Infinity Cycle #2: Infinity Reaper (Book Review)

Over the last few years, Adam Silvera has quickly become one of my favorite writers. If he has a new book out, I will buy it, no question. That was especially true for Infinity Reaper because I loved the first book, Infinity Son, which came out last year. Infinity Son ended on a heck of a cliffhanger, and I was anxious to return to Emil and Brighton’s world to see what would happen.

What’s it about?

(Spoilers for Infinity Son)

At the end of book one, the heroes defeated Luna at great personal cost. Possessed by June, Maribelle killed Atlas. Even worse, instead of disposing of the Reaper’s Blood, Brighton gave into his megolomania and drank it. Infinity Reaper builds directly off of that ending. Maribelle vows vengeance upon June and tracks down a weapon that will allow her to kill the ghost specter. Brighton’s desire for power at any cost terrifies his friends and family, particularly Emil, and the pursuit of power doesn’t come as easily as he expected: instead of powering him up, the Reaper’s Blood is slowly poisoning him. As for Ness, he has been returned to his corrupt father, and is being used to spread lies about celestials.

What’d I think?

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

It took me a bit to get back into the world, to be honest, even though I did reread Infinity Son right before. I think I was expecting to dive right back into the worst of it and delve into Brighton’s megalomania. Instead, Brighton gets very ill with blood poisoning. Reflecting back after having read the whole book, this part of the book works really well. It feeds Brighton’s desire for power, connects him back to the trauma of witnessing his father’s death, and allows the characters to grapple with his pursuit of powers separately from his possession of powers. If Brighton had been all-powerful from the jump, there wouldn’t have been enough room for the slow growth of concern. Brighton would have been too powerful to question, and having his power-up parallel his emotional journey was the right call. At the time, though, I was impatient to see the Reaper’s Blood in action. I guess I was like Brighton in that way. Ultimately, slow buildups make for more satisfying payoffs, and while the first quarter or so of Infinity Reaper could have moved a bit faster, I’m not mad at it.

I rewatched some of the X-Men movies shortly after reading Infinity Reaper, and it was interesting to enjoy them in such close proximity. I know that the Infinity Cycle was inspired at least in part by the X-Men, so I found it fascinating to compare the two stories. I last watched X-Men before I was at all politically aware, so even though I knew it was political, I didn’t realize quite to the degree. X-Men is about a registration bill and Infinity Reaper takes its inspiration very clearly from the Trump era, with Senator Iron (the Republican nominee much beloved of Fox Wolf News) as the discriminatory, hypocritical, damaging Trump stand-in. I’ve always found fantasy the most satisfying when it engages with real-world issues, and both Infinity Reaper and X-Men do that. While X-Men’s primary inspiration seems to be as a queer metaphor (Bobby even has a coming out scene in X2), Silvera’s story is more interested in power: who has it, what it does to people, and what people will do to get it. Celestial/mutant power isn’t a queer metaphor in the Infinity Cycle. It doesn’t have to be, for one thing (pretty much everyone is queer; Emil, Ness, Maribelle, Iris, Eva, Wyatt, and Tala are all either gay or bi/pan). In the Infinity Cycle, power isn’t a metaphor. It’s power, and unlike queerness, power is a choice. It’s telling that while celestials are much persecuted, it’s the specters who dominate the series. Brighton chose his powers. Ness chose his powers. While Emil did not choose to have his powers, he has the option to lose them. Is possessing specter power immoral? Does it matter what one does with the power once it is obtained? Is it possible to have as much power as Brighton does and not be corrupted by it? Is there a greater good that can be achieved with the powers that counterbalances the evil of having killed an endangered creature to obtain it? The Infinity Cycle grapples with all these questions.

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Miss Benson’s Beetle (Book Review)

As a general rule, I don’t give a book to someone unless I have read it myself and can personally vouch for it. I broke that rule with Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce because I had read so many phenomenal reviews. Repeatedly, I saw it praised as one of best recent historical fiction novels and as a wonderful story of female friendship. When I saw it compared to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows I knew it had to be something special. Guernsey is an excellent book (and movie!) and it has the distinction of being something my mom, my grandmother, and I could all bond over. Despite being very similar people in almost every other regard, the three of us tend to read quite different books. I bought Miss Benson’s Beetle for my mom for her birthday, and she thought her mom would like it as well, so we got another copy for her. They both loved it (whew!) and I read it last.

What’s it about?

Margery Benson has had a lifelong obsession with beetles, and specifically a golden beetle that has not yet officially been discovered. Since childhood, Miss Benson planned to eventually travel to New Caledonia and find the beetle, but life got in the way. One day, though, a solidly middle-aged Miss Benson, who has spent years being under-appreciated and mocked in a job that she dislikes, reaches her breaking point and decides that it’s now or never. She hires an assistant to help her in her travels and ends up with Enid Pretty, a young and attractive woman who is exactly the opposite of what Miss Benson thought she needed.

What’d I think?

B/⭐⭐⭐

I can absolutely see why Guernsey is a common comp title for Miss Benson’s Beetle. Both are female-driven novels that see a dissatisfied woman take the reins in her own life against the backdrop of a post-WWII world. They both focus on ordinary people trying to go on despite the drastic ways their world has shifted. It might be because I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I’ve read very few novels about the period after WWII. There’re a ton of novels about WWII. Believe me, I know. I set up a table at Barnes & Noble that’s supposedly historical fiction but it’s actually 95% WWII fiction with a few novels set during the Revolutionary War or shortly afterward to shake things up. WWII is a very popular era for fiction, and why not? There was a lot going on, and there’s conflict and tension present in the era even before the author adds anything. I have absolutely nothing against WWII fiction—The Book Thief, one of my all-time favorite novels, is set during WWII—but the era Miss Benson’s Beetle is set it is just as rife with potential storylines.

That’s one of the things best done in this novel, the post-war atmosphere. The nationalist strain in the British people living in New Caledonia, Margery’s origin story vis-à-vis her father and brothers, and the PTSD displayed by Mundic—the primary antagonist—create a very specific tenor.

Despite the very serious underpinnings of the novel, the overall impression is that this is a fun, kooky romp. This is very much the story of unlikely friends. Miss Benson is older, more practical, less spontaneous. Enid is the opposite: loud, flirtatious, prone to whimsy. It’s obvious that they’ll become close friends by the end because that’s how these types of stories always go, but it is still heartwarming. I always like friendship stories and Margery and Enid are quite wholesome, and while there are other things going on, the majority of Miss Benson’s Beetle is about the two women supporting each other’s dreams. Enid in particular is the sort of person anyone would want as a friend, because even at her absolute worst moments she fiercely believes in Margery, encourages her to live her dream, and does everything she can to help her do so. It takes Margery a little longer to get there, but Enid is resolute from the jump.

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The House in the Cerulean Sea (Book Review)

I heard a lot of great things about The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune before I read it. My sister-in-law recommended it to me. I saw it compared to The Umbrella Academy. A coworker told me that it’s like a more-diverse Harry Potter. V.E. Schwab wrote a blurb for it. Barnes & Noble picked it as the fiction novel of the month for January. So clearly this was one I needed to read.

What’s it about?

Linus Baker is a caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He’s been there for years, and since he has a reputation for keeping his head down and falling in line, he is selected for a particularly difficult case. The higher ups send him to report on an unusual orphanage that houses six particularly strange children, one of whom is the antichrist.

What’d I think?

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The first word that comes to mind when describing The House in the Cerulean Sea is “wholesome.” Because it is categorized as a fantasy novel, I expected a very different kind of story. Fantasy tends to be rather plot-driven, with an obvious villain or a threat to all of humanity. The House in the Cerulean Sea takes a different approach. You definitely could not classify it as anything but fantasy—very few of the major characters are actually human—but the overall shape of the story is more akin to a bildungsroman or even a romance. The main character leaves an unfulfilling life to take a trip. There, he meets people who change him for the better, and he has to reconcile the old ideas he had about his life with possibilities that have been opened to him for the first time. It’s a family story more than anything else, and it feels like a romance, except filled out with fantasy trappings where romances often have my personal pet peeves like instalove or pointless drama caused by easily avoidable misunderstandings.

Actually, it’s remarkable how much I loved The House in the Cerulean Sea considering that it does flirt with storylines I often dislike. I usually dislike fictional children, and The House in the Cerulean Sea has six. When Linus first arrives at the island and meets the children and their two caregivers—Arthur, the head of the orphanage, and Zoe, an island sprite—I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep track of everyone. It’s a bit overwhelming to meet eight characters within the span of a chapter or two, but Klune does it brilliantly. Linus is overwhelmed, and the reader is right there with him. Also, we get a brief insight into each character, and the more time Linus spends time with each individual, the more they build off those first impressions. Of course, by necessity, some of the characters are expanded slightly more than others, but by the end even the children with the least pagetime feel like fully-fledged individuals. They’re also childlike without being annoyingly so.

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Heartstopper Vol. 1 (Mini Book Review)

I love Alice Oseman. She’s one of my favorite writers, and I’ve read all her novels with enthusiasm. My love for her work is tinged only by jealousy. She’s so young! She’s younger than me, and every time I read I Was Born for This or Radio Silence I’m forced to confront the fact that my writing is nowhere near where I want it to be. But it’s okay because I enjoy her books so much. I’m a pretty obsessive person, so when I have a favorite writer I want to tear through literally everything they’ve ever written, so I finally got a copy of Heartstopper Vol. 1, the graphic novel that stars Charlie and Nick, two minor characters from Solitaire. I wanted to jump right in after I finished Solitaire, because that book is fantastic and Charlie was my favorite character, but I only just got around to it. Heartstopper is pretty hard to find. My library doesn’t carry it and my bookstore only got it recently. I have no evidence to support this, but I choose to believe that we carry it because I won’t shut up about Alice Oseman and have blabbered on and on about her to the people who order the books. A lot of her books are still not available in the US, but apparently this one is. Weird.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐

In any case, now I’ve read it. It only took me an hour or so. I’m not actually very good at reading graphic novels. I struggle with slowing down enough to take in the illustrations, and end up focusing like 95% of my attention on the words. This isn’t as big an issue when the graphic novel has simple artwork like Heartstopper does (even if I occasionally had a hard time differentiating between Nick and Ben; they look quite similar at first glance). I got very lost with Watchmen, but I was mostly okay here. I wish I’d had an omnibus with all the volumes, though, as the ending of volume one feels a bit abrupt. There’s something weird about sitting down for an hour, reading everything that’s in front of you, and not eventually reaching something that feels like an ending. Maybe it’s because I don’t read many graphic novel series. Maybe that’s how they are. I get cliffhangers at the end of a novel, but this doesn’t feel that that. This feels like a chapter break, not a book break and I found it a bit jarring to get tossed out almost as soon as I’d settled in.

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A Gathering of Shadows (Book Review)

Last year, I finally got around to reading V.E. Schwab’s highly acclaimed novel A Darker Shade of Magic. I loved it. The worldbuilding is in a class of its own, and the characters caught my attention from the jump and kept it until the end. My overall impression of the novel was that I wanted to spend more time in that world and with those characters, and if possible in more ordinary circumstances. Don’t get me wrong; the plot is excellent. But I found that A Darker Shade of Magic shone the brightest in its quietest moments: when protagonist Kell went about his usual duties for the crown, or when he lamented his carefree brother’s more reckless decisions. In my review for that book, I said that I wanted to spend time with these characters when they weren’t saving the world. Well, I got exactly what I wanted.

(spoilers for A Darker Shade of Magic, but not for A Gathering of Shadows)

What’s it about?

After stopping Astrid and Athos Dane from their attempted takeover and locking the dark magic Vitari back in Black London where it belongs, Kell and Lila return to Kell’s world. There, Kell keeps a watchful eye on his brother Rhy—whose life he tied to his after Rhy was briefly murdered—and Lila climbs aboard a privateer’s ship captained by the enigmatic Alucard Emery. But their paths are set to cross again when Emery returns to London to compete in a tournament for magicians.

What’d I think?

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The plot, as much as there is one, is about the aftermaths of the trauma in book one. Kell bound his life to Rhy to save Rhy’s life, and that life debt and very tangible bond between them affects them both deeply. Lila is in a new world and discovering powers that, because of her having been born in Grey London, she had no idea she possessed. When Rhy puts on the Essen Tasch (basically the Olympics for magicians), the games serve as a stage on which the various personal dramas can play out. Kell, frustrated with the blame and suspicion coming at him from every side, finds an outlet for his energy. Rhy, horrified at the price his brother paid for his life, throws himself into his princely duties to maintain the peace between his kingdom and those neighboring it. Lila, still deep in deception, gets the opportunity to really test her powers for the first time. There are still bloody brawls and surprise reveals and stirring evil, but the main point of A Gathering of Shadows is to progress the internal journeys of its heroes, and it does so brilliantly.

After the dramatic evil in A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows takes a step back and lets the reader slow down and luxuriate in the world Schwab has created for us. Fantasy is usually a plot-heavy genre, but plot takes a backseat to tension and characterwork here. There are chapters here and there reminding us of the main threat that is building itself back up after Lila and Kell’s triumph, but the main story is the characters: how do they fit into the world, and how do they live with the consequences of the fight against Vitari? It’s masterfully done. Obviously I cared about oncoming threat, but I was way more invested in the interpersonal conflicts. Who is going to win the Essen Tasch? Why does Kell hate the immensely likable Alucard Emery? Why is Lila so powerful? How does the bond between them affect Kell and Rhy?

You’d be hard-pressed to find anything I love more than a good, loving sibling dynamic. Kell and Rhy are the best kind of fictional brothers. They love and support each other one hundred percent, but they sharply contrast each other, misunderstand each other, and sometimes take the wrong tact when trying to help each other. Schwab contrasts the two brothers brilliantly. They’re opposites in many ways, but in more subtle ways than merely the most readily apparent. There are the obvious differences—their looks, their magic, their positions in life—but more than that, they approach things differently, reflect each other’s successes and failures, and provide a sounding board for the other. What I love most about them is that, as different as they are, they’re both good. They’re doing their best and even when they make mistakes—even mistakes the other would never make—you can’t truly fault them because their mistakes are so deeply rooted in their characters… and their characters are so likable, and so easy to empathize with.

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February 2021 Wrap-Up

February was interesting. I live in Texas, which as you probably know was kind of a disaster this month. I did not get hit nearly as badly as a lot of people, but I did lose power for thirty-six freezing hours. There’s nothing like bundling up in hats and jackets and multiple pairs of socks and huddling with a reading light under a quilt to make you deeply, deeply thankful for modern luxuries like electricity and hot water.

It was really just a week, but when I think about February 2021, I’m always going to think of how cold it was. I did read a lot of good books, though! As usual, I’ll roll these reviews out in the next few weeks and link back them here once they’re live.

Here’s what I read…

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐

If you loved The Hate U Give or On the Come Up, you should absolutely read Concrete Rose. Angie Thomas has created (revisited?) yet another sympathetic, engaging protagonist who defies the racist stereotypes many would like to paint him with, and she has done so with her usual poise and nuance. She’s definitely a writer to be reckoned with. That said, I wouldn’t point any new readers to Concrete Rose, because it definitely feels more like a prologue to THUG than to a full story in its own right. It’s a good book and I liked it a lot, but I did not adore it the way I adored Thomas’ earlier work.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I wish I’d read this a month ago so I could have talked it up while it was still the B&N monthly pick, because I adored it and would love to put it into more hands. The House in the Cerulean Sea is a gentle, character- and family-driven novel that takes place in a mostly normal world that is populated with a few fantastical people. It is beautifully written, and is both wholesomely heartwarming and quite funny. I’ve seen it compared to a number of other works—The Umbrella Academy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1984, Harry Potter—and while I can see similar elements, at the end of the day The House in the Cerulean Sea feels unique (though if I HAD to make a comp, I’d probably choose Good Omens). It’s that rare fantasy novel that’s about magical people loving and living their everyday lives. It’s sweet and gentle—there’s no calamitous, world-ending event on the horizon—but no less compelling for it, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to readers of any genre.  

Heartstopper Volume 1 by Alice Oseman

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐

What I love best about Alice Oseman’s characters is that they’re messy. They feel like real people because they’re struggling internally with the same things that real people struggle with internally. They’re stifled by social conventions that push them into roles they don’t quite fit. They do their best in difficult situations. They keep moving forward even when they’re scared or sad or confused, doing their best to disguise the hurt and uncertainty beneath the surface. I really enjoyed Heartstopper Vol. 1. It’s a quick and cute read that’s romantic without being too cheesy. I’m sure I’ll read any subsequent volumes. But that being said, I didn’t delight in it the way I do Oseman’s novels. The characters feel like two-dimensional versions of themselves. They’re still likable, but with their rough edges sanded off, they aren’t quite as lovable. Heartstopper is a classic friends-to-lovers romance story. It’s sweet and wholesome, but it lacks the slightly cynical but ultimately hopeful tone that characterizes Oseman’s longer work. Would I recommend Heartstopper? Absolutely, especially to someone looking for a quick, romantic pick-me-up. Would it be the first Oseman title I’d list? Probably not, but it’s still adorable.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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