Book Review: “Kingdom of Souls” by Rena Barron

Kingdom of Souls has been hyped all year by HarperCollins and was released a couple of weeks ago. I liked the snake designs in the early promotional art (perhaps a silly reason to buy a book) and pre-ordered it. Did it live up to the hype?

*Please be aware this review contains some spoilers.

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“Magic has a price—if you’re willing to pay.

Born into a family of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. But each year she fails to call forth her ancestral powers, while her ambitious mother watches with growing disapproval.

There’s only one thing Arrah hasn’t tried, a deadly last resort: trading years of her own life for scraps of magic. Until the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, and Arrah is desperate to find the culprit.

She uncovers something worse. The long-imprisoned Demon King is stirring. And if he rises, his hunger for souls will bring the world to its knees… unless Arrah pays the price for the magic to stop him.”

The first thing I noticed was this book was written in the present tense. The damn present tense! If I’d known, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Even though other books written in this style such as Divergent and Girls With Sharp Sticks turned out to be great, I don’t voluntarily buy books written in this style as I find it annoying. No matter, I thought, you’ll get used to it.

Things I Liked

  • There were many good points to Kingdom of Souls. The culture was written beautifully; Barron used inspiration from West Africa, and the use of a desert environment, tribes, and witchdoctors was a welcome change to the usual fantasy settings we see.
  • Though Arrah wasn’t the most interesting character I’ve ever come across, she did have self-doubt and fear that made her real. I’ve come across too many female main characters who are forever fearless and witty even in dire situations, so it was nice to see Arrah reacting to her environment in a realistic way.

Things I Didn’t Like

  • Unfortunately, this list is longer. There were many things in this debut novel that didn’t make sense. Apparently, Arrah gives up ten years of her life to perform magic. Nobody seems to notice that she jumped from 16 years old up to 26 years old overnight, not even her sort-of boyfriend, servants, or her own father.
  • The shoddy writing style. Some descriptions were written with flair while others fell flat. Forgivable for a first novel, but this was represented by the same agent who got one of my favourite books of all time, The Queen’s Rising, on the shelves, so I’m wondering what kept the agent hooked.
  • A white person is referred to as being “cursed with pale skin that is sensitive to sunlight.” Umm, OK? Racism is bad, guys, no matter who it’s against.
  • The unneeded romance. Many people seem to think a teenage character NEEDS a romantic interest. With everything going on and the despair all around, it felt silly at times to suddenly drop everything for heart-pounding near-kisses from her cardboard cut-out character boyfriend.
  • The choppy pacing. Some scenes happened lightning-fast whereas other times there were pages and pages where nothing of interest happened.
  • There were too many characters to keep track of. I often had to stop and remember who was who. They didn’t have their own voices or personalities, with the exception, perhaps, of Arrah’s grandmother. For this reason, I didn’t feel affected when characters died or were in mortal peril.
  • The double standard on victim-blaming. A male character is raped (tricked by a demon into thinking it’s someone else) and is constantly blamed for it. Rape is rape, and if the same thing had happened to a female character, no doubt the writer would have handled it very differently.
  • The overall dark tone of the book. I’m a lover of dark fantasy, but there is often a tone of despair and no hope at all in this novel that made me unmotivated to keep reading.

All in all, I wasn’t a fan of this one. I’ve come across a couple of debut books now where I’ve just thought “meh.” Maybe it’s my own fault for falling for the hype that these big companies push. Two stars for Kingdom of Souls, which was a real slog to get through towards the end.

2stars

 

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Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander was another recommendation from my Mum, who is a real book nerd. Somehow, the TV show (now on Netflix) had passed me by until now. A novel about Scotland and time travel, you say? Gimme, gimme!

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“1946, and Claire Randall goes to the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank. It’s a second honeymoon, a chance to learn how war has changed them and to re-establish their loving marriage.

But one afternoon, Claire walks through a circle of standing stones and vanishes into 1743, where the first person she meets is a British army officer – her husband’s six-times great-grandfather.

Unfortunately, Black Jack Randall is not the man his descendant is, and while trying to escape him, Claire falls into the hands of a gang of Scottish outlaws, and finds herself a Sassenach – an outlander – in danger from both Jacobites and Redcoats.

Marooned amid danger, passion and violence, her only chance of safety lies in Jamie Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior. What begins in compulsion becomes urgent need, and Claire finds herself torn between two very different men, in two irreconcilable lives.”

Our main character, Claire, is a war nurse vet on her second honeymoon with her husband, from whom she’d been separated for years. During their trip to the Scottish Highlands, she accidentally falls through time, awaking in the 1700s and unable to return.

What I noticed first was the sheer length of this book. At over 280,000 words, it’s much longer than the average first novel. I found that the first quarter was fairly slow, yet still interesting enough to keep my attention. Outlander is beautifully written, with a perfect blend of witty dialogue and breathtaking descriptions.

I enjoyed exploring Scotland, first in the ’40s and then in the 18th century, from the charming castles to the heather on the mountains. Even if the story moved slowly at first, Gabaldon’s gorgeous writing style kept me hooked.

What I like most about this book is that it’s very historically accurate. Though of course featuring fictional characters, Gabaldon did her research. I’d recently got done watching Braveheart only to find it lacked much historical accuracy at all, so Outlander was a pleasing contrast.

By the second half of the book, I was fully invested. Claire is tangled up in the dangers and politics of the time. Jack Randall, obviously the main “baddie”, is a totally evil and corrupt redcoat, and Gabaldon is exceptionally gifted at making us hate him! Jamie was my favourite character (I am definitely not alone on this), from his honour and bravery to his affectionate use of the word “Sassenach” (English person) when referring to Claire.

Another thing I adored was the use of Gaelic! The language of my childhood is rarely used in books or TV, yet is used frequently throughout the story. Now I’m watching the TV show too, and it’s pure nostalgic bliss to witness its use.

The last quarter of the novel was so explosive and packed full of action and passion that my rating went from four stars to five. Immediately after turning the last page, I whipped out my phone and ordered the next novel in the series, Dragonfly in Amber.

If you love historical romance, Scotland, and excitement, I highly recommend Outlander!

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Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Misery” by Stephen King

I love Stephen King, and Misery was the next on my list. It was very similar to Gerald’s Game, which I loved.

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“Paul Sheldon is a bestselling novelist who has finally met his number one fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes, and she is more than a rabid reader—she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident.

But she is also furious that the author has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. Annie becomes his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.”

Boy, was I in for a ride. We’re catapulted straight into the confusion and deliriousness that was Paul Sheldon’s accident, the mad pain of his shattered legs, and the feeling of utter entrapment as the crazy Annie Wilkes gushes over Paul’s writing, rages over his murder of her favourite fictional character, and punishes his ‘bad’ behaviour. This isn’t a slowly-but-surely, maybe she’ll let me go soon before realising something is wrong; no, this is a full-on, immediate, she’s crazy and I’m never getting out of here scenario.

I adored this book, which had me by the throat for the few days it took me to finish. Stephen King’s poetic delivery of mad ramblings, clever metaphors, and references to memories and private jokes are just a step above other writers. I usually detest things that are too popular (I didn’t watch Game of Thrones until 2019) but I’m definitely a King fan (maybe not his number one fan, though…)

Some hilarious quotes that had me chuckling:

“Her temper had apparently gone on vacation. But… it could arrive back unexpectedly at any moment, bags in hand: Couldn’t stand to stay away! How ya doin’?

“No phone call to the ambulance service: ‘This is Annie… I’ve got a fellow here, looks a bit like King Kong used him for a trampoline.’”

“And what then? A kamikaze dive out onto the back porch? A great idea. Maybe he could break his back, and that would take his mind off his legs for a while.”

Annie was a truly terrifying character. She wasn’t just insane, but unpredictable, remorseless, yet still human; an excellent recipe for a King villain. I can’t say much more without having to add a spoiler warning, but her acts and Paul’s reactions and trauma were flawlessly written. I think this might be my favourite King story so far.

Five stars for Misery!

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Book Review: “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author who, so I’ve heard, is one of the most famous and well-loved writers in the country. At writers’ club, my friend Jennifer handed me a copy of Murakami’s first novel, Norwegian Wood (“Norway no Mori” in Japanese), and said, “give it a try” with a smile.

81lnnTBF8dL“Toru, a serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. As Naoko retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman. 

A magnificent coming-of-age story steeped in nostalgia, Norwegian Wood blends the music, the mood, and the ethos that were the sixties with a young man’s hopeless and heroic first love.”

The story follows Toru Watanabe, a young college student who reconnects with an old friend from school, Naoko, with whom he shares a sad past: his best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend, Kizuki, committed suicide at seventeen. They’re both desperately trying to move on, moving from Kobe to Tokyo to move somewhere they know nobody.

I loved the writing style in this book. It read very much like an autobiography, sometimes with Stephen King-like digression, with minute details that were somehow pointless yet fascinating at the same time. What did it matter what he was wearing that day or the fact that the drink he chose from the vending machine was a Pepsi? Yet it gave the story much more depth, like Toru was really talking to me about the sad events of his college days.

Toru himself was nothing really special. He was quiet, often not articulating how he felt, was average-looking, had a simple schedule. And yet I felt inexplicably drawn to this unremarkable man and his unremarkable life.

Though at times I found the plot slow and sex was mentioned far, far too much in painfully unnecessary detail, the story touched me very deeply. A black cloud seemed to hang over the whole thing – Toru’s dorm, the apartments and bars he visited, the characters we met. Almost everyone was messed up mentally some way or another, no one more so than Naoko, who sometimes got so bad she heard voices and couldn’t put pen to paper to write to Toru.

I’m glad I’ve lived in Japan long enough to understand many of the subtle cultural differences. The way people speak to each other, their behaviors, and even a mistake someone made (buying cucumbers instead of kiwi fruit; in English, it doesn’t make much sense, but in Japanese, cucumber (kyuri) and kiwi fruit (kiwi) sound very similar, thus potentially explaining the mistake). That gave it a more realistic edge that I’m glad I could experience.

I finished the book feeling depressed and a little frustrated. I personally disliked the final scene, seeing it as a bit strange that after everything, two characters found that cause of action to be best. Many other readers, such as on Goodreads, also mentioned that they disliked it. Usually, I’d give a book three stars for the reasons listed above, but I know in my heart I’m not going to be able to forget this book easily. Not the descriptions, not Toru’s melancholy nor the poignant memories, nor the quiet romance of Naoko.

I give Norwegian Wood four stars out of five, but now I feel I have to watch a comedy to feel better after such a heavy tale.

4stars

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Book Review: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

I went on a book buying spree quite recently, and An Ember in the Ashes was a highly-rated (“On twelve best book of the year lists”) release from 2015. I picked it up after finishing We Rule the Night. Though I didn’t think that much of the new cover, it was said to be a gritty fantasy and I looked forward to diving in.

*There are some minor spoilers in this review.

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“Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
 
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
 
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
 
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.”

Laia lives with her grandparents and brother. As Scholar people, they lead cautious lives under the iron fist of the Martial Empire. During a raid, where soldiers ransack homes and make arrests, Laia’s grandparents are killed and her brother arrested for treason by a Mask, deadly warriors who are trained from childhood to be ruthless killers.

After tracking down the rebel movement, the Resistance, for help, Laia is sent off on a dangerous mission to spy on the Commandant of Blackcliffe, a large Martial city and home of the school that trains Masks. Meanwhile, Elias, the Commandant’s son and in his final year of Mask school, is desperate to escape the life of murder and cruelty that is set out before him.

There was some great writing in this novel, keeping the pages turning. Laia’s weeks as a slave were believable and sympathetic; she desperately wants to save her brother and is willing to put up with pain, torture, and death to carry out her mission for the Resistance. Elias was likable; he was tired of killing, confused about his feelings for his best friend, and longing for a peaceful life away from the brutish path of a Mask.

That being said, this book was riddled with fantasy cliches and tropes. The two main female characters are show-stoppingly beautiful (of course). There isn’t a love triangle, but others have described it as a square: both of our main characters have two people interested in them. A double triangle?

We have an evil empire, an equally evil emperor who for some reason is really far away, Hunger Games-esque “Trials,” and a battle-hardened female character who is “not like other girls,” is tough as nails and can beat anyone she likes into a pulp, and is also drop-dead gorgeous. There’s also a prophecy, of course, that intertwines the fates of both our MCs. However, this wasn’t a horrible book. Though the tropes where there, they didn’t really want to make me stop reading.

I found some of the magic creatures to be a bit underwhelming. There was a group of sand creatures that attacked Helene and Elias (I can’t remember the names of them) and I couldn’t stop giggling when the king of these creatures said his name was Rowan. Then he sort of disappeared and we never saw him again. He might come up again in the next book, I suppose.

All in all, I did enjoy An Ember in the Ashes but I do not think it deserved all the hype it got. Though it was well written, the characters didn’t really interest me enough to buy the next novel in the series, so I probably won’t be reading it. I give this book three stars out of five.

3stars

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Origin” by Dan Brown

My mother let me borrow her paperback of Origin recently. Dan Brown is a well-known American author known for his thriller novels, including Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. I hadn’t actually read Dan Brown before, so I dived into this fascinating story.

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“Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to attend the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science forever”. The evening’s host is his friend and former student, Edmond Kirsch, a forty-year-old tech magnate whose dazzling inventions and audacious predictions have made him a controversial figure around the world. This evening is to be no exception: he claims he will reveal an astonishing scientific breakthrough to challenge the fundamentals of human existence.

But Langdon and several hundred other guests are left reeling when the meticulously orchestrated evening is blown apart before Kirsch’s precious discovery can be revealed. With his life under threat, Langdon is forced into a desperate bid to escape, along with the museum’s director, Ambra Vidal. Together they flee to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.

In order to evade a tormented enemy who is one step ahead of them at every turn, Langdon and Vidal must navigate labyrinthine passageways of hidden history and ancient religion. On a trail marked only by enigmatic symbols and elusive modern art, Langdon and Vidal uncover the clues that will bring them face-to-face with a world-shaking truth that has remained buried – until now.”

Dan Brown’s prose is wonderful, which comes from a lot of experience in writing. I haven’t read many books recently that weren’t debuts, and it makes a difference to see a master at work. Every sentence sang.

Origin isn’t of a genre I usually go for, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I was eager to learn this secret Edmond Kirsch was planning to unveil, joining Robert Langdon in his exploration of the museum, his meeting with Winston, and the building anticipation to Kirsch’s big reveal.

Origin has been praised for the extensive research Brown undertook, and the organizations and buildings described in the story are all real places; he describes them with detail; no doubt he visited most (perhaps all) of them for the story and it gave the book a very realistic edge.

The story was full of action and many twists, some of which I didn’t guess, and some of which I saw coming. I liked Ambra Vidal very much; she was intelligent and strong, yet vulnerable. Arguably, she was a typical action heroine, but I enjoyed how she interacted with Robert and how she felt about him.

There’s no doubt that this is a wonderfully crafted novel. Personally, though I found the descriptions of the real cathedrals, museums, and other buildings impressive, it was sometimes a little overkill and interrupted the story. I also saw one of the major plot twists coming from near the beginning of the book. That being said, I liked Origin very much, so I’m giving it four stars out of five.

4stars

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Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Girls With Sharp Sticks” by Suzanne Young

This book caught my eye after coming across a blog post that was raving about it. Since I’ve mainly been reading fantasy and horror for the past few years, this looked like a fascinating change. Set in the near future and full of mystery and intrigue, I devoured the hardback in three days.

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Some of the prettiest flowers have the sharpest thorns.

The Girls of Innovations Academy are beautiful and well-behaved—it says so on their report cards. Under the watchful gaze of their Guardian, they receive a well-rounded education that promises to make them better. Obedient girls, free from arrogance or defiance. Free from troublesome opinions or individual interests.

But the girls’ carefully controlled existence may not be quite as it appears. As Mena and her friends uncover the dark secrets of what’s actually happening there—and who they really are—the girls of Innovations Academy will learn to fight back.

Bringing the trademark plot twists and high-octane drama that made The Program a bestselling and award-winning series, Suzanne Young launches a new series that confronts some of today’s most pressing ethical questions.”

Philomena, called Mena by her friends, is a student at Innovations Academy, along with many other beautiful young girls like herself. However, instead of learning about science, maths, or world history, they are taught instead how to be “perfect” – manners, sophistication, politeness, self-control, and physical beauty. It was like 17th-century values were being ingrained into a modern school. It was really… weird.

Everything about this “private school” had me on edge. The teachers were sort of nice, but also incredibly controlling. The students took “vitamins” at night. Any whisper of doubt or rebelliousness was instantly “remedied.”

I liked Mena very much. She is down-to-earth, clever, and loves her classmates like they’re her sisters. She isn’t bitchy or over-the-top sassy like we see in some female characters.

Each page I turned only brought more questions. What is this “therapy” they go under when they’re disobedient? Why would their parents send them to such a strange academy? What is their intended purpose once they graduate? Why do Mena’s parents neglect to visit her? Who are they, really?

I didn’t guess the final twist, which was great and made everything fit into place. Though plenty is left to the imagination, I was deeply satisfied with the explanations shown to us in the exciting last third of the book. That’s not to say the first part was boring; I was hooked from the first chapter, and instantly loved it.

Girls With Sharp Sticks is a must-read for those who love suspense. There are feminist themes for those who are into that. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the present tense narrative, which I’m not a fan of, but I quickly got used to it (as with the Divergent trilogy) and it didn’t take away from the story.

I give Girls With Sharp Sticks five stars out of five!

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Spoiler-Free Book Review: “The Queen’s Resistance” by Rebecca Ross

The Queen’s Rising, American writer Rebecca Ross’s debut novel, was one of my favourite fantasy reads of all time. I was enchanted by the world, Ross’s gorgeous atmospheric writing style, and the story of Brienna, a heroine who wasn’t over-the-top feisty and quirky, but believable and likable.

Ross didn’t originally plan to write a sequel, as she described in her Instagram post:

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Today, my second book comes out, and I honestly can’t even believe it! 😭✨ THE QUEEN’S RESISTANCE almost didn’t happen, and what I mean by that is it was originally supposed to be a companion novel to TQR, not a sequel. A companion novel which would focus on a new heroine in the world, because I believed I had finished Brienna’s story. * * In 2016, I wrote a companion novel. Hated it. Scrapped it. Wrote another companion novel. Still wasn’t satisfied with it. I was beginning to panic, because it was about time for me to deliver something to my editor, and I had no idea what my second book needed to be. The companion books were lacking something, and I didn’t know what that *something* was. All the same, I wasn’t going to publish a book I was not 100% in love with. * * In February of 2017, I was sitting on my back deck, throwing the frisbee to my dog. I had a journal open on my lap, and I was trying to brainstorm. And out of the blue, Brienna returned to me and quietly said, “Continue my story. And Cartier? He has a lot left to tell, too.” * * I did exactly as she said: I started to write this book by hand, reuniting with Brienna. And I knew she was right: her story was not finished, & this book was as much Cartier’s as it was hers. * * The words began to flow. This story caught fire—I had been seeking that spark, which my companion novels lacked. And this book poured out of me in 24 days. * * It was a magical, emotional, cathartic experience. And I knew that my second book was meant to be this—a continuation. A book where I could dig deeper and build upon the first. * * THE QUEEN’S RESISTANCE marks the end of the series. It is bittersweet, but I think you will understand why this is the end when you reach the final page. Which I bawled like a baby when I wrote it. * * Thank you all for your love & excitement & support! Thank you for purchasing, requesting, recommending & reviewing my books. I cannot tell you how grateful I am, and how much it means to me. * * I hope you enjoy this little story of mine. It is a book I poured my heart into. And I know my name is on the cover, but this book doesn’t just belong to me anymore. It belongs to you. 🧡✨

A post shared by Rebecca Ross | Fantasy Author (@beccajross) on

TL;DR: she eventually decided to write a sequel that she liked. It carries on immediately from The Queen’s Rising, so of course, be sure to have read that one first.

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“Brienna is a mistress of knowledge and is beginning to settle into her role as the daughter of the once disgraced lord, Davin MacQuinn. Though she’d just survived a revolution that will return a queen to the throne, she faces yet another challenge: acceptance by the MacQuinns.

But as Queen Isolde Kavanagh’s closest confidant, she’ll have to balance serving her father’s House as well as her country.

Then there’s Aodhan Morgan, formerly known as Cartier Évariste, who is adjusting to the stark contrast between his pre-rebellion life in Valenia and his current one as lord of a fallen House. As he attempts to restore the Morgane name, he let his mind wander—what if he doesn’t have to raise his House alone? What if Brienna could stand by his side?

But Brienna and Cartier must put their feelings aside, as there are more vital tasks at hand—the Lannons’ trial, forging alliances, and ensuring that no one halts the queen’s coronation. Resistance is rumbling among the old regime’s supporters, who are desperate to find a weakness in the rebels’ forces.

And what makes one more vulnerable than love?”

Much like the first novel, it took a while for the action to begin. I really enjoyed this in TQR as I loved exploring Magnolia House, Brienna’s life studying the passion of knowledge, and the culture of the world around her. In Resistance, it took a while for me to get into the story. Brienna and Cartier are in Maevana preparing for Queen Isolde’s coronation, and various problems crop up, building in seriousness until things get dangerous about two thirds in.

That being said, the story is filled with many enjoyable twists and turns, many of which I did not see coming. As many readers do, I made guesses as to what was coming, and though I was right about a certain character, there were many other things that surprised me. Predictability can kill a story, and Ross did an excellent job of keeping me on my toes.

Much like Allegiant by Veronica Roth, the chapters switch between Brienna and Cartier’s perspectives. Unlike in Allegiant, however, Ross did a great job of distinguishing their voices so it was easy to follow whose eyes I was seeing the world through. It was a joy to get inside Cartier’s head, to understand how he felt and thought and what many emotions he held back. I thought I could guess the reason for this style of writing, but I was happily proven wrong.

The Queen’s Resistance was much, much darker than the first book. We see much more of the effects of King Lannon’s tyrannical rule and much of the action was much darker than the first. In a way, this symbolises how much Brienna grows throughout the stories; when we first meet her, she’s a pretty innocent seventeen-year-old with not much to worry about except getting her passion cloak; in Maevana, she witnesses brutality, torture, and cruelty. No more details here without reading it yourself!

Ross kept her poetic writing style that caused me to fall so hard for her first novel. Though I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first, this is still an excellent book. I love Brienna; she’s strong without falling into the stereotype of the “witty tomboy” we often see in modern books. I also enjoyed seeing the tougher side of Cartier’s character. I give The Queen’s Resistance four stars out of five.

4stars

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