Review: Summer of Salt – Magical in Premise, Faulty in Execution

Summer of Salt

Title: Summer of Salt
Author: Katrina Leno
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: June 5th 2018
Genre(s): Contemporary, Fantasy, Young Adult
Page Count: 272 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 5.0/10

 

 

 

This is one of those “You could have been amazing, so what the hell happened?” books. The premise is fantastic. Described as Practical Magic meets Bone Gap, it’s about a pair of twin sisters who are about to spend their last summer in their childhood home–one that’s situated on a small island full of strange history and myth. Georgina and Mary Fernweh are descended from a line of magical women–some could control fire, others could fly and even walk on water. Sounds great, yeah?

The first quarter of the book is everything I’d hoped it would be. The island is cozy and quirky in a way that made me smile, and the conversational tone of Georgina’s narration complements the setting perfectly. It’s like we’re on a vacation with her on this island and she’s showing us all its sights and history.

And then the problems begin.

First of all, the writing style. Sometimes the prose is poetic and moving. Other times, it’s more like this:

“Hey, Kathy, what do want for breakfast?”

What do I want? I want the taste of strawberries on my lips, ones plucked fresh from my grandmother’s garden. I want to watch the dawning of the skies as the sun crawls over the horizon and the world holds its breath. I want the feel of birdsongs winding across my skin. I want to be washed by the morning mist in a baptism of hope and new beginnings.

“Just some cereal, thank you.”

Repetitions can be used for powerful effect. When used sparingly. And at choice moments. The problem with Summer of Salt is that the author doesn’t know when to stop. She’s overindulgent with her prose, and what was beautiful and effective early in the book becomes more and more grating and contrived.

Then we have the characters. While I enjoyed Georgina’s narrative voice, all the side characters were uninteresting and their relationships very shallow. The romance between Georgina and a tourist girl named Prue is painfully underdeveloped. We barely know who Prue is and yet the two of them are already declaring love for one another by the end of the story.

But my biggest problem is with Mary. Here’s the thing: I hate stories that think sexual abuse and assault can stand in for character growth. For most of the book, Mary is abrasive, insensitive, bratty, and just not all that great in general. My issue is that no one challenges her on this–not her sister nor the rest of her family. They all shrug and say, “Oh, well, that’s just who she is. But we love her anyway.” And so she remains that way until the very end, when a certain event triggers a change in her personality. She could have had an interesting character arc; her personality could have clashed with Georgina’s and they could have spent the rest of summer trying to untangle the snarls in their relationship. Instead, the author went with a cop out: use of rape as a catalyst for interpersonal conflicts.

The plot is just as underwhelming as everything else. A mystery pops up out of nowhere at the halfway point and ends up fizzling out by the end.

I had high hopes for this one, but all in all, it was a sadly disappointing read.

~

Review copy provided by HarperTeen and Edelweiss

 

Review: The Last Sun – Fantasy Written to Perfection

the last sun

Title: The Last Sun (The Tarot Sequence 1)
Author: K.D. Edwards
Publisher: Pyr
Release Date: June 12th, 2018
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Page Count: 367 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 10/10

 

 

 

I’ve been sitting on this review for over a month, all the while rewriting and tweaking and coming to the realization that a written review can’t properly encompass the  adoration I have for this story and its characters. A hundred gifs of muppet flails would be a better representation of my feelings, but I figure I still have some shred of respectability and professionalism to maintain.

But that was more or less my experience reading this book–every cell of my body flailing their tiny cytoplasmic limbs in abject worship. Because The Last Sun shines with the light of a supernova. It brims with life and love and wonder and serves as a testament to some of the best this genre has to offer. It’s everything I want in quality fantasy and more: a lovingly-crafted, rich setting that’s a blend of contemporary and high fantasy; prose that moves from laugh-out-loud humour to quiet poignancy; caffeine-fueled pacing and breakneck action sequences; complex, unabashedly queer characters, and heartfelt exploration of the many kinds of male relationships.

The story takes place in New Atlantis, an island formerly known in the human world as Nantucket. This Earth is very much like our own–same countries, same pop culture, same technology–except for the presence of various magical beings. These magical beings used to exist unbeknownst to humans, but then came the Atlantean World War and the boundaries between Atlanteans and humans became frayed. Among these beings are those called the “Arcana.” Named after tarot cards–like The Tower, The Fool, Justice, and The Sun–they’re the closest things to gods of this world. Their access to immense power and their considerable influence within and outside of New Atlantis make them the de facto Atlantean rulers.

New Atlantis is like if Shadowrun had a baby with Neverwhere. Worldbuilding in urban fantasy don’t normally excite me because many of them feel the same. There’s either the fae–the Seelie and the Unseelie–or the paranormal–wereanimals, vampires, spirits, and such. You get the gist after reading half a dozen UF series. The Last Sun, though? It makes me giddy in a way that the Shadowrun world does. For those who are unfamiliar, Shadowrun is a cyberpunk RPG that’s unfortunately shadowed (no pun intended) by the popularity of D&D. And what I adore about Shadowrun is its diversity. Its major cities are a hub for not only human diversity–various ethnicity, sexuality, and gender–but magical diversity. When you walk down a street, you would see orcs intermingling with trolls, elves, dwarves, shamans, druids, and more.

The same goes for New Atlantis. The island is crammed with all manner of magical beings. Wereanimals, spirits, fae, ghouls, elementals–pick the name of any random fantasy creature floating around in your brain and it can probably be found in New Atlantis. Every corner of the story unveils something new and exciting and I couldn’t help but grin like an idiot tourist at the absolute wonder of it all.

The magic system is very reminiscent of RPGs–dynamic and fiendishly delightful. The plot moves from your standard mystery to something with larger implications, and its pacing grabs you by the neck and hurls you forward at a hundred miles per hour. And what’s incredible is that even though the pacing hardly ever lets up, Edwards still makes time for meaningful character interactions without disrupting the momentum.

The book could have stopped there and I still would have given it a very high score. But Edwards takes it a step further. Let’s talk about the reason this gets a 10 out of 10: the characters. Because the characters of The Last Sun have wormed their way into my heart, built themselves a little cabin, and are now refusing to leave.

In a genre that so often celebrates a testosterone-laden brand of masculinity, Edwards whittles down stereotypes. Take Brand, our protagonist’s foul-mouthed, sarcastic bodyguard. We’re all familiar with the type. But the thing with Brand is that he never shies away from showing how much he cares about Rune. He dons the tough bodyguard look and the emotionally vulnerable look with equal confidence.

Take Addam, who is a perfect example of the Knight In Shining Armour archetype done right. He’s one of those people that you want to hate because they’re so perfect, but can’t because they’re so perfectly nice. In fiction, nice characters–especially nice male characters and especially nice male love interests–are often disparaged as boring. Dull. Weak. Addam shatters this notion to pieces. He’s a pillar of strength born of unconditional kindness and love and trust–qualities that we as a society often misconstrue as naiveté.

And then there’s Rune, our protagonist. The heir to the fallen Sun Throne. Victim of an unspeakable tragedy. He lives in a tiny house on the edge of poverty with the fear over his head that someday his luck will run out and his enemies will catch up to him. But most of all, Rune is a survivor. And his display of strength–through his jokes, his empathy, his determination to keep moving forward–amidst the demons of his past is nothing short of inspiring.

But what I love and appreciate the most, and what makes the book special to me is in the way that Edwards tackles relationships. Specifically, the notion that deep, emotional intimacy can’t exist between two people who are not romantically involved.

I’m always drawn to stories about friends who share hugs and kisses and tell each other, without shame or hesitation, “I will walk to the deepest of hell for you.” Because my own relationship with my best friend is a very intimate one where we tell each other things like “You’re my raison d’etre” with complete seriousness. But I hardly ever see this explored in modern western literature–mostly in manga and anime.

Then this book comes along.

Rune’s relationship with Brand is different to his relationship with Addam–in that it’s not a romantic or sexual one. Yet it’s no less intimate. It’s still love. It’s palpable love that makes you want to burst into tears at the sheer beauty of it. To see this portrayed with pitch-perfection in a book–a fantasy one at that–makes me ridiculously happy. Reading through Rune and Brand’s snarky exchanges are always great, but the moments of quiet, during which they reiterate their bond to one another, are what makes this relationship so compelling. They make my heart soar in the same way that the genre’s best duos do.

What else can I say? The book is only just over 350 pages, but Edwards utilizes every single one of them and takes you through a whirlwind of an adventure. The Last Sun gives so much and leaves room for yet so much more. And I feel incredibly privileged to witness the start of what’s no doubt going to be a magnificent one-of-lifetime journey alongside these characters.

~

Review copy provided by Pyr and Edelweiss.

 

Review: The Wicker King – Stifling and Mesmerizing

the wicker king


Title:
The Wicker King
Author: Kayla Ancrum
Publisher: Imprint
Release Date: October 31st, 2017
Genre(s): Young Adult, Psychological Thriller
Page Count: 320 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 9.0/10

 

This book is dedicated to all the kids whose arms are filled with too much for them to hold, but who are trying their best not to drop a single thing.

The Wicker King is a story about the dangers of codependency. But it’s also about the neglect and casual abuse that children face at the the hands of adults, which lead to such dangers in the first place. Most people would write this kind of story as a contemporary in normal prose.

Not Kayla Ancrum.

Ancrum tells this story through the eyes of two teenage boys. Jack, who believes he can see into a fantasy world that overlaps our own, in which he is the king of. And August, Jack’s best friend, who is also his one true knight. According to Jack, the two of them are tasked with a dangerous quest. And if they can fulfill this prophecy, the Wicker King and his Champion, then maybe–just maybe– this other world would disappear and Jack would be free. On top of all this, the story is told in microfiction and multimedia form; very short “chapters” are interspersed with various notes, documents, photos, and even recipes. Even the pages themselves add to the story–as Jack’s fantasy world becomes progressively more dominant, the pages become more and more stained, eventually turning into a solid black. The result is an astoundingly unique and psychologically immersive experience.

August and Jack’s relationship is as suffocating as it is heartbreaking. August wants to care for Jack like he (August) has never been. And Jack wants the love and devotion that was always missing from his own life. Both of their families have largely abandoned them and so they try to find the missing pieces in one another. It’s difficult stuff to read through but it helps explain so much of their unhealthy behaviour.

August and Jack start off acting like normal teenagers. Then, as Jack’s other world becomes clearer and more prevalent, their relationship begins to oscillate. From teenagers to medieval king and knight. And then back to teenagers again. It’s strange. It’s jarring. And a little frightening. But most of all, it’s compelling. Like a burning house whose destructive beauty you can’t take your eyes off of.

And the writing is just stunning. It’s as erratic as the boys’ relationship, alternating between casual teenager speech to formal, stylized dialogue that so often took my breath away.

“Do they still sing songs of my victory?” August choked.

“They do. And they’ll crescendo like beacons to the farthest reaches. With every new breath of life that forms in a world without darkness that came at the price of your hands and your mind.”

But the last 50 pages are what truly makes this book–filled with poetry and heartrending exploration of mental illness and the fine divide between love and obsession. And Ancrum gets the distinction of writing the only Author’s Note that has ever made me tear up.

The Wicker King is a book that defies genres. One that blurs the line between realism and fantasy to explore the story of two children who have taken on so much of life’s  burdens. And for those who worry that this is another one of those books where queer characters don’t get a happy ending, I assure you that isn’t the case here. While August and Jack’s journey isn’t an easy one by any means, Ancrum breathes life to the phrase, “It is always darkest just before dawn.”