I have had Pirates! on my bookshelf for a long while, having originally read it when I was back in high school. I remember enjoying it at the time, and as I was feeling nostalgic I thought that I’d give it another read and see how it holds up against my older brain.
Pirates! follows Nancy Kington, the daughter of a sugar merchant, who is forced to move to her father’s plantation after a storm that simultaneously ruined her father’s health and fortunes. Dismayed by the treatment of the slaves that have funded her comfortable lifestyle until now and by how quickly her brothers are willing to marry her off to maintain their fortunes, she decides to run away and try to reunite with her sweetheart, William. Accompanied by one of her late father’s favourite slaves, Minerva, she joins a pirate crew to try and outrun those pursuing her, and to pursue her own fortune in kind.
Re-reading Pirates!, I can definitely see why I enjoyed it as a teenager. The main cast of characters are sympathetic and interesting, and there is a lot of swashbuckling adventure to be had. Nancy is a bit of a worrier and a bit prone to melancholy, but a decent enough sort to be stuck with as a first-person narrator. If I’m honest, I always stayed because of Minerva, the fearless slave-turned-Pirate Queen, who rocks a set of breeches like a pro. I’m pretty sure she may have set off my personal love of cross-dressing women just in time to be introduced to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and I will be forever grateful. There are a few other colourful characters to be found in the crew. There’s Broom, the roguishly charming, if a tad bit dense, pirate captain. There’s Graham, the morose doctor whose sensibilities are more suited for the damp of the British countryside than they are for a pirate ship roaming the Caribbean. And of course, there is the relentless antagonist, Bartholome the Brazilian, a mysterious figure who seems to have an almost satanic attunement with the sea and its treasures.
The main issue that I have found when re-reading this book as an adult is that it now seems to lack bite, and the romance seems a bit tacked on. While I found that the plot seems to hold up overall, I’ve since read and seen pirate stories that are more ruthless, more bloodthirsty and just overall more exciting. Reading Pirates! as an adult, I could see just how much the setting had been watered down for its audience. I don’t necessarily think that that’s a bad thing, considering the audience that the book is aimed at, but it was something that I hadn’t taken into consideration with this re-reading. I would definitely still recommend the book, but perhaps not to those whose tastes are more hardcore.
Thoroughly enjoyable and definitely worth a recommendation to any young teens that you may know. It may come across as a bit tame and safe if your tastes run to the more violent or bloodier end of the spectrum, but is still a fun enough romp if you have the time. 4/5
Before we start, I should admit the main reason I was looking forward to reading the first in the Vampirates series. I saw the combination of vampire and pirates, and proceeded to giggle like a particularly excitable schoolchild. That combination had the potential to be metal album cover levels of dorky cool, so I was quite looking forward to it. And then my husband, who had previously read pretty much the whole series, described it as “an earlier version of Twilight, but moreish”. And I was instantly very conflicted.
Demons of the Ocean follows twins Grace and Connor Tempest, the oddly-talented children of an enigmatic lighthouse keeper. After their father’s death leaving them homeless and penniless, the twins decide to steal their father’s repossessed boat and take their chances out to sea. They are soon caught and separated in a storm, rescued by two separate ships. While Connor finds himself on the ship of an infamous pirate by the name of Molucco Wrathe, Grace wakes up on a ship where none but the captain walk upon the deck during daylight hours. Traumatised by their separation, the twins aim to reunite.
This is such a dumb book. I can see why my husband compares it to Twilight, as it does feel very much like fanfiction. The main issue that I have with the Vampirates series so far is that it seems very confused about what time period that it wants to be. So it’s supposed to be set in the 26th century, but there doesn’t seem to be any kind of attempt to capitalise on the kind of advanced technology that should be available. Instead, there seems to be a weird mix of mundane current-day technology like diver’s watches and an overwhelming amount of things that would fit better in the golden age of pirates, like swords, galleons and ridiculous amounts of booty. All I wanted was for the book to settle on a time period and stick to it. If everything had been set in piracy’s golden era, that would have been so much easier and wouldn’t have had to change a great deal.
Despite the weird time setting inconsistencies, it was surprisingly entertaining. It’s still incredibly dumb, but a fun kind of dumb, like a B-movie. It’s full to the brim with stupid concepts that just about made me cry with laughter. Pirate academy, anyone?
Not the smartest of books and could have benefited from just transposing everything into the golden era of piracy to simplify all of the weird time bullshit that it has going on. Despite that, it’s entertaining enough and will probably distract kids nicely. 3/5
I have my sibling to thank for finding Nightblade, as they informed me about a giveaway that the author was having. It’s taken me a little while to get to it, but I was looking forward to taking a look as the author seemed to be really keen on promoting diversity in his works. If there’s a genre that should be more diverse but isn’t, fantasy is right at the top of that list.
Nightblade follows Loren, a forester’s daughter who dreams of escaping her cruel parents and becoming a thief of such calibre that legends are made of. She finds her opportunity when she meets a fugitive mage, Xain. Unfortunately, she finds that travelling with him has garnered a lot of unwanted attention, and she only has her wits and a mysterious dagger taken from her parents to protect herself with. I had fun with Nightblade. It’s not the best fantasy book that I’ve ever read, but it’s a solid, fun read and that was honestly all I was after. The characters are interesting, if a little under-developed at the moment. Loren, the would-be thief, is an interesting mix of cynical and wide-eyed idealist, and there’s a lot of righteous anger that I can see being really good to watch out for in future books. There is Annis, a merchant’s daughter who is craftier than her sheltered life thus far would suggest. And there’s Gem, the pickpocket who desperately wants to be a charming rogue. At the moment, there hasn’t really been enough time to really develop them hugely, but I liked what I saw of it. Similarly, there are a lot of plot points that have brought up a lot of questions, but there are very few answers as of yet. Why Xain is running from the King’s Law, and what makes Loren’s dagger so special are the primary questions that will hopefully be answered in the future. It’s not a huge bother for me, as it’s a first installment in a universe that looks to be ever expanding, and I’m more than happy to pick up more of the series, should I find it.
A decent fantasy romp. There’s nothing too complicated here, but there’s a lot of promise for future books, including a couple of pretty big questions currently unanswered. I’m also looking forward to seeing how the child/teenage characters develop, as it’s a little on the threadbare side at the moment. Thoroughly enjoyable though. 3.5/5
Next review: Batman & the Justice League Preview Edition by Shiori Teshirogi
So Found is probably not a book that I would have picked up, had I found it outside of a book bundle. While I don’t have any problem reading books aimed at children, I find that my standards for them are tougher than they are for adult books. Maybe because I grew up with things like Pixar films that can be appreciated by all ages, but dumbed down children’s fiction does nothing for me. But in this case, the premise seemed interesting enough that I could take more of a chance.
Found follows Jonah Skidmore, an ordinary teenage boy who has never thought anything about his being adopted as a baby. It is only when he and his new friend Chip, who has only just discovered that he was adopted, start getting mysterious letters of warning that he wonders whether he should be concerned about who his birth parents were. When he digs into his origins though, he finds himself entangled in a mystery that involves the FBI, a vast smuggling operation and people who appear and disappear in seemingly impossible ways. When Found started on a really intriguing scene, that of an aeroplane appearing out of thin air and containing 36 babies and no flight crew, I was really hopeful. It’s nothing if not an arresting image, so you can imagine what I hoped that it would turn into. As it turned out, I would be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the story itself was decent enough, but it just needed to be tighter, go through a few rewrites. As it was, Found was decent enough, but had a few things just annoying enough to ruin the expectations that I’d had for this. First of all, the characters mostly ended up being generically teenager instead of especially interesting by themselves. They were all kind of dim, overly concerned with what is and is not “cool” for their age group, and seemed to have really spotty memories about a topic that they’ve been focusing on for several weeks by the end of the book. For instance, there’s a bit where they meet a woman who saw the plane that Jonah and Chip were on as babies, and she posits that there was time travel involved. Chip’s reaction to this is to mock her relentlessly for her crackpot theories, completely ignoring the fact that one of the documents he has in his possession at that very moment contains information that they had previously established would be impossible to have without something like, oh I don’t know, fucking TIME TRAVEL! Like, if you wanted to have him be that sceptical, don’t provide him with reason to believe the theories that he mocks. Additionally, it seems at odds with his willingness to believe another character’s assertion that she saw a ghost, just because she says so. I just need consistency, please. Secondly, there seems to be this weirdly specific body language or voice tone going on throughout the book. I can appreciate communicating additional information or context with either body language or tone of voice, because that’s a thing that people do, obviously. But in Found this is made into so specific and exact a form of communication that it becomes really distracting. Lastly, it just started to drag, with little of actual substance happening between Jonah and his family meeting the FBI to discuss his adoption, and the showdown in the latter third. It’s the three main characters investigating, poorly, and getting more and more panicky because of the vague and menacing dangers around them. It did pick up at the end, but by then my experience had been tainted by the slog of the beginning and middle thirds. And if I’m bored then I can’t imagine a child or young teenager will do much better.
Found ends on a cliff-hanger, but I don’t know if I’d deliberately go out of my way to continue reading the series. The characters are pretty much just generic young teens and haven’t got much interesting about each of them individually. The writing can be distracting at times, with the sort of annoying writing tics that draw you out of your immersion. And while it did pick up towards the end, the first two thirds seemed to drag interminably through a pretty shabby investigation. Not terrible, but not particularly great either. 3/5
Having been thoroughly disappointed with my last read, I was hoping that my next Young Adult book would be more my style. I had read Meg Cabot books previously, specifically the first couple of volumes of both her Princess Diaries series and her Heather Wells series. The latter series I was quite fond of, and the former was far enough in the past that my recollections of reading it were hazy at best. So I had hopes that Abandon would at least be decent.
Abandon follows Pierce Oliviera, a teenager who had a near-death experience. Following her parents’ divorce and a mysterious incident that caused her to be expelled from her previous school, she moves with her mother to Isla Huesos in Florida. Wanting a fresh start, Pierce can’t help but be fearful, because when she came back to life, she brought something strange and possibly cursed back with her. I wanted to like this. I’m something of a Greek myth buff, and while the Persephone myth isn’t my favourite, I was interested in seeing how it would be reinterpreted. But Abandon just seemed to defy my efforts at every turn. First of all, since I’ve mentioned that it’s a re-write of the myth of Persephone’s kidnap/marriage to Hades, of course there will be a death-god figure for Pierce to both run from and fall in love with. That relation could be interesting, if you went for the whole “I love the person, but I can’t give up my life or family to be with them” angle. But despite the in-depth descriptions of John’s good looks and the attempts to do the whole “they bicker, so they must be in love!” trope, there is so little chemistry that it all falls flat. And honestly, you have to be concerned when your main character’s attempts to reach out emotionally to him devolves to her consciously using tactics learnt from working with wild animals. If you’re treating someone you’re attracted to like some kind of humanoid badger, then you have issues. Additionally, they don’t seem to have actually spent more than a few hours in each other’s company over all their encounters, and yet they’re quite happy to talk about loving each other. I can barely get a general impression of someone in a few hours, let alone fall in love, so it smacks of obligation more than anything. This lack of chemistry stems largely from the second issue that I have with Abandon. Pierce doesn’t really seem to have a great deal of personality beyond the fact that she died and now has a magic necklace that warns her of danger. And considering that a huge chunk of the plot doesn’t deal with supernatural stuff, but her attempts to settle into a new school following some severe traumas, that’s a problem. She just sorts of gets carried along by events there, and all that I could take from those sections is that she’s drawn to meddling in other people’s problems without permission, and isn’t especially suited to it. After a while, her incessant whining that somehow people think you’re crazy when you tell them “I can protect you from the evil!” get really annoying, along with her repeated exclamations of “Check yourself before you wreck yourself”. I don’t care if it’s even a little bit sarcastic, it soon starts to grate on your nerves. It wasn’t long before I had concluded that I couldn’t care less what happened to her, which is the kiss of death for a first-person narrative. The third issue that I have with Abandon is that it takes far too long to get Pierce’s backstory over and done with. So, there are two main issues that have impacted on Pierce’s life within the past two years that are deemed to be important: her near-death experience where she met and escaped from the Love Interest, and an incident at her former school involving scandal and one of her teachers. What I would have done is maybe dedicate a couple chapters to each event and intersperse them with present-day events, but focus on the entirety of the event at one time. Cabot instead decides to drip feed both of them over the space of two thirds of the book, with both events frequently interrupted by mundane bullshit like school assemblies and queuing for ice cream. This is aggravating to the extreme, as it’s obviously meant to raise tension, but there’s a massive flaw that means that whatever tension is achieved falls flat. The events themselves are easy to work out. The scandal at her old school for instance? As soon as I heard that a teacher was involved and that Pierce had gotten herself in hot water by trying to get evidence against him, I knew that it would involve the teacher being pervy with his female students. And wouldn’t you know, I was absolutely right. Now, compare Abandon with a property that takes this tired “Hot for Student” scenario and makes it work, namely the game Persona 5. Being a video game, it amps the tension by making it the focus of the consumer’s attention and it raises the stakes with elements like a time restriction. It also spends a decent amount of time actually building up the secondary characters, so that when they start being harmed because of the teacher’s abuse of power, you actually give a shit. In comparison, Abandon spends so much time stalling that you’re praying to get the backstory over and done with, rather than being left on-edge to find out how it all turns out. The fourth issue that I have is the role of the Furies. The Furies are depicted as enemies of John, and by extension Pierce, because they are damned souls who are angry at their treatment. This bugs me for two reasons. Firstly because according to Greek myths, the Furies were deities of vengeance who would target those who committed crimes like matricide or swearing false oaths. They’re vicious, but their targets have traditionally been guilty in some fashion, they’re the idea that certain crimes won’t go unpunished even if mortal justice proves inadequate. To make them mindlessly evil is disingenuous to their mythic origins. Secondly, it seems weird that these all-powerful beings who exist solely to torment the deity running the Underworld are just the souls of evil people. If it’s such a problem that Furies are actively possessing and corrupting living people to carry out their plans, then surely you would try and find out what the fuck it is that Hell is doing to make these things and stop it, not just keep shipping souls in to become new Furies only to wonder why your quality of life has plummeted. There’s a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest that states “Hell is empty and all the devils are here”, but I somehow doubt that it was meant to be taken literally. Fifth issue is a bit of a spoiler. So it turns out that Furies have been targeting Pierce, and John is concerned that he can’t protect her. His solution is to kidnap her again. But it’s okay this time, because it’s for her own good, and hey, if she gives it time then maybe she’ll come to like being in the Underworld. Seriously, what is it with my reading list at the moment? I can’t seem to get away from YA books that try to tone down kidnapping at the moment. I explored my issues with this last review, so just assume that it applies here too. Also, it ends having resolved absolutely fuck all of the issues that had been brought up. What was the point of spending so much time with the nasty popular kids in order to help her cousin work through some undefined issues that he has with them, if the main character is ripped out of the world before anything happens with it? The last issue is just something that bewildered me to the point of exasperation. It turns out that Furies like tassels, so whenever they turn up in the narrative they signal oncoming danger. Let me state that again for the record. Tassels are a legitimate harbinger of doom. I don’t think I need to point out the idiocy of that.
Abandon is a book that I wanted to like, but it manages to brain itself at every hurdle. The main character is a charming mix of annoying and boring. Her relationship with the love interest lacks any chemistry, having spent at most a few hours in each other’s company over the entirety of their encounters and at times she treats him more like a wild animal than a person. The backstory is spoon-fed to the reader at such an excruciatingly slow pace that whatever tension the author hoped to create is destroyed. The present-day plot is boring and more or less entirely pointless by the end. The mythology that it reports to take inspiration from is cherry-picked and not especially well. It tries to justify kidnapping by the time it ends, and TASSELS of all things are harbingers of doom. Do not bother. 1.5/5
If I hadn’t gotten Stolen as part of an audiobook bundle, I probably would have passed it by. While I’m not averse to Young Adult novels, I usually end up pairing them with other genres like Fantasy or Science Fiction, rather than Contemporary. If I want to read about real life, my first instinct would be to reach for Non-Fiction. Nonetheless, the premise did intrigue me somewhat, and if I already had a copy there seemed no point avoiding it.
Stolen is narrated by Gemma, a 16-year-old girl who is kidnapped while en route with her parents to Vietnam. When she steps away to get a coffee, an older man buys coffee for her, drugging it to make sure she doesn’t try and struggle. He takes her to the Australian outback, to a desolate outpost of his own making that she can only survive in with his aid. I wanted to like Stolen because the blurb made it sound like a bid for survival against incredible odds. It is most certainly not that. I read this in what was a barely contained simmer of anger and frustration. There were a few reasons for this, and they can be embodied in the two main characters: the victim, Gemma, and the kidnapper, Ty. So, first of all, Gemma. There were a couple things that bugged me about her. First was the fact that she didn’t seem to have a whole lot of personality. I appreciate that when confined to an isolated outpost in the Australian bush, there’s only a certain amount that you can do to signpost character building, but even the flashbacks she had about before she was kidnapped were more or less bare of personality. So it transpires that the kidnapper was first drawn to Gemma when she was a child, and her make-believe involved flower fairies, and the fact that she engaged in imaginative play like every other child in existence somehow made her special. When she got into her teenage years, she started resenting her parents for controlling her life! So special! So utterly normal for someone going through massive hormonal changes! The only other thing that comes up is her getting wasted in the park with her friends, which is also, say it with me, entirely mundane and not at all special for someone of her age group. At the end of the book, I knew practically nothing about her as a person beyond the stereotype of a middle class teenager. There are no hobbies that I can list, I know nothing about her friends despite her name-checking them multiple times during the narrative, there are no personality traits that I can name now that it’s all over. So there’s not much incentive for me to want her to get home. Additionally, and this is probably a personal issue, she doesn’t seem to make much of the opportunities that she gets to escape. My husband finds it endlessly amusing that my reaction to most conflict in films can boil down to “Find the person responsible for the problem, and start breaking bones until the problem can be considered solved.” Violent and a bit reductionist I accept, but it can be vaguely amusing. Not here. Here, that tendency just made the whole captivity bit endlessly frustrating. For example, there’s a part where Ty gets a load of scratches on his hands and he pleads with her to help him clean up the wounds, otherwise his hands will be useless. When she first asked what he would do for her in return, I could have cheered. She asks to be taken back home, and he refuses. Fair enough, more or less what I expected. But then she just kind of drops the matter, and asks him some useless fucking question about how he built the hovel that he expects her to treat like a fucking palace. And my mind went wild, asking questions about why she didn’t double down and keep asking to be taken back. Hell, a large part of me was screaming at her to find some lye, and see how long he really wanted to be stuck with her after that. She kept hesitating, like she can somehow reason with Ty. Which brings me to my second major problem with the book. I could have appreciated Ty as a villain, if the narrative didn’t want so much for the reader to want to fix him. He’s kidnapped a girl almost a decade younger than him who he’s been stalking since she was 10, sure, but look at how pretty and muscular he is. He’s a hypocrite who wants freedom for himself but sees no issue with abducting anyone or anything that he could benefit from, but you can’t be mad because he had a traumatic childhood. He’ll prevent anything that Gemma wants unless it directly coincides with what he wants, but he hasn’t raped her so of course it doesn’t count as actual abuse. Sure, Stockholm Syndrome is brought up in the final chapter, but that doesn’t mean I have to like how the narrative goes. There’s a line towards the end where Gemma says “It’s hard to hate someone once you understand them”, and I hate it with a passion. Just because an abuser does something nice doesn’t make up for all the awful things that they do. It reminded me of a scene in An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan, which is a hell of a harrowing read, but a really valuable experience in my opinion. There’s a scene where the kidnappers, after months of horrific mistreatment, throw a birthday party for one of the hostages. It shows a more vulnerable side to the jailers, but all it does is make them repulsive instead. And that is what Ty’s “tragic” backstory does for me: instead of making him more sympathetic, he only becomes more disgusting and pathetic. And the fact that anyone is taking anything romantic out of Stolen just makes me sick to my stomach. About the only thing I did like was the description of the Australian outback. It’s vivid and colourful and sensual, and I could only wish that such descriptions were contained in a less objectionable story.
Some pretty descriptions of the outback are about the only good thing that can be taken from Stolen. Otherwise it’s an anger-inducing story about a girl utterly lacking in personality, who slowly becomes convinced that as her kidnapper hasn’t tried raping or killing her, that means it’s twue wuv. Christ, it’s utterly nauseating. Newsflash, abuse isn’t sexy and Stockholm Syndrome isn’t romantic. Don’t touch with a barge pole. 1/5
If anyone out there has seen the film The Princess Bride, then you should know why I picked up the book version. It is one of my absolute favourite films and so damn quotable. So obviously when I saw the book on sale, I couldn’t help but pick it up and partake in that bittersweet exercise of comparing the book and the movie. To do otherwise would be inconceivable.
As a small boy, William Goldman learned to love literature after his father read him the story of The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, an epic tale of swordplay, revenge and true love. When he tries to pass on this love to his son, however, he finds that his father may have trimmed the novel down to “the good parts”, sparing him countless pages of tedious satire. As such, he decides to abridge the novel, presenting the novel to the reader as it was read to him, with copious abridging notes along the way. There was probably a part of me that knew that this was coming, but The Princess Bride was better as a movie. While I was very much a fan of some of the additional details, like Inigo and Fezzik’s back-stories, I found that the majority of these details worked more to bog the narrative down. Take the asides by Goldman as part of the abridging work. The ones that work the best are the ones that he keeps short, sweet and to the point. Because when they don’t, the narrative can take a turn for the overly clever or, more often, self-satisfied and mean-spirited. Honestly, that’s the most disappointing part. What should be interesting to a reader, expanding what we know about characters that you loved from the film version, is ruined because the things that were mere niggles in the film are now amplified. Buttercup’s lack of common sense is now stupidity to the point that the reader is in danger of completely missing what Westley sees in her other than her beauty. Westley’s controlling behaviour is likewise made uncomfortable with such lines as “Woman, you are the property of the Dread Pirate Roberts and you do what you’re told!” pushing his character neatly over the line into the list of characters most likely to commit mariticide at some point after the story’s end. At the end of the day though, the film was an uncannily faithful adaptation, all things considered, so fans of the film should still enjoy themselves.
If you loved the film version like I did, this is sort of a disappointment. The fundamentals are there, it’s just that it becomes too clunky in places where the extra details only highlight the niggles in the more streamlined adaptation. Much as he berates the fictional S. Morgenstern for bogging the narrative down with too much detail for the sake of cleverness, Goldman finds himself falling into the same trap at times. I’d still happily recommend the book though, as the story is solid enough to endure the odd misstep. Just maybe accept that in this instance, the film is better than the book. 4/5
Next review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
After the disappointment that was The Mammoth Book of Body Horror, I was in the mood for something familiar. I hadn’t read Treasure Island in years, and remembered really enjoying it when I was younger, so it seemed like the perfect book to revisit.
Treasure Island follows a young boy named Jim Hawkins. Helping his parents run their inn, the Admiral Benbow, he meets a cantankerous old sailor who is rather keen on avoiding other seamen. When he dies after his old crewmates turn up to harass him, Jim gets his hands on the old man’s sea-chest, with a treasure map inside. Joined by Doctor Livesey and Squire Trelawney, they embark on a journey to retrieve the treasure, gathered initially by the infamous Captain Flint. But all is not well, as their crew of honest hands has been infiltrated by former members of Flint’s crew, most notably the one-legged Long John Silver. It might just be the innumerable film adaptations overriding my memories of the book, but I do not remember there being quite as much malaria in Treasure Island. I’d also managed to forget a whole chunk of the book in which Jim manages to steal back their ship, the Hispaniola, which is probably more worrying. Regardless, I still enjoyed it about as much as I did when I was a kid. There was a small part of my brain making things weird by thinking of my two favourite adaptations (the Muppet version and Disney’s weird but somehow still coherent Victoriana Space Opera version), but it does definitely still stand up by itself. One thing that I will mention for those of you who haven’t read Treasure Island, but have seen a bunch of the adaptations is that Hollywood has a weird obsession with trying to make Long John Silver into a kind of weird father-figure for Jim. There isn’t really much of that in the actual book, with Silver being more or less a child-friendly depiction of a psychopath. Sure he switches sides towards the end, but not out of any genuine affection for Jim; considering that the alternative is dying on a malaria-ridden island with three former comrades who really aren’t satisfied with the way that his grand voyage has panned out, it’s a purely pragmatic decision. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just something that would stand out if you’ve only ever seen film versions before.
Treasure Island is a classic for a reason. The characters are great, the action is gripping and who doesn’t love pirates? If you’ve only ever seen the film versions before though, you might want to prepare yourself for a significantly less likeable Long John Silver. 4.5/5
Unusually, I’ve gone for two short story collections on the trot. Maybe it’s because I’m on holiday, but I’ve found myself really in the mood for something more bitesize. And considering that I’ve mostly enjoyed the dark fantasy stuff that Holly Black has written, I was interested to see how she holds up using short forms of fiction. Anything to take my mind off my sunburn has to be some good anyway.
The Poison Eaters and Other Stories collects a series of short stories by the Curse Worker series author Holly Black. Some of the stories reference some of her longer work, with “Going Ironside” and “The Land of Heart’s Desire” being set in her Modern Faery Tale series, while the opening tale “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” is set in the same universe as her novel of the same name. The subject matter ranges from vampires to unicorns and even as far as living books and girls whose touch can kill.
Usually I prefer single-author anthologies, as you tend to get a more even tone and quality to the stories contained due to only coming from one author. Usually that’s the case anyway. For some reason, Black seems to be a writer that I either love or could give or take, depending on what of hers I’m reading. It was very much in evidence here. On the side of absolutely love, I would have killed to have more stories like the eponymous “The Poison Eaters”, “The Coat of Stars” or “The Dog King”; those stories were my certain top three when I was looking over the contents in preparation for this review. And much of the rest of the stories were similarly strong. But for me, there were four stories that just fell flat for me: “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, “Virgin”, “In Vodka Veritas” and “Going Ironside”. With those stories, there just didn’t seem to be much actual content within them to grab a reader’s attention. And considering that there’s only 12 stories in the collections, I don’t feel confident giving it top marks when there was around a third of the content that I was ambivalent at best about. Were there perhaps more stories with the quality of the three that I picked out as my favourites, then I’d perhaps feel a bit more positive about the collection.
Quite a good collection overall, but The Poison Eaters and Other Stories is somewhat brought down by a few stories that, while not necessarily bad, are much less interesting. I’d still read it for “The Poison Eaters”, “The Coat of Stars” and “The Dog King”, but you might want to go in aware. 3.5/5
Next review: Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean
The Last Unicorn is one of those stories that I only really heard of after I started venturing out onto the Internet a bit more, and even then I seemed to find mostly artwork of the eponymous unicorn, with surprisingly little about the actual story. So when I got round to actually reading it, it had become a weird kind of amorphous non-entity: apparently a really beloved classic, but with little actual substance that I could see and figure out why people liked it.
It is a regular eternally spring day for the unicorn, when she hears a message that she can’t bring herself to ignore: that she is the last of her kind in the world. Venturing from the safety of her forest, she sets out to find out what happened to others like her. Joining her on her journey are Schmendrick, the world’s worst magician, and Molly Grue, an indomitable spinster. But the three of them may not be enough to combat the terrible Red Bull that stalks the land of the miserly King Haggard. What I’m about to say probably won’t make much sense. Because I had a copy of the deluxe edition, my edition of The Last Unicorn came with a lot of additional material, including an introduction and an interview that hammer in one point about the writing process for this book: it was a complete chore and it took years before Beagle could look at it and admit to himself that it was any good. And while I did like what I read, I think that there is a part of that struggle that shows through the writing. The Last Unicorn is a truly beautiful book at several points, but as a whole it kind of left me emotionally cold. I don’t know what it was, but despite enjoying it, The Last Unicorn probably won’t be high on my list of books to re-read any time soon. It’s like watching a dancer who is technically flawless, but who doesn’t enjoy performing anymore and hits her cues more out of obligation than anything else. The parts that I liked were the points where the fairy tale stuff was juxtaposed by the moments of crushing reality: the spider crying in the night having discovered that it can’t weave the moon in her web, or Molly asking why the unicorn only turns up in her life after her youth and loveliness have already left. The more traditionally fantasy elements, regardless of how self-aware they are, seem to be there more to fit the story structure. It is really well written though, so I would be interested to see some more of Beagle’s work, perhaps something that hadn’t been such a struggle for him.
Thoroughly beautiful at times, but I can’t honestly say that The Last Unicorn did much for me emotionally. There’s nothing specifically wrong with the novel, but this just wasn’t really for me. Pleasant enough and probably enough to warrant reading other works by this author, but this work seemed a bit too beholden to obligating fairy tale tropes to really stretch out and become something truly wonderful. I am probably in a minority here though. 3.5/5