Sunday, 19 February 2017

Crooked Kingdom

Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn't think they'd survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they're right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and left crippled by the kidnapping of a valuable team member, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz's cunning and test the team's fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city's dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of magic in the Grisha world.

Spoiler alert! This review contains a few mentions that could be considered minor spoilers if you haven't read Crooked Kingdom. I try to keep anything too spoilerific out of my review, but there are some stray mentions in there which might spoil a couple of plot points.

Do you ever feel like you must have missed something with a book? Everyone raves about it. It has a 4.6 rating on Goodreads. It's been on just about every bestseller list going. And then you read it, and you wonder if your copy somehow ended up with different contents than everyone else's? That was my feeling on finally finishing Crooked Kingdom.

I loved Six of Crows. Really loved it. It was a step up from the Grisha trilogy - which I really enjoyed - in terms of plotting and writing style, and it ended on one hell of a hook. I barely put Six of Crows down when I was reading it, and all the reviews I've read for the second in the duology were raves, so I was expecting more of the same from Crooked Kingdom. I didn't find it. I hit the wall about a third of the way in, and found the second half of this book an absolute chore to get through. Perhaps if my hopes hadn't been so high, I wouldn't have been so disappointed. But the gulf between book one and book two, between my expectation and the reality, was a big one.

Whereas Six of Crows had a tight, consistent plot, Crooked Kingdom felt like four or five different plots stuck together. It just felt so disjointed, with Kaz and the gang lurching from one ludicrously implausible scheme to the next. They cook up a plot that seems impossible, execute it, almost get caught but then get away thanks to Kaz's apparent omnipotence. Repeat ad nauseum. I lost count of the number of times I put this book down. First there's rescuing Inej, then there's revenge on Van Eck, then there's something about buying up sugar and bombing the city's supply to increase its worth, then there's rescuing Grisha, then there's revenge on Pekka Rollins. And I've probably missed some because I got to the stage where I was skimming towards the end. Reading back what I've written, these individual plots probably hung together to form a grander scheme, but I never got that sense while I was reading. Everything felt very episodic. Don't get me wrong, the world building is incredible, and the intricacies of the plot are so tight they'd tie a less talented writer up in knots. But with so much going on, I just found the book unforgivably boring. There was a bigger story going on here, with Grisha-enhanced super soldiers infused with metal flying around and kingdoms teetering on the brink of all-out war, fighting for control of those with magic and the opiate-like substance used to turbocharge them, but it felt relegated to the background in favour of another "OMG, isn't Kaz awesome!?" moment.

My main problem with this book was the same niggling problem I had with Six of Crows and can be summed up in two words. Kaz Brekker. Honestly, the man is a total dick. Alright, he's got a tragic backstory, but no more so than many other, far more pleasant characters. Quite why anyone puts up with this nasty, arrogant asshole is beyond me. The oddly limp finale has him finally getting his revenge on the man he perceives to have wronged him (short version; he tricked Kaz and his brother out of all their money and turned them out onto the streets where his brother got sick and died. Let's just ignore the fact that Kaz openly admits to conning numerous people out of their money and putting them in exactly the same situation, shall we? And if you've read Six of Crows already - which I presume most people would have - it's nothing you don't already know), by giving a loving, uncomfortably detailed description of how he buried the man's innocent son alive. Our hero, ladies and gentleman! Sure, it turns out to be a bluff, but what kind of sick fuck does that? I just can't bring myself to root for such a colossal prick, and the numerous instances of him treating his supposed friends/allies/people he needs around for his own benefit, like utter garbage did nothing to endear him to me either, and the less said about the scenes of him threatening children and tormenting heavily pregnant women the better. His scenes with Inej towards the end, while offering moments of genuine sweetness, were too little too late to redeem this character in my eyes. In fact, pairing him with her, a far better character who'd been through worse and come out stronger, only made his flaws seem more glaring. I appreciate that different people handle trauma in different ways, and it would have been pretty boring if we'd ended up with six identical, scarred but hopeful characters, but Kaz's utter assholery and insufferable smugness just made me want to see him get outsmarted and having the everloving crap kicked out of him. But of course, that never happened.

And that raises my other problem that the character of Kaz. His apparent omnipotence and constant forward thinking, to the point I assumed he must be a new kind of Grisha who could see the future (alas, this is not the case), robbed the story and events of any tension. I'd suggest a drinking game where you take a shot everytime a character waxes lyrical about how sly, sneaky and badass Kaz is, but you'd run a very serious risk of death from alcohol poisoning. The best you could hope for is a three day hangover.

In every single situation, he's one step ahead, knowing information he couldn't possibly have known and planning for scenarios he could never have foreseen. That happens once in a story, and it's exciting. It's a heart-stopping near miss, raising the stakes for our protagonists. But when you've seen the story-ordained hero trick his way out of an impossible situation for the fourth time - and that's just in this book, I'm not even counting Six of Crows - you stop caring the next time they're in danger, because you know exactly what's going to happen. The finale of this duology, which should have been an all out battle of epic proportions, ends up being a damp squib that essentially rehashes the same plot twist we've seen four or five times already. Oh not, Kaz is outsmarted and they're all going to die! Oh wait, no they're not. The guy manages to outwit every single character he crosses paths with, beat up a room full of heavily armed thugs bare-handed (despite having a dodgy leg and needing a cane to walk) and has an extensive knowledge of geo-politics, trading markets and property investment. He's less a character than a plot device, a heavy-handed analogy for how rotten Ketterdam makes people and just a thoroughly unpleasant bastard, and not in a good way. I found myself veering between bored and annoyed by him, which meant I spent a good deal of the book in a foul mood. If you love the character - which many people appear to do, so I'm very much the minority - you'll probably love this book. In fact, I'm fairly certain you will, as Kaz is clearly intended to be a product of his environment and a personification of Ketterdam; damaged, harsh, but not completely beyond redemption. But for me personally, the character was pretty much the entire reason I didn't enjoy this book.

Elsewhere, the characters I loved so much in book one were all present and correct, if a little sidelined by the plot. Inej is still my favourite character, with a little more of her backstory coming out in this book. She deserved better than being shackled to a miserable git like Kaz, but that's love I guess. Nina's battle with her addiction to parem was suitably brutal, even though I had no idea by the end of the book why it had changed her powers from a heartrender to someone who could apparently raise the dead into some sort of zombie horde to do her bidding. I'm still too pissed off by what happened to Matthias to even mention him, but I was glad to see Jesper and Wylan finally get together. Forget Kaz and Inej (well, not Inej, because she's awesome), this pair stole the show for me! There were a couple of returning faces, but they were too fleeting to make much impact. Even my beloved Sturmhond got short changed! I loved the introduction of Dunyasha, a mysterious assassin who goes after Inej, but she pops up in literally two scenes, says something about having royal blood, and then gets killed off. It's just ... bizarre! Why the hell go to so much trouble describing this character, giving her a jump-off-the-page-awesome personality and a deliciously enticing tie to a bigger picture, only to have her fall off a roof on her second outing? Maybe she was somehow connected to the original Grisha trilogy and I've just forgotten about her, but what a waste!

In a sea of cookie-cutter YA characters that bring little to the table in terms of diversity, I like that this series involves a mix of ethnicities and sexualities. There aren't a whole lot of romantic scenes in this book, but one of the few kissy scenes - and easily the most lengthy and detailed one - occurs between two guys. The author does an awesome job of writing the female characters too, with a refreshing lack of bitchiness and backstabbing, and a healthy representation of female sexuality without any judgey faces from other characters. Again, more of this please!

I feel a little harsh giving this book just two stars because Leigh Bardugo is such a fantastic writer and, even when the story wasn't holding my interest, her writing is pure poetry. There's no way this book is two stars in terms of writing quality, but it's two stars in terms of my enjoyment, and that's how my ratings work. Crooked Kingdom was impeccably plotted and dazzling well written, but it bored me to tears.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Waiting on Wednesday #6 - Roar

Yay! I've finally made it to another Waiting on Wednesday! The universe seems to conspire against me whenever I try to take part in this, but, finally, through some forward planning and actual organisation, I made it this week. Success! A big thank you to Jill at Breaking The Spine for hosting this weekly feature.

My first Waiting on Wednesday this year (my god, I really am unorganised!) is Roar by Cora Carmack. Oh, Roar! Let me count the reasons I am waiting for thee!

1. I've been looking for a book to fill the hole in my life that was left by the Storm Siren trilogy, and I think this might be it. It has enough similarities to hook me, and enough differences to reel me in.
2. From the blurb alone, Roar has all the magic ingredients I look for in a YA fantasy read, with enough twists on convention to make it something different; a "magical" saviour who doesn't actually possess magic, a princess who's trying to get out of a marriage to a hot prince rather than into one, and a heroine who's going out to take power for herself. No special snowflakes here!
3. As the author herself says; "There’s a hot (and possibly evil) prince, a bad ass storm hunter who looks great in leather, a princess in disguise, and a really fun and ferocious cast of characters. Plus lots of angsty sexual tension and kissing and swoony stuff." Hot damn! Where do I preorder?
4. That cover art. Seriously, look at it! That deserves to be framed and put on the wall!

In a land ruled and shaped by violent magical storms, power lies with those who control them.

Aurora Pavan comes from one of the oldest Stormling families in existence. Long ago, the ungifted pledged fealty and service to her family in exchange for safe haven, and a kingdom was carved out from the wildlands and sustained by magic capable of repelling the world’s deadliest foes. As the sole heir of Pavan, Aurora’s been groomed to be the perfect queen. She’s intelligent and brave and honorable. But she’s yet to show any trace of the magic she’ll need to protect her people.

To keep her secret and save her crown, Aurora’s mother arranges for her to marry a dark and brooding Stormling prince from another kingdom. At first, the prince seems like the perfect solution to all her problems. He’ll guarantee her spot as the next queen and be the champion her people need to remain safe. But the more secrets Aurora uncovers about him, the more a future with him frightens her. When she dons a disguise and sneaks out of the palace one night to spy on him, she stumbles upon a black market dealing in the very thing she lacks—storm magic. And the people selling it? They’re not Stormlings. They’re storm hunters.

Legend says that her ancestors first gained their magic by facing a storm and stealing part of its essence. And when a handsome young storm hunter reveals he was born without magic, but possesses it now, Aurora realizes there’s a third option for her future besides ruin or marriage.

She might not have magic now, but she can steal it if she’s brave enough.

Challenge a tempest. Survive it. And you become its master.


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Top Ten Tuesday - Hate to love romances

Happy Valentine's Day everyone! Or, as the card my boyfriend gave me this morning said, Happy Let's Get Ripped Off For A Shit Card And Some Overpriced Flowers Day (who says romance is dead?)! This week's Top Ten Tuesday's romance-based theme is All About Romance Tropes/Types, so I've gone for my top ten hate to love romances - these are romances where the characters start off hating each other and end up loving each other, not romances that I hate to admit that I like.

(As always, a big thanks your to the fab bloggers over at The Broke and The Bookish for this weekly meme!)

I love good hate to love romances that are done right as much as I loathe ones that are done wrong. I couldn't come up with ten I hated or ten I loved, so I decided to do five of each. So, here are my best and worst hate to love relationships in fiction, plus a couple thrown in from TV (I'll let you guess which show I've been binge-watching lately).

Ones I love

Buffy and Spike - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Forget Buffy and Angel, Buffy and Spike were by far and away the better pairing. Plus, they hated each other more on meeting, so their journey to sort-of love by the end of the show packed more of a punch. Also, you can keep David Boreanaz's sullen pouting and I'll take James Marsters' dry humour and tight t-shirts. His back and forth hunter vs hunted relationship with Buffy, their hilarious banter and their genuinely sweet moments were the highlights of later series'. Okay, maybe she didn't really love him at the end. But she said it anyway.

Nym and Eogan - Storm Siren
I love this series, I love the characters, and I love this couple! The hate was pretty one-sided, coming almost entirely from Nym towards the man who was training her to harness her storm powers as a weapon of war, but Eogan supports her every step of the way. There's no instances of the guy treating the girl like crap, disrespecting her or mistreating her just to make their eventual love seem more of a transformation, Eogan's too much of a sweetheart and Nym's too much of a badass for that to fly!

Karou and Akiva - Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well. Okay, so this one's more hate to love, back to hate, then back to love again, but it's epic! I don't want to say too much because spoilers, but this is Romeo and Juliet amongst warring angels and demons. A blue-haired, demon serving girl and a winged, vengeance-seeking angel-boy. Their highs are high and their lows are low as the pair find themselves on opposite sides of a centuries old war, but their souls always find each other. Even if they don't always want them to.

Mia and Tric - Nevernight
God damn you Jay Kristoff! Was it too much to hope that these too would get a happy ending (no spoiler by the way. It's made abundantly clear in the opening chapters that this story is not going to end with "and they all lived happily ever after")? From the gender stereotype switch up - they're both wannabe assassins, but she's the ass-kicking, foul-mouthed, hyper-violent one, and he's the sensitive, moral, considerate one - to their back and forth between rivals, lovers, fighters and friends is beautiful, all the more so because it's overshadowed by the spectre of inevitable heartbreak.

Shazi and Khalid - The Wrath and the Dawn
Khalid is the boy-king who takes a new wife each night and executes her each morning. Shazi is the volunteer bride looking to avenge her best friend's murder by killing Khalid. Sometimes the "hate" in hate-to-love relationships in YA is forced to make the "to-love" bit seem all the more dramatic, but in this case, it's perfectly justified! The slow-burn relationship between the pair and Shazi's uncertainty about her mission as she learns more about the boy behind the mask, all set against a dreamy middle-eastern backdrop, is front and centre of the story as Shazi falls foul of her own heart.

Ones I hate

Cordelia and Xander - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I love Cordelia and I love Xander. But I hate Cordelia and Xander. I love an odd couple pairing but  never go on board with this one. It felt like one of the writers randomly said; "hey, wouldn't it be funny if Cordelia and Xander got together?", and then they all went home for the day and it got left in the script. It never felt believable, it never felt fully developed and it was just weird. Good thing it didn't last! Although I still maintain that Xander should have ended up with Faith!

Ananna and Naji - The Assassin's Curse
Ananna was an amazing character, and until she was paired up with Naji, this book was great. Unfortunately the author saddled an amazing character with a crappy love interest and killed the pacing of the story dead. Ananna turns from a total badass to a whiney pushover who traipses around after Naji, talks shit about his exes because they're prettier than her and just generally sulking. I fail to see what either of these characters see in each other, and to top if all of, their continued presence around each other is down to another of my pet peeves; an unbreakable magic bond. I hate these so much! Because magic is not a basis for a relationship, it's a lazy way of sticking two characters together and allowing one character to treat the other like crap (usually the guy to the girl) and not be called on it.

Lea and Les - Assassin's Heart
Both of these characters are a stupid and unlikable as each other, so they're at least a good match. But they're both also amoral, selfish, idiotic and just downright unpleasant. Still, their hate to love romance was one of the worst things about a book that I absolutely hated.

Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo - A Song of Ice and Fire
Their romance fares a little better in the books that on TV (he doesn't rape her at least), but the fact remains that Dany is a thirteen year old child bride sold to a brutal war lord against her will by her own brother. Regardless of where their relationship goes, it's forever tainted by how it started in my eyes.

Cyra and Ako - Carve the Mark
This relationship is far from the most problematic thing about this book, but it's certainly up there. My main issue with this one is that it was just so by the numbers. Every stage was obvious, every "twist" was signposted and every conflict was glossed over. I knew from the blurb alone exactly how this relationsip would start, develop and end, and I wasn't wrong. Nothing about it surprised me and nothing felt original. I felt like I'd read it a hundred times before, and while I could probably level that criticism at any number of hate to love relationships in YA, this book is the last one I read, so it makes the list.