Crooks & Straights by Masha du Toit

Crooks-and-StraightsTitle: Crooks & Straights
Series: Special Branch #1
Author:
Masha du Toit
Publisher: 
self-published
Published:
 12 April 2014
Genre:
 YA, fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the author
Rating:
 
8/10

Crooks & Straights is a lovely read. I say that without qualification, but I want to add that it’s particularly impressive because it’s self-published. I’m also really pleased that it’s South African, and it’s set in Walmer Estate and surrounds in Cape Town, close to where I lived and worked until recently.

The neighbourhood has a quirky, old-school feel similar to the real one, but is set in an alternate fantasy world where magical creatures and humans with magical abilities are a well-known fact. Some of them are familiar, such as werewolves and genies, but author Masha du Toit uses a wide variety of her own eccentric creatures indigenous to South Africa, like haarskeerders, snaartjies, vlêrremeisies, roos-dorinkies, streepies … Many of these are as unfamiliar to the characters as they would be to readers because, for centuries, magicals (or ‘crooks’, as opposed to non-magical ‘straights’) have been persecuted. In Du Toit’s world, they parallel other minorities: people of colour, women, LGBTQ groups, etc. Apartheid, therefore, was not only about the oppression of the black majority, but about the suppression of magic. Crooks and straights fought together in the liberation movements, and the historic neighbourhood of District Six was famed for its acceptance of magic in addition to its racial and cultural diversity.

So, when sixteen-year-old Gia moves to Walmer Estate, near to where District Six used to be, she’s struck by the remnants of that vibe: a strong community spirit characterised by diversity and a relaxed approach to magic. Her parents are fashion designers who fit right in with a neighbourhood known for its small businesses and artisans. There are signs of magic at their new house, such as the ward on the front door: a rustic bit of sorcery in plain sight. In her previous neighbourhood, magic was kept to a minimum and obscured the way pipes and electrical cables are hidden behind the walls of modern homes.

Sadly, this reflects a growing attitude towards magic in present-day South Africa: it’s taboo and used only with reluctance. Many people, like Gia’s friend Fatima, are disgusted by it and avoid speaking about it. When Gia’s liberal, socially conscious teacher gives classes on magic and magicals, she discreetly covers the intercom so that she can’t be monitored. There’s a growing sense of dystopia because a political group known as The Purists is gaining influence, especially with the president’s son backing them. The Purists believe that magicals – including human ones – are either dangerous or useful only for hunting other magicals. They have a Red List for those who should be terminated on sight and a White List for those who are tolerated for their skills. The Purists are also proposing a Grey List of individual magicals with their personal details, allowing the government to keep track of them.

The might of the Purists is enforced by Special Branch, a military operation that uses werewolves to sniff out magic, does a lot of classified experimental work, and administers torturous tests for magical ability (those who pass get a Certificate of Purity, which has disturbing social implications). Special Branch uses the rhetoric of freedom and safety, promising to fight the “nightmares” so citizens can sleep easy but what they offer is not peace but security for those deemed eligible.

It’s not a good idea to get messed up with the Purists or Special Branch, but Gia and her family end up wandering dangerously close. Firstly, her parents are hired to design the wedding dress for Kavitha Pillay, fiancée of Luxolo Langa, the leader of the Purists. When Gia accompanies her mother to a meeting to discuss the design, Kavitha warns her that Luxolo is cruel and ruthless. The wedding is set o be a high-profile celebrity event, and if they screw up in any way, he’ll ruin them.

Then Gia unwittingly brings her family under the scrutiny when Special Branch comes to her school for a presentation on magical children, explaining that conditions like autism may be caused by magical abilities. Gia immediately sees an opportunity to help her beloved brother Nico, whose cognitive and social limitations are putting increasing strain on their family and on his ability to live a full life. Unfortuantely she doesn’t have the political savvy to realise that Special Branch are part of a frightening authoritarian power structure, so her good intentions end up endangering that which matters to her most: her family. Which is not to say that Gia’s character has to drag the weight of blame around; in a world with the Purists and Special Branch, things like this are bound to happen, and Gia doesn’t do anything unethical or even stupid. Nevertheless, she takes responsibility for her mistake and determines to fix it.

One thing that might have bothered me about this book is if the author had written Gia as a Chosen One or a special, magical snowflake labouring under the assumption that she’s just an ordinary girl. She is ordinary, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means she’s boring or weak.

On the contrary, Du Toit has made Gia a powerful protagonist without simply making her more empowered than everyone else (Chosen Ones and magical snowflakes can be great, but they can be a symptom of boring, lazy writing too). The story is driven by who Gia is as a person and the decisions she makes with the means at her disposal, and you can see the connections running through the novel like thread. She is, first and foremost, someone who cares about her family. She’s also a talented young woman who’s smart enough to appreciate moral complexity, and open-minded enough to embrace the reality of the world she lives in, rather than simply rejecting the unfamiliar or the unnerving.

Obviously, this makes her an ideal narrator for a fantasy world, but it also makes for a nuanced family dynamic, particularly in the relationship between Gia and her (adoptive) mother Saraswati. They have the kind of tension that naturally arises between a 16-year-old and her parents, exacerbated by Saraswati’s strictness and a mysteriously blank past that Gia is only just beginning to question. But although Gia avoids speaking openly to her mother most of the time, you see the love between them when, for example, Gia lovingly brushes her mother’s long, ink-black hair, or takes Saraswati’s hand as she falls asleep and pictures the bonds that link them and her father and brother. As a family they’re caring, antagonistic, imperfect, contradictory and blessed in a way that feels real and keeps you invested in the story.

There’s also something ineffable about Crooks & Straight that I find appealing compared to most other South African novels I’ve read. Our literary scene is not a happy place where reading is fun and that’s because it doesn’t have enough novels like this. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but if I can resort to a very casual description I’d say it’s chilled. It’s not fraught with anxiety about tackling big issues and great tragedies. It’s not a drama so determined to be true to life that it’s just as dreary. It’s not trying to be so serious that it’s just depressing.

It’s obviously an explicitly political book, as I’ve spent half of this review explaining, but its primarily a book with compelling story, driven by a character you can relate to, set in a fantastic world you want to believe in. After months of struggling to find time to read or not being able to finish books I’d started because I was so tired from working all the time, Crooks & Straights finally gave me what I needed to get lost in a good book. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

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Three Parts Dead read-along part 3 (final)

Three Parts DeadAnd so we come to the final part of the Three Parts Dead read-along. It’s been a relatively short one, compared with the longer books and more intensive discussions I’ve had with previous readalongs, but I’m so glad that I finally got started with this series. Clearly, I’ve been missing out.

Our host for this part is Lisa from Over the Effing Rainbow, so be sure to head over to her blog for links to everyone else’s.

SPOILERS for the whole book, of course.

_____________________

So we finally got all the facts behind whodunit – and how, and why… What did you think of the epic(sized) reveal scene? 

Pretty awesome for the most part! Things got really exciting from the moment Cat called in the Blacksuits to take down Tara and the Stonemen; I could just imagine the doom-laden thumps of them landing on the building before they broke in. Of course the fight that followed was rather one-sided, but eventually Tara steps up and starts saving the day with her incredible lawyering 🙂

I was wondering what the hell was up with that flying Cardinal. Admittedly, I thought that was a bit ridiculous until he burst in and starting battling Denovo. No surprise to find out that Denovo was behind the whole thing, although I feel a bit daft for not guessing at the possibility of stealing a god’s power to become a god. We’ve been told from the beginning that soulstuff gets passed around on a daily basis and that gods just have a lot more of it, with more skill at manipulating it. The God Wars involved humans wresting power from the gods, and of course Denovo has his own godlike scheme of attaining power by stealing it from his underlings. How did I not see this coming?

I also made a couple of bad guesses as to how things would turn out. For a little while, it looked to me like Tara was going to be transformed into Seril and Abelard would become Kos. There was never any time for a romance to develop between them, but it had seemed ike a possibility, so it seemed fitting that they would turn into this divine power couple. In retrospect though, that would have been a terrible ending – the book addresses issues of consent and using other people for your own gain (more on that later), and if Tara and Abelard became gods it meant they would lose at least a part of themselves.

Anyway, good ending. I absolutely loved the way everybody turns to attack Denovo.

My only criticism is that it’s a tad clunky in the way mystery novels often are – the villain and the investigator step up to explain the entire plot to us. It’s an explanation I badly wanted and needed, but it means there’s rather a lot of exposition in this scene

Oh, and David was a boring plot device.

 

Surprise! We found Kos. You’ll never believe where he was… Or did you?

Nope, didn’t see that coming at all! Which I guess is one of the reasons it was such a good hiding spot, but I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. What if Abelard had dropped his cigarette and was forced to light a new one (instead of passing Kos’s flame on by chain smoking)? He’s possibly the most addicted smoker I’ve ever come across, but there were several occasions in the book where I was sceptical about the fact that he still had his cigarette. I guess he hung onto it because of Kos’s influence?

 

Elayne Kevarian proved to be even more devious than we suspected. What do you think of this Craftswoman now that the dust is settling? Sympathy for Denovo, or victorious fist-pump?

Fist-pump, definitely a fist-pump. And a high-five. With a “Whoop!” for good measure. That guy was an ASSHOLE. I was disappointed by the possibility that Denovo would just rot in jail, and thoroughly pleased when Ms Kevarian killed him instead. Initially I was hoping Tara would be the one to take him down, but what Denovo did to Kevarian was much worse.

And I still like Elayne. I never thought that she was squeaky-clean. Same goes for Tara. I mean, they are lawyers.

 

I did a little checking and the second book in this series seems to feature a whole new cast, though it’s still set in the same world. Do you think this one wrapped things up for Tara, Abelard and company well enough, or are you wishing for more? For that matter, will you read on? 

I’d love to read about these characters again, but I’m satisfied with the way things were resolved. However, I would have liked to know a bit more about Abelard and Cat’s history.

And yes, I’d keep reading. I liked Gladstone’s characters, especially his female characters. He’s also got a really fascinating magical system here, and some wonderful worldbuilding. It’s clear that this world isn’t monolithic either – it’s much more realistic in that different places have developed in their own ways, with their own belief systems and politics. I’d love to see what else he’s come up with.

There were a few things that bugged me – minor issues with the writing that I would have liked to tweak, and details or conflicts that I wanted Gladstone to develop a little further. However, none of this was bad enough to really bother me, and it’s a fantastic debut.

 

Consent and Power

I liked the way the book raised issues of consent and power. There are multiple examples – Cat’s connection to Justice; Tara’s connection to Ms Kevarian; Ms Kevarian’s manipulation of Abelard; Tara’s manipulation of Shale and Cat; Denovo’s connection to his students; Denovo’s use of the Cardinal and Shale; and Denovo’s first experiment with Ms Kevarian, using their sexual relationship to gain power from her devotion. The whole plot is based on the giving and taking of power from others, often without their consent or beyond their control.

One of my favourite scenes was when Raz woke up to find Cat feeding him and criticised her for not getting his consent. What does she know about his feeding preferences? Maybe it’s been years since he drank a human’s blood and now she’s essentially forced it on him. Granted, Cat’s not in total control of herself in this scene, but I don’t think the issue of consent would occur to her even if she had been. She’s operating on the assumption that he’s a vampire, therefore he must want her blood. I think it’s also important to consider that this is not simply about food. In Cat’s first scene, her vampire addiction is strongly associated with sex and drugs, suggesting that giving her blood to Raz is akin to sexual assault or forcing him to take drugs. And lets not forget that she’s doing all of this purely for her own pleasure.

The issue becomes even more tangled when we take into account the fact that Cat only went to Raz because Tara manipulated her. How culpable is Tara? And what if it had been a more serious issue, such as actual sexual assault? I’m also reminded of the scene when Ms Kevarian pulled Tara into a dream without her consent; when Tara questioned it, Ms Kevarian replies bluntly, “You are my employee and my apprentice, Ms. Abernathy. You’ll find there is little I cannot do to you, your notions of the possible notwithstanding.” Tara lets the issue drop, but I was actually hoping she’d wrestle with it a bit more, because WHAT THE HELL?

I think it’s apt, then, that at the end Tara decides that her own actions during the case were too unethical for her to continue working for Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao. Although I really wanted her to be a kick-ass lawyer for a powerful firm, I admired the way she’d reflected on her actions and chose different path despite the fact that she enjoyed the work. I wouldn’t say that she’s as bad as Denovo, but in her field of work, manipulation does pose quite an ethical conundrum, and I think Tara is wise to think about it carefully before working for the firm full time.

 

Three Parts Dead read-along part 2

Three Parts Dead

Hey everyone! It’s week 2 of the Three Parts Dead read-along, and this part covers everything from Chapter 8 to the end of chapter 14.

Our host is Susan from Dab of Darknessso you can head over to her place for links to the blog hop (although I will also add them to the bottom of my post, once I have them all).

Exciting things are happening in Alt Coulumb, so let me get into these questions:

SPOILERS BELOW!

1) Throughout this section, we learn little tidbits about our main characters: Tara and her time at the Secret Universities, Kevarian and her past works, Abelard and his childhood. What fascinated you the most? 

Tough one… I certainly want to know more about Raz’s relationship with Ms Kevarian, and her role in turning Seril into Justice. It’s ironic how the Blacksuits and the Guardians/gargoyles worship the same entity, and are mortal enemies for the same reason.

I liked the depiction of Abelard’s childhood; I find the mixture of engineering, faith and religion very interesting.

However, I’m glad we finally have Tara’s backstory. I had it a bit wrong, assuming she was the one doing something ingenious but unethical, when in fact she was a victim of Denovo’s brain-drain scheme. Which of course explains her aversion to mind-control techniques and the way Justice can bend people like Cat to its will and insert info in her mind whenever it feels the need. I can’t believe Denovo’s tactics are allowed in Court though; surely that’s against the rules somehow?

 

2) So many conspiracies! Someone tried to burn out some of Raz’s memories, there were super secret contracts between the dead Cabot and Kos and some unknown third party, and Abelard found a hidden altar in the heart of Kos’s church! Do you think they are connected? 

I assume so! Unless Gladstone is throwing out red herrings. I’ve read a few stories where major plotlines turned out to be unconnected, playing on the characters’ and readers’ expectations that they would be connected. Which is interesting in a way, but I do love to see everything come together.

 

3) This question is just for fun & came about from discussion over at Violin in a Void last week. Abelard is a chain smoker and his worship of Kos keeps him safe from any ill effects of said smoking. If there were multiple deities who could protect you from ill effects of different vices (alcohol, illicit drugs, gluttony, etc.), which vice, if any, would you pick? 

My first instinct was GLUTTONY! I will eat ALL THE CHEESE! But being able to indulge myself all the time might actually spoil the pleasure of eating, which, as far as I’m concerned, is one of life greatest pleasures.

Alcohol… no. Where’s the fun in not being able to get tipsy or drunk sometimes? Not interested in drugs or smoking. I enjoy being active, so not sloth.

Ah well, I guess it’ll just have to be lust then. Assuming that “drama” is one of the ill effects I’d be protected from 😀

 

4) Stonemen! Will Tara be able to win over Shale and gain his assistance? Will Justice’s Black Suits face off against them, potentially destroying the city? Discuss!

Stupid Shale! Can’t he see that Tara could help him? I think Tara can handle him, but she’s been fairly successful in her endeavours so far, despite ending up in hospital, so I worry that this time she’s not going to get through the fight without getting hurt.

A Blacksuit-Guardian throwdown certainly seems likely, but at this stage I have no idea how this will all play out. I’m more curious about the THING that Abelard released at the hidden altar, whether Kos will be resurrected, and what Kos will be like if he’s resurrected. Seril became the Stone Men’s mortal enemy when she was resurrected/remade, and that doesn’t bode well for Abelard and his religion.

 

5) The Courthouse of Crafts is a strange place. Feel free to comment on it. Ms. Kevarian tells Tara, last minute, that she will be the one to face Denovo. Calculated way to boost Tara’s confidence? Or a cruel way to test her?

A test, I think, but not necessarily a cruel one. Ms Kevarian is demanding, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call her cruel (yet) and I think she’s too much of a professional to torment Tara for the sake of it. Rather, I think she understands how much of an issue Tara’s history with Denovo is, and she wanted her to face him head on, not giving her a chance to overthink it and maybe cower later. If Ms Kevarian had gone up against Denovo, it may have also have set a precedent of her taking on the bigger battles, and Tara needs to prove that she can handle this sort of thing on her own, not rely on her boss to protect her. And it’s possible that Ms Kevarian simply had more faith in Tara’s skills than her own; Tara nearly took down Denovo before, and she understands how he works.

The Courthouse of Craft – well, as someone who is terrible with direction, I quite like the idea of a building that takes you straight where you need to go!

 

Randoms
 – I love the way Tara keeps psyching herself up for the job at hand, controlling her fear and insecurities. She knows what she needs to do, and she knows how she could fail, so she’s preparing herself for battle. Which, apparently, means reading a lot 🙂 Who said lawyers can’t be cool?

– I’ve wondered a bit about the gender dynamics of this society. It seems pretty egalitarian, but I find it a wee bit odd that they use the terms “Craftsmen” and “Craftswomen” instead of a gender-neutral term like “Craftspeople” or “Crafters”. And there’s a moment when Denovo says “Put not your trust in things, but in men,” then adds “And women” (p.167). So perhaps an egalitarian world that’s only recently evolved from a more sexist society? Enough that we don’t see any discrimination, but the language hasn’t quite caught up yet. Which I find a bit incongruent, but it’s nice to be able to read a fantasy world where it isn’t assumed that women must somehow be considered inferior.

Three Parts Dead read-along part 1

Three Parts DeadApologies to fellow read-along bloggers! I’m a bit late with the first post after having to work on an unexpectedly long assignment for the course I’m doing. But hey, I managed to finish this post before going to sleep, so I call that a win 😀

For those who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, this is my first post for the read-along of Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone. Like my previous urban fantasy read-alongs (the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch and The Inheritance Cycle by N.K. Jemisin), this one looks like it’s going to be a great read with fascinating, quirky worldbuilding and complex characters.

If you’d like to follow the read-along or participate, you’ll find the schedule here. Part one only covers the first 100 words or so (the Prologue to the end of Chapter 8 [Edit: that should be the end of Chapter 7]), so you can catch up easily. However, this post will contain spoilers for those chapters; you’ve been warned!

Our host for this part is Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog, and I’m going to tackle her questions without further ado:

[Edit: So I stupidly misread the schedule and read all the way to the end of Chapter 8 when I should have stopped at Chapter 7. As a result, this post also includes comments about Chapter 8. Apologies if I’ve spoilt anything for you!]

1. Max Gladstone isn’t holding any hands here, we’re dropped straight into the world (which is a bit ironic given the start – but I’ll get to that) and expected to pick up and run with it.  Are you enjoying the style and, more to the point,  what ‘reveals’ have been the most surprising for you so far?

This kind of style might mean I have to work a bit harder as a reader, but I like it. Getting all the necessary worldbuilidng in a nice, clear infodump can be great when that infodump happens to be an awesome story in itself, but most of the time it’s more like pausing to read a Wikipedia article. So yeah, I like the way Gladstone is building his world as the story develops. I also find it very intriguing – the world is unfolding much like the mystery in the plot, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Surprises? Quite a few!

  • technician monks (interesting combo of engineering and religion)
  • Vampires. Nothing new, obviously, but I didn’t expect to encounter them here. I admit I was a wee bit annoyed when I realised there were vampires, since they’ve become such a cliché, but so far Gladstone has proven himself with great worldbuilding, so I trust him.
  • A yellow smiley face on a coffee mug. Yeah, ok, I don’t know what to do about this one. It really throws me off
  • Smoking as an act of spiritual devotion to a fire god. Which actually makes a lot of sense. I also loved the contrast in the first scene of Abelard doing all his holy monk duties and then lighting a cigarette.
  • Tara’s skills in forensic pathology – very impressive!
  • Abelard being unable to understand the concept of a newspaper. This really says a lot about Alt Coulumb and how it relates to the rest of the world. Some excellent worldbuilding there.
  • Cat being Justice and using her power to awesome effect at the end of chapter eight. Not only does it lend an interesting dynamic to her character (who I’d sort of dismissed as a useful but hopeless junkie), it also makes the Justice more of a grey area (after I’d mostly dismissed them as being authoritarian and therefore probably evil).

2. At the start of the book Tara graduates and is cast out of school (literally from a great height) simultaneously – any ideas about why that might be?

Well, her successful attempt to examine Cabot’s body shows that she’s got a strong sense of curiosity and is not afraid to take initiative. That’s also demonstrated by the way she seems to have left home to study at the Hidden Schools, despite the fact that the people around her were a lot more parochial. So my first guess is that she studied and/or experimented with something that the Schools did not approve of. Presumably she was successful, or Ms Kevarian would not have hired her. However, there’s clearly something very dodgy or at least unethical about what Tara did, based on the circumstances of her graduation and the firm’s reluctance to hire her without a probation period.

It might have something to do with controlling other people. She’s skilled at bringing people back from the dead. Then there’s a moment when she considers taking control of the bouncer, but decides not to when she thinks back on her graduation. Soon after, she’s quick to figure out that someone is controlling Raz. Skills like that would be both highly desirable and extremely controversial.

3. I’m always interested in the magical systems and how they work and the one here seems to almost be a ‘payback’ type of affair.  What are your thoughts about the magical system so far, we do have a dead deity after all, not to mention it appears that regular everyday people can access magic as well as deities. Discuss please (if only to enlighten my tiny brain!)

Gah, it’s after midnight and I’m not sure my brain has the power to enlighten anyone else’s! Also, magic systems aren’t my strong point, although this one certainly does intrigue me more than most. It’s very “lawyerish” 🙂 I don’t mean that in a bad way; if anything it makes the whole profession seem really cool in a way that is somehow more realistic than the flashy lawyer tactics you see in legal dramas. Craftswomen and men can negotiate with the fabric of the universe – or at least that’s my understanding. This allows them to do all sorts of mundane legal magic, but also gives them the power to kill and resurrect gods. In fact, it’s a way for humans to become god-like, with gods and humans separated by the level of their skills. I’m fascinated by the possibilities here.

What also intrigued me is that people use soulstuff for currency, and metal coins are the means of passing soulstuff around, but have little value in themselves. So if you made an excessive purchase or bargain, would you literally be selling your soul?

4. We’re only a third in but how are you feeling towards the characters so far. are you developing any favourites already, any sneaky suspicions of any of the characters or are you loving them all?

The only ones I’m suspicious of are Shale the gargoyle and Cardinal Gustave. Otherwise, I like all the characters so far, and I particularly like the fact that none of them feel like cliches. Abelard seemed to be a typically naïve young monk, until he grinned at the prospect of trawling through vampire bars in the Pleasure Quarter and hooked Tara up with Cat (how on earth do they know each other?). And as I mentioned in the first answer, I’m curious about Cat now that I know she’s also a Justice.

I like the way Tara seems to have risen above the circumstances of her birth, sometimes literally, like when Ms Kevarian is flying them over farms and village and Tara is thinking about how the people down there never saw much beyond their little homes. I think it’s also telling that after she falls from the Hidden Schools, she goes back to her backwater home, making her fall both literal and figurative. And then she is almost chased out with torches and pitchforks… She doesn’t seem to have too much to worry about though; she seems extremely competent and professional; I wish I was that skilled.

She reminds me a bit of Shara from City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett – like Shara, Tara’s skill lies in her ability to think and study, and that makes her powerful and dangerous, rather than any physical prowess or traditional martial art. In fact, Shara might have been inspired by Tara.

And now let me get some sleep while I still can. I’ll go blog hopping and round up the links tomorrow. Or rather, later tomorrow 🙂

Blog Hop! Go see what everyone else had to say:

Heather – The Bastard Title
Susan  – Dab of Darkness

 

Some basics of polytheism in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

You can find an absolutely amazing academic resource in Open Yale Courses, where you can download video or audio recordings of all the lectures for some of Yale University’s introductory courses, as well as the transcripts and reading lists of those lectures.

My favourite is RLST145: Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), by Professor Christine Hayes. I’m not religious, but I am interested in the bible as a literary, cultural and social text, and that’s exactly how this course approaches it (as opposed to treating it as scripture). I haven’t listened to all the lectures, but I’ve listened to the first few a couple of times, and they offer a fascinating perspective on the bible, with a ton of surprises. A lot of what I’ve learned from priests, Sunday-school teachers, and the well of Christian common-knowledge turned out to be wildly inaccurate if not completely false, like the idea that Adam was created before Eve and is therefore superior.

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsAnyway, as some of you will remember, I recently did several fantastic read-alongs for The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin:
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (#1)
The Broken Kingdoms (#2)
and The Kingdom of Gods (#3)

In this trilogy, the gods, their histories, and ongoing lives play a major role. The other day I started listening to the Hebrew-Bible lectures again, and the second lecture kept reminding me of the novels. This lecture – The Hebrew Bible in Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting: Biblical Religion in Context – compares polytheism to monotheism, using the writings of Yehezkel Kaufmann. Kaufman’s theory was that the move from polytheism to monotheism was revolutionary rather than evolutionary because the two belief systems involve fundamentally different ideas about god(s) and the universe, rather than simply having a different number of gods.

This relates very strongly to fantasy, mythology, and the nature of god(s), which is why I kept linking it to Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. It no doubt has relevance for other epic fantasy or other fiction where gods or their mythologies play a role; it’s just that this trilogy was foremost in my mind. In Jemisin’s world, the gods are real. Not only do they exist, some of them live among humans. For the reader, they’re major characters. Kaufmann’s theory isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t fit Jemisin’s world exactly, but it still provides an interesting framework for understanding her worldbuilding and characters.

It’s worth watching/listening to/reading the lecture in full, but I’ve picked out the main points about how polytheism differs from monotheism, and explained how they relate to The Inheritance Trilogy. I’ve kept it SPOILER-FREE, but please forgive any inaccuracies or lack of information as I didn’t re-read the books for this article, since I’d only just read them a few months ago. If you spot anything that needs to be corrected, let me know in the comments.

1. The metadivine realm

In polytheistic religions, there is a metadivine realm, which exists before the gods, and is more powerful than them. This realm can be water, chaos, darkness, fate, etc. and the gods are born from it. The logical consequence of this is that the gods are limited in power and wisdom – the primordial realm will always be above and beyond them. It’s mysterious and unpredictable, the gods can’t control it, and it can thwart their will. Since each god has specific powers and limitations, they can also be thwarted by other gods or even mortals.

In monotheism on the other hand, there is no realm that existed before god, and nothing that is more powerful than him. He just always existed, he’s immortal, omnipotent, and all existence is created by him.

In the Inheritance Trilogy, the metadivine realm is the Maelstrom, and it gave birth to the gods Nahadoth, Itempas and Enefa who then created the universe and lesser godlings. None of them are omnipotent, and in fact Itempas killed Enefa and enslaved Nahadoth, which form the basis of the plot of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Itempas’s actions did not mean that he was omnipotent or became omnipotent; he simply achieved dominance over the world and the other gods.

In The Broken Kingdoms it is mentioned that the gods pray to the Maelstrom. In The Kingdom of Gods, Nahadoth takes his child Sieh to the edge of the Maelstrom, and it is clear that this could destroy them both. It also seems that the Maelstrom has a major role in the plot of this book, which is something to be feared because the gods cannot control this force.

The Broken Kingdoms2. Mythology

Mythologies are the stories of the lives of the gods, and this is a basic part of pagan religion: “the gods are born, and they live lives very similar to human lives but on a grand scale and then they die”, says Professor Hayes.

This is the essence of The Inheritance Trilogy: we learn about the major gods’ births, their histories and how they made the world, which is our common understanding of mythology. Unlike mythology though, these stories continue to develop, gaining depth and detail across the trilogy as we hear different perspectives on the seemingly static myths. Because the gods are also major characters their ongoing lives are part of the plot. They interact with each other and with mortal characters, and we see them deal with issues of love, jealousy, hatred, revenge, etc. They fight, they have sex, they fall in love. It’s shocking how human they can be, even if they’re contemptuous of humans. In book 1, the human narrator Yeine describes the plot as two family squabbles pitted against one another – the mortal Arameri family who rule the world, and the family of gods. At the same time, the gods’ human problems play out in different ways because they’re immortal, incredibly powerful, and experience the world as such. We also know that gods can die. Itempas killed Enefa, and hundreds if not thousands of godlings died in the God’s War that followed her death. In book 2, the plot kicks off when someone murders a godling.

In monotheism on the other hand, god has no life story. He isn’t born, he doesn’t fall in love or take on any sexual partners, and he can’t die. He does have a son, but that’s in the New Testament (which is not covered in this course), and parenthood doesn’t have any personal consequences for God. For example, God and Jesus don’t have sex (incest is common in mythology, and in The Inheritance Trilogy); nor do they hang out in any kind of social way.

3. Fluid boundaries between the divine, human and natural worlds

In a polytheistic system, all creation comes from the metadivine realm, so everything is made of the same primordial ‘stuff’ and therefore connected. So gods are often inherent in the natural world – things and concepts like the sun, sky, death, fertility etc. might be gods and worshipping them is like worshipping natural phenomena. Because humans also come from the metadivine realm, there is a fluid boundary between them and gods, and you often have unions between gods and mortals, or mortals becoming gods.

In The Inheritance Trilogy, the three main gods are born from the Maelstrom, and together they create the universe. The goddess Enefa creates life. I don’t know if she uses the substance of the Maelstrom to do this, but all of creation can still be traced back to the Maelstrom.

The gods are all linked to the world through their affinities. Itempas is the god of light, day, and order. Nahadoth is the god of darkness, night and chaos. Enefa was the goddess of life and death. I think this is a wee bit different, in that these gods are associated with these concepts and get their power from them but aren’t synonymous with them. Nahadoth is the god of night and darkness, but when he’s enslaved it doesn’t change the night and darkness of the world. However, his power is affected by night/day or darkness/light.

The fluid boundaries between gods and mortals are indicated in the many instances of gods having sex with mortals, and gods and mortals producing children, often as major parts of the plot. There is also an instance of a mortal becoming a god, and a god becoming mortal.

In monotheism, god is separate and completely other to us. He isn’t kin to humans (at least not in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible), doesn’t come down and have sex with humans and we have no hope of becoming like him.

4. Power is material

The monotheistic god has absolute will, and nothing is more powerful than him. His power is inherent in him, it doesn’t come from anything else.

In a polytheistic system, the gods’ power comes from material things, and not because their will is absolute (see no.1). The substance that constitutes the metadivine realms is particularly powerful – water, blood, etc. – because the metadivine realm is the ultimate power.

Jemisin’s trilogy differs a bit here though. The Maelstrom seems to be a completely different place existing beyond the edges of the universe. It created the first three gods, but no one feels any particular connection to it, or at least they don’t tap into it for power or magic. However, the gods can achieve greater power by “living true” to their affinities, whatever those might be. So for example, Sieh is the god of childhood, and he achieves power by acting and looking like a child, embodying the essence of childhood (impulsiveness, cruelty, playfulness, affection etc.). He also feels more powerful when he’s around children or someone who acts like a child, but feels a loss of power when, for example, he forces a child to make a tough decision and lose some of their innocence.

It seems the gods can choose how much effort they put into “living true”, based on the fact that in book 2, the godling Madding explains to his human lover Oree that Sieh is so powerful because he’s devoted to being childlike. In book 3, where Sieh is the main character, we learn that he can behave in more adult ways, but that it weakens or wounds him to do so.

The Kingdom of Gods5. Magic is possible

This is a consequence of material power in the polytheistic system. Power resides in things connected to the primordial realm or primordial stuff, so magic involves manipulating those substances. This means both humans and gods can perform magic by tapping into the power of the metadivine realm. Humans can even use this to influence or manipulate the gods, so magic can be a way of circumventing the will of the gods by tapping in to a higher power.

This is impossible in a monotheistic worldview: there is no realm above or beyond god, and god is supreme so humans have no power over him.

The magic system in The Inheritance Trilogy is not really about connection with the metadivine realm per se, although magic can be performed by both gods and humans. Magic is described as communication with reality, not the result of tapping into the Maelstrom, at least as I understand it. And the Maelstrom isn’t ‘reality’ in that sense. You can communicate with reality through words – the gods’ language. Human scriveners do this, but they aren’t as powerful as the gods because they are unable to speak or write the language as well as the gods can. However, there are other forms of communication/magic – in book 2, Oree uses paint, and her father used song. Blood is also significant as a kind of carrier of magic. Gods’ blood acts as a drug on humans. When the gods conceived children with humans, they produced demons (which are dangerous but not evil; it’s just the word used for demi-gods) and through those demons the human race acquired magical skills. The demons were outlawed once it was discovered that their blood could be used to kill gods. Demon-blood would of course give any mortal power over a god.

Magic is most often used by mortals against the gods in book 1. After defeating Nahadoth and his three godling allies two thousand years ago, Itempas chained the four of them to human bodies and gave them as immortal slaves to the Arameri family. The Arameri scriveners gave each family member a special sigil on their foreheads that not only prevented the enslaved gods from harming a family member, but forced the gods to obey their commands.

6. Cult

Cult is defined as a system of rites involving the manipulation of substances – like blood – that are believed to have inherent power. This might be done to influence the god in some way – win their favour, keep them at bay to protect people, provide sustenance to the god, etc. It might also be a re-enactment of an event in the life of a god, and this might be seen to play a role in the preservation of the world (eg. a rite of spring ensuring the reemergence of life).

Rituals in monotheism have nothing to do with sustaining god or the world and they don’t celebrate events in god’s life (there are none). Instead, rituals commemorate historical events.

We don’t learn much about rituals in Jemisin’s world, but there is one very important one in the Sky palace – the Ascension Ritual. The entire plot of the first book builds up to this ritual, in which power is passed from the head of the ruling Arameri family to the successor. This is more than symbolic – power is passed literally in the sense that a force is moved from one person to another. This is in line with polytheism, in the sense that the ritual is important and has tangible magical effects. In book 2, there are also examples of people making offerings to gods to summon them or ask for help.

However, the novel’s approach to cult is also similar to monotheism in that no rituals are required to keep the world from collapsing, and the gods themselves don’t need any. In book 3 there is an “atheist” who honours the gods (you can’t seriously doubt their existence) but does not worship any of them, arguing that gods don’t need humanity’s attention, which is true. In addition, the offerings made to gods can’t coerce them. The gods have free will, so they might help a human because they’re pleased or amused by the offering, or simply because they’re kind, but not because they’re bound by magic.

7. An amoral universe

In a polytheistic system, everything comes from the metadivine realm, and this includes both good and evil. So you get good gods and bad gods or demons, and humans are helplessly caught up in the struggles between them, although they can use magic as an aid. Evil is as much a metaphysical reality as good – both are built into the structure of the universe. Good gods are just as powerful as the bad ones, and every god might have their own standards of morality, so gods aren’t necessarily totally good or totally bad.

In monotheism, god and his creation are good, so there is technically no evil force in the universe (a problem that monotheism has never really resolved). Evil comes from the clash between god’s will and human will.

As with the mythologies discussed in no.2, Jemisin really makes the most of an amoral polytheistic universe. It’s not as simplistic as the universe consisting of good and evil gods. I think Nahadoth is the only god believed to be inherently evil but this is untrue, although he is more dangerous than most gods. There was an epic God’s War two thousand years ago that is related in fairly stark good-and-evil terms, but this is inaccurate. As the trilogy progresses, we learn that none of the characters who played a role in the war were entirely good or entirely evil. All the gods are grey areas. They have good and bad sides but these are inseparable. Enefa created life but she was also a ruthless killer because life and death go hand in hand. Itempas is the god of order, and created very useful things like language and gravity, but he’s also responsible for the cruel authoritarian power of the Arameri family. Sieh can be very likeable as a child, but he also has a child’s cruelty. Even the nicest gods have scary sides, and the creepiest ones can be helpful. Gods might do terrible things to those they love deeply. These kinds of moral complications are one of my favourite features of the trilogy.

I highly recommend the trilogy if you haven’t read it yet, and if you have, do you know that Jemisin’s writing “The Awakened Kingdom”, a novella set in the world of The Inheritance Trilogy? Yeah, I can’t wait to read it either 🙂

The Broken Kingdoms read-along END

The Broken KingdomsAnd here we are at the end of The Broken Kingdoms read-along! Our host is Grace from Books Without Any Pictures, so head over there to see what everyone else had to say. Also feel free to leave your link in my comments and I’ll put you on a blog-hop list 🙂

If you’re interested, the read-along for the final book, The Kingdom of Gods, begins on 10 February, but I’ll post the full schedule later this week.

There will, of course, be SPOILERS below.

1.  We finally meet T’vril in his new role as Lord Arameri.  Is he what you expected?
Yes. T’vril’s a smart, organised man and I thought he deserved to be on the throne. He seems to be a good ruler, not crazy, lazy or tyrannical (like Scimina or Relad would have been) I found him a bit harsh in the way he treated Oree and when he cut out Serymn’s tongue, but it’s understandable.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was almost exclusively between gods and the world’s highest-ranking aristocrats, and the society of both books is based on hierarchy. This book is told from there perspective of a commoner. Naturally, T’vril would not treat Oree the same way he’d treat Yeine, and Oree would also perceive T’vril very differently. And of course T’vril sees her primarily as a weapon, given that demon blood has just been used to kill a bunch of godlings and almost brought the wrath of Nahadoth down on Sky/Shadow. At this point Oree presents a danger and an opportunity that needs to be dealt with so I can understand why T’vril is being so severe about it. I thought it was cruel of him to cut out Serymn’s tongue until it became clear that this prevented her from identifying Oree as a demon.

I imagine T’vril hasn’t had the easiest time as Lord Arameri either. He’s not a full blood, he was never in line for the throne, and he only got it because Yeine commanded it after overthrowing Itempas. Obviously the highest-ranking Arameri would not welcome him with open arms, and it’s probably only the magic of his sigil that prevents him from being killed by one of them. He can’t afford to be a nice guy; he has to be strict and ruthless. However, he seems to have some underlying kindness, and is very rational.

2.  Oree is given a choice, to live as the Arameri’s weapon, or to die.  What would you do in that position?
Erm… I don’t think I have an answer for that. The weapon choice seemed ok at first – the idea of getting a salary and living in Sky or somewhere comfortable  without having to work certainly appeals. I could study, paint, work on my magic skills, and every now and then someone would take a blood sample. And I’d be easy to rescue if kidnapped or wounded.

But it’s a leash, as T’vril admits, or a “Golden Chain”, as Oree named the chapter. Being unable to leave with the possibility of being murdered remotely? No thanks. Plus, it would mean living amongst snooty Arameri, or living in relative solitude in some safe location. I’m not the most sociable person, but that sounds like a very lonely life.

It seemed like an impossible situation for Oree, so I was relieved when Itempas came up with a solution that satisfied T’vril.

3.  Do you think that Oree made the right decision by sending Shiny away?  How do you feel about Yeine’s role here?
As much as I didn’t want Oree and Shiny to become a couple, I liked them together. Perhaps because they didn’t suddenly jump into bed while still in Sky but gradually became intimate friends. Oree had time to come to terms with Madding’s death, and eventually having sex with Shiny just seemed like the natural thing to do.

So I was upset when Yeine came in and ruined everything to appease Nahadoth. Nahadoth seems overly cruel, acting too much, as Yeine suggests, like the evil god people believe him to be. Shiny may still be human for hundreds or thousands of years – can’t he spend a few years with Oree?

But Yeine has to balance rehabilitation with punishment. Ten years would be like a few minutes to a god as old as Nahadoth to it would seem like Itempas has hardly been punished at all yet. Leaving Oree seems a small thing compared to, for example, the way Sieh and Nahadoth were tortured and used as sex slaves. And according to book 1, Itempas can shorten his punishment if he learns “to love truly”. I just hope that forcing him to lose a chance at love and be alone again will not be detrimental to his rehabilitation. After all, the God’s War was started because of his loneliness. And as Oree says, it’s natural for humans to love, and mortal lovers may be what Itempas needs.

I think Oree made the right choice. Naturally I’d prefer her to live, and I think she’s right in her concerns about how her death might affect Shiny. I was also relieved that he understood that she sent him away only because Yeine and Nahadoth had forced her to; it eases the pain for them both.

4.  What did you think of the ending of the book? Were you satisfied?
Bittersweet; every good thing has a tragic counterpart. Dateh’s defeated by the dead godlings are lost forever. I was upset that Oree lost her magic, but at least she gets to live on in freedom, even though T’vril and Yeine know she’s a demon. Yeine is content to let Oree live and might even know about the baby, but she also has to keep punishing Itempas for Nahadoth’s sake. I was sad that she had to send Shiny away, but I’m glad he realised why she was sending her away. Also, the prospect of the child is exciting – what will come from a demon/god union? Very promising for the final book. I’m not sure that forcing Oree and Shiny to part was a good idea though. So, not entirely satisfied with the ending, but I don’t think it’s meant to be that satisfying.

It was good to hear the rest of Shiny’s side of the God’s War story. His actions were still contemptible, but it gives a completely different view of his madness, and once again it’s very relatable in human terms. I also liked that his tale provides the link to Shahar Arameri. She was the child who asked Itempas to kill her father and got a knife from him instead (this story was also told in the Appendix of book 1). And then she grew up and became his mad, manipulative, murderous lover. I’d like to read a story about her actually; she sounds really fucked up and she basically created the Itempas we saw in book 1. Fitting origin for the Arameri family.

5.  How did The Broken Kingdoms compare to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms?  Which did you like better?
I think I prefer book 1. Several of the characters I liked in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms were quite harsh and less likeable in The Broken Kingdoms – Sieh, T’vril, Nahadoth and Yeine. I can understand the difference in the portrayal though – this book is narrated by a commoner and I know the characters would be more relatable if we saw more of them and got their stories. But I miss the ones I got to know in book 1. The Broken Kingdoms puts a bit of a damper on my nostalgia.

The first book also had a much more triumphant, satisfyingly happy ending. This one was partly happy, but also quite sad – lots of dead godlings including Madding, Oree loses her magic, and Shiny has to leave. It’s not really a fair way to judge the book, I know, but I will add that it doesn’t make the book any less good, just a bit less enjoyable.

That said, I found Oree to be a slightly more interesting character than Yeine, and I like her relationship with Madding more than Yeine’s relationship with Nahadoth. I also like learning more about the godlings and their different affinities, and the magic in general is more dynamic. Overall this is a more colourful book. Looking forward to the read-along for the final book!

Other
 – Wouldn’t there be some New Lights who know Oree is a demon? The ones who helped take her blood, for example.

– Lol, I love how Oree’s joke about saving money on firewood by sleeping with Itempas comes true.

Links:
Books Without Any Pictures
Dab of Darkness
All I Am, A Redhead
Book Bound
Tethyan Books

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Fell Beneath FairylandTitle: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
Author: 
Catherynne M. Valente
Series: 
Fairyland #2
Published:
 
2012
Publisher: Much in Little
Genre:
 
fantasy, fairytale, children’s fiction
Source: 
review copy from the publisher
Rating: 
6/10

Ever since returning to the normal world, September has longed to go back to Fairyland. Her world is even more boring now, and school has become harder. She was always odd and quiet, but her experiences in Fairyland have somehow changed her in ways that make the other children shun and hate her. Then, on the day she turns thirteen, she sees a boat rowing across a wheatfield and chases it into Fairyland.

Septembers assumes she can now have the happy adventure she might have had the first time if she hadn’t chosen to defeat the Marquess. But of course it’s not a simple matter of “a child is whisked away to a magical land and saves it, and all is well forever after” (55). Fairyland is in trouble – people’s shadows are falling away to live in the world of Fairyland-Below, ruled by Halloween, the Hollow Queen. And because magic comes from shadows, the underworld is rich with it. Halloween throws revels (parties) so everyone can have a wonderful time. The catch is Fairyland-Above is losing its magic with the shadows and will eventually just become part of the ordinary world.

September can’t bear to let her friends suffer, so she descends into the underworld, only to find that all this is happening because of her – Halloween the Hollow Queen is September’s own shadow.

Like book 1, book 2 is a fantastical children’s novel, but a serious one. September faces serious dangers and ethical dilemmas, and it’s seldom easy to separate good from evil. September has to make tough decisions, and face us to grim realities. It’s because of her actions that Fairyland is in trouble, because it’s her shadow that’s causing the trouble. However, she sacrificed her shadow in an act of kindness, and you can’t blame her for not predicting the consequences. Nevertheless, she feels culpable and takes on the responsibility of setting things right.

Nor is Fairyland-Below a bad place. The underworld isn’t evil, and the shadows aren’t the evil parts of the people they were once attached to. They’re just different, characterised by the attributes that their other selves kept hidden – the parts of themselves that were kept in the dark. She meets shadow-Ell the Wyverary to find that is a bit shy, while his counterpart was not. Shadow-Saturday is boisterous and brave, while the other Saturday was always very timid.

September doesn’t have the comfort, then, of knowing she’s fighting against bad people or a bad place. The shadow versions of Ell and Saturday consider themselves her friends as much as their counterparts did. To make matters worse, they’re happy in Fairyland-Below, happy to be free. They weren’t unhappy in the past, but now that they’re allowed to live their own lives, they don’t want that to change. To be reconnected to their original bodies would be like chaining them up. The shadows are their own Beasts, and deserve to be treated as such. Ell makes an excellent point when September says she can’t allow Halloween to keep taking shadows that don’t belong to her:

“Well, they aren’t yours, either [September]. And anyway, don’t you want to see Saturday and Gleam? I thought you loved them. Not a very good love, that only grows in sunshine. (74)

But September can’t just leave them to it, because they don’t care what effect they’re having on Fairyland-Above. Also, Halloween is a tyrant. She might be beloved by most of her subjects, but she’s a tyrant, who uses a mysterious creature known as the Alleyman to steal shadows from Fairyland-Above and keep any unruly subjects in line. She doesn’t care about the consequences of her actions like September does, doesn’t care what she’s doing to Fairyland as long as she’s happy. She’s turned Fairyland-Below into a kind of childish fantasy where everything is easy, everyone gets to do what they want and there are lavish parties every night. And as September knows, life can never be that simple.

In addition to all these ethical conundrums, September faces new personal challenges as a teenager. To begin with, she now has a heart

For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it. And so we may say now, as we could not before, that September’s heart squeezed, for it had begun to grown in her like a flower in the dark. We may also take a moment to feel a little sorry for her, for having a heart leads to the peculiar griefs of the grown. (11)

While September was never uncaring, her cares weigh a little more heavily on her now. She thinks about her mother and father more than she did before. She’s worried about what she’s going to be when she grows up, particularly since everyone in Fairyland, including all her friends, seem to know what they want and have known it their whole lives. Halloween in particular is so much more sure of herself – she’s Queen, she knows what she wants and uses the magic of wanting to take it. She has a fantastic conversation with September when they finally meet, and taunts her uncertainty:

I am everything you aren’t brave enough to be. I am what you cannot even admit you want to be – Queen of Fairyland, which is how all the best heroines end up.

The thing with September though, is that she never has the easy path. She can’t just be; she has to live. She can’t just know what she wants in life; she has to figure it out. And already we see her struggling to define herself. She gets annoyed with the way people, even her friends, assume she can’t do things without help, or do things to her without her permission. She gets treated like a child, and is fighting to be treated more like an adult. While this goes on, she’s also trying to adapt to the way her friends have changed – they’re literally different people, and yet are still the friends she grew to love.

I love the way Valente weaves all these issues into a fairytale narrative, but I must admit that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first one. Both have a lot of encounters with bizarre creatures and places, and while September’s actions in these situations are important, the things themselves are just fantastical for their own sakes. Whether you like them is a matter of personal taste. There were some things I thought were cool and adorable, like September’s delightfully practical dress and the long wine-red coat that has a personality of its own. I was mostly indifferent to many other things. If you like them however, this book will be so much richer and more charming.

When reading first book, I immediately disliked it and then gradually started enjoying it more and more until the Marquess’s sad confession won me over completely. This time I got off to a better start, but . It was good, it was nice to read, and I think the challenges that September has to face make it an excellent children’s fairytale. I also like the way Valente plays around with fairytale tropes and mythical characters. But it just wasn’t as enchanting as I expected it to be. I’ll keep reading the series but I won’t dive into the third book as eagerly as I did this one.