Book Review: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell

Title: The Indigo Spell
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: Bloodlines
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.43
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Warning

the indigospell.jpg

Plot Description: Having kissed Adrian once, Sydney is now struggling with the realization that she might perhaps return his feelings, even as she continues to follow up on leads that hint towards corruption within her organization, the Alchemists. She also finds herself in danger thanks to a mysterious serial killer witch who is tracking down young magic users and draining them of life and power.

The Indigo Spell begins on a hilarious note:

This wasn’t the first time I’d been pulled out of bed for a crucial mission. It was, however, the first time I’d been subjected to such a personal line of questioning.

“Are you a virgin?”

“Huh?” I rubbed my sleepy eyes, just in case this was all some sort of bizarre dream that would disappear. An urgent phone call had dragged me out of bed five minutes ago, and I was having a little trouble adjusting.

My history teacher, Ms. Terwilliger, leaned closer and repeated the question in a stage whisper: “I said, are you a virgin?”

“Um, yes. . .”

I was fully awake now and glanced uneasily around my dorm’s lobby, making sure no one was around to witness this crazy exchange.

Sydney’s proficiency in spellwork is improving, as is her willingness to engage with her potential for magic. These are two reasons why Jaclyn Terwilliger pulled her out of bed in the middle of the night to help her with a spell. The third reason is her virginity.

This is possibly due to my own personal hang ups, but I hate the idea of virginity holding any special kind of power. It’s a theme that’s inescapable however, turning up in a wide range of subjects from historical virgin sacrifices to modern society’s obsession with virginity.

For one thing, the concept of virginity is highly subjective. We’re given to understand that the historical definition of virginity centres around the heteronormativity of sex – (i.e. where a man, a woman and their respective private parts are involved). This sucks for a lot of reasons – anything that’s not heterosexual is not included, for starters. Even within this narrow definition of sex, one still runs into problems, because people have been using the hymen as the designated virginity marker. And the hymen often… doesn’t exist. Or is lost in ways other than through sex. Or can remain unbroken despite intercourse due to incredible elasticity. In young women, it even shows remarkable healing qualities.

A theory I like more these days is that virginity is more psychological than physiological. If you feel like you’re a virgin, then you’re a virgin.

Whoa, I’ve gotten slightly off track. Bloodlines is not the first universe to attribute magical qualities to virginity, and I don’t doubt that it won’t be the last. Even Terry Pratchett’s Discworld makes allusions to this trope by contrasting the unmarried and virginal Granny Weatherwax against the thrice married and happily promiscuous Nanny Ogg. But yes, the idea still makes me uncomfortable – partly because of the horrendous mess ‘virginity culture’ has become, and partly because I’m afraid it might be true.

Ms. Terwilliger’s spell reveals the location of a powerful witch – one who she worries is going after young witches for their youth and power. Once again, she’s pushing for Sydney to actively learn more magic – for her own protection if nothing else.

On a much lighter note, Bloodlines provides us with happy Vampire Academy cameos in the form of a Royal Wedding (Sheesh. Does there have to be so many of those?) Queen Vasilisa Dragomir is getting married to longtime boyfriend Christian Ozera, and it’s all very cute. Of course, the Queen is still in college, but when you’re a monarch, I’m guessing such mortal concerns go out the window. Sydney is attending the wedding as part of an Alchemist contingent who are there to ensure that they don’t accidentally insult the Moroi by not turning up. Adrian manages to create quite a lot of controversy by asking her to dance – a proposition that horrifies the Alchemists, and shocks many of the Moroi (including – get this – Abe Mazur).

Ha! Got you, old man.

Sydney’s boss implies that she’s got to take one for the team because they don’t want to look ungracious (or repulsed) by declining. And so we get our first Sydrian dance.

Told you it was cute.

He was unconcerned. “You’ll make it work. You’ll change clothes or something. But I’m telling you, if you want to get a guy to do something that might be difficult, then the best way is to distract him so that he can’t devote his full brainpower to the consequences.”

“You don’t have a lot of faith in your own gender.”

“Hey, I’m telling you the truth. I’ve been distracted by sexy dresses a lot.”

I didn’t really know if that was a valid argument, seeing as Adrian was distracted by a lot of things. Fondue. T-shirts. Kittens. “And so, what then? I show some skin, and the world is mine?”

The Sydrian plotline converges neatly with the rogue witch plotline as Sydney and Adrian go roadtripping. Their objective? Track down young women in the neighbourhood who might be in danger and ask them to be on their guard.

Sydney finally manages to track down Marcus Finch, an ex-Alchemist who rebelled and has been in hiding from his former employees ever since. Marcus is the one that finally reveals the secret behind the golden lily tattoos worn by all the Alchemists. The tattoos are made with Moroi blood and have bits of compulsion infused into them, making it impossible for the Alchemists to reveal the secret of their occupation to anyone not already in the know. It also makes them compliant and unquestioning, and might even promote the revulsion for vampires that they all seem to share. The good news is, Marcus has found a way to break the compulsion in his tattoo by means of an indigo coloured ink.

The teenager subplot drags alongside the main plot, being neither so interesting as to catch my attention, nor so boring that I’d completely skip over those parts (which is what happens to me every time something romantic turns up in a James Patterson novel). A love triangle turns into a love quadrangle and eventually resolves itself to mutual satisfaction. Sort of like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but with gender roles reversed.

Mead’s humour and comic timing is as ever on point, which makes the occasional hiccup in her writing style so much more bearable.

It was hard for me to talk. “It’s instinct. Or something. You’re a Moroi. I’m an Alchemist. Of course I’d have a response. You think I’d be indifferent?”

“Most Alchemist responses would involve disgust, revulsion, and holy water.”

The overarching story line continues to be paced off well, with Sydney and Adrian finally taking their friendship to the level of a tentative relationship, and with the appearance of a new antagonist more powerful than any Sydney has faced up until now.

“Are we going to run off to the Keepers?” he suggested.

“Of course not,” I scoffed. “That’d be cowardly and immature. And you’d never survive without hair gel – though you might like their moonshine.”

The Indigo Spell is a comfortable middle ground for a series – ferocious action combined with cheesy and heart warming romance and serious character development. And my favourite parts about the Bloodlines series are yet to come.

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Next in this Series: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Advertisements

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Year of Publication: 1985
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.99 
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

thehandmaidstale

Plot Description: In a dystopic world ravaged by pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, infertility is the second biggest problem faced by what once used to be the United States of America. The biggest problem is the Religious Right, although they probably don’t see it that way.

Offred, the eponymous protagonist, is a part of one of the Gileadean empire’s greatest schemes to combat infertility – that is to say, the imprisonment of women of child bearing age and their subsequent induction into sex slavery as Handmaids. The Handmaids are surrogates to the infertile wives of rich and powerful (and ever fertile) men deemed worthy of this shot at reproduction.

This review falls smack dab in the middle of my reviewing of the Shifter series, which is, incidentally also set in a universe where women are controlled for reproductive purposes.

Offred provides a first person narrative voice that is muted and numbed in tone but unceasingly rebellious in its content. Her thoughts shift from scene to scene the same way one would flip through a book one has read too many times already. And while her memories may not make for a pleasant book, it’s a compelling one all the same.

Sometimes she isn’t in the mood for the really tough parts, so she might read to you from a different, only slightly less horrifying scene. This gimmick, in my opinion, works well for the empathetic reader, because by the end of the first chapter, you’re dreading hearing Offred tell her story just as much as she dreads telling it.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been marked down both as feminist dystopia as well as speculative fiction. I find these classifications incredibly stupid for one particular reason: Both terms refer to a vague and distant future filled with horrid things that may or may not happen, and this is a singularly inaccurate way of describing The Handmaid’s Tale. 

This book is Contemporary like nobody’s business. Look around you, and you’ll see the events described in this book happening on a large scale, systemic basis somewhere or the other in the world. Sex slavery? Saudi Arabia has perfected it to the extent that their diplomats feel it’s NBD to be practicing it* carrying on with it in their embassies to foreign countries. 

* These guys don’t need to ‘practice’ sex slavery anymore, because they’ve got it down pat.

Regulation of human rights of women with regards to reproduction? The State of Alabama tried to terminate a woman’s ‘parental rights’ to her foetus. On grounds of chemical endangerment of said foetus. Because she wanted an abortion

Between the Planned Parenthood Bill and the rising prices of female contraception everywhere, there really shouldn’t be much doubt as to whether there’s a call to increasing regulation of female bodies, should there?

The fact that male politicians continue to legislate female bodies (on the basis of arguments that sound like they came out of a Insult and Dehumanization Randomizer) whilst carrying on with their often hypocritical personal lives merely holds a mirror up to characters like Commander Fred. I’m talking about those people who are literally half a step away from instituting a Gilead involving morally legitimized surrogacy cum sex slavery whilst maintaining that prostitutes are still a necessity because “men like variety”.

Patronymics (the handmaids are stripped of their original names and named after the man they now belong to – E.g.: OfFred, OfWayne, OfWarren, OfGlen), victim blaming, male privilege, and systematized rape culture. All of it exists in the extremely non fictional here and now.

(What are our surnames but patronymics after all?)

And the Religious Right is everywhere. ‘Which religion?’ is an irrelevant question. All of them. And they’re all always Right. And the one thing they all seem to agree on is woman’s rightful place (or rather, the lack thereof) in the universe.

Ookay, point made. Rant over. The next rant observation has to do with the other reviews of this book on Goodreads. In hindsight, I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising that The Handmaid’s Tale has a wildly polarizing effect. For one thing, the style of writing doesn’t work for everyone. Some think it’s inconsistent to juxtapose Offred’s everyday monotone (submissive, quiet, repressed) with sentences that suddenly end with “The Commander is fucking.” Others just found it too distracting.

The other notable thing about the reviews is that on the one hand you have reviewers who – like me – see in this book a very accurate description of the world around us today (and possibly read dire warnings of the book eventually coming true). Others are quick to denounce the book as the most speculative of speculative fiction, and state categorically that “Time has not been kind to Margaret Atwood’s vision.” [As I’ve already stated, I firmly believe that the latter lot are completely wrong.]

Something I grappled with quite a lot was my inability to understand why all the characters were so subdued. It wasn’t possible, my brain reasoned, for human beings raised in lives of independence and freedom to bend their knees so easily.

Throw a frog into boiling water and it will hop out immediately. Drop it in ordinary water and slowly bring it to boil, and the frog will cook in it and die without realizing what is happening to it (until it’s too late).

Besides, that’s basically what happened during the Holocaust anyway.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a beautifully nuanced book that looks at all aspects of life under the patriarchy. It looks at the impact on the Handmaids – simultaneously the objects of revulsion and hope by the rest of the community and on the Wives – considered Failures because of their inability to conceive and set aside. It looks at the Young Men who are both considered ineligible for wives (and by extension Handmaids) as well as forbidden to masturbate by religion and on the Daughters fated to grow up to be Somebody’s Wife. The book even takes pity on the Husbands who seem to have it all, even Husbands like Commander Fred who wrote the system only to find, too late, that he’d robbed himself of the twin pleasures of intimacy and variety.

Motherhood is one of the central themes of the book – Offred is a mother to a lost child who is now someone else’s daughter somewhere else in the city. She is also expected to be a mother again – only for a while, only for nine months – and she hopes for this as well. Except a new pregnancy means something different to her than the first one had – it’s freedom from the threat of exile, protection from a variety of punishments, and sadly, a hunger for approval, like a dog hungers for its owner to recognize that it has been a good dog. (This makes quite a lot of sense, because in addition to the fact that she’s a sex slave being forced to bear children, it’s also important to note that the real mother of any children born to her would be the Commander’s wife.)

The book’s real ending depicts an academic conference at least a couple of centuries into the future, adding additional context in a manner reminiscent of the found-footage genre of horror movies. And as with that genre, the reader finds themselves stepping out of an intensely engaging personal narrative of horror into a disorienting context where characters who are centuries removed from the book’s subject remark upon those past events in a lighthearted manner.

After I was done reading, I compared notes on the book with the friend who recommended The Handmaid’s Tale to me. We were specifically talking about which part of the book made us feel the most physically nauseous. For her, it was the scene where Offred and her fellow inmates at the Rachel and Leah Re-education Centre are made to repeatedly chant “It was your fault!” at a new girl who had recounted her story of having been gangraped at the age of fourteen.

For me, it was the moment Offred realizes that the government’s move to remove women from full citizenship made her inoffensive husband happy, not sad. She has lost everything, she thinks, but he has gained instead. Everything that was hers is his now, and she too, is his.

Next: Shifters #4 – Prey

Book Review: Shifters #2 – Rogue

Title: Rogue
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2008
Series: Shifters
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.10
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

rogue

I’m so glad to be able to get back to reviewing, but I’m less excited that I’m going to be reviewing the rest of the Shifters series by Rachel Vincent. As I stated in my review of Stray, the first book in this series, I’m very conflicted about Shifters. And as far as the general plot goes, my thoughts on Rogue haven’t changed much from my thoughts on Stray. So in this review, I’ll focus on the differences, and will try and avoid spoilers as much as possible. Spoilers for Stray may, however, be unavoidable at times.

Mild Spoiler Warning

Plot Description: Following the events of Stray, Faythe has taken up working for her father as an enforcer – the first female enforcer in Pride memory – and she’s doing a so-so job. In the meantime, it falls to her Pride to solve a series of very strange murders. A string of stray tom cats are turning up dead on Faythe’s Pride’s territory. Also disappearing are a string of strippers who bear an uncanny resemblance to Faythe. And Faythe is also getting very strange calls from her ex boyfriend from college, who keeps promising her that she will see him very soon – and not in a fluffy, affectionate kind of way.

This is a step along her dad’s plans for her to succeed him as Alpha, which is something I respect. It gets a little annoying, however, when Faythe finds herself unable to toss around large, stray toms who are ‘half again her size’, as Vincent tends to put it. I mean, sure. Faythe holds herself up to impossible standards. But she seems ignorant of something that actually needs to be emphasized more in every context, not just in the context of this book. Consider this a Public Service Announcement:

Women aren’t always as physically strong as men are. That does not – and I repeat, DOES NOT – make them second rate in any sense. If you’re a Pride enforcer who needs to take down an unruly dude, you do not need to rely on brute strength to get the job done.

Physical strength is literally seen as a sign of excellence in Faythe’s twisted world. Now, this isn’t surprising by itself within a world populated by highly competitive males (all of whose strength seems inversely proportional to their actual intelligence levels). The truly annoying part, however, is the extent to which Faythe has internalized this belief. She truly believes that to prove herself as being as good as ‘one of the boys’, she needs to be as strong as they are, and do things exactly the same way they do.

That is not a sign of excellence. That’s sheer stupidity, because the bottom line is that you actually aren’t as strong. So you can either end up far behind all the runts of the litter simply because you’re female and they’re male, or you can use the skills you actually have to prove your real worth.

This is why Faythe kneeing a rogue stray in the groin is actually a sign of great thinking on her part. However, she promptly ruins this step forward in her character development by feeling guilty that she’d stooped to such lows. Marc’s commentary in this scene is also incredibly unhelpful. This is because he takes that all too familiar, “Ooh, my, an emotional female out to cripple us in the groin, take cover!” tone while labouring under the impression that he’s teasing her.

Faythe’s Pride – and the book in general – continues to fail to elicit sympathy from me as far as their track record in human rights are concerned. Her brother Ryan, who had been responsible for helping the villains from the first book do some pretty despicable things, has now been Caged for the foreseeable future. And while Ryan’s conduct – which included crimes like kidnapping/ abduction and abetment to rape and murder – does deserve imprisonment, this fact only serves to remind me of the time Faythe’s loving Daddy Caged her for not wanting to be a teen bride.

Faythe’s relationship with Marc is another eyesore, because it’s like watching that phase in an abusive relationship where they’re all googly eyes and sweet nothings. The abuse isn’t gone – it exists in their past and their future – but for the time being, it’s nothing but an inconvenient memory. For the couple, that is. For onlookers, friends and family, it’s freaking awful to watch.

In fact, it doesn’t take very long for the abuse to resurface – this time disguised as ‘angry sex’. This is hardly the last time this will happen in this series, and that’s no consolation. Angry sex in itself wouldn’t ever have been much of a problem – say, if both partners were angry and this was their way of working things out. But in this scene, Marc is angry, and he’s taking revenge on her in the only way he knows how, because of his whole I-never-hit-a-woman chivalry code. Marc only seems to know how to fix his problems through violence in form or another, and for Faythe, it’s not angry sex. She’s hoping to placate him, hoping to get rid of his anger in this way. Not. Healthy.

When her ex, Andrew – who she never really bothered to break up with – starts calling Faythe and sending her vaguely threatening messages, she doesn’t say anything about it to her father, or to anyone else. Faythe’s reasons for this are numerous – she doesn’t want to remind her family of the extents of her rebellion, she doesn’t want to be seen as incapable of dealing with her ex on her own, and she doesn’t want to risk making Marc jealous. It’s not healthy, but the part about Marc aside, it’s a common mistake made by young people, and serves as a plot device to help Faythe mature.

When Faythe finally figures out what Andrew is calling her about, she goes to the rest of the Pride with that information. And this is where, once again, the plot gets uncomfortable for me. Her eldest brother, Michael, who is a lawyer and gatherer of intelligence for the Pride, has just lost a close friend to one of the rogue killings. He chooses to vent his grief and rage in Faythe’s direction – by slut shaming her the minute she tells them her information about Andrew. And while her father does point out to Michael that the killings of the toms, at least, aren’t really Faythe’s fault, no one – I repeat, no one in that room, including her over protective father and boyfriend says ONE WORD to Michael about not slut shaming. Marc holds her back when she tries to attack Michael in retaliation, but not one other word.

In other news, Faythe continues to make really odd mistakes that could potentially cost lives. In the final act of the book, for instance, she realizes that the escaped stray from the first book was coming after them, and proceeds to lock all the doors and windows in the house. In this process, she somehow manages to lock the killer in the house with her. I’m honestly unsure of the point behind portraying Faythe as sometimes being so blatantly incompetent.

Rogue was only slightly less painful a read than its predecessor, and incorporated most of the bad characteristics of Stray. There is a basic amount of character development involved, but large parts of the prose continue to be unnecessary. Despite this, I went on to read to the next book in the series, Pride. 

Next Review: Shifters #3 – Pride

Book Review: Shifters #1 – Stray

Title: Stray
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2007
Series: Shifters
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.81
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

stray
I find this cover disturbing rather than alluring. If you have a strong female protagonist, the least you can do is show her face.

SPOILERS

Plot Description: Faythe Sanders is a female werecat and a rebel. Her happy go lucky days at college come to an end when it becomes known that there’s a rogue werecat out there kidnapping tabbies – female werecats. Faythe’s family bring her home to keep her safe, but she ends up running into the kidnappers anyway, leaving it up to her to save herself and her cousin.

Despite my Goodreads rating of 2/5, this will not be a Negative Review. There will, however, be a lot of ranting. Brace yourselves, please.

Stray had me extremely conflicted. I think it had something to do with the combination of an extremely repressive and patriarchal environment, a spirited, rebellious and irrepressible female protagonist, and the fact that I tend to react very violently even towards depictions of paternalism. This last is due to my personal experiences, which have acted as a trigger for me more than once in the course of reading and reviewing novels in the Young Adult fiction category.

So it should come as no surprise that I spent the first half of this novel swearing loudly at it.

At first I thought Stray was one of those novels that you reject out of hand and warn other readers away from. But then I couldn’t stop reading until I’d finished Alpha, book six in this series. Stray – and the Shifters series – is a mixed bag. It has its good points. And it has bad points as well. And not in a salvageable, let’s close our eyes and we can forget all about it kind of way. It’s actually so bad that the bad aspects of it tend to thoroughly negate any good the book might have done.

But let’s start at the beginning. Faythe Sanders is the coolest kind of rebel – she fought her family for her right to attend college, instead of staying home like a good little tabby and fulfilling her life’s objective – marry a competent Alpha-in-training and start makin’ babies.

This hard won right, sadly enough, is taken away right at the beginning of Stray, when Faythe is ordered to come home because there seems to be a kidnapper who’s targeting tabbies on the loose. Now, girl-nappers would be a problem in any scenario you could imagine, but the reason they’re such a problem is that there are only eight – EIGHT! – tabbies of baby making age in all of North America at the moment. This fact is drilled into our heads time and time again, until you’re just about ready to smash a screwdriver into the head of the next person to mention the 4:1 tom to tabby ratio. The low frequency of female werecats being born gives the werecat population the perfect reason to turn their society into an ultra patriarchal hellhole. The women are over-protected and severely sheltered because the Prides are matrilineal yet patriarchal. That is to say, control of a Pride can only pass through the Pride’s (sole) daughter, but that actual control goes to the guy who marries her to become the Alpha. Losing your daughter – or not having one – means losing control of your territory and seeing it pass to another Alpha or Alphas after your death (or deposition). This is turn means the women only marry Alphas, and that they keep having babies until they produce a female heir. The whole thing is so f#$%d up that I’d be shocked, except for the fact that I have seen similar (patriarchal and patrilineal) systems up close.

Here marks the start of the paternalism rant. Faythe’s dad is the Alpha of her Pride, and she’s the heir. Her father’s concern for her is doubly the function of his role as a dad, as well as his role as the Alpha of his Pride. Now, even if someone’s daughter was in actual danger, I wouldn’t be very comfortable with her parents using actual force to bring her home. And yet that’s exactly what happens right in the second chapter.

Faythe is attacked by one of the kidnappers before she even realizes there’s a kidnapping plot afoot. She breaks the guy’s nose and sends him on his way. It is just as she’s done with the rogue werecat that Marc appears on the scene. Marc Ramos is Faythe’s father’s second in command – and her ex. Seriously, she left him at the altar – and this was BEFORE she went to college. Now you know I haven’t been exaggerating the stay home, get married, have kids rigmarole.

Faythe’s college education was something she fought tooth and nail for, and it doesn’t come without strings attached. Her father has always ensured that there’s at least one of his enforcers – mostly one of her many brothers or their friends – skulking around her college campus, ensuring her safety. Which makes sense, I guess, in light of the kidnappings. But he’s always been careful to keep Marc out of the way, knowing how she feels about Marc.

How does she feel about Marc?

Faythe – and eventually the reader – has a love-hate relationship with Marc. He was her high school boyfriend and prom date. He was her fiance, once upon a time. Clearly, she must have had strong feelings for him. And she does. I cannot, however, for the world of me, fathom why.

Marc Ramos is hypermasculine and uber-aggressive. He has a jealous streak five miles wide, and is extremely possessive of her. Since their break up, Marc hasn’t dated anyone else. He hasn’t even tried to move on. He’s, in my opinion, WEIRD.

AND CREEPY.

Seriously, I get that your ex boyfriend being able to smell the fact that you had sex with your current boyfriend just from being around your bed is one of the occupational hazards of a story about werecats. But if your ex is going to get so angry that you’re borderline afraid of what would happen if he were to sniff your secrets out…

Run, girl. Run.

Because that’s not one of the occupational hazards of a story about werecats, although the author does try to present it that way. Faythe believes that Marc’s ugly possessiveness and jealousy stem from his feline nature. Cats are territorial, after all. Male cats would fight each other for control over the females. In fact, male cats in the wild have been known to starve females in their territory in an effort to get the females to mate with them. One documentary I once watched showed a starving female cat (I think it was a leopard) unwilling to mate with the aggressor males because she already had a litter – cubs who would be killed by those males in order to ensure their own progeny a fighting chance.

So yes, cats are wild. But a werecat isn’t just feline – he’s also human. He has a brain, doesn’t he? Use it, Marc. USE YOUR F****G BRAIN! She’s not your f****g property.

Despite the frequency with which I shouted this message at Marc Ramos throughout the series, he refused to get it. And this is the big failure in the Shifters series. This guy – Marc Ramos.

The books are never completely able to explain Faythe’s love for Marc. I mean, sure, he’s a stand up guy as long as he’s secure in his relationship with Faythe. He doesn’t suffer from Christian Grey Syndrome (aside from the emotional abuse) – he doesn’t see her as weak or pathetic or responsible for the bad things that happen to her. He respects her abilities as a fighter and a leader. He respects her as alpha. Good. Good for him. But he’s an obnoxious ass, and nothing can change that.

It’s weird and f-d up, because Marc is crazy chivalrous. He’d never hit a woman. However, he has no issues whatsoever with breaking every bone in the body of any tomcat that dares touch her.  If something bad happens to her, he finds someone to blame, and punishes them in brutal fashion.

So here’s the deal with good boyfriends. If they’re sweet and loving and caring and affectionate AS LONG AS they’re getting what they want, but they’re COMPLETE assholes the minute they’re denied their ‘rightful possession’ – i.e. you – then they’re not the one, honey. THEY’RE SO NOT THE ONE.

So why does Faythe love him? Is it because her father and her brothers and her mother and MARC narrowed her horizons for her? Because they convinced her that the Pride was her whole life and Marc was her only plausible future?

Faythe herself isn’t perfect. A lot of GR reviewers have pointed out her penchant for ill timed ‘tantrums’. When people around you – and you yourself – are in danger, that is not the time to affirm your independence, they say. Survive first, then be independent. The same people also point out that despite her repeated demands for freedom, she’s had no problem living on her dad’s money for five years.
[There was also that one reviewer who was appalled that Faythe was rebelling against “Family and Responsibility” and called Faythe a ‘cheating whore’, but I’ll discount her.]

Here’s the thing about those reviewers: I don’t think any of them have ever experienced actual loss of freedom. I doubt they know what it means to be emotionally brainwashed from birth, to be financially hobbled, and actually, physically restrained from leaving your house. I don’t think they know how that feels.

It feels like dying. It feels like being smothered to death or buried alive. For those people calling Faythe ‘daddy’s spoilt little princess’, please allow me to remind you that her Daddy locked her in A CAGE. For wanting to go to college. For not wanting to be a teen bride.

A CAGE.

She’s not a brat, she’s a survivor of abuse. She’s not throwing a ‘tantrum’, she’s desperately and instinctively reacting to remembered – and potential – trauma. To someone like that, independence is paramount. Yes, even above her life.

Stray is definitely a conflicting read. I get the feeling that the wildcats are super patriarchal because maybe Rachel Vincent wanted to stage her own version of a feminist revolution. I get that tabbies are rare and thus all those idiotic toms tend to treat them like an endangered resource – locking them up. I get that Faythe has to fight the system and prove herself the best – which she actually (eventually) does. But having her date someone like Marc ruins all of that, which I deeply regret.

Next: Shifters #2 – Rogue

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 #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 #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