I Gently Entreat You To Read “The Book of Three”

With a 60th anniversary in the offing, Lloyd Alexander’s 1964 The Book of Three is predictably familiar, having been published only ten years after The Lord of the Rings‘ inaugural volume, in an era before we as a society collectively ran archetypal, medieval-inspired, hero’s journey quest fantasy into the ground. I say this lovingly, for the sake of anyone on the hunt for something fresh, surprising, or staggering from their fantasy: this one ain’t it.

There is, however, a different kind of virtue in a story that knows precisely what works about the tried and true, and if that’s what you’re looking for, The Book of Three has it in spades: a restless and unready hero whose inexperience actually shows. A band of adventurers whose friendship develops in a subtle yet satisfying slow burn. Magic that, while relatively straightforward in this first installment, hints at depths yet to be explored.

When we meet Taran, a kid who works the pens and anvils at the castle of Caer Dallben, it’s practically inevitable that some mishap will send him careening into a quest in Prydain, the fantasy world where the book is set, with a dangerous mission and even more dangerous pursuers, but one of the joys of The Book of Three is that it never truly stops feeling accidental. Taran, as eager a hero as he might be, is never done making mistakes, having his sheltered assumptions challenged, and––this is possibly my favorite part––putting up with an earful from his traveling companions.

It takes a deft hand to craft a group dynamic that constantly trades flack without it feeling mean-spirited or angled at a particular member, but Lloyd Alexander manages it well, even considering the additions of two comedic relief characters, the Gollum-like (but not quite as antagonistic) Gurgi, and the flighty-king-turned-bard Fflewddur Fflam, whose harp breaks a string in protest every time he tells a flagrant lie. (This conceit sounds cheesy, but it’s actually quite funny in execution.)

Gurgi, especially, presents a danger, with his habitual groveling, of making our main characters look like bullies, but Alexander is careful to make Taran––the youngest, the antsiest, and the most naïve––the keeper of most of the impatience, lending the book a chance to use Taran’s interactions with Gurgi as a tool of character. It pays off in warm, fuzzy found-family feelings the same way some of the ribbing from the other characters does, when we get to the end and discover that the irritability of strangers forced to work together has become the good-natured teasing of friends right under our noses.

Gwydion, the ragged prince Taran meets on the road at the beginning, is an excellent choice as a mentor for this very reason. The wizened, all-powerful sorcerers and kings mostly occupy the margins in The Book of Three, leaving the role of the guide to a character who hasn’t yet come into his own as a ruler, and is thus a a wanderer in this world, same as Taran, seeking a place arm-in-arm with our untitled, everykid hero.

Not only does this nurture the closeness of the group dynamic; it also allows Gwydion to act as a protector on terms of equality, less a father figure than an older brother type, and every bit the begrudging guardian recent pop culture has made us so fond of.

This assessment is incomplete, however, without Eilonwy, the niece of a minor antagonist, who is truly the bitterly complaining glue that holds this ensemble together. About the same age as Taran, she’s whip-smart but not above hurling a few insults, the perfect bantery remedy for when things get a little too comfortable around here.

Eilowny works brilliantly as a foil to Taran––where he’d give almost anything to be of noble birth and poised to be a mover and shaker in this world, Eilonwy very thoroughly wants no part of it––but she’s also an excellent character in her own right, owing to the breadth of Alexander’s characterization. Like Fflewddur Fflam, she’s a study in feeling constrained by, and ultimately fleeing, one’s title. Once she does, she also functions as an effective young hero, capable of fending for herself but not then infallible, or instantly an expert in unfamiliar territory. She’s impulsive, hasty, uncertain, and, as is to be expected, rather new at this sort of thing.

Not every fantasy character needs to fumble the sword, of course, but it can be easier to root for a genuine novice because that experience honestly cuts closer to the heart than expertise. Though it isn’t necessarily a weakness where a story offers us over-competence, it certainly works to The Book of Three‘s advantage that even in the final battle, our intrepid pre-teen leads aren’t entirely equipped on their own, and they’re only a small part of the hand that deals the victory. (This plays into the very spoiler-y role of a certain sword, and the wonderfully resonant context of the first time it’s drawn.)

For a story that otherwise deals in the well-executed familiar, this one focused subversion, in writing a hero who is very visibly not a chosen one, becomes its greatest asset. Despite Taran’s uncertain and possibly noble parentage, he reads wholly like the unprepared, ordinary kid he is, and real, substantive, plot-affecting mistakes, something a great deal of recent fantasy lacks, absolutely litter his hero’s journey, making every small victory all the more satisfying––because the plot isn’t sworn to give it to him.

In tandem with this, Alexander’s restraint where it concerns scale sets the stage for a promising direction in the sequels. Arawn, our all-powerful villain, has yet to show face, and the goal in this volume is a far cry from the high stakes we’ll likely encounter later, but the foundational work seems poised to yield a believable expansion in scope, and that’s more than can be said for a work that deals in world-ending stakes right out of the gate, like Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid: from there, you have nowhere left to go.

Prydain, however, is still wide open. I can’t wait to see where it leads us.

“A Crown of Wishes” Is Almost Unfathomably Lovely

In the kingdom of Bharata, a tyrant reigns. His sister, the Princess Gauri, is prisoner in the neighboring land of Ujijain, her fate in the hands of Prince Vikram, who faces a captivity of his own, in the question of his right to rule. If A Crown of Wishes were a cunning novel of political intrigue, the setup would end there, but Roshani Chokshi opts instead to put these circling not-quite enemies at the heart of a fairy tale.

In answer, the fairy tale is every bit as fierce as our leading pair: by magical invitation, they travel to compete in a deadly Tournament of Wishes, a contest that, if they win, will grant them each a wish. Gauri plans to use hers to wrest her kingdom from her brother and free a close friend from his grasp, and Vikram seeks the chance at agency as Ujijain’s rightful king.

But wishes are tricky things, and so, too, is the magic of the realm where our leads seek their fortunes. To succeed, they will have to suffer their worst fears, unite with an unlikely ally, and confront a a terrible truth: that of their feelings for each other.

The particular prose style of a work like this isn’t usually the element of most note––that honor usually goes to the dynamics of the hesitant lovers or the worldbuilding around them––but while Chokshi’s work in both these areas is superb (more on that later), it’s her narration that makes A Crown of Wishes such a treasure. Gauri and Vikram don’t just live through a treacherous and beautiful fairy tale; the writing truly reads like it’s sampled from a storybook in turn, from the dialogue spoken by the mystical inhabitants of Chokshi’s beautifully-rendered otherworld to the lush descriptions of food, finery, and feeling we find there.

Chokshi’s word-smithery never fades elegantly into the scene at hand, but where this quality might make a work dense or cumbersome, it instead makes A Crown of Wishes something to be savored, a painting where the intricacy of the brushstrokes is as vital as the image itself.

What’s brilliant about this artistic choice, though, is its resonance in terms of what A Crown of Wishes means for the world it’s set in at scale. As a spinoff sharing a universe with Chokshi’s debut, The Star-Touched Queen, it takes a slightly different path in showing its mortal protagonists in concert with the supernatural: where Maya, the first book’s lead, feels like she truly belongs in this unearthly magical realm in The Star-Touched Queen, A Crown of Wishes is careful to show Gauri and Vikram as merely visitors, and as such, delineates them from their surroundings using the subtle tool of speech. Their dialogue is “higher” in phrasing than truly grounded, real-to-life speech (they are fantasy characters, after all), but even still, there are notable differences between their voices and the voices of the otherworld around them, in a delicate effort by Chokshi to use even the faintest of fiction’s tools to the utmost.

As we explore the magical world through the eyes of these outsiders, getting brief glimpses at its dangers and wonders, we slowly discover the fading state of magic in their ordinary one, and the novel becomes as much an elegy for the vanishing supernatural as it is an exploration of its riches. This premise is not an unfamiliar one in fantasy, nor is the idea that the mystical, once it is closed to humanity by the dawning of a new age, will be remembered in story a surprising answer, but Chokshi has this unwavering earnestness as a storyteller that makes the well-expected a revelation, here and in our love story alike.

There’s no question that Gauri and Vikram, with their uneasy alliance, lingering gazes, and witty banter, are meant to be, but that takes nothing from the joy of watching them hide their hearts from one another as various trials push them closer to revealing their desires. Chokshi, skilled in romance, knows precisely how to make the most of pining: forcing them to fake a marriage to enter the trials, dwelling on every instance of falsified intimacy, and using every instant of danger to draw their vulnerabilities into the light.

As a contrast to The Star-Touched Queen, they don’t feel like fated lovers so much as fellow contenders, bound together by their wants and a shared willingness to fight for them. To be fair, Maya and Amar (from The Star-Touched Queen) are a wonderful pair in their own right, but it’s the warring hesitancy and conviction that make A Crown of Wishes such a finely-wrought love story, and an even more impressive feat compared with Chokshi’s first.

I would be remiss, though, if I neglected to mention the supporting characters (both major and minor) who are a defining factor in the lingering spell Chokshi’s fairy tale casts. Aasha, one of the vishakanya, a group of women from the mortal world who feed on desire and are poisonous to the touch, is certainly a standout, wrestling as she does with the alienation of losing the mortal world and longing for its delight, but elsewhere, Chokshi gives us smaller but just as tantalizing glimpses of stories unfolding just out of view.

The ancient Serpent King and the river goddess Kapila for instance, appear for hardly a chapter, but Chokshi uses that time to give us the sense that there’s a rich drama hiding behind them, just like there’s one in Aasha, just like there’s one behind Nalini and Arjun, the friends Gauri had to leave behind in Bharata, and just like there was one behind Gauri in her brief appearances in The Star-Touched Queen.

Anyway, in terms of storytelling advice, it’s hard to go wrong in creating side characters with the maxim that they should all feel like they’re getting their own spinoff novel, and it certainly reads like that here, to impressive effect: A Crown of Wishes is a wealth of stories all its own, like a treasury of fairy tales hiding in plain sight.

The only downside to this, of course, is that I now yearn for Roshani Chokshi to write them all.

A Story Imprisoned by Style in “Furthermore”

“Ferenwood had been built on color,” Tahereh Mafi writes of her protagonist, Alice’s, magical homeland in her middle grade debut. “Bursts of it, swaths of it, depths and breadths of it.” What seems a surprising new direction after her gritty, post-apocalyptic Shatter Me series actually, considering Mafi’s lush, lyrical writing in her excursion into sci-fi, makes perfect sense.

Now, in a genre and category that rewards whimsy, where a witty and knowing narrator can slip right into the action without much fuss, Mafi’s vivid metaphors and heady descriptions of feeling are never at risk of being read melodramatically. For the YA dystopian author who once wrote “every butterfly in the world has migrated to my stomach,” Furthermore, with its adventurous spirit and Wonderland worldbuilding, should be the perfect fit. So why isn’t it?

In terms of reading experience, realizing Furthermore doesn’t know where it’s going is something of a slow burn: the narration style is, at least, outwardly charming, and some of the odd narrative choices it enables––revealing characters’ motivations right away, using flowery prose to explain the depth of a characters’ feelings rather than elaborating through dialogue or description––seem like choices made in good faith.

But after a full fourth of the book passes, and the slow, sputtering engine of our adventure still hasn’t managed to get it rolling, Furthermore becomes less a boundary-breaking experiment in tone and more an empty vessel for pithy sayings and flashy fantasy concepts, where everything that could go wrong when a book plays fast and loose with magic and gleefully chucks the fourth wall, does.

When we first learn about Alice Alexis Queensmeadow, a girl born entirely without color in a world that prizes it above all else, we’re told exactly everything we need to know: her lack of color and how it affects her, her disposition, her relationship with her mother (cold), her relationship with her father (warm), and her special talent (dancing). We are told all of this outright, in a simple scene of her going about her daily life, with hardly any action, and almost all exposition.

Later on, whenever a critical piece of information comes into play, we’re given it, again, outright, at the whims of a narrator who, to Mafi’s credit, certainly reads like someone who’d opt for expediency, but, of course, in consequence, knowing everything makes nothing a surprise.

In one frustrating instance, as Alice runs from her childhood enemy-turned-traveling-companion, Oliver, Mafi not only pauses the action to spend almost a page walking us through her motives; she stops to explain Oliver’s shortsightedness, too, denying the conflict between them the chance to fester into something with true consequences.

Tension, in other words, has no hope of survival in the pages of Furthermore––either the chatty narrator spills information that should’ve been concealed, or otherwise left for inference, or hides it until a convenient moment, and upon its release, the revelation feels arbitrary; something whipped up only to magic a messy situation away.

Where worldbuilding is concerned, Furthermore belongs in a tradition of colorfully embracing the nonsensical, which children’s fantasy has been borrowing from since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: The School for Good and Evil fits this tradition, as does Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series. When things don’t, strictly speaking, make “sense”––when rules appear out of nowhere and magic is unpredictable––there are myriad opportunities for satire, inventiveness, and zany concepts that would absolutely wreck the suspension of disbelief in a straight-laced fantasy novel.

That’s what it seems like Furthermore is going for here: in the land of Furthermore, where Alice and Oliver travel to recover Alice’s missing father, there’s a village of paper, a village to the left of a signpost called Left, and travel-by-painting, but instead of coming off as whimsical, all these ideas read like bells and whistles, mere distractions from the fact that deep within Furthermore, there isn’t a uniting principle for all this chaos––only a half-baked attempt at one.

Take Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for instance: Wonderland is a supremely nonsensical place, but that’s by design. The whole point of its nonsense is to face Alice, a person who expects the world to operate logically, with the utterly arbitrary. It’s a decision that reflects character, but can also work as an analogue for the very real experience of coming of age in our labyrinthine and often nonsensical adult world. (Yes, I never shut up about Alice, but this is why.)

In Furthermore, the uniting principle is a heedless disregard for the responsible use of magic, which has made its villages the chaotic places they are, and has also made stray travelers from Ferenwood, a place rich in magic, a delicacy ripe for consumption.

However prominent a threat this explanation provides to our characters, though, we never get the sense that it has any real bearing on the illogic of Furthermore: it serves neither as a proper analogue nor as a suitable reflection of our leads and their flaws.

As a work, Furthermore is defined by two major stylistic choices: the first in the tell-all narrator, and the second in the aforementioned worldbuilding. In a work with unity, these two choices would be inseparable from a book’s themes and characters, justifying themselves on every page, but they often fail to justify themselves in Furthermore. There are major dramatic moments that would be miles better without them, and that’s a terrible sign––no qualities so central to the creative vision of a book should make it suffer this much.

And Furthermore, dear reader, has the makings of an exuberant adventure. It should not have to suffer.

“Gretchen and the Bear” A Botched Experiment in Genre

Where science fiction and fantasy meet, there is an estuary of richness to be had––whether it’s industry making waves in a world of magic (The Legend of Korra, Shadow and Bone), sorcery that works like science (Trial by Fire), or vice versa (Crewel), these genres aren’t quite as at odds as it would initially seem––in fact, they pair quite well.

The premise of Gretchen and the Bear, the third novel by Carrie Anne Noble, holds such allure for this very reason. Set in the far future, it depicts an Earth reclaimed by faerie kind, where warnings about the dangers of faerie food are transmitted across futuristic comms and our protagonist, Gretchen, arrives in a woodland realm pulled straight from Arthuriana by airship.

Gretchen is in these woods because she has to find her sister, who set off from the colony months ago and has since dropped off the face of the Earth. As soon as the airlock lifts, however, and the latent magic in these parts starts messing with Gretchen’s tech, we enter a paradigm where this setup becomes entirely irrelevant, and, save for the dates under chapter headings, we might as well not have bothered to step into the future in the first place.

If the slight sci-fi angle were just a brief interlude before we stepped through the portal, that would be fine (albeit a sad spate of missed opportunities), but Noble moves like she’s going to set the rest of the book on faerie lands, only to pull a midpoint reversal and catapult us back into the future. Though the first half is shallowly archetypal, undeveloped, and suspenseless, this pivot, while ostensibly the right move in fulfilling the book’s early promises, is what ultimately puts it on the rocks.

For one thing, it’s clear from Noble’s debut, the charming and vulnerable The Mermaid’s Sister, that her style doesn’t aim for extensive worldbuilding, instead opting to play with the known in a way that focuses on the characters. We can see her doing this when she crafts the world of the faeries, using familiar tropes and existing mythological creatures to get the reader up to speed quickly. Even the book’s central conceit, faeries who can shift into bears at will, known as Bearfolk, is a familiar fantasy idea.

This makes a world of magic easy to step into, even welcoming, but when it comes to crafting a futuristic society…no dice. The colony where Gretchen comes from is familiar in the same way that the fae are familiar, but here, that approach utterly backfires, as Noble gives us a distant future that is at best a bland imitation of the recent past. Our characters live recognizably contemporary lives, with similar priorities, and our best hope of a villain is a one-note conniving politician who, by the way, is up for re-election in the most generic, unimaginative sense of the concept. Where unicorns, gryphons, and giants can get you where you need to go in terms of small scale, fairy-tale fantasy, the same cannot be said for wrist comms, scanning devices, and airships in service of sci-fi.

What’s more, the sci-fi second half and its first-half fantasy counterpart share in woefully mismanaging the stakes at hand. The promise at the beginning is that Gretchen will find her sister and return to the colony with her in tow, but the plot veers drastically off-course rather early on, and as a result, Gretchen and the Bear feels aimless, whatever could’ve been gained by its restlessness lost in its lack of direction.

It’s obvious that the forbidden romance between Gretchen and Arthur, one of the Bearfolk, is the heart of the book, but that doesn’t then relieve it of the need to follow through on everything happening upstage: Gretchen’s initial goal of rescuing her sister is resolved flippantly and hastily, a prophecy introduced early on meets much the same fate, and the makings of the novel’s climax exist only in mentions until we meet them too late to truly get invested.

These plot weaknesses don’t exist in isolation; in fact, they work to weaken the central romance. If the obstacles keeping our lovers apart are flimsy, their motivations are the very same. If their respective repressive societies are weakly built, the taboo that’s supposed to cause them angst never comes off as more than a minor annoyance. If not enough attention is given to them as individuals within their respective worlds, they amount to nothing together.

All of this is, of course, is why it’s generally a better bet to stay a steady course instead of hopping from one book, effectively, to another between the covers of a single novel. There is one reason, though, why a setting should be so neatly split between one half and the next, with two complete B-plots unfolding one after another, and if Gretchen and the Bear had happened to have it, there’s a good chance it would’ve fared better: a structure like this only works effectively as a study of character.

With that central uniting thread, the attributes of one world become the foils of another, both of them working at the main character’s heart, the central question being which one she’ll choose.

There’s a historical fiction example of this in Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, but in a work looking to straddle genres like Gretchen and the Bear is, the possibilities are endless, and the missed opportunities are a bitter disappointment. If you’re going to put a girl of the far future in relief against the mythology of the distant past, why not do something with her relationship to modernity? Why have her chafe against her life in the colony in only the most superficial ways? Why not offer deeper flaws to the fae world to complicate her obvious choice?

Because Gretchen and the Bear‘s problems, though numerous, all amount to this: in the face of an underdeveloped pair of settings, the central dramatic question evaporates. The romance loses its significance. Whatever choice there could’ve been between these two worlds, is rendered, in the end, not much of a choice at all.

“Instant Karma” An Instantly Charming Summer Romance

Marissa Meyer’s prolific collection of gallivanting sci-fi (Cinder, Renegades) makes a contemporary set in a tiny coastal town a surprising choice, but her disarming use of character and a witty but completely sincere approach to writing it make the genre a natural fit for a writer whose domain is normally superheroes and spaceships.

Meyer’s lead is the pitch-perfect Prudence Barnett, who never lets an assignment fall to the wayside––even if her lab partner, the clubbable yet chronically tardy Quint Erickson, is more than happy to brush it off. Prudence, as a character, is definitely an extreme, and if you’re iffy about dialing up a character’s high-strung tendencies to comedic effect, she might read to you as disingenuous, but her habitual captiousness and teeth-grinding is tied with strong sinews to the heart of her character, and even when it’s transparently impossible to take her side, her insecurities have real substance, alongside the hilarious misunderstandings they set in motion.

Prudence realizing the virtue of giving others the benefit of the doubt is definitely a revelation the reader can see coming, but Meyer’s character development, as well as being self-aware, is also generous. Prudence doesn’t “loosen up” by the end in a way that condemns her. Rather, she gets to be thoughtful and particular; flexible and confident. Meyer recognizes and pokes fun at her foibles without ever being genuinely mean-spirited about it, and that makes all the difference.

Also, to bolster this widening of horizons, Meyer includes some environmental themes, with her characters working at a marine mammal rescue center. She misses a couple chances to give us more––a vegan character picks a fight over some leather boots, for example, and we hear nothing of the pitfalls of pleather––but on the whole, she does justice to the difficult tightrope of being an ordinary person and trying not to cause the environment harm.

Where the book fumbles is in the third act, when Meyer shrinks a potential conflict so small its narrative powers are almost completely foiled. In the rush to get the pair together and all the ducks in a row, Instant Karma loses the chance to burn a bridge and pay page service to the fallout. The result is a quick fix to a deep rift that comes way too easy. The book falters where it should be fixed on affirming itself, shying away from consequence where it should ultimately matter most. Its enthusiasm and earnestness carry it through, but the awkward twist and its snappy resolution are out of place in a work that otherwise embraces complexity. The ending still satisfies, in other words––but not as much as it could.

Instant Karma is worth it for the romance alone, though: Meyer mastered the banter-y, opposites-attract dynamic in The Lunar Chronicles, and wields it with joyful precision here, to graceful effect. That, and the sheer unabashed nerdiness that sings from the page whenever her characters discuss music or sea animals, and this book is a surefire winner for anyone in search of something sunny. By those standards, Instant Karma is radiant.

This review was first posted earlier this year on Goodreads.

“Wings of Ebony” A Promising Idea That Can’t Take Flight

You’ve likely heard a story with the makings of Wings of Ebony before: girl has hidden godly and/or magical heritage, crisis sends her past careening into the present, magical world welcomes her with varying degrees of open arms, all is not what it seems. A setup like this is a perennial refrain in young adult fantasy lit for a reason, however, and J. Elle’s entry into the archetype manages to stand out amongst a flock of look-alikes, even considering its shortcomings.

For one thing, even though the archetype offers a powerful temptation to turn to wish fulfillment instead of truly interrogating the flaws of one’s fantasy world, Wings of Ebony keeps its eyes turned on inequity, both in Ghizon, the fantasy setting where our heroine, Rue, discovers her powers, and in her home neighborhood of East Row, in Houston, where unsettling connections exist between a recent uptick in violent crime and Ghizon’s seedy inner circle.

In fact, we return home in Wings of Ebony more than you might expect, and it’s a refreshing change of pace in a genre where the prerogative is often to escape the sorrows of our contemporary world instead of facing them. But J. Elle makes an admirable point of emphasizing the fact that the “real world” is not all sorrow and its magical counterpart not all wonder.

Rue, informed by her experiences as a Black girl in an under-served community, certainly knows hardship, but the book also pays credit to that community and its value. In fact, it offers as its central tenet the necessity of defending such a community, with the defining feature of its antagonist being a refusal to acknowledge it for its worth.

That much remains to the book’s merit, but some issues in execution bar it from making the most of its brilliant setup. First and foremost, it makes the mistake of focusing Rue’s character on unwavering conviction as opposed to substantial development. It’s not that Rue goes from the first page to the last with all her attitudes about Ghizon, her family, and her past completely unchanged, but it’s only those attitudes that change.

Rue starts the book, for instance, with a deep resentment of Ghizon, and by extension, her father, who left her as a child to return there, and comes to care about her heritage more when she learns its history and her place in it. No essential thing about her, though, responds to the circumstances in kind. She gets superficially stronger, as she gets a better grip on her powers, but because the groundwork isn’t there, her victory has thematic rather than personal significance. Armed with the same tools and information, she would’ve managed the same feat and acted in the same interest on page one.

This is one area where Wings of Ebony might have actually benefited from taking the ordinary fantasy path, specifically where it pertains to deepening the relationship between Rue and the magic she learns to wield. Elle makes a bold choice in setting the novel not right when Rue is whisked away to Ghizon, but in the months after, showing her first interactions with magic (and the accompanying training) only in flashback. In many ways, it’s a choice that serves the trajectory of the story and saves it valuable page time in skipping the magic-school formalities. But the book does lose something in neglecting to show Rue in the process of learning the ropes, especially where that ever-important character engine of failure is concerned. Having a character contend with the magic they’ve been alienated from all their life and hit a wall in the process is often the primary ingredient in turning a finale into a triumph––and its absence in Wings of Ebony removes suspense to its detriment.

Here, as foreshadowing for a second-act revelation, we get one brief scene of Rue trying the magic for the first time and discovering that she’s preternaturally good at it. The scene in question has multiple important thrusts––one even subtly interrogates Rue’s Ghizoni friend, Bri, and her immediately suspicious response to Rue’s talent as a product of racism––but it fails as a tool for enlivening Rue’s bond with her magic.

What’s more, that same second-act revelation makes way for everything Rue knows about Ghizon, including its magic, to be challenged, but even after the other shoe drops, the book still denies her the chance at growth through trial and error. Even when the magic is directly out of reach, only external forces prevent Rue from using it, facing her with an immediate limitation, and not a loss that has anything to say about Rue’s flaws or failing strategies. It’s an opportunity eschewed, in other words, and it’s a big part of the reason the third act falls flat.

The other major factor is the antagonist, who stays concealed until about halfway through the book, but once revealed loses all intrigue. Elle’s worldbuilding keys very skillfully into a hunger in contemporary fantasy for magical institutions established under false pretenses, and though that goal is obvious from the beginning, it’s still satisfying to watch the truth come to light, but in crafting the antagonist, she falls on the easiest, least challenging option––that goes both for the premise of the character, and for their simple, straightforward defeat.

In fact, the central conflict at large feels like a betrayal of the book’s complex aims. Instead of leaning into the systemic nature of Ghizon’s abuses, the book pins it all on a few authority figures our heroine has only to defeat to resolve. While it is made clear at the ending that there’s a substantial amount of work ahead for Ghizon, it’s still frustrating that the text chooses to rest injustice on a few bad actors in the end where it’s otherwise abundantly clear that widespread complicity is its primary enabler.

Wings of Ebony opts for the fast and easy ending, ultimately, where the slow and arduous is more suited to the occasion: in character, in magic, and in conflict. Because these areas are so crucial, the work as a whole misses the mark, despite its noble goals. There is much within it to be exited about, of course, but one can’t help but wish for more.

Space is Darker Than Imagined in “The Weight of the Stars”

In Wicker King author K. Ancrum’s new book, a girl named Ryann Bird, forced to reckon with difficult circumstances after the deaths of her parents, meets a new arrival to her nowhere-town, Alexandria, who has painful connections to a Voyager-like deep-space mission. As she begins to fall in love with her, and learn the truth about her past, the starry-eyed ambition of space exploration reveals its true nature.

The Weight of the Stars is a book that has to cross the gap between ordinary life and the surreal and weighty prospect of humanity’s future among the stars––if it even exists, as we all hope it does. It does this with a broad and subversive point of view, one that allows for “crossing the frontier” to be both a sacred duty and a cause for despair.

Where Ancrum briefly depicts life in outer space, it’s visceral, with a deep, full-bodied sense of what it means to be utterly stranded. Transmissions from the deep-space mission arrive in the form of distant radio signals, and in Ancrum’s brilliant epistolary sequence, their tone grows darker and more desperate as Earth creeps further and further away.

Ryann, of course, is a marvel––not just for her characterization but for her circumstances. In Ryann Bird, K. Ancrum writes a teenager more-or-less living in poverty, who has no plans for college, and hopes to graduate with a 1.5 GPA, as opposed to YA contemporary’s chorus of middle-class overachievers––but she exists with scholarly interests, with hope, and with humanity. She ends up trapped in the “why aren’t you in AP science” conversation at one point, but at no point is life allowed to seem as if it’s passing her by because of her prospects, because, as Ancrum makes clear in the rich, perplexing way her book grapples with teenage life, it isn’t.

In Ryann’s love interest, Alexandria, Ancrum demonstrates remarkable skill in writing loneliness that in many ways is the novel encompassed. Alexandria’s face is the hopeful one on the cover, and she’s the lone rooftop listener to distant radio signals, waiting for the words of a mother she never got to meet. She’s the main victim of picturesque, space-like emptiness as it manifests on Earth, the consequence of the impulsive desire to leave everything behind––but desperately in love with the idea anyway. In The Weight of the Stars, Alexandria gets to be a soul rife with tension about her own future and a battleground for ideas. If science is the marriage of skepticism and wonder, Alexandria and the past she is faced with are what happens upon their messy divorce.

The way despair upon exploration nags at people, especially Alexandria, is very convincingly executed in The Weight of the Stars, and just enough to pull at the threads of all our childhood astronaut dreams, and then, after much deliberation, restore them.

Space exploration literature, especially the poetic kind, has this habit of relying on the human spirit and the noble beauty of things yet to be known, and while The Weight of the Stars isn’t this wide-eyed embrace of the cosmos in kind, it does seem to be a medicine the wayward, space-loving teenager might need in the middle of the night, in a light-polluted city, with not a visible star in the sky.

Ancrum mentions in her dedication that The Weight of the Stars was written “for all of us who looked up at the sky in wonder, and then cried when we realized how much calculus separated us from the stars,” a sentiment vastly echoed among many a science fiction-lover, and a despair present in the dark vacuum of space’s likeness. Strangely enough, when the grandeur of outer space fades, the distance it leaves behind is what occupies starry-eyed thinkers with no penchant for physics: here we are, trapped on Earth again, by loneliness and radio signals that can’t carry, and the stars’ weight pressing down on us all.

(God, I wish I were good at math.)

This review was originally posted on Goodreads in 2019.

“Rule of Wolves” a Tepid Finale With Too-Easy Answers

The Grishaverse, fantasy author Leigh Bardugo’s expansive, multi-series magical work, is fast becoming too unwieldy to pitch in one sentence. Rule of Wolves, its most recent installment, is six books in the making and the sequel to King of Scars, a spinoff that follows the young and unready King of Ravka, Nikolai Lantsov, as his country heals from a grueling civil war and faces threats in the meantime from its richer and more powerful neighbors.

He’s not the only perspective character, though: joining him is Nina Zenik, a Ravkan spy on a mission in Fjerda, one of Ravka’s major aggressors, and Zoya Nazyalensky, a general of Ravka’s magical second army.

As the second book in a duology, Rule of Wolves opens with a lot hanging in the balance: there’s a major complication that dropped on the final page of book one, two potential wars brewing at Ravka’s borders, a subplot involving a mysterious blight of magical origin, and a pair of budding un-confessed romances, all to be put to rest between these covers.

It is with a heavy heart that I say it should be no surprise that Rule of Wolves suffers under these tall orders. Two books, hefty as they may be for the Young Adult category, just aren’t up to the task of supporting three, sometimes five, completely separate plots of the scope Bardugo is attempting here.

Six of Crows, another recent entry in Bardugo’s fantasy universe, also happens to follow multiple characters at once, but in all else, it’s a striking example of restraint––and that same restraint paying off. All the characters in Six of Crows are working towards the same goal, and, crucially, its scale suits a duology. Never do our perspective paths fully diverge, nor do our characters set in motion the stuff of multi-book sagas with only a few hundred pages left to go. Six of Crows is such an achievement because it strikes a balance: ambitious but controlled, bombastic yet considerate.

The worst part about Six of Crows‘ achievement, though, it that it almost makes you think Bardugo can manage it here. When you see her put another plot twist into play, you think of the surgical precision of the ones in her striking pair of heists. When you watch her break her magic system’s rules, you think of how well it worked to raise the stakes before. When she makes impossible promises, ultimately, you trust her, because she has a history of seeing them through with a stunning finish.

I remember, with some foreboding, now, that King of Scars read like the first volume in a long line of doorstoppers––it teased problems that couldn’t be solved by putting a magical macguffin in the right place, hinting at long and complicated conflicts beyond our characters’ shores. It was a tantalizing first glimpse, but of a delivery in all-out war with its package. Simply put, King of Scars is a check Rule of Wolves can’t cash. In fact, it’s a check no book can cash, at least not with these constraints, as evidenced by the bitter sting of a compelling setup clipped with an ending before it’s ripe.

To help illustrate how this book suffers for want of time, it might be helpful to look to one particular incident near the third act, where Zoya, Nikolai, and a small crew take a detour to the city of Ketterdam for the supply of titanium they need to make a working missile––the iffy diplomatic implications of stealing what they need and the obvious barrier of security standing in their way. The whole thing plays out over a few chapters, rendering what might have been a significant challenge a trivial fetch quest.

In its defense, the sequence’s primary accomplishment is in a major thrust of character work, which some of the best scenes in Rule of Wolves are often aiming for first, but the simple fact is that a collection of touching vignettes does not a sturdy novel make, and I worry that this detour’s place in the story rests more on a few cameos than actual narrative necessity.

Rule of Wolves has the decency to avoid making such callbacks and cameos gratuitous and all-encompassing, but in the face of what this new series could’ve become with page time adequate for its expansive ambitions, or at least some of the restraint that so served Six of Crows, it’s worth asking if King of Scars and Rule of Wolves lost something in refusing to cut ties with the past and move on.

To be perfectly frank, there’s a tragedy in these pages that has nothing to do with the hasty resolutions of a hungry brood of subplots––it’s in the fact that this book refuses to allow its new story to stand alone, apart from old favorites and plot threads long concluded. At every turn, there’s a harder, riskier, more compelling choice to be made, but sheltering in the laurels of its predecessors is a scurrying shell of a book without the freedom or courage to make them.

As dismal as it sounds, it’s an issue that is, at its heart, rather simple. In trying to balance the successes of the first series, which begins with Shadow and Bone, with those of Six of Crows, its follow-up, the King of Scars duology loses purchase on its clarity, for a messy fusing of disparate parts. Shadow and Bone is straightforward and archetypal, Six of Crows more gritty and complex. Resolutions that would fly in one realm feel like cop-outs in the other. And instead of committing to either, Rule of Wolves so badly wants the benefits of both that it strains itself to bridge them, and in the process, forfeits an identity of its own.

The price, in the end, is that these most recent books will forever be subsumed by their forebears, and always in want of a distinctive voice that could’ve been theirs, with only a touch more magic.

If You Love These Books, You’ll Love These Albums

Even if you don’t listen to music as you read, the creative realms of fiction and music are deeply intertwined––look no further than an author’s Spotify playlists. It’s hard to pin down what makes the atmosphere of a book so captivating, but I find that a musical analogue is often the perfect basis for comparison. This week, I thought I’d offer up four recent favorites and their echoes in my music taste: enjoy!

Why I Love the Book: Emily Henry’s starry-eyed tale of star-crossed lovers is rich in metaphor and even richer in place. In Five Fingers, Michigan, lakes, pine trees, and bracing night air hide “thin places”––where the boundaries between the ordinary and fantastical are weaker, and the magical substance of local lore creeps through. Using fabulism as a backdrop for a thoughtful love story, Henry turns a clear eye on human foibles while keeping wonder close at hand.

Why I Love the Album: Metaphor is bread and butter for the Michigan-based Crane Wives, whose folksy but modern instrumentation makes wistful songs of love and loss unfurl like fairy tales. They make the perfect compliment to Henry’s fantastical Americana, a night of summer stargazing embedded in their chords.

Why I Love the Book: The Vanishing Season is a paranormal that isn’t really about the ghosts. Following small-town transplant Maggie through her restless last year of high school, it keeps melancholy company: the loneliness of winter, the pain of growing up, the ache of unrequited love. It’s the fact that it’s both stirring and quiet that makes Jodi Lynn Anderson’s novel so powerful––and a lingering fog that won’t soon lift.

Why I Love the Album: Sarah Jaffe‘s Suburban Nature is the softer cousin of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, a deeply personal and raw chronicling of white-picket-fence discontent. The unsettled longing of its most famous track, “Clementine,” is only the tip of the iceberg––the rest of the album boasts soaring yet remarkably simple love songs, and arrangements that are a whisper only and until they creep up on you as a roar.

Why I Love the Book: Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful puts a name to the unease that accompanies news of developments in tech, offering a glimpse into a world where profit, automation, and unexamined utilitarianism are dialed up to extremes. As an anthology, it’s free to go weird places without having to commit to them for a full novel, and the result is something that unnerves as much as it enthralls.

Why I Love the Album(s): Big Data explores the annals of technology with richly synthesized pop music and powerful featured performances. Social media’s exploitation of our impulses becomes a soaring anthem in “The Business of Emotion,” and the replacement of human labor becomes an ominous bop in “Put Me To Work.” The off-kilter sorrow under some of the slower songs mirrors the darker implications in Arwen Elys Dayton’s anthology, for a sardonic but cautious finish.

Why I Love the Book: Neal Shusterman’s surreal, reality-bending Challenger Deep uses interweaving storylines to explore mental illness––one follows a teenager as he seeks treatment for his disorder, and another plunges us deep into the ocean on the deck of a pirate ship as it seeks the lowest point in the sea. The book’s disquieting reading experience gives way to many a dark night of the soul, but its frankness is ultimately key to its careful emotional resolution, the last page a heavy weight lifted.

Why I Love the Album: On the surface, Picaresque‘s folksy, nautical aesthetic is a perfect fit for Challenger Deep‘s fantastical elements, but beyond that, it’s layered with irony, tragedy, and catharsis, and in joining them together, the album makes meaning out of multitudes, with a full-bodied picture much like the one that lends Challenger Deep its breadth and thematic prowess.

Photos by Sincerely Media, Olesia Buyar, Annelies Geneyn, David Maier, Paweł Czerwiński, Dan-Cristian Pădureț, Geran de Klerk, and Erastus McCart on Unsplash.

An Uneven Adventure in Riordan’s “The Throne of Fire”

After the somewhat scattered conflict in The Red Pyramid, the first installment of Rick Riordan’s Egyptian mythology-inspired Kane Chronicles, The Throne of Fire, its sequel, has a bit of cleaning up to do.

It’s no secret that Riordan’s series tend to start okay and end fantastic––the vast gulf in mastery between The Lightning Thief and The Last Olympian attests to it––but The Red Pyramid seemed particularly unfocused. Cycling through mentors and fetch quests as it does, it denies itself both the camaraderie of a usual quest story and a truly satisfying ending, which doesn’t bode well for The Throne of Fire, a tome of comparable length and at least as many macguffins.

If you persevered through The Red Pyramid, though, take heart: The Throne of Fire swerves cleanly away from many of its predecessor’s pitfalls, the result being a tale with both strong sinews and thrills of its own to offer, if not awe-inspiring efficiency.

In the few months since the events of The Red Pyramid, Carter and Sadie Kane, the children of famous archaeologist and secret magician Julius Kane, have set up camp at Brooklyn House, now a clandestine training facility for the next generation of sorcerers, hiding in the mortal world in plain sight. As before, the threat of total annihilation looms in the form of one chaos snake Apophis, who resides in a magical prison but gets closer by the minute to breaking free.

In order to stop him, the Kane siblings have hatched a plan to stir the sun god Ra from his aeons of slumber, but in order to do so, they must fetch the three portions of the Book of Ra, at least one from under the nose of the magical establishment, which hasn’t been too keen on our intrepid protagonists since they shook things up in book one.

As always, Riordan has buckets of fun adapting the elements of ancient lore to his style of comedy, and even if it’s not quite up to Percy Jackson‘s par (what is, honestly?), it offers the familiar, crowd-pleasing fun of an adventurous blockbuster, and with the extra burden of foundational worldbuilding and initiation already taken care of, the book moves at a brisk but practiced pace, with some extra room for the quieter, character-heavy lulls that Riordan happens to excel at.

With the new recruits at Brooklyn House featuring heavily at the beginning, though, it’s a bit of a surprise that they’re so sparse in the rest of the book. Instead of fellow magicians for companions, Riordan has Carter and Sadie seek out the remaining Book of Ra fragments with the god Bes, another mentor figure to add to the Kane Chronicles‘ extensive collection.

In execution, he’s a perfectly enjoyable addition to the traveling party, but as his part plays out at the climax, there’s a looming sacrifice that you can see coming; one that echoes, albeit faintly, an issue at the heart of The Red Pyramid. It’s a flaw that plagues many a fantasy series, especially in the middle grade and young adult categories, and it saps the magic of its narrative power with astonishing speed:

The Kane Chronicles, my friends, has a stakes problem.

So far, Riordan has only been willing to sacrifice mentor characters he’s set aside for that specific purpose, and even then, in terms of losses, he’s been rather stingy. It’s not that every fantasy novel has to come with a mountain of casualties, but if the fate of the world is at stake, you can’t expect a bulletproof cast of supporting characters to do the trick, and, furthermore, you can’t expect the toll of The Throne of Fire‘s conclusion to cut it going into book three.

Which is why, as big a change as it would’ve meant for the manuscript, it might have been better for one of the named characters from the beginning to accompany the Kane siblings on their quest for the Book of Ra…and proceed to bite it. The loss of a fellow young magician would’ve been a punishing answer to our co-protagonists’ first steps into leadership; a more forbidding final note, certainly, than the one we got.

The second installment of a trilogy will often end with a shocking defeat (think The Empire Strikes Back or Catching Fire), and with Apophis gearing up to end the world on the last page, it’s storytelling negligence on Riordan’s part to deny the trilogy its dark night of the soul right where it was most needed. Now, as big as the threat is, and as much danger as it’s meant to pose, I still don’t believe it capable of making our heroes hurt.

Luckily, however, Riordan adds the spice of earthly conflict to temper the larger celestial one. The House of Life, sorcery’s primary authority, has a Chief Lector in Michel Desjardins who is neither entirely friend nor entirely foe. In between monster fights and wild goose chases through various world cities, we get glimpses of an ancient institution fraying at the edges, its leadership in jeopardy and its priorities ill-chosen.

Though the House of Life’s woes don’t take up much of The Throne of Fire’s page time, it wouldn’t be nearly as rich without them, and a certain development near the end suggests a greater presence of this subplot in the trilogy’s concluding volume. It’s really the complexity in this institutional conflict that makes it the powerful foil to the epic good-evil apotheosis it is, and when Riordan plays it right, it hits with the same resonance, if not more.

Whether the trilogy sticks the landing remains to be seen, but with the tools at hand, Riordan has a chance to make it so. And if his stories are anything to go by, a chance is no small thing.