Book Review: Penryn and the End of Days #3 – End of Days

Title: End of Days
Author: Susan Ee
Year of Publication: 2015
Series: Penryn and the End of Days
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.15
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

End of Days

They say all good things come to an end. I just spend two reviews praising this series and I’m afraid that that too, is about to come to an end.

The impression I get of End of Days is rather confused. For a series that started out so strongly, such confusion is antithetical. And yet here it is. So what went wrong?

We started out with a foundation of strong and reliable ingredients – the extremely kick ass female protagonist, a very good looking angel with a Saviour Complex of some sort, a family that is interesting and unique in its own right, great supporting characters, monsters, mutants, questions that engage with the basis for our humanity and the grey area that is relative goodness.

And then all of that seems to suddenly have rapidly descended into a chaotic mess of vague scenes, and the only impression you’re left with is that of one very abused pair of wings being chopped off and reattached – over and over and over again.

In the big things, End of Days is as strong as the rest of the series, but it’s the little things that let it down. The nonsense with the wings, for instance. An incomplete picture of Uriel’s real plans and schemes. #JusticeforBeliel.

This being a supernatural fantasy novel, I can’t really say I’m bothered by the imagery of the Pit, the Pit Lords, the hellions or what have you. I’m glad there are no time travel paradoxes – that’s a hard thing to pull off, so kudos, Susan Ee. But is it really going to be as simple as Michael coming in to take over as Messenger, when they just spent two novels tearing each other apart because there’s just no way Michael’s turning up? Are the Watchers really going to be allowed to stay on Earth and mess around with the Daughters of Man after just having been condemned to an eternity in the Pit for that very offence?

Then there are the feminist critiques. I like that Ee engaged with the sexist terminology early on in the series – “The Daughters of Man are forbidden to us!” snaps Raffe. “What about the Daughters of Women?” asks Penryn teasingly. I get that one runs the risk of interfering with organic storytelling if one were to try and subvert that term in the interests of feminism, but that’s only reference anywhere in the series that challenges a term that is used in an increasingly derogatory and condescending fashion. The patriarchal tones applied to it seem to multiply by ten every time it’s used, until I had to resist the urge to punch an Angel through my laptop every time he said “Daughter of Man” and sounded like he was saying “WHORE!”

Even when Ryn broadcasts a declaration of war out to the angels, she identifies herself as Angel Slayer and Daughter of Man. That broke my heart a little.

By End of Days, Ryn has single handedly causes enough havoc to cause the angels to re-evaluate and consider her a major threat. And yet, every time her non-relationship with Raffe is brought up, she is stripped of all agency whatsoever – sexual and otherwise. It’s taken for granted that whatever is to happen between the two of them is whatever Raffe decides will happen between them. And this, it seems, is where the Inexperience Requirement kicks in, because she basically shrugs and assumes the same kind of thing.

On the other hand, the relationship of slut shaming with sexual violence and clothes is dealt with well. Raffe demands to know why Ryn thinks it’s okay to wear short shorts and a loose T shirt when there are ‘lawless men’ hanging around, at which point she points out that she’s likely to face sexual violence regardless, and her clothes are completely irrelevant to that fact.

One reviewer talked about how the ending was too neat – which I guess you could say it was. She complained that Ryn and Raffe got it too easy – the Relationship Angst Quota has not been filled. This is, in essence, true. But you’re not going to catch me complaining about it. I’ve read far too many novels wherein the Relationship Angst levels are off the charts – and it gets mind numbingly boring after a while. They’re the same emotions – hope, loss, heartbreak, and great joy when things finally work out. We’ve been there, we’ve done that. A straightforward ending to a love story is precisely my cup of tea right now. After all, why shouldn’t we get easy relationships from time to time?

Paige and Mrs. Young are real heroes in this book, but they rarely ever take centre stage. They flit in and out of the sides of the story, ensuring the success of the revolution and the war, but Ryn has barely any time to spare for them.
I had a moment where my Hunger Games PTSD was triggered by the sight of a body falling out of the sky after Paige and the leader of the Locusts engaged in an aerial battle for Alpha status. But like with the relationship, we get only happy endings in this book, and that’s fine by me. In fact, it’s awesome.

Despite its weaknesses, End of Days manages to hold the story together long enough for us to enjoy the happy ending, and for that I’m infinitely grateful.

Next: Vampire Academy #4 – Blood Promise

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Book Review: Penryn and the End of Days #2 – World After

Title: World After
Author: Susan Ee
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: Penryn and the End of Days
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.27
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

World After_250by375
World After

*Spoilers for Books One and Two*

Angelfall left off with Penryn paralyzed and presumed dead. Raffe brings her motionless body back to her family, and World After starts off on a great note with Penryn freaking the hell out of everyone on their way back to the Resistance Camp by appearing to suddenly come back to life. Spoiler: There was a lot of screaming.

[Penryn is too exhausting to type, and I’ve misspelt it every time so far. I think I’ll just call her Ryn.]

World After sees Raffe trying to get his stolen wings back (long story) and murderously stalking the fallen angel who stole them from him, and it sees Ryn off on a journey to try and find her sister, Paige (again). I mean, well, they did find her the first time, but the angels had kind of turned her into a monster, and now everyone treats her like a freak, so she ran away. The Resistance begin to realize the true extent of angelic powers and creatures of hell make an appearance.

Their respective paths end with them crashing yet another angel party – this one ends horrifically – and Ryn uses Raffe’s old sword (whom she christened ‘Pooky Bear’ in a hilariously accidental sort of way) to kill an angel. This earns her the title ‘Slayer of Angels’ and an automatic death penalty. We also hear all about the upcoming angel election being put forward by Uriel – the only archangel politician ever. The election is for the post of Messenger of God, and there’s a casual vacancy because the archangel politician had the old one killed. Poor Gabriel. He always gets the short end of the stick, doesn’t he? 😦 #SupernaturalReference #SeeWhatIDidThere

Just when it looks like things aren’t going too well for our angel slayer and her boy, her bad-ass mutant cannibalistic sister and her paranoid schizophrenic mom come to the rescue, along with about a thousand Locusts. As it turns out, whatever gave Paige the ability to rip into humans with her bare teeth also gave her power over Locusts. Damn, girl.

Neither the action nor the gore lets up in this sequel, which is a good thing. Ryn is forced to face the difficult facts of life (and no, they don’t involve figuring out whether or not to fall in love with an angel). She realizes what an utter tool she’d been about her sister, what with not even being able to meet her eyes and all that. It’s a beautiful moment in the book when the sisters finally come face to face again:

“It’s all right, baby girl,” I whisper into her hair as I hug her. “I’m here. I came for you.”
Her face crumples and her eyes shine. “You came for me.”
I stroke her hair. It’s as silky as ever.

The humour in the books continue to shine, as evinced in a conversation Ryn and Raffe have regarding Raffe’s sword, a semi sentient object that bonded with Ryn in an effort to stay close to Raffe and, I guess because it sort of liked Ryn as well?

“Have you named her yet?” he asks. “She likes powerful names so maybe you could appease her by giving her a good one.”
I bite my lip as I remember telling Dee-Dum what I named my sword. “Um, I could rename her anything she likes.” I give him a cheesy smile.
He looks like he’s bracing himself for the worst. “She gets named once by each carrier. If you’ve named her, she’s stuck with it for as long as she’s with you.”
Damn.
He glares at me as if he already hates it. “What is it?”
I consider lying but what’s the point? I clear my throat. “Pooky Bear.”
He’s silent for so long I’m beginning to think he didn’t hear me when he finally says, “Pooky. Bear.”
“It was just a little joke. I didn’t know.”
“I’ve mentioned that names have power, right? Do you realize that when she fights battles, she’s going to have to announce herself to the opposing sword? She’ll be forced to say something ridiculous like, ‘I am Pooky Bear, from an ancient line of archangel swords.’ Or, ‘Bow down to me, Pooky Bear, who has only two other equals in all the worlds.’ ” He shakes his head. “How is she going to get any respect?”

First world sword problems, am I right?

The series deals with that particular ugliness of human nature that turns up precisely when everything is at its worst – fanaticism, superstition, intolerance, a narrowing of the world view. And misogyny – gender equality was, it turns out, only for the World Before. Now that they’re back to caveman like times, they’re back to caveman like habits. It’s honestly quite disgusting, and we’re never allowed to forget that the spectre of sexual violence hangs over everything.

It also looks at paranoid schizophrenia through Ryn and Paige’s mother. It’s clear that ever since their father abandoned the family, Ryn has had the responsibility of taking care of her family. It’s equally clear that theirs has been an abusive childhood – verbal abuse, hitting and even the ominous sounding ‘slashing’ (do you want to know? I’m thinking no.) It’s also amply implied that the reason for Paige’s inability to walk is in some way their mother’s fault – although no one knows what happened because Paige and her mother were alone at the time.

Not having a lot of experience with paranoid schizophrenia means I’m not really well placed to judge the amount of research on the subject that went into the book. However, it does sound harshly plausible and realistic. A number of heartbreaking moments in World After dealt with Ryn’s relationship with her mother – such as when the two of them are locked into a police car after the rest of the members of the Resistance turn on them. Her mother begins to panic, and Ryn starts thinking about how there needs to be more space in between them. She begins to bang on the windows and yell at passers-by, asking them to please lock her in different car.

At another point, when her mother displays some semblance of sanity, their travelling companion – a former nurse – warns Ryn not to get her hopes up too high… that “just because someone’s out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid”. Ryn thinks to herself that she hadn’t been getting her hopes up – not really – but that it was still unfair to have the possibility taken from her. Then she gets out of the car and vents her feelings by kicking the headlights in.

World After ends on a peaceful, calm-before-the-storm kind of note and makes you wonder how readers managed to wait a whole year just to finish the story. The plot is interesting and manages to carry the series on its back despite the increasing number of holes and weak points in the story. It’s not as great as Angelfall, and the quality decline is a trend that carries on to the final book in the trilogy.

Reviewed Next: Penryn and the End of Days # 3 – End of Days

Book Review: Penryn and the End of Days #1 – Angelfall

Title: Angelfall
Author: Susan Ee
Year of Publication: 2011
Series: Penryn and the End of Days
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.21
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Angelfall
Angelfall

I was going to review the Sisters Grimm series, but I’m having a major case of writer’s block with those reviews. While I figure that series out, I’m moving onto the End of Days series, which, unlike the Sisters Grimm, is right up my alley.

Oh yes, we’re talking young protagonists, supernatural elements, post-apocalyptic situations, seriously forbidden love… and of course, the best thing in the world – heroines who are bad-ass as hell.

Universe: Set in the San Francisco Bay Area soon after the arrival of the angel hordes, the story focuses on the terrified humans whose survival instincts are kicking in hard – and it’s ugly. I’m talking eat-or-be-eaten kinds of scenarios – sometimes literally. The humans not only have to contend with the angels who’re apparently bent on exterminating them as a race, but also with each other. Gang wars have erupted all over the place. Anything and anybody is fair game. And then there are those pesky rumours of shadowy killing machines – midgets? demons? just crazy humans? – who seem big on cannibalism. The apocalypse, it seems, is here, and no one seems particularly prepared for it.

Plot: We follow the seventeen year old protagonist with the unpronounceable name – Penryn Young – as she struggles to keep her paranoid schizophrenic mother and her paraplegic seven year old sister safe all of the dangerous variables they face. Their escape attempt is interrupted when they run into an angel brawl, and Penryn sees one of the angels have his wings chopped off. I know. Ghastly, right? Brace yourselves then – there’s plenty more chopping and cutting and cannibalism (did I mention the cannibalism) in this series. She intervenes and saves the angel’s life, but her sister is kidnapped in the process.
Penryn then forms an uneasy alliance with the heavenly creature – none other than the Archangel Raphael – in the hopes that he’ll lead her to her sister.

Characters: On their way to angel HQ, Penryn and Raffe (as he likes to be called) run into a semi militarized version of a human resistance which is preparing to try and eject the murdering intruders. Obadiah West, the commander of the resistance camp, is a real hero complete with old school honour and an unwavering belief in his cause. He’d have been the highlight of the book if he wasn’t so badly overshadowed by the heroic natures of our protagonists. On the other hand, the real scene stealing in this book is done by Tweedledee and Tweedledum – a pair of identical twins who double as Resistance Spymasters, bookies and over-all comic relief. Despite the fact that both of them are natural clowns, Dee and Dum are also wild card reassurances for the reader – they’re extraordinarily reliable, and – unlike most of Penryn’s plans – I haven’t come across a scheme cooked up by these two that hasn’t come off perfectly.

Language and Literature: After having recently put myself through a page of Grey (E.L. James) and having skimmed a couple of similar books, it’s honestly a relief to find a writer whose English is on point. That’s not to say there aren’t a few dubious choices that have been made regarding grammar and sentence structure – but they’re very rare, and hard to spot. Kudos Ms. Ee. I know the bar isn’t particularly high at the moment, but you’re a much needed spot of fresh air in a YA desert-scape.

Penryn is a very Katniss or Tris Prior-like survivor. Her ultimate goal is saving and protecting her mother and sister, but when she can save more people, she ensures that she saves as many as possible. She sort of accepts her heroic status – more or less – much quicker than most other protagonists, which is a relief. To be honest, both for the author, and for dedicated readers of this genre, this variety of plotline is a been-there-done-that-let’s-not-waste-any-more-time-rehashing-the-past-please kind of thing. We all know she’s a hero and that she’s supposed to do heroic things. Lets get with the program and kill monsters.

She’s also unlike Katniss or Tris (no offence to these esteemed ladies) in that she’s not a non-sexual or virginal heroine – something which has drawn criticism from feminist critiques, and rightly so. Penryn is obviously attracted to Raffe, and he to her, and the trains of thought that leave from Angel Crush station often wind around things like her appearance or her experience with dating, relationships and making out. And yet the romantic angle of the books is never a tsunamic wave of emotion that takes over everything else and obliterates the rest of the story under its weight. It’s more of a constant, rhythmic presence – a relationship that makes progress without anyone having to have long and painful conversations or fights about it. Like with any crush, she thinks about him all the time, but those thoughts come as daydreams to pass the time while she’s travelling from one dangerous location to the next, or while preparing for the next fight. Penryn never lets her crush go to her head – her priorities are always clear: her family, humanity, and then Raffe, if possible. (Bella Swan, I’m looking at you. Again.)
That she’s inexperienced is something of a disappointment – it’s almost as though you need to be inexperienced in order to be swept away by such an Obviously Higher Being. Why, though? Is it because a more experienced girl wouldn’t stand for half the over-protective nonsense these guys come up with?

Speaking of over-protectiveness, Raffe is continually dismayed when his attempts at self sacrifice in order to let her get away are rendered pointless by the fact that she comes right back to save his ass. They dance a never ending circle of passing the debt of life back and forth, and are – much to my delight – equally matched. What Penryn lacks in height, strength, wings and weaponry, she more than makes up for with her ingenuity, resourcefulness and knowledge of self defence. Much like Rose Hathaway, Goddess of my heart, Penryn has been trained in the ancient art of fighting. And not only does she manage to hold her own against opponents bigger and stronger (and mostly of the male and angelic varieties), but she also spells out these self defence lessons in her thoughts, making it a perfect spot for the target audience – young girls, mostly – to pick up a few invaluable tips.

Angelfall and its sequels make for extremely easy reads – I finished the entire series in a span of around six hours. The plots of each book are well developed and move from one important scene to the next. There is no rambling, no time wasted unnecessarily in picking up new life skills, meeting new people or planning. (Oh, Eragon, you utmost disappointment, you). Each successive book picks up from exactly where its predecessor left off, which was awesome for me, because I was in the middle of a marathon reading session – but that’s neither here nor there.

While Penryn and the End of Days will probably never achieve the cult status Vampire Academy has in my life, it’s certainly built out of the same mould, and therefore a definite must-read for anyone who’s into the YA and YA Fantasy genres.

Next: Penryn and the End of Days #2 – World After

Overview: Michael Buckley and The Sisters Grimm

Series Name: The Sisters Grimm 

Book Name: The Fairy Tale Detectives

Author: Buckley, Michael

Genre: Fantasy; Fairy Tales; Middle School Level Stuff

The Universe: This series is set in present day United States of America and focuses on a small town near New York called Ferryport Landing, where the Everafters – aka all the fairy tale creatures you’ve ever known or read about – live together. A spell placed on the town mean that none of the Everafters can leave Ferryport, and the spell is tied to the presence of the human family of Grimm – the descendants of the famous brothers Grimm – in the town. The original point of the spell was to keep the existence of the Everafters a secret from humans – and to protect the humans from the magic of the Everafters. Other communities of Everafters, it turns out, also exist outside of Ferryport – such as the Faerie kingdom in New York City. The Everafters in the town coexist with humans, hiding their identities an appearances with magical disguises and liberal amounts of forgetful dust (much like the Obliviator Squad in Harry Potter).

Summary by List

Primary Organizations, Groups and Alliances:

  1. The Grimms:
    The Grimm family is bound by the magical spell, and at least one of them should always live in the town. In The Fairy Tale Detectives, the only known and active members of the family are eleven year old Sabrina Grimm, her seven year old sister Daphne, and their grandmother, Relda Grimm, who fancies herself a private eye for fairy tale mysteries. Their motley crew is rounded off by Elvis the Great Dane (best tracking dog in the world), Mr. Canis the meditating old man with multiple personality disorder (the Big Bad Wolf), and Puck, the Trickster King .
  2. The Ferryport Government:
    On their very first day in Ferryport, Relda takes the girls out to inspect a farmhouse that was stomped on by a giant – not that this was obvious to them at the outset – where they run into the Mayor of Ferryport (Prince Charming) and his loyal and long suffering lackey Seven (one of the seven dwarves). They’re also introduced to the four man strong police force (consisting of the Three Little Pigs and Ichabod Crane, who figured he’d be safer from the headless huntsman if he was a cop).
  3. The Everafters:
    The Everafters hate the Grimms (and with good reason, considering they’re locked in a tiny, non – happening town because of the very existence of the Grimms). They blend in with the rest of the populace as much as they can, taking on ordinary jobs – the trolls deliver the mail, and Snow White teaches elementary school. In keeping with the spirit of the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales, these Everafters are decidedly un-Disneyfied. The Beast doesn’t look like a handsome prince, Red Riding Hood is a homicidal maniac who ‘suffered a break from reality’, and the Queen of Hearts – well, she’s pretty much the same. For the most part, they’re an unpleasant lot, although that’s an unkind generalization, as Snow White reminds Sabrina at one point.
  4. The Scarlet Hand:
    A shadowy group of rebel Everafters who’re trying to – as far as I can tell – assassinate the Grimms so they can get the hell out of dodge.

Main Characters:

  1. Sabrina Grimm:
    Eleven and on the cusp of puberty, forced to singlehandedly protect her younger sister for almost a year, and a die hard cynic to boot – Sabrina’s life sucks. She scoffs at her grandmother’s tales (and indeed, refuses to believe that the old woman is her grandmother) until she comes face to face with a two hundred foot giant (the giants in Harry Potter were tiny in comparison). The giant promptly kidnaps Relda and Mr. Canis, leaving it to the sisters Grimm to solve the mystery of who brought the giant here, and why, and to ultimately save their grandmother.
  2. Daphne Grimm:
    Seven, gullible and naively loving to a fault, Daphne is willing to see the good in anything. Despite her age and Sabrina’s protectiveness, it’s obvious that Daphne is more than capable of taking care of herself. She exhibits maturity and wisdom well beyond her years in how well she reads people and she’s not above manipulating them into doing whatever needed to be done. To top it all off, her appetite resembles something that’s a cross between a T-Rex and a Percy Jackson satyr – she’ll eat anything, and she’ll eat all day.
  3. Relda Grimm:
    Relda exemplifies the physical stereotype of a kindly grandmother, and has the energy and enthusiasm of a Daphne Grimm. She’s pleasant and non confrontational, which makes it so much worse when she actually loses her temper. She also shows an excellent knack in handling children – particularly the volatile Sabrina – perfectly.
  4. Mr. Canis:
    The Big Bad Wolf has mended his ways – sort of, and is now the Grimms’ full time bodyguard. He’s silent and seems to always be on the edge of a foul temper, but Daphne’s hugs always manage to catch him off guard enough to make him smile briefly.
  5. Puck:
    Puck is your average, stereotypical, boisterous eleven year old boy on steroids. He’s arrogant, ego maniacal, and an irrepressible prankster. He’s convinced that he needs to safeguard his reputation as a villain, but his soft heart means he ends up helping to save the day every time.
  6. Mayor Charming:
    The arrogant and power hungry Mayor of Ferryport is a far cry from Prince Charming – who, if stories are to be believed, was the saviour of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty… and any other princesses not already spoken for by, say, a frog or a beast, no doubt.
    I mean, is charming really the most important attribute you’d look for in a prospective husband or partner? Really? It kind of goes to show that these girls aren’t meant to be thinking for themselves – they’re meant to be blinded by the riches, beauty and charm of the princes, and marry them without any further thought given to the matter. Ugh.
  7. Ernest Hamstead:
    The sheriff of Ferryport, and the first of the Three Little Pigs (the one who got huffed and puffed out of his straw house). He’s kindly and sweet, and always happy to help the Grimms, despite the fact that all the other Everafters hate them.
  8. Mirror:
    The magic mirror who safeguards a walk in closet filled with magical items, and is oddly fixated on beauty products and fitness regimes.
  9. Henry and Veronica Grimm:
    The children’s parents, who they had believed had abandoned them, but were later revealed to have been kidnapped and put in a deep magical sleep. I’m on Book # 5, and these two are still asleep.

Book Review: Vampire Academy #3 – Shadow Kiss

Title: Shadow Kiss
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2008
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.41
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

VA #3 - Shadowkiss

SPOILER WARNING

For Books 1, 2 and 3

Shadow Kiss is in a lot of senses, the coming of age novel of the VA series. Yes, Rose turns 18 in this book. She also gets her first glimpse of life as an adult (on her visit to the Moroi court), gets an idea of how things work in real life, where you’re expected to bend your life around other peoples’ priorities, and experiences death and loss on a vast scale. It’s almost as though, after watching a close friend die in Frostbite, life is now telling her, “You think you’re strong? You don’t know what real pain is yet.” 

At the end of the book, when she takes advantage of her birthday and her newly adult status by leaving the Academy on a suicidal personal quest, she’s wilfully walking into a real world that is far more dangerous than any of us may ever experience in our lives. She hasn’t fully comprehended the real consequences of that decision (like most of us at our college graduations) but proves extremely flexible, taking on the roles and challenges thrown at her without any hesitation (very unlike a lot of us after our college graduations).

Shadow Kiss therefore represents the calm before the storm – that last blow off semester before the end of college, or the gap year you decide you want to take before you settle down to a life of tiny cubicles and all nighters without over time pay. The field experience that the novice dhampirs are required to take – six weeks of guarding a pre-assigned moroi student against simulated attacks conducted by their instructors is one way this is symbolized. This is nothing, it all seems to say. Real life, for these students, will not be their teachers dressed in black and play acting – it will be ruthless undead vampires who are twice as faster and stronger than they. Failure will not mean a low grade, but death.

The fact that Rose keeps seeing the ghost of her recently deceased friend Mason Ashford is another grim foreshadowing of the tragic battle that takes place at the end of the book. It also opens the door for a new discovery – in the accident that killed the rest of Lissa’s family and injured her and Rose, Rose hadn’t just been injured. She’d died for a few moments, and then been brought back, which was the result for the spirit bond the two of them share. It also made Rose “shadow kissed”, meaning that she was closer to the world of death, and thus had the ability to see ghosts and sense Strigoi when they’re near.

Rose’s relationship with Dimitri also exemplifies the calm before the storm. In the previous book, she had spent a lot of time being jealous of Christian’s aunt – Natasha Ozera – who was apparently an old friend of Dimitri’s, and who had asked for him to be her ‘guardian-with-benefits’. And he had almost taken her up on her offer, seeing the perfect solution to his falling-in-love-with-my-student woes (as well as the opportunity to have a child, something male dhampirs in particular didn’t usually have).

In Shadow Kiss, Dimitri acknowledges the fact that Rose is often far more mature than her years, and Rose comes to the realization that for someone who kept to himself as much as Dimitri did, she wasn’t just a student, but also a constant human interaction in his life. In the reader’s eye, this realization represents a new evolutionary stage on the road to moving their relationship from that of teacher and student to one between equals.

They move slowly from fighting their attraction to eventually having sex with each other, in what is a beautifully written scene that captures the comforting, yet simultaneously red hot nature of passionate sex with someone you’re deeply in love with. Afterward, they agree not to put aside their respective wishes entirely, and discuss ways in which they can be together while fulfilling their guardian duties as well. In what is a well worn theme for this book, it should then come as no surprise to anyone that this beautiful and well matched couple is “torn asunder” (to use some Shakespearean language) by the end of the story.

Another relationship following a positive evolutionary curve is the one between Rose and Christian. Despite their constant bickering and professed dislike of each other (Rose went as far as to try and wreck his fledgling relationship with Lissa in the first book because she didn’t feel he was a trustworthy character), it has been seen in the past that their mutual love for Lissa (and the fact that they’re practically the same person) makes them an excellent team. In fighting Dashkov’s psy-hounds in Vampire Academy, and in taking on their Strigoi kidnappers in Frostbite, Rose and Christian have unconsciously worked in tandem with fantastic, beat-the-odds kinds of results. This is taken a step further in Shadow Kiss when Rose is assigned to guard Christian for her field experience project. Having fully expected to get Lissa, Rose throws a hissy fit when she realizes she’d been assigned to Christian. And yet, as she remarks later, “For the next six weeks, he’s my pain in the ass.” And true to her word, she defends him – not just from fake vampire attacks, but also from rumours and mud slinging. For his part, Christian exhibits an enormous amount of faith in her when it looks as though she refused to protect him from a simulated attack on purpose, and is literally the only person to believe (without her having to defend herself first) that she didn’t leave him unguarded out of spite.

In the battle at the end of the book, Rose and Christian pull off something practically unprecedented when they work together to fight strigoi – he, with his power over fire, and she through her guardian training. They end up killing almost half the attacking force single-handedly, thereby making the strongest case heretofore in allowing moroi offensive magic against strigoi.

History is made in more senses than one in this book, as Dimitri himself says at one point in the story. In addition to the magic use, the guardians also stage a rescue attempt for the moroi and dhampirs who had been abducted by the fleeing strigoi (unheard of, considering usually that their first and only priority is to protect their assignments and do no more). The changing political scene of the book provides an effective and realistic backdrop to the personal drama that takes its centre-stage.

Rose’s friendship with Lissa reaches an all time low point at the end of Shadow Kiss, as Rose pushes the mantra of the guardians – “They (the moroi) come first”  – aside for the first time in her life and does something purely for her own sake. The self sacrificing nature of her friendship with Lissa has been emphasized before, but Shadow Kiss begins seeding doubts in her quite early on . This is firstly accomplished through Rose’s realization that she and Dimitri cannot have a relationship – age issues aside – because they are both to be assigned to Lissa, and they cannot prioritize each other above their assignment. And it’s brought up again when the therapist assigned to Rose asks her whether she doesn’t subconsciously resent having to put aside her own life in order to protect Lissa.

Even though Rose stoutly defends the guardian mantra in her counselling sessions and accepts Dimitri’s reasoning about the future of their relationship (or lack thereof), when she’s actually forced to choose between Dimitri and Lissa, she chooses the former and leaves her best friend behind.

It is a further sign of how much the moroi take the dhampirs for granted that it took a whole year and seeing Rose’s anguish at losing Dimitri for Lissa to realize that her best friend was in love with her teacher. And even then, Lissa pleads with Rose, and even tries to guilt her into staying.

In fact, this quote from the book perfectly encapsulates their relationship:

“She’d changed for dinner. Her hair was still pulled up, and she now wore a formfitting (sic) dress made out of silver raw silk. She looked beautiful. She looked royal. I thought about Victor’s words and wondered if she really could be the power for change he swore she was. Looking like she did now, so glamorous and self-composed, I could imagine people following her anywhere. I certainly would, but then, I was biased.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked with a small smile.
I couldn’t tell her that I’d just seen the man who frightened her the most. I couldn’t tell her that while she’d been out living it up, I’d been off watching her back in the shadows, like I would always do. Instead, I returned her smile. “I like the dress.”

I might be biased too, because this was the first book I’d read that’s set in this world, but I consider Shadow Kiss Mead’s best work till date. It’s powerful and passionate, filled with grey foreshadowing and highlighted by moments of intense emotion. The momentum built up by the previous books does not falter, nor does Mead hold herself back from consistently raising the stakes at all levels of storytelling. If you still need to be convinced that you need to read this series, I suggest starting with Shadow Kiss. 

Up Next – A break from the world of vampires and academies:

Penryn and the End of Days #1 – Angelfall
Next in this series: Vampire Academy #4 – Blood Promise

Book Review: Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite

Book Title: Frostbite
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2008
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.31
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

frostbite
Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite

Plot Description: The sequel to Vampire Academy picks up a few months after the first, showing a new stage in Rose’s guardian training. Running away from the school for two years had meant that she spent the first book trying to catch up with her classmates, and Frostbite opens with her Qualifier exam – one which requires an external guardian to evaluate her progress. As her mentor, it seems Dimitri was able to get her an interview with one of the most legendary guardians around, and as a bonus, this means Rose gets to roadtrip alone with her crush.

Her cute triumph at having scored ten hours of being alone with him soon dovetails neatly with tragedy – a Strigoi attack at their destination. And with that, Mead begins to unravel the clean cut rules she had previously set down for her universe.

One of the things the moroi and the dhampirs take for granted is safety in daylight, as the strigoi cannot be out in the sun without turning into humanoid torches. Another is the presence of wards – created using the same charmed silver stakes that are the ultimate weapons against the strigoi. The strigoi cannot touch the wards, but as they realize in this book, they could very well work with humans who can, and would do so in exchange for the promise of immortality.

Of course, such promises are rarely kept, which makes the humans’ who ally with the undead vampires incredibly stupid. And indeed, there’s always a thin strain of disdain for humans that remind us of the reasons for not interacting with humans.

Another development is the fact that the anti depressants Lissa’s taking are no longer working perfectly – and this makes important sense because our bodies always develop resilience to any kind of medicine, and this is something people who are on such medication actually face. Once again, the realistic and consistent portrayal of mental health issues blows me away.

What’s more, Lissa is now no longer the only person facing this problem. As the medicine grows less effectual, Rose gets into the habit of unconsciously reaching through their spirit bond and drawing the darkness away from her friend. This leads to her having uncharacteristic bursts of anger and violence all over the place, and it’s only in Shadow Kiss that they figure out what the hell is going on. Rose’s desperate need to ensure her friend’s safety is remarkable – and honestly, not something I’d be okay with doing. I mean, maybe I’d take a bullet for you, but there’s no way I’m taking your insanity.

Probably.

A result of the strigoi attack – the aftermath of which Rose witnesses while on her Qualifier exam – and a second one that takes place later on in the book, is that it sends their little world into a spiral of panic and fury. Moroi begin to urge for more protection – a difficult prospect considering the dwindling dhampir numbers. For one thing, dhampir women no longer come forward to be guardians. The reason for this is understandably straightforward – a guardian has no place in her life for family or friends. The moroi they guard is the be all and the end all of their universe (unless they get paid vacation leave, which isn’t all that frequent). As a result, a lot of dhampir women leave moroi society and go live in communities of their own, their biggest motivation for this being that they get to keep and raise their children. Dhampirs getting married are rare (understandably, since they cannot have children with their own, and since moroi marrying dhampirs is looked down upon) and as a result, a lot of moroi men come to these communities full of single dhampir women, looking for easy sex. Sometimes the women allow them to drink their blood during sex – a pornographic taboo – thus earning these communities the nickname of “blood – whore camps”.

A female dhampir guardian who chooses to have a child gives their children over to boarding schools like St. Vladimir’s to raise and train, and Frostbite introduces one such guardian – one whose formidable reputation precedes her everywhere she goes: Janine Hathaway.

Rose exhibits classic resentment born out of abandonment issues towards her mother, and yet she unquestioningly espouses the same principles her mother holds dear. Her challenging of her mother’s decisions therefore end up being typically teenage – short sighted, and not entirely thought through. Perhaps things might have been different if Janine was appreciative of her daughter’s achievements, and indeed, Janine does seem to make a few overtures – most of which Rose fails to notice because she’s wrapped up in her Dimitri drama. Rose’s relationship with her mother is written exquisitely, and is all the more painful because of how similar the two of them are. The potential for a far deeper relationship is right there, but neither of them really know how to even begin to achieve that.

The painfully selfish nature of the moroi is thrown into sharp relief against the silent self sacrifice of the guardians. The moroi reason that they’re doing their part in the battle against the undead – by reproducing with dhampirs to create more guardian material. Following the attacks, the more pampered sections of moroi royalty begin to demand that all dhampirs everywhere be forced into service… and that the dhampirs be made to graduate in their sophomore or junior years and thus swell out the ranks. A more reasonable section begin to point out that they can use their elemental magic to learn how to fight strigoi, rather than sit back and wait to be picked off one by one.

The debates kicked off in this book gradually develop through the rest of the series, and books seem to bear witness to history being made.

Frostbite introduces Adrian Ivashkov, a spoilt yet charming Moroi royal given to partying and hitting on Rose. Having learned of Lissa’s abilities, he wants to get together with her and learn new things about Spirit, which is what he has also specialized in. While Lissa is more than happy about this new development, her boyfriend, Christian Ozera, couldn’t be less displeased.

Christian is an example of how deep the stigmas and biases are rooted in Moroi society. Having had the misfortune to be born to parents who decided to willingly turn strigoi, he is ignored at best, and actively shunned at worst. While there can be no doubt of his love for Lissa, and hers for him, Christian is acutely aware that the Dragomir princess – last of her line – needs to be with someone with more influence and social capital than he does. His insecurities about pulling her down with him surface with the appearance of Adrian, who is everything he’s not – rich, and the height of royalty and popularity (Adrian is directly related to the current Moroi queen, Tatiana Ivashkov, and is a great favourite of hers).

The queen takes a special interest in Lissa, which sadly tends towards criticism more often than not. It is eventually revealed that the queen was hoping to set Adrian and Lissa up together, so Christian’s fears weren’t entirely unfounded. Watching him mature into a more secure and fun loving person, and his gradual acceptance into Moroi high society is frankly a treat, because despite his thorny exterior, Christian is snarky and hilarious, has some of the best one liners, is unquestionably brave and intelligent and incredibly loyal to Lissa. In fact, he’s a male, Moroi version of Rose. Just slightly less insane.

Frostbite picks up where VA left off as far as Rose and Lissa’s Mean Girls style relationship with non royal Moroi classmate Mia Rinaldi is concerned. Let me stop a moment here and point out that Mead is probably a Princess Diaries fan, because there’s no way Mia wasn’t named after Meg Cabot’s Princess Mia Thermopolis Renaldo of Genovia. Props for the shoutout. I think it’s awesome.

In the previous book, when our heroines return to the school after a two year ‘vacation’, they find that Mia, previously a nobody who they don’t recall, has worked her way up the social ladder at St. Vlad’s. She doesn’t take too well to their return, something Rose initially attributes to a classic Mean Girls-esque fear of being supplanted. It is later revealed that Mia harbours a particular dislike for Lissa due to a fling-gone-wrong that she’d had with Lissa’s now deceased older brother, Andre. Like all typical royals, Andre wasn’t too keen on letting anyone know he’d hooked up with a non royal freshman, and didn’t even bother to let her down easy. It’s interesting to see Rose and Lissa grapple with this information and the sympathy it evoked in them, and then eventually decide that they can’t be nice to Mia as long as she’s on the offensive anyway.

When Mia suffers a loss in this book, it opens up the door to forming a friendship which, for them, is likely to be more valuable than all the royal social networking they could do. Mia, it turns out, is fiercely determined, independent (when she’s not feeding her own insecurities about royalty) and a scrappy fighter. Along with Christian, she becomes one of the leaders of the faction calling for Moroi defending themselves with magic.

Every book in this series features a heavy action sequence at the very end, often with complimentary casualties galore. The final act in Frostbite sees Rose, Mia, Christian, and Eddie Castile and Mason Ashford fight themselves out of an impossible situation. “This changes everything” is an oft repeated phrase in the book, but it’s clear that even as the Strigoi change their ways to become more deadly, Rose and her friends adapt almost as easily to those changed circumstances. The final act is decisive in that it shapes Rose and Eddie’s futures, becoming that very real point in their lives which spurred them on in their determination to become the best, and most deadly guardians around. Likewise, it was pivotal in shaping Mia and Christian to be future leaders of the Moroi community. Most importantly, it brings Rose face to face with death for the first time – both in the sense of experiencing it in her own life, and in that this book marks her first kills. This, more than anything else, proves to be the first step towards fixing her relationship with her mom.

A seamless sequel that provides consistent writing and story telling, Frostbite helps bring out the previously unseen flaws in the universe painstakingly built up by the first book and convinces the reader that these may be the exceptions that prove the rules. The fact that this series is filled with hilarious quips and naturally snarky characters only makes the book that much better a read.

Next: Vampire Academy #3 – Shadow Kiss

Book Review: Vampire Academy #1 – Vampire Academy

Book Title: Vampire Academy
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2007
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.15
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Vampire Academy #1 - Vampire Academy
Vampire Academy #1 – Vampire Academy

Vampires are all the rage. Wait, that’s still true, right? I mean, I know the Twilight frenzy has pretty much died down (I’d say thank goodness, but it’s been supplanted by Fifty Shades, which makes me want to go crawling back and beg Bella Swan’s forgiveness). But the loyal fanbase that vampires acquired almost a decade ago is still going strong. The Vampire Diaries is one of the most watched shows on CW, after all.

Okay, I might be a little biased about TVD, seeing as it’s one of my all time favourite shows. And really, my obsession with vampires far pre dates the Twilight phase. I mean, I was captivated by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It made me think all sorts of dirty thoughts. (And yeah, I read it when I was like, ten or something.)

On the rare occasions that I dare to mention VA to anyone, I get the inevitable smirk of condescension that has been Twilight’s legacy to the literate world. But VA, in my opinion, is one of the best examples of YA fiction one could offer to the young, developing minds of those who are still battling high school, blissfully unaware that college is going to be ten times as awful.

The book centres around protagonists and best friends Rose and Lissa, who have run away from their school and are attempting to blend in as regular humans. The somewhat mysterious reasons for this are gradually revealed in the course of the story – Rose believed her best friend was in danger, and her fears were eventually proved not unfounded.

The story depicts them as somewhat-out-there-yet-typical high school teenagers, but their friendship is something you don’t usually find in high school. Maybe not even in college. They’re devoted to each other, and Rose’s devotion is especially endearing considering that even at seventeen, she knows with absolute certainty that she’ll take a bullet for her best friend. As a dhampir, Rose is training to be a guardian for Moroi, and she literally cannot conceive of a universe in which she isn’t assigned to guard Lissa when they both graduate. Returning to St. Vlad’s tests their friendship somewhat, what with the rumours about Lissa feeding on Rose while they were away (true), the rumours about Rose sleeping with random guys and letting them drink her blood (false on all counts), the bullying they face from some of their classmates, hints of a more sinister threat lurking in the shadows, and Lissa’s deepening depression, which Rose eventually figures is a side effect of her wielding Spirit. As a result, the girls are seen frequently bickering with each other, but through it all, Rose’s belief in their friendship never wavers. Nor does it ever occur to her to care about Lissa less, even when the latter is subtly ostracising her from their social circles.

Unlike in Twilight, where the closest Bella has to best friends is Jacob (jealous suitor), and Jessica (bitchy and jealous for no apparent reason), Rose and Lissa don’t fight over the same guy, don’t hate each other for their respective physical features, and prove that girls often have extremely healthy friendships built on strong foundations of trust.

The second central plot driving force in the story is Rose’s relationship with her mentor, the dhampir guardian Dimitri. He’s older than her and is her teacher, both of which ought to have made her off limits as far as he’s concerned. I’m not entirely on board with this relationship, but unlike, say, Ezra Fitz in Pretty Little Liars, Dimitri views his increasing fondness for her very seriously, and – at least in the first and second books – tries to ensure that they never cross any limits. This is not to say that limits do not get crossed. They do, and they do so in a steamy manner that is at the same time logical and never oblivious to the complications that lie there in.

A major theme of this series is teenage and young female sexuality. Rose isn’t someone who holds herself back from random make outs. Cute guys are a major weakness for her, and yet she never truly lets her guard down at any time – as befits a good guardian. It is worth noting that for all of her love of partying, Rose never goes as far as sex, and I don’t even think that’s a conscious choice for her. It’s fully within the rights of a girl her age to go ahead and do it if she wants to, but I get the feeling that Rose is sub consciously waiting for a more meaningful relationship to come along before she lets herself hit that particular milestone.

Which is partly why, despite her extreme hotheadedness and almost insane willingness to get into random fights, she often comes across as far wiser and mature than a great many of her peers, including the calm, sweet, pacifist Lissa. It is also, I suspect, one of the reasons why Dimitri fell for her in the first place.

Mental health is another very important theme that Mead takes up in her series, primarily through Spirit users like Lissa or her former teacher, Sonya Karp – and Adrian Ivashkov later on in the series. In the course of this series and its sequel, Spirit’s backlash takes the form of depression (Lissa), bipolar disorder (Adrian), and anxiety and paranoia (Sonya), and this seems to depend on the spirit users themselves. After Lissa ends up cutting herself really badly, she is put on anti depressants which cut off her access to Spirit and thus the depression.

Mental health isn’t an issue usually tackled by YA, and especially not the YA Fantasy genre. It takes a great deal of research to get the details right (or personal experience, which I hope is not the case, because I wouldn’t wish that on anyone). I strongly believe that one of the reasons why I love this series so much is its unflinching engagement with this subject, and the tactful, sensitive, yet realistic portrayal that has been achieved.

Literary Analysis

Mead’s world building is excellent. Instead of going for either the cape flapping, maiden abducting, sleeping in coffins monster, or the sparkly, sexy, best boyfriend version (not that Cullen or most of his ilk can be considered good boyfriends from any angle), she created a world where versions of both co-exist. In addition, the notion of dhampirs – hybrids born of interbreeding between the vampire and human races is one that I haven’t come across anywhere else. I don’t particularly recall vampires being presented as a natural race either – they’re always humans who were turned by another vampire, who in turn was turned by another… well, you get the picture.

In fact, in mixing the supernatural with more realistic aspects of biology, or combining the ideas of royalty – and supernatural royalty at that – with that of elected governance, or even the juxtaposition of a standard high school experience against a darker backdrop of threats – both from Moroi as well as Strigoi, Mead has managed to find a middle ground between the reading tastes of the undiscerning fantasy aficionado and people who prefer realistic fiction. It’s brilliant.

The narrative style is from the first person perspective – that of Rose Hathaway – but the spirit bond she shares with Lissa allows for the unusual experience of witnessing some of the scenes from Lissa’s POV without taking away from the fact that the entire story is narrated by Rose, and Rose alone.

Something that does bug me, however, is the imperfect writing style. Grammatical and syntatical mistakes are, while extremely rare and hard to spot in this case, like nails on chalkboard to a grammar nazi like me. I find it interesting, however, that I never noticed this while I was reading VA – it was only in the course of the Bloodlines series that this began to bug me. Once I knew what to look for, I began to spot a few in VA as well, but I’m not really going to complain, because in comparison to Twilight or Fifty Shades, this stuff is Pulitzer worthy.

All things considered, Vampire Academy delivers an interesting plotline, deals with black and white and the shades of grey that growing up introduces into your life, with an undercurrent of feminist principles that run through it all, without once shoving said ideology in your face. The writing scripts its moral messages so subtly that the reader comes away having subconsciously condemned certain behaviours, perhaps even without realizing that they might have reacted differently, had the message been delivered another way.

It’s a definite must read, in my opinion, and TBH, it’s hard to keep yourself from picking up the sequel once you’re done.

And on that note, don’t miss the next post:

Upcoming: Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite