YA Fantasy debut with a beautiful cover, that doesn‘t quite deliver

The Gilded Ones (Deathless, #1)
by Namina Forna

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I am not a YA fan, but the very pretty book cover drew me. It‘s a debut novel.

Deka grows up in a society that discriminates against her due to her gender and skin colour. Women are helpmates, there to elevate men. And they have to prove they are pure, to be allowed to fulfill this submissive role. Deka is determined to do her best and conform, but predictably that doesn‘t work out so well. She fails her test spectacularly and is forced to take another path. That leads her to meet other girls like her. Or rather, similar to her. She is special.

Trigger warning: The Gilded Ones includes scenes of sometimes graphic violence, torture, hints of rape (off-screen, in the past) and child abuse. Strong stuff for YA. The main characters are mainly 16-year-olds with symptoms of PTSD. I would not recommend this for anyone younger than that. In the first half of the book this feels more like adult grimdark.

The world building could be more comprehensive, there are a lot of holes or very slim explanations. The author jumps weeks and months, that could have helped to flesh out this world and the characters. New things happen and the reader just gets a brief sentence to give context. A lot of telling instead of showing.

After a slow start and light build-up the story is actually quite entertaining at first, despite all of the above. It‘s all quite straight forward and a fairly typical set-up for this type of YA. Unusual youth in hard circumstances, being shunned and fighting her way to to a better future, proving her worth and showing everybody how special she is. A typical coming of age story of an underdog, with a war against monsters thrown in, with focus on racism and women’s rights and lack thereof. I could have done without the shown brutality.

Around two thirds into the book, with chapter 22, the story became a little more mysterious. And then Ixa showed up and I was enchanted. Sadly this didn‘t last till the great finale. Towards the end it all got a little to surreal and abrupt and Deka and her companions were just too easily convinced and uncritical for my taste. And it was all a bit too easy.

I also never connected emotionally to Deka or the other characters, despite the horrors they go through.

There is some light romance, but it‘s not essential to the story.

It is very unlikely that I will continue with this trilogy.

Bottomline this was ok for YA, a bit too much in its descriptions of physical violence for that age group. I was lacking coherent plot and character development. It was all a bit too straight forward and simple for me and with too many gaps in the narrative. Based on the book description I expected more critical thoughts on racism and feminism. They were there, but treated fairly superficially. 

In the beginning I thought this would be a four-star book, but the later half of the book didn‘t keep up, so I am somewhere around three stars.

I received this free e-copy from the publisher/author via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review, thank you! #TheGildedOnes #NetGalley

My review in German is here.

Blackthorn and Grim

Dreamer’s Pool (Blackthorn & Grim, #1)
by Juliet Marillier

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I like the changing points of view. The female heroine, Blackthorn, is bitchy in a mature and stark way. Grim is a likeable fellow, who is not as dim-witted as he appears. I am picturing a talkative, more intelligent version of Hodor. The fey are firmly in Tolkien territory in appearance and feel.

Slightly spoilerish review…

Blackthorn, Grim and Prince Oran tell their stories in alternating chapters. All three have distinct voices. Oran is a bit of a fool at first, but I liked him a lot, nonetheless. 

I find it refreshing, that the male and female main characters do not have a romantic relationship and that there isn’t even a whiff of it. They are aquaintances and slowly become friends. And that’s it. Maybe their relationship will evolve and change to something more in the next books. But it is just fine the way it is right now.

About a third into the story, Oran gets to tell every second chapter for a while and we have a deeper look into his changing relationship with Flidais. I confess to some very light skimming. I didn’t dislike his story, but wanted it to go a bit faster… 

Oran is a bit of a tosser, but around the middle of the book he finally starts to grow a pair. Blackthorn and Grim in the meantime get a little mystery and sleuthing going. They make a scary team. We finally get some back story on Blackthorn. And some John Grisham set in the Middle Ages.

A lot of terrible things happen in this book, but it’s so well told and well written, it’s a joy to read this story. Other reviewers found it boring, but I generally (sorry, Oran!) liked the pacing and the reminiscent and somewhat dreamlike story telling.

I am a little disappointed that Blackthorn reacts the way she does towards the end, but her behaviour fits her traumatic past and is needed to bring the plot forward. It did feel a bit forced though, the author did not really sell me a believable idea.

And the coin did drop very late for me, when it was obvious even for the most slow-witted reader (= me!). Very big Aha-moment!

You know those times when you come out of a tunnel or a cave or a dark place, and suddenly there’s daylight and a view like you’ve never seen in your life before? This was like that. Sent my head into a real spin.

You don’t say! Marillier got me there!

Four stars, due to some microscopic misgivings. I read and reviewed this in 2015, the second book has been lurking on my TBR pile ever since:

Tower of Thorns (Blackthorn & Grim, #2)
by Juliet Marillier

My favourite books of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted over at That Artsy Reader Girl. The current Top Ten is MY TOP TEN FAVORITE READS OF 2020, predictably so. Let‘s see, how many 5-star reviews I can scare up for this year… no particular order, I listed them as they popped up.

Moon Called (Mercedes Thompson, #1)
by Patricia Briggs

I re-read the whole series, plus Alpha & Omega spin-off, at the beginning of this year. Still good and still one of my favourite UF series of all time. I am looking forward to the new Alpha & Omega in March 2021.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 8: Made to Suffer
by Robert Kirkman,  Charlie Adlard,  Cliff Rathburn

I am slowly working my way through The Walking Dead, the ultimate zombie graphic novel, that spawned an ever increasing horde of books and TV series… this volume was a very good ones. I am still at it, currently reading Volume 13.

To The Center Of The Earth
by Greig Beck

As pure escapism goes, this was an excellent choice. Cavers go down to find the centre of the Earth. And things they did not bargain for. Reminding you of Jules Verne? Yes, indeed.

Paper Girls #1
by Brian K. Vaughan,  Cliff Chiang (Illustrator)

Paper Girls is another excellent graphic novel by Vaughan, that I really should continue. Good story, great colouring, fun!

Dune (Dune, #1)
by Frank Herbert

Another re-read, in a pretty Deluxe hardback edition. The book shows its age and author‘s bias in the treatment of women and LGTBQ representation, but if you can look past that it is still one of the best SF novels out there.

The White Dragon (Pern, #3)
by Anne McCaffrey

This seems to be my year of re-reading old favourites, because I also read the first Dragonriders of Pern trilogy again. And I still like it a lot, phew. The treatment of women in this one is even more problematic than in Dune though. Odder still, the author is a woman. However, if dragons are your thing, this series should be on your list.

Monstress, Vol. 5: Warchild
by Marjorie M. Liu,  Sana Takeda (Artist)

Another graphic novel series that is still going strong. The plot thickens though in this horror/fantasy story full of demons and gorgeous artwork.

Red, White & Royal Blue
by Casey McQuiston

My winner in the romance genre for this year. Good sense of humour, believable and not cringe-worthy amounts of drama and angst, blessed lack of the most stupid romance tropes. 

Mindtouch (The Dreamhealers, #1)
by M.C.A. Hogarth

Finally I picked up something by Hogarth again, after a longer break. Very chilled, very relaxing, a nice amble through her unusual universe. Let’s call it Pastoral Science Fiction. A slow book with mellow drama and a slowly building asexual romance. Uplifting. Another reviewer called it a cozy, finding-one’s-place story and that sums it up nicely.

Emerald Blaze (Hidden Legacy, #5)
by Ilona Andrews

Ilona Andrews, well… I would rate their shopping list with five stars.

Not a very sophisticated list with a lot of literary merit, but I had fun. I could list a few more graphic novels. In terms of novels there were no massive highlights this year. Plus the longer I review books, the stricter I seem to get with my ratings.

First contact, Elon Musk to the rescue!

The Best We Can
by Carrie Vaughn

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What if aliens show up and nobody cares enough to go and have a look?

Wow, very frustrating and depressing. Don’t get me wrong, the story is great.

If that is the best we can do, then we suck! I hope we will be more curious than this, if we ever make a similar discovery. But I can see it happening just like that. I‘d rather believe in The Martian and that we can be better than this, pull together, pool our resources and do the right thing. Or Elon Musk to the rescue. 

My glass is half full. And hopefully space as well! I know, I know, I am overly optimistic. Anything else would be too depressing (again). 

Well done, Carrie Vaughn!

Can be read for free here.

Reading Writers of Color 2021

I came across this challenge on habitica.com and as I want and need to mix up my reading, I think this could be an excellent prompt to do so next year!

For an explanation and the general rules please go to the actual webpage of challenge hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media.

I‘ve not done so badly towards the end of this year with BIPOC authors, but over the whole year my average was probably horrific. The vast majority of authors will have been white, male US Americans. Sigh. That definitely needs to change. Which won‘t be easy, as I still have a ton of books on my TBR pile that will have that same demographic. And I don‘t want to buy a lot of new books. Right. Not sure yet, how I will accomplish this. We‘ll see. I have some books in mind already, but I don‘t want to plan ahead too much.

Anyway, here is more on the prompt for January:

Books by Women of Color to Read for #ReadPOC2021

I am not going to repeat the 10 books suggested by Lonely Cryptid Media, please go there to have a look! What do I have on my pile? Yesterday I actually started reading this book:

The Gilded Ones (Deathless, #1)
by Namina Forna

This is an ARC I received from Netgalley. It‘s YA, which is not really my genre. But I really liked the cover artwork and some of my fellow Goodreads buddies where so enthusiastic about this novel, that I requested it. And voilá! As mentioned, I started it already and there is a slim chance that I will finish it before January, otherwise I might cheat a little and use this as my January entry.

However, if I find the time and motivation, I also have this on my TBR pile:

The Black Parade (The Black Parade, #1)
by Kyoko M.

Angels and demons are not my thing and I am generally a bit tired of UF, but Ilona Andrews recommended this and it‘s for free on kindle… I think I might have gotten this, because it looked like the cover of a graphic novel to me, but it‘s another YA novel. And the reviews of my reading buddies are not stellar. So I‘m a bit dubious about this one.

Jade City (The Green Bone Saga, #1)
by Fonda Lee

In this epic saga of magic and kungfu, four siblings battle rival clans for honor and power in an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.

* World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, winner
* Aurora Award for Best Novel, winner
* Nebula Award for Best Novel, nominee
* Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, finalist

by Octavia E. Butler

This one is a short story, but it‘s high time that I read something by Ms. Butler…

Bloodchild is Octavia E. Butler’s shattering meditation on symbiosis, love, power and tough choices. It won the Hugo, Locus, Nebula and Science Fiction Chronicle awards and is widely regarded as one of her greatest works. 


Measure of Days
by Sophy Layzell

This is another one of my overdue Netgalleys. I will definitely read it next year (well, that‘s the plan, anyway), not sure if I‘ll manage January. I can‘t quite say what this is exactly. Post-apocalyptic YA horror adventure? Reviews so far seem to be in the okay-ish region.

So, that gives me some options for January. Have you read any of these? Do you have any recommendations?

Tell me of your home, Usul!

Dune (Dune, #1)
by Frank Herbert

Rating: 5 out of 5.

My third (?) re-read, I think, in anticipation of the new movie. I got the pretty deluxe edition for the occasion. I skimmed through the introduction by Brian Herbert and might get back to it, the bits that I did read where not uninteresting. 

The first quote of Princess Irulan‘s writings, on the first page of the actual story, immediately gave me goosebumps and took me straight to the beginning of the David Lynch movie and the sequence introducing Arrakis. Find and watch the trailer!

I payed close attention to the quotations above each chapter. I also took much stronger note of the religious undertones of the book and the frequent use of Arabic words. My hardback edition has an extensive annex with a chapter on Dune‘s religious system, that gave context and opened my eyes to the different influences.

I am amazed at the things I picked up this time around, that I had never noticed before. Lady Jessica‘s musings about her genealogy. Paul‘s Mentat training and abilities. I have absolutely no recollection of the conservatory. Or that they use ornithopters to get around. 

Guerney Halleck was a lot more interesting to me than before, as well as Thufir Hawat. I plan to continue reading the series this time and I am looking forward to Alia‘s development and how Jessica‘s story will progress.

The implications of the Butlerian Jihad pretty much passed me by during my previous reads as well. Technological advances are by necessity quite imaginative and different from the expected. 

Another great chapter in this annex expands on the ecology of Arrakis and the impact of Kynes‘s father on the Fremen.

Pain points of this novel:
The book passes the Bechdel test, but women generally are concubines, submissive wives, a second row of characters. The only women with power are seen as witches, in the negative sense of the word. 
Baron Harkonnen is the only openly gay character and is a really repugnant piece for work. And Peter de Vries gets a derogatory description of being effeminate.
I think we can assume that Herbert was very much a conservative, white male, firmly on one end of the Kinsey scale and the rest didn‘t exist as real options.

Review from my 2005 re-read:

I read this book about 20 years ago and wanted to read it again, to re-freshen my memory of it. 

When I read this as a teenager, I found it a bit hard to understand, a bit tedious and not all that thrilling. For some reason I did read the next two in the series anyway. It was, after all, a fascinating setting – a desert planet, giant worms, a messiah, mysterious desert dwellers, space travel…..

I came to really like the David Lynch movie. Recently I watched the new miniseries and that awakend my interest again.

And this time around I liked the book a lot. It kept my interest the whole book through. The characters were well developed, the Fremen were mysterious, the bad guys were really bad and the development of Paul Atreides from young boy to jaded prophet is well done. The only draw-back: Scenes of the Dune movie kept intruding into my imagination.

Rescue mission, last attempt…

Christmas Present (The Chronicles of St. Mary’s, #4.5)
by Jodi Taylor (Author),  Zara Ramm (Narrator) 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Another short story, set in the world of St. Mary‘s and its crazy, time-travelling professors. This time around we end up in Roman Britain, more precisely in Colchester and get a chance to meet Boudica. That was mildly interesting, but yet again didn‘t excite me very much. Too many arbitrary one-liners and pointless fluff for the sake of making it all funnier. Yes, well, I should give up already, after reading the first book and having listened to the third short story and not liking any of them particularly much. Ultimately I am not a fan of time-travel and this is not my brand of humour. Ok for fans of the series.

Short story time

Children of Thorns, Children of Water (Dominion of the Fallen, #1.5)
by Aliette de Bodard

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Desperate people come to take a test, in hopes of being taken into a house of fallen angels. Two of them are spies from a dragon kingdom. Dark magic ensues.

I liked it. There was nice, creepy imagery and I identified with the main characters quickly. The world building was well done and the narrative flowed well and kept me hooked.

Hugo Awards 2018 Novelette Nominee

Story can be found here

Imperial Radch

Talking about the Vorkosigan Saga by Bujold lead me to Ann Leckie and her Imperial Radch trilogy. Connections sometimes are weird. Anyway, turns out I never posted the reviews for the full trilogy over here. So, onwards to my backlist…

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1) by Ann Leckie, Adjoa Andoh (Narrator), read and reviewed in March 2017:

The beginning was a little confusing. Might be due to it being an audiobook, it’s a fairly new medium for me. Here are my slightly spoilerish thoughts.

Breq’s voice in the audibook works well for the character. I didn’t find her too neutral or emotionless. In the beginning she almost felt childlike, exploring and getting to know her world. As the book went on, she gained more emotions and more of a personality.

I found some of the dialects of the other characters a bit weird. Some of the voices in the audiobook also sounded a bit “too much” and not natural to me. But they all grew on me eventually.

It’s interesting that Breq used a female pronoun for all other characters, until she could figure out if they were male or female. And even then she often stuck to the female version. It made for an unusual reading experience. Ultimately it made no difference, if a character was male or female. Which was perhaps the point of the whole idea.

What I did find a bit difficult with the audiobook: Telling the other characters apart. And it was slightly annoying that I couldn’t see the spelling of the various names and places.

I liked the timeline alternating from chapter to chapter. The story only really took off for me with the convergence of both plotlines. I liked the story before that, too. But the pace was a bit too leisurely. The last 30% of the book finally picked up speed.

My personal highlight was the development of the relationship between Breq and Seivarden. The conclusion of the book’s underlieing conflict in contrast to that was just ok. Smart, but nothing earth shattering. Nice ending. And I am fairly certain that I will pick up the next book.

Sorry for my fairly lame review, literary mastermind I am not. Bottom line, I liked the book. A bit slow at times. Good plot. Good world building. Interesting characters. Loved Ors, loved Seivarden and the relationship of her and Breq. The last few chapters were fun. One gripping moment full of sadness. Good stuff.

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2) by Ann LeckieAdjoa Andoh (Narrator), read and reviewed in April 2017:

*some spoilers* 

I liked it. It was very laid back in between the more energetic action sequences. A lot of drinking tea. I liked the plot of the first book more, I think (still debating with myself). The alternating timeline made it more vibrant and suspenseful. It was proper space opera. 

However, the relationships of the various characters in this sequel were more intricate. The dynamics of the people on the station and down on the planet were well done. The disenfranchised in the Undergarden (brilliant idea) and their revolution, the serfs on the planet, the ruling class and its notions of entitlement and righteousness… Good stuff, I will be going over it in my mind for quite a while.

You take what you want at the end of a gun, you murder and rape and steal, and you call it bringing civilization. And what is civilization, to you, but us being properly grateful to be murdered and raped and stolen from? You said you knew justice when you heard it. Well, what is your justice but you allowed to treat us as you like, and us condemned for even attempting to defend ourselves?

Very talkative prose, sometimes a little too much for my taste. But only a little. Seivarden’s role was sadly diminished in this, the addition of Tisarwat added a good character into the mix. Breq’s Kalrs pretending to be ancillaries was another great idea. She herself mourning for her lost connectedness with all that she was as Justice of Torren… I am not usually a friend of character driven narratives, but this was good.

Looking forward to Ancillary Mercy. Can’t wait to read, what they find on the other side…

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3) by Ann LeckieAdjoa Andoh (Narrator), read and reviewed in May 2017:

Lovely. I am sad that this is the end for the Imperial Radch. But then…

Every ending is an arbitrary one. Every ending is, from another angle, not really an ending.

Direct continuation of Ancillary Sword. A nice and fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

The humour and tongue-in-check of the dialogues was great and right down my alley. And Translator Zeiat made this novel, what a great character! 

Loved Breq and how human she became in the last book. And not. 

Loved the development of her relationship with Seivarden, who definitely did not have enough page time. 

Loved the action sequences, loved the conversation about what makes one a significant being.

I will miss these characters, Athoek Station, the Undergarden… I would have loved to go through the ghost gate and meet the Presger.

Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy felt like one book and I think I liked them more than Ancillary Justice. The plot and characterizations were more intricate. Although I did like the plot of Ancillary Justice a lot, too, and the early days of Seivarden and Breq. I’ll need to think on that some more.

Some fish sauce in the meantime?

The audiobook narration of these three by Adjoa Andoh was excellent!

After reading this trilogy, I read a ton of short stories by Leckie and eventually her novels Raven Tower and Provenance. One is fantasy and the other one is set in the world of Imperial Radch, but in another corner of the galaxy and with other characters and an entirely different feel. Both nominated for a ton of awards. So, yes, I am waiting for more. This woman can write. Raven Tower was published in early 2019, so maybe we get lucky next year…

The Hugos and The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie‘s blog post from August 2020