Saturday 26 November 2016

#CBR8 Book 115: "The Invisible Library" by Genevieve Cogman

Page count: 352 pages
Audio book length: 10hrs 31 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Irene is an agent of the Library, a place that exists outside normal space and time. In fact, as long as the agents and librarians that work for the Library are there, they do not age in the slightest. Only when they are out in the different worlds of the multiverse, do they visibly age, and how much depends how time passes in the various worlds they find themselves. As an agent of the Library, Irene is sent to retrieve books that are deemed of value, because they are represent something different from what already exists in the archives. Sometimes she has to disguise herself and go undercover for months, sometimes she can just stroll into a shop and buy a book. Having just completed a several month stint as a scullery maid at a posh boarding school, Irene is looking forward to some down-time. Instead, she is told she is to mentor a trainee library agent and that they are to start their new mission immediately.

Irene's new assistant, Kai, is very handsome and very tight-lipped about his background. The Library never recruits anyone with living family, unless they are the children of other Library agents (like Irene) and therefore understand the need for secrecy and the strange customs and traditions that surround the work. He seems eager and helpful enough, but it becomes clear to Irene that he's not entirely truthful about where he came from, and she wonders if the senior librarians know of his falsehoods.

Irene and Kai are sent to a world resembling a Steampunk Victorian England. It is a world heavily influenced by chaos magic (some worlds are heavy in magic, some are almost devoid of it. Some worlds are highly technologically advanced, some very primitive) and there are vampires, werewolves, sinister dark fae and mechanically enhanced alligators waiting to attack. Irene and Kai discover that the owner of the book they're after was a vampire, recently murdered rather spectacularly. A cat burglar with a glamorous reputation appears to be involved and the fae ambassador for Lichtenstein is very keen to get his hands on the book, as well. To complicate matters further, Irene receives word that Alberich, a centuries old Librarian gone rogue and evil, is also in this reality, wanting the book for unspecified reasons. Their mission, which was supposed to be a fairly innocuous training exercise is turning out to be very dangerous, and they'll be lucky if they even survive, let alone succeed in getting the book back to the Library.

The world-building in this story is intriguing. There's the Library, where they clearly have fairly advanced technology, existing in a place where time apparently stays still. No one ages while within its walls. The agents of the Library can travel in both space and time, visiting hundreds of alternate worlds, some very like our own, some very different. The agents are trained in the use of magic, and there is a secret magical language that can be used to manipulate the world around you, but only if you speak it with the right vocabulary and inflection. Who exactly runs the Library and how one ascends through the ranks to become Librarians or even Senior Librarians was only hinted at, but I hope it's revealed in later books.

The main characters, Irene and Kai, were fun to spend time with. All agents take their names from literary characters and Irene loves all kinds of detective fiction, so named herself after the famous Ms. Adler. Being sent to a world that so closely resembles the setting of her beloved Conan Doyle novels is thrilling to her, especially when they befriend a gentleman detective who certainly fits right into the genre Irene so enjoys. Having always been aware of the Library, she doesn't really question its organisation, and how it goes about recruiting people. She starts having questions once she gets to know Kai more closely, though, and wonders if it's right that only people wholly unconnected in the world get to be recruited.

While there is a more contemporary, modern setting to some bits of the book, most of this is set in a Steampunk, late Victorian setting, with dirigibles and the occasional mechanically enhanced menace. There are quite a lot of action sequences, with our protagonists finding themselves in peril of various kinds. One of Irene's rival agents from the Library pops up with her own agenda, and there is the looming threat of the sinister Alberich. As a first book in a series, it was a good introduction. I certainly want to read more.

What I'm not going to do is continue with the audio books. The audio book (which I got in a big Audible sale last year) is narrated by Susan Duerden, whose inflection is just so annoying. Her voice had a tendency to go up and down at the strangest time, and she frequently ended sentences on a high point, making it seem as if everything was a question. It was incredibly distracting, and meant that I spent much longer getting through the audio book than usual, because I actively avoided it for a time, just because the narrator's voice was so grating to me. Searching the Audible catalogue, I notice that she's the narrator for the sequel of this, as well as for a lot of other books in fantasy and romance. I'm going to have to pay attention when getting new audio books, because I'm not interested in having this narrator worsening any more listening experiences for me.

Judging a book by its cover: I quite like the cover design, with the green, slightly marbled background and the almost golden font and decorations of a lady and a gentleman silhouetted in period costume. Not entirely sure what the snakes at the top have been included for (there are no snakes in the story as far as I can remember), but they add a sense of danger, I guess. The cover designer could possibly have made more of an effort to try to convey more of the adventure and action aspects of the book - if you remove the rather cheesy taglines, there's nothing to suggest to a reader that this isn't just some sort of run of the mill historical novel.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 13 November 2016

#CBR8 Book 114: "Ruin and Rising" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the third book in the Grisha trilogy and therefore NOT the place to start reading. This review will contain at least some minor spoilers for the previous books in the series, and who starts a trilogy with the third book anyway? Go read from the beginning, starting with Shadow and Bone. This review will be here when you're caught up.

Alina is shadow of her former self, trapped in tunnels underground, "protected" by the zealous Apparat (former high priest of Ravka) and his devoted followers, who worship her as a living saint. She is unable to summon her powers, but has to put on a show for the crowds (aided by illusion and trickery) to placate the high priest. She drained herself completely in her last confrontation with the Darkling, intending to kill them both. Now what remains of Ravka's royal family may be dead, the Second Army is in tatters, and Alina and her tiny band of loyal friends have to figure out a way to get above ground and away from the religious fanatics.

Having confronted the Darkling twice, without having been able to best him, Alina is convinced that what will make the difference is a third amplifier, making her the most powerful Grisha since the legendary Morozova. They need to track down the elusive firebird of myth, and from poring over Morozova's old journals, they suspect they know where to begin looking. Alina also wants to ascertain whether Prince Nikolai and his parents survived after the Darkling's attack on the palace. Having been beaten twice, just makes Alina more determined that the next time they meet, she will defeat the Darkling once and for all. Little does she know that getting the third amplifier could end up costing her more dearly than she could ever have imagined.

As in a lot of trilogies, the first book introduces us to the characters and the world, the second brings our protagonists further into the story, but also brings them oh so low, so that they have to overcome all odds and make it to the end triumphantly. Alina is broken in body and spirit, having nearly drained herself trying to stop the Darkling at the end of the second book. She would have died if Mal hadn't insisted on carrying her away, aided by a handful of loyal Grisha, while Prince Nikolai did his best to rescue his parents and escape, so he could return and fight again at a later date. Hidden in an intricate network of caves far away from the Darkling's reach, Alina can't access her powers at all while she's so far underground. The Apparat would prefer a dead martyr to a living girl, and closely guards his precious figurehead, trying to make it impossible for her and her little band of followers to plot and scheme. Nonetheless, they manage to orchestrate an escape and having had time to heal during her stay underground, Alina is relieved to discover that her powers aren't actually lost.

In a series that has already explored some pretty dark themes, this book was the darkest of all. Alina is obsessed with finding the source of the third amplifier, even after discovering what the search did to Morozova all those years ago. The idea of all that power is incredibly alluring to her, even though she knows that it could make her tip over the edge into madness and corruption, turning her just as monstrous as the the Darkling. Having seen her willing to kill herself to stop the Darkling, Mal is no longer trying to keep his distance from her, instead doing his best to help and protect her. For a lot of the book, they are aided only by a ragtag group of Grisha, and the odds of their succeeding in a third confrontation with the centuries old sorcerer are so slim.

I was really impressed with the final quarter of this book, and where Bardugo took the story. I'm not sure she needed to go to the lengths she did to establish that yes, the Darkling is totes evil, so evil, you guys. The choices facing Alina and Mal towards the end are not easy ones, and the sacrifices required to ensure victory are staggering. Some might say that the very end is a bit of a cop-out (and all those people pissed off that Alina didn't end up with the Darkling should have their heads examined), but I felt that due to what came before, it was earned, and the epilogue was bitter-sweet.

While I'm totally on board with Alina as a heroine in this one and didn't actually feel Mal was a total waste of space in this one (he still ranks behind pretty much any of the others in the supporting cast), I am still baffled by much romantic attention she keeps attracting throughout the series. Made no sense to me, and I didn't think she had chemistry with either of them. As a character in her own right, she goes through a hell of a lot of challenges over the course of the trilogy and her personality develops a lot.

Based on this book, I would feel comfortable recommending the trilogy to others. I found the first book a bit hard to get into (and Alina alternately boring and unbearable), the second book was a lot more entertaining, while this was a thrilling conclusion, which did not go in the direction I was expecting. Having heard great things about Bardugo's new series, I now no longer feel I would be cheating in some way when I start it. It just seems right to read things in the correct order.

Judging a book by its cover: It seems fitting that the third and darkest book in the trilogy has a colour scheme evoking blood, fire and ashes. The firebird that Alina is searching throughout crowns the top of the book, while a dark city appears to be burning in the central image. I mentioned in my review of the previous book how much I love these covers. That bears repeating. They are very striking and I love how each of the books' titles give the reader a glimpse of what to expect.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 8 November 2016

#CBR8 Book 113: "Siege and Storm" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the second book in a trilogy. I will be unable to review the book without possibly giving away spoilers for the first book in the series, Shadow and Bone. Which is obviously the one you should start with if you're interested in this series.

After the rather dramatic show-down with the Darkling at the end of the last book, Alina and Mal are on the run, trying to get as far away from Ravka as possible. Having to hide her Grisha powers and suppressing her abilities is making Alina frail and she feels constantly jealous of the attention Mal is getting from the women in the villages where they're hiding. Unfortunately, the Darkling escaped their last show-down relatively unhurt, and when he catches up to them, he reveals that he has new and even more terrifying powers. He uses Alina and Mal's affection towards one another to control both, threatening to hurt Alina if Mal doesn't find the legendary sea serpent legends say is required for a second amplifier for Alina, while he promises to kill Mal instantly unless Alina agrees to cooperate with him.

Lucky for the continued welfare of both of them, Mal manages to track the sea serpent in the allotted week, and as Alina is both elated at the thought of how her powers will be further strengthened with a new amplifier and terrified at what the Darkling might make her do, she and Mal are rescued by unexpected and unlikely new allies, who want to take them back to Ravka. Now that they are aware of what new and horrible things the Darkling is able to unleash in his quest for world domination, their privateer saviour hopes to persuade Alina to take control of the what remains of the Second Army and the Grisha still loyal to the Crown. With her two amplifiers, she's more powerful than ever, but she's also not sure she's up for the task she's facing. She doubts her sanity, as the Darkling appears to her, though no one else appears to see him. She needs to prove her strength to the remaining Grisha, nobles and the royal family. Most of the populace revere her as a living saint and believe she can save them from anything. All the while, she seems to be losing Mal, just when she needs him the most.

My biggest complaint about Shadow and Bone was that I really didn't like Alina very much. I frankly didn't connect much with any of the three most central characters. I found the supposed love triangle between Alina, the Darkling and Mal completely preposterous, mainly because I couldn't see what was possibly worth loving in Alina, Mal was an oblivious dude-bro who barely gave Alina the time of day, and then there's basically the nefarious villain, who really does not have many redeeming features. As far as I can tell, he's just a scheming megalomaniac, no hidden pain in his back story to make him even vaguely sympathetic.

In this book, Alina gets a lot more likable. Mal is still mostly a broody, self-involved, douchy waste of space. He appoints himself the captain of Alina's guard, and then passive-aggressively avoids her and makes her feel guilty because she's trying her best at near insurmountable odds to counter the Darkling's schemes to take over the kingdom. Because he's being such an erratic d*ck, Alina doesn't really feel she can tell him that the Darkling keeps showing up to torment her when she's alone. Another suitor for Alina's hand enters the field (because this non-descript little waif is clearly irresistible to all men, not just because she's extra specially magical, with unique and impressive powers) and I must admit, I found Nikolai charming, fun and clearly much too good for Alina. 

The younger of the two princes of Ravka wants Alina to lead what is left of the Second Army, taking control of the magically gifted Grisha who are left (many died or defected to the Darkling's side). He also hopes to persuade his older brother to renounce his claim to the throne, and offers to make Alina his queen. The powerful Sun Summoner, the country's best hope against the ravages of the Darkling and the beloved and charming younger prince would make a formidable ruling couple. Alina, of course, hates the burdens of power thrust upon her and mainly just wants to hide away somewhere with Mal. Then there's the added complication of the Apparat (the King's former head priest) having declared Alina a living saint. So many people literally worship her and think she can do anything and Alina is painfully aware that she is likely to let them all down once the Darkling musters his forces and attacks again.

The world building and magic system are fascinating and all the things I liked about the first book are just expanded upon here. Since I now actually liked the protagonist a lot more, plus this book had some pretty exciting action set pieces, the second book in the trilogy was a marked improvement. I remain entirely unconvinced by any of the attempted romances that Bardugo suggests, with what is now a love quadrangle just presenting three differently bad options for Alina. The Darkling - ancient sociopathic madman, intent on ruling the world at terrible cost. Nikolai - a prince and possibly future king, charming and adventurous, but also very calculated, but far too grand for little ol' Alina. Mal - sullen, brooding, jealous and uncommunicative. He's deeply protective of Alina in the beginning, but then gets aloof and behaves erratically for most of the book. I see zero chemistry between them and am still baffled as to why the author is trying so hard to make Alina irresistible.

It may have taken me the best end of two years between reading the first and the second book, but I'm properly invested in the story now, and want to see how Alina is going to solve the pickle she lands herself in at the end of this book.

Judging a book by its cover: A lot of YA fiction has less than great cover art. Leigh Bardugo's Grisha trilogy, on the other hand, have absolutely amazing covers. You can so clearly see the Russian influences in the story from the onion-domed towers in red, with the ominous nuances of grey showing the tensions in the story. The sea serpent that plays such an important part in the first part of the book is cleverly intertwined with the intricate font that makes up the title of the book (as the stag horns of the mythical being in the first book were central in the design of that cover). I absolutely love this design.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.