The Wicked King by Holly Black – Book Review

Spoilers if you haven’t read The Cruel Prince!

In the second instalment of the Folk of The Air series, we return to the Kingdom of Elfhame, now under the rule of King Cardan. That’s how it appears to both citizens and courtiers, but in reality, mortal Jude is the puppetmaster behind the throne. Her job isn’t easy – consistently trying to undermine her authority, Cardan’s enigmatic behaviour leaves the High Court, and Jude, guessing. It soon becomes apparent that someone close to her will betray her, so Jude must juggle keeping the Faerie world safe and asserting her power as a mortal in the volatile Court.

The first novel set the bar pretty high for the rest of the trilogy in terms of the plot twists, backstabbing between characters and mystical intrigue, and this novel certainly followed this precedent. Once again, there was a focus on the political maneuvering of the key players in Elfhame, and I was not disappointed.

One thing that has confused/frustrated me in both books is the absence of the citizens of Elfhame. The storyline focuses on the courtiers and monarchy of the isles, so you’d expect that most of the people that they would interact with would be people from their social class and family. However, when Jude’s out on her travels, she doesn’t seem to pass any villages, or interact with “ordinary” faeries. Even though she left the human world when she was seven, she would have understood that some people have much more than others, and that in most societies, there is too much variation between the wealth of the 1% and the rest of the population. So why do none of the discussions that she has concern the welfare/rights of ‘the people’? do they not exist? Maybe I’m looking into this too deep, but the stakes sometimes didn’t feel that high because the only people that would be affected by any decisions made by the characters in the novel would be people with wealth and influence.

I really appreciated the fact that we stayed with Jude’s point of view for this book, as opposed to switching to another character. Some fantasy series go for alternating points of view in later books, which I’m not really a fan of, so hearing from Jude for this second book really appealed to me as a reader.

If you’re looking for a book where everyone supports one another through the highs and the lows, the characters have a policy of honesty and there’s a nice atmosphere when a group of characters convene, then this is not the book. This observation is not a reflection on the book’s quality at all, but there are few moments of respite from endless backstabbing and an absence of genuine friendliness between the characters, which wasn’t a problem for me, but I do enjoy seeing women supporting other women and characters having one another’s back.

Overall, this is a strong second novel in a trilogy full of treachery, decadence and mythical creatures, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for an enthralling YA fantasy novel to get stuck into.

Star rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

YA on Screen: Netflix’s Cursed Review

Image: Netflix via IMDb

Netflix’s latest fantasy release, written in tandem with the YA graphic novel of the same name, takes the age-old legends of King Arthur and Merlin, and retell them from the perspective of Nimue. A member of the persecuted Fey, she is forced to flee her village after a savage attack by the Red Paladins, and join forces with mercenary Arthur. With the Sword of Power in her possession and as a holder of mysterious yet devastating botanical powers that she is learning to control, she must embark on a personal and literal journey to protect her people and stand up for what is right in a corrupt kingdom.

There are few moments of respite in this high-octane story that takes us travelling through the forests and settlements of early Britain – when we are not witnessing gruesome slaughter and attacks by heartless paladins, we are privy to some heated, intense confrontations. Some pertinent themes are also intertwined with the plot: the futility of war, supremacy, religion, and the corruption of those in power.

Anyone who knows me knows that my favourite TV series of all time is BBC’s Merlin – every time someone mentions it, I feel a pang of nostalgia for it’s charm, humour and quality characters. So, I really wanted to love Cursed, and find a series that would take the tale that I had grown up watching in a different direction.

This series has an incredibly ambitious storyline; there are constant cuts to different characters, interspersed with beautiful illustrations, perhaps a homage to the graphic novel that this is based on. I really struggled to understand the relevance of the many side-plots scattered here and there, as they clouded the story and didn’t seem to relate to Nimue’s journey. Maybe, they’ll have greater significance in series two, but for now, they felt like they were slightly irrelevant. That being said, I particularly liked Pym’s (Nimue’s best friend) story, as she is probably the most entertaining character in the series.

There were too many elements in Cursed for my little brain to comprehend: I still don’t know where it’s set, which is a key detail. In the series, we see the following groups: the Trinity Guard, Red Paladins, Romans, Fey (with many groups amongst them), Viking raiders, the Pendragons, nuns, and the Lepers. Some more Vikings drop in at some point, but I couldn’t tell you want they wanted or why they were there, and there’s also this guy with tattoos on his face that sneaks around doing creepy things and a woman who wears a bird costume and can deliver messages by bird. I still don’t know who both individuals are, and neither IMDb nor Cursed’s Wiki page is giving me many answers. If there had been substantially fewer parties in the series, then I think it would have been easier for the audience to keep track of everyone’s motives and ideologies, both of which were not always clear.

Looking to some of the individual characters, there were definitely some highlights. Merlin was incredibly compelling and enigmatic, and was the focal point of any scene in which he appeared. Uther was the stereotypical tyrant, and as I mentioned before, I really liked Pym’s character, as well as Igraine/Morgana. I’m holding out for some big character development for Nimue and Arthur in the next series, because I felt they could be fleshed out a little more. The Weeping Monk really intrigued me, and has potential, while I wanted a little more backstory on the Green Knight aka Gawain. If some of the sub-plots had been cut away, then maybe there would be more space for character development and general explanation of what is going on.

Comparing series is difficult when the intended audiences are different and different stories are being told, but I think that BBC’s Merlin has a slight edge over Cursed. Why? It has strong character development, humour, and the aforementioned charm, but in all fairness, it’s had five series to build on the initial foundations laid in series one. Cursed has strong foundations, and I think if the plot is streamlined, more time is given to developing characters and more exposition, then I think the show could be a real winner. I will definitely be watching series two (if there is one), and I’ll be back with another review.

Is it worth watching? I would say yes, for the stand-out performances, salient themes and impressive battle scenes. Maybe keep a notebook handy, though!

Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Take Care, Al

My latest posts:

How I have Improved My Blog Posts – A Self-Improvement Journey

Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich – Book Review

June in Non-Fiction: Brit(ish), So You Want To Talk About Race, The Little Book of Feminist Saints

How I Have Improved My Blog Posts – A Self-Improvement Journey

My last post about blogging, Want to Start Blogging? What I’d Wish I’d Thought About When I Started Out, had a pretty good response, so I thought I’d have a go at writing something else on blogging, and my experiences.

I can’t believe that I wrote my first blog post when I was 13, not because it was particularly good, but because 13 feels like such a long time ago. I don’t need to tell you that the amount of personal growth that we undergo during the formative teenage years is huge, but thirteen-year-old me has come a long way. In terms of blogging, I like to compare what I wrote a couple of years ago with what I’m writing now; the process of narrowing down the differences and finding areas that I can still improve upon is uplifting and self-improving, so I wanted to condense this into a blog post for you.

I’m still learning, and not only is this list a record of what I have already done to improve my writing, but I’m hoping it will serve as a memorandum for future me to consult when writing posts. Also, I’m not saying that any posts that don’t do the things I mention are automatically bad – these are the ways that I’ve improved my posts.

The most significant challenge I’ve set myself is to be more precise. Before I wrote this article, I dug up some of my oldest posts from the depths of my archives, spanning back to 2014, and I jotted down some of the stock phrases that I used. In my Hunger Games review, for example, I said that Katniss was a “strong female protagonist”. It’s not hard to imply what this means, and therefore what Katniss’s attributes are, but without some examples and more specific vocabulary, we can’t paint a picture of Katniss’s traits in our mind. In my Scorpio Races review, I tried to expand a little on why I liked our main character, Puck, and how she contrasted to the male lead, Sean, which fleshed out my review, but I knew I could take it further, and offer my blog readers even more of an insight. So, in my review of A Curse So Dark and Lonely, (probably one of the reviews that I am most proud of!) not only did I list some of Harper’s traits, I gave an example from the book where she demonstrates them. With the male lead, Rhen, I made a link between the way he was portrayed and the stereotypical representation of male love interests in YA Fantasy.

Every time I instinctively reach for phrases like “every chapter ended with a cliffhanger”, I urge myself to take this further. Was it because I was emotionally attached to the characters, meaning that I was invested in their wellbeing? Or because the plot was so well-crafted that I wanted to know how the big mysteries of the novel would be solved? Or was it because every chapter ended in the middle of action, when the protagonist was at their most vulnerable? It may be a mixture of these things, but to add that additional layer to the post, I always make sure that I go that extra step.

Everyone’s reason behind starting their blog is personal, and it tends to be a mixture of a couple of factors. For me, I wanted to spread reading and encourage teens to pick up books, by recommending books that I’ll think they like, as well as the personal challenge of improving my writing and copy-editing. Therefore, it follows for posts to have a purpose. On the macro-blog-level, this means the post matching what you’re setting out to achieve with your site (as explained above), and on the micro-level, every post should have their own purpose, within itself. So, when I write I blog post, I think about what I’m trying to achieve, and this is particularly relevant for my book reviews. When I review a book, I want to a) share my thoughts on the book with people who may have read it and b) give people reading my blog a real sense of whether it’s worth their while reading this book. I’ve found that in order to be most satisfied with what I write, I have to bear these two points in mind. It’s like having an internal purpose (point a) and an external purpose (point b). I’ve been trying to implement both of these points by including star ratings, having a concluding sentence at the end of my post to sum up the book, including trigger warnings/content warnings, and comparing books to others in the genre. Not every post will include all of these, but I’m consciously trying to weave them into my posts in order to fulfill Fictionforteen.com ‘s purpose.

My final point is about vocabulary. In the space of 5 years, there have been so many opportunities for me to add to my personal lexicon; especially as a book blogger. Reading a lot means that I’m constantly coming into contact with words that I haven’t used before. I find that to make my posts pop, the thesaurus and it’s wealth of synonyms is a must, as well as checking the dictionary definitions of words that I’m not too sure of.

I’m really looking forward to comparing my blog in another 5 years’ time, and using this post to guide my journey through reviewing, opinion sharing, and recommending. Maybe you might have found some of these points helpful – please let me know in the comments how you improve your posts!

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Thank you and take care,

Al

Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich* – Book Review

TW: mention of suicide

*This book was written by Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul.

Dear Evan Hansen,

Today’s going to be an amazing day and here’s why...

To help with 17-year-old Evan Hansen’s social anxiety, his therapist suggests he writes letters to himself; mini pep-talks to help him feel more confident and in control. Of course, these letters are never meant to be seen by anyone else. One letter is taken by Connor Murphy, social outcast and bully, and it’s found by his family when he commits suicide – they believe that Evan was Connor’s confidant. Grasping on to any glimpse into their son’s secretive life, the Murphy’s feel like Evan is their only connection to Connor, a way for them to hold on to him.

Evan feels like he has no choice but to lie, and enlists friend Jared to write fake emails between the duo to prove that they were secret pals. All of a sudden, Evan is pulled into the spotlight – he’s no longer invisible in the corridors or classrooms. Soon, Evan won’t be able to keep up with the web of lies, and will have to face the uncomfortable truth, but the world is seeing him in a way they hadn’t before. He must ask himself what’s more important: being honest or giving a grieving family something they never had.

First and foremost, I have to mention that this books contains suicide and self-harm mentions fairly frequently in the book. I personally think that you have to be in a good place mentally to read this book, because it’s immersive nature may be too much for some. I’ll discuss this later on in my blog post.

When this book first came out, in 2018, I was interested to find out who the book was aimed at. There are plenty of musicals based on books (think Les Mis, Oliver Twist and The Phantom of The Opera) but I couldn’t find any books based off musicals. That being said, I can’t think of a musical out that fits as well into the YA genre (apart from those based in high schools like Mean Girls and Heathers) as Dear Evan Hansen, so seeing it turned into novel form makes sense. I’m quite into musicals, and while I’m pretty familiar with Dear Evan Hansen, it’s not my favourite – the songs are the most important part of a musical for me, and there are some good tunes, but they’re not really to my taste.

So, bearing that in mind, I knew the songs and the plot of Dear Evan Hansen before I dived into the book. There’s quite a lot of dialogue that is lifted straight out of the musical. Musicals are very quotable, and many fans will know the script of the show inside out, so the book was predictable in the way that I often knew which words or scene were coming next. This may be a good thing or a bad thing for you, I don’t know, but it meant that I flicked through some pages quickly because I knew what was about to godown. We do, however, get an insight into Evan’s mind that we don’t fully get in the show (although I think that the show does an excellent job of showing Evan’s feelings through song), which I think is the highlight of the book. However, Evan, at times, feels a little flat, with no hobbies or interests apart from trees. Emmich’s writing style sucks us into the mind of Evan though, through his moments of panic, anxiety and embarrassment, and this helps us to empathise a little with Evan, giving us the why behind his morally dubious actions.

The use of Connor’s suicide doesn’t sit well with me. I feel like it was used as a vehicle for other themes to be explored in the play, when it should have been given more space. However, Connor does have some mini-chapters from his point of view, which gives him more of a voice compared to the musical. As I mentioned earlier, being pulled into Evan’s head combined with the subject matter means that this book might not be for you, and it’s important to really bear that in mind.

If you’re looking for something in the Musical Theatre genre with a main character with a mental illness, may I suggest Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix? It has excellent reviews, and I think it’s very cleverly done.

Overall, this is a thoroughly immersive read that will particularly appeal to fans who have listened to the soundtrack but who have not watched the musical. If you’re looking for a book that tackles the stigma of mental illness and promotes discussion surrounding mental health, then this may not be the book for you. Nevertheless, the writing style allows the reader to see inside the mind of the protagonist.

Star Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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June in Non-Fiction: Brit(ish), So You Want To Talk About Race, The Little Book of Feminist Saints

This is the first post in what will hopefully become a series on my blog, where I give you a run-down of what I’ve read alongside my YA Fiction reads this month, and share my thoughts on what I’ve learnt.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, many people, myself included, have made an increased effort to read more books tackling the topics of racism, race and privilege, and you’ll see that two of these books do so. I’ve made extensive use of my library’s online catalogue through the Libby app, and I’d really recommend that you have a gander as there’s a great selection of non-fiction reads on there.

Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

I was first introduced to this book when I listened to an incredible lecture by the author through May’s Hay Festival Digital. Her views on journalism, coronavirus, and the pandemic’s impact on people of colour were very thought-provoking, so I had to have a look at her debut book.

Hirsch weaves vivid accounts of her own experiences as a biracial person in the UK grappling with identity with in-depth historical information. When she talks about tracing her roots in Ghana or growing up in affluent Wimbledon, her writing style brings descriptions of place and people to life with strong imagery and word choice. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book, but it was also a very interesting perspective on identity and race.

So You Want To Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo

This book is a perfect starting point if you’re just beginning to do some research on race and racism. Addressing topics such as hair, privilege, microaggressions, intersectionality and the school-to-prison pipeline, to name a few, each chapter poses a different question. When she’s talking about an argument, she uses an example or comparison to help explain, which I thought added to the accessibility and clarity of the book.

The language in this book is really accessible – I borrowed the audiobook, which I’d recommend. The only thing I would say with an audiobook is that I couldn’t access the footnotes, which I find useful as starting points for further reading. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from this book, which I’ll be taking with me into future conversations.

The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont, illustrated by Manjit Thapp

@alyssamaereads on Instagram

This book is packed with a diverse range of inspirational women, and a brief biography covering their background is accompanied by a beautiful illustration of the woman in question. Every woman is given an area to be a “matron saint” in; for example, Virginia Woolf is the “matron saint” of writers, while Nina Simone is the “matron saint” of soul. This is a really unique idea, showcasing household names as well as women who should be more widely known – a contrast to the male-dominated curriculums and textbooks that we see so often. I find that this kind of book is a perfect way to find further reading – I’ve been jotting down names of people that I’d like to follow up on, and I’m looking forward to reading some of their work.

This has been a strong month for me on the non-fiction front, and the wonderful thing about this side of literature is that the more you learn, the more you realise there is to learn, and to learn about. I’m looking forward to discussing July’s reads with you soon!

A Curse So Dark And Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer – Book Review

In the heart of Washington, D.C., Harper is on the lookout for her older brother, Jake. Their mother is battling cancer, their father is absent, and Jake is constantly getting caught up in trouble; life hasn’t been easy.

When Harper sees a potential kidnapping unfolding on the street below, she steps in. She’s immediately transported to what she later learns is the magical kingdom of Emberfall, cursed by an evil enchantress to be tormented by a horrendous beast, who, like in the tale of Beauty and the Beast and unbeknownst to Emberfall citizens, is actually the Crown Prince, Rhen. Rhen lives the same autumn over and over again, ending with his transformation into the cruel creature that shows no mercy to the people of Emberfall. There’s one way to stop this – if a woman falls in love with him, then the curse is lifted and the kingdom saved. Harper is one of many women that have been taken to Emberfall, but she’s different. With so much at stake and the odds stacked against them, will they be able to break the curse before it’s too late?

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The Cruel Prince by Holly Black – Book Review

Seven-year-old Jude led a normal life, until one day, unannounced, the mysterious Madoc appears at her doorstep. Her life changes in an instant, as Madoc brutally murders her parents and kidnaps Jude and her sisters to live with him amongst the High Fae in Elfhame, a magical and unfamiliar land populated by Faeries. Immortal, beautiful and incapable of lying, they see Jude and her twin, Taryn, as weak and inferior, and don’t let them forget it through unrelenting bullying and exploitation.

At age seventeen, Jude desperately wants to fit in, fight alongside them, and to be equals, but the youngest prince, Cardan, will seemingly stop at nothing to make sure that these things don’t happen. When she sees that there is more to the High Court than meets the eye, she becomes embroiled in the conspiracies, betrayal and espionage that cuts below the surface of faerie politics. Determined and incisive, Jude must make sacrifices to protect the world she has been thrust into, her family, and Elfhame.

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With The Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo – Book Review

Aspiring chef Emoni has a lot on her plate – work, looking after her young daughter, and school. Juggling all of this is tough, but when she is in the kitchen, her mind is transported somewhere else as she unleashes her creativity on dishes drawn from her Puerto Rican roots, following her gut to make mouth-watering food full of flavour. When the opportunity to take a Culinary Arts class in school arises, Emoni can’t wait to get involved and see if she has what it takes to take her passion professional, but life seems to keep getting in the way of her dreams. She’s going to have turn her fire on high if she’s going to do her talent justice and show everyone what she can really do, regardless of the obstacles that the world throws at her.

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And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness – Book Review

Update: The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death have prompted increased learning and listening for people around the globe, myself included. I cannot over-emphasise the power of literature to educate yourself on racism and white privilege, so here’s a really good list of books: https://bookshop.org/lists/antiracist-reading-recs . I’ve got a long list of books that I’d like to read, and I’m looking forward to sharing them on the blog soon in a dedicated post.

And The Ocean Was Our Sky is a retelling of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (The Whale), but with a flipped perspective: this time it’s from the point of view of a whale, Bathsheba. Her hunting pod of whales, led by the inimitable Captain Alexandra, is obsessed with getting revenge on the human hunting vessels that sail above them; the relentless war is between two species constantly seeking vengeance for the crimes committed against one another. The man the whales seek the most is Toby Wick, and they’ll go to great lengths to find him. As the hunt progresses, Bathsheba begins to question whether its worth sacrificing everything for this conflict.

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On the Come Up by Angie Thomas – Book Review

On the Come Up, Angie Thomas’s second novel, stars sixteen-year-old Bri, who dreams of becoming a rapper. Inspired by her late father, pursuing a music career feels like the only way to get her family out of their desperate financial situation.

The odds seem stacked against her: her mum was a drug addict during Bri’s formative years (and Bri’s worried that she’s relapsing), and even though her brother has a psychology degree, he only earns the minimum wage at a Pizzeria. Compounded with the constant stereotyping and racial profiling that she faces at school, she must carve her identity and make her voice heard in order to get her come up.

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