Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Untold," by Sarah Rees Brennan

The Protagonist: Kami Glass. A budding investigative reporter whose sleuthing uncovered the fact that her town is full of resentful sorcerers waiting for a good excuse to come back into power.
Her Angst: She has no true idea who's a sorcerer and who's not, and no longer knows who to trust. On top of that, Jared is giving her the cold shoulder for breaking their magical bond.

The Secondary Cast:

Jared: An entitled, navel-gazing, self-absorbed whiny loser with low self-esteem who deals with this by being a dick to everyone. He's supposed to be attractive for some reason?

Ash: An entitled, navel-gazing, self-absorbed whiny loser with low self-esteem who nevertheless finds healthy ways to deal with his issues and other people. Why is he not the hero?

Angela: Kami's best friend who's coming to grips with her crush on Holly.

Holly: Friend to both Kami and Angela, who's struggling to come to grips with Angela's sexual orientation - and maybe her own?

Lillian: Ash's mum, Jared's aunt, and official Head Bitch In Charge of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Determined to hold on to her crown by any means necessary.

Rob: Ash's dad, Jared's uncle (?), who's determined to return sorcerers to power and make the humans of Sorry-in-the-Vale his rightful serfs.

YA Angst Checklist:

  • I Know Way Too Many People Who Are Suddenly Okay With Human Sacrifice
  • Child-snatching
  • Why can't all these people see I'm acting like a Giant Tool because I'm starved for Love?
  • Emotional Independence
  • Bad Moms

The Word: I'd heard the hype about Unspoken, but I didn't truly get it until I opened the book and fell headfirst into a richly layered gothic fantasy that's serious, but not too serious to take itself too seriously. If that make sense. It used time-tested YA tropes, but in a fresh, self-aware way that made them entertaining instead of tiresome.

Needless to say, I was excited about the sequel. Untold picks up where Unspoken left off - that is, In A Very Bad Place. Kami's investigations from the previous novel uncovered the fact that the Lynburns are sorcerers and her town of Sorry-in-the-Vale is riddled with other magic-using families. Even worse, Rob Lynburn (Jared's uncle, Ash's father) had been secretly recruiting these local sorcerers in order to forcibly return the town to the Old Ways - the human-sacrifice kind.

So on top of coming to grips with the fact that people she's known her entire life are suddenly okay with murdering people, Kami has to stop Rob and his cronies from fulfilling their promise to sacrifice a human on the Winter Solstice to solidify their rule over the town. This means Kami and her friends have to team up with Lillian Lynburn, who stands in opposition to Rob - not because she opposes the murder of peasants, but because they are her peasants and that's rude. Yeah, Lillian's the worst.

I did enjoy this book, really, but it does suffer from a pretty severe case of middle-book-itis. It's heavy on character development, and really, really light on plot. The book layers on the description and the internal monologuing and the angst, but most of the novel is just a countdown to the Solstice.

Oh, and angsty tantrums from Jared. So many angsty tantrums. I put up with Jared in the previous novel because Kami was such a strong character and didn't put up with his pressuring. At the end of the previous novel, Kami actually severed their magical bond because she was (rightly) terrified about what it was doing to her emotional health and independence. Well, that action sends Jared spiralling into an insufferable, whiny, self-loathing angst-spiral for the rest of this damn book and I just couldn't stand him. He spends a good 70% of the novel being a total asshole to people who care about him while crying that "nobody wuvs me, I am so dark and unwuvable and broken, I cannot handle the feels!"


The novel beats the dead horse that is Jared's Tortured Feels over and over, but at least other characters (like Ash and Holly) also get some spectacular development. Untold spends time examining the pieces on this particular chessboard rather than making any significant plays, but thankfully (most of) the characters (who are not named Jared) are interesting and multifaceted enough to hold my attention.

Yeah, it's a middle book, but it keeps a firm enough hold on the reigns to keep me excited for the final novel.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

"The Game and the Governess," by Kate Noble

The Chick: Phoebe Baker. A former debutante forced into servitude when her father was swindled of his life savings by a con artist the Earl of Ashby refused to prosecute.
The Rub: Now she lives as a governess, in the very house where the Earl is visiting. Will her hatred rise up to consume her?
Dream Casting: Chloe Sevigny.

The Dude: Lucky Ned, Earl of Ashby. He thinks he has it all because he's an awesome person, but his best friend thinks it's because he's a privileged asshat. Naturally, he decides to make a wager at it, switching places with his secretary friend.
The Rub: Being a secretary is hard. Who knew?
Dream Casting: James McAvoy.

The Plot:

Ned: What?! Are you really saying the reason everyone loves me, caters to my every need, and waits on me is because I have money and power?


Ned: Oh. Be my wife?

Phoebe: Despite my 5-year-long hatred of you and disgust for privileged aristocrats and the fact that you literally lied to me about everything, I inexplicably agree!


Phoebe: ...hmm, maybe it's because of all your money and power.


Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Asshat Hero
  • 2 Sequel-Baiting Dudebros
  • 1 Desperate Sequel-Baiting Countess Who Gives Us NO CLOSURE AT ALL
  • 1 Poisoned Blackberry Tart
  • 1 Random Murder Attempt

The Word: Okay, so I kind of fell off the Kate Noble fan wagon after the awful Follow My Lead. Revealed is still one of my favourite romances, but the rest of her novels never really lived up to the perfection of that one. However, I was quite intrigued by the plot of The Game and the Governess and thought I'd give her another try.

Lucky Ned, Earl of Ashby, has it all - he's one of the wealthiest men in the country, he's handsome, healthy, and a sure hand at cards. However, when his best friend/war buddy/secretary John Turner calls him on his privilege, Ned gets all butthurt. Turner, who has been pleading with Ned for years to lend him the money to help his family's mill, says the only reason Ned is "lucky" is because he's an earl. Ned, who's refused to lend Turner the money because ... mills are boring and working for a living is stupid, believes it's his naturally cheerful disposition that grants him Lady Luck's favour, and John has only his sourpuss personality to blame for his own misfortunes. Yeah.

Turner decides to turn it into a wager. The two are headed to a small English village neither has visited in decades to sell off Ned's mother's property. Turner proposes they switch places - Turner will pose as the earl, and Ned as the secretary - for two weeks, and in that time Ned has to win the romantic favour of a noble lady in spite of his "lowly" status. If Turner wins, Ned owes him 5000 pounds. If Ned wins, Turner loses his family mill. Yup - Ned's the hero of this novel.

They arrive at the house, and Ned's eye is caught by the whippet-thin, stern-faced governess of his host's children. Unbeknownst to him, this governess, Phoebe Baker, harbours a deep grudge against the Earl of Ashby. Years ago, Ned discovered his previous secretary was embezzling from him and he chose to cover it up rather than lose face, leaving the thief free to swindle Phoebe's father of his inheritance and drive him to suicide. Phoebe's reconciled herself to her reduced circumstances but she wants nothing to do with anyone associated with the Ashby house.

So, what was good about this novel? Noble does an excellent job examining privilege. Ned is an ass, and the narrative both acknowledges and commits to this and uses it to develop his character. Ned thinks the wager will be easy, he'll just use his abundant charm on the ladies, but his tried-and-tested moves blow up in his face - and the narrative doesn't only imply his earldom made womenfolk more receptive. It also suggests his high station could have scared women who would ordinarily have resisted his advances. I loved that aspect, and I loved that Ned had to really start thinking about consent and willingness and the enjoyment of his partners.

So what didn't I like? Pretty much everything else. Phoebe's an impractical Mary Sue who turns down an offer for five hundred pounds because she's become a "better person" in poverty than she was as a sheltered gentleman's daughter. Um, it's money - not a time machine. You're not magically going to turn back into a Terrible Person the moment you float above the poverty line. I also didn't buy her romance with Ned at all - it happens far too quickly, with almost no real development, and it skirts most of the thorny issues that ought to keep them apart.

More than anything, however, I hated this novel's pacing. Was it written under a really strict deadline? This novel reads like it was taken out of the oven fifteen minutes too early, still raw in the middle. The ending is laughably rushed - it introduces a murder plot that's barely solved a few pages later, we don't get to see anyone's reactions to Ned and Turner's switcharoo, and Phoebe overcomes her five-year-grudge and the horror of being lied to within the span of one page. Even more egregious, the secondary romance between Turner and a desperate countess, a romance that took up precious time that the primary romance sorely needed, turns out to be a ridiculously blatant cocktease for the sequel.

This novel is nothing but build up until a shoddy last-minute resolution.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

"Ha'Penny," by Jo Walton

The Corpse: Lauria Gilmore, a prominent actress who inconveniently explodes right after landing a part in a controversial retelling of Hamlet.

The Gumshoes: 

Viola Lark: A talented actress who's coerced into completing the mission Lauria started before she got blown to high heaven.

Inspector Peter Carmichael: A depressed inspector who's not sure how many more cases he can solve for superiors who hold his darkest secrets over his head.

The Suspects/Secondary Characters:

Lady Russell, a.k.a. "Siddy": Viola's Communist sister who may have gotten herself in too deep.

Devlin Connelly: an Irish revolutionary with a literally explosive backstory (yes, I'm going to keep doing bomb puns).

Jack: Inspector Carmichael's lover who resents having to hide their relationship, even as he understands why they have to.

Normanby: A racist, fascist, wife-abusing murderer - and Prime Minister of Great Britain.

The Word: I don't normally read sequels right after their original books. I like to give myself time to read other things and keep from burning out on (or through!) an author's novels too quickly. However, after reading and raving about Farthing to my family members, both my mother and grandmother started racing through the books so I took on the second book in order to keep up with the discussion.

Ha'Penny takes place only a few months after the events of Farthing. Normanby is now Prime Minister thanks to his murderous machinations in the previous novel, and he's already started to exploit the fears of the populace in order to bring fascism into England. And most of the nation seems willing to follow Normanby's lead.

Inspector Carmichael learns otherwise when he's called to investigate an explosion in a London suburb that killed a prominent actress and her male companion. Incriminating paperwork in the woman's house suggests the victims were trying to build a bomb before their amateurish efforts literally blew up in their faces, but who were they working for? And will they try again?

Meanwhile, stage actress Viola Lark is preparing for her performance as the Danish Princess in a gender reversed staging of Hamlet when her estranged sister Siddy contacts her for the first time in years. Worried at the desperation in her sister's voice, Viola agrees to meet - and winds up coerced into an anti-government plot to kill Normanby and Hitler during the Fuhrer's visit to England. Viola's just the person they need to plant a bomb in the theatre while Hitler watches her show.

Viola, born to an eccentric and politically diverse aristocratic family (closely modelled on the real-life Mitford sisters), left her upper-crust origins behind to pursue a life on the stage. In that way, she's much like Mrs. Kahn from Farthing - a blueblood who renounced her birthright in order to pursue her passion. Viola is a little less sympathetic than the generous-hearted and idealistic Lucy, but her character arc is just as interesting. Viola doesn't give a damn about what's happening on the continent. She thinks the stories about the concentration camps are rubbish and the politics have nothing to do with her. She's just an actress - she wants to read and perform and receive applause. That's all. The world's too big for anyone to really change it, after all.

Yes, Viola is a fairly selfish person. She lives in her own little sphere and resists (understandably!) the pleading diatribes of the conspirators who fall over themselves trying to explain their good intentions, even as they regretfully admit they'll have to "silence" her if she doesn't comply. And yet, her own observations as she assists with their plans slowly clue her in to the fact that the world is not okay, and hiding in one's dressing room only makes it easier for monsters to seize power. Even if, when she actually meets Hitler face-to-face, she discovers she "instinctively [likes] him."

The novel also sees the return of Inspector Carmichael, who's grown remarkably world-weary in the few short months since Farthing. Much like Viola, he's forced to participate in political machinations he finds extraordinarily distasteful. Now that his superiors (including the Prime Minister himself) know he's gay, he's a tool who has to dance to their tune if he doesn't want his private life with his lover Jack exposed to the public. Horrified at the thought of being their puppet indefinitely, he plans his early retirement - even as he works to protect the loathsome Normanby from a murderous plot.

While Ha'Penny has an engaging plot peppered with vibrant characters, it still suffers from "middle-book-itis." It doesn't really go very far or do very much, other than solidify the set-up for the third and final novel, Half a Crown. It doesn't even have a mystery, not really - we learn pretty early on that the inexperienced Lauria did herself in. It also takes every possible opportunity to throw the word "ha'penny" into the narrative, just in case we forgot the title of the book. It would make a pretty entertaining drinking game if you had some mulled cider, a rainy day, and a few hours to kill.

Thankfully, what it lacks in plot it makes up for in the exploration of its theme: the distance between a person, their intentions, and their ultimate actions. Viola's conspirators are all blusteringly well-intentioned, and we, the readers, cannot help but support their hatred of Hitler and the Nazis. However, they're willing to bomb a crowded theatre and coerce an innocent woman into being their accomplice - is this right? Meanwhile, Viola has to reconcile her knowledge of her sisters as girl she grew up with, with the understanding of who they are today - her sister Siddy is disturbingly willing to sacrifice Viola to serve her own ends, and another sister is married to Himmler (yes, that Himmler) and seems blithely oblivious to the Third Reich's atrocities.

While not quite as page-turningly-exciting as Farthing, Ha'Penny is an entertaining and thoughtful successor that only raises my expectations for the final book in the trilogy.