Spoiler Rating: High
I read Nina LaCour’s Hold Still shortly after my friend Jeff died, and the book utterly wrecked me. So of course when I learned that LaCour had written a YA lesbian romance, I . . . well, okay. I let it sit in my TBR list for two years.
But now I’ve read it, and returned to tell you that you’d probably enjoy it more than I did.
The plot, in brief: our narrator Emi (a talented young production designer in Hollywood) and her best friend Charlotte discover that recently-deceased movie icon Clyde Jones has a secret (orphan) granddaughter named Ava, whom he’s left an unknown (but presumably enormous) sum of money to. They hunt Ava down, reveal her grandfather’s identity, and point her to her awaiting bank account. They also point her to an audition for a new movie Emi and Charlotte are working on.
So Ava ends up learning about her (deceased) family, becomes filthy rich, and lands the lead role in what’s expected to be a fairly big movie. She also—of course—gets the girl: Emi.
Emi — an eighteen-year-old infected with Hollywood’s movie-sickness.
Ava — an eighteen-year-old with a troubled and mysterious past. She ran away from her cold, lesbian-hating adoptive mother, Tracey, and is now trying to scrape together a new life for herself in Los Angeles.
Charlotte — Emi’s best friend and occasional co-worker. She’s eighteen, but approaches every situation with a sensible, seasoned, professional air that makes her seem twice her age.
Clyde Jones — iconic star of Hollywood’s old Western movies. Recently deceased. Publicly known to be a bachelor, but secretly the father of Ava’s (long deceased) mother, Caroline.
A Slow-Growing, Lesbian Romance!
Need I say more? No. No, I don’t.
Actually, I will say more. It’s possible that Emi and/or Ava could be bisexual. Neither girl puts a label on her sexuality, and although both clearly state they like girls, both also admit to (rarely, potentially?) being attracted to a guy. So I’m tagging this book as both lesbian and bisexual, just to cover my bases.
A Biracial Narrator/Protagonist!
Emi’s race is barely remarked on, but what we did see made me so happy. Like so:
The book also briefly highlights how Emi’s (upper-middle class) family’s experience of and approach to their race compares to a homeless young black man’s experience and approach. I thought the comparison was both interesting and valuable, and wish the book devoted more than a couple pages to it.
Neat Details About Production Design!
Emi’s job entails designing movie sets: choosing the right furniture, rugs, plants, dishes, etc., then making the set look real. I loved watching Emi work, and seeing why she chose [these dishes] or [this wallpaper color] or [this couch] over the thousands of other [dishes/wallpaper color/couches] available.
For example: here, she’s spent seven weeks searching for just the right couch for a scene in which a teen character has sex for the first time (with a scumbag, the teen later realizes). She’s finally found the couch:
Lesson: Life’s Not A Movie!
When Emi begins uncovering the truth of Ava’s grandparentage, she goes all Prodigy Production Designer and tries to craft a movie-style Tragedy-Turned-Triumph story for Ava. One of the first steps in her plan: introduce Ava to the fancy-pants hotel Marmont (which is thick with celebrities and celebrity-watchers).
But life—even Ava’s fairy-tale-esque life—isn’t a movie that Emi can manipulate.
Life is life, and it’s experienced in excruciating slowness and clarity, with no helpful foreshadowing of what lies ahead. People are not characters in movies, and their lives are beyond Emi’s creative control.
Hurray for narrators who learn interesting and important life lessons!
I Was Bored
Okay, so this could be a problem with me rather than the book. I’m a fantasy reader, not a contemporary-romance reader.
My complaints, in brief:
What kept me reading, then? The fact that it was alesbian YA romance. Had it been a straight couple, I probably would have set it aside.
(Actually, I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place.)
Emi’s Character Development
The story’s told in the first person perspective, from Emi’s point of view. Overall, the writing style (i.e., Emi’s inner monologue) is calm, clean, and reserved, leading me to assume that Emi is a calm-clean-reserved sort of person.
That is, until Emi describes herself (and her older brother Toby) thusly:
The energy-level bit threw me off. Calm-clean-reserved Emi had shown almost no energy, much less off-the-charts energy.
So I started paying closer attention to Emi’s behavior and narration, to see if that energy ever came through.
Did it? No.
I’m sorry, Emi, but you can’t just say “I have more energy than other people can handle” and then not follow through. As it stands, it looks like either you don’t know your own personality, or your author (who writes you with such a calm-clean-reserved voice) doesn’t. It’s impossible for me to bond with a narrator whose personality I never get a solid grasp of.
Whose Story Is This?
This book might’ve benefited from being told from both Emi and Ava’s perspectives.
Emi’s the narrator and protagonist (she learns important lessons about herself and life, and those lesson change her), but for most of the book, she has neither a real conflict nor an interesting goal.
It’s Ava who’s living the rags-to-riches story, with all its requisite complex emotions, internal conflict, internal and external changes. But we see almost none of those changes, and it’s unclear how (or if) she changes as a person as a result of her experiences.
I mean, sure, we see her trash her adoptive mom’s house while searching for her birth certificate; she cries while watching the movies that her deceased grandfather and deceased mother acted in; she has a brief, emotional confrontation with her adoptive mother (that doesn’t really resolve anything). But that’s about it.
It is so incredibly frustrating to be shackled to a rather boring character doing rather mundane things, while another character is enduring amazing struggles and major internal changes largely off-screen.
“But Liam,” you argue, “this book’s about how real lifeisn’t a fairy tale or a movie. If Ava—with her fairy-tale-esque metamorphosis from troubled homeless teen to happy wealthy starlet—were the narrator, that’d undermine the book’s message.”
Okay, fine. Maybe this is a flaw in me as a reader, and not a flaw in the book. And yes, it is neat to pair a “Life isn’t a movie” message with an Average Jane Narrator who’s watching from the sidelines while a Fairy-Tale Heroine’s life get turned upside down in Fairy-Tale Ways.
But I, personally, would rather get in on some of Fairy-Tale Heroine’s action—or, at the very least, have a more interesting Average Jane Narrator with genuinely interesting conflicts and goals of her own.
The world obviously needs more lesbian YA novels, and this certainly isn’t the worst lesbian book I’ve read to date. But it just wasn’t quite enough—emotional enough, intriguing enough, engaging enough, romantic enough, powerful enough—for me.
My search for a five-star lesbian YA novel continues.
Spoiler Rating, Overall: Low-Moderate
Spoiler Rating, Last Three Points: High
Unfortunately, Rebel of the Sands (which smooshes together the Old American West and an ambiguously-religioned Middle East) wasn’t the engrossing read I’d hoped for. I actually found it fairly dull, and riddled with silly plot points and shallow character development—but it had a spark in both its main characters and its basic concept that kept me reading, so three cheers for that.
I’ll try to minimize the spoilers throughout most of this critique, but be warned: there’ll be spoilers galore in the last three points in my Criticism section (“Pacing,” “Specific Plot Points” and “Amani-Related Things“). I’ll put another spoiler warning before I dive into them, don’t worry.
Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mythical beasts still roam the wild and remote areas, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinn still perform their magic. For humans, it’s an unforgiving place, especially if you’re poor, orphaned, or female.
Amani Al’Hiza is all three. She’s a gifted gunslinger with perfect aim, but she can’t shoot her way out of Dustwalk, the back-country town where she’s destined to wind up wed or dead.
Then she meets Jin, a rakish foreigner, in a shooting contest, and sees him as the perfect escape route. But though she’s spent years dreaming of leaving Dustwalk, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse—or that it would take a foreign fugitive to show her the heart of the desert she thought she knew.
Rebel of the Sands reveals what happens when a dream deferred explodes—in the fires of rebellion, the smolder of romantic passion, and the all-consuming inferno of a girl finally, at long last, embracing her power.
I wish I had a map to show you. How on earth does this book not have a map?
Amani — a young Mirajin sharpshooter who’s all grit and sly commentary. Born and raised in Nowheretown, Death Desert, she has a desert kid’s outlook on life: (a) the weak die, and (b) you gotta look out for yourself.
Jin — a mysterious young man from the east, who takes pity on Amani and helps her begin her journey. He’s being hunted by the Mirajin Sultan’s army for an unspecified offense. (Possibly “unlawful hotness.”)
Prince Ahmed — the rebel prince, and rightful heir to his father’s throne. He has dreams of gender equality and racial equality and peaceful democracy (I guess?), and is scraping together a happy band of (mostly teenage) rebels to overthrow the Sultan and make it happen.
Commander Naguib — a young man in the Sultan’s army, whose primary goals in life are sneering the perfect sneer and spitting in Prince Ahmed’s face (preferably at the same time).
The story’s narrated from Amani’s first-person perspective, and she starts out with a seriously strong narrative voice. Check this out:
Delightful as Amani’s voice is in the beginning, I got a little tired of it after a couple chapters, so I was relieved when the Old American West accent eased up without losing its vividness:
Sure, I would’ve preferred a perfectly consistent voice throughout, but I’ll applaud the book’s attempt at a strong voice nonetheless.
Amani and Jin
It’s not the most compelling romance I’ve ever read, but I did love the combination of Amani’s fierce “it’s me or the world, and I’m choosing me” attitude and Jin’s calmer “try not to do anything rash, but when you inevitably do, I’ll be there to help you out” perspective.
The Immortal Desert Horses
You won’t be surprised to hear that I loved the immortal desert horses—their creation myth, the process required to capture them, their abilities, all of it.
This is, um, a remarkably short praise section for a book I’m ultimately giving two stars.
I’d like to not ramble for hours, so let me just cover the most significant criticisms.
I’m not really comfortable with how the book blended a vaguely Middle Eastern culture with Old American West culture, for a few reasons:
Cultural blending can be really neat, but to do it well (and sensitively) requires a lot of care and world-building. This book, in my opinion, failed both the “do it well” and “do it sensitively” parts.
And no, the world-building isn’t great either, as I immediately suspected upon seeing the heroine’s surname: Al’Hiza.
I’m not an Arabic speaker, but I know the apostrophe is the English notation of a specific letter—hamza, the glottal stop—and it has zero reason to be in Amani’s surname. The name should be spelled as either Al-Hiza or Al Hiza.
If no one bothered to research how to correctly spell the heroine’s own last name, it seemed likely that little/no research was done for the world-building, period. And yeah, my suspicion seemed justified. We have almost no grasp at all on Amani’s culture except that:
Not exactly the elaborate world-building I’d have hoped for.
Amani’s Modern Attitude and Culturelessness
Now, I love a strong feminist heroine, but Amani’s particular expression of feminism felt out of place in her setting—like a 21st century teen punk rock feminist who time-traveled back several centuries and was dropped into a deeply misogynistic culture.
Her culture values a woman’s virginity, silence, and obedience over anything else she is capable of, and Amani consistently responds to this by holding up both middle fingers, shouting obscenities at the top of her lungs, then proceeding to do whatever the hell she wants.
I saw zero indication that Amani was connected to her own culture at all, which was really disappointing. Well-written characters should feel like products of their own societies and times, not like they were ripped out of a completely different world and plopped down into the story, like Amani was.
Good lord, the pacing was slow.
But first: spoiler warning! I won’t give major spoilers for the plot in this section, but if you don’t want to hear anything at all about the plot, skip the rest of this review and go straight down to the “In Closing” section.
VAGUE SPOILERS, AVERT THINE EYES.
Amani’s primary goal is to get the hell out of her hometown, Dustwalk. She succeeds about a quarter of the way into the book, and after that, she has no major goals.
Sure, she dreams of going to the capital city and living with her aunt (whom she’s never met or corresponded with), but she easily ditches that idea when she realizes Jin’s too hot to say goodbye to. And sure, she has a few (sometimes interesting) short-term goals, but for the most part she’s just . . . traveling. Taking life and its individual challenges as they come.
Jin, meanwhile, has a Super Secret Mission that he won’t tell Amani about. His secrecy and the mere fact that he’s trying to accomplish Unknown Things is a stark contrast to Amani’s goalless traveling. (Sound familiar?)
She doesn’t find out about the Super Secret Mission until a hundred pages before the end of the book—and then she doesn’t get actively involved in the Mission until sixty pages before the book ends. Sixty.
Specific Plot Points
SPOILER WARNING, TONS OF SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS AHEAD
This book had a lot of dumb plot points. For the sake of space and time, I’ll give you only two.
1. The Immortal Desert Horse
While she’s plotting her escape from Dustwalk, Amani captures an immortal desert horse that can travel significantly faster than a mortal horse. So does she ride it all the way to the big city (covering the distance in days instead of weeks), then sell it in the city for an exorbitant amount of money, and use that money to set herself up in her new home?
No. Of course not.
She rides it to the nearest little town with a train station, where she sells the horse for half what it’s worth, and buys a train ticket to the capital city. The train ticket is so expensive, by the way, that it almost bankrupts her.
Why did she make such a stupid decision?
The answer (oh god when will I get a chance to stop complaining about this) is because the story wouldn’t have worked if she’d ridden her magical horse straight to the capital. So the book made Amani dumb for the sake of months of boring desert travel and the opportunity for Amani to join Prince Ahmed’s rebellion. Great.
2. The Rebellion’s Plans
First, some background. Decades ago, when the current Sultan of Miraji was still just a prince, he turned to the vaguely French-ish kingdom of Galla for help overthrowing his father and placing himself on the throne. Galla agreed, so long as they could maintain a military presence in Miraji, and the new Sultan became their primary weapons supplier.
In the present, the Sultan wants to kick the Gallan military out of Miraji—but he also wants to avoid starting a war. So he’s started using his secret superweapon (that can burn whole cities to ash) against Gallan military garrisons, and blaming the Rebel Prince Ahmed for the destruction. The Sultan hopes to just . . . kill all the Gallan soldiers in his country, and then cross his fingers that the Gallan king doesn’t send more to replace them, I guess?
This is ridiculously dumb.
The rebels also want to kick the Gallan military out of Miraji, but they fear that the Sultan’s plan—which entails blowing up some Mirajin towns that are hosting Gallan soldiers—will have too high a civilian death toll.
So they decide to spark a war between Galla and Miraji, because a war would distract the Sultan and make it easier to kill him, and would also reduce the number of Mirajin casualties.
. . .
I repeat: in order to reduce Mirajin casualties, they instigate a war.
I repeat: because the Sultan will be easier to assassinate if he’s distracted by a war.
Sure, everyone knows that wars don’t actually kill people, and also wartime is when security around a country’s ruler is the most lax and assassins are most likely to succeed.
I’ll just mention two things here, too.
1. Devotion to the Rebellion
Amani (eventually) arrives in the rebellion’s secret headquarters, meets Prince Ahmed, and asks him about his rebellion. He replies (in essence), “I’m all about gender equality and racial equality and democracy and justice.”
The chapter (and his very brief explanation of his cause) concludes:
And thus, Amani becomes a follower of the rebellion, I guess? Is that what “the harder it was not to believe him” means?
I ask this because she seems to be (tepidly) converted without any follow-up questions for him. Without any discussion of how he—and his tiny group of rebels, most of whom seem to be teenagers—intends to take down both the Gallan occupiers and the Sultan himself. Without any snorting at the prince’s naive idealism. Without any skepticism that the prince can in fact bring equality and democracy and justice to what is, by all accounts, a terribly misogynistic and racist culture traditionally ruled by a tyrant.
This lack of critical thinking on her part seems really weird.
Amani then spends some time (days?) floating around the camp and casually picking up tidbits of info about the prince and the rebels, but she never shows a real interest in the rebellion. So I’m surprised when Jin asks her if she wants to officially join the rebellion, and she thinks:
So, uh, she feels a powerful need to be part of the rebellion? Since when? What drives it? Is it the misogyny/gender-equality stuff? Is it Jin? Or is it merely (as she did briefly mention earlier on) that it’s kind of cool knowing that she’s watching history being made?
The reader should clearly understand the protagonist’s reasons for shouldering the responsibility of their goal/mission—and this book seems to have forgotten that very important aspect of storytelling.
2. Amani’s Unrealistic Internal Conflict
This is the one that killed me.
Amani is a total badass, until the rebels tell her she’s a Demdji—the offspring of a human woman and an immortal Djinni father—and they hope to use her magic powers for the cause. Alas, she doesn’t know what those powers are, and even a week under the guidance of other Demdji doesn’t reveal what they could be.
So does she shrug and get back to practicing with her guns, because she already knows she’s got the guts and cunning and skill to be of use to the rebellion? Does she remind herself that she’s the Blue-Eyed Bandit, the best gunslinger in the desert, and an asset to any team looking for trouble?
No. She mopes about how she’s the only Demdji in the world without magic powers, and therefore she’s useless and worthless.
Who is this Amani and what did you do with the other one? I want the other one back.
Fortunately, Jin (who, by the way, is Prince Ahmed’s brother) gets as sick of her shit as I do, and tells it to her straight.
God bless you, Jin.
This could’ve been a genuinely interesting internal conflict for Amani (who otherwise doesn’t have much internal or external conflict going on), if it didn’t come so completely out of the blue—if, for example, she’d been struggling all along with self-esteem issues or concern about her self-sufficiency or her ability to contribute to a team.
But nope. She spent the entire book as a 100% capable and confident badass, until she abruptly decides she’s worthless. Sorry, but realistic internal conflict needs a better set-up than that.
As far as Middle-Eastern-ish YA fantasy novels go, at least this one didn’t piss me off as much as The Wrath and the Dawn. So that’s good.
But if you’re looking for a vaguely Middle-Eastern-ish fantasy with magic and war and a sexy king, read The Blue Sword.
If you’re looking for a more intense political fantasy that blends Middle Eastern and Western cultures (but on opposing sides of a war, not quite in a unified culture), check out The Lions of Al-Rassan.
If you’d like a spunky narrator whose spunkiness fits more naturally in their (non-modern) culture, maybe try The Thief.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t read Rebel of the Sands; maybe you’d like it better than I did. I just wish I’d spent those hours reading something better.
Spoiler Rating: High
My favorite DOCTOR Katie,
First of all: *congratulatory doctoral confetti!* There will be celebrating, and it will beintense.
So I’d gushed to you about Angelfall a while ago, and I’ve finally gotten my grabby hands on the sequel, World After. I was expecting great things for it—but this book didn’t attain greatness. More of a meh-ness, I’d say.
Let me tell you about it.
Guess I should first refresh your memory about Angelfall.
Human civilization has crumbled after the catastrophic arrival of the (surprisingly cruel) angels. When Penryn’s kid sister Paige is kidnapped by angels, Penryn makes a dangerous move: saving an angel whose wings had just been cut off by the same villains who kidnapped Paige. Her plan is to hold the severed wings hostage until the wingless angel (Raffe) takes her to the angels’ headquarters, where she hopes to rescue Paige.
Penryn, Raffe, and Raffe’s severed wings trek to the angels’ headquarters, where slimy angel Uriel is throwing a 1920s-themed party. Penryn and Raffe infiltrate and save Paige, who’s been experimented on and now seems more monster than human. Meanwhile, Raffe wakes up from surgery with demonic bat wings rather than his own feathered ones. (His nemesis Beliel has stolen and now wears Raffe’s wings.)
In the end, Penryn and monster-Paige are reunited with their mother, but Raffe thinks Penryn’s dead. He disappears in pursuit of Beliel, maybe to never be seen again.
In this sequel to the bestselling fantasy thriller, Angelfall, the survivors of the angel apocalypse begin to scrape back together what’s left of the modern world. When a group of people capture Penryn’s sister Paige, thinking she’s a monster, the situation ends in a massacre.
Paige disappears. Humans are terrified. Mom is heartbroken.
Penryn drives through the streets of San Francisco looking for Paige. Why are the streets so empty? Where is everybody? Her search leads her into the heart of the angels’ secret plans where she catches a glimpse of their motivations, and learns the horrifying extent to which the angels are willing to go.
Meanwhile, Raffe hunts for his wings. Without them, he can’t rejoin the angels, can’t take his rightful place as one of their leaders. When faced with recapturing his wings or helping Penryn survive, which will he choose?
World After begins a few minutes after the end of Angelfall, with Penryn, Paige, and their mother being taken into the safety of the human Resistance camp, where they really don’t fit in. Paige ends up running away, and Penryn once again sets off on a mission to save her from the angels—but this time without Raffe.
So, what’s to enjoy about this book?
Okay. It’s time to switch from bullet points to a numbered list, because bulleted lists don’t allow for paragraphs of text. Since there are three things in the bulleted list above, let’s start with Point Number Four in the numbered list below. (You love how I structure my letters.)
4. Monstrosity vs. Goodness vs. Appearance
The theme of one’s appearance doesn’t necessarily correlate with how good or monstrous they are is present in Angelfall, but it’s heftier in World After. We have the good angel Raffe with his sewn-on demonic wings:
There’s evil Beliel wearing Raffe’s beautiful floofy wings:
And, of course, there’s Paige:
Penryn knows Raffe is good despite his devilish appearance, and knows that Beliel is evil even with his beefcake body and new soft wings. The problem for Penryn is Paige; she has a really hard time seeing her sweet little sister in the cannibalistic metal-toothed killing machine that the angels made Paige into. It’s a book-long battle between her sisterly instincts (to protect Paige) and her survival instincts (to keep clear of the monster), and I for one loved watching her struggle.
Penryn also struggled with the weight of her own morality. This is a cutthroat, dangerous world, but her conscience won’t let her turn away from people in need.
As the story continues, Penryn sort of makes herself responsible for an increasing number of people, until, ultimately, that number is too high to count.
Others view her as a hero for the risks she takes and the good she does, but Penryn sees herself as just a teen doing what she can.
Katie, I love this so much. I’ll never tire of stories about people forced by horrible circumstances to perform acts of grim-and-desperate heroism, but without viewing themselves as in any way heroic. (Correction: I’ll never tire of these stories so long as they’re written at least moderately well.)
There’s not much room for romance in World After; Penryn and Raffe are separated for most of the book, and have very little opportunity to relax and talk when they are together. But the little romantic development we’re shown is delicious. Delicious because it’s not melodramatic or saccharine or earth-shattering. Delicious because it’s quiet and restrained and halting and real.
This is directly related to my praise of the writing style: Penryn doesn’t linger poetically over ever single glance or touch. She acknowledges those brief moments with a succinctness that, for me, reads so much more powerfully than poetic lingering ever could.
Also, this book provides an excellent variation of the Seductive Finger-Licking scene that appalled me in Kiss of Deception. Here’s World After‘s take (in which, I should note, Penryn is not trying to be sexy):
To refresh your memory, here’s how the hot guy (coincidentally named Rafe) responds to the heroine’s (intentionally sexual) finger-licking in Kiss of Deception:
Let’s just stick with the bullet points this time.
So overall, World After felt like a weak recycling of Angelfall. We do learn more about the angels’ Destroy Earth campaign, and Penryn is emotionally (as well as physically) reunited with her sister Paige, but nothing else really changes between the end of the first book and the end of this one. As a result, I was mildly bored for most of it.
I’m hoping World After is just a victim of Middle Book of a Trilogy Syndrome (you know, where the second book is just a weird slog while the characters recover from the Traumatic Awesome Events of the first book and the scene gets set for the Traumatic Awesome Conclusion in the third book). If End of Days is as disappointing as this one, I’ll be devastated; Angelfall sets up a really incredible story, and I want the series to live up to that incredibleness.
Spoiler Rating: Low-ish
A few years ago, I picked up Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, the first installment in her Grisha trilogy. Picked it up, read it, and sold it to a used book store with equal parts disappointment and annoyance.
The trilogy has since become popular, and I’ve been considering giving it another go–and then lo, Six of Crows was released, the first in a new series set in the same world as Shadow and Bone, but involving different characters in a different place and a (slightly) different time. Here was my chance to see if Bardugo’s storytelling abilities had improved enough since Shadow and Bone to make it worth my while to read the rest of the original trilogy.
Well, I just finished Six of Crows. Is it perfect? No. Is it awesome? Yes. Definitely yes. Enough “yes” to make me think perhaps I should (eventually) give Bardugo’s earlier books another shot.
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…
A convict with a thirst for revenge.
A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.
A runaway with a privileged past.
A spy known as the Wraith.
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.
Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.
Ketterdam, in case you can’t spot it, is the northernmost city on the little island of Kerch, located in the very bottom-middle of the map.
The Ice Court is the capital of Fjerda, a country to the north-northeast of Kerch.
Kaz — a.k.a. Dirtyhands. The brilliant, terrifying, near-legendary lieutenant of the Dregs gang (a fast-rising power in the Ketterdam slums). He of the well-tailored suits, the creepy shark-dead eyes, and the willingness to do any violence necessary to see his goals met.
Inej — a.k.a. the Wraith. A supernaturally-gifted Suli acrobat kidnapped from her family’s caravan by slavers and sold to a brothel madam in Ketterdam, but now putting her acrobat’s stealth and agility (as well as her many knives) to work as the Dregs’ intelligence-gatherer.
Matthias — a Fjerdan drüskelle (read: witchhunter), whose past encounter with Nina (a witch) condemned him to the disgusting, brutal prison in Ketterdam. He’s the eldest of the group at eighteen years old, and stiff with both murderous rage and monk-like drüskelle honor.
Nina — a Ravkan soldier from the east, now stranded in Ketterdam, trained to use her magic to kill her enemies without touching them: stop their hearts, snap their necks, collapse their lungs, etc. She’s currently employed by the Dregs to heal gang members’ wounds (as best she can, having been trained to kill rather than heal).
Jesper — a Zemeni farm boy whose gambling addiction doomed him to the gutters of Ketterdam, but whose sniper abilities found him a place amongst the Dregs.
Wylan — a wealthy merchant’s son who ran away from home and was accepted into the Dregs (as a hostage for use against his powerful father). And, hey, his expensive education could come in handy.
Let me tell you, this book has some vivid descriptions–
–that combine to set a good physical and tonal backdrop–
–for its dark, hands-bloody teeth-bared story. Bardugo’s writing style is definitely improving.
Things to love about the characters include:
The crew also includes one (it seems openly) bisexual young man, one potentially bisexual or gay young man (I suspect we’ll find out in the sequel), and a character whose permanent, painful limp is eased somewhat by the use of a cane.
With such a diverse group, you’d expect the characters to harbor some or a lot of prejudices about the others–and hallelujah, they do. It’s not just personalities clashing that makes so many of their interactions interesting to read; it’s seeing their prejudices at work, and watching those prejudices shift over time as they come to understand each other more.
And yes, some of their interactions are of the more romantic variety, but they’re romantic in a way that fits the book’s tone and story: grim, conflicted, wary, almost (almost) hopeless. There’s no place for warm cuddles and, I don’t know, waltzes under the moonlight in the gutters of Ketterdam, and definitely not during the heist itself.
But that doesn’t stop romantic bonds from forming, in their various ways–and that’s something else to praise: the romances are so very different from each other. If this book had ended with identical happily-ever-afters for such vastly different couples in such a grim story, I’d have thrown the book across the room. Or at least written a very long, ranting letter to you about it.
Holy crap do I love the use of rotating narrators in this book.
The story’s told from five viewpoints: Inej, Kaz, Nina, Jesper, and Matthias. No, rich boy Wylan doesn’t narrate.
This is especially neat because we’re shown each narrator’s backstory in bits and pieces that are scattered throughout the heist plot–and each person’s backstory affects not only who they are as people and their interactions with the other characters, but also the heist itself.
I never felt impatient with the (sometimes lengthy) sections of backstory, because I was genuinely interested in learning more about what made these people who they are. Two cheers for that.
In a story that rotates narrators, especially when those narrators have such different personalities and ethnic/religious/economic (etc.) backgrounds, you would hope that each narrator’s voice would be distinct, both in and out of dialogue. I’ll point to Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys as a good example.
But most of the narrators in Six of Crows sounded rather the same to me: ruthless, brave, and quippy.
Matthias and Inej were (usually) the exception to this rule; Matthias was brusque, both in his narrative and in his dialogue, while Inej leaned toward disapproving silence.
But for the most part, if I opened the book at random and read a few paragraphs, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you who was narrating. And if those paragraphs included dialogue without names attached, I probably couldn’t guess who was speaking.
This is a skill that Bardugo will perfect with more practice–and if the improvement in her writing in the last three years is any indication, it won’t take her long.
Okay. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let me cover this complaint as vaguely as possible.
Kaz and his team have to penetrate the impenetrable Ice Court, which (as you can see in the second map I provided above) is a large fortress-like complex.
Kaz, being the criminal genius he is, has a sharp mind (bordering on supernatural gift) for analyzing a situation (or person, or place) and coming up with a plan; he always seems to be a mile ahead of everyone else in both the analyzing and the planning departments.
So why, why was he blindsided when he encountered resistance where there is obviously going to be resistance? He’s not an idiot. No one else on the team is an idiot, either, and at least a couple of them should have realized “Hey, we’re going to encounter serious difficulties when we reach [spoiler censored].”
There’s no reason for this–except, of course, it made for a more interesting climax. To which I say for the thousandth time: authors, stop making your characters dumb for the sake of an interesting climax. Find a better way to do it.
It happens again a very short time later: again, Kaz didn’t expect to meet resistance where, again, I (and surely anyone else with two brain cells to rub together) did expect him to. But this time, the resistance that he should’ve met wasn’t there. At all. Not even a hint of resistance. None.
The utter lack of resistance was grossly unrealistic, and seriously disappointing in a book that seemed to try very hard at realism in all other aspects.
My guess as to why they didn’t meet resistance where they should have: if they had, they very likely would’ve all been slaughtered, and that doesn’t make for a very emotionally satisfying conclusion. But surely there’s a better way to avoid their slaughter than by having them meet no resistance at all?
I’ll admit, Six of Crows wasn’t as emotionally powerful a motley-crew-attempts-daring-heist story as Mistborn was–but that won’t stop it from joining my permanent collection. Probably in hardback, too, because have you seen how gorgeous it is?
And you know, this looks like just the afternoon to raid the bookstore.