow So Bold And Deadly, published 26 January, 2021.

Spoilers ahead! Though I am trying to not spoil too much of the stories.

A Curse So Dark And Lonely – the first book – is a Beauty and the Beast retelling with a twist. Prince Rhen was cursed to repeat the season of his eighteenth birthday until a girl/woman would fall in love with him. He was cursed by a sorceress, because she could not lure him into her trap and make him marry her after they spent one night together. More than three hundred seasons after the curse only Rhen and his personal guardsman Grey are left in the castle. This time Harper is the girl that’s supposed to fall in love with Rhen. Harper is from Washington DC, had a rough-ish upbringing and isn’t easily cowed by Rhen and Grey. This is what I most liked about the story. Harper does not swoon at the sight of a chiselled jaw, nor is she overly impressed by Rhen’s royal title. Instead she gives as good as she gets. For some time there was a hint at a possible love triangle with Grey, which, fortunately, turned out to be just friendship. Phew!

A Heart So Fierce And Broken – the second book – is more about Grey and what his live turns out to be following the end of book one. It’s interesting to see his character arc, and that of the people around him. But what happens in his part of the story, and in Emberfall and the surrounding kingdoms, was no big surprise to me, which made this a typical middle book.

Book 3, A Vow So Bold And Deadly, brings all the main players together onto one playing field. Eventually, some characters find out that talking some problems through might actually help solving them. [big eye-roll here] Of the three books this was certainly the most predictable in terms of outcome. Yet, there were a few twists that even redeemed book two. I’m still going so far as to say that book 2 and 3 could have been pulled together. This would have worked as a duology, too.

The audiobook narration of book 1 and 2 was good. Each character had it’s own narrator, which helped flesh them out some more. Some of the American English pronunciation of one particular character in A Heart was a bit grating to my ears, but that’s because I’m a snob.

If I had to pick a favourite from the series, it would be the first book, A Curse So Dark And Lonely, just because it had a new twist on the Beauty and the Beast retelling; the fierce female MC stayed strong to her character even when faced with a seemingly flawless prince.

What would you change?

Neal Shusterman’s latest YA novel, Game Changer, published 09 February, 2021, was a quick read. Yet, I find it hard to review.

Why? For two opposing reasons. One, I quite liked it, because this story includes topics like racism, drug dealing, homophobia, abuse, sexism, misogyny, etc. Two, I didn’t like it, because this story includes topics like racism, drug dealing, homophobia, abuse, sexism, misogyny, etc. from a privileged white male perspective.

Ash is 17 years old. While playing football he suffers a concussion, a concussion that throws him into an alternative universe. From then on, every time he hits his head hard he’s thrown into another alternate universe. The first version of reality Ash encounters isn’t so much different from what we all know, only that stop signs are no longer red but blue. The next alternate universe though makes Ash a very privileged rich kid selling drugs. Yet the next universe makes racial segregation legal. Then in the next… you get the idea.

Our white male hero has to save the universe from destruction. He’s explaining (*cough* mansplaining *cough*) all that goes wrong in today’s society from his personal experience, his walking a mile in his friends’ shoes, so to say. Ash, at last, notices the flaws of his initial universe and wants the ever increasingly flawed alternative universes to return to what he used to be used to. He stands up to the bad things, becomes a champion of people of colour, queer people and women. He’s the white male hero/saviour. He’s special.

As much as I liked seeing current societal problems being extrapolated in alternate universes, I wish the main character had had any other flaw than being named Ashley, after a fictional male character in a racist film.

On travelling the Continent

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss, published 10 July 2018. The second book in “The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club” series did not disappoint at all. If you’ve got the chance, get the audiobook version. (I’m going to rave about it further down.)

Let’s shortly recap [spoilers for book 1 ahead!]. The first book was about Mary Jekyll, daughter of the famous Dr Jekyll, who’s assisting Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in solving the Whitechapel Murders. This leads to her finding out about the secret Alchemical Society her father was a member of; and she finds the daughter’s of other Gothic mad scientists: Diana Hyde (her half-sister), Justine Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau and Beatrice Rappaccini.

The second story picks up a short while after the ladies have settled in the Jekyll household, calling themselves the Athena Club. From a telegram, they learn that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped. Of course they have to rescue yet another daughter of a mad scientist from being experimented on. This time though, they have to travel to Vienna and Budapest for their rescue mission.

The story is told by Catherine Moreau, with lots of interjections throughout the writing process from the, sometimes bickering, young ladies and the household staff. It took me some time to get used to it in the first book, but I was actually looking forward to it in this second book.

Book 2 leaves us with a cliffhanger for the final story (really?) The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, published in 2019. I’ve already added it to my TBR in the audiobook version, because s.b.

What I truly loved was the audiobook. The narrator, Kate Reading, does an amazing job with all the different characters’ voices, but much more with the languages involved. It was fun listening to this story, and should I ever meet Ms Reading in real life, I’ll have to bow to her. Especially because, as a native speaker of German, I have to say, she managed 99% of the German words accurately – not once did her German sound false. Neither did her French or Italian – I should not comment on the Hungarian and Latin, but I am fairly certain she did those well too.

In short, get the audiobook. It’s 24 hours long, but it’s fun to listen to.

Addition by LadyDuckOfDoom: I love this series! I’ve read all three books, and now I am jealous that I did now listen to the audiobooks.

Addition in response to LadyDuckOfDoom: But I’m fairly certain you’ve got the print editions on your shelf, which I don’t have. So we’re both jealous. I’m not going to punch you in the arm for it. And I hope you’re not going to kick me Diana-style under the table.

School of Monsters

Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, published 29 September 2020, had been on my radar for quite a while. After reading a few reviews, though, I was and wasn’t certain that I wanted to read the book.

What?! You don’t make sense, you might think right now. Well, I sometimes don’t. I’ll try to do my best to explain.

First off, as seems to be my general disclaimer these days, I haven’t read any previous work by Novik. Her book Uprooted was in my big box of surprises from Otherland, but I haven’t made time for it yet. Also, I’m very likely to reveal a few things about the story of Deadly Education – aka SPOILERS AHEAD!

Before diving into a book, I often read some reviews. (Bad habit? Spoils the fun?) I read a few of the glowing ones, which all gush about how clever the world-building is, how they love the main character, how ingenious the magic system and the Scholomance are, and how the readers can’t wait for the sequel. Things that normally put me off. Would have here too, if it wasn’t for the criticism.

After the rave comes the criticism; I move on to the reviews that are often long, detailed, and make me want to read the book to find out whether all the criticism is deserved, or make me not want to read the book at all.

In this case, it was one particular review that had an issue with Novik’s use of different languages and the portrayal of the speakers of these languages that made me want to read the book.

Was that particular reviewer correct? Yes, in part they were correct. Novik’s MC El often refers to other students by the language they speak or the enclave they come from. We have Arabic speaking kids, “the only Mandarin speaker”, kids from the Dubai enclave, kids from the New York enclave etc. Contrary to the reviewer who saw this as a flaw in Novik’s writing, I think this is part of El’s personality. She’s snarky. She’s been hurt before. She keeps a large moat and thick castle walls around herself for her own protection. Yes, she knows she should form alliances with other students, as this would ensure her survival. But it’s hard for her to overcome her inhibitions and open herself to others. Also, due to her magical affinity, which tends towards the ‘kill as many lifeforms as possible’, she cannot show off her magic without risking the lives of the people around her. Hence everyone thinks her either a maleficer or magically inept. That she has survived nearly three years of the Scholomance, a school that you either graduate from or literally die trying should tell her classmates enough about her abilities, but they don’t care.

Another reviewer commented that El’s being dirty would show how stereotypical Novik saw people of Indian heritage.

Well, El is of mixed heritage. Her mother is described as “an English rose” and her father was Indian. Her parents met at the Scholomance and her mother graduated three months pregnant, her father died trying to protect his beloved and their unborn child. Somewhere in the early chapters El remembers her childhood and another child comparing her skin colour to “weak tea”. There were a few more examples of people being racist towards El in the book. Still, the issue was, that El describes herself as dirty. Which is by no means a reflection of people with Desi background. It’s an honest observation based on El’s circumstances. If you don’t have any friends, or any alliances at the school, you can’t go and take a shower whenever you feel like it. You need someone to watch your back while you are in the shower. Otherwise the mals (short for maleficaria: the monsters) will creep up on you while you are at your most vulnerable. [They want to eat teenagers with magic to get the mana that lives in those teenagers. Teenagers are the more yummy snack, compared to aged magicians. Teenagers have more mana.]

Yet another reviewer had an issue with the “lockleeches”.

El explains that long hair is impractical. As a non-enclave student without friends or allies at the Scholomance you can’t shower regularly. You might not have brought a brush or a comb with you on your induction – the process of getting into school, which has very strict weight restrictions for luggage [worse than on-board luggage regulations for flights these days]. Without any grooming tools, your hair might mat together. This makes it easier for a certain type of leech to lay eggs in those “clumps of hair”. The hatched leeches then somehow end up in your brain and … don’t ask. Unfortunately, all that info-dump about the lockleeches came after El’s stream of consciousness narration mentioned that dreadlocks are the worst idea of hairstyle for a student at the Scholomance. Which, as you might guess, some people read as ‘people with dreadlocks have vermin infestations’. I did not understand it this way, but understand how this might have been misunderstood. Naomi Novik wrote an apology about this particular scene.

You’ve made to this part. Thank you! I feel honoured.

Here are my issues with the book.

  • To me El is a very unlikable character. She’s snarky, sarcastic, grouchy, and boasting about her abilities. Albeit, the latter only in her head. The former are all due to her life’s experiences. [I get a tick on my fictional Trope-Bingo chart.] Still, she knows she has to form alliances; better yet, friendships. On the pro side, El is insightful, intelligent and reflective. BUT, why then is she in no way curious about the prophecy her father’s grandmother made about her, or where her affinities for dark magic come from. The prophecy names El as the destroyer of all enclaves. Which caused her pacifistic paternal family to consider killing 5 year old El only hours after they first met her. Her dark powers have attracted mana-hungry mals even before El hit puberty. Is this unusual? Does El want to know?
  • To be able to form alliances, El must show her cards. When the perfect moment of showing off her power comes, she’s saved by the White Knight of the Scholomance, Orion Lake; son of a high-ranking official of the New York enclave (I still don’t have any idea what an enclave is, I’ll get to that in a bit). Villain? Love-Interest? Both? [Tick for handsome, privileged, white guy, who saves the damsel-not-in-distress and who seems to be the villain of the story.]
  • El, by the way, thinks of herself as the ugly duckling. And, as mentioned above, she’s often dirty and probably giving off a bit of BO. [Tick for ugly duckling.]
  • Although El thinks everyone has prejudices against her, she herself is not without that kind of flaw. She sorts people into nice little cliques, just like at highschool, only that here it’s sorting people by the languages they speak. It grated by halfway point. I’m repeating myself, she has to form an alliance and doesn’t even make an effort of getting to know her classmates. Only when she needs something form the other students does she start associating with them.
  • One more about El. Of course, at about the half-point of the story, El decides to save the younger students in the school by killing an unkillable mal all on her own, without any witnesses; and without killing any living being around. Quite the feat! And so predictable from the start.
  • Okay, world-building. The Scholomance is somewhere on Earth, but in a nook that is very close to the void. That’s where the monsters, excuse me mals, come from. That’s where enclave kids can draw dark mana from for spells, too? It is not quite clear. We are being told what the school looks like. But although the information dump is lightened by El’s snarky voice, it’s still information dump and with lots and lots of blanks to fill in yourself to boot. For example, I have absolutely no idea how the rooms look like, but I know that the school is a tiered structure with levels built on top of each other. In my mind it looks like a very depresssing concrete structure – actually, a bit like US prisons are depicted in films and series. (Apparently there is a map in the printed edition, but I listened to the audiobook, so no map.) I wish there had been a bit more fleshing out of the schools interior.
  • The magic system is equally explained and not explained. I’m not quite sure where the affinity for magic comes from, what enclaves are, and honestly tuned out of the explanations several times.
  • The Scholomance was built by powerful enclaves to protect their children from mals. Mals want mana and teenaged kids have the best to offer. Why do the mals want the mana? What do they do with it? Is mana like calories for humans?
  • By the way, I think having a different mal for each chapter is supposed to be a feature, not a bug. But it gives the story a bit of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe.
  • And why are there no adults at the Scholomance? Can we please get an explanation for that?

Whoops! That got longer than I had planned. And I could add.

To cut this very long story short: The book ends with that trope-y scene where all the kids who were most unlikely to form an alliance, or friendships even, are hanging out together when a dire warning makes its way to the main character, leaving the audience begging for the sequel.

Well, I’m not begging. The story seemed to be missing a lot of things. It might be, because we look at the Scholomance through El’s eyes, who has been disenchanted since before she left her mother’s yurt in Wales. I wasn’t enamoured by the lauded writing either. There were passages that I had to go over a few times to really understand them, and that’s definitely not because English is not my mother tongue.

I will probably read the sequel, just to see what Novik created out of all the criticism and in which direction this story is going; but the sequel will not end up on top of my TBR.

Final words on the narration: the narrator, Anisha Dadia, does an excellent job. She makes El’s snark come to live nicely.

Worst book I’ve read this year award…

… goes, unfortunately, to The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. For me. This is my opinion, and everyone else might have a different view on this. In this review, I will attempt to list the points that made the book such a bad read to me. [TheRightHonourableEagle has edited this post and added a few thoughts. These are not indicated individually, because they do not differ from TheLadyDuckOfDoom’s. They were added for shock-value. ;o)]

The book starts with an underdog character getting into a military school for the rich – nothing new here. The start was solid, but nothing special. Nothing wrong so far, just some tropes I got tired of: The rich bully making the life of the main character hell, the weird teacher, the tall and brooding hero a few years older.

The problems start with part 2 of the book. Rin, the main character, doesn’t really act according to her character. For the rest of this book, she acts like a petulant child, rather than the young, though trained, soldier she’s supposed to be. So, for the sake of the story, that can be annoying, but is manageable.

Still, the whole story feels forced. There is a sudden friendship/maybe romance between Rin and her former bully. That guy tried to kill her. Multiple times. For Rin, a person driven by emotions, this does not seem likely.

The whole part of the story, where Rin, her comrades, and the rest of the army are under siege feels rather unrealistic; and let’s not talk about the thing with the salt.

Then begins the story of torture and rape. Picturesque and gory to the bone, an ex-classmate of Rin, who also bullied her, is re-introduced for one scene only: Fallen far into a husk, she retells all the scenes of her and the other women’s rape, including how a baby was ripped out of a pregnant women with the bare hands of an officer. And, guess what, all this ex-classmate was good for was to tell about how she was raped. She was not a character at all, just a tool to show the cruelty of what the enemy soldiers did. In addition, the pages of torture and rape we are talking about are not just inspired by the Nanjing Massacre, no, the text reads almost the same as the Wikipedia article. Even if we are reading a work of fiction heavily inspired by history, this is a fantasy novel. I expect the author to at least try to write an individual version, citing resources in a reference at the end of the story, to tell people that this passage was inspired by an event that really happened. This feels like a copy of the article written just for shock value.

And now that your mouth hangs open, your tongue is dry in shock of what enemy forces can do to civilians, you turn the page and find Rin ogling the older brooding guy. It’s a scene mainly focusing on opium addiction, but, although Rin is reminded of something familiar by the smell in the room, what she immediately notices is that His Broodyness has no shirt on. At least the scene stays sombre, he is smoking opium and there is no sexual tension, but I/we really stumbled over the no-shirt thingy.

Opium brings me to the next point that is highly problematic for me. Drugs are somewhat lauded in this book, but I don’t know if the writer has knowledge about how addiction works. There is a former heroin addict who never gave up on drugs, just goes from heavy drug addict to smoking opium once a month. Heavily addicted people become a husk of themselves pretty soon, and heroin is a drug that causes bodily addiction, so going so long without a hit just does not work without repercussions. Furthermore, Rin herself, who has never been on drugs before, is administered shot of heroin to the vein in her neck and falls into a hallucinating trance right away. It’s highly unbelievable that you just get into a trance this way, communing with the gods. [We are not willing to test this theory, though!]

By the way, Rin is the child of a drug-dealing family and did deliveries for them. She has seen addiction in all stages, so I guess it is only natural to just start smoking opium heavily. What could possibly go wrong? It’s for educational purposes. Or was it for the sake of the whole nation? [sarcasm]

On top, in the history of this fictional world, the Empire made an entire people addicted to opium. AN ENTIRE PEOPLE! Because, of course, everyone there is the same, that’s how humans work right? Because if everyone of them is in constant pain and mentally imbalanced, everyone will turn to drugs. Which leads to the overall problems of the book.

The book is incredibly dehumanizing in some cases. Every enemy soldier a monster, and one can feel hate seeping through the pages. This goes so far that soldiers of the Empire wonder how these enemy forces might look like and whether they actually want to see the face of their enemies.

A whole people is addicted to a drug, a whole people does this, does that. Prejudice much? A tiny paragraph at the end that tells us “Yes, they are people, too” just is not enough for me.

Fantasy and science fiction are, in my opinion, genres to explore beyond borders, borders of countries, peoples, stars and also beyond the borders of hate. I could not find this in this book. I really tried, and this book utterly failed in this regard.

We, the Sceptres, have been wondering whether we read a different book from every other reader who raved about this book. The story went from 3-star trope-y Young Adult downhill to a 0.5-star drug glorifying gore-fest. We won’t bother reading the other two books in the trilogy.

Bell, Blade and …

… a thunderhead cloud. I just couldn’t find an alliteration for that.

During the last months I read The Arc of a Scythe trilogy by Neal Shusterman with my son. We both liked it very much.

It’s set in a future, where death has been erased from humankind. Any information on Earth is stored in a large cloud computer, the Thunderhead, who is not only a storage device, but also some sort of benevolent Big Brother watching out for you at all times.

Immortality comes with a caveat though. Overpopulation would be an issue if no one ever died, so Scythes -trained and ordained deathbringers- have to glean people (aka kill for good) to even out the numbers.

We follow a young woman, Citra, and a young man, Rowan, into their apprenticeship under Scythe Faraday. It’s tiresome and trying to learn all the ins and outs of the Scythedom, and only one of the two can become a Scythe at the end of their year of apprenticeship; the other has to be gleaned. Citra and Rowan make it through this first year, which is action packed with actual murder, discovering how crooked the Scythedom really is and trying to set everything to rights. Which will, of course, lead us into books two and three that I am not going to write anything about to avoid spoiling the story.

Let me just tell you, there are a few WTF moments, there are a few twists you might have seen coming, but the final resolution of the story is well-made. What I especially liked is that although it is a Young Adult novel we don’t see the usual tropes of love triangles and pining and every decision being judged through rose tinted glasses. It’s a story that is action packed, has it’s funny moments and definitely makes you think about immortality and what it might mean for humankind.


The Lady Duck of Doom totally agrees with this review. It was a really well crafted YA novel, avoiding the common pitfalls and cutting surprisingly deep into the abyss of humanity.

Clap When You Land

This story by Elizabeth Acevedo about two sisters finding each other in the aftermath of their father’s death is not something you should read right before boarding a flight. Which is exactly what I did, because my brain has its slow moments.

Camino lives in the Dominican Republic, Yahaira in New York City. Both have accepted that their father is absent for parts of the year. Little do they know that their father is dividing his time between their respective families. On his way to visit Camino, the plane crashes. Their father’s death leads to the sisters oncovering his secret, and they finally meet each other as Yahaira flies to the Domincan Republic for the burial.

This is my third Acevedo, and I have enjoyed every one of them. Her novels are always told in verse. This is something you have to get used to at first, but it really lends a beautiful frame to the stories. In Clap When You Land, different points of views slowly intertwining seamlessly reflects the sister’s evolving relationship. A little caveat – there are a lot of Spanish words scattered throughout the book. They really fit the mood, and my dusty school Spanish was more than enough, but it might be a little bit confusing.

If you liked Six of Crows…

… you might want to give this a pass. This being Adrienne Young’s latest YA fantasy book Fable, published 01 September, 2020.

Fable is the 17 year old heroine of this story. Left stranded on an island four years ago, she eventually has managed to scrounge away enough money to leave the island. Where to? In search of her father, who had left her on the island, right after his ship drowned with Fable’s mother on board; who had carved a mark into her forearm; whom she wants to prove herself to as a worthy member of his pirate crew.

In order to reach the island where her father has his home port she joins the crew of the Marigold under it’s helmsman West. A vessel Fable had been trading jewels with for the past years.

The premise for the book is great: female heroine, pirates, ships, a crew of misfits, found family, and romance. The delivery though.

Neither character feels fully fleshed to me, they are all rather shallow. Yes, of course Fable’s character has a bit more flesh than the secondary characters, of whom West and Willa are the two memorable ones. I have already forgot the names of the three other members of the crew.

The plot is slow paced and rather boring. Nothing much happens for the first two thirds of the book. The crew sails the ship from island to island to trade. There is banter, there are shenanigans, but it’s all just foreplay for the last third of the book. Then suddenly so many things happen at once that it is difficult to keep up and then we are left with a cliffhanger.

The romance also happens from zero to sixty. First West hardly interacts with Fable and then, after one kiss -granted that underwater kiss was well-written- there are confessions of love? That’s way too fast.

Other reviewers have compared this book to Bardugo’s Six of Crows. I cannot see the connection. Yes, we do have a crew of misfits. Yes, West might be the brooding type with a rather dark streak. Yes, there is two-facing, there is cunning, and there is “sleight of hand” involved in this story; but, in my opinion, it doesn’t even come close to Six of Crows.

Devils and Witches in Sicily

Kerri Maniscalco’s The Kingdom of the Wicked, publishing date 27 October 2020.

Kingdom of the Wicked is set in Sicily in late 19th century. We meet Emilia and her twin sister Vittoria, who are witches following a long tradition in their family. From birth on they have been inducted to protect themselves by charms and wards to avoid falling into the hands of the wicked princes of hell. Something they’ve heeded nearly always. Nearly always. When her twin is killed Emilia feels responsible. She raises a demon to help her find the killer and take her revenge on him, but she is in for a surprise.

Her ally soon turns out to be one of the seven princes of hell himself. Do I need to spell it out for you how close the two of them might become? Or will she keep holding up her torch for her childhood friend turned monk?

You might think it is a bit predictable. It is, but it has a very inventive magic system and the world building is executed quite well. If you like Kerri Maniscalco’s writing, you’ll certainly enjoy this first in a new series.

3.5/5 stars so that’ll be 4 Goodreads stars

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