The Loop – Round and Round, Here We Go Again

I’m not big on young adult fiction. I didn’t read a lot of it growing up, and as I get older I have an even harder time considering it. It has just never resonated with me, and continues to be low on my literary priorities list. Granted, I just said I have not read a lot of YA, so I’m generalizing it with my most memorable experiences. This is all to say that you should take this review with a grain of salt. Upon my realization that this dark horse was YA, I knew I was going to have reservations but I still tried to go into it with an open mind. The Loop by Ben Oliver feels like a standard action-oriented science-fiction dystopia that does not challenge the reader and barely scratches the surface of its own world. 

The Loop follows Luka Kane, a teenager who has been in prison for over two years. This prison is called The Loop, and its prisoners are subjected to some pretty horrible stuff. They do not see any of the other prisoners, and they are confined to their cells for the most part. However, every six months, they can participate in a Delay, a stay of execution granted to them by being subjected to scientific and medical experiments that the wealthy can then benefit from. Around Luka’s sixteenth birthday, the prisoners are separated into two groups and an unscheduled Delay is offered to everyone. Upon Group A’s return to the Loop, something is different about them– namely, that they try to escape their cells with wide grins plastered upon their faces. The prison is thrown into chaos as it seems to the prisoners that the world itself might be falling apart. This offers the prisoners an opportunity to escape, but is the world outside even worse than the one they have come to know within the Loop? 

When I first read the description of this book, I was excited. Some tiny part of my brain planted a seed deep inside, hoping that this prison would be a time-based maze. Don’t ask me where that thought came from, but there it is. So like I said, this book was doomed for me. Maybe a lot of how I read it was from a close-mindedness about the genre, agitated by my preconceived notions. Now since you’re here though, I might as well get into the actual review. 

The biggest gripes I had with The Loop were its characters and its worldbuilding. There was not a whole lot going on that made it interesting. Luka Kane was a fairly standard teenage boy. He’s in prison, for a crime the reader does not learn about until later, who does his best to stay absolutely fit mentally and physically with a daily reading and exercise regimen. Throughout the book, Luka never reveals any flaws, beyond he is just too good of a person. Any interpersonal conflicts he gets into are due to his naiveté, even when his “friends” are telling him otherwise. You could make the case that he is just willing to face the consequences of his choices, but ultimately he feels like someone who would stick his head in a wild alligator’s mouth, have the gator bite down and his last thoughts be “I was too trusting, I guess.” Luka often felt like someone discovering the world as a reader would, instead of feeling like a character who knew the world for what it was. Once the nature of his crime is revealed, I felt justified in my feelings of him as a character. I won’t spoil it here, but for me, it was unintentionally deflating. I won’t even go into the side characters because honestly, I barely remember their names only a week later, let alone their roles in Luka’s life.

So what does Luka reveal about the world he lives in as he travels through it? Well, again, I found the book lacking. That is not to say there aren’t details. Oliver clearly is imaginative in his construction of a cruel society. It also helps that the society that exists in his future feels eerily familiar, but turned to eleven. Society is split between the elites and the rest, all under a single world government. Elites have access to bionic technology that the rest do not. They run the prisons, which are used as science labs which experiment on the poor for the benefit of the elites. Percentages of the population are lost in drug-enhanced virtual realities. However, I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.

Like I said earlier, this is just not really my kind of book. That said, and with my admitted lack of knowledge of YA literature, I don’t think this offers new or different ideas to its genre. Knowing that it’s the first in a trilogy also dampens any sort of excitement, considering that a lot of the questions the series will raise probably won’t be answered, let alone asked until the end of the second book. Even as a romp, I can’t recommend this book because I didn’t feel any sort of suspense or apprehension. But hey, to each their own, I just know I was not a fan. 

Rating: The Loop: 4.5/10
-Alex

Come Tumbling Down – Sisterhood Meets Finality

Come Tumbling Down Cover

Seanan McGuire’s fifth Wayward Children novella brings us once again to Eleanor West’s home for the titular youth. It also returns to the story of Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill, sisters whose collective tale of sibling love and loss rises to a volcanic climax in Come Tumbling Down. Beware–spoilers from previous Wayward Children installments ahead!

Jack and Jill have long been two of this series’ deepest, most intriguing characters, and Come Tumbling Down brings their arc to a heavy, satisfying conclusion. I don’t know for sure if McGuire has future (or prequel) plans for the pair, but my hopes are high that this outing remains their last. 

Come Tumbling Down opens on Jack’s dramatic return to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the hands of her significant other, Alexis. Returning staples Christopher, Cade, and Cora quickly find that Jack’s in a heap of trouble: Jill has forced her twin to switch bodies so her master, a vicious vampire from the Moors, can turn Jill into a vampiric life companion. Jill’s body, in which Jack now resides, has been resurrected, and thus can no longer become a vampire (rules are rules). More jarring for Jack, perhaps, is that her brain cannot cope with the shock of being thrust into a new body. She seeks the help of her school friends to bring justice upon Jill and return to her own corporeal form.

Revisiting The Moors is a real treat in Come Tumbling Down. Jack and Jill’s brutal chosen world continues to ask devastating questions about science and limitations. When everything is possible, what shouldn’t you do? The Moors are filled with monsters and powerful creatures all precariously perched in a delicate balance, with factions gaining the upper hand but never taking over completely. It’s a world where balance and brutality beget growth and progress, and Seanan McGuire’s worldbuilding prowess is on full display here. 

It’s a world that yearns for adventure, and McGuire offers it in spades. The group’s journey through The Moors offers a deep dive into the inner workings of the setting. The only downside here is the pacing. Jack ushers her friends through a gauntlet of sights, sounds, and places that are entirely new to the group, but the short runtime requires a breezy jaunt through each narrative beat. As usual, the prose provides beautiful renderings of these locales and inhabitants, but the quickfire nature of the plot makes big events feel small and low-stakes. One exception, however, is Jack’s final confrontation with her sister. Their explosive final encounter boils over with all the turmoil of their past differences and disagreements, and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough during the novella’s final stretch. I can’t say much else here for fear of outright spoilers, but if you’re even the tiniest bit invested in Jack and Jill, you’ll want to read every last word of this installment. 

There’s not much more to say about the characters that I haven’t touched on in previous reviews. There are a few new faces–a water demigod named Gideon stands out as my favorite–and our familiar cast of misfits remains as charming as ever. Christopher still earns the “underutilized” award, and I desperately hope that he gets a starring role in one of the upcoming books. Cora, of Beneath the Sugar Sky fame, has a marvelous role to play in Come Tumbling Down, and I’m looking forward to more from her as well. 

Come Tumbling Down stretches the boundaries of the Wayward Children world (or worlds, I suppose), planting seeds for deeper character stories to come. Most impactful, though, is the effortless way McGuire ties the knot on a multi-book arc for sisters Jack and Jill. 

Rating: Come Tumbling Down – 8.5/10

In an Absent Dream – Indecision Meets Duality

In an Absent Dream marks a return to form for Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, which faltered in book three after its impressive first and second installments. Here, we learn the backstory of Lundy, a character left tragically underexplored in Every Heart A Doorway

Lundy’s arc in Every Heart was short but sweet, and her interactions with the students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children opened up an entire world of questions about her history with portal worlds. I’m saying this as vaguely as possible to avoid spoilers for In an Absent Dream, but this much I can divulge: the novella has a marvelous, heartbreaking payoff that leads right up to Lundy’s Every Heart narrative. 

We meet Katherine Lundy (never Katie, Kat, or Kathy) in her early days of childhood. She follows the rules. She reads lots of books. Her father is the principal of her school, and her classmates shun her for fear of being reprimanded by his strict hand. She discovers the Goblin Market, a fantasy world inhabited by a hodge-podge of magical creatures where the rules are enforced by some intangible, ever-present enchantment. The Goblin Market’s unique magic forces its inhabitants to provide “fair value” for everything, which is agreed upon by two parties. As we charmingly see here, a pie-maker may decide that pencils are of great value and could buy you two pies per day for a full year. Make an open-ended request, though, and your fellow barterer could decide that your life is fair value; to avoid loopholes like this, residents must make general statements about their needs instead of outright asking for things. There’s a dark side, though; incur too much debt, and you slowly transform into a bird. You can buy your way back to humanity (or the magical beast’s equivalent of it), but it’s a long road–birds can only offer so much value. Lundy befriends Moon, a girl slightly indebted and feathery, but not beyond recovery, and the two explore the intricacies of The Goblin Market together. 

The tale that follows is easily McGuire’s strongest outing in this wonderful and macabre intersection of our world and the fantasy worlds that connect to it. Unlike the other worlds we’ve encountered throughout the series, The Goblin Market’s presence is more transient, allowing Lundy to leave and return for various stretches of time. However, she’s told from the start that she must make a choice before she turns 18: stay in the Market or stay with her family in the “real” world. 

Lundy’s story brims with indecision and streams of consciousness that coalesce into a dynamic and relatable character. She adores the wonder and the magically enforced rules of the market. She loves that fair value puts everyone there on a level playing field; nobody asks for more than what they need and nobody offers more than they can give. To Lundy, the world makes sense. However, as she makes multiple journeys between The Market and her original home, she must come to terms with the choice she knows she must make. And with every trip, the choice becomes more difficult. McGuire’s sharp focus on such a beautiful character–and how torn she is by the looming choice set before her– sets this novella apart from its series’ brethren, and by the time I turned the final page, Lundy shot to the top of my completely real “favorite Wayward Children characters” list. 

Speaking of characters, this installment is chock-full of great ones. Moon is an interesting foil to Lundy. She knows more about the Goblin Market’s rules but is more careless with them. She has a reckless streak that both intrigues and confuses Lundy. The dynamism between the two makes for some satisfying character moments. Other unexpected spotlight-stealers include The Archivist, Lundy’s pseudo-guardian in the Market, and Lundy’s actual father, who has a secret that slowly unravels throughout the tale. 

Dichotomy rests at the heart of In an Absent Dream. Lundy’s deadline to decide between two worlds is chief among them, but it’s more of a lingering presence. Her two actual worlds–her home and the Goblin Market–exist in stark contrast to one another. Lundy discovers sisterly and familial love in our world, even as she watches her family break down in light of her long leaves of absence. In the Market, she finds a comforting world that finally makes sense to her, where fair value drives everyone’s actions. By exploring the two biggest extremes of Lundy’s life, McGuire busts open a number of questions about structure, rules, breaking them, and fitting in. 

If there’s one minuscule quibble I could make about this book, it’s the worldbuilding. The Goblin Market proves a fascinating setting and McGuire laces it with small details that make it feel real. But it simultaneously feels very small and contained, and many of Lundy’s more whimsical adventures are recounted as memories or in passing conversation. Don’t take this as an outright criticism, though. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into, and McGuire has a knack for giving just enough detail to build a vibrant and interesting setting within a small page count.

All of these wonderful components come together for a heartwrenching ending that had me shaking as I turned the final pages. In an Absent Dream doesn’t tie itself in a neat little bow. It ends with an emotional gut-punch that left me reeling for hours after I closed the book.

Following a turbulent Wayward Children outing in Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire brought me back in, full-force, with In an Absent Dream. This is the story I’ve wanted from this series all along, and I absolutely, unabashedly, unequivocally loved it. 

Rating: In an Absent Dream – 9.0/10

Anthropocene Rag – It Is What You Make Of It

50905290._sx318_sy475_I am always on the lookout for stories about America, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. I find the myths about the United States, its formation, and expansion fascinating especially when they so often cover up many complicated and horrific histories. Its simplicity is enchanting to me and constantly begs deconstruction to find what the true “heart” of the American Story is. This is heightened during an election season, where talk of “what America is and should be” hangs heavy in the air. Add the third layer of COVID-19, and a lot of these questions and stories get brought into an even sharper focus when compared to the facts and histories. What the hell does that have to do with the book I am reviewing? Well Anthropocene Rag, by Alexander Irvine, is a clever, fun, engaging, and weird little book about a post-apocalyptic America that mostly succeeds in deconstructing how “we” talk about the story of America.

The book follows six main characters as they are visited by a construct named Prospector Ed, who gives them a golden ticket to enter the fabled Monument City. Each of the characters must travel to the Rocky Mountains across an America that is teeming with nano machines. A lot of the populace was killed and integrated into the machineries during an event called the Boom (the Boom is also used to refer to the machines collectively). The machines are everywhere, and depending on where you live, humans may or may not have a good relationship with the unpredictable Boom. In San Francisco, there is a relative harmony, as the machines inhabit human bodies. Other places are not so lucky, and people could be dismantled in seconds without even realizing it. But the Boom is doing something weird as all across the land, they are re-enacting the stories and folklore that make up the American Mythos.

Irvine’s writing is the first thing that truly hooked me about Anthropocene Rag. It feels like you’re sitting around a campfire with him as he recounts a past event. The characters come alive through his voice, making them feel both human and larger than life. The author also manages to make you as the reader complicit in the story through this stylization, asking you questions and sometimes making you feel as if you could stop it all at any moment. But you don’t, you want to know how it ends, you need to know how it ends. Fortunately, Irvine does not seem to judge you for this complicity, almost in some ways acknowledging that he too is at fault. It’s an incredibly engaging way to tell a story, and it calls attention to the story of America as well. Fortunately, Irvine succeeds in keeping the tone jovial, even as he is trying to get you to gaze into the abyss.

Irvine’s writing also helps the atmosphere within Anthropocene Rag. There is not a lot of plot, so Irvine relies very heavily on intimating feeling to great effect. The different regions that the characters begin their journey in, along with where they travel through, feel like you expect them to. I’m having a hard time explaining it, but Irvine nails the cultural osmosis of the different corners of America. Florida and New York City, feel like off versions of what we know of them today, as if something changed about them, but the bones are still there. There is a familiarity to them, as if Irvine wanted to reveal the core parts of them in a more thematic fashion. It was extremely haunting, and if that was Irvine’s goal, he succeeded. However, there is a slight tendency for some areas to feel “stereotypical” due to the fast nature of the book, but I also find it easy to overlook considering it is a lot more about the “feeling,” but I think some of it handily waved off in the deeper themes.

Among the myriad of themes, the one that obviously sticks out the most is “what is America?” It saturates every paragraph trying to fill the void between your eyes and the page. Irvine deftly explores this idea by using the campfire storytelling method I described above. Irvine gives no background to the disaster, just providing a name, the Boom, and the mystery around it. America as a concept barely exists within the text as the past is erased, forgotten. The only entities to remember it are the Boom themselves as they recreate and re-enact myths like Paul Bunyan and classic Mark Twain stories. Characters don’t know anything but their present lives and where they are headed. It feels as if Irvine is trying to mirror the creation of America by wiping away the past to create a new history, a new future, a new America. It feels especially clear when you compare it to the way conversations pass over the systematic extermination of Native Americans, “manifest destiny” and “American Exceptionalism.” Irvine does it right in front of the reader using stories you know, stories you feel something about. While you’re complicit he’s doing it without you, almost as if he’s taunting you. It’s eerie and beautiful and hits all the right notes for me.

There is so much more I’d love to dive into with this story, but we would be here forever. I had a good time with the characters, their little conversations as they traveled the wilds. I loved how Irvine was able to make the land feel so big and so very small and insignificant at the same time. I didn’t particularly enjoy one of the reveals, but I don’t think it hurt the story. I don’t think the book is for everyone though, as it is a little weird, and exists more in the realm of metaphor than the concrete. Some of the journeys may also fall a little flat if you aren’t steeped in American Folklore. However, I highly recommend it if you’re feeling adventurous and willing to consider the idea of “America” in these trying times.

Rating: Anthropocene Rag 8.5/10
-Alex

Beneath the Sugar Sky – Nonsense Meets Mortality

Beneath the Sugar Sky

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns, if only for a moment, to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. The third novella in the aptly named Wayward Children series brings us back to present-day following Jack and Jill’s prequel adventure in Down Among the Sticks and Bones. This pattern of alternating past-present stories will continue, according to author Seanan McGuire in this Twitter thread, through at least book eight in the series! But for now, let’s focus on this third installment. Spoilers follow, particularly for Every Heart a Doorway, so proceed with caution.

Beneath the Sugar Sky introduces Cora, a new student at Eleanor West’s school. Cora comes from The Trenches, where she lived her otherwordly years as a mermaid. Cora and her friend Nadya (who traveled to the watery world of Belyrekka, making the two an apt pair) are exploring the pond on school grounds when a young woman falls, seemingly from nowhere, into the water. The newcomer introduces herself as Rini, daughter of Sumi. *Pause for effect.* Yes, she’s the daughter of Sumi, the first victim of Every Heart’s serial murderer. Rini hails from Confection, a land comprised of baked goods, soda, and literal tons of sugar. Her existence itself is a miracle, seeing as her purported mother died a teenager before she ever met Rini’s father. But it’s possible because Confection is a “nonsense” world, dictated by its own rules and timelines but beholden to no others. However, Rini is disappearing after her mother’s untimely death, so a Confection wizard gives her a way to travel between worlds, and she ventures to Eleanor’s School for help. 

There are literal and figurative worlds of themes to explore in Beneath the Sugar Sky. The characters, plot, and themes mix together in a batter worthy of Confection’s countless baked goods, but after some time in the metaphorical oven, those parts don’t coalesce into a satisfying treat. 

That said, Beneath the Sugar Sky offers some distinctly positive ideas. Cora and Nadya both explore body positivity in compelling ways. Cora is overweight, and she openly calls herself “fat.” But she comes from a world where size doesn’t matter, and the weightlessness of living underwater allows her to shed any insecurities about her weight. These learnings carry over into the real world, where she sees judgmental eyes and hears judgmental words but remains confident and poised as ever. Nadya’s right arm is missing below the elbow, and she’s part of a storyline late in the novella (which I won’t spoil here) that echoes Cora’s sentiments and sends a powerful message about being comfortable in one’s own skin. McGuire elegantly discusses body image and positivity through these two new characters, and it’s genuinely inspiring stuff to read. So far, Wayward Children has excelled at conveying strong morals. 

Powerful message aside, Beneath the Sugar Sky suffers from a weak plot and low stakes. The characters shine, as always, but their involvement in Rini’s story doesn’t make much sense. Cora never knew Sumi and just met Rini, yet she embarks on the quest to save both without much thought. It’s a kind gesture, and I’d overlook it, but the plot continues meandering through weird whirls of wackiness (much like this sentence) straight through to the end. Cora and Nadya are accompanied by Kade (a Fairyland reject and Every Heart staple) and Christopher, who can reanimate skeletons with his bone flute (also an Every Heart staple, though he gets more well-deserved screen time here). The ragtag bunch decides that reconstructing Sumi is the best path forward, so they set out on a quest of sorts to revive her. I’ll spare the spoilerific details here, but the crew travels to two separate portal worlds on their quest to save Rini and Sumi. 

Confection is the primary setting, and we’re whisked along as readers through various locales without any real chance to take it all in. Confection’s nonsensical nature feels like a crutch, allowing the characters to duck and weave, avoiding any real danger. Just when the stakes could spark an adrenaline rush, the world throws curveball solutions that allow Cora and her companions to brush aside every threat that comes their way. Would-be emotional moments are stilted by the plot’s racing pace as it speeds toward a conclusion. As I read the conclusion, I asked myself “Did I miss something?” And I don’t think I did–the ingredients of Sugar Sky don’t have the time they need to rise into a delicious morsel. 

While it’s hard to buy into the plot and the stakes of Sugar Sky, there’s still plenty to love. McGuire’s positive messages and morals shine through despite the book’s weaknesses. The lure of doors to new worlds still rings in my head as I journey through the series, and visiting those worlds is a real treat.

Beneath the Sugar Sky: 6.5/10

Construct – The Foundations Have Been Laid

23365568I’ve never had the inclination to read self-published titles. I’m always worried I’ll read into it too deeply or be overly critical, because I can so rarely turn off that portion of my brain. So when Luke Matthews reached out to me and requested an honest review of his self-published book Construct, I was a little hesitant. After thinking about it though, I decided to give it a shot. Construct ended up being something unexpected, and though it certainly has some flaws, the work Matthews put into his world and characters shows a lot of potential.

Construct follows Samuel, an artificial being that has awakened from a terrible memory as the building he is in is burning down around him. He recognizes he is not human, doesn’t know his own name, but feels hunted nonetheless. Deep down he feels his memory is important and puts him in further danger, and so he hides from nearby voices searching the wreckage. He sets off on a journey to find out who and what he is, and why someone would want to kill him. It is a streamlined and clean concept that works for the book.

I want to start off by highlighting my favorite part about this book: Matthews’ writing. He is incredibly thorough with his descriptions, allowing the reader to feel the world. I immediately felt as if I was in some sort of dark fantasy western, where small towns and large cities were miles from each other, and the populace mostly tried to keep out of trouble. People knew each other by their dealings and less by reputation, which was something I rarely notice in other books. Matthews’ descriptions built a good sense of rhythm too, allowing the pace to slow down a little and take stock with more vivid descriptions. Meanwhile, the action scenes and tension heavy dialogues were focused on the characters and their emotions. While Matthew’s prose is his greatest strength, it also shows some weaknesses. Especially when it comes to the emotional range of the characters, they often felt like anime characters, where the most extreme forms of emotion were always on display. It wasn’t bad – especially since he uses a large vocabulary – but once I noticed it, I could not unsee it.

The characters, in general, were enjoyable.. Samuel as the ever-curious and ever-surprising construct was delightful. He has a childlike curiosity that was heightened, not hampered, by the danger he felt. However, this felt like one of the only aspects of his personality and he rarely ever made any character-defining decisions for himself. There often was a lot of telling about how he was different from “other” constructs, without too many comparisons showing how others operate. It became stale fairly quickly as even Samuel began to finish other character’s sentences pointing it out. I do want to point out though that for a decent amount of the book, Samuel did feel out of place, in a good way. The beginning of the book highlighted this the most with his interior narration being distanced even from himself, as he tried to work out who or what he was. It was an excellent beginning to his character that really showed off Matthews’ style.

A lot of the intrigue was dictated by a fairly solid supporting cast. The people Samuel meets along the way, felt like they had their own little lives that were interrupted by his presence. Conversations between Samuel and others were more often revealing of the supporting cast, highlighting their motivations and concerns. They never felt insightful of Samuel himself however, beyond the aforementioned curiosity. There were a few unexplained moments where characters seemed overly reactive to others’ choices, but I think some of that is supposed to be left for another book. The villains felt pretty typical– overly caricatured as headhunters who really loved to headhunt. I enjoyed the dynamic between the villainous duo, their banter being something I looked forward to, but it didn’t really give me too much insight into who they were. Since they are about thirty percent of the book’s point of view, it felt like more could have been made of them.

As far as the plot goes, while it didn’t reinvent the genre it was also clean and direct. In particular, Matthews excelled in his pacing. The book moves fast, but gives some time for the plot and characters to breathe. There wasn’t a single moment that felt wasted, and it felt pretty good to read a plot-heavy book that did not dilly dally. Each stop along Samuel’s path gave him something to consider, and his presence altered characters he encountered in some fashion. The constant feeling of the chase saturated every page once the reader and Samuel were made aware of it. There were a few contrived moments, especially when there were some out of left field point of view switches, but overall I enjoyed the story. It was a fairly typical story of lost memory but executed well in an entertaining way.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Construct. It is not a heavy read, and it’s fun despite some of its issues. The world is intriguing though I feel like it has not been fully revealed. The characters went through a lot and not everyone comes out okay in the end. Matthews clearly left room for more to be told as there is a lot of character tension left unresolved. I want to thank the author for both the opportunity and the free copy of his book in exchange for an honest review. And In the spirit of that, I can honestly say I’m looking forward to more of Matthews’ work.

Rating: Construct – 7.0/10
Alex

Down Among the Sticks and Bones – Childhood Meets Brutality

Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire’s first prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, offers brutal ruminations on the nature of childhood and the implications of growing up. This story, starring twin sisters Jacqueline (Jack) and Jill (before you ask–yes, there are plenty of references to the nursery rhyme. No, they’re not overdone), paints a sweeping picture of a difficult upbringing and self-discovery. Seanan McGuire explores the darkest corners of individuality and coming of age while giving us a much-needed injection of Jack and Jill, two key characters from Every Heart

Jack and Jill are thrust into life after their unfit parents decide to have children for no good reason. The book’s first third collects a series of vignette-ish descriptions of their parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott, and their stubborn natures. They want kids to show them off, to earn social status, and to mold them into something convenient rather than unique. Jack and Jill, born into this mindset, find a temporary savior in Gemma Lou, their paternal grandmother. Until they’re five years old, Gemma Lou teaches Jack and Jill to think for themselves, at least as well as a toddler can. When Chester and Serena abruptly eject Gemma Lou from the twins’ lives, Jack and Jill must look out for one another. The years that follow breeze by within a single chapter as Jack and Jill struggle against the strict barriers their parents have erected. It is only when they turn twelve that everything changes. Jack and Jill discover a hidden staircase to another world in what was once their grandmother’s trunk. The secret doorway closes behind them, and they begin their adventure in the Moors. 

The Moors are an unforgiving place. The recently dead don’t always stay that way. Vampires and werewolves roam villages at night. Science is a tool to be wielded with none of the inconvenient limits so prevalent in our world. The Moors burst with possibility and dread. Jack and Jill choose their own paths. Each twin grows up in the Moors under the careful watch of her chosen master–Jill’s, a ruthless vampire known only as “the Master,” who has a stranglehold on the village; and Jack’s, a mad scientist named Dr. Bleak, who resurrects the dead and stretches the limits of science with every experiment he performs. 

The summary above covers a vast swathe of McGuire’s prequel, but context here is crucial. The Jack and Jill from Every Heart a Doorway have already experienced the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and reading this preamble makes the continuation of their story even more intriguing. Sticks and Bones cuts deep and hits hard. As I learned quickly, McGuire doesn’t pull punches. The Moors are a devastating place, and while Jack and Jill both call it “home,” the world shapes them in remarkable ways. Jack, consumed by science, learns all she can under Dr. Bleak’s stewardship, crafting her logical mind into a sharply honed weapon able to solve problems quickly and creatively. Jill learns obedience and patience, at least at first, and must stay vigilant under the Master’s tutelage. Even as the twins find their place, The Moors carves out their dark sides and forces them to the surface. Just as this new world augments Jack and Jill’s inherent individuality, it siphons out their demons. 

So far, Wayward Children is more about the children than the waywardness, and that’s okay. McGuire’s talent for character-driven prose conjures images from words, and the people within these novellas feel fleshed out and believable. That said, for a series with other worlds at its heart, this installment didn’t completely satiate my need for a rich, distinct new world. The Moors serves more as a catalyst for growth than a vibrant setting. I appreciate the approach, and I relish the world-building–I just want more of it. 

Like its predecessor, Sticks and Bones breezes by at a lightning-quick pace. McGuire knows how to tell a story in limited space. She cuts the fat and offers a lean, juicy tale. The plot here doesn’t offer much by way of surprise or shock; most of the significant events are mentioned or hinted at in Every Heart. But it’s still worthwhile. Questions of identity, quarrels between right-and-wrong, and unconventional upbringings make Sticks and Bones a melting pot of intrigue. Worth noting as well is McGuire’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and how she writes them: they’re real, they’re people, they love, and they lose. Their orientation doesn’t make them different or “other.” It’s refreshing to read. 

The Wayward Children series continues to discuss big questions, explore hard truths, and tell stories worth telling. Pick it up, stack it neatly on top of Every Heart A Doorway, and make space for Beneath the Sugar Sky, which I’ll review next. 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones: 8.0/10

The Priory Of The Orange Tree – A QTL Discussion

Today we have another audio review from Andrew and Alex. This time we are digging into the critically acclaimed The Priory Of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon. It is a giant standalone book that serves as a great introduction to epic fantasy. The review is without spoilers, so jump on in and find out if this gigantic book about dragons and fruit is for you. As always, you may want to turn down your volume as we have trouble controlling the volume of our voice at the start. We’re working on it.

Hearts of Oak – It Did Not Grow On Me

When I read the premise of Hearts of Oak, by Eddie Robson, I got excited. Growing buildings within an expanding city? Sign me up. The main character is an architect trying to understand the underpinnings of her world after being awoken from a stupor that required her to continuously expand the kingdom? Heck yeah, this is right up my alley. On top of that, just throw in a talking cat, who is the best friend and advisor to the king of this land? Let me get a blanket and curl up on the couch. Unfortunately, this little novella did not really live up to the hype, and maybe that is my fault in some respects. All in all Hearts of Oak is a short novel that is full of twists and turns but lacks any real character and heart. 

The book starts off interesting enough as Iona, the main protagonist, is reviewing plans for several of the buildings in her city, noting the absurdity of the continuous expansion of buildings for what seems to be no reason. Her colleague has recently died in a building collapse, and something weird happens at his funeral. Another man runs and jumps onto the casket as it is carted into a furnace for cremation. While unsettling, it is not until she investigates the collapsed building, does Iona start to feel like something is off. Meanwhile, the King debates with his advisor, the aforementioned talking cat, about approving more and more construction, confused as to why he should not be concerned with the people within his city. o

I’ll just pull this splinter out right away, I did not like this book. The beginning felt charming at first but quickly lurched into tedium. Iona was unconvincing as a character, let alone an architect. She often griped about her job, and the sheer audacity of the King to request larger and larger buildings without accounting for the needed strength to ensure their long term viability. Character moments involved a lot of telling, leading to Iona feeling like what someone thought an architect should act like. There was no real connection to the city or the world she had a part in building, the descriptives were minimal, and there was no real enchantment with particular buildings or the city as a whole. Her sole trait of “being an architect” felt superficial and became completely irrelevant as the book progressed. One could say, “well the twists make it irrelevant”, and to them I say hooey. The plot did not connect me with Iona, nor did it set her apart from the other characters. 

Speaking of the other characters, they barely felt integral to the plot. The King, the book’s other point of view, just spends his time listening to his cat and sitting around for most of the book. He barely adds any real context beyond “this is why the city must expand.” It could have been interesting if the humor or satire felt more direct, but most of the time it just felt like a red herring. As with most of the characters, the King felt like an undeveloped concept tossed into the book to make the world feel interesting, but ended up adding no real character or drama. The other characters I could barely remember, and didn’t have any particular traits beyond “they existed.”

I hear you say, “Alex, but if everything is in service to the plot, that must at least be enjoyable right?” Well, readers, this is where it gets a little messy. I will say there were certainly interesting twists and turns throughout the book that made the plot somewhat exciting. However, there was no weight to the discoveries. I did not get any sensation from the fast-paced unraveling of the mysteries. I do not want to get into specifics to avoid spoilers, but if things feel off as you read the book, it’s because things are off. As much as I wanted to enjoy these revelations, they felt hamstrung by their spontaneity. Each successive reveal felt like a jack-in-the-box, with Iona furiously cranking until the clown pops out, and she can move onto the next one. It just had no real build-up, and the absurdity of each reveal quickly lost its luster after the second or third twist.

In the end, Hearts of Oak was not bad, it just did not resonate with me in any way. The interesting bits of the premise were window dressing with no real impact on the story. The characters were a vehicle to move the plot along, offering no substantive opinions of their own, and having zero on-screen development. The climax left much to be desired, as whatever cathartic character moment Robson was going for fell flat. There were some cool ideas through the book, but there was no exploration of them. I can’t even really recommend it as a fast-paced low-stakes palate cleanser, as it just left a bland but coating taste in my mouth. 

Rating: Hearts of Oak – 5.0/10
-Alex

The House In The Cerulean Sea – Enough Love And Heart To Fill An Ocean

81mny8q7ollThe House In The Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune, is a loving book about the wonders of children and learning to live your life in the present. There is so much I like about this book that I don’t know where to start. It will easily grace the top books of 2020 list of anyone who reads it. If Klune’s other books are anything like this one, I have discovered a treasure trove of new reads that I can’t wait to dig into. Don’t wait on this March release; if you are looking for a pick-me-up you should buy it, rent it, or borrow it as soon as you can get your hands on it.

The story of The House In The Cerulean Sea is packed full of heart, humor, and adventure. It tells the story of Linus Baker. A forty-year-old caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, his job is to travel the world to various orphanages for magical children and see if they are being properly cared for. He leads a quiet and solitary life, his only real companion is his temperamental cat. Some may call him stodgy and stiff, but he is good at his job and he has been doing it a long time with almost no change. That is, until an order from upper management sends him on an assignment from Hell, literally. Linus is sent to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears, do his job, and determine both if the children are being well cared for and whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days. But, to do his job and determine if the children are a threat (to themselves and others), Linus must go through the orphanage’s caretaker: Arthur Parnassus. He sees the children as his own, and he would do anything to keep them from being harmed.

Even in this brief description of Cerulean’s plot, there is a lot to unpack. First, we have Linus. Dear god does he stand out from your typical fantasy protagonist. He is older, overweight, stodgy, big-hearted, organized, observant, and so much more than I expected when I first opened the pages of this story. Which, is kinda the point. Part of Linus’ story is about his hidden depths and his journey of self-discovery to find them. His character arc is frankly beautiful and one of my favorites in recent memory. Linus’ interactions with the children of the orphanage are heart-achingly sweet for a very specific reason – he treats them like adults. One of the major themes of Cerulean is that children have value as people, not just as someone’s child. They have tiny clever minds brimming with creativity and wonderful thoughts. I think it says a lot that I have never wanted to have kids more than after reading Cerulean. The personalities of these tiny individuals, and their relationships with Linus and Arthur, could warm the heart of a corpse.

But, the book is about a lot more than happy feelings and good times. The six children in question are on this special island orphanage because they have been through hard times. Magic is reviled in Klune’s world, and it is easy to see that it is a simple narrative allegory for someone who is even slightly different. Much of the story involves Linus confronting his own initial expectations, predispositions, and biases to see these magical beings for who they actually are. While this isn’t exactly a new idea, Linus’ earnest personality and quiet introverted nature make the theme much more resonant than the average fantasy book I read. Linus doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, so it’s easy to forgive his presumptions, and it’s satisfying when he evolves as a person.

On top of all of this, Cerulean has three hidden elements that up it from great to amazing: humor, romance, and adventure. The book is hilarious in a very Terry Pratchett-Esque manner There are a lot of hyperbolized and hilarious descriptions of the workplace, seaside villages, and beach vacations. The story will have you laughing out loud, or at least smiling, from start to finish. Next, we have the romance – which creeps up on you while you aren’t watching. I was impressed at both how organic, given its short page length, and timeless, given its fantastical nature, the love story in Cerulean felt. It is also a gay romance that feels accessible to anyone of any orientation – which the genre badly needs. Finally, the book is brimming from cover to cover with a palpable sense of adventure. The entire narrative, on some level, revolves around Linus stepping outside his comfort zones, and this is enhanced by a literary ambiance that evokes discovery and the unknown. The prose is good, and the worldbuilding is serviceable. Yet neither of these things feel important given the power of the characters and themes.

The House In The Cerulean Sea will absolutely be one of the best books of 2020. It is a bright, warm, and surprisingly clever book that reflects its wonderfully unassuming protagonist perfectly. It was just what I needed after going through a difficult time the last few months and it put a smile back on its face. To top it all off, the book has well-realized themes and unique stand out elements that distinguish it far and above what else has come out this year so far. The Quill to Live unabashedly recommends The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. Go read it the second you can.

Rating: The House In The Cerulean Sea – 10/10
-Andrew