Sunday, May 27, 2012

REVIEW: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

This was an incredibly refreshing, linear and fast-paced read for me after A Clash of Kings. Don't get me wrong - GRRM and his works are masterful in all the ways literature should be and I am a giant fan - and although Cashore can't compare in this regard, the simplicity of Bitterblue and the hunger it instills is something that A Song of Ice and Fire lacks (by it's very nature). The best part was getting to the next chapter and knowing I would be able to keep following the same story and not be left hanging.

It's been a few years since I read Graceling and Fire and while some of the particulars are lost from my memory, I do remember loving and devouring them and have been eagerly awaiting the release of Bitterblue

It definitely doesn't disappoint!

Eight years on from the events in Graceling, we follow the story of Bitterblue, the now orphaned daughter of King Leck, the main antagonist in Graceling (and do a lesser degree, in Fire). The story is a beautifully blended exploration of Bitterblue coming of age, trying to find the path to becoming a good Queen and healing her country from King Leck's reign and dealing with the mystery and horror of her and her father's past.

Firstly I think the subject matter was a great choice for this series. While it does not follow linearly on from the protagonists in Graceling, they do feature, and instead Cashore finds an incredibly interesting tale in the future of Bitterblue and in the past of Leck. The narrative is handled extremely well with some great use of foreshadowing and a lot of unanswered questions that left me wanting to read into the small hours.

Bitterblue is interesting as a protagonist and main point-of-view ... she is unremarkable (other than being the Queen) especially compared to those around her with a Grace (unique almost-superhuman powers), which I think allows us to focus more on her struggle to become a woman and to define her reality.

Her struggle to find the truth of the past among a host of people she doesn't know if she can trust is the most endearing part of the book. While nowhere near as devastating as something like Mockingjay, the sad truths and memories that come flooding in take their toll on Bitterblue and those affected by Leck.

I think Cashore must be some kind of equal rights agenda because I swear almost half the characters in this book are gay and/or are in gay relationships. While you'll get no argument from me (being gay myself) it was a little random ...

One element that is extremely lacking in Bitterblue however, is some of the characterisation and relationships. For a story of this depth and length I think there are too many new characters introduced and many of them are incredibly underdeveloped, make unprecedented and often pointless decisions and are sometimes used only as walking plot devices. Bitterblue is constantly using Po for his Grace as if he were a kitchen utensil and not a Prince of another kingdom, which all just becomes a little too convenient. There are characters like Helda and Raff who do nothing of import and have no distinct personality or purpose to speak of. Giddon was extremely random and his sudden involvement with Bitterblue even more so - and this was the most prominent example of how Bitterblue would engage with others in a way that was totally out of character or unjustified.

Even though it was the point of the story (and probably quite realistic) I felt the business of Leck and the fate of the advisers was still left unresolved. While we discover in vague detail what Leck actually did, I felt his motivations and purpose were still a little unclear - and the things that were revealed seemed a little dubious to me. Many things were left unanswered, but I got the feeling that they in fact didn't have an answer and were weak plot points in disguise.

The ending was a little anti-climactic and disappointing in the way that the great mystery that was the whole point of the book wasn't actually a mystery at all and rather than some great reveal that would shock and amaze, it was more along the lines of "... Oh ...". There was little resolution in terms of relationships, especially given the rushed introduction of new characters/elements right at the end - which I can only hope is the setup for a sequel.

The book did build stronger ties between the two realms of Graceling and Fire, although I did find it unrealistic that two places that are so geographically close could have a) two vastly different systems of 'magic' that are unique to their realms and b) that they hadn't all found each other sooner. It's like Gandalf decided to get on an eagle and see what was on the other side of Mordor and somehow stumbled into Narnia. Weird.

All that said, apart from the messy conclusion, Bitterblue was a very satisfying, addictive read and an excellent addition to the series.

I have a few other books on my Kindle that I am considering reading before I get to A Storm of WowThisIsLong Swords - including: The Lies of Locke Lamora, City of Dreams and Nightmare, I Am Number Four and His Majesty's Dragon.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

REVIEW: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

I have finally, FINALLY managed to get ahead of the HBO series (which I can't help but watch the minute it's released). Like A Game of Thrones, I don't really feel like I can 'review' this book - reading it for the first time while simultaneously watching the series means I can't make a fair judgement. Instead, a few brief (or not so brief) thoughts.

I found that I am drawn to some characters a lot more than others. When it came time to hear from Tyrion, Catelyn, Sansa and Arya I thought 'Yay!' but when it came to Theon or Jon it was more like 'Le Sigh ...". Daenerys I was a little undecided on (after her being my favourite in GoT - after all, in this book she just hangs out in Qarth). Bran was incredibly frustrating because I got the feeling that the large amount of foreshadowing would not bear fruit until somewhere near book five. I get the feeling George is a fan of doing this.

I really couldn't give two hoots about Theon and Jon's story was just a lot of snow and promises of scary things in the not so near future. I'm sure the stuff beyond the wall will get there eventually. I hope.

Constantly switching perspectives did become a little annoying in this book. I felt that it took me almost the whole chapter to re-warm myself to each character and then we are swiftly whisked off to someone new (and if it was Theon on Jon then I was none too impressed). While I think the changing perspectives are great, keep things fresh and are very clever in their delivery, it does tend to break up the story and leave my engagement as a reader a little stilted. Plus, sometimes it feels like I am reading three completely different stories (the war between the Kings, the happenings north of the wall, and the tale of Daenerys). I am looking forward to them eventually becoming more intertwined.

Best character award goes to both Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark. For me Cersei was reminiscent of some of Ian Irvine's very Darwinian characters - demonstrating that well written villains are not simply 'evil', but have a cause of their own. Yes Cersei is a total bitch, but Martin gives some great insights into her character, including the love of her children as a key driver. Catelyn (and Tyrion as well) had the most distinctive narration and the sheer amount of unfortunate events that befall her are staggering. Shit really goes down for the Starks, which I'm sure we all love to hate and hate to love.

Martin's ability to kill of key characters suddenly, while not as severe as that of Stephen Deas, keeps the story dramatic and unpredictable. When a certain Lord is viciously slain in the beginning of one HBO episode I nearly fell off the couch (he was totally one of my favourite characters too -- waah!) although the book version then wasn't quite so shocking.

Events in this season started straying a lot further from the book that in season one - obviously in an attempt to avoid introducing unnecessary characters. The series introduced a whole romance involving Robb which I assume will pop up in the next book? I feel A Clash of Kings neglected him a little.

Next up I'll be taking a little break from the series to read Bitterblue. I'll be physically reading the book itself, which should be interesting after using the Kindle for the last two months.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

NEW BOOKS: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Reading and updating this blog have sadly been put on the back burner for the past few weeks due to some extenuating circumstances. Firstly, I'm living in a different state for work, doing a job that requires me to drive around to different schools all day, which is exhausting (and then teach more at night). Secondly, I am a part time guardian for my younger siblings and have spent the last few weeks getting them a house and moving them in and organising their lives. Thirdly (and strangely) my uncle murdered someone on the weekend, which is just the icing on the cake that demonstrates how weird my family is.

All of that aside, I am about halfway through A Clash of Kings, and it's a very slow journey - usually I fall asleep before I even finish a chapter. It hasn't helped that I still have not been able to get ahead of the TV series (which is so freaking amazing I can't stop!).

But today I went and bought Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore, which I have been awaiting since Fire was released. I really really loved Graceling and Fire so I have high hopes for Bitterblue, which is in fact almost twice the size of its predecessors.
"Eight years after Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea. But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisors, who have run things since Leck died, believe in a forward-thinking plan: Pardon all who committed terrible acts under Leck’s reign, and forget anything bad ever happened. But when Bitterblue begins sneaking outside the castle—disguised and alone—to walk the streets of her own city, she starts realizing that the kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year spell of a madman, and the only way to move forward is to revisit the past.

Two thieves, who only steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, with an extreme skill called a Grace that he hasn’t yet identified, holds a key to her heart."
I also found a bookstore that was all half-price (closing down, big surprise) and so I bought The Ragged Man and The Grave Thief by Tom Lloyd - as I already have The Twilight Herald, I now only need book one, The Stormcaller (and then I might actually read them).