Days of Blood and Starlight – Laini Taylor

days of blood and starlight cover

“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil held a wishbone between them. And its snap split the world in two.”

I liked the first half of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, the first in this series, much more than the second half. Conversely, I took a little while to get going with this one, spending a good chunk of the first third or so thinking this was going to be a slightly disappointing middle installment. How wrong I was!

(As ever, I can’t promise a review of book 2 won’t mention something that ‘spoils’ an e.g. survival from book 1, so you might want to leave before I really get going!)

Following the catastrophic events at the end of the first book, we find Karou living a shadowy nightmare life. Akiva’s isn’t that much better, but while his pain is caused almost solely by the separation and facade of fitting back into his old life, Karou has lost just about everything. She’s back with the chimaera, but an outsider in almost every way.

For a middle book, this surprised me. There was that point where I thought ‘how is there a third novel in this series?’ and then of course the world up-ends again. Twists and turns, darkness and more darkness – this is a gripping read, once the initial tranche of new world-building and scene setting is out of the way.

We see a lot more of the chimaera here, not just glimpses of Brimstone and Issa, or flashbacks, and we also find out more about the social order of the seraphim. Both are rather satisfying.

The ending is slightly less cliff-hanger-er than the first book, but still: roll on the final installment!

Paperback: 512 pages / 84 chapters
First published: 2012
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy book 2
Read from 17th June – 1st July 2018

My rating: 8/10

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Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor

daughter of smoke and bone cover

“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.”

Karou’s life is anything but ordinary. From her blue hair and somewhat mysterious lack of details on her previous life, she seems perfectly suited to being a 17-year-old art student in Prague. Her sketchbooks are filled with strange creatures about whom she has myriad stories – except, while her friends assume they of course must be fiction, Karou is only telling the truth.

Raised by chimera – creatures that seem composites of other animals, such as a snake-woman, or bull-headed man – Karou still runs errands for the gruff Brimstone, generally involving meeting less-than-savoury types to purchase teeth, of all sorts and species. Quite what Brimstone does with these teeth is only one of his many mysteries, but he pays Karou in wishes. She only ever gets small wishes, though – enough for blue hair, but not flight.

Plagued by the feeling that she’s meant to be living a different existence, Karou’s lack of knowledge about herself only deepens when one day a strange man – a strange winged man – takes a sudden and intense interest in her…

Following an enjoyment of Strange the Dreamer, spotting this first book in Laini Taylor’s earlier series in the library felt like a no-brainer. And then I realised I’d read the opening chapter as a free sample before, and decided that this was perhaps a little too ‘young adult’ for me. Which bits of it are: teen romance rarely interests me. But that aside, the rest of it made me glad I gave it all a second chance.

I do like the art student lifestyle that Laini Taylor describes, and the city of Prague is made to sound amazing. The layers of mystery slowly, oh so slowly, unfold, as we discover more about the creatures who raised Karou, the other world she can only enter through doors when someone opens them from the other side, and all sorts of smokey, ancient-feeling magics and elsewhere-ness. Very atmospheric!

As we find out more, my interest did waver a little, as we end up back with the romance plot. But, still many mysteries to keep me going – including a huge cliffhanger! Thankfully the entire trilogy is available, so I don’t have to wait to find out what happens next.

Paperback: 418 pages / 60 chapters
First published: 2011
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy book 1
Read from 13th-29th May 2018

My rating: 8/10

The Blue Sword – Robin McKinley

blue sword cover

“She scowled at her glass of orange juice.”

Harry Crewe never quite seems to fit in with other girls or polite society. Orphaned, she finds herself in a colonial house on the edge of the Damar desert. The barren landscape transfixes her, as does her first sight of the Hillfolk – secretive, possibly magical, they like these colonisers not much but the not-quite-human Northerners even less. Is a war brewing? What does that mean for a girl like Harry?

I feel a bit mean not liking this book more than I did. I came to it on the back of a recommendation from an author whose work I enjoy very much, claiming this as one that spoke to her a lot in childhood – and I can understand that. I think if I’d read this when I was younger, or back in the 80s when female-led fantasy wasn’t as strong as it is now, then I probably would have enjoyed this a lot more.

As it stands now, though, I found it a little hard to get past the idea of these ‘Homelanders’ colonising another land and that being so okay to the point of not being much of an issue. Or, a female character being kidnapped and sort of going along with it. Hmm. Then, of course, there’s just too much these days of the fantasy trope where a character goes from knowing nothing to being a superb fighter etc because ‘training montage’ and/or reincarnation/prophecy/destiny/something like that (you pick: I’m not giving spoilers!).

So yes, I get that if I’d read this when I was 12 I would have been entranced by Harry and her adventures, and that ‘a girl’ was getting to do all these cool things. Now, though, I thought that while well enough written, this hasn’t aged as well as those childhood memories had raved about.

Kindle: 292 pages / 17 chapters
First published: 1982
Series: Damar book 1
Read from 6th May – 2nd June 2018

My rating: 6/10

Strange the Dreamer – Laini Taylor

strange the dreamer cover

“On the second Sabbat of Twelthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.”

Imagine when the name of a city disappears in an instant – not just from history or official records, but from the every mind and tongue. A few, such as orphan Lazlo Strange, are aware of the loss – he was playing at being one of the city’s fabled warriors at the time of the disappearance. This magic haunts his imagination throughout his young life, as he escapes the monastery upbringing to apprentice as a junior librarian – what a perfect life for a person with a head full of stories!

Halfway across the world, five young people live in an abandoned city. Each has a magical gift – some useful, some terrible – and all have blue skin. They are trapped by failed magic, and fear of the past, when they were the only ones to escape a cataclysm. Surrounded by ghosts, only one can ‘escape’ – by visiting the dreams of the mortals living below.

What happened all those years ago, to end the mystery of a century? What help can a rag-tag bunch of foreigners give to the fabled city of Weep? And what place does a dreaming young librarian have in either of these worlds?

This was one of those oft-recommended books that I decided to check out on a whim, and ended up completely captivating me! I absolutely loved it! Lazlo is a perfect main character for any avid reader, living as he does in stories and myths and dreams… all of which start to intrude more than a little on his reality. Twists and turns abound, and while some are guessable, the fantastical story will keep you turning pages to find out what happens next.

Massively looking forward to the sequel – and argh that I have to wait until October!

Paperback: 532 pages / 67 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: Strange the Dreamer book 1
Read from 21st March – 2nd April 2018

My rating: 9/10

The Shape of Water (2017)

shape of water poster

I’m a bit late to the game with this one, but at least I get to say “Yes, I know it won the Best Picture Oscar, but…”

I haven’t seen the other nominees, but I’m still finding it odd that this got the top honour. I mean, it’s a good movie, and there are layers to it, it looks amazing, and the performances are outstanding. But if I had to sum it up in one word, I’d have to go with “weird”.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner at a government research facility, and when they bring in a new ‘specimen’ (Doug Jones, once again under layers of aquatic prosthetics) she soon befriends the unfortunate creature. Tensions ratchet up when creepy project lead, Strickland (Michael Shannon), decides the research is going nowhere fast, and his preferred route forwards turns towards dissection.

The early 1960s time period setting works brilliantly here, adding in elements of Cold War paranoia, homophobia, racism, and dreadful sexism, all of which can be said to find parallels in the ‘alien’ treatment of the creature. Elisa’s muteness is also a fantastic device, allowing both the main characters to be completely silent while her friends – both from poorly-treated minorities at the time – give her voice. Not that she wholly needs it: the facial expressions and body language is a masterclass.

So, all good. But… well, hmm. I dunno, there was just something a little too bizarre to everything for me, I think, with a mix of elements that just seemed odd. In hindsight, yes I assume that no decision was made without due thought, but when you’re sitting at the start of a fantastical, cinematographically delicate, period-rich fairy tale, it was really really jolting to be left thinking, “Wait, was she really just masturbating in the bath – to an egg timer?!” o_O

I’m going to go with: yes, it’s a good film and very well worth the watch, but between the Academy Award and the rest of the hype, perhaps my expectations were just a bit too high. Still, what do I know – it did win Best Picture, after all!

Released: 14th February 2018
Viewed: 8th March 2018
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10

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 🙂

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 – books 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