Review: Asperfell by Jamie Thomas

Asperfell_CoverWithBleed_101918Asperfell by Jamie Thomas

Expected publication: February 18, 2020 by Uproar Books Inc

Pre-order this book on: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Synopsis: Only the darkest and most dangerous of Mages are sentenced to pass through the gate to Asperfell.

Not one has ever returned.

Never did Briony dream she might set foot in the otherworldly prison of Asperfell. She was, after all, neither Mage nor criminal. She was simply her father’s little whirlwind—fingers smudged with ink, dresses caked with mud—forever lost in a book or the spirit-haunted woods surrounding her family’s country estate.

But Briony always had a knack for showing up where she was least expected.

Only by braving the gate of Asperfell could Briony hope to find the true heir to the throne of Tiralaen and save her kingdom from civil war. And so, she plunges into a world of caged madmen and demented spirits, of dark magic and cryptic whispers… and of a bleak and broken prince with no interest in being rescued.

Hauntingly beautiful and lavishly told, Asperfell is a must-read for fans of Jane Austen who always wished she’d dabbled in blood magic.

Rating: 2 star

Review:  ***I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you NetGalley and Uproar Books!***

I wanted to like this book. I really really wanted to like this book. It is exactly the type of book that I normally enjoy. A young, spunky female lead character. Magic. Society that seems to be based on a Victorian standard. Mysteries. Prisons. Other planes of existence. But I just couldn’t like it.

The writing is very good and thus why I gave this a two star rating over a one star. The dialogue is engaging, the plot moves at a fairly good pace, and the narrative flows beautifully. The first half of the book seemed a bit on the slow side while the second half was very rushed but that is my only complaint about the writing.

WARNING: From this point on there will be lots of spoilers, consider yourself warned.

This book has never met a young adult trope that it didn’t like….and utilize…..frequently. Let me preface where my opinion is coming from on this novel. The very first sentence, before I even hit the first chapter is that the author wants to “smash the patriarchy one novel at a time!”. Now, I will also explain that I am rather tired of reading militantly feminist literature, it seems to be everywhere these days. Normally I can overlook an author’s personal views or opinions about the book and just take the book for the story it presents. But not when that’s what you open with. The very first thing you told me about your story is that it’s smashing patriarchy with its strong female characters so you need to live up to that. You have now infused that idea into your novel and need to deliver.

This did not deliver. Instead I got the same old tired tropes of the young adult genre that feminist readers complain about constantly. How exactly are you smashing patriarchy? By presenting me tropes that I’ve been reading since I was 13 years old?

Briony is just like every young adult female lead character. She is spunky, sassy, strong willed, and bucks the patriarchal system that she was born into. Her older sister is the perfect lady of the court. This isn’t a new dynamic and it can be a good one when used correctly. I didn’t actually mind this because it set up Briony as a character who is questing to be knowledgeable. Knowledge and wisdom will be her weapon in the fight against what society has said her place is. That’s all well and good. My problems start when Briony gets to Asperfell.

Naturally she instantly dislikes Prince Elyan. He is dour, brooding, and wants nothing to do with her and largely he is exactly what one expects from the young adult male lead. I assumed Briony would be on a mission to find the answer to take him home whether he protested or not. But…..she doesn’t. Within the space of a chapter she seems to have completely forgotten about her mission and just goes along with working in the gardens and learning magic all while throwing a glare at Elyan when he deigns to make an appearance. He, of course, is primarily there to ridicule her efforts before disappearing again.

It wasn’t until about the last forty pages that Briony suddenly remembers that she is supposed to be getting Elyan back to their homeland. And only because someone whacked her across the head with the information that would lead her to that goal. She was far too busy trading gossip, learning magic, gardening, and making sarcastic remarks at Elyan to actually discover the answer on her own.

Another trope, instalove. Authors think that they are avoiding this if their characters start off hating each other. But Briony and Elyan go from coldly tolerating each other to gazing at each other affectionately literally in the space of a single dance. So not quite instalove but maybe 3 1/2 minute love? Microwave love? Be sure to wait for the ding!

Briony was also revealed to not be that strong or much of a feminist either. The most offensive example of this is when another character attempts to sexually assault her. Okay, we kind of have to assume that’s what he’s doing because it doesn’t get very far but I’m fairly confident that’s where this was headed. Briony courageously defends herself. She fights off her attacker and escapes to safety before the situation escalates into anything much worse. I was cheering for her! I was so proud of her for reacting in her own defense so decisively and swiftly. But then she decides to have a whole inner monologue about how she feels shame about the situation. Why exactly? Surely you would be feeling scared but also proud of yourself? She even says to herself that she has nothing to feel ashamed about…..but then concludes that thought with “but I do” and moves on. Is this really an example of a strong woman? Feeling shame about something that you recognize should not be causing you shame and during which you admirably protected yourself? I was highly disappointed.

Next we have the other young adult trope that I despise so much. Briony does something very stupid and reckless. She recognizes internally that it was reckless and stupid. But when Elyan points out that it was reckless and stupid then she yells at him about it. Because, how dare he think that he can control her! He doesn’t own her! She can do what she likes without him! Does anyone actually think that this is the makings of a strong woman? Actual thoughts that she had. No one was trying to control her or prevent her from doing anything on her own. She made a reckless and foolish decision, but because a male confronts her about it then he’s controlling. Then later he, naturally, apologizes for daring to question her reckless, foolish behavior because he was just so scared of losing her. And she gets to walk away feeling smug. Strong women rejoice! Patriarchy smashed!

Finally, the ending. We spent a very long time getting to Asperfell. We spent an equally long time gardening and learning magic in Asperfell. That left about 60 pages for the conclusion. I thought the conclusion was supposed to be the rescue of Elyan from Asperfell and delivering him back home. Except that didn’t happen. The book ends with them in the woods. On their way to a potential way to get home, but they aren’t actually sure it will work yet. And of course, it ends with a kiss. Frankly, it left me wondering what exactly the point was? We couldn’t spare another 30 pages to actually get back to Tiralaen? And then end it once they have successfully left Asperfell? I recognize that we’re setting up a sequel here, but the sequel works just as well starting with the moments after they escape Asperfell as the moments before.

Overall, this story reminded me of every single bad young adult novel I’ve ever read. Exactly the same characters. Exactly the same plot devices. Exactly the same tropes.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue

Published September 13th, 2010 by Little, Brown and Company

Synopsis and picture from the Goodreads book page

You can buy this book at B&N / Amazon

Synopsis:

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Rating (out of 5):

Review:

Before starting this book, I was not exactly sure what to expect.  I had heard so many things about it and all of them seemed to be good, which seemed very unlikely to me that I had heard nothing but praise about this book.  When it became a monthly read for an online book group, I knew it was time for me to give it a try.  This story was entrancing and yet dark at the same time.  This isn’t some fluffy, happy, cutesy story but it is very deep and emotional.

This story is told through the five year old eyes of Jack.  I think he was the right narrator for a few different reasons but it also presented a challenge.  How do you accurately describe some of the horrific things that happen in this book if your narrator is a mere 5 years old and may not understand it?  It’s a dilemma and there were times that I felt the author struggled with her narrator, but it also made the story better.  In my opinion, having a child be the narrator for the story made the subject matter easier to get through.  As an adult reading his descriptions you knew what was going on, but it was less gritty and thrown in your face and so it made it easier to deal with.  A story about a woman who was kidnapped and held captive as a sexual slave for nearly a decade and who gave birth in this room to her kidnapper’s child is really tough and emotional to read about.  Having it filtered through the eyes of a child lessens the horror a little bit, which allows you to see the story as a whole.

I had two issues with this book, one of them is small and one is rather big.  The small irritation is that sometimes Jack talked like a adult, or made observations that no five year old child would ever really care about.  For example, when Jack makes an observation about how people in the world are always busy and never have time for anything and so stressed.  A kindergarten age child doesn’t look around and think about other people’s stress.  It was moments like that when I felt that the author struggled having a child narrator who couldn’t realistically portray what she wanted to portray in certain instances.

The bigger irritation was how the adults insisted on treating Jack after they were rescued from Room.  Even his Ma kept treating him as if he should have been acting and responding differently.  When he said he wanted to go back to Room his Ma would get angry with him.  I understand that for her it was a prison cell and a torture room, but for Jack it was the ONLY life and existence he ever knew.  It was never a negative place, it was home.  It’s only natural for him to want to go back.  And the other adults did it too.  When Jack took something from a store and tried to leave with it, they were angry with him.  He’s a child for God’s sake!  And a child who has no experience at all in functioning in the outside world!  It made me angry and it made me dislike most of the adults in the book.

The ending of this book, however, washed away any irritation I had with the book.  They get to put their experience to rest and that part brought me to tears.  The moment that Jack stands in the door and says, this isn’t Room anymore, my heart broke and I knew that I loved this book.  It’s very rare that a book brings tears to my eyes, but this one did.  It wasn’t perfect, I mentioned my problems with the book, but it did touch my heart.