The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper

Dark is Rising cover

“‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.”

Will Stanton is about to turn 11, and about to discover that he is one of the ‘Old Ones’: a group charged with protecting the Light throughout time. But over the darkest depths of winter, the Darkness is rising: can Will fulfil his role as Seeker of the Signs, six great parts of a symbol strong enough to overcome the Dark?

I’m a sucker for challenges, so when a Twitter announcement was made about a read-along for this book, starting as the story does on Midwinter’s Eve (aka December 20th), I couldn’t resist! And I was swept up into a winter landscape that I’m sure helped make it snow on Christmas in reality, as the struggle of good against evil raged through the centuries ūüôā

This is actually the second installment in the series, but the recommendation is to read this first: the earlier book was written a fair bit before, and doesn’t have quite the same tone (I’m told). I suppose it’s a bit like the Narnia books in that respect: chronologically¬†A Horse and His Boy¬†goes first, but no one ever starts anywhere but¬†The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe!

Written before I was born, The Dark is Rising¬†hasn’t actually dated as badly as I might have expected. There is a nostalgia factor going on, I suppose, for a ‘simpler’ time: modern younger readers might find a lack of computers and mobile phones jarring. However, the mix of adventure and magic is pretty timeless, and there isn’t too much that really pins it to any one time.

This is intended for a younger audience, but it put me in mind of the aforementioned Narnia books, or The Snow Spider, or The Weirdstone of Brisingamen Рbooks I remember very fondly from childhood, and which still have an appeal to a more mature reader.

While it’s hard to be swept up in the same way coming to this for the first time as an adult, I found it charming and easy to read. I’m looking forward to continuing the series – with a first step back to the earlier volume,¬†Over Sea Under Stone, as per the recommendation! But oh: avoid the movie. It changes so much, it’s really not a good adaptation at all.

Kindle: 232 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 1973
Series: The Dark is Rising book 2 (but start here!) of 5
Read from 20th December 2017 – 2nd January 2018

My rating: 7/10


Bright (2017)

bright poster

Imagine if¬†The Lord of the Rings wasn’t fantasy, but actual history. Fast forward hundreds of years to the present day, and perhaps the first orc has joined the LA police department. He’d be facing terrible racism, of course, not to mention a great deal of suspicion as to where his loyalties lie: with the law, or to the Clan. And of course, orcs sided with the Dark Lord all those centuries ago, so it’s not like you can trust any of them. Not like the elves – they’re the best of the best, beautiful and rich and of course running the show. Us humans? Just somewhere in the middle, trying to keep the pest fairies out of the bird feeders.

In this reality, the law must deal with fanatics who want to resurrect the Dark Lord, and generally keep an eye on problems with magic. And what could be more dangerous than a magic wand – a ‘nuclear bomb that grants wishes’? So when one of those turns up it’s not long before everyone – law, gangs, humans, elves and orcs – all want to get their hands on it.

Bright is an intriguing concept – high fantasy meets gritty police action – not particularly well executed overall, but actually turned out watchable enough. Will Smith is the big draw, of course, but he’s doing his bruised and damaged persona which is a lot less fun than his other character. Joel Edgerton is unrecognisable under the orc makeup, and to be honest the slow-witted character is just a bit too dim not to be a touch annoying, I felt. Elves get a bad rap, of course, but Noomi Rapace and Edgar Ramirez look great in their pointy ears.

Plot-wise, this is whip thin: everyone chasing and killing for that magic wand. The action pace tries to distract from that, and the special effects are pretty good, but without a character I actually liked (oy, the elf girl is annoyingly drippy!) there just wasn’t enough here to take ‘oddly intriguing’ into ‘liked’.

Of course, the big ‘thing’ about this movie is that it was released on Netflix, not in the cinema – smart move! Apparently it attracted an impressive 11 million curious viewers in its opening weekend, pretty much guaranteeing a sequel. And while I wasn’t exactly impressed with¬†Bright, the fact that it will arrive on my TV without additional cost or effort means I’ll probably watch it – just, hope they can improve a bit on the plot and characters, tbh!

Released: 22nd December 2017
Viewed: 23rd December 2017
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10

The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari J√§√§skel√§inen

Rabbit Back Literature Society cover

“The reader was at first surprised, then shocked, as the criminal Raskolnikov was abruptly slain in the middle of the street, right before her eyes.”

Rabbit Back is a small town with a large literary heritage. World-famous children’s author, Laura White, is not only from the town but once set up the tituar Literature Society: nine young children taught how to be successful authors.

Decades later, and an observant eye might notice that the nine Рall successful Рseem to avoid each other. It might also notice the strange behaviour of all the local dogs, running away and congregating in packs of strays. There have been strange things afoot for years in this town, but the combination of the announcement that there will finally be a tenth Society member, and the mysterious disappearance of a resident, is set to rock the whole town.

And as the new member discovers The Game, and the books with text that mutates overnight, we delve deeper into the mysteries of Rabbit Back and the Literature Society…

Views on this book seem really mixed, with no shortage of 5 or 1 star reviews. I fall firmly into the former category: I loved this book! The mix of mystery and the supernatural, the latter fully supported by twisted human psychology, was just perfect to keep me glued to the pages. I do like fantasy fiction, which perhaps helped on some of the stranger elements of the story. I’m also less than easily shocked, which definitely helped with the scenes of mild torture and/or some sexual content. I suspect the mix is enough to put different people off for differing reasons, though.

However, if you are willing to brave all those factors, I thoroughly recommend this. The mix of human and magical, past and present, mysteries completely set my imagination alight, and I was more than sorry to see this one end.

Paperback: 344 pages / 39 chapters
First published: 2006 (2013 for English translation)
Series: none
Read from 8th-13th December 2017

My rating: 9/10

The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater

raven boys cover

“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”

Blue is an oddity in her family: a non-psychic amongst clairvoyants. She is surprised, then, to finally see a spirit – a future-ghost, a forewarning of death ahead. Why now? Well, it must be either because he’s her true love – or she’s the one who’ll kill him.

The shade belongs to Gansey, a pupil at the local private school, heir to a vast fortune, and utterly obsessed with finding a mythical king buried on a local leyline and able to grant wishes. And while Gansey may or may not need one of those wishes, one or more of his closest friends might: troubled Ronan, close to being expelled; scholarship student Adam, desperate to escape his abusive father; or sickly Noah, always lurking in the shadows.

When Blue crosses paths with these ‘Raven boys’ (so-called because of the school emblem), her already strange life gets weirder than she could possibly have imagined.

I think one of the reasons I was so wowed by this book was that I hadn’t even really meant to read it – YA, teen angst, forbidden romance? No thanks! But it was selected for a group challenge, the library had an e-copy, oh – why not? And thus, when it turned out to be very well written, full of twists and magic and so many mysteries added in increasing layers – wow indeed!

The only real downside is that this is very much an opener for the four-book series, so there’s a limited number of answers to the many, many puzzles set up along the way. Hand me book 2 immediately!

Kindle: 468 pages / 48 chapters
First published: 2012
Series: The Raven Cycle book 1 of 4
Read from 7th-15th November 2017

My rating: 9/10

Paper and Fire – Rachel Caine

Paper and Fire cover

“Every day, Jess Brightwell passed the Spartan warrior statue on his way to and from his quarters.”

I’m still utterly in love with the idea of The Great Library: the upswelling of knowledge as the driving and ruling force over the past two millennia, following the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, rather than, say, religion. The dark machinations that came to light through the course of the first book,¬†Ink and Bone, only added to the intrigue and danger.

Alas, something in that amazing mix gets lost through the course of the novel, and very definitely by this one. Instead, we’re plunged rather too much into a series of YA tropes, from the burning love of two teenagers who’ve spent all of five minutes together, to – well, actually, that one was enough to turn me right off.

I’m hoping this is all just a case of middle book syndrome. The various perils go from decent twists to starting to feel a little repetitive for constantly being twists, and I really started to notice little picky things to get annoyed with. For example, the group being stuck together through most of this, there are more times than not where the scene focuses on just two, then suddenly reminds you that the others must all be standing around the edges like mannequins. The YA element means, too, that the teen lead characters far too often seem to outshine and/or half-ignore the few adults about, and again this just jarred a little.

I’ve already got book three lined up, with some trepidation now. I just hope we can go back to the story and more of the magnificent premise, rather than more teenage Romeo and Julietting o_O

Kindle: 368 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: The Great Library book 2
Read from 22nd October – 1st November 2017

My rating: 6/10

Ink and Bone – Rachel Caine

Ink and Bone cover

“‘Hold still and stop fighting me,’ his father said, and slapped him hard enough to leave a mark.”

Imagine a history in which the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria caused such an upheaval in the ancient world that it is knowledge, not religion, and the Library, not the church, that hold sway over humankind’s lives. In this environment, alchemy is pursued more rigorously, creating many marvels that are still used thousands of years later, and keeping the population in sway far more than any single holy book has yet managed. Still, maintaining rule is hard: the only way is ruthlessness.

Jess Brightwell is the son of a book smuggler. While any title can be read on a ‘blank’ (an e-reader, basically, powered by alchemy rather than technology – it took me a worrying long time to realise this!), possessing copies of actual books is strictly forbidden. For, if the Library isn’t the source of all knowledge, how can they curtail what thoughts people have?

I absolutely adored the premise of this book – well, books about books, and libraries are always appealing! Add in a society still heavily influenced by the Egyptian roots of the ruling organisation, and intriguing glimpses of how the development we know happened in our reality over 2000 years is either quashed or fitted in, and I’m giving high marks for the world building.

However, this is a YA (young adult) novel, and alas very quickly starts to follow a very well-worn path: hero is a bit of an outsider, cast into hostile territory and forced to undergo varying challenges highlighting the evils of the controlling system, setting up an inevitable future clash. Throw in the is he/isn’t he a baddy mentor, some diverse(ish) companions to form close bonds in times of high stress, knowing all might not survive – yup, fairly sure I’ve read this plot already!

Which is a bit of a shame, because I really did love the setting and the atmosphere created. I will continue with the series – it’s perfectly well-written – but with quite reduced expectations on the storyline, to be honest.

Kindle: 368 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: The Great Library book 1
Read from 16th-22nd October 2017

My rating: 7.5/10 – excellent premise, rather familiar YA plot

The Dragon Keeper – Robin Hobb

dragon keeper cover

“They had come so far, yet now that she was here, the years of journeying were already fading in her mind, giving way to the desperate needs of the present.”

Ask me what my favourite (fantasy) series of all time is, and odds on I’ll go with Robin Hobb’s¬†Farseer (or Assassin) trilogy. I can’t remember a book that so caught me up, that even on a re-read I was walking along that odd black stone path towards such revelations, and the ending hitting me right in the gut even a second time. Thankfully, there are two further series with Fitz (The Tawny Man¬†and Fitz and the Fool¬†trilogies), but between each, Hobb explores a different part of the world she has created.

To be honest, I found it hard to appreciate the¬†Liveship Traders trilogy after falling so in love with the first books. It’s always a wrench when things are different, I suppose – although other readers apparently have exactly the opposite preference between the two strands! Still, as well as doing my usual spreading out of the books I most want to read, I was also not as keen to dive into the¬†Rain Wild Chronicles, knowing they went back to the world of the Liveships and Rain Wilds. And, as much as I appreciate the wider picture of the ‘Realms of the Elderlings’, I’m not sure this was the book to sway me.

Before you read on, know that mentioning anything about the plot of this is likely to spoil some of the twists in the first (Liveship) series – you have been warned!

Dragons have returned to the world, following the events of the¬†Liveship Traders, but for spoiler-heavy reasons, the first of the new clutch are not the majestic creatures they should be. Deformed physically and mentally, neither of the broods’ initial carers – the dragon Tintaglia, and the Traders she struck a bargain with – have much of a continued interest in looking after these weaklings. Seeing possibilities of discovering one of the Elderlings lost cities, plus ridding themselves of the least desirable, most-disfigured (as Rain Wilders are from their toxic environment) youngsters of their small society, the Traders send a party to accompany the dragons as they try to find a better, freer life for themselves in fabled Kelsingra.

The bulk of the initial story only half-deals with setting up the above, rather more concerning itself with the life of a Trader’s daughter, Alise. Hers is not a happy lot, and to be honest I was for grinding my teeth reading some of the casual sexism of her young life – I know, it’s fiction, but generally I’d like to read to escape from this kind of nonsense! So, from the get-go, I wasn’t wholly warming to this side of the story.

As things progress, the rather glacial pace of the whole thing becomes rather apparent. Part of the appeal of Hobb’s writing is, I suppose, the detail and how much she draws you into the lives of the characters. Still, that nothing much¬†actually really happens is just a little bit of a draw back. I was forced to abandon reading this for quite some time due to external events, and picking it back up again I was at no point left struggling to remember what had happened – because nothing really had. Eeep!

Still, the whole thing is rather gorgeously written. I adore the world building, and while the story itself is slow, there is no sense that the rich, immersive descriptions are what’s holding things up – they’re a plus, not a negative, all the way.

There are another three books and 1500 pages in this series, which is plenty of room for more to happen – so, onwards!

Paperback: 553 pages / 17 chapters
First published: 2009
Series: Rain Wild Chronicles book 1 (of 4) / Realms of the Elderlings book 10 (of 16)
Read from 6th August – 22nd October 2017 (with a massive gap in the middle cos life)

My rating: 7/10 –¬† love Hobb’s writing, but story-wise this is just a bit too slight and slow