Harbinger by Sara Wilson Etienne

HarbingerAs I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve read a few awful fantasies lately, including Harbinger by Sara Wilson Etienne. The cover was weird, but intriguing, and I was running out of appealing options in the library. (Note: If none of this review is coherent, I blame the incoherence of the book itself.)

Faye has suffered from hallucinations and nightmares for years. Friendless, she seeks comfort in the bones of deceased animals – a pastime once discovered by her parents that leads them to send her away to Holbrook Academy, run by her childhood psychologist Dr. Mordoch. At first, she feels betrayed but soon begins to feel at home on the island and even makes her first friends in her assigned “Family” unit. However, this mental institution is a harsh place, with guards carrying tasers and pepper spray and students being sent to solitary confinement for misdeeds. So when her Family starts experiencing strange incidents, like waking up on their dorm floor with red hands, Faye is certain that something’s up and her visions are at the root of it. She trusts no one to help her find the truth though, not even the handsome Kel, whom she shares a surprising connection with…and who may be trying to kill her.

(Spoilers ahead)

Well, Faye is crazy. You might be able to tell from the synopsis, but she stubbornly refuses to admit there’s anything that weird about herself. I guess it would be upsetting to be abandoned by your parents, but what do you expect when they see your collection of animal skeletons? So it’s not surprising that she’s friendless because she’s completely unlikeable. Apparently this is because of a near-drowning experience when she was a child, so now she has visions. Her fellow “Family” members are not as crazy, more the garden variety juvenile delinquents and the mysterious brooding dude, whom Faye falls instantly in love with for no good reason. They seemed mostly harmless, but also stereotypical.

Even though the school is also nuts, that still didn’t garner any sympathy from me for Faye and the others. Mainly because its existence made zero sense.  It might have helped if there was a good explanation of where or when this book takes place. I think it’s supposed to be a future United States that underwent an energy crisis, but honestly the past is so poorly explained that it’s difficult to tell. Regardless, what’s not explained is how society is just allowing this place to exist beyond a ghost wanting it to and manipulating Dr. Mordoch to be her minion.

Which brings me to the end. I have no clue what happened  – Faye was part of an ancient family that came back and wanted to kill everything but then changed her mind? She was the reincarnation of a statue of an ancient Native American tribe with magical powers? By that point, this world sounded so terrible that drowning it would’ve been a better ending than a nature battle that concludes with Faye absorbing the pollution to save the earth. And then everyone’s just like, we’ll live happily ever after. What?!

I couldn’t even enjoy the mystery element mainly because it makes no freaking sense so it’s not like I could actually solve it. In all honestly, this reminded me of some of the more poorly plotted Christopher Pike or R.L. Stine teen supernatural thrillers. Except now I’m an adult and can’t even blame it on the nostalgia.

1 Star

 

Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon

Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, #1)This book, Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms #1), was one I picked at random off the library shelves because the summary intrigued me, even though the cover looks like a bad anime. My apologies to any anime fans out there, but I personally find this stylization repellent on fantasy novels – this one in particular resembles a Scooby Doo episode, like “Scooby Doo! The Inferi of Agrabah.”

It’s not inferi, but djenns and ghuls haunt the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, where a power struggle brews between the despotic Khaliph and the Robin Hood-like Falcon Prince. Doctor Abdoulla Makhslood, the last real ghul hunter in the majestic city of Dhamsawaat, feels weary of his vocation and eager to retire when his old lover asks him to investigate a series of brutal murders. He is assisted by Raseed bas Raseed, a holy warrior whose piety belies his deadliness. But Raseed’s faith is tested when they find the shape-shifting tribeswoman Zamia Badawi, the lone survivor of her family’s massacre by the dangerous foe they’re all tracking. Soon, they discover a connection between the deaths and the Falcon Prince’s revolution, and must save the ruler they despise to protect the people they love.

I loved the setting for this book, very One Thousand and One Nights, an uncommon experience for fantasy novels despite the wealth of ideas found in that tome. Ahmed portrayed a convincingly Arabian-like locale without resorting to archetype. For example, the book successfully combined a religious system reminiscent of Sufi mysticism with a rich culture of supernatural creatures, such as the bone ghuls and the shape-shifter. While the world didn’t feel entirely fleshed out, especially politically with the relationship between the kingdoms, the city of Dhamsawaat certainly glowed through the eyes of Abdoulla and Zamia.

For the most part, I enjoyed the characters, a multitude of whom had point of view chapters allowing for in-depth character development. Abdoulla was perhaps my favorite, an extremely-huggable uncle who relatably loved tea, his books, and other comforts. Zamia was definitely my least favorite as she behaved petulantly towards her friendly saviors, like a lion biting the hand feeding her. Both of them, along with the rest, had their flaws and quirks, which made them quite realistic. I also appreciate experiencing their inner struggle over helping either the Khaliph or the Falcon Prince, seeing as how neither occupied the moral high ground.

By the middle, the plot was dragging slightly, as the investigation floundered and all the characters underwent this internal turmoil.  The reveal of the villain was also disappointing as it felt rushed and anti-climactic, perhaps because his motivations and persona weren’t compelling. However, the main concluding action had me eagerly flipping pages, with it being so terrible and messy, yet perfect for the world they inhabit. I think the sequel may even be superior because of the potential in the ending.

I’d read a few terrible fantasies around the same time (reviews coming soon), so I have to say Ahmed renewed my hope for the year’s reads. Although a few parts dragged and others proved confusing, the plot and setting were unique and the characters memorable.

4 Stars

Conversion by Katherine Howe

ConversionI had read Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane awhile ago. It had a similar colonial American, witchy plot but the conclusion proved to be disappointing. Nevertheless, I was open to giving her another shot with Conversion.

Colleen Rowley and her friends are seniors at the ultra-competitive prep school, St. Joan’s Academy in Danvers, Massachusetts. Amidst the pressures of college applications, the fierce battle for valedictorian, and blooming (or withering) romantic relationships, the girls of St. Joan’s start to crumble. It begins with queen bee Clara Rutherford, who has a seizure in the middle of homeroom and returns to school several days later with uncontrollable tics. It spreads to her closest friends and classmates, until seemingly half the senior class is losing hair or coughing up pins. As the national spotlight descends on Danvers and the community struggles to find a cause for the sickness, Colleen, while reading “The Crucible” for extra credit, realizes that Danvers used to be named Salem Village and centuries ago, a group of young girls experienced a frighteningly similar epidemic…

I read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in high school, and assisted my friends in running lines for the play, so it was interesting to see how Howe tied it in with the story. She weaved together the past with the present in alternating chapters, so that the narratives mirror each other and as Ann Putnam in 1692 Salem explains her role in the events of the witch trials, Colleen figures out more of the historical and current truth.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find either main characters likeable, but for once I’m fine with that, because I think it worked well with the morals of the story. The girls in both times were self-centered, albeit understandably stressed, sheep who followed the leader out of an entitled sense of importance. They didn’t think about the repercussions beyond themselves. I sympathized more with Ann, who at least was conflicted about her actions, than Colleen, who was a terrible person even before this event. She constantly disparaged her friends and acquaintances in her head while playing nice, was wrapped up in her own self too much to be supportive of others, and acted intellectually superior and entitled to good grades.

As a result, it took Colleen quite a long time to figure out what was going on, so called “conversion disorder,” i.e. the girls were faking for attention. Or so we were meant to think I think – the ending confused me though. I would’ve been satisfied with the conversion conclusion, even if they couldn’t prove it, when out of left field the witchy elements make a comeback. I guess the spooky mysteriousness surrounding Emma’s family warranted some explanation no matter how out of the blue.

At the very least, the romance was negligible, which is a plus for me (I’m purposely ignoring the student-teacher relationship because of it’s connection to the supernatural explanation and because of its general ickiness). And the contemporary narrative was pretty awful as were the closing chapters. However, I read this for the psychological and historical elements more than anything else, and while I thought they could’ve been more fleshed out, Ann’s story was enjoyable enough for me to give this

3 Stars

Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch

Snow Like Ashes (Snow Like Ashes, #1)I’d seen Sara Raasch’s Snow Like Ashes (Snow Like Ashes #1) reviewed and recommended in a number of places, so promptly added it my ever-growing, never-shrinking YA fantasy to-read list. Plus, I liked how the cover literally displayed the title, with snow like ashes falling and laying about, even if I still don’t quite understand how the title played into the plot.

Sixteen years ago (the perfect amount of time for a protagonist to grow up and experience sexual tension), the realm of Winter was invaded by the King of Spring, its queen killed, and its people enslaved. Now it only exists in the hearts and minds of a handful of survivors, hiding out in the desert and waiting for the day to reclaim their kingdom. Meira, orphaned as an infant during the burning of the capital Jannuari, trains every day to be able to go on the missions looking for the Winterians’ lost locket, a relic that serves as a conduit for their magic. Her guardian and the leader of the refugees, Sir, refuses to give her a chance in spite of her pleas and the support of Mather, the Winterian prince and Meira’s crush. However, the day arrives where Sir is forced to send her on a mission to retrieve half of the missing locket, a day that changes Meira’s life forever but brings her one step closer to regaining her homeland.

(Spoilers ahead)

This world is certainly a unique landmass, with 4 Season kingdoms (one for each season) and 4 Rhythm kingdoms that cycle through all four seasons as normal. Although it was fascinating to think about, I didn’t love this setup because, being in a miserable winter myself, I can’t relate to being excited to reclaim a land that’s all winter all the time. I understand it’s their homeland, but personally I’d prefer to live in Summer if I could choose. Anyway, presumably there is a reason behind this weird weather phenomenon, though it hasn’t been explained. It’s likely tied to the magic that was once found in the mountains of Winter, from which the magical conduits of each kingdom came from. Each object (a locket for Winter, dagger from Cordell, staff for Spring, etc.) is entwined with the dynastic line, four of which are matriarchal and four of which are patriarchal. Again, balance of some inexplicable variety. Since Winter’s conduit is female-linked as well as broken and separated, this is a serious impediment for Mather and for retaking their country even once Meira recovers the first half.

Several of this book’s reveals were fairly obvious from the first few chapters, the main one being that Meira is the heir to the throne rather than Mather. Firstly, she’s not allowed to go out on missions, although Mather is – why would they risk the heir, even if he is a male in a matriarchal lineage? Secondly, Sir feels uncomfortable with her referring to him as her father, most likely because of his position beneath her in the realm’s hierarchy. Thirdly, once she starts having dreams of the deceased Queen Hannah after retrieving the locket, its clear that they share a bond beyond being Winterian and that Meira is destined to be more than an inept soldier.

Despite Meira’s bloodthirst and lack of interest in being a bride, this book unfortunately contains a, ugh, love triangle. Romance #1 is the best friend. Mather is certainly supportive of Meira but very bland, to the extant I’m glad Winter dodged a bullet by not having such an uninspiring leader as king. Romance #2 is Prince Theron, whom Meira is reluctantly engaged to for a marriage alliance with Cordell. However, he turns out to be well-read, caring towards his subjects and Meira, and brave enough to stand up to his slightly-crazy father – now if only he was the only love interest. But alas, that’s not allowed in YA these days. What is allowed is many gratuitous shirtless scenes where Theron and Mather physically and/or verbally fight over Meira. It made me cringe, especially as her halfhearted attempt to stop it kept being sidetracked by her drooling over them.

Worse than that was her pages-long hissy fit over being forced to get married at all, feeling so betrayed by her comrades…and not remembering for a moment that most of her people are dead or slaves so playing dress-up and marrying a cute guy is a far better fate. While she suffered as a refugee, she constantly recalls how their group dwindled in number, yet as soon as she’s called to do something that could actually help, she behaves selfishly. I admit it is courageous of Meira to want to fight for her people but if she paid more attention to political history than chakra throwing, she would realize what’s obvious to the reader – the odds are not in their favor with only eight free rebels and no other allies. Her people desperately need this alliance. Her gradual acceptance of this is drawn-out and tiresome as she finally has an “aha” moment after numerous reckless and ill-thought out acts.

I’d be fairly sure that Winter is screwed with such an unprepared ruler but, well, magic will probably save the day from the Decay, the evil formerly in the body of the Spring King and now let loose on the world. The next books will likely be a straight-forward good vs. evil fight with more triangular tension between Meira, Mather, and Theron. Unsurprisingly, I probably won’t be reading to find out.

3 Stars

My Name Is Resolute by Nancy E. Turner

My Name Is ResoluteI’d been hankering for some historical fiction recently, and stumbling across Nancy E. Turner’s My Name Is Resolute seemed like destiny as it sounded like it fit the bill perfectly.

I was wrong.

Resolute Talbot is a young child growing up on her family’s plantation in 1720s Jamaica when pirates attack. Her siblings and her are captured to be sold into slavery in America; however, her brother decides a pirate’s life is for him so it’s just Resolute and her sister stranded in wintery New England and longing to go home. Learning to spin and weave among other chores previously performed for her by her own slaves, Resolute goes from servant to independent young woman to American spy as the colonies erupt in revolution.

I’m sorry to say, but I didn’t actually get to the revolution part. Now, I wouldn’t ordinarily review a book that I hadn’t completed (I know, I know), but I had such strong feelings about this one that were longing to erupt in place of the promised war. And in the spirit of independence and freedom of thought, I couldn’t resist them.

I hated Resolute. I can’t remember the last time I disliked a protagonist so fiercely, though Bella Swan comes to mind. Resolute is a child when the book begins, though I’m not exactly sure how old because the first few chapters have a slightly confusing timeline. Suffice to say that she’s probably 9 or 11 and unfortunately acts very much like it. Since we’re in her mind, that gets old quicker than she does. She’s constantly whining about her situation and wanting to go home, which is understandable, except she refuses to accept that her parents are dead and that home no longer exists. Additionally, she’s naively unaware that her sister is beaten and raped while attempting to protect her, and continuously complains about her sister.

It doesn’t get any better when she arrives in America and is sold into indentured servitude, a situation which I should sympathize with. However, she acts like such a petulant, selfish brat that it’s impossible to empathize with her, especially as she behaves cruelly towards a child with mental disabilities. Her idiocy and narcissism continue as a bear attacks and kills her juvenile crush, her village is captured by Native Americans and she is sent to a convent – a sequence of disasters unfolding in a more dry manner never existed.

That’s where I stopped, so perhaps she matures with age and the second half of the narrative is more engaging. But this first part was around 300 pages and I couldn’t stand another 300 – the book clocks in at a whopping 608. This is the first time in the history of this blog where I felt like I was wasting time on a tome since the writing style, heavy with infodump, drags down the tale further.

Maybe this rating isn’t fair, but what’s also not fair is adding another book to my one-handed tally of books I couldn’t finish, making it now a two-handed tally.

1 Star

In the News: Diversity in YA

When I first read this article in Bustle, complaining that ‘Time’s “100 Best Young Adult Books” of All Time Is Very White…and Not Very YA,’ I had mixed reactions.

On one hand, as a non-white reader, it does occasionally bother me that most of the popular books feature white protagonists and growing up, I read maybe two books that related to the Indian-American experience. On the other hand, I want my best lists to be colorblind, for authors and their books not to be on there to fulfill a racial quota but because they really are the best. And with white authors dominating the market for the last few hundred years, it’s not exactly surprising that some of those classics show up on the list (i.e. A Catcher in the Rye, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, etc).

It’s a popularity contest and the aforementioned classics have proven themselves by lasting. The most important thing to me is that now you can find diversity on the shelves where you couldn’t before, even when you’re not particularly looking for it. As these books are promoted and popularized, they’ll take over these lists, regardless of who creates them.

More concerning for this list’s authority is that it lacks definition behind “young adult.” Some of these titles seemed middle grade, others what I would consider young adult (high school and early twenties), and a few more I would think of as adult, such as Lord of the Rings. I can think of great authors of color in all three categories, but it’s harder to distinguish them when the field is blurred across age groups.

However, and most concerning of all, how the heck is the mindless drivel that is Twilight on the same level as To Kill A Mockingbird?! After discovering that, all points are moot because I’m not even taking this list seriously.