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REVIEW:  Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

REVIEW: Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

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Dear Ms. White,

Your latest novel, Illusions of Fate, is a departure from Mind Games and Perfect Lies, a duology about a pair of sisters gifted with special powers that make them ideal for espionage. Instead, we go to an alternate world reminscent of Victorian England. Except filled with magic.

Born on the island of Melei, Jessamin has gone to the country of Albion to get an education. Of course, it’s not so easy. Melei is under the colonial control of Albion, and Jessamin herself is the result of a union between a Melei woman and a visiting scholar from Albion. To no one’s surprise, the scholar couldn’t care less about them but Jessamin’s mother still hopes the man remembers them. Jessamin is more practical than her mother. She doesn’t want any sort of relationship with the man — except she has no problems blackmailing him into helping her gain admission into the university. The professor has a wife, you see, who has no knowledge that her husband has an illegitimate daughter with a foreigner. This fact right here was more than enough to cement my affection for Jessamin as a heroine.

Being biracial — and visibly so; no passing here — Jessamin is the target of racism and bigotry from her peers. This is why she causes a sensation when she attracts the attention of Finn, a young noble of Albion who has recently come to the city. Even more startling is when he “shadows” her — his shadow leaves his body and attaches to hers, granting Jessamin two shadows. This is the equivalent of a soulbond. Some people are scandalized. Some people are entertained. Finn sets out to win Jessamin. And Jessamin just can’t be bothered with all this nonsense.

But it’s not all fun and games. Finn has enemies among the Albion peerage. Albion, you see, is torn between minding its own business or expanding its imperialistic designs even more. Finn has managed to prevent the latter from happening but when he shadows Jessamin, a rival on the opposing side finally sees a chance to leverage the young lord to change his mind. Jessamin has no magic so you’d think this would leave her out of her depth. Thankfully, she’s very clever and doesn’t see why Albion social boundaries should restrict her as she isn’t from Albion at all.

This was a really charming book. I really liked Jessamin as a heroine. It was refreshing that despite the fact she found Finn very hot, she was dubious about his intentions. This was in line with her background — her mother got taken in by an Albion gentleman who used her and left her, and she had no intention of suffering the same fate. It was nice to see a YA novel touch on the effects of colonialism and imperialism, both on a larger level and a personal level.

I adored Eleanor. She was a great supporting character and ally for Jessamin, who gets catapulted into Albion’s upper society thanks to Finn’s shadowing her. I thought she was hilarious and brave despite the pressures put upon her by everyone else.

Overall, I thought Finn was all right. Not an asshole in the slightest. That said, I admit that I thought less of him when he made it all about himself about Jessamin’s reticence about reciprocating. So what if he’s not racist and doesn’t care about the color of her skin? I’m happy for him. But he has to think about what it means that his non-racist views are extraordinary in this society, on top of realizing that sure, maybe he’s not racist but Jessamin will have to live her entire life dealing with bigoted perspectives. No amount of his love is going to cancel that out. Sorry, it’s not enough. It’s believable that he doesn’t realize the structural racism inherent in society — he’s only 19, after all. But I would have liked to see more pushback against his defensiveness, and less Jessamin capitulating to his side. She has a reason to be defensive. Her mother’s story is far more common than Jessamin’s, after all.

I really enjoyed Illusions of Fate. Your writing style is so comfortable, that it’s easy to sink into the story. I loved Jessamin as a heroine, and I loved that even though she was ostracized by the color of her skin, this didn’t mean she had no female friends or allies. The romance was sweet, and I admit I was charmed by Jessamin’s crow friend. Add in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism, and I’m all yours. Can’t wait until your next book. B+

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

REVIEW: Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Dear Mr. Aaronovich,

I enjoyed all your earlier books in the Peter Grant urban fantasy series, from Midnight Riot (aka Rivers of London) to Moon Over Soho to Whispers Under Ground, although I put off reading book four, Broken Homes, because I had mixed feelings about your comments in the discussion thread following this post.

BrokenHomesThen my husband and a good friend urged me to read the book, saying they enjoyed it a great deal. I decided to read Broken Homes to see what I was missing, but while I enjoyed some of it, it wasn’t to the same degree that I enjoyed your earlier books.

The book begins with a strange car accident. The driver, Robert Weil, runs a red light and hits another car, but when the police investigate, they find blood in the backseat but no sign of the missing passenger.

Police constable and magician’s apprentice Peter Grant receives an email alert because Weil is a member of the Little Crocodiles, an Oxford University dining club investigated by Peter and his cohorts in earlier books for dabbling in magic.

The car accident case turns up nothing of a magical nature, however, and life goes back to normal, which means that Peter and the coworker he’s had a crush on, Leslie, study for detective classes, learn Latin for their magic practice with their supervisor Nightingale, and begin work on crafting their wizard staffs.

Then a few other unusual things happen. A man named George Nolfi is hospitalized with burns after conjuring a fireball for his six year old granddaughter’s birthday party. He claims he hasn’t practiced magic since early childhood when his mother taught him a few spells.

Another man, Richard Lewis, kills himself, but his apparent suicide may be no suicide at all. And Peter stumbles on a German book whose title translates to On the Fundamentals that Underlie the Practice of Magic in the London Stolen Art Directory.

Of this handful of cases, one on further investigation inarguably points to the Faceless Man, a magic practitioner whom Peter and Nightingale have been fighting for three books now. But are these cases connected? What is the Faceless Man plotting? And are Peter, Leslie and Nightingale adequately prepared to face an opponent of the Faceless Man’s power and skill?

The beginning of this book felt exciting, with one incident of magical violence following after another. But that level of excitement wasn’t sustained and Broken Homes didn’t hang together quite as well as the earlier books.

As the most helpful positive review on Amazon points out and this plot summary shows, the structure of this novel is different from that of the earlier books. Rather than following one case, Peter and company work on a few cases before one turns up something that leads them to their archenemy, the Faceless Man.

Consequently, the book feels more disjointed and episodic than the earlier books. It meanders here and there but doesn’t gel into anything cohesive until the final third of the story.

On the upside, there is an interesting development in Leslie’s personal life. On the downside, I really missed the London history that was woven into the first three books. It felt like a significant loss.

The novel’s pacing feels off, too. After the exciting beginning, not enough headway is made on the cases being investigated during the long and sagging middle. In the final third, the engine of the story revs up and things finally start happening again.

Fortunately the writing is as witty as ever. Here’s an example:

Negotiating the inerface between the Folly and the rest of the police is always tricky, especially when it’s the murder squad. You don’t get to be a senior investigating officer unless you have a degree in skepticism, an MA in distrust and your CV lists suspicious bastard under your hobbies.

And here’s another:

Tracking down the exploding granddad’s antecedents was yet another thing that was still sitting in the low priority things-to-be-done pile. It might have to be moved up.

“Indeed,” said Nightingale. “I’d like you to have a look at the house today.”

“Today?”

“If possible,” said Nightingale which meant, yes absolutely today.

I still love Peter. He still has the same core of human decency and honor, and he still makes me laugh. He still comes up with creative solutions to the problems that he faces. He still wants to do the right thing by the people he cares about and by the people of London, whom he serves.

I still like Peter’s companion characters, from by-the-book Leslie to bright, curious Dr. Walid, to snooty-but-impressively-good-at-magic Nightingale to magic-sensing dog Toby. I still like the Rivers and the goblin Zack and the Quiet People and the other magical characters. The diversity of the cast (Peter himself is biracial—his father a white jazz musician and his mum a black immigrant from Sierra Leone) appeals to me as always, and the Faceless Man and those aiding him still scare me.

But much of Broken Homes feels like groundwork being laid for future books, and for the explosive twist that comes at the end of Broken Homes. For a reader who doesn’t foresee what happens, the big plot turn is likely to be impactful, and I’m sure its reprecussions will reverberate through the upcoming Foxglove Summer.

Unfortunately for me, I first started suspecting that this might be where the series was heading two books back. So for me, the twist wasn’t as twisty as it is for some readers. Rather than having the surprise come out of nowhere, I felt helpless as I watched what I’d predicted unfold, and a little frustrated that one or two characters who should have been able to anticipate it didn’t see it coming.

The introduction of two new characters with magical abilities makes me anticipate good things in book five, so I suspect I will be reading it. Then again, when I finished book three, Whispers Under Ground, I was sure we were in for some big things in this, book four. And to be fair I think that readers who don’t figure things out ahead of time may get that from this book to a greater degree than I did. C.

Sincerely,

Janine

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