Reviewing the Red Queen Series

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It’s a world torn by difference, where some people are superior to the others. A daring girl from an oppressed community, different from the rest, sets out to change the world or die in the process. While on her quest, she has a chance encounter with secret community of rebels who works towards a similar goal, share the same enemies. She is torn between two suitors/lovers who seem equally good, are equally breath-taking and love her equally. Except over the course of series she’ll find one is not good enough and make her choice, after having spent enough time with both. Perhaps, you’ll pick a side too. The villains almost die to get their hands on this girl, who despite being not-so-powerful is the face of the rebellion. She  threatens to reveal who they really are, is captured, tortured, brought back again and the cycle goes on, till the greater cause of the secret community is revealed. Then everyone again makes choices and fights more battles. Before you even picked up the book, you knew it would have a bittersweet ending. All the way you hope that the protagonist survives. And your favourite characters as well.

Sounds Familiar? No, it is not the Hunger Games. Not Divergent either or the Lunar Chronicles.

I’m here reviewing the Red Queen Series, which is probably like every other dystopian young adult fantasy-fiction book out there. I know the blog title was a giveaway, so I am pretending you did not notice it.

The major problem with this genre is (at least, the books I have read), is despite the amount of new elements introduced to keep the reader thrilled, the elements seem stale, or stolen from some other fiction hit. The combination of the elements is definitely magical, and at the outset that would be the very reason you’d have considered reading one of them. However, once you set out to explore them in detail, the glamour wanes as quickly as the fragrance of a cheap perfume, unless it is bolstered by a meticulous world development or layered, relatable characters or marvellous plot that doesn’t get boring due to the narrator’s monotones or an impeccable writing style. The bestsellers perform well on one or two of the parameters, and are satisfactory at the most of the others. The lower priority parameters are mostly underperformed on.

These fictional worlds mostly are shallow or constricted, definitely not the ones you’d wish to lose yourself in, time and again. Mostly found written in the first person, they always border on over description and over detailing. Initially I thought this was the curse that came with the narrative, but reading the Bell Jar and Great Gatsby made me think otherwise. While it is enjoyable to be inside someone else’s head in a book, too much of cribbing or reminding or obviousness repels, so much so that you want to get out of their head, right then.

And yet they are hugely popular. They have a very good reason to be so.

The thrill, oh, the thrill! The plot is so action-packed that you are on the edge all the time. The moment it starts getting dull, well, a plot-twist drops and boom! You are again frantically turning pages to know what happened next, probably even peeping ahead to check if the characters survived. The unjust society and the villains make you hate them, the system and fuel your rage further. No matter how much you were annoyed or frustrated by the protagonist, you always find yourself rooting for her, wishing her and her loved ones well. You find the characters to be grey, imperfect and you love them all the same. Amidst all the emotional turmoil, both good and bad that the book has taken you through, you find that you can so easily relate to them.

Nearly all of them have that male lead (or couple of them) with charms that make you swoon, who makes you want to dip further down. Maybe the ship that you support or that starboy himself is another major reason why you follow till the end. The characters turned villains are very intriguing, especially with their tragic back stories that made them so twisted.

It wasn’t very difficult to figure out that all of them make good movie material, books that have already gathered a more-than-decent fan base. Evidence shows that the rights to their movies sold out very quickly.

Screenwriter Victoria Aveyard had sold the rights to the movie even before the book was released.  And rightly so. In spite of the many maladies it suffers due to it being another one from the dystopian YA genre, it is vivid, enthralling and captivating. The scenes are well constructed, and the characters are conflicted. Maybe even broken or twisted. The actions and situations look like they are out of a movie, and now we know why. Everything here is a shade of grey. Before long, you are already empathizing with the characters, their choices.. You relate. Perhaps even find a bit of yourself in them. And once you are done with this book, you find yourself thinking of the many what ifs, your mind wanders without control to the people in the pages.

In short, it is a reader’s delight.

Friends, Readers, Citizens of the Internet. May I have a moment to fangirl over Red Queen?

Of course I haven’t come to bury the series, but to praise it—even with its many flaws!

Call it the soft corner for X-Men like powers, or the undercutting politics of Game of Thrones, or the aura of the dystopian world, I loved the reading experience. Yes, you may judge me.

I picked the book because I couldn’t keep my eyes (or hands) off the cover. Literally. Goodreads ratings seemed to be decent enough for me to give it a try; being from a genre I liked helped as well. The first book was mediocre. I was amazed in the beginning, hooked on to the story and the elements, but as the pages kept turning, the interest faded—and for a while I didn’t even want to read the sequel, which was to  release in a couple of months. So I almost forgot about it, and went on to buy the book a whole year later. And then I even procrastinated reading that.

This would go down in my diary of disastrous blunders. The second book in the series turned out to be my favourite. It was also the trigger for me to buy the third immediately. These two books were devoured on ravenously, and consumed in a week’s time. Which was great progress, especially when I had to hunt for time to read. Most of the time was borrowed from my sleep.

I see an effort in world building, but yet it falls short. The writing was sloppy and sometimes tired me. With so many books of the genre already popular, this didn’t come exactly out as novel. What kept me going were the characters—good and evil, whose layers and choices always came to me as a pleasant surprise.  The pace helped a great deal, and so did the imagery that made everything seem as if it were happening in front of my eyes. These small factors were done artfully well, making it easy to become oblivious to the numerous blemishes.

Somehow, I never liked Maven, since the very beginning. It was Cal who led the show for me, and thankfully the author followed it through. Mare was a frustrating and repetitive narrator, but I liked her anyway. She was imperfect but that made her real life-like, and a little difficult to predict. Over the books, all the main-cast characters mature, and deepen substantially, along with the relationships that they share. Addition of more POVs made it even more exciting, though I really hope that Miss Aveyard picks some male narrators as well. The challenges posed by the looming uncertainties completely eliminated the ability to foretell. And the plot uncovers one layer at a time, revealing a greater mesh of history and hidden activities each time. The whole experience was mesmerizing, and it left me in a bad hangover after I had finished reading.

Would I recommend it? Without a doubt. This might be something that sits proudly on your bookshelf, especially if you are a follower of dystopian or YA fiction. Personally, Glass Sword (RQ#2) was my favourite and King’s Cage (RQ#3) maintained the momentum well.

I just can’t wait for the last installment to be out soon!

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“On Writing”-Learning the Craft

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This book had been on my “to-read” list for a long time. I have never been a serious writer-the most I did was concoct stories inside my mind, and sometimes type out a few words. When that meagre habit too dwindled away, I decided to give this book a read. Perhaps, just to console myself that at least I was reading about writing, if not really writing. Also, perhaps because this qualified for the task #7 of the 2017 Reading Challenge.

It was a good decision.

I definitely did write more in the past few days than I have done in the past two years. Reading this memoir-of-sorts helped me identify my major road block to writing-extensive planning. I would spend days and days planning out the characters. And the theme. And the location. And the plot. And the names (oh! Darn the names…you never get the right ones). And the chapters. You get my point. The planning-obsessed me could never start writing if I did not envision the detailed outline beforehand. By the time it came to really writing, I was exhausted. The once enjoyable hobby started to seem like a task-and thus the stories stayed there, safely locked inside my head. Slowly fading away until what remained was only the silhouette, because the other parts had been covered by dust. It was a task to clean it all away.

When it really comes to writing, the point as the author puts it, is to stay honest to the story. And tell the story to yourself first, as soon as possible. Once the writer starts getting far from the story, inertia sets in. Yes, planning helps out—but writing is much more than the plot. Story takes the centre-stage, although without the other important elements, the stage looks very vacant. There is a beauty in exploring and excavating, too, and it might help you complete the basic outline of the story. After which, you are free to extort what you want out of the piece. This book illustrates many basics (like above mentioned) about writing without getting didactic at any point. Opinionated, maybe, but definitely not didactic.

Stephen King, the master story teller as he is, takes you through his journey as a person which somewhere (quite early) entwines with his journey as a writer. He is upfront on letting you know that the journey of a writer is not going to be easy. He also lets you know how he clung to hope by being focused on his passion, and stayed true to his writing by always being close to the origins. The books starts as an autobiography which later shifts to a conversational tone where King talks about writing in detail.

He dispels the common myths pertaining about the craft, such as the need for a great vocabulary or the need for stimulants to drive your creative process or the need for workshops; drives us back to the very basics that are sometimes overlooked by the budding writers in the quest to prove themselves; acquaints us with the common pitfalls (Swifties or excessive adverb usage, telling not showing the story, putting in unnecessary details/research); details out the process of publishing and what is to be done at each stage. The book answers the most important questions present in the minds of aspiring writers, and some other useful tips that would come in handy while writing. It does all of this, while still being a joyful read-King’s vivid imagery and beautiful descriptions establishes his credibility as a person who has a good command on his craft, which is evident even for a first time reader.

Of course, a lot of the content you’d already be aware of if you have been following any author’s interviews, but what this book adds is a good structure that helps you retain the stated basic principles. It also features a long list of books that inspired King.

Any vices? It is difficult to point out. Maybe it was the excessive reliance on the book “Element of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White or maybe it was the bluntness of King’s words that may have caused distress to some writers. As an amateur, I could not really zero down on the flaws.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. For anyone who dreams to be a published writer or wants to just know about the process of writing, or about the life of Stephen King, this is a book that you’d want to preserve in your bookshelf. Keep it at a place handy so that you could refer back to the advice or merely to know that you were not the only one that faced the hardships which came as collateral to the craft.

So, dear aspiring writer-you already are one. Start by putting one word at a time. You’d soon realise that the heart knows things, and so does the imagination, for you to keep going!

Why did it have to be “Heartless”?

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(This is a spoiler-free review)

Oh! How I love the fairy tales!

And how much I adore Marissa Meyer to have retold every single one of them in such a beautiful way.

In fact, she has completely eliminated the only complaint I have had from the fairy tales—the female protagonist which were bound by the olden patriarchal society rules, in all her books are strong, independent and determined to have their way!

I came across her writing back during my under-graduation, when I read “Cinder” [Part 1 of Lunar Chronicles] based on Goodreads description and reviews. At that time I was still a novice reader, and I was first trying to get through the popular fantasy/sci-fiction novels (the ones that most of the readers would have on their reading list). But really, bless the day! I had been so enchanted by the book that she became one of those few writers whom I read as soon as her book was out, right from the beginning.

To give you an introduction, the Lunar Chronicles is a series of books, each inspired from a fairy tale but twisted and retold in a science fiction setting, through the eyes of a female protagonist. She has created a completely new world linked part by part through the books, sprinkled with elements from the famous tales but tied to a breath taking plot that would have you go through a roller-coaster ride. The characters are well sketched and the writing (which slowly improves over the series) follows the “show-not-tell” pattern, and both of these would ensure that the reader is well involved in the story. The best part is, although most of the fairy tales that inspired the books* had the love story as the central theme, these books have the love angle as a side theme, with each of our fairy tale heroine tied to a mission for a greater good.

Heartless, however, is more like a prelude to Alice in Wonderland than a retelling, set well before the time when Alice falls down the rabbit hole. The book explores the history of “Queen of Hearts” before she turns into-as the title suggests-the heartless, despicable queen of wonderland as we have known. That being said, Marissa Meyer did not simply borrow from the actual Lewis Carroll novel (or rather novels, because it has some elements from Through the Looking Glass as well), but has added her own figment of imagination to the already dreamy world along with some very deep characters-the ones you could identify merely from their dialogues.

Now, Alice in Wonderland, for all its peculiarity and wonderfulness has been an all-time favourite, which demands frequent re-reading and discovery of a new element with every read. With such standards set, Heartless had a lot of expectations to match. And to say that the book did justice to the classic would actually be justified. It mirrored the absurd nature of Wonderland-the norms, the nonsensical seeming happenings and the assortment of creatures that inhabit the kingdom of “Hearts”. But most importantly it gave the “Queen of Hearts” a very, very compelling transformation. The journey of how such a kind-hearted, simple queen would turn into someone so hateful really keeps everyone hooked—especially because the readers can see for themselves how different she is (or had been).

The writing just draws you in the book, like gravity. It has drastically improved since I read Winter, which honestly could have been crisper. Ms. Meyer aced the art of showing, so much that I could literally echo Catherine’s joy, frustration, misery and also the heartlessness. I do not know how she made it possible but really after the events that led to Catherine’s transformation, instead of feeling the agony, I could only feel numbness. The ending was every bit as heart breaking as it could be, and the only solace I can provide myself is that we already saw it coming!

Additionally, Ms. Meyer has added history and layers to many of the wonderland’s characters (Mad Hatter, Mock Turtle, Cheshire Cat etc.) as well as made up some legends that makes the world of Hearts (And related kingdoms) even more intriguing. She has played with the riddles, inspired elements beyond Wonderland and based a part of plot on a nursery rhyme. The best part is she ties up all the loose ends for us to find by the end of the novel things as Alice had found them to be.

What the book fails to deliver is an exciting plot, it only focuses on Catherine’s journey and most of it is through her emotions and reactions to the happenings in her world. And maybe the plot wasn’t the point as the outcome was already known, however, I sincerely feel that involvement of some just talked about characters could have really made it even more unputdownable. As the writer claims that this is going to be a standalone novel, I can only hang on to the impossibility of her penning down additional series  becoming possible and her adding to them more of plot. Also, we see less of other characters to understand for ourselves-like Jest or the Duke of Tuskany etc., and our views shaped by how Catherine perceives them. Other than this, the book has been delightful in every way!

This has been my first read of 2017, and it has been unexpectedly magical. So I would really recommend you to pick up this book if you are looking for another dream like adventure and some madness. However, if you are looking for a romance filled story, sorry to say, but this would not be much to your liking.

*Cinder from Cinderella, Scarlet from Red Riding Hood, Cress from Rapunzel and Winter from Snow White

Failure is a Friend

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Fingers set on the alphabets of the keyboard; the screen glaring back with a blank page. A definite invitation to write. Some thoughts dispersed in the corners of the mind were deftly collected, then framed into sentences, very creatively.  And word by word, enthusiastically, the page was adorned with lines of a lovely legend. The writer paused for a moment, browsed the article and frowned. Next moment, the backspace key came into action. The cursor blinked wildly, as wildly as the emotion that had overpowered everything else going on in his mind.

The Fear of failure. Afraid that the piece will not make the mark.

He leaned back on his chair and gulped down water. Sitting dejected, he wondered if he will ever accomplish what he had set out to do. He looked at the blank screen again, swivelled his chair, crossed his fingers and closed his eyes. He started to search his mind for various things he could write upon. Possible topics that would make his book an instant hit. Stardom? Not good. Vampires? The market is overflowing with vampire tales. Self-Help? It’s you who need it right now. Frustrated, he gave up on thinking as well, and sat staring at the ceiling.

Are you so scared that you will give up trying? Said a voice in his mind.
No, I am not giving up on trying, the writer justified, I am just looking for something….

…That would please everyone? And then, you would write things that others like. After a while, even your life will be defined by others. The voice completed, brusquely.
It’s not like that, he argued back. I just want to write something good.

And what is good? Asked the voice.
Anything well written, and has a decent story, and is liked by many, he replied, unsure.

Did you notice the “liked” in your sentence? The voice taunted. Why do you want to write something good?
I want my book to be a success, the writer shrugged.

Without even trying? The voice asked back.
No, I am trying, he said, I write every day for at least an hour.

And delete the contents. The voice added. You don’t go forth with it because you are scared that you might fail.
No one wants to fail, said the writer.

But failure isn’t as bad as you think, stated the voice.
I know how bad it is, he admitted. Every time I fail, a part of me loses faith in myself. I want to live up to my expectations.

There was silence for a while. You take it too harsh on yourself, my dear, consoled the voice. The feeling associated with failure is almost psychological. People celebrate success and mourn failures all because of the outcomes. The positive consequences of failure are often neglected. Failure is seen as a devil come to ruin your lives, but in reality it is a harsh and wise teacher. Harsh, because of its ways and wise because it is going to teach you things that you’ll remember for life.
The writer nodded, pensively.

Failure is a guide to your success, continued the voice.  By making you confront your own follies; failure crafts a surer path, and slowly eliminates the diversions. It equips you well with the knowledge that you would need to reach where you want to be. And thus, every failure is a cause to be grateful, for you’ve learned things that you might never know otherwise. And those things are important.
Therefore, you must keep trying. Even if you fail, that tiny “try” would take you a milestone nearer to your goal.
True, he said, very true.

Great people you revere today weren’t always successful. The difference was that they embraced their failures heartily, learned from it, and continued on to their paths to success. They are great, because they made use of their learnings, and learnt a lot.
“Why didn’t I think about this?”, he said out loud, smiling at his own folly.

But you are thinking, my dear, replied the voice. Yes I am, he thought. He swivelled back the chair, set his fingers on the keyboard again. As his fingers typed out all that was in his mind again, he promised himself that he would learn from his mistakes. There was beauty even in failing.

Of Books and Cooks

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I was reading A Clash of Kings (a commendable book I must say!), when this strange analogy struck my mind. How much this would suit your opinion, I cannot say, but I found it really apt. In a way, well, everything shares a common streak with everything else, if you look at it from the right angle. This one, though, was a little extraordinary. It bluntly pointed out the mistakes that we budding writers commit!

A book is quite like a recipe. The characters function as the major ingredients—veggies, let’s say, the things we can see from the very beginning; and most of it is identified when we open the dish (the book). The lesser-featured characters are also seen, a little later though, as we stir the dish. The plot is the minor ingredient—or the spices, which we realize about through our course of reading. How these two (the veggies and the spices) have been cooked completely depends on the writing style of the author.

Millions out there dream making a recipe that will one day be the most coveted one. Think day and night about a marvelous plot, brilliant characters, and plan to write it. Which remains a plan for a long while. Spotted: Flaw # 1. The recipe that you were talking about, have you ever tried cooking it? Listing down the procedure and cooking it are two very different things. Only after cooking will one see the overlying flaws. You need to write it down, not just plan. Write it down to the end. And once you get it done, you’ve many chances to re-do it, to make the appropriate changes. This time, you will be heading in a specific direction.

If you do not know much about cooking, then how do you plan to do it? Spotted: Flaw # 2. Knowledge of a field is of prime importance when you are going to do something new in that field. If you are not well-versed in the styles, how would you get about the variations? The recipe that you are trying, someone might have done it before. Despite all those hours you put in, you may not be credited for your own genuine work. So therefore, read. Read all the time that you are not writing. You will not only learn about new styles or plots, it is quite likely that you might get an idea. One that has a potential of #1 bestseller.

The book is brewed, the lines well set. But before it can hit the bookstores, a gourmet must give in his approval. The publisher, tired and frustrated, is not very impressed by your work. And there goes your rejection letter, which has you so dejected that you stop believing in the publishing industry. Spotted: Flaw # 3. Taste is a very subjective matter. The gourmet, in this case, is looking for specific things in your dish (just like the one in Ratatouille 🙂 ). So your job is to be optimistic and find the publisher who is looking for you kind of work. Well, you may make some alterations to your work, but this is a minor task. The major task is to keep trying.

Still Thinking? Don’t! Boil down the characters, flavor it with your perfect plot–baste, stew, fry or bake– then garnish it with the right ending. And your book is ready to be served!