This Week, I Read… (2021 #6)

#18 – Not His Dragon, by Annie Nicholas

  • Mount TBR: 17/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Dragons or lizards
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

To keep myself from writing a 2,000-word essay about how bad this book is, I’m going to do bullet points instead.

The Good Things:

  • Cute concepts despite their disappointingly unfulfilled potential
  • Whatever other issues I have with the heroine, she is not a pushover to be bullied by the many, many “alphas” in this book

The Bad Things:

  • World-building so thin and scattershot that for a while I assumed I’d mistakenly picked a book in the middle of the series, not the first one, and earlier books would have explained the concepts better
  • A startling lack of realism, not in the world-building (which is obviously fantastical) but in simple, mundane character moments, where no one acts like a real person with even the slightest hint of common sense
  • Rampant examples of poor grammar, typos, and Random Things Being Capitalized Sometimes For No Obvious Reason (eg, “First Aid kit.” Really? Why is that capitalized?)
  • Shallow, underdeveloped characters with explicitly stated motivations (repeatedly, ugh) but no depth
  • Choppy narrative that details some things I didn’t feel were necessary to explain while hopping straight past stuff I might have been interested in. Notably, tell me more about Eoin’s artistic process if his art career is his central personal conflict, rather than hand-waving “he got angry and set a bunch of metal on fire and OOPS now it’s a sculpture.”
  • Insta-love based on mating attraction, which okay, fine, is common to this subgenre and for some readers might even be part of the specific appeal, but I didn’t feel they had any real chemistry, so even this trope fell flat
  • Characters who appear for ten seconds and are never important again (related sub-complaint: why is the only witch in the story named Sabrina? A little on the nose, don’t you think?)
  • Poorly integrated subplots that don’t really further the romance
  • Underwhelming sex scenes

Basically, the only reason I finished it was that it was on the short side for a full novel, and a fast read because the writing style was amateur. Part of me did want to know how the curse was broken, and that took the whole book, so I had to keep going. But I wasn’t all that invested, and about halfway through I did consider dropping it because I was not impressed by anything about it. I still like the idea of it, but it was badly executed.

#19 – In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan

  • Mount TBR: 18/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book about bones or has “bones” in the title
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

My favorite since the first entry in the series, definitely, though it’s hard to decide if I like it better or not; being introduced to this world was such a revelation for me that I don’t know if any later part of the story could truly topple it from its pedestal. If this hasn’t, it certainly came closest.

Several aspects of this work felt improved to me over the middle books, in that we spent far more time with actual dragons than with politics; there was more adventure (or the adventure felt more dramatic and palpable, because objectively I can’t deny #2 and #3 both had plenty of escapades); and happily for me, a certain setup I was quite hopeful about at the end of #3 was paid off beautifully.

It was refreshingly light on Isabella’s internal grumblings and ruminations on social matters–sure, there’s some acknowledgment of the misogyny of her treatment as a scholar, still, but there’s not much else for her to complain about for most of the book, and I found the late-story issues of cultural compatibility more interesting than tiring. I suppose I was more worn out than I realized by the emphasis placed in #3 on how to balance being a mother and a scholar-adventurer, and I was actually pleased by the absence of Jake, who was relegated to a boarding school for most of the narrative and was only present in Akhia when events where in summary at the end. His absence does raise one sort of uncomfortable question, about whether he should have been consulted before a certain (very spoilery) major event late in the book, but that lack does speak to how ancillary being a mother is to Isabella as a character, so I don’t think it’s a flaw in the work, but a result of her own flaws at being what her society expects of a woman.

The whole thing is really just tighter, faster, and more concentrated on what I find most interesting in this series–the characters and the dragons–rather than the politics, which are still present, but mostly in the background. Isabella even comments several times that other people are mostly dealing with the politicians, better capable than her, and I think that’s the best choice all around!

#20 – The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson

  • Mount TBR: 19/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This might be the most interesting book that I have no interest in finishing.

I gave up at the end of chapter 2, page 49, barely making my personal cutoff of 10% to count a book as “read.” In those first two chapters, I was treated to a fairly deep character study of a dissolute man suffering a horrible fate, a man who showed no desire to hide the dark aspects of his life and made no apologies for his flaws. I learned more about burns and burn treatment than I knew (assuming it’s accurate, which for the moment, I am) and also, somewhat randomly, about the establishment of a German monastery.

I also endured several pages of that same character envisioning his future suicide in excruciating detail.

Am I supposed to be taking this book seriously? I honestly can’t tell.

While I was reading, I was reminded of a high school friend. He was an interesting mix of dark and cheerful, a sort of proto-goth who was one of the kindest people I ever met. But he also managed to write an essay on a state standardized test that got him referred to the authorities; I never knew what he wrote (if he told anyone, I was not among them) and don’t know the details of who he had to speak to (police, psychologists?) because he, understandably, didn’t want to talk about it. This was the mid-90s, and Columbine hadn’t happened yet, so this was worrying but not the same kind of alarming it would have been ten years later.

That’s what this book reminds me of. A smart, well-educated person with a dark bent who nonetheless doesn’t seem nearly as threatening as they perhaps want to be perceived, so you’re honestly not sure if you should take that threat seriously. (My friend did not go on to commit any crimes that I know of, eventually shedding that teenage affectation of darkness and last I heard, was both gainfully employed and happily married, living what’s generally considered a “normal” life.)

In skimming other middling or poor reviews of this book, I see that I didn’t even reach the parts that others find more objectionable, and many more positive reviews speak of a strong start followed by a gradual weakening. So I’ve read that “strong” start and find myself bewildered–at this point, if you told me this was parody, I would believe you. (I’d also ask, a parody of what, exactly? Gothic fiction? Too early to say.)

I’m stopping now because a) apparently this gets worse, and b) apparently it’s genuine and I should be taking it seriously. But I can’t.

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