Six of Crows

Six of crowsIf I told you that a book was like a YA Game of Thrones crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, would I even need to say anything else?

I haven’t been reading a lot lately–due to a combination of work and personal events, I’ve been so busy and distracted and stressed that I haven’t been able to concentrate enough to read much beyond Twitter. Which is unusual for me, but it does mean than when a book manages to break through the fog, it’s something to note. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is actually the first in a set of two books (and it’s basically just one big story, so you might as well go ahead and get Crooked Kingdom at the same time, because you’re going to need to start it right away) that I just thought were terrific. Tense and dark and sweet and magical and twisty–the kind of story that drags you completely out of your world and into a new one.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, this story has an ensemble cast with a crafty leader who is always one step ahead of everyone else. In this case, the ringleader of the group is Kaz Brekker, an up-and-coming gang boss in a city that reads like an alternate universe Amsterdam where magic is real. When he gets offered a can’t-say-no job breaking into an impenetrable ice palace, he has to assemble a group of other disreputable underworld teenagers with the skills–including sharpshooting, demolitions, and magic–needed to pull off the heist. But this is not a simple theft, and the gang gets swept into disputes both international and interpersonal. Reading Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom was like a roller coaster–I would get more and more tense as things went wrong and situations got dire, and then there would be this rush of glee as all the double-crosses and plans were revealed.

Now, this isn’t a comedy. As appears to be the thing in YA books now, there is violence and death and things do get very dark. I should also note that this story is set in the same universe as another trilogy of books, starting with Shadow and Bone. I haven’t read those yet (they’re all waiting on my Kindle) but they happen some time before Six of Crows. So if you’re very intent on reading things chronologically and not getting any hint of other story lines, you might want to start there.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Gritty, magical caper

You might also like: We’ve already raved here about Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, but I really think that if you liked one of these, you’d like the other. Kaz and Gen have an awful lot in common. And this is great opportunity to tell you that Turner just came out with a new book in her series (technically, a stand-alone story in the same universe) called Thick as Thieves. Quick like a fox, go check it out!

online comics / graphic novels

I never quite know what term to use for comic strips or comic books or graphic novels now that the medium has expanded so wildly beyond what those terms originally referred to. But I’ve got two online comic strips that I highly recommend because they’re charming and delightful and I just love the characters and the stories and the artwork.

First up:

WildelifeWilde Life
by Pascalle Lepas
2014 – ongoing

The plot is: “A graphic novel about a writer who rents a haunted house from Craigslist and makes not-friends with a werewolf.”

It’s essentially a series of short stories set in a rural town around the main guy who’s rented a house for a while to just get away from his previous life that’s mostly not mentioned. The illustrations are excellent (and just keep getting better) but the characters are where this really shines. Every character is so very much themselves and so very delightful. (And don’t forget to check for roll-over text comments from the author on later pages because they’re pretty darn funny too.)

The author has just finished the sixth chapter / plot arc, and it’s so incredibly delightful and I really hope she does another kickstarter so I can order hardcopy versions. In the meantime, you, gentle reader, should immediately go check this out: http://www.wildelifecomic.com/comic/1

Second up:

powerballadPower Ballad
by Molly Brooks
2017 – ongoing

This only has eight issues out so far but it’s scheduled to be updated weekly and those eight issues are an utter delight!

Meera is the personal assistant to international pop star / masked vigilante Carina. So while Carina does music videos and fights crime batman-style, Meera tries to make sure appointments are made and kept. And they both have adorable pining crushes on each other but neither have said anything (yet!) and it’s just too cute for words.

Also, the illustrations are amazing and doing some really interesting things, because first they’re working with the online medium by displaying each issue as a single page down which the reader scrolls rather than trying to mimic a hardcopy comic book (at some point I think it would be really interesting to see if hardcopy comics can be made on scrolls to mimic websites), and second, they’re illustrated with just a couple of colors in a handful of shades, which gives it a sort of quick-sketch first impression while still being amazingly effective and detailed.

So check it out here: http://www.webtoons.com/en/drama/power-ballad/list?title_no=987

 

The Tearling Trilogy

I read the first book in this trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling, almost a year ago, but I was too scared to recommend it until the final book was released because I’ve been burned before. I wrote a blog entry about The Fifth Wave before I had finished the series and you guys–that one was not good. It got so convoluted and nonsensical at the end that I read all three books but am still not 100% sure if the aliens or humans won. But this trilogy did not descend into madness!  It really held up and kept me hooked the whole time.

Trying to describe the plot of these books makes it sound like every other YA/fantasy-ish series out there. In a land that sounds a lot like medieval Europe, a teenage girl is about to become queen of a country under attack, and will have to learn confidence in herself and how to wield her power in order to protect her people. I know, I know, this could describe half the things I read. But there are a few things about this story that I think make it different than some other versions:

  • It’s dark. I know that YA these days leans dark, but this is pretty darn dark. Kelsea, the main character, doesn’t just have to save her people from looming threat, but from some truly terrible things happening in her kingdom.
  • This is not a romance. Some people like each other, and some people have sex, but this is not a story where you spend the whole time waiting for two key characters to realize how much they love each other. These characters have so much to deal with that love is pretty secondary to them, and the books treat it that way.
  • There is an interesting treatment of time. I don’t want to give too much away, but especially when you get to the second and third books, the concept of time becomes somewhat malleable in a way that I was not expecting.
  • This may connect to the first bullet (the darkness), but there is not a lot of redemption in this story. Bad things happen to people–tough. People do some bad things–they don’t always get to make up for it. Even people who do great things don’t necessarily get rewarded for their efforts.
  • There are a few subtle magical elements in this world that are pretty much never explained. I am still torn on whether I am annoyed about a few things that we all apparently just have to accept as a given, or pleased that the author didn’t try to make up “reasons” for magical occurrences.
This all made these books sound horribly depressing, doesn’t it? Well, they’re not light and fun. But I was completely hooked on them and I was surprised with where the story ended up–the author took what could have been a familiar, maybe even overdone YA trope, and took it in a newer, darker, more subtle and complex direction.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dark, moral coming-of-age

You might also like: A number of adult sci-fi fantasy books, such as Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, The City and the City by China Mieville, or David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. In the YA area, this was similar in a lot of ways to The Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy.

Sandman Slim

By Richard Kadrey

Sandman_SlimOh, man, this book is like if author Richard Kadrey took everything I love in fiction and put it all in one book – dark and moody hero detective in a noir-ish mystery, with violent action and Judeo-Christian mythology thrown in. (Have I mentioned before my love for schlocky Judeo-Christian horror movies, like “The Omen” and “The Prophesy”? I have!)

I was having trouble figuring out what else to say about it, really, so I went to see what people wrote on amazon, and more than a few mentioned how immature and dislikable the protagonist was, which embarrassed me a bit, since I rather liked him. James Stark, aka, Sandman Slim, was literally sent to Hell during a magic-ritual-gone-wrong in his late teens, and the novels opens with him finding his way back to Earth eleven years later, set on revenge toward those who sent him down.

He returns a bit psychotic, with some serious impulse-control issues, but I give him a lot of leeway, what with his early adulthood in Hell. As the backstory began unfolding, I realized that it reminded me a bit of The Magicians. Kinsey has previously favorably reviewed The Magicians, but when I read it later, I didn’t like it much at all – I thought all of the characters were spoiled brats who made everything and everyone around them worse. Sandman Slim felt like a natural conclusion to The Magicians – all of their arrogant blundering has finally bit them in the ass, and the one bitten the worst has grown up (a little) and is going to make the rest of them pay. It was just very satisfying, and has seriously been the best thing in the last couple really crappy weeks.

More from BookBub

The Witch Hunter

By Nicole R Taylor

Witch_HunterI wanted to keep my BookBub free-book lucky streak so badly that I tried to convince myself that The Witch Hunter was a good book until I just couldn’t lie to myself anymore. It starts off promising, if extremely derivative of Charlaine Harris’ True Blood series: antebellum vampires feuding with backwoods werewolves, with various women caught in the middle, all in swampy, small-town Louisiana.

Now, I actually liked Harris’ books quite a bit (before the series went off the rails entirely), but there were a couple of points that detracted for me, and this book actually corrects those issues right off the bat. The Witch Hunter features three female protagonists introduced early on, and all three are given distinct identities and relationships to each other, unrelated to the male characters. The central male protagonist comes across as a complete asshole, but in a refreshing change, all of the other characters fully recognize and deprecate this about him, though they also then excuse it to a ridiculous degree.

So that’s the good; here’s the bad. The writing and plotting are amateur-level sloppy. In fact, there are enough typos that I wondered whether the book was self-published without the involvement of any sort of editor. As the plot picked up, the characterizations, which I’d previously admired, couldn’t keep up and shifted so wildly from scene to scene that they all appeared either mentally deficient or psychotic. It was a drag to the final scene, which ends in a cliff hanger that I will not be following up on.

Entangled

By Nikki Jefford

EntangledEntangled had the reverse affect: I was groaning right off the bat, but once I’d settled into hating just about every character, protagonist and antagonist alike, I was drawn into the plot itself and looked forward to seeing where it went. The absurd plot was what originally drew me to the novel (well, that and being free): teenage witch Graylee dies mysteriously in her sleep, and even more mysteriously, wakes up several weeks later in the body of her twin sister. Only handsome, brooding warlock Raj, who had been lurking around Graylee recently, suspects the switch!

Well, that’s not exactly true: Graylee tends to tell just about everyone she meets, until a good half dozen people are in on the secret. This so-called ‘secret’ is that she and her twin switch off consciousness, each having control of the body on one day and then unconsciousness the next. Graylee complains extensively about how shallow, jealous, and malicious her twin is, while at the same time mocking less attractive classmates and the differently abled. She also seems to have an oversized antagonism toward her twin, which made me suspect an unreliable narrator, giving the book a greater sense of suspense and intrigue than it would otherwise have had. In the end, the unpredictable insanity of the plot saved this book for me – it wasn’t a good book by any stretch, but it was sure an entertaining one!

BookBub

I’ve been sort of sulking over Kinsey suddenly discovering Dorothy Sayers and being able to read all of her books for the very first time, and wishing that I could discover some amazing new author like that, too. Then I ran across BookBub a few weeks ago, and while I’m not saying it is bringing me any Sayers-quality books, I’m having an enormous amount of fun with it!

BookBub is basically a site that lists the many, many free and discounted ebooks available through various venders. You can sign up to get daily emails with recommended deals, and I currently look forward each day to seeing what is on tap! Even if most of the books look terrible, I still love reading the little blurbs about them, and I’ve already downloaded five new books to try out, cost-free! Out of those, I’ve read two, and enjoyed both quite a bit, so I’m two-for-two, so far!

last_necromancerMy first free download was The Last Necromancer, by C. J. Archer. Set in Victorian London, Charlie is a young woman who has been living as a boy on the streets for the past five years after her vicar father threw her out after discovering she could raise the dead. She is kidnapped by a secret society trying to track down all necromancers for an unknown purpose. The secret society, of course, is headed by a handsome and fascinating man, who unfortunately turns out to be a very problematic love interest, the weakest part of the book. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but I still got a kick out of it!

maids_of_misfortuneMaids of Misfortune, by M. Louisa Locke, is actually a good book, set in Victorian-era San Francisco, where Annie Fuller runs a boarding house and a small clairvoyance business out of it, in order to make ends meet. Right of the bat, it is charming, with wonderful details about both businesses and the various characters she meets through them. The characters are all so well written, with nuanced and realistic humanity, that it completely made up for the somewhat predictable mystery. It continually surprised me with little realistic details that most books brush right over, and which I appreciated a lot. I not only highly recommend it, I’m looking forward to continuing the series.

I excitedly told Rebecca about this, and she hasn’t had quite the positive experience I have. For one, she was lazier about setting up her account, so she wasn’t getting as interesting recommendations. She has also been not quite so fortunate in her downloads, though I’m ascribing at least some of that to a lack of discrimination. She downloaded thirteen, started five, finished three, and mildly enjoyed one. She’s sticking with it, though, for the love of browsing and then getting free books.

Honestly, the best thing about it is how completely risk-free it is: no cost and no clutter!

A Monster Calls

Around this time last year, I mentioned that I had enjoyed the Patrick Ness book A Monster Calls. I didn’t go into a lot of detail in that post, but the book uses Ness’s text and beautiful black and white illustrations by Jim Kay to tell the story of a thirteen-year-old boy whose mother is clearly dying (but won’t admit it) and who conjures a monster from a tree outside his window. The monster comes to him at night and tells him stories that ultimately help him process what is happening. I did like the book, although it was a little middle reader for my taste and I’m not a huge fan of heavily illustrated books.  But Anna and I recently saw the movie version released right before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. In fact, I liked the movie much more than the book. Why? A few factors:

The illustrations in the book were lovely, but as someone who is way more into the text, I mostly glanced at them quickly and moved on. The movie does an amazing job of recreating the pictures so the movie has the same overall feeling and some of the same specific imagery. But it’s all alive and moving and in color and really striking.

In the book, the stories that the monster tells the boy were fine, whatever, I read them, they seemed just sort of like morally-ambiguous fairy tales. But in the movie, the stories within the stories are told through colorful watercolor illustrations that you watch appear on screen. They’re just lovely and made me pay attention to the stories in a way I hadn’t in the book.

The acting is truly wonderful. Liam Neeson is the voice of the monster, and his portrayal made the monster seem less like an arbitrary tree man and more like a force of nature that cared about what happened to the boy, even if it couldn’t change anything. (Liam Neeson also appears in the movie for two seconds as a character in a photograph, which I thought added a nice layer). And Felicity Jones made the mom seem sick and in denial, which was most of what came through in the book, but also fierce and funny and real. The boy was also great, and Signourney Weaver is in there too, and the specificity of the performances added to my experience.

A warning: I am not a big movie crier, and there was much crying here. As in, you could hear everyone in the theater around us crying and Anna and I both made use of the napkins I had gotten for my popcorn. But it didn’t feel like despondent crying, more like cathartic, hopeful crying. I also saw Manchester by the Sea recently, and when it was over I remember feeling dull and heavy, even though it was a beautifully-made move. This one felt more like waking from a dream. Which is not what I want every day, but was definitely worth it in this case.