The Golden Compass

Rating:
Author: Philip Pullman
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: 1995 (read on Audible Sep. 2019)

The Golden Compass was a re-read for me. I started the series back when I was in University, but I never finished it because University is just a huge giant time suck that doesn’t allow you to read for pleasure. I read the first two books, but never got around to the final book.

I had heard lots of great things about the series and my husband raved about it, so I expected to love it, but ended up being very underwhelmed by it. I think I would have been unlikely to return to it had I not stumbled upon the full cast audiobooks and known there was a tv series coming out later this year. But I’m so glad I made a second attempt at the series because I have been absolutely loving it on Audible!

The Golden Compass is set in a world similar to ours, but with some substantial differences. In this world, everyone has a daemon, which is a sort of animal companion that is bonded to you. Children’s daemon’s can change and take any animal form, while adults daemon’s eventually settle into one form. The story starts with our protagonist Lyra, a young girl whose age I can’t recall (let’s say ~10 or 11), hiding in the retiring room at Oxford and overhearing a very interesting discussion surrounding the concept of Dust.

Lyra is an orphan who grew up at Oxford, surrounded by scholars and street urchins. She’s a bold girl who’s not afraid to boss the other children around and has a terrible habit of lying. She doesn’t know what Dust is, but the scholars are fascinated by this Dust and are enthralled to learn that Lyra’s Uncle, Lord Asriel, has been able to photograph it in the North. Lyra’s curiousity is piqued and she becomes desperate to explore the North and see the Dust and magnificent aurora for herself.

At the same time, mysterious things are happening at Oxford and children start disappearing. To explain the disappearances, the other children blame the mysterious Gobblers, who are said to kidnap and eat children. Suddenly Lyra finds herself engulfed in the plot and travelling to the North to save her friend from the Gobblers and find out more about Dust and why everyone is so concerned about it.

The first thing I’ll say about this book is that I’m a bit shocked it’s a children’s book. I know children read all kinds of horrific stuff without being affected by it, but this book has some seriously crazy shit in it. But more impressively, it has a seriously convoluted plot, which is what impresses me more about it as a children’s book.

I will always maintain that the best children’s books are the books that appeal to both children and adults. The Golden Compass is definitely one of those books that is sold to children, but really targets adults. There are so many levels to the storytelling that it can really be enjoyed at any age. Children enjoy it for its strong protagonist and fantastical elements, like flying witches and armoured bears, while adults will enjoy it for its mature themes about religion and the church.

Yes, you read that right, the underlying themes of this book centre most prominently on the church and its power. Pullman explores other themes like the loss of innocence, morality, and the existence of souls, but at its core this is a book about the role religion plays in our society and how religious doctrine has snuck its way into our governments and legal systems.

The religious overtones are subtle for most of The Golden Compass, but it becomes more clear towards the end of the book where Pullman plans to take this series. There’s a great air of mystery throughout most of this book – what is dust, who are the Gobblers, what is the Magisterium doing – but once we start getting answers to some of these questions, it becomes clear how far the power of the church reaches. They have a great fear of sin, which causes them to commit unspeakable atrocities.

The church, or Magisterium, is strongly reminiscent of the catholic church, however, I think Pullman’s themes apply to really any branch of the christian church. I’m about halfway through the second book now (or I was at the time of writing this – I’ve since finished the series) and I do find Pullman a bit heavy handed at times, but sometimes exaggeration is required to make a point and do I think he makes several relevant arguments. The “church” in general is a very powerful institution, and no matter what religion you look at (christianity, islam, hinduism, etc), it has very much infused itself into modern governance. The question is, does the church belong in our governance systems?

Personally, I think no. The core message of most religious texts is simple – love others. If that was as much as we tried to infuse into our government, I’d say sure, but unfortunately the church is much more caught up in control, and that’s where it gets dangerous. The christian church in America (and yes Canada), is very caught up in controlling everything from women’s reproductive rights, to marriage rights, to access to healthcare, to scientific freedom, and what can be taught in schools. Then if you look further into institutions like the catholic church, they’re also interested in controlling families by keeping women out of positions of influence.

But why is the church so interested in this control? If your mandate is to love others, why does any of that other stuff matter. For me, everything that the right-wing christians are selling in America right now is about protecting the long held power and privilege of straight, white men.

One of the best ways that I think they do this is through misdirection. One example is the anti-choice movement. They would have us believe that they’re all about fetus rights and the sanctity of life, but it’s really about power and control. If the anti-choice supporters actually believed in the sanctity of life and protecting women and children, they would support access to birth control, healthcare, welfare, and sex education. There is no wealth and power without poverty and those in power want to maintain all the privileges they’ve become accustomed to.

But a lot of it leads back to this notion of “sin”. The church condemns women who want abortions as immoral, gay marriage as abhorrent, and science as the loss of faith. But this fear of sin is what drives the need to control it. Religion generally acknowledges that everyone sins, but all these additional rules and restrictions just make it that much easier to “sin”.  The theme of sin is only introduced at the end of The Golden Compass, but I’m interested to see where Pullman takes it in the rest of the series because the word “sin” means different things to different people and part of the problem is that we all have our own definition of what constitutes “sin”.

In Lyra’s world, the magisterium wants to eliminate sin from the world, and in their quest to do that, they cause incredible harm. Not unlike the way the church still alienates everyone who is different or who does not fit within their narrow view of what is “right”.

Anyways, I didn’t expect to get into such an in-depth discussion on religion, but these are issues that I do spend a lot of time thinking about. I do want to keep the ideas of the church (or organized religion) separate from spirituality though because I do think they are two completely different things. You can condemn the church as an institution, without condemning the idea of spirituality and the existence of a greater being.

So I did like this book a lot more on the second read through and I’m interested to see where Pullman takes these themes in the next two books. The full cast for this audiobook was fantastic. Lyra drove me nuts sometimes because she can be really obtuse and made a lot of stupid decisions, but she’s a child and she has a lot of spunk, so I can forgive her for that. Mrs. Coulter was deliciously evil, Lord Asriel enraging, and Iorek endearing.

But mostly what I liked was how wild the plot was. I truly never knew what was coming in this book. There were so many twists and turns and it had a huge amount of depth. I love stories that have a lot of balls in the air and maintain several different plotlines at the same time, while weaving an air of mystery under the whole story. Pullman did this very well and when we arrive at the conclusion of the novel, it really just feels like the beginning.

The Fellowship of the Ring

Rating:
Author: JRR Tolkien
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: 1954 (re-read in Jun. 2019)
Series: The Lord of the Rings #1

So I first read Fellowship of the Ring when I was around 10 or 11 years old. My Dad played a big role in fostering my love of reading and encouraged me to read the series before the first movie came out. I have to admit, I’m a little impressed that I read this whole series as a pre-teen and actually loved it. I’ve always remembered the books (and heard them described by others) as being super dense and descriptive, and for some reason I was totally intimidated to re-read them.

I’m a huge fan of the movie franchise and I re-watch the whole trilogy every couple of years. I recently re-watched it with my friends and convinced two of them to re-read the trilogy with me. I’m a little embarrassed now at how much I was actually intimidated by this book, because while it is a little indulgent in the descriptions, it’s nowhere near as dense as I had built it up to be in my head and I really had no problem reading it.

I’m going to skip the synopsis because we all know what the Lord of the Rings is about. It’s a classic good-versus-evil fantasy story that puts everything else in the genre to shame. It was fun to re-read and compare what lines Peter Jackson lifted right out of the book and what liberties he took with the characterization (I’m looking at you, Arwen). This is our introduction to hobbits, middle-earth, and the fellowship and re-reading the first book only cemented my love for all of Tolkien’s characters. ‘Hobbits really are amazing creatures’ and I loved Sam, Merry, and Pippin for being so willing to follow and support Frodo, no matter where he went or what challenges they faced. Even hobbits like Farmer Maggot and Fatty Bolger went out of their way to support the hobbits without asking anything in return.

I’m giving this 4 stars instead of 5 stars because there were parts of the story that dragged. It felt like it took forever to actually get out of the Shire and Rivendell and Lothlorien went on a little too long for my tastes. I was really impressed with how Tolkien wrote Gollum in this book. He dogs the fellowship for the entire second half of the book without them ever putting a name to what’s following them and it was pretty creepy. It takes a while to get to know each of the nine in the fellowship as well, but slowly Tolkien starts to tease out their personalities and develop each of them into more fully fleshed out characters.

The action definitely translates differently then it does on the screen, but the book had me on the edge of my seat for most of the second half. I thought things picked up a lot once to the fellowship left Rivendell. There were a few parts from the book that weren’t in the movie that I did remember, like the old forest and Tom Bombadil, but there were other parts I didn’t remember at all, like the fellowship getting attacked by wolves. Overall, I still think Peter Jackson did a great job on the adaptation and I can’t wait to re-watch the series again and get started on Two Towers!

A Bend in the Stars

Rating:
Author: Rachel Barenbaum
Genres: Historical fiction
Pub date: May 14, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)

Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Hachette sent me a bunch of books back in January and I haven’t had the best luck with them, but this one definitely stood out. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, but I’ve been finding myself a bit intimidated by it lately. I thought this book sounded really cool, so I was excited to read it and thrilled to find it was really easy to get into, despite having a heavy-sounding topic.

I’ll admit, A Bend in the Stars wasn’t at all the plot I was expecting when I picked it up, but it was really interesting and focused on WWI from a completely different perspective than any other historical fiction I’ve read. Like I said, I love historical fiction, but I’m a bit fatigued with fiction about the world wars because the market is just over-saturated with it and there’s only so much heartbreak I can take. But A Bend in the Stars is set in Russia and while the setting of the story takes place during WWI, it’s not a book about the war.

A Bend in the Stars focuses on brother and sister, Vanya and Miri, just prior to the start of WWI in 1914. They are both Jewish and were raised by their grandmother after the death of their parents. Vanya is a theoretical physicist working at the university, trying to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Miri is a young female doctor working at the local Jewish hospital and is engaged to another Jewish doctor at the hospital, Yuri. They all live in Kovno, a small Russian town that is now known as Kaunas in Lithuania. Miri is about to be named a surgeon, but struggles to be accepted as a female doctor and Vanya is determined to prove Einstein’s theory, but must work against powerful men at the university who want to claim his scientific discoveries for themselves. But the looming war threatens the dreams of both Miri and Vanya and rising tensions against Jewish people threatens their safety.

The science is definitely what peaked my interest in this book. I love a good book about boundary-breaking women who challenge the gender norms of their time, and I was really intrigued about the race to prove relativity, which is something I didn’t know much about. As a story, there were some parts I didn’t really love. I think the author could have done a better job at plotting the story and in developing her characters, but I learned a lot in this book and I really appreciated this different historical perspective.

Like I said, this book is a WWI book that isn’t really about WWI. The fact that war was about to break out is critical to the story because it created a huge sense of urgency and tossed the entire country into chaos, but it’s really only the backdrop for a greater story. I’m still a little fuzzy on the history of general relativity, but my understanding from this book is that Einstein had developed his theory of general relativity, but didn’t have the equations to prove it. Vanya was working to develop the equations and believed they could be proved using a photo of a solar eclipse that catches the bending of light. Vanya is a fabricated character, but there is real history behind the work he did.

At the same time that tensions were mounting between Germany and Russia, a solar eclipse was scheduled to occur that placed Russia in the line of totality (complete eclipse). Vanya believes that if he can find a photographer, he can develop the equations to solve relativity. Harvard believes in him as well and offers him a position if he can solve relativity. With war looming and tensions rising against Jews, it becomes even more important for him to solve relativity in order to get his family out of Russia.

But war breaks out just before the eclipse and Vanya decides to enlist before he is conscripted so that he can request his locale. Yuri agrees to travel with him and aid him while Miri will remain at the hospital. After the eclipse, they plan to meet in St. Petersburg to immigrate together, but things don’t go according to plan and Miri is forced to flee Kovno as well.

I think my favourite part of this book was the exploration of what it meant to be Russian and Jewish during this time period. I think we tend to think of antisemitism as something that was born with Hitler and WWII, but a hatred and distrust of Jewish people was around for a long time before Hitler arrived. Jews were used as a scapegoat for the country’s problems and were viewed as expendable soldiers when WWI broke out. Even before WWI, Jewish people in Russia were the victims of Pogroms, which were violent anti-Jewish riots that have been occurring in Russia since the mid 1800’s.

So I did really like the history in this book and I did learn a lot. But I do think the story suffered a little bit from the writing. I think the author relied a too heavily on plot for this book when I would have preferred to see more character development. We are constantly propelled forward from location to location with the story taking us all over Russia. I struggled to believe some of the drama in the story, particularly how persecuted each of the characters were. War is tearing the country apart and I thought it would be easy for characters like Miri and Vanya to slip through the cracks, but they were pursued all over Russia and I just didn’t think they were important enough to warrant it. I also felt like the author tried to force these emotional, cathartic moments, but they fell a little flat for me because I struggled to bond with the characters.

Vanya was insanely driven to the point that he was totally blinded to everything else happening around him, at the expense of his own personal safety. Yuri seemed interesting enough, but I never felt I really got a sense of who he was and he came across as a bit of an emotionless robot. Sasha and Miri were interesting characters, but I think their story was a little over-dramatized as well. However, I loved that this book had a genuinely upsetting love triangle. I think I’ve said this before in other reviews, but I live for love triangles where you love each of the characters equally. Often there’s one person you don’t like as much or two of the characters have better chemistry, but I love it when you like all the individuals because it really makes you empathize with the main character in deciding who to be with. It was genuinely upsetting when Miri had to choose.

The ending of this book is all kinds of drama. Personally I didn’t really love it. The author packs a lot of stuff into the end and much of it is shocking. I really didn’t anticipate the story going the direction it did and I felt it kind of lost its historical value at the end and became and bit more of a soap opera. I was sad to learn Vanya wasn’t actually a real person, but it did inspire me to do some research into when and how relativity was actually solved, which is also pretty interesting.

Overall I think this is a solid 3-star read. Even though I didn’t love the story, it was still very engaging and I do really appreciate this historical perspective, which was the highlight of the book for me. As a debut novel, this is pretty impressive and I will be interested to see what else Barenbaum publishes in the future.

A Bend in the Stars is available for purchase in stores May 14, 2019.

Daisy Jones & The Six

Rating:
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Genres: Fiction, Historical fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Mar. 2019 on Audible

I did everything I could to get my hands on an early copy of Daisy Jones & The Six, but friends, I’m so glad I was unsuccessful because that would have deprived me of the joy of listening to this as an audiobook! I usually prefer to read fiction that I think I’m going to love as a paperback because it’s almost never quite as good as an audiobook. But this is one case where I would absolutely recommend reading the audiobook! Audible sold me on this book with the 5 minute sample because it’s read with a full cast, meaning a different voice actor is cast for every single character! It adds so much life to the story when every character is read by a different person and I really felt like listening to this book was an experience in itself. It also works particularly well as an audiobook because the story is written as an “oral history”, meaning almost the entire book is dialogue from the characters as they recount the story. So absolutely read the audiobook, you will not regret it!

For a little background; Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which was published in 2017 and took the book world by storm in 2018. I read it with my book club and LOVED it, so I was really excited to finally get my hands on this book. Daisy Jones & The Six is set in present day, but tells the story of the rise to fame of fictional rock band, Daisy Jones & The Six in the 1970’s, leading up to the break up of the band in 1979 at the height of their popularity. No one knows the true story of why the band broke-up, but for the first time, the members of the band have agreed to tell their story. So the whole thing reads like an MTV-type documentary, where an interviewer has compiled everyone’s accounts of the band’s rise to fame and break-up to finally give readers the full story.

What makes it so interesting is that because the story actually happened 40 years in the past, the band members are, of course, fuzzy on some of the details and many of their stories contradict one another. Because we don’t really know the truth or the motivations of each of each of the characters (some might be motivated to lie for example), it’s up to the reader to decide where the truth actually lies, which the interviewer postulates, is likely somewhere in the middle.

I can see how this book wouldn’t be for everyone – I personally don’t care about 1970’s rock and roll, although I can see how this topic would be an incentive to pick up this book for other readers – but I was captivated from start to finish! I thought the way Jenkins Reid crafted the story was brilliant, as was her writing. Any author that can tell a story this well written and crafted is definitely talented. Plus the voice actors should really be commended because they did a wonderful job capturing the angst and emotion of each character. This is one book I would recommend listening to at normal speed because the actors really are quite talented and absolutely bring this story to life.

One of the best parts of this book is just how real the characters feel. Dialogue can be tricky to write and some authors are just not good at it. But I genuinely felt like every single one of these characters was a real person and it’s hard to believe that Daisy Jones & The Six are not actually a real band. It’s hard to believe someone could bring music that doesn’t even exist to life in such a real way in a book. The most upsetting part is that none of the music in the book actually exists, because I wanted so badly to be able and go and listen to the album that Daisy and Billy wrote together. I kept thinking during the book that the band reminded me of Fleetwood Mac, even though I don’t even know very much about Fleetwood Mac, but I have heard that some of the story is loosely based on that band, although I’m not sure how much truth there is to that rumour.

The overall story is not that different from any other rock story. It has many of the same themes that we regularly see in stories about musicians. The book is filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but the characters and their relationships are really what bring the story to life. However, while the general themes were pretty standard, I did not find the plot predictable. So many of these kinds of stories involve drug abuse and forbidden relationships that tear our artists apart – this book had those elements, yet it still felt fresh and surprising.

Daisy Jones was a solo artist and The Six was a 6-person rock band led by singer Billy Dunne. Both achieved some level of success on their own, but together they were magic. Daisy and Billy had a tumultuous relationship. They both had very strong personalities and opinions about the music they wanted to create, but when they were able to work together, what they created was magical. Likewise, a distinct personality emerged for each of the individual band members and the producers and family members that surrounded the band. I loved the dynamic between Daisy, Billy, and Camila, as well as the dynamics between other band members such as Karen and Graham, Eddie and Billy, and Teddy and Billy. Plus each character had a really well developed sense of self and struggled as much with their own personal demons as they did with the people around them.

I loved the evolution of each character. Everyone had great personality traits and everyone had flaws. You’d start off loving a character, then find them to be quite unlikable, before finally understanding what they’re going through and liking them again. I’ve heard reviews that some people loved Daisy Jones, while others hated her. I was firmly in the middle. She definitely had a spirit that was to be commended, especially for a woman in the 70’s, but she was also undeniably privileged and entitled and often made bad decisions.

Likewise, I loved and hated Billy. Billy had an obvious conflict with Daisy, but his character was really driven by his personal conflict and fight with addiction. Daisy and Billy definitely brought out each other’s flaws, but they also helped one another to grow in ways they never would have without each other.

I’ve heard some people call this a love story, but it was never really a love story for me. It was more a story about people and relationships. Relationships were central to the story, but it wasn’t always about love. It was also about the power of music as a method of expression and the different ways that we express ourselves and learn and grow from our mistakes. Although I will say, I always look for love triangles where you love everyone in the triangle because I think it brings so much more emotion to a story when you want all 3 characters to be happy, but you know only 2 of them will be together. Daisy Jones & The Six has that kind of love story and it will tear your heart out, but it’s so much more interesting to read about.

There’s more men than women in the story – we’re limited pretty much to Daisy, Karen, and Camila as our female characters – but I loved every single one of them. Daisy had a lot of faults, but I loved how unapologetic she was. She refused to be anyone but who she was and even though she was portrayed by the media as a sex icon, she was an icon on her own terms. She dressed for herself and made decisions for herself, she was always focused on her own gaze rather than those around her. But I loved that Jenkins Reid also drew attention to her privilege. She never really had to work for anything and I loved how her character was challenged throughout the book, both as a musician and as a person.

Karen was probably my favourite female character though and I loved how Judy Greer portrayed her in the audiobook. Karen was another character who knew what she wanted and what she didn’t want and she was never going to apologize for it. Her character was in contrast to what most people would expect from a woman in this era and I loved the way the author contrasted Karen and Camila. Karen wanted to be a successful musician, she was interested in love and sex, but never at the expense of her career, she was comfortable being alone, and she never wanted kids. In contrast, Camila was happy to sit back and support Billy as a musician. She wanted nothing more than to be a mother, and though it was hard, she was content in her life and trusted her husband.

They were both completely different people, who had very different thoughts on what they wanted to achieve in life, but they were best friends and neither was threatened by the other’s ambitions and how they differed. I think a lot of mothers are threatened by women who don’t want kids. I don’t really know why, it’s a personal decision and both are right. But Camila was never threatened by Karen’s differing values and never tried to convince her to feel otherwise. They both accepted and respected the others desires.

I don’t want to spoil what happened to break up the band, but I really liked that it was never really about one specific thing. It was a culmination of all the different relationships in the band. There were different catalysts for different people and I loved how this was a study of all of the band members rather than just Billy and Daisy.

I want to get into some spoilers now, so I’ll just say I absolutely loved this book from start to finish and would highly recommend the audiobook! If you haven’t read it yet, tap out now to avoid spoilers, if you have, let’s keep going!

SPOILERS BELOW

So first of all, because I was just talking about Karen and Camila, I want to say that I loved the abortion scene in this book. It was lovely to see a woman put in a tough situation, but confident enough in herself and her dreams to make the right decision for herself and to not regret it. Karen understood that she wouldn’t have the same luxury to continue her career as Billy and Graham would have if they all were parents. Graham clearly didn’t understand and as much as I liked the two of them as a couple, they weren’t meant to be. I also loved that Jenkins Reid took the typical gender dynamic and flipped it in Karen and Graham’s relationship. So often it’s the girl chasing after the guy, but I loved that Karen was one of the few women portrayed as actually being comfortable alone. I loved how she was contrasted to Camila in terms of their personal goals, and how she was also contrasted to Daisy, who hated being alone.

Finally, I want to talk about that killer spoiler at the end where we discover that the person interviewing the band is actually Julia, Billy’s daughter, and that Camila has passed on since being interviewed. The interviewer tells us at the beginning that some of the individuals have sadly passed on, so at first you’re kind of expecting the typical tragic “musician dies from drug abuse and overdoes” story, but because everyone is being interviewed, you understand that means they’re all still alive. It’s not until later that you realize Teddy was never interviewed because he passed away in the late 70’s. Then we’re thrown for a total loop when we discover Camila passed away mid-interview and that the interviewer is actually hers and Billy’s daughter.

To be honest, I didn’t think that much of it, I was just like, okay, that’s kind of weird, but whatever, doesn’t change that much, just makes it seem weird that everyone was talking about her and her parents in the third person. But I watched Hannah’s (A Clockwork Reader) review on Youtube and she brought up a great point about how that shines a different light on absolutely everything that precluded it. Keeping in mind that everyone is telling their story to Billy’s daughter would absolutely change how they would tell their story and should make us question even further what the actual truth is.

It explains why no one every really says anything bad about Camlia, because people don’t really talk bad of the dead and it makes you wonder what Daisy and Billy’s relationship actually was like since it was probably really difficult for them to discuss the topic with Billy’s daughter. Throughout the whole book, I thought that Billy and Daisy had great chemistry, but I was somewhat surprised with their love story. Billy seemed to genuinely love Camila and Billy and Daisy both hated each other on so many different occasions, that it made you wonder if the music was really enough for them to overcome that. But knowing they’re telling their story to Julia paints everything in a different light and kind of makes me want to go back and listen to the whole thing again.

It speaks volumes about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s talent. She really did bring these characters to life in the most impressive way, it’s genuinely a bit jarring to me that none of these people are real. There were no throw-away characters, even annoying characters like Eddie were still incredibly relatable. A lot of the characters made bad decisions, but they were so well developed, it was easy to understand why they made the decisions they did.

Phew, well that was the quite the review and I think it’s actually made me appreciate the book even more than I did when I finished. I love when writing a review helps you confirm how you actually felt about a book and this review definitely helped me. I also love when a book makes you feel so much you can write a review this long. So definitely check out this book and audiobook. I know some people haven’t been loving this book as much as they hoped, but I definitely did!

The Everlasting Rose

Rating: ⭐
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)
Series: The Belles #2

Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

I liked the first book in this series, The Belles, so I was really excited to receive an advance copy of the sequel and had high hopes going into this book. Unfortunately, I did not find the sequel as compelling or captivating as the first book and it took me several weeks to trudge my way through The Everlasting Rose.

The Everlasting Rose starts off right where The Belles left off, with Camellia having fled the palace and Sophia being named as heir to the monarchy. Camellia is desperate to find Charlotte in order to prevent Sophia, with her twisted politics, from ascending the throne. Sophia is definitely an A+ villain, so this should have been super captivating, but I don’t think it was well plotted and I struggled to get through it.

Clayton definitely has a unique writing style. Her writing is quite flowery, which I think works really well in the beauty-obsessed fantasy world that she has created. The plot definitely seemed to move slowly in the first book as well, but there was a large mystery element in the first book that compelled me to keep reading and the last third of the book was super high stakes. The mystery was missing from this book, as was the twisted villain.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I actually wanted more of Sophia in this book. She is incredibly twisted and evil, but she brought a lot of tension to the story. The Everlasting Rose is also a high stakes plot, but it relies on Sophia’s malice from the first book to carry the conflict through this story and I just wanted more. Sophia is a looming threat, but she doesn’t drive the conflict and plot in the same way as the first book and even though Camellia is forced to race against time to find Charlotte, I never really felt any fear for her character. Most of the book is spent travelling around Orleans, but never actually advances the plot of the story. Camellia accomplishes very little until she actually returns to Trianon towards the end of the book. The ending was pretty good, but it just took so long to get there that it actually felt rushed when we finally arrived back at the palace. The first three quarters of the story really just felt like filler to get us to the last quarter.

Some authors can really pull off “travel” stories (I’m thinking of Heather Fawcett’s Even the Darkest Stars series), but it lost me in this book. There are 6 Belles in the Camellia’s generation and we meet and interact with almost all of them, but never long enough to really care about them or get a sense of who they are. Coming into this book I only really cared about Camellia and Amber, and I was intrigued about Edel. But then the author seems to abandon the relationship conflict she was developing between Amber and Camellia, which I thought was a real shame because it was really interesting to examine the competitive relationship between them and how it manifested with their individual ethics.

The romance also threw me for a total loop in this book. It was unexpected and very ‘insta-love’ and I wasn’t into it. The first book ended with so many broken relationships and I just don’t think any of them were resolved well in this book. August was a bit of a mystery to me in the first book and I don’t understand what drove his character. It’s developed a bit further in the sequel, but was overall, unsatisfying.

Mostly I just wanted to see more interactions between Sophia and Camellia. I was really expecting for this to be a trilogy, but based on the ending of this book, it seems it’s a duology? But the whole time I was reading this I was like, “oh, this book is totally suffering from middle book syndrome, it’s just going to be a travel book and the third book is where we’ll get a really intense showdown between Sophia, Camellia, Charlotte, and the Iron Ladies.” But it seems like that is not to be and I didn’t think this worked as a final book.

One thing that bothered me was the assumption that Charlotte would make a good ruler. Everyone wanted her to be queen because she was the rightful heir and Sophia was so vile that literally anyone else would be better. But Charlotte was in a coma for years, so I thought she would probably be devastated when she awoke by all the lost time and would likely be stunted in development as she was essentially a child when she went into the coma. Something clearly went wrong with Sophia to make her the way she was, but why assume that Charlotte would naturally be better? She wouldn’t have even understood the drama and politics of what went on at court over the past years because she was effectively absent, and I feel like it would be hard for her to accept the narrative that she was told about her sister. Why would she trust the Iron Ladies, who essentially abducted her, over the word of her sister? It seemed really problematic to me.

So unfortunately, there wasn’t really much that I liked about this book. Clayton has a really interesting style of writing and I think this world had so much potential, but I was ultimately disappointed.