Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #5 – The Black Circle

Title: The Black Circle
Author: Patrick Carman
Year of Publication: 2009
Series:
The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
#:
5
Goodreads Rating (Avg.):
4.00
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
1

the black circle.jpg

Plot Description: At the behest of a mysterious contact who claims to have known their grandmother, Amy and Dan Cahill travel to Russia to unravel a series of clues connected to the Lucian stronghold there, and also solve the mystery of whether Anastasia Romanova did really survive the assassination of the Tsar’s family.  And thus we come to my least favourite book in the entire series.

Over the course of the books so far, it has become clear that the clues they’re searching for are ingredients to an unknown compound. In Korea, Dan and Amy theorize that they may be searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. Gideon Cahill was an alchemist, but in the course of his efforts to find a cure for the Black Plague, he discovered a solution that would enhance the human body – intelligence, physique, artistic capabilities, ingenuity… When all the ingredients are combined, the Master Serum is formed, with the ability to transform any human being into something far beyond human.

The Black Circle does nothing new in terms of storytelling – the highlight of the book is perhaps the official alliance the Cahills form with the Holt family as they simultaneously search for clues in various Russian cities. But where the other books maintain a passable facade of being socially equitable, Carman manages to infuriate me by introducing some unnecessarily gendered rubbish.

Presumably as part of the Cahill kids’ character development, Carman has them driving vehicles through Moscow (thanks to fake IDs that establish them as being more than five years older than they are). Dan drives a motorcycle, and Amy drives the car. Now this… This! These roles could just as easily have been reversed. Now, I come from a country where women drive cars and scooters (like the Vespa). But if one were to take a census of the women who ride motorcycles in the country with the second largest population in the world, one would find that the number was so miniscule as to be practically invisible. I’ve been fighting numerous, numerous obstacles to be able to learn how to ride for a decade, and my younger brother practically had the lessons and the bikes handed to him on a silver platter.

No such obstructions exist in Dan and Amy’s world. It is a fictional world. It wouldn’t have killed anybody to have those roles reversed, and yet it seems to not have fucking occurred to them.

These things matter.

Next in this Series: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #6 – In Too Deep

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Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #3 – The Sword Thief

Title: The Sword Thief
Author: 
Peter Lerangis
Year of Publication: 
2009
Series:
The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
#:
3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.):
3.87
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
2

the sword thief

Plot Description: Dan and Amy head to Tokyo, and then Korea in the footsteps of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. I’m guessing the antics of a brutal warlord are diluted because it’s supposed to be a book for children – one of the first things written about Toyotomi in his Wikipedia entry is the fact that he once ordered the death by crucifixion of 26 Christians.

I do not appreciate Peter Lerangis’ skill in writing, primarily because he seems to think that being a child means to be incredibly childish – indeed, he takes this to nonsensical levels:

I’m figuring maybe the subway was built into the already existing tunnels!”
The Holts shut up at once.
“Dan — ” Amy warned. “You’re telling this to them!”
Dan looked up, bewildered. “I was telling Uncle Alistair.”
“But we-ee-ee heard you,” Reagan sang in a taunt, and stuck out her tongue.

– The Sword Thief, The 39 Clues #3 by Peter Lerangis (emphasis mine)

Take the above exchange. They’re all sitting in a small car. Your typical 11-year old is not, in fact, incapable of understanding that sitting in the same car means that the people next to you can hear what you say.  Whoa. Did I just blow your mind, Lerangis?

I have absolutely no explanation for this passage, why the author thought it a good idea to include it, why the editors let it pass, and so on. None whatsoever.

This book is the big one for alliances. Irina and the Kabras are working together. Alistair and the Cahills are working together. And then Alistair, the Cahills and the Kabras all join forces so they can discover a clue in a cave… After Ian spends like, half the book flirting with Amy, the Kabras promptly betray the Cahills once the clue is found, and Alistair promptly abandons them so Amy is left holding onto all sorts of unresolved feelings.

There, there, Amy. Lack of closure thanks to unreliable males in your life is something I can assuredly relate to.

Fortunately for them, the Cahills are beginning to get with the program. Dan gives the Kabras the wrong clue, sending them haring off in the wrong direction.

Between alliances, a hint as to the real objective of the quest, continuous betrayals, and the Cahills beginning to understand that they really shouldn’t be trusting their opponents, plot development seems to take a few steps forward. Sadly, the book is very badly, childishly and unrealistically written, and the Ian-Amy angle reminds me that they are in fact cousins. Certainly, enough generations have passed since the first set of Cahill siblings for it to not matter much, but it’s still kind of icky.

Pet Peeve: “Schist” is mentioned – a joke that also appears in Riordan’s Son of Neptune. I wonder whether he asked Lerangis to put it in here, or whether Lerangis inspired him… If it’s the latter, let the record state that I’ve always thought that joke to be in bad taste.

“Schist,” said an angry voice from the grass.
Hazel raised her eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“Schist! Big pile of schist!”
– Son of Neptune, Rick Riordan (Heroes of Olympus #2)

Next in this Series: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #4 – Beyond the Grave

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

Book Review: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell

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

Spoiler Warning

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

The Indigo Spell begins on a hilarious note:

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

“Are you a virgin?”

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

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

“Um, yes. . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha! Got you, old man.

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

Told you it was cute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: The Drawing of the Three
Author: Stephen King
Year of Publication: 1987
Series: The Dark Tower
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.21
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

A Few Important Spoilers Here and There

drawing of the three

Plot Description: In this sequel to The Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead must meet three strangers who will help him on his quest – the Stranger, the Lady of Shadows and the Pusher. Together with new characters Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes, Roland journeys further along the path that he hopes will eventually lead him to the Dark Tower.

At this stage in the series, I was still pretty absorbed by the plot. This was despite the fact that the writing remained dry and cramped, and the whole time I was reading this book I felt like I was eating something completely tasteless out of some weird compulsion.

Fascination might actually be a better term for it, because in The Drawing of the Three, King actually introduces a few characters who are far more likeable and relatable than his Cowboy With An Extra Helping of Hero. The problem with Roland is that he’s presented as practically flawless – his only flaw is his singleminded determination to reach the Tower no matter what, and since that’s the whole point of the series, it’s not really considered a flaw. On the other hand, Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes are both extremely flawed characters who must balance their personal struggles with helping Roland on his quest. This is despite the fact that both of them were pulled unwillingly out of their respective lives – lives which take place in different decades in our modern world – by Roland the Selfish Hero.

Roland was last seen waking from his conversation with his old enemy Merlin, only to find that ten years have passed since he sat down to talk to the wizard, and that the wizard is now dead. I mention these facts because they are completely out of line with the story presented in later books (plothole alert!) where it says that a hundred years passed while he was talking to Merlin, not ten, and that Merlin isn’t dead after all. As an afterthought, Merlin’s continued existence is ret-conned and we’re told he faked his death. What purpose was served by this entire rigmarole is something we readers will forever remain in the dark about, unfortunately.

Eddie Dean is the Prisoner represented in the first of the tarot cards Merlin draws for Roland during their ‘palaver’. (Old fashioned terms like this one are overused to the point of exasperation throughout this series). Eddie, it turns out, is not a conventional prisoner, but a junkie – a prisoner to heroin. Roland first encounters him as he’s endeavouring to get a couple of bags of cocaine through customs as a drug mule in 1987, and he eventually pulls Eddie out of our world and into his, where Eddie begins to experience withdrawal and is taught in the ways of being a gunslinger by Roland.

Odetta Holmes is a crippled civil rights activist from 1964 who suffers from multiple personality disorder brought on by multiple traumas in her life – including the accident which caused her to lose her legs. Odetta is educated, soft spoken and non violent, and thus the complete opposite of her alter ego, Detta Walker. Detta is extremely violent and dangerous, harbours a burning hatred for white people – especially white men, is delusional, and speaks in an exaggerated caricature of the stereotype of an uneducated Afro-American. Just as with Eddie and his drug addiction, Roland helps Odetta and Detta confront reconcile their personalities, thus creating Susannah Dean.

Both Eddie and Susannah (who have fallen in love and consider themselves married) prove to be ‘natural gunslingers’, picking up the knack of fast shooting and other gunslinger characteristics extremely quickly. This is despite the fact that neither of them have ever trained for any sort of active physical life, and considering it took Roland and his childhood friends a decade before they could be considered trained gunslingers, I find this premise unlikely (and therefore an example of shoddy and lazy writing). Eddie and Susannah are ‘natural gunslingers’ only because the plot demands it of them.

The final person Roland comes face to face with is Jack Mort, a lowlife criminal sociopath with murderous tendencies. Throughout his life, the Pusher has attempted to kill numerous people, either by dropping heavy things on them from above, or by pushing them – into traffic (as in the case of Jake Chambers) or into the path of an oncoming train (as in the case of Susannah Dean). When Roland realizes that Jack Mort is responsible both for Jake’s initial death in The Gunslinger as well as for the loss of Susannah’s legs and the development of her Multiple Personality Disorder, he kills Jack in revenge, and to prevent him from killing Jake (again). Roland’s actions here also set up for the return of an alternate version of Jake Chambers in the next book, The Waste Lands.

The vibrant and unique personalities of Eddie and Susannah Dean are what saved this book as far as I was concerned. Indeed, the further this series progressed, the more it became clear to me that of the eventual quintet, Roland was the least interesting, the least worth saving.

While The Drawing of the Three is still pretty good as far as novels go, the series is fast approaching decline, which is why I’d never recommend it to anyone. Unless they were stuck in Mid World with Roland of Gilead and had nothing better to do.

Next in this Series: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Next Review: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell

Book Review: Dark Tower #1 – The Gunslinger

Title: The Gunslinger
Author: Stephen King
Year of Publication: 1982
Series: Dark Tower
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Spoilers, For The Other Books in This Series As Well

gunslinger

Plot Description: A lone man trudges across a vast desert, chasing after a stranger in a brown robe. He’s Roland Deschain of Gilead, the titular Gunslinger, and he’s on a quest to find the Dark Tower – whatever that may be.

*Cue lamentation* Oh Gunslinger! How I wanted to love you! You and every character, every plotline, every single repeated phrase and cringe-worthy expression of emotion and…

Oh well. The Gunslinger opens on Roland trudging through the desert, then flashes back to the village he’d stayed in a while back, then back to Roland trudging through the desert and thinking deep thoughts, now back again to that village, and now Roland is thirsty in the present and that reminds him of how he was thirsty a while back and had come across a random farmer after he’d left the village…

The flash backwards would have been an interesting narrative device, but they get swallowed up in the vast, navel gazing desert that is The Gunslinger. The book tries to keep the mystery of Roland and his quest alive by dropping tantalizing hints – and this works, but not for too long. And all the while you’re being distracted by scenes, themes, parallels, and Easter Eggs – all the things, in short that a fan would want to see while doing a re-read.

Roland’s universe is – as far as I understood it – set far in the future. So far in the future, in fact, that the human race hit the ultimate limits of technology, surpassed it, had themselves a couple of nuclear wars and worldwide plagues, managed to find Magic in an alternate universe and marry it to technology in an attempt to keep the world alive… and then disappeared/ died out, taking their knowledge and most of their tech secrets with them. What came after (the Great Old Ones, which is what these masters of technology are called) is a mixture of the medieval era and the wild, wild west. Roland is of the line of Eld, started so many years ago by King Arthur of Eld, who was I suppose the first gunslinger. Arthur founded an order of gunslingers – legendary law enforcers and fighters, and Roland is the last of them. It is imperative, it seems, that the reader understand just how important and awesome and cool and effective Roland is.

Yeah, we get it.

The plot isn’t bad, as far as fantasy novels go. The universe is a fascinating mix of futuristic technology, the Wild West and medieval europe – a holy trifecta for fantasy readers. But then we get to the details, and I start wondering just how disturbed the mind of Stephen King is.

Don’t get me wrong. I can read smut, and crass stuff, and I’m often impressed by it. Because masterfully placed smut can jolt the reader like not much else can. But – and here’s what I think is a golden rule – smut should never be used purely for shock value. There has to be a point. It must further or enrich the plot somehow.

So hearing about a crazed religious preacher who claims the man being chased by Roland has magically impregnated her, and who then tries to kill him… is a bit confusing, to say the least. Like, what is the point of this pregnancy? Why was it mentioned? Does all of this serve to heighten the atmosphere of strangeness and occult horror, making the reader jumpy and on edge.

Yes, it sort of does. Until the reader is saturated with this nonsense and no longer feels surprised at anything not even a mutant spider-man hybrid baby that was born of two human and two supernatural parents, and whose only goal seems to have been to murder all of its parents… by eating them, and anything else that gets in its way. 

The reader is supposed to focus on Roland. Roland the man, Roland the deadly killing machine, Roland who is blindly focused on his quest, Roland who regrets killing the people he doesn’t completely hate, but can’t care enough to do anything about it.

The moment where Roland sacrifices a newly acquired travelling companion (a young boy called Jake) for the chance to face the man he was chasing is a turning point in his life. While he remains unsure of whether he’d repeat this act if he had to, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have. If he’d ever been faced with the choice of Tower versus the life of a loved one, Roland would pick the loved one.

Roland is so impossibly perfect (as far as gunslinging goes) in this book that you can’t help but admire him. But that’s about it for this book. The writing is sloppy, there are plot holes that you won’t notice until you get further along in the series, and the whole experience is dry and distracting, thanks to all the flashing back and forth.

Stephen King refers to this series as his magnum opus. I agree, if by magnum opus you mean the biggest story you’ve ever written. Just like with Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series, the first book in the Dark Tower series is a set up. It has just enough background and slow plot to keep the reader interested, and it ends on a pause, not a stop. And just like with Alvin Maker, the Dark Tower series seems to spin rapidly out of control the further you get.

I honestly cannot decide which series is worse – the pros and cons cancel each other out – but like with Alvin Maker, this book (and by extension, this series) shouldn’t really be picked up by anyone who’s going to feel cheated by an unsatisfactory ending which comes on the heels of pages and pages of word vomit.

Next In This Series: Dark Tower #2 – The Drawing of the Three

Next Review: Bloodlines #2 – The Golden Lily

Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #1 – Seventh Son

Title: Seventh Son
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1988
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.86
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Mild Spoilers, If You Can Call ‘Em That

seventh son

Plot Description: In an alternate universe version of America – back in the Frontier days – Orson Scott Card presents a world filled with magic, and a reimagining of various historical persons and places.

I recently finished both this series as well as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and my reaction to both of them were pretty similar, so I’m going to try and review them together.

The reaction I refer to is one of extreme annoyance coupled with my ever present compulsion to have to finish the story, to know what happens at the end – no matter how badly off the rails the whole thing is going. This is, however, a reaction one forms over the course of reading the Alvin Maker series, and Seventh Son is mostly exempt from such feelings.

The title refers to the myth of a seventh son of a seventh son being a wizard – Terry Pratchett incorporates this into his Discworld novels, and Jo Rowling gives it a nod via the Weasley family (it is implied that Arthur is a seventh son, and that Ginny is the seventh child of a seventh child).

In Card’s Frontier America, almost everybody is magical in some way or the other – magic which represents itself in the form of oddball talents called ‘knacks’. But Alvin Maker, as the seventh son of a seventh son, is extremely powerful – his knack is Making (i.e. Creation of stuff).

Because of his potential for greatness, an evil known as the Unmaker keeps trying to kill Alvin from since before he was born. It is up to Peggy, a little girl whose knack is being a Torch (or seer) to foresee the dangers the Unmaker puts in little Alvin’s way and protect him from them.

Seventh Son touches on the way of life for families on the Frontier, weaving his ideas of a magical world into an already familiar tapestry. So far, so good. He also takes on religion – the Unmaker is a parallel to the Devil, or Satan, or Lucifer or whatever we want to call him, and he’s fighting to destroy Creation. As a Maker, it’s Alvin’s job to to keep creating as a way of fighting the Unmaker, but it’s made clear that it’s not a battle he’d ever win in a definitive way. Just something he’s got to keep doing. All this is told to Alvin by Taleswapper (an alternate history version of William Blake), a wandering storyteller who collects stories – personal tales – and tells them to other people.

It is also strongly implied that organized religion is really the work of the Unmaker, promoting evil through its good intentions.

There are references to the Native American tribes and the battles of the settlers with them, but this is only properly dealt with in detail from Red Prophet (second book in the series) onwards.

There are also supposed to be a number of parallels to Mormonism, but I don’t know anything about that, so I didn’t catch any of those parallels. :/

A lot of GR reviewers have complained that this book is merely – and clearly – a set up for the rest of the series, and they would be right. Seventh Son is not a stand alone book – there is just a pause at the end, and a promise to continue the tale soon. The first book however, was interesting enough to suck me in – enough that I’d probably have hunted down the second book in the series if I didn’t already have it with me. But – and here’s the catch – the rest of the series doesn’t live up to the promise of Seventh Son (let alone surpass it), so taking up this book (and by extension the rest of the series) would, in my opinion, be a waste of time.

Next In This Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet

Next Review: Dark Tower #1 – The Gunslinger