Third Book Syndrome

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Book: Half Lost
Author: Sally Green
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Published On: 31st March 2016
Other Books by Sally Green: Half Bad, Half Wild.

Blurb: The Alliance is losing the war, and their most critical weapon, seventeen-year-old witch Nathan Brynn, is losing his mind. Nathan’s tally of kills is rising, and yet he’s no closer to ending the tyrannical rule of the Council of White Witches in England. Nor is Nathan any closer to his personal goal: getting revenge on Annalise, the girl he once loved before she committed an unthinkable crime. An amulet protected by the extremely powerful witch Ledger could be the tool Nathan needs to save himself and the Alliance, but this amulet is not so easily acquired. And lately Nathan has started to suffer from visions: a vision of a golden moment when he dies, and of an endless line of Hunters, impossible to overcome. Gabriel, his closest companion, urges Nathan to run away with him, to start a peaceful life together. But even Gabriel’s love may not be enough to save Nathan from this war, or from the person he has become.

The third book in a trilogy is always a tricky one to master. Originally, I believed the second book to be the definer in whether a series sinks or swims, but in recent years that’s switched to the third book.

Given how much I adored Half Wild, you can understand how I approached Half Lost with both excitement and trepidation. The books so far have been so good, so gripping, and the end of Half Wild had me squealing incoherently. Would Half Lost live up to my hopeful expectations?

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Graceling

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“When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?”

 

Cashore’s novel Graceling is exactly what a fantasy novel should be – a tight plot, fantastic characters who you travel the novel’s landscapes with, and whose journey is constantly one of fascination and interest.

Our protagonist is Katsa, niece to King Randa, who is Graced with killing. She is a master assassin, used on missions to kill those that the King needs killing. But Katsa has also formed her own council of companions, and after they discover a kidnapping, the mystery only starts to increase – and Katsa is the one who decides to figure it out.

One of the strongest parts of Graceling is the characters. Especially in stories with long journeys, characters have to be brilliant to keep you engaged with the lesser action. Katsa is very distinctive very quickly and while some may think that Katsa’s manner fills the trope of ‘feisty female character’, I think Cashore has armed her much better than that. To me, having a ‘feisty’ character is only a problem if the character is two dimensional and that is their only distinguishing feature. Katsa has a depth to her character that continues to grow and change as the novel goes on: from the girl whose Grace is manipulated by her uncle to someone who realises what she wants and goes about getting it. For Katsa it’s a fight for her independence and she is surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast. Her friends at Randa’s court are engaging, and Helda is a particularly well-worked contrast – especially given she’s the only real female friend Katsa has. Katsa’s fighting grace has not gained her many female friends in the court and we sympathise with her loneliness when nobody wants to go near her when they hear of her Grace. The culture of her uncle’s Kingdom towards Graced children never feels too info-dump-y, and is always linked back to Katsa. The part I admire especially about Cashore’s characterisation is that every character feels vivid and real, and like they have their own fascinating stories to tell – even minor characters, some of whom might not even be named beyond ‘innkeeper’! They really are alive instantly as people, which must be very difficult to do; to bring life into even the most minor characters is a rare occurrence, I’ve found. It’s this that I think helps Cashore’s prose run so beautifully – characters who might only show the tip of their iceberg feel like there is a whole iceberg underneath that might have a story hidden inside. The even greater skill is keeping the iceberg submerged if it’s not needed; fantasy can occasionally show every detail just because it can – but these details should work for their place on the page.

And then the journey itself, the well-peddled trope of many a fantasy novel. It’s filled with many conversations and a lot of Katsa’s thought process but because of the nature of it (no spoilers!) that’s actually entirely relevant and necessary, as well as giving us the luxury of delving further into Katsa’s character. The fact she rides at breakneck speed doesn’t hurt either! There is not excess detail which is helped by Katsa’s practical way of thinking. If there’s a rabbit to be skinned, she doesn’t waste time telling us what it feels like. It’s a rabbit, it’s cooking, and she’s off getting on with something else. It offers a good pace to the whole novel that never wavers, which works really well. It means we’re not left twiddling our thumbs during any point of the journey. Nobody is hanging around in this story!

The other thing I loved about this is that at no point does Katsa either become reliant on one of her many male friends and colleagues, or throw away her story for the sake of a love interest. She says she’s not interested in marriage or babies, and the reaction within the novel isn’t one of “oh well maybe she’ll have changed by the end of the novel INSERT MALE INTEREST HERE”. I love that about it, and that it doesn’t ever say that Katsa is somehow wrong or crazy for not wanting to become a wife and mother. Without being too “and this is my opinion!”, Cashore explores Katsa’s opinion but doesn’t question it, which I think isn’t done enough when female characters go against their expected eventual roles, once they’ve finished gallivanting around whatever country in whatever story needs saving. And that’s shown as okay and there’s not a song and dance made about the fact that Katsa rejects the traditional roles the society of the novel has decided to hand down to her.

Other readers may consider Cashore’s writing sparse in terms of description, but I find it an excellent example of ‘less is more’. Cashore (and Katsa!) don’t waste words, and this is something that makes Graceling such a resounding success for me. Because it doesn’t waste words, the story is constantly ticking over and the reader, while not feeling rushed, doesn’t have chance to lose interest in any particularly descriptive passages, for example. No scene feels like it could be lost, as it all contributes to the overall plot arc. It’s a style of writing that I am both a great admirer of and greatly envious of at the same time!

Katsa’s story is one I absolutely adored, and one I’ll certainly return to. It reminded me of a cross between the Books of Pellinor and Magician’s Guild, two of my three all-time favourite series, and I don’t think I can pay it a greater compliment than that. I’ll be re-reading this many times in the future.

Things I liked about this book: The pace, the characterisation, the plotting… everything!

Things I was less keen on: If I was being indulgent I’d say it could have been longer, but only because I was sad when it was over and I wanted it to just keep going!

 

Graceling: 9.5/10 (I hear the sequels are EVEN BETTER :O )

 

If you liked this, try:
The Gift by Alison Croggon
The Magician’s Guild by Trudi Canavan
Sabriel by Garth Nix
The Forging of the Sword by Mark Robson

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The Chemical Garden Trilogy

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This series was one I discovered rifling through shelves in the bookshop, before reserving the ones with potential from my local library. The setup is this: in the future, there is a virus that means all men die at twenty-five and all women die at twenty. This has created a world where girls are Gathered and sold as wives to rich men or to brothels in the many scarlet districts.

Our main character, Rhine, is Gathered and her heterochromia (different coloured eyes) makes her distinct enough to be sold to a rich man’s son – Linden – as one of three wives. They are swiftly married in one large ceremony and trapped inside Linden and his father’s mansion.

Rhine is determined to escape, something that threads across all three books in the series. But the atmosphere of the mansion is given its comforts at the same time: watching the relationships develop between the wives is one of the few cheerful glimmers in a house which is essentially a prison. In the second book, we see more of these relationships as well as of Gabriel, an attendant Rhine grows close to in Wither.

I enjoyed the series enough to keep reading – I liked Rhine and her determination and desperate searching for hope even when there doesn’t seem to be any left. But while no character felt very predictable, few other characters leapt from the page. Resident villain Vaughn, whilst threatening, does not feel completely terrifying, even when his experiments come to light. DeStefano also drops one of the main characters for a long stretch in Sever, and while this is understandable within the plot, Rhine does not seem to really miss them and so we don’t either. It makes what was an engaging dynamic in Fever vanish, which is a disappointment.

The premise was attention-grabbing and I skated through Wither at speed. They’re not challenging books to read, which is part of their charm, and so my brain didn’t have to work hard to get through them. I would definitely give this as a reason why I chose to finish the series – it was little effort to read them all and satisfy my curiosity.

DeStefano’s use of first person for Rhine works really well, and allows us to feel as trapped in that mansion as she is. Rhine is a keen observer of others and so we are able to paint a picture of the day-to-day life of the house without difficulty. The same goes for the carnival in Fever. It’s not the most vivid description I have ever read, but it does the job very effectively and without really drawing too much attention to itself as you go through the pages. As well as that, the characters we meet at the carnival make a welcome and interesting recurrence in Sever that distracts us from too formulaic a conclusion to this YA trilogy.

On the Waterstones blurb it reads: The Handmaid’s Tale for a new generation. But I’m not quite sure what has led this person to this conclusion, as beyond its trading young girls as commodities I don’t really see any other connection. However, if it subsequently gets unsuspecting YA readers reaching for The Handmaid’s Tale, I certainly won’t complain.

An entertaining easy-read trilogy, worth picking up from your local library.

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Wither: 7/10

Fever: 7/10

Sever: 6.5/10

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