Category: Book Review

Thoughts on Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Posted October 25, 2019 by Fictional Fox in Book Review / 0 Comments

Thoughts on Swordspoint by Ellen KushnerSwordspoint (Riverside, #1) by Ellen Kushner
Published by Spectra on December 18, 2007
Pages: 363
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On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless- until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead a of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye . . .

In the highly stratified world of Kushner's nameless old city, the aristocrats living in fine mansions on the Hill settle their differences by sending to the thieves' den of Riverside for swordsmen who will fight to the death for a point of someone else's honor.

Young Lord Michael Godwin is so taken by these romantic figures that he studies the art himself until challenged by the best of them.

Master of the Sword, Richard St. Vier is picky in his contracts and precise in his killing but he nevertheless becomes embroiled in the nobility's political, social and sexual intrigues. When his lover Alec is kidnapped by Lord Horn, St. Vier must take drastic action.

When a book is amazing I find reviewing incredibly hard. I don’t ever feel satisfied with what I’ve written because I can’t come near to doing the book justice. Part of me just wants to just to say: ‘Trust me, read it.”

So I’m not going to call this a review, strictly speaking. I’ll never post it otherwise. Let’s call this some ‘thoughts on’ Swordspoint and the story it tells about Alec (a former student) and Richard (a reputable swordsman) who live together and get into trouble on the rough side of the city, known as Riverside.

This is one of those fabulous stories that makes you want to flip right back to the first page as soon as you finish it. The world and characters are sumptuous. Like Alec at the end of the novel turning up at Richard’s door with fish in hand as if nothing has changed, the lure of Riverside is hard to resist as a reader.

For me Swordspoint is the perfect book to pick up for a slice of escapism. I’ve read it a few times and it never fails to be engrossing. I don’t like to read it quickly, though. I like to savour it. Soaking up the character building is the best part of this reading experience.

The domestic moments that depart from the main plot are my favourites. Example: Alec and Richard’s cat. It all starts when Alec talks to Richard about being annoyed by some cats yowling on the roof.

Alec says:

“I think we should get a cat of our own. We could train it to fight. It could chase them away.”

His idea for how to source a cat is to:

“Save it’s life- pull a thorn out of its paw or something- and it would be forever grateful.”

A few chapters later there is suddenly ‘a small grey kitten’ in their room:

“The neighbourhood cat lady had foistered [it] on them in return for a gift of wood (‘Removing the poor thing from evil influences,’ Alec had said, accepting)”

And so the cat remains with them for the rest of the novel. The cat is referenced in scenes here and there, being petted while Alec reads or following the point of Richard’s sword while he practices.

The cat offers a string of subplot that helps feed into our growing picture of Alec as a person. Alec presents himself as a dropout student, slumming it in Riverside and constantly asking for trouble, but getting away with it thanks to Richard. Through Alec’s actions he is shown to be playing a complex game of his own making.

On the other side of the city we are shown evidence of the scope of Duchess Tremontaine’s influence and power. Michael Godwin and Lord Ferris are case studies of this as we see their futures shaped by her hand. Alec plays these same games, just on a smaller stage. His pawns being the cats and people of Riverside. One of his favourite and most exciting chess pieces is Richard, the swordsman.

The relationship between Alec and Richard is very interesting. Richard knows that Alec hides a lot from him but he doesn’t generally care to delve too deep without invitation, though he often gives Alec gifts befitting the station Richard suspects he comes from. Richard also knows that part of the appeal of the relationship to Alec is that it holds an element of danger. There’s an underlying game between them where Alec puts his life on the line and Richard has to fight to keep it safe.

I don’t think I can do Alec and Richard’s relationship justice in this post. It needs a space of its own to be discussed properly. The same goes for Richard himself. St Vier is a celebrity in his own right. We hear of his reputation and the way others perceive him. We also get to dive in close and follow him ourselves, giving us a glimpse of both his interior and exterior life. He is a brilliant swordsman with a strict code of honour. He is not the only one available on the swordsman market but he comes across a rare and peculiarly strict beast even in that arena.

St Vier’s high standards of honour are contrasted with that of the nobles. ‘My honour isn’t worth your attention’ he thinks at one point when he finds himself being judged by them.

The perceived split between the world of Riverside and the world of the nobles is often showed up best in the characters that walk in between them, like Richard and Alec. In these characters we are given grounds to argue that the two worlds aren’t always quite as different or separate as they would like to believe. There are kingmakers like Alec and the Duchess and players like St Vier and Lord Ferris in both. When one group harms the other the governing system struggles to reconcile the two worlds as existing under the same umbrella with, at the very base of it all, the same underlying codes of justice and revenge. I love the complex politics at play in this novel.

There are so many interesting discussion to have about Swordspoint. I could go on about it in depth in several posts (and I just might). Today I wanted to take a moment to demonstrate how interesting and brilliant it is, and I hope anyone who finds the ideas discussed here even mildly interesting will consider giving Swordspoint a go.

Lauren x

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Unpopular Opinion: I like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Posted October 18, 2019 by Fictional Fox in Book Review / 0 Comments

Unpopular Opinion: I like Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildHarry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two (Harry Potter, #8) by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling
on July 31, 2016
Pages: 330
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Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, a new play by Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the eighth story in the Harry Potter series and the first official Harry Potter story to be presented on stage. The play will receive its world premiere in London’s West End on July 30, 2016.

It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

**This Post Contains Some Cursed Child Spoilers**

When the script book of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was released I saw a few negative reactions. I’ve watched numerous reviews on YouTube where the presenter was not fond of it and I’ve read blog posts along similar lines.

I, on the other hand, loved this story. I’ve been lucky enough to see it on stage as well which ramps up the awesomeness even more.

I love seeing Harry, Ron, and Hermione grown up and facing new problems. More than that, though, I enjoyed the themes of family relationships, he fallout of the ‘chosen one’ storyline, time travel, and the way the Hogwarts House stereotypes were tested.

In this story the focus is on Albus, Harry Potter’s son. He has to deal with the burden of being the child of a celebrity and being marked as ‘different’ for being placed in Slytherin versus Gryffindor (where most of his family are). This is one of the consequences of Harry’s ‘chosen one’ status from the Harry Potter series. His whole family effectively carry the burden of his past whether they want to or not. This causes people to make assumptions about his children and if they don’t match those assumptions, like Albus, they receive negative attention.

On the other side of Albus’ story we have Harry who is evidently struggling with fatherhood as someone who hasn’t had a dedicated father figure to model himself on. He grew up feeling like an isolated member of the Dursley household for years. As an adult he is faced with the challenge of being a big figure in the family he has made for himself with little guidance or knowledge of how to do so.

I like that this story had a focus on two Slytherin students to evidence that there is much more to this House than the dark stereotypes. Scorpius, Draco’s son, is the best ambassador for this Slytherin rebrand. He’s super clever, sweet and loyal. I also liked how Draco is depicted in this story and that him and his father-son relationship is placed on the same page as Harry’s. This offers an interesting comparison as both Scorpius and Albus have been judged based on their family in different ways.

Another thing I enjoyed about this story is how it reflects on the casualties of the chosen one’s journey. People like Cedric Diggory die in the wake of Harry’s journey through the Harry Potter books. These are innocent people who have their chance to have their own story stripped from them because they are secondary to the ‘main character’. On top of that these innocents leave behind families and friends who are touched deeply by the tragedy.

What responsibility does the ‘chosen one’ have to these casualties of their story? It’s an interesting question and I enjoy how it’s explored in Cursed Child. Cursed Child shows us that Harry’s story, and that of the wizarding world at large, doesn’t just end with a neat bow on top at the end of Deathly Hallows. Cursed Child deepens my concept of Harry’s world and brings it back to life in a thought provoking and narratively conscious way.

Time travel is a favourite plot device of mine. Cursed Child uses time travel to excellent effect to play with alternate realities and explore the different routes Harry’s story could have taken. It also gives characters like Harry and Ginny a chance to confront the traumas of the past as adults. It’s the perfect setup for character development whilst also giving a fresh new look at scenes Harry Potter fans are already familiar with.

I will probably talk about Cursed Child and it”s themes again in a future post but for now I think I’ve sufficiently explained why I enjoy it.

Have you read Cursed Child or watched it on stage? What’s your opinion on it?

Lauren x

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‘I have a heart for every year I’ve been alive’ – Review of To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo

Posted October 7, 2019 by Fictional Fox in Book Review / 0 Comments

‘I have a heart for every year I’ve been alive’ – Review of To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra ChristoTo Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo
Published by Feiwel & Friends on March 6, 2018
Pages: 344
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Princess Lira is siren royalty and the most lethal of them all. With the hearts of seventeen princes in her collection, she is revered across the sea. Until a twist of fate forces her to kill one of her own. To punish her daughter, the Sea Queen transforms Lira into the one thing they loathe most—a human. Robbed of her song, Lira has until the winter solstice to deliver Prince Elian’s heart to the Sea Queen or remain a human forever.

The ocean is the only place Prince Elian calls home, even though he is heir to the most powerful kingdom in the world. Hunting sirens is more than an unsavory hobby—it’s his calling. When he rescues a drowning woman in the ocean, she’s more than what she appears. She promises to help him find the key to destroying all of sirenkind for good—But can he trust her? And just how many deals will Elian have to barter to eliminate mankind’s greatest enemy?

A standalone novel about a siren and a pirate prince who are pushed together despite being bitter enemies?

I was sold on this book before I even read the first sentence (which is killer, by the way). To Kill a Kingdom is such a dark, fun and fantastical novel.

While I was reading it I took it with me everywhere. Unfortunately it ended up getting utterly soaked one weekend while I was working at a very damp flower festival. Turns out a story about the fate of the sea kingdom of Keto is at all waterproof 🤷‍♂️. Thankfully, my dad managed to save my book by re-laminating it. I’ve never been so happy to have a book saved! It allowed me to finish reading this lush tale of a murderous princess and her identity crisis.

To Kill a Kingdom is told via dual narrators, Lira and Elian.

Elian wrestles with two separate personas: one the one hand, he is the heir to the kingdom of Midas and expected to rule after his father. But in truth his heart belongs at sea. His second persona is as the Captain of the Saad. His main quest is to eliminate sirens and the treat they pose to humans at sea.

The ‘Princes Bane’ is the most infamous of these sirens as she rips hearts out of princes. Enter Lira, our other narrator and the Princes Bane in the flesh. She is the daughter of the vicious Sea Queen who has pressured Lira into doing terrible things in order to shape her in her own image.

The plot quickly focuses itself on a quest to find an artefact that could end the Sea Queen’s reign of terror. Elian wants to find it to end things while Lira is tasked with foiling his plans and taking his heart.

What ensues is a story about taking control of your own narrative . At the beginning Elian and Lira seem to already have their paths mapped out for them by their parents. The quest above widens in scope considerably. It takes on the added dimension of searching for a way to define themselves away from their parents shadow. The answers to the latter is what really saves their kingdoms and people.

The found family aspect of this novel also feeds into the ‘control your own narrative’ theme as Elian, and later Lira, find comfort in the devoted crew of the Saad showing that sometimes the best family is the one you choose for yourself.

There are plenty of neatly clever plot twists, betrayals, and double crossings throughout this novel. Which keeps it exciting. So, too, does the satisfying application of the enemies to lovers trope.

One of my favourite aspects of this novel, though, is that it is a standalone story. It is a nice change of pace from my habit of reading lengthy book series to instead enjoy a self contained story.

Lira and Elian’s character arcs felt fully explored within the bounds of this single volume and I found the ending very satisfying. There are just enough enough narrative doors open to allow the reader to run away with their imagination and think of what the future could hold for these characters. I certainly would not be sad if the author chose to write more books in this world but at the same time this ending felt just right.

In summary this book : Is deliciously dark. Features pirates, sirens, found family and the power of the sea. What more could you want for a great read?

One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

“Everything is a story” -Review of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Posted October 5, 2019 by Fictional Fox in Book Review / 0 Comments

“Everything is a story” -Review of Carry On by Rainbow RowellCarry On by Rainbow Rowell
Published by Wednesday Books on May 9, 2017
Pages: 522
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A #1 New York Times-bestseller

Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who's ever been chosen.

That's what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he's probably right.

Half the time, Simon can't even make his wand work, and the other half, he starts something on fire. His mentor's avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there's a magic-eating monster running around, wearing Simon's face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here — it's their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon's infuriating nemesis didn't even bother to show up.

Carry On - The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you'd expect from a Rainbow Rowell story - but far, far more monsters.

Quick note: This is a repost of a review I have posted elsewhere but I wanted to bring it across to Fictional Fox as a point of reference for when I review Wayward Son.

“This isn’t a story!”

Everything is a story.”

(Rowell, 2015, p.507)

The narrative in Carry On has a playful self-awareness. Carry On is not a repeat of the stories you know, Carry On is a play on the stories you know.

The book starts at the beginning of Simon Snow’s last year at Watford, a magic school. There are references throughout to Snow’s previous adventures at his wizarding school but we don’t get those stories in novel form. Honestly, you don’t need them because you already know them. This book interacts with the knowledge you already have of this kind of story, the story of the chosen one saving the world while going to school. Harry Potter ring a bell? The Harry Potter series is a pop culture reference that Carry On has a conversation with, works with, and plays with.

In Carry On  language has power. Having a good turn of phrase on the tip of your tongue is the way to be successful as a mage. Examples include ‘Time flies!’ to make the time go faster if you’re having fun, or ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’ to get people to turn a blind eye. The more popular the phrase, the more powerful it is.

[An aside: I loved the history of this magic system and the theoretical and political clashes that have occurred during its development. 

Basically: ‘Before the Mage’s reforms, Watford was so protective of traditional spells that they’d teach those instead of newer spells that worked better’ (Rowell, 2015, p.227). The Mage put a greater focus on looking at language as a living thing by recognising that there is as much, if not more, strength and relevance to new phrases as there is to ‘classic’ bits of language.

  The old approach placed language in stasis with cornerstone phrases that should not be interfered with. The current approach is to work with language as an organic and changing thing, with respect for the power of phrases alive and thriving right now. These different approaches remind me of the debate over what ‘good’ literature is. Can our contemporary literature open up and enter the hallowed halls of academia and be discussed with just as much respect and depth as classic literature? I would say yes.]

There is a lot more to discuss about the magic system in Carry On but I’ve digressed too far already from my point about the narrative. Basically, the novel calls on your knowledge of Harry Potter, and books like it, to lend it strength and power, just as the magic system within the novel calls on phrases you know to produce an effect.

Once this book has you on the same page as it, having invoked pop culture, it starts to dismantle it. The expected narrative fate of the characters and their relationships with each other frays. It frays under the tension of each of the character’s hyper awareness of how things are meant to go. Baz and Simon should be enemies. Agatha and Simon should ride off into the sunset to their happily ever after. Most importantly, to the Mage at least, Simon should end the threat to the world of mages once and for all.

All the characters know this is how things are meant to be. Some fight it from the off. Others cling to it until they realise that it isn’t, and doesn’t have to be, the story you expect. I think this is best embodied in Agatha and the Mage. Agatha flirts seriously with the idea of rejecting the fate set out for her as the Chosen One’s girlfriend. Her end decision made me proud. The Mage, meanwhile, is the one who forcefully snaps people into the available roles within the narrative structure he thinks he is in. He’s studied the prophecies inside and out and he is sure he knows this story and how it should function. The driving force behind much of the Mage’s actions in this novel is his frustration over the fact this story will not behave the way he expects it to.

All of this playful pop culture work is carried out with great humour, much of it played out in the conversations and the individual point of view chapters quite a few of the characters get. I loved Agatha’s comments on her headmaster’s sense of style when she says ‘he’s always dressed like Peter Pan, and he carries a sword. Like, all the time’ (Rowell, 2015, p.392). I grinned as Baz skipped between a blunt declaration to himself that he’s ‘hopelessly in love with’ (Rowell, 2015, p.176) Simon Snow to complaining that ‘Snow doesn’t give a shit about waking me up’ (Rowell,2015,p.179).

The characters are written with charm and spark.  They’re never too much of a cardboard cut-out of the character stereotypes they are cast as, which gave their struggle to break free of those roles more depth. I enjoyed this novel so much because of how endearing and interesting the characters are. They are, quite rightfully, the main driving force behind the dismantling of the Harry Potter-esque pop culture framework Rowell throws them in to.

Lauren x

One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

“I still haven’t done anything for you”- Review of Wolf Children by Mamoru Hosoda

Posted October 3, 2019 by Fictional Fox in Book Review / 0 Comments

“I still haven’t done anything for you”- Review of Wolf Children by Mamoru HosodaWolf Children: Ame & Yuki (light novel) by Mamoru Hosoda
Published by Yen On on May 21, 2019
Pages: 176
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When Hana falls in love with a young interloper she encounters in her college class, the last thing she expects to learn is that he is part wolf. Instead of rejecting her lover upon learning his secret, she accepts him with open arms. Soon, the couple is expecting their first child, and a cozy picture of family life unfolds. But after what seems like a mere moment of bliss to Hana, the father of her children is tragically taken from her. Life as a single mother is hard in any situation, but when your children walk a fine line between man and beast, the rules of parenting all but go out the window. With no one to turn to, how will Hana survive?

I watched Wolf Children for the first time a few years ago. I was at uni at the time. I played the DVD on my blue laptop, setup on a desk in my uni accommodation. I was probably putting off finishing an essay at the time.

I cried when I watched it and I have not watched it again since (because I’m a wuss). It had an impact on me and just thinking about it evokes all the thoughts and feelings I had when I watched it. I have owned the book of the film for a few months but I only got around to reading this novel recently. I wish I had picked it up sooner because it was a truly lovely reading experience.

Wolf Children is about one young mother’s journey bringing up her two ‘wolf’ children in a way that allows them to choose their own path in life. The children are posed with the question of how they want to live through the guise of whether they, Yuki and Ame, want to live as humans or wolves.

The storytelling is almost dreamily gentle which works well with the deep messages and questions it poses.

Whilst this story does cover the separate journeys Ame and Yuki follow to find themselves and their place in the world, their narrative threads are interestingly secondary to Hana’s as they fall under the umbrella of her story though she would likely see it the other way around.

At its heart Wolf Children is about Hana’s struggles and her dogged pursuit of her self-defined purpose to give her children freedom of choice. Early on in the novel, when faced with bringing up the children alone, she sets the objective for this stage in her life: “you can choose to be what you want” (p.41) she tells the children. She tells them this as she makes the decision to move away from all that she knows to give them the space they need to grow up safely and make that decision independently. This gets challenged later as she realises the cost of their decisions to herself, particularly in regard to Ame.

Sure, there’s clearly a supernatural thread to this story. Hana has prophetic dreams before she meets the children’s’ father and of course there’s the wolf transformation element. But the supernatural stuff is not what’s really important. It’s more about what that wolf transformation represents. To me it functions as a lens or filter to the realistic story beneath that of a mother fighting to give her children a choice and then finding the strength to let them go when they make those decisions.

From here on in I’m going to discuss some spoilers for the ending so turn away now if you don’t want to be spoiled.

Hana’s anguish in the final chapter as she watches Ame depart into the woods is to me the most heart-breaking part of this book. Throughout the book we see her staying strong in the face of adversity time and time again which makes her breakdown near the end so much harder to witness. Her partner’s death early in the story is deeply tragic. The resilience she shows to get through that and stay strong is worthy of respect. And we get to see her slowly earn the respect of the rural community she becomes a part of, which is heart-warming.

But then she wants one thing for herself. Her wish to keep Ame from the woods and the animal community he has found there is her one true act of selfishness and it’s hard to accept that she can’t have him and stay true to what she promised him when he was young. From losing her father to her partner it seems to be a cruel world that would take her son as well. Letting him go to be a wolf is the right thing but it is also clearly the hardest thing.

“But I still haven’t don’t anything for you,” (p. 164) she cries to him. But as readers we know that is far from true. His freedom to be in a position to make the choice to live as a wolf (the way that feels right to him) fulfils the objective she set herself as a mother. This is his answer to the question she posed to him and Yuki earlier in the novel: “How do you want to live? […] As children or as wolves?” (p.40). Her work is done.

Hana is a good person and her story is beautiful. It is just as dreamily told in writing as it is in the film. There’s a peaceful, dawdling nature to the narrative. Contradictorily Ame and Yuki seem to grow up and mature in the blink of an eye- which replicates how the time would have passed for Hana.

All the emotions in this novel ring true and real. I love it to pieces and it gives me the courage to watch the movie again.

To sum up in a few word, Wolf Children is: Beautiful, heart-breaking, a dream.

Lauren x

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