Review: Burn by Patrick Ness – Dragons, Prophecies, and the Cycle of Violence

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Title: Burn
Author:
Patrick Ness
Publisher:
Quill Tree Books

Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subject(s)/Themes(s): War, Discrimination, Dragons
Representation: Biracial MC, Gay MC

Release Date: June 2nd, 2020
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

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On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957, Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm…

Sarah Dewhurst and her father, outcasts in their little town of Frome, Washington, are forced to hire a dragon to work their farm, something only the poorest of the poor ever have to resort to.

The dragon, Kazimir, has more to him than meets the eye, though. Sarah can’t help but be curious about him, an animal who supposedly doesn’t have a soul but who is seemingly intent on keeping her safe.

Because the dragon knows something she doesn’t. He has arrived at the farm with a prophecy on his mind. A prophecy that involves a deadly assassin, a cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents in hot pursuit—and somehow, Sarah Dewhurst herself. 

CW: racism, homophobia, graphic violence, near-assault

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Ah, Patrick Ness. He never goes for the boring, does he? I so admire his drive to create stories that count for something–narratives that serve as pointed commentary on an aspect of society or of human nature, sometimes via non-human characters (he forever has my respect for choosing to tackle an inverted version of Moby Dick from the PoV of whales)–and willingness to branch out into wild genres and concepts. His ideas are like a mystery parfait. A delicious delight to spoon through.

Burn is unlike any of his previous books, yet so entirely like all of his previous books. Bold and imaginative and doesn’t shy away when faced with tough questions, it comes out on the other side with a strong thematic core, even if it does sacrifice a few things along the way.

It’s 1957 and dragons exist in this alternate world, distrusted and looked down on by human society. There have been major conflicts waged between the two groups across history, but all of that is done and out of the way now, with a peace treaty placing the parties in a cold but slightly less hostile relationship.

There is also a Canadian cult that worships said dragons, but not the dragons directly. They instead choose to worship a human proxy who represents the dragon divinity–never mind the fact that the dragons don’t give a toss about humans, cultists or otherwise, and have no voice in electing this pope figure for their own fan club. Then there’s an end-of-the-world prophecy revolving around the protagonist Sarah (it tickles me that the idea of dragons is shrug-worthy in this world, but prophecies and clairvoyance are considered nonsense. I love an alt-fantasy setting with strict rules and boundaries); a sheltered gay assassin named Malcolm who is determined to stop her at any cost; two FBI agents hot on his trail; one red dragon with sandpaper-dry snark; and an examination of inherited hatred, violence, and the human propensity to hurl ourselves into mutual destruction.

And they all work.

Well, mostly.

Most definitely in the first half, which is a stretch of perfect pacing, great character introductions, and a flurry of events that devolve into heartbreak and anger.

I quite loved the main cast of characters–Sarah’s frustration and empathy, her father’s dilemma, Kazimir’s sass, Malcolm’s innocence warring with his cold violence–even though some we don’t see too much of. I found it particularly poignant how Sarah and Malcolm’s storylines are near-mirrors of each other. How both childhoods were shaped by authorities dictating the paths their lives must take, and the boundaries that can’t be crossed, based on what they are and what they are not. And when it comes to good people doing terrible things, morally grey people doing terrible things, and terrible people doing terrible things, the book knows to make you understand what the differences are.

The second half dives deeper into the major themes, and character work takes a backseat as all the plot threads are gathered into one clear moral lesson: that we must be vigilant of how hatred, including self-hatred, curdles and spreads and ricochets across space and time until we can’t even tell where it ends and where it begins. That’s something you can count on with Ness; things like plot and character might skew sideways, but the point of the story never gets lost.

I do think Burn works better if you look at it as a long parable as opposed as your normal YA fiction. There are definitely questions left unanswered by the end, and the characters brush off traumatic events with concerning ease, giving it the feel of a folktale in which things happen and you just have to accept that they do, even though you’re not exactly sure why.

While it’s not favourite story of his, it’s still a strong, memorable entry into his bibliography that had me ruminating for a while after.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher. All opinions are my own.

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Review: A Conspiracy of Truths – Dazzling Blend of Politics and the Power of Storytelling

A Conspiracy of Truths

Title: A Conspiracy of Truths
Author: Alexandra Rowland
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: October 23rd, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Stories, Politics
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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A Conspiracy of Truths is a story about people and what makes them tick. And it’s a story about stories. And it’s a story about stories that tell you what makes people tick. And if you love stories (I mean, you’re reading this, aren’t you?) Rowland’s debut is one you should not miss out on.

Admittedly, the book wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I went into it anticipating something similar to 1001 Nights and In the Night Garden–something whimsical and fantastical–and it took me a while to adjust to the fact that A Conspiracy of Truths is an entirely different beast.

That’s not to say there aren’t stories within stories in this book (or that they’re not fantastical). We get more than a dozen of them and they serve many purposes: they’re used to educate a person on a subject, to deceive and coerce, or to simply pass the time. But the book is less about the stories themselves and more about their…anatomy. The shape of them. While the content of the stories are important, they’re not quite as important as what they say about the storyteller and the storyreceiver. How they’re told, how they’re interpreted, how they’re reacted to–all of that can tell you so much of a person and that’s the beauty of stories.

A Conspiracy of Truths is the ultimate love letter to stories and the idea that people–all people–are pattern finders. The way we look for meaning in chaos, draw through random dots, seeing pictures and creating stories out of them. And sometimes such stories have the power to upturn nations.

It takes a stronger soul than me to not fall headlong in love with a message like that.

Okay, enough vague gushing. Let’s get to the meat of it.

Our story begins when Chant–our illustrious, elderly, cantankerous storyteller–gets arrested and charged with witchcraft, espionage, and brazen impertinence while passing through Nuryevet, a country where polyamory is the norm, the government divided into five Queens and Kings, and nearly everything requires the signing of paperwork (including visits to the brothel).

Chant soon discovers that Nureyviet is rotten to the core with all manner of corruption–assassinations, nepotism, bribery. Things he normally wouldn’t give a toss about, but with his neck on the line and his execution date drawing near, he realizes that to save himself he must first save this country from itself. What can a 70-year old man do from the confines of a cell, you may ask? Well, Chant isn’t without allies. In his corner he’s got one very reluctant but talented advocate; one kindhearted, though a tad naive, apprentice; said apprentice’s boyfriend (who has very beautiful handwriting); and of course, the greatest weapon at his disposal–his stories.

Chant isn’t an easy character to like and he knows it. While undoubtedly entertaining, I found his fiery personality somewhat exhausting in the beginning. But then he started growing on me, and at some point he went from grating on my nerves to pulling at my heartstrings and plastering a grin on my face. I don’t know when it happened, but I do know why. It’s his love of stories and understanding of the human heart that ultimately won me over, and by the end I would have happily fought Ylfing for the apprentice position.

Speaking of which, his relationship with Ylfing was hands-down my favourite part of the book. The teenager’s sweet and unassuming personality contrasts so wonderfully with Chant’s grumpy cynicism, and despite all of Chant’s “I don’t care” attitude, the love shared between them is palpable. Their scenes range from hilarious to intellectually provocative to tear-jerking and I would gladly read five more books about their adventures.

Aside from Ylfing, most of the side characters in the story are women. Diverse women. Women who are flawed and decidedly not nice. Women who stand up for what they believe is right even if it means losing everything else. Soldiers, lawyers, politicians, mothers–Rowland gives a platform for all, which is so gratifying to see in a fantasy novel.

The side characters also serve as Chant’s eyes and ears. A story has no right to be this entertaining when its narrator spends most of his time locked up in cells, but at no point does it feel claustrophobic. These characters constantly come and go carrying news and stories and just the sheer magnetism of their personalities, and you soon forget that you barely know what this country even looks like.

Plot-wise, it’s a lot more politics-heavy than I’d expected. You get thrown a lot of names and info from the get-go and it took me a good 1/3 of the book to get settled into it. But from then on I was fully hooked. I’m pretty sure my initial disengagement has to do with my shoddy memory and lack of note-taking, so a word of advice: write notes on the key political players as they come up.

There are books that make you ponder the nature of humans. There are books that have you on the edge of your seat, brows furrowed and biting your nails. And there are books that leaves you smiling and feeling good about the world. And this book? This book manages all three.

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Review: A Trail of Lightning – Delightful Worldbuilding and Emo Villains

Trail of Lightning

Title: Trail of Lightning
Author: Rebecca Roanhorse
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: June 26th, 2018
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic
Page Count: 304 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 7.0/10

 

 

 

I had an incredibly hard time sorting out my feelings on this book and I don’t know if I can say that I succeeded. There are many aspects of it that I absolutely loved, but also ones that I really disliked. And the two overlap one another, leaving me conflicted and with a frown line that’s about to become permanent.

Let’s just begin with all the things that I loved. A Trail of Lighting is a post-apocalyptic fantasy that revolves around Native American culture and history, written by a Native American author, and for that alone it deserves recognition. Roanhorse deftly weaves Navajo mythology into a Mad Max-esque world and the result is unique and exciting.

The characters that inhabit this world are strange and vibrant. From mercenaries and medicine men, to a woman who manifests as a cat-person (and I don’t mean that she really loves cats; I mean that she has facial features and mannerisms of a cat), the story occasionally dips into a Wonderland-level of creepy and weird and I adored it to bits. And what I always look forward to in Aboriginal speculative fiction is the depiction of Coyote, the trickster figure. Because he varies from one culture to the next, no two authors write him quite the same way, and Roanhorse’s version doesn’t disappoint. With appearance and mannerisms reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi in American Gods–irreverent and dressed as a dandy–he’s probably my favourite side character.

The best urban fantasies have strong, distinctive narrative voices and this one has that in spades. Maggie’s narration is introspective, a little anti-social, and a little smoky–a-lone-ranger-staring-across-the-desert-as-the-sun-sets kind of vibe. The author uses a lot of fragmentation, which can sometimes make for choppy action sequences, but all in all, it’s highly readable and engaging.

Maggie herself is a fascinating and rather unconventional urban fantasy protagonist. She’s a monster hunter gifted–or cursed, in her opinion–with the power of speed and the ability to kill. This makes her feared and disliked by many. The entirety of the story (and probably the rest of the series) is her struggling to rein in her clan power, known as “K’aahanaánii”, and keep its bloodlust from consuming her. And the thing that I especially love is that Maggie, to some level, enjoys the killing. She loves the adrenaline and the control of it, and that comes with the baggage of guilt and self-hatred. And that’s one of my favourite kinds of stories–those of powerful men and women whose power is a double edged sword, one that comes with the risk of being devoured from the inside out. It adds extra layers of internal conflict that can potentially be catalysts for interesting character growth.

“Wow, that all sounds fantastic,” you might say. And you’re right–it is pretty fantastic!

And now here come the criticisms to rain all over this parade.

Let’s talk about the plot–or rather, the lack of one. While there’s a vague overarching goal that gets introduced at the beginning of the story, Maggie and her companion Kai spend most of their time doing the literary equivalent of accidental side quests. They travel from point A to point B, at which point something happens and they’re forced to deal with it before moving on. They end up having to constantly react to the things that happen in the world, as opposed to proactively moving the plot forward. And while some of the diversions are fun, it’s all very meandering and lacks cohesion.

Secondly, the antagonist. At the foundation of the story is Maggie’s relationship with her former mentor Neizgháni, who Maggie is kind-of-sort-of-maybe in love with. He’s built up to be this mysterious presence looming above our MC, and so much of her thought process and behaviour are rooted in this relationship that they’d had. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to meeting the man.

So imagine my bafflement when Neizgháni finally makes his entrance and he turns out to be the embodiment of the worst of the “bad boy antagonist” trope, complete with cockiness, possessiveness, no sense of personal boundary, and long, flowing dark hair. He falls under the Kylo Ren column of character archetypes–the ones who strut around with their capes (or hair) billowing and saying things like, “Join me and we will set our thrones atop the corpses of our enemies and bathe in their blood,” with zero hint of irony. For someone who’s had so much impact on the protagonist’s life, he felt incredibly shallow and campy. Picture a very pretty, very vapid Final Fantasy villain and you won’t be far off from Neizgháni.

Caius

Like Caius from Final Fantasy XIII-2, but minus the cultural appropriation.

The thing is, I don’t mind these types of characters too much in popcorn paranormal fantasy. With those, I enjoy the campiness for what it is. But a story with worldbuilding and a protagonist of this caliber deserves someone a lot better.

The ending also adds another bewildering layer to the story. Its big reveal is underwhelming and the motivations of the villain rather nonsensical, and moreover, it ends incredibly abruptly and on a not-insignificant cliffhanger.

And here’s the most confusing part of all this: I don’t dislike the book. While I did dislike so many of its individual parts, as a whole I kind of enjoyed it and actually find myself looking forward to the sequel.

Is it the most polished, exciting fantasy I’ve read this year? No.

Is it something I would recommend to people? Hell yes.

~
ARC provided by Saga Press via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

[Review] Master Assassins – A Languid Examination of Character and War (Feat. Giant Cat Mounts)

Master Assassins

Title: Master Assassins (The Fire Sacraments 1)
Author: Robert V.S. Redick
Publisher: Talos
Release Date: March 6th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 460 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

 

Okay. Before we get started, I’m going to give a bit of advice on how you might want to approach this book. Lay down some primer.

See, this isn’t a book that you’ll read the first 80 pages of and go, “Wow, this is a fantastic story!” and start pointing out every part of it that you love. You can’t. At least, I couldn’t. I had no idea what I felt about it in the beginning.

It’s like an interpretive dance. At first you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing–it all feels so disparate and strange–but there’s something about it that urges you to stay and watch. And once you do, you fall into the rhythm of the prose and the characters, and what was strange before becomes a part of the experience, the reality that this world projects. You start to get invested.

So, my advice? Try to stay with it for at least half of the book. It might surprise you.

Now. On with the show.

The title “Master Assassins” is a bit of an inside joke. The story is about two young men– half-brothers Kandri and Mektu–who blunder into one mistake after another and find themselves inadvertently becoming the most wanted and accomplished assassins in the continent. Our “assassins” reside in Urrath, a land (home of the Chiloto, among many other clans) that has been contested for centuries by various conquering nations. Most recently, it’s been taken over by the Vazeks and the Chiloto people have endured centuries of slaughter and subjugation under their rule. Then a young Prophet came into the picture. She’s the Joan of Arc of this world; claimed to be chosen by the Gods to lead her people to unity and freedom, she took up the mantle of leader, and under her power, a vast army formed. Present day, this army has retaken a vast a majority of Urrath. But the Vazeks will not bow down easily.

The immediate thing that jumps out is the prose. It’s something you don’t really see in epic fantasy. For one, much of it is told in third-person present tense. For another, it’s very stylized; there are a lot of sentence fragments and bits of stream-of-consciousness. The closest comparison I can make is The Court of Broken Knives mixed with Kai Ashante Wilson–the dialogue resembles the latter more, a distinct mixture of coarse and melodic–and like those book, the style will not appeal to everyone. It played right into my tastes, though.

The story is told from Kandri’s point-of-view, alternating from the present to flashbacks that reveal details of his childhood. Kandri is the steadier of the two brothers. He hates fighting and despises killing even more, yet circumstances have landed him as a soldier in the Prophet’s army. I quite liked him; he’s thoughtful and empathetic–a perfect lead character.

Mektu was my favourite, however. He’s coarse and irreverent and oscillates from hyperanxiety to excitement; his interests flit from one shiny thing to the next. He says some bizarre and shitty things but I couldn’t really hold it against him because he’s so blissfully unaware of how people would react to his words and actions. He reminds me a bit of Michael Scott from The Office (U.S version). He’s not mean-spirited, he just has no social filter. You get the sense that he’s a child in the body of an adult; there’s an innocence to him that I couldn’t help but find endearing.

Kandri’s relationship with Mektu is the heart of the story and it’s one of rivalry and exasperated acceptance. And also love. They bicker constantly but they lean on one another for support and there is little doubt of the strength of their bond. I said before that I wanted more fantasy stories focusing on sibling relationships, and here I got a great one.

The world of Master Assassins isn’t built meticulously from the ground up, but through a scattering of details that you have to collect and piece together. This frustrated me quite a bit in the beginning. Everything felt vague and incomplete. I got the idea that something catastrophic has happened to the world–there’s talk of a “World Plague,” and how the Urrathi are immune to it–but little else was offered beyond that. There was a lot of name-drops but little sense to where these places resided and what they looked like.

Then I got a quarter of the way through and came across this passage:

History, geography, politics, the classic Urrathi tales: none of these were taught any longer, save by private tutors.

And a switch flipped in my head. I realized that the readers don’t have a good grasp of the world and its culture and history because our narrator, Kandri, doesn’t have a good grasp of the world. Once I understood this, things started to get less frustrating and a lot more exciting. I no longer cared that these names had little context or texture because now I knew it was the same for Kandri. We were both fumbling along in the dark together. And I think this is a brilliant bit of writing craft by the author–ignorance that doesn’t exclude us from the characters, but connects us together. There are mysteries that run through the story and I was stoked to uncover the secrets of this land alongside our heroes.

And the worldbuilding we do get is original and exciting. It’s a strange, brutal yet beautiful world–a curious amalgamation of medieval and modern. There are tame riding cats, clockwork contraptions, vultures bigger than elephants, a string of towering islands across an ocean robbed of its water. The images conjured are at once quiet and arresting:

They are walking on dragonflies, hundreds of thousands strong, black pearl eyes and rainbow wings, dessicated, dead. All of them facing the same direction, which happens to be their own. As if the swarm had set its collective mind on crossing the Yskralem and flown due east, low and purposeful, moving as on. Until strength abandoned them, or the last trace of water in their bodies, or simply their will…For over a mile, they wade in this river of silver corpses. Then the wind starts to blow, and the insects click and clatter over the salt pan like a curtain of beads.

Besides Kanri and Mektu, all the characters are diverse and colourful, not just in terms of race and gender but also in personality. No two people they meet are the same: Uncle Chindilan, the Master Smith, who’s not really their uncle (just a family friend); wise Eshett who was captured by human traffickers and is now trying to return home; Talupeke, a hot-headed young soldier seeking revenge for a betrayal, who also happens to be an absolute beast with knives. They are complex characters brought together by happenstance and the author does well to showcase them all equally.

The story wasn’t without its problems, the foremost being that it took me a while to get into it. A fair chunk of the middle is spent on Kandri and co. running for their lives across the oceanless ocean, which was a little tedious (the pacing felt VERY slow, and I’m talking as a Robin Hobb fanatic). Worry not, though, because latter part is thrilling and eerie and got me eager for the next installment. The colloquial dialogue also threw me off at first. While I did get used to it, there were still some that I found a little weird and jarring. There is also mention of child prostitution, rape, and human trafficking, which may turn off some readers.

Most interestingly, I think, the author posits questions you don’t often see in stories about an oppressed group of people and the rebellion that eventually follows.

What happens when your leader, your savior, the one who has liberated your people from slavery and genocide, begins to exercise the same kind of censorship and brutality as your former subjugators, albeit in a slightly different way?

What happens when you replace one conqueror with another?

What happens when you find that you have become the enemy of your own people and faith?

Master Assassins is a story of a rebellion within a rebellion. A story of the cost of war and the complicated bonds between family. It’s not an easy read, but it is a fulfilling one. And I recommend you give it a shot.