What’s up with me

Friends, I’ve been scared of this post for a while. But I think it’s time. Because I think I’m finally in a mental place where I can handle people knowing, and I’m tired of keeping secrets.

If you’ve been paying close attention, you may have noticed I’ve had some weird personal stuff going on lately that I haven’t been talking about. I was going on a trip to Texas, then suddenly I wasn’t going to Texas. I was going on a writing retreat, then I couldn’t go on a writing retreat, and then I could go again. I was posting several times a week about training for a half marathon, then I wasn’t posting about training anymore, and then I was hesitantly back to the gym after a few weeks off. And I posted more than a few times about the amazing generosity of my friends, which maybe isn’t so out of the ordinary. But it all ties together.

Here’s the somewhat short version of a very long story.

Two and a half months ago, I noticed a lump in my breast.

Two months ago, I found out that lump was cancerous.

Five weeks ago, I had surgery to remove the lump.

Three weeks ago, doctors were running tests to determine if chemotherapy would be recommended, and to find out if I had any mutations in my BRCA genes, which would put me at high risk for ovarian cancer and also would mean I’d need to get my children tested.

Two weeks ago, I learned that my cancer is a low risk for recurrence, and that risk is not changed by chemo, which meant I don’t need it. I also learned that my BRCA genes contain no mutations, which means no increased risk for me or my kids. That meant we could go ahead with the next stage of treatment, which was radiation.

One week ago, I started radiation therapy. That’ll go on for six weeks. Every weekday. It doesn’t hurt, yet. I hear it might as time progresses.

After that, I’ll get to do some form of hormonal therapy. We haven’t decided exactly how severe to go with that yet. Whatever we choose will continue for the next five years, at least. Along with regular doctor visits and tests to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned.

I’m not going to lie — this whole thing has sucked. A lot. I haven’t wanted to talk about it, because cancer patient is not a label I wanted people to assign to me. Friend, mommy, geek girl, YA writer, blogger, lover of action movies, queso enthusiast, TV aficionado, a cappella nerd, Twitter addict, book cheerleader — these were all aspects of myself that didn’t change with a cancer diagnosis. And throughout this whole crappy ordeal, despite having this One Big Thing constantly looming over my life, I haven’t cared less about any of those things.

I’m still me. I’m just me with cancer.

When I got my diagnosis, I told a small group of close friends and family, because it felt like something I didn’t want the world knowing yet, but I couldn’t keep from those who knew me best. That was the best decision I could have made, because my friends — most of whom I made through writing — have been invaluable as I’ve faced this.

They’ve brought me chocolate and wine and action figures and books and queso and movies. They’ve gotten me out of my house when I needed a distraction (two days after I got my diagnosis, when I knew I had cancer but still didn’t know the severity because Nashville had an ice storm and scheduling meetings with specialists was a nightmare, I went with a friend to see Jupiter Ascending. Which on the one hand is a weird thing to do two days after finding out you have cancer, but on the other hand, is the perfect thing to do. Nothing seems all that dire when you’re watching were-Channing Tatum rollerblade through a bouquet of space explosions. With bees). They’ve sent me gifs that made me snort in public, and they’ve recommended ridiculous shows for me to binge-watch on Netflix.

They’ve also prayed over me. They’ve handed me money to help with my medical bills. They’ve sent me emails and texts that moved me to tears. And they’ve contributed towards or prepared enough meals for my family that we had to borrow an entire upright freezer to store them all.

It’s in our dining room. My house in no way has enough room for an upright freezer.

Every time I look at it, I smile.

And every time I’ve told a friend what I’m going through, what my family is going through, it’s felt like a burden lifted. I always dread the telling, but it’s never been bad.

So now, even though I’m kind of terrified for the world to know about this, I think it’s time. I’m not sure how my brain is going to react to this going from a thing only a few people know to a thing everyone knows. Already, I get overwhelmed sometimes. Sometimes I can’t even bring myself to respond to a well-meaning email or text — not even to say “I’m not in a good place to deal with this right now, but I appreciate that you’re thinking of me.” Sometimes it’s all just too much.

If you’ve fallen into this category of reaching out only to be met with silence, I apologize. I will probably continue to do this, at times. I don’t mean to. I don’t want to. Just know that if I do this to you — if you try to encourage me and I don’t respond — it’s quite literally not you. It’s me. It’s entirely me and my weird, overwhelmed brain that still forgets sometimes that it’s piloting a body that mutinied on itself.

There are two questions I’ve been asked more than anything else over the past two months. They are:

How are you feeling?

and

What do you need?

I’ll try to answer them now. The answers don’t change. Or at least, they haven’t yet.

I feel fine. I still have some lingering soreness from my surgery, but I don’t feel sick at all. I’m not tired. My appetite is good. I’m back to exercising regularly, and while I won’t be setting any personal bests at this half marathon next weekend, I feel good about my ability to complete it.

I’m still reading. I’m still writing. None of my dreams have changed.

I’m told that after a few weeks, radiation will eventually make my skin feel constantly sunburned, and that it will get progressively worse until treatment is finished. I’m told it may make me tired. I have markers all over me for them to be able to line up my treatments — literally sharpie marks dotted all over my torso and covered by clear stickers, that feel like nothing but make me look like a Freemasons map. They make it hard to find anything to wear — the markers go all the way up to my collarbone, and we’re not exactly in turtleneck season — and that can be kind of frustrating and self-conscious-making. If you need me for the next six weeks, I’ll be the girl in the t-shirts. Always t-shirts. For every occasion.

But for now, I feel good. I feel like me, both physically and mentally.

As far as what I need, that’s a trickier question. Thanks to several friends and family members being unbelievably generous, I think that we will be okay financially. We have insurance, and while co-pays and co-insurance still add up to quite a hefty sum, it’s looking like we’ll be able to handle it. And that is a huge, huge blessing. Honestly one of my very first thoughts when my doctor said, “your biopsy came back positive for carcinoma,” wasn’t, “Am I going to die?” or, “What is this going to do to me physically?” — it was, “We can’t afford this.”

But now we can. It’ll be a long road — years — of tests and treatment and doctors visits. But it won’t break us.

We are also good on food. As I mentioned, we have a whole freezer full of meals.

So really, what I need right now is to smile. Encouragement — even if I fail to respond — is always appreciated. Prayer, if you are a person who prays. Laughter. Distraction.

The weekend I got my diagnosis, my friends showered me with these things. A gift card for my favorite local Mexican place. Gift cards for books, digital downloads for movies. Bottles of wine and boxes of chocolates. Countless texts and emails until it felt I was swimming in love.

It was like I was being wooed, but not romantically. Wooed back to myself.

(This is why these people are my best friends. They know me well enough to know exactly what I’d need in a time of crisis.)

And it’s still what I need.

So far, cancer has been scary and uncertain and inconvenient and frustrating and painful. It gets overwhelming at the weirdest times, and I never know when I’m going to shut down and become unable to engage on it in any capacity. But it’s also been strangely eye-opening. I’ve never felt such an outpouring of love before. I already knew, cognitively, that my friends were amazing and loving and generous. But now I know it with every piece of me, deep in my heart and soul.

I don’t expect to blog again about this. I’m not going to become a Person Who Blogs Their Disease. (There is nothing wrong with that at all. It’s just not me.) Even this post is a stretch for me. It’s a little terrifying. Or a lot terrifying. Next time I blog, it will be about something book or writing related. I hope.

But like I said, I have the most amazing support system that a girl could wish for. I have a wonderful husband and family going through this with me. I feel good. I’m at peace with the long road of treatment and testing ahead, and I’m at peace with the decisions we’ve made thus far. I’m ready for this to be a thing others know about me, even those I don’t know very well.

So here you go, Internet. My scary secret. I’m nervous.

Gifs welcome.

Review: WE ALL LOOKED UP by Tommy Wallach

I’ve been sitting on this review for months, ever since I stole borrowed the ARC from a friend who wasn’t quite as enthused about the idea of a quiet YA apocalypse as I was. I don’t know what it is about the human-race-facing-their-imminent-demise premise that I find so fascinating — maybe it’s spending my formative years in the ’90s when every other movie was about one form or another of Armageddon, including one (which I unabashedly love so don’t even attempt to speak ill of it) actually titled Armageddon — but no matter the reason, all I knew is when I read the blurb of We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach, I couldn’t wait to read it.

Now, make no mistake, this book is way less Armageddon and way more Melancholia. There is no rag-tag group of rugged miscreants tasked with saving the world, no last-ditch far-fetched government plan that unites the nations, and definitely no curmudgeonly-but-secretly-heroic mission leader willing to lay it all on the line for the greater good.

Still, if you’d like to read this review imagining Aerosmith playing softly in the background — or actually playing Aerosmith softly in the background — that is fine.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Four high school seniors put their hopes, hearts, and humanity on the line as an asteroid hurtles toward Earth in this contemporary novel.

They always say that high school is the best time of your life.

Peter, the star basketball player at his school, is worried “they” might actually be right. Meanwhile Eliza can’t wait to escape Seattle—and her reputation—and perfect-on-paper Anita wonders if admission to Princeton is worth the price of abandoning her real dreams. Andy, for his part, doesn’t understand all the fuss about college and career—the future can wait.

Or can it? Because it turns out the future is hurtling through space with the potential to wipe out life on Earth. As these four seniors—along with the rest of the planet—wait to see what damage an asteroid will cause, they must abandon all thoughts of the future and decide how they’re going to spend what remains of the present.

My Thoughts:

I really love a well-executed multiple-point-of-view book, but they’re hard to execute well. I’ve read a lot of multiple POV books by authors I otherwise enjoyed where the attempt to jump from one head to another kind of fell flat. Either one POV resonates more than the other(s), or they all sound kind of the same, or any number of other reasons.

Which is why this book stood out so much.

Even in third person, each of WE ALL LOOKED UP’s four narrators had their own unique voice, and each was a fully developed character, with strengths and flaws and moments of greatness mixed with moments of what-could-you-possibly-have-been-thinking. From Andy’s boneheaded pursuit of Eliza, to Anita’s ill-advised self-emancipation, to Eliza’s frustration over her undeserved reputation and Peter’s struggle between who he’s always been and who he wants to be, they all have honest and daunting uphill battles to fight in the face of their possibly impending doom.

The relationships start shallow, but become interwoven, intricate, and challenging. At the opening of the story, none of the four main characters know each other outside of a peripheral acquaintance, but as the meteor strips away the social boundaries keeping them apart, they come together in interesting and unexpected ways. They all begin the book viewing each other as objects and stereotypes — some more than others, but none are immune — until they don’t. Every one of them starts out as some version of “problematic” — again, some more than others — which, to me, read very true to where a lot of teens (and adults) are, drifting through life not really thinking about how their views and choices affect others until they have to.

I found it fascinating how the end-of-the-world scenario shoved them into those “until they have to” situations, and did it for each of them in different ways. How each faced the reality that they might all be dead in a couple months varied greatly — Do you try to become a better person? Do the thing you’ve always been afraid to do? Throw caution to the wind? — and told me a lot about each character and the lives they’d lived up to that point. By the end of the book, you may not necessarily be rooting for all four characters — some of them make some terrible choices with awful consequences — but I felt I understood them all better, and that they finally understood each other. Which, to me, felt like the point of their winding journeys.

The other aspect of this book I really loved was the glimpse into how society as a whole might handle an impending cataclysm. Since the approach of the meteor takes several months, and since they never know definitively whether its going to hit the earth or not, the world doesn’t instantly descend into chaos. Life goes on as normal — or normal-ish — for a while after the maybe-apocalypse is announced. But the closer the meteor gets, the more things break down. Kids stop attending school, people in unfulfilling jobs stop going to work, prices for basic goods and services skyrocket, rules and laws carry less and less weight until they’re eventually meaningless. The global shift in priorities starts subtle, then grows more and more pronounced throughout the book, until you can’t help but feel the slide. I’m not saying this is necessarily a more or less realistic view of what might happen than in other works of fiction where society bands together to work for the good of all; it’s just different. And for me, it was fascinating and kept the wheels in my brain turning for days after I finished the book.

I can’t speak to the science of the story. Physicists, I don’t know how realistic it is that NASA wouldn’t be able to predict whether or not a giant meteor will or will not hit us until the moment of impact. All I ask of science fiction (and this is extremely light science fiction, and even that categorization may be pushing it) is that it present its case in a way that allows me to buy into its premise for the duration of the book, and doesn’t throw anything at me that is so obviously far-fetched that it pulls me out of the story. And for me, WE ALL LOOKED UP delivered on that front.

Boiled down to its bones, this book is not an apocalypse story, but a character and relationship study under extraordinary circumstances. Its overall tone is quiet and contemplative, but there are definite moments of adrenaline and action and shock. It’s a weird one to peg down, because on one hand it has some definite science fiction aspects, but on the other hand it reads much more like a contemporary. I’d say that if you can swallow the maybe-end-of-the-world premise, and you enjoy well-drawn, far-from-perfect characters in scenarios that keep you thinking long after turning the final page, then you should try WE ALL LOOKED UP.

Film Review: INSURGENT

This past week I got the opportunity to catch an advance screening of Insurgent, the sequel to last year’s action-packed YA blockbuster Divergent. I’ll be honest, I was on the fence about this one. While I was pleasantly surprised by the first movie, the trailers for the second left me scratching my head. The entire first teaser appeared to be either a dream sequence or a fearscape (one of the drug-induced hallucinations characters in the franchise’s dystopian Chicago face to prove their bravery) — is it a red flag when a movie has to advertise using a scene that has nothing to do with the actual plot? — and the full trailer strongly hinted that the adaptation would be deviating in a big way from the book.

Box? What box? The box isn’t in the book. What’s in the box? (Anyone else unable to read that question in anything other than the traumatized voice of Brad Pitt? Just me?)

But since the first film had exceeded my trailer-based expectations, and since the second book was my favorite of the series, I went into Insurgent with an open mind and cautious hope.

Insurgent opens shortly after Divergent leaves off. Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter (Miles Teller) have sought refuge in the peaceful Amity compound outside the city limits while they try to determine their next move. Meanwhile, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), head of the Erudite faction, has gotten her hands on the aforementioned Mysterious Box, and is obsessed with finding a Divergent who can open it. Hence Eric (Jai Courtney) is leading a group of Dauntless soldiers around attempting to round up Tris and her ragtag group of rebels.

Obviously, chaos ensues. And continues to ensue for the entirety of Insurgent’s 2-hour running time. Which, if you read the book, is about what you’d expect from its adaptation; neither version of the story is short on action sequences.

However, I did take some issue with the way the action unfolded. In both the book series and the movies, Tris becomes a far more competent soldier and leader in the second installment. But while the book version of Tris also develops a more mature and measured way of thinking and problem solving, even if it means making hard decisions, the movie version did away with that pesky nuance, instead opting to have her lash out violently any time she was placed in a tough situation or in a conversation with someone she didn’t like. This did lead to some fun fight scenes, and yes, I suppose one could argue that it made Tris “strong,” but for me, I would’ve liked a bit more strength of character and a bit less strength of temper and fists.

As a sidebar, it was kinda odd seeing Shailene Woodley in scenes opposite literally all of her previous YA movie love interests. I mean. She’s had a really good past few years professionally, but it’s starting to get weird.

TJ: Divergent is the best.
MT: SAY THAT TO MY FACE.
TJ: I just did. I punch people A LOT in these movies. What did you do in Spectacular Now? Cry?
MT: Not as much as SOME people.
AE: Uh, guys? I’m right here.
TJ: I TAKE MY SHIRT OFF TOO.
AE: I took mine off in Fault In Our Stars. AND my leg.
MT: OH SNAP.
Shailene Woodley: Hate to break this up, but we’re supposed to be filming an awkward scene with all four of us now, okay? Okay.

As far as acting goes, Insurgent boasts a lot of heavy hitters in the cast, but I felt that a lot of them failed to deliver. While I was surprised by how well both Shailene Woodley and Theo James handled their roles in the first movie (despite my complete inability to buy him as an 18-year-old), in this one, they were lacking for me. Naomi Watts, whom I usually like, was surprisingly unconvincing as [highlight for minor spoiler: Four's presumed-dead mom -- who, despite the fact that she is 16 years Theo James' senior in real life, only looks about 5 years older on-screen], and Kate Winslet, whom I love and adore, had such an odd over-the-top role to play that even her innate Kate Winslet-ness had trouble saving it. I also had trouble connecting with Ansel Elgort’s character, but I’m not sure that’s entirely his fault, as Caleb isn’t exactly Mr. Personality in the books either. However Miles Teller was a wonderfully pleasant surprise, stealing every scene he was in, and Jai Courtney was a sufficiently menacing baddie. So a bit of a mixed bag, for me.

There were also, as I mentioned before, tons of plot changes, both big and small. As often happens in movie adaptations of books with large casts, many characters’ roles were truncated, given to a different character, or eliminated altogether. Subplots were altered and rearranged. And of course, the Mysterious not-in-the-book Box is the central point around which the entire movie’s plot rotates.

While I am not a book purist when it comes to film adaptations — I mean, I thought the Hobbit trilogy was great fun, fanfictiony and ridiculous though it was — I do wish that the filmmakers had taken a little more care to make their Big Changes actually make sense. The logic behind the Mysterious Box is frail at best, a theme that carries through a lot of the narrative choices in the movie.

Characters fight to the death over a misunderstanding that is later cleared up with a single sentence. Characters are shown in no-hope-of-escape scenarios in one scene and then happy as a clam back at their home base in the next, with no explanation how they got there. Bad guys hatch elaborate plots, then they unfold using set pieces put in place before the plot was hatched.

Basically, abandon hope, all ye who seek logic here.

However I don’t want to come across as a big ol’ downer telling you to avoid this movie at all costs. There are some great fight sequences, and anyone hoping to see Shailene Woodley kicking some serious bad-guy booty will be over the moon. There are some huge — albeit a bit video gamey — nifty CGI sequences. There is some surprisingly great comic relief in the form of Miles Teller, whose character I absolutely loathed in the book but kind of adored in the movie. And if Tris and Four (whose shipper name I don’t know, but if it’s anything other than FourTris, which would clearly be pronounced fortress, I quit) are your jam, then you’re in for a treat, as the romance is definitely amped up from the book.

Ultimately, my thoughts on this movie are that if you’re okay with the movie being its own, separate-from-the-book thing, or if you’re there for the action, for the romance, for the high-stakes adrenaline-pumping pace, or for the futuristic dystopian setting, you’ll probably really enjoy it.

If you’re more about tight storytelling and source material faithfulness, this may not be the film for you – or you just need to go in knowing not to place too high a value on those things.

No matter what, if you decide to check out Insurgent at the theater, I hope you have fun, and I’d love to know your thoughts!

Check out the video below for the Drive Through Movie Review Clint Redwine and I filmed after exiting the theater, in which I say “like” way too much, coin the term “Bovine Dystopia,” and do a bad impression of Caleb running. You’re welcome, Internet.

Review: MOSQUITOLAND by David Arnold

This is the time where I should probably remind you that what I do on this blog is not review books, but recommend. I used to do reviews, back before I started seriously pursuing my own writing, but criticizing someone else’s blood, sweat, and tears when art is such a subjective thing never really sat well with me. I’d rather recommend what I love (and stay quiet on what I don’t) than steer folks away from something that just wasn’t for me.

This is why I don’t post that often, and why, when I do, it’s always positive. It’s not that I love every book I pick up. It’s that I only take the time to write about the ones that I enjoy so much, I want to pass them on.

With that reminder and caveat out of the way, I’m going to be honest: I’ve recommended a lot of friends’ books on this blog, and I stand by every single one of those recommendations. But David Arnold’s quirky road-trip debut MOSQUITOLAND has made me a bit more verklempt than usual. Although I am blessed to have many amazingly talented writer friends in my life, and I am so proud of their successes, I met most of them post-agent, post-sale. They were already Authors with a capital A, even if their books hadn’t hit shelves yet.

But I knew David back when he was still an aspiring author. Little a. Like me. And it feels different.

I first met David a couple years ago, at a writing retreat where he and I were assigned to the same critique group. This was before he’d ever sold a book, before either of us had signed with an agent, before we’d even finished our first YA manuscripts or started querying. We were, for all intents and purposes, at the same point in our respective writing journeys.

Our critique groups each had five or six people in them. We traded first chapters and filled out worksheets in an attempt to help each author improve their work. It was very quiet and studious and serious as we passed pages around the table and everyone took a turn jotting their suggestions for how each writer could improve their characters, their prose, their plot and set-up and all the nitty gritty that goes into crafting a book.

I read a lot of good pages.

Then the papers shifted, and the first three chapters of MOSQUITOLAND landed in front of me.

I read them, filled out my worksheet, and then stared at it with a frown, feeling there was something more to say about these pages and not knowing quite how to say it.

Finally I scribbled onto the bottom of the page — I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something along the lines of– “Don’t tell anyone, but your book is far and away my favorite.

Now here we are, two and a half years later, and MOSQUITOLAND has grown from my favorite 30 pages at a writing retreat into one of my favorite for-real paper-and-ink books on my shelf, and David Arnold has gone from being a fellow aspiring writer whose ridiculous talent was easily spotted even in those early, drafty pages, to a cherished friend.

All that said — I’d recommend this book even if David was a stranger I wouldn’t know if I tripped over him in the street.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

“I am a collection of oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons: my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds strange because it is, and it is, because I am strange.”

After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland.

So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her real mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travelers along the way. But when her thousand-mile journey takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane.

Told in an unforgettable, kaleidoscopic voice, “Mosquitoland” is a modern American odyssey, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.

My Thoughts:

The first thing a reader notices when they pick up MOSQUITOLAND is the voice. Self-proclaimed strange protagonist Mary Iris Malone (“Mim”) leaps off the page, a precocious, declarative and impulsive girl with a view of life and people that is, even at its most stable, a little askew. She is quick to judge and quicker to act, and though her wit is razor-sharp, her common sense is quite a bit more blunted.

Which is why, as one might expect, her spur-of-the-moment road trip to find her absentee mom doesn’t go exactly as planned.

It’s an odd thing, sometimes, being an adult reading books about teenagers. Actions I would have cheered in my adolescence cause me to cringe, situations that appear romantic and exciting to a 16-year-old seem rife with danger, and the logic that feels incontrovertible to the teenage protagonist is riddled with holes.

Often, these are the sorts of things that can pull me out of a story, because checking one’s adult sensibilities at the door is not a natural impulse. Honestly, Mim makes a few choices that would probably even give some — or most — of her peers pause. But her voice is so open and authentic that even when she’s jumping into a scrap-heap truck with an older boy she just met or taking a dip in a probably-disease-riddled swimming hole or any of the myriad other weird and ill-considered things she does, I was with Mim, totally and completely, instead of wishing I could pull her back before she charged headlong into disaster.

And she does, on more than one occasion, charge into disaster. Sometimes physical and cataclysmic, sometimes internal and echoing, and probably not nearly as frequent as might be likely if a real-life Mim were to embark on this same journey. But the consequences Mim faces for her impulsive and often uninformed decisions are enough that while a reader may sympathize with Mim’s intentions, they can still recognize her fallibility and naivete.

As for tone, this book skillfully straddles the line between “issues” and “light” contemporary. It tackles hard topics in a way that gives them weight without bogging down the narrative, and balances tough real-world issues — mental illness, suicide, divorce, and sexual predators, among others (it’s worth mentioning that this book is marketed for readers 12 and up, but I think it skews a bit older) — with an effervescent lightness, as if the story has been painted with a vibrant, Wes Anderson-esque brush. Every part of MOSQUITOLAND is a little brighter and larger than life, from the cast to the plot to Mim herself and her perception of reality.

For my money, that’s a good thing: Mim views her story as grandiose and that is how she tells it, and being submerged in her off-the-beaten-path brain gives her tale a degree of authenticity that may not have been present with a more straightforward narrative.

Mim’s odyssey is a strange one, full of strange characters and strange happenings. But it’s also beautiful and fun and heartfelt and raw, and while Mim’s musings are not always brimming with objective wisdom, they are honest and endlessly quotable.

If you’re a fan of surprisingly eventful road trips, of quirky and bizarre casts of characters, of flawed protagonists, of vivid settings and skewed realities, of the type of voice that will dig its way into your brain and refuse to let go, and of strangeness, I can’t recommend MOSQUITOLAND highly enough.

Review: A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by V.E. Schwab

As always when I review a friend’s book, a disclaimer: I am friends with the author, V.E. Schwab. I got my hands on an early copy of A Darker Shade of Magic through trickery and intrigue (or, yanno, asking nicely). But this in no way affects my review of this book. I don’t love every book every one of my friends has written (seriously, you can ask them), and I wouldn’t recommend a friend’s book if I didn’t enjoy it.

But this book - this book – ohhhhhhh it’s divine. This one I can recommend without reservation. This one is one I’d devour even if I had never crossed paths with one V.E. Schwab. It’s been a while since I’ve attempted to read adult fantasy (and make no mistake, A Darker Shade of Magic, like V.E.’s amazing earlier release Vicious, is written for adult audiences, unlike the novels she publishes as Victoria Schwab, which are YA and Middle Grade), even though I love fantasy, simply because I haven’t been sure I had the time to devote to that sort of dense worldbuilding and sprawling narrative and tiny font.

Related: why does adult genre fiction have such tiny font? Adults are older. Our eyesight is worse. The font should be bigger.

Get off my lawn.

(Not really. Please come back.)

But anyway, with this premise, and this cover, and my epic love for Vicious, I knew I needed to get A Darker Shade of Magic into my brain, tiny font and all. And wow. Just…wow. It was worth the tiny font.

While I was really tempted to do this review all in gifs, I will do my best to make actual words.

Okay, fine, ONE gif.

Get the man a fabulous coat, and this is Kell.

There, don’t you feel better? Or is it just me? I’m fine if it’s just me.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.

Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London – but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her ‘proper adventure’.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — trickier than they hoped.

My Thoughts:

As with most high fantasy, A Darker Shade of Magic starts slow and quiet, building a world that is like ours, and not like ours, brick by brick. We meet Kell, a mysterious wanderer in a fabulous coat, who travels between worlds as easily as stepping from one room to another. There is Grey London, which plays like a straight historical fiction of our world, Red London, Kell’s home, which is rich and teeming with magic, and White London, which has been all but burned up by magic and treachery. And then there is Black London, which no one travels to anymore, not even Kell.

The world of each London is established subtly but confidently, and through Kell’s eyes, the rules of each overlapping London gradually become clear and distinct. Once we’ve gained our footing in the magic of Kell’s world and have a sense of the difficulties he faces in each London, we meet Lila, a cunning thief from Grey London with a quick hand and a taste for adventure. It takes a while for all the building blocks of the story to fall into place, but there are plenty of rewards for the patient reader, from the lush details of the worlds to the charming characters to Schwab’s signature poetic prose.

Then, once Lila and Kell inevitably cross paths, the story takes off, plunging both protagonists into a London-jumping whirlpool of courtly intrigue and deception while playing up the conflict between Lila’s lack of magic and Kell’s abundance of it to maximum, satisfying effect.

What V.E. Schwab did so well in Vicious, and what she does again here, is establish each of her characters, from heroes to villains, as fully realized, fleshed-out individuals. While Lila and Kell are both brave and charismatic, they are also criminals, and while the main antagonists – the terrifying sibling rulers of White London –  are undeniably sinister, the people they use to carry out their dark deeds are in many ways conflicted and sympathetic. Blurring that line between hero and villain is a tricky game, but Schwab accomplishes it masterfully.

As I said before, the first half of the book may be a slow burn, but it’s a delicious one. Readers shouldn’t expect to plunge straight into adventure and murder and intrigue, but there is plenty to enjoy along the road to chaos. And once the book hits its stride, there are payoffs aplenty as the story builds in intensity all the way through to its twisting, bloody conclusion.

A Darker Shade of Magic will have a sequel, but this first installment ends on a perfectly satisfying note. I can’t wait to join Kell and Lila on their next London-hopping adventure, but I was utterly sated with the ending of this book. There are no cliffhangers here, only the graceful bow of one adventure while another waits in the wings, peeking around the corner.

If you’re in the mood for a refreshingly unique spin on alternate universes, magic, and devastatingly gorgeous coats – or if you just want a beautifully crafted story told in a mesmerizing, lovely, and occasionally creepy voice, then you should move A Darker Shade of Magic to the top of your list.