The Ghost Bride by Yangsze-Choo

Just finished reading The Ghost Bride by Yangsze-Choo – talk about getting your last challenges in right on the last minute – this book is both my 100th book of the year and also my December read for Worlds Without End, Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge – can I just say what a great challenge the WoGF has been – sincerely I hope they hold this next year, I will be all over it if they do!

Anyway, moving swiftly on and away from my gloaty back patting self (the book review being the actual purpose of the post!) I do have mixed feelings about this book – which would probably resolve themselves if I had the chance to mull it over a little longer and really establish how I feel, but – deadlines are pressing – so, mixed feelings are what I’m going with on this occasion.  Although, for clarity’s sake I certainly didn’t dislike this, just not quite sure about exactly what my emotions are at this point (did I love it, maybe not.  Did I hate it – definitely not.)

The story is about a young girl, Li Lan, living in Malaya.  Her mother has died and her father has retreated into the world of opium.  As a result, and although she certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered any hardship having been raised mainly by her very loving Amah, her future does not seem to have been taken care of in the traditional sense leaving her with no future marriage prospects.  Her father’s business has deteriorated, as you would likely imagine as he spends most of his time with cloudy eyes chasing the dragon, and, on top of that, he also seems to have run up considerable debts.  Then along comes a marriage proposal of a most unusual nature.  A very well to do family would like Li Lan to marry their son.  Yes, it’s the old ‘attractive young girl marries into a wealthy family to save her own family honour’ chestnut. Or is it?  Before we all start jumping to those conclusions – there’s a snag with this marriage proposal, just a tiny one, maybe not insurmountable to some – although I think I might object  –  the would-be groom has already passed away.   Now, tell me that you’re not intrigued!

I confess that going into this story I was expecting something different to what I actually felt I ended up reading.  I think I went in with the notion of Li Lan actually becoming married in name only and seeing how this panned out.  The story is slightly different than that so if you have the same expectations going in as I did then I’ll just give you the low down right now to drop those and think along different lines.  This story actually becomes a little more of a mystery with Li Lan spending a good portion of her time in the spirit world.  Now, to a certain extent I loved that because for me that takes this book much more into the realms of fantasy than I ever expected, but, conversely I kind of wanted the story to follow the plotline I had in mind – my bad there I’m afraid, but I wanted to know how this whole married to a dead person would, or could, ever become a reality.  I mean, obviously the person isn’t physically there, but I had this idea of the young bride going to live with her new in-laws and coming to terms with this life and how that would end.  I probably also expected a bit of ghostly visitations – I certainly didn’t expect to spend a good portion of the book in the dead realms.

All that being said, this story is beautifully written, the attention to detail is wonderful with culture, religion, death and other ceremonies given great attention to detail.  Really, the place and the traditions do come to life in this story.  I admit that reading about other cultures is something I love to do and so in that respect I have such admiration for this author for writing in such a detailed way.  In fact, for me, the biggest part of The Ghost Bride was the setting and culture.  The people and plot line I felt took something of a back seat.  I didn’t necessarily dislike the characters but apart from Er Lang, who I couldn’t help liking, I didn’t have a strong pull to any of the others – in fact I would go so far as to say the characters were a tad predictable.  Maybe not a bad thing in itself as this book isn’t really marketed as a mystery story.  I think the other slight issue that I had with this was that I never really had any fear for Li Lan or the eventual outcome.  It felt a little like whenever she needed help it seemed to fall miraculously into her lap.

Now, that probably seems overly critical which I certainly don’t want to be.  This is a beautifully written and interesting story.  The attention to detail is literally fantastic and once I realised that this was going to be different than expected I really enjoyed it.  I think it’s that ’thing’ of going into a book with the wrong expectations and then spending most of the story waiting for it to go in the direction that you are expecting. Culture vultures will undoubtedly find this a great novel to pick up – however, if you don’t want your ‘culture’ quite so liberally splattered with the realms of fantasy then take heed.  However, if you want to read about such things as, for example, The Ten Courts of Hell, give this a go.

Also, the ending – can I just ask, did anybody feel that was a little bit rushed or is that just me!!

On the whole, a well written, intriguing book that I would recommend and I would without hesitation pick up more books by this author.

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

Just finished reading Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht.  I read this book as part of my Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge.  I’m posting my review now because this is my August book and if I don’t get on with it – well, it will be my September book instead!  But, to be honest I think I would have liked a little more time to reflect on this particular novel and I will confess that it took me awhile to complete and I also did put it down for a time.  That being said I’m glad I finished.  This is very well written and certainly captures a certain sort of mood.

Of Blood and Honey is a book set in Ireland in the 1970 during the ‘Troubles’.  The story focuses on Liam who comes from a less than conventional parentage with a very mysterious father.  He seems to go from one traumatic experience to the next.  At the same time the story has a parallel story of conflict between fallen angels and the fey.

The aspects of the story that I thought were really good were the scene setting.  This was a grim time and it certainly comes across here.  The Troubles were not frivolous, a lot of people lost their lives and many families were affected and the melancholy within the book is a suitable reflection of this.  It’s not a subject to be treated lightly.

I thought Liam was very well depicted.  He was also a little bit unfortunate usually managing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I did have a degree of sympathy with him in that he suffered from a dreadful lack of knowledge from his mother, father and priest.  All of the other main characters, in some desperate bid to protect him or keep his life as normal as possible, conspired to withhold knowledge from him which ultimately might have been a lot more beneficial had it been shared – however, that would have shortened the story somewhat!

However, I think I had more issues with the book than I would have liked.  I find it hard to read a book about a conflict like this mixed in with fantasy. I think I would have preferred to read Liam’s story without the supernatural elements attached – and to be honest the fantasy was very limited compared to the urban.  I don’t mind that in a certain respect but it feels as though the fantasy/fey elements were a little tacked on to appeal to a certain audience.  There are however further instalments planned so it just could be that the scene has been set with this novel and the fantasy elements will be much stronger in future editions.

The other issue that I had was that, as I mention above, the author has dealt with this subject in what I consider to be the right way, but, it makes for fairly melancholy reading.  If I read a fantasy novel based on non existent people in a non existent place I find that the author usually injects some humour or snark into the story and this helps to break the mood a little when you’re reading.  I don’t think this would have been appropriate in this novel and so as a result it is a fairly intense read.

I can’t deny that I did struggle to finish this one.  I think it’s probably too near the knuckle and consequently is too grim for me personally.  I would have preferred to go into this knowing that I was reading about the conflict in Ireland rather than thinking it was urban fantasy then I would have been able to make a more balanced judgement if that was the story I wanted to read.  I am glad I finished this but I’m not sure I will continue with the rest of the series.

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

As part of World’s Without End WoGF reading challenge for July I read Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear.  I must say that I’ve been enjoying myself with this challenge.  It’s given me the incentive to pick up authors that I haven’t previously read and it’s introduced me to some amazing books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading.   So I expected much the same with Range of Ghosts – after all this book has received a lot of glowing reviews and the author is very well respected (not to mention can I just bring your attention to that gorgeous cover).  Anyhow, I won’t say that there was an immediate feeling of love for this and I certainly didn’t feel it started off easily but, after my initial hesitancy, the story did win me over and I will definitely pick up the next book.

The story starts with the aftermath of a fearsome battle.  A lone survivor makes his way through the dead bodies.  Temur.  Injured on the battlefield and suspected dead, he now makes his way South to the mountains to hopefully live out a quiet life in exile. We then skip to a different storyline.  To the once Princess Samarkar.  Originally heir to an empire her claim ended when her father’s new wife bore him a son and she became a bartering tool, sent to a marriage that ended in failure and bloodshed.  Samarkar has renounced her royalty to become a wizard. In doing so she not only renounces all her worldly status but also her ability to bear children.

Temur and Samarkar’s destinies are inextricably linked.  They will come together with a small band of travellers in a stance against the evil that is bringing about destruction across their world.

So, I must confess that I found this book a little difficult to get along with to start with – in fact for almost 50% of the journey.  Which is a bit of a surprise for me because the world building is thorough and the build up of the two main characters Temur and Samarkar is excellent.  On top of that we have ghosts, massive birds of prey, assassins, battles and other weird and wonderful things.  I enjoyed reading about both the main characters so it is a bit of a mystery for me as to why I felt the first half of the story dragged.  After all, I don’t need my stories to be action packed or to rush along at breakneck pace.  I suppose if I look at this seriously the first 100 or so pages are primarily about world building and really very little else happens other than an introduction to the two main and a couple of periphery characters.  Personally I think well rounded characters are a must to make a story compelling.  if I don’t particularly care about the characters then it all becomes a little bit meaningless and it took me a little longer than I would otherwise have liked to really start feeling for these two.  However, I did form an attachment, just not immediately and I think that may well be where my main issue was.

Another niggle for me about the story is that put in black and white it’s basically a rescue mission.  And yet, I felt that there’s only a very tenuous connection between Edene and Temur – in fact I thought he had a much stronger connection to Samarkar – I guess we’ll see what happens in the next instalment.  It’s probably simply that we didn’t spend much time with Edene so I haven’t really got a feel for her and yet alternately Samarkar has really come into her own and is an interesting and strong character to read about.

The second half of the book however I felt things really came together a lot more.  The travellers group expanded and became very interesting in nature.  They travelled to new places where they were out of their element and met new people, they also came much more under threat with sneaky assassins dogging their movements.  I particularly enjoyed one of the characters – Hrahima –  I won’t really expand too much on her because it will spoil it for others but I do think she’s great to read about.  I also love Temur’s horse – Bansh – and if you’ve already read this then you’ll know why and I suspect will probably feel the same way!

Now, in spite of my initial criticisms the author turned me round with this.  Yes, it was a bit slow to start off with, whether that was because of the names or maybe it just felt like a lot to take on board at the beginning I don’t know, I’m sure it’s got a lot more to do with the way I initially approached the story rather than any fault in the telling.  I just think I went into this with an unrealistically high level of expectation which is always a lot for any novel to live up to.  However I do know that I now feel keen to pick up No.2 and see where this goes next and fortunately I don’t have to wait for the next instalment which is always a bonus!

 

Image taken from Goodreads

Image taken from Goodreads

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

As part of my WWE  Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge my book for April was the first in Robin Hobb’s acclaimed Farseer Trilogy, The Assassin’s Apprentice.  I absolutely loved this book in fact I probably won’t be able to do it justice here!  For the past three days I’ve been living in this world and resenting all the natural little breaks from reading such as going to work, sleeping and other general, everyday minutiae that have come between me and the story.  The characters and the world building together with such an intriguing plot have totally captivated me.  In fact, I have no hesitation in saying that if you enjoy Rothfuss, Martin and Lynch you can’t fail to love this and as far as I’m concerned that’s some pretty damn fine praise right there.

The story brings to us, and is told by, Fitz (or boy or bastard as he is equally as often called).  No prizes here then for guessing that Fitz’s arrival at Buckeep Castle was not a cause for celebration for many of the inhabitants.  Fitz was born out of wedlock, son to a King in Waiting and the result of a brief liaison to a now long forgotten woman.  At the start of the story, and being one of the earliest recollections that Fitz can recall, he is being delivered, rather unceremoniously, to the Castle which King Shrewd reins.  His Grandfather thinks it’s time for the father of the child to have a hand in his upbringing.

Fitz is now in a very precarious position.  His father, Prince Chivalry is the darling of the country and when he discovers that his actions have resulted in a child he abdicates the throne and removes himself and his wife (who has been unable to bear a child and heir) from the scene.  To say that Fitz was unpopular after this is probably one of the greatest understatements of the century.  On top of this he could be seen as a future threat to the two remaining Princes – Verity (the second son) and Regal (half brother to a different mother).  If Chivalry chooses to recognise Fitz after all this would put him in line for the throne – not immediate line, but nonetheless in the running.

The story is told by Fitz as he recounts events from his past.  The style is linear and each successive chapter begins with the relaying of a small and relevant piece of information about the Six Realm’s history.  The writing style is simply beautiful, it’s not flowery or overly descriptive – in fact it’s just perfect.

Burrich, the stablemaster and dog keeper is Fitz’s first protector and friend but as one of Chivalry’s own men he definitely falls into the category of one of those who could carry a grudge now his former master has left taking with him his favour.  However, in spite of this, Burrich looks after Fitz as best he can.  He’s a great character and one that is very easy to become attached to.  He doesn’t suffer fools, a stern look is enough to put you in your place and basically nobody messes with him!  During the first few years Burrich does his best with Fitz instructing him in his own trade and trying to keep him below the Court’s radar.  Unfortunately this doesn’t quite work out and eventually the King spots Fitz and has other plans.

Chade is the next main character who plays a significant role.  He’s a dark character (the pocked man no less and you can’t help thinking of Death with his hood and scythe .  People don’t see him about the castle.  Secretive and quiet.  He is the King’s assassin and he’s about to take Fitz under his wing.  Again, in spite of Chade being a serious character with hardly more charm than a snake you can’t help liking him.  He’s brusque but that’s just his way.

Anyway, I’m not going to go into great detail about all the characters, we have King Shrewd – and let me tell you he is very appropriately named – he’s constantly weighing all the odds and I think he’d sell his own granny in a heartbeat if he thought it would do the Kingdom Good.  Prince Verity is one of your larger than life characters who stomps around the place with his dogs and is always on the lookout for a good battle.  Prince Regal is a total fop – but not innocent with it.  He’s very cunning.  Basically the characters are without doubt the strongest part of this novel.  They are excellently drawn with past histories and foibles.  Fitz in particular isn’t shy of making mistakes but it all just increases the feelings you have for him.  I loved the way that we see him grow up – but not in a nursery and singing riddles type of way – he leads a hard life.  He’s constantly working.  He’s basically lonely.  And really, apart from the animals that he sometimes shares feelings for he would have no companion at all.  Speaking of riddles – I forgot to mention The Fool – such an excellent character in fact one of my favourite out of almost any book.  Cryptic and sad.  And yet such a conundrum.

So, Fitz is gifted with The Wit which allows him to communicate unspoken with beasts – Burroughs also shares this ability but is greatly against it’s use and this is to be the cause of eventual strife between the two.  The wit is scorned by Royalty who believe the user will eventually become more beast than human.  The other gift we see in the story and which is pivotal to the plot is The Skill.  The Skill allows the user to converse with others, again unspoken, and over great distance.  It’s also a tool for persuasion and manipulation.

On top of this we have the Outislanders.  Raiders who, with their warlike ships, plunder the villages along the coast.  They’ve also come up with their own form of persuasion that is creepy and horrific and a great addition to the story.

Basically this story has everything.  It’s so interesting that even if there wasn’t something major afoot my attention was still totally held.  There is court intrigue, backstabbing and evil machinations that had my eyes bugging out and my mouth in a perfect ‘O’ shape.

To cut a long story short and also because I think I’ve rambled enough and yet still not managed to convey the real story, this book was excellent.  Just go away and read it right now.  You won’t regret it.  At the conclusion I had goosebumps, tears in my eyes and yet at the same time was grinning like an idiot.  And whilst that might not be a pretty sight it gives you the strength of feeling that this book provokes.

I love that WWE, in coming up with this challenge, have been instrumental in my reading this book!

Did I mention that I loved this book.

I’m also entering this book as part of Stainless Steel Droppings Once Upon a Time reading event – stop over and take a look – it’s totally brilliant!