Done: Indiscreet

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Title: Indiscreet
Author: Balogh, Mary
Series: Horsemen trilogy, Book 1 of 3
Genre: Romance, Historical Fiction, Historical Romance
Links: Goodreads, Amazon, Audible

Where do I even begin? I have been on a quest to find a romance novel that I could really get behind, but every time I try a title, I have usually been disappointed. This has not stopped me, however, so I continued trying.

I don’t know why I decided to purchase Indiscreet by Mary Balogh on Audible. I suppose I was getting bored by the extremely slow pace of Fellowship of the Ring, which I had been listening to, and wanted something light-hearted and frivolous. Indiscreet is also the first book of a series, The Horsemen trilogy, which is always a plus point to me.

Was Indiscreet disappointing? Yes and no. Yes, because it was pretty much submerged in every single trope and cliché of the genre. More alarmingly, it almost seemed anti-feminist in its way of handling certain issues like female consent. I have to admit I rolled my eyes tons along the way. But yet, it had to hold a certain kind of charm because I actually felt myself compelled to continue the story and to finish the book. Maybe I have a hardy stomach for some appalling anti-feminist ideas (“No” means “yes”). I can’t tell you why I managed to make my way through it, but if I find myself racing against myself to finish a book (mostly because I wanted to find out Catherine’s true background), I’ve got to give it some credit.

Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

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Done: The Investigation

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I find myself at a loss of what to say about The Investigation.

At first it was like an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque tumble down a rabbit hole into infinite loops of absurd nonsense, but then in the second half, it takes a grimmer turn and tone and by the end of the book, you’re really left questioning what was the point of it all. Or was that the point?

A lot of online comments mentioned how The Investigation was Kafka-esque. I’m going to admit here that I’ve never read Kafka (shame on me) so I can’t concur or rebutt any of these statements. What it did remind me a little of was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, except not as absurdist, and it didn’t quite leave me with a feeling of liberating self-doubt as Beckett’s play did.

The Investigation starts off only mildly absurd. The Investigator, as he is known, arrives at an unnamed town where he is supposed to find his way to the Enterprise to investigate a series of suicides amongst its employees. Everything in the book is named that way – the Waiter, the Server, the Guard, the Guide. Things turn topsy-turvy for the Investigator as nothing seems to happen according to plan. He gets a creepy feeling of being watched. It raised a lot of questions about personal identity in today’s world, are we defined by our functions in society, have we all lost our own individuality in capitalism, so on and so forth. Side note: the Enterprise always reminded me of Google for some reason.

Things get from crazy to batshit insane. Allegories either become too convoluted or simply collapsed under themselves. I was left feeling as lost as the Investigator, all my previous predictions for the ending of the book fell through. If anything, this book had the ability to keep me reading and reading, fuelled simply by the curiosity of finding out what exactly is going on. I finished the book within 24 hours, but the ending fell a little flat for me. I’m not even sure if the author intended to clear anything up by the end. I know explanations are sometimes not necessary for complex works like these, they’re deliberately left open-ended in order to facilitate thought and discussion, but when I look back and can’t seem to connect any dots, or to find out any sort of message behind it all, I begin to question the efficacy of the ending. Maybe it’s me?!

Title: The Investigation
Author: Claudel, Philippe
Genre: Absurdist, Mystery, Kafkaesque
Links: Goodreads, Amazon

Done: A Darker Shade Of Magic

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WOW I’M FINALLY DONE WITH THIS BOOK.

I began this book with very high expectations and it didn’t fail me for the first half. But for some reason, my attention and interest started wavering around the middle and I was stuck on it for a really long time – I felt no urge or excitement to pick it up and continue, but I didn’t want to abandon it either. I’m trying to cultivate a habit of not abandoning books halfway unless it really called for it, which this book, thankfully, didn’t. I finally sat myself down on a gloriously empty Sunday afternoon and finished the second half of the book in one sitting. The thing is, when you’re actually reading it, it’s not too difficult to get the momentum going.

Anyhow, A Darker Shade Of Magic is the first of the Shades of Magic trilogy by author V. E. Schwab and introduces a fascinating magical world that caught my attention and interest the moment I read the synopsis. It introduces a universe where there are 4 alternate universes: Grey, Red, White and Black (not official names, just the nicknames given to them by the main magician, Kell). Each London has varying degrees of magic flowing through it, Black being the one that had been so consumed by magic (a powerful force with a mind of its own, but that is delightfully neither good nor bad, and one that had to be wielded and dealt with with caution), White being almost like a troubled, chaotic and parched world, Red being a thriving “goldilocks zone” and Grey (our human world) being the one with the least/no magic at all. As different as those worlds can be, they have certain fixed points within them that change minimally throughout the 4 dimensions – one of them being the city of London.

Kell hails from Red London, but being Antari, a special and rare breed of magicians that are born with magic in their blood (non-genetically inherited), he is able to move between the different Londons, carrying messages and other things. Things go to shit when he is tricked into picking up a dangerous artifact and an equally foolhardy street urchin from Grey London, Delilah Bard. They spend the rest of the book attempting to dispose of said artifact a la Lord of the Rings, Mount Doom, “THROW IT INTO THE FIRE, MASTER FRODO” style.

This book thread a fine line and could’ve sank into a cliched sort of plot line but it always narrowly misses that, which I appreciate. Despite some criticism about Lila, I didn’t find her characterization overly annoying or stupid. Yes, there were times when she needed saving, but so did Kell and every other major character in the book. Whatever sexual tension or romantic interest may have been breeding in the book was kept to a very subtle minimum and didn’t feel too much like insta-attraction. I thought some things about Lila could’ve been improved or explained (was she a kleptomaniac?) but she didn’t fall into the usual pitfalls that would’ve made me give up on or dislike this book immediately.

Kell was suitably mysterious as the main character. I sometimes found him a little over-dramatic about things, and too much in a rush to (attempt to) kill himself for the sake of others. He’s proven that he’s smart enough, so why doesn’t he think of alternative plans to save everyone which don’t involve him dying in the process? But oh well, I guess he won’t be in a rush to be killing himself any time soon after what happens at the end of the book.

The action was all right, although I guess it got a little draggy in the middle. I’m not sure what it was about it – I simply felt no urge to know what was going to happen at the end. It felt a little – predictable? I knew something had to happen to the stone for it to be gotten rid of by the end of the book, and even though I couldn’t tell whether Kell was or was not going to go along with it, I couldn’t find it in myself to care. To be fair, by the time I reached the end, it did upheave some of my expectations and things turned out slightly different from what I thought it would be.

Would I recommend this book? If you’re a huge fan of period-setting magical worlds and fantasy, yes. It has its flaws but it was a much better-written work than many others out there. But as a point of note, this book doesn’t quite hold back when it comes to violent deaths, of which there are many. Would I continue reading the trilogy? Maybe, I don’t know. I realise that the next book is going to be set on Lila’s adventures, and I’m not sure if I’m interested enough to know more about what’s going to go down with her. The short excerpt of the next instalment didn’t really excite me either.

And now, for the spoiler section!

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Progress: A Darker Shade Of Magic

Current page: 87 of 413
Current chapter: Chapter Four – White Throne, Part II

I am not yet done with this book, but I thought I’d update with what my thoughts about it are so far!

I picked up this book at the library because it had a pretty good Goodreads rating and the synopsis captured me. After reading about two chapters in, I knew I had to buy it. I could’ve just read the copy I borrowed from the library, but I didn’t want to rush myself with a book like this. I wanted to savour every page.

I bought this book some months back, at the beginning of February, from Kinokuniya’s webstore, but found myself caught in the vicious cycle of library books until recently when I made a deliberate attempt to cut myself out and start on my ever-growing list of owned To-Be-Read books. This was literally the first book that I began on once I could.

I am currently on Chapter 4: White Throne, page 86 of the edition I own. So far, it hasn’t disappointed me. The story centers around Kell, a member of the Antari, a special breed of magicians that seem to be somehow blessed by magic from their birth and which results in them having a permanently black eye. Not a bruised eye, I mean literally one eye is black from iris to pupil. He has copper-red hair, befitting since he hails from the Red Kingdom, and is supposedly tall and thin. No surprises here that the ‘head-canon’ (I’ve only just learnt this term) in my imagination here is Eddie Redmayne. Film studios, take note.

He seems to be one out of only two Antari in the story so far, the other one being an enigmatic man named Holland, who has only semi-appeared in one suspicious scene where he wipes the royal guards’ memories to talk to their Prince. It makes me wonder if he’s trying to seduce him, oooh. Anyway, Kell is part of (or rather, adopted by) the royal Maresh family that rule over Red London, a city in a world where magic is part of every day life and revered. There are alternate dimensions that only Antari can travel between, Grey London, White London and the now-defunct Black London (which has apparently crumbled away into nothingness after having been consumed by greed for magic). Grey London is our own familiar universe, reigned over by the mad King George III and his son, the Prince Regent, which gives you an idea that the storyline is set around the Regency period. Kell delivers messages between the three Londons, because he’s the only one who can, but he also engages in some very illegal smuggling of items between those 3 dimensions, though why this is such a bad thing I have yet to find out.

I’ve just had my first sneak peek at the female protagonist, Lila Bard. She seems like a hard-hitting street urchin so far, having already murdered someone in self-defence in her first introduction here, but it remains to be seen. I hope it doesn’t go down the same old tired lines of her falling head over heels for Kell and becoming damsel in distress. I’m just about to start finding out more about the troubled and warring White Kingdom, which Kell has been assigned to go to to deliver a message.

I know all these magic systems and colour coordination makes the book sound a tad reminiscent of typical YA plots, but so far it’s been impressive. The writing isn’t light-hearted, but isn’t stilted either and is sufficiently engaging. I hope this books delivers! I’d most probably be bringing this with me on my Japan trip and I’ll check in again after that.

Title: A Darker Shade Of Magic
Author: V. E. Schwab
Series: Shades of Magic, Book 1 of 3
ISBN: 9780765376466
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22055262-a-darker-shade-of-magic

Hints of trope

Now, I daresay I might be wrong about this.

I have just finished reading A Poisoned Season by Tasha Alexander, a historical fiction/mystery set in the Victorian era. While it isn’t a bad book in itself, I found myself weary from all these tropes that I seem to be uncovering in the 3 recent books of historical fiction I’ve read recently:

1. Main female character is a widow (usually aristocratic).
Lady Emily Ashton in A Poisoned Season, Lady Anne Darby in The Anatomist’s Wife, Christine Derrick (late husband was the son of an earl) in Slightly Dangerous. I suppose that widowhood was the most attractive option for authors to place their heroine. It entailed sexual experience and therefore they could easily explain and do away the stumbling block of shy inexperience that most single unmarried ladies in the Regency/Victorian eras would realistically exhibit. They could easily tune in and recognise as much sexual tension and imagery as an author could possibly want to write into their plot, without worrying about realism. A mature unmarried lady would be looked upon as a spinster and would probably be viewed as unattractive, so widowhood would give authors a good excuse to have a mature, attractive, and – more importantly – available female for sexual exploits.

Maybe men found black veils attractive.

2. Late husband is unloved and unmourned.
Whether her late husband is a sordid and uncaring man, as is Sir Anthony Darby, the so-called anatomist in The Anatomist’s Wife, or had given to a habit of gambling, as did Oscar Derrick in Slightly Dangerous, the late husband of our main widow is usually unloved at the point of their timely demise. They are usually mourned outwardly, as befits social expectations, but hardly missed. This is a quick way for our main widow to have unengaged affections so the hero, in some guise or other, will be able to captivate her without having to break down the meandering form of potent grief and lingering emotions.

3. There is usually some mystery to solve.
And usually our main widow will find some pressing reason to be the one to solve it, despite that it was highly improper for women at that time to partake in such tedious activities that entailed running around so much. This is excepted in Slightly Dangerous, where our hero solves the mystery.

Mmm, yes, zebras.
Mmm, yes, zebras.

4. Our main widow is usually a social eccentric.
Because apparently being a widow, you are either promiscuous, or you are a social recluse/eccentric. In the case of the 3 books I’ve read, all the widows’ main objective in life was to defy High Society and to live their life against the grain by shunning the mechanics of High Society. Usually also because they have some all-consuming passion and interest (art, Greek, children) in a subject that made them stand out from the crowd of simpering young women whose only object was to marry the most titled, wealthiest man that would have them. Because they don’t care about men (supposedly, even though they all end up with one by the end of the novel) anymore. And also because they are widows, and therefore it is almost expected of them to behave against the grain. Somehow. Maybe. Although sometimes I wonder if this would be a popular plot device if authors actually knew enough about the complicated machinery of High Society in England at that time period to write about it. Having a widow avoid most forms of social interactions is a pretty easy ticket out.

Essentially the life motto of all the aforementioned widows.

5. Our main widow usually also has some kind of unsavoury reputation
Being well-respected is for sissies. Widows have to prove their badassery and to proclaim their notoriety by having an unsavoury reputation in Society. Being unnatural because of her husband’s scientific pursuits for Lady Anne Darby, being a flirt for Christine Derrick, and being scandalous for Lady Emily Ashton. But wait! It just won’t do for the widespread rumours of our poor widow to actually be true cos who know if that will scare the hero away? No, all these unfounded rumours are just meant to up our widow’s market value by imbuing notoriety on her honour, but not really actually destroying her innate goodness, so our hero can discover that all by his onesy.

6. Despite her unsavoury reputation, our main widow still gets all the dudes
Because that’s what unsavoury reputations are for! Our main widow, despite being 1) a widow, 2) notorious in Society and 3) hating all kinds of social interactions – still manages to bring all the boys to her yard! Somehow or other, even men notorious for their gallivanting and dalliances find enough in our main widow to want to turn serious for good. For Lady Anne Darby, despite her wanting to hide herself away in a corner of her sister’s castle, she still attracts the two most attractive men of the house party – the handsome rake, also son of an earl, whom every lady in society wants to bed, and our main hero, a wealthy gentleman, Mr. Gage. For Christine Derrick, most of the men in the house party are attracted to her, most of all our main hero, Wulfric, Duke of Bewcastle. She is almost proposed marriage to by the Earl of Ketridge. What a snatch! For Lady Emily Ashton, a pretender to the French throne, a cat burglar with stalker tendencies and a renowned flirt who is also a duke all want to bed her or marry her. That is not even counting the main hero in that story, Mr Hargreaves, who happens also to be one of the richest men in England. Well, well. Widows have all the luck.

Mary always enjoyed the gift of invisibility whenever her friend and recent widow, Lady Smithers, was in the same room.

It was fun at first, but the next time I read any historical fiction that answers all these tropes again, I think I may just give up within the first 10 pages.

Done: The Anatomist’s Wife

The Anatomist’s Wife is a period mystery semi-romance novel set in 1830, Scotland. The writing was all right, wasn’t tedious, though can sometimes be bogged down by superfluous descriptions or scenes that I scanned through and skipped over. The style of the narrative and dialogue were not particularly true to the era (I wouldn’t expect most contemporary novelists to be able to pull that off anyway). In a sense, I was almost thankful that Huber didn’t even try that hard to make the language more fitting for the time the story was set in. From what I’ve read so far, contemporary novelists who attempt that tend to fall flat on their faces and make it that much harder for me to digest the story. The characters were generally believable, most of them were not extremely in-depth or versatile, but they worked for what they were meant for. What’s more important was the mystery! It kept true to its word, with the plot firmly centering around the mystery instead of sidelining it in favour of pursuing romantic subplots which some novels may do. The mystery itself, though not difficult (I guessed the solution at around 45% of the book, though it might have to do with me reading so much Agatha Christie recently), was at least intriguing and engaging enough to press me forward to finish the novel.

(Spoilers ahead!)

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