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REVIEW: Cast in Sorrow by Michelle Sagara

Dear Ms. Sagara,

Long-running series are tough. How do you keep each book fresh and interesting? Reader fatigue is a serious risk when there’s no promise of an end anywhere in sight. I’m a big fan of your novels, especially those written under the Michelle West name, so I’ve held fast to the belief that my loyalty will be rewarded. Unfortunately, I’ve reached the point with the Elantra novels where my patience has come to an end.

cast-in-sorrow-sagaraCast in Sorrow picks up immediately after the end of Cast in Peril. This should be no surprise because this story was originally one novel split into two. But because of that, this is absolutely not the place for a new reader to come into the series. To be honest, I can’t think of the last novel in this series where I found that such a thing would be possible. I suspect it was many books back.

To recap, Kaylin Neya has traveled to West March with the Barrani, who are Elantra’s equivalent of the Fae — beautiful, powerful, and extremely long-lived. In a surprising turn of events — unless you’re a reader and know the story of the Precious Chosen One — she has been chosen as a harmoniste. Meanwhile Lord Nightshade, an outcaste Barrani lord who has been a persistent presence in her life, has been chosen as the teller.

The harmoniste and the teller are important roles in a traditional Barrani ritual that will require them to spin a story. But as the mysterious markings that cover Kaylin’s body have shown, words have true, magical power. Whatever story she chooses to form from the words Nightshade tells will have longlasting effects upon the Barrani as a race.

Your storytelling style has always been measured and carefully paced. It’s not for everyone. I realize that. But in recent years, I’ve discovered that while this style works well for me in the Michelle West novels, it’s increasingly irritating me in the Elantra novels. This is the first time that I’ve finished a novel of yours that felt bloated and excessively drawn out.

I realize this is compounded by the decompressed timeline of the books. It’s been nine years of my life while it’s been only a year or so in Kaylin’s. The impression of her stunted character growth is partially artificial. From an in-world context, it’s believable. That said, as a reader, I need a bone to show me that my invested time is time well spent. And with Cast in Sorrow, I read almost 500 pages of a story that could have been told in 300. The plodding pace frustrated me.

The worldbuilding remains the strongest aspect of the Elantra series and fans of that won’t be disappointed. We learn a great deal about the Barrani, as well as a tragic secret from their long history. I just wasn’t able to appreciate it fully because of how the story dragged. Of course, I also freely admit the Barrani aren’t my favorite of the Elantran races. (Where is the Aerian book?)

We also delve into the relationship between Kaylin and Teela. I should have loved this because we all know how I feel about female friendships in fantasy. More of it, please. But rather than being fascinated by the idea that Kaylin viewed Teela as being “safe” — as a Barrani, Teela wasn’t fragile like a human and therefore not as likely to die — I found myself growing further disenchanted. Their relationship only seemed to reinforce the idea that Kaylin was the Special Chosen One, and that is my least favorite part about Kaylin’s story.

While I’ve stuck with the Elantra series for 9 books, I think it’s time for me to step off the bus. I’ve hit the point in the books where I don’t see an end in sight and there’s no payoff for the time I’m investing. Maybe I’ll come back to it some day, but for now I think this is where Elantra and I part ways. C-

My regards,
Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

25 Comments

  1. AMG
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 12:38:54

    I’m with you, although I stopped this series 3 books ago. I dislike the Barrani, and Nightshade seems like a throwback male lead. I wanted to love these books, but I became so bloody bored, and for the price charged for Trade Paperbacks, it no longer became worth it. I don’t know if I’d pick them up with an e-book sale either. Too bad, because I like her more traditional fantasy.

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  2. Avierra
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 12:43:44

    My beef with the series is that it feels as if there is no forward progress at all, even in the context of the story. Kaylin doesn’t seem to learn anything (literally); she doesn’t resolve anything, and nothing around in her world is really resolved, either. It’s really frustrating to me as a reader. I got this same feeling from the Fae Fever Series, and I utterly loathed the last book of that series, so the fact that I get that same vibe is throwing up lots of red flags for me.

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  3. Estara Swanberg
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 12:45:55

    I can sort of vaguely see why you feel like you do, but have to admit – and I admit to not being objective – that this is my absolute most auto-buy series in fantasy and I was particularly satisfied with this book’s end resolution, even though the time inside the book probably only advanced three days (Cherryh has done that, too, heh).

    I also happily read C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner books and the In Death series (which is somewhat different in that there never was an overarching plot except for Eve’s past and that has been explored now) – I love being dropped into chunk series, as Jo Walton called them at Tor.com, as long as the single volumes are satisfying.
    I agree that the last book for new readers to enter this world easily probably was the Tha’alani based one, but there are GRers who have entered the series later, so what do I know, heh.

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  4. Readsalot81
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 13:23:18

    You know.. I agree with damn near most of everything in this review, but yet… I know I’ll still keep reading. It did feel bloated, and I was pretty disappointed that she kept stringing it along.. but I love the Barrani (I love all the races in this particular series honestly), so it wasn’t exactly a hardship to keep reading.

    That being said, I can see why people stop reading these books. The answers don’t come quickly, or more questions pop up after certain things are answered.. and it just gets frustrating as hell.

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  5. Elaine
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 13:32:32

    I was quite dissappointed with the cliff hanger in the book prior to this, but not in the “throw the library book across the room, never read the series again” way of the latest Danan Stabenow Kate Shugak book. Right now, Cast in Sorrow is wending its way to me from Amazon, and I imagine I will immediately immerse myself in it.

    But at this point, I am reading for the world building, because Kaylin is periously close to TSTL.

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  6. Amanda
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 14:06:47

    I am also am waiting for Amazon to deliver this book to me. Even if I am not overall happy with what occurs in this specific book, which is possible as I have never really connected with the Barrani characters (except Teela), I will still most likely enjoy it because there is just something about this series that I love. The world, Kaylin, and all those amazing secondary characters have created a fan girl out of me.

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  7. alexa
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 14:24:01

    @AMG:

    I absolutely agree. I also stopped reading 2 or 3 books ago. I loved these books in the beginning. The series lost my interest as the books went on and I love long series…once they’re written. I hate waiting for new books to come out.

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  8. AMG
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 14:33:38

    @alexa:

    I’m a big fan of meaty series too, but when nothing happens (or with Sookie Stackhouse- too much happens), I have to say goodbye. I realized that in the last book of the Cast series I read, I couldn’t remember what happened when I put the book down at the end of my morning commute to the start of my evening commute. Only 8 hours and the plot was gone. Kaylin was being yelled at, then forgiven for being a special snowflake, then in danger, then maybe a vaguely romantic situation, then… Too bad.

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  9. Jia
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 15:55:45

    @AMG: I’m still a fan of her Michelle West books and in fact, those are getting better now that we’re back in the present timeline rather than in the past.

    But regarding the Elantra books, I have to agree. While the drawn out characteristic is nothing new, all her books are like this to a greater and lesser extent, this is the first time I truly felt bored by a book of hers. Honestly, if it hadn’t been her, I would have DNFed this one.

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  10. Jia
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 15:56:56

    @Avierra: In some ways, it does seem like the Elantra series has become a travelogue of the setting’s races. Which is fine! Because that sort of thing can be interesting but you’re right — there has to be some forward progress to make it worth it.

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  11. Jia
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 15:59:11

    @Estara Swanberg: The books she writes under the Michelle West name are still must-reads for me but the Elantra series has lost me. I can say that if I never read another Elantra book again, I will be fine with it because I honestly do not feel like I will be missing anything. There’s nothing that’s drawing me to the series anymore, which is a pity because I really enjoy her writing normally.

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  12. Jia
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 16:00:37

    @Readsalot81: I can see why people would keep reading. The worldbuilding is very strong. It’s just that worldbuilding isn’t enough to keep me interested anymore.

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  13. Jia
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 16:01:43

    @Amanda: Well, I think you might like this one? If you like Teela, anyway. This one has a lot about Teela, her history, and her relationship with Kaylin.

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  14. Jia
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 16:02:33

    @AMG: Ha! The books do seem to be becoming somewhat formulaic in what happens, aren’t they?

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  15. Susan
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 17:42:02

    This is one of those series where I’ve been collecting the books, just waiting to dive in (I like to do immersion reading), but now it sounds like it may not be worth it. Maybe I need to wait ’til the end and see what the consensus is at that point.

    @Elaine: I petered out with the Shugak books awhile ago. I’ve still bought some of the more recent ones, but just couldn’t be bothered. But now you’ve got me curious–what could possibly have gotten someone else to the breaking point with them? I know I’m perverse, but I almost want to see how awful it was.

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  16. Elaine
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 19:09:53

    @Susan: wrt the Kate Shugak most recent novel, there are recommendations in reviews on Amazon to wait for the next in the series. which Stabenow has promised to write. And seriously, at this point Kate should have more brain damage due to head injuries than a retired NFL tackle.

    If for some reason, a novel really fails to work for me, I go to Amazon to read the reviews to see if it’s just me, or there is some sort of consensus. In this case, my book throwing felt vindicated by the reviews.

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  17. Elaine
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 19:19:14

    @Jia: She is still one of my favorite authors but I nearly quit reading her House War books when she went into the past again, and fleshed out a story line she had already written once. Her books make glacial progress through the story arc as it is, so doubling back seemed to be a complete waste of her writing time. I was originally quite happy that she was writing in a more focused vein in the Elantra series, but the seem to be succumbing the thick book, very little happens tendency as well.

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  18. Jia
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 19:24:22

    @Elaine: Yeah, that particular book of the House War series was not my favorite at all. But now that we’re back in the present again, I’m enjoying the books once more.

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  19. Susan
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 20:31:45

    @Elaine: Thank you. I did check out some of the Amazon reviews. Sounds like Stabenow seemingly pulled a Karin Slaughter. I’ll keep my eye out for the next one to see how she gets out of this.

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  20. FD
    Aug 29, 2013 @ 10:10:55

    I sat up till 3am reading this. #ruefulbutnoregrets
    I really thought for the first 3rd that I would be able to put it down, but then the book got into it’s stride and boom, 3 hours sleep!
    I do agree that it could do with tighter editing, particularly during the ‘green’ bits, where there’s some incipient word salad, but for epic fantasy, it’s relatively tight and I don’t have the feeling that the author has lost control of her material… yet.
    I liked the resolution and the sense of patterns rearranging around Kaylin and rippling out, the world building being a highlight as ever. It does get more and more evident that even if there are romantic threads, this is not a romance series.
    Following on from that, I am still not completely on board with Severn, (not a Nightshade fan either!) the character is a little too opaque and too… perfect for my tastes. Although perfect isn’t quite the right word either.

    I completely agree that people new to the series shouldn’t start here. H’mmm, what else? The timeline doesn’t bother me; I think there’s a real sense of growth and change, not just in the protagonist, but in the secondary characters. I think needful change is the central theme of the series for me.
    I do wonder if the fact I reread prior to a new book helps me be ok with the timeline compression.

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  21. Estara Swanberg
    Aug 29, 2013 @ 17:30:49

    @FD: You say it so much better than I do and you can clearly articulate the stuff that is what I focus on, too *sigh*. So basically I want to say: this.
    I read it in one day/go, too ^^.

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  22. Elaine
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 11:41:51

    Read Cast In Sorrow in one sitting. I loved it. But seriously, she needs to start adding a list of people and places and who and where they are.

    I also found that I had somehow managed to order two copies from Amazon. Still not sure how that happened.

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  23. Donna
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 17:36:15

    As much as I like Michelle’s Elantra series, the last two books have gone nowhere. Perhaps she has lost sight of where this series was going and it just waffling now until she can write the story regarding the dragons? It needs to end. Too much like Jordan’s seemingly never ending Wheel of Time books.

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  24. Sagara, Michelle: Cast in Sorrow (Chronicles of Elantra IX) (2013) | humanitysdarkerside
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 04:03:25

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  25. Jen
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 00:46:28

    I had a completely opposite experience with Sorrow. I LOVED this book. However, I do understand why people who like Severn or his pairing with Kaylin might be ready to give up on the series. He doesn’t play a very big role in Sorrow. All the forward movement/growth/change in the story is in Nightshade, Kaylin, their relationship, and the other Barrani. It’s not straightforwardly romantic, though, so fans who want more romance may also be disappointed.
    Basically, Kaylin grew up a lot, and her relationship with Nightshade started to feel less like an illicit temptation and more like a real, if rocky, connection. In the past, Kaylin has been too intimidated by Nightshade for a real relationship. Not any more. She stands up to him over and over again in Sorrow. He also opens up to her in the book, showing her glimpses of vulnerability and insecurity. There were moments in Sorrow when they actually felt like a couple. Kaylin’s interactions with the other Barrani also became more equal. Teela, the Consort, and Lirienne started to treat her as more than a mascot. It was nice to see Kaylin get some respect. Kaylin’s behavior was noticeably less bratty and stubborn, too. She really is growing up, and it was a pleasure to notice the changes. She’s still snarky and entertaining, though.
    Almost all this movement is well-camouflaged. Sorrow is a more complex book than some of the previous ones. It took me two reads just to get a good understanding of the plot. It was hard to figure out what Kaylin did to solve the problems, and why it worked. Once I traced back what happened (the second time through), I was pleased and impressed. But the first time was confusing. Luckily, Kaylin’s interactions with the various Barrani were funny, and enlightening enough to keep me reading even when I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening. But if you aren’t a fan of the Barrani, I can see how those conversations would seem boring.
    Sorrow is also one of the most literary of the books. It employs lots of foreshadowing and other literary devices to enrich the story. Themes from previous books are revisited and given conclusions in Sorrow. As a former English major, I found that deeply satisfying. To see a conversation from Peril get recalled in Sorrow was a pleasure. I love it when writers take the time and effort to carry themes from previous books forward. But that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. You have to pay a lot of attention, and things are often left ambiguous or not really spelled out. That can be frustrating. I think that’s why reviewers who reread previous books before Sorrow had a more positive experience than those who came to it cold. They were able to pick up on those subtle themes and interpret some of the more confusing passages.
    Anyway, I hope you change your mind. I enjoy reading your reviews of this series. It’s been a pleasure.

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