Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash Level. 1 Novel Review: Kind of Like Reading a Cappuccino Really.

Overview:

Haruhiro wakes up with amnesia surrounded by others who also have amnesia and they discover they are in a world called Grimgar and in order to earn money to live they are about to become volunteer soldiers. Too bad Haruhiro and the others left over don’t really have any skills to speak of.

Review (with some spoilers):

Before I get into this I should probably explain the cappuccino reference. This book is pretty light and frothy, more froth than substance to be honest, but there’s some real bitterness once you get into it. Only, the good kind of bitterness that makes you want to go back for more. Okay, I don’t actually drink coffee but that seemed like the best analogy I could come up with for my experience reading this book. And given it was my first experience with a translated light novel, I’m honestly a little stuck as to how to fairly review this given no matter how I look at it the writing is pretty dreadful. Not even just dreadful by translated story standard (and I’ve read a lot of translated books over the years so that isn’t the issue).  Yet, the story is oddly compelling. So rather than belabor this already tiresome intro, I’ll just get into reviewing and let things just kind of happen.

(By the way, though I am going to use images from the anime in this review, I am not going to compare the novel to the anime. There are definitely differences and you could do a comparison if you’d like, but I’m just going to review the book here. If you want the anime review, click here.)

Grimgar

I’m going to start with the negatives of having read this to get them out of the way. There are positives coming but the negatives are definitely an issue.

Firstly, while anime is littered with bathroom sequences, girls comparing breast sizes, and guys who seem to think that insulting a girl involves commenting on the size of her breasts, and while I’m most okay with it in anime (or at least used to ignoring it), reading such sequences is a different story. If I wasn’t adamantly against defacing books I’d probably have torn a page out of this one because it literally consisted of nothing but dialogue that made me wonder if the author had ever had a conversation with a girl ever. I’ve never actually had the experience of reading such a sequence before and to be honest, I’ll pass on going through that experience again. It adds nothing to the story or the characters. It is inane filler dialogue and it went for nearly all of two sides of one page. Which admittedly meant I read it in about half a minute and could have just moved on except that for some reason my brain committed the phrase “Boing, boing, look at them bounce’ to memory – probably because it knew that the review needed an example of this appalling exchange in order to really get the point across that this was painful.

Following on from that, at least 60% of the dialogue in the story could be considered filler. Characters have more or less the same squabbly arguments over and over again. Which would be fine if any of these exchanges were progressing anything, but literally the plot gets put on hold while the characters rehash whether or not Yume has tiny tits or Haruhiro is actually looking like a sleepy cat, etc, etc.

From what I knew of light novels before reading this, I kind of expected some of the above, but the level to which it intruded on my reading was pretty intense. Once I finally sat down and read the book, I finished it over two days in four sessions. I should have finished it in a single sitting, but every now and then I’d come to one of these exchanges and suddenly have a burning desire to be doing anything else other than reading any more of the story. Clearly though, it wasn’t much of a deterrent, because it wasn’t as though I put the book on a shelf and let it sit there for a month before trying again, but still, it definitely broke my reading flow.

Grimgar

The other major negative I would have for this book is just how much happens in it. I said I wouldn’t compare this to the anime, but this first book takes us nearly to the end of the anime and adds additional subplot and events. That’s a lot of content even if the final arc of the anime isn’t in this one. Ultimately it means events don’t get enough time to really be dealt with appropriately. The death of Manato works and is an excellent dramatic turning point for the group and yet is done within the space of a few pages and then we’ve moved on. Yes, we refer back to that death time and again, but the sequence itself was almost instantaneous. There are other events as well where it just feels like we are told what happens and then we’re pushed onward.

All of that would be fine, except that we spend nearly the first fifty or sixty pages of the book on world building. It is great that we’re getting a fleshed out view of the world and I’m sure a lot of those details will be important later, but an info dump  while the characters get their bearings at the start of the story shouldn’t feel like it got more time and attention than a pivotal death scene or climactic fight sequence. And yet it does.

So if I were to just compare this to other novels I’m pretty sure this one would be in the nice try department and I’d be moving on. However, this is where things get tricky. I really, really loved the story and the world. I love the set up, I love all the things the book hints at coming later, I love the many characters that appear and interact with the main group even if I find most of the main group pretty painful. I also love that the story, while seemingly full of these meaningless and light frothy moments, they contrast beautifully with some of the darker and quite depressing events that occur.

While I don’t like how the world building was handled, the world of Grimgar is really quite fascinating as even by the end of the book you aren’t certain if they are in another world or in a game or simulation. There are possibilities both ways and the final pages of this book certainly push you into mulling these possibilities over without yet tipping its hand. Okay, it is sequel baiting and it is doing it well because I really want to know the secrets of the this world.

There are also some great character moments. When the group manage to work together or even when they are falling apart, some of the exchanges between the characters feel very real and revealing about their forgotten selves (though admittedly these moments are most definitely diluted through the more meaningless exchanges). Every now and then you’ll just get a line that will make you laugh out loud or nod in agreement.

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Mostly what this book does well is while reading it I genuinely wanted Haruhiro to survive. I didn’t really care about the party or whatever goal they were working toward, but I wanted Haruhiro to survive because he has so much potential as a character and I would love to see him grow (and hopefully he does). This story made me fear for his safety, worry when he got hurt, feel bad when he was emotionally down, and want to cheer when he got things right. Basically I got swept up in his story and that is always a good thing.

Okay, this has gone on for a fair while so I’m going to wrap this up. As a book, this has issues. Big and glaring, cannot be overlooked issues. As a story and an introduction to a larger world, it works very effectively. Basically if you are a stickler for wanting good writing, give this one a miss, but if you just want to be transported to another world for an afternoon, this one is probably something you should check out.

If you’ve read the book I’d love to know your thoughts (please don’t spoil the next ones because I am planning to read on in this series).


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Fangirl Book Review: Fanfiction is Serious Business

Overview:

Cath is a major fan of a popular book series, but more than being a fan, she’s a writer of an incredibly popular fan fiction series based on it. Previously, her twin sister Wren shared a love for the series, but they’ve gotten older and now Wren is finding new things to occupy her time. As Cath and Wren venture into university life, Cath is going to have to figure out just what she wants from life and whether she’s able to find her own identity.

Fangirl is apparently “a tale of fan fiction, family and first love” and is written Rainbow Rowell.

Review:

Straight out I am going to say that I loved reading this story. I picked it up from the Book Depository after it recommended it, though why I still don’t know given it isn’t similar to my usual purchases, but I’m really glad I added it to my reading list. I devoured this story and completely fell in love with Cath as she fumbles her way through her first year of university. With a twin sister distancing herself, a roommate who is sometimes hard to read, and a slow burning romance, this book is all kinds of sweet, amusing, heart-wrenching, and just plain adorable.

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At 459 pages, it isn’t a one day read, but the writing style makes it a pure joy to read as you pick up each time. I loved the transition from Cath’s day to day life to the excerpts from Simon Snow and various fan fictions works. While this might have been jarring if handled less well, it all seemed to be well integrated and kept guiding you forward. I also enjoyed the general tone the story was written in. There’s a real sense of humour in some of the observations and descriptions while at the same time this is not a comedy and it isn’t trying to be laugh out loud funny in most instances. This tone just makes the story really fun to read and leaves you with a smile on your face as you turn a particularly interesting conversation between two characters or a bit of description that just leaves you wanting to try to figure out how something would work in real life.

It also helps that Cath is a writer. She likes words and using them in interesting ways and looking for different ways to express ideas, and this comes across in her dialogue with other characters.  Though how much you like Cath will entirely depend on how well you relate to her social awkwardness or her staunch defense of fan fiction in general. This story isn’t subtle in what it is trying to do in legitimizing fanfiction and there are some people who will find that it rubs them the wrong way. I did kind of like Cath’s explanation that it was kind of like sampling with music (though some people also find that problematic as well).

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Still, regardless of your thoughts on Cath as an individual, Cath and Levi’s relationship as it develops throughout the novel is fantastically cute. Even though it is obvious from the start and their road has most of the usual bumps and curve balls you would expect along the way, there’s a genuine innocence and sweetness to how it is portrayed.

Above I wrote that Fangirl is apparently a tale of fan fiction, family and first love because while I get the fanfiction and first love parts, the family part of the story is probably the weakest link here. Cath and her father have a fairly well realised relationship, but it is Wren, the twin sister and catalyst for most of the main parts of the story, where the family part kind of falters. Wren is not a well constructed character. Partly because we only see her through Cath’s eyes and Wren is strongly attempting to separate the two of them so she has limited time physically present in the story. But partly because she’s just not an interesting character. Girl goes to university and wants to party? Way to break the mould. I guess that adds to the believability of the story, but it all just seems like such a hackneyed excuse. More importantly, removing Wren and making a few minor tweaks elsewhere, doesn’t actually diminish the story that much so that whole twin subplot thing is really superfluous at the end of the day.

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And don’t get me started on the story about how they were named Cath-Wren.

The other glaring issue that I will need to mention is this book is heavy on referencing and a lot of those references are going to date this story pretty fast. Much like watching season 1 Buffy or similar and realising that the show is forever going to be locked in the 90’s. Not necessarily a bad thing and as an artefact of the age, not really an issue, but when the references come that thick and fast the dating process takes a heavier toll and in twenty years time would you still be able to even make sense of the text if you hadn’t been part of the previous era of pop-culture?

Buffy

Still, I would recommend this book. It is a touching story with a range of interesting characters. The writing is fluid and enjoyable to read, and the narrative, while not about to change how we view coming of age stories, takes us on an interesting journey as we follow along with our protagonist.

I’ve been eyeing off some other books by this author because I really did enjoy their voice so hopefully I’ll be able to review something else at a later stage.

Let me know your thoughts on Fangirl if you’ve had the chance to read it.


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Karandi James.

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Cinder Book Review: Can a Cyberpunk Take on Classic Fairy Tale Work?

Overview:

Cinder is a gifted mechanic and cyborg is new Beijing, a city literally falling apart with an ill king, political enemies, and a plague tearing through the population. However, when she finds herself increasingly entangled with the Prince, she is going to have to start making some hard choices.

Cinder is the first book from The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer.

Review:

There’s something comforting about fairy tale reworkings. Mostly because, regardless of the trapping, the plot is going to follow a certain series of events until you get to what might be a twist at the end to give it a new spin. So cue the wicked stepmother (though in this case neglectful or abusive may be the better descriptor), the Prince falling in love seemingly at first sight, and the eventual ball in the final act. However, when you throw in plagues, Moon Queens and political alliances, while the story is familiar enough you won’t be feeling like you’ve read this version of it before.

There’s a lot to like it this gritty tale of romance and betrayal. Certainly the fact that the conflict extends beyond a single kingdom makes the scope of the story far more impressive from the get go. In most versions of the story there is very little known of how the Kingdom sits in relation to other countries/kingdoms so the Prince’s choice to marry a girl far beneath his social class has little overall impact other than to allow us to believe love conquers all obstacles. Even Ever After, barely addressed the issue even though technically the Prince there was betrothed to the Princess of Spain and they simply made his near wedding a comedic scene where that Princess pulled out of the ceremony, thus saving France from suffering any real consequence of the headstrong Prince’s choice.

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However, Cinder is different as Kai’s choices are going to have some fairly major consequences further down the line and you definitely wonder whether you should be supporting the two getting together or not given how terribly that could work out for the Kingdom and the people. I really liked this aspect of it as it made the entire situation of a commoner and a Prince coming together seem far more grounded in reality than such a romance usually is, and yet still allowed us to get swept along as the two interacted. We always knew it wasn’t going to be so easy so the ending of this book is not exactly a let down, but it makes for a more impressive story.

I also genuinely like Prince Kai as a character. He’s young and uncertain about some things, stuck in a horrible situation, suffering from the loss of his father, and he is having to make some really tough choices. In his shoes I probably would lock myself in my room and hope it all went away (okay, maybe not, but I’d certainly want to). Yet, despite a few choice moments, Kai deals with it admirably. He may not manage to wave his and magically make things better fairy godmother style, but he’s certainly trying to find the best path through the thorns and all things considered he isn’t doing too bad a job.

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Despite that, Cinder is a little bit harder to take seriously in this story. We’ve seen Cinderella in Disney form where she’s just too sweet for words. We’ve seen the sassy modern takes on Cinderella with Drew Barrymore in Ever After or even Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. We get that Cinderella doesn’t need to wait around for the guy and can make decisions on her own (but if the guy shows up and its on her terms then go for the romantic and happy ending).

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But in Marissa Meyer’s take on Cinderella, we have a girl who is dejected and has all but surrendered herself to the awfulness that surrounds her. It is understandable, but it hard to get behind her as a character. Almost all of her plans and schemes are motivated entirely by self-interest and quite a few of her problems come about because she just doesn’t pay enough attention to those around her as she seems oblivious to the problems of others. By the time she decides to make a noble gesture and attempt to save Prince Kai at the ball it is very hard to care particularly for Cinder as a character and by this stage you know how badly that rescue is going to go so you mostly just sit back and wait to read how it all fell apart.

Which leads me to my other issue with the story. While it is a fast read (a day or two at most to read depending on distractions) and its relatively easy and flowing to read with a more young adult audience in mind, the writing is pretty ordinary. By that I do not mean it is bad. It flows well and moves you along. The world building is fine and you can visualise what is being described. What I mean by ordinary is that I got to the end of the book and couldn’t recall a single line of note. Not one description that I just loved and wanted to read again. Even while reading, there were no passages that made me pause after reading them and want to go back just to take in a good turn of phrase. So maybe ordinary isn’t the right word. The writing is unobtrusive, but that also makes it fairly unremarkable.

That said, the plot is pretty addictive and I am desperate to know what happens next for our cyborg mechanic and the Prince so I will be hitting the book depository sooner rather than later to pick up the next book in the series.

If you’ve had a read of Cinder, I’d love to know your thoughts.


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All Our Yesterdays Book Review

Okay, my very first book review. This one has taken a lot of redrafting and I think it will be awhile before I take on another book.

Overview:

A time travel story told from the pint of view of Marina, a wealthy teenage girl, and Em, a hardened girl on a mission to change her future by travelling to the past. This YA novel was written by Cristin Terrill and was published in 2013. I recently came across this (by recently I mean many months ago) when I went on a spending spree on the book depository and this title was suggested among other books I was purchasing. Recently it floated to the top of my read pile and I’m really glad I picked this one up.

Review:

There’s this thing about YA fiction that I really like (even though I haven’t been by definition a young adult in quite awhile). Mostly it is because I can usually read the books in one or two sittings (or if work is crazy, usually over the course of a week) which means I don’t have to try to hold the details of the story for very long in my head. Also, the books tend to keep things moving mostly because most younger readers don’t have that much of an attention span for slow development. All Our Yesterdays kind of hit both of these marks. I read it in a single 5 hour sitting (yet another power outage lead to the low tech solution for entertainment) and the story moves and moves quick.

It is really hard to explain what is good about this story without revealing too much. As a time travel story, there’s a lot that becomes clear later in the book and really it will kind of take the fun out of the first few chapters if you already know it. I’ll try to avoid overt spoilers but certain events are going to be hinted at.

The story is pretty straight forward for a time travel story. The future is broken and terrible (war, chaos, military rule, etc) and according to Em’s account (it is only her voice and perspective that sheds any light on this future world) there is one person responsible for the mess. Em and Finn, after breaking out of jail, through some paradoxically unlikely set ups with a guard in the past and a note left by previous Em and Finn’s who had tried and failed to change anything, travel back four years to kill the man responsible for all the horrible things that would happen in the future. This of course opens an entire can of worms about the morality of the situation and whether or not the future can be changed (given how many other times the two had tried and other methods, none of which had resulted in a different future given they were still ending up in the same facility and cell to find the note and be released).

Actually the story is pretty addictive. You know where it must be heading early on (if you’ve read any other time travel book I’m sure you are capable of putting the pieces together) and you also know what the ‘reveal’ is going to be well before they deliver it. I’m not going to spoil it because some people might find this an actual twist or development whereas I’d just kind of been waiting for it since the opening chapters. Despite knowing full well where things were going, it was entertaining finding out how we would get there. The ‘reveal’ is obviously supposed to be a surprise given how much emphasis is suddenly placed on some key words as they lead up to the person directly saying something experienced readers will have figured out, and yet you don’t feel like this is pandering. It’s just a way of dramatically building up to a key plot point and whether it is a surprise or not doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a logical development and by revealing the information when they do it allows the story to progress into the climax quite fluidly.

One thing that is a bit odd about this story is the fact that it is written in present tense. I didn’t pick it up on my first read through, mostly because I was so engrossed in the story, but something was nagging at me about the style of the writing. It just wasn’t quite what I was used to and yet it wasn’t intruding into my enjoyment. After I finished I went back and re-read a few key parts and it hit me quite quickly why the style was a bit different. Then of course I wondered why the story was written in present tense but the answer to that became obvious. It’s a story about time travel. If Em had been narrating in past tense, about events she’d lived through already, it would make no sense for her to conceal certain points that she learns later in the book. By writing in present tense, we learn things as Em learns them and it makes the whole experience more authentic because the primary narrator isn’t deliberately hiding things but simply isn’t aware of them yet. Also, the ending of the story kind of makes it clear that past tense wouldn’t have worked but that’s another story and goes back into spoiler territory.

As to the characters themselves, they are highly engaging. They aren’t deep or intense, or complex, but they are engaging. The difference in tone between the two narrators (Em and Marina) is handled well and serves the plot well later in the story. Marina’s relationship, or non-relationship, with James is fairly well developed in terms of unrequited high school romance. This is contrasted nicely with Em’s dependent relationship with Finn, though as we learn more about how the two came to be together their relationship is probably the best developed sub-plot in the story.

The villain of the piece is reasonably interesting. Partly because you can see he definitely has developed a god complex in the future where Em is from and the power has definitely gone to his head, but mostly because you see him before all that happened and it’s kind of like watching Light in Death Note transition from high schooler bored with life to mass murdering psycho. Again, there isn’t a lot of depth to his motivation, but it works well, its consistent, and it is kind of relatable. Also, it provides just enough moral ambiguity that you have to wonder whether stopping him is actually the right thing to do or is there a way to let him develop time travel technology without him going power mad? I’d like to talk more about him but that definitely goes straight into spoiler territory so I’ll move on.

For a time travel story it doesn’t attempt to explain how time travel really is possible. The explanations you get are all very watered down and vague, which allows you to believe maybe it might work and doesn’t give you enough details to poke too many holes into the story. This is fine because neither of the narrators are scientists so it isn’t as though they’d really get the science anyway. Also, the way paradoxes are handles is pretty good. It’s a little convenient from a narrative point of view, but at least they address the issue of avoiding or creating a time paradox head on.

My main criticism of the book probably comes from the descriptions. Basically we get a couple of details about physical appearances or characters and settings and nothing more. It’s enough and at least we aren’t visiting info-dump land, but as the story progresses little more is added to the initial descriptions so visualising some of the scenes becomes more of an act of your own imagination rather than something crafted by the story. I don’t particularly mind that as I enjoy creating visuals but I also think this might make it hard for some readers to connect (then again, people who detest lengthy descriptions will probably be overjoyed).

The other criticism actually comes because of who the two narrators are and the parts of the story that remain undeveloped because it isn’t significant to either of those characters. There’s some compelling conspiracies and interesting politics playing out behind the scenes but we barely scrape the surface of these for the simple reason that our narrators don’t interact with these elements. They get hit by the effects of them, but they aren’t a part of that particular world. While that doesn’t stop the story working, it leaves me wondering if there was a more interesting story if we’d heard from a third character at some point.

Overall if you enjoy stories about dystopian futures but are sick of wandering around brown and ruined cities, All Our Yesterdays gives you a dystopian future where we spend most of the narration in the past trying to avoid that future. For a YA novel it makes some really excellent points, raises some good questions, delivers an interesting cast of characters, and tells a story that is compelling and feels like there is something really at stake. I really loved reading this book and honestly couldn’t have stopped reading it until I hit the last page even if I wanted to. I had to know if my guess was correct in how the story would end and was deeply satisfied when it was because the journey to get there had been rewarding.

Anyway, my recommendation is to read this. If you read Young Adult fiction or if you like low key science fiction, this is definitely going to hook you.


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