I have always been open about the fact that I adore Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series. I own all of her books in US hardbacks, but since I want to share the love for this amazing young adult fantasy series with other fans, and maybe make a couple of fans more in the process, I decided to host an international giveaway for the first two of her books!Read More
Looking back at 2018, I realized that there were not that many books that stood out for me. And those that did are split between various genres. So, I decided to make a series of blog posts about all of my top favourite books that I read in 2018, divided into categories.
Of course, I am starting with Young Adult SFF books as it is my most read genre at the moment.Read More
If you read my review of “Caraval” last year, you probably can guess that I had a lot of reservations about “Legendary”. I felt let down by “Caraval” so much that I even considered not picking up the sequel. But since I am a glutton for punishment, I did request a physical copy of “Legendary” from the library. I must say, Stephanie Garber’s books have stunning covers, both US and UK editions.
I thought that I could get through “Legendary” but quickly realized that I didn’t care much to read the physical copy and got myself an audiobook instead.
A heart to protect. A debt to repay. A game to win.
After being swept up in the magical world of Caraval, Donatella Dragna has finally escaped her father and saved her sister Scarlett from a disastrous arranged marriage. The girls should be celebrating, but Tella isn’t yet free. She made a desperate bargain with a mysterious criminal, and what Tella owes him no one has ever been able to deliver: Caraval Master Legend’s true name.
The only chance of uncovering Legend’s identity is to win Caraval, so Tella throws herself into the legendary competition once more—and into the path of the murderous heir to the throne, a doomed love story, and a web of secrets…including her sister's. Caraval has always demanded bravery, cunning, and sacrifice. But now the game is asking for more. If Tella can’t fulfill her bargain and deliver Legend’s name, she’ll lose everything she cares about—maybe even her life. But if she wins, Legend and Caraval will be destroyed forever.
Welcome, welcome to Caraval...the games have only just begun.
Whatever I said about the writing and plot holes in “Caraval”, sadly, still applies for “Legendary”. The characters seem to be two-dimensional, flat, their traits exaggerated beyond measure. The writing only follows the same route: the book is full of beautiful but completely useless in their abundance similes and metaphors like, “and her dress was made out of blue silk and midnight stars” (not an exact quote, but you get the meaning). It would have felt more magical and profound if not for the complete lack of world building and character development. Using pretty words won’t help the lack of plot.
“Caraval” was told from Scarlet's point of view. Her main objective in the first book was to find her missing sister Donatella. She does find her, but the ending has a twist that left a sour taste in my mouth. I felt that Donatella had betrayed her sister, and there was nothing that could redeem her in my eyes, even though Scarlet, naturally, forgives her sister. (I had a problem with it also because Scarlet should have had PTSD after everything that happened, but her feelings and mental state after events in “Caraval” were not addressed.)
Donatella was portrayed as spoiled, uncontrollable, impulsive, and greedy. Yes, Scarlet still loved her and forgave her, but that was how Donatella was depicted in the book. And I hated her.
In “Legendary” though, Donatella is portrayed as impulsive, yes, but also very determined to save and protect her sister in any way possible. Her character voice in the second book changed so much that I couldn’t believe my eyes. Donatella is fierce and unbending but also very gullible, which really goes against her character who reminds us again and again that “she does not kiss the same boys twice”. I found that annoying as her character seemed to be inconsistent with what she was in the first book - at least, this is how it felt to me.
Throughout “Legendary”, Donatella is being almost thrown at one of the villains of the story by the author. She constantly says that she should not trust him and that she is disgusted by what he did, etc., but she is still attracted to him. I found that too unrealistic, as that character went beyond the mere trope of “a bad boy”. He was written as a real villain, who would even force himself on Donatella (there were at least one or two kisses that she did not consent for), and somehow she also found that exciting. I think that Stephanie Garber was trying very hard to create some sort of a love triangle, but it felt forced and unattractive to me.
The author tried to include some red herrings in the narrative, but it was done in such a blunt way that it was just ridiculous. For almost two-thirds of the book, Donatella kept saying that she couldn't believe that THIS could be true. And lo and behold, it turns out to be true. What a twist!
The only thing that “Legendary” made me happy about was Dante. I love his character, and we get to see more of him in this book, which was exciting. My favourite moment in the book was: “And, oh glory, he was shirtless. So very shirtless.”
(I keep hoping to see at least some LGBTQ+ representation in Caraval trilogy, but alas. My headcanon is that Dante is bisexual or polysexual - that would have been very cool.)
Scarlet was barely present in the book, and the way Donatella sees her is also skewed, in my opinion, from what she truly is as a character. At some point, Donatella even starts to doubt her sister. And, once again, big surprise - she shouldn’t have!
I think that overall Stephanie’s writing did improve from book one. “Legendary” is heavy on romance and not so heavy on fantasy and magic, which is a big let down once again. I love Rebecca’s narration - it was the only thing to keep me from giving up on his book. I will most probably pick up the last book in the trilogy in audio as well. I have no idea where the plot would go in book 3, as there is barely any plot, to begin with. I guess we need to get our happy ending for everyone so there will be more romance. Oh boy.
Plot: 2.5 stars
Narration: 4 stars
Overall rating: 3.25 stars
I received an ARC of "Keeper" from the author during the giveaway on Twitter and promised to provide a free and honest review in exchange.
Magic always leaves a mark.
When the ghost of a 200-year-old witch attacks her on the road, sixteen-year-old bookworm Lainey Styles is determined to find a logical explanation. But even with the impossible staring her in the face, Lainey refuses to buy in to all that “hocus pocus nonsense”—until she finds a photograph linking the witch to her dead mother.
After the library archives and even Google come up empty, Lainey gives in and consults a psychic. There she discovers that, like her mother, she’s a Keeper: a witch with the exclusive ability to unlock and wield the Grimoire, a dangerous spell book. But the Grimoire is missing, stolen years ago by a malevolent warlock who is desperate for a spell locked inside it—a spell that would allow him to siphon away the world's magic.
With the help of her comic-book-loving, adventure-hungry best friend and an enigmatic but admittedly handsome street fighter, Lainey must leave behind her life of books and studying to prepare for the biggest test of all: stealing back the book.
I have been following Kim Chance on social media, and especially YouTube, for a while, so I knew of "Keeper" way before the release date. It is Kim’s debut novel that she spent years working on. So, I was very pumped to read the book. However, my opinions are all mine and are unaffected by the fact that I like Kim Chance as a person and fellow AuthorTuber.
Allow me to start my review by stating that for a debut novel - and I was given an ARC, so not the final version - it is a very well put together book. The writing flows well, and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes.
However, I struggled with Lainey’s character. She is very likeable, but I found it hard to like her myself. She seemed to be very all over the place and very gullible, especially when it came to the sudden reveal of her powers. Her relationship with her uncle is, however, wonderfully written, and I adored it.
Maggie was my favourite in the book. She is very “no-nonsense” and stands by Lainey’s side through thick and thin. And this type of friendship is really precious.
I liked the character of Ty too, although his character development did not go the way I expected it to. The romantic attraction and the first meeting between Lainey and Ty were very cliched, although well executed if you are into contemporary romance, but the big twist that came at the end of the book was hardly surprising. Although Kim did a great job with inserting a couple of red herrings. The ending saddened me, as I felt that it went against the nature of the story but it was a bold move, so I approve it from the writing perspective.
There are a lot of dreams and flashback scenes in "Keeper" that add an atmosphere of southern gothic to the story - those were my favourite parts of the book. I wish there had been more elements like that and that they had led to a darker type of a story. I have a feeling as if the author wanted to both write this story and not hurt her characters way too much. I definitely would have preferred "Keeper" to be darker as it had a lot of promises of dark urban fantasy, but failed to deliver it to my taste. (When I think of southern gothic, I think of Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite - so, yes, my expectations of it are rather high.)
Like I said already, "Keeper" is a well put together novel. However, it has way too many cliches and tropes for my liking. Its saving grace is rather solid prose for a debut novel and the aspects of southern gothic which is not too common in YA literature. It is a very easy read with some lovely humourous dialogues between Lainey and Maggie, but while reading, I had trouble fully grasping the concept of Grimoire or why the Master wanted it so badly, and how come some of the magic folk obeyed him, while others defied him. I felt that it was a bit too jumbled in the narrative, and made it difficult to follow. I think that the aspect of the supernatural world existing in parallel with our world should have been explained and developed better.
"Keeper" has an absolutely stunning cover. And I am saying this as someone who dislikes green colour! Kim has a video on her channel, in which she talks about the development of the cover, and I recommend you watch it.
As it stands right now, "Keeper" is a stand-alone novel. However, the ending is done in the way that it offers a possibility of a sequel. I hope that Kim gets an opportunity to write and publish the sequel, as it would wrap up some loose ends left. I am looking forward to seeing what kind of book Kim will write next.
In spite of my opinion regarding "Keeper" and writing style, I am very grateful to Kim for providing me with an opportunity to read and review her book.
Rating: 3 stars
- Kim Chance YT channel
I was provided with an e-ARC copy of "Island of Exiles" by Entangled Teen in exchange for a free and honest review. The book seemed like a perfect read for me as it was advertised as a YA Fantasy novel with LGBTQ+ characters.
Since I will be discussing world building and some of the relationships in the book, please, be aware that there might be minor spoilers ahead.
In Khya’s world, every breath is a battle.
On the isolated desert island of Shiara, dying young is inevitable. The clan comes before self, and protecting her home means Khya is a warrior above all else.
But when following the clan and obeying their leaders could cost her brother his life, Khya's home becomes a deadly trap. The only person who can help is Tessen, her lifelong rival and the boy who challenges her at every turn. The council she hoped to join has betrayed her, and their secrets, hundreds of years deep, reach around a world she's never seen.
To save her brother’s life and her island home, her only choice is to trust Tessen, turn against her clan, and go on the run—a betrayal and a death sentence.
I started reading "Island of Exiles" at the end of November but due to some personal reasons, unrelated to the book, had to stop. I picked it up again in January and realized that I needed to start from the very beginning. I did just that, and I am very glad I did because I wanted to give this book justice and I felt that I wouldn’t have been able otherwise.
The strongest point of the book is the worldbuilding. But, sadly, it is, in a way, its weak point as well. The author created a fascinated world: the events of the novel take place on an island with very harsh, desert-like landscape and raging storms. The hierarchy of the clan is very strict; the obedience is not questioned; the rations are scarce. You train, fight, and die young. Erica Cameron developed the magic system and the society's structure in which your magical ability defies your position in the world. Every type of skill and status has its own name. The language of this world is quite extensive, which makes the process of submerging into the narrative extremely slow.
Plainly speaking, it will take you some time to get used to all the words and definitions. It is not a bad thing, and many of high fantasy adult novels have complex worldbuilding, including their races, cultures, and languages, but in the case of a YA novel, it slows down the pace of the narrative.
When I started "Island of Exiles" for the second time, I already knew what to expect and made sure to pay attention to the world of Itagami. It made it easier to get into the story again for sure. I do admit, that the narrative does not develop as quickly as I would have prefered in the beginning and once you hit one third into the book - this is when fun stuff happens.
By the end of the book, I was comfortable enough with terms and definitions that I didn’t feel like I was walking in the dark anymore (by the way, there is a glossary at the end of the book - I wish I had known!). I flew through the remaining pages, very keen to find out what happens next.
Let me tell you - the plot went into a completely different direction from what I expected!
My favourite part "Island of Exiles" was the gender and sexuality diversity of this world. People are born of either of three genders: male, female or ebet (which is explained in the glossary as the sex designation for those neither male nor female; while reading the book I kept thinking about intersex, although I can not claim if it is what the author intended it to be). There are specific pronouns for ebets too. Relationships between people can be khai (a relationship chosen specifically to produce children) or sumai (a deep bond/partnership/love, which does not necessarily have to be sexual and can be created between siblings, for example). Or relationships can be simply casual. The sexuality is never discussed or mentioned as something “normal” or not. Anyone can be attracted to any gender or or be ushimo, i.e. asexual or fall on asexual spectrum.
I loved this aspect of the world so much! I wish Erica Cameron would write a pure romance within this world as it would have so many possibilities!
I had some problems with the main character, Khya, as I had trouble understanding some of her actions. She kept referring to Tessen stealing her promotions - something which I only vaguely grasped. She seemed to be hell-bent on distrusting Tessen, while he was only ever amicable and pleasant to her and others. It felt as if the author was trying so hard to make it “enemies to lovers” type of relationship that it felt a bit unnatural. The same thing about Khya’s obsession with her brother, Yorri, that was borderline possessive and manipulative.
I feel as if Yorri’s character was not developed in full either, but hopefully, it is going to be remedied in the sequel.
My favourite characters were Tessen, Sanii and Etaro. I also suspect something is going on between Etaro and Rai - or maybe it is my wishful thinking, but I hope for the happy ending for all characters.
Since I am lucky to have already received the second book in The Ryogan Chronicles, Sea of Strangers, I jumped into it right after finishing “Island of Exiles”. Can not wait to see what happens next.
Highly recommend "Island of Exiles" to those who would not be intimidated by a complex glossary of the world and to the fans of diverse reads.
Rating: 3.5 stars
This book got on my radar thanks to Indigo. Some time ago, they had Royal Bastards listed under Diverse Reads category - the section that I tend to scout religiously for new releases. This book is no longer listed there, and who knows, perhaps, I imagined it, but I was looking forward to reading a new YA fantasy anyway.
Being a bastard blows. Tilla would know. Her father, Lord Kent of the Western Province, loved her as a child, but cast her aside as soon as he had trueborn children.
At sixteen, Tilla spends her days exploring long-forgotten tunnels beneath the castle with her stablehand half brother, Jax, and her nights drinking with the servants, passing out on Jax’s floor while her castle bedroom collects dust. Tilla secretly longs to sit by her father’s side, resplendent in a sparkling gown, enjoying feasts with the rest of the family. Instead, she sits with the other bastards, like Miles of House Hampstedt, an awkward scholar who’s been in love with Tilla since they were children.
Then, at a feast honoring the visiting princess Lyriana, the royal shocks everyone by choosing to sit at the Bastards’ Table. Before she knows it, Tilla is leading the sheltered princess on a late-night escapade. Along with Jax, Miles, and fellow bastard Zell, a Zitochi warrior from the north, they stumble upon a crime they were never meant to witness.
Rebellion is brewing in the west, and a brutal coup leaves Lyriana’s uncle, the Royal Archmagus, dead—with Lyriana next on the list. The group flees for their lives, relentlessly pursued by murderous mercenaries; their own parents have put a price on their heads to prevent the king and his powerful Royal Mages from discovering their treachery.
The bastards band together, realizing they alone have the power to prevent a civil war that will tear their kingdom apart—if they can warn the king in time. And if they can survive the journey . .
Royal Bastards is written in a rather simple and uncomplicated language which makes it a very easy read. It took me awhile to finish it, only because the book was due back to the library and I had to wait till I could pick it up again. Once I started reading it again, I managed to read almost 200 pages in one evening. A very easy read, indeed.
I had several issues with the narrative - most of them being connected to the fact that the author tells us things as opposed to showing. Granted, there are things that need to be delivered via exposition but for me, it was just a bit too much. The band of characters, the royal bastards, reads like a group of friends from a contemporary romance novel: a tomboy girl, a nerdy kid, a popular girl, a boy next door/BFF, and a bad boy with a heart of gold. You know what I mean. Not that it is a bad thing to include tropes, but for the fantasy book it was not necessary at all.
There are a lot of moments in which the characters conveniently discover certain things in their bags to help them on their journey or turns out they have hidden talents. It made the narrative a bit plain and predictable at times.
It is a debut novel, and, sadly, has typical mistakes of one. Not a bad book. Definitely, entertaining. The best action happened in the last 40-50 pages of it, though. There were some pretty good jokes too. In my opinion, the dialogues are the strongest part of the book.
However, the plot and the intrigue that the author was trying to spin were the weakest points. “Royal Bastards” does read like a nice adventure/romance, but does not hold against an expectation of a high fantasy novel.
As for the diversity aspect. Well, there is a secondary character who appears by the end of the book and who is mentioned to be gay, but it is mentioned in passing, and by no means qualifies as a diverse read or a book with LGBTQ+ characters. Will see if this changes in Book 2. “City of Bastards” is coming out this June.
I do plan to continue with the trilogy. In spite of tropey tropes, I am curious to see where the story would go and I do like some of the characters.
Rating: 3 stars
I was attracted to "Dividing Eden" based on the cover and the fact that it was a new release. I even almost purchased my own copy, as I checked out the book from the library but then had to return it and then had to wait till it became available again. In the end, I read the library copy, and I am glad that I didn’t spend money on it. Yes, it is going to be one of those reviews.
I jumped into this book without reading the synopsis, but I am going to provide it here as it summarizes the book pretty well. (I do find that a lot of synopses tend to be too spoilery, that is why I usually select books based on the buzz, tags, ratings or whether I have heard of this writer or not.) I really liked the cover and the tags on the cover, and I feel as if I overhyped this book for myself. (The cover is gorgeous, let’s be honest.)
Twins Carys and Andreus were never destined to rule Eden. With their older brother next in line to inherit the throne, the future of the kingdom was secure.
But appearances—and rivals—can be deceiving. When Eden’s king and crown prince are killed by assassins, Eden desperately needs a monarch, but the line of succession is no longer clear. With a ruling council scheming to gain power, Carys and Andreus are faced with only one option—to take part in a Trial of Succession that will determine which one of them is worthy of ruling the kingdom.
As sister and brother, Carys and Andreus have always kept each other safe—from their secrets, from the court, and from the monsters lurking in the mountains beyond the kingdom’s wall. But the Trial of Succession will test the bonds of trust and family.
With their country and their hearts divided, Carys and Andreus will discover exactly what each will do to win the crown. How long before suspicion takes hold and the thirst for power leads to the ultimate betrayal?
I would have attributed a lot of things that I found wrong with this book to the lack of experience, but it seems like "Diving Eden" is not Joelle Charbonneau’s first book. However, let me start with the things that I liked.
I liked the world setting and the mix of technology and magic. We have a middle ages type of society with rather segregated roles for men and women, however, there is also magic (or hints of it - prophesies and the like) and technology. The use of windmills for the electricity is rather unique for a fantasy world, and that was my favourite part.
The rest was just too predictable. The book started strong but then went downhill with cliches and trope-y twists. Andreus’ obsession with the priestess made little sense to me, especially since he was trusting her word over his twin sister’s. The rivalry itself was just too cliched. Of course, it had to happen as it is the plot of the book, but for me it felt artificial. Even though fallouts between siblings, including twins, do happen in real life, the way it was described in the book it seemed forced and unrealistic. Both siblings had kept each other’s secrets for years; they were together against the council - and yet, there is the conflict.
Perhaps, I would have believed it more if one of the siblings was obsessed with the crown initially. But neither seemed to be power hungry enough to harm their twin. That really puzzled and frustrated me.
All characters in the book felt flat for me. The novel is written in third point of view but with alternating POV between Carys and Andreus
The eventual fallout at the end of "Dividing Eden", and also the twist regarding certain powers, were well written (I was delighted by that little twist and the introduction of a new character, but those were small consolations in the face of mediocre plot). But I felt cheated that the most of the book was mediocre at best. Good thing that I read most of it on the train to and from Montreal, otherwise I would have been easily distracted by other books.
(edit) There is one part of the story that appealed to me - the portrayal of addiction. I don't see much of mental illnesses or addictions in fantasy books, but in "Dividing Eden" one of the main characters suffers from addiction that affects their relationships and course of action. I liked that aspect of the book.
I am still interested to see how this story resolves. Mostly, because I liked one of the secondary characters and I am curious about his identity. I will be getting the book from the library.
The second and final part of "Dividing Eden" duology, "Eden Conquered", is coming out in June 2018. The book description parallels the story with “Abel and Cain”, and it is really getting on my nerves. Because either it is a major spoiler or the most obvious red herring, and I am not sure I like either.
Unfortunately, it was a rather mediocre read, which left me disappointed.
Personal rating: 3 stars
A year ago when several lucky booktubers were hauling an advanced reader’s copy of “Heartless”, a new stand alone novel by Marissa Meyer, I was feeling rather jealous. The ARC looked stunning and the final version was beautiful too. I had not read a single book by the author, but I was extremely interested in reading “Heartless”.
“Heartless” is a retelling of a story about Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. Catherine might be a daughter of marques, but her dream is to become a baker and open her bakery. Her mother, however, dreams of her daughter to be wed to the King of Hearts. Catherine is struggling to find the balance between her parents’ wishes and her own dreams, until one day she meets Jest, a royal joker, and she is immediately attracted to him. But nothing is what it seems, and their secret courtship is overshadowed not only by the impending marriage to the king, but also the attacks by hideous and murderous monster named Jabberwock.
In spite of a great premise, I felt disappointed by the book. I read the first 100 pages and then got stuck, not because I hated the writing or was completely not interested in the plot, but rather because the story felt too slow-paced and too reflective for my taste. I felt almost bored when I was reading it, that is why I found myself picking up the book less and less, until I put it aside for a month or two. Frustrated, I decided to switch to an audiobook version, especially since I found out that it was narrated by Rebecca Soler, who voiced Nimona, and whom I rather liked.
So, I switched to an audiobook, started from the very beginning, and found that, although it was much easier to get through “Heartless” while colouring or doing something else, I was still getting annoyed by the fact that almost nothing was happening. Cath seemed too weak-willed to turn into a real Queen of Hearts. Her shiness and modesty didn’t match with the image of the queen yelling “Off with their heads!”. Jest was intriguing enough, but too good to be true, and I kept waiting for a big dirty secret to be revealed about his past and, unfortunately, was let down. I found some of the secondary characters more interesting than Cath herself.
However, no matter how many problems I had with the action and plot, I found the world wonderfully written. Marissa Meyer did an amazing job intertwining all the elements from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass world together into something that was very fascinating on its own. I would have loved another book set in this world, but not related to “Hearltess” in the plot.
Although Rebecca Soler does a great job voicing different characters, I found her British accent quite annoying and unnecessary. Her Cheshire and Hatter sounded too similar at times. Her King was extremely annoying (purposefully, I assume). Jest was lovely, but I could barely stand Cath or her friend Mary-Ann (not sure if it was because Rebecca is so good of a narrator of it is because I just disliked the characters).
I think the downfall of Heartless for me lies in the predictability of the ending. I mean, we all know what kind of character Queen of Hearts was in Lewis Carroll’s books, so it was never about the ending, but rather about the journey to that ending. ‘The journey’ failed to deliver and ‘the ending’ was just as expected, which turned this book, to my surprise, into a three star read.
I enjoyed the book, I liked the world and some characters a lot. I think that it was very well written. But the plot line made me want to grab the book and shake it until everything gets mixed inside and all the puzzle pieces finally fall into right places. I am still on the fence about how I feel about the book. I liked it, but I might have overhyped it to myself (I wanted to be so badly swept off my feet by it!), so it turned out to be a letdown. It is in no way as bad as some other retellings - it is well written! But it could have been so much better!
Therefore, I am splitting the ratings as follows, as I am not able to give just one rating to this book:
Plot: 3 stars
World/characters: 4.5 stars
Narration: 4 stars
Overall: 3.5 stars
If the author ever decides to write another book in this universe, that would have a completely original plot, I would totally down for it. Otherwise, I am glad that I only spent an Audible credit for an audiobook and didn’t succumb to the urge to buy a physical copy, no matter how pretty the cover is.
P.S. I am totally NOT OKAY with what Marissa Meyer did with Jest and Hatter at the very end. NOPE. That was just UNFAIR.
Let me start this book review by saying that in spite of every fault that I found with this book, I still enjoyed it. It was a very quick and fun read. I did roll my eyes a lot while reading it. But it was also such an easy world to dive that I can easily see myself re-reading it (although I don't own a copy and got one from the library).
This review is mostly spoiler free. There might be some hints at things, but I am not explicitly stating anything.
This is a young adult fantasy novel set in imperial Russia, in 1825. There is a girl named Vika who is trained as an enchanter to potentially become an imperial enchanter for the tsar. However, it turns out that there is another enchanter, Nikolai, who is trained for the same purpose. Since according to the laws there can't be two enchanters, they have to enter the crown's game to proof their magic ability. It is fight to death as there can only be one enchanter alive.
I loved the premise of the book. It is a fast read told in third person (thank goodness) but the point of view switches to show us what is happening with different characters. Some of chapters are extremely short, which makes it feel as if you are flying through this 400 paged book.
I won't go much into detail about the plot itself. I think that the author did a good job describing the political situation of that time. Saint Petersburg is described very vividly as the life of common folk. I enjoyed that. I also liked the magic parts too. However, I did have a problem with the magic system itself.
When an author creates a fantasy world and a magic system, the worst mistake is to make your protagonists so powerful that their magic is basically limitless. I think this is what happened here. Both Vika and Nikolai can turn things into animals and birds, change shapes and colours of things, control elements, like water and fire, give magic qualities to inanimate objects, etc. They seem to be able to do everything with little impact on themselves. They don't use spells or spell books or wands. They only use energy and that's it.
Only by mid game, and the game takes pretty much 90% of the book, it becomes obvious that that sort of energy comes with payback. However, the fact that those boundaries were not established at any point of the novel and are sort of appearing out of blue in the middle of it was not good. (Also, at the beginning it was said that both enchanters were splitting the magic from the magic heart of their country. But later they are said to be using their own energy which made it confusing.)
When your characters are so powerful, and Vika and Nikolai were almost matched in power, it means that there can't be a winner. In this case the games become pointless as nobody can be called a winner, especially in a situation when both characters do not want to fight each other.
So, what do we get then? We get a villain! Finally a real villain, who is very angry, vengeful and powerful. But once again we do not no limits of power of this villain. Besides the appearance of this character was so "deus ex machina" that it felt very artificial and forced. This villain had a potential of becoming a real threat for the world, and of though there were some fundamental things that were done and caused big changes, it could have been way grander. I feel that it should have eclipsed the game, but it didn't.
Plus, this villain was dealt with so quickly - it really annoyed me. The villain existed for, perhaps, a third of the book and felt as if was forced in and out of narrative.
I really liked the characters in the book - all of them: Vika, Pasha, Nikolai. I think Nikolai might be my favourite, though. I did find the love triangle to be a bit of a tiring trope, and the ending had a very Romeo & Juliet feel about it (if you know what I mean). (And I also think that Nikolai would have been better off with Pasha, just saying *cough*) I did like the characters though. They seemed a bit immature at times and sometimes the fact that both Nikolai and Pasha sneaked into bars and taverns completely unrecognized seemed very unconvincing to me, but oh well.
I think the author liked the world and the characters she created so much that she didn't want to put them into a real danger, which is understandable (I did like the characters too as I mentioned!) but it is dangerous to do so as a writer, as you basically kill any plot in the book. If there is no danger or conflict - there is no point of telling a story.
In spite of plot holes and some shallowness and repetitiveness to the whole "the game is everything and I must kill my opponent because there can be only one of us but I don't want to do it but I have to" spiel, I found the book rather engaging. I am looking forward to reading book 2. Although I do hope it will fix everything that was wrong in book 1 from cultural perspective.
Here is the part 2 of my review in which I dissect everything the author got wrong when it comes to Russian culture, language, etc. I will try to avoid major spoilers.
I made a video review of this book in which I got really emotional about certain cultural mistakes in this book. I might have made it seem as if I was really upset by it. And I was. And still am. However, I do understand that someone who knows nothing about Russian Empire or Russian culture as a whole, obviously, will still enjoy the book for what it is worth. Whatever inconsistencies that I found do not hinder the plot in any way. I just found it very annoying that even though the author claimed to have done the research (and Evelyn in fact majored in Slavic languages and literature), there were still so many tiny things that she got wrong.
All of this could have been avoided if the author had a Russian speaking proofreader. I, obviously, don't know how publishing world works and if authors have the luxury of sharing their unpublished works or pieces of it with people outside of publishing circle (I feel that the answer might be a no), but I am pretty sure it is possible to get at least someone to double check some details, if needed.
I don't want it to seem as if I am personally attacking the author - god forbid! It is the last thing on my mind. I just want to show that, once again, research is everything, and even when you think that you know enough - double check your facts!
If you are not a Russian speaker or know nothing about the culture, this part of the review might seem to you as if I am nitpicking. But if other cultures have the luxury of pointing out everything that is wrong when they are represented in the media, why can't I?
I hope you will enjoy this part of my review too. Perhaps, you will learn something ;)
1) It was the most glaringly obvious mistake. Or rather it is a typo that slipped past the editor and/or author in the final product and it got repeated over and over.
There is a certain magic place that is mentioned as a meeting point for the tsar and the potential enchanters and it is called in Russian "Bolshebnoie Duplo" (The Enchanted Hollow). The problem is that there is a typo in "bolshebnoie". It is supposed to be "Volshebnoie". The first letter is wrong. It made me both laugh hysterically and roll my eyes when I read it first. But that is the editorial mistake.
However, the choice of word "duplo" is most probably a mistake of the author.
You see, English word "hollow" can mean an empty space or a cavity within anything. OR it can mean a valley. "The Enchanted Hollow" as a title for a meeting place in the book is a perfect choice. But the Russian word "duplo" has only 2 meanings: one is a cavity in a tree and another is a cavity in a tooth. That's it. "Duplo" in no way has the same broad meaning as "hollow". The meeting place was actually within a mountain which made its name "volshebnoie duplo" freaking hilarious. if I had to pick a word, I'd call it something like "volshebny grot" (the enchanted cave), but not "duplo". Never a "duplo".
2) The author does a great work describing typical food and cuisine in her book. I was really impressed as usually westerners' knowledge does not go beyond a potato salad (which is not a Russian dish, by the way - it is German/Austrian) or a cabbage soup. Evelyn mentions a lot of different types of food and there is only one tiny mistake that made me raise an eyebrow.
One of the most famous types of Russian bread is a dark rye bread which is very well-known to any Russian speaker as "Borodinsky" bread. The title of the bread comes from the battle of Borodino, which happened during war with Napoleon in 1812. But the bread itself was officially named like this (or rather the recipe for this sort of very dark rye bread) only in Soviet times after 1917. I have always known that but I went online to double check myself - and, yes, the mentions of this bread as "Borodinsky" bread start only in 1930s. Which means that in 1825 there was no way it could have been called that as the October Revolution has not happened (yet).
I am bit on the fence about this one. On one hand, mentioning "Borodinsky" bread is a homage to Russian cuisine and any Russian speaker would know exactly what bread is mentioned when reading this book. On the other hand, I am annoyed that this goes against historical facts.
3) Names. Oh, the names. The choice of names is great in this book! Finally we get some diversity that goes beyond overused "Natasha"s and "Tatiana"s. Evelyn uses the names of real royal family members too. More so, she even goes for typical kazakh names and last names too, which is great.
However, the way she picks and choses who would get a short version of the name and who wouldn't. I think the reason for this might have been not to confuse poor westerners with crazy abbreviations and pet names and diminutives. But for a Russian speaker's ear it was a bit weird to have Pasha (which is a diminutive for Pavel) but to name Nikolai only by his full name and not a short version of Kolya. Seeing as diminutives are used by family and close friends, having Nikolai address a tsar's son as Pasha, but Pasha calling Nikolai only Nikolai and nothing else, made it seem as if Nikolai was addressed politely and Pasha was not. Those two are close as brothers and yet one of them chooses to call his friend by his full name.
If it was politeness, I'd expect Nikolai to address Pasha more formally. But no.
Same thing for Vika. She is consistently addressed to as Vika, even though Vika is short for Viktoria. There was a passage in a book when she gets a formal invitation but she is mentioned as V. Andreyeva, which is a bit funny as she is never mentioned with her patronymic, while her father is and members of royal family are mentioned with their full names too (E.g., Pavel Alexandrovich Romanov).
I would also assume that the servants would be addressing Nikolai and Galina using first name and patronymic, not just first name, as it is a polite way. (Master Nikolai also works, but it was mentioned only a couple of times.)
Sergei and Galina, in spite of being siblings, also address each other by their full names. In case you are wondering: Galya is short for Galina and Seryozha - for Sergei. I would assume that at least at some point they'd revert to those diminutives.
3) The Russian language grammar is one of the most difficult in the world. I kid you not. It is worse than German and Chinese together. I am very happy that the author correctly used almost all words and phrases in the book. Including "Tvoe zdarovye" as "cheers/to your health" (which gets the most butchered by English speakers who confuse it with "za zdravye" which is a different saying). But "Myevo zdarovye" doesn't make sense as "myevo" is an incorrect form. It should have been something that sounds like "mayo" (mah-yo). Besides nobody ever says, even jokingly, "to my health". It will always be "to your health", even if it is meant as sarcastic and the person is drinking alone.
4) "Tikho" Mountain sounds like a cool name. "Tikho" means quiet. But it is not an adjective but an adverb in this case. Or an imperative. Should have been "Tikhaya" Mountain. Otherwise it seems as if you are trying to shush the mountain. (Which I find incredibly funny.)
5) Why, out of blue, do they call the scroll as "Russe" Scroll? Huh? Just so that we know for a fact that it is a Russian scroll? As I assume that it is a French "Russe" because it is not a Russian word that I can recognize. I would have picked a Russian world for the scroll that has rules to a very traditional game which is very important for the country's magic. Would have made more sense, right?
6) And the last but definitely not the least - at some point there is a very quick scene in a church, and there are mentions of pews and books of psalms. I am sorry, but there are no pews in Russian Orthodox Church! You can google the interior images if you want. People are only allowed to stand or kneel and that's it. There have never been pews and never will be. They might be present in Greek Orthodox Church, but not in Russian. Sometimes there are chairs or benches at far corners of a church, but they are not there for people who come for the mass. I have never in my life seen rows of pews in a Russian church (like in other Christian churches) or any books of psalms or bibles. Never ever.
I might have missed something but this is pretty much it.
Everything else was quite on point, I think. I do understand that the majority of these mistakes would have been difficult to research but that is why I said that authors should always strive to get a good proofreader or a beta or a consultant.
I went into this book with low expectations as I never expect any westerners to get Russian culture and more so the language right. But Evelyn did pleasantly surprised me. A lot of things (the historical and political background, cuisine, relationships between tsar and his wife and children, etc.) were quite well researched and represented. I just wish this book didn't feel so much as a debut novel. It has a lot of potential but both those little language/culture blunders and holes in the plot made me wish the author would have spent extra time on this novel.
Nevertheless, I do appreciate what Evelyn has done - she created one of the most unique fantasy worlds that exists on the book market right now. And the fact that it is my culture that is in question - made me even more happy.
Will I continue with the series? Yes. Will I re-read the book? Quite possible. (Will I ever stop laughing over "Bolshebnoie Duplo"? Probably never.)
I gave the overall rating of 3 stars to this book. It was not bad, but could have been better.
(Thank you for reading this far! Now I am thinking of reading Grisha trilogy. I wonder if it is better or?...)
Personal rating: 3 stars