King’s Cage by Victoria Aveyard

kings-cage

Red Queen Book #3, HarperTeen, 2017, 512 pgs.

Trading her freedom for her friends’ lives, Mare has been captured by Maven and been taken back to Whitefire Palace. While the Scarlet Guard and the newbloods plan, make new alliances, and gear up for the coming revolution, she’s once again forced to dance on someone else’s strings. She’s once again forced to play a role that will work against everything she wants to fight for. But all is not as well in Norta’s court as the Lightning Girl’s capture suggests. The growth of the Scarlet Guard and the revelation of the newbloods have shaken the Silvers, and tensions are running high. The young king’s harsh decisions are not helping the growing rift among his supporters, either. And even in a gilded cage, Mare has her cleverness, her will, and her hatred.

Again, spoilers for all three books of the series

 

 

Well, this went better than expected. I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to review this book, considering my disappointment with the second in the series. I mean, I knew I was going to read it, because I have a hard time letting go of a story once I’ve started it, but it feels somehow unfair to review a book you pick up even though you know you’ll probably hate it. And if Aveyard hadn’t somewhat redeemed herself here I probably wouldn’t be writing this.

I’m going to just put my main relief out there, considering it was sort of the crux of my last review for Red Queen. She has, for the most part, fixed The Maven Problem. Which is wonderful, because The Maven Problem was really the only reason I didn’t enjoy Glass Sword.

For those of you who don’t feel like reading all of that, my major problem with book two and, retroactively, book one was that it seemed like she was completely depowering her villain whenever her heroes needed a convenient escape route. This sort of thing is the epitome of lazy writing, and not only ends up making your narrative’s internal logic wholly inconsistent, it pretty much kills any sort of tension your plot has managed to build.

Here, though, she actually bothers to explain that there’s a reason her supposedly genius antagonist so often does contradictory and self-defeating things. To sum up: his mother, who had the power to mess around in people’s brains, had basically been rewriting his to make him more what she wanted since he was very young. So, for every action he takes, he’s unsure if it’s coming from him or from her; so there’s always a small part of him that doesn’t want to do these things, or is at least unsure enough about it that he hesitates.

And this piece of information almost single-handedly fixes the plotting of the series. It makes him more broken than stupid, which allows him to still be threatening, and it introduces yet another conflict with the question of whether he can be saved.

Given, it doesn’t fix absolutely everything. The execution here is still kind of sloppy, and this information probably should have been introduced in book two so the illusion of giant, gaping plot holes never even surfaced. The Scarlet Guard still dealt with him in an absurdly naïve manner in book one, given everything else we’ve seen of them. And our heroes are still going on about how brilliant he is, even while he’s doing self-contradictory things.

Still, “left us hanging for a book” and “has given her character an informed attribute” are paltry sins in comparison to “has completely defanged her villain and made her plot nonfunctional.” I’ll take either of the former any day.

That aside, if anything I’d say this third book has sort of the opposite problem that the second one did. There I thought that the character interactions were beautifully done, and it was the plotting that was completely botched. And even looking back with an explanation for the plotting, I’m still willing to maintain that it’s a little too formulaic.

Here, though, Aveyard has taken some major steps to move beyond the standard Hunger Games route, and a lot of what she does in this book seems like a genuine attempt to deepen the worldbuilding and politics of the series. We’re not quite at Game of Thrones-level machinations, but there’s more than enough to carry the story and make it feel like we’re moving beyond narrative shorthand and tropes.

And I can’t even say the characters are bad, here. A lot of the good things about the previous books remain, and it’s clear that she’s still willing to take chances with her characters, to risk people beginning to dislike them. Mare spends a decent amount of time here vengefully murderous, as well as a decent amount of time wondering if that makes her no different from the people she hates. Cameron and Evangeline, both of whom loathe our heroine, get viewpoints, and it’s made clear that their dislike of her stems partially from Mare’s faults, rather than solely from their own. Cal, at the end of this, chooses his own privilege over what’s right, potentially breaking our lead couple’s relationship beyond fixing.

Our heroes are never written to be fully justified in everything they do, and that’s a sad rarity that I really do appreciate.

That said, the characters are also nowhere near as meticulously realistic in their reactions to each other as in previous novels. Again, they’re not bad, but that was the major thing that impressed me about Glass Sword, and it feels like it’s mostly absent here.

The worst of it, unfortunately comes from Mare herself, who careens wildly between hating Maven and feeling pity for him. While I can’t say the ambivalence is unjustified there, the way it’s done reads less like the natural mixture of sympathy and revulsion you’d expect out of the situation, and more like an author trying to string her audience along a little farther on the possibility of a redemption arc.

I never like it when I can see the mechanics behind an author’s writing so easily, but I also can’t say that I don’t expect some sloppiness out of this series. It’s shown up in every book so far, from the predictability in the first to the lack of necessary explanation in the second. Here it’s mostly in some problems with telling rather than showing and in the branched viewpoints that obviously only came up in this book because Aveyard couldn’t figure out how to fit all the information she needed into just Mare’s perspective.

That said, the sloppiness is nothing new, and those little pieces where it’s not perfectly put together haven’t yet ruined the series for me. Who knows, though? Maybe the as yet untitled book four will come around and once again drastically change my opinion on whether or not this is worth reading. Right now I find myself once more having fun with the series, so until that point, Red Queen has my money.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

duchess-of-bloomsbury

Standalone, Moyer Bell, 1997, 144 pgs.

Well, apparently when I say “short review” this week, I mean that literally. I don’t exactly know how much I’m going to be able to talk about this one, because there’s not exactly much to really analyze here. I guess that’s okay, though, because this is a very short book.

As a diary-style travelogue detailing its author’s several weeks in 1970’s Britain, it’s a very odd book for me, too. Anything nonfiction is outside my usual purview, and while I’ve probably read a couple of travelogues for classes here and there, I can’t exactly say I remember any of them.

Its shortness and its genre are also the reasons there’s no summary at the top of this review; there’s really not that much to it. All you need to know going in is that Hanff published an earlier book of letters written between her and a London bookseller which became somewhat famous, and then went to London for a book tour, fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers. It’s very simple, really. I don’t even know if I’d say it has any sort of further meaning.

I couldn’t help but love this, though. Aside from being very witty, Hanff just has this joyous wonder about the entire experience which is instantly engaging. While on one level this is an outsider making commentary about a culture she’s not a part of, it’s not satirical. Instead it’s done with such love and humor that you can’t help but fall a little in love with everything you’re reading about as well. And that love and wonder is conveyed in such a unique and eccentric voice that, as scattered as it can sometimes be, you enjoy every little episode she talks about, down to her constant worries about spending too much money.

Other than that, though, I think I loved reading this just because on some level I connected to it: to what she values in life, to her thought processes. All of things in the preceding paragraphs were draws, from her great love of Great Britain, even when she has to take her martini making into her own hands, to the repeated refrain of “Well if X buys me dinner for the next several nights, I’ll have Y money left, meaning I can stay for Z more time” that becomes almost a running joke.

But I just don’t know if I would have enjoyed it quite as much as I did if it hadn’t been the diary of a woman who clearly loves literature, who spent years learning to read it properly without being taught, and who seems very much like she’d rather be doing that than be at a party, because she’s so awkward about socializing.

Like, look at this quote, taken from a passage where she’s a little fed up with one of her hosts:

“My problem was that by this time the Colonel and I had already had thirty straight hours of Togetherness and I’m not equipped for it, not even with the best friend I have on earth, which he isn’t.” (pg. 72)

That’s pretty much the introvert’s dilemma in a nutshell, isn’t it? I felt a deep, soulful connection with Helene Hanff at that moment, and also laughed a lot.

About half of the book is her waxing poetic about Donne and Shakespeare, and the other half is her worrying about being in the limelight, about having to be Proper in front of people, or about putting her foot in her mouth. I can’t say I don’t feel both of those sentiments.

And that might be a lot of why I liked it; everything about it felt right to me. Even the book’s strangely wistful ending felt like it fit in a way I can’t exactly pinpoint. If I ever penned a travel diary, I can see it looking very much like this, though probably less funny. And if any of that sounds like something you might feel in your bones, I’d suggest giving this a read.

Sometimes when reviewing you can really get in there and dig into the mechanics of how the story and characters are built, how everything about a piece works together as a whole. And sometimes all you can say is that something charmed the pants off of you. This? This charmed the pants off of me on pretty much every level there is, and that’s really all there is to it.