Review of The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Rose ClarkeTitle: The Assassin’s Curse
Series: The Assassin’s Curse #1
Author: Cassandra Rose Clarke
Published:
 02 October 2012
Publisher:
 Strange Chemistry
Genre: fantasy, YA, adventure
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Seventeen-year-old Ananna of the Tanarau is the pirate daughter of pirate parents, raised in the violent, seafaring lifestyle of a pirate. She dreams of one day captaining her own ship, although that seems unlikely now that her parents have arranged her marriage to the son of another pirate clan. Tarrin of the Hariri. Tarrin is “the most beautiful man [Ananna] ever saw” and looks like a god from a temple painting, but Ananna distrusts beautiful people and when Tarrin shows his disdain for her family name, she decides to run away. Ignoring Tarrin’s warnings that his family will send an assassin to kill her for this insult, Ananna steals a camel and disappears into the city.

She hides out for a short while, but the assassin comes after her as promised. They are fighting it out in the desert when a snake appears. It’s about to bite the assassin and save Ananna’s life, but she’s so shocked and scared when she sees it that she kills the snake, saving the assassin’s life instead and activating a curse. The good news is that Naji, the assassin, can no longer kill her – the curse forces him to protect her from harm because every time she gets hurt or even finds herself in danger, he experiences physical pain. So of course if she dies, he will too. Ananna is not obliged to hang around, but after seeing the suffering that she could cause by leaving Naji, she decides to travel with him and find a way of ending the curse.

Ananna and Naji’s world is rich with magic and bursting with the potential for adventure. Naji comes from an elite order of assassins who reside in The Mists, a mysterious Otherworld that exists in the same space as the normal one, but is invisible to it. Naji is skilled in the magic of blood and darkness and can move unseen by leaping from shadow to shadow. Ananna has always been untouched by magic, although her mother is a water witch and tried her best to teach her daughter the craft. Instead, Ananna takes after her father and frequently recalls his advice in times of trouble. She’s a quick-fingered thief, is deadly with a blade and perfectly at home when running a ship.

Her quest with Naji takes them across the desert, the ocean and to a magical floating island. They fight magical beings and cutthroat pirates, proving to be deadly young warriors. Although Naji has to protect Ananna in order to protect himself, she has to look after and save him a lot of the time as well, especially after he’s incapacitated from using too much magic or suffering the pain incurred by Ananna’s injuries. I was surprised but pleased to find that Clarke didn’t entirely romanticise the idea of Ananna as a pirate by glossing over the violence of her lifestyle for the sake of a YA audience. At seventeen, she’s familiar and comfortable with violence. She’s kills people, she’s used to being cut and bruised, and she doesn’t make a fuss about it. That’s not to say it’s a violent book – it still has a very gentle YA feel. The characters don’t make a big deal of the violence and none of it is very graphic, so the tone remains light.

There’s a delicate touch of romance to the story, but that doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of “growing romantic tension” advertised in the blurb. Any attraction between our two protagonists is completely one-sided. The story is narrated by Ananna, and she finds herself drawn to Naji in the same way that any seventeen-year-old girl would find herself attracted to a mysterious guy who she spends a lot of time alone with. He’s also perfect for her in terms of looks: Ananna distrusts very good-looking people, but although Naji is handsome, his face is marred by an ugly scar, so Ananna sort of gets the best of both worlds with him. Naji however, remains taciturn throughout the novel, and the only romance he acknowledges is the one that once existed between him and a river witch named Leila. He doesn’t smile, he barely speaks to Ananna unless he has to, and doesn’t show any interest in her beyond their quest. He’s not mean, but he’s more like an estranged brother than a potential boyfriend.

I was surprised that the feisty, garrulous Ananna didn’t make more of an effort to get Naji talking. Because Naji, for completely inexplicable reasons, flat out refuses to give Ananna any proper information about the curse that’s changed both their lives, where they’re going to end it, and what they’ll have to do to achieve that. And like Ananna, Naji is also being chased by people who want to kill him, but he doesn’t provide the details. In contrast to her tendency to be hot-headed and smart-mouthed, Ananna is willing to just follow Naji around and wait to see what happens, even though she could easily coerce him into telling all. I’m not sure why Clarke makes her characters act this way. Normally when authors make characters withhold information, it’s to force them to maintain a sense of mystery that could easily be lost. But this is not a mystery novel and it doesn’t need the suspense. When Naji does eventually reveal tiny bits of his plans and the details of how he was cursed, it makes no real difference to the story. So why hide these things in the first place? If anything, they could have given the story a greater sense of purpose.

This is one of many small problems that spoil the book. Ananna generally speaks well of her parents, so it’s unclear why they basically sold her off in marriage at the age of seventeen. After running away, Ananna expresses sadness at leaving her parents as well as frustration regarding the arranged marriage, but she never thinks about this extremely troubling issue for very long. After activating Naji’s curse, you’d think she’d be calculating enough to realise that having a skilled assassin to protect you is very useful when there’s a clan of pirates out to murder you, but she lets her pride and her temper get the better of her and almost leaves to fight her battles alone. The problem with the Hariri doesn’t end up being nearly as dire as expected though – after the fight with Naji and another battle out in the desert, they practically disappear from the plot. The story mostly concerns the quest to end Naji’s curse, but it moves very slowly. There’s plenty of action and adventure so it’s not boring, but this basically fills up the long spaces between the very brief pieces that actually move the main plot along.

Then the book ends without resolving anything. This didn’t bother me too much. The end approached without the characters having made any real progress in dealing with the curse, so I assumed the bulk of the story was being saved for the sequels. But mostly it didn’t bother me because this is one of those books that I don’t feel much of anything for.  It’s just a quick easy read to pass the time and, in my case, finish a reading challenge. I couldn’t help but notice the flaws, but they didn’t elicit more than a shrug. Naji and Ananna’s adventures were enjoyable and I liked them both, but I’m not particularly interested in finding out how they solve their problems, so I won’t be reading the sequel. But at least I didn’t hate it, and this review was a lot easier to write than most.

Review of Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

Title: Blackwood
Author: Gwenda Bond
Published: 04 September 2012
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Genre: YA, science fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10 (sorry, I keep changing my mind about the rating, but I think I’ll stick with 6 now)

In a North American mystery known as ‘The Lost Colony’, over a hundred English colonists travelled to America and settled on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. Due to unfavourable conditions and growing hostility with the tribes whose home they’d invaded, the settlement’s governor John White was chosen to return to England to petition for help. It was three years before he was able to return, only to find that the 114 men, women and children of the colony had disappeared; a mystery that is still unsolved.

Now, ‘The Lost Colony’ is just a theatre production for tourists on Roanoke Island. Miranda Blackwood has spent the last three summers interning at the theatre in a bid to escape her life for a while. The Blackwood family is said to be cursed, and it certainly feels that way for Miranda. Her father became a drunk after her mom’s death, and now Miranda takes care of all household duties. Thanks to the Blackwood’s reputation, she’s an outcast at school where people call her snake and do things like write “Freak” on the side of her car. According to the curse, the Blackwoods are doomed to stay on the island forever, so Miranda harbours no hope that she could ever leave.

Then Miranda’s father disappears, along with a bunch of other island residents. Exactly 114 of them, just like in the Lost Colony story. Miranda finds herself entangled in the mystery, not least of all because her family and the curse she bears is a part of it. She finds a surprise ally in Phillips Rawlings, another misfit, who was sent away to boarding school four years ago for all the trouble he was causing. When he’s on the island, Phillips hears the voices of the dead in his head, and his father, the police chief, hopes that he can use this ability to help the islanders.

Phillips and Miranda quickly become companions and then close friends as they try to solve the mystery of the two Roanoke disappearances. Unfortunately, their bad reputations soon begin to count against them, and family histories return to haunt them until they’re forced to run from everyone but each other.

Blackwood is partly a supernatural mystery, but mostly it’s a novel about the blossoming romance between two troubled 17-year olds who find themselves trapped by family legacies. The way it begins is a tad unlikely. At the start of the novel, Phillips already has a soft spot for Miranda, while she only remembers him as an asshole. Years before, dazed by the voices in his head, he humiliated her at school, and the incident has haunted her ever since. He didn’t mean to hurt her though; if anything he finds her alluring and he’s always felt guilty about what he did. When he sees her on TV, snapping at a reporter who questions her about the latest mass disappearance, it sort of sparks an obsession, so when Phillips returns to Roanoke he goes straight to Miranda’s house.

Miranda, of course, is shocked and suspicious to find him at her door. Frankly, I find the way he gravitates to her rather odd as well. They haven’t seen each other for four years, and they were never friends. She expects that this is some kind of prank intended to humiliate her again, but Phillips consistently proves that he’s a really nice guy who cares about her and wants to help her. She really needs a friend too, especially once she learns that her father didn’t disappear – he was murdered. After years of bottling her emotions in the face of insults and pranks, Miranda seems to take the news a little too calmly, but Phillips knows she’s just holding her emotions back, at least until she loses control.

Phillips needs her too, when the voices in his head begin to overwhelm him. They were once so bad that he intentionally caused so much trouble his parents were forced to send him to a boarding school away from the island. Now, it’s even worse. The pair help each other as best they can and try to investigate the disappearances, but they’re dragged down by their reputations and the baggage of family history. This is particularly bad for Miranda. After her father’s death, the snake-shaped birthmark on his face suddenly appears on hers, something she finds more shocking than anything else that’s happened to her so far. Also, the curse of not being able to leave the island is true – when she tries to cross the bridge to the mainland, she feels intense sickness and pain. It’s a teenager’s nightmare – being unable to escape your family history and being stuck in the same place for the rest of your life.

She finds unexpected solace in her relationship with Phillips, and I generally liked the way it plays out. A lot of their interactions are awkward and uncertain, as suits their age and experiences. At the same time they’re also very considerate of each other, understanding that people sometimes act in a certain way because they’re scared or hurt and that that behaviour doesn’t necessarily define them or show their true feelings. At one point, Phillips knows that

[s]he wasn’t crazy. She was just acting crazy. He understood the things in your own mind that could make you push the world away, flailing.

It’s a nice change from those horrible misunderstandings that are usually farmed for melodrama in romance.

On the downside, I felt that the relationship developed too quickly. On day one, they haven’t seen each other for four years, and she’s resentful and suspicious of him. The next day they’re holding hands. Phillips might be a little awkward at times, but he’s also quick to stroke Miranda’s cheek and brush her hair back. It takes them a lot longer to actually kiss, but I was surprised at how quickly they progressed to these little physical intimacies. However, I can accept that this is a consequence of recent events and of the plot. A lot happens in a short time, pushing the two characters closer. The entire plot takes place over a few days, so Gwenda Bond also has to work fast. The smooth course of their rapidly growing affections does get a bit [fantastical] after a while, but it’s also quite sweet.

I like how Bond weaves a lot of pop culture references into the narrative to define the characters, both of whom are geeks. Miranda likes to say “frak” instead of ‘fuck’ because she’s a Battlestar Galactica fan. Phillips finds this very cute, and when she accidentally says ‘fuck’, he knows it’s because she’s really shaken. He also teases her for watching The Vampire Diaries (although she’s quick to point out that he’s obviously seen it too) and he compares the small town of the show to their own. Miranda named her dog ‘Sidekick’, because sidekicks are her favourite characters. Phillips knows some odd things, leading Miranda to give him the nickname “Random Fact Boy” based on the idea that his general knowledge is a superpower, with the implication that he’s her hero.

Unfortunately the other aspects of the book aren’t quite as compelling as Miranda and Phillips’ relationship. I don’t really understand Phillips’ ability to hear the voices of the dead. Why are they talking to him? Why does he only hear them on the island? Why did his father think that he could use this ability to help the island? It’s not a ‘power’; it’s more like a disability. He has to make a constant effort to ignore the voices, and when they become too noisy he’s too weak to leave his bed. Why though, has he never tried to talk to them, to ask why they’re there and what they want? Doesn’t he wonder if they could be used to some purpose?

Bond’s take on the Lost Colony mystery is ok, but I wasn’t really all that interested in it. It felt more like a backdrop to the main characters’ relationship. I thought it had a couple of plot holes, but to avoid spoilers I won’t discuss them. They aren’t too bad anyway; the main problem is just that it’s all a bit lacklustre. I think part of the problem (for me at least) is that the reveals don’t have enough shock and drama, which is what you want when learning the truth of an old mystery like this, especially if the truth is supernatural. There is also a lack of clarity about certain issues, and I tend to lose interest when I don’t have enough details (or enough intriguing details).

Despite my feelings about the Lost Colony mystery though, I have to admit that it puts the characters in some very tense situations. It all adds danger and adventure to what is already a strong relationship-driven narrative, balancing out the less exciting aspects.  Overall it’s a quick, pleasing read that I I think will appeal to many YA fans, and a good novel for new YA publisher Strange Chemistry to kick off with.

Buy a copy of Blackwood from The Book Depository

Review of Shift by Kim Curran

Title: Shift
Author: Kim Curran
Published: 4 September 2012
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Genre: YA, action-adventure, science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Scott Tyler is an average 16-year-old loser. He’s gangly, geeky, and stays home alone playing video games on weekends. One night a friend invites him to hang out with the popular kids in a park. In a stupid attempt to prove his bravery to them, Scott decides to climb a pylon, even though the last kid who tried it got a testicle ripped off (yeah, eww). As he nears the top, Scott looks down, freaks out and loses his balance. As he falls he regrets his decision, and then suddenly finds himself lying on the ground, unharmed. A mysterious, beautiful girl at the park ‘arrests’ him, and explains that Scott just shifted – he altered reality by changing a decision that he made.

The girl – Aubrey – gives him the run-down on the world of shifting, and warns him about ARES, a government agency that tracks down, trains and regulates Shifters. Aubrey works for ARES, but she has her reservations about them, so she tells Scott to stay away. Scott, however, is thrilled at the prospect of being able to erase all his bad decisions. He also likes the idea of training with ARES and almost never seeing his family, because his parents fight pretty much constantly. He willingly gives himself up to ARES and begins their training programme. He proves himself to be a talented Shifter, but soon gets caught up in a dangerous conspiracy.

Shift is a short, fast-paced action adventure novel. Many reviewers have compared it to the movie The Butterfly Effect, which I really enjoyed. Shift is nothing like that movie. It doesn’t need to be, but a comparison is useful. From what I remember, The Butterfly Effect was fairly vague about how the main character was able to change his decisions. We knew what he did to make the change, but we weren’t told how and why it was possible. The focus was on the effects of his decisions and how he had to work through different scenarios until he found the ideal. Shift, on the other hand, goes into more detail about the science of shifting, and focuses less on the consequences of different decisions. The downfall is that it constantly trips up on its own technicalities, while lacking the aspect of the plot that I thought would be the most interesting.

Firstly, lets discuss the shifting. It’s written about in great detail (giving us some very clumsy infodumps), but remains confusing. To undo a decision, Shifters think about that decision, change it, and then find themselves in the altered present reality. They don’t go back in time, and they don’t relive the past. It’s more like they flick a switch from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ (or vice versa) and then instantly find themselves having to cope with the new reality. Aubrey explains that this has to do with quantum physics and changing reality by observing it. There is only one reality, but there are infinite potential realities, and I think Shifters make a potential reality the new reality whenever they shift. It’s all kind of vague and Scott never really understands it himself, but is reassured that “if anyone thought they understood quantum physics they really didn’t”. I don’t either, but I’m plagued by a feeling that this whole idea doesn’t quite work.

When you shift, you replace one reality with another, and then the old reality quickly fades from memory. So how do Shifters even remember shifting long enough to master the skill? Scott is inexplicably different in that he can remember the old reality, but according to the physics, there is only one reality, so how can he retain a memory of something that was technically never in existence? And as it turns out, a normal Shifter can remember it too, if you tell them what happened and they think hard about it.

I have more questions, but I’m so thoroughly confused about the specifics that I can’t really articulate myself properly so I’ll drop the issue. There are plenty of others for me to discuss, like the important details that sometimes don’t make sense, or get ignored when it’s convenient to do so.

Shifters can only change a decision once, which has some consequences for the plot but seems like an arbitrary rule. Shifting abilities normally manifest in childhood but when Shifters hit their twenties, they go through ‘entropy’ and the ability fades. Aubrey explains that this is because adults have differently shaped brains, and asks if Scott has “ever met an adult who could change their mind on anything”. The last bit is stupid and confusing – we all change our minds all the time, regardless of age. Shifting is about changing decisions like whether or not to make a phone call or buy a cup of coffee; it’s not about changing beliefs.

ARES apparently uses Shifters to alter the course of history and prevent terrible things from happening, like wars, assassinations or catastrophic accidents. In a ‘history’ class, a teacher tells his students about disasters that were averted, but how the hell does he know about them, when they didn’t actually happen? The teacher also tells his students that if they have influential parents, they should watch them closely in case they need to change their parents’ actions. However, the children at ARES are taken from their families and live at the agency, so if their parents do anything of importance, they’d be powerless to do anything about it.

We’re told that ARES can register and trace shifts to a specific location (although we’re not told how). However, Scott makes a crucial shift in the middle of story that ARES doesn’t even notice (if they did, things would go a lot less smoothly for him). At one point there’s a shift that makes absolutely no sense. Scott is typing an important document, and someone shifts and changes the words, allowing Scott to realise that there’s a cover-up going on. We’re told very clearly that your shifts can only affect your own decisions, but it’s not Scott who’s shifting, and only he can change the decision about what to type. For this single moment, shifting is suddenly just about altering reality, not about changing decisions.

There are more plot holes, but you get my point.

Then there’s the problem of the novel not fully exploring the consequences of your decisions. The blurb mentions “terrible unforeseen consequences” and Aubrey warns Scott about these as well, but really there’s only one truly bad effect that occurs early in the novel, and it’s easily remedied. Most shifts are actually beneficial (like Scott saving his own life). Also, very few shifts have wide-ranging consequences, because most of them are used to change very recent decisions. For example, a lot of shifting in the novel is for fighting – every time a fighter makes a move that doesn’t work for them, they shift and use a different tactic. Except for one shift that Scott makes early on, no one is going around changing old decisions that have dramatic and interesting consequences. I thought the novel would explore the idea of being able to undo the stupid, embarrassing things you do at school – wouldn’t every teenager want that power? And wouldn’t they use it without considering the consequences? But this isn’t really about the consequences of your decisions. It’s just a standard loser-turned-hero tale.

Scott is too perfect, embodying the old fantasy of a loser becoming a teen James Bond with superpowers. It’s a good fantasy, but Curran overdoes it. Early in the novel, Scott shifts to a reality in which he does kickboxing, so he changes from being a skinny, unfit boy into a muscular guy who can hold his own in a fight. When he starts training at ARES, it takes him about an hour to learn how to fight using his shifting skills, and soon after we’re told that he’s the best shifter the teacher has ever trained, even though the other students have been doing this for years. Which apparently isn’t all that surprising, because shifters who manifest at such a late age are particularly powerful. And yes, Scott turns out to be one of the greatest shifters ever. How convenient. He still says and does some stupid things for comic effect, but that’s intended to add some charm to his character. Is this just meant to be wish fulfilment for boys who feel like losers?

Aubrey certainly caters to that – she’s hot, feisty and smells like vanilla. There’s not much else to her character, but her looks and scent are all Scott needs to fall for her. She’s aloof and too cool for him, but you know she’ll be kissing him by the end.

The romance feels nothing like a typically awkward teen romance, and in fact both characters seem a lot older than they’re supposed to be. Aubrey is 15, but she earns a salary, lives in her own apartment, and has a relatively high-ranking position in a government agency, meaning that there are actually adults who have to take orders from her. She and Scott do things like interview potential recruits, investigate a rogue agent, and write the official report for a murder. At 15 and 16? I don’t think so.

Reading this, I felt like it belonged in a class of sub-standard fiction for teens, kind of like Goosebumps novels. The emphasis is on action, with some romance designed to appeal to both boys and girls. It’s pretty gross sometimes, and includes a monstrously fat bad guy who likes to eat brains. There’s quite a bit of humour, which didn’t always work for me, although the light tone won me over eventually. The sloppy details continued to bug me regardless. I read a lot of this sort of thing when I was a teenager – Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, R.L. Stine, and a bunch of other equally forgettable books. They’re ok if you don’t take them too seriously or think about them too hard. If you’re fine with that, then you might like Shift. But I wish  hadn’t bothered.

Buy a copy of Shift at The Book Depository

Up for Review: Strange Chemistry’s Debut

Strange Chemistry is the brand new YA imprint of Angry Robot Books, describing themselves as “a global imprint dedicated to the best in modern young adult science fiction, fantasy and everything in between.” They launch in September 2012 “with physical books across a wide variety of formats, e-books as standard, and with selected titles made available as audiobooks.”

Before I knew it, I’d managed to get myself review copies for each of their first five publications. It seems that Strange Chemistry will be in charge of almost all my YA reading for the next few months. Take a look at their two September publications, both of which I received via NetGalley:

Shift by Kim Curran

Blurb from Strange Chemistry:

When your average, 16-year old loser, Scott Tyler, meets the beautiful and mysterious Aubrey Jones, he learns he’s not so average after all. He’s a ‘Shifter’. And that means he has the power to undo any decision he’s ever made.

At first, he thinks the power to shift is pretty cool. But as his world quickly starts to unravel around him he realises that each time he uses his power, it has consequences; terrible unforeseen consequences. Shifting is going to get him killed.

In a world where everything can change with a thought, Scott has to decide where he stands.

Add Shift on Goodreads
Read an extract
(Pre)Order Shift at The Book Depository
Kim Curran’s website

 

Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

Ok yes, it’s got one of those uninspired YA-girl covers, but I’ve been trying to look past the lazy cliches at least long enough to read the blurb, and this looks interesting. I love creepy legends.

Blurb from Strange Chemistry:

On Roanoke Island, the legend of the 114 people who mysteriously vanished from the Lost Colony hundreds of years ago is just an outdoor drama for the tourists, a story people tell. But when the island faces the sudden disappearance of 114 people now, an unlikely pair of 17-year-olds may be the only hope of bringing them back.

Miranda, a misfit girl from the island’s most infamous family, and Phillips, an exiled teen criminal who hears the voices of the dead, must dodge everyone from federal agents to long-dead alchemists as they work to uncover the secrets of the new Lost Colony. The one thing they can’t dodge is each other.

Add Blackwood on Goodreads
Read an extract
(Pre)Order Blackwood at The Book Depository
Gwenda Bond’s website

Both Shift and Blackwood will be released in the USA and Canada and in eBook format on 4 September 2012. The UK prints will be published on 6 September 2012, which is when I assume it will be made available to the rest of the world too.

If you’d like to see the Strange Chemistry’s current publishing schedule from September 2012 to May 2013, you can check it out here.