Friday, 23 June 2017

The Rose and the Dagger

In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad is forced from the arms of her beloved husband, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once thought Khalid a monster—a merciless killer of wives, responsible for immeasurable heartache and pain—but as she unraveled his secrets, she found instead an extraordinary man and a love she could not deny. Still, a curse threatens to keep Shazi and Khalid apart forever.

Now she’s reunited with her family, who have found refuge in the desert, where a deadly force is gathering against Khalid—a force set on destroying his empire and commanded by Shazi’s spurned childhood sweetheart. Trapped between loyalties to those she loves, the only thing Shazi can do is act. Using the burgeoning magic within her as a guide, she strikes out on her own to end both this terrible curse and the brewing war once and for all. But to do it, she must evade enemies of her own to stay alive.

I adored The Wrath and the Dawn. Really adored it. It was the kind of sumptuous, romantic, mesmerising read that had me running late to meet my friends at the pub because I got so swept away with it. It was the kind of book that had me on travel website looking for trips to far-flung, exotic locations. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading The Rose and the Dagger. Maybe I was afraid I'd be disappointed. And, unfortunately, I was.

TRATD isn't a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but the gulf in my enjoyment between this book and its predecessor was the biggest I've had since Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. As in, huge. The biggest issue I had with the story was that I found it so incredibly boring. Renee Ahdieh's writing is as lush and evocative as ever, her ability to paint vivid sights and sounds and smells in your mind as you read is truly incredible. What worked in the intimate, character-driven setting of TWATD just doesn't seem to work in an expanded world. The last book seemed to work when it was confined almost a handful of characters and barely ventured outside the walls of Khalid's castle, but the limitations of this style of storytelling are laid bare when the author tries to take the same characters that worked so well in that setting and throw them out into a wider world. They just seem to flounder and very little happened for huge chunks of the book. The plot barely goes anywhere until the final act, and when it finally kicks into gear, everything feels rushed and anticlimactic as a result.

After being "rescued"from Khalid by Tariq and his forces at the end of TWATD, Shazi spends much of this book sulking in the desert, living amongst the rebellion against her husband, Khalid, who see her as a traitor. Her father is catatonic after unleashing the storm which ruined Khalid's city and allowed her childhood love Tariq to steal her away. Tariq, it's worth pointing out, is heading up the rebellion against the much-hated king, giving Shazi a love interest on both sides of the impending war. Meanwhile, Khalid sulks around his castle, moping about his lost love and generally kicking his heels. Unfortunately, that's the crux of much of the story. While the first book was a contained, character-driven story set mostly in one place, TRATD sets up a much bigger story with more players and more world-building. But this, very different, story is told much the same way as the first, which turns what should be an exciting, fast-paced story of love, betrayal, jealousy, scheming, politics and war into a dull, lifeless tale about two people sulking about their lot.

The characters seem to have gone backwards. Shazi's behaviour has gone from making her seem like a capable badass to a sulking brat. She's selfish, whiny and treats people who are trying to help her like dirt. She lies to her sister, insults Tariq and only seems to make an effort with her father when there's some benefit in it for her (or, more likely, for Khalid by proxy). Poor Tariq deserves better! I'll give the author props for not going down the traditional love triangle route and making it clear from the outset where Shazi's allegiances lie, but that doesn't mean it's okay for Shazi to treat Tariq as appallingly as she does. Khalid doesn't fare much better either, skulking around his palace and moping like a spoiled child who's had his favourite toy taken away. Shazi and Khalid were entirely defined by their relationship with each other, and, for all the author's attempts to paint Shazi as a strong, independent woman, when the two guys were engaging in a dick-measuring contest over her, she just came across as being childish. Even when the book should be progressing into the wider story of an impending war, it's hampered by page after page of Shazi and Khalid waxing lyrical about how beautiful and wonderful and super-special the other is.

Oh, Tariq! You deserved so much more than being shackled to such a wet blanket! It's such a shame because Tariq's intentions are pretty honourable - and he's something of a calming influence amongst the more hot-headed rebels who are looking to overthrow Khalid. However, the story - and even the book blurb - making him out to be a spurned lover who's acting out of spite, when his actions are perfectly reasonable. Shazi may think Khalid is a saint, but as far as everyone else can see, he's a mass-murderer and a pretty shitty ruler, and they're totally within their rights to try and overthrow him. I would love to read a book from Tariq's point of view of this story without the author's doe-eyed obsession over Khalid that contaminates his pov chapters. Speaking of other characters, I absolutely loved Shazi's snarky handmaiden Despina in the first book and I was really hoping to see more of her. So I was disappointed that she barely turned up in this book, and, when she did, her friendship with Shazi was completely dumped on in favour of a twist that didn't feel like it had been set up at all. Despina switches allegiances back and forth so abruptly that it robs the plot of any tension and comes off as a cheap attempt at a twist. Luckily, Shazi's relationship with her sister fared slightly better, even if I wish they did talk about something other than guys for five minutes.

There were elements of the book that I loved, in the moments where the story broke free of the sappy love story that was hobbling it. Shazi gets to grips with her magic (even if the specifics of what she could do and why were a little too vague for me) and travels to a mysterious, far-flung city to train with the enigmatic Artan. Sure, his sole purpose seems to be to act as exposition to the world of magic, but the author manages to make him so much more. His dialogue crackles with energy, even when he's spouting reems of exposition. This character immediately became my new favourite person! He wasn't afraid to call Khalid out on his sanctimonious bullshit, or tell Shazi to grow up and stop sulking. I loved him! It was just a shame that these bits were so few and far between and that so much felt unexplored or just skimmed over. The curse that had been plaguing Khalid for years turned out to be a whole lot of nothing. Considering it's literally the point of the first book, it turns out to be pretty lame, and Khalid manages to free himself of it laughably easily. The magic in this world is left frustratingly fuzzy too - which was one of my niggling issues with TWATD. There's no explanation as to why Shazi has it and what exactly it is that she can do. As much as I loved her flying magic carpet, why the hell was she able to make it fly? Was it just that carpet, or could she fly other carpets? She throws fire around when she trains with Artan, but, aside from giving Khalid a reason to smoulder and sulk and get physically aggressive towards Artan to provide his macho credentials, it adds nothing to the story and is barely mentioned again. Has Shazi got any other elemental powers? Why does her sister not show any signs of having magic? Do other people in this world other than Shazi and her father possess magical abilities, or are they just super-special?

After very little happening for the vast majority of the book, the plot finally felt like it kicked into gear towards the end when it finally looked like we were going to get to see a showdown between the two opposing forces, with a little bit of magic thrown in. It was just such a shame that by the time we get to this stage there are barely a few chapters left. New villains are introduced ridiculously late in the story, and the big battle I was expecting ended up being a pretty damp squib that stopped before it really got started. The ending looked to be a redeemer, something that was going to subvert my expectations and pull off a gutsy ending rather than wrap everything up in a nice neat bow, but it was undone by a sappy epilogue so saccharine I think it gave me diabetes.

The Rose and the Dagger is an impeccably written book with I wanted to love it, I really did, but all the elements I loved the first time around - the slow-burn story, the character-driven plot and the contained, intense romance - seemed to hinder rather than help. Objectively, it's a good book and I'm sure some people for will love it for the exact reasons I didn't, but I found it to be a colossal let down.

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