Naomi Novik, Uprooted (2015)

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Naomi Novik’s books have been reviewed here before – her Temeraire series was given a thorough once-over and emerged quite victorious 😉 I think Napoleon and dragons were the main lure for Piotrek ;). But the novel that woke real interest in her, at least in Poland, was Uprooted, a classical fantasy tale with witches and wizards, and with openly advertised Polish roots. Fragments of it had been even read on the national radio this summer, which is a rare occurrence enough, especially for fantasy books.

Novik spun her tale from the many Polish fairy tales she had heard as a child – she is of Polish descent and although her first language is English, she was careful to keep the Polish names of people and things into her story (paying more attention to how they should sound than look, which I imagine made the pronunciation much easier for English-speaking readers!  ;))

It a classic story of a hero(ine) of modest background but an enormous talent, discovered by a reluctant, close-mouthed and seemingly distant mentor who, although he had been doing pretty well on his own for over a century, now finds himself in a desperate need of her help. Well, it’s not even his fault, as she is simply destined to great things and he happened to be on her way. A debilitating curse of a Special Snowflake Syndrome. Do I seem sarcastic? Just a tiny bit, I assure you.

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Pierce Brown, Red Rising (2014)

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Today a review of a YA novel, the first installment in a sci-fi dystopian trilogy that made quite a splash a couple of years back. I had been eyeing it for a while, sci-fi and dystopia being my constant points of interest, but the trigger to read this book was a friend’s recommendation – thanks, Dave! 🙂

I’ve read the first book and now am finishing the second. I think I can reasonably well tell you now what that fuss was all about :).

Red Rising was Brown’s debut, and has all the marks of a typical debut – the author is trying to find his voice, the writing is uneven, there are great ideas along some pretty bad ones… The story is YA-ish simple, the list of clear inspirations and allusions to genre literature and pop culture staggering. To sum it up in one sentence, I could say that Red Rising is a smooth mix of Lord of Flies/Ender’s Game/Hunger Games/Harry Potter/Braveheart/Gladiator. It would be completely true, but at the same time a bit unfair to the book. It is unoriginal; there is no point in arguing otherwise when one of the opening scenes is taken straight from Braveheart and the final ones clearly imitate Gladiator, when the whole imagined culture is a sadly trivialized version of the culture of Roman empire and the middle part is basically Ender in Hogwarts. But, surprisingly, I didn’t mind it overly much. Why, when usually I’m so awfully picky? Well, the answer to this will take a good number of sentences to explain, but in short – the worldbuilding and the characters in general, but especially the bloody-minded main protagonist.

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Joe Abercrombie, Half A King (2014)

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The first installment in the Shattered Sea trilogy, and a bold move from the author called by many “Lord of grimdark” (ugh, I actually wrote it). Why bold? Because Half a King is a YA book. YA is a category with somewhat blurred boundaries, usually containing youths from age 12-15 to early 20s. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the traditional theme for YA novels is coming-of-age of the main protagonist. And among the novels often described as YA are such timeless wonders as Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye. Of course, you can also find there such wastepaper accretions as The Twilight saga… The spread is quite shocking and I’m sorry to say that the quality of YA seems to be lower in our times. I believe that it’s because people often think that writing for young people is easy, that you just need to limit your vocabulary and simplify everything. Well, it’s not easy. And if you think young people like to be talked down to, your memory needs a solid prod. Otherwise you’re in for a nasty surprise.

As you see, the YA bar is set quite high, at least for me. Did the grimdark guru meet the, admittedly high, expectations? Half a King got Locus Award for the Best YA Book in 2015, so it looks like he did. Alas, I cannot fully agree with this verdict. I know, there’s a lot of gushing over this book in the internet, especially from fellow authors on goodreads… I won’t expound on it, at least not this time :P, but it looks to me like a mutual admiration society. Abercrombie takes a risk but plays it safe this time, a bit too safe for my tastes. And I’m not talking about the amounts of blood and gore, there’s plenty of that, but about the plot, worldbuilding and characters. They’re overly simplified and predictable, bereft of suspense and – and I have trouble believing I’m actually writing this – bland.

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Ernest Cline, Ready Player One (2011)

ready-player-oneA YA book that made a lot of fuss in recent years, especially after Steven Spielberg announced that he would direct the movie adaptation (production is supposed to begin in spring this year). The book received the Alex Award and 2012 Prometheus Award, and was praised by many as the ultimate geek novel.

I admit I find it difficult to rate a novel like this. Ready Player One is undeniably YA; more YA than most YA novels I’ve read, Robin McKinley’s works included. My awareness of this fact pushes me toward applying a different set of rules to my rating than I would otherwise do – and that’s not something I want. I don’t think YA literature should be viewed as inherently worse or limited; though, undeniably, some themes usually are portrayed in a simplistic way and others are entirely missing. That’s perfectly understandable but doesn’t help in the least in solving my quandary.

So, after this rather lengthy disclaimer… What the fuss is really about?

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