It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.
Last Week’s Review and Miscellany Posts
I find it quite rare that a writer can effectively tackle both fantasy and suspense/mystery. Yet Leigh Bardugo and Jonathan Stroud manage that quite well, on top of their excellent world building.
Six of Crows
Writer: Leigh Bardugo
Published by: Henry Holt and Company, 2015
Review copy provided by Pansing Books.
To say that I am glad to be back in Grishaverse would be an understatement. I absolutely fell in love with The Grisha Trilogy last year that I re-read the entire series with my daughter this year. We just finished Ruin and Rising a few weeks back, and so it is with palpable relief that I have another book to read set in the same universe.
Unlike The Grisha Trilogy which is told from Alina Starkov’s perspective, Leigh Bardugo pushed her writerly boundaries this time around by writing this novel in multiple voices, seven in all: Joost, Inej, Kaz, Nina, Matthias, Jesper,
Pekka. The first and the last chapters (Joost’s and Pekka’s respectively) are the only ones not told from the gang of Kaz Brekker – who still may be rightfully perceived as the main protagonist in this novel. There is a sixth member of the crew, Wylan, who was not given voice in this novel – I do wonder about that. The entire novel is also quite thick at 465 pages, divided into six different sections.
The multiple perspectives demonstrate not only Bardugo’s skill as a writer, but it also allowed the reader to gain access to all of the characters’ deep-seated memories and the motivations that drive them. One of the common complaints I heard about The Grisha Trilogy was how whiny Alina Starkov is, as she struggles to embrace her new found power. In this novel, one gets into the head of practically all the characters (not just one annoying mind that you wish to escape from), making the reader root for all of them, despite the fact that the six may be occasionally at odds with each other. Kaz Brekker is no wimp either. Driven by vengeance and cold blinding rage, Kaz is ruthless and cunning – everything a young criminal mastermind should be. Despite this, he manages to evoke the reader’s sympathy because of his vulnerabilities: he has a limp, he uses a
cane (designed by a Fabrikator), and he can not abide any form of physical contact, hence, his gloves. There is also a palpable darkness in this lock-pick/ black magician who trades in secrets, which makes me regard this book as more of a young adult novel. His ability to survive in the streets at a young age ensured that he takes down anyone in his path, that he becomes worse than the monster he fears. He wears his weakness like a cloak, transforming it into a strength, a shield that protects him – except from his own self. Matthias, the Fjerdan, describes Kaz in this fashion:
…one glance at Kaz Brekker had told him this was a creature who had spent too long in the dark – he’d brought something back with him when he’d crawled into the light. (p. 110)
Then there is the Wraith, Inej, Kaz’s greatest investment. Transformed from an acrobat to a young lady-of-the-night (prostituted by slavers), she became Kaz’s right-hand-woman, gathering secrets for him to barter to the highest bidder, and for him to use in his sinister schemes. As Kaz noted.
“You see, every man is a safe, a vault of secrets and longings. Now, there are those who take the brute’s way, but I prefer a gentler approach – the right pressure applied at the right moment, in the right place. It’s a delicate thing.” (p. 45)
In this book, the Grisha are in danger – a drug has been invented called the jurda parem which alters the very nature of a Grisha’s power – harnessing it into something even more otherworldly – think of Fabrikators turning lead into gold or Tidemakers going through walls as they are able to alter their own state, or Heartrenders clutching one’s brain or Healers controlling one’s mind.
All very X-men like, except that the drug is immensely addictive and takes its toll on the Grisha who uses it; just like any kind of psychotropic substance, it makes one inevitably dependent on the drug. Unlike the Grisha’s natural born power which makes them glow each time they use it, the jurda parem takes its toll on their body, causing most Grisha to die of overdose as they continually seek that insane euphoria that allows them to be more than who they believe they are. This drug was synthesized by Bo Yul-Bayur trapped by the Nordic Fjerdans in the Ice Court, the most impenetrable prison in all of Grisha – and Kaz’s gang, the Six of Crows has been asked to capture the scientist to the tune of 30 million kruge. According to Kaz: “This isn’t a job for trained soldiers and spies. It’s a job for thugs and thieves.” (p. 134) Whether or not Kaz’s crew succeeds, I shall leave for you to discover.
I believe that this novel is more than just about mystery, suspense, or pulling off the perfect heist – it’s about eschewing mediocrity, dealing with superstition and unexamined loathing, trust and betrayal, and reinventing one’s self. Definitely a must-read.
The Screaming Staircase
Writer: Jonathan Stroud
Published by: Doubleday, 2013
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library
I am a huge fan of Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy (I have yet to read the fourth novel), and so it is with a bit of trepidation that I began The Screaming Staircase – but the worry is needless. While it did not have the elaborate ancient and otherworldly vibe as the Bartimaeus books, this one features a seemingly-futuristic, almost-dystopian universe where ghosts populate London, and the living need to arm themselves against hauntings with salt, iron fillings, silver rapiers that can only be effectively wielded by children (or prepubescent heroes) who are more sensitive or attuned to such sightings.
The entire story is told from Lucy Carlyle’s perspective, a tweener agent who has the special ability to empathize with the spirits’ emotions, particularly if she is given access to the Source of a haunting – a locket, a tree where the deceased committed suicide – think seances but elevated to the status of an agent who is saving the rest of London from being ghost-touched which would spell actual death to the living. Lucy describes their task in this manner:
… way back in the first years of the Problem, finding the Source of a haunting has been central to every agent’s job. Yes, we do other stuff as well: we help create defences for worried households and we advise individuals on their personal protection. We can rig up salt traps in gardens, lay iron strips on thresholds, hang wards above cradles, and stock you with any number of lavender sticks, ghost-lights and other day-to-day items of security. But the essence of our role, the reason for our being, is always the same: to locate the specific place or object connected to a particular member of the restless dead. (p. 45)
I also love how Lucy described the structure of a house that is being haunted such that it becomes a living, breathing
Halls, landings and staircases are the arteries and airways of any building. It’s here that everything is channelled. You get echoes of things currently going on in all the connecting rooms. Sometimes you also get other noises that, strictly speaking, ought not to be there at all. Echoes of the past, echoes of hidden things… (p. 11)
Jaded readers would also be relieved to note that there isn’t the usually-annoying and predictable love triangle in this novel (and in Six of Crows as well – something which I observed with a measure of relief). Although Lucy did frequently mention Anthony Lockwood’s mega-watt smile that positively radiates and manipulates people into do everything he says (I sense a crush here), it was not the focus of the story. Lucy is no preening, self-absorbed, high maintenance kind of young girl – she strikes me more as no-nonsense and sharp-tongued, grounded and pragmatic, with a sardonic wit that bites. An illustration would be her description of George Cubbins, the third and last member of Lockwood and Company:
Take his appearance. There was something about it that acted as a trigger to one’s worst instincts. His face was uniquely slappable – a nun would have ached to punch him – while his backside cried out to heave for a well-placed kick. He slouched, he slumped, he scuffed his way about the house like something soft about to melt. His shirt was always untucked, his trainers extra-big, the laces trailing. I’ve seen reanimated corpses with better deportment than George. (p. 112-113)
There were definitely laugh-out-loud moments as I read this novel as it is funny without meaning to, British humour at its finest. Another one of Lucy’s descriptions that I found to be exquisite was how she described “old Bert Starkins” the caretaker of the haunted house that they would have to “cleanse” with their ghost-vanquishing abilities:
The caretaker was certainly very ancient, a tight and desiccated thing from which all softness and moisture had long since been extracted. Where Mr. Fairfax had been bullishly vigorous despite his age and infirmity, this man was more like the ash tree by the house: gnarled and twisted, but holding tenaciously to life. (p. 298)
Then of course there is the mystery of the locket discovered buried with the remains of a beautiful young socialite who was murdered – and whose killer has never been found. How this is ingeniously interwoven with their case about the most haunted house in all of Britain is masterful. At first I thought that there were just way too many things going on, until the intersections gradually reveal themselves at the right time – evidence of the well-considered pacing in this novel. I am looking forward to reading Books 2 and 3 in this series, as I am definitely intrigued by Lockwood’s past, the whereabouts of his parents (are they dead?), and the unresolved mystery of the eerie, talking plasm in the ghost-jar. This is a perfect book to give to your avid readers this Christmas.
I am addicted to Lockwood and Company – I just finished reading The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud and now halfway through Book 3: The Hollow Boy.
I have a stack of picturebooks that I wish to read this week, and once I finish Hollow Boy, I hope to start with Bone Gap by Laura Ruby which we will be discussing for my Saturday Night Out for Book Geeks book club this January 2016
or The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm with pictures by Maurice Sendak.
And because I am nothing, if not ambitious, I also plan to get started on Cinder by Marissa Meyer.