And I Darken by Kiersten White

Souls are irreconcilable with thrones.

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Ladislav Dragwlya is the daughter of Wallachia. Her and her brother Radu have been given to the Ottoman Empire by their father as payment for his throne. As wards of the Sultan, they grow close to Mehmed, a young prince of the Empire. Mehmed is the bastard son of the Sultan, never meant to take the throne. Until one day his brothers are dead, and he’s the only son left. As Lada, Mehmed and Radu grow older, the brother and sister play key roles in his regime, serving as protectors and advisers. They both fall in love with the sultan.

 

This is a work of historical fiction based on the stories Vlad the Impaler, reimagined as a girl, Lada, and Mehmed the Conqueror. This is a reread. I thought I’d share my thoughts before reading the sequel (which I didn’t know was planned when I read this book the first time. Very exciting!)

Lada is mean. She’s aggressive and vicious and unapologetic. Lada spends the entire novel rebelling against her femininity and shying away from the wives and concubines of the harem. She refuses to be used as a tool by the men who she thinks control her (her father, Halil Pasha, the Sultan). She trains with the Janissaries, the military slaves of the Ottoman Empire, eventually becoming one and becoming the head of Mehmed’s personal guard.

Lada is uncompromising in her resolve. Her rise to any kind power is only made more significant. because it is in spite of the fact that she is a woman, constantly underestimated and undermined by the men of the Ottoman Empire. Even Mehmed, her closest friend and eventual love interest, tries constantly to control her and restrict her. During her time in the Ottoman Empire, she sees these people by the number of threads of power they hold and by who and what they can control. As a woman and a ward, she holds almost nothing. So she fights for what she wants and she seeks power where she can get it. Hers is not a Mary Sue story, but a story of struggling and fighting and taking what is hers

On top of the novel being feminist at its core, it also addresses other issues of the Ottoman Empire like imperialism and religion in ways that make the complexity of these issues clear. Lada has mixed feelings regarding religion, but she does recognize that it is a means to control people. It can be used as a justification (for the rampant imperialism that, for better or worse, made the Ottoman Empire what it was, for example) or a motivator for those who are willing to be used by religion. Radu uses it to find some comfort in this strange country; the first place he was ever shown any kindness in Edirne was when he wandered into the mosque with Kumal.

On the topic of imperialism, Mehmed believes he will conquer Constantinople. He thinks its his birthright as the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He doesn’t seem to understand that Constantinople is not his to take. And I’m not here for it. People will die so Mehmed can take what isn’t his, just like people have been dying for centuries to expand lines drawn in sand. This is the cause of two revolts by the Ottoman military against Mehmed. It pisses Lada off too, for a long time. After all, Wallachia is hers, not the Ottoman Empire’s, even though it is a vassal state. But it’s too easy for everyone to justify it on the grounds of keeping safe what is already theirs.

If we were not pushing, fighting, claiming what is ours and challenging what is not yet ours, others would be doing it to us…. They would come with fire, with disease, with swords and blood and death. Weakness is an irresistible lure.

It’s hard to write a historical fiction because where does the story start? Where does it end? What’s relevant to include? White does a good job of selecting important moments and leaving other moments out, but this is a monster of a book (in terms of length). I remember being around 60% through and thinking this would never end. Real life rarely has a plot, even historically, so sometimes its difficult to feel like we’re keeping on track, but again White does a stellar job. This novel was also unique in terms of the YA genre because of its complexity. It featured romance, politics and violence, but through the eyes of the children/teens/young adults (because we got to see Lada, Radu and Mehmed as children/teens/young adults) who were present and had to deal with these situations.

TL;DR

  • 5/5 would recommend
  • Looking forward to the sequel
  • Lada is no Mary Sue, she’s a magnificent, vicious beast
  • Relatable commentary on imperialism, politics, religion

 

 

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I think I might be a fiction.

 

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Aza Holmes is a young girl struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anxiety. She is consumed with a fear of contracting C. diff, a bacterial overgrowth most commonly developed in a hospital (which she hasn’t been to) and by people on antibiotics (which she’s not on).

Aza’s supporting cast consists of Daisy, who she’s been friends with forever, so she “gets it”, and occasionally Mychal, the artist who sits with them at lunch. When Richard Pickett, billionaire, goes missing (and a reward is offered), Daisy insists that Aza reconnect with his son Davis, who she met at “Sad Camp” years ago. So Daisy is trying to solve the mystery of where Pickett Sr. is, Davis is trying to keep his younger brother from falling apart over their missing farther, and Aza is trying to escape the ever-tightening spiral that is her mind.

I love John Green. I really do. And as I love John Green, I loved Turtles All the Way Down. But it is a John Green novel, complete with the same grievances and praises I sing every time he writes a new book.

It may not be the same book he always writes, but it features the same cast of characters. You’ve got your main character who is just looking for something more (Miles’ Great Perhaps, Colin’s eureka moment, Aza’s proof that she’s real), and the eccentric supporting cast member (Alaska, Hassan, Margo, and now Daisy). It even comes complete with the supporting actor’s strange fixation (Radar’s parents and the Black Santa, Gus’s parent’s Encouragements, and Tua, Richard Pickett’s tuatara). Thankfully, he’s abandoned his usual storymap for Turtles, and he’s done so very successfully.

This is easily the most mature of his novels. Green manages to flesh out so much material that shouldn’t work together into one novel. Mental illness is obviously the center piece here, but there are also characters dealing with loss, poverty, and wealth (and the challenges it brings). As usual, this book should be much heavier than it is, and that lightness is a function of Green’s writing. If any writer besides Green tried to tackle so much in one novel, it wouldn’t work. Somehow, he makes it all palatable.

Turtles All the Way Down reminded me of Perks of Being a Wallflower. They both feature a main character with a mental illness and a car ride late at night that spurs deep, existential thinking (Comparison: “But the world is also the stories we tell about it,” vs “This moment will just be another story someday.” “that just repeated, ‘you’re everything, everything, everything,’ and I felt like I was,” vs “I was really there. And that was enough to make me feel infinite.” Who wrote which?). Aza and Charlie both struggle to participate in real life and are pushed into it by there friends. If you’ve ever read/enjoyed Perks, I’m sure you’ll draw your own parallels, but it’s very easy to see where some of Green’s inspiration comes from.

Turtles raises some important points about being in a relationship (especially non-romantic) with someone who is suffering with a mental illness. They’re not necessarily going to get better, and even if they do get better, they will likely never be well. Being close to someone who is ill can be burdensome, but if they “get it” (the way Daisy is supposed to), that’s something they understand and signed up for. Daisy has no right to be as bitter as she is, and Aza is a much kinder person than I ever would be for forgiving her so easily. Aza could stand to learn a little from Daisy in the friend compartment, though. Aza is so busy struggling within her own head that she doesn’t have any time to worry about any one or anything else. It’s not something that she can help, but when she’s not spiraling, it would be nice of her to show some gratitude to the people who are there for her.

 

 

Winter by Marissa Meyer

This is the epic conclusion of The Lunar Chronicles. Will Cinder reclaim the Lunar Throne, her birthright? Will Kai ever marry Levana? Will Scarlet and Wolf ever see each other again? Will Cress ever stop being so damn clueless when she’s thinking about Carswell Thorne? Will everyone make it out of this adventure alive? Some things we do know: Kai has been kidnapped by Cinder and the crew of the Rampion. He’s now solidly on Cinder’s side. Scarlet has been taken in (as a pet) by Princess Winter. She is crazy-pants. Letumosis, a disease plaguing the Earthen Union, has mutated and can now infect Lunars. Luna is the only place able to manufacture the cure to letumosis. Levana isn’t just sadistic and cruel, she’s becoming unhinged. And it seems these days like it’s more of a matter of who can take who down first.

In Winter, Cinder is reassembling and redistributing her allies. In the resistance, everyone has a role to play. Rally enough sectors to overpower the thaumaturges, and Cinder wins. Convince enough Lunar citizens that Cinder is the lost princess Selene, and Cinder wins. Avoid run ins with Levana and stay alive long enough to take the throne from her, and Cinder wins. The hard part now will be hitting all of these goals.

Winter fell flat of my expectations, at least in quality of story-telling. It felt like a step backward in all the pacing and character development we’ve learned in the last 3 adventures we’ve taken together. I will admit, though, this book it much swoonier than any (maybe all of) the last books in the series. Cress and Thorne are my favorite. I’m a sucker for a good redemption arc. But I also imagine Kai to be the sweet and concerned, but also aware of a woman’s independence kind of man, and I dig that too. Wolf and Scarlet are so devoted to each other, and Jacin and Winter are definitely the star-crossed lovers we all hate to love.

I liked Princess Winter a lot; she’s kind and she’s broken. This makes her relatable in a way; though many non-fictional people don’t suffer with delusions like Princess Winter does, they do have to fight with the demons in their mind just to get through their days. What’s unique about Winter is that this mental anguish is self-imposed. It’s a result of the Lunar Sickness that develops when somebody with an active Lunar Gift doesn’t use it for long enough. It’s common in Lunars who are hiding on Earth, but why doesn’t the Princess use her gift when not using it causes her so much strife and pain?

 

Jacin has always guarded the Princess, both from threats others who would wish her harm and threats from herself. Jacin is her crutch; he gets her through her hallucinations and allows her to maintain her functionality. They also happen to be madly in love with each other, although they are from two different classes on Luna, which makes any relationship they may have entirely improper. Because that’ll stop them.

This book either needed to be shorter, or it needed to be two books. On the one hand, it had the feel of Harry Potter and the Endlessly Long Camping Trip. Cinder and her merry band of misfits were shuffling back and forth between the sectors and Artemisia and things weren’t really happening sometimes. But on the other hand. A lot of stuff happened. This is the first time we really had a chance to get to know Princess Winter. The entirety of Cinder/Selene’s rebellion happened in this book.

This is stupid, but I don’t care. I wanted them to spend more time on the dresses and the crowns. Selene is a queen, for goodness sake. Give me royalty. Give me regality. I’m with Iko; I’m here for the gowns.

Someone should take the time to explain those Sailor Moon references the Acknowledgements in these books keep alluding to. It’s not like I’ve never seen Sailor Moon, but I’m just not catching them. That’s not actual feedback, I’m just lost.

Cress by Marissa Meyer

Thorne has rescued the hacker locked in her satellite and they’ve crashlanded to Earth. While they’re making they’re way through the dessert, fighting for survival, Cinder is flying Wolf to Africa to find Dr. Erland and save Wolf’s life. Along the way they’ve gathered a guard who says his loyalty lies with his Princess, and they’ve lost Scarlet who was taken by Thaumaturge Sybil Mira. In the middle of all this, they’re still struggling to come up with a plan to stop the royal wedding, overthrow Levana, and put Cinder on the Lunar throne.

We finally get a glimpse of the brutality of the Lunar Court. Scarlet was taken, given as a toy to be tortured by some terrible Lunar boy, and brutally interrogated by Queen Levana. When the Queen was through with her, she gave Scarlet to her step-daughter who is slowly losing her mind.

Thorne is rightfully struggling with self-esteem. Cress worshipped him when she was on the satellite. One-by-one he debunked all of the heroic ideas she’s had about him, and doing so has really hit his ego. His honesty only seems to make Cress like him more. With his remorse, and his concern for Cress and the other members of his crew, he seems almost swoonworthy (instead of being a giant eyeroll as per usual).

The point of this book is assembling our Avengers. We’re getting all of the necessary pieces in the same place so we can put our big plan into action. We got rid of some dead weight, used knowledge from other characters to advance our cause, and now we’re ready for the big boss battle. Because of that, most of these plot lines are continuations without major development.

Marissa Meyer’s story writing ability continues to improve with every novel she puts out. Cinder’s finally turning into an interesting character. The pace of the novel makes more sense. She’s beginning to show us how important political events of the past are especially relevant to current events in the Earthen Union. Each of these books has continued to improve and I’m excited to read Winter next.

 

 

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

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Cinder has fled the Eastern Commonwealth into space. She’s supposed to meet Dr. Erland in Africa and talk about next steps regarding Princess Selene, but they need a new power cell for the ship and Cinder needs answers about her past. Answers that might be with the person who took her in when she escaped from Luna: Michelle Benoit.

But halfway around the world, Michelle Benoit is missing and her granddaughter, Scarlet, is desperately searching for her. The police keep telling Scarlet that her grand-mere is crazy and she’ll find her way home soon, but Scarlet knows something is wrong. She meets Wolf, a mysterious man with a strange tattoo and problematic allegiances, who seems to know more about Michelle’s disappearance than he’s sharing. And when Cinder and Scarlet meet, they must work to stay one step ahead of the Lunars out to kill them both.

I liked Scarlet better than Cinder, probably because I like Scarlet as a character better than I liked Cinder. She’s stronger; she’s got a lot of fire to her. A little Mary-Sue-ish, sure, but she’s angry and she’s ready to act. Cinder just wanted to run. I’m not usually a fan of changing characters between books, but Meyer did it so well. She tied the two storylines together really well. I’m looking forward to seeing how Cress will come into play in the next novel.

I also think the coupling in this novel worked better than in Cinder. In Cinder, Kai was uselessly flirting with Cinder and he invited her to the ball. But Cinder spent the whole book pretending to be someone different. She didn’t want him to know she was cyborg, she didn’t want him to know that Adri couldn’t afford nice things, she didn’t want him to know anything about her, really. Scarlet doesn’t have time for that. She’s on a mission and pretending to be someone she’s not would expend energy she just doesn’t have for that. Her determination gives her a genuineness we didn’t see from Cinder. Plus there was some actual romance involved.

It’s frustrating that Cinder chose not to travel to Africa to meet up with Dr. Erland. He’s obviously got answers to her questions, but she’s afraid that he wants to put her on the Lunar throne. Instead she goes looking for answers on her own and almost gets herself killed because of it. I get it, she’s never been autonomous; Adri was always in charge. Now she’s got some freedom and she’s not ready to throw that away. But there are people dying. For her. The least she can do is indulge Dr. Erland’s request that she see him.

Like I said about Cinder; this isn’t the greatest literary work I’ve ever read, but it’s entertaining and it’s fun. Once you pick it up, you’re not going to want to put it down.

 

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

 

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Years ago, Adri’s husband, Garan, travelled to Europe and brought home a cyborg baby and a case of the plague. Garan died and left Adri with the baby, named Cinder, who grew up to be a gifted mechanic. When Cinder’s sister, Peony is diagnosed with the uncurable plague, Cinder’s guardian donates her to the plague research department, which is usually as much a death sentence as contracting the plague on its own. Upon her enlistment Cinder learns several truths about her heritage and her own past and the relationship between her planet and the Lunar colony on the moon.

 

Disclaimer: I have read this book before. It’s been a while, and I realized I needed a reread before I got into Winter, the last book in the series. It’s a quick read and it’s fun, so I don’t mind.

Seeing Cinder be so ashamed of being a cyborg is frustrating. It’s understandable because of the level of prejudice she sees due to being a cyborg, but watching her wrestle over telling Kai about it is frustrating. On a similar note, her guardian’s treatment of her is frustrating. I get that Adri blames Cinder for her husband’s death, and I understand that she’s not her child. She doesn’t need to love Cinder, but she does need to treat her like a decent human being. And the fact that laws require even adult cyborgs to have a guardian, to be owned, is degrading.

Despite Adri’s desire for Cinder to live a life of deprivation, Cinder’s cyborg circuitry and programming is remarkable. When she’s delivered to the royal labs for letumosis experimentation, they tell her so. Who decided to give an orphan state-of-the-art hardware? Why didn’t she know she was equipped with that? These are questions we’re left wondering about.

Marissa Meyer has a knack for plot development. She poses the right questions at the right times. She reveals the best twists at the time when it would provide the most impact. She creates tension in a way that doesn’t also create frustration. The characters are compelling enough (especially Iko, the eccentric teeny-bopper android we can all relate to), but Cinder‘s true merit lies in it’s plot development and the correlation between seemingly unrelated plot points.

This book isn’t an all-time favorite of mine, but it is good. It’s fast-paced and a lot of fun to read. I like picking out the parallels between Cinder in her hundreds of years in the future (after the Fourth World War) society, and Cinderella, a fairytale that’s really old, even in the present day. I’m excited to rediscover the Lunar Chronicles and share my thoughts.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

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Cassie hasn’t spoken to Lia in months until she calls Lia 33 times in one night. The next day, they news breaks that Cassie died alone in a motel room. She called Lia 33 times. Lia was sent to inpatient before her and Cassie stopped speaking. She was being treated for an eating disorder after she passed out while driving. Lia restricted, Cassie puked. And together they would be the skinniest girls in school. But then Cassie died. She called Lia 33 times.

 

Laurie Halse Anderson writes as if she’s in Lia’s mind. The thoughts are scattered and rushed. Forbidden concepts are crossed out and written over; still there, but too scary to consider. Lia looks at food, and she sees numbers. She looks at herself and sees a giant, distorted, fat version of her body. She steps on the scale and it reads “NOT GOOD ENOUGH”.

Reading Lia’s thoughts and seeing her compulsions play out is… tough. It’s enabling, it’s triggering, and it’s terrifying. My biggest complaint is that we see these obsessions, we see these thought processes, we see the low self-esteem. But we don’t see how this started or how it developed. Her eating disorder is all-consuming now, but it wasn’t always. We see Lia and how she is, but never how she was.

I was unable to empathize with Lia on any level, and her story felt oh-so familiar. Broken family, with a step-sister she loves more than any other human on the planet. Her family, who usually chooses to ignore her struggles, is suddenly hit with reality when someone close to her and in a similar situation dies. Lia hits rock bottom, nearly dying before she realizes she wants to live. It’s the same anorexia story told time and time again. And Lia’s a flat, paper person who I had a terrible time trying to connect with. The compelling part of this novel should have been Lia and her bottoming out, her development and her growth. Instead the highlight was simply the writing style.