fiction, review

Raden Mandasia Si Pencuri Daging Sapi

26645719467_57e1339154It is not uncommon for us to enjoy adventure/fantasy books, but perhaps it’s pretty hard to find the real gem here in Indonesia, much less the historical one with a grand journey and multiple characters and truly enjoyable narrative that sucks the reader right up from the very first page. Raden Mandasia Si Pencuri Daging Sapi by Yusi Avianto Pareanom is certainly such a one. Pareanom really has it in him to do just that: making his reader sit tight in their chair while devouring his rich tale till the end. It wouldn’t be proper to call Raden Mandasia vastly extravagant for its lack of thorough descriptions here and there, but it has its own charm that strike almost everyone in awe.

Long before embarking on a grand voyage to the barely heard of yet widely famous for its ethereally beautiful princess Kingdom of Gerbang Agung, Sungu Lembu has held a grudge against the Kingdom of Gilingwesi for what it did to his land and family back in the past. He’s sworn that he’d do anything to take his revenge on his prime enemy King Watugunung, even if it seems so impossible. Hence the need for going on the long, unpredictable journey in which he’s following Raden Mandasia, the twelfth prince of Gilingwesi with a rather eccentric hobby of stealing beef whom he accidentally met in a gambling house, on the equally impossible mission to stop an impending war. Together, they are going through an adventure that both exciting and challenging yet sometimes inexplicably absurd: fighting pirates, bumping into a Chinese man who cannot speak their language but insists on engaging them in conversation, watching a holy messenger being swallowed by a monstrous whale, meeting a conceited cook who has been serving roast pork to his master everyday for ten whole years, running from a stormy wind in the desert as they lose their horses, entering the tightly guarded palace of a princess in a eunuch’s skin (yes, skin), only to see their aim crumbling all around them along with Gerbang Agung’s city wall the soldiers of Gilingwesi break down and the fall of dead people from the sky. The result of the unavoidable war is so far from being decided. And, not unlike the mission Raden Mandasia was carrying, Sungu Lembu’s heartfelt hatred is starting to turn the different path.

At a glimpse Raden Mandasia looks like an adventure story following two young men who are making journey together with respective missions of their own, one to save a kingdom and the other to destroy it in secret. Others may look at it as an historical martial arts novel, since in some senses it quite resembles those written by Jin Yong, with historical backgrounds strewed everywhere (albeit very vaguely blurred), training and practice of martial arts being performed by the main character, and fighting scenes littered so many parts of the book. But it might actually be an historical fantasy fiction, a form of made-up tale set in the past complete with based-on-true-tradition kingdoms, otherwise fictitious kings and queens, princes and princesses, wars, though minus weird creatures, mystery or myth, and magic. It might be a blend of those three, however, considering the so many various elements making up this wonderful, exciting, vulgarly funny fictional creation. It’s so hard to decide what kind of book this actually is, but for sure it’s not an out-and-out story of physical adventure, despite the writer’s insistence on throwing the characters from one place to another, from one experience to another, from one out-of-this-world event to another, from encountering one interesting person to another, etc. It’s a quest for an answer, the true answer, to what is war and what is the act of revenge (or is it truly worth it), to what is important and what will be in vain, what is true and what is false (much like the nature of the tale itself) and where the thin line lies.

Yusi Avianto Pareanom has truly showed his writing prowess with Raden Mandasia, its subplots are excellently and carefully structured, its characters are all gray but not without conscience, the historical, cultural and geographical backgrounds are veiled ever so cleverly that they leave the reader guessing: where is it? who is it? what is it? At some point in the story I found myself trying so hard to uncover where is it actually the Kingdom of Gerbang Agung until I realized that it actually is the place I’ve been wanting to go to. From front to back Pareanom presents a very neat storyline in which he takes upon himself to become both the narrator and the protagonist, telling his tale precariously from the first person’s point of view, where he has to relies upon encountering and listening to other characters’ stories to gather and arrange all installments of the entire narrative. It’s surely not an easy task for an author not to get caught in a trap of writing using this kind of POV, but Pareanom nailed it. And he did it with hilarious tone and an unadorned, vulgar style of telling that have readers staying in their seats while laughing and cursing just like the narrator does. Raden Mandasia is an extensive work without being grueling nor boring, complicated without being confusing, it’s a masterpiece without asking to be so. Such a shame, however, that even with its strong climax and trying-to-be-epic battle scenes, its ending fails to conclude the story elaborately and satisfyingly, seeming to run too fast instead. It is understandable if the writer wanted to end it as briefly as possible without having to prolong it anymore, but still.

At the end, Raden Mandasia Si Pencuri Daging Sapi is a very rare work of fiction. We might have had this kind of adventure tale somewhere in our contemporary period of literature, but this novel by Yusi Avianto Pareanom is absolutely one of a kind. Despite its lack of detailed descriptions of almost everything and fast-foward ending, it’s still an engrossing book everyone can and should enjoy.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

1Q84

Indonesian edition’s covers

Truth is stranger than fiction. Or so they say. 1Q84 is a work in which Haruki Murakami proves to us that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but it could be stranger than anything. Divided into three parts, the big chunk of a book leads the reader into a world of impossible possibilities, rather “irrational” belief, and unimaginable-yet-feel-so-real events. Here, the atmosphere is so different from that of Norwegian Wood I remember, but Murakami still keeps his peculiar nature of storytelling.

The story begins with Aomame, a woman with an obviously weird name, being on her way to accomplish a deadly mission dropped in her lap. Sitting in the taxi taking her to her fatal destination, stuck and bored in heavy traffic, Aomame cannot do anything but listen to the music played on the radio inside the car: Sinfonietta by Janácěk. She has no idea as to how she can know that it is Sinfonietta by Janácěk, she just knows. It’s already weird enough that the taxi is such a fancy car and has such a luxurious radio playing such music, so the fact that she can recognize the music she hears then and there almost misses her attention. Weirder than that though is the fact that, in the middle of the traffic jam, the taxi driver suggests her to get off the vehicle and take the emergency stairway down to the National Highway 246. She knows, with no doubt, that there is no such emergency stairway.

On the other hand, Tengo Kawana, a young math teacher with no bright future but secretly keeping a strong desire to be a novelist, is faced with an impossible offer: ghostwriting a novel for a young debut author. This is a very good opportunity for him, says Komatsu, the editor of the book in question, to sharpen his writing talent and ability before he can publish his own work. Tengo feels reluctant, at first, because he knows it’s a crime, morally if not legally. But there is something about the book, Air Chrysalis, that attracts him the way no other books ever do. There is something about the story, which is a form of fantasy tale, that pulls him into a state of wonderful amazement and forces him to say yes to the ambitious editor. Not only that, the entire narrative of Air Chrysalis also pulls him into a world that is not here. A world that is similar to the one he is living in but just not the same in any ways. And, unfortunately, a world he has to rewrite to make it a perfect tale to read.

As the story progresses, both Aomame and Tengo find themselves immersed in that world, doing unconsciously what the “other force” seems to make them to do and fighting it at the same time. They also, in their own ways, find the fact that they never cease to feel in love with each other and still want each other even years after their last time in class together. But in the world of 1Q84, a strange world with two moons and Little People, they cannot be together without sacrificing one of themselves. Aomame knows this, and she’s willing to do anything to have the slightest chance to meet Tengo again. Even if she has to fight the Little People and face the possibility of losing her own life.

1Q84 can be classified as metafiction. Murakami seems to keep reminding the reader that this is fiction about fiction, about something unreal happening out of our usual world. Even the characters are aware of it. To make it a successful work of this kind, Murakami would even painstakingly divide the plot into layered subplots where the characters realize their existence in the shifting world as the storyline moves on. Thankfully, the reader need not painstakingly track the path since the entire plot is so easy to follow. It’s like the characters directly talk to us while they are experiencing chapter by chapter of their unbelievable lives. What makes the narrative a little bit lacking here is the pace, which has different speed in each part and makes the reader quite exhausted at the end of the book. This is where Murakami fails to keep his story as a neat, maintained piece. The pace is, I’d rather say, unstable: enjoyable at first, too fast at the second part, and then too slow to swallow all the explanations at the end. It’s almost as if being a big chunk is entirely pointless, while the book has actually so much to say.

What might keep the reader’s interest in the whole story is probably the characters. They are very well written, strongly described. Each characterization is so powerful it stays in our mind, especially that of Aomame. I’m not sure if Murakami is being a feminist here, but he describes her as strong, decisive, resolute, overall better than the well-built-but-meek Tengo. But I won’t judge him unfairly here, because I, too, find myself in him: his unwillingness to be tied to anyone or anything, his love for writing, his determination to get the answers for all the questions he has about his past, his fondness for living in the simple way he likes. However opposite their characters are, I could feel that they really are made for each other, hence the attraction to be together.

To some extent, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is a great novel. I enjoyed most of it, despite the weakness in the run of the story and some irrational scenes. It’s a wonderful work where Murakami succeeds in convincing us that the unreal is also real, that realities could blend together with imaginations, that truth, once again, can be stranger than fiction. Than anything, even.

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

fiction, review

Memoria

I wouldn’t call it a very detailed work of science fiction, though there is more than a hint of imagined scientific discoveries of the future (the time machine, robots, etc) and time travel (back and forth between the year 2015 and 2097). Freshly published toward the end of 2015, Memoria by Priscila Stevanni is a young adult novel coming up with a romantic, scientific story with young characters poised to save the future world. It is just such a shame, in my opinion, that such a pretty good idea (at least for the market standard) doesn’t develop in thorough, elaborate narrative.

The story begins with an introduction to the main character, Maira, along with her odd experience of travelling across time and space. Then the plot brings us to her “normal” life where she is only an ordinary school girl with typically two best friends, Nadin and the boy next door, Rega. Rega is not just a best friend, though, if she is to be honest to herself, for he’s the kind of boy-friend who is always by her side and willing to do anything for her and thus means everything to her. It is so unfortunate that she keeps her feelings to herself and doesn’t have the courage to tell him about it. She might regret it later at her birthday night when a white van seems to deliberately hit their car and, strangely and suddenly, Rega vanishes without trace. More strangely, it is not only his physicality and presence that are gone, people’s memories of him are also erased from their minds. No one but Maira remembers him, and when she keeps trying to remind them of him, they think she’s going crazy. This spiel seems to be going around and around until one day, it is Maira’s turn to go vanished, jumping far away to the future where Rega has apparently been for all this time. There, in the destroyed land of the future Earth, Maira gradually starts to know her true self, and sees the evidence of severe damage done by humans in the past.

You couldn’t expect anything special from the characterizations in Memoria. The book merely presents typical high school kids you’d see in your everyday life: restless, indecisive, secretly in love or openly changing lovers. Even the main character, Maira, doesn’t catch my special attention, despite her development along the storyline in which she changes from a spoiled, dependent teenage girl into an independent, tough survivor. Rega, her supposed best friend, can even only project the serious, champion-in-everything boy first formulated years ago when teen lit started to invade our bookstores. Thankfully, however, this ordinariness goes only so far, until they are thrown to the future and meet Toya, the most charming character of all. He might not have as much portion as Rega or Maira, but he proves to be the star attraction to me. Fortunately, Toya is not the only good thing about Memoria, for it has a quite promising premise. The thing about this book is it’s not elaborate enough. The narrative lacks explanation of why things happen (though it provides a little at the end of the story), and the detailed descriptions of everything “scientific”. The time machine, the supposedly sophisticated computers and the robots are not well described, reducing the “scientific atmosphere” you need in a work of science fiction. What’s more, the tight plot doesn’t seem to make room for a specific conflict to exist. In fiction writing, to my thinking, a clear conflict is the key. You cannot drone on and on about a situation and then suddenly, at the end of it, just saying, “We did this because you are what you are.” Fighting and running from the evil side are barely a conflict, if that’s what you think. You need to elaborate, to describe more. No wonder this book is so short.

Well, despite my disappointment on its narrative and scientific aspect, Memoria is generally a pretty good novel. I enjoyed it. The plot is nicely flowing and skilfully paced, although too short to explain anything. The writing style is nice as well, for a young-readers-targeted book like this. It’s heavily sprinkled with English here and there, but I don’t really mind because it’s still under the right dose for an Indonesian book. The way Stevanni tells the tale is also quite excellent for a new young writer trying to compete in our today’s cramped book industry. Her storytelling is mature, reliable and very well-organized, something that I rarely see even in writers more senior than her. Her only problem is that her language is too much like that of translated books, which I assume is resulted from her reading materials (perhaps imported or translated romance or YA sci-fi novels). She often adapts a word literally from English without trying to find out what’s the word in Indonesian. The spelling is also a mess, though thankfully it doesn’t affect the grammar.

Overall, I can say that Priscila Stevanni’s Memoria is a not-bad YA sci-fi book. You cannot expect more from it, but it really is an enjoyable read.

Rating: 3/5

Note: review copy courtesy of the author.

fiction, review

Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa

This book by Maggie Tiojakin begins with the meaning of absurd, literally, more or less as it is explained in the dictionary. The intention is obvious: to forewarn readers of the unpleasant absurdity her stories would definitely present. Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa consists of solely absurd short stories of which narratives expand beyond the reader’s comprehension. They might not be stories readers will go for if they want something easy, despite the simple plots, but the stunningly crafted tales offer us something more than just an introduction-problem-conclusion pattern.

Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa has nineteen short stories with different spans of lengths, some of them are short and some are quite long. But however long it takes the reader to finish all of them, and no matter how many scenes each of them is comprised of, they are created and meant to faithfully give the reader one “single effect” that, as far as I know, is what a short story is all about. The feelings come and go as the stories pass by, yet the satisfaction of reading them stays longer. Tiojakin doesn’t intend her stories to answer any question derived from any premise expressed subtly in their narratives, instead, she slips questions into them for us to ponder what the answers are. All of them are beyond our reason, but not totally unfathomable. Somehow, at some point, the reader may find themselves understanding some of the ideas, especially of those less frown-worthy. Stories like Tak Ada Badai di Taman Eden, Lompat Indah, Labirin yang Melingkar-lingkar di dalam Sangkar, Suatu Saat Kita Ingat Hari Ini, Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa, A Business Trip, and Sunday Mass are those which will force the reader to think hard, think twice, before they even get the faintest idea of what each is about. And while the depths of Fatima, Kota Abu-Abu, Ro-Kok, and Violet are not quite difficult to reach, the rest of the contents such as Kristallnacht, Panduan Umum Bagi Pendaki Hutan Liar, dies irae, dies illa, Saksi Mata, Dia, Pemberani, Jam Kerja, An Evolutionary History, and The Long March are very much easy to devour.

Among so many short stories included in the book, there are particularly three which caught my very attention. The first number that starts the book, Tak Ada Badai di Taman Eden, has truly had my head reeling even after the full stop passed by. It’s about a married couple who doesn’t seem to be happy, or at least the wife doesn’t. Looking at the narrative, you’d think that she doesn’t in any way love her husband, and really wishes her husband, Barney, to just go away and never come back. But, as we all can see throughout the plot, Barney seems to be loving and protective. When rain comes and brings along with it storm on to their house, he hugs her and comforts her, no matter how she behaves and what attitude she shows him. There certainly is a problem between them, a problem that the writer refuses to reveal even at the end of the story. So, how will they survive in the midst of the storm upon them? The second magnetic tale to capture my attention was Ro-Kok. A man is given an ultimatum by his girlfriend to stop smoking, or else she will end their relationship. By the look of the premise, this is a very common case in my society, but Tiojakin executes it in a way that no one would imagine before. The couple indeed go separate ways, but it is not, bewilderingly, because the smoker keeps smoking. And, among my top picks, Saksi Mata is the best one. Imagine total negligence spreads among human beings and sips through their thick blood, subtly yet dreadfully. When a young woman living in a complex of apartments is being attacked brutally by an unknown person, no one in that complex seems to care. They hear those faint voices, those hushed screams, those mumbled arguments, but they don’t get into action even to find out what’s actually happening. They either don’t care, or are just too tired to care.

All the characters in Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa have bizarre, unusual names, even for a foreign cultural background. They are no heroes, nor villains. They are, to my favor, ordinary human beings with human characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, familial backgrounds, and ways of thinking. As absurd as the stories they are in might be, they are not in the slightest depicted as something extraordinary, or something equally strange. This might strike the reader as odd, looking at the beyond-comprehension narratives, but I didn’t feel anything but comfortable with it. Moreover, the smooth plots, both linear and flashback, help the reader immensely in wading through all those tales. Don’t get them wrong, the narratives are not as hard to swallow as you might think. In fact, they are pretty simple. Bu it’s their basic ideas and how Tiojakin develops each of them that are guaranteed to get the reader frowning deep. They are not plotted in a usual introduction-problem-conclusion pattern, but only stop at the problem without any answer whatsoever. The style of writing with which those stories are being delivered to readers is also simple, with no embellishment, no trying to go slang nor pretentiously literary. Every diction chosen feels right, and the grammar is just how I expected it to be, though I did still feel a little sense of “Westernness” in Tiojakin’s writing. It might probably be because of her creative writing education abroad, or the reading materials she, I assume, mostly consumes. Whatever it is, I don’t really mind as long as it still sounds genuinely Indonesian, not like translated English. The only flaw I found during reading all the nineteen stories is the little awkwardness in some of the sentences and dialogues.

Overall, Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa is a riveting short story collection. From this book, I learned that fiction does not always have to be reasonable or logical. The important thing is that we enjoy them, and the meaning/basic idea will reveal itself.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Clean Sweep

While I’m still so far away from going on with Kate Daniels series, Ilona Andrews’ Clean Sweep has satisfied a little bit my thirst for their other works. It’s turned out quite unsatisfying, though, in some ways. Firstly published for commercial purpose at the end of 2013, it was originally a weekly free short story posted on Andrews’ official website, being worked on in the middle of their other projects and hectic familial life. I’m not really sure, however, if it’s the reason why Clean Sweep turns out flat to me, for I always believe in their talent for writing. It might have been just me who didn’t feel the click, but I seriously didn’t find it as exciting or even interesting as any Kate Daniels novels.

Dina Demille, a young girl running a Victorian bed-and-breakfast down in Avalon Subdivision, is no ordinary girl. She has a unique magic power and she is, too, the magic itself. On one light summer day, a dog has been murdered. It dies in the strangest fashion anyone can imagine. As an innkeeper, Dina knows that she’s supposed to keep neutral and stay out of it, but it’s been the third murder in the subdivision and she senses that what is to come will be even worse. With the help of Sean Evans, an ex-military newly arrived in their neighborhood, Dina sets to investigate what actually happens and who the perpetrator is. Their investigation into the stalker and its dahaka wreaking havoc in their peaceful territory leads them both to the dirty linen tightly kept by one of vampire families of the Holy Cosmic Anocracy, House of Krahr. The coming of the vampires to the Earth, with a definite goal to capture and arrest the dahaka, stirs things up. Dina has to protect and tend to Lord Soren, an injured vampire knight, and give sanctuary to his Marshal nephew, Arland. Things get more complicated as the neighborhood becomes painfully affected by the damage done by the dahaka, so Arland is forced to reveal what problem his family has. At the end of the day, Dina, Sean, and Arland have to work together to fight the enemy who is dangerous enough to kill them all.

The main character of Clean Sweep, the heroine here—Dina Demille—can be said to be a little bit like Kate Daniels. I might have been just imagining things, but throughout the reading I was quite sure that Dina is as tough and sarcastic as Kate. She’s also that kind of independent lone wolf who’s trying as best she can to refuse anybody else’s help, yet so determined to help others. Unless you want to take Dina’s physical appearance into account, then that will be a different case. Thankfully, Sean Evans is nothing like Curran Lennart. He is some kind of shapeshifter, yes, for his character is a werewolf, but he is not that rich, bossy alpha male who leads a vast pack of were-animals and carries a heavy need to be obeyed. Sean is more of a loner, a wanderer seeking always adventures. Odd as it may seem, but he is still looking for his true self, the true place where he should belong to. He’s confused, uncertain, quite troubled inside. As for Arland, I have to say that I didn’t quite catch his whole character. The Marshal of House Krahr is described as dashing, charming, and protective, but that is all. There is nothing, I’d rather say, special about him, not the way I see it anyway.

Interestingly, as much as their descriptions are quite out of my “expectation”, the characters making appearances in Clean Sweep are very literally unusual. There are not only humans or humans with magic, but also out-of-the-box werewolves and vampires. Both are described coming from other planets in the universe, arriving on Earth through a gate of some sort. Even the vampires here are not some blood-thirsty undead. They are cosmic soldiers with carnivorous nature, and yes, they are common human beings. It felt so strange to read such a mind-boggling description, but oddly enough, Andrews can explain it all the way through the narrative so clearly that the reader won’t find it difficult to understand. The same applies to the world-building. The Andrews seem to have committed to create something unusual, something that the reader may not find anywhere else, but their world is not hard to catch on to. It even looks magically simple to read. If there is one setting description I didn’t quite get, it was Baha-char. Perhaps I just couldn’t follow the road path of the market. Well, putting everything aside, I have to regretfully say that I am so disappointed by the run of the story. I don’t find it interesting to follow. It’s so dull and didn’t catch my attention at all. I even had to read it with full force in order to finish it. The opening scene is not captivating either, not inviting enough to drag me through the whole plot. If it was not for Andrews’ signature sarcasm scattered over the dialogues, I don’t think I could endure the storyline, however fast the pace is.

Overall, I have to say that I don’t really like Clean Sweep. The idea is okay, but the whole plot is just beyond my expectation, in a bad way. The narrative is still typically Ilona Andrews, and so is the main characterization, which is a big problem for me. I had hoped that Andrews would’ve come up with a different kind of person when it came to a different story, but my hope proved to be broken into pieces.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Magic Strikes

Magic Strikes can be said to be the turning point in Kate Daniels series, where every aspect in the package improves significantly, the narrative, the plot, the basic idea, the use and the description of the myth, the characterizations. I cannot say that this is the best so far, but one thing that I’m sure of is that Ilona Andrews have put a lot of effort to get their third installment of the series better than the first two, and it proves to be so.

Once again, Kate Daniels has to face a great challenge when Derek, one of her shapeshifter friends, is found almost dead with a broken body and an injured face, unfortunately without his Lyc-V being able to regenerate both. No one knows who’s done it. The mysterious case swirling around the young werewolf becomes ever so complicated when Jim keeps a secret about something that the Beast Lord doesn’t even know. As it happens, that something turns out to be a violation of the Pack Law Jim and Derek do on purpose, which results in Derek nearly losing his life. Kate can’t help but plunge herself into dangerous, deadly fights in the middle of Midnight Games arena, where she and the Pack’s shapeshifters have to deal with powerful rakshasas armed by Sultan of Death. The presence of Hugh d’Ambray, Roland’s Warlord, in the arena to watch the fights and make sure the rakshasas win and kill all the Pack’s members involved makes Kate wonder who actually Sultan of Death is. Hugh himself always keeps an eye on Kate, suspicious of her blood and lineage. Kate, who has always been keeping her blood and magic a secret, finally has to reveal her real identity for the sake of her friends.

Kate Daniels readers must have known Jim from the first and the second installments, but here his character and appearance, in my opinion, stand out more than before. It might be for the mistake he makes and the heavy burden of responsibility he tries to bear on his own shoulder upon which the entire story is based. He does everything in his power to mend his past mistakes, and Curran describes him as a responsible person who will not take his failure at doing his duty easily, even if he has to betray his boss and best friend.

Interestingly, it’s not only Jim whose character gets elaborated more through his deed and decisions, Raphael and Derek also make more appearances with their own conflicts and behaviors. Despite his lack of action and dialogues along 1/3 of the book, Derek’s character looks clearer by what he’s done and the subtle description of his emotion. He seems a very sentimental young man, and willing to do anything in order to be taken seriously as a grown-up man. But it’s Raphael who really captured my attention. I found him funny and romantic, but not in a cheesy way. Not that it is surprising, since it’s been very clear from the start that he has an undoubted ability to snatch a woman’s heart in a way that you cannot resist.

As I’ve said earlier, Magic Strikes is way better than its two predecessors. It has a more interesting case, a denser plot without being too hasty in its run to the climax, and the narrative develops just in the right progress and doesn’t seem like Andrews force it to unfold the way it does. No wonder this book is thicker than the first two. The series of battle scenes is arranged steadily to bring the reader to the bloody, thrilling climax that is guaranteed to make them gasp and heady at the same time. Those scenes, and the violence emanating from them, are so much better and more detailed, bloodier if I may add. The way to the end of the book, including the epilogue, is very well executed, too, with a cooling-down scene to make the reader grin as always. So narratively, I can say that Magic Strikes is so much better written. Linguistically, it still bears the Andrews’ typical writing style: coarse but fun, witty and snarky, blatant and straightforward, yet some of their sentences are a bit dramatic. It is understandable, though, looking at the sad scenes they insert at some points. Most interestingly, Kate’s and Curran’s love story starts to hike up to another level, and so does Andrea’s and Raphael’s. But I’m not going to talk about it further, because there are some strange scenes that become my concern. I find it confusing when Kate doesn’t seem to recognize Raphael as Aunt B’s son who carries a shotgun in the first book, and thus Raphael has to remind her of that. What’s more, there’s a certain scene that I am sure taking place in Jim’s safe house, but when Dali, the Pack’s Asian mythology expert, comes to  said scene the setting suddenly changes into Kate’s apartment. This is just not right. Or did I miss something?

Overall, Magic Strikes is actually a very great work of fiction. It has everything a reader needs to satisfy their reading thirst. Had it not had holes in its plot, I would’ve given it a better rating. But I couldn’t, because a clear course of events is important to me.

Rating: 3.5/5

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Magic Burns

Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series continues in a second installment, Magic Burns. This time, Andrews focus on a Celtic myth and the reincarnation of gods. The description of the “alternate world” they set up as the background develops enormously along with the development of the plot, despite the not-so-interesting idea of the story. It still has a strong atmosphere, thankfully, and some nice humor to entertain the reader.

In the middle of her mission to retrieve the Pack’s secret map, Kate Daniels meets a street kid named Julie whose mother is missing. Julie’s mother, Jessica, is a worshipper of the god Morrigan, and her disappearance brings out an unsettling suspicion in Kate’s mind. So she sets out to find her, but there is no fruit of it. Instead, Kate and Julie are attacked in Kate’s apartment by some undead mermaids and a strange, monstrous creature. That only strengthens Kate’s suspicion over Red, Julie’s neglectful boyfriend, and the necklace he gives to the girl. Somehow, the attack, Julie’s mysterious necklace, and her mother disappearance seem to connect with each other, forming a certain path which is still difficult to know where it leads. On the other hand, the Pack’s map keeps missing and the thief, Bran, is not easy to catch for his ability to disappear. Every clue she gets forces Kate to think that everything that happens has something to do with the flare, the gods Jessica worships, and Bran.

Here, we are introduced to the significant supporting characters that from this book on will help the story of the whole series develop. First we meet Andrea, Kate’s knight friend at the Order of Merciful Aid who has to hide her real self and identity from the world. She’s nothing like Kate, but she’s just as funny. As a beastkin shapeshifter, she’s described as beautiful and unusually pretty-shaped. Her beauty particularly attracts Raphael, one of the Pack and a werehyena. Just like Andrea is described as beautiful, Raphael is a handsome, gorgeous, heart-melting man with charm no one can resist. He is depicted as sly and slick, playboy and easy to get along with, but he is also a Mama’s boy, a nature that I don’t understand why he should have. Last but not least, Andrews introduce us to Julie, the street-kid orphan. I cannot say anything but that Julie is an average teenager, curious, stubborn, acting like she knows it all and in dire need of love and protection. What makes her interesting is that her presence puts Kate in a difficult position where she has to play parents when she herself is a troubled, stubborn kid.

Magic Burns has a better plot than that of Magic Bites, the flow of the entire narrative runs as smooth as silk, if I may say so. Starting from the hilarious opening, which then goes slowly to the introduction of the case, the storyline seems to snake its way through the detailed scenes and descriptions. The featuring side elements appear to be blended so completely into the main course of events that the reader won’t realize that those are fragments added to the narrative to take them to the climax. Kate’s and Curran’s relationship also develops in a nice and steady progress, stepping up a notch to the next level, though I cannot say it’s already romantic. What becomes a disappointment here in the second installment is that it does not have a magically great basic idea. I didn’t find the core of the story as interesting as the first, thus reading it didn’t get me excited. The battle scenes are also disappointing. They didn’t snatch my brain as I expected it to and left me thinking that it’s not an epic at all. The violence emanating from those scenes is not as strong as I found it in Magic Bites, but what really shocked me was the description of how great Kate’s craving for blood in the final battle scene. It is so obvious that Kate inherits her father’s bad blood, I know, but reading her killing people in cold blood was so horrifying.

All in all, I can say that I liked Magic Burns, despite its obvious weaknesses. The humor could still trigger my spontaneous laugh and very much entertain me. Even though I don’t really like the story, I love the way it is created and written into a narrative form. It has detailed characterizations as well, and the cooling-down ending is certainly Andrews’ biggest plus point here.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Magic Bites

When it comes to urban fantasy, I understand that Ilona Andrews is one of the major voices ever considered. Their Kate Daniels series has expanded into a number of smash hits. Magic Bites, the first in the series, was published in 2007 and became the starting point of the slowly but surely, fantastically built “alternate world” of Kate Daniels, the quirky yet determined heroine under the spotlight. It has an unusual basic idea, dark and gory atmosphere, and sense of humor I never thought would be fit for something like this.

When she is all alone gambling against her bottle of wine in the middle of the night, Kate Daniels is brought some bad news by her least favorite Master of the Dead that her guardian, Greg Feldman, has mysteriously died. Unable to wrap it around her mind, she dashes right away to the Order of Merciful Aid, where Greg was once a knight, and does her subtle investigation to confirm the truth. Further, the path she takes leads her to an awful suspicion around the Pack and the People at the same time, the two most powerful sides in Atlanta. Oddly, they are blaming each other. The fact that her investigation is going nowhere and that the People are reluctant to cooperate drives her to take a helping hand from the Pack and, especially, the arrogant, powerful Beast Lord. And when everything they gather takes them to Olathe, the People’s leader’s concubine and warrior, the case seems to come to an end. But it’s apparently not, and there’s something fishy that a certain person, hidden behind his identity and reputation, is actually the mastermind of all the murders happened. This mastermind knows very well what blood Kate is made of and wants it to gain its magnificent power.

Here I was introduced to an unusual creation of a leading female character I never thought I would encounter in a book. Kate Daniels is not an ordinary “white” character, although she is undoubtedly the heroine. She has naturally human weaknesses that oddly mix well with her heroic behavior. If you look at her character closely, perusing carefully the way Andrews describe her, she is actually a coward, a lone wolf, a selfish, headstrong, annoyingly snarky person. She’s not a character readers would adore without realizing her good qualities, namely funny, physically strong, independent, determined, and always there to help others. If any character could be complicated, then Kate Daniels is not just another complicated figure. She despises control but she’s cooperative, she’s individualistic but helpful, she’s emotionally vulnerable but determinedly strong, she’s not perfect in any way but she’s fabulously heroic. She’s like a heroine everyone will hate to love.

So unfortunately, Kate Daniels is not coupled to a leading male character as unusual as she is. If this is a paranormal romance, then Curran Lennart, the Beast Lord, is just the same as any other man I’ve ever encountered in the genre. He’s physically muscular and gorgeous, powerful, rich (for a shapeshifter), and seems to have the world under his feet. But, first and foremost, he is such an arrogant control freak. The only thing that differentiate him from other male characters I know so far in romances is that he is a shapeshifter, if that helps any.

Only Magic Bites is not a romance, much less a paranormal romance, although it is widely mistaken being so. It’s an action-packed, full-of-myth, violent urban fantasy with a touch of not-so-romantic love story. Andrews do not make the hero and heroine jump into the sack the minute they meet. Instead, the husband-and-wife writing team builds the connection between both from the very start, slowly through the course of events they narrate along the book. And speaking of the narrative, I feel a bit awkward about it. It might be the short plot which in turn makes the run of the story seem too hasty. How Andrews bring the reader to the final battle is also so simply ordinary that it only looks like any other battle scene without any significance. However, the world building and the application of all the strange terms are very well written I could feel the otherness of the unusual fantasy background they describe. They don’t let the reader misunderstand what they’re talking about, they explain and elaborate quite briefly yet clearly all the things the reader needs to know. In short, I can say Magic Bites has wonderful descriptions. Only I personally mind about the language. Too much foul language. Not that I never encountered such a thing in all my reading experience, but I think it’s just too much. On the positive side, the humor is just what I like, fresh, smart, annoyingly witty, though a little bit snarky sometimes.

On the whole, reading Magic Bites was a fun experience. I’d rather say that it’s not something extraordinary, but it offers you something unique and special, something that is worth your attention.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

When you’ve been having a rough ride for six books long, caught up in captivating narratives, bewildered by some twists and turns, entrapped in detailed descriptions, stunned by unpredictable plots, and amazed by impeccable storytelling, you’ll want to come to a very, very satisfying climax and end it in huge glory. But when your ride is getting bumpy and suddenly coming to a halt in the middle of the street and then you discover that your machine is apparently having a problem, you’ll get pissed off. More or less, that’s how I felt after reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Upon the death of Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter has to shoulder a bigger task than any other ones he’s ever done before, trying to find the rest of the Horcruxes in which fragments of Lord Voldemort’s soul are kept. So Harry, Ron, and Hermione decide to drop out of Hogwarts and go searching for the remaining Horcruxes to destroy them. But they have nothing to wield but their wands and unaccomplished magic, no clear information on the whereabouts of the said Horcruxes. Relying only on some random tidbits picked up here and there and half-baked plans, they set off for nowhere.

The journey proves to be tough and dangerous, exceeding their capabilities and young minds. Their immaturity is obviously not enough to tackle every possible problem standing in their way, and what they have at hand are merely their strong will and bravery. Their friendship is also in danger. Against all odds, they can finally put the puzzle together and obtain all the Horcruxes and destroy them to pieces. But there is still one thing Harry has to deal with: the fact that he is the last Horcrux.

There is no doubt that all the three main characters in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have been growing up some more, but their emotions hang precariously in the balance, threatening to fall and explode on either side. In fact, I can see by the duties and responsibilities they have to bear and the difficulties they must endure that they’re sort of forced to be more mature than they really are. And Ron’s character changes unfortunately into a more emotional, jealous young man, matching Harry’s own already emotional self. The rage, uncertainty, anxiety, restlessness, fear, insecurity, are all normal and understandable, looking at their age and what they’ve been going through. So, although I did not expect Ron to suddenly change that way and lose his silly nature, I can accept that. I can even accept his childish fight with Harry. The point is, we are brought face to face with the fact that Harry, Ron, and even Hermione are still emotionally unstable teenagers being forced to deal with the harsh reality of a dangerous life and unbelievably difficult challenges. Rowling never fails to amaze me with the way she creates and molds her characters.

On the whole, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has the best story among the Harry Potter series. It’s just such a shame that the plot is the worst of all. If I am to be frank, I don’t like it when something comes out to the surface just out of the blue without detailed explanations. And I seriously don’t like it when everything merely pops into Harry’s mind while he’s working on the chronology of every single thing both in the past and present times. How does Kreacher suddenly come out at Hogwarts to help Harry fight the Death Eaters? And how come Charlie Weasley suddenly arrives at Hogwarts when he doesn’t come with the others at the very first place? And how does Abeforth, the Hog’s Head’s barman, come to be Dumbledore’s brother? There are too many things unexplained, and I didn’t find no immaculate details anymore. The book is thick, there is, in my opinion, so much space to write some necessary details and elaborations. The storyline seems unlikely, awkward and implausible. And the epilogue is like any Hollywood sudden happy ending forced to happen.

Overall, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a total disappointment for me. Perhaps not totally, but still disappointing. The story created by J.K. Rowling for this seventh book is great, but that doesn’t really help the storyline nor the narrative. Mostly, this book failed to make me fascinated the way I was when reading the other six.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

One more step, and all will come to an end. Closer to the finishing line, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince picks up a safe speed to get us to the peak point through several more metres of revelation. Rowling holds back a few secrets and fights and saves some tension for the last part, the very last book of the series, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t get completely nothing. In fact, through the pages of this number, we get to know the real Lord Voldemort.

This time, the story begins with Dumbledore collecting Harry at the Dursleys’, asking Harry to accompany him visiting Horace Slughorn, an already-retired old Hogwarts teacher. Dumbledore wants him to go back and teach at Hogwarts, considering the lack of teaching staff after what happens last year, though, knowing Dumbledore, that can’t possibly be the exact, or only, reason. At the end of the little trip, Dumbledore tells Harry that this term Harry will have a certain private lesson with him. But what Dumbledore means by “private lesson” is actually getting to know who Lord Voldemort is. They get into so many memories extracted from several people to see through the past life of Voldemort so that they can get a grip on what they’re really up against. However, apart from that, Draco Malfoy’s mysterious behavior draws Harry’s attention, so distractingly suspicious and intriguing that Harry sometimes forgets the importance of his meeting with Dumbledore. And sure enough, his suspicion towards Malfoy, and Snape in particular, is proven true when the Headmaster dies at the hand of the Half-Blood Prince.

Here, in the sixth book of the Harry Potter series, I can see that Dumbledore puts more trust in Harry. It tells us that, the way Dumbledore sees it, Harry has stepped on to a higher level of maturity, entering a period where he is ready to shoulder more burden and responsibilities, to bear more secrets and dangerous experiences. Dumbledore, as a teacher and an old man taking care of Harry since he is a kid, realizes that Harry has been growing up and is not a little kid to protect anymore. This is very mind-opening, as if J.K. Rowling wants us to see how we should treat a coming-of-age teenager who surely doesn’t want to be thought of as a little kid anymore, and how we should put more trust in them.

I would say that Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is more simple than the previous installments of the series. It is more revealing, yes, but there are not many startling details nor turns of characters we usually get while reading Harry Potter. Well, the revelation of who the Half-Blood Prince is has undoubtedly been more than shocking, but I cannot say the same about what Dumbledore and Harry find around Voldemort’s background. What gets my attention more is, instead, Harry and Ginny’s mutual attraction, even Ron and Hermione’s revealed feeling to each other is no match. I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s because, after all this time, Harry returns Ginny’s feeling for him. I always waited for the part when Harry and Ginny send some sparks to each other more than anything in the book.

Finally, I have to say that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is more like a bridge stretching to the other side of chasm to usher us to the final destination. Not many mouth-gaping facts nor unbelievable secrets, or even bewildering twists and turns. It is still entertaining, though, and funny as usual. I’m not sure I have to recommend this book to non Harry Potter fans, but I can say that it was an enjoyable read and I liked it.

Rating: 3.5/5