Thursday, April 7, 2016

Review: The Map of Bones by Francesca Haig (The Fire Sermon #2)

*This review may contain spoiler for the first book in the series, The Fire Sermon, and minor spoilers for The Map of Bones.

So when I reviewed The Fire Sermon, the first book in this series, I wrote this:

‘I really want Haig to give the reader more in the sequels. More insight, more internal life, more complexity, more basis for how the world is, more believability, more emotion’

And in book two, The Map of Bones, she delivers. It feels unburdened and able to breathe more freely following events at the end of the first book and Kip’s death. Cass now comes into her own as a character and we get to know her as she goes through grief, and without the distraction of romantic interests for now. There is much more interiority and the prose blossoms in these moments. There is also more travelling and journeying but it doesn’t feel like filler, events unfold naturally and there are certainly big game-changing ones that occur.

We get to know more about Zoe, stripping the layers away as the book goes on, but Piper is still a slightly more one-dimensional character – I haven’t quite got a hold on him yet. The villains (Zach and co.) are also quite limited but mainly because there isn't really a chance to spend much time with them. I enjoyed this as a sequel – and second books are probably the hardest to get right in a trilogy. If some of those secondary characters develop more in the third then I think we’re onto a winner.

The Map of Bones, perhaps even more so than being a dystopian quest-narrative, is a solemn, bleak meditation on memory and grief, and what it is to really know someone. Haig comes into her forte with some of Cass’s and Zoe’s reflective moments and inner struggles – for example, this beautiful line on the way we remember someone after they’re gone:

“…but I betrayed her, too, when I only remembered the bad parts. I should have remembered her properly, even though it’s harder.”

It’s a deeply moving moment and a cathartic one both for the characters and the reader. The journey they go on in this book is as much mental and emotional as it is physical, and you do feel like they’ve travelled a long distance in both by the end.

The gradual revealing of more and more about the blast and the Before is also very effective. It is implied that the people of the Before advanced too far with their machinery and technology, all leading to a nuclear disaster. Hence the intense mistrust of tanks and other machinery by the residents in the After (except for Zach and some of the other Alphas who want to use it for their own cruel purposes).

"It’s always said that everything’s broken, since the blast,” [Piper] said. “And we both know there’s plenty that’s broken enough.” There were so many different kinds of brokenness to choose from. The broken-down mountains, slumped into heaps of slag and scree. The towns and cities from the Before, the bones of a world. Or the broken bodies he’d seen, too many to count.

“…what good ever came out of the Before? The one thing that we know for certain about these people is that they, and their machines, destroyed the world. They brought about all of this.” – The Ringmaster

The pacing and the subtlety is much stronger throughout the narrative and, a true poet, Haig’s imagery is incredibly powerful and memorable.

‘I was a walking emissary of the deadlands, spreading ash wherever I went.’

‘This was how violence worked, I was learning: it refused to be contained. It spread, a plague of blades.’

‘Words were bloodless symbols we relied on to keep the world at bay.’

More forces and perspectives are coming to play and the world is both deepening and expanding. The language and imagery is very evocative and visual and I’m beginning to see how it could be compared to The Road by Cormac McCarthy in terms of atmosphere and landscape. I now have high hopes for book three. Some readers may struggle more with this one as the pacing is slower than other recent offerings in the genre, but there are key moments of action and reveals are measured and gradual. I personally found this much more rewarding than frustrating – where book one was a bit more hit-and-miss with pace, this one finds a consistent balance. 

If you've read The Fire Sermon and, like me,  weren't sure, then I definitely recommend you give this a read as it adds much, much more and Haig stylistically hits her rhythm. This trilogy is beginning to lay its own ground and I look forward to reading more.  
Discussion Point: 

I guess there is a certain discussion point that did spring to my mind when I was thinking about these books: Haig certainly makes the Omegas our heroes – and defines them by deformity, and yet the protagonist/hero that she gives us is one who is an exception – who does not have a physical deformity and is ‘special’. What does this say in the climate of diversity? Is it a missed opportunity or is there a more intricate exploration of the mental health of someone with Cass’s powers? I’d be interested to hear what others think. I think it’s very complicated given the premise of the novels but I found The Map of Bones a good and thought-provoking read nonetheless and trust Haig’s intentions and knowledge of the world and characters she is building.

I like that there is a very interesting choice that the characters are faced with by the end *potential spoiler alert*: is it better for everyone to be equal, although all with a degree of 'deformity', or for the Alpha-Omega twin-death bond to continue? It's going to be very interesting to unpack in the next book as it certainly complicates the endgame of the different parties.

Further quotes:

-          “…although you like to think you’re so far above the assumptions and prejudices of the rest of the world, it turns out you’re not so different from them after all.” - Zoe

-          'Hope was not a decision I made. It was a stubborn reflex. The body squirming toward the air. The taking of the next breath, and the one after that.'

*Thank you to Gallery Books (US) and HarperVoyager (UK) for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

GoodReads description:

Passage, n.
i. A brief section of music composed of a series of notes and flourishes.
ii. A journey by water; a voyage.
iii. The transition from one place to another, across space and time.

In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she’s inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she’s never heard of. Until now.

Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods—a powerful family in the colonies—and the servitude he’s known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can’t escape and the family that won’t let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas’ passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them—whether she wants to or not.

Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods’ grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are playing, treacherous forces threaten to separate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home... forever.

This was an intriguing adventure-romance which delves into history and time travel with care and detail. As a novel, it explores issues of family, race and identity in different time-contexts. 

Bracken's knowledge and historical detail is one of the strongest aspects of Passenger. I enjoyed the construction of each world, and wish we could have spent longer in each time to really see these primary characters adapt, develop and relate. Their adventure and romance sometimes felt a bit too rushed, despite both Nicholas and Etta being interesting individual characters. The romantic tension did feel a little forced and too detailed, leaving little time for the chemistry to build somewhat independently of the text itself. Nicholas is a very guarded character, understandably so given his time and origins as the child of a slave and her master. It is understandable for him to be guarded from Etta and those around him in the story, but with a two-character alternating narrative, Bracken perhaps could have let the reader in a little more. We don't get many private moments with him, whereas we really benefit from the opening chapters with Etta. 

I really enjoyed the opening chapters as we get to know Etta and what drives her and her love of music. Bracken writes these scenes brilliantly and really gets in Etta's head, and introducing the key relationships in her New York 2015 life. Similarly, there are some really nice moments with Nicholas on the ship, in his own time, with his sort of surrogate ship family. I would have loved to see these play out a little longer before the protagonists are thrown together. 

Again you don't really get a strong sense of the character of the villain - Cyrus Ironwood - but the history of the families is bound to be expanded upon in the sequel and I am looking forward to learning more - those family/surrogate family elements were some of the things that really hooked me. At this stage, Cyrus just exists to impose a sense of threat and a ticking-clock to carry the plot forward in this first book. 

Overall, it's a slow, careful and intriguing build (except for the romance angle, which I found a little too forced and rushed). It would have been nice to see the chemistry and relationship between Etta and Nicholas develop more organically, but the writing is very much 'telling you' it's happening. In terms of plot, the pace zooms into overdrive in the final few chapters and the ending is a whirlwind of a cliff-hanger which should fire nicely into the sequel and shake things up a bit. I'm intrigued by this world, particularly the negotiations of different cultures and the time-travel concept that Bracken is building and will pick up the sequel with interest when it arrives.

Thank you to Quercus Children's Books for a chance to read an eARC via NetGalley. This book is out in the UK on the 7th of April!