Every November, on a small, rocky island probably somewhere off the coast of Ireland, people race water horses. These are magnificent, fierce, bloodthirsty creatures, and participants in the races are fighting not only win but to survive – to not be dragged into the ocean, or get your arm bitten off by a competitor’s horse. Or by your own for that matter.

It’s about the water horses and the islanders’ love/hate relationship with them. It’s about barely making a living, and about sacrifices to get to do what you love. It’s also about roots vs opportunities. Thisby is a small island that doesn’t have much of a future to offer to young people. It’s rustic and traditional – which is great if roots and tradition and blood ties are your thing, but not so great if you want things in your life such as rock music and job opportunities.

I can’t really say what made this book so great. It’s intelligent, somehow. Beautiful and vivid; pared down, spartan, but poetic.

The drowning girl of the title is India Morgan Phelps, or Imp to her friends. She’s schizophrenic and no longer trusts her own mind or memories.

The book is described as “incisive, beautiful, and as perfectly crafted as a puzzle box” but I just found it rambling and boring. There is too much meta content about what Imp will write about, and how she should write about it, and how she is going about it the wrong way. I kept waiting for something of interest to actually happen, and getting distracted and bored reading it, so I gave up.

Eric gave me a Kindle for Christmas. I guess he got tired of me borrowing his for trips and hikes, haha.

I love actual physical, paper books, but the Kindle certainly has its benefits. The screen is amazingly easy on the eyes. It’s more comfortable to read with one hand. And it’s scary how easy it is to buy new books! I just finished a paper book (the first in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series) and Adlibris doesn’t seem to sell it so now I have to somehow survive without the sequel until I can find time to visit the Science Fiction Bookshop. Had I been reading the series on the Kindle, the sequel would have been a few taps away.

In a land where magic is feared and forbidden, Lark has a magical gift. When she is a child, her mother takes responsibility for Lark’s small act of magic and is killed in punishment. Just before she dies, she curses/predicts that Lark will not speak again, and that if the girl dies, so will her father (who otherwise doesn’t seem very interested in keeping her alive).

When Lark is grown up, she is discovered by the king of this country, and he takes her away to his castle, thinking to use her magic. Of course they fall in love (yet another girl reluctantly falling in love with her kidnapper, I’m getting pretty fed up with this trope!) and she ends up bringing freedom to not just him but the whole country.

This book was supposed to be a lyrical, poetic, dark fairy tale. I found it to be simplistic and naive, almost childish. Like a short story inflated into a novel, it just didn’t have any weight. The characters are few and shallow. The world around them barely exists. We get little insight into their thoughts and feelings. The plot is cliched and predictable, and several of the basic premises of the plot are, according to the rest of the book, not even possible. And the language is overly flowery rather than lyrical. It’s as if it was written by a teenager. Bleh.

Dreamer’s Pool

Blackthorn is a healer. A bitter and grim one. Grim is also grim. He’s a big, burly, quiet guy who tags along Blackthorn like a masterless dog. Blackthorn doesn’t like people, and Grim doesn’t think he’s good enough for her, but over time they get attached to each other, in their own somewhat clumsy and cranky ways.

The story begins with both of them in a hellhole of a prison, possibly without cause. Blackthorn especially has pretty much given up thought of anything but revenge. A faery helps her escape, in return for which she has to promise to help others and give up revenge. Gradually she’s dragged back to society and towards a possibly slightly brighter future, though she’s fighting it all the way.

Both characters are very easy to feel for. Blackthorn is asocial, opinionated, and cranky, but also strong and smart and (though she wouldn’t agree) helpful and kind. I found myself both pitying and admiring her. Likewise with Grim, who never stops believing in her and supporting her,

The book is told from the points of view of three characters – Blackthorn, Grim, and prince Oran. Each has their own voice, and I loved hearing their voices.

In fact I loved the whole book. I loved the characters, the tone, the subtle mystery, the world. I loved the lack of cliches and worn ideas: there is no romance between the main couple, no quest, no prophesy, no magic artefacts, and in fact almost no magic.

The book is more of a medieval mystery than a fantasy story. The faery rescuer does a tiny bit of magic. And like a certain faery in Sarah J Maas’s A Crown of Thorn and Roses, the faery and the human make a deal, but the deal in this book is both more mysterious and more sensible. The faery’s motivations are unclear, the way they often are in fairy tales, but the terms of the deal are coherent and make sense.

Tower of Thorns

Same people, new mystery to solve. Grim and his backstory get more space this time compared to Blackthorn, and he goes from sidekick to equal partner.

I loved parts of this book and was deeply disappointed in others. The characters and their complicated, intense relationship are as strong as in book one, and I loved getting to know them better. But the mystery itself is really weakly plotted, and the plot seemed to just drag on forever.

There is a curse for B & G to figure out and lift. Problem one: the curse has no internal logic, and this kind of sloppiness just infuriates me. The curse is just random pieces put together only to make it harder to bear and harder to lift.

Problem two: the curse is only a mystery because a certain character keeps handing out information one tidbit at a time. The mystery doesn’t get solved by cleverness but by drip-feeding us information. Blackthorn doesn’t actually do anything but hang around and wait for clues to be handed to her. For a supposedly clever person she is acting surprisingly dull here.

There is a lot of waiting in this book, and mostly for no particular reason. Giving one character a super important piece of information, but then (i) not sharing that info with the reader and (ii) dragging out for page after page the race of “will he get it to her on time?” is just pathetic plotting. All it does is make the book feel slow. Likewise Blackthorn struggles with a difficult decision throughout the entire book without making any real progress, and just keeps harping on about it forever.

Also, boo and double boo for turning the relationship between Blackthorn and Grim into a romantic one.

Den of Wolves

Same people, yet another tangle to solve. This third book is closer in feeling and quality to the first one, and while it doesn’t quite compare, it’s a decent ending for this trilogy.

Both characters have grown and keep growing, and so does their relationship. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s turning into a romance, and mostly it’s well handled.

Other parts of the plot get such sloppy treatment that I wonder what the author and the editor were doing. To take one example, at the core of this story is the concept of a “heartwood house”. This is a house built using all the different kinds of trees in a wood, and in a very particular way – and when it is done, it will bring good fortune to whoever lives in the house. A powerful man here makes another one build a heartwood house for him, and uses and abuses the builder in a whole mess of ways. When the house is finished, the builder reveals that the house won’t actually bring the lord the good fortune he was hoping for, because of reasons. There is a perfect opportunity to reveal this in the heartwood house itself, and a perfect opportunity to actually make the builder get the house (because he would be able to finish it properly) – and instead the house is pretty much just dropped out of the story. What was the point of building it, then?

Sarah J Maas is super famous and popular and I haven’t read a single one of her books. The covers put me off. Grim-looking girls with shadowed faces, wielding large weapons – looks like angry teenager wish fulfilment fantasies.

Somehow I still bought one because of some recommendation somewhere. I wish I hadn’t.

I do understand why they are popular. The book was full of drama and excitement and beauty and wondrous places and fantastical creatures and lust and blood and curses and mortal danger. Extra everything!

But I also found this book immensely annoying. Cringe-worthy. Firstly, much of the story is just ridiculous. There’s an elf prince with a curse that can only be lifted by a human girl who falls in love with him, but with dramatic complications. (A more adult version of Beauty and the Beast.) The curse is so convoluted and cliched that it literally made me roll my eyes. The girl doesn’t fall in love fast enough and the elf prince is doomed!

The girl then follows him all the way to the elf queen (or a caricature of an evil elf queen) who cursed him. She agrees to let him go if the girl completes three tasks – or guesses the answer to a riddle. But the quests are incredibly illogical, there is just no reason why the queen would ever set these particular quests, they seem to be chosen only to cause extra drama. Of course they’re supposed to be impossible to complete but the girl manages them all, one way or another. And then she solves the riddle and the queen loses her power and is torn to pieces… what on Earth would possess an immeasurably powerful queen to agree to such a deal?

And of course the centuries-old, all-powerful elf prince falls in love with the callow girl. Because they have so much in common – both have been forced to take responsibility for other people. As if that was totally unique for just these two. As for why the girl falls in love with the guy… well, it mostly seems to come down to his muscles and pretty hair. She seems to have great difficulty separating love from lust. Not that she has much sense in other matters, either.

The whole thing is so silly, so predictable and two-dimensional that I can’t believe she can write this and not be ashamed of her work.

To the ridiculous story, add ridiculous writing style. It’s as if Sarah J Maas was told to avoid normal words, and sat down with a thesaurus and found ways to add extra flourish to everything. Preferably not just one flourish but three. An elf does not turn to face the girl, he “whirls with fluid grace”. The girl doesn’t get dizzy, no, “colours and darkness whirl, eddying her vision”. Arrows “glitter like a shooting star through the darkness”. And this is supposed to be the voice of an illiterate teenager who’s grown up in poverty, completely unschooled?

I have to admit that the story was exciting so I did finish reading this book. But I will take care to never start another one of Maas’s books because it would just annoy me too much.

A Face Like Glass takes place in Caverna, an underground city full of weird magic. Such as wines that can erase or restore your memory – not all of it, but last Wednesday afternoon for example – or perfume that changes your mood.

So valuable and important is this magic that nobody is allowed to enter or leave Caverna. The city folk trade with the outside world, but mostly the outside is a place of legend.

The people in this city are equally weird. They do not have any instinctive facial expressions. Faces have to be taught and learned. Poor people might only be taught a handful of faces, suitable to their situation in life, such as “listening attentively”, “grateful”, and “focused on a task”. The nobility on the other hand may have hundreds, and might commission a special new face for a special occasion. Famous facesmiths craft new faces and release entire new series.

Into this world comes Neverfell, a girl with a face like glass – all her feelings shine right through. She is a bizarre novelty. The warring noble families and the Grand Steward himself compete to use her for their various ends. Unfortunately she is also naive and unworldly, and incapable of lying, since her face immediately betrays her. She is unlike anyone else in the city and throws everything into turmoil.

Clever and inventive, and a neat mystery with some nifty ideas, and entirely unpredictable when it comes to plot. But the tone and the endless piling-on of yet more weird things did become predictable and, well, not exactly annoying, but somewhat too much. There are some gaping holes in the “world” of Caverna and in Neverfell’s background that were really hard to believe.

Mostly quite enjoyable, with splashes of utter brilliance but also some annoying splotches.

Book 1: Ann Leckie’s Provenance.
An award-winning author, and glowing reviews for the book. But I’m 116 pages in and nothing much has happened, nothing interesting has been said, no interesting places have been described, and there are no signs that the next chapter will be any better.

Worst of all, the main character is neither interesting nor believable. She’s supposed to be the adopted child of a brilliant, powerful politician – her mother’s competent helper, experienced in organizing events and knowledgeable in politics. She is supposed to be coming up with something clever to gain her mother’s attention and approval. And yet she is as naive and gullible as an adult can possibly be. She believes everything that others tell her, and tells them nearly all she thinks. Which isn’t much. She never thinks two steps ahead, barely one in fact. She dithers and hesitates, then acts impulsively; she cannot control her emotions and starts crying in public. She is annoying and not the least bit impressive.

Book 2: Sylvain Neuvel’s Waking Gods.
This is part two of a trilogy that was kicked off by Sleeping Giants.

Sleeping Giants was pretty good. It had an interesting premise – a giant metal hand is found, buried underground, and then more body parts, and they were clearly not made by humans. The story was told in an interesting way, mostly as transcripts of meetings, interviews, radio traffic etc.

On the surface, the second book is similar, but somehow it’s lacking something. Maybe the novelty of the transcript format wore off. Perhaps it’s because we hear less of and about the key characters, whom I quite enjoyed. Perhaps it’s because the story delivers much more death and much less discovery.

There are so many books that I could read. An unknown book by an unknown author really needs to stand out in some way to get onto my reading list. Sometimes it’s the cover design that catches my eye, or maybe the book has an intriguing title. Occasionally the back cover blurb sucks me in, although many of those do more harm than good.

The Silvered had none of that. In fact it has an atrocious back cover blurb that tells too much of the story while making it sound cliched and dull. But when I read an excerpt, and it had werewolf lords at an opera house being attracted to young ladies because of how the lady smells – even though the lady’s eyes have no colour – then I just had to know more.

The people of this book live in a country where the nobility are werewolves or mages. Their presence affects all aspects of society, from governance to fashion. It also leads to interesting dynamics between people.

Human patriarchal family structures coexist with the werewolf pack’s “alpha and followers” structure. Werewolves, more influenced by instinct and physical stimuli, have to fit inside human social conventions. As an example, werewolves are strongly affected by smell and touch, while humans in polite society do not go sniffing each other too closely. Interactions between two persons vary depending on which form the werewolf is in: you can pat a friendly wolf but you wouldn’t pat a naked man.

The book also has a reasonably interesting plot: a werewolf and a mage go off to rescue a group of mages captured by the enemy army, and necessity pushes the mage to achieve more than she or anyone else would have thought was possible.

Most of the story is pretty good, but some elements are way too predictable, such as the psychopathic bad guy, and the mage girl’s inevitable triumph. Key parts of the final confrontation and escape are signalled so far ahead that they almost become anti-climactic. On the other hand, some events that at first glance seem like plot holes (“yeah right, how likely is that to happen”) turn out to fit beautifully into the story. And it was most refreshing to see the couple get through the whole adventure without falling in love.

But the plot was not what sucked me in and kept me hooked. (Which it really did: at one point I put the book down to go to bed, then spent about an hour thinking about and revisiting the best scenes, and in the end I had to go down and finish it even though that took me until 3 in the morning, because I simply couldn’t think of anything else.) The plot was kind of just there to give the young mage and werewolf couple something challenging to do, so that they can circle around each other, sniffing and nuzzling, and occasionally save each others’ lives.

On the one hand I am glad this was a standalone book so it runs no risk of contracting the “dramatic overload” disease of some fantasy series. On the other hand, I sure wish there was more of it!

Modern Swedish society is very un-tactile. Most of the time we only touch each other in formalized patterns like handshakes and shoulder pats and semi-formal hugs. Physical contact has somehow gotten all tangled up with sexual contact, and spontaneous, informal touching between adults is limited to a narrow range of situations – within the family, or a romantic relationship.

This touchlessness it doesn’t sit well with me at all. I am more tactile than most people, like the wolves in the book. I could live the rest of my life without sex, but I cannot imagine sleeping alone for the rest of my life. I wish we all had more werewolf blood in us and that we touched each other more, spontaneously and for real.

After Uprooted, I immediately looked for more books by Naomi Novik. I found and read Spinning Silver, and it is just as engrossing, graceful and brilliant as Uprooted.

The books are like sisters – similar in some ways, different in other. In structure, this one is less straightforward and more messy and sprawling. In content, Spinning Silver is also a melding of fairy tales: spinning silver into gold like in Rumpelstiltskin, a fairy king who steals a human girl away, a fire demon who eats souls, etc. The enemy this time isn’t intent on devouring the land, but on bringing on a never-ending winter.

The heroines in this book are more ordinary but at the same time more heroic. They have no magical powers, but they work harder at protecting and saving those they love.

That is what much of this book is about: hard, painful work for the sake of your loved ones. It’s about the heroism of quiet strength rather than spectacular magic. About the pain of being unloved, and the growth that love can bring about. Not romantic love, mind you, but love for one’s family and people.

I wish she had written more like these two, but instead the rest of her work is “Napoleonic wars with dragons”. Too bad.