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

thefieryheart

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

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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

 

Book Review: Vampire Academy #6 – Last Sacrifice

Title: Last Sacrifice
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 6
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.46
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Last Sacrifice

Beware: The Inevitable… SPOILERS!

Last Sacrifice is the Fast and the Furious and Die Hard 2: Die Harder all rolled into one of the VA series. And I’m not just saying that because of the inordinate amounts of C4 explosive in this book.

In Last Sacrifice, the gang goes from under-the-radar hijinks to an IN-YOUR-FACE, GOVERNMENT level of hijinks. The Moroi government should really have known better than to put Abe Mazur’s daughter in jail and try her for a capital crime. Just saying.

Just as in Blood Promise, the books splits itself to follow two storylines, once again through that unique narrative device of having Rose see through Lissa’s eyes. It begins where Spirit Bound left off – with Rose in jail. Thankfully she has all the likely allies, as well as a few unlikely ones now. The least likely of these allies is the ghost of the very person she’s been accused of murdering – Queen Tatiana Ivashkov.

The first order of business is – what else? – a prison break. Again. Then again, if these guys could break into Tarasov (aka Most High Security Vampire Prison Ever) and get Victor Dashkov (aka Former Villain of Book No. 1) out, then breaking into the local jail and breaking Rose out should be no problem. And it isn’t.

The jail break and subsequent escape puts Rose back in Dimitri’s company, thus allowing for a slow healing of their relationship. They meet up with Sydney Sage again – she’s been popping in and out of the storyline ever since Blood Promise – and Abe intends for them to lie low while he, Lissa and the rest of the gang work their way through the whodunit back at court.

Rose, on the other hand, takes this time to work on Ghost Tatiana’s clue, which relates to Moroi politics and their rather dumbass laws. According to Moroi law, the Council votes on everything, and the Council is made up of the representatives of each Royal House along with the Queen or King. And currently, only 12 out of 13 seats on the Council are being filled, because the Dragomirs have all but died out. Lissa’s friends and supporters (read: Christian’s aunt, Tasha Ozera) had already pointed out that Lissa deserves her seat on the Council now that she’s 18 (Side Note: How did Lissa herself not think of this?). But Moroi politics, it turns out, isn’t as simple as all that. There needs to be a quorum – that is to say, a council member has to have at least one other family member in order to be able to stand. Like I said, dumbass law.

And now, Tatiana, of all people, tells Rose that Lissa does indeed have another family member out there. She’s not the last Dragomir – that honour falls to her illegitimate half sibling. The identity of this sibling, when it is revealed, is one that we realize has been well seeded. VA is no amateur series of novels written blindly and without forethought. The reader had already met the last Dragomir – way back in Shadowkiss, and said sibling has been popping up consistently throughout the storyline since. Just like Sydney Sage, or Mia Rinaldi, or Tasha Ozera. Even when they’re not essential to the plot, Mead does right by her characters. They’re all well fleshed out and multi dimensional, and they’re never allowed to be forgotten.

To gain themselves time to solve the murder mystery, Rose comes up with a master plan: Nominate Lissa in the election for the new King or Queen. Because while she would need a quorum to be actually elected, she doesn’t need one to just run. And so while Lissa is running for queen and trying to exonerate Rose back at Court, Rose is running from the authorities and trying to find Lissa’s sibling and thereby legitimize her position with the Council. These girls, always looking out for each other.

One run in with the mysterious (and fairly uncivilized) Keepers, one Strigoi healing, one reconciliation with Dimitri, and a lot of following the paper trail later, Rose is headed right back to Court with all the answers and a very confused Jill Mastrano. Since Lissa outperformed most of the other Royal candidates on the trials, she’s just in time to back Lissa’s right to be elected.

And also just in time to save Lissa’s life, one last time.

Last Sacrifice takes its haunting title very seriously. The last act of the book echoes every part of Rose’s life, and how it always comes right back down to Lissa. She started out with a singleminded determination to save Lissa no matter what, and then she learned to question that determination. She learned to set a few, necessary boundaries, but the bottom line remained unchanged. Just as she put Lissa’s life over Dimitri’s in  Spirit Bound, so too did she put Lissa’s life over her own in Last Sacrifice. 

In fact, her life isn’t the only thing Rose sacrifices at the Lissa altar. Present all through the series is the link between Lissa’s spirit use and her depression. In fact, on numerous occasions after Lissa weans herself off the anti depressants, both girls have expressed relief that Spirit isn’t affecting her as much as it used to. That this is a patent lie is something neither of them seems to want to acknowledge, considering Rose has made sucking that darkness out of Lissa and into herself through the spirit bond something of a hobby.

Throughout Lissa’s royalty trials, Rose does this as she watches her friend through the bond. She pulls away the darkness over and over again, putting it away in a quiet corner of her mind. Repression is never the answer – everyone knows that, including these girls, but they don’t have the time for anything else at the moment. And so it goes, until Rose snaps and all that darkness comes tumbling out of her.

It’s an intensely written moment – chaotic and full of irrational fury. The engaged reader is carried along on the strength of sheer emotion, and despite the words we’re reading, we’re not actually clear on what’s going on until the deed is done and a man is dead.

Having sacrificed the last of her innocence halfway through the book, Rose now, at the end of the final act, gives Lissa the only thing she has left – her life.

The book ends on as neat a note as could be managed under the circumstances. There were, of course, loose ends that infuriated me until I realized a new followup series was in the works. But, contrary to what my sad ending review may lead you to believe, there are no great tragedies in Last Sacrifice. It’s the quintessential triumph-over-evil-in-the-end kind of book. The final chapter puts a cute little bow on almost everything, and for what’s left over, [*cough* Adrian *cough*] you get to read the Bloodlines series.

Next in this Series: Bloodlines #1 – Bloodlines by Richelle Mead
Next Review: #scandal 
by Sarah Ockler

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

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

World After_250by375
World After

*Spoilers for Books One and Two*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First world sword problems, am I right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite

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

frostbite
Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Vampire Academy #3 – Shadow Kiss

Book Review: Vampire Academy #1 – Vampire Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literary Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming: Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite