Sunday, November 25, 2018

Book Review: Vengeful

Book Review: Vengeful by VE Schwab 

Goodreads Description: The sequel to VICIOUS, V.E. Schwab's first adult novel.

Sydney once had Serena—beloved sister, betrayed enemy, powerful ally. But now she is alone, except for her thrice-dead dog, Dol, and then there's Victor, who thinks Sydney doesn't know about his most recent act of vengeance.

Victor himself is under the radar these days—being buried and re-animated can strike concern even if one has superhuman powers. But despite his own worries, his anger remains. And Eli Ever still has yet to pay for the evil he has done.

My Review: This review will have major spoilers. There are no warnings beforehand as they are spaced through the whole review. So beware if you find spoilers spoiling. 

Vengeful picks up after the events of Vicious, but the story is told through multiple points of view across many points in time, so it's difficult to remember where in the book each part of the narrative gets revealed. Five years have passed since the end of Vicious, where Victor and Eli faced off and which left Victor dead and Eli in prison. After being resurrected by Sydney, Victor discovers her powers are a double edged sword, because he's been brought back wrong. His powers are different, and he keeps having fits that cause a surge of electricity to shoot through his body and kill him-- over and over and over. Desperate to find someone to fix what's broken in him, Victor begins hunting EOs, and in an effort to hide himself, Sydney, Mitch, and Dom from Stell, the detective who put Eli behind bars, Victor has to kill those he meets to cover their tracks. But it all turns out to be in vain, for Marcella Riggins, a new EO in Merit, is taking over the city, amassing EOs to work for her and dragging Victor, Stell, and even Eli into her sphere of influence, causing the three men to come crashing into each other once again. 

Okay. Okay. Okay, okay, okay. This is going to be hard for all of us, but it's important to be honest in order to get through this. 

I really, really didn't like this book. 

It's probably one of the first books Victoria Schwab has written that I actually didn't like. Not to say there wasn't anything to like about this book, in fact, there was a lot to love. But what sends the rating crashing down for me is that this book, this STORY, had so much potential that just wasn't lived up to. So now whenever I look at this book, all I can think about is what it COULD HAVE been, which makes the loss feel a little more profound. This was also the first book that I've ever pre-ordered. I'm pretty against pre-orders, just for the selfish reason that I like going into the store on release day and snatching up a copy, but I did it this time because I really loved the book, so it just added to that disappointed feeling. 

I think a major issue with this book is the dramatic shift it takes from the first book. Vicious was about Victor and Eli. Vengeful is about Marcella. While not a bad thing for a dramatic shift in focus, it was really off-putting because a lot of the bones of the story were still about Victor and Eli-- Victor trying to find a 'cure' to repeatedly dying, Eli being in prison and reevaluating his childhood and ideologies, and ultimately Eli's escape from prison, but all this took a backseat to introducing Marcella and her motivations. This was annoying because readers who were clamoring for this book were looking for Eli and Victor, as that's the story they were hooked on. Instead we're introduced to Marcella, who has the potential to be a really incredible character, but she falls horribly flat because she doesn't have the nuance that Victor and Eli had in the first book. What made them so interesting were the shades of grey in their characters, and Marcella had none of that. She was all ambition and vengeance with nowhere to go. After being wronged by her husband, she attempts to "ruin" him, which she succeeds early on in a very anti-climactic scene, and then decides to take over the mob and "ruin" them. Her desire for vengeance against her husband was clear and concise, and then after that the motivation kinda fell apart. She wanted to take over the mob, and do what with it? Did she want to rule the city? Destroy it? To what end? Some of her desires are outlined but it was kind of muddy, and all we really hear of Marcella's "grand plan" is that she's throwing a party, which does nothing but end in her death, making me wonder what the point of all of it was. Marcella was intended to be a powerful, intimidating, ambitious woman, and she came across as an empty-headed super villain with no depth. The story readers came for took a backseat to introducing us to this female villain, who didn't compare to the moral complexity of the male characters from the first book. And trust me, I wanted Marcella to live up to the characterization in the first book, but it just didn't happen. 

That lack of moral complexity wasn't just apparent in Marcella, though. Victor was significantly less 'grey' than in the first book. Vicious painted Victor as an anti-hero, and both he and Eli were well-balanced with good and evil parts to them. Though the same framework for those dilemmas exists in this book-- the whole aspect of Victor killing EOs to cover their tracks could have be a great moral grey area to explore further-- but instead it's glossed over and so Vengeful just doesn't have the same interesting moral complexities that made Vicious so interesting. 

Unfortunately, there was a serious lack of character and development in this book. We're introduced to a host of new characters like June and Jonathan, but there's not enough there to show us who they actually are. Jonathan, Marcella's "shield," is such a pathetic cardboard cutout of a character that it makes me a bit embarrassed for Schwab, but it is definitely a symptom of having too many characters and not enough time to explore them. June and Jonathan are also characters created with a purpose-- Jonathan is the shield that keeps Marcella from being shot and June is the connector between Sydney (and Victor's group) and Marcella. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so apparent. June is also really infuriating, because other than having a cool and trendy power, we know absolutely nothing about her-- not where she came from or how, not who she was before, no real hint as to what she actually wants, aside from being creepily obsessed with Sydney (though still not sure why). Her motivation is just all over the place. She's helping Marcella, but doesn't like her, then wants to be on her side because she's powerful, then tries to betray Marcella (seems like because of Sydney), then betrays Sydney anyway. It's a complete mess. I have no idea what June actually wanted out of any of this, and I suppose that's the point, because it's clear from the epilogue that there will be a third book in the series with June as a major character (why else include a scene where she wipes herself from EON's database if not to use it somehow?) which is even more infuriating. It feels like her backstory was withheld so she can be a central character in the next book at the expense of her characterization (and the reader understanding her and her motivation) in this book.

The book read like I was reading two separate stories smashed together-- Marcella's and then Victor and Eli's. And unfortunately the story that I signed up for was crammed into the last 50 pages of the book, hidden after Marcella's death. The parts with Eli and Victor were great (if a little less morally subjective) but there just wasn't enough of them. There were too many threads in this book and the ones that should have mattered the most got dropped. I probably would have loved this book a lot more if Victor and Eli's story was better integrated into Marcella's, instead I get a handful of pages with Victor that I'm pouring over trying to imagine the rest of the book with him actually in it. 

I really enjoyed the writing, as always. Schwab has a command of language that really shows through her use of vocabulary. However, the book had a lot of tension with not a lot of payoff. There were so many scenes that were setting up atmosphere, tension, and building up to a climax, and yet when we got there, the climax did not live up to all the build up that came before. Sydney is a perfect example of this, as she spends the whole book obsessing over her sister's ashes, building an exorbitant amount of tension as we see her master her resurrection skills, and then she decides not to bring her sister back in a rather anti-climactic resolution. I can appreciate the choice that Sydney made, but because Schwab spent scene after scene building her power, and the tension with it, it felt painfully underwhelming. 

The same could be said for many other parts of the book, such as Marcella's "big plan" which turns out to be a party. She claims this party will change the city, and yet all we can see that she planned was to bring a few reporters and maybe show off her powers. Because of the lack of a satisfying climax, Marcella came off as weak and more concerned with how she appeared to be powerful than actually being powerful. Which, yawn. I was excited by Marcella because I love powerful, dark, ambitious women. But Marcella wasn't powerful, she was just a sparkler-- pretty to look at, looks like it could burn or hurt you, but really it just fizzles itself out on its own. If you want to create a real Marcella, don't just give her ambition, because ambition without direction is meaningless. Give her goals, give her plans, give her ends to her means and give her a damn good reason for pursuing them. Make it clear that nothing will stand in her way. Don't just have her sip champagne and then melt a glass when she gets angry. Give me a woman who changes things. Give me a woman who knows what she wants and gets it. Give me actual power, not just the illusion of it. 

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. Disappointingly doesn't live up to its potential. 

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Book Review: Frankenstein

Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley 

Goodreads Description: Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Frankenstein, an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story, but also raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? How far can we go in tampering with Nature? In our age, filled with news of organ donation genetic engineering, and bio-terrorism, these questions are more relevant than ever. 

My Review: Frankenstein was an assigned reading for my college class, and being the masochist that I am, I decided to throw a review out there as well. Frankenstein was on my list of Classics That I'll Read Someday, so reading it for class was super productive. One less book off the never ending TBR list. 

Like many out there, I didn't know a whole lot about Frankenstein before I began, aside of course from the things pop culture has taught me: Victor Frankenstein was an old, crazy, white-haired scientist, his creature was a groaning, drooling, bolt-in-the-neck kinda monster, and there would definitely be villagers with torches and pitchforks chasing the creature into the night, this I was absolutely sure of. But pop culture led me astray again, for none of these things actually happened in the book (although there were some villagers with torches chasing off the creature, but it was one sentence in the middle of the book, more the response of walking into the wrong change room than the dramatic climax of a monster movie). By the time I'd finished the book, I felt a little ripped off. Where were the accurate movie adaptations of Frankenstein? Why had pop culture mangled the story so badly? 

The book begins far north in the arctic where we meet Walton, a young explorer searching for knowledge and glory. Out in the wilderness he discovers a man, frozen half to death, and when he revives him the man tells Walton that he was once young and ambitious, and sought out knowledge and power over nature, just as Walton was doing. After a few days of kindness, the man decides to reward Walton with a story: one of warning, hoping to save Walton from falling prey to the same fate as the old man. And so we realize the old, weathered man is Victor Frankenstein as he tells Walton, and the reader, the story from his birth to what led him to be old and dying out in the wilderness, still desperately searching for the creature who destroyed his life. 

First off, the prose is spectacular! I found myself awed continually by Shelley's wordplay and use of descriptors all throughout the novel. She describes nature so intensely that it's difficult not to feel as though you are out in the wilderness yourself. Being a Romantic writer, Shelley focused on the beauty and terrifying power of nature, and many of the confrontations between Victor and the creature take place in the throes of nature. Although Frankenstein was written 200 years ago, the writing style is not difficult to get accustomed to. It borders the line (at least in my opinion) between modern novels and historical classics. Like classics, the book takes its time to build to revelations, and spends a lot of time on backstory or information that would seem superfluous to modern writers. We start Victor's tale before he's even born and are introduced to his parents and family culture before Victor is even around, which is a testament to how a lot of classic novels tends to linger over every detail. Despite the intense backstory, the flow of action is actually very steady. Like modern novels that tend to get right to the inciting incident and keep pushing with plot and conflict, Frankenstein had a pretty steady pacing and tension that kept me engaged straight to the end. It does have a bit of a slower burn to the tension-- we're not talking thriller level pacing, but it's enough to keep the story moving without losing the reader along the way. 

The beauty of the story comes down to Victor and his creature. Victor was a wonderful character, and has already become one of my favourites in literature. He is not always likable - as he can be quite depressed and mopey at times, and ruminates on problems that he could (with some work) solve himself. After giving life to his creation, he becomes horribly depressed and heads down a spiral that he doesn't recover from. For some readers, Victor probably comes across as very annoying, especially as he becomes more and more depressed. He does less and less for himself, turns very inward, and generally comes across as a little brat. However, I really connected with this as I feel Shelley accurately portrayed someone with worsening mental health. The creature is an interesting character study as well. He is extremely articulate and intelligent, and seeks to confront Victor with words (at first) rather than violence. As he is driven more into isolation, he becomes more enraged and violent, and yet is shown to be in complete control of himself as he spirals downwards, which we can see through how he doles out the violence against Victor and the world. These two characters mirror each other in interesting ways, so the few scenes where they are together hold a lot of weight and were the most interesting scenes, in my opinion. They are both driven to insanity and violence through isolation, and while Victor isolates himself by choice, he is not as aware of how that loneliness is causing the degradation of his mental health, contrasted with the creature, who is isolated by force, and is aware of how that solitude is slowly wearing away at him. It reminds me of an African proverb: "A child not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth." The creature knowingly attempts to "burn down the village" of his creator, all out of a short-sighted need for revenge. The creature purposefully chooses to use violence, and plans out how he wants to use it against Victor, as he feels it is the only way to justify his treatment and satisfy his anger. 

Frankenstein is a rich, Gothic horror tale and one of the first science fiction books to be written. Many readers are disappointed by the "horror" in this book, probably thinking it's going to be something like jump-scares from horror movies or the Stephen King style horror of something's coming to get you. But Shelley's horror is a different kind. She doesn't create a monster that's just waiting in the shadows to get you, instead we find horror in how Victor Frankenstein, a smart, kind boy with so much potential, could take one step too far against nature, create something that horrified and terrorized him, and how he couldn't stop himself from falling for the creature's trap and dooming himself to be a miserable, obsessed man whose only joy in life was to seek revenge for all he'd lost. You're not supposed to be scared of the creature, you're supposed to be scared of how far a sensible young man could have fallen, and how easily, but for the grace of God, that could have been you, or at least, someone you know. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. A classic tale of horror that asks the reader to look at the monster within themselves rather than the one just outside the window.