Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review: Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan

source: e-galley from HMH
publication: April 5, 2016, Clarion Books

I think there's something wrong with me.
I've been in the worst book slump of my life for the past couple of months—one or two standouts but mostly a ton of books I feel pretty "meh" about or DNF'd completely—so when I saw this one up on Edelweiss, I thought I heard a chorus of angels.
You see, I've been looking forward to this book for about two years now, since Sarah Rees Brennan first said she was writing a retelling and I guessed that it would be A Tale of Two Cities, just because she's Sarah Rees Brennan.
When I found out I was right, I gloated and jumped for joy and the promise of pain to come.
So you should know that I think I put too much pressure on this book to take me out of my reading slump. Another factor to blame might be that I read it on my e-reader, which makes things less memorable and also the formatting was weird and I might not have caught everything I was supposed to catch.

This book did not click with me the way I wanted it to.
The idea behind it is great: a retelling of A Tale of Two Cities wherein the reason "Sydney Carton" and "Charles Darnay" look so much alike is because one is a magic doppelgänger, and the reason he's so shady is because DARK MAGIC.
Somewhere along the way, the execution diverged from the brilliance of the concept.

My first problem was that Lucie, the main character, lacks a distinct personality and goes off on inner monologues that can sometimes last nearly an entire chapter. Once I really thought about it, I realized that maybe between six and ten actual events occur in this book (which is not enough for a 350-ish page novel), and the rest is just Lucie narrating about her past, or the Stryker family, or Ethan specifically, or attempting to explain the magic system. Now, I have read A Tale of Two Cities and I enjoyed it, but I know it's not exactly a high-speed car chase either. The difference is that in the original, I knew there were things going on in the background, and I had an idea of what those things were, because obviously they were things that actually happened in actual history and didn't need to be fully explained in fiction. In Tell the Wind and Fire, I knew there was some kind of rebellion, but I didn't know how violent it was, or what was being done to fight back against it, or anything like that. All I knew was that Lucie was being used as their symbol, which, frankly, is a trope that's so worn out in YA that it's like a pair of shoes whose sole has come detached from the heel and it just drags on the ground, calling attention to itself.
The rebellion itself was pretty standard fare and I wouldn't have minded it much if the magic had been explained better. I want to see these two different types of magic fighting each other! But really, the only people I got to see use their magic were Lucie and Carwyn. I'm still not sure how it worked for anyone else—I know that Dark magic can control emotions and that makes it dangerous, but I want to see it in action. What kind of emotional manipulation is most dangerous for Lucie? For the Strykers? For your average Light magician on the street? On top of that, what does Light magic actually do, besides light things up and put collars on doppelgängers?

There are a few moments in the book when Lucie shows her colors by actually standing up to people—something the original Lucie Manette obviously never did—but even those moments fell flat for me, because they felt like she was reciting lines fed to her by social justice activists. I agreed with everything she said, but the novel would have been more successful at illustrating the "Don't touch a girl without her permission" rule, for instance, if Lucie hadn't couched it in the argument that it makes people look "stupid" when they do. More important than how it makes the violator look: it makes the victim feel objectified, belittled, and like her body is not her own. That is what he should care about. HOWEVER, I loved that once she told Carwyn to stop, he did. I always appreciate a male character who learns respect by listening; probably more than I appreciate the ones who unrealistically pop out of the womb as fully-formed feminists, despite being a member of a family with no women in sight (coughEthancough).

Which brings me to: Ethan. Lucie spent so much of the book explaining why she loved Ethan (he helped her adapt to the Light city, he respects her, he's kind, etc. etc.) that I couldn't feel anything at all for him myself. And unlike with Sydney Carton, I couldn't really feel anything for Carwyn either, because Lucie decided he was evil and she hated him. We never got the inside glimpse of Carwyn that we did with Sydney—until the end, that is—because this novel is in first-person POV from the perspective of someone who assumes he's not worth her time.
When Carwyn's Sydney Carton moment did finally come along and he confessed his affection for her*, it frustrated me that Lucie had not noticed before, while simultaneously seeming out-of-character for him. I don't know.
I just don't know.

But anyway, the end was fantastic. Emotions happened.

I liked this book. I feel like I'm only listing the things that didn't work for me, but I really did like it. I will still buy the hardcover (because, I mean, look at it) and I'll try to sell it. Who knows, maybe I'll give it another shot someday when I have a real copy to read and am out of this reading slump. But for now, this is my review.

Characters: 3/5
World-building: 2/5
Plot: 3/5
Writing: 4/5
Retelling creativity: 5/5