This Week, I Read… (2022 #8)

#22 – The Wicker King, by K. Ancrum

  • Forgotten YA Gems BOTM
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

February’s pick for one of my book clubs, and I just managed to squeeze it in. This wasn’t at all on my radar before, and I don’t know that I would have chosen to read it on my own, but I’m glad I did.

However, I got the audiobook from my library because that’s what was available to me quickly; because I didn’t know anything about the work beforehand, it’s only now that I’m engaging with other reviews that I discovered I’d missed out on the mixed-media aspect of it. Would I have liked this better if I had access to all its content, rather than just the text? I’ll never know for sure, but probably. For that reason, I don’t recommend to others to listen to the audiobook unless that’s a necessary format for them personally.

This is a book that defies the cookie-cutter “good” representation that so many of us (myself included) have been trained by recent discourse to demand from our fictional media. Jack and August are bisexual, even if it takes most of the book for August to understand that about himself. By the end of the story, they’re poly as well, which is just not something that sees the light of day very often, and I appreciate that. These relationships are core to who they are, not shallow additions to make the story edgy, or marketable to a target audience hungry to see themselves on the page.

At the same time, pretty much everyone in this story and everything about it is just fucked up. There’s so much toxicity, so many small instances of abuse, and a romanticization of co-dependency that I find disturbing, even though I see the author making it very clear that Jack and August aren’t role models for creating and maintaining healthy relationships. How do you balance “co-dependency is bad” with “but they still get together in the end” and not create some conflicting feelings in your readers? I’m a romance author and heavily a romance reader, so coming at it from that angle, this work has some serious issues–but it’s not presented as a traditional romance and I’m pleased to see that few of the total readers on Goodreads have classified it as such. Since it’s not intended to be a romance novel, I shouldn’t treat it as one–it’s primarily about mental health. The romance subplot is not incidental, but it is also just one element of a complex story.

Still, it’s hard to root for these two boys and their girl, when getting together is their happy ending after so much trauma, when they’re all carrying so much baggage. Yes, the ending is hopeful, they are maybe all moving on to better things for themselves, but it’s bittersweet at best when those relationships were so fraught to begin with. A part of me still wants to shake these three by the shoulders and tell them to run, to get out before something goes horribly wrong.

Content aside, I had some other issues. The pacing was so tight and the scenes so short that it felt scattered, though I admit this issue may have been exacerbated by the format; the bite-size scenes, each led off by a word or short phrase that I didn’t even realize at first were a sort of chapter heading, were disconcertingly abrupt when listening to them. Even if I had been reading on a page at my own pace, though, with the extra materials I missed out on, this extreme focus on small snippets of the characters’ lives came off as shallow, despite the subject matter being so dark and deep; I wanted a little more time with them, to get into their heads, or to have their behavior shown to me in patterns, to allow me to draw some conclusions for myself about how they interacted. This work relied on telling rather than showing, and I no longer feel a reactionary, blanket disapproval for that as I once did–but I still prefer being allowed to discover at least some things for myself, and there wasn’t much opportunity for that here.

Did I like it? Ultimately, yes. It’s strange and challenging and at times incredibly dark, and it’s a minefield of sensitive trigger issues that might blow up in your face at any moment, but it’s interesting. It made me think, and it was worth my time.

#23 – Leviathan Falls, by James S.A. Corey

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s over, and it’s not perfect, but I’m happy with it.

Yes, there was some bloat and repetition in this story. It probably could have been fifty pages shorter easily, or perhaps eighty with a more ruthless hand. But I never felt any one section was a slog more so than the others, and there was no plot point or POV character I feel needed to be cut in entirely.

I usually don’t care about spoilers in reviews, but this one I’m going to go entirely spoiler-free. I do think the setup surrounding the Final Boss of the series was good, even if the secondary antagonist below it was a little simplistic. I enjoyed the presence of the new major POV character added, and don’t agree with some other reviews I’ve read that found her pointless–I thought her character arc was solid and her role in the larger story worthwhile.

I’m mostly pleased with the way our favorite long-running characters are treated and how their dynamic has changed (or not) over the years and changes in circumstance. The major change that happened to a core character in book eight was addressed and expanded upon to my satisfaction, though again, I see other people don’t agree with me on that.

What kept this from being five stars for me was the combination of slightly more text to read than the story needed, a sort of excessive maudlin tone to one character’s POV in particular that I did not enjoy, and the wish that the proximate goal of the story (stop the secondary antagonist to hopefully thwart the primary one) had been either a little more complex, or a little better executed in its simplicity. However, overall I think this stuck the landing. Am I too used to being disappointed by the endings of major media properties? Because this isn’t the end of Mass Effect 3, here, it’s far more narratively and thematically cohesive than that pile of turds.

Note from your blogger: This should have gone up at the end of February and didn’t, despite the reviews being written already, because of sudden and unexpected real life happenings I won’t get into here. I am fine, everyone else is fine, but for a few weeks I had no mental bandwidth to spare for book reviews, blogging, and to some extent even reading–I’m pushing “publish” on this on March 22nd, and I’ve read two and a half books this whole month. Today, I wrote a review for one of them; tomorrow I hope to write another, to slowly get myself back into this. Ideally there will be a new, on-time set of book reviews this Friday, but if my reading time continues to be a low priority, the posting schedule may continue to be spotty for a while until I get other things sorted out.


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