This Week, I Read… (2022 #1)

#1 – Sapphire Flames, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I’m hooked. I like Catalina better than Nevada, and Alessandro better than Rogan. This is the superior couple, and they’re not even a couple yet, because of Reasons.

Yeah, sometimes it felt a little juvenile in comparison, but Catalina is still having her coming-of-age arc that started in Diamond Fire. A large part of this plot is her growing up, in the sense of accepting her responsibilities. The central conflict of her possible romance with Alessandro is, in fact, those responsibilities. If sometimes her internal narrative sounds a little like adult authors trying too hard to sound like a teenager, I can forgive that in this case.

Alessandro is a witty and flirtatious playboy one second and a stone cold badass the next. There’s another conflict for you–who is he, really? What’s his deal? We know why Catalina doesn’t think a relationship between them would work, despite wanting one anyway. But Alessandro appears to feel the same way, even while we only get the barest hint of his reasons for that assessment. It’s vaguely tragic and maybe a little hammy, but then, so is he, with his “Instagram” persona. I still adore him.

I like the new direction the main plot is taking re: Catalina’s involvement in the larger magical society, I thought that was interesting. The revelation of a certain someone’s secret authority explains a lot, though still leaves me with some questions about the conspiracy that we apparently put to bed after the first three books–I’m not convinced there’s not more going on, still, given the suspicions I had then, and “Caesar’s” identity still hasn’t been settled. I haven’t forgotten about that loose end!

Happy to see the next book is out, sad to see book 6 isn’t expected until much later this year, because I’m sure I’m going to want it the second I’m finished with book 5.

#2 – Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

  • #rereadathon 2022 (tumblr)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Re-read, Re-review:

Almost exactly three years later, I still enjoyed this and don’t feel the need to change my rating. This time around, I picked up even more on the strange pacing and thinness of some of the world-building; the apparent climax of the main plot comes early and somewhat unexpectedly, in a blink-and-you’ll miss it moment of action. Then what should be a simple denouement takes a long, long time to wrap up the book. It feels as though the political intrigue is the barest excuse to have a book where people hide out in the wilderness and face injury and death, and also fall in love. Which, I want to stress, is not necessarily a bad thing, because Katsa is still an interesting character and Po is still a darling. If anything, I liked Bitterblue even better upon rereading, so the final two Parts of the book were no hardship. But that first one still feels weak in comparison, and the Council a weak conceit that doesn’t really stand up to what the story asks it to be.

Original review here.

#3 – In the Language of Miracles, by Rajia Hassib

  • Reading the World Mini Challenge: 1/12
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

The book attempts to be many things, and it accomplishes some much better than others.

As a narrative about a family with a coherent plot and a satisfying climax, I’m disappointed with it. I felt that it withheld the mystery of The Terrible Event that sparked the story for too long. Yes, I had put together clues and made assumptions, but when the central idea of the narrative is that this family is broken and suffering, ostracized by their community for the crime their eldest child committed, what sense does it make for everyone but the reader to know the details of that crime? And this is exacerbated by only addressing the hole that Hosaam’s crime and death have left in the family, but not much at all about his life. And with the time frame of the story being so focused on the week leading up to the anniversary memorial service, I expected something grand or wild or transformative to happen when we finally got there, and instead, it was a confusing jumble of oddly paced action and internal revelation, with no clear catharsis for (or utter rejection of) the family by the community. It felt like a non-ending.

The epilogue clears a little bit of that up, and provides a reasonable future for Khaled, the middle child, but it’s more important to the religious themes than the plot itself.

As an exploration of the immigrant experience in America, I think it’s more successful. We get the tension between three different generations of the family about how Egyptian or American to be, and the lack of understanding about how the two cultures will interact with each other, and the difference in family structure and expected levels of obedience and respect. (The family’s Muslim identity also contributes to this, and I don’t know enough about either Egyptian or Muslim traditions and practices to identify which bits come from which source. But my thoughts on religion are coming a bit later, I just want to acknowledge I’m probably conflating the two in some respects.) It’s not hard to see the children as the most Americanized, the most ready to react to the Islamophobia present in this time period–I thought it was a nice touch that Khaled was worried about his younger sister becoming outwardly more conservative by possibly starting to cover her hair, as attacks on young women with head scarves were on the rise at the time. But it was more interesting to see the parents, the direct immigrants, struggling with how they were perceived, and how they perceived each other, on a scale of Egyptian to American, because it fluctuated, and both at times were convinced the other was the one less adapted to their new home. And Grandma Ehsan was there to be the bastion of tradition and religion, while not at all being a stereotype but a complex character in her own right.

But strangely (for me, who’s about as un-religious as they come) I found the exploration of Islam and fate to be the most interesting part of the book. Each surviving member of the family who was given a POV was shouldering some guilt and feelings of blame for what Hosaam did, and each had a different relationship with their faith. The father was not particularly observant of his religious obligations, but capitalized on the power structure both to maintain his authority and to rationalize his guilt. The mother was deeply conflicted about the role of prayer and surrender to God in accepting what had happened, and wondering if she could have changed the outcome, all while her mother hovered nearby admonishing her for playing “what if.” And their remaining son was having typical teenage troubles buried under the extra weight of being labeled as a murder’s younger brother–he struggled to believe in miracles, the core theme and question of the book, and had a complicated relationship with both Islam and the Arabic language, which he never spoke to the standard that he felt others expected of him. His narrative thread is what connects the whole story, as the prologue his a story from his childhood and the epilogue a glimpse of his adulthood, and he is the one who spends the most time examining his life in the context of the tragedy that happened a year before.

I found in Khaled’s conflict about his own beliefs an echo of what I’ve experienced, as someone raised Christian who is no longer a part of the church, and who belongs to a family that still remains devout. I also suffered small pangs of envy, as I often do when seeing another religion in media, at the rituals of solace and comfort they provide that seem better to me than the ones I grew up with. (This happens to me a lot in anime, actually, because I know enough about Shinto to think that if that were my childhood religion, I might still be a believer.) I’m aware that this tendency of mine is tied up in a Western/white exotification of unfamiliar things; I can’t fully separate that part of myself, as it’s impossible not to think the grass is greener elsewhere when I’m so dissatisfied with my own ex-faith. But there are parts of Islam (as well as many other religions) that I find beautiful and welcoming, and this story brought out a lot of that and kept me engaged even when the plot was flat or frustrating.

Actually, now that I think about it, since the story doesn’t set out to prove or disprove the existence of God or miracles or the usefulness of prayer in averting an individual’s fate, I suppose the non-ending I’m so dissatisfied by is in keeping with the theme of the story. But that doesn’t make me like the ending better now that I’ve thought it through.


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