Explanations and Expectations: what is “The Next Big Thing?”

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Title: The Bone Season

Author: Samantha Shannon

Genre: Fantasy/Dystopian

Publishing Info: August 2013 by Bloomsbury USA

Jukebox: The main character Paige Mahoney’s strongest trait is her tenacity. She never loses sight of her goal to escape her captors and go back to her old life in the London underworld. Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence + the Machine, has that tenacity in her voice, no matter what she’s singing. In “You’ve Got the Love,” Florence is singing about a love that will pull her through thick and thin. Regardless of the lyrics’ relevance, I think of Paige when I hear Florence belt out all her angst:

I can see why so many people are debating whether Samantha Shannon will be the next J.K. Rowling. I can also see that comparing The Bone Season to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a terribly unfair comparison.

Shannon wrote her debut novel The Bone Season when she was a 21-year old student at St. Anne’s College. She got her big break when she interned with her future agent David Godwin. Even before the book came out, everybody started drawing comparisons to not only Harry Potter, but also Twilight AND The Hunger Games. Now, I don’t particularly like Twilight or the Hunger Games, but it’s obvious that those series and their authors have had incredibly successful careers (movies, crazy fanbases, etc.). So it seems that The Bone Season, which has been picked up by Andy Serkis’s Imaginarium studios and 20th Century Fox for a movie, is following the same path. But does that mean it should be compared to three of the most popular YA fantasy series in the last five years? Talk about impossible standards.

Plus, however flattering it may be to be up there with the likes of Harry Potter, it’s always a little sad when critics would rather say “Shannon is the new Rowling” than say “Shannon is NEW!” It’s hard enough these days to hash out fresh, original stuff without people immediately tagging you as “The next _insert famous author here_.”

If we evaluate The Bone Season without acknowledging all the comparisons, and keep in mind that this monster of a book was written by a 21-year old student, then Shannon’s debut novel is a great first effort. Shannon has laid down a ton of groundwork that she can explore in her projected six other books in the series (Seven books? Really? I wonder if that’s the agent, publisher, or Shannon talking). The world Shannon creates is refreshing, if familiar:

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London, 2059. Humans are divided into two groups: normal and clairvoyant. There are several kinds of clairvoyance powers, but all of them are able to access and manipulate the aether, or the spirit realm. London is run as a police state, controlled by the Scion agency, whose one goal is to find all the clairvoyants, arrest them, and kill them because of their unnaturalness. Paige Mahoney, the 19-year old main character, works in the underground crime network of clairvoyants. She is a dreamwalker, a rare and therefore valuable kind of clairvoyant. When she’s arrested, she is taken to the lost city of Oxford instead of being killed. Rephaim, the humanoid but not human race, govern the city and enslave the human clairvoyants to help fight off flesh-eating monsters called the Emim. As Paige meets and comes to know her mysterious Rephaim keeper, Warden, she also explores the city, makes friends, and tries to find a way back to London.

Phew. Everything’s much more complicated than that, but you get the idea. The clairvoyance system that Shannon creates is both her strong point and her most confusing one. In the first few chapters, it was obvious that Shannon is a first-time, big-scale writer. There was a lot of not-so-subtle exposition (“infodumping,” I believe it’s called) to try and explain all the details of the underground clairvoyant gangs, as well as what exactly a dreamwalker like Paige could do. Consequently, the chart detailing the types of clairvoyants and the map of Oxford are extremely helpful while reading. I like Shannon’s idea of reimagining the traditional skepticism towards clairvoyants, card-reading, ghosts, and mediums into a race of unnatural humans persecuted because of their “disease,” but hopefully she will address all of the still vague areas of her world building in future books.

The jerkiness of the first-person POV also indicated that Shannon was still getting used to being in the mind of her main character. Many phrases seemed like they were for younger audiences even though they dealt with darker, more adult themes. The mantra of my high school english teachers, “Show, don’t tell,” sounded in my head repeatedly while I was reading. With that advice in mind, I believe one more revision would have made The Bone Season a tighter, more effective book in terms of the writing. Shannon’s narrative is also permeated with a lot of fun clairvoyant slang, inspired partly by the 19th century London criminal underworld. However, in the beginning the terms are flung at us with no explanation, and it’s disorienting until you gain enough context. Or you could be smarter than I was and realize there’s a glossary in the back. Shannon’s writing does calm down and even out, so if you can deal with knowing only 70% of what’s going on in the first few chapters, it’s worth it when the setting shifts to Oxford.

I could list more inconsistencies, but everyone, remember again that Shannon just graduated from college last year. I’m reviewing someone who’s only a couple years older than I am. Yes, Shannon still has a lot to learn in organizing her plot details, working up to a romance, and executing the big final battle, but I was so impressed by the daring and scope of this first book, that I am definitely reading the second book when it comes out in October 2014. I am excited to see how Shannon has learned from her debut novel and have no doubt she will keep improving. Will it be the next Harry Potter? No, of course not. No author or book can ever forge the exact same career path as another. Will it be a treasured YA fantasy series? That depends on how Shannon and her writing grow and change in her future books. My high expectations come not from the careless comparisons to famous YA series, but from the intriguing world Shannon has begun to explore in The Bone Season.

Rating: 7 – good: would recommend, above average, has some problems but I can deal

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This is the End: Justifying Murder

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Title: A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain

Author: Adrianne Harun

Genre: Fantastical Fiction

Publishing Info: February 2014 by Penguin Books

Jukebox: “They build it up just to burn it back down/the wind is blowing all the ashes around/ oh my dear god what is that horrible song they’re singing.” There is a lingering static in the background of Arcade Fire’s “Rococo,” either created by the screech of guitar strings and drums, or my imagination. A Man Came out of a Door in the Mountain has the same lingering sense of uneasiness, that something is coming but is entirely unobserved until it’s directly upon us.

This is the end. This is the end. This is the end (okay, not the Seth Rogen movie). I turned the last page of Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain and those were the words going through my mind. Throughout Harun’s debut novel, there were many points where the words in front of me began to blur and condense into this four-word chant. Because this is a story about a dead-end town and people close to a dead-end. I’ve always imagined that once I finish a book and close it, the characters’ lives still go on, just unread and unobserved. I judge if an ending is successful or not on whether I can wholeheartedly believe that characters have a future they can look toward (Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, for instance). But after I put Harun’s book down, I wasn’t convinced. Actually, I was very confused. Nothing that happens in this book really assures me that anything changed after I finished the story. The focus of A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is on five seventeen-year old best friends living in a small town in British Columbia: Leo, our Kitselas/Haisla/Polish/German narrator, Jackie, a big-boned Native girl working at the local camp kitchen, Ursie, who works at the local motel, Bryan, Ursie’s brother, and Tessa, who acts as a replacement mother for her large family. These characters are tied together by their hatred and fear of Gerald Flacker, leader of the gang who dominates the entire town with a thriving drug business, drunken brawls, and just plain intimidation. The entire story plays on the desire of the five friends, Bryan in particular, to get rid of the gang and all the trouble they bring, to finally have some power over the bad guys and also over their own futures. 

This desire to get rid of a villain who is plainly preventing everybody else from living a normal life strongly resembles Andre Dubus’s short story, “Killings”, in which the narrator Frank longs to avenge his murdered son by punishing the murderer once and for all (I recommend the Academy Award-winning movie based off of the short story). In both stories, the villains are regular faces around the small towns, totally unavoidable and totally untouchable, it seems. When I compare these two stories, it’s clear to me that Dubus does the better job in conveying the confusion, guilt, and moral grey area that is always present in a story that strives to justify murder.

Harun has the confusion and the greyness, but it’s more like a thin haze surrounding her entire story. Every time I thought something concrete was going to happen, the description dissolved into pieces of emotions and actions. I felt like there was a missing sentence Harun was withholding from me in order to understand exactly what was going on through the characters’ minds, let alone what exactly was happening. Dubus has the same problem, namely convincing us that violence is the only way out of a problem, but he is more successful because he is smart about clueing us in on how events in Frank’s backstory influences his every inner conflict about his future actions. Simply put: Cause and Effect. With Harun’s writing, I could never find that cause and effect. Things just seemed to happen for no reason, or a character would act a certain way as if possessed by a strange entity.

Granted, Harun does not hide the presence of an unseen “devil” throughout the book. In fact, she addresses it repeatedly, with Leo, the narrator, referring to it in the second chapter as the driving force for all of the crazy events in the town:

I want to yell: Look Sharp!  For as Uncle Lud might say, the devil could find a soul mate in a burnt teaspoon and he sure as hell can choose whatever forms suit his purpose…Look Sharp! As if that might have altered every part of the day the devil first arrived to meet us–the bunch of us–in person.

Harun establishes her unseen devil at the very beginning. And she continues its presence through short, periodical chapters called “The Devil Plays With a Telephone,” or “Laundry Day for the Devil.” So it’s not a secret that something unusual is happening to these kids in their dead-end town. I just think the explanation of what is happening to them is done poorly. Some people may call it magical realism, this vague influence of an anti-Deus ex machina figure, but I just call it confusing.

Then there are moments where Harun’s writing is spectacularly beautiful. Especially when she describes the simplest things:

Her laugh was a lucent bell, a golden peal I swore I saw arc and ripple in the shimmering air before its chime faded away.

Her writing definitely has its shining moments. Her prose reminds me of Lindsay Hill’s stream-of-consciousness style in Sea of HooksAnd to her credit, Harun’s novel was easier to read than Sea of Hooks (that one took me 2 months, vs 2 days), perhaps because of the shorter chapters and length (349 vs 273 pgs). However lyrical her writing may be, it’s not enough to keep a fragmented plot and weak character development glued together.

Speaking of the characters, I was also disappointed by how much I didn’t learn about them. After reading 273 pages about their lives, I still didn’t know much more than what the Amazon blurb says. The most interesting perspectives are of Ursie and Leo’s individual lives. Ursie’s job as a maid in the local motel, frequented by drunkards and gamblers and all-around no gooders, kept me happy, even with small details like Ursie’s love of Diet Bubble-Ups:

 Ursie admired the long-necked bottles and the frostiness Albie’s old soda machine achieved, and despite the odd aftertastes, despite her inevitable preference for Diet Bubble-Up, she savored every brand and would spend several considerate minutes before the soda machine each afternoon. Sometimes she was still gazing at the machine when Bryan’s old truck with its often-loose fan belt screeched into the lot.

Leo’s own struggles at home, to please his mother by finishing his online physics course and avoid going to mining college, also deserve a shoutout. When he assesses his self-worth, concluding “Yeah, it seemed to me that I was all bleak suggestion,” not only does it describe a lot of teenager’s fears of going nowhere, but it also addresses the stagnancy of the entire town.

Another thing to consider is that I may have missed the entire purpose of this story. It may have flown right over my head. I was certainly left feeling like I was missing the bigger meaning. Harun states in her acknowledgments that this story “was sparked by outrage over the ongoing murders and disappearances of aboriginal women along Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears…The story veered into a more fanciful narrative after a dinner party discussion of good and evil.” But the plot about girls disappearing off the highway barely comes into play throughout the story. Yet I understand how difficult it is to describe a situation where not even the main characters know exactly what has taken hold of them, let alone try to portray all the shapes and forms in which good and evil manifest.

A hazy novel, which for me never managed to go above a low, steady pulse of unrealized potential.

Rating: 5 – eh: choppy plot and character development, but the story has some interesting parts and a few redeeming characters

Fairytale Friends: one is Earthen and the other Fiery

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Title: The Golem and the Jinni

Author: Helene Wecker

Genre: Literary Fantasy/Historical Fiction (it’s basically its own category)

Publishing info: April 2013 by Harper

Jukebox: As an homage to Helene Wecker’s fantastical, darkly romantic portrayal of 1899 New York, here is “Gulag Orkestar” by Beirut. The name is a combination of influences, as “Gulag” is the name of the Russian agency in charge of forced labor camps during the Soviet era and “Orkestar” is the Serbian word for orchestra. Beirut’s songs all hold a melting pot of cultures, just as Wecker develops her characters in various ethnic neighborhoods. The clashing of instruments and voices reminds me of the constantly busy New York street life as well as the Golem and Jinni’s lonely night walks–that is, lonely until they meet each other.

The intro is long–skip to 1:01 if it gets too heavy:

Oh, how I love a good worldbuilder. Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is one to savor, guys. And not just for its well-built world, but also for its intriguing premise: A golem and a jinni are stranded in New York and must adapt to a human lifestyle. Both slowly carve a niche in their respective neighborhoods, the golem working as a baker and the jinni a tinsmith. At night, both of them restlessly walk the streets of New York to stave off loneliness and boredom (neither need to sleep). When they encounter each other on one of those walks, their friendship is instant, cemented over the shared experience of being an outsider. When a figure from their past threatens both of them, the Golem and the Jinni invoke both their convoluted past and newly present lives to save each other.

Wecker takes her time introducing us to the two main characters and the separate neighborhoods that are the focus of her world. Furniture maker Otto Rotfeld, desperate to go to America with a wife, asks Yehudah Schaalman, practicer of dark Kabbalistic magic, to create a golem that can pass as a human woman. Her specific traits are included too:

“Give her curiosity,” he told Schaalman. “And intelligence. I can’t stand a silly woman. Oh,” he said, inspiration warming him to his task, “and make her proper. Not…lascivious. A gentleman’s wife.”

When Rotfeld dies from appendicitis on the ship to America, the Golem finds herself without a master, lost and confused. As a creature made to obey other’s desires, she is pushed and pulled in every direction by strangers’ every whim and wish until Rabbi Avram Meyer discovers her on the street, takes her in, and names her Chava (hebrew for “life”). Close by, in Little Syria, tinsmith Boutros Arbeely accidentally releases the Jinni from a copper flask. Imprisoned for the last thousand years, the Jinni has no recollection of how he was trapped. Like Chava, he must learn to live among humans, taking the name Ahmad and working as a metalsmith.

Taking the first third of the book to show us how the Golem is created, where the Jinni is from, and how they learn to survive in a sea of foreign customs is a testament to Wecker’s thoroughness. She builds each character’s story, forging their pathways separately but never too far away from each other, so that when they eventually meet up, the moment is brilliant and magical:

His face–and his hands as well, she saw now–shone with that warm light, like a lamp shaded with gauze…She saw him glance at her, and then look again. Then he too stopped. At that distance she could not feel his curiosity, but his expression made it plain. What, he was thinking, is she?

Two impossible creatures of earth and fire, caution and recklessness, obedience and arrogance, defy all stereotypes and expectations to become friends.

The heaps and heaps of research Wecker must have done about fin-de-siècle New York only adds to the delicious contrast of mythological creatures living in historical neighborhoods. She immerses us in the details of New York’s supportive micro-communities: the shared, claustrophobic tenements of Little Syria, the community of women willing to sit overnight in a dead rabbi’s bedroom to guard his soul, and the glowing warmth of a rowdy dancehall. The solid descriptions of the immigrant population’s cycle of work and entertainment make it possible for Wecker to also describe the more magical parts of city life: The maze of rooftop pathways, filled with prostitutes and informal neighborhood councils around fire barrels, the formidable white mansion housing a reluctant heiress, the Angel of Death statue in Central Park. With this combination of fantasy and history, Wecker’s vision of New York is entirely her own. Wecker’s portrayal is slightly hard to believe, but in the way that we know we are reading a fairy tale and are eager to lose ourselves in the fantasy for a little longer. And never does her ability to whip glittering stories from the air impede the attachment we form with all the characters. Never do we doubt that their stories matter just because they are slightly impossible.

Chava and Ahmad’s stories will always be surreal because of their fantastical origins, but Wecker keeps her two main characters grounded in the very real questions they ask themselves every day: can people change, or are we slaves to our nature? Do our desires and fears govern us wholly and completely? Does free will exist? Their thoughts come uncomfortably close to the questions all of us hesitate to ponder. Wecker embeds in both characters the most elemental of human identities; between them they represent submissiveness, prudence, and above all the longing for independence and purpose. How can we not place a stake in their futures, place a part of our hearts in theirs and feel when they are angry, lonely, or hopeful?

The Golem and the Jinni’s struggle to adjust to the reality of their situation, all the while wishing they could just succumb to their true natures is the true reason to involve ourselves in their entire journey. Take the time to watch as the two try to sustain hope, to find a way out. Revel with them when they realize that the beginning of their way out is finding each other.

Rating: 8 – loved it: would definitely recommend, solid characters, writing, plot; might reread in a couple years

 

Everyday Drama: an artist’s rendering

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Title: Life Drawing

Author: Robin Black

Genre: Literary Fiction

Publishing info: On sale July 15, 2014 from Random House!

How did I get this book: Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) from Netgalley

Jukebox: Sometimes a song is all about the atmosphere. “Service Bell,” a collaboration between Feist and Grizzly Bear, holds layers of emotions that culminate in a final swell of intermingling voices. I’ve listened to this song so many times and I still haven’t figured out all the layers, just as I haven’t yet understood all of Life Drawing‘s layers either:

In a world where every character must have a deep flaw or painful childhood, where we overdramatize our personal lives on TV and on Facebook, I wondered whether to bother getting to know Augusta, the main character and narrator of Robin Black’s Life Drawing. As I acquainted myself with her in the first few chapters, I thought, “just another example of someone’s overly-hyped personal life.” After all, Augusta lost family members too early: her mother from a brain aneurysm when she was seven, her older sister to cancer, and finally her father as his memories succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Then Gus had an affair with a married man. She confessed to Owen, her husband. They moved to the countryside to focus on their work (painting and writing) and each other. But instead they stopped having meaningful conversations.

A paragraph full of terrible memories and labels. Abandoned child. Unfaithful spouse. Widow. Unfortunately, tragedies like these appear everywhere and everyday until they lose their ability to affect the observer. Just yesterday I was watching The Good Wife, whose main character must also deal with a cheating spouse. Today, as I waited in line in Walgreens, I scanned the cover of People magazine, which seems to feature a new celebrity affair  every week. How casually we treat life-changing events. So I ask again, why take precious time to understand how Augusta’s painful past has shaped her? Why bother?

As Robin Black led me through Gus’s quiet daily life, I found it worth my while to bother. Much like John Steinbeck in Cannery Row, Robin Black paints a portrait of a single subject through past experiences. But instead of a small, quirky, run-down town, she fleshes out a human being, formed and hardened and stiffened by too many tragedies. Just like the title states, Life Drawing is a portrait of a human being. What makes Black’s portrayal different from all those melodramatic TV shows is her understanding of how to handle drama: Drama doesn’t stop being important after the front-page headlines, after the labels. Drama is necessary. It’s in all our lives. And it deserves self-reflection and acknowledgment.

Black doesn’t hide the drama of Gus’s life. In fact, she gives it to us right at the beginning:

In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death, he visited Alison’s house every afternoon.

There it is. Tragedy in the first sentence. Though Black starts out with the broad brush strokes of one of the many tragedies in Gus’s life, she devotes the rest of the novel to Gus’s self-reflection. Like little dabs of a paintbrush giving blue depth to what would otherwise just be another white, fluffy cloud, Black develops Gus with the personal touches that slowly makes her particular blend of tragedies become more than everyday drama.

Just as acquaintances become friends by spending time together, Black acquaints us with Gus on a day-by-day basis. We see her and Owen suffer through dinner without any meaningful conversation, struggle with her as she tries to branch out from landscapes and paint people only to erase them when they look lifeless. We live Gus’s life for what seems like several months until somewhere in the middle of Chapter Nine, Gus is more than an acquaintance. Subtly, Black attunes us to every fluctuation in Gus and Owen’s careful balance of resentful companionship.

Another channel through which Gus verbalizes her self-reflection is Alison, the British, middle-aged neighbor. Alison embraces all of Gus’s past mistakes and broken trust with Owen, becoming a close friend. *Spoiler Alert* When Alison’s daughter, Nora, falls in love with Owen, *Spoiler Alert Over* all of Gus’s self-reflection finally crystallizes into her own, starkly painful, life drawing: it is finally clear that her present self cannot escape her past mistakes and tragedies.

Life Drawing. The title has more than one meaning: this novel is Gus’s own life drawing, but Gus also deals with her own fear of painting life drawings. Throughout the novel, Gus works on a new project, painting portraits, of dead WWI soldiers in various rooms of her house as if they were alive. Yet she fears that she cannot do justice to these poor, dead, boys and literally paints around them, recreating her kitchen, her front porch, in perfect detail while leaving an empty space for a body. Like Gus’s struggle to paint people, Black’s novel is a struggle. She writes around Gus’s memories, writes of Gus’s strained country life, in the hopes of showing how our pasts will influence the rest of our lives. Through her thoughtful and thorough approach to Gus’s story, Black does justice to her deeply flawed character. Black’s life drawing is truly alive.

Rating: 8 – loved it: would definitely recommend, solid characters, writing, plot; might reread in a couple years

 

Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It didn’t end well.

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Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy

Titles: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Days of Blood and Starlight, Dreams of Gods and Monsters

Author: Laini Taylor

Label: Realistic Fantasy

Published in: Dreams of Gods and Monsters was published in April 2014.

Jukebox: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor is a vast landscape of color and emotion. The piece begins in a furious tantrum, waltzes through memories of happiness, and ends in a deep, sighing grief. As I was practicing this piece, I realized that its volatile atmosphere matched many of the scenes from Taylor’s story. It’s a long piece, so feel free to let it play in the background as you read. Here is my take on the sonata:

The world that Laini Taylor builds in this series is very complex and very thorough.  Much like The Hunger Games series, each book in the trilogy represents a different stage in the overall conflict: Daughter of Smoke and Bone introduces readers to Karou, an art student in Prague who lives with a family of chimaera (creatures made up of different animal parts, like, for example, a gryphon). She helps collect teeth for Brimstone, her chimaera father, but has no idea why he needs them. When she meets and falls in love with the angel Akiva, she discovers that she is part of a thousand-year war between angels and chimaera in the parallel world of Eretz. Days of Blood and Starlight deals with the aftermath of war and the process of organizing a rebellion. Karou, in discovering her past self, realizes that Akiva has betrayed her and her family. While Karou works, she deals with her desolation and slowly recovers, reacquainting her past self with her current self. Dreams of Gods and Monsters begins with a rebellion and ends by bursting the entire story wide open. Karou and Akiva discover a backstory to the backstory they thought they had figured out. The war between angels and chimaera, no longer contained in Eretz, collides with human history on Earth. Karou and Akiva achieve their main goal, to end war and tyranny, only to discover an even bigger threat to their newly acquired peace.

As anyone can see from the plot overview, Laini Taylor has created a layered world inhabited by well-rounded characters. But rarely do I encounter an author who can build complex worlds and characters while maintaining a hilarious narrative voice. She tells her story like an epic legend through beautiful, dream-like prose but also keeps everyone sane with hilarious dialogue. Taylor’s blend of epic description and humorous reality-checks is effective because she understands when to reveal a crucial piece of plot and when to take a step back and note the ridiculousness of a situation. As Karou and her best friend Zuzana watch the angel and chimaera armies attempt to form an alliance and share their food rations, Zuzana remarks:

You know what would be good now?” Zuzana whispered, when the sounds of spoons on plates had mostly quieted. “Chocolate. Never attempt an alliance without chocolate.

With that statement, it’s impossible not to smile in one of the most tense situations of the series. Taylor balances these quips with abundant richness of description: she develops both her characters and her world with care, treating the color of a tree’s leaves with the same curious reverence as a  soldier’s fatigue. She describes one of Karou’s “aha!” moments with lyricism:

Her heart started to pound. An idea was taking shape. She didn’t give voice to it, but let its traceries unfurl, following them and searching for defects, anticipating what the arguments would be against it. Could it be this simple?

Taylor offers the perfect blend of quirky humor and sad beauty. The only other author I know who is able to manage such a balance is Tamora Pierce with her Tortall series.

Taylor boasts a solid cast of characters too. The main couple, Karou and Akiva, are definitely an OTP (One True Pairing). Their forbidden relationship, centered around a period of happiness surrounded by grief and loss, is strangely attractive. But the supporting characters make this series especially well-rounded: Karou’s best friend Zuzana is a tiny, feisty puppeteer, master of the eyebrow arch. She is the reason for every uncontrollable bout of laughter I had while reading:

Zuzana Nováková was a pretty girl. She’d often been compared to a doll, or to a fairy, not just because of her slight stature but also her fine, small face…Deciding to take her on was akin to a fish deciding idly to gobble up that pretty light bobbing in the shadows and then— OH GOD THE TEETH THE HORROR!— meeting the anglerfish on the other side. Zuzana didn’t eat people. She withered them.”

Other memorable characters: Akiva’s sister Liraz is an uncrackable warrior with so many chimaera death tallies on her hands that her arms look like black sleeves. The White Wolf, leader of the chimaera rebellion, is full of plying charm and an unnerving love of killing. Again, I could go on.

Taylor’s handling of the crossover between Eretz and Earth, between fiery angels, demon-like chimaera and humans, is also applaud-worthy. She takes a very basic human belief, and asks us to re-evaluate it: Angels are good, and demons are bad, right? Then who do we support when the war between the two invades our daily lives on Earth? Should Liraz be punished because of the chimaera she’s killed or be honored? Should Karou’s surrogate father Brimstone die because he has scary horns? Taylor reminds us that all of our preconceptions started from a whisper, a rumor, a story. This idea that basic human beliefs are all relative appears much more in Dreams of Gods and Monsters. As Taylor rewrites Eretz’s history and consequently Earth’s history, the feeling that “nothing makes sense anymore” is just present enough to tip the reader off balance.

Of course, whenever an author tries to bend time and space and history, there is always a chance that the story arc will spiral out of control. Halfway through the final book, I started worrying about how Taylor was going to tie everything together. Using her third book to expand the backstory and character roster was risky. Just look at George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series–HBO might finish it before he does! As I mentioned, Taylor ends her story a bit unconventionally:

It was not a happy ending, but a happy middle— at last, after so many fraught beginnings.

Most of the time, ending with a beginning just leaves fans totally pissed off.  But Taylor wraps up her initial plot neatly and leaves us with the knowledge of a satisfying future ordeal. Because she reassures readers that each character has a renewed purpose, we are content to end in this intersection. After all, if you survive reading all three books, you’ve also survived a war, a rebellion, and a prophecy with these characters. So when Taylor asks us to let these beloved fictional people go, we trust in their ability to attack the endless future possibilities. It’s An End, not The End.

If Taylor ever decides to write a fourth book, I’m 100% positive that she’ll create an epic journey filled with renewed vigor. She has set up more than enough material to explore. But if she doesn’t, that’s fine too. Though I’m accustomed to getting my happy endings like everybody else is, I sit here wholly satisfied and deeply touched.

Rating: 9 – so crazy good that if the plot, characters, and world were real I would just run away and join them