Robyn Reviews: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

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Some books are impossible to capture in mere words. It’s ironic – after all, words are all that form the book in the first place – but no other words can quite create the same brilliance, the same beauty, the same resonance. How do you capture transcendence with twenty-six little letters? VE Schwab has found the answer – but I can’t fathom how to possibly do her work justice.

‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue’ is the best book VE Schwab has ever written. It’s a masterwork – a feat of wordcraft so exquisite it’s hard to imagine creating anything better. Every sentence is gorgeously constructed, every metaphor lands true, and every word is heartbreaking – heartbreaking because it brings you closer to the end. Addie has made a deal with the devil to live forever, and books like this show you why we all fear the curtain coming down.

“Were the instants of joy worth the stretches of sorrow? Were the moments of beauty worth the years of pain? And she turns her head, and looks at him, and says ‘Always’.”

Adeline LaRue is born in rural France in 1691. She’s a dreamer, a free spirit, always looking beyond the borders of her village – but she’s a girl, and girls are not allowed to dream. Girls must go to church, and obey their betters, and learn to be wives for their future husbands, and look after their households, and bear their children. Bound to a future she doesn’t want, Adeline looks for escape – but every dream has its price, and she doesn’t know the true cost until it’s too late.

Adeline can have her freedom – but only by giving up herself.

“The last, brittle thread to her old life has broken, and Addie has been set well, and truly, and forcibly free.”

Addie is the perfect protagonist. Sharp and quick, she’s the girl who dreams of more – and is also stubborn and determined enough to find it. Forced into dreadful situations, she still manages to find a light in the dark; a reason to go on. More than that – even as her life is treated like the plaything of others, she digs in her heels and wrenches it into the shape she needs. Addie will never back down, never admit defeat, never give up control. She has moments of weakness, of despair, of fear – but she knows that there are many better days to come, and she holds out for them like an old tree, bent and battered by the storm but still standing when the sun returns.

 “If she must grow roots, she would rather be left to flourish wild instead of pruned, would rather stand alone, allowed to grow beneath the open sky. Better that than firewood, cut down just to burn in someone else’s hearth.”

Henry is the opposite – the man who feels too much, and doesn’t know what to do with all these emotions that refuse to let him be. He’s the perfect counterpoint – the racing hurricane to Addie’s steadfast tree, the raging fire to Addie’s cold pool. He’s a dreamer too – but where Addie’s dreams are a tether, his are a maze. Addie’s response to running out of time is to find more of it. Henry’s response is to do more, always more, falling into a panicked spiral until everything falls apart.

Addie’s devil? He’s the dark shadow following you home at night. The menacing maw of the corridor before you flick on the light. He’s endless, timeless, and just when Addie thinks she knows him he demonstrates just how far from a mere human evil he is. She can name him, claim him, blame him – but the darkness cannot be tamed. When everything else fades, the darkness is all that remains.

“You think it will get easier. It will not. You are as good as gone, and every year you live will feel a lifetime, and in every lifetime, you will be forgotten. Your pain is meaningless. Your life is meaningless. The years will be like weight around your ankles. They will crush you, bit by bit, and when you cannot stand it, you will beg me to put you from your misery.”

The plot marches forward like the inexorable march of time. The perspective alternates – Addie now, in New York, versus Addie as she was, learning to navigate her strange half-existence – together weaving a narrative so vibrant, so emotional, you never want to leave. This is a book that could be read over and over and adored more every time. Several of the twists I guessed, but this didn’t lessen their impact – if anything, it highlighted it, their direction as inevitable as the ticking of the clock, the passing of the seasons. Everything comes crashing down eventually – all good things must end.

This story has worked its way into my soul. Calling it a favourite doesn’t even do justice to its impact. It’s less a book and more of an experience – a temporary passage to somewhere greater than here.

If you want to read a story that speaks to your soul, read this book. Read it, and marvel how much beauty can be created with simple words.

“She leans back against him, as if he is the umbrella, and she is the one in need of shelter. And Henry holds his breath, as if that will keep the sky aloft. As if that will keep the days from passing.

As if that will keep it all from falling down.”

Published by Titan Books
Hardback: 6th October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Ghost Tree

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This is a very difficult book to review. It has great elements, but certain parts of it make me very uncomfortable. I’m hesitant to recommend it because certain problematic aspects are never called out.

The Ghost Tree centres on the town of Smiths Hollow, a small town on the outskirts of Chicago known for being peaceful and prosperous. While towns around it have suffered from job losses and escalating crime, Smiths Hollow has flourished. However, there’s a dark secret behind that prosperity – and a cascade of events have been set in motion which might lead to it all falling down.

I want to start by explaining my primary issue with this book. It features a developing relationship between a fourteen-year-old girl who has yet to start high school and an eighteen-year-old college student. This relationship is never challenged or spoken of in any negative way. I’m enormously uncomfortable with the idea of young teenagers reading this book and thinking that relationships with adults are acceptable or even cool. There’s a huge inherent power and maturity imbalance here, and whilst it’s natural for teenagers to fantasise about relationships with those older than them, relationships between children too young for high school and actual adults should never be portrayed as normal. This isn’t being marketed as a young adult book, but in many ways it reads as one. I don’t understand why the fourteen-year-old wasn’t aged up to at least sixteen – this wouldn’t have affected the plot in any way, and would have made this feel less uncomfortable.

It’s a shame, because the characters in this are excellent. For a short book it has many point-of-view characters, but this works, creating a real small-town feel. There’s nuanced discussion about the difficulties of being a single parent, the difficulty of raising teenagers, racial tension, and being a teenager changing and growing apart from your family and friends. Many of the characters think uncomfortable things – one is unapologetically racist, another has very problematic thoughts about sex and virginity – but this actually works well, because many people do believe those things, and as long as those beliefs and opinions are challenged by other characters it becomes clear that they’re not being condoned. It captures the feeling of being a teenage girl very well, and whilst I haven’t been a single parent, the way it describes how this feels is also very nuanced and thought-provoking. Through the lens of all the different characters, it manages to show a variety of opinions on each event in a very eye-opening way.

To be honest, I think this would work better as a contemporary rather than a horror story. The horror elements felt unnecessary and a tad contrived compared to the cleverness and insightfulness of the characters and social commentary. They also weren’t particularly scary – I don’t know if this was the intent, but it combined with the age of some of the primary characters to give this a more juvenile feel. Personally, I would have preferred two separate stories – one a contemporary with this cast of characters, and one a gothic horror story about witches and the monster in the woods.

Having said that, the plot wasn’t bad, and I did enjoy reading this. Certain elements were very gripping, and I was really rooting for certain characters – especially Alex Lopez. Those looking for a basic horror story with an intriguing and varied cast of characters will probably enjoy this – I just think every reader needs to be aware that it’s not without its issues.

Thanks to Titan Books and NetGalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 8th September 2020

Robyn Reviews: All the Stars and Teeth

All the Stars and Teeth is a fun young adult fantasy that should appeal to all fans of the genre. Rather than striving for unique elements, it combines typical tricks and tropes to great effect, weaving a compelling – if predictable – story.

The book is told from a single point of view. Amora Montara, princess of the island kingdom of Visidia, is preparing for the biggest day of her life – the day when she proves her mastery of soul magic, to take over her father’s role as High Animancer. The High Animancer protects the kingdom from the Beast, a mysterious force which gains power if anyone in Visidia attempts to learn more than one magic. However, Amora’s demonstration doesn’t go to plan, and her life may be on the line – until she’s rescued by the mysterious Bastian, a pirate from the exiled kingdom of Zudoh. Together, Amora, Bastian – and Amora’s fiancé Ferrick, who sneaks after them – set off on a quest to save Zudoh – and potentially the whole kingdom.

Amora reads exactly like a teenage princess should – spoiled, entitled, sheltered, and desperate to be free and make her own choices. At times, this makes her an unlikeable protagonist, but I applaud Adalyn Grace’s decision to make Amora realistic. Her interactions with Ferrick and Vataea are excellent – Vataea especially helps make Amora more human. On the other hand, the romance was predictable and toed the line of insta-love, and I never felt the chemistry – I feel like a little more build-up would have helped.

Bastian is a great character. For a pirate, he’s a very nice, caring guy – even if he does spend a lot of time stealing and threatening people with swords. I’m slightly disappointed there weren’t more pirates – the story around Keel Haul is great, and a magic ship is always going to be a good thing, but a pirate crew is an opportunity to add humour and banter, and a book sold with pirates on the tagline really needs more than one pirate. As only Amora gets a point of view, much of Bastian’s story remains a mystery – but he’s still a well-enough rounded character.

My favourite part of this world is the magic system. The idea of each character having a magic – most based on their island of origin, but not all – is intriguing, and I wish we got to see more of it. I also adore soul magic – Grace didn’t play down how horrific it could be, and it’s fascinating seeing the other characters’ reactions to Amora using it. Amora oscillates between delight at her power and horror at the costs, which can be jarring – but for a teenager who’s been doing this since she was a child, her reactions seem realistic.

Overall, this is a solid young adult fantasy. Recommended for fans of interesting magic systems, strong female heroines, and pirates (with the caveat that there’s not a great deal of piracy).

 

*Thanks to NetGalley and Titan Books for providing an eARC of this book – this in no way affects the content of this review*

 

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 4th August 2020

Book Review: The Near Witch

The Near Witch, by V.E. Schwab, is one of those rare books that may work better if well adapted for the screen. It contains a number of electric set pieces that could be awesome and terrifying if presented with appropriate sound and effects. They are granted a great many words to bring to life on the page.

Even beyond these the wider plot too often drags through its world building and repetitive activity. The concept is of our time – a community fearful of strangers and of change – but the fantasy powers foreshadowed never fully deliver.

The story opens with two sisters settling down to sleep in their candlelit bedroom. Sixteen year old Lexi is telling a story to five year old Wren. The narrative unfolds from the point of view of the older girl. We learn that her father is dead and her mother still mourning, now a shadow of her former self. Their uncle, Otto, lives close and keeps an eye on the little family. He disapproves of Lexi’s continuing interest in her father’s occupation as a tracker. Sixteen is the marrying age of the girls in the town and Lexi has a suitor, one she has little interest in.

The action is set in the town of Near. This is a remote community surrounded by moorland and, as the residents neither see strangers nor leave, must be self sufficient – something that is not explained. Generations ago a witch was banished and the children sing songs about the associated tale in their games. There are still two elderly witches in residence. They live on the edges and are treated with suspicion.

When a stranger is spotted, Lexi is curious. She believes that the witches know more about this young man than they will admit. Then children start to disappear and she fears for the safety of Wren. The town elders blame the stranger, assuming his unexpected arrival cannot be coincidental. Shut out from the efforts of these men, who are tasked with protecting the town, Lexi plans her own mission.

As each child is taken, Lexi seeks advice from the witches and tries to find out more about the stranger. She is warned away from involvement by Otto who eschews her supposed skills as a tracker. A love story is developing against a backdrop of growing suspicion. As the elders are making little progress they look for someone to blame.

The introduction by the author explains that this novel, her debut, was written when she was still at university. It was the spark that lit the flame of her successful career. It has fine ideas and some interesting characters but lacks the momentum needed to hold uninterrupted interest. I would have preferred tighter pacing.

Following The Near Witch, the book contains a second, shorter story, The Ash-Born Boy. This offers further background on the stranger who arrived in Near. Because of his powers he was abused by his step-father, something in which his mother was complicit. The tale posed as many questions as it answered.

The edition I read is gorgeously presented with embossed hard covers, end papers, ribbon and illustrations. I suspect it will be enjoyed by the author’s fans who may wish to better understand where her ideas began. As a first exposure to her work it may not have been the best place to start.

A promising concept and adept use of language but overlong and repetitive given the action contained.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Titan Books.