Review: Madly

Arrows through a heart against a pink and purple background.
The cover art is gorgeous.

Details: Alward, Amy. (2015). Madly. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Keywords: young adult, alchemy, magical potions, The Amazing Race, The Wild Hunt, royalty

Madly occurs in an alternate contemporary universe where alchemy and magic co-exists with modern technology. When the princess of the realm poisons herself with a self-administered love potion, the royal family calls upon every alchemist in the land to develop a cure — which includes Samantha Kemi, the latest alchemist in the long line of the famous (but now disgraced) Kemi Alchemists. Gifted at her work and possessing a true affinity for alchemy, Sam is keen to participate… but encounters a few barriers:

  • Her grandfather resents the royal family for a long-ago betrayal of the Kemi Family, and because of this longstanding grudge, refuses to help the princess. This means Sam is unable (at first) to participate in Auden’s Hunt.
  • The Kemi Family lack the funds and many of the material resources to travel around the world in order to retrieve the ingredients for the remedial potion. This is in direct contrast with the most well-known competitors, the corporate magical alchemists (I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase…), ZoroAster Corporation.
  • Sam has a crush on her fiercest competitor… who was the intended object of the Royal Princess’ love potion.

Madly read like a fantastical version of the reality show The Amazing Race. But in this version, contestants race against time around the globe to retrieve magical ingredients for an alchemical concoction while the princess slowly – and then quickly – goes mad. Parts of the novel that pertain to the Auden’s Hunt were absolutely convincing and enjoyable: The reader has no doubt of the realm being in danger, or of Sam’s new found resourcefulness in retrieving magical items from remote locations.

However, the romance is really forced. And while the romance between Sam and her crush, Zain Aster, contains pivotal plot points (especially for the Princess’ eventual recovery), the supposed rapport between the two characters felt stilted and odd. At times, I found myself a) not believing the romance, and b) giving no cares at all for happy ending between these two. Overall, though, the premise of the novel was fresh and original, the pacing was strong, and the secondary characters are a delight to read.

Excitement Level: Three stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Fortune’s Pawn

Woman in a space suit with a virtual dashboard.
Space Opera FTW

Details: Bach, Rachel. Fortune’s Pawn. New York, NY: Orbit.

Keywords: space opera, female mercenary, aliens, mystery

Fortune’s Pawn is a solid space opera that features a young and ambitious mercenary who signs on with a ship with the prescient name of The Glorious Fool. Deviana Morris quit the infamous Blackbirds mercenary band in order to pursue her eventual ambition to become one of her home world’s finest armored warriors, the King’s Devastators — and Devi discovers that a successful year upon the Fool can translate a successful entry into the Devastators. However, once Devi is on-board the Fool, she realizes that nearly every member of the ship has significant — and dangerous — secrets to hide.

I love a good space opera. The sheer escapism in this genre has always captured my imagination. Many of the operas I read have borrowed heavily from the themes associated with the Western genre, such as the lone lawman striving to do good, despite his / her own moral failings. Or space as the hostile and inhospitable backdrop against which the depravity of men (and aliens) are showcased. Or a simple old-fashioned revenge story. The author, Rachel Bach, has certainly conveyed these elements in this first novel of her trilogy. I enjoyed it so much that I plan to read the second two in this trilogy.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Deviana’s exploits, I did at times wish for a bit more inner conflict to develop her into a more nuanced character. Deviana is a mercenary heroine with speed, strength, experience, resilience, and smarts. In essence, she is a badass. If you like this character type, you certainly won’t lack for it in Fortune’s Pawn. However, in the post-Buffy era, tough female heroes who kick butt and save everyone is almost passe. Perhaps I’m selfish, but I’d like a little more of Deviana.

Excitement Level: Three and a half stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: The Walled City

Details: Graudin, Ryan. The Walled City. New York, NY: Little Brown.Walled City

Keywords: China, Kowloon, young adult, thriller, prostitution, drugs, Triads

The Walled City is a young adult novel inspired by Kowloon’s Walled City. Written by Ryan Graudin, this novel focuses on three characters who are either trapped, or have chosen to stay, within the infamous, dangerous, and anarchic shanty town outside of Kowloon City, Hong Kong. The Walled City is governed by triads, with little influence over affairs by external police or governmental forces.

The three characters — Jin Ling, Mei Yee, and Dai — come together to complete a dangerous task that, should they fail, will likely result in their painful deaths. In addition to having to survive the treacherous environs of the City, each character quests for a resolution to their own burdens and moral quandaries:

  • Jin Ling, who disguises her female identity by dressing as a boy, must rely upon a stranger for assistance in finding her sister, who was sold into prostitution by their father. But first she must learn to trust the stranger with her burdens.
  • Mei Yee, as the sister sold into prostitution, must decide whether the risks of angering the Triad leaders at her brothel are worth the possibility of freedom. But first she must find bravery within herself to do so.
  • Dai, with a mysterious past that involves considerable personal wealth and no known reason for living in the Walled City, attempts to bring down the Triad leaders at Mei Yee’s brothel. The reader then discovers that he is seeking redemption for his role in his brother’s premature death.

If you have ever seen the film Run, Lola, Run with Franka Potente, then you already have a sense of the pacing within this novel. The breakneck velocity of this story superbly underscores just how dire the situation is for Jin Ling, Mei Yee, and Dai. Furthermore, Graudin spends a great deal of effort on the nuanced depictions of both internal and external conflicts for all of the characters, and this attention to character development really pays off.

Excitement Level: Four Stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: The Dark Days Club

TDDC
Nearly 500 pages of awesome.

Title: Goodman, Alison. The Dark Days Club. New York, NY: Viking Books.

Keywords: demons, magical abilities, orphans, young adult, Regency England

Caution: Some plot points ahead.

The Dark Days Club is written by Australian novelist Alison Goodman. Goodman wrote the acclaimed Eon / Eona fantasy duology (which I have not yet read but plan to), and teaches creative fiction courses to graduate students at the university level. The novel depicts a young English woman on the eve of her Court Presentation during the Regency Era of Britain (roughly from 1811 to 1820, depending on the historian you cite). Events become complicated when the young woman discovers that a maid has gone missing, and that a dear friend has been ruined in the eyes of Society.

Readers learn early on that Lady Helen Wrexhall comes with a tainted past, having been born to the notorious Countess Catherine Wrexhall, a noblewoman with a mysterious (and possibly treasonous) past prior to her death by drowning. Thus, Lady Helen is warned against being too similar to her mother; too unfeminine, for she is tall; and really, too anything. She lives with a proper aunt and a horrendous, abusive uncle, and wrestles with excess energy and boredom. Until she meets the infamous Lord Carlston and discovers that she is a Reclaimer, an individual with inherent abilities that allow her to remove the various types of Deceivers — essentially, demons — from human vessels and in doing so, reclaims human souls. The Reclaimers, and along with several allies, belong to The Dark Days Club — a group of determined demon hunters based in England.

I was not surprised to discover that Lady Catherine had also been Reclaimer, and that Lady Helen’s direct inheritance of these magical talents is a key plot point in the novel. Here are a few more details:

  • Pacing: The novel’s pace / timeline is superb. The story seems to unfold at a pace that is exactly right for this particular novel and these particular characters. Goodman allowed sufficient time for true character development throughout the novel, and then would juxtapose the story or character exposition with exciting action. As a result, an otherwise fantastical story has a unique ring of authenticity and a distinct sense of reality.
  • Prose: You can tell that Goodman is a creative writing professor by her prose. She practices what she preaches: Nary an adverb in sight, and each paragraph on every page feels like it had individual attention.
  • Research: The Dark Days Club is very well researched. Abundant historical references from the Regency Era were introduced to add pertinent details to the story, around which then Goodman centered important plot points. This resulted in an enhanced story, one that did not hit the reader over the head with the lengthy bits of research-laden exposition.
  • Magic, Religion & Cosmology: While demon hunter stories abound on today’s bookshelves, this novel’s take on demon hunters (set against a Regency backdrop) is fresh enough to warrant a second look. Furthermore, Goodman smartly ensures that Lady Helen has enough religion (an accurate and authentic experience of the young noblewomen of that time) to warrant sufficient inner turmoil about the existence of immortal souls and Deceivers and Reclaimers and alchemy.

I enjoyed The Dark Days Club. With so much to love about this novel, I felt that I had an embarrassment of riches to discuss in this review. The book was crafted through such deliberate, masterful decisions that I could relax and enjoy both the story and the craft without ever being jarred out of my suspension of disbelief. Escapism at its finest.

Excitement Level: #Awyiss

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Bad Feminist

Title: Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Bad Feminist
Let’s all be bad feminists.

Keywords: Essays, feminism, intersectionality, non-fiction

Note: I wrestled with whether to categorize this as ‘Required Reading’ or as a ‘Review.’ I will stick with ‘Review’ for now but know that it was a difficult decision…

I finished Bad Feminist last week, and since then, I cannot stop thinking of this powerful, hilarious, and moving collection of essays. Gay is an astute cultural and literary analyst, and a professor at an unnamed college in a Midwest state in the United States. Her prose is especially well written: concise, unpretentious, and every word is there for a specific purpose. Her essays read as an effortless exercise in the art of analysis.

First things first: Gay writes that feminism is a movement created by people, and people are fallible, irrational, and can be assholes (my emphasis). This is true. So when she goes on to explore, dissect, and otherwise ruminate over myriad topics such as reality television programming or Scrabble championships or Daniel Tosh’s infamous rape joke, Gay proceeds to examine each subject in nuanced and careful ways. It’s not enough to simply analyze a topic. Instead, she also strives to identify how associated variables impact the topic at hand. I’m terribly impressed by this approach; this kind of analysis yields incredible rewards for the reader. As I read the text, I often had the sensation of luxuriating in these careful details.

As I read through her essays, two main themes resonated with me:

  • Feminism is not a catch-all movement. What I mean is that the movement doesn’t promise you that you can have it all, and the Kate Spade purse, too. What I found most memorable is Gay’s assertion that people, as a whole, should adjust their improbably high expectations of the feminist movement to something more… realistic. Feminism = Equal opportunity for all genders to have choices in matters economic / financial, digital, social, and cultural.
  • Feminism is contextual. Unfortunately, equality does not mean equity. Throughout several of her essays, Gay examines how the mainstream feminist movement does not equitably address the needs of any person who is not white, able-bodied, cisgender, and heterosexual. Historically, the feminist movement in the United States has barely acknowledged — let alone addressed — how the combined cultural legacies of racism, classism, ableism, heteronormativity, and rigid gender roles (and identities) impact people; how these cultural and systemic factors prevent equal access to the very opportunities ostensibly provided by the feminist movement. It is crucial to recognize such facts.

Gay is a champion at identifying each piece of the intersectionality puzzle in her essays. Incredibly (in my opinion), she makes the exercise look simple. Gay is rightfully discomforted that she exists in a system that fails to meet so many people’s needs, and she captures very well the persistent and disquieting despair that bleeds into a person once they realize this fact.

I enjoyed Gay’s work with a profound appreciation. So few writers can be thoughtful and authentic about such difficult topics, and I feel grateful that I get to read these essays. If you’re interested in learning more about Gay but cannot commit to Bad Feminist right now, I highly Gay’s delightful TED Talk (available here). Her last line is as close to perfect as I can imagine on this topic: “I am a bad feminist. But I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

Excitement Level: All the stars in this galaxy.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.