Recent Reads is a monthly reading wrap-up, with mini-reviews of all the books I finished in the past month. I’ll also share what I’m currently reading and any other books that are in the pipeline. Want to share your bookish happenings, too? Feel free to do so in the Comments section at the end!
Great news: I’m out of my reading slump! 😀 September turned out to be an awesome month of reading, with some of the best books I’ve read all year. In fact, two books almost tied for Read of the Month. But one eeked out over the other just enough because… well, when you read my review, you’ll understand why. So, let’s get to it!
Read of the Month: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Welcome to the Stillness, a continent where earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and other natural catastrophes are the norm; and where Orogenes, who have the ability to manipulate the earth’s energies, protect the land by preventing such disasters but are generally shunned by their “power-less” peers. All of this comes into play during N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, a (literally) ground-breaking tale of betrayal, heartache, and survival. This novel is told from the POVs of three Orogene women: Essun, pursuing her husband after he murders their son and kidnaps their daughter; Damaya, taken away from her family so she can learn how to control her powers; and Syenite, assigned to breed with an illustrious mentor as a coastal community calls for their aid. It’s a challenge to summarize the story from here… Let’s just say it’s a jigsaw puzzle that you piece together to discover what caused the Stillness’s newest apocalypse, with an ending that’s bound to leave you slack-jawed in the best possible way.
I almost don’t know where to go from here. That’s just how awed I am by The Fifth Season. Every aspect of it, from its robust world-building to the complex characters, rocked me to my core. It’s so different from other SFF stories or fictional worlds, and one where its residents are as tough, gritty, and enigmatic as the land itself. What also makes The Fifth Season such a triumph is Jemisin’s ambitious approach. She gambles with structure and narration (Essun’s chapters are told in second person), which makes the story a bit of an acquired taste. And while not everything makes sense at first, it all eventually clicks into place, and stunningly so. Seriously. This is a magnificent story. Demanding and intricate, too, but that’s a penny-price to pay for a fantasy as inventive as this. Do yourself a favor, and check out The Fifth Season. It will be a journey unlike anything you’ve read before.
Other Books I Read in September
Most everyone I know who’s read Uprooted adored it, and now I can see why – because I did, too! 🙂 This charming and complex fantasy inspired by Polish folklore introduces us to Agnieszka, a 17-year-old village girl who fears her best friend Kasia will be the next one that the Dragon, the wizard who keeps the nearby Wood’s corruption at bay, will choose as his servant. But the Dragon doesn’t choose Kasia. Instead, he picks the clumsy, insecure Agnieszka for reasons no one understands – until Agnieszka demonstrates magical powers of her own. As the Wood’s devilry strengthens and the royal family threatens war on a neighboring country, Agnieszka and the Dragon realize they must work together to save their home – before both conflicts intertwine to spell disaster.
Uprooted feels like an expanded Grimm fairy tale, brimming with old-world witchcraft and wonderful characters. I loved so much about this story: Agnieszka’s intuitive powers and how they baffle the more theoretical wizards; the Dragon’s lovableness despite his brusque, aloof demeanor; and the Wood’s shiver-inducing inversion of the “enchanted forest” trope. Some readers have called Uprooted a romance; I can’t say I agree. Sexual tension does develop between Agnieszka and the Dragon (and those two scenes – WHOA!). Otherwise, both characters are more like partners in spellcraft and hilarious banter. Agnieszka’s loyal bond with Kasia also makes Uprooted one of the rare fantasies that highlights friendship between female characters.
My only critique is the amount of exposition. Some descriptions are lush and evocative; others simply go on too long, causing me to skim over paragraphs at a time until something more interesting happened. Ultimately, though, Uprooted bewitched me from beginning to end, and I’d be silly to not include this on my year-end list of Favorite Reads of 2015.
This second act in Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling Grisha Trilogy brings us back to Bardugo’s breathtaking Russian-inspired world on the brink of war. Alina and best friend / love interest Mal have escaped the Darkling and fled their home country of Ravka, and must keep Alina’s true identity as a Sun Summoner (the rarest kind of Grisha) a secret. But they can’t hide for long. Soon they’re forced to return to Ravka as the Darkling unleashes a terrifying new power that pushes the boundaries of Grisha magic. But as Alina prepares to fight again, she finds herself caught between stretching the limits of her own powers and losing the people she holds dear. What is she willing to risk so she can save her country from her greatest enemy?
Siege and Storm starts off with everything I adored about its predecessor Shadow and Bone: vivid writing, flawed yet relatable characters, sarcastic humor when you least expect it, and a world that feels more authentic the deeper Bardugo dives into it. It’s slower in pace, but comfortably so to allow room for newly relevant folklore and to steep Alina in Ravka’s political quagmire. And I can’t forget about Sturmhond, my favorite addition to the trilogy. Overly cocky characters usually turn me off, but this flamboyant, “abiding-by-my-own-rules” privateer who isn’t what he seems is a riot.
Things go downhill with 100-ish pages left. Too much angst develops in too many relationships at once, and the major characters (especially Alina) act in ways that got on my nerves. The climax also sweeps in rather suddenly – though I wonder if I missed the buildup because of focusing on the other late-blooming flaws. All in all, I still enjoyed Siege and Storm, though not as much as I loved Shadow and Bone; and I’m eager to see how Bardugo will close things out in the finale.
Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale follows sisters Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol as the Germans invade France during World War II. Vianne, the older sister, is forced to make one choice after another to keep her daughter and their neighbors safe, even as Nazi soldiers billet at her house. Isabelle, on the other hand, joins the French Resistance after being spurned by love, and leads a dangerous escape route for French and Allied airmen to avoid capture by the Germans. Despite differences in personality, priorities, and circumstances, both women must summon unfathomable courage and resiliency in order to survive – and to finally reconcile after years of misunderstandings.
Characters are the heart of The Nightingale. I connected with several of them, especially Vianne and Isabelle, which only made the story break my heart more as the war escalated. The Rossignol sisters couldn’t be more different, too; Vianne is responsible, sensible, and self-sacrificing, while Isabelle is daring, outspoken, and impetuous. Yet it was fascinating to see the parallels of their individual journeys and their determination to endure through it all. Hannah also spares no detail about World War II. Bombings, ration lines, and concentration camps all appear during The Nightingale, reminding us of the distinctive horrors of this time in history. Sometimes the writing was clunky, and a few scenes seemed underdeveloped. But that didn’t hinder The Nightingale‘s ability to tug hard at my soul. This really is as remarkable as other reviewers have said. If you’ve read war novels before, I don’t recommend that you read it – I implore that you do.
What I’m Reading Next
I’ve already finished Leigh Bardugo’s Ruin and Rising, the final book of her Grisha Trilogy; and I’m now reading the ARC for Alyssa Palombo’s The Violinist in Venice (due out in December). After that, I might go for some “spooky-sounding” recent titles like Mackenzi Lee’s This Monstrous Thing and MJ Rose’s The Witch of Painted Sorrows. Might as well with Halloween around the corner, right? 😉
How about you? What books did you recently read? Have you read any of the titles mentioned above?