Review: FML by Shaun Hutchinson

FML Book Cover FML
Shaun Hutchinson

Tonight’s the night: Simon’s big chance to finally get with Cassie. Cassie, who he’s loved for ages. Cassie, who is newly boyfriend-free. Cassie, who just happens to be throwing the biggest party of the year. Simon’s plan is simple: He’ll go to the party, she’ll fall in love with him, they’ll make out like crazy, and the night will be a complete success.

But things don’t ever go as planned…especially when it comes to Cassie.

In two alternating plotlines, Simon goes after the girl of his dreams and stumbles toward his destiny. It’s one night, one party, and a thousand ways for things to go wrong…but a million ways for them to go right.

Review:

I never went to any real parties back when I was in high school (yeah, yeah, I was a dork), but if they were anything like the party in FML I really missed out during my teenage years.

If you’re in the mood for a fun, clever story featuring unique characters, a wild party, and a dose of alternate realities, FML is the book for you. Simon, the protagonist, has had a crush on Cassie, one of the most popular girls at school, for years. When he hears that she’s having a senior year blowout – and that she’s newly single – Simon decides to use the opportunity to finally profess his love for her.

FML starts as one story but quickly diverges into two separate storylines, showing the different ways the party could unfold based on Simon’s decisions as well as events that are out of his control. It’s almost like one of those old “pick your adventure” books in that it allows you to see how different decisions affect the outcome of the story.

At times it was a little confusing trying to keep the events of both storylines straight, but doing so was well worth the effort. It was really cool watching how the same events and interactions occurred in both plots but in very different ways. Plus, everything came together perfectly at the end – I couldn’t have asked for a more fitting resolution.

I had such a great time reading FML. There are a lot of wild, entertaining stunts going on at the party, from contact Scrabble to a poolside re-enactment of Romeo and Juliet. There’s also the really fun aspect of the party being a “barter” party, which basically means that all of the party-goers are running around the whole night trying to come up with crazy schemes to trade one object for another until they end up with a specific target object. The revelers and their zany antics serve as a great backdrop for the story; in a way they’re almost like part of the setting more than they are actual characters.

The characters who do serve a purpose beyond being part of the background aren’t your normal teen scene stock characters. Cassie isn’t conventionally beautiful, nor is she confident and bold like many popular girls in books and movies. She has depth, flaws, and unique personality traits, and I could see why Simon likes her. Likewise, Cassie’s ex-boyfriend isn’t a tool, but a good guy who legitimately loves her and is nice to her and others, even the less-than-cool kids at school. Simon’s gay best friends are popular, not the objects of ridicule, and there’s not one big, bad bully but several, each of whom is very distinct.

Again, I may not have gotten to go to any actual parties as a teen, but reading about the one in FML is the next best thing. If you’re up for a crazy, unexpectedly fun read, check out FML today.

Review: When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

When the Sea is Rising Red Book Cover When the Sea is Rising Red
Cat Hellisen

In Pelimburg – city of storm and sea and spray – magic is power. Both are controlled by an elite class, who inhale scriven dust to enhance their natural talents.

As the only daughter of the city’s founding family, Felicita has a luxurious but narrow life, one that is ruled by a list of traditionally acceptable and appropriate behaviors. When her dearest friend, Ilven, throws herself over the cliffs and into the sea to escape an arranged marriage, Felicita chooses freedom over privilege. She fakes her own suicide and escapes to the slums, leaving behind everything she’s ever known, including the means to practice magic. Soon she’s living in a squat, working as a scullery girl, and falling hard for charismatic renegade Dash while also becoming fascinated by the strange, thrilling magic of vampire Jannik.

Then translucent corpses begin to wash up onshore. As it becomes clear that Ilven’s death has called out of the sea a dangerous, wild magic that the upper class with their scriven are powerless against, Felicita must decide where her true loyalties lie – with the family she’s abandoned, or with those who would harness this dark power to destroy Pelimburg’s caste system, and the whole city along with it.

Review:

At first glance, When the Sea is Rising Red may strike you as a story you’ve seen countless times before. Felicita, the protagonist, is the daughter of one of Pelimburg’s wealthiest and most powerful families. As such, she is expected to be dutiful and obedient, doomed to enter into an arranged marriage and live within the bounds of Pelimburg’s patriarchal society. Sounds pretty familiar so far, right?

Don’t be fooled. As standard as the beginning of this novel may seem, it’s really just a façade. You start off thinking you know where the story is headed, and that’s when Hellisen grabs you by the throat and takes off in a completely different direction.

Beneath the veneer of predictability and propriety lies the real story, an entrancing world of magic, revenge, passion, and power. There’s drug use and LGBT relationships, casual sex and contraception, murder and betrayal. This isn’t a story that’s been sanitized to the point of dullness. The characters are vivid and flawed, the plot full of unexpected twists and turns. This book took me completely by surprise, and I was mesmerized it.

The turning point from same-old-story to “wait, where did that come from?” occurs when Felicita’s best friend Ilven, also rich and destined to marry a stranger to advance her family’s position in society, throws herself from a cliff. Felicita, devastated but inspired, decides to fake her own suicide in order to defy fate and escape her family’s clutches.

After Felicita’s supposed demise, she trades the cool, stately halls of House Pelim for dirty, noisy streets that reek of fish and are peopled by beggars, prostitutes and gangs. It’s not long before she flings aside her mantle of propriety and timidity, taking up with a group of urchins and becoming as brash and bold as the rest of them. In no time at all she’s guzzling liquor, telling people off, and falling into bed with near-strangers. She’s a protagonist with bite, and I had so much fun reading about her life that I was practically giddy.

While living in disguise, Felicita meets a host of fascinating characters, the most interesting of whom is the mysterious Dash. Shrewd, clever, and charismatic, Dash is one of those dangerous types who you don’t entirely trust but find yourself attracted to anyway. He becomes one side of the book’s explosive love triangle – and boy, what a love triangle it is! Even if you don’t normally care for this sort of thing in fiction, I promise you this – the one in When the Sea is Rising Red will knock your socks off.

Another thing I love about When the Sea is Rising Red is the setting. I’ve always been a fan of books that take place near the sea – there’s something about the rocky cliffs, the smell of brine, and the wildness of the ocean that sends a thrill through me when I read about it. What’s especially cool about Pelimburg, though, is that it’s not just any seaside town; it’s a seaside town where remnants of magic linger. Unicorns, vampires, selkies, and other enchanted creatures coexist with the non-magical beings, and some members of the ruling class even have the ability to wield magic. This collision of ocean and enchantment makes for a fascinating backdrop indeed.

As Felicita tries to adjust to the town and its inhabitants, she learns that escaping her old life and cutting ties with her family won’t be as easy as she’d hoped. Strange red tides, diseased ocean life, catastrophic shipwrecks, and mysterious corpses beget fear among the working classes of Pelimburg, who believe that Ilven and Felicita’s suicides have brought a curse upon the land. This belief compounds the people’s long-held resentment towards the ruling Houses of Pelimburg, Felicita’s family included, and incites sparks of rebellion that are quickly fanned by those who wish to bring down the Houses.

This is the part of the book where things got a bit murky for me. The connections between Ilven’s death, House Pelim, the eerie behavior of the sea, the revolutionaries, etc. are hard to keep straight at times, especially towards the end. I wasn’t clear on all of the cause-and-effect relationships, even after rereading the book.

Still, the characters, unexpected turns, magical seaside atmosphere, and that mind-blowing love triangle are more than enough to compensate for a little confusion towards the end of the novel. I definitely recommend When the Sea is Rising Red and am already on the hunt for the second book in the series.

Review: Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash Book Cover Ash
Malinda Lo

In the wake of her father's death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.

The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash's capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

Review:

I’m always amazed at how creative authors can be when re-imagining fairytales. I’m still deciding whether Malinda Lo’s new take on Cinderella was really for me, but I can say that I respect her work and acknowledge it as a valuable contribution to the wealth of adaptations already out there.

One of the most interesting ways in which Ash differs from other versions of Cinderella is the absence of a Prince Charming character. Most of the other familiar elements are there – an orphaned girl forced to serve her wicked stepmother, a royal ball, enchanted coachmen, etc. – but the romance has been completely transformed.

Taking the place of our prince are Kaisa, the king’s young huntress, and Sidhean, the fairy who has captivated Ash since her youth. Yes, that’s right; we’ve got ourselves a love triangle, and an LGBT love triangle at that. I know there are readers out there who abhor the very thought of love triangles, but in Ash’s case the relationships are important to the plot. One of Ash’s love interests represents new beginnings, friendship, and the continuation of life after loss, while the other represents the pull of magic and the escape from reality that it provides.

While I like the idea of the Ash love triangle in theory, in practice there’s a bit of a problem: the triangle seems more isosceles than equilateral (am I impressing you with my geometry knowledge right now?). The whole point of a love triangle is for a protagonist to be conflicted in his or her choice between two love interests, and in order for that conflict to be believable those love interests should be closely matched, equally appealing. If one character is incredibly alluring and the other is just so-so, there’s no real tension because the choice between them seems obvious.

This is where I struggled with Ash. One side of the love triangle – Sidhean, the fairy – is great. Sidhean is no flitting, sparkling, pixie-dust-covered fairy, but rather one of the cold, dangerous fey capable of luring you into the woods and dancing you to death. He’s cold and conflicted but also alluring and mysterious, with a draw that’s undeniable.

It is Kaisa’s side of the triangle that falls short. In order for a literary romance to work for me, I need to be able to fall in love – or at least lust – with the love interest, and I had a hard time doing that with a female character. Kaisa is nice enough, but she seems kind of boring and I just wasn’t attracted to her. This lack of interest was a major contributor to why I couldn’t give Ash a higher rating.

Issues with Kaisa aside, I still appreciate the direction Lo has taken with her version of Cinderella. It’s a testament to Lo’s talent that she is able to retain the feeling of a traditional fairy tale even while putting a very unconventional spin on the story by making Ash bisexual. This classical feel is due in large part to Lo’s beautiful descriptions and choice of diction and syntax. The level of detail she provides does slow down the pace of the story, but her writing is undeniably lovely. As an example, here’s a short excerpt:

“When Ash finally fell asleep, she dreamed of the Wood, the tall dark trees, the shaft of sunlight that shone through the canopy to the soft forest floor. She could smell the spicy pine, the dampness of bark after rain, and the exotic fragrance that clung to Sidhean. It was the scent of jasmine, she remembered, and night-blooming roses that had never felt the touch of a human hand.”

Beautiful, no?

Something else I really liked about Ash is that there is a strong undercurrent of magic throughout the story. There are curses and covenants, bewitched dreams and fairy circles, magical rings and an enchanted Wood. This really added to my enjoyment of the story and is much cooler than a one-time conjuring of glass slippers and a ball gown.

It’s funny – now that I’ve written this review and taken the time to really evaluate Lo’s work, I’m realizing that maybe I liked this book more than I originally thought. I’m still disappointed that I wasn’t enthralled by Kaisa, but the originality of the story and the quality of the writing goes a long way to making up for a less-than-perfect love interest.