Friday, 11 July 2014

Book Review: The Winner's Curse (The Winner's Trilogy #1, Marie Rutkoski)

From Goodreads

I first heard about this book on Twitter, right around its release date. Several bloggers I follow had been involved in the promotional blitz, and I saw a lot of tweets floating there. Back then, I was pretty overloaded with TBRs and stories to try and pick it up on the day it was released, but I did keep it in mind, somewhere.

Fast forward to July 2014, I was stopping by the YA floor of the city bookstore to pick up another book. Naturally I did take a look around after picking up that other book -- and almost straight away bumped into this one. And just then, I felt the urge to pick it up, something I can't explain. Thus I brought a copy along to the cashier, paid for it, and straight away started reading.

... and I was pretty much occupied, for the next one or two days. Not because I was totally in love, but because I was kind of curious/mysteriously addicted for reasons I couldn't pinpoint.

The Winner's Curse got its title from the concept of pyrrhic victory, in which you burn on your way to win something. Set in the fictional country of Herran, during its occupation by the Valorians, The Winner's Curse revolves around the life of Kestrel, daughter of a Valorian general. In this story, Kestrel gets her taste of pyrrhic victory when she bids a lot for -- and wins -- a slave which she is intrigued with. The victory soon burns hotter, as the slave, Arin, proves himself to be something else; a person who both intrigues and frustrates Kestrel. The two evolves into star-crossed lovers, then into something else altogether, then into something else. Whilst the book is heavy on romance (sometimes to the point of dragging the plot and drowning the action, the world, and the political drama), the theme of pyrrhic victory remains strong until the end, as the characters continue to sacrifice things they hold dear to achieve something else which looks good at the moment. Despite my mixed feeling about the pacing and parts of the plot, I think the overarching plot has done a good job keeping with the theme, right to the bittersweet, uncertain conclusion. If you enjoy romance, I'm sure you'll quite enjoy the storyline -- it's just not 100% for me, seeing that I don't enjoy pure romances.

In my opinion, both Kestrel and Arin are likeable enough. Kestrel, with her talent for tactic and strategy and her desire to be true to herself, is an example of 'quiet strength' type characters done well. Even when she's subtle, even when she loves her piano, even when she only know basic fighting to defend herself, even when she fights her father every day because he wants her to join the army, she knows where exactly her power lies -- her brain and her keen eyes. Arin, on the other hand, is one of those rebel boys type I've always liked. Compared to many others I've met, he is (understandably) gloomier, more serious, more vengeful, and much better at acting -- but his strength relies on his pride and determination. He is the one with a bigger growth throughout the book, despite being the secondary narrator (the primary privilege belongs to Kestrel). These two are a very interesting, diverse duo. Whilst the main romance storyline isn't entirely new and unique, Kestrel and Arin and their societies add new dimensions to the 'star-crossed'. Both characters remain strong and true until the end, and they grow through their feelings for each other and their experiences through the book. They might be in love, but they remain realistic and focus on what they truly want in life. Whilst I'd at times wished we would see more personalities in the other characters (especially Kestrel's many high-society friends who blurred after a few chapters), I am happy to have met Kestrel and Arin, and am curious to see what would become of them in the next books, especially as individuals. I hope they will continue to grow and be more comfortable in their awesome skins.

Now, I'm going to do what I normally don't -- and talk about the cover. Among the YA and adult covers I've seen, this is perhaps one of my least favourite. I think it is a pretty cover, and I do appreciate the designers for their work with that amazing dress -- but I find the concept untrue to the story and to Kestrel's character. Despite her gentle, tactile nature, Kestrel is not a damsel-in-distress. She fights her own duels and trains with the guard captain on an at least weekly basis. Whilst Kestrel does wear dresses, I feel that the cover doesn't encompass who she essentially is. She looks like a princess there, not like a general's daughter who wishes to live life in her own terms. I wish the cover had captured more of her strong, analytical side and portrayed her as the quiet strength that she is.

Overall my feelings about this book is a little bit mixed. I liked it when I read it, and I thought it had good points. It matched my expectations, and I had moments when it filled me with emotions (one of it had something to do with a library and a book, and another with hair and braids). But it doesn't really stand out among the fantasies (and romance-fantasies) that I've read before. I will most probably pick up and read the sequels, though, to figure out what happens after the end of the first book and to see more of the world and the minor characters.

Overall rating: 3.8 out of 5

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Book Review: Guardian (Proxy #2, Alex London)

Image taken from goodreads. Do hover your cursor over the blacked-out phrases, if you have read both Proxy and Guardian or do not mind spoilers ;).

Alex London's Proxy is one of the few books I've ever loved that much. It was shocking and amazing, heartwarming and heartbreaking. I found myself immersed in the debt and in the injustice, in the characters' journeys and in the amazing plot -- which involves a zoo and a canyon. When I closed my hardcover copy, nursing a broken heart and basking in the warmth of hope and friendship, I knew I would -- without doubt -- read Guardian. The only thing standing between me and this interesting sequel, back then, was the fact that it hadn't yet been published.

A couple of months later, Guardian was published. My friend Commander LilaJune (check out her review here) and I got our hands on it within the first few days of publication. We got completely hooked, and finished it in one day (well, she finished it first, and I stayed up all night reading to catch up because I have a severe case of 'fear of missing out'). Tons (alright, exaggeration alert) of Twitter DM-s were sent, and thoughts and feels were discussed -- and we agreed on a fact I think is important:

... Whilst Proxy is a breakneck thriller, Guardian is a romance (I think Sofia, who first introduced me to Proxy, kind of agreed with this, too).

Yes, there is still action (lots of them, to be exact). Yes, there are deaths, cruel plot twists, moments of self realizations and self doubts, and all the things present in Proxy (although, compared to what happened in Proxy, what happens in Guardian feels mild). But the heart of the story itself was the budding romance between our beloved former-whipping-boy-turned-'messiah' Syd, and the main newcomer in the book, the terrifying, glitched (oh, don't you just love it when authors develop their own slangs for their books? ;)), yet somehow sweet bodyguard Liam.

Liam is a bodyguard boy with mysterious past, one metal hand, perpetually wet 'puppy' eyes, insane killer instinct, and a somewhat-glitched devotion to his responsibility, Yovel (who was known by Syd, and would rather be called Syd). Liam has a Yovel tattoo on his chest (which will come in handy in a sticky situation later ;)), and  spends a lot of time running after/having hots for/thinking about his Yovel. While at first this idol-crush looks a little silly and a little scary, it gradually evolves to a substantial, healthy attraction/affection as Liam learns more about the person under that 'Yovel' label. Although romance is not usually my main genre, I found myself enthralled by the Guardian romance, captivated by Liam's development and inner struggles; Syd's anguish and desire to keep his sense of self; and the sweet thing they share together. I think I would safely say that Guardian is high up on my 'romance' favourite list.

Like other well-done protagonists are, Liam and Syd don't exist in a vacuum. There are other characters, ones which help them most of the time, and ones which serve as antagonists. Among those characters is Marie, a recurring character from Proxy who brings along with her the topics of idealism versus reality, and family. And among the antagonists is a six-year-old gang lord (don't ask me why!!!) who highlights problems with the society and the delusion/thirst for power, as well as provides a comic relief in an otherwise very-much-screwed-up situation. Some characters die; some others stay on. Whilst there is no clear resolution of the fates of all the characters who remained alive at the end of the Guardian (after the adventures and the cruel big twist which started in Proxy), I would say almost everyone learns their different lessons throughout the book. They are forced to examine their stances and beliefs, with the collapse of their society and the looming threat before them. They are forced to work together. They are forced to start anew. And they make a network of beautiful stories, that the lack of absolute resolution did not at all bother me.

There are several questions I still had, after I flipped that last page and turned my e-reader off. What had actually happened to Liam before the book -- before he was a soldier for the rebellion movement. What was the main antagonist's story, and what drove him to do all the things he did (there were serious moments where I questioned his choices and motivations, especially towards the plot climax). What was the thing London actually wanted to achieve with his conflict arc and the cruel, twisty resolution. What would be the future of the world. But until clarified by Alex London, all of those are mysteries -- mysteries I'll let be for the time being, as I remember this book as one of my favourite romance reads.

Although... well... really... a third book or a Liam-novella won't really hurt ;).

Final rating: 4 Stars.