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REVIEW:  Autumn Bones by Jacqueline Carey

REVIEW: Autumn Bones by Jacqueline Carey

autumn bonesDear Ms. Carey,

Despite my general disenchantment with urban fantasy, I enjoyed your first foray into the subgenre with Dark Currents. Dark Currents introduced Daisy Johansson, the half-demon daughter of a woman who accidentally summoned a demon with an ouija board as a teenager. I was charmed by the portrayal of a resort town whose tourist industry depended on the local supernatural community. Daisy’s struggles as a woman juggling the responsibilities of being a liaison for the preternatural world and her duties for the police department were also fun to read about. The entire novel was refreshing so I’d been looking forward to the sequel for the past year.

Autumn Bones picks up where Dark Currents left off. Daisy is settling into her role of Hel’s liaison and nurturing a new relationship with Sinclair, a relative newcomer to town who gives bus tours to tourists hoping for some supernatural action. Unlike the other men in Daisy’s life, Sinclair is normal. He’s not a werewolf. He’s not a revenant.

At least that’s what Daisy believes and what Sinclair led her to think. Unfortunately, he’s kept very quiet about his background and she soon learns the reason behind his faint supernatural aura. Sinclair comes from a family of powerful Obeah sorcerers and they want him to come home, to fulfill the family duty. Sinclair isn’t inclined to humor them, and they’re not inclined to take no for an answer — which means Daisy’s little tourist town is caught in the middle.

The one thing I’ve always enjoyed about your works is that they subvert the subgenres they’re a part of while firmly honoring them at the same time. That was part of the reason why I enjoyed Dark Currents so much. Not only did Daisy choose the relatively normal guy over the other supernatural candidates, she started a very normal relationship with him. She has a best friend who she actually treats like one and that she prioritizes above all else but who has a life outside of Daisy’s. There are genuine depictions of lower working class people. Daisy’s best friend is a cleaning lady. Her mother is a seamstress who lives in a trailer. For all that many urban fantasy novels make noises about featuring protagonists who are poor or lower class, they don’t. Not really. (Sorry, Rob Thurman, it’s true.)

Autumn Bones had less of that subversive quality, and that lessened my enjoyment of the book. I admit I’ve come to expect it from your works so when it’s not present, I’m disappointed. It’s more of a straight-up portrayal of an urban fantasy, which made it less interesting. Daisy takes care of an issue involving a sartyr in rut (aka the opening case that’s supposed to show the daily grind of Daisy’s supernatural life). Then the matter of Sinclair’s family comes to light and the repercussions unfold (the main story). There’s not much subversion happening.

That said, there were things I liked. The portrayal of Daisy’s relationship with Sinclair felt genuine. I loved Sinclair as a love interest but I also understand how a relationship between them would flounder. I liked that while Daisy is struggling between multiple love interests, it never takes over the story or becomes the focal point. It’s present but drama-free. When Daisy has sex, it’s presented positively and as a natural progression of things. This is not a surprise to people familiar with your works. Your books have always been sex positive and have never presented it as the end all, be all.

The novel’s true weakness, however, is the plot. Yes, there’s conflict. Yes, there’s a threat. Ghosts are overrunning the town, and people are being put into danger. Given the local tourist economy, this is a problem. Tourists come for supernatural looksies, not for actual supernatural danger. But despite all the inherent conflict, there’s no sense of urgency. There is no tension. And given that some things go majorly wrong, the fact that I never really got an Oh shit! moment is a sign the plot structure didn’t work for me.

While I enjoy Daisy’s adventures and the happenings in the tourist town of Pemkowet, I thought Autumn Bones didn’t quite live up to the expectations set by Dark Currents. I’m still interested in reading more novels in this series but I’m not chomping at the bit anymore. B-

My regards,

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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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