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: Bloodlines #1 – Bloodlines, Richelle Mead

Title: Bloodlines
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2011
Series: Bloodlines (Series sequel to the Vampire Academy series)
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.22
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Insert the Usual and Mandatory Spoiler Warning Here

bloodlines.jpg

Plot Description: In this series sequel to Mead’s Vampire Academy series, we revisit the world of dhampirs and Moroi – and the much overlooked human component of this world, the Alchemists. We’re following the continued story of Sydney Sage, a minor but favourite VA character who made her first appearance in Blood Promise, the fourth book of that series.
We’re also following complete fan favourite Adrian Ivashkov, who, broken hearted and looking for meaning in life, is drawn to Sydney as the two of them work on a new assignment together.

I have to admit, when I first heard of the idea of Adrian and Sydney getting together, I was skepticalYou cannot imagine two people MORE different than these twoBut I tried to be open minded, and by the time I got to Book 6, I was Team Sydrian all the way.

The main characters from VA – Rose, Lissa, Dimitri, Christian – barely make an appearance in Bloodlines, which is filled with supporting cast members coming forward to take center-stage. And they each bring their share of secrets and problems to the table, which, as everyone knows, is the recipe for a really good book.

Adrian’s broken-hearted following the end of his relationship with Guardian Rose Hathaway. Sydney, on the other hand, is in a LOT of trouble with the Alchemists – the organization she works for – for her involvement in Rose’s adventures from Last Sacrifice. She’s suspected of having colluded with vampires, and of having developed feelings other than disgust or contempt for them. (Yes, this is a really serious accusation that is levelled amongst Alchemists. They’re all insane.) Although there’s no formal inquiry, Sydney manages to dispel the cloud of suspicion in time to be assigned to the latest Alchemist case in Palm Springs. Her biggest reason for taking on the case was to ensure that her sister Zoe doesn’t get caught up in the Alchemist life, which she will if their domineering father has his way.

The rest of the characters in Palm Springs are Jill Mastrano,  along with her dhampir guardians Eddie Castile and Angeline Dawes. While Jill (Lissa’s half sister) and Eddie were very prominent in VA, Angeline barely got a mention for the first time in a subplot involving the reclusive  keepers in Last Sacrifice.

The important subplots are the ones involving possibly magical tattoos being given to humans, of Sydney’s teacher trying to get her to learn human magic (sort of like Wicca), teen drama among the younger set of dhampirs and Moroi, and Sydney’s relationship with Adrian.

My God, Sage. Your eyes. How have I never noticed them? The colour, when you stand in the light. They’re amazing . . . like molten gold. I could paint those . . . They’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.

– Adrian Ivashkov, Bloodlines

Sydney’s character development kickstarted early on in this universe – right from the moment she was introduced, in fact, although there was no way I would have imagined that she’d come to lead her own series. As an alchemist, she’s been indoctrinated to hate, fear and hold in contempt these ‘unnatural’ and ‘unholy’ creatures – vampires, and dhampirs by association. But since there’s always the greater Strigoi threat to be dealt with, Alchemists have an uneasy alliance with the Moroi. Sydney’s bias and bigotry are evident in her behaviour towards Rose, but by the time we come to the end of the series, it’s evident that she’s beginning to think of them as just a different kind of people – not monsters of the night.

Adrian, on the other hand went from alcoholic party boy to good boyfriend who gave up his debauchery in order to impress his girlfriend. Even if personal change is precipitated in you by another person, it should never stay that way. If the only ever reason why you change is another person, that change is going to fall apart the minute that person leaves, or is taken from you. So it’s kind of a one step forward, two steps back kind of situation that Adrian is dealing with. And to cap it all off, he’s now spirit bonded with Jill.

Yes, the reason Jill is incognito in Palm Springs is because there was an attempt on her life, she died as a result, and Adrian brought her back. The concept of a spirit bond was a lot cooler back when it was two teenage girls who were sharing thoughts. Now it’s a high school freshman (or however old Jill is supposed to be) who has access to the thoughts of a highly unstable grown man. Eek. After Jill is punished for being drunk and then having a hangover the next day, Sydney figures out what’s going on and reams Adrian out.

Jill’s guardian is Eddie Castile, long time best friend and sidekick to Rose Hathaway. Eddie was the only guardian to attempt to protect Jill during the attempt on her life, since all the other guardians were busy protecting the Queen, Lissa. The reason for this is because he’s really in love with her, which is the cue to kick off all of the teen drama and love triangles quadrangles that take place in this book.

I would choose this space in order to rant about the impropriety in Eddie falling for a girl whose initial nickname was literally Jailbait (courtesy Adrian, who else), but hello. This is the series that brought us the great Rose-Dimitri love saga, where they could barely wait for her to hit eighteen before ripping each other’s clothes off. And the age gap in that case is a LOT greater than in the case of Eddie and Jill.

Any age-propriety rants in this universe are just going to fall on deaf ears. So it’s one of my blind spots in this fandoms – one of the things I have issue with but choose to ignore in order to continue enjoying the fandom itself. Other examples include all time fan favourite Damon Salvatore engaging in an abusive relationship with Caroline Forbes in early first season The Vampire Diaries and the subject never being brought up after that storyline wrapped up. Till date, the only sign that something like that ever happened is Caroline’s continued dislike of the guy – despite the fact that one of her best friends is soul mates with him, and her other best friend is his best friend too!

But, this is not a review of The Vampire Diaries. Nor is it a review of the Ezria relationship in Pretty Little Liars, which was pretty outrightly illegal at the start. So, coming back to the final main character of the Bloodlines series – Angeline – let me just say this:

Angeline is the most fun. Ever.

Angeline flushed. “It’s not my fault.”

“Even I know you can’t write an entry on Wikipedia and then use it as a source in your essay.” Sydney had been torn between horror and hysterics when she told me.
“I took ‘primary source’ to a whole new level!”
Honestly, it was a wonder we’d gotten by for so long without Angeline. Life must have been so boring before her.”

– Adrian Ivashkov, Fiery Heart

Angeline has trouble adjusting to civilization because she was raised in a moroi-human-dhampir communeity that felt they were keeping to the old ways by staying in contact with (and reproducing with) humans, unlike current Moroi society. The Keepers refuse to submit to the Moroi monarchy, and therefore must do without the little luxuries of life. I.e. Electricity.

Now, I’m pretty sure Mead drew on many, many stereotypes for her portrayal of the Keepers, but… it’s kind of hard to care about considering it’s not a main plot point. And it makes Angeline REALLY funny because of all things she doesn’t know is considered appropriate or inappropriate in society. (Like random violence and sexual harassment: inappropriate; cheating on class tests: inappropriate).

Angeline provides a fresh voiced perspective on society – all of society, not just the parts with vampires and stuff in it – through her constant questioning of everything. She poses a very important lesson for – (and I cannot stress this enough) – each and every one of us:

Question all the facts you’ve been handed since you were born. I mean, you can’t think out of the box without first seeing the box itself, which is a huge problem when it comes to challenging social norms (like their school’s dress codes) and why and how they came to exist in the first place.

In most cases, when asked to explain the rationale behind oppressive norms and customs, those defending them will have the option to either shut you down – which is what schools do when they hand out detentions; or hide behind stupidity and blind faith. [“Because I said so” type arguments brought out by religious leaders come to mind.]

Two more characters that need to be discussed are Keith Darnell and Jaclyn Terwilliger. The latter is a teacher at the school and the leader of a witch coven who’s trying to recruit Sydney. Imagine the kind of conflict an indoctrinated magic and vampire hater faces when they’re told they have the innate ability to do magic flowing through their veins.

Keith is the subject of a more serious topic – and also the reason why Sydney was so deeply obligated to Rose Hathaway’s gangster father Abe Mazur in VA. Sydney was the only person who knew about her father’s Golden Boy Darnell raping her older sister, and her sister made her promise not to tell anyone. So when Sydney grew up and joined the Alchemists, she did what any sane person would do – took a hit out on Darnell, and used Abe Mazur’s contacts to do it. Keith thinks a random Strigoi attack took out one of his eyes with an arrow. Keith can apparently be very gullible.

The first time I read Bloodlines, I wasn’t entirely impressed with the book. Something about it – the style of writing, the editing maybe? – rubbed me up the wrong way. But my second read this year didn’t pose too many problems in that direction, so perhaps it was the crappy pirated pdf version that was the problem.

It’s a great set up book, establishing Sydney as determined to do the right thing and imbued with a great sense for fairness. It also shows us a side to her that goes beyond indoctrination and machine like obedience, both in her affections for her vampire friends and in her dealings with Mrs. Terwilliger.

Containing much of Mead’s hallmark comedy and teen drama, Bloodlines is a light read that touches on bigger and darker issues to be explored as the series progresses. It’s a must read for Vampire Academy fans, but you don’t really need to know the history of the series in order to pick it up and start reading.

Next in this Series: Bloodlines #2 – The Golden Lily by Richelle Mead

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #1 – Seventh Son 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: Vampire Academy #5 – Spirit Bound

Title: Spirit Bound
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 5
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.38
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Spirit Bound

Considering how long the previous post ended up being, I should make this one short and sweet: Hijinks! (And some regrettable death).

Spoilers!

After the darkness that was Blood PromiseSpirit Bound is back to the basics. And if there’s some residual darkness tingeing the book, I’m sure we can forgive and forget, all things considered. And by ‘all things’ I mean there’s a raging strigoi on the loose.

Despite having graduated near the top of her class, Rose’s future is lacking in real job prospects due to her reputation as an unreliable vigilante with little respect for the rules. So she’s largely left to her own devices, and shenanigans are on her mind.

First stop, Vegas! (Well, no. First stop was storming an unbeatable high security prison and breaking out a high security prisoner.) They’re on a mission to learn all they can about the possibility of healing and curing Strigoi, and this time Lissa gets to be in on the difficult adventures. When our troublesome little Scooby gang comes back, they’re in deep trouble. And Rose gets blamed for everything, as usual.

For once, Rose couldn’t care less. Yes, she’s worried about being handcuffed to a desk job for the rest of her life, but she’s numb. Very, very numbed by the realization that curing a Strigoi isn’t going to happen – not because it’s impossible, but because a Spirit user is supposed to do the job. There’s no way she’s going to let Lissa or Adrian – the only two known Spirit users – get anywhere close to Strigoi to even try.

Lissa on the other hand is still feeling very guilty over having been a poor friend to Rose in the past, and is determined to do this one thing for her. And here’s the thing about Lissa. A pampered, bleeding-heart princess she maybe, but when she needs to do something, nothing in the world will stop her. Clearly, there’s a reason she’s best friends.

Alongside all of the shenanigans go the political machinations. The panic and paranoia spreading amongst the Moroi elite cause them to pass a controversial law stating that dhampirs can now be sent out as guardians at the age of sixteen. They use Rose’s testimony to support this move, which, as anyone knows, is a terrible way to implement legislation. You can’t pick the exception from the lot and use it to propagate a fake generalization. It’s a terrible thing to do, causes uproar, and results in Rose calling Queen Tatiana a sanctimonious bitch in open court.

In the meanwhile, Crazy Dimitri is still on the loose. Following an incident in Vegas that involved a daylight attack and a literal mountain of dead security guards, he launches a savage attack on Lissa’s group while she’s touring her prospective college, kidnapping her and Christian as bait to lure Rose in. He’s now given up on the whole ‘turn you and we be together for all of eternity’ plan – now he’s just trying to kill her. Rose sees the whole thing through Lissa’s eyes, as he’d known she would, and plans and spearheads an attack force against Dimitri’s strigoi nest.

The first time she faced an undead Dimitri, Rose choked, leading to her capture. The second time she tried to kill him, there was no hesitation, but he kinda fell over a bridge before she could ensure the kill. The third time, in Vegas, she impulsively ensured that Eddie would fail to kill him. This time, the fourth and last time, it’s different. In her mind, it doesn’t matter anymore that he could be saved at some point in the future.

“You can’t, Rose. Haven’t you figured that out by now? Haven’t you seen it? You can’t defeat me. You can’t kill me. Even if you could, you can’t bring yourself to do it. You’ll hesitate. Again.”
No, I wouldn’t. That’s what he didn’t realize. He’d made a mistake bringing Lissa here. She increased the stakes–no pun intended–on everything. She was here. She was real. Her life was on the line, and for that . . . for that, I wouldn’t hesitate.

Dimitri must have a zillion lives, I’ll say that for the guy. Only this time, it’s Lissa standing in the way of Rose and Dimitri’s death. And like that, the story moves seamlessly into a narrative of redemption.

A Dhampir Reborn and the Death of a Queen

If Rose thought, even for a moment, that her heartache would be over the minute Dimitri was cured, she was mistaken. Mead makes both Rose and the reader work for that reconciliation, possibly because she knows very well that both Rose and the reader are, at this point, more than happy to give Dimitri every ounce of forgiveness they possess. For free. And the manner of this comes from Dimitri himself – a soul so tortured and lost that he bans Rose from his presence.

I’ll be honest. This portion of the book was difficult for me to read, mostly because I was bursting with righteous indignation. How dare he? How DARE he? Dimitri looks at Lissa almost reverentially, because she’s his saviour. Never mind that all she did was thrust that final stake. Never mind that Rose just broke ALL THE LAWS in a mere matter of weeks just to get to him and save him. He doesn’t even look at her. He can’t even bear to look at her.

Because Dimitri’s not being an asshole. Rose and the reader maybe willing to forget the events of Blood Promise – the kidnapping and the sexual assault via vitiated consent; the brainwashing of someone using potent drugs; the sheer lack of respect for life and liberty. But Dimitri isn’t. He remembers everything he did when he wasn’t himself, and he knows he’s not worthy of Rose, not after what he did – especially to her.

To add to their problems, the Moroi-Dhampir community is infinitely distrustful of this apparent healing of a Strigoi, and it becomes important to prove to everyone that he is no longer Strigoi. And one mustn’t forget the royal assassination that soon followed, and the fact that Rose was almost immediately implicated in it.

One of the best scenes in the book is getting to watch Abe Mazur ‘defend’ Rose in a court of law.

“What have you gotten me into?” I hissed to him.
“Me? What have you gotten yourself into? Couldn’t I have just picked you up at the police station for underage drinking, like most fathers?”
I was beginning to understand why people got irritated when I made jokes in dangerous situations.

Spirit Bound talks about the journey one embarks on when one’s trying to save something or someone, and questions you about the lengths you’re willing to go to achieve your goal. It asks you how you will prioritize your life. When you’re dedicating all your life and everything in it to your mission, is there anything left over? Anything that is more important than your mission and your life and everything in between?

It also talks about how, even after someone has been saved – even though they’ve been rescued – they still have a ways to go. Saving someone isn’t the same as redeeming them. And there is no forgiveness – there can be no forgiveness – without redemption. All too often in our lives, we forget this fact in our hurry to have our loved ones back in our lives. It pertains particularly to people who’ve been in Rose’s position – i.e. people who’ve been in abusive relationships. Humans do have the capability to love those close them even when their loved ones are being abusive. But they shouldn’t – they musn’t – get close to you again until they’ve redeemed themselves, and until you’re sure – dead sure – that there’s no trace of Strigoi left in them.

Next: Vampire Academy #6 – Last Sacrifice

Book Review: Vampire Academy #4 – Blood Promise

Title: Blood Promise
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2009
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 4
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.37
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

blood promise

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR BOOKS 3 AND 4

VA deals with the issue of faith through the perspective of several characters. Moroi society, having as it does its roots in Eastern Europe, is largely Orthodox Christian in their beliefs, and take their religious ceremonies very seriously. And they have good reason for doing so, seeing as they have proof of holiness and lack thereof in the Strigoi, who cannot enter holy ground.

Personal faith, however, varies from individual to individual as it is wont to do in any society. There are the religiously devout, like Lissa (don’t you just know she’s going to be religiously devout, goody two-shoes that she is?). There are the agnostic, like Rose, who has an agreement with God – she’ll believe in Him, barely, so long as He allows her to sleep in on Sundays. There’s Dimitri, whose faith is expressed more along the lines of a place to find peace in, and maybe hope for forgiveness for all of the killing he’s done. I mean, sure, he’s been killing Strigoi, but it’s killing nonetheless. I love Mead for making this distinction – for pointing out that it’s not home-free just because you’re killing monsters – because the moral consequences of your actions always affect you, the actor, and no one else. Snuffing out a life, regardless of the kind of life it is, will always have its effect on the snuffer (and not the snuffee).

And then there are the like’s of Christian ‘Tragic Backstory’ Ozera. Not only does Christian regularly go to church, but he also spends most of his lonely  life hanging around the church in a half sarcastic, half sincere effort to show people he hasn’t voluntarily gone Strigoi yet, like his parents did.

If Shadow Kiss was the coming of age novel in the VA series, Blood Promise is your first job – nerve wracking, too much responsibility, and it suddenly feels like you’re making too many mistakes. Life after eighteen is overwhelming – and so is Blood Promise.

This book also deals seriously with the concept of forgiveness, and tests the line between the lengths to which one can go and still be forgiven, and the point of no return.

After learning that Dimitri was forcibly turned into Strigoi, Rose drops out of school and leaves on a personal mission. She thinks constantly about a conversation they’d had way back in Vampire Academy, where both she and Dimitri had come to the conclusion that should they ever be turned Strigoi, they’d want to be killed rather than live as a merciless killing machine. And she’s on her way to fulfilling Dimitri’s wish.

Blood Promise demonstrates how unprepared Rose is for the real world. This is despite having numerous Strigoi kills to her name, and already being one of the best guardians in the Moroi world.

She has no idea where she might find Strigoi, or where Strigoi Dimitri may have gone. She has a notion that he might have returned to his native Russia, but he only mentioned the name of his hometown once, and she doesn’t remember it. In Russia, she sets about the most blunt and messy manner of finding information – hoping for blind luck. And her first break is Sydney Sage.

Rose’s ignorance about her world extends to ignorance about the Alchemists, an organization of humans whose aim is to ensure that the human world stays oblivious to all the vampires running around. If Sydney is anything to go by, the Alchemists are extremely religious and disgusted by vampires, are extremely intelligent, and have access to chemicals that allow them to instantly destroy dead bodies. With Sydney’s help, Rose reaches Dimitri’s hometown and meets his family.

I was struck by the callousness and self absorption of Moroi society, as it becomes clear that no one has bothered to let Dimitri’s family know of his fate. In the absence of a better explanation for why’s there, Rose allows them to assume that she came exclusively for the purpose for breaking the news to them. She blends into their family, treated as one of their own, a sister to Dimitri’s sisters, – especially to Viktoria, the youngest – an aunt to his nephew, and a daughter to his mom. Her relationship with Olena Belikova reflects on her relationship with Janine Hathaway. Olena is the mother Rose has always wished she had – the mother who raised her children herself, and who was there for them all their lives.

It’s a pleasant fantasy, but it doesn’t last very long for the obvious reason – Rose is Janine Hathaway’s daughter through and through. It does, however, take an intervention of sorts from Yeva Belikova – Dimitri’s ancient and crochety grandmother and an alleged witch – for Rose to finally shake herself out of her complacency and return to her quest.

On the other side of the world, the rest of the Scooby gang is steadily running itself into the ground. Without Rose around to take care of Lissa, she basically sets herself on a steady downward spiral (something we eventually learn isn’t completely her fault). Insane levels of partying, alcoholism, vandalism and cheating-on-Christian ensue under the influence of newcomer royal Avery Lazar. Christian reacts in typical fashion – he dumps her because he’s hurt and insecure and goes off to brood. Adrian is Adrian – drunk or hungover except for when he’s checking in on Rose’s dreams.

I’ve talked about Rose being able to see into Lissa’s mind working as a beautiful narrative device before, but nowhere in the series is it as wonderful as it is in Blood Promise. This is because Blood Promise is the only book in the series where Rose and Lissa are leading completely unconnected lives, and we get to keep simultaneous tabs on both their stories without needing a POV switch.

Alright, so I’ve stalled enough. It’s time to face up to the dark, dark stuff. So yes, Rose finally meets Dimitri. Dimitri the Strigoi. He’s powerful and terrible, and the encounter is a total sucker punch for her. Despite all of her preparation, she’s not ready. She’s just not ready.

To her credit, she tries to kill him. But the perfect moment is already past, and she’s knocked unconscious and captured. And the next portion of the book is a feminist critic’s personal hell.

The books so far have repeatedly emphasized the fact that strigoi are unnatural, undead and soulless, but Blood Promise drives that fact home like nobody’s business. The Dimitri Rose now confronts has no emotion, no feelings. His only motivation is power (funny how that works out isn’t it? If the desire for power doesn’t come from our souls, where does it come from?) and the only thing he recognizes is strength.

It is this respect for strength that prompts him to spare Rose’s life. Instead, he wants to awaken her – turn her into strigoi – so she can help him take over the strigoi crime underworld. Predictably, Roserefuses, and so he sets out to persuade her through a combination of drugging and brainwashing her, along with emotional and sexual manipulation. He dresses her up like a doll, buys her expensive trinkets, and drinks her blood over and over again.

Eventually however, she manages to retain her sanity for one precious moment – and that’s all it takes for her to manipulate him into not biting her for a change, to fight the severe withdrawal symptoms, plan and execute an escape in her weakened state, and kill all the strigoi in the house on her way out.

Well, all of them but Dimitri.

Since the book has been following not one, but two storylines, there’s one more action filled climactic sequence to be resolved before it can end, and I’m going to be a little presumptuous here and call it unique. A beautiful, wonderful and completely unique mess of a scene involving no less than four Spirit users, three shadowkissed and bonded individuals and incredible amounts of Spirit compulsion being wielded. Needless to say, it ended in the permanent institutionalization of three participants as they were now completely and criminally insane. (And indeed, how else could that scenario have played out, eh?)

Blood Promise ends with a shell shocked and traumatized Rose returning to St. Vlad’s and re-enrolling in her classes, and with a very shaken but recovering Lissa making her promise that the next time she goes off on an insane adventure, she’ll take Lissa with her. It marks a heart warming end note to a very violent book by returning to the classic foundation of this story: the strong and unbreakable friendship of two girls – each incredibly strong in her own way – who’d die for each other.

Up Next: Vampire Academy #5 – Spirit Bound

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

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

Angelfall
Angelfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Vampire Academy #3 – Shadow Kiss

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

VA #3 - Shadowkiss

SPOILER WARNING

For Books 1, 2 and 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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