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REVIEW:  Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

REVIEW: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

READERS PLEASE NOTE: Since Siege and Storm is the second book in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, the review of this book below will by necessity include spoilers for the first book, Shadow and Bone. My spoiler free review of Shadow and Bone can be found here.

Dear Ms. Bardugo,

Shadow and Bone, the first book in your YA fantasy trilogy, had many things going for it and except for in one or two places in the story, I was enthralled until around the two-thirds mark. That was when one of the heroine’s love interests (and for my money, the more dynamic and fascinating one) was revealed to be a villain of such proportions that I consider him irredeemable. The story was still interesting after that, but to a lesser degree, and I was not sure what to expect of book two.

SiegeandStormNow comes Siege and Storm, book two of the Grisha trilogy. Siege and Storm begins with Mal and Alina crossing the ocean from their home country of Ravka (which is very loosely inspired by Russia) to the western continent of Novyi Zem. For the moment the two are free, but the evil and powerful Darkling, once Alina’s suitor, and the Grisha working for him, all invested with magical powers of their own, are in hot pursuit.

For Alina is the Sun Summoner, the only person who could perhaps heal Ravka by ridding it of the Fold, the dark rift that the Darkling, unbeknownst to most people, created centuries earlier. Once a normal section of Ravka, the Fold is now pitch dark and populated by flying monsters called volcra. As the only person ever born in Ravka who possesses the ability to summon light, Alina is also Ravka’s only hope. The Darkling, however, wants to use her power to expand the Fold.

Having escaped the Darkling, Alina and her childhood friend-turned-boyfriend Mal arrive in the city of Cofton. Alina cannot use her power for fear of revealing her identity, but not using it leaves her wan and weak. Meanwhile Mal, with his talent for hunting and tracking, is as strong and competent as ever. Though she loves him, Alina feels like no match for him, and it’s clear the local girls don’t see her as one, either.

Despite her frailty it is Alina who senses something is wrong when, one night two weeks after their arrival in Cofton, she and Mal return to the boardinghouse where they have been staying.
But by the time they discover the Darkling’s ambush, it is too late to do more than try to defend themselves. During this confrontation, the Darkling reveals a new power, the ability to create creatures from darkness.

The nichevo’ya, as these beings are known, are the gift Alina gave him, the Darkling tells her. When she abandoned the Darkling to the volcras’ tender mercies on the Fold, he learned to create them. Alina uses her own weapon, the Cut, to slice the creatures in half with light, but eventually one of them manages to reach her and bite her. Alina passes out as she and Mal are taken captive.

The coming days pass in a haze for Alina, who has been drugged. When she comes to, she is on board a ship. The Darkling is in control of the situation, with several of the Grisha who are loyal to him assisting him. Among them is Ivan, who despises Alina, and Genya, whom Alina once considered a true friend.

Alina soon learns that the ship is headed north in search of the sea whip, a mythical creature whose scales would make a powerful amplifier.

Like the stag whose horns Alina now wears around her neck to amplify her power, the sea whip is one of the legendary Morozova’s creatures. Like the stag, it is imbued with magic. And as he did with the stag, the Darkling intends to kill the sea whip and turn it into an amplifier for Alina to wear, although no Grisha should ever have more than one amplifier.

For this the Darkling needs Mal alive, since Mal can hunt and track like no other man. Neither Mal nor Alina wants to hunt the sea whip, but the Darkling threatens to harm Alina unless Mal cooperates, or to harm Mal unless Alina does.

Also on the ship is its owner, the pirate or privateer, Sturmhond, a scourge of the seas which surround Ravka. Present as well are Sturmhond’s crewmembers, which include Tolya and Tamar, twins who can fight and hold their own against any Grisha, as a confrontation between the two of them and Ivan reveals.

While Tamar and Tolya seem to feel some compassion for Alina, Sturmhond refuses to consider her pleas for help from him and his crew. The Darkling is paying him handsomely to ignore Alina and Mal’s captivity.

I don’t want to give away how it happens, but Mal and Alina eventually escape the Darkling’s clutches and return to Ravka. By then Alina wears a fetter made of the sea whip’s scales, and her power has grown beyond her imaginings, yet she hungers for more.

But is Alina truly free? In Ravka, many consider Alina a saint risen from the dead. Pilgrims gather and seek to pay homage to her, and a religious movement develops around her legend. At the same time, the mysterious Prince Nikolai begins to pay her marked attentions, and Mal grows jealous.

Worst of all, as Alina takes control of her destiny, the same circumstances which allow her to do this cause Mal’s own strength and agency to diminish. Both find it difficult to speak about this, and Alina cannot bring herself to tell Mal that she fears the Darkling still holds power over her.

Like a storm on the horizon, the Darkling looms over their lives, and as they prepare for his return, each wonders where the future will take them. For there is a third and final magical creature, the firebird, which could make Alina’s power a true match for the Darkling’s…

Like Shadow and Bone, its predecessor, Siege and Storm engendered mixed feelings in me. I think my ambivalence about this series boils down to this: the reveal two thirds of the way through book one of all the evils the Darkling had perpetrated and the ways he’d manipulated Alina have made him completely irredeemable, yet he’s still the most compelling and fascinating character in these books.

I thought I’d stop caring about him after what he did toward the end of Shadow and Bone, but to my surprise, the Darkling was still multidimensional and interesting (as a villain) in this book, almost as much as he’d been as a potential hero in book one. Still, I don’t see him as a potential love interest for Alina anymore.

Then there is Mal who is basically a good guy, but seems incompatible with Alina to me. The truth is that Alina’s Grisha power removes her from Mal’s sphere, and Mal’s own strengths as a hunter and tracker make life with the Grisha miserable for him.

Yet without her powers, Alina gets frail and weak – clearly hiding her light under a bushel isn’t good for her. If Mal truly loved her, he would accept this and let her go, but instead of encouraging her to use her power, he fears it. This is human enough – for one thing, her power could take her out of his life, and for a second, Alina’s hunger for yet more of it makes her frightening and potentially destructive.

So at one end of the spectrum, we have the Darkling, Alina’s counterpart in potential strength, thirst for power, leadership and destructiveness. On the other we have Mal who doesn’t want Alina to have power and whom she fears losing to such a degree that she spent most of her youth burying her power so as not to acknowledge his incompatibility with her life and her nature.

I can’t root for her to end up with either of these guys.

Alina needs to end up somewhere in the middle, I think, but the only guy who perhaps represents the middle is Prince Nikolai, and while I found him an interesting character in that he was both chameleon-like and charming, I’m not even remotely sold on him as a potential partner for Alina. Like the Darkling, he wants her partly for political reasons. And Nikolai doesn’t bring to the table the childhood love, trust and loyalty that Alina feels with and for Mal, nor does he create the sizzling sexual attraction that Alina feels with and for the Darkling.

So I can’t ship this one either.

Honestly, at this point I’m kind of hoping that Alina ends up alone at the end of book three. That will be sad (especially if Nikolai or Mal die in book three), but it seems best for Alina to wait a few more years and then find a fellow Grisha who has no political interest in her and whose presence in her life doesn’t diminish her.

Enough said about the romantic relationships. As a romantic fantasy this novel didn’t work for me, but as a fantasy about coming of age, it does. What I really liked about this book was that the plot was eventful and the pacing even stronger than in book one. There were twists and turns I did not see coming though I tried to anticipate them and guess ahead, and I was not bored at any point.

Your voice is a strong one, Alina’s first person narration conversational and vivid at once.

I also really liked that after spending most of book one being passive, Alina took charge of her destiny here. I especially liked her action to resolve the situation with the Darkling toward the end of the book.

The non-communication between Alina and Mal was frustrating, especially since Alina’s motives for not telling Mal what was worrying her so much was only revealed toward the end of the book. I think that had the motive been given sooner, Alina’s silence on an important subject would have made sense to me a lot earlier in the book.

Ultimately, I’d say this book was slightly better than the previous one. It was entertaining and interesting, well-paced and different from most of the YA I read. If a reader is looking for a really romantic YA, I advise steering clear of this series, but for someone who’d like to read a solid fantasy/adventure story, this one is worth a try. B-.


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REVIEW: The Magpie Lord (A Charm of Magpies 1) by KJ Charles

REVIEW: The Magpie Lord (A Charm of Magpies 1) by KJ...

A lord in danger. A magician in turmoil. A snowball in hell.

Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.

Magician Stephen Day has good reason to hate Crane’s family. Unfortunately, it’s his job to deal with supernatural threats. Besides, the earl is unlike any aristocrat he’s ever met, with the tattoos, the attitude…and the way Crane seems determined to get him into bed. That’s definitely unusual.

Soon Stephen is falling hard for the worst possible man, at the worst possible time. But Crane’s dangerous appeal isn’t the only thing rendering Stephen powerless. Evil pervades the house, a web of plots is closing round Crane, and if Stephen can’t find a way through it—they’re both going to die.

Warning: Contains hot m/m sex between a deeply inappropriate earl and a very confused magician, dark plots in a magical version of Victorian England, family values (not the good kind), and a lot of swearing.

Dear KJ Charles,

The blurb of this book appealed to me – I love when magic of any kind is part of the setting (if it is well done of course – same as with any setting).  I also love when magic is combined with a mystery, and when there is a romance building on the top of that, I can be a very happy reader if I am pleased with the execution.

This book was a wonderful surprise. I had never heard of this writer before, but I will certainly be on the lookout for more books from her. It looks like the second book in this series will be out in January 2014, but I do not know if more books are planned in this series beyond that.

The Magpie Lord (A Charm of Magpies 1) by KJ CharlesThe story is set in a Victorian England where the magic is part of everybody’s everyday lives. Not everything is revealed yet as to how this world works, but even in this book I did not feel disoriented in time and place, if that makes sense. I felt that my feet were firmly on the ground and this is how I want to feel when the writer throws me into a world which is at least partially of her own invention

Let me tell you a little bit more about the set-up of the book.  The blurb is a nice teaser, but it does not tell you why Lucien needs magical help. Basically, somebody has already tried very hard to murder him, or more precisely to induce him to commit suicide by magical means. It became more and more difficult for his trusted servant, Merrick, to stop him, and both he and Lucien are afraid that next time the attack will succeed and Lucien will die. So they ask for help from a shaman, at which point Stephen appears on their doorstep.  He was a magical practitioner and more than competent for that job, but whether he was a shaman or not I am actually not sure yet.  He is able to figure out what was is to make Lucien kill himself, but then he realizes that something bigger is at work and the three must travel to the Cranes’ ancestral home and confront these forces.

The pacing of the story was impressive to me.  The first couple of chapters threw me right into the middle of danger Lucien faces and I never felt that the story dragged, not once. But the writer let me take couple of breaths with the main characters, if that makes sense, in between all of that danger. I thought she achieved a very nice balance with that.

I loved both characters almost from the get- go – as you can tell from the blurb, Lucien did not have the best relationship with his family (to put it mildly: otherwise he would not have been forced to go to China). The best way to describe Lucien is that he is a survivor. The hardships that he and Merrick encountered while in China are only briefly mentioned in this book (hopefully we will learn more later), and the fact that they survived and even thrived was very impressive to me. But now when both his horrible father and even worse brother are dead, Lucien is back in England dealing with the title he inherited and the mess they left behind.

Stephen was also a great character. I am actually not a big fan of the setup where the two main characters in an m/m story are very different in size, but only because in so very many stories that difference in sizes signals that the smaller character is a damsel in distress. If this is not the case, I really do not care about what size the guys are, different, same, etc.  And in this story Stephen did not remind me a damsel of any kind. Quite the contrary, because the magical threat to Lucien’s life looms over them for the majority of the story, Lucien has to depend on Stephen’s skills and Stephen seemed to me to be a *very* gifted, very strong magician, who dealt with the danger and excitement very well. Not that he was omnipotent, as Stephen himself said at least once, and it took all of them to deal with the final danger, but I thought he did more than ok. I do not want to imply that Lucien was the damsel in distress either, he was an extremely strong character, but I liked that he had to let Stephen take the lead several times no matter how much he would have preferred not to.

“I’m all right,” he said, muffled.  “I’m all right. Get off me, you lump.”
“Don’t,” Day said from the end of the room. “Keep him down.”
Crane angled his neck uncomfortably. Day was also on the floor, kneeling by the fireplace. His left hand was held right, just above the  floor,  its fingers contorted into splayed claws. Under it was something Crane could not quite see. Day had the abstracted look again, his lips were slightly drawn back from his teeth, and from where Crane lay, his eyes seemed to be pure darkness with a ring of white.
“Let me up,” Crane snapped.
“Don’t let him up,” Day repeated. “Don’t let him move. Break his arms if you have to.”
“I’m having a certain amount of trouble holding this thing.” Day’s voice had a slight tremor of tension to it. “And I need it held, but the nodes… I’m making this too complicated. This is craft. Wood,  blood and birdspit. Where’s my bag?”

If you are wondering about the actual romance, do not worry.  The romance builds throughout the book, but no, they do not end up in bed until the end of the story. As the blurb indicates Stephen has a bad history with Lucien’s family, and even though he figures out very quickly that Lucien is not like his family, this makes him understandably mistrustful and averse to sleeping with Lucien right away. Several times during the story they end up almost having sex, but not quite, and I thought the reasons made perfect sense. I also really liked how author used those “almost” times to build and build the sexual tension between them until it exploded at the end, and at the same time made sure not to make a mockery out of the investigation and showed that investigation was their first priority no matter how attracted they were to each other.

I liked couple of female characters we meet in the village, but I am especially looking forward to meeting Stephen’s work partner Esther. I have a suspicion her magical skills are also very good.

Oh and magpies are indeed important part of the story!  Grade B+.