Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Category: A Game of Tropes Page 1 of 2

Give me a break

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace, published 04 May 2021.

This action packed, gaming dystopia, in a world where two corporations are at war with each other and the general population has to suffer from it is good, but nothing outstanding. The cover is great, though.

Unfortunately, the whole book reads like YA in the vein of Divergent, the few added “fucks” don’t elevate it to adult Sci-Fi.

The MC is an orphan, she lost her parents in the war when she was eight. She’s an introvert, yet needs to broadcast her gaming stream to earn money. She helps strangers, but is bristly towards her friends – she shares her hotel room home with eight other people. When she finds information about one of the corporations at war, she’s the only one who … yada yada yada

2/5 Harpy Eagles

Let’s eat Grandma!

Star Eater by Kerstin Hall, published 22 June 2021.

This dystopian-esque fantasy novel has an MC fit for a YA novel, hereditary magic based on cannibalism, a Sisterhood of nuns running the government, a resistance movement, zombies, food shortage, and big cats.

This review is based on an ARC of the Recorded Books audiobook.

Where do I even start?

I’d have liked some pointers as to where we are, what kind of period of human history this might be similar too. The only information I get on that is there are horses drawing carts and cabs. Also gas lamps are mentioned once. So, probably somewhere similar to the late Middle Ages with gas lamps?

The main character El/Elfreda is a 22-year-old acolyte of the sacred order of sisters that is ruling Aytrium. She became an acolyte about a year ago when her mother went into her martyrdom. She is, [let’s say it together:], no one special and yet the chosen one to save the world. Add a love triangle or two to the mix,… Yet, the book is hailed as not YA.

The magic system: Magic is called Lace. It is used for protection and defence against Haunts (zombie men created through the Renewal ceremonies performed by acolytes, see below) mainly, but can also be used for compulsion of others. Furthermore, it is used to keep Aytrium afloat. [It’s not quite clear to me whether Aytrium is a country or a city with a few villages surrounding it. Also, it wasn’t clear to me that Aytrium was a floating landmass and has been floating for more than 500 years. It was first explicitly mentioned at about 60% of the audiobook; let’s hope the print edition will have a map that shows this.]  

The following paragraphs will contain spoilers. Frankly, I didn’t very much like this book. It is a non-YA YA novel with YA characters, having YA relationships, YA dialogues and affects, and the adults have betrayed them.

[Spoiler alert!]

Only the members of the Sisterhood have Lace. It’s hereditary magic, which means, it is passed on from mother to daughter after the mother starts her martyrdom. The martyrdom means, the mother falls in some form of coma after her own mother dies and her daughter now has to make weekly visits to her mother in the facility where martyrs are stored. This is a kind of morgue where the still breathing corpses are stored so that daughters can eat some of their mother’s flesh to replenish their Lace. In the flesh and organs, the magic is stored, hence the extremities are eaten first, the organs, especially the heart, last.

In order to keep the Lace within the Order, the members of the Sisterhood cannot have heterosexual relationships. How do they procreate then? The acolytes must perform monthly Renewal ceremonies where they have to have sex with a convicted murderer or rapist. If they get pregnant and the child turns out a boy, the child is given away, and the acolyte has to continue the renewal ceremonies. If the child is a girl, the acolyte keeps the child, raises it, and is henceforth released from renewal duty; grandmothers go into martyrdom and mothers and daughters now have the clock ticking for when they will ‘level up’ within the Sisterhood.

These renewal ceremonies create zombie-like creatures. The men the nuns have sex with catch some form of STD that turns them into Haunts that will, if they aren’t “sent over the edge” (can’t be killed, can’t stay in Aytrium either), haunt the Sisters in order to kill and eat them. Sometimes, men catch this zombie disease without having to have had sex with a member of the order, this means they are used in the renewal ceremonies until the disease is so far advanced that they have to be “sent over the edge.” [The term is mentioned early on in the book, but it doesn’t mean that the listener/reader automatically knows that Aytrium is a floating landmass. Could refer to a cliff-face over, say, an ocean, too.]

As it happens, the Haunts are exactly how the Chosen One story-line gets going. El, our doormat of an MC, hates having to eat the flesh of her mother, hates the Renewal – for obvious reasons – so when a cabal approaches her with the promise to get her out of renewal ceremonies, she agrees to spy for them. Like in every dystopian YA story, she learns about how the ruling class is cheating and suppressing critical information, she wants to support the resistance without actually betraying her vows to the order, her best friends are in the midst of it. And of course, her best friend, from when they were kids and who El has a crush on, caught the zombie disease from one kiss they shared. And of course, the sister of this guy, also El’s best friend, is someone who not only El has a crush on, but who secretly has a crush on El too – hello love-triangle. Luckily this is kept at a minimum. When El and some other members of the Order find themselves in a trap (one with a capital T, predictable from a mile ahead), El finds out that she is the one child born every 70 years that could make or break the Order. Either the Order will gorge themselves on El, because she has lots of Lace. Or El has to bring the Order down by sacrificing herself and her magic. Sacrificing herself will somehow bring her boy back from zombie-dom, so… the last 20% of the book are about how she gets to sacrifice herself.

Just FYI: The resistance see the Sisterhood as a tyrannical order of outsiders and want to get rid of them. The Sisterhood was able to crush all attempts so far, but the resistance is gaining ground, not least because some members of the Order are secretly working with them?

The food shortage seems to be a regularly occurring problem the Aytrium is facing, based on draught years and rain seasons. El works for the department that is responsible to find alternative food supplies. But, once the Chosen One plot gets under way the food shortage is no longer mentioned. I assume it is all resolved due to the way the story ends. Still, this subplot took up a lot of pages, just to be ignored in the end.

Also, there were big cats that were used for long distance travel. They were kept in stables and were probably only for the use of members of the Sisterhood. They can cover ground fast and they are warm in a chilly night.

The titular Star Eater is someone who might have eaten an actual star or someone who was considered the star, or ruler, of the people. Anyway, this eating of the star made the Star Eater so powerful with Lace she managed the ascension of Aytrium all on her own. How? Why?

To be honest, this book left me with a lot of questions about heredity, about the magic system, about the Haunts, about the original Star Eater and how and why Aytrium became a floating land, about what the rest of the world looked like, about why there is a resistance to the Sisterhood when we never get to see what’s so bad about it and know nothing about whether the general public is actually observing the Sisters’ religion, the (forced) bi-sexualism, and so much more.

1/5 Harpy Eagles – lots of unused potential, lots of predictable twists, reads YA although it is not supposed to be.

Why’s there a pirate ship on the cover?

That’s more or less what I am taking from reading The Beholder by Anna Bright, published 19 June 2019.

This YA just shows me, again, that YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi should no longer make it onto my TBR. In other words, I had so many issues with this book, …

The main character, Selah, is the Seneschal-Elect of Potomac. That means she’ll be the leader of her people once her father dies. Her task is it, as the future leader, female but definitely NOT feminist, to find herself a husband. Since The One she fell for at home doesn’t want her, her stepmother is sending Selah to Europe to find her match. Fairy tale retellings ahead. Selah seems to see herself as Snow White, since her step-mother will certainly kill her father now that she has sent Selah out to never come back home one way or another. Either she’ll marry one of her suitors and then stay in Europe, or the Baba Yaga will eat(?) her; that irrational fear is based on a fairy tale and a nursery rhyme Selah keeps repeating.

Selah is the perfect pawn of her story; literally, plot happens to her not because of her. She’s naive and trusts people too easily. She wears her feelings on her sleeve, and her tongue, unwisely telling everyone and their grandmother what she thinks and feels. And she feels a lot, especially very fast for the members of her crew and the suitors she meets. Hello insta-love.

The story is supposedly set in something similar to the late 18th or early 19th century. Which means, I was annoyed at the anachronistic use of words like “barf”. I was further annoyed at how ignorant Selah was. For a YA heroine she had no backbone whatsoever. She ranted about one of her suitors being nine years older than her, but a nearly arranged marriage for diplomatic reasons was obviously alright to her; why then is the age difference important? And why, oh why, do we see a tiny sliver of feminism when her friend wants to choose her own husband, but Selah is unaware that her situation is the same?

The writing is nothing to write home about. There’s more tell than show throughout the book, and the retellings of fairy tales do not always work advantageously.

To come back to my initial question. Why is there a picture of a ship on the cover? Especially an artfully carved one that immediately reminded me of the TV series Black Sails, and hence of pirates. Not to mention the title of the book being the name of the ship, yet most of the story doesn’t even take place on the ship. I was definitely blindsided by the cover. Shame on me!

1/5 Harpy Eagles

Little Red Riding Hood Retelling

For The Wolf by Hannah F. Whitten is the first book in the Wilderwoods series and was published on 1st June 2021.

As some of you might know that I am struggling with fairy tale retellings, especially YA, it might come as a surprise that I picked this up. Well, I picked it because it was hailed as a dark fantasy fairy tale retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that is not Young Adult.

Does it deliver? A resounding no! On so many levels. Quite contrary to some YA fantasy stories, where the characters seem to be much more mature than their late teenage years, this book’s heroine is supposed to be 20 years old but behaves like a moody teenager. Also, the story is more of a Beauty and the Beast retelling than LRRH. The parallels are very limited the heroine’s name, Red(arys), who wears a red cloak when she enters the Wilderwood to encounter the wolf; who’s actually just a young man.

I was very underwhelmed by this book. The characters are rather flat. The plot is not fully developed, neither is the magic system; the author seems to have added to the magic system whenever she needed another twist to the story, and so at around 90% I still hadn’t quite grasped all of the aspects. Furthermore, the writing, although good, is convoluted with a lot of repetitions of certain actions (people were slouching in door frames, or rubbing their faces with their palms,…) – this might have been added out of the final version, though.

1/5 Harpy Eagles for at least trying to write a Little Red Riding Hood retelling that’s not YA.

A bunch of quick reviews

Without further ado…

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells, publishing date 27 April 2021.

Murderbot being Murderbot, it is not easy for it to interact with humans. But it has to find out about the dead human. A dead human it did not kill, thank you for asking. So, it’s playing Sherlock on a space station. Making new friends along the way, of course.

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes, published 02 March 2021.

This collection of fantasy and contemporary fiction short stories was a bit ‘yeah and meh’. Some of the Jewish ‘own voices’ stories were really really good. Yet reading some of the more speculative fiction stories, I felt a bit lost. Strong stories nonetheless even if they might make you feel uncomfortable.

The Stolen Kingdom by Jillian Boehme, published 02 March 2021.

This was surprisingly good for a rather generic YA fantasy romance. Boehme managed to make her characters and their love story believable by letting them both acknowledge that they had known each other only for a short time. A further plus: it’s a standalone that delivers a solid story in less than 350 pages.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, published 02 March 2021.

A historical fiction using the split timeline trope. I liked the storyline about the apothecary set in the late 18th century. Nella has a secret apothecary shop, she’s helping women who find themselves in ‘tricky’ situations. Until a chance encounter with 12 y/o Eliza sets the wheels of fate in motion, which lead to Caroline from Ohio. On a trip to London she finds an apothecary bottle while mudlarking in the Thames. She starts researching about the bottle and the apothecary. The story would have been just as interesting without the contemporary storyline, which was rather ‘meh’ compared to the historical story.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark.

Both short stories are set in an alternate Cairo in the early 20th century. Otherworldly beings are just as normal as the Ministry of Alchemy. In A Dead Djinn in Cairo, Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi is trying to solve a murder disguised as suicide and finds herself digging so much deeper that she encounters clockwork angels and a plot that might implode time itself. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 brings us back to Cairo, this time “Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr shows his new partner Agent Onsi the ropes of investigation when they are called to subdue a dangerous, possessed tram car. What starts off as a simple matter of exorcism, however, becomes more complicated as the origins of the demon inside are revealed.” I enjoyed both short stories and I am looking forward to reading the full novel A Master of Djinn (expected pub date: 11 May 2021), which has been idling on my ARC shelf for some time.

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.

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.

Ugh, so cliché!

One To Watch by Kate Stayman-London, published 07 July, 2020.

Unpopular opinion! Contains spoilers!

The premise: plus size woman, who is body positive and fashionable, is looking for love on a The Bachelorette-like show.

Bea is a plus size fashion blogger. She’s been pining after her best friend for years. They share one night together after which Ray, who’s engaged, basically ghosts Bea. After a wine induced social media rant about a reality TV show, the producers of the show want Bea to be their next bachelorette to find love among 25 contestants.

Bea is hesitant to go on the show, knowing what kind of trolling she might have to deal with due to it. She still signs the contract and meets the initial 25 men. The majority of them are handsome and not at all what Bea had expected. Here we get my first big issue: although body positive on the outside, Bea is not very positive on the inside. She’s insecure and despite the evidence pointing to the opposite she thinks the men despise her for her size.

I have the feeling that the author had a list of boxes that needed ticking while writing this book. Include a gay person, a black person, an asian person, someone asexual, someone who’s gender non-conform, someone with a fat-fetish, … They are all there! Are they handled well? Nope! Scratched at the surface of what would have been possible. Used as cliché? You bet!

Same for the body positivity. Do we get to see Bea eat healthy? Enjoy a dance lesson? Nope! We are being told that she eats healthy, but then her shopping list contains only snacks, not a single veggie. She tells us she does yoga and cross fit, but nearly freaks out when some of the love interests are personal trainers. Perfect opportunity to show that you don’t have to be stick thin to be fit.

Ray! Bleurgh! A guy who cheats on his fiancée with his best friend? Then there is radio silence? And she keeps pining after this guy?! A girl who takes her best friend to bed knowing he’s engaged to another woman? *hand me a bucket, please* Suddenly he shows up, a week before the finale show, to make sure she knows he loves her before she accepts the hand of another man. Bea’s best friend Skypes in and tries to reason with Bea, but, of course, they argue about the idiot who has been stringing Bea on for the past decade. And, of course, on their date Ray has lots of arguments why he suddenly noticed that Bea is the woman he wants to spend his life with. *where’s that bucket?*

Cue the very predictable finale!

2 very generous Goodreads stars

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