Book Review: Discworld #3 – Equal Rites

Title: Equal Rites
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1987
Series: Discworld; Witches
#: 3; 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.99
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Spoilers for a whole bunch of Discworld books.

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Plot Description: Drum Billet, a wizard who is about to die,  follows the wisdom of his staff, attempting to find his successor. Wizards are generally the eighth sons of an eighth son, and in the village of Bad Ass, up in the Ramtop mountains, an eighth child is being born to an eighth son. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Drum Billet’s staff is of a particularly progressive bend of mind, and the child he leads Billet to is a daughter, not a son. It is thus that Eskarina Smith becomes destined to be a wizard.

“You’ve given the world its first female wizard,” said the midwife. “Whosa itsywitsy, den?”
“What?”
“I was talking to the baby.”

Terry P. started his Discworld series off in an extraordinarily ambitious fashion. After investigating the philosophy and mechanics of magic, creation, astral planes and Rincewind in The Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic, he now moves on to gender roles as they might pertain to magic.

The midwife’s name was Granny Weatherwax. She was a witch. That was quite acceptable in the Ramtops, and no one had a bad word to say about witches. At least, not if he wanted to wake up in the morning the same shape as he went to bed.

Witches and wizards, being as powerful as they are, generally do not have leaders. As far as the wizards are concerned, the Archchancellor of Unseen University is regarded as “first among equals.” And among the witches, Granny Weatherwax is the most highly regarded of the leaders they didn’t have. And in Equal Rites, both Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Cutangle agree on one thing: Women are witches, and men are wizards. It cannot be any other way.

“Female wizards aren’t right either! It’s the wrong kind of magic for women, is wizard magic, it’s all books and stars and jommetry. She’d never grasp it. Whoever heard of a female wizard?”

“There’s witches,” said the smith uncertainly. “And enchantresses too, I’ve heard.”

“Witches is a different thing altogether,” snapped Granny Weatherwax. “It’s magic out of the ground, not out of the sky, and men never could get the hang of it. As for enchantresses,” she added. “They’re no better than they should be. You take it from me, just burn the staff, bury the body and don’t let on it ever happened.”

Contemporary gender studies would probably discuss this in terms of gender roles and socialization. Boys are encouraged to grow up with a particular mindset, girls with another. Boys who may show inclinations classified as feminine are pushed – or punished – away from them. Likewise with girls who show masculine inclinations. Granny Weatherwax’s reference to “jommetry” echoes something my mother believes – that men have brains better suited to logic and mathematics, and that female brains are better suited to emotional or empathetic fields. Wizards’ magic is “out of the sky” – a parallel can be drawn here to physics; while witch magic is out of the ground. It’s no coincidence that more women gravitate towards biology. No coincidence that in my home state, more women are successful in becoming doctors, and more men in becoming engineers. [Those are the only two acceptable career options in my home state.]

This state of affairs puts Eskarina Smith in the position of having to challenge two sets of gender roles. Ultimately, it makes her better at both witch magic as well as wizard magic. Her unique position enables her to see both kinds of magic without the blind spots that inflict older witches and wizards, which is how her abilities eventually trump theirs.

That being said, Terry P. has no pretensions as to which side he’s on. There’s no “I’m a humanist” nonsense in Equal Rites, and he’s the first to claim that, yes, all men. “Sure,” he concedes, “maybe not all men are thundering idiots, but, yes, all men are idiots. Maybe not all men are toweringly worthless, but really, the universe and women are just tolerating them.”

She stood up. “Let’s find this Great Hall, then. No time to waste.”
“Um, women aren’t allowed in,” said Esk.
Granny stopped in the doorway. Her shoulders rose. She turned around very slowly.
“What did you say?” she said. “Did these old ears deceive me, and don’t say they did because they didn’t.”
“Sorry,” said Esk. “Force of habit.”
“I can see you’ve been getting ideas below your station,” said Granny coldly.

This may seem like a stretch or an exaggeration, but the comparisons of wizard and witch magic show that while wizards are capable of very flashy magic that can interfere with the very workings of the universe, their primary objective – and this is something that has been repeatedly emphasized throughout the Discworld series – is to refrain from using their magic. The magic of men, if allowed to progress in an unrestricted fashion, will result in complete destruction of the universe. They are therefore not allowed to use their magic except in cases of absolute necessity (like when another wizard or set of wizards have already set about destroying the universe, and need to be stopped.) The wisdom and greatness of wizardry lies in doing nothing, which is why the greatest, strongest wizards do nothing but eat a lot and nap a lot.

The magic of witches on the other hand is perpetually in use. For the most part, witch magic is nothing but knowledge of herbal medicine, gossipping around a pot of tea, and what Granny Weatherwax refers to as “headology.” The witches are perpetual servants of society – they are midwives and healers, dispensers of justice, veterinarians. They tend to the elderly, the ones who have no one else to look after them. They take up the jobs no one else want, precisely because they can be so much more, and their power requires constant reminders of why it’s important to stay grounded.

And yet, social work is only one aspect of their skillset. They understand that magic is not to be used except in necessity, but when that necessity arises, there is no magic seemingly beyond them. The witches in Discworld achieve more – far more – than the wizards ever do. Equal Rites introduces only Esmeralda Weatherwax, but the women from the rest of the Witches series are no less notable than she. Midwifing for Time herself (Nanny Ogg), dragging souls out of the clutches of Death (Granny and Tiffany Aching), ensuring the stability of a monarchy (Granny, Nanny and Magrat Garlick) – and actually ruling it (Magrat), defeating a clutch of evil vampires by possessing one’s own blood before they drank it (Granny), defeating the Queen of the Faeries by Borrowing the mind of an entire bee Hive (Granny again), defeating the Queen of the Faeries for good (Tiffany), complete mastery of time travel (Eskarina Smith)… Perhaps the greatest of all these achievements, however, is the endless coming of age stories – Magrat, Tiffany, Agnes Nitt, and more. These witches see countless young women through the confusion of adolescence, guiding them so they turn out to be strong, confident and independent – young women who are as wise and powerful as their mentors.

It is perhaps very telling that the books about the wizards are collectively titled under the name Rincewind. There could perhaps be no “wizzard” less incompetent than is Rincewind, and yet he is, without doubt, the greatest hero the wizards can have. The number of times he has used magic can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He is cowardly, comical, ridiculous. Yet he saves the day, literally every time.

In addition, it is seen that the wizards are incapable of doing anything close to witch magic – they are selfish, lazy and indulgent. This is not out of any innate or biological factor, but more due to the fact that women are, in general, willing to take on both the physical and emotional burdens of life. The witches shoulder the emotional burden of entire villages, while the wizards are completely incapable of even feeding their own selves. But the reverse does not hold true. The witches prefer to stick to non-magical methods…

A couple of wizards with a rather greater presence of mind had nipped smartly out of the door behind them, and now several college porters were advancing threateningly up the hall, to the cheers and catcalls of the students. Esk had never much liked the porters, who lived a private life in their lodge, but now she felt a pang of sympathy for them.
Two of them reached out hairy hands and grabbed Granny’s shoulders. Her arm disappeared behind her back and there was a brief flurry of movement that ended with the men hopping away, clutching bits of themselves and swearing.
“Hatpin,” said Granny.

…but if necessary, witches can do wizard magic, and do it exceptionally well, as is exemplified in Granny Weatherwax’s magical duel with the Archchancellor.

Cutangle stood with legs planted wide apart, arms akimbo and stomach giving an impression of a beginners’ ski slope, the whole of him therefore adopting a pose usually associated with Henry VIII but with an option on Henry IX and X as well.

“Well?” he said, “What is the meaning of this outrage?”

“Is he important?” said Granny to Esk.

“I, madam, am the Archchancellor! And I happen to run this University! And you, madam, are trespassing in very dangerous territory indeed! I warn you that – stop looking at me like that!”

Cutangle staggered backwards, his hands raised to ward off Granny’s gaze.

Granny’s eyes had changed.

Esk had never seen them like this before. They were perfectly silver, like little round mirrors, reflecting all they saw. Cutangle was a vanishingly small dot in their depths, his mouth open, his tiny matchstick arms waving in desperation.

The Archchancellor backed into a pillar, and the shock made him recover. He shook his head irritably, cupped a hand and sent a stream of white fire streaking towards the witch.

Without dropping her iridescent stare Granny raised a hand and deflected the flames towards the roof. There was an explosion and a shower of tile fragments.

Her eyes widened.

Cutangle vanished. Where he had been standing a huge snake coiled, poised to strike.

Granny vanished. Where she had been standing was a large wicker basket.

The snake became a giant reptile from the mists of time.

The basket became the snow wind of the Ice Giants, coating the struggling monster with ice.

The reptile became a sabre-toothed tiger, crouched to spring.

The gale became a bubbling tar pit.

The tiger managed to become an eagle, stooping.

The tar pits became a tufted hood.

Then the images began to flicker as shape replaced shape. Stroboscope shadows danced around the hall. A magical wind sprang up, thick and greasy, striking octarine sparks from beards and fingers. In the middle of it all, Esk, peering through streaming eyes, could just make out the two figures of Granny and Cutangle, glossy statues in the midst of the hurtling images.

Their duel is cut short by the fact that Esk and Simon, a young boy also newly admitted to Unseen University, are in danger. No victor could possibly announced under such circumstances. And yet…

One of the students had earned several awards for bravery by daring to tug at Cutangle’s cloak ….

And now they were crowded into the narrow room, looking at the two bodies.

Cutangle summoned doctors of the body and doctors of the mind, and the room buzzed with magic as they got to work.

Granny tapped him on the shoulder.

“A word in your ear, young man,” she said.

“Hardly young, madam,” sighed Cutangle, “hardly young.” He felt drained. It had been decades since he’d duelled in magic, although it was common enough among students. He had a nasty feeling that Granny would have won eventually. Fighting her was like swatting a fly on your own nose. He couldn’t think what had come over him to try it.

Simon, the other main character, is a brilliant boy with a terrible stutter and an inability to do anything right.

Simon did everything inexpertly. He was really good at it. He was one of those tall lads apparently made out of knees, thumbs and elbows. Watching him walk was a strain, you kept waiting for the strings to snap, and when he talked the spasm of agony on his face if he spotted an S or W looming ahead in the sentence made people instinctively say them for him. It was worth it for the grateful look which spread across his acned face like sunrise on the moon.

As an expert on theoretical magic, however, he far outstrips every fully qualified wizard at Unseen University. Esk and Simon share a mutual attraction that motivates her to save Simon’s life, also saving the entire universe in the process. Together they stare down the creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions and return.

Eskarina Smith never appears in the Discworld series again… until I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth book in the Tiffany Aching series. [I seriously cannot wait to start talking about Tiffany Aching.] It is then explained that Simon’s brain was too much for his body to handle, that he became an invalid, his physical illness directly proportional to the brilliance of his theory. Esk’s training as a witch stands out in her decisions to take care of him until his death…

The young Eskarina had met at the University a young man called Simon who…had been cursed by the Gods with almost every possible ailment that mankind was prone to. But because the Gods have a sense of humour, even though it’s a rather strange one, they had granted him the power to understand – well – everything. He could barely walk without assistance, but was so brilliant that he managed to keep the whole universe in his head. Wizards…would flock to hear him talk about space and time and magic as if they were all part of the same thing. And young Eskarina had fed him and cleaned him and helped him get about and learned from him – well – everything.” – I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett.

Simon is apparently presumed dead in the Discworld universe, perhaps killed in a battle that takes place two books after Equal Rites. And by the time we meet Esk again, she has mastered the ability to travel through time, a secret she passes on to Tiffany Aching. After Eskarina, Tiffany is the only student witch to have equalled Granny’s level of skill in magic, and indeed to, have surpassed it, so perhaps it is very fitting that these two women should share a bond.

Next Review: The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rineheart

Next in this Series: Discworld #4 – Mort (Death #1)

Next in this Sub-series: Discworld #6 – Wyrd Sisters (Witches #2)

Book Review: Bloodlines #6 – The Ruby Circle

Title: The Ruby Circle
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2015
Series: Bloodlines
#: 6
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.22
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Business As Usual for Spoilers

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I really dislike this cover art version of Sydney. Neither this Sydney, nor this Adrian match how I imagine they look.

Plot Description: A ten book saga winds to a close. Nearly all the pieces are in place, and this thing only needs a bit of basic ass-kicking to seal the deal. Simply put, Sydney, Ms. Terwilliger, Eddie Castile and Adrian go off on a magical scavenger hunt in an attempt to find Jill. And there’s a magical baby hogging plot space.

I began this blog with Mead’s VA universe. And now it’s finally coming to a conclusion. All of our favourite heroes have been in on the action for a while now, even though I haven’t been giving them any mention in the reviews. Now it’s time.

Lissa and Christian have appeared the least in Bloodlines, the latter even less than the former. And while they’ve given way to characters who are as engaging and amusing, it feels wrong to view Lissa through perspectives other than that of Rose’s. She behaves like one would expect a sweet monarch to – proud, regal, makes the right decisions, has to take tough calls… But there’s barely any sign of the Lissa we’ve come to know and love. Or perhaps Lissa was always this privileged (remember all those times Rose’s needs were ignored and Lissa barely noticed?) and we no longer have Rose’s POV to soften the blow.

Of the other old characters, Dimitri Belikov is perhaps the most hilarious, especially as seen from Adrian’s perspective. It is revealed in this book that Dimitri and Adrian are, in fact, cousins – their fathers are full brothers. I would honestly have loved to see this explored more, simply because of the enormity of this revelation, but it’s brushed aside in light of the more urgent plot developments.

The first bit of The Ruby Circle is basically a magical scavenger hunt. One that is almost laughable – it does nothing more than bring them full circle, back to Palm Springs. They do find out who’s responsible for Jill’s disappearance in the process, but Alicia’s re-emergence, her lame attacks, and Ms. Terwilliger’s explanation for the scavenger hunt (Alicia wanted Sydney to be suffering from magical fatigue before she fought her directly) are all pretty ham handed. Which is why it’s a good thing that the plot is still fast paced. Even the climactic showdown had involved battling Alicia, pretty much everyone would have fallen asleep reading.

Fortunately for us readers, we discover that Alicia doesn’t have Jill – she passed her over to another old enemy for imprisonment. Cue more infiltration of The Warriors of Light, who epitomize comically exaggerated villainy. Sydney pulls a gimmicky win during the trials of endurance set for new Warrior wannabes – one which, in my opinion, was wholly unnecessary. Rather than fight the other women in the field, Sydney attacks a male victor who was already done fighting, and therefore off his guard. It’s cheating, and that scene could have been written any number of ways to show that Sydney was strong and smart, and able to best any of them without resorting to roundabout ways.

Adrian’s use of spirit – and accompanying mental illness – continues unabated. As a result, the reader is treated to constant commentary from his pet hallucination, the deceased Queen Tatiana Ivashkov. The thing about writing mental illness is that such scenes are often a drag. But this is also because, newsflash, mental illness is a drag. It sucks to write about, but an honest and sincere portrayal cannot stay true to character if it chooses to skip such an aspect of a character just to make for easier reading.

Then there’s the magical baby. The discovery of the Strigoi vaccine two books ago also provided the foundation for a romance between the British dhampir, Neil, and Olive, the fifth known person to have been restored after having turned Strigoi. The presence of Spirit in Olive’s body appears to have somehow changed the fact that dhampirs cannot reproduce amongst themselves. The cynical part of me wonders whether this was a development engineered solely so the world could benefit from Romitri babies. It’s not such a stretch, but honestly, I would much prefer that child producing wasn’t made such a central part of every bloody relationship. The cis-het element is already so strong in the VA universe. It might have been better not to force us to swallow even more heteronormativity.

In the last chapter, Sydrian have adopted Neil and Olive’s baby, claiming he is biologically theirs. This is done to prevent baby Declan from having to live a life of scientific experimentation, as he was born with spirit infusing his blood – therefore granting him Strigoi immunity from birth. His mother, Olive, died to protect him from such a fate, and his father, Neil, decided to run away to prevent any connection being drawn between himself and the baby. “The risk is too great,” is a common refrain, but it honestly seems rather contrived to me. (Again.) The final chapter also reveals that Romitri are now engaged to be married, and that they have so far taken no decision on the whole having children question.

The Ruby Circle might not have stood the test of criticism on its own if it weren’t for the nostalgic value it carries as the final book set in this universe. In truth, I believe that Silver Shadows and The Ruby Circle could probably have been combined, with some of the more unnecessary plot elements cut out to make it less bloated.

Next Review: Discworld #3 – Equal Rites

Book Review: Bloodlines #5 – Silver Shadows

Title: Silver Shadows
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2014
Series: Bloodlines
#: 5
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.37
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

I Don’t Do Spoiler Free Reviews

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Plot Description: Sydney has been kidnapped by the Alchemists, the human organization she works for. Their methods for dealing with rogue Alchemists involve imprisonment, torture and brainwashing designed to make their victims more pliable towards their objectives and methods. While she attempts to navigate the various pitfalls of “re-education,” Adrian, Jill, Eddie and the rest desperately search for her.

Silver Shadows is all action. The only scenes that seem to slow the pace down are – predictably – the ones that involve Adrian’s depression following Sydney’s kidnapping. Even as she spends months in the dark, resisting torture, Adrian falls off the wagon, spending his days depressed and disoriented. In order to contact Sydney via her dreams, he must go off his medication and access spirit again. His symptoms return in full force, along with the hallucination of his dead aunt, the former Moroi Queen Tatiana Ivashkov.

By the time Adrian shakes off his funk and manages to contact Sydney via a spirit dream, she has managed to disable the piping of sedative gas into her room at night, and is well on her way to staging a full-scale revolution in the re-education center. This is despite the fact that the authorities there did everything in their power to isolate her, ensure that she was seen as tainted by her fellow detainees. Here, of all places and situations in the Vampire Academy universe, the taboo against romantic or sexual interaction between humans and Moroi hold fastest.

After Baxter’s reaction to touching my hand, I tried to save the other detainees the trouble of being near me and kept a respectful distance apart. We bottlenecked in the narrow hall, however, and the maneuvers some of them did to avoid bumping into me would’ve been comical in any other circumstances. Those not near me went out of their way to avoid eye contact and pretend I didn’t exist. Those forced to avoid contact fixed me with icy glares, and I was shocked to hear one whisper, “Slut.”

I’d braced myself for a lot of things and expected to be called any number of names, but that one caught me off guard. I was surprised by how much it stung.

Gradually gaining first the trust, and then the respect of her fellow detainees, Sydney manages to use her magic to protect a number of them from the magical equivalent of extra-strength on-the-spot brainwashing. She is then recaptured while disabling the gas being piped to all the detainee’s rooms – a feat which enabled Adrian to bring two of her friends in re-education into a spirit dream, and therefore finalize the escape plan.

Adrian’s relationship with his mother, and his parents’ relationship with each other is one of the subplots of this book. Both Daniella and Nathan received enough coverage in Vampire Academy that their personalities come as no surprise. Nathan is a rude, pompous, shallow person who constantly insults his son. Daniella is shallow and selfish, but ultimately cares more about Adrian than does her husband. Her love is real, and she ultimately always comes back to it.

The final act of the book always struck me as slightly hilarious – it features a ridiculous chase through the roads and hotels of Las Vegas as they simultaneously plan and execute a wedding while evading the Alchemists that are in hot pursuit. Once they’ve made it to the royal Court, they demand sanctuary for Sydney, in her new capacity as a Moroi royal’s wife.

It’s hard to review this book without falling into what is essentially a recap, because as I noted above, this is a very action filled book. Evenly paced, it doesn’t stretch out the re-education scenes unnecessarily, and does a very good job of connecting threads that are far apart to sew together a plan that – mostly – runs smoothly.

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To quote Captain Cold, “Make the plan, execute the plan, expect the plan to go off the rails, throw away the plan.”

As the series nears its conclusion, most of the original conflicts have been resolved, one by one. Adrian’s long past pining for Rose. Sydney and Adrian are in a happy relationship – one they no longer need to keep a secret. With the vote on the family quorum requirement all but passed, Jill no longer needs to stay in hiding very long. Most of the characters have met potential love interests and paired off with them – including a possible happy ending for Sydney’s elder sister, Carly.

But Lissa’s decision to provide Sydney with sanctuary has turned the Alchemists from ally to enemy of the Moroi. The radical splinter group of the Alchemists – the Warriors of Light – are still out there, plotting. And the final few paragraphs of Silver Shadows sets up the conflict for the last book – Jill is missing, and no one can figure out how she disappeared, or why.

From a series perspective, Silver Shadows may perhaps fulfil the role of a filler episode, but confronting the spectre of re-education once and for all, and trampling the human-Moroi relationship taboo were both monumental steps as far as plot – and indeed, world – development is concerned.

 Next Review: Bloodlines #6 – The Ruby Circle

Book Review: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Title: The Fiery Heart
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: Bloodlines
#: 4
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.41
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Alert

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Plot Description: As Sydney’s sister Zoe is assigned as her partner on the Palm Springs assignment, Sydney finds her instinct to bond with her sister warring with her need to keep her new relationship with Adrian a secret. She continues to work towards finding a magical means of breaking the bond of compulsion used by the Alchemists on all their agents, and must keep from making any mistakes that might end with her sent back to Alchemist ‘re-education’.

Although Mead meant for this series to have two narrators from the start, The Fiery Heart is the first book to actually implement that plan. The first chapter takes place from Adrian’s POV, and the POVs alternate between the two protagonists after that.

For someone who’s already read the entire book (twice), the first chapter starts throwing off warning signs almost right away. Adrian’s made a huge impulse purchase on vinyl records, something he thinks is amazing. From here on out, the books take a very serious look at Adrian’s continuing struggle with spirit induced mental illness, which had until now manifested only in the form of occasional fits of poetry.

“Back at my apartment, I indulged in my one daily drink, hoping it would send me to a quick slumber. No such luck. In the old days, it usually took at least three before I’d pass out in drunken oblivion. Now, my fingers lingered on the vodka bottle as I teetered on the edge of getting a refill. I missed it. Badly. Aside from the bliss of the buzz, alcohol could numb out spirit for a little while, and although the magic was a pleasant addiction, a reprieve from it was nice. Self-medicating had fended off a lot of spirit’s negative effects for years, but this new deal was letting it start to gain ground.”

Sydney and Adrian have promised each other that they will both cut down on one unhealthy habit – Adrian’s stopped smoking, and isn’t drinking as much, while Sydney’s given up coffee and tries to eat better. Personally, I would have thought twice before proposing or agreeing to such an arrangement, because Sydney attempting to kick her caffeine addiction is nothing like Adrian going off both cigarettes as well as alcohol. As was first noted in the Vampire Academy series, Adrian deals with the depressive side effects of wielding Spirit by constantly self medicating. As a result, Fiery Heart gives us a picture of someone struggling with mental illness and addiction simultaneously. The more restraint Adrian exercises with regard to his vices, the deeper he descends into his depressive bout.

“My sober resolve didn’t result in inspiration, though, and when five o’clock came around, the canvas remained bare. I stood up and stretched out the kinks in my body, feeling a return of that earlier darkness. It was more angry than sad, laced with the frustration of not being able to do this. My art teachers claimed I had talent, but in moments like this, I felt like the slacker most people had always said I was, destined for a lifetime of failure.”

“I knew these fears eating at me were being amped up by spirit. Not all of them were real, but they were hard to shake.”- Adrian Ivashkov

Adrian’s story quickly gathers pace as he deals with a number of problems – the future of his relationship with Sydney, the fact that he had little to no money, his need to get her gifts, his inability to paint a self portrait for his assignment in college. It’s exacerbated by the spirit he uses – something he usually tries to avoid doing – and manifests as extreme highs followed by severe crashes.

No. No dinner, nothing in public. The thought descended heavily on me as I contemplated our future together. Could we have one? What kind of relationship was this, grasping at these stolen moments? She was too reasonable to do this forever. Eventually she’d realize it was time to let it go. Let me go. I put the cuff links back in their box, knowing I could never sell them and that I was in the full throes of a spirit crash.
It happened with these bouts of magic. I’d barely been able to drag myself out of bed when I’d brought Jill back. The toll of wielding so much life was just too great, and the mind crashed from the high. Well, mine did. Lissa didn’t have these dramatic ups and downs. Hers was more of a steady darkness that lingered with her for a few days, keeping her moody and melancholy until it lifted. Sonya had a mix of both effects.

I never thought I’d end up cherishing Bloodlines more than I do the Vampire Academy series – after all, sequels rarely live up to the expectations we form of the original. But Mead’s sensitive, no-nonsense portrayal of mental illness has made this series far more important to me than the first. Is it exhilarating to watch Rose Hathaway kick ass? Yes. But it is more heart-warming and affirming to find a character you can relate to. Most importantly, a beautiful balance is struck in the process of portraying Adrian’s struggles. His demons are depicted in all of their harsh reality, but through his perspective, the reader is taken smoothly along his highs and lows. What is happening to him seems normal, even when we know that it’s not. Mead’s writing allows the reader to perfectly experience what it’s like, and not once does that experience seem jarring or out of the ordinary. There is never any stigma, and no scene has the effect of ‘othering’ Adrian in the eyes of the reader.

He shook his head. “I tried. I tried to hold out. But when I swing up like that . . . well, eventually the pendulum swings back. It’s hard to explain.”

“I’ve been down before.”

“Not like this,” he said. “And I’m not saying that to be a smart-ass. The way I feel . . . it’s like the world starts crumbling around me. Every doubt, every fear . . . it eats me. It weighs me down until I’m swallowed in darkness and can’t tell what’s real or not. And even when I know something’s not real . . . like Aunt Tatiana . . . well, it’s still hard . . .”

In addition to showing us what it feels like to live with a mental illness like bipolar disorder (which is what Adrian is eventually diagnosed with), Mead also presents to us the experience of visiting a psychiatrist, of receiving the diagnosis, of struggling with the decision to take medication.

I saw a glint of amusement in his eyes. “‘Crazy’ is a term that’s used incorrectly and far too often. It’s also used with stigma and finality.” He tapped his head. “We’re all chemicals, Adrian. Our bodies, our brains. It’s a simple yet vastly sophisticated system, and every so often, something goes awry. A cell mutation. A neuron misfiring. A lack of a neurotransmitter.”

She addresses some of the nitty-gritty details, like the importance of speaking against the stigma, and the fact that dosages often require adjustment before they can properly take effect.

Some of the most heartwarming passages involved Adrian agonizing over the decision to take the medication, and whether it was the right thing to do. He carries internalized stigma, an aversion towards prescribed medication. He also worries that he will no longer be himself, no longer be able to do brilliant things in art, in philosophy, or with Spirit.

“Is it going to ‘stabilize’ me so that I don’t feel happy or sad? So that I don’t feel anything? No! I don’t care if they’re dangerous. I’m not giving up my emotions.”

“No one’s taking away your emotions. It’s what I said before: We’re all chemicals. You’ve got a couple that aren’t at the right levels. This will adjust them, just as a diabetic would correct their insulin. You’ll still feel things. You’ll be happy. You’ll be sad. You’ll be angry. You just won’t swing unpredictably into such wild directions. There’s nothing wrong with this—and it’s a hell of a lot safer than self-medicating with alcohol.”

“This is going to kill my creativity, won’t it? Without all my feelings, I won’t be able to paint like I used to.”

“That’s the cry of artists everywhere,” said Einstein, his expression hardening. “Will it affect certain things? Maybe, but you know what’ll really interfere with your ability to paint? Being too depressed to get out of bed. Waking up in jail after a night of drunken debauchery. Killing yourself. Those things will hurt your creativity.”

“I’ll be ordinary,” I protested.

“You’ll be healthy,” he corrected. “And from there, you can become extraordinary.”

With so many dysfunctional and downright abusive relationships being romanticized in contemporary YA fiction, it’s refreshing to see how healthy Sydney and Adrian are in dealing with all of their problems. A large portion of that credit goes to Sydney, whose foremost qualities continue to be her pragmatism and sensible nature. But Adrian’s kindness and compassion are on display in Bloodlines, in a way they never were in VA. His love for her, his willingness to try, to fight anything, even himself.

Two new characters are introduced in The Fiery Heart – Zoe Sage, Sydney’s younger sister, and Neil Raymond, a handsome English dhampir who attracts the attention of the younger girls of their group. Zoe Sage is stiff and cold towards the gang, and disapproves of the extent to which Sydney immerses herself in group dynamics.

“Speaking of priorities . . . have you ever thought that maybe what you’re doing with Ms. Terwilliger isn’t appropriate?”

I flinched, even though I knew she couldn’t possibly be talking about magic. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know exactly. It’s just, you’ve already finished high school. You’re here to do Alchemist business, but you seem really into your classes—especially that thing with her. It seems personal too, like you’re just hanging out as friends. I mean, talking about her vacation? It wouldn’t be a big deal if it was just inside class hours, but you’re always doing work for her that doesn’t seem like work. Nothing wrong with wanting friends or social time . . . but you can’t do it at the cost of the assignment. What would Dad say?”

She is in fact a little like the Sydney we met in Blood Promise, and much as I’d like to judge Zoe and call her more uptight and evil than her sister had ever been, I don’t think that’s true. Zoe is young, and has been given more responsibility than she was ready for – partly because her dad wanted her on his side when she testified during the custody hearings. The divorce of Sydney and Zoe’s parents is an important subplot in this book, and clarifies the abusive nature of their father’s relationship with both of them. When Sydney finds out that her father would be coming to see him, she feels exposed and uncomfortable, as though a safe space was about to be violated.

Palm Springs had become a sanctuary for me, in which I tucked away all my secrets—not just my romance with Adrian, but also my true friendship with the others. And, of course, my illicit magic use. I kept all those things well guarded, but just knowing he would be here, in my territory, made me feel as though my entire life had just been exposed.

Both sisters fear him, and the he encourages competition and divisiveness between them, making them easier to manipulate. This book also hints that Sydney’s body image issues don’t stem entirely from her insecurity with respect to the Moroi. During the dinner, her father polices not only his daughters’ meals, but also remarks on the fact that Sydney has gained weight.

“You look like you’ve gained some weight too, so it’s smart to back off.”

I gave him a stiff smile, swallowing the urge to tell him I still fit firmly in a size four. I was just a much healthier-looking four, rather than a slightly malnourished one. Meanwhile, Zoe—who’d been about to set the menu down—quickly opened it again when she heard him rebuke me. She’d probably planned on ordering tempura, one of her favorite dishes, and now feared my dad’s ire over fried food.

Another heavy subject this book tackles is date rape – transposed in context as the drugging of human women by Moroi men so as to drink their blood without their knowledge and consent. More specifically, the fact that Adrian once drank from a human girl who was too drunk to understand what was happening. He confesses to Sydney when confronted, makes feeble excuses before quickly acknowledging that he should never have done such a thing. He apologizes, but doesn’t act entitled to forgiveness. In the end, it is Sydney who excuses his conduct as they reconcile, pointing out that he has changed, that he understands. Considering the gravity of the act, I’m not sure that such easy forgiveness is warranted. Unlike with Dimitri’s abusive actions towards Rose as a Strigoi, there is no defence here that Adrian can legitimately make use of. Dimitri was soulless, monstrous, a different species. The guilt he felt upon being restored was crushing. Adrian has always been the same person, and his act was criminal in every context.

But such is rape culture. We all grow up internalizing misogyny and other forms of bigotry. The more unfortunate of us actually end up acting on that bigotry because society implicitly condones and even lauds such behaviour, even as it explicitly criminalizes it. Ultimately, the best we can do is understand, change, make amends and move on. I think Mead could have handled this problem a little better, but ultimately, my conclusions seem to coincide with hers.

As far as the development of the plot in concerned, this book finally grasps the central conflict of this series by the stem, thorns and all. It also cements the status of the Alchemists as the primary villains, and the fear of “re-education” which has been hanging over Sydney’s head since the beginning of the series finally materialises. It also features scientific advancements in the Moroi world, such as the development of a “Strigoi vaccine”. The darker elements and atmosphere of danger is constantly offset by the light humour that pervades almost every line – Adrian’s habit of quipping seems to be contagious. My favourite line in this entire series has got to be when Adrian deflects an offer of alcohol by picking on Dimitri.

“I can send for some,” said Lissa. She started to turn toward one of the guards at the door, but Adrian waved her off.

“Nah, we’ve got to be all responsible and stuff to deal with the spirit problem, right? We can celebrate later. Besides, Belikov can’t hold his liquor.”

Dimitri looked startled at that, and I had to repress a laugh at Adrian’s deflection.

The romantic entanglements of the younger members of the group are entertaining, and I found myself being more irritated at Zoe when she was being a wet blanket about them, than for her conservative attitude or ultimate betrayal of Sydney.

To say my friends were living a soap opera was an understatement. They almost made my dangerous relationship with Adrian look boring.

The only bright side was that everyone seemed to be in a holding pattern. Trey’s conflicted principles kept him away from Angeline. Eddie’s resolve kept him away from everyone, as did Neil’s. And so long as Neil held true to that stance, Jill and Angeline would have nothing to act on. Maybe it would have been nice for everyone to have some sort of happy ending, but I selfishly had to admit that my life was a lot easier when the drama dial was kept on low.  – Sydney’s POV.

Trey and Angeline, Jill and Eddie, Malachi Wolfe and Jaclyn Terwilliger, Rose and Dimitri, Neil and Olive, Lissa and Christian, and of course, Sydney and Adrian. The book is filled with couples (sadly, 100% heterosexual pairings) and it’s helps maintain those standards that all YA novels everywhere aspire to.

Next: Bloodlines #5 – Silver Shadows

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

Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet

Title: Red Prophet
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1988
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.77
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

There’s Bound To Be A Few Spoilers

 red prophet

Plot Description: Following the events of the previous book, in which Alvin was injured severely and had to learn how to heal his own leg, he’s now been pronounced well enough to go back to Hatrack River, where his father has arranged for him to be apprenticed to a blacksmith. While he’s travelling with his brother Measure, they’re kidnapped by ‘Reds’ – Native Americans – who are purportedly feuding with the settlers. This is how Alvin eventually reunites with the ‘Red Prophet’, whom he had previously met in the first book.

This book might just be my favourite out of the Tales of Alvin Maker series, but that being said, I have two words that come to mind when I think of this book: “White Guilt”.

Any story set in Frontier-era America would have to feature Native American tribes, and the interactions of the settlers with them. Alvin Maker is no exception, set as it is against a backdrop of constant fighting between the white settlers and the ‘Reds’. In addition to their battles with Native American tribes, the white settlers themselves are multicultural – English, Dutch, French etc – in origin, and engage in battles amongst themselves as well.

Red Prophet features two famous historical figures in Native American history – Tenskwa Tawa and Ta-Kumsaw. The two are depicted as brothers, the former a pacifist and the latter a warrior. Tenskwa Tawa briefly appeared in Seventh Son as Lolla-wasiky, an alcoholic Native American whose addiction held a debilitating hold over him, and who was cured of the same by a chance encounter with young Alvin. Red Prophet expands on his journey and history, and his relationship with his brother, as well as his future as a ‘prophet’ for the Native Americans – one that counsels that they stay away from alcohol.

In its essence, Red Prophet is a revisionist history of the Battle of Tippecanoe, recounted from a Native American perspective as a massacre of pacifist Natives led by Tenskwa Tawa. Tenskwa Tawa and his brother also take on roles as spiritual mentors to young Alvin, to better help him understand his powers.

Stories about the Native Americans have always fascinated me, because it refers to a whole world of people I’ve never met. And that’s why I like Red Prophet. It is commendable that Card’s revisionism allows for an alternate history told from the perspective of the loser, and not the winner. The fact remains, however that Card is not Native American.

It’s always difficult and problematic to write from a perspective that is not yours. It’s not to say that one shouldn’t, but one should also remember to add the caveat. To remember that the subjects of your writing may resent you for attempting to take over their voices and tell their stories on their behalf – again (Because lets be real, that’s what happens when the winners write history).

As for the rest, Red Prophet is perhaps one of the better (or the best) books in this series. It’s decently written, suspenseful in all the right places, and has only minor plot holes. The subplots involving Governor Harrison, Tippecanoe, the curse of bloody hands, mystical whirlwinds that exist outside the time and space paradigm all fit right into the story. There are few, if any elements that jar the reader out of this world of magical fantasy and into reality.

Next in this Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Next Review: Dark Tower #2 – The Drawing of the Three

Book Review: Bloodlines #2 – The Golden Lily

Title: The Golden Lily
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2012
Series: Bloodlines (Series sequel to the Vampire Academy series)
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.37
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3.5

Spoilers… and all that.

The golden lily

Plot Description: In the course of her new assignment protecting Jill Mastrano at Palm Springs, Sydney Sage gains new insight into the working of her organization – the Alchemists, about rogue vampire hunters who call themselves grandiose and cultish names, and even goes on a couple dates. Oh, and there’s like, fighting and stuff at the end.

Anyway, the progress of Sydney and Adrian’s relationship in Golden Lily is wonderful to watch. They start looking out for each other, thinking about each other’s mood, doing little things to cheer the other person up. They went from strangers to friends in Bloodlines, and Golden Lily upgraded the S.S. Sydrian to best friendShip.

One of the biggest themes of the Bloodlines series is Sydney’s journey from being a brainwashed bigot to someone more sensible – someone capable of thinking rationally. In Golden Lily, she’s already seeing the Moroi and dhampirs around her as people, caring about their problems in the human sense rather than as logistical issues standing in the way of the mission. But she’s still not completely free of bias – and in this she can’t exactly be blamed because it’s a bias shared by the rest of the supernatural world (with perhaps the exception of the Keepers). Humans and vampires don’t mix, don’t date, don’t marry, don’t interbreed.

      He reached out and pulled me to him, one hand on my waist and the other behind my neck. He tipped my head up and lowered his lips to mine. I closed my eyes and melted as my whole body was consumed in that kiss. I was nothing. I was everything. Chills ran over my skin, and fire burned inside me. His body pressed closer to mine, and I wrapped my arms around his neck. His lips were warmer and softer than anything I could have ever imagined, yet fierce and powerful at the same time. Mine responded hungrily, and I tightened my hold on him. His fingers slid down the back of my neck, tracing its shape, and every place they touched was electric.
      But perhaps the best part of all was that I, Sydney Katherine Sage, guilty of constantly analyzing the world around me, well, I stopped thinking.
      And it was glorious.
      At least, it was until I started thinking again.

The pacing is just right, bearing in mind the fact that this series is six books long, and we’re still only on the second. Sydney’s progress is phenomenal, but not enough. The notion of humans and vampires dating is also explored outside of the Sydrian dynamic – notably with regard to Jill’s relationship with the human boy Micah, or Angeline’s background as coming from a family of Keepers.

A major factor which has no doubt helped along the process of removing Sydney’s bias is her tutelage in the use of human magic under Jaclyn Terwilliger. In the final, climactic scenes of Golden Lily, Sydney uses a number of magical items and spells in the course of a battle, to their ultimate advantage. Once again, the pacing is perfect.

Golden Lily (and by extension the Vampire Academy and Bloodlines series) are a wonderful exercise in perceptions, and how drastically changing perceptions can alter the narrative as we see it. Vampire Academy saw the Moroi world through the eyes of a perceptive dhampir who wasn’t afraid to question norms – and on occasion, through the eyes of a privileged Moroi. Bloodlines sees the Moroi world through the eyes of a human who was brought up to fear and hate the supernatural, and that of a Moroi guy battling Spirit induced mental illness. When one adds in the storylines of Mia Rinaldi, or Dimitri’s family in Baia, or Angeline of the Keepers, the Vampire Academy universe takes on further depth and meaning, becoming a layered entity.

Without a doubt, Golden Lily is still very much Sydney’s story – her quest to discover the truths that her Alchemist bosses are hiding from her, the truths behind the cult of vampire hunters, her continued efforts to protect her little pack of Moroi and dhampir, her study of magic, and yes, her struggle with body image and eating disorders. Adrian’s final chapter intervention might have seemed ham handed if it weren’t for the fact that his lecture came – at least in my opinion – several books late.

    I handed the gelato back. “I can’t. Not with you watching. It’s too weird. Can I eat it later?”
    “Sure,” he said, returning it to the freezer. “If you’ll really eat it. I know how you are.”
    I crossed my arms as he stood opposite me. “Oh?”
    He fixed me with a disconcertingly hard look. “Maybe everyone else thinks your aversion to food is cute—but not me. I’ve watched you watch Jill. Here’s some tough love: you will never, ever have her body. Ever. It’s impossible. She’s Moroi. You’re human. That’s biology. You have a great one, one that most humans would kill for—and you’d look even better if you put on a little weight. Five pounds would be a good start. Hide the ribs. Get a bigger bra size.”
    “Adrian!” I was aghast. “You… are you out of your mind? You have no right to tell me that! None at all.”
    He scoffed. “I have every right, Sage. I’m your friend, and no one else is going to do it. Besides, I’m the king of unhealthy habits. Do you think I don’t know one when I see it? I don’t know where this came from—your family, too many Moroi, or just your own OCD nature—but I’m telling you, you don’t have to do it.”

And yet, it’s also beginning to show us how Bloodlines is as much about Adrian as it is about Sydney. The Vampire Academy series was forever Rose Hathaway’s story – there’s no doubt about that. Everyone else, Dimitri and Lissa included, were supporting characters. But Golden Lily begins to dip into Adrian’s family, his background, his psyche, building the set up for what I would call one of the finest depictions of battling mental illness I’ve ever read.

Next in this series: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell by Richelle Mead

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card