Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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Title: Norse Mythology

Author: Neil Gaiman

Pages: 304

Goodreads link

My rating: star5

I’m a huge fan of old stories from bygone civilisations. There’s a lot of information to be gathered about old peoples from artefacts, architecture and old bones, but I think that stories really give an deep insight into the psyche of those who came before. When you read something like Beowulf or The Metamorphoses or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’re really investigating the human condition and psychology of the time these works come from. I’m not much of a history buff, but I am a psychology buff and a student of human thought and behaviour, so these stories have great appeal for me.

I’d had Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology on my reading list for quite some time, but somehow couldn’t get around to actually obtaining a copy. But then two fortuitous events collided: my birthday and the release of the new God of War game. I wanted to brush up on my norse mythology before playing the game, and it just so happened that my mum bought me this book for my birthday. So I got straight on it!

Neil Gaiman is, of course, a very accomplished writer, but what really impressed me about this book was the careful research and curation that has gone into it. Gaiman has done all the hard work, poring through the various sources of Norse history and mythology to extract and stitch together a string of tales that are both fascinating and amusing, just as a fireside story should be. If you’ve ever read the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda, you’ll know it can be a bit treacly to read, perhaps something to do with the translations, but this is a book that caters to the modern reader. It reads easily and flows nicely like a book of collected stories, only the stories all relate to each other. The order of the tales is such that it takes you on a mythological journey from the Norse version of the creation, and the birth of the gods, all the way to Ragnarok, and the death of the gods (I just love that the Norse predicted the downfall of their own gods!). So although it’s a collection of individual stories, they all blend together into an overarching narrative, which makes it a satisfying experience as a book.

Oh, and forget what you think you know about Thor and Odin from the MCU, these guys were proper jerks! In fact, almost all the gods that feature have some serious personality flaws, particularly anger management issues. But I think herein lies the insight into Norse life. The gods were harsh and indiscriminate in their wrath because the Norse people’s environment was harsh and indiscriminate. It was a dangerous place to live and a dangerous time to live in, and death was meted out just as indiscriminately as the gods meted it out. The gods dealt in treachery and war and deceit and greed, all of which were a reality to the people who created them.

I think it’s also interesting to note that the Norse version of hell, Helheim, is a frozen wasteland, which of course, was a very real and dangerous environment for the Norse. Meanwhile, the vision of hell that was created in the Middle East and Mediterranean is a fiery furnace, and of course, extreme heat and drought was a serious concern for those peoples. Each hell represents the extremes of climate, and the dangers and fears associated with them, relative to each group of people. This is purely my own speculation, of course, but I think it’s rather neat all the same, and again, it lends a certain insight into the minds of those we cannot question.

Personal ponderings aside, Norse Mythology is an excellent example of engaging writing nested in considerate curation. It’s got all the characters you’ve heard of, and then plenty more besides. There are lessons to be learnt (although I’d advise against Thor’s philosophy of just bashing everyone’s head in to solve all your problems!) and great insight to be had. I’d be surprised if anyone was disappointed by this book.

Review: Echoes by Laura Tisdall

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Title: Echoes

Author: Laura Tisdall

Pages: 298

Goodreads link

My rating: star5

I picked up Echoes by Laura Tisdall not long after a second play-through of Watch Dogs 2, and I was still in the mood for some hackery-pokery. They were promoting it on Amazon, so when I saw it, I was like, why not? Sounds like my kind of thing. And I’m actually really glad I did because it really did turn out to be my kind of thing.

I was hesitant at first because I am really not a fan of present tense stories. As soon as I read the first present tense verb, “hunches”, everything inside me sagged. I can’t put my finger on what it is with me and present tense narrative, but I just find it jarring. I find it just doesn’t flow in my head so well as past tense narratives. But I pressed on regardless, and I soon lost my gripes over present tense in favour of the POV character, Mallory. She is a fantastic representation of what I like in my POV characters. She’s not just a normal female teenager with faux flaws, she actually has real issues. She’s hypersensitive (like me!), especially to touch, and she doesn’t like anyone she doesn’t completely trust touching her (also like me!). She’s also from a genuinely broken family, the kind where the kids call their parents by their first names. But she’s also an incredible mathematical genius with an extraordinary talent for hacking, which is what she spends her evenings doing. I have to say that Mallory is one of the most engaging and well-developed POVs I’ve ever read. You get to witness all the inner conflicts that the world triggers in her, you really do see through her eyes, and that’s the difference between a main character and a POV character. The voice is strong with this one.

The story itself is also quite engaging. On first thoughts, the pace is perhaps a little slow for this kind of thriller plot, but on seconds thoughts, it makes perfect sense. Because you’re seeing the story through Mallory’s POV, you’ve also got to read through all her overthinking, which I totally get. The world goes much more slowly for me than it does for other people because I have to overthink everything before I do anything. Need to pop to the shop? Okay, I’ll just sit and overthink about that for a couple of hours and then go. Want to visit another country? Okay, I’ll overthink about that for a couple of years to make myself too anxious to actually go. For a highly sensitive overthinker like me and Mallory, life must be paced out to accommodate the workings of our minds, to allow us to manage the anxieties of everyday living. Throw a life-or-death situation into the mix, and the pace of the novel makes total sense. This is an author who genuinely understands her character, and can speak through her mind. It’s subtly and comprehensively immersive.

And who doesn’t like a good anti-hero story? Yes, hacking is bad – don’t do it, children – unless, of course, it’s done for the benefit of humanity. This is about people with extraordinary skills that allow them to do incredibly illegal things, but they use their powers for good. It’s a real endorsement of humanity and a person’s character to present a person with a choice, one option with a selfish benefit, one option with a selfless benefit, and for them to have the intelligence and integrity to understand the greater benefit of the selfless option. That’s what I got from this book. It’s a great story, but it’s a great message too.

So, why didn’t I give it five stars? I’m afraid I just couldn’t push it to five stars because the punctuation is ghastly. There are significantly more than the average face-slapping typos and inconsistencies that really make this feel unprofessionally published. And it’s extraordinary because in her acknowledgements, the author names no less than FOUR proofreaders. FOUR proofreaders, and the text is still riddled with horrors. Even on the same page, you’ve got the same thing spelt two different ways. As a professional copyeditor and proofreader myself, I’m just stunned that FOUR proofreaders couldn’t mop up all these problems between them.

Anyway, if you don’t mind typos and rereading sentences because of poor comma usage, I would definitely recommend Echoes for anyone who likes an anti-hero or an immersive POV and a great story to go along with them.

Review: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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Title: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)

Author: Philip Pullman

Pages: 464

Goodreads link

My rating: star5

As a big fan of His Dark Materials, I was so excited when this book came out. It is just wonderful to be back in the world of Dust and daemons, and a weighty tome of it too!

I don’t know what it is about Philip Pullman’s writing, but even though the subject matter can be pretty intense, I actually find it very soothing. I will often read the first couple of pages of Northern Lights as a self-soothing exercise. It’s the mental equivalent of relaxing into a comfy armchair by the fire on a dark rainy night. Perhaps it’s because it’s slightly old-fashioned in tone, but whatever it is, it really works for me.

Having said that, La Belle Sauvage has quite a different tone to His Dark Materials. Pullman doesn’t hold back on the dark stuff, but he steps it up another gear in this story. There’s swearing and rape and paedophilia and self-mutilation. He’s not afraid to challenge his young characters with the horrors of real life.

This story has that familiar Pullman arc of everything starting out making sense, okay the parameters of his world are a little different to ours, but it makes sense. And then suddenly he hits you with this Odyssean surreality; you plummet down a rabbit hole of extraordinary myths, those kinds of myths that try to teach you something about reality that is hard to accept. I spent the first part of this book luxuriating in the details, all the new information about the world that we didn’t get in HDM, and following the characters whose names only made a fleeting appearance in those first books. And then in the second part, it’s a real fire-up-the-brain exercise as stuff gets weird.

And just like HDM, not everything is explained. It’s both infuriating and exhilarating. I think this is the most intriguing quality, not having every question answered clearly. A lot is left up to the reader’s own interpretation. It’s like Pullman lays out before you a world and a set of characters and a scenario, and then he leaves you to decide on your own opinions about it all. He keeps his own opinion to himself and credits the reader with the intelligence to discover any truths. Now, that’s clever writing. And I can’t wait for the next one!

Review: Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

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Title: Song of the Lioness

Author: Tamora Pierce

Pages: 960 (across four books)

Goodreads link

My rating: star5

I’ve had a moment of nostalgia! The first two books in the Song of the Lioness series are older even than me, and the copies I have are knocking on the door of twenty years old. They’ve got that crusty old book smell about them, and sunlight and dust have yellowed the pages. But these are some of the most beloved books in my collection.

I first read them at secondary school, when I was about twelve or thirteen, and for a while my best friend and I were completely obsessed with all things Tamora Pierce. We were both real tomboys, never fitting in with the pretty girls at school. We wanted to be Lara Croft and go on adventures, finding treasures and solving mysteries. We were hungry for the world, life always too small for us. And Song of the Lioness spoke to our spirits like no other book had done before.

So this is a very personal review for me. We were at that stage and in that time when the destinies and interests of boys and girls had to be very different. And in reading these books, we discovered that the expectations of us were not necessarily valid. Here, in Alanna, was a girl who knew her mind, who didn’t care to let tradition dictate her life and who wasn’t afraid to take risks in the name of adventure. It was okay to have “male” ambitions.

I’m not going to say that the story is particularly original or complex, and I’m not going to say that the writing is particularly groundbreaking. In fact, re-reading the first and second books, The First Adventure and In the Hands of the Goddess, I realise they are actually not that amazing. Those two books in particular leap-frog through time, so you just get snippets of action here and there over eight years. They feel rushed and patchy, but back in the eighties, children’s books were extremely restricted by word count. However, the action does level out in the third and fourth books, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man and Lioness Rampant. You get flowing sequential action that is much more engaging.

Funnily enough, re-reading them as an adult, I’ve now realised how much of a two-timing miss Alanna is! She sleeps with men here, she sleeps with men there, she sleeps with them pretty much anywhere, without bothering to cancel one liaison before taking up another. But then, that’s the point of these books really. You wouldn’t bat an eyelid if she was a man. And that’s what I really appreciate about these books; it’s not just that Alanna is dressing up as a man, becoming a knight and going off on adventures, she’s breaking down barriers and looking stereotypes straight in the face and challenging them. Why shouldn’t a woman sleep around? Why shouldn’t a woman go off to face almost certain death without the protection of a man? Why shouldn’t a woman have absolute sovereignty over her reproductive system? Why shouldn’t a woman kill another person? Why shouldn’t she do as she pleases, inherit land and titles, marry whom she choses, dress how she wants? All things that men take for granted. And this is where the real greatness lies in Song of the Lioness. Tamora Pierce was not afraid to say, “Why can’t she do that?” She was challenging stereotypes and taboos all the way back thirty-plus years ago that are still in existence today, and that we still can’t relent from challenging today.

I’m so glad I read these again with my older and wiser head on. I can now appreciate consciously what I could only absorb subconsciously as a child. And I’m fairly certain that these books had a huge influence on the attitudes I hold today. Yes, I am a feminist, and no, that’s not a bad thing. All it means is that I believe that every woman should have the same rights and privileges as every man, and we should be judged by our actions and abilities without any reference to our gender. I have never yet heard a rational argument that convincingly persuades me otherwise. So, really, this is a big five-star thank you to Tamora Pierce and Alanna for empowering me at a time when there was very little else doing so. Keep adventuring, and stay true to yourself.

Review: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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Title: Rebel of the Sands

Author: Alwyn Hamilton

Pages: 358

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

Okay, I’m going to hold my hands up here and confess that I bought this book because of the cover. I’m so ashamed! But, to be fair, it is a stunningly beautiful cover with gold foil and the kind of blues that you want to spend the rest of your life looking at. Even if I hadn’t read Rebel of the Sands, I would have just kept it on my shelf for its cover alone.

Right, enough about the cover! Mind you, I do have one large piece of beef about the cover: it’s got one of those irritating and unremovable circles with ‘Like Katniss? Love Rey? Meet Amani’ written on it. Ga! I hate these things! Could you announce any louder that you’re being a me-tooing, bandwagoning, other-people’s-work-leeching publisher? It’s nothing to do with the author, but it’s lazy marketing on the part of the publisher. And the fact that I can’t remove this really burns. It doesn’t even need it! The marketplace is flooded with strong, butt-kicking heroines. The blurb on the back of the book is enough to tell me Rebel of the Sands features another one. I don’t need to be patronised by the obvious!

But, in reality, that little unremovable circle sums up a problem that I have with Rebel of the Sands. The desert setting and Middle-Eastern flavour were a big selling point to me for this one. It’s not unheard of, but it’s pretty rare in this genre, and I was hoping to find myself breathing in one heck of a lungful of fresh air. But actually, apart from the setting, there is quite a healthy helping of deja vu here.

Strong heroine with a few broken bits meets handsome stranger who rescues her from a dire future and takes her to a place where she discovers she has magical powers and a mythical parent and might be the key to ridding the world of evil. Oh, and by the way, the handsome stranger turns out to be a prince. Shucks.

I’ve heard it before. In fact, I’ve heard it a thousand times before, in every other female-oriented YA book.

However, there are some redeeming features to Rebel of the Sands, and these are the reasons I gave it so many as four stars despite my rant. Firstly, the writing is excellent. It pulls you in right from the first chapter, and it was really the opening few chapters that kept me churning through to the end despite my growing disappointment in an over-hashed plot line. Amani has an engaging point of view, and it’s this point of view that brings me to another feature I liked: gender discrimination. No, I don’t mean I’m in favour of gender discrimination, I mean that Hamilton really explores a world where women are treated with great inferiority compared to men. It’s the kind of exploration that gets my hackles up and has me hissing and spitting in my head. It’s a long way from Western countries, but it’s important that we stay aware of inequality around the world and that especially young readers have a taste of how it is for others. When you are looking through the eyes of woman in an unequal world, it makes you want to appreciate what you have more and fight harder for those who don’t have it and keep fighting until genuine equality is achieved. Forget the story, this is actually one of the key takeaways of this book for me, and sometimes there are more important things in a book than the superficial plot.

I will be reading the other books in this series because I think (at least, I hope) there will be more important things to come. And who knows, maybe the story will acquire some novelty, and I’ll be even happier. You can’t know what a pie tastes like until you’ve eaten it, after all.

Review: PathFinder by Angie Sage

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Title: PathFinder

Author: Angie Sage

Pages: 460

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

My Angie Sage books occupy quite a bit of real estate on my bookshelves. I have ten in total, but they’re all hardbacks and really quite chunky books. And it is so worth having the hardback editions of both the Septimus Heap series and Sage’s newer TodHunter Moon series. Bloomsbury doesn’t publish the hardbacks in the UK (they did for the first few Septimus Heap books, but they then switched to the cheaper paperback option with, frankly, ghastly covers), so I get imported versions from the US published by Katherine Tegen Books. Thank you, America, for waving the flag for good-looking books! The hardbacks are aesthetically so satisfying to hold and read, and the aesthetic really does add to the experience of reading these books. The cover designs are made to look like old leather-bound, metal-cornered tomes that you need to brush the dust off, and the paper has a lovely tactile quality with frayed edges. It really suits the high-fantasy setting for these series and sets off the carefree, childhood-innocence indulgence of reading an Angie Sage book.

It’s been a while since I read the Septimus Heap books, and I was so well rewarded for jumping back into Angie Sage’s fantastical, magical world with PathFinder. One of the best aspects is actually just meeting all these wonderful characters again, now slightly older. Marcia with her infamous purple python shoes, Jenna the down-to-earth queen and, of course, Septimus, now the Extraordinary Wizard. And now we get a bunch of new characters to boot, and they don’t disappoint. Angie Sage has a wonderful talent for characterisation, to the extent that you know exactly who an old character is in PathFinder before their name is even mentioned. And I was squeaking with joy when the form-shifting cat Ullr made his appearance again. A ginger cat that turns into a panther at night? Yes, please!

The story of PathFinder certainly doesn’t suffer from Second Album Syndrome. It stands right alongside any of the Septimus Heap books for its originality, engagement and quirkiness. Despite the old characters, the plot is completely new, with yet another fascinating bit of Magick going on. Tod is an interesting and complex character with a engaging point of view to witness the story through. Even though she doesn’t have the Magickal skills of Septimus or Marcia, she’s loyal and courageous and an all-round marvellous new heroine. There’s a real sense of mystery in her past and, in fact, in the whole book. It really feels like this story is heading somewhere I don’t want to miss out on.

Of course, I’m not going to mention an Angie Sage book without also mentioning the incredibly talented Mark Zug, who peppers Sage’s books with delicious pencil drawings. These are not the kind of sketches you quickly skip over, even if you did just end a chapter on a cliffhanger. These are the kind of pencil drawings you ooh and aah over, and scrutinise for every detail. I wish more books had this kind of fine drawing in them; they just make the whole experience far richer, as if it has another dimension. It all adds to the visual sophistication of the book, which in turn enhances the natural sophistication of the story and its characters.

It is always a genuine treat to read an Angie Sage book, and PathFinder really delivers as the first book in the TodHunter Moon series. It’s what I would call a hot-chocolate read, the kind with whipped cream, marshmallows and a chocolate flake stuck in for good measure. I get from PathFinder, and all of Angie Sage’s books, the same sensation I get when someone places in front of me a hot chocolate with all the trimmings. Only, the books last a lot longer!

Review: Sand by Hugh Howey

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Title: Sand

Author: Hugh Howey

Pages: 384

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

I very rarely read a trilogy straight through, one book after another, but I made a very happy exception to my tendency for Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy. I happened across this author by chance while perusing recommendations on Amazon, and it is a very happy union. I went straight through from Wool to Dust without blinking. So I thought I’d give some of Howey’s other books a go and picked up Sand.

It was wonderful to submerge myself in Howey’s deliciously evocative writing style again. He has a way of embroidering each scene that really places the reader right there in the moment, sensing the environment of his characters. His descriptions and metaphors are sublimely succinct and trigger the exact sensation or emotion that you should be feeling at any moment. You don’t have to force your mind or squeeze your imagination in any way; it all just floats freely into your consciousness. In his style, Hugh Howey approaches writing genius. Add onto this the fact that his genre of choice is post-apocalyptic, and I’m a very happy literate bunny.

In Sand you’ll find another intriguing post-apocalyptic world set on top of hundreds of metres of – you guessed it – sand that has settled over Denver, Colorado. With Howey’s evocative way with words, you really do start to feel the sand in your boots, and perhaps more alarmingly, the inevitable claustrophobia of diving hundred of metres below the surface with the main characters. If you have unresolved fears about being buried alive, you might want to rain check this one. You spend of an uncomfortable amount of time busting for air, so it might not be suitable for slow readers either!

Perhaps one of the best features of Sand is the dynamic between the four siblings, three of whom provide the majority of the narrative. Howey has really captured that dichotomy between love and frustration that ultimately manifests as family loyalty. Their collective tenacity is at the heart of this story, and this is ultimately a story about family, even though it’s embedded in an engaging, brain-teasing plot.

Or, at least, it’s engaging right until the end. After following the siblings around the desert, uncovering mysteries, dastardly plots and cryptic clues as to the origins of the apocalypse, you get nothing. No answers and no ending. There’s a reasonable pace throughout the book, but it really starts to ramp up in the last few chapters, and you start to feel like you’re about to be hit with an awesome climax. But it’s like the author suddenly hit the word-count limit, and he had to draw a hasty conclusion. The eldest sibling goes off on a potentially thrilling mission, but you don’t go with her. You’re left sitting in the middle of the desert staring poignantly at the sky and witnessing the side effects of her mission from miles away. I said conclusion before, but that’s really not what it is at all. It’s a rush of speculation, the bear minimum required to write the final sentence, and it leaves you utterly unfulfilled. You’ve invested all this time and thought and emotion in the story and characters for not very much at all. It’s the literary equivalent of fasting all week and then not getting to eat that pizza and ice-cream sundae at the end of it. What happens to the missing characters? What happens to the bad guys? Who even were the bad guys? What happens to the residents of the desert towns? What happens to the world? How did the world come to be like this? I know it’s good for the imagination and the soul not to have every question raised throughout a story answered, but the amount of answers you get in Sand is utterly mean. Is the point of the exercise for the reader to entirely speculate and invent not only the answers but the whole rest of the ending that was completely missing? I’m not sure I’m down with that. The point of reading someone else’s work is to explore their ideas and perceive a world through someone else’s mental filter. I can listen to my own ideas and perceptions any time I like!

So, yes, Sand has a great deal of potential, and it gives some interesting insights into the human condition. But it’s ultimately disappointing. Howey’s writing is evocative and engaging, and he is without question one of my favourite writers. It’s worth reading for the setting and the sensations alone, but be prepared to turn over the last page and wonder where the hell the rest of the words are.

Review: New York Collapse by Warren Merchant

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Title: New York Collapse: A Survival Guide to Urban Catastrophe

Author: Warren Merchant (Alex Irvine and Ubisoft)

Pages: 175

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

*NERD ALERT*

I’ve been playing The Division over the holidays, as it’s my favourite Christmas-themed game (although I’m not sure there are many other Christmas-themed games out there …). Post-apocalypse + Christmas decorations. Yes please!

Anyway, I finished all the main missions but suffered a bit of Division withdrawal when I came off it. I don’t have a Playstation Plus account, so endless plundering in the Dark Zone is a no-go for me. So I did a quick search and found a tie-in book called New York Collapse: A Survival Guide to Urban Catastrophe by the pseudonymous Warren Merchant.

Now, I’m always a bit sceptical about tie-in media: films of books (we all know they rarely work), films of games (which work even less!), games of films, companion guides, books of games, etc. There’s always a bit of a sense of me-tooing and cashing in on fans. If a book carries the name of a game, it can get sales based on that and not necessarily on the quality of the book.

So with a bit of trepidation, but reassured by the abundance of good reviews, I bought New York Collapse. And I’m so glad I did!

It’s actually supposed to be the survival guide that crops up in the game. A character appears in echoes (playbacks from surveillance equipment) called April Kelleher, and you can see in the game some of the moments that she writes about in this book. The survival guide itself is a guide to surviving a TEOTWAWKI event (The End Of The World As We Know It). In the margins are the scrawlings of April Kelleher as she survives through the apocalypse in Manhatten, in parallel with the events of the game itself. Rather suspiciously, the advice centres almost entirely around an outbreak of weaponised smallpox in Manhatten. Handy, considering that’s exactly what has happened in The Division game. But that’s all part of the mystery that April is trying to work out while trying to survive in an extremely hostile environment, with the constant threat of infection, federal aid collapsing and gangs whittling down what remains of the civilian population. The survival guide is also full of puzzles that April (and you) needs to work out in order to locate the author, Warren Merchant, who is clearly trying to get her to meet him for whatever mysterious reason. He clearly knows more about what’s going on.

The book is really well produced to look like it’s been through the apocalypse and back. The cover is all torn up and there’s blood and muck all over the pages. Rather than just using a handwriting font, they’ve actually got someone to hand write the margin scrawlings so it looks authentic. On top of that, there are bits and pieces waiting to fall out, which are highly realistic apocalypse souvenirs and clues that April picks up. It honestly feels like this is April’s actual copy.

Although I have played the game, I think you could get a great amount of entertainment out of The New York Collapse even if you haven’t played or even heard of The Division. At it’s core, it’s a highly realistic, engaging and original post-apocalypse story. If you’ve played the game, this adds a little more context, and you’ll probably have a deeper understanding of some of the references, but I really don’t think it’s necessary. The only frustrating aspect is that you don’t really get an ending. If you haven’t played the game, this will probably feel like the first in a trilogy. It’s got that embellished-beginning storyline, with the ending feeling like that’s the point at which it’s all going to kick off. But alas, this is a standalone. Not being party to the Dark Zone in the game, which is where the end of the book points you, I have no idea what the outcome is of April’s story either. This vexes me because it feels a little bit like it’s pushing you to spend even more money than you already have, and when you don’t have much of a gaming budget, like me, it can leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. I may never know what happens without resorting to Youtube, and where’s the fun in that?

Anyway, that’s why this has got four stars, not five. A book without a resolution and with a bid to drag more money you don’t have out of you can’t get five stars in my book of principles. In terms of production and intelligence and authenticity and the exercise for your own brain, this is a five star book. Whether you’ve played The Division or not, if you like apocalypses, conspiracies and you want to learn a bit about surviving in an urban environment, put this on your reading list.

Now I’m off to prep my go-bag.

Review: Tower of Dawn by Sarah J. Maas

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Title: Tower of Dawn (Throne of Glass #6)

Author: Sarah J. Maas

Pages: 660

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

I don’t think I’ve ever given Sarah J Maas less than 5 stars before, but I have to say this one just didn’t quite do it for me. I love Chaol’s character, I have from the start, but the absence of top marks is no reflection of the characters, which are always well written and consistent. The problem is that I found it quite a struggle to maintain the momentum of reading this book. Normally with a SJM book, I’m avidly ensconced on my sofa for hours at a time, but with this episode I had to actively force myself to allocate reading time to get through it.

I think the main issue is that this book very much focuses on the development of two relationships (I won’t say who and who, spoilers and all that). Now, I love a good relationship development through the course of a novel, but it must go hand in hand with action and engaging plot. Unlike SJM’s other books, these are almost entirely absent from the first two thirds of Tower of Dawn. In terms of story, it’s a bit on the glacial side, and in terms of action, there is almost none. You get little sparks here and there, but when you look overall, really not much happens except two sets of people spend time together and fall in love.

Well, great.

At 660 pages, this is one heck of a bowl of soup to get through if you’re not that into pure relationship cooking. And it’s no coincidence that SJM’s books are getting longer and longer. It’s a pretty common thing in publishing for editors to start off insisting that your novels stick to a strict maximum word count (lest potential new fans are put off by size), and then when you have proven yourself to be a best-selling author with a giant fanbase, you can pretty much get away with writing however long a book you want (because, hey, fans will buy it anyway). I’m not saying this is a bad thing – it means we get more of what we like – but Tower of Dawn could definitely have benefitted from some editorial pruning sheers.

Also, I don’t know if anyone else is feeling this, but I found SJM’s trademark slideshow writing just a little bit tiring in this one. Her choppy paragraphing is an effective method for conveying fast-action sequences and chaotic scenes, but because a lot of this book takes place in an internal, chaotic environment, there is a lot of this slideshow stuff going on. It’s a bit like when they do fast cutting of action scenes in films so you can barely keep up with what’s going on, just flashing images. It’s effective when used appropriately, but too much and the film just becomes tiring to watch. Same thing here. After chapters containing multiple pages of it, I found myself longing for a nice bit of flowing prose that I didn’t feel like my brain was hiccoughing through. It made for quite uncomfortable reading.

I have another gripe (sorry!), which has actually been simmering away through SJM’s latest books. She has a real habit of objectifying her male characters. You know, wanging on about the quality of their muscles and figures in a way that would be extraordinarily sexist if the same were done for female characters. I know she describes all her female characters as being hot (with the rare exception), but it’s never to the extent that she objectifies males. I know, I know, these books are designed largely for a female audience and I am a female myself, but I’m actually starting to get a bit uncomfortable about it. At the beginning, her male characters were all fairly distinct from one another, but now poor old Chaol has been subjected to SJM’s seemingly favourite male archetype of steamy, unfathomably fit and handsome, over-protective, possessive, brooding and thinking about nothing but the female they are in a ship with. Really? There are more types of men in the world. I know a lot of female readers go gooey over this type of male figure, but I’m afraid those qualities are really not what I find attractive in a male. I don’t mind the presence of this archetype in a book, I just wish she’d have other types of main-character men to make for a more diverse reading experience.

Okay, I’m going on a bit about the negatives here, and you’re all probably wondering why I even gave Tower of Dawn 4 stars. Despite the above, this is still a very good book. SJM is still a very good writer and storyteller. It still is very much worth your time reading it, not least because it picks up on Chaol, who was disappointingly absent from Empire of Storms. I have a great attachment to this character because he was always a bit used and abused by his fellow characters, who clearly did not take into account his circumstances, what he went through and what he was trying to do, i.e. be a good person, which should never be scorned. It also nicely ties in a minor plot line from Assassin’s Blade, and I had been wondering when SJM would tie that one off. It’s also a mildly welcome relief from Aelin, who, let’s face it, is getting a little bit bratty and unbearable (I miss Celaena so much!).

If you’re a fan of SJM and have been reading the Throne of Glass novels, you’ll love it. If you like relationship developments, you’ll love it. Just a word of warning to the plot and action fans out there: persevere to the end.

We Have to Talk about Warrior Cats

Tears still run down my delightfully swollen face as I write this, muttering something darkly about “those ****ing books”. I told myself I wouldn’t cry. I tell myself this every time I open one of these ****ing books. And then I just end up blubbing uncontrollably.

I’m talking about the Warriors books, a micro-library of novels written by several authors under the collective pseudonym of Erin Hunter. So here’s the thing: they are middle-grade books and the characters are all … well … cats. I know, I know, not your kind of age group and not your kind of characters (sorry, no faltering heroines and no smouldering, dark-secret-bearing heroes either). But let me tell you something potentially quite shocking and controversial … The Warriors books are some of the best books I have ever read, for children, young adults or adults. They are shamelessly sitting right near the top of my desert island books list. If the world were to end tomorrow, I would grab Harry Potter and Warriors – okay, I would need quite a large bag to accommodate them all, but there’s no baggage allowance in the apocalypse.

I’ve been a fan of Erin Hunter’s books ever since they first came to Blighty. I was working in a bookshop at the time during my sixth form years, and in the staff room was a table piled high with proof copies (this must have been 2003/4, which makes me really old!). I used to ferret around for young adult titles, but on that fateful day, a bright orange proof copy with the silhouette of a cat jumped into my hands. This book is about cats? I wondered to myself. How good can that be? The answer was very. Very good indeed. I was hooked from the start when a young pet cat called Rusty is taken in by a clan of wild cats who live in the forest. As he is trained to become a warrior, he has to fight not only the prejudices against him, but the dangers that threaten the clan’s existence.

Correction, I wasn’t just hooked, I was completely in love. These books embody that lost sense of a connection to nature that gives me daily pain. They are about survival, friendship, betrayal, fulfilling potential, fear, courage and understanding. And they are brutal. Oh, here come the tears again. Don’t think that just because they are middle grade that they are soft and fluffy and everyone rejoices in a happy ending. They are brutal. Like, Game of Thrones brutal, only for cats. I have the exact same mantra reading these as I do Game of Thrones: “Don’t get attached to anyone!” Of course I do. How can I not? They are cats after all! I don’t get anywhere near this upset over human losses as I do when one of those brave cats sacrifices themselves or is tragically killed for some preventable reason. The episodes those cats go through are the kind of plots you have to be mentally prepared to endure. In fact, I have to take quite lengthy breaks in between devouring two or three books at a time to rest my emotions. Do not read if you are feeling fragile! Middle grade they may be, but patronising they are not. There are no pulled punches here.

After the first book, Into the Wild, was released, the Warriors books seemed to go into some kind of publishing hiatus in the UK, which vexed me hugely. I began to think I was the only human on Earth who truly understood the value of these stories. But then, a few years later, Amazon obliged, and I was able to buy imports from the US. And I’ve been devouring all things Warriors ever since. Here’s my current collection, occupying an entire shelf by themselves.

warriros-shelf

And this just about scratches the surface (no kitty pun intended). These are just the main storyline books, which come in sets of six. There are numerous other novellas, manga books, guides and story collections available. If only I had unlimited funds! I’ve just finished the boxset on the left, Dawn of the Clans, which are stories about the origins of the clans, so a prequel to Into the Wild. I’m not going to tell you why I’m blubbing, but I will tell you this: just read them. Or even just read Into the Wild, and if you are the right kind of person, then you’ll understand why I will never stop spouting on about these books. The Erin Hunter team has written other series about dogs and bears, but I’ve tried them out and I didn’t like them as much. They really are middle grade in tone, but you’ll find no such patronising writing in Warriors. Just stories that verge on the emotionally unbearable and characters that will stay with you for a lifetime. It’s a wonderful, huge and constantly giving world to fall into. Thank you, collective authors of Erin Hunter. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And as a fresh wave of tears surge down my cheeks, I bid you happy reading and leave you with a link to find out more.

www.warriorcats.com