We have six books to review today so I’m going to try to keep each of them brief. But for those of you who don’t know, I decided to do a reading challenge in February with books that were primarily about romance. Now, this isn’t my wrap-up post for that; that’s going to come next week. What’s important to know about these five books is that I found them by searching up suggestions for good beginner romance books, which at least set up certain expectations for them.
Mistborn, of course, was not part of the reading challenge, but I haven’t had a chance to properly review it yet, so here goes.
Fear not! This post will be spoiler-free. You can read a more spoilery Mistborn post in my setting study, and the reading challenge wrap-up will almost certainly be spoiler-filled, if that’s more your interest. But this is safe for curious eyes.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn #1)
One of Sanderson’s first books, The Final Empire revolves around street orphan Vin and her newfound crew of thieves as they plan to rob the most evil, powerful man in the world. But it becomes about more than just the robbery. Life is drab and hopeless for those that serve, and in this land of ashfalls, of merciless nobility, and Mistborn, it’s going to take some of the most powerful, determined people to even have a hope of making a difference.
- Pacing: For all of the intrigue in the premise, The Final Empire drags. Props to Sanderson for actually spreading out the timetable to acknowledge how much time is needed to gather an army, get it trained, and so forth, and if there had been mini villains to defeat along the way, all the better. Instead, most of it was prep work. I found it difficult to stay engaged.
- Characters: Sanderson knows how to write characters if nothing else. Most of the crew had their own distinct personalities, making it easy enough to differentiate between them all. It wasn’t enough to hold my attention on its own, but I appreciated how vivid these characters were.
- World: More props to Sanderson are due here. I know he’s really well-known for his understanding of magic systems and their roles in the story, but honestly? The magic systems were my least favorite parts. Not that they were bad; the concept is cool enough, although it may be difficult for even relatively seasoned fantasy readers to keep track of everything. I just couldn’t help but be impressed by the dedication he put in to the effects of the ashfalls, the extent of the cultural differences between skaa (peasants) and nobility, and so on.
Overall, it was a bit of a disappointment for me. I think that readers who enjoy intense, unique world-building and who love vivid characters may be able to enjoy this book. Be warned, though, that the pace is a slow-build, and that you may be like me where the ending feels unsatisfactory. I can’t say any more without spoilers, but for those who don’t care, you can see the full details in my aforementioned Setting Study, linked above.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
The first of my romance book reads, this obviously involves the budding romantic relationship between the titular characters. With a difficult, abusive step-father at home and bullies at school, Eleanor struggles to fit in. As for Park, well, he’s from a better-off family, but he’s half-Korean, and he’s more into comic books than sports, which means he prefers to draw as little attention as possible.
- Pacing: The book was a lot harder to put down than Mistborn. There was an easily identifiable antagonist in the form of Richie, the stepdad, and everything felt tied to it. Even the happy moments had his possible wrath hanging over the characters’ heads. But, of course, one must also consider the romance part of it. The new-founded relationship between Eleanor and Park is messy enough to feel realistic, and brought up questions regarding communication, consent, and wanting the other person to change for you.
- Characters: The protagonists are teenage kids, which means that they aren’t always going to do things or say things that we as the reader agrees with. But their flaws made them feel even more realistic, and although we don’t see as much of the other characters by comparison, even the minor characters had their own distinctive personalities.
- Setting: The story takes place in 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska. I was not expecting that jump backwards in time. Many of the “props” of the novel–the records, the phones, even the comics–all help establish and confirm throughout the book when the story is taking place. Take those out, though (and nothing else), and it could have just as easily been a story told in the present year. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’ll let you decide.
This is definitely for readers who are fans of John Green and the like. The book’s core is certainly romantic, but it spirals out from there, allowing for natural character growth. In this case, self-confidence. That said, there’s a definite trigger warning for domestic abuse, implied pedophilia, and bullying. Additionally, both protagonists have mindsets that can come across as bigoted and insensitive–especially, though not exclusively, at the beginning–that can be very uncomfortable to read, and it’s difficult to tell if it was intentionally included as character flaws or if it was just mishandled by the author.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
You all know the story. The Bennet family, with their five daughters, get incredibly excited when a rich, unmarried man arrives in the nearby manor. At the first ball, they meet Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, and from there, romantic attraction is put at odds with women of relatively low station and of an unrespectable family.
- Pacing: Of course the rather antiquated language of the novel may be concerning, but I found it easier to “translate” into modern English than I thought, and it was far more exciting and gripping than I thought it would be. Although told in Elizabeth’s point of view, hers is not the only romance we readers feel invested in.
- Characters: There is a whole cast of people in this book. A town’s worth, it feels like, and yet most of them felt distinct. There was no mistaking Bingley from Darcy from Wickham to Collins, or even mixing up of the five Bennet daughters. A few side characters are easily forgotten, but most are memorable in one respect or another, and it just blew my mind.
- Setting: The way that Austen writes different character interactions really hits home on the class structures and the expectations that come with it. I think that, in turn, helps establish the more physical aspects of the setting. There’s a bit of randomness to what character and location names get left blank, but that was just a practice at the time.
Anyone who’s interested in delving into classics, this is a really good book to start with. Its relative readability matched with the various characters whose fates we feel inclined to worry over make it enticing the whole way through. So long as you have little trouble keeping a slew of characters straight in your head, it should prove to be a thrilling read. I will also say that I found the 2005 version impressively comparable to the book, and did a review on it here.
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
This is a book about two sisters with subtle magical abilities that live in an old house with a magical garden. One sister, Sydney, is on the run from an abusive husband, and heads straight to her old family home with her daughter for refuge. There, she reconnects with her quasi-reclusive sister, and as the two try to bond after being at odds for so long, they also find themselves drawn to two men in the town who just might offer them their well-deserved happy ending.
- Pacing: This book is slow-paced and rather dull, adding conflict arbitrarily instead of letting it come naturally. This is especially true in the case of the abusive husband, who is supposed to serve as the overarching antagonist, but it certainly goes beyond that, to other characters (mainly, catty women) that distrust the Waverly sisters.
- Characters: The people populating this book were incredibly frustrating. They were two-dimensional at best, with singular character traits to identify them. And, unlike Richie from Eleanor & Park, I got the sense that Allen had no idea what a volatile, abusive is actually like. Sydney’s willingness to trust literally any other man in spite of fleeing for her life just rang hollow and false. Additionally, there is an elderly woman named Evanelle who objectifies young men and it’s written like it’s supposed to be funny. Her interactions with an openly gay character, Fred, are not any better.
- Setting: Written to be a very soft, inexplicable magic system, I had hoped to be swept away by the interesting magical properties of these edible flowers and a strange apple tree. The edible flowers was executed well enough, subtle, minor, yet effective. But the use of the apple tree as a plot device was sloppy and disappointing, and the actual damaging effects of eating one of its apples seems questionable.
Garden Spells is a book best read as a sort of guilty pleasure, one you don’t look too far into because it starts to crumble when you do. It’s quirky and predictable and easy to read (although potentially hard to actually get through). And of the many books I read, this is the one that lands most heavily in the expectations of the romance genre. So if that’s your cup of tea, you’ll probably enjoy this as much as any other.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
This is an absolutely wild book about two readers who find themselves in possession of a misprinted book that only gives them the first part of the manuscript. They try to chase down leads for the other half only to find themselves presented with other half-completed manuscripts without finding the second half of any of the novels that they searched for prior.
- Pacing: With the “half-finished” manuscripts included as every other chapter, and an increasingly convoluted plot regarding the main Reader and Other Reader, the story starts off slow and refuses to pick up speed. It’s more focused on trying to tell a story than it is showing the actual reader that Calvino knows what makes a story good. Maybe this is only relevant and relatable to those who grew up as avid readers in the age before the Internet and rise in book publication (the book was published in 1979), but I cannot imagine ever finding myself so engrossed in the first few pages of a book that I would go to such lengths, even travel internationally, to solve this kind of mystery. Just DNF and move on.
- Characters/PoV: Told in 2nd person PoV, seemingly to create a shadow of a character, a reader that could be anyone and everyone (except, invariably, it would have to be a man), it intentionally offers very little in the way of the Reader figure. Unfortunately, the female characters are written in a creepy way. There’s a story about a war, and two soldiers allowing themselves to be bossed around by a woman, and there’s another set in Japan where the protagonist has a sexual encounter with a married woman but is more sexually attracted to the daughter. Even outside the story, everyone’s fascination and fixation on Ludmilla and her reading habits feels creepy at best.
We’ll skip the setting since there’s very little to speak on, and head straight into its intended audience. This is certainly not a romance novel. This is a literary work obsessed with the process of reading, of books as a whole, and while I personally feel like the structure was more gimmicky than anything else, if you’re the kind of person who’s intrigued by unique narrative structures, you may enjoy this one. It’s intrespective and frequently breaks the fourth wall, and will certainly have at least one or two story-beginnings that will leave you wishing for a little more.
The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
Fortunately, our last book provides a decent end to the reading challenge and to our overall Rapid Book Review. The Wrath & The Dawn involves a caliph who gets a new bride each day only to kill them in the morning. The protagonist, Shahrzad, volunteers, if only to extract her revenge for the death of her friend only a few mornings past. She ensnares him with a story, but eventually finds him inadvertently capturing her own.
- Pacing: The book is written as something of a mystery, with Khalid’s motives impossible to discern. Trying to untangle that mystery helps the plot move forward, because Shahrzad’s empathy is tied to it. I’m still on the fence regarding whether or not it needed to be a mystery in the first place, at least to the reader, which made it frustrating at times. Regardless, it kept my attention far better than the last two did.
- Characters: They were likeable enough. Some of them were a little too reliant on tropes–the Misunderstood Bad Boy, the Lighthearted Fool, the Jacob of the Twilighty Love Triangle–but they still felt distinctive. I loved Shahrzad’s sharp tongue.
- Setting: I didn’t realize it was a historical fantasy book at first, set in the Middle East. There’s a character from Greece, and Khorasan’s neighbor is Parthia, which I did recognize. The description can be lacking in some places, making it hard to visualize, but props to Ahdieh for the copious descriptions of food, and of the words left untranslated to give the setting that bit of flavor.
Readers who are hoping for political intrigue will probably be disappointed in this book. Whatever Shahrzad had planned to do initially, the reader never really finds out. It’s more romance than anything else, one that asks its reader to suspend their disbelief, but in a way that says it knows what it is and is unapologetic for it. If you’re a fan of the likes of Sarah J. Maas, you’ll probably like this book.