#TheReadingQuest: Nevernight

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I read this for #TheReadingQuest, started by Aentee @ Read At Midnight with artwork by CW @ Read Think Ponder. First book of a series done.  

Mia Corvere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death. Destined to destroy empires, the child raised in shadows made a promise on the day she lost everything: to avenge herself on those that shattered her world. But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, and Mia must become a weapon without equal. Before she seeks vengeance, she must seek training among the infamous assassins of the Red Church of Itreya. Inside the church’s halls, Mia must prove herself against the deadliest of opponents and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and daemons at the heart of a murder cult. The church is no ordinary school. But Mia is no ordinary student.

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Nevernight by Jay Christoff is a gripping tale let down by racist undertones. The story, in theory, has a lot going for it. It has an appealing heroine, Mia, hell bent on revenge and dealing with some severe trauma from one event we know (the hanging of her father) and one that remains shrouded in mystery (whenever Mia’s mind starts to go there she tells herself don’t look). She’s darkin, which means she has some magical powers that involve being able to control shadows, though she mostly doesn’t know what she’s capable of unless she is pushed to find out. To be darkin is very rare, so there isn’t another one about she can ask. She is forever accompanied by her shadow cat (literally a cat made of shadows), Mister Kindly, who appeared to her the night her powers first manifested (the day her father was hanged for treason and her mother and baby brother imprisoned and Mia herself almost murdered.) and feeds off Mia’s fear. Since she is dealing with not a little trauma, Mister Kindly is very well fed.  Oh yeah, and he talks. With sass. They are together attending a boarding school where teenagers learn to be assassins.

Kristoff’s method of storytelling appealed to me. He uses a third person omniscient narrator who becomes one of the biggest personalities in the story. Through a mixture of footnotes and asides the narrator keeps the tone light in even its darkest moments –disappearing in its most violent, which was particularly effective – using humour and satire to inform the reader of all of the grimmest aspects of the world we have, however temporarily, stepped into.  The narrator was kind of like the villain in a Shakespeare play, nodding and winking at the audience as the others flail about none the wiser.

But it was the narrator, as one of my favourite parts of the novel that came to be the biggest let down. As a voice on the outside of the story, analysing it and at times mocking those it describes, it was perfectly placed to challenge the problematic ideas posed by Kristoff’s characters.

But it never did.`

The problem was with the representation of the Dweymeri people, who are described as ‘dark of skin’. And also as violent rapists.

Sigh.

We mainly hear about the Dweymeri through the character of Tric, who is mixed race, with a Dweymeri mother and Itreyan (white) father,  and because of this, rejected and abused by the Dweymeri people (strike one). With the exception only a few, including Tric and another student of the Assassin School he and Mia attend, Floodcaller, who is a violent asshole and then a dead one (who hates Tric for being mixed race), the Dweymeri people are barely represented in the novel at all (strike two), so when we’re told early on that they are rapists and murderers (strike three and we’re out) there is really no basis on which to challenge that idea. Even more so given that the only positive representation we get of the Dweymeri people is through Tric who we learn was not brought up in that community. This style of storytelling leans heavily on the trope of the dark skinned aggressor, and it stings particularly in a book about ruthless murderers to single out one group for being ruthless murderers.

Kristoff does make some efforts to challenge his own use of stereotype. There is a scene early on where someone calls Tric koffi, which it comes to light means ‘child of rape’. Mia’s immediate assumption is that Tric’s mother must have been raped by a Dweymeri man, but Tric quickly corrects her that it was in fact an Itreyan man who assaulted his Dweymeri mother. Obviously this is a step forward, but Mia’s mistake isn’t analysed, she isn’t ashamed of it and the wider context and social and racial politics of her remarks were never discussed at all. Given that the characters of Mister Kindly and the narrator (who I have a theory may be one and the same) in particular were so astute in their summaries of other situations in the novel, it felt wrong to me that on this they were silent.

I also felt like Kristoff had a tendency to exoticise people of colour in the book. Mostly because, with the exception of Mia, he would largely only ever describe a person’s skin colour if they were black or brown – never white. For example when we’re introduced to Spiderkiller (another ruthless, murdering Dweymeri), the potions teacher at the Assassin’s Hogwarts, she is described like this: “Her saltlocks were intricate. Immaculate. Her skin was the dark, polished walnut of the Dweymeri..” where as one of Mia’s best friends is simply called “brunette.” Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset that Kristoff neglected to describe white skin as such, but I felt like this practise served to other people of colour, and as I said, exoticise. To not describe someone as white in this scenario, felt like the reader was supposed to assume they were, which creates a situation in which whiteness is necessarily considered the norm, and anything else other. So. Freaking. Problematic.

I would like to think that as the series progresses, Kristoff will break down the stereotypes he has introduced in the first novel and reveal them for the ignorance they truly are. But, seeing as by the end of the novel we are down yet another Dweymeri, I sort of doubt it.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

She annihilates standardized tests and the bad guys. Genie Lo is among droves of ivy-hopeful overachievers in her sleepy Bay Area suburb. You know, the type who wins. When she’s not crushing it at volleyball or hitting the books, Genie is typically working on how to crack the elusive Harvard entry code.

But when her hometown comes under siege from hellspawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are dramatically rearranged. Enter Quentin Sun, a mysterious new kid in class who becomes Genie’s self-appointed guide to battling demons. While Genie knows Quentin only as an attractive transfer student with an oddly formal command of the English language, in another reality he is Sun Wukong, the mythological Monkey King incarnate – right down to the furry tail and penchant for peaches.

Suddenly, acing the SATs is the least of Genie’s worries. The fates of her friends, family and the entire Bay Area all depend on her summoning an inner power that Quentin assures her is strong enough to level the gates of Heaven. But every second Genie spends tapping into the secret of her true nature is a second in which the lives of her loved ones hang in the balance.

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The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee is a DELIGHTFUL book. It’s an action packed, romantic, relatable and funny read – giggling to myself on the bus level funny – driven by Chinese folklore.

‘“Go ahead,” I said, groping behind me for any heavy, hard object I could find to clock him with. “Tell me your real name and we’ll see if that makes it all better.”

Quentin took a deep breath.

“My true name,” he said, “…is SUN WUKONG.”

A cold wind passed through the open window, rustling my loose papers like tumbleweed.

“I have no idea who that is,” I said.’

I have for a long time been a huge fan of epic stories of saving the world told within the boundaries of a domestic setting. In a genre overflowing with tragically dispatched parents and groups of feral teenagers, a character who has to save the world from the rabid demon horde and get home before curfew? That’s an interesting story.

And Genie Lo is a fantastic main character. She is a joy to read, with Yee deftly avoiding all of the stereotypical and trope-ish behaviours so often displayed in characters with Genie’s snowflake status. She is, as Quentin puts it, unquestionably, undeniably human, just with a whole bunch of other stuff going on as well. The ‘stuff’ sometimes being finding out that she is the reincarnated physical form of a stick Quentin used to fight demons with, and other times, figuring out how to have a relationship with both of her parents after their bitter divorce.

She also defies many gender and racial stereotypes. Genie is a hot tempered lady, and, for better or worse, not above punching an asshole in the face every once and a while. In Western culture, which is flooded with negative representations of Asian women as passive sex objects, Genie’s self-directed narrative is a refreshing and necessary one.

I found Yee’s focus on Genie’s body to be super interesting also. It is emphasised throughout that Genie is a big girl – she describes herself as ‘monstrously tall’. This puts Genie’s appearance at odds with the ideal of the tiny, stick thin Chinese woman her body shaming mother makes it clear she thinks that Genie should be.

Additionally, Yee makes a point of Genie being much taller than her love interest, Quentin. That this was something of a revolutionary move is a testament to how fucked up our body image is as a society, but whatever. It was. And guess what, all of those girls out there who have staunchly declared they would never date a guy shorter than them (me included)? It affected nothing. I was shipping as hard as ever. Obviously.

Yee makes it more and more apparent as the story develops that Genie’s big body is for the benefit of her badass, demon slaying self. There is a point, fairly early on in the novel when Genie discovers that she can in fact grow herself to whatever size is needed for the purposes of demon slaying. Initially, she is totally ashamed and embarrassed by this development. Getting bigger is literally the opposite of what she wants for herself. But, as the narrative progresses, Genie embraces and starts to appreciate her body, something that is shown in the final battle of the novel where she deliberately grows her physical self to gigantic proportions in order to defeat her adversary. In a culture where women are taught to take up as little space as possible, with Asian women suffering from this in particular, it was such an empowering and, as the title would suggest, EPIC, moment.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is a wonderful example of a YA novel. Genie and her supporting cast leap off the page, and their adventures swept me along so fast I finished this book in only a couple of sittings. It 100% lives up to the hype.

#TheReadingQuest: My first read-a-thon ever!

You should know that when I typed the title of this blog, I wrote read-a-ton by accident. All artwork in this post by the talented and awesome CW @ Read Think Ponder. Obviously you know her already, but if by any chance you don’t (where have you been?!), go check her out.

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MAGE: As wielders of spells and witchcraft, these players will conjure and summon their way through the First Down path on the quest. Their tomes contain magic and whispers of alternate lands.

I have never participated in a read-a-thon before. I’m not the fastest reader (because of Netflix and an unfortunate habit of falling asleep on the bus, where the vast majority of my reading takes place) and the thought of FAILURE gave me anxiety, so I just never tried it story of my life.

But then Aentee @ Read At Midnight launched The Reading Quest with GORGEOUS artwork by CW @ Read Think Ponder and I decided I was IN. Then… sat on the decision for a week and tried to talk myself out of it.

But it didn’t work. I can be very stubborn when I want to be.

So. It’s happening. And I am determined to succeed despite the following challenges:

MAJOR CHALLENGE 1: The Defenders comes out in a week. I will binge watch. I can’t control that fact, nor do I wish to.

MAJOR CHALLENGE 2: Previously mentioned falling asleep on the bus issue.

MAJOR CHALLENGE 3: I am currently bookless for 3 of my 5 squares.

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So far I have –

First book of a series: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff. Boxes of free books arrive at my work from time to time (#blessed), and this was one of them. Tbh, I’m not super excited about it, but hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

A book set in a different world: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. I picked up this book last year and for whatever reason haven’t gotten to it yet. I don’t actually know what it’s about, but it says ‘strange and other worldly creatures’ on the back, so I’m assuming it’ll be right for this challenge.

That leaves me needing a book based on mythology, a book that contains magic and a book with a one word title. Any suggestions? I’m thinking I am going to order Want by Cindy Pon for that last one.

Though I’m nervous, I’m really excited for this challenge. As I have mentioned a few times, I don’t read much in the way of fantasy, so I think this’ll be a good opportunity to me to expand my reading.

Are you participating in #TheReadingQuest? Which character did you choose?

If you have no idea what I’m talking about (again, where have you been?!), and would like more information, visit Aentee’s blog for the rules. The deadline for signing up is this Sunday.

 

 

The Upside of Unrequited

Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love. No matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly is always careful. Better to be careful than hurt.

But when Cassie gets a new girlfriend who comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick, everything changes. Will is funny, flirtatious and basically the perfect first boyfriend.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s co-worker, Reid, the awkward Tolkien superfan she could never fall for… right?  

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The Upside of Unrequited is an adorable, bitter-sweet story of first love, change and marriage equality. Fans of Simon VS The Homo Sapiens Agenda won’t be disappointed by Becky Albertalli’s follow up. Like its predecessor, it aims straight for the heart.

And oh my god does it meet its target. It took me right back to being seventeen, and the last boyfriendless nerd girl standing. I wanted to call up Albertalli and ask why she couldn’t have written this seven years ago (yes, I am old) because seventeen-year-old me would really have appreciated it.

The Upside of Unrequited is the quintessential contemporary young adult novel. Molly is obsessed with the worlds of love and sex she has not yet experienced for herself, but through the constant presence of both in movies, books and her home – her moms are super in love and get engaged toward the beginning of the story – she feels like she knows it.

But actually putting it into practise? Molly can’t think of anything more terrifying. It doesn’t help that in all those movies the girls are skinny, which Molly certainly isn’t.

Can we just take a moment and appreciate a fat bodied girl in a YA novel, please? I can’t be the only one fed up of YA girls who mysteriously almost all describe themselves as ‘too skinny’ (I know some people feel this way, and I’m not shaming them for it, just acknowledging that those people perhaps aren’t a majority, as many books would have us believe…). Molly’s insecurities about her body are present throughout the story in a way that felt very authentic. She’s always pulling on a cardigan to hide the parts of herself she feels self-conscious about. In one of the most anger-inducing scenes in the novel, a boy at a party tells Molly that she’s “pretty for a fat girl”. Conversely, in one of the best scenes, after pulling on her wedding outfit she realises she’s hot AF in a dress that makes her look “fat on purpose”, which in a world where we’re forever being told to buy clothes that are ‘slimming’, felt very empowering.

This scene where Molly feels fat and beautiful is emblematic of much of the writing in the novel. It’s a cute contemporary giving some serious side eye to outdated ideas of what love is, what family is and what people should look like. It has a diverse cast of characters – Molly has two moms in a mixed race relationship and was born via a sperm donor – and felt, like Radio Silence, so refreshing to read.

The Upside of Unrequited, though undeniably sweet and charming, also packs an emotional punch. It’s about change, growing up, and, inevitably, away from the people you’ve been closest to all your life. Molly spends much of the book trying to resolve the idea that the relationship she has always had with her sister will change as they head into hopefully parallel, but also different futures. She tries to cling onto the past in a way that only pushes the people she wants closest, namely her twin sister, Cassie, away. Albertalli beautifully illustrates the unique pain we experience when our priorities change at different rates than those closest to us.

In this sense, though it’s somewhat on the younger end of the YA spectrum, The Upside of Unrequited totally appealed to me as an older reader. The sweeping changes that start at the end of your teens go on (at least, in my experience) to become your new normal as you progress into your twenties. As such, there was something in the irrepressible optimism that is the heart of this novel that I found deeply comforting.

I highly recommend it.

Radio Silence

TRIGGER WARNING: There is an emotionally abusive parent in this book.

What if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong?

Frances is a study machine with one goal. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside. Then Frances meets Aled, and for the first time she’s unafraid to be herself.

So when the fragile trust between them is broken, Frances is caught between who she was and who she longs to be. Now Frances knows that she has to confront her past. To confess why Carys disappeared.

Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has.

Engaging with themes of identity, diversity and the freedom to choose, Radio Silence is a tour de force by the most exciting writer of her generation.

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Radio Silence by Alice Oseman is a complicated world of inclusivity, art, heartbreak and abuse wrapped up in one of the most compelling coming-of-age stories I have read in a long time.

Can I be super honest about something? When I opened the book and read that Oseman is only 21-years-old, I wanted to hate Radio Silence. The fact of her set every alarm bell in my head screaming: FAILURE. But then I remembered that thing I read somewhere that said everybody is on their own timeline, and tried very hard to put it to the back of my mind. Like I have to do every time I read something written by Tavi Gevinson. Sometimes you have to love the thing more than the thing makes you feel bad about yourself, because if I had decided not to read this book, I would have missed out.

Radio Silence is a character driven contemporary that rejects the heteronormativity and romance that dominates the genre. It presents us with a familiar situation: outcast girl meets outcast boy, sets the scene for what we expect to be yet another epic teen romance and then denies us. Frances explains it best: “You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl. I just wanted to say – We don’t. That’s all.”

Oseman does this throughout the novel: she acknowledges our assumptions – of straightness and whiteness, etc – gives them some serious side eye, and then blasts past them in order to let her characters be their fully expressed selves.

This rejection of ‘traditional’ narrative is also apparent in the writing itself. Radio Silence is a book concerned with options and with identity and even the structure of the book demonstrates this. Each part of the novel is identified with a school term and that term is then separated into parts a, b, and c. It reminded me of an exam, where you get to choose whether to answer question a, b or c and was reflective of the way in which Frances, Aled and their friends were choosing which life to lead: one where they lived up to the expectations of their parents/themselves, one where they lived in the way they wanted to while appearing to live up to expectations of their parents/themselves, or one where they threw it all out the window and instead decided to live a life they really truly wanted.

Radio Silence also engages with online culture in a very authentic and satisfying way. The book is set around a Welcome To Nightvale-style podcast that Aled and Frances work on together, and through that story, Oseman analyses the positives and negatives of online life, particularly for those who have gained a following. On the one hand, we see a space where people get to express themselves and their identities in a way they might not be comfortable to do at school – Universe City, Aled Last’s podcast has a gender neutral narrator – but on the other, a world in which people receive death threats by strangers who have decided their identity is offensive. Oseman presents a volatile space and asks us to see the positive in it. After receiving a death threat, Aled tells his boyfriend that he’s demi-sexual, an identity he learned of online and that opened up an understanding of himself he had never had before. Negative offset by positive.

It’s an empowering read that resists tropes at every step from its dissection of the joys and heartbreak of platonic love to its unique take on intelligence in all its forms. You will finish Radio Silence with a little bit more hope than when you started.

The Shadow Cabinet

Seventeen-year-old Rory’s life as she knows it is gone. Heartbroken, shaken and feeling more alone than ever, she can’t see how she can pick herself up and carry on as before. But something horrifying is stirring beneath London, and only Rory can stop it.

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By the beginning of The Shadow Cabinet, shit has really hit the fan. Callum is gone, Boo is running around the hospital trying to find the ghost of Stephen, meanwhile Rory stands vigil next to the body of Stephen wondering, among other things, what the hell happened to her life.

Maureen Johnson really knows how to keep a reader on their toes.

So, let’s review: after choking on some stew and getting the power to see ghosts, Rory is stalked and nearly murdered by ghost of Jack the Ripper-alike. Then, after being blown up by a terminus (a ghost gun, of sorts), she becomes one, meaning she can dispatch ghosts with a touch. While in therapy over all this, Rory’s therapist – who, as it turns out is the leader of a supernatural cult – tries to kidnap her to harness the power of the terminus for as yet unknown purposes. Stephen saves her, getting what turns out to be a fatal head wound in the process. And the night before Stephen died, he and Rory totally made out, finally.

If The Madness Underneath was about choices, then The Shadow Cabinet is all about consequences. Rory chose the ghost police over regular life. She got kicked out of Wexford then she ran away. There’s no turning back now. No contact with her parents, a new look to disguise her from the people who are looking from her (she’s a redhead now and I can only assume she looks great) and a new home with Thorpe, the creepy secret agent who turned out to be an okay guy.

The Shadow Cabinet is such an effective read because it’s a complete shake up of the status quo. All of the places and people Rory has spent her time with are gone now, along with any pretence that she’s going to have a normal life. Stephen, who has been the leader throughout is gone (at least for now) and the team have to figure out how to direct themselves without him. The thing simmering between him and Rory that was unspoken for so much of the first two books comes to the forefront. They’re in love, and Stephen being dead is only one of the things that makes their relationship complicated.

The supernatural landscape of London widens massively throughout this book – reality, as Rory has previously known it, is all but abandoned completely. In #3 we leave the muggles behind: ghosts get more complicated, the barriers between life and death get increasingly blurred and it turns out there are more secret ghost jobs than the ghost police.

All of which is to say… hopefully the final book will come out soon. Johnson has the first in a new series, Truly Devious coming out in January. Though I’m sure it’ll be great… I really would have preferred the final Shades book. I am way too invested in Rory and Stephen not to find out how it ends.

 

 

The Madness Underneath

Surviving a near fatal attack by a ghostly killer will leave its mark. Seventeen-year-old Rory Deveaux has painful scars and deadly new powers at her fingertips. But without her secret ghost-fighting squad she feels brutally alone. She’s lying to her boyfriend, failing in class and, worse still, Rory fears that a terrifying horror stalks the streets of London.

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Turns out you can’t just deal with the ghost of Fake Jack the Ripper and be done with the spirit hunting scene. The Madness Underneath, book #2 in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, finds Rory recuperating post-stabbing with her parents in Bristol (another British city, if you were wondering). After being pushed to sign the official secrets act in her hospital bed and removed from Wexford by her obviously traumatised parents, Rory has lost her only connections to her spiritual side: Stephen, Boo and Callum are incommunicado, and when – despite warnings not to from creepy government agents – Rory attempts to contact Stephen at his home, she finds that he, along with Callum and Boo, has vanished.

The first few chapters of The Madness Underneath have the feeling of 4 Privet Drive over the summer: nothing is going to happen until Rory goes back to boarding school. Which she does, weirdly, after the therapist she refuses to talk to decides to send her back to Wexford in a highly suspicious move.

#2 is a book of highly suspicious moves. But, honestly, when you’re trying to deal with the emotional trauma of your attempted murder by a ghost, as Rory is, you’re really too distracted by the simple tasks of getting through the day to worry about what your sketchy therapist(s) are up to.  

If I learned anything from this book, it’s to pay attention to what your sketchy therapist is up to.

The Madness Underneath retains all the best elements of The Name of the Star. Rory, though much changed from the beginning of the first book, continues to be witty and indomitably herself, even as she comes to terms with the crazy turn her life has taken. Johnson maintains the interjections of third person narrative, many of them even more gory and chilling than before. Despite a slight tonal change – I would say that the sequel is definitely darker – The Madness Underneath avoids all of the worst second book mistakes. The plot is pacey and has a strong sense of direction throughout, even when we’re unsure where, exactly, it’s taking us. I never once asked: why am I reading this? a question I regularly find myself pondering during book #2 of a YA series.

If the first book was part cute contemporary, part murder mystery then The Madness Underneath is emotional trauma with a side of how to avoid joining a cult.

We see the life at Wexford Rory had started to build slipping through her fingers. Her grades are bad, she’s lying to everyone and ghosts keep distracting her when she’s trying to make out with her boyfriend. I think we’ve all had the experience of feeling disconnected from our lives, like we are an audience member to our own fuck-ups, able to do nothing but sit and watch while the life we thought we wanted crashes and burns. At this point in the story, Rory is at a crossroads. She can either try and put the Ripper business behind her and get on with her life, or she can throw it all away and embrace the ghost hunter life completely.

Also, in book #2, Johnson takes the ships to the next level. Something I really appreciate in all Johnson’s books, is that the first guy is very rarely the guy. Though Jerome is cute and all, and maybe if Rory hadn’t choked on her dinner and developed the ability to see ghosts they would have worked out (though I doubt it), throughout the series so far Rory’s life has changed into a shape that Jerome simply doesn’t fit.

Stephen, on the other hand…

Oh, Stephen. Protective, but emotionally unavailable Stephen.

It is a truth of growing up that quite a lot of the people you spent your younger years with were just your friends/romantic partners because they were there. You had school in common, and when you’re a kid that is pretty much the entire world. Then something happens – maybe you get really into kayaking or socialism, or you develop the ability to see the dead – and suddenly a new influx of people enter your life who you bond with like you never have before.

This is why I love paranormal YA. Through all the insanity, there is a core relatability to the characters that draws me in every time.

So: We have ghost hunting, breakups, ships and creepy government agents who might actually be okay people. What more could you want? Other than book #3, obviously.