Review: Wolf Brother

Review: Wolf BrotherWolf Brother (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, #1) by Michelle Paver
Published by Orion Children's Books on May 27th 2005
Genres: Action & Adventure, Family, Hard Science Fiction
Length: 6 hours 25 minutes
Format: audio
Source: Purchased

Thousands of years ago the land is one dark forest. Its people are hunter-gatherers. They know every tree and herb and they know how to survive in a time of enchantment and powerful magic. Until an ambitious and malevolent force conjures a demon: a demon so evil that it can be contained only in the body of a ferocious bear that will slay everything it sees, a demon determined to destroy the world.
Only one boy can stop it—12 year old Torak, who has seen his father murdered by the bear. With his dying breath, Torak’s father tells his son of the burden that is his. He must lead the bear to the mountain of the World Spirit and beg that spirit’s help to overcome it.
Torak is an unwilling hero. He is scared and trusts no one. His only companion is a wolf cub only three moons old, whom he seems to understand better than any human.
Theirs is a terrifying quest in a world of wolves, tree spirits and Hidden People, a world in which trusting a friend means risking your life.

Wolf Brother is one of those books that’s been on my radar for as long as I can remember, but only in the vaguest sense: I could picture the cover, I could tell you it was a children’s book, and that’s pretty much it.  Recently, having finished The Dresden Files audiobooks, I wasn’t sure what to spend my next audible credit on, but somehow ended up on the page for Wolf Brother.  The plot sounded intriguing enough – historical fiction, fantasy elements, a wolf! – but what really sold me was the fact that Sir Ian McKellen narrated it. I mean, let’s be honest, he has a voice just made for storytelling and I assume he must have been asked to read a lot of audiobooks by now, but for some reason this is the one he decided to go ahead with.  It’s quite short by audiobook standards – only 6.5 hours – which is good because it means you get through it quickly, but slightly less good in terms of value per credit 😉

Torak is likeable, Renn is pretty great, but the character who makes the book is of course, Wolf. The way he thinks – calling the humans ‘tailless’es, and an arrow the Long-Claw-That-Flies – is great, and he’s certainly the character I got most attached to.  As expected, McKellen’s narration is great, and the plot moves on quickly throughout the story; what could easily have been multiple books is instead just under 300 action-packed pages.  The downside to the quick pacing is that everything is pretty quick: relationships, plot development, character growth, are all pretty instantaneous.  I felt Torak found everything just a little bit too easy; he doesn’t have much in the way of strategy, or a plan, or if I’m totally honest, much of anything that particularly suggests he should be the hero of the story, apart from his ability to talk to Wolf.  The writing style is also pretty simple, and while it touches on a few darker themes, there’s no forgetting it’s a kids book.  Obviously kids are the target audience, but I think it’s a little disappointing that the pacing and writing could put off adults for whom the setting and storyline had crossover appeal.

Despite my issues with the book, I loved the setting, the survival skills elements were really cool, and the obvious research Paver has done really shines through.  I’m probably intrigued enough to get around to the rest on audio, if only because McKellen’s narration was so great.  Sadly though, I definitely think I’d have enjoyed this alot more if I’d discovered it as a kid.

Early Review: Cruel Beauty (Rosamund Hodge)

Early Review: Cruel Beauty (Rosamund Hodge)Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
Published by HarperCollins on 28-01-2014
Genres: Family, Fantasy & Magic, General, Love & Romance, Young Adult
Pages: 352
Format: eARC
Source: Edelweiss

Graceling meets Beauty and the Beast in this sweeping fantasy about one girl's journey to fulfill her destiny and the monster who gets in her way-by stealing her heart.

Based on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Cruel Beauty is a dazzling love story about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny.

Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him.

With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she's ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people.

But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle-a shifting maze of magical rooms-enthralls her.

As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex's secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.

Plot: ★★★★
Characters: ★★★★★
Readability: ★★★★★

I was cautiously optimistic about Cruel Beauty.  Optimistic because it sounded wonderful and I’ve heard great things about it, but cautious because I wasn’t sure whether it would live up to all the hype.  While I hoped I’d enjoy it, I never dreamed it would be a new favourite, and I certainly didn’t expect to absolutely love it the way I did.

Nyx has spent her whole life preparing for marriage to a monster.  She’s known for years that she has to marry the Gentle Lord as payment for a trade her father made before her birth.  She’s been trained in the Hermetic arts in the hopes of one day killing him, knowing it’ll likely take her life as well.  She’s an absolutely fantastic character, and one you can’t help but love.  She’s feisty, determined, sarcastic and witty.  She’s a dutiful daughter and a willing sacrifice.  Despite all that, she’s by no means perfect.  She gets angry, and bitter, and sometimes she hates everyone for expecting so much of her.  She’s impulsive and sometimes she wants to defy her duty and do her own thing.  She’s completely believable and three-dimensional which is what makes it so easy to like her.

Ignifex, as he’s known to Nyx, is the Gentle Lord.  Ruler of the kingdom, commander of the demons and master of evil bargains, Nyx doesn’t know what to expect, but it certainly isn’t a suave (but arrogant), handsome gentleman.  Ignifex has a sharp tongue and a sharper wit, and above all he’s entertaining to read.

There is a love triangle in Cruel Beauty, but it didn’t particularly bother me, perhaps because I thought it was obvious where it was going!  The third member of the triangle is Shade, a mysterious prisoner in Ignifex’s house, who seems to want to ally himself with Nyx but is incapable of betraying Ignifex.

I really enjoyed the romance in Cruel Beauty.  Whilst some of it was a little rushed, I enjoyed Nyx’s developing relationships with both Ignifex and Shade.  Ignifex is her husband, but he’s also an evil demon responsible for countless deaths, including that of Nyx’s mother.  Despite knowing that logically, Nyx can’t seem to help her attraction to him.  She can have fun with him, and show the darkest parts of her soul to him – but she also knows she has to kill him.  Shade is the innocent, gentle prisoner, but whilst Nyx is attracted to him, she feels guilty for desiring someone other than (or at times as well as) her husband.  At times distracted from her mission and her morals, the romance is a large part of the story, but in a good way.  It’s clear from the synopsis and the fact that it’s a fairy tale retelling that the romance will be key, so it doesn’t feel like it takes over the story, just that it was always supposed to take a central role.  It’s refreshing to read about a YA heroine who admits to her feelings for both men, and who doesn’t justify hand-wringing and indecisiveness by instantly announcing that she’s in love with both and can’t help it.

As well as the romance, we see a lot of Nyx’s familial relationships which were really well done.  Nyx has a twin sister, Astraia, and while it’s clear she loves her twin dearly, Nyx can’t help but also resent her for the fact Astraia will get to live a free life while Nyx goes to her doom.  Nyx sometimes hates Astraia, and more than that she hates herself for feeling that way, after all, it isn’t Astraia’s fault.  Nyx’s horribly confused mixture of love, protectiveness and resentment towards Astraia are wonderfully described.  The relationship between the twins is completely believable, and I found myself feeling exactly the same way towards Astraia that Nyx did!

The world-building in Cruel Beauty was the weakest part of the story for me.  While I really enjoyed the story, I didn’t ever feel like I could get completely lost in the world.  Elements of it such as rooms in Ignifex’s house and the graveyard were easy to picture but whilst the descriptive writing of concrete settings was fine, I struggled with the more abstract setting of the world itself.  I felt like the mixing of Greek mythology and other rituals took over a little in terms of world-building, so while I learnt a lot about the history of the world I couldn’t (for example) picture the architecture of the buildings or the town layout.

Despite my issues with the world-building, I absolutely loved Cruel Beauty.  The characters, the storyline, and the way Rosamund Hodge has managed to delicately weave the mythologies kept me captivated.  Cruel Beauty takes the story of Beauty and the Beast and adds wonderful elements such as Greek gods and ancient myths to produce something beautiful.  Despite the recognisable elements, Cruel Beauty feels fresh and exciting, rather than like a true retelling.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would happily re-read it.  In fact, I fully anticipate that the next time I read it, I’ll pick up on more details I hadn’t noticed this time!

Buy it? This is a new favourite, and one that’s definitely worth buying for me.
In a nutshell: A beautifully written, lush debut with a fantastic feisty heroine.  One to savour.

Other Reviews of Cruel Beauty: Readers in Wonderland | Good Books and Good Wine  | Happy Indulgence

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