My Thoughts: A Court of Wings and Ruin (or, the ACOTAR series so far, I guess)

A Court of Wings and Ruin is the third book in Sarah J. Maas’s fantasy ACOTAR series. The first book, for which the series is named, is called A Court of Thorns and Roses. The Second, A Court of Mist and Fury.

ACOWAR

All the ACOTAR books, while written principally from the same character’s perspective and following the same chain of events, seem to have different predominant vibes. ACOTAR (#1) had the strongest fairytale remix vibe. ACOMAF (#2) had a predominantly fantasy-romance vibe. ACOWAR (#3), this one, certainly had the most brutal, strategic, war-like fantasy vibes of the series so far. Story-wise, it was probably the most exciting so far.

I can’t help but think, though, that one of the series’ strongest selling points on the market is the sexual content, and in that regard, the sex in the first two books was a lot more exciting than the sex in ACOWAR. This is relevant because it speaks very much to Maas’s skill as a storyteller. In my reading experience, there were two main reasons the sex in book 1 and 2 were so interesting. First, it was faerie sex. The non-humanness of the characters, the fact that they have body parts which ordinary human beings don’t have, adds an interesting dimension to sexual activity. How does intercourse change when you’re dealing with a shapeshifter? When claws, fur or highly sensitive wings are an option? Vampires are certainly not as physically/sexually interesting as ACOTAR faeries. Secondly, the impact of many of the sexual scenes came from an accumulation of relationship development and sexual tension, strung out for pages and pages before they reach—metaphorically speaking—a climax. Without that skill of gradual development, if the sex scenes were to have occurred in greater isolation, they would not have read as half as interesting as they felt in the moment. I don’t think it detracts from the appeal of ACOWAR that the sex wasn’t as exciting, though. The third book had different priorities, and for what this story demanded, I think it was all executed splendidly.

(In related but auxiliary news, Rhysand has been the love of my life from the moment he first appeared in the first book.)

With three books in the series down now, I’m convinced of what I think is Sarah J. Maas’s strongest suit: her character development is off the chain. Without spoiling, I can tell you that I went from thinking the main character, Feyre, was an incredibly stupid girl in book 1, to someone who showed surprising promise in book 2, and by book 3, I was like, “OMG, she a badass!” As the series progresses, the same characters hardly get old because as you discover more about them, your previous perceptions of them are constantly challenged. There is incredible expertise involved in making you love a character when they’re presented as one thing and continue loving the character even more fiercely when they’re presented as the complete antithesis of that one thing. And it takes phenomenal talent for the same writer who could do that, to leave you thoroughly shocked when some other character is not what you expected.

I read ACOWAR to provide a distraction from my own thoughts and feelings, and honestly, it was a splendid choice. It was immersive enough to have me thinking about nearly nothing but the characters and stories, even minutes or hours after I’d taken a break from reading.

Although I haven’t yet read any of Maas’s Throne of Glass books, from what I’ve seen of ACOTAR, I think I stand by my opinion that Maas writes a very feminine kind of high fantasy. This is absolutely not derogatory. It doesn’t detract at all from the drama or the action or the spectacular messiness of everything, but the prioritization of the personal, emotional and individual aspects of characters and story evokes in me a personal investment that I don’t think would exist otherwise.

The femininity also doesn’t detract from the gravity of the story/content, but rather adds something crucial to it. Whereas I think masculine fantasy is often preoccupied with war and murder and slaying things and dangerous quests, fantasy like ACOTAR is not afraid to handle the difficult topics. Sex, the expression of sexuality, sexual orientation, sexual abuse, gender-based violence, toxic masculinity, feminism and choice, (the fantasy equivalent of) racial prejudice, honor and protection of minorities and the oppressed, relationship trauma, abusive parenthood, you name it! I promise they go far beyond the reach of Brienne of Tarth or Arya vs. Sansa Stark. There are so many incredibly important things about the human condition that I think too often male authors are not writing about. I also think high fantasy is one of the best places to explore some of these topics, because it provides an avenue to step out of the world you think you know so that when you come back to it, you can see it in a clearer light. I’m so glad that Sarah J. Maas addresses these topics in a way that does not entirely make me cringe!

If you read the first book and you think it’s a bit cliché and are unimpressed, I would personally encourage you to keep going. Because it gets nicer. It gets so much nicer.

-Akotz the Spider Kid

My Thoughts: Black Leopard Red Wolf

It’s possible that this book has had the greatest impact on me than any book I’ve read this year, so far. It didn’t always feel that way in the midst of reading it, but since I’ve finished, I’ve been thinking about it almost too often for my own health. Marlon James has done something extraordinary with Black Leopard Red Wolf and if the rest of the Dark Star trilogy is going to be anything like it, then those of us dedicated to following it are in for a wild time.

This is not my first Marlon James book. Several years ago, I read A Brief History of Seven Killings and I must confess: I was not impressed. Not because I thought it was a bad book; there was obviously something uniquely stylistic about Marlon James’ writing… But I personally just didn’t get it. I had a hard time following the story. My brain couldn’t seem to adjust to the rapid switches between English and Jamaican Patois. There were so many characters, I couldn’t remember who anyone was, and I really thought (mistakenly) that the main character was going to be Bob Marley. To this day, I can hardly remember anything about that book except for how confused I was, and that I’d resolved to one day read it again because the first time didn’t cut it. So, given that my first encounter with James didn’t go swimmingly, what drew me to jump on Black Leopard? The honest truth is that, once I saw the description of the book prior to its release, I was awash with something very like despair—because it looked like Marlon James had written exactly the kind of book I wanted to write, before I could write it. (Disadvantages of being born late. Insert eye roll.) And I was deathly afraid that it was going to be brilliant.

Spoiler alert: It was brilliant.

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It was also very Marlon James. By which I mean: stylistically strange, even if familiar; difficult to get into the groove of; full of characters and plot occurrences a reader is hardly ever sure what to do with. And yet, all these had on me the opposite effect they’d had with A Brief History. I liked Black Leopard the more for them.

I wouldn’t call Black Leopard Red Wolf difficult to read, although I know that this is most likely the common sentiment experienced by people who simply did not expect the book to be written like this. I will say though, that it is difficult to learn how to read. Luckily for me, the concept of different texts requiring different reorientations to reading was fresh on my mind, thanks to this interesting article a friend had sent me not much earlier: How We Read, by Irina Dumitrescu. When I applied myself in re-learning how to read and figured out what the hell was happening with the narrative style, I assure you, I was blown away at the masterful employment of technique.

One of the things that stood out about the narrative style was the emphatic and unusual use of language. If you don’t think too deeply about it, it feels like this serves no purpose other than to thoroughly confuse a reader. But perhaps if you’re bilingual (and better if one of your languages is not Europe-derived), you might be able to catch on quicker to what is going on: this book is not written in English. It is only using English words to get its content across. If you speak a non-English language, try taking an English sentence, translating it into that language, and then translating again it in the most literal and direct way you can manage. (This is called back-translation.) You are likely to get a sentence made of English words that does not sound like the English sentence you started with. Now imagine doing this for a 700-page book. Yeah. Somehow, Marlon James wrote the entire book using some sort of back-translation. And I stand in awe.

The story of the novel was long and interesting and cool, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the language as much as I enjoyed the plot. I sincerely hope this was James’s intention, because if so, it worked splendidly. The narrative is so conversation-heavy in a way that very often doesn’t add to the plot at all, but it’s just really fun to read. So perhaps James is making a statement in his narrative style: something along the lines of how the act of reading should be at least as much fun as the substance of the content one reads. As a writer and a reader, there’s something to learn from that. Also, the book has lots of superfluous and creative swearing which I think just makes a lot of serious things funnier.

In terms of fantasy, I think Black Leopard stays very true to its genre. It’s a huge book, is built on a composite world, and is part of a larger saga that is probably just going to get more confusing as time goes on. There is a hell of a lot of individual characters, so much so that it’s easy to lose track of them. The plot is so winding and not necessarily in chronological order. I will confess that I often forgot the book’s beginning while I was in the middle, and I struggled often to remember why whatever was happening was happening. And yet the seemingly disjointed plot elements prove themselves by the end to all have been not only connected to each other, but to something that we as the audience will not be privy to until the book’s sequels.

Knowing that fantasy itself has so many different styles and variations, I will also confess that Black Leopard Red Wolf felt like a very masculine kind of fantasy. It’s not like A Wizard of Earthsea which has basically no female characters, and it’s very, very far from the romance-heavy, almost distinctly feminine style of Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series. And when I call Black Leopard masculine, I by no means mean cis-het masculine. Almost every character is homosexual or at least not straight and there’s certainly a substantial amount of sex. It’s just that the sex isn’t meant to do to a reader what A Court sex is meant to do to a reader. Besides which, there is an almost shocking amount of blood and violence, and at least one powerfully written depiction of real-time physical disfigurement had me recoiling. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that this book is not for the weak, and it’s not designed to make you feel fairytale good. More action movie than rom-com. Oh, also, the main character is a misogynist. I believe and truly hope this is an intentional move on Marlon James’ part, and there was some hope in the course of the story that the main character might eventually reach a point where he is able to properly diagnose and deal with the roots of his misogyny.

Speaking of the main character, Tracker, well… He’s very unlikeable. And I like him a whole bloody lot. For those who’ve been around, you might remember I wrote an entire appreciation post for the movie character CJ Walker, specifically because of how unlikeable and complex she was. Now Tracker? He’s sharp tongued and a hothead, my favorite kind of character. And he has even fewer obvious redeeming qualities than CJ! I can only surmise that the sole reason Tracker isn’t fully abandoned by 90% of the characters in the book is because of his physical or magical abilities—which, incidentally, have nothing in the least to do with his personality. Imagine people keeping you around only because you have a good nose and not because they like you in any way, shape or form. That’s what it’s like to be Tracker.

When I think about it carefully, there’s nothing that I really disliked about this book. Once I got into the groove of it, once I learnt how to read it, it was all over for me. I truly enjoyed the experience of reading the book, and I loved seeing African fantasy and mythological creatures from around the continent being brought alive in James’ own way. I finished the book convinced that Marlon James is fearless. Because Black Leopard Red Wolf (and I might extrapolate, the entire Dark Star trilogy) doesn’t have that super-quick commercial quality that other new writing like Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone have, but if there is any sense in the world, James’s fantasy trilogy and James himself are going to go down in history as bloody legendary. And if they don’t, I’ll be up in arms.

P.S. I’m furious at James and don’t know if I’ll ever forgive him for doing almost exactly what I want to do with African fantasy, before I could do it.

-Akotowaa

My Thoughts: Reckless

Author: Cornelia Funke

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Sometimes, I get very inconsequential thoughts like, “Ah, I’m too old to be reading this stuff.” I know how to rationalize it, of course: I read children’s fantasy because I hope to one day become an author of children’s fantasy. This, while true, is only a corollary of the truer reason I read this stuff, or why I even want to write this stuff: because I enjoy it.

Cornelia Funke is one of my favorite writers, and I think I can safely conclude now that magic/fantasy is my favorite genre. (Of both books and movies. And if you can consider Jon Bellion’s music magical, then music too.) I’ve read Inkheart (twice), Inkspell, Inkdeath, Dragon Rider and The Thief Lord, and not a single book of hers has disappointed me yet. Reckless is no exception.

Let me start with what drew me to the book in the first place:

  1. Cornelia Funke’s name was on it.
  2. It was at a used book sale section of my city library, for one dollar. Why wouldn’t I buy a Cornelia Funke book for one dollar? (Lowkey, these small-small literary expenses are the things most likely to make me broke in life. Issa weakness.)
  3. The title: Reckless. It’s inviting, it’s exciting, and it’s a freaking cool word. I bought the book without reading the blurb. Quite a reckless move, wouldn’t you say? (That wasn’t funny? Well, okay then.)

As anyone who knows me should expect, I really liked this book. I absolutely adore the idea of remixing fairytales, and this world that Funke has built (it’s called the Mirrorworld, and Reckless is only the first book in the Mirrorworld series) is a world of remixed, mish-mashed but seldom explicitly referenced classic fairytales. I love this perhaps for many of the same reasons I liked Sarah Ockler’s The Summer of Chasing Mermaids and the ABC series Once Upon A Time. But there is something Funke adds to the idea of remixing fairytales that makes it even sexier: her own heritage.

Cornelia Funke really does a good job of owning the world she has made, particularly because she is German. Many Western fairytales, as you may know, came from a collection of stories compiled by two German writers, the Brothers Grimm, and are usually referred to as Grimm fairy tales. These writers are not exactly authors; as the story goes, they travelled through Europe, collecting old stories and folktales from different areas, and simply wrote them down. We will, perhaps, never know how much of their own creativity they applied in the written compilation of their stories. But my point here is that these are tales from Europe collected by Germans/Europeans, and are now being creatively utilized, remixed by a German, who can probably lay more legitimate claim to them than Adam Horowitz or Edward Kitsis (the creators of ABC’s Once Upon A Time).

Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld sees no need to translate culture into “American” before it begins to be creatively remixed. Thus, it feels more organic to me. And this feeds into my next comment on how organically she wrote it.

When I began reading it, the book was actually hard to get into; I really didn’t have a bloody clue what was happening. There was no soft process of leading a reader slowly into the magical, easing them comfortably into an unfamiliar world. (It did with Inkheart, which is probably one of the reasons this caught me off guard.) The Mirrorworld saw no need to explain itself; it merely was, as though it had always been, and it was I that had simply never heard of it. When I as a reader stepped in, it was like walking around entirely new territory without a tour guide. Such experiences are so uncomfortable that, although you may find the new world around you fascinating, you can’t help but feel, for the first few moments, that you want to go home, simply because you do not enjoy being lost. That’s how I felt; I temporarily wanted to stop reading because I felt I couldn’t “get into it” fast enough. Which is silly, really, because that transportational (yo, apparently, this is not a word) factor is one of the reasons I like fantasy so much in the first place.

When I eventually did get into it, after being patiently impatient with myself and the book, I found that I really enjoyed it, particularly the main character, Jacob Reckless, with whom I now like to think I have a very healthy platonic relationship. (One-sided, of course, since he is unfortunately fictional.) I didn’t fall recklessly in love with him (pun intended) like I did with Theodore Finch or Artemis Fowl. Instead, it grew on me gradually that this guy is actually a very cool badass. Like, we could be besties if he existed.

With this book, Cornelia Funke did two things that I really appreciate when storytellers, especially those of fantasy, do:

  1. Subtle gender-bending

When it comes to mystic things and fantasy, there are some things that are, unfortunately, classically gendered. I suppose I blame Disney for most, though certainly not all of it. For example, fairies, unicorns, mermaids, are usually thought of as classically feminine things. The usage of them as a marketing tool frequently tends to turn male potential consumers off from whatever is being marketed. Yet, some of my favorite mystic/magic storytellers have handled this problem so well. Eoin Colfer make boys like reading about fairies; in fact, he did it so well that he turned a lot of girls off from the Artemis Fowl series; J. K. Rowling used unicorns in Harry Potter that had nothing cutesy or rainbow-like about them.

It is so interesting to me what Funke did with unicorns and mermaids here. The unicorns were vicious, lethal creatures, not magic wish-granters, but more like deadly security guards. Heck, they aren’t even white. I distinctly remember Jacob Reckless passing an annoyed thought within the narration about how unicorns are so often “whitewashed.” In the Mirrorworld, they are designed to look very much like regular brownish horses, ponies and arses, but just like, with a horn. It’s lit.

The mermaids, referred to as Lorelei, are basically river-based, soulless murderers. Men are their prey. In that way, they remind me very much of the sirens of Greek mythology, whom I met for the first time in the Percy Jackson series. I actually became terrified of the Lorelei too, when after one character killed one, the other Lorelei ate their dead companion. Cannibals too. Ew. I prefer Mami Wata saf.

  1. Very good use of the concept of villains.

In most cases, I am of the opinion that useless villains ruin stories, and that fantastic villains make amazing stories.

If I had, at the times when I was a very young child, understood what the heck was going on in the Batman movies that I watched, I would have considered The Joker a truly phenomenal villain. As it is, the first time I recall becoming conscious of fantastic villains was watching Once Upon A Time several years ago. Aside Rumpelstiltskin being excellently crafted and written (for the most part, or up to a point), I liked how his and Regina’s (the Evil Queen) stories unfolded. It is the first time I remember stories really giving the audience insight into the personhood of villains, so much so that one may generate empathy for them. A fantastic villain, I suspect, is empathized with, or admired, perhaps as much as their villainy is acknowledged.

Reckless’ narration style allows a reader to see into the thoughts of the “bad guys” and I like that there are multiple “bad guys,” although, understandably, we don’t read as much of them as we do of Jacob. Aside that, I like how powerful and unstoppable the villains seem to me. It would, of course, be far less impressive for a hero to triumph over a bunch of trifling idiots. The villains need, in many cases, to seem like they are entirely capable of destroying the heroes – and sometimes, they must succeed.

That being said, I really like how Reckless seemed to end with a near-perfect cross between the tragic tendencies of the actual Grimm fairytale stories, and the hopeful kind of ending that Disney is known for. It makes me excited to seek out the sequel. 😊

-Akotowaa

My thoughts: Seraphina

Author: Rachel Hartman (who, by the way, has a very cool sense of humour, as I saw in the Cast of Characters) section.

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I erased all doubt that I was a mindless book-trend obsessive after I read Eragon. I didn’t actually hate that series until after Eldest, but I can’t say I enjoyed Eragon much, whereas the other common Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fans were all over it… But that is not the point I am making.

Seraphina happens to be yet another dragon book, and I know Christopher Paolini (author of Eragon) endorsed it. Obviously, that’s not why I read it. I read it because of Rick Riordan, who is, by the way, how I find new books 50% of the time.

I really like Seraphina! I know the problem with writing these kinds of books is the fear of being so cliché with the medieval-type themes and the high fantasy that so many authors have already done, but I haven’t seen this (by “this”, I am encompassing the essence of the book as a whole) before, which is great!

I was actually confused and a bit bored at first, because it’s usually disorienting for me to suddenly plunge down into yet another entire world compressed into a book, but I managed it and got to love it. There’s one thing though (I say “thing” because I’m not certain if it is good or bad) which is the romance that inevitably shows up in the novel. Just as I was anticipating a book without baseless romance, Seraphina goes and falls in love with —BOOM— a Prince! But I really don’t want to object because I’m secretly a romantic and not-so-secretly a fairytale-lover. Do not be deceived: this is no fairytale.

On the whole, I do believe this is the first book in which I have actually liked dragons, so kudos to Rachel Hartman! And kudos still for having a long enough imagination in this new world to reach far enough back into pre-tech times and pull them into your book. And it’s a beautifully-written book; linguistically artistic.

Favourite quotes:

There are melodies that speak as eloquently as words, that flow logically and inevitably from a single, pure emotion.

Isn’t that poetic? I love music.

My own survival required me to counterbalance interesting with invisible.

I like this because as an introvert who still needs friends to survive, I feel this way unbelievably often.

Let the one who seeks justice be just.

No explanation needed.

Heaven has fashioned a knife of irony to stab me with.

Isn’t that almost Shakespearean? It’s something that’s likely to pop out of my mouth when I’m in a ridiculous situation.

The borderlands of madness used to have so much sterner signage around them than they do now.

If the rate at which otherwise perfectly ordinary people are pronounced “mad” for a single peculiarity is any indication…

Everyone gawps at you for something you can’t help and did nothing to deserve.

In the book, this was referring to bastardry, but I take it our of context and relate it to certain overly large parts of my body…

Sometimes, the truth has difficulty breaching the city walls of our beliefs. A lie, dressed in the correct livery, passes through more easily.

Happy Reading,
Akotowaa.