Posted in Books, Fantasy, Reviews

Book Review: A Gathering of Shadows – VE Schwab

Harry Potter meets A Knight’s Tale meets Pirates of the Caribbean in this swashbuckling second instalment of the Shades of Magic trilogy.

In fact, its quite unfair to describe this book in terms of pop culture references because it is so much more than the sum of all its parts, but I do it only to emphasise how truly magnificent this book is.

As with all good things it starts as a slow burn, with the author setting the stage and taking the time to reintroduce us to our favourite characters several months after the events of book one. The first quarter of the book was intent on showing how their brush with dark magic impacted Lila, Kell and Prince Rhy. At first glance, they seem to have weathered the storm well but appearances can be deceiving.

Rhy and Kell are struggling with the implications of the spell that keeps Rhy’s life tethered to Kell’s, and how this changes the dynamics of their relationship. Rhy in particular is tortured with guilt at what his actions have brought and a sense of being unworthy of the second chance at life he’s been given.

Kell meanwhile is haunted by dreams of Red London burning, by a growing recklessness and by an increasing need to use his powers. He also faces the fallout of his past activities as the kingdom continues to regard him with suspicion, and the king and queen increasingly treat him like a prisoner under guard rather than a beloved adopted son. Most of all, he struggles with the responsibility of knowing he holds his brother’s life in his hands and that any pain inflicted on him will also be inflicted on Rhy.

As for our favourite Grey London thief, to no one’s surprise, she’s nimbly landed on her feet and finds herself being part of the crew of the Night Spire, a privateer (ahem, pirate) vessel under the leadership of the enigmatic, mysterious and dashing Captain Alucard Emery. She spent the last 3 months on an adventure, establishing a reputation on the high seas as the Sparow, a thief in the night who will rob you blind and you’ll never even see him (or her, in this case) coming.

Woven through all of this is the stunning background of the Essen Tasch or The Elemental Games, where the strongest magicians from the neigbouring empires of Faro and Vesk compete against the pride of the Arnesian empire for the pride of being champion. All of this is set in elaborate arenas built at the heart of Red London, the capital of Arnes.

The world building is stunning. The way the author describes the setting and the scenes just begs for a cinematic adaptation. Reading the book one can almost feel the buildup to the climactic and pivotal moments of the narrative, one can almost taste the anticipation in the air and touch the pulse beat of the excitement as we wait with bated breath for the next twist, for the bend in the road, for the wrench that throws off even the best laid plans.

The thing that is most impressive is that even with so many things going on, VE Schwab never loses sight of the fact that the real strength of this book is the relationship between her central characters. As Master Tieren (the blessed priest) said, magic is not the unknown in the equation because at its core it is and always will be pure. Its the human hands that wield the magic that causes it to appear in different forms. Similarly, in this book its the characters rather than the events that shape the story.

Rhy becomes more of a central figure in this book and we learn a little bit more of his backstory, as well as gaining insight into his hopes, thoughts and fears. I love reading about strong relationships, especially between brothers, so I particularly loved how this book highlighted the bond between Rhy and Kell; its a rope that is damaged and frayed by uncertainty at the moment but its the kind that will hold.

I think Kell for me never quite settles into his role as the main protagonist of this book. Sure, he enters the tournament by stealth and has the chance to flex a bit of muscle in this installment but he still feels like a secondary character. But I don’t think that’s a testament to weak character development; rather its a by-product of the fact that VE Schwab has created such a strong character in the delightful Lila Bard that everyone else just pales in comparison.

I love Lila. Relentless, uncompromising, fearless to the point of having a death wish, she is the real star of this show. Whether dressed in a demon mask, a suit of armor or disarming Kell in that awesome first meeting by donning an actual dress, she burns through the pages and just comes alive in every scene she’s in. I love that she’s an atypical heroine, and she’s a breath of fresh air in this day and age when the fantasy genre is full of so many vapid female characters.

Reading this book will give you an appreciation for the author’s broad imagination. There is something for everyone, even a Cinderella moment for Disney fanatics like me. Overall, its an exquisite blend of intrigue, adventure, magic and romance that will leave readers breathless, that is, breathless from running to the nearest bookstore to read the next book because its just that darn good. A Gathering of Shadows is a delicious romp across this world that VE Schwab has built, and you will be glad you came along for the ride.

Rating: 5 stars

Posted in Careers, Medical, Nursing

Why I’m Proud To Be an Orthopaedic Scrub Nurse

When I was doing my training to become a nurse back home in the Philippines, it was a toss-up as to which area of study I hated the most: the operating theatre or learning about the musculo-skeletal system. I failed abysmally in those two areas (well, I barely managed to scrape together a pass mark, which to me still counts as a failure) and I always thought my career in nursing would have nothing whatsoever to do with those two things.

Which is why I find it rather ironic that here I am, ten years later, working as an ORTHOPAEDIC scrub nurse on top of my role in education (education, on the other hand, I always knew I would get into. Its in the blood!).

No one is more surprised by my thriving career in orthopaedics than me. 7 years ago, I barely knew what a torque wrench was or that there were different kinds of screwdrivers depending on the type of screw you need. If you had told me 6 years ago that I’d be putting jigs together to do a total knee replacement, I would laugh in your face. Honestly, I only volunteered to be in the orthopaedic theatres in the first place because there was a good-looking company rep teaching people how to use power tools. Lol

I can’t say enough just how much I love this speciality. Its not the easiest in the world to learn, and the people in it are not exactly known for their patience in teaching. But for some reason I can’t explain, it gives me such an adrenaline rush to do it, especially the big arthroplasty cases. I love to the challenge of scrubbing for a difficult case even if it means I have to open a million heavy sets.

I love that our patients always walk away happy because we’ve corrected some kind of deformity in their hip or knee. Sure, ortho isn’t life or death most of the time. But if you think about someone who’s been in pain for a long time and for whom simple activities that we take for granted (like walking) are so difficult, and then think about the fact that one operation can help with that and improve their quality of life…that to me, is a minor miracle.

We’ve come so far with orthopaedics in the last couple of years. There’s been so much research to come up with ways to be more precise with joint replacements for example, with the hope that such precision will lead to improved patient outcomes.

This week, I’ll have the chance to work with the team doing (I think) the first robotic joint replacement in the NHS. I had a little moment when the robot was first delivered where I thought, omigod, the future has arrived and it is amazing. I’m sorry, I just can’t pretend to be blasé about this, I am beyond excited to have this kind of technology at our workplace.

We organised training today and I got the chance to play with Wall-e, which is what I’m naming the robot until I come up with a better name. So here’s a video of me trying to calibrate the robot arm with the sensors.

The future is here. Are you ready for it?

Posted in Books, Dystopia, Uncategorized, Young Adult

Book Review : Champion – Marie Lu

And its finally over.

This amazing series finally come to its conclusion with Champion, the third book in the series. Its really hard to discuss and review this book without issuing any major spoilers so if you haven’t read the first two books, consider this your SPOILER ALERT!

The last book ended with a big reveal about Day as well as an end to his relationship with June. He’s left the capital of the Republic to care for his brother Eden as well as to get treatment for his own steadily worsening condition. June, meanwhile, is in training to become the Princeps, the second highest position in the republic (and a position usually held by the Elector’s wife. Hmmmm, coincidence?). The country is on the brink of a treaty with the Colonies until a new plague outbreak threatens to break the tenuous peace that June and Day have fought for, and subsequently brings them back together.

I have to say I was very very impressed with this book. From somewhat naive teenagers, June and Day have grown leaps and bounds into really sensible individuals who, while still prone to the occasional adolescent angst, can think things through before coming to a decision. I am impressed with the level of maturity Marie Lu has given these characters. It is the highest praise I can give when I say that in terms of YA characters these two annoy me the least.

Marie Lu did a very good job of contrasting the different perspectives (and decision-making process) of the main characters in this book: Day, Anden and June.

Those of us who lead with our emotions tend to see the world in absolutes, in black and white, never seeing the shades of grey in between. Guided by our supposedly lofty set of morals, it would be easy to judge another person’s actions as good or bad. Its often a different story if we experience firsthand what it would be like to be responsible for the fate of so many, to have to sacrifice over and over again our own morals and personal beliefs for the sake of the greater good.

The contrast between logic and emotions is exemplified in the characters of Anden and Day. The former, as Elector, has to make decisions that are often contrary to his desires but are ones that he knows will save the country. He cannot afford to rule with his heart because the truth is, emotion is not something one can afford when facing war from both within and without your country’s borders.

Day, meanwhile, is all emotion. Without the weight of an entire country on his shoulders, he can afford to care for the poor and disenfranchised, to protect his remaining family member as well as the girl who is the closest thing he has to a sister. He can afford to fight the daily battles without thinking about what’s next for his country after the dust of battle has settled.

In a way, June represents the balance between these two men. It was very clever of Marie Lu to have this tale narrated through alternating perspectives (June’s and Day’s). We get to read so many scenes of June attempting to strike some kind of balance and compromise, still doing what she knows is right but also being able to look at it from a more global perspective. Its what differentiates June Iparis from other wannabe dystopian heroines: while she is still vulnerable to emotions and matters of the heart (I hate the way she lets herself be affected by Anden’s attentions in order to fill the Day-sized hole in her life), during moments of crisis she is genuinely able to function rationally and be the kind of leader her country needs.

For me, the whole series seems to be Marie Lu’s subtly way of warning us of the dangers of excess and absolute power. Any government where there are a group of individuals who presume to know better and to act in behalf of their people, rather than giving them freedom of choice, is really just tyranny. I’m glad that while this series is somewhat political, it was also so much more than that. Its about one’s personal journey, staying true to your beliefs and what it means to truly care for another person.

The ending was perfect. While some readers may disagree and yearn for something more decisive, I think I like the uncertainty of a happy beginning rather than the finality of a happy ending. I thought the ending was really poignant and, if you paid close attention to the previous books, also very fitting with how June and Day’s relationship has developed.

This is what a dystopian novel should be like: the perfect mix of action, backstory, romance with a side order of politics. Overall, this was a very satisfying end to a fabulous series and I look forward to reading more of Marie Lu’s body of work in the future.

Posted in Books, Dystopia, Young Adult

Book Review: Prodigy – Marie Lu

The second book in any trilogy always feels like that all-important second date. You’ve set the expectations, for better or for worse, on the first date and now the follow-up determines whether its worth taking things to the next level or  you decide that the date simply never lived up to the promise of that initial meeting.

Legend did such a good job of introducing us to this dystopian world that Marie Lu has created, a world where the United States of America has fractured into two countries (the Republic of America and the Colonies of America) who are constantly at war with each other. She also introduced us to Day and June, two teenagers who – in their own different ways – are fighting for their own vision of what freedom and equality for all really means.

Prodigy picks up immediately where Legend left off, with June turning her back on the government that she’s always believed in after learning the truth behind her parents’ and her brother’s death. She’s on the run after helping Day escape his own execution with the help of a group of rebels called the Patriots. Desperate for help, and wanting to free Day’s brother Eden from the clutches of the Republic who is using him as a bio-weapon against the Colonies, Day and June become more involved with the Patriots, whose help comes with a price: killing the new Elector of the Republic.

This book is jam-packed with action scenes, plots, betrayals and revelations that will keep you turning page after page after page. I had some issues with Legend because I feel that the relationship between Day and June developed faster than I would have liked. I didn’t feel like they knew each other well enough for those feelings to be authentic and realistic.

However, Marie Lu addresses that issue by having the two of them deal with the fallout of the events in the previous book in this instalment. June comes to terms with the fact that she’s given up her life and her status as the Republic’s Prodigy in order to be with Day, and Day has to deal with the lingering resentment (and insecurity) over the divide between their status and the bigger issue of the fact that, deep deep down, he blames June for betraying his family to the Republic.

Mare Lu very cleverly kept them apart for most of this book, which allowed them to analyse their relationship without physical attraction getting in the way. Most young adult books don’t do that and would instead brush the issues aside because “love forgives all things” and all that rubbish. However, in reality love is not mutually exclusive of those issues; you can love and resent a person all at the same time and that’s what makes human relationships so layered and complex.

I respected the relationship between June and Day so much more in this book because to me it felt more real. That’s not to say that they didn’t annoy me a little in this book. I sometimes had to roll my eyes because I felt that there’s simply no room for that kind of adolescent nonsense when their is a war going on. But then I realise that if we stop living and stop having human emotions just because we live in state of constant war, then we’ve probably reached a point where there is nothing left worth fighting for. 

There is so much more to this book than just the development of June and Day’s relationship. They each develop as characters and though their belief systems may differ, they each fight on the side of freedom and equality for all. We are also introduced to the new Elector who becomes a symbol of hope that the country can change for the better. Arden genuinely wants to make things better for his people and to correct the mistakes of the previous government, and he manages to somehow communicate this passion to June, which makes her doubt her decision to help assassinate him.

There are many more revelations to be had in this book and the action is relentless. June and Day even manage to make it into the Colonies of America and it is there that they realise that while the grass may seem greener on the other side, absolute power is still absolute power and the Colonies may just be another prison, just with different guards. That was my favourite part of this book actually, I thought that as a plot device it really helped readers understand why Day eventually did what he did. The first half of the book was June-centric, but its Day’s character that takes centre stage towards the end as he becomes the voice of the people, a stronger symbol of hope than Anden would ever be because he IS the people.

The book ends with a cliffhanger that made me glad that I am reading this book after all three have already been released and I did not have to wait another year to read Champion, the last book in the trilogy. Throughout all the action and fast-paced developments, Marie Lu keeps a strong grip on the narrative and is always in full-control of this world that she’s created. Prodigy is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor and will have readers reaching for the next book faster than you can say Hunger Games.

Posted in friendship, relationships

Keeping In Touch

Last night was an exercise in frustration for me and two of my best girl pals. We used to work together in theatres but have each moved on to do other things (well I stayed, they left me! Lol) and we promised each other that we’d do all we can to stay in touch and meet up at least twice a month to catch up. This proved to be easier said than done, as we struggled to find a day when we can coordinate our schedules enough to have dinner.

I think its was my friend Susana who asked “What’s wrong with us?!” And she’s right, its incredibly frustrating to be so busy with work that you can’t even find time for gossip and girl talk. However, I also felt incredibly grateful to have formed the kind of friendship with these people that’s worth the effort of trying.

I think its easy to be friends when you share the common bond of work and have to see each other almost every day. You know you can at least have a quick chat in the coffee room at lunch. You pretty much have the same schedule so its easier to find the time to meet up. Its different when you’re all working in different fields with unpredictable schedules.

Out of sight is out of mind, as the saying goes. I thought about how easy it is to lose touch with the people who once mattered to you because you’re all busy doing different things. A friend you once talked to every day is suddenly a stranger you haven’t seen in 5 years. Someone you used to share secrets with is suddenly someone whose life you know about only because of their status updates on Facebook. You didn’t even know that your best friend from high school had given birth to her second child.

I thought about all these connections that I’ve somehow taken for granted. I want to say that I’m good at keeping in touch with all of my friends wherever they are in the world, but the truth is I’m probably less good at it than I’d like to be. I have these sporadic moments where I miss my friends, especially those I’ve known since uni days, and I take the time to have a long chat and catch up with them over Viber and FaceTime. Just last Saturday, I had a really good talk with my friend who lives in Canada and I thought to myself, why can’t I do this more often??

I suppose its only natural. Its hard enough to find time with my friends who live in the same city, let alone when you factor in time differences between countries. My best girl friends are scattered all over the world: Philippines (GMT +8), New Zealand (GMT +13), Texas (GMT -6) and Canada (GMT -7). Most of the time they’re at work when I’m going to bed and going to bed when I’m about to go to work.

Its sad but this is the reality of growing up, and more often than not, growing apart. So its really telling, the relationships that you work hard to maintain. Those are the kind of relationships where, when you do find the time to catch up, its like no time at all has passed and you fall back into the natural rhythm of your friendship. I am thankful to have those kinds of friends in my life and I would like to apologise in advance if I don’t tell you as often as I should how much I appreciate your friendship.

I guess what I’m trying to say with this small blog is that we all could do with taking the time out of our busy schedules to make sure we maintain our relationships with other people. At the end of the day, this is what will matter. Your career, your finances…when this goes to shit you will need friends who can take you out for a glass (or two, or THREE) of prosecco. So call that friend you’ve been meaning to talk to for weeks, whatsapp your friend in the States who’s just gotten married, keep in touch. Its important.

Posted in Books, Dystopia, Reviews, Young Adult

Book Review: Legend – Marie Lu

A dystopian retelling of the classic novel, Les Miserables.

This is what the blurb of this book tells potential readers. Much to my disappointment, there were no moments of spontaneous singing nor did the main characters burst into song about dreaming a dream. There wasn’t a single flag bearer in sight urging everyone to hear the people sing.

Instead, Legend is dystopian literature at its best. At first glance, it may seem like another young adult novel whose characters are no different from other characters in the more highly-publicised dystopian novels like The Hunger Games or Divergent series. It would be easy to lump June Iparis, the main female character, with the Katniss Everdeen’s and Beatrice Prior’s of the book world. Indeed, the three share many similarities: attractive (of course) standouts, smart, naturally gifted in some form of weaponry and with the ability to attract multiple members of the male species at a time (insert eye roll here).

However, read past the first couple of chapters and the novel immediately distinguishes itself from its peers. The plot is well-developed and airtight. There are dark undertones to this novel that, with the state of the current world we live in and America especially, seems eerily relevant and prophetic. It tells the story of a divided country whose people have forgotten that they were once the all-powerful United States of America. Instead, two countries – who are perpetually at war with one another- have emerged: the Republic and the Colonies.

 

original
image credits to https://weheartit.com/followjunebug/collections/25223849-legend-trilogy-by-marie-lu

 

The novel is set in a distorted version of Los Angeles, a city that has been ravaged by floods and other natural disasters. Our heroine June is one of the ‘elites‘ and is the Republic’s darling. She is considered a “prodigy” having scored a perfect 1500 on her Trial, a test that all children in the Republic have to take when they turn 10.

In contrast, we have the boy known as Day, the Republic’s most notorious criminal who exists to wreak havoc on its plans, especially the plans dealing with warfare. Day failed his own Trial exams and was thought to be sent to labour camps along with other children who failed, only to find out that labour camp is just another name for death.

Their paths cross when Day is accused of murdering June’s brother during Day’s botched attempt to steal a cure for his brother’s plague. The murder of her one remaining family sends June into revenge mode and she goes undercover in the poor sector of the city to smoke Day out.

As this is a young adult novel, one can forgive Marie Lu for putting the romantic elements front and centre so quickly in this book. Its my opinion that this book would have been stronger if she parked that for at least one book more and allowed the connection to develop slowly towards its inevitable conclusion. I think putting the love story on display so prominently only distracted from the main plot, which was really quite good. Besides I think that the book already packs an emotional punch without it, with its elements of family, true friendship, sacrifice, and fighting for what you believe is right even when you seemingly fight alone.

This novel is not afraid to go graphic in its description of some of the violent scenes, which really surprised me. I suppose the young adult genre has changed a lot since I was a young adult and its now commonplace to have kids reading about people getting shot in the head or a mob full of people being gunned down. Then again, I think it would have been impossible to tell this story without showing the violence, a symptom of the corrupt nature of the current Republic.

Its interesting to note that a common theme in these dystopian novels seem to be segregation. In Hunger Games, they were separated into Sectors. In the Divergent series, teenagers were grouped according to their dominant abilities. The main message seems to be that segregation is the root of all evil. When one person or group starts taking it upon themselves to judge other people’s worth based on a set criteria, well, we all know what happened during the Holocaust.

There are so many story arcs going on in this book that makes me wonder how Marie Lu is ever going to tie up all the loose ends. At the same time, I cannot wait to see how she develops these storylines and what other revelations are in store for Day and June. The combination of an alternate-universe America and the prospect of future rebellion as June and Day work to expose the corruption of the system will win the acclaim of fans of the dystopian genre everywhere. Overall, Legend is a fast-paced, well-written and, dare I say, legendary start for what promises to be an epic trilogy.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Reviews

Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

Fantasy is a genre that relies on an author having an original idea, unparalleled imagination and the ability to create worlds that take us away from our own lives for the 5 hours or so that it takes to finish the book. V.E. Schwab succeeds with all that and more in the first book of her Shades of Magic Trilogy.

In this book. she introduces us to three different worlds, their only common thread being that in all these worlds there is always a city named London. The main character, Kell, is an antari – a group of people who are “blessed” with magic and whose blood enables them to travel through those worlds as long as they have a “token”, usually an object that belongs to that world.

Kell differentiates the three Londons by assigning colours to them: Red London, the city where magic is alive and thriving; Grey London, where no one believes that magic really exists;  and White London, where magic used to exist but has long gone, leaving its people starving for just the taste of it (and starving for food as well, most likely). There was a fourth London where magic existed in its purest, strongest form, ultimately leading to that city’s destruction; Kell calls this city of legends Black London.

london-map

I am utterly enamoured of the concept of this book. It goes without saying that I will automatically love a book that’s set in London, but Ms Schwab takes it further by giving us three (for now) different version of this city. The world building in this book is amazing in its descriptiveness. I feel like its almost itching for a movie adaptation, and let’s be honest, that is the dream isn’t it? I, for one, would love to see Red London – with its  castle floating on the river Thames itself, and a bustling and vibrant market on the banks – up on the big screen.

Apart from the world-building, this book also introduces the delightful, though sometimes annoying, Delilah Bard. Although Kell is meant to be the main protagonist of this book, Lila steals the show every time she appears. Unapologetically brash and driven by self-gratification and selfish purposes, she is the perfect foil to Kell’s strong sense of duty. A common thief originally from Grey London, she’s the kind of woman who marches to the beat of her own drum and doesn’t let society dictate her actions. She is determined to make her mark on the world, to have adventures and to see what else is out there. She refuses to be a victim of her own narrative: just because she was born poor doesn’t mean she’ll stay poor.

Lila is a character whose arc is sure to be explored in the next books and I’m quite excited to learn the secrets of her past, some of which are already hinted at in this book. As for Kell, I feel like his character wasn’t as well-developed as Lila’s. Either that or I haven’t really paid attention because he’s carved from the same mould as many other male protagonists in other fantasy series. VE Schwab is yet to add something to his character that will make readers stand up and take notice, but there is potential there.

The real winner in this book is the writing. It flows so seamlessly that you will find yourself turning page after page and not noticing that you’re halfway through the book. VE Schwab keeps its simple. This book doesn’t attempt to be literary or wordy, it embraces and celebrates the fact that its a fantasy novel. Ms Schwab simply tells the story in the best way she knows how and somehow it just works.

As the lead runner in this trilogy, this book picks up the baton with aplomb and sets the scene for passing it to the next book in the series. It takes readers through a delightful pub crawl-like romp through the worlds the author has created. It ends on a high note and with enough hints of what more there is to come to quickly send readers to the nearest bookstore to buy the next instalment, which is exactly what I will be doing today.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars