#79 – Magic Study, by Maria V. Snyder
But, Elena! I hear you cry. You gave Poison Study 5 stars! You loved it! What’s going on?
I had serious problems with character motivation in this story. Like, scratching my head with a blank expression, serious.
If I were the sole survivor of a royal family, in exile, hoping to raise an army to reclaim my throne and nation, let me be clear…the one person I would pointedly not reveal my heritage and identity to would be THE PERSON I SUSPECTED AND ACCUSED OF BEING A SPY FOR THE GOVERNMENT THAT OVERTHREW MY FAMILY’S MONARCHY.
WTF, Cahil? Why would you do that? How could you not see that would put your life in danger? (Of course, Yelena’s not a spy like he thought, but that’s not the point–she could have been, which makes his actions ridiculous.)
Every bit of character development Cahil has after that is flawed as well. When he becomes convinced Yelena’s not a spy, he…develops a crush on her? I don’t buy it, not an instant turn-around like that. And because he has a crush on her, he feels incredibly betrayed when he realizes her lover is the same person who murdered his family. Except…you don’t actually have any claim on Yelena, Cahil, and she hadn’t even met you, let alone been aware of your existence, when she and Valek fell in love? So, yeah, clearly she owes you an apology for that. (/snort)
(And then also, he’s been lied to his entire life and isn’t even royal like he thought–which I saw coming from miles away. Not a surprising plot twist, there.)
He’s not the only new character who feels poorly developed. Yelena’s brother Leif makes no sense. He hates her because she doesn’t seem to want to be a part of their family, or to shed her ties to Ixia, but his very hostility is one of the things pushing her away from him; and he (and their parents, too) make literally ZERO effort to find out about Yelena’s life in Ixia and why she might be attached to it, why she doesn’t walk into their home with open arms, ready to be reabsorbed instantly as they expect her to be. In the end, Yelena’s the one who has to understand what kind of trauma Leif went through in order for them to start repairing their relationship. Which, since he’s made no effort to do the same for her, is blatantly unfair.
And then there’s First Magician Roze, who also hates Yelena instantly, for even less reason. By the end of the book, it’s clear she’s jealous of Yelena’s power and bitterly frustrated by the Keep’s inability to bring Yelena to heel…but that would have been a much more satisfying endpoint to reach if Roze hadn’t been a Supreme Bitch the entire time, if she had started kindly disposed to Yelena for the ordeals the girl had suffered, or even just blandly neutral. Random, unjustified hatred –> reasonable hatred: not a good character arc.
Okay, so I just spent paragraphs dumping on new characters, but Yelena herself continues to be a delight to read, and her ability to find friendship in odd places (horses and beggar children!) is simply marvelous, as well as important to the plot. Yes, her disdain for others’ wisdom and authority gets her into trouble, but hey, look, a YA heroine who isn’t perfect, who makes mistakes! Can’t have one of those, right?
Overall, I did enjoy the story, but it didn’t come close to wowing me like Poison Study did.
#80 – The Look of Love, by Bella Andre
A quick (rushed) romance between an abused woman and a reformed playboy…who hasn’t read this book before? The basic plot is so stuffed with common tropes it could have been assembled from a kit.
However, the story was saved, in part, by actual chemistry between the leads, though their plausible instant attraction quickly (in less than a week!) becomes the dreaded insta-love.
Between that, and the fact that the entire first chapter was spent introducing the entire Sullivan family of one mother and eight siblings–well, there’s a reason most writing advice tells you not to front-load your characters. Yes, this is a romance series following the Sullivan family, but did we really need to meet all eight of them at once, right away? It felt like reading off a checklist, especially since half of the siblings have relatively glamorous jobs, and two of them are actually famous–one’s a movie star and the other a baseball player. Kind of straining credulity for me…
#81 – The Mabinogion Tetralogy, by Evangeline Walton
There’s a story behind this one. I know I picked it up about fifteen years ago (hence its applicability to the PopSugar task) when this edition was brand-new, otherwise I would never have randomly found a nearly 1000-page tome of Welsh mythology just sitting on the shelf waiting for me to buy it.
It was just after I’d discovered Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, and I was hungering for more folklore-based fantasy. A recommendation list offered up Mabinogion, and I jumped on it, even for full price! (Which was $35, by the way, definitely the most expensive book I’ve bought myself, since I tend to shy away from new hardcovers.)
I honestly don’t know why I never read it. At first, maybe, I was saving it for a vacation, or until I’d read some of the shorter books I had to get to. After that? I just didn’t read it.
So here I am, finally tackling it. Yes, it took me almost a month, even if I read the nearly-as-long Seveneves recently in just a week. The language is dry, formal, and often downright archaic, so it’s not a quick read, and I took breaks to read other books.
As far as the stories go, I was totally on board for the first three books of the tetralogy. They were engaging and descriptive, with clear character motivations and (despite the formal language) decent pacing.
Then I got to the fourth book and the wheels fell off the wagon. It’s the longest of the four by far, weighed down with lengthy philosophical reveries about the nature of marriage, free will, fatherhood, and family. I get that a major theme of all the stories is change: old vs. new, matrilineal descent vs. patrilineal descent as in the Old and New Tribes. But the tone of the final book shifted greatly towards the cerebral, and it also shifted anti-women in a big way. Women were glorified in the first three books, but in the final story they were unabashedly the villians. Arianrhod was a deceitful, cunning woman so in love with her self-image she would do anything to keep it, even denying her own children; and Blodeuwedd was a cheating wife who betrayed her husband to his death.
Okay, fine, women can be villains–but in both cases, it was the male main characters who were the root of their actions. Arianrhod never wanted to be a mother, but her brother Gwydion needed her to bear his heir, so he caused her to give birth via magic (though he points out repeatedly there would have been no children in her body to have if she had been virgin as she claimed) and keeps one of the children to raise himself. Blodeuwedd was actually created via Mâth’s and Gwydion’s magic to be a wife to that child, Llew, in his manhood–and when she fell in love with another man, she who was created solely as a companion to Llew, she fell into scheming to solve her difficulties.
Now, I’m not trying to absolve these two “villians” of all of their culpability, but Gwydion is the main character of the book, his need for an heir and the obtaining and raising of such being the main storyline–and the book constantly excuses his actions. If this were a moral tale and he suffered some sort of downfall in the end, that would be one thing–but the ending is unsatisfactory in that regard, and in others, because the book just kind of… stops. Llew is reborn from his eagle form (which was his “death”) and then… nothing happens. So clearly, I’m missing something, or the book is.
And speaking of the physical book itself, I’m disappointed in its quality as well. For something that cost me $35, I expect it not to be riddled with typos and inconsistencies. There were punctuation and capitalization mistakes once every fifteen to twenty pages, or so, and the spelling errors seemed to be centered on the names. Welsh is difficult to spell for the uninitiated–but it was as if the entire book had been typeset by scanning then left unproofed, because the errors were almost always shape-based. Pryderi became Prydern, mashing the R and I together. Geyr became Gew, combining the Y and R. And on top of that, some of the names in the fourth book were spelled differently from in the first three, even when they were clearly referring to the same characters. I would expect that if I were reading different sources telling the same tales (Gawaine vs. Gawain in Arthurian mythos, etc.) but not in a single compilation volume from the same author.
I’m glad I finally read it after it sat on my shelf so long, but I can’t help but be disappointed.
#82 – The Dragon Lord’s Daughters, by Bertrice Small
DNF @ page 100. Honestly, I probably could have given up earlier, all the signs of a classic rape-mance were there, and the writing quality was poor, but I wanted to give it a chance to redeem itself with the first daughter’s “marriage.”
Nope, nope, nope. Okay, she isn’t raped, she’s just bride-napped and forced by “honor” as well as her father and the Prince to marry her abductor. But of course he turns out to be the perfect combination of slightly dangerous and intriguing, and patient and kind, so her deflowering goes (relatively) well and she’s not horribly traumatized by it.
Listen, I get that rape fantasies are a thing, as well as abduction fantasies and all sorts of variations on being “forced” without actually being forced. And I don’t want to make anyone think I’m shitting on readers who enjoy that, because I’m not. Read what you want, no kink-shaming here.
But the romance genre has thankfully moved away from that being the primary set of tropes involved, and in this particular instance (written in 2004, not even in the height of rape-mance in the ’80s and early ’90s) the writing is just so bad. In the first hundred pages I was treated to hearing the titular three daughters’ hair colors listed five times, being reminded of their shared eye color (green) six times, and getting detailed descriptions of their clothes, but no one else’s, four times. More times than I can count, the actions of the previous few pages were summarized in dialogue by one character to bring another up to speed–but seriously, I just read that three pages ago, I don’t need a reminder already. There are times to use expository dialogue, but not like that!