August Books Round Up
It's pretty much the end of the summer. And I'm already excited for autumn! Here are a few of the things I've been reading lately...
Witchsign by Den Patrick
Giant Days by Non Pratt
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
Witchsign by Den Patrick
This was an enjoyable read and an interesting opening to Patrick’s trilogy. It is based around the Solmindre Empire, an empire that claims to have wiped out the dragons who terrified the Scorched Republics some years ago. Unsurprisingly, the Empire is evil (like, super evil) and the dragons aren’t really all dead. Patrick begins with a pretty usual opening set-up; magical ability, known as ‘witchsign’ is forbidden and if you are discovered to have it, you’ll be taken away to be ‘cleansed’. The main protagonist is Steiner whose younger sister, Kjellrunn, most definitely has witchsign. Through magical artefacts and unfortunate coincidences, it is Steiner and not Kjellrunn who is shipped away by the Vigilants (the sinister executors of the Emperors commands) to the mysterious island of Vladibogdan. As it turns out, Vigilants have witchsign too. Those with witchsign are not killed, they’re just recruited, indoctrinated and eventually made into servants of the evil Empire. Not much better, frankly.
While his exposition was occasionally a little on the nose, Patrick establishes a wide and ambitious world here, filled with secrets, revelations, and diverse creatures and people. I do wish his characters had a little more depth however. I’m sure this is something that will be expanded on in the following books, but so far Steiner and Kjellrunn are a little oversimplified for my taste. Steiner is the selfless hero. Kjellrunn is the strange and impetuous sister. I’m afraid I didn’t feel either of them developed much, but I hope to see more in the second book of the trilogy. I think one of the issues is that Steiner has very few real choices to make. He doesn’t drive the plot, but reacts to it.
I particularly enjoyed Kimi, literal Princess of Yamal and blacksmith, enslaved in the forges beneath the mysterious magical academies. I also enjoyed the cinderwraiths, who are the ghosts of children who die on the island and are forever forced to work the forges. These were a couple of highlights for me.
I also found Patrick’s inspiration for his languages and countries interesting. There is a mix of Germanic inspiration, Scandinavian and, quite prominently, Russian. The words for the elemental magical school are directly taken from Russian and translated to Latin script. This is something I would be keen for him to explore further. He briefly mentions rusalkas early on in the novel, but doesn’t elaborate. I would enjoy it if he brought in more aspects of Russian folklore, mythology or culture to this trilogy. It certainly makes a change from all the Latin you find whenever magic becomes part of the equation.
I have a suspicion that Witchsign suffers a bit from Trilogy Syndrome i.e. when an author spends a little too much energy on creating the world the story will happen in for the first book, and only getting to the main meat of the story in the second. That said, this is a well-constructed book, nicely thought out and Witchsign ends with a promising set-up for the following books, while still being satisfying as a stand-alone novel.
Giant Days by Non Pratt
This is a YA novel based on one of my favourite series of comics, Giant Days. It revolves around Susan, Daisy and Esther as they begin their studies at Sheffield University. Susan is a cynical med student. Daisy is just... adorable. And Esther is an extroverted goth who doesn’t attend lectures. Giant Days is one of those comics that I always come back to when I need comfort reading. It’s funny, engaging, witty and nothing ever feels like it could go horribly wrong. At least, not forever. Pratt’s spinoff doesn’t disappoint in any of these areas. I was a touch worried that it wouldn’t quite live up to the adorability of the comics or pack in the same emotional moments, but it turns out I had nothing to worry about.
The characters translate across media very nicely and Pratt really manages to get each one of them. Their mannerisms, their foibles... I was lucky enough to pick up my copy at YALC and I’ve wholeheartedly enjoyed it.
What makes this a particularly good book is that Pratt manages to really make this a spinoff, not a novelisation. It complements the comics beautifully, without repeating plot points and without giving away where the main story is going.
Meddling kids by Edgar Cantero
This one was really fun! Really weird, but really fun. It’s what you get when you mash up Scooby-Doo and H.P. Lovecraft (minus his terrible racism). The Blyton Summer Detective Club had many cases, but there’s one that never let them rest easy. They thought it was just a man in a costume, but when he gets out of prison thirteen years later and admits to them that he pleaded guilty rather than go back to the haunted mansion, they know it’s time to settle the case once and for all. Kerri (the brains), Andy (the tomboy), Nate (the one who hallucinates their dead friend, Peter), and Tim (the dog).
This book is full of pop-culture references, which is something I love. I really love it when authors include little references, for me it definitely inspires of sense of closeness and intimacy between writer and reader. Cantero definitely succeeds on that count. What really nailed it for me was the A-Team style breakout from the psychiatric ward.
Cantero’s style is odd, but interesting. I can see how some people might find it grating, but I enjoyed it after a short period of adjustment. It reminds me a bit of David Wong’s style, author of John Dies at the End, and Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits. Cantero also has a habit of switching from prose to film script style when there’s a lot of dialogue or when many things are happening at once. Like I said, while I enjoyed it, I can see how it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
This is a very meta book. If you like books that occasionally refer to their own sub-plots, you may well enjoy this. Cantero maintains the humour of this novel without sacrificing tension or drama. I loved it and I can say with confidence that at no point while reading it did I speak in tongues.
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
This was another book I picked up at YALC this year. I hadn’t read much YA for a while so I think I’d pick up a few things that interested me. This was a fun and relaxing read and better yet, the first in a trilogy. I enjoyed the world Hamilton built and it was a relief to read fantasy that wasn’t based on the usual European medieval world. This story is firmly Middle Eastern-inspired, although all the countries depicted are fantasy. The protagonist is Amani, a seventeen year old girl, who plans to escape her home town of Dustwalk. Her parents are dead, her aunt despises her, and her uncle is entertaining the thought of marrying her. She decides to escape to the capital, Izman. She teams up with a mysterious young man, Jin, who is being hunted by the army.
Hamilton’s plotting is tight and compelling. It marches forward and includes plenty of setbacks to keep the reader guessing. She weaves in threads of the overarching narrative of the trilogy without sacrificing Amani’s personal journey. She ensures that when Amani finds herself involved in the political instability of her country, and of the world, the reader will be invested purely because she is. Amani has a dry, cynical, but funny voice. She is determined and seems entirely devoid of self-pity. I also enjoyed Amani’s affinity for firearms and her knowledge of gunpowder and explosives.
There are some predictable elements, for example, Amani’s developing romance with Jin, which includes the traditional 'the only way to hide is to make out with each other' scenario. But I felt that these predictable elements didn't detract from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole. I did have a quibble though. Given the repeated message that women are not respected in Miraji society and how unfairly they are treated, I would have welcomed more tough and interesting women in the novel. Although, more female characters are introduced later, for the first two thirds, there’s only Amani, which is a shame.
All in all, I enjoyed this book and would pick up the rest of the trilogy. It’s a nice, light read, with enough predictability in the YA genre that it feels comforting, but not so much that it feels formulaic.
That's it for August. Happy reading!