The Queen of The Tearling – Erika Johansen [Books]

queen of the tearling.jpgDear friends,

One thing I want you to understand, is I will never disguise my feelings about a book on this blog. I will, however, always try to find the good in something. But if I say I liked a book, I liked it. If I gush about how great it is, I absolutely loved it. If I disliked it, it’s going to be clear. And if you felt differently about a book than I did, I would love to hear from you – I’m always open to discussion.

That said, if you passionately love this book and cannot hear a bad word said against it, it might be a good idea to turn away now.

I did not like this book.

I struggled with this book, and it is one of those rare times I considered rethinking my do not DNF policy.

The Queen of the Tearling is about Kelsea, a young woman in the Tearling, who due to her heritage, has grown up isolated with no one around but her foster parents. One day, a group of men come to whisk her away to the capital and crown her queen. But they are being pursued by the Caden, a group of assassins hired by her uncle, who wants her dead before she can be crowned.

So far, so yeah this sounds interesting, right?

It didn’t take me long into the book to discover I probably wouldn’t like Kelsea. She feels really bland, and makes massive judgements about the people she sees. Speaking of which, the book is very, very focused on appearances. All the men in the guard are handsome and young, despite the fact most of them have been in the guard since Kelsea was a child. People seem to age really slowly in the Tearling, for some reason – actually, almost every man (except the bad guys or slightly-bad-guys) are described as handsome. Kelsa herself keeps moaning about how plain she is, but I really don’t understand how one would think themselves plain if they’ve never seen anyone else? Also she has no mirrors, just sees herself reflected in water, and that’s not really a great one to judge appearance?

I’m not saying Kelsea has to be beautiful, or even ugly. But it just reads a bit odd, and honestly, the plain female hero obsessed with books…it’s been done. A lot. And Kelsea doesn’t really add anything to it at all.

Oh! And one of the men in her guard happens to be black. We know this, because Kelsea seems him and IS SHOCKED. She has (gasp!) never seen a black man before. But…she’s never seen ANYONE before? Like, again, her whole life has been lived in complete isolation. Oh, except in history books. She remembers that.  She has definitely seen black people in history books about…the slave trade.

And (I might be misremembering) I can;t recall anyone else’s race being mentioned again. So either he gets a special mention for being the first, or…no one else in the Tearling is black? I don’t know, but considering it’s the future, and people are descended from the Brits and Americans, it would be REALLY BLOODY WEIRD not to have anyone else who isn’t white. Speaking of which, why British-American? What happened to the other countries? Oh, except Europe. Because they came separately and have a completely different country right next door. Coincidently, all the doctors and medical supplies were on the same ship, which sank. So medicine is poor.

Which brings me to some other points. They made a crossing, from somewhere, but to WHERE, EXACTLY? Is this a different planet? Or did they find some other continent, and kill whoever lived there? None of this is explained or hinted at, and there’s really not a lot of indication as to why things have regressed so much. Don’t get me wrong – I love when worldbuilding makes you think you’re somewhere else, but it turns out (GASP) it’s the future! The problem is, this doesn’t do that. There is literally no reason to not explain these events, or where they are. It’s outright stated – not even hinted at – that this is in our future. There’s mention of Harry Potter and The Hobbit. Revealing that this was another planet would have made it more interesting, I think, but maybe that was revealed and I missed something? I dunno.

And why do people live for so long?

The book builds up the mysteries of who is Kelsea’s father and who is The Fetch but there is literally no pay off to these. To any of these! Three huge questions and by the end of the novel none of them were answered. If one of them was, I’d have found that mildly satisfying, but them all being left makes me feel like it’s a ploy just to get people to read the next one.

Honestly I could rant about this so much more, but I’m not going to. I wanted to like this book. I really, really did, but I struggled so much and as you can probably tell from the above, there were a lot of things that just nagged at me.

I would definitely not recommend this book, unfortunately. But that’s just me, and looking on reviews, it seems to be a book you either love or hate, and of course this is all just completely and utterly my own opinion.

Still, if you have read this book, I would absolutely love to know what you thought. And I promise my next review will be less ranty.

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The Near Witch – V.E. Schwab [Books]

the near witchI only recently started reading Victoria Schwab’s novels. I started with City of Ghosts, then read A Darker Shade of Magic, shortly before going to an author event in Waterstones, Cardiff, where I picked up the next two Shades of Magic books and The Near Witch, money being the only thing stopping me from picking up everything else.

From the moment I started City of Ghosts, I absolutely fell in love with the writing. All the books I’ve read are vastly different, but carrying the same talent.

For anyone not aware, The Near Witch was Schwab’s first novel, which went out of print, and has recently been re-released.  Which is honestly a brilliant, great thing, because this book is an absolute delight.

For any fans who have read later books, it is well worth reading The Near Witch. There are some elements sprinkled throughout which feel like they have taken root, and branched out into other books, such as the Shades of Magic series.

The Near Witch takes place in the town of Near, where Lexi lives with her sister and mother. The people are afraid of anything unusual, including the witches who live on the town’s edge. A stranger appears one night, and shortly after, children start disappearing.

Near is described so well, it’s easy to imagine the town, and it really comes to life with the various characters dotted here and there, as Lexi explores and tries to discover exactly what happened to the children. Atmosphere plays a key role, and even the weather itself feels like an additional character, helping or hindering the characters as they move along their journeys.

The characters all feel real and fully realised, including Lexi’s family and Cole, the stranger. And as to the disappearance of the children, the reader is kept as on their toes as Lexi, trying to work through the puzzle and figure out if a fairy-tale really has come to life.

Overall, I loved The Near Witch for the same reasons I loved City of Ghosts and the Shades of Magic trilogy. For the atmospheric settings, the colourful characters, and the intriguing plot. Highly recommend this book for anyone who loves a good, haunting novel.

Twisted Tales: Mirror, Mirror – Jen Calonita [Books]

mirror mirrorTwisted Tales is a series of books presenting different twists on various well-known Disney stories, and Mirror, Mirror is the sixth in the series, following on from novels about Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and Mulan. Five of the previous novels were written by Liz Braswell, with Reflection, the Mulan story, written by Elizabeth Lim.

Both authors are tough acts to follow, bringing fresh new perspectives on beloved classics. With this being the second book penned by a different author, I think Disney are taking a great approach, rather than just leaving it all down to one writer.

The combination of different authors, plus taking different characters, means a vast difference in the books, and I think from what I’ve seen online and conversations IRL, various people have different favourites from the series. I see this as a really good thing – people are responding in different ways to the same series, and I feel it’s working well for Twisted Tales.

However, I do think Mirror, Mirror might be the weakest book of the series (so far). This, despite the fact Jen Calonita is clearly a talented writer, and I would definitely pick up mirror mirror2one of her other books. So, the writing is good, the characters actually read really well, but the plot itself is a little weak.

One of the things I like most about previous books in the series is the fact the twist actually changes everything for the characters. It forms the crux of the plot, and prevents the characters reaching the happily ever after point we know from the films. In some instances, by the end things are right with the world and we know the characters are going to continue as they would from the films, but they are still changed from their animated counterparts.

The difference with Mirror, Mirror is that the twist – printed plainly on the cover – doesn’t actually affect much of the story. Instead, the changes made don’t feel like they fit into the world of Snow White, and it doesn’t make sense why these changes happen in the context of the animated film. If this was just a retelling, it would work well, but as it is, it doesn’t have the same feel as the previous books.

Sections of the book just simply take us through what happens in the film, but do allow us – as books do – to get deeper into the head of Snow White, as well as the Evil Queen, named Ingrid in the novel. The Ingrid chapters are where the book really comes alive, as we see her transform into the sort of woman who can order a child’s killing.

The plot, in places, feels rushed, and especially the ending. But despite this, the characters themselves give off that feel of real, living breathing people. Snow White is definitely a far cry from the passive princess in the film, given a stronger, more prominent role, as she realises what her people have been through. We also get a better idea of why she cleans so much. The prince, as well – Henri – is more of a character, rather than just the guy who rides in and out. We see the relationship between them blossom, and can feel why they fall for each other. Those aspects of the book work really well.

Overall, although I did have a few niggles with the book, and although it maybe wasn’t up to the same standard as previous books in this series, I did enjoy it. And the additions to the characters worked nicely, giving more depth to Snow White, the prince, the Evil Queen, and even the dwarves. I would definitely recommend this, and although it might not have been my favourite in the series, it’s bound to be someone else’s.

Publication Updates

So seeing as this blog is supposed to be as much about my writing as it is about other’s, I thought I’d just drop a quick note to confirm my latest publication updates. Details of my short stories can always be found on the About & Publications page, but I know maybe not everyone visits that when they come to the site.

So, since the start of the year, I’ve had three short stories published. Two in anthologies, and one as a digital standalone in Alban Lake’s Infinite Realms bookstore.

January saw the publication of the final Seven Deadly Sins YA anthology, LUST.  The fact this anthology has come to an end makes me feel sad – the WRATH volume was my first ever in print story, Dying of the Light, and I feel really proud of the story itself. Ashworth Manor was in the AVARICE volume, and actually got me the number one spot in the competition run on Scrib to find stories for the anthology. And, finally, in LUST, there’s Nina and the Raging Hormone Buffet. The fact I found a place among a group of talented writers is always a reason to smile, even if there won’t be any more of the series. You can check out LUST on Amazon US here, and the UK site here. The profits for SDS do go to First Book, so please check out any of the seven volumes!

Also realised in January was CURSE OF THE GODS, from Fantasia Divinity. My short story The Most Valuable Possession appeared in their previous anthology, OUT OF YOUR SHADOW, and will be my first paid story. Worshipped, appearing in this anthology, will be my first contributor’s copy. Worshipped shows Aphrodite, trying to navigate a modern world, and the perils that come with it. The Fantasia Divinity site (linked above) is worth checking if you want to get a copy, as they often have discounts.

And lastly, through Alban Lake’s wonderful Infinite Realms bookstore, there’s Night of the Loving Dead, published in February. I had so much fun writing this story, and hopefully that comes through in the fiction. It’s flash, coming in at little under 1000 words, and follows a zombie as he tries to navigate his new living deadness. It’s also a zombie love story. Another great publisher definitely worth checking out, and there’s plenty in the bookstore to keep you entertained.

Road To Priesthood (Fiction)

I thought I’d try to post up short, flash fiction on here, hopefully regularly. One, writing it helps me play around with larger novels and stories I’m working on, and two, it’ll hopefully give anyone who reads this something a little entertaining to check out. If it, like this one, is part of a larger world then I’ll explain a bit about it at the end.

The road to being a priest was long and hard. He crouched on the floor before his master, nose touching the marble, and took a deep breath. Closed his eyes and steadied his breathing, focusing only on the calm that descended on him. It had taken him years to reach this point, years of hard work, memorising lines from holy books and learning the various names of the gods. Despite the fact that he would only be serving one, he had to know them all.

He looked up. His master nodded. Stepped back and asked him to recite the five key gods along with each of their roles. He did as he was asked, focusing only on the master himself and not daring to once look at the statues around them for them a guide.

His master smiled when he finished. Commanded him to stand. He straightened his back and stared at a point directly ahead. Still kept his body still as his master walked around him.

“The lands around you,” he said, voice low. “Name them.”

“Tarka and Sharn.”

“And their rulers?”

“King Fredrick and Queen Pine.”

“Excellent work, boy. Tell me, which gods do they worship?”

“The people of Tarka are likely to worship Nex and his pantheon. Those in Sharn tend to worship the wild gods.”

“And the desert?”

“Each tribe has their own gods.”

He paused, rubbed his chin. “The wife of Nex?”

“Lia.”

“Their children?”
“Darius, god of the sea. Lila, goddess of love. And the hero Rosh.”

“The leader of the wild gods.”

“Mayk.”

“And his companion.”

“Juliana.”

“The huntress.”

“Heycate.”

“Good. The wild god of the underworld.”

“Goddess,” he corrected. “Sep.”
“Excellent.” His master turned. Walked towards the door set in the back of the room. Letting out a deep breath, he followed, sweat tricking down the back of his neck at the thought of the next part of his trial.

Like his master, he was to become a priest of Karash, the brother of Nex and god of war. To offer council and perform rituals when required. Not that Tarka had been at war for decades, not since the peace had been established between the three kingdoms and the desert. No, his role was now a more decorative one, and he could not see war breaking out in his lifetime.

He was happy with this. As a child he had adored Karash, loved the stories of how the god had risen up and defeated his people’s enemies, loved the images of the strong man with the mighty sword and shield that would deflect anything.

Once he had begun his apprenticeship he had heard stories that went beyond the usual legends children grew up knowing. Stories of war and bloodshed, moments containing the complete and utter absence of hope as Karash descended on his enemies. He had vowed to serve the god, but he did not realise how much it would actually entail.

He walked through the open door and it swung shut behind him. This was the real test, where simple answers would not help him. This would be a test of how much he could handle of the sort of sacrifices that would be required of him. The efforts of reading omens in the organs of animals he had killed.

His master stood beside him. Together they walked further into the chamber, ready to complete his trial.

Like The Mountain’s Reach (which I spoke a little about here) this story is set in the bigger world of my fantasy novel. This one was just to get a better idea of the gods and their roles in the world, as well as looking briefly at how people actually become priests here. Hope you enjoyed it. It is unedited and brief, but feedback is always welcome.

A World of Pure Imagination

Today I received some good news. A story of mine has been published on the website CommuterLit.  The story itself (titled The Mountain’s Reach) is actually part of a much larger world, and I’m currently working on a novel plus a few other short stories set in the same world. So I figured I’d use this blog to talk a little bit about it, and about where the story idea came from. Before you read on, please check out The Mountain’s Reach on CommuterLit.

The story itself came from a sort of prompt. I was reading the brilliant Writing Magazine one day, and came across a competition run by a tea company. The idea being to use one of their product titles for a short story. Things such as Jade Dragon and, the one I used, Emerald Mountain. Originally, then, the mountain described in the story is much more magical and mystical than it ended up being in the final draft. It was emerald, shrouded in mist, slightly more attractive and yet, I’d hoped, menacing too. The deadline for that came and went but the story stuck with me, and when I went back to it I realised how easily it would slip into a world I’d already created, a world where the northern land of Shaylae is pretty much the last known destination before people reach the mountains and, beyond, the cold, snowy waste lands.

As mentioned in the story, there are two other lands here; Tarka and Sharn. In the centre of these three is the desert. Each land has its own capital, rulers, and characters. The novel follows three main characters; Arrow (Sharn), Rayne (desert) and Jackson (Tarka). The village which the characters in The Mountain’s Reach come from, however, is in Shaylae, which is mostly considered a religious land, with lots of temples, priests and priestesses and, unlike Tarka, the desert tribes and Sharn, is accepting of magic.

So these three – this small family – set out for the mountain. They go past the mountains at the northern part of Shaylae, and most of the story takes place in the unknown lands beyond.

When I started writing it, I didn’t have a clear, solid idea of where it was going to go. (Again, I urge you to read it if you haven’t already; the next bit contains spoilers) I don’t plan out huge amounts before I write, and what I usually find happens is the characters seem to take over. And if I try to make them do something they don’t want to do, or push the story in a direction they don’t want it to take, they push back.

I knew when I started writing it that the father would love his family, of course, and that he would be taking them to a place that haunted his dreams. Turned out, to my surprise, he had been there as a child. The mother does not want to go; the daughter is excited for the adventure. But as they travel, she loses her enthusiasm, and both females become, to him, a nuscence, simply trying to stop him reaching this place he knows he has to get to.

This is the point where the story took a turn I sort of didn’t expect. I wasn’t sure throughout if I was going to end it with the family at the mountain, though that seemed too easy, or if things were going to be a little darker. As it turns out, they never do reach the mountain, and the story ends with the man trudging through the snow on his own.

The world itself is currently unnamed. I’ve been playing around with different ones (Raeg is currently written at the top of my map). But it’s taken shape a lot since I started writing the novel. Every village is now marked down, every city, port, and change in scenery – for example, as one character leaves the desert and encounters grass. These small details are important for me, and crucial for me to remember. I found out a while ago that something like a map was very important for a world you’re creating from scratch, and partly hated myself for not having really, fully used them before.

I described the general geography above, but here’s some other facts about this world (if you’re interested).

  • South of the desert is a land simply known as ‘the wilds’, which most people agree is too dangerous to travel across and better left unclaimed.
  • Tarka borders Shaylae only slightly, and the border contains mountain passes and treks which make it very easy for bandits to hide in. So, most people travel by sea between the two.
  • East of Sharn is the sea, and across this another land which some traders go to but most don’t explore. There’s a story here though, a legend passed down of two brothers – one a prince, one a bastard – and their sister who disappeared mysteriously from her room, shortly before her coming-of-age ball. No one quite knows what happened to her…
  • The world has a mixture of different religions and gods; the tribes worship a full Pantheon of gods, and each tribe takes their name from them – Zeus, Hades, Aphrodite, Ares, etc. The Ares tribe was wiped out, with only two people left alive. And it’s fairly easy to tell those from each tribe apart, as they have varying characteristics and different appearances. The temples in Shaylae usually have areas set aside for multiple gods for people to worship, and the High Temple is home to the High Priestess, who can apparently see the future and helps guide people to their destinies.

So there we have it. A bit of background, and some information, on these lands, and some information about my short story for you.

And if you’re a writer, let me know if you’ve made up any lands yourself – any books you’ve used as reference? How do you plan it out? Do you use maps or something else? I’m always keen to hear about how other writers work, so please feel free to let me know (or link to your blog/site/stories) below.

Image above belongs to my good friend Beckie, who can be found on Twitter @beckiejphoto