Japanese Alcoholic Strawberry Milkshake

When I arrived at my homestay family’s house on Friday, my ‘Papa’ said to me, “You’d like to drink, right?” Well, I’m not one to turn down kindness, so he promptly bought me a load of stuff. I tried to say no but darn it, he’s persistent 🙂

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Because they live in the countryside, their supermarkets and such tend to be much bigger than in Tokyo since land is less expensive. I was surprised to see a bunch of drinks I’d never heard of before.

You can usually buy individual cans for around 100 yen each. I saw this really interesting-looking strawberry milk… with alcohol in it. It’s called いちご&ミルクハイ or “Ichigo & Milk Hai.”

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Since strawberry milkshakes strike me as something children would be more likely to drink, I thought this was fascinating. So what would it taste like? Well, I just tried it. I poured it into a glass to check out the consistency. It was actually thinner than a regular shake, but I was still hit with a powerful scent of… well, what you’d expect a strawberry milkshake to smell like.

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It actually tastes exactly like a milkshake! You can hardly tell there’s alcohol in it at all. At 3%, it was never going to taste strong. You could easily give this to someone who is unaware it’s alcoholic and for them to not notice.

Papa said that it’s sort of an “initiation” drink for those who’ve turned 20 (the legal drinking age in Japan) because it’s nomiyasui or goes down easily. Other 3% alcohol beverages like this include the Horoyoi range and things like mango or orange ‘hai’s.

Anyway, that’s the Ichigo & Milk Hai for you! Think you’ll give it a try?

Delicious Monja-Yaki in the Heart of Asakusa

My boyfriend grew up in Asakusa, East Tokyo. Since it’s almost an hour away by train from our house in Meguro Ward, we don’t go there very often. When he was in high school, he’d climb over the fence and dash off to the local monja-yaki place, where he’s good friends with the owner. She’d let him sleep, smoke, and even drink beer there when he was fed up with school. She’s been like a cool aunt to him for years.

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We went to that restaurant together about two years ago when we first started going out. This time, I walked in and she grabbed my hand, saying “I remember you. Welcome back!” We also met one of Ken’s old friends and her two children, and ate delicious food (and got very drunk).

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So what is monja-yaki?

Monja-Yaki

Japan enthusiasts might have heard of okonomiyaki – the savoury pancake from Osaka that is a tasty and popular street food. Monja-yaki is Tokyo’s version: ingredients mixed together before they’re fried on a large grill. Okonomiyaki was also served here as well as other foodie bits. We started with sausages and cabbage, nom nom.

Monja works by mixing up all the ingredients in a bowl.

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I don’t know all of what was in there, but monja typically contains cabbage, meat, spring onions, beansprouts, and other things. Water, flour, and soy sauce are added so that you can pour it onto the plate.

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Put the ingredients in a circle then pour the watery part in the middle. It’ll all start to bubble and boil.

After that, you use a little scoopy thing to grab some, press it to the plate to cook it almost to burning, and shovel it into your mouth. It isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing dish, but it’s absolutely packed with flavour. My mouth’s watering just remembering it.

We ate some other things, including the heavenly buta kimchi (pork and Korean spicy cabbage), some weird fish cakes, and scallops. I’d never had scallops before and put the whole, chewy thing in my mouth, which took about eight years to swallow. Won’t be trying that again.

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Food always seems to be better when made by an old dear who’s been doing it for years. The monja-yaki was mind-blowingly good and it was a lot of fun eating and drinking with good people in my favourite city.

The restaurant is super local; I didn’t see any tourists, and we had to walk through residential areas for ages before we reached it. The owner is awesome – would you believe that she is 82 years old?

If you visit Tokyo, do try monjayaki. It’s one of the city’s best dishes! You can often get both monja and okonomiyaki at the same restaurant, so try them both and see which you like the most. They’re both delicious and are both cooked in the same way, but are quite different.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Allegiant” by Veronica Roth

The final in the Divergent series by Veronica Roth is Allegiant, which I bought at the same time as the second in the series. I didn’t think much of Insurgent, but thought I might as well finish the series, especially since I’d already bought the paperback.

AllegiantIn this installment, Tris and Tobias finally leave the city and we find out what’s happening in the world beyond. I found the world to be quite exciting, with a satisfying explanation that opened our characters’ eyes to what was outside their city. We didn’t see as much of the world as I’d have liked, though I enjoyed the irony that the Divergent were feared and even killed in the city, yet were considered better outside.

Each chapter was either from Tris’ or Tobias’ perspective. There wasn’t much difference between their voices, something the author should have worked on more. I sometimes had to go back and check on whose eyes we were seeing the world from, which was a problem that, apparently, a lot of readers struggled with.

Without giving too much away, the ending was really unexpected and I was, unlike some readers, actually really happy with it. Tris was becoming an annoying know-it-all and the ending helped redeem her of that. Although I didn’t feel like we saw enough of the world (despite this being a 600-page book), I was eager to see the conclusion of this adventure and I certainly thought it was better than the second installment.

I’m not sure if I’ll read the books again and I don’t care enough about them to sit and watch the movies. I watched Divergent on Netflix, which is how I discovered the story, but switched off Insurgent a few minutes in, mostly because I hadn’t enjoyed the book that much. With all this in mind, as well as the redeeming ending and easy-to-read narrative, I give Allegiant three stars out of five.

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A Bard’s Lament (Part 10: Final!)

Read part 1
Read part 2
Read part 3
Read part 4
Read part 5
Read part 6
Read part 7
Read part 8
Read part 9

Part 10 (Final)

“Ha!” boomed Caskhell. “Here’s the bard!”

Ella froze on the threshold. Sackle withdrew his sword, apparently oblivious to the bangs and screams from outside, his face half-hidden in shadow and Ella in his sights with a piercing glare. Lucinda panted weakly in Caskhell’s grip.

“Let her go.” Ella thundered. She sounded braver than she felt. “It’s me you want.”

“Was this you?” Sackle gestured to the noise from the street. “Stealing nobles’ horses? Allowing Elves to run amok? Killing a guardsman?”

“I warned you,” said Caskhell, a mad gleam in his eyes. “I told you that you would pay.”

And before Ella could do anything, before she could even move, there was a flash of silver. By the time the scream had erupted from Ella’s throat, Lucinda had slumped to the floor, her neck open, spilling crimson.

“No!” Ella wailed. Her knees almost gave way; cold dread filled every fibre of her body, her heart ripping open as Lucinda’s white nightgown turned red, her eyes and mouth wide open in a silent scream, her neck open. Ella stumbled back, nausea making her head spin as her world crashed all around her. “Lu… no…”

“This is what happens to traitors!” Captain Sackle stepped over Lucinda’s twitching body and the pool of red running across the floorboards.

Ella backed away and hurtled down the stairs, adrenaline pounding through every vein in her body. She reached the bottom and in her haste, knocked over the lamp; it smashed into glittering shards of glass, which scattered on the ground like stardust as the room was plunged into darkness.

The stairs rumbled with Caskhell and Sackle’s pursue; Ella snatched up the lute case and tore it open, nausea threatening to take over as she pulled the instrument from its case and held it aloft with trembling hands.

When the huge figure of the captain appeared, Ella swung. Wood splintered and burst against his jaw and he reeled in agony; Ella spun and made a break for the door, but Caskhell tackled her to the ground. Groaning, half-blinded by tears, Ella tried to shout, but the wind had been knocked out of her. She reached for the dagger at her hip and her fingers grazed the hilt. Caskhell pulled it from the sheath at her belt and threw it to the other side of the dark room.

“Get up!” growled Captain Sackle, hauling Ella to her feet. “I’ll make short work of this.”

The captain of the guard ignored the terrified wails of the villagers as horses fled for the gates, some ridden by Night Elves, some cantering with no rider, reins flapping behind them. The main gate had been closed, but the nearby fence lay in tatters, broken on the ground as if a large creature had trampled on it. Guards shot arrows at where Elves on horses jumped over the ruined fence; nearby, a small pony and its rider lay dead, the glassy eyes of a male Forest Elf staring, sightless, into the night sky.

Ella fought, but the captain’s grip was strong; someone tied her wrists behind her back with rope. “Let me go!” she growled, fear turning to blind hatred as she kicked at the captain’s armoured shins. Pain tore at her heart. Poor Lucinda…

A dog appeared in the darkness; barking and yapping, it snapped at Sackle’s legs as he pushed her forwards.
“Back, girl, back!” wheezed a weak voice.
“Out of the way, vermin!” the guardsman roared, shoving a frail vagabond out of the way.

Skave!” Ella screamed, still struggling in her bonds. Skave restrained the mongrel, the very same dog Ella had cut free at the market, while avoiding Ella’s gaze.

“You should choose your friends more carefully,” the smug captain whispered in Ella’s ear. “This little friend of yours told us everything for a few nobels.”

Skave slunk into the shadows, watching with reproachful eyes as Ella was hauled away. His dog whined beside him as his sorrowful gaze confirmed her worst fears.

How much did they know? How many Elves had managed to escape before they realised the horses were not the target, but the distraction? Skave hadn’t known that… had he?

Numb with shock, Ella half-stumbled as she was roughly pushed along to the side streets and led along a dark alley. Where were they taking her? This wasn’t the way to the Jewel Mansion’s dungeons. With a jerking panic, as the clouds parted, beaming powerful silver light onto the ground, she realised that they were leading her up the hill towards the cemetery.

She shivered as they half-shoved her along, the rope biting into her wrists. Were Kerra and Gregor waiting for her by the river? Would they have the sense to get out of there before the guards found them, or would they wait? Would Gregor join the Elves, now? Ella gave a choked sob. If only I’d reached Lucinda sooner…

She barely noticed that they had reached one of the corner watchtowers behind the cemetery; the north-east tower was usually heavily guarded, but in the mayhem, the guards had joined the fight near the main gates. Captain Sackle led Ella up the grassy hill. Ella felt strange, detached, as though she had left her heart and half her brain in the house with her sister.

Hazy thoughts of Kerra, Lucinda, and Gregor swirled through her mind as she was led up some wooden steps on shaky legs. When her tear-filled eyes spotted the noose, she sprang up like a panicked deer.

“No! NO!” she kicked out, resisting and pushing against the floorboards with all her might. New strength seemed to flood through her muscles; she could not die, she would not die, not while she still breathed and while she still didn’t know whether Kerra and the Elves had escaped or not…

“Stay still, you stupid girl!” Sackle growled as Caskhell rushed to restrain her. His perfectly parted hair glinted in the moonlight, and Ella spat at him, trying to throw him off at his touch.

“You’d think I’d let you get away with embarrassing me like that?” he growled as she struggled against them. “In front of the whole marketplace?”

The sharp smack on her temple almost knocked Ella to the floorboards on which they were standing. Off-balance, made worse so by her tied hands, Ella tried to make a break for it and leap from the platform, but Sackle grabbed her around the waist. Caskhell punched her hard; his fist hit her jaw and her head whipped to the left, stars bursting in front of her eyes. Another smack hit her temple, and pain exploded near her eye; it swelled as she gasped in agony, and Caskhell cracked his knuckles in satisfaction. “Stupid bitch,” he snarled.

Ella groaned, barely staying on her feet as sharp pain ebbed through her jaw and her eye. Cursed cowards. The metallic taste of blood flowed on her tongue as her head rang, losing all strength to fight as Skave forced her onto the trapdoor, in front of a hanging noose.

The hill looked over the northeast wall, her only view through her burning eyes as Sackle gripped her, vice-like, by the wrists. Although it was only the three of them there, Sackle loudly declared the charges as though in front of an audience.

“Helping prisoners escape, putting the Mage Lord Krem and the good people of Veilig into danger, and consorting with the enemy! Unforgivable crimes! You don’t even deserve a trial, you filthy little traitor.”

Ella squinted, struggling with her injured eye, over the wall and to the hills, where the moonlight shone silver onto the wood ahead. Dim lanterns, bobbing like fireflies, were moving through the trees.

Despite the pain that flared like fire in her head, Ella’s heart lifted. The lights could only mean that the Elf girls had escaped, and Kerra was leading them. Desperation clung to her soul; they were leaving without her… but they were safe, now…

Nausea was building in her gut. Only an hour ago, everything had been so normal, even peaceful. Ella tore her gaze from the bobbing lights to look at the drifting grey clouds above, where stars winked in patches of clear sky. The moon, bright, white and beautiful, poured its silver light onto her face. The rope tightened around her neck.

Glancing down to the wood again, Ella watched as the lights grew fainter until they disappeared completely. Though her jaw ached, Ella smiled. They had escaped; they were free. And although Ella’s heart was filled with fear and pain, something told her it was going to be okay… she would be with Lucinda soon. And she would see her ma and pa again…

As Sackle stepped solemnly back, Ella hummed Hope’s Horizon between raspy, shallow breaths as her body grew tired and weak, the rope rough on her neck. As her weight shifted on the trapdoor below her feet, her heart pounded against her ribcage, filled with loss and dread, yet with a glimmer of hope. Kerra may think that she’d deserted her, but at least she and Gregor were safe. Lucinda was in pain no longer. It was done, it was over: the bard’s task was complete.

“…to the welcoming dawn.” Her voice quivered.

The trapdoor swung open.

End

Studying Scottish Gaelic

When I said to my Japanese students that I was studying Scottish Gaelic, they looked at me like I’d just grown an extra head. “Scotland has its own language?” they asked me. “But isn’t England and Scotland the same country?”

I inwardly cringed, but I suppose we can’t really blame them. After all, how many provinces of China or American states can the average person name? They knew my country as “the United Kingdom” and all being one country.

Scottish Gaelic (or Gaelic, as I’ll refer to it from this moment on) is the native language of Scotland. Only 1% of the population can speak it, a phenomenon that came from a long time of oppression and silencing. Efforts are being made to revive the language, though; in 2005, the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act was passed to formally recognise it.

And what better way to support the language’s revival than to learn to speak it?

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Speaking Gaelic as a Kid

Gaelic isn’t a completely new language to me. My mother can speak it, and often spoke to me in it. Now when I’m studying certain phrases, I’ll realise I already know them and they’ll bring back great memories. We also listened to a lot of Runrig when we were kids – they are a band from the Isle of Skye and sing a lot of songs in Gaelic – so even if I can’t understand the meanings, I’m familiar with the sounds and the music of the language. If you want to hear a Gaelic song, I recommend Chi M’In Geamhradh. English translation is included.

I found a language learning series called Speaking Our Language on YouTube, and it turns out it’s the same series my mother used when she was a young adult! Gaelic is not my mum’s native language, though a lot of our family are Scottish. There are, unfortunately, very few native Gaelic speakers left.

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I hope to keep you guys updated on my progress. Right now I’m learning the sounds and ho to read a lot of the letters. Although it won’t be nearly as hard as Japanese, getting used to how to read sounds is going to take some time.

There are numerous silent letters and vowel combinations that make it almost impossible for me to work out what a word says when it’s written down. However, I’m very much looking forward to mastering the sounds and getting down to learning more grammar and vocabulary.

Gaelic is an important part of Scottish heritage, and it would be a terrible shame to let the language die. I’m happy to see that there are efforts being made to bring it back, so who knows? Maybe in a couple of decades, Gàidhlig will be alive and well once more.

A Bard’s Lament (Part 9)

Read part 1
Read part 2
Read part 3
Read part 4
Read part 5
Read part 6
Read part 7
Read part 8

Part 9

“You made it!” Gregor exclaimed. “It’s all right, come in. No one’s here.”

Ella brought Lucinda inside and she collapsed on a chair, clutching the fabric at her chest.
“Lu,” Ella knelt before the fire, cupping her sister’s face in her hands. “Who did this to you?”

Lucinda hovered on her chair. She wasn’t unconscious, but she had an odd frown on her face, blinking slowly, looking at Ella as if she was seeing her for the first time. The lack of recognition in her eyes made Ella’s concern turn to panic.

“Lu, was it Sackle? Was is Caskhell? Did they take you down there? Is that where they’re making the Lilac Flame?”

“I think she’s not up to answering any questions tonight,” said Gregor gently. “Let’s get her upstairs – in the spare room –”

Together, they helped Lucinda up the dark staircase and into the smallest bedroom, where Gregor hung a NO VACANCY sign on the doorway. Lucinda seemed to fall asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, groaning as Ella pulled a patchwork quilt over her weak body.

“You’re safe now,” Ella whispered, touching Lucinda’s clammy forehead.

Ella offered to pay lodge for Lucinda but Gregor waved away her offer. “Knowing you’re both okay is enough,” he insisted. “I’ll spin a story for my father, don’t you worry about that. You just keep up the good work, lass. I was worried about you.”

Rage drummed through Ella as she dabbed Lucinda’s forehead with a damp cloth several minutes later. The haunting image of the dead Elf girl kept flashing before her eyes. Lucinda was safe now, but there were still girls down there, maybe hundreds of them…

“Kerra told me that the bridge work was done.” Ella muttered.
“That’s right,” Gregor’s thick fingers stroked his chin. “Thanks to your sister there; she passed the message along in time,” he nodded towards Lucinda. “And Garrett. Broke the bars leading under the north wall, like you suggested. When it happens, they’ll have an easy escape.”

“Right,” Ella agreed. She watched as Lucinda gave a sigh and turned over. Some of the colour had already returned to her cheeks.
“Remember, if they order a lillenfruit ale, it means they were successful. I’m sure we’ll hear something anyway, though. And Ella?”

The bard looked up to meet Gregor’s concerned eyes.
“Stay safe.”

Ella felt the fresh cold air blow on her face as she wandered alone towards her empty shack, silently thanking the four Dragons for blessing her with another day. Dawn was breaking; the morning sun illuminated the clouds in brilliant orange. Ella inhaled the morning air, and her steps felt lighter than they had in days.

*

Over the next twenty-four hours, Lucinda’s strength seemed to be returning. By the time Ella had rested, washed, and packed up her lute in the early evening, Lucinda was sitting up in her own bed at their house and eating soup. She had revelled in lying in her own bed again, though seemed to clam up at any mention of the Rathole. Ella told herself to stay patient; Lucinda would talk when she was ready.

Nothing much seemed to change in the Respite; either they hadn’t noticed Lucinda had gone, or they didn’t think she was worth finding. Ella’s throaty voice filled the tavern, along with the twanging sound of the lute strings. She sung of loss, of heartache, thinking of her mother and thanking the four Dragons again that Lucinda was safe and sound.

A nearby merchant gently nodded his head along to the music, his eyes closed as he caressed a goblet of wine. Calm was filling Ella; her sister was back, and a full tavern meant more coin and a full belly. By the time Ella had finished her ninth song, packed away her lute and was counting the coins in her hat, her spirits were high.

A sweeping wind blew through the tavern, blowing out several candles when the door suddenly burst open. Noting the sudden quiet, Ella looked up.

A guard stood on the threshold, hovering on the spot. The low buzz of talk died as those sitting at tables watched him in silence. Something was off about the way he stumbled inside; was he already drunk? Then the guard’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he slumped forward, the helmet tumbling from his head as he flopped to the floor.

Screams of fright erupted in the tavern. All the air seemed to rush out of Ella’s lungs. From the back of the guard’s neck sprouted a short, bloody arrow.

Drinks were knocked to the floor as merchants and farmers scrambled to their feet in panic. Someone barged past her, almost knocking the lute case from her back. Her whole body froze as she gaped at the dead guard, crimson spilling from his neck as panicking villagers leapt over his body and into the night.

“Ella!”

Gregor stood rooted to the spot, the colour draining from his face as they stared at each other. The tavern had emptied as though a fierce wind had swept everyone away; spilled ale and mead painted the floorboards brown and yellow mixing with the crimson seeping from the guard’s lifeless body.

“Ella, it’s… it’s happening! We’ve got to go!”

He darted from behind the bar and took Ella’s hand in his larger, warm one. Ella’s legs didn’t seem to want to work, but the urgent yanking of her arm spurred her to follow Gregor past the dead guard and out into the chilly night air.

Ella had never seen the cobbled street so full. Mayhem roamed from the tavern up to the corner leading to the marketplace; panic was taking hold of Ella as she spotted cloaked shadows, which were ignoring the scrambling villagers. One of the stable ponies galloped past, reins swinging, the small figure of a Night Elf perched on top. Ella wheeled round. Unlike the Night Elves, which skulked in the darkness, the Forest Elves, paler with sharper features than their dark cousins, seemed to be causing as much trouble as they could; several nearby stood throwing rocks at windows, brawling, or throwing food at the panicking villagers. Ella couldn’t shake the bizarre feeling that they were rather enjoying themselves.

The Night Elves seemed to be moving with purpose. They darted between shadows like bats, cloaks adorning their dark faces. Several were heading towards Laxx Street, to the Rathole. Ella watched them go as she was jostled by the crowd. Was Kerra among them? What about Knora, the Elf servant to Lady Gertrudine?

“Ella!” Gregor was still clutching her hand; his palm was clammy. “What’s the plan? Do we join in the distraction…?”

His voice trailed off as Ella’s eyes flicked towards the corner than led down to Laxx Street. Even now, with the distraction of the horses and the servants, were Elf slaves being evacuated? Gregor gave Ella’s hand a little shake. “Ella?”

Ella hadn’t planned for this. The messages in her songs communicated various details, but killing a guard…

“We need to find Kerra,” muttered Ella. “Find Kerra. She’ll know what to do.”

Almost as if she’d been summoned, Kerra came pelting at them full speed, her hair streaming behind her. The moon was full; the Night Elves’ power was at the fullest tonight. She was powerful. Radiant.

“There you are!” silver tears formed in the corners of her eyes as she skidded to a halt in front of them and gripped Ella’s free hand. Another horse galloped past them, its hooves clopping dangerously on the cobbled streets.

“Come with us!” Kerra took Ella’s face in her hands, forcing her sight from the running horses and shouting people. Soft, dark palms cupped her trembling jaw.

“You killed that guard!”

“No, no,” Kerra’s good eye was bright; she looked more alive than Ella had ever seen her. “They saw us taking a stallion from the Jewel Mansion, and they shot at us. Their aim wasn’t true, and they hit one of their own.”

Ella’s mind wasn’t working; the vision of the bleeding, collapsed guardsman was still fresh in her memory. Kerra’s lips kept moving, but Ella was stuck in a haze of the muffled sound of screaming, of guards shouting, of clashing swords and flashing images of dead sapphire eyes…

“Come with us, Ella!” Kerra repeated, penetrating Ella’s mind. Kerra pressed her forehead to Ella’s. “I can’t go without you.”

Ella’s mind was suddenly clear. Time sped up to normal speed, and the sounds around them became clear as though she was emerging from water. “I will. I’ll come.”

Kerra beamed, pulling back from her. “I knew it,” her dark hands gripped Ella’s pale ones. “We’ll take the exit like we planned. The broken wall near the sewer…”

“I have to get Lucinda first.” The idea of leaving without her sister was insane, almost laughable; Ella gently pulled her hands from Gregor and Kerra’s grips. “Meet me outside the village, by the river. Gregor, go with her.”

“No, I’m coming too –”

“I’ll be quicker without you,” said Ella firmly. “Go with Kerra. I’ll be there in a moment.”

Leaving her friends behind, Ella dashed along the street towards their shack. Her mind was finally clear. This was the night where not only would the Rathole finally be emptied, but she and Lucinda would be free, too – free from Farwing’s grip and their mother’s debt, free from the corrupt guards, Captain Sackle, Caskhell, Lady Gertrudine, and Lilac Flame. Her lute case bashed against her back as she ran, past panicking merchants and determined Elves, brawling villagers and shouting guards.

“Lu!” Ella burst into their shack, dropped her lute case on the floor, and ascended the stairs, two at a time. She would have to drag Lucinda until they reached the river… she’d carry her if she had to…

Ella pushed the door open with a loud creak. “Lucinda, it’s over!” she exclaimed. “We’re getting out of here, we’re –” her voice died as the scene greeted her.

Lucinda stood in her nightgown, flanked by the two people Ella least wanted to see: Caskhell, who was sporting a bloody forearm and had Lucinda in a steel-like grip, dagger in his hand, and, Ella realised as her stomach dropped like a stone, Sackle, the captain of the guard.

A Re-Read of “The Saga of Darren Shan” Horror Series

While I was waiting for my copy of Insurgent to arrive, I delved back into a classic series that all ’90s kids should know: The Saga of Darren Shan.

The Saga of Darren Shan is made out of twelve books, each relatively short at about two hours per book. Every three books serves as a “trilogy” and  They carry on from each other and cover a span of about eighteen years. *Please bear in mind that this article contains spoilers.

The First Trilogy: Vampire Blood (Cirque Du Freak, The Vampire’s Assistant, Tunnels of Blood)

Still one of my top books of the series, the first story, Cirque Du Freak, kicks off with Darren as a child, around twelve years old. Enough completely original things happen in this story to suck you in – an enthralling freak show, vampire lore that challenges the stereotypes, odd creatures, and a venomous spider that Darren can’t resist stealing, which is where it all begins.

I remember reading this book when I was around eleven years old and loving it, but didn’t have access to the rest of them. A few years later, a friend let me borrow the rest of the books in the series. We learn a bit about the world in which Darren lives and learn about him as the flawed yet likable character he is.

We follow Darren as he follows Mr. Crepsley through adventures involving monsters and death. The author, the real Darren Shan, said that he wanted to deliver something as chilling to read as a Stephen King novel but as easy to read as Goosebumps. I think he did really well with that. The first three books are just fantastic and we get to know more about Darren, Mr. Crepsley, and other characters who make appearances.

The Second Trilogy: Vampire Rites (Vampire Mountain, Trials of Death, The Vampire Prince)

Darren leaves his humanity behind and his relationship with Mr. Crepsley also improves. We find out a lot more about vampire culture and customs, and are introduced to more brutal twists. I personally think that Trials of Death is one of the best books of the series – Darren faces challenges involving escaping a maze flooding with water, crawling through a cave filled with spiked rocks, and, most memorably, a room filled with fire.

He is traumatised by his near-death in a room of flames which really stuck with me for a long time. We see Darren grow into a warrior, and although his vampire blood makes him still look like a child, he is an adult on the inside who has seen and experienced too much in his young life. New friendships are made and when he brings to light a betrayal, he is made into a Vampire Prince.

The Third Trilogy: Vampire War (Hunters of the Dusk, Allies of the Night, Killers of the Dawn)

Although action-packed and essential to the story, I feel like this is the weakest of the four trilogies. We visit the city in which we spent a lot of time in Tunnels of Blood, reunite with old characters, and chase the Lord of the Vampaneze. However, I found myself quickly reading through them, eager to reach the final trilogy. Killers of the Dawn is also the book in which Mr. Crepsley, now Darren’s dear friend and father figure, dies, which devastated fans!

The Fourth Trilogy: Vampire Destiny (The Lake of Souls, Lord of the Shadows, Sons of Destiny)

The Lake of Souls is arguably the most memorable book in the whole saga. We finally find out the identity of Harkat, Darren’s friend and one of Mr. Tiny’s Little People. To do this, they venture into a dangerous world full of monsters.

The beasts and the world itself are impossible to forget and completely blew the minds of children and adults alike. Even years later, I could still remember the Grotesque! Re-reading it was just as enjoyable as the first time and I could really appreciate Shan’s talent for the original and the shocking.

We also see the fate of the Lord of the Vampaneze (Steve, Darren’s best childhood friend turned insane evil psychopath) and Darren. Upon warnings that Darren would be the one to destroy the world even if he managed to defeat Steve, he rejects his destiny to become the Lord of the Shadows and lets Steve kill him. They die together, severing the destiny that was tied to them since birth.

I really liked how the series ended. Darren becomes a Little Person and travels back through time to stop his childhood self from ever stealing Mr. Crepsley’s spider, thus making it so that he never became a half-vampire. His diaries, which were cleverly mentioned throughout the saga, are then given to Mr. Tall, who then agrees to send them to the child Shan when he grows up. The way the last few pages are written, it is made to sound as though all of the events really did happen with Darren speculating whether his story will be fictionalised and sold around the world. Although some fans said they were disappointed with the “it was all a dream” style ending, I thought it was delivered beautifully and tied everything up really well.

This series is a must for teenagers who love horror. The prose is a little choppy – there are long paragraphs of action-interrupting description, a lot of adverbs, and over-explaining (things that would never be allowed if he had written them now). However, the book was perfect for its time and a great read for my twelve-year-old self. It is still a great read for kids today and a fond throwback for adults who read it in the early 2000s. There is also a movie, but it wasn’t good at all. There is a petition for a Netflix series, which would be great! I give the series five stars for entertainment, originality, and nostalgia.

Get the first book, Cirque Du Freak, on Amazon US
Get Cirque Du Freak on Amazon UK

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Insurgent” by Veronica Roth

Following the enjoyable dystopian YA novel Divergent, I picked up the second of the trilogy. Things were getting exciting, and I had high hopes for what Tris and her love interest were going to do next now their world had fallen apart.

insurgent“As war surges in the factions of dystopian Chicago all around her, Tris attempts to save those she loves—and herself—while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.”

I actually found the second book to be a bit disappointing. I thought the first book was great; although sometimes dripping with YA cliches (such as falling for the first handsome guy she meets), I thought the world was original and I enjoy exploring the factions.

I lost interest about halfway through because Tris started to become really annoying. She was increasingly reckless, and I was glad Tobias caught on this as well, so it suggests that the writer was aware of this character flaw. “Playing the hero” all the time could have been forgiven, except when she did it again, she lied to her boyfriend… again, even though he worried so much about her and almost got himself killed trying to save her the last time.

The story circled several times in the first half of the book. They think they’re safe, until they’re attacked and have to run. They find a new place to hide, get attacked, and have to run. It only got interesting about 60% of the way through. The novelty of exploring this dystopian world had worn off by now, and there wasn’t much more to discover. They didn’t see anything new, only the same city and the train and buildings. Arguably the Amity headquarters was new, but it wasn’t that interesting.

Characters were also tough to keep track of. Jeanine, Tori, Tobias, Marcus, and Tris were easy enough, but other characters seemed to sort of blend together. I needed reminding when names like Edward, Lynn, and Shauna came up, and ended up remembering Edward for his eyepatch and Lynn for her shaved head rather than any defining personality traits.

This book wasn’t horrible, by any means. I wanted to know the all-important “truth” that became the main focus of the second half of the story, which drove me to keep reading. I was prepared for some mind-blowing news that “changed everything,” as the writer said. The information was… meh. It kind of annoys me this has 44,000 reviews on Amazon and three movies, yet no one really talks about it.

I’ve already bought the last in the series, Allegiant, so it might wrap up the story nicely and develop Tris’ character a bit. I hope to see an awesome final installment. I’ll let you guys know if it’s worth it!

I give this book in the Divergent series two stars out of five.

2stars

A Bard’s Lament (Part 8)

Read part 1
Read part 2
Read part 3
Read part 4
Read part 5
Read part 6
Read part 7

Part 8

“Sorry, we’re closed,” Gregor called as Ella slid into the tavern. “Oh. Hi, Ella,” he added, appearing from the back with a box in his arms. “What’s the matter?”

Cold wetness clung to Ella’s tunic, sticking to her like a second skin. She headed for the fireplace and slid the lute case from her back. Emotion bubbled inside her.

“Lucinda,” she whispered. Gregor put the box down and kneeled beside her. His warmth gave her comfort, but she shook from cold and fear.

“She’s in the Rathole,” she whispered. Gregor gave a sympathetic sigh beside her.

“How could I have ignored it?” she buried her face in her hands. “She’s hooked on Lilac Flame, I know it. Now they’ve taken her… down there.”

The anxiety of the past week bubbled until it overcame Ella in short, harsh sobs. Gregor held her as the fire crackled beside them. With the warmth from the flames and Gregor’s large body against her, Ella felt calm sweep through her. Feeling focused, she dried her stinging eyes.

“I’m getting her out.”
“You’re what?” Gregor pulled back. His grey eyes were filled with concern.
“I’m going,” Ella got to her feet. “I lost my ma to that life, Gregor. I won’t lose Lucinda, too. Can you lend me some clothes?”

*

Ella peered into the bowl of water that Gregor had given her. A man’s hat adorned her head, where she had tied her red hair in a tight bun and stuffed under the hat. A too-big tunic sat on her frame over ripped cloth she’d tightly wrapped round her chest to bind her breasts. She looked at herself in the water. Would she pass?

“Not bad,” Gregor commented when he saw her. “But your…” he cleared his throat, and his brown cheeks went a shade darker. “Your hips are moving too much when you walk. Walk more like a man.”

Perhaps it was the severity of the situation or how jittery she felt, but Ella giggled nervously as Gregor sauntered in front of her with exaggerated swagger. Her laughter died on her lips when he asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“She’s my sister, Gregor.”

After a little more practice, Ella felt ready. “The guards won’t do anything about Lucinda. It’s probably Caskhell or Sackle who put her there in the first place, so it’s up to me.”
Gregor watched her, his arms folded. Ella didn’t know if it was scorn or pity that adorned his face. She almost couldn’t bear the silence.

“I’ll see you in an hour or so,” she swallowed.
“How are you going to get in and out? I heard there’s a guard who guards the cellar door.”

Ella thought back to when she was a child: the nauseating scent of Lilac Flame, the dark cellar, the narrow passageway, and the surprise on the guard’s face when Ella had appeared as if from nowhere.

“The trapdoor,” she answered. Patrons used the cellar entrance, and Ella was certain she was the only one, aside from Kerra, who knew about the trapdoor. “The guard is on the other side of the wall. He won’t see me, and if I do I’ll just…” she cleared her throat and finished her sentence in a deeper tone that she hoped sounded like a man, “got lost.”

“Right,” Gregor nervously rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Ella… I’m sorry, but if you’re caught… there’s nothing I can do to help you. My father…”

“I know,” Ella nodded. Fear clenched her heart. For the first time, she truly felt alone.

*

The rain had stopped, but thick clouds blocked the moon from shining on the dark street. The residential area was almost empty; curtains had been drawn, a single street lamp burned on the other side of the road, where two drunk farmers sang with their arms round each other’s shoulders.

Ella’s heart hammered against her chest, the too-tight binds almost crushing her body. She had felt safer when the rain fell. It may have been foolish, but the falling curtain of rain seemed to muffle everything.

At first, she walked down the street normally, trying to put more movement into her shoulders like Gregor had showed her. She hoped that if the guards saw her, they would assume that she was another villager going home after a few at the tavern. She wanted nothing more than to run home and go to bed.

There’s still time to back out, she reasoned.

But she couldn’t. Knowing the Rathole existed was bad enough, but knowing that with each passing moment, her sister was being drugged and abused… Ella couldn’t walk away from that.

She neared the empty house on Laxx Street, where water from the rainstorm dripped from the splintered wood. The smell of wet concrete and honey stung her nostrils. If I go down there, I might never come out, the terrifying thought occurred to her.

Guards turned a blind eye to this place and according to the town nobles, it didn’t exist. If Ella walked away, Lucinda would be forgotten, a name struck from history. The same could happen to Ella. No one would mention the bard or the harlot.

For a moment, she wavered.

Then she took a step forward to the front door and pushed it open. Fear would never overcome her. Without Lucinda, nothing else mattered. She wouldn’t let her have this fate, even if it meant she would die getting her out.

The building showed no sign of life, except the lack of dust in the area before the entrance. The door to the cellar was clearly visible from where she stood in the doorway. Ella went right instead of left, her ears pricked. It took her several moments to find the mouldy old rug that covered the trapdoor, and by the time she’d pulled the iron ring to open the door with a whine, she was shivering. From cold or from fright, she didn’t know.

Dark stairs, identical to her childhood memory, greeted her. A sickly sweet, smoky aroma churned her stomach. It’s now or never.

Ella exhaled, and white mist blew from her mouth. She descended and closed the trapdoor behind her, her palms sweating as she clutched the pouch of coins at her neck. She felt she was walking into a nightmare.

With no lantern to light it and no daylight leaking from the above floorboards, the corridor at the bottom of the staircase was pitch black. Feeling her way along, Ella followed it, turning the corner to find the narrow gap in the wall. At first, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to fit through, but she edged along between the walls, trying not to breathe or step too loudly; every noise she made echoed. The corridor was dark and reeked of sweat, smoke, and the sickly sweet honey-like scent. Ella clamped her jaws together to stop her teeth from chattering.

Once upon a time, the underbelly of this house may have been a wine cellar or something similar. Now, as the end of the narrow passageway finally greeted Ella, the stone around her was covered in moss, reeking of neglect and damp. She breathed in relief as she reached the wall to the corridor where she knew the guard stood. The reek was starting to take a hold on her senses. Lilac Flame wasn’t addictive by the scent, but Ella covered her mouth with her sleeve, her stomach churning.

Stairs on the right along the corridor greeted her, just as they had in her childhood. The guard wasn’t around, but the lantern burned low on the wall, casting flickering light on the corridor. Ella slipped through the archway on the left, pulling the hat low over her eyes.

With the hundreds of bodies in such a small space, the clammy air of the Rathole felt warmer than the floors above. Soft moans and grunts greeted Ella as she came to several narrow corridors leading off in different directions. This place is a maze, Ella realised. How was she going to find Lucinda?

She crept along the dark corridors, where crude wooden fences and dirty curtains separated each small area. Small, glass lamps on the ground lit the way here and there, but there were no windows; did the girls who were kept here ever see daylight?

Some areas behind curtains had the sickening sounds of grunting and soft wailing coming from behind; others, Ella saw when she peeked inside, had the motionless figures of Night Elf and Forest Elf girls, sleeping beneath blankets or staring off into the distance with the same glazed, half-awake look that Lucinda had had when she’d curled up on the armchair. Pity surged through Ella, along with desperation. Only Elves. Elves everywhere. Was Lucinda really down here, or had Skave made a mistake?

The stench of Lilac Flame was in everything; the walls, the floors, and the curtains, sticking to Ella’s tunic and hair, making her want to gag. It had to be more than just Caskhell selling the stuff; there had to be two hundred girls here at least. Drugged into stupors and used. It’s disgusting. Dragons, how could you let this happen?

As she turned the corner of one of the “rooms” where the curtains were thrown open, Ella’s heart jumped when she saw the pale, thin figure of a redheaded girl, lying on a bundle of blankets with her face turned away. She crouched down beside her and gently titled the girl’s face.

It wasn’t Lucinda.

The Elf girl gave a soft moan, pain in her young face. Her eyes fluttered open; they were the colour of sapphires. The greyish-yellow of a bruise was starting to form on her pale cheek.

“I’ll be good to you,” the Elf whispered, her voice weak and raspy. Ella fought back tears.

“Just hold on a little longer,” Ella whispered.
The girl’s body shuddered in Ella’s arms. “So c-cold,” she inhaled like a wounded animal gasping for breath. “Co…”

The Elf’s body shook and her head went limp. Ella sat paralysed for what felt like an eternity. Hot tears fell, landing on the lifeless girl’s cheek. “May you join beloved Parrax in the night sky,” she eventually uttered. She gently laid the girl’s body back on the dirty sheets and closed her eyes, curtaining the dead sapphires. “I’m sorry.”

Ella’s shoulders shook as she crawled through the curtain and back to the corridor. At least she didn’t die alone, was her only comforting thought as she hugged herself, the girl’s pale face pressing on her memory.

She jumped when someone joined the corridor a little way down. He was a hulking figure, someone Ella may have seen at the Respite, his back to her and fiddling with the string of his trousers. He lumbered towards Ella as she froze on the spot.

In the half-dark, the brute gave a lopsided smile. “Evening,” he tipped his hat, as casually as if he was greeting someone at the market. Ella’s body refused to move as the man passed her without a second glance. It felt like a lifetime before she finally exhaled, all the fear and relief blowing out of her like Yuelif’s warm breeze.

A woman’s hand reached out from the curtain in a clumsy wave. A bronze signet ring adorned her thin finger.

Lucinda!

Making sure the man had gone, Ella raced along the corridor to where the grubby curtain had closed. She crouched down and opened it. Lucinda lay there, her dressed ripped open, a confused frown on her face.

“No,” Lucinda moaned, shaking her head as though drunk. “Someone was just here… choose someone else…”

Ella closed the curtain behind her and sat beside her sister. “Lu, it’s me,” she whispered, cupping Lucinda’s face and pulling her close. “It’s me, it’s Ella. I’m getting you out.”

Lucinda thrashed at first, but Ella held her close, humming Hilltop Sunrise. “…and we sing hello to the welcoming dawn. Ma used to sing it to us, remember?” She stroked Lucinda’s hair. Her sister gave a dry sob.

“Can you stand?”

“It’s too dangerous,” Lucinda groaned as she struggled to stand, her weight sagging against her sister’s. “Guard’s there.”

“Don’t you remember when we were kids and I found that trapdoor, Lu?” Ella whispered. “It’s still there. I don’t think anyone knows about it.”

With her free hand, Ella threw open the makeshift curtain and looked left and right. The customer had gone right, towards where the guard and the entrance lay. That meant that the trapdoor was on the left, back to the narrow passageway.

“Come on, Lu,” Ella urged as her sister slumped against her. They stumbled along the corridor, past a room with frightening grunts and the weak cry of an Elf girl – Ella’s heart bled – and back towards the narrow corridor.

As they were edging through the gap in the wall, a shadow moved on the other side the corridor, an Ella froze, gripping Lucinda’s arm.

Somebody was lumbering towards the stairs, his steps heavy and his arms swinging by his sides. Ella’s heart thumped painfully against her chest as she pressed Lucinda against the wall and into the shadows. She didn’t dare move, yet if he came any closer, he’d surely see them lurking in the corner. The man took a few more steps towards them… and then turned to the staircase, stomping up and throwing open the door with a loud creak.

Ella resisted the urge to breathe a loud sigh of relief, then helped Lucinda through the narrow passageway. It was a squeeze with them both, but they finally reached the cellar under the trapdoor, Lucinda gasping as though she’d run for miles.

“Just a little farther, Lu,” Ella encouraged her as they crept up the stone steps to the trapdoor. As Lucinda sat on the steps, clutching her chest, Ella pushed the trapdoor.

It didn’t move.

Panic surged through her as she gave the trapdoor another shove, to no avail. “It isn’t opening!” she whispered, pushing upwards.

A footstep sounded above them.

Ella froze. If somebody opened the trapdoor and discovered them now, there was nowhere they could hide. Ella braced for the trapdoor to swing open, for the surprised shout, but the footsteps faded away. The only sound Ella could hear was her own frantic heart and Lucinda’s rasping breaths.

When she was sure the person had gone, she pushed the trapdoor again and it opened with a creak. Whoever was there only moments ago must have been standing on it.

Ella felt horribly vulnerable when they were outside and had left the old house behind. She wasn’t sure what the guards would do if they saw them stumbling along the cobbled road. Their shack was too far away from here, and Lucinda looked to be on the verge of collapsing.

“Just a little farther,” she whispered.

Read part 9