Book Review: Blackcoat Rebellion #3 – Queen

Title: Queen
Author: Aimee Carter
Year of Publication: 2015
Series: The Blackcoat Rebellion
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.97
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

I Spoil Everything

queen aimee carter

Plot Description: The Blackcoat Rebellion continues with its characteristic incompetence and worthlessness. Boredom, predictability and frustration ensues.

Previously on “The Blackcoat Rebellion…”

We saw a seventeen year old girl co-opted into two different sets of conspiracy and forced to help maintain as well as overthrow the existing government. Kitty Doe is put through cosmetic surgery to turn her into the doppelganger of Lila Hart, niece to Prime Minister Daxton Hart and member of the ruling Hart family. The real Lila Hart, it would appear, has been murdered by the Prime Minister and his mother to keep her from spreading further treason. Kitty meets the leaders of this treasonous revolution, the “Blackcoats” Celia Hart and Knox Creed – and agrees to continue Lila’s treasonous speeches. She also attempts to assassinate Daxton and fails – in the process discovering that Daxton was long dead, and an imposter named Victor Mercer had taken his place. As a result, Kitty is stripped of her rank and thrown into the vast and brutal prison known as Elsewhere. She then helps the inhabitants of Elsewhere revolt, joining forces with part of the Blackcoat rebels’ army. Oh, and they realize the original Lila Hart was alive and well.

In my reviews of Pawn and Captive, I felt that the childish mentality of whiny teenagers felt completely out of place in a revolution, and Queen is no different. This might actually have been a great premise for a spoof novel – a bunch of brats trying to revolt – but unfortunately, The Blackcoat Rebellion takes itself very seriously.

For instance, this paragraph from Queen

“You know what would be great?” I snapped. “If you could stop treating me like a problem for five minutes. I’m not completely useless, you know. You never would’ve taken over Elsewhere if I hadn’t helped.”
“Debatable,” he said coolly.

…sounds remarkably similar to this paragraph from Captive.

“Maybe if you stopped acting like I’m an untrained dog and started treating me like a person who’s as much a part of this as you are, I’d stop pulling against your invisible leash,” I said. “I have every right to be there, and you know it. If you keep acting like I’m a liability—”

“I wouldn’t if you stopped being a liability.”

“—then I’ll leave,” I finished, ignoring him. “If I can’t work with the Blackcoats, then I don’t have any reason to be here anymore.”

Kitty and Knox are each very good at pointing out that the other is being a terrible brat, but neither can recognize it within themselves. That being said, Knox is actually quite good at strategy – for someone so young. Leaders like Celia and Kitty are the wildcards of the rebellion. They are constantly at the mercy of their own knee jerk reactions, which is a terrible thing when they have the power to command armies. The only difference between the two is that Kitty’s decisions mostly come out positive, whereas Celia’s mostly have negative consequences. For instance, Celia takes a decision that pretty much derails the entire rebellion and results with hundreds of rebels publicly executed. The book decides to make up for this by turning her into a martyr at the end, but the fact remains that it could have been avoided.

Something that does ring true is Kitty’s feeling of being adrift. In the first two books, she claimed that Benjy was her “home,” her sense of belonging. In this book, it’s clear that the Kitty-Benjy relationship is fast crumbling.

“Yeah, but—” I hesitated, not knowing how to put the knot of frustration in my throat into words. “It’s not just that. I don’t know where I belong anymore. I’m a Hart. I’m a former prisoner. I’m a Blackcoat. But I’m not really any of those things, either. And I’m not who I look like. I’m not anything except that speech. And even that wasn’t good enough for Knox, not really.”

Benjy wasn’t always a sweetheart – he shows irrational jealousy at the very beginning of the book when Kitty is planning to become a sex worker. Even insists she sleep with him first. In Queen, jealous Benjy is back – and this time he may have a point. It seems that everyone but Kitty realizes that she and Knox have feelings for each other. Fortunately, both Kitty and Benjy also start to wonder whether their relationship with each other is based on familiarity rather than strong emotion. Their decision to stay best friends is one of the more mature points in this book.

Another point of maturity is the development of the Knox-Kitty relationship. There is no YA-mandatory ship kiss. Just a promise that things are on track for the two of them by the end of the book. And while a lot of reviews I looked through are distraught at this fact, I think that a book that’s drowning in this level of immaturity needed a few points that weren’t taken play-by-play from the Big Book of Cliche.

That being said, Aimee Carter’s love for faked deaths and pointless plot twists continues to burn unabated. I personally suspect that Knox faking his own death was a plot device to get Kitty to realize that she loved him (and make a big declaration of love which I completely skipped over).

The derailed rebellion and Knox (and everyone in Elsewhere) being fake killed was possibly the weakest part of the whole book. Because the story was nowhere near over, there were tons of pages left, so it was quite obvious that Knox wasn’t dead, that the major part of the rebellion was still going strong. I don’t know what sort of fake-out Carter thought she was going for. Maybe she figured that Kitty, Lila and Greyson’s terrible attempts at assassinating fake Daxton would hold the answers for the reader. Seriously, I lost count of the number of times they tried to kill Victor Mercer (the man who’s impersonating Daxton) in this book. Just another transparent plot device and stalling tactic.

I also wonder why Carter chose to keep calling this man “Daxton” even after it becomes clear to everyone that his name is something else entirely. Perhaps it was an effort to preserve the focal point of all the villainy under a single name. Daxton was certainly a ruthless dictator – he had Lila’s father executed in front of her and Celia after all – but he was also smarter and less blinded by arrogance, and might not have been as sadistic. In fact, certain characters in the book attempt to distinguish between Daxton and Victor by claiming that Daxton didn’t take pleasure in his cruelty. But there’s no need to make a child watch her father’s execution, and there’s certainly no need to go hunting human beings as if they were big game. Daxton was guilty of both. He was also Kitty’s father, and didn’t let her grow up in Elsewhere. (Yay?) It is important to note that he also never appears anywhere in the trilogy – he was dead by time Pawn began. The villains of this trilogy is – and always have been – Victor Mercer and Augusta Hart. In light of that, continuing to refer to Victor as Daxton seems silly.

As with so many other books, the heteronormativity is exhausting. Dumping heterosexual monogamous pairings by the truckload into your book is truly barf-worthy. If Benjy, Kitty and Knox had chosen a more polyamorous relationship, that might have been interesting. If any of them had been a different gender, that would have been great as well. A female version of Knox would have been awesome, I think. Much preferable to having a broody male order armies around and put the heroine down at every chance.

Which brings me to all the infantilization. Everyone, including the author and Kitty herself, treats Kitty like she’s a child. The Bella-syndrome is quite obvious here. You know the drill: plucky heroine dares to keep doing things that everyone tells her is foolish – like putting herself in danger without first receiving permission forms from Knox, Benjy, Sampson, Rivers and possibly Hannah, in triplicate. Plucky heroine gets into a teeny-weeny bit of trouble as a result, and everybody shouts at her. What’s worse is Kitty’s internal monologue, which is filled with guilt and shame for acting out. I want to shake Kitty and remind her that she’s the same age as the other idiots leading this rebellion, that they’re all being dumb, so she needs to stop beating herself up about it. None of the other characters do this. No other character infantilizes themselves. YA writers, please, stop convincing your protagonists that they’re in the wrong because they did something “plucky.” You’re sending a terrible message to teenage girls who identify with your protagonists. I know this because I used to be one of those teenage girls.

The over-protective boyfriend bullshit is an offshoot of this infantilization. The part where it’s so hot when a guy gets angry at you for putting yourself in danger. Because, you know, it would kill him if something happened to you. Newsflash, everybody. The girl doesn’t belong to the guy. She belongs to herself, and her right to put herself in danger is nobody’s business but hers. And as is par for the course for a YA novel, we’ve got this over-protective crap coming in from both Benjy and Knox.

Perhaps the most hilarious part of this novel is its take on socialism. While in Elsewhere, Kitty gets beaten up by two or three of its denizens because they’re resentful of her apparent comfort. After this incident, she starts wondering whether it’s fair that the leaders always get better amenities than the rest. But Benjy is having none of it. He is happy with his privilege, unwilling to go full socialist, and claims that leaders will always have privileges. Unfortunately, Kitty eventually accepts his perspective.

But here’s the thing. You guys are leaders because you were born with certain privileges, nitwits. Kitty – illegitimate daughter of a VII, only person to have escaped Elsewhere, brought into the Hart family because of her facial resemblance to Lila Hart (another VII, and her cousin), met the Blackcoats that way. Knox and Celia, leaders of the Blackcoats, VI and VII respectively. Benjy, a VI and enjoying the privileges of being Kitty’s boyfriend. You don’t get to deny those circumstances and then claim that you’re some sort of special snowflake who deserves privilege due to your leadership abilities.

The Blackcoat Rebellion could actually have been a good story if it weren’t quite so bloated. This is a one book story, or maximum two books. Perhaps YA writers like Carter can take a few pointers from that Jack Reacher author, you know, figure out how to pack the action tightly, keep it interesting.

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

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