It’s Time for a #BrunchBookClub Double Bill

Hello dear readers.

Yes, it’s that time again … #BrunchBookClub has indeed been happening, and I have failed miserably in keeping my reviews up to date! In order to play catch-up and avoid Michele’s gentle disapproval, I’m going to pull co-founder’s rights here and write up reviews for both A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. (Victoria) Schwab and The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi in one post. My review of Rooms will follow in a separate posting.

Want to catch up? We will be reading Station Eleven  by Emily St. John and discussing it in January – join us! After all, you have the holiday break to catch up on your reading.

OCTOBER

A Darker Shade final for IreneKell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.

Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London—but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her ‘proper adventure’.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive—trickier than they hoped.

I have to start this review by mentioning how in awe I am with Victoria Schwab and her ability to create incredible worlds – and in this case, the plural is accurate! Kell travels to four different realities of London, delivering messages and intrigue in equal measure. In Schwab’s deft hand, the worlds are distinctive and compelling and terrifying. The dark magic is insidious, already literally visible to the eye and yet unseen by most before it begins to spread. Each world is unique, and each has its challenges. Of particular note are the Danes of White London, who still give me shivers, especially when you consider how tightly they control everything and everyone (Holland) with an effortless grace.

“The queen considered him, her pale lips curling at the edges. “The bodies in my floor all trusted someone. Now I walk on them to tea.”

Perhaps it’s because I read them so close together, but I found Kell and Kaz from Six of Crows to be kindred spirits – both are clever, secretive and immensely talented, but both are also lost souls. Kell is part of every London, and yet he belongs to none. He’s valued for his abilities, but not for himself, and that made me sad.

“He was taught early that magic reclaimed magic, and earth reclaimed earth, the two dividing when the body died, the person they had combined to be simply forfeit, lost. Nothing lasted. Nothing remained.”

No wonder he found Delilah to be so different! I loved smart, sassy and brave Lila and how she could take care of herself, thank-you-very-much – except for when she inadvertently brought out magic she couldn’t control. This would-be pirate queen, with her sleight of hand and quick wit added fire to every scene she was in. This is a character with determination and ambition, dammit, and I love that she’s unafraid to admit that about herself. Additionally, Lila and Kell are such sparking fun to read together, and some of the best moments in the book happen during their adventures.

“Aren’t you afraid of dying?” he asked Lila now.
She looked at him as if it were a strange question. And then she shook her head. “Death comes for everyone,” she said simply. “I’m not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying here.” She swept her hand over the room, the tavern, the city. “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”

Also wonderful is the enigma that is Holland. The tension between Kell and Holland is tantalizing, and you knew there was a backstory there that would blow your mind. When the story really begins to build and you realize how Holland and Kell are connected, you are left reeling. Rhy was one of those characters who left me uneasy from the start – he’s the way-too-charming frat boy who you just know runs secret rituals in the basement.

I won’t discuss the story too much as this is a case where spoilers will ruin the story, except to say that I’d say that the first quarter or so of the book is worldbuilding, so be patient. Remember: Schwab is creating multiple worlds for us, so these things take time. The dialogue is wonderfully smart and true to the heart of the characters, and the story will leave you wanting more – luckily enough, book two will be out February 23, 2016.

A copy of A Darker Shade of Magic was purchased for our #BrunchBookClub. It is published by Tor Books and is available now from your favourite booksellers. ISBN: 9780765376459, 398 pages.

NOVEMBER

pearl broke shell.jpgAfghan-American Nadia Hashimi’s literary debut novel, The Pearl that Broke Its Shell is a searing tale of powerlessness, fate, and the freedom to control one’s own fate that combines the cultural flavor and emotional resonance of the works of Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Lisa See.

In Kabul, 2007, with a drug-addicted father and no brothers, Rahima and her sisters can only sporadically attend school, and can rarely leave the house. Their only hope lies in the ancient custom of bacha posh, which allows young Rahima to dress and be treated as a boy until she is of marriageable age. As a son, she can attend school, go to the market, and chaperone her older sisters.

But Rahima is not the first in her family to adopt this unusual custom. A century earlier, her great-aunt, Shekiba, left orphaned by an epidemic, saved herself and built a new life the same way.

Crisscrossing in time, The Pearl the Broke Its Shell interweaves the tales of these two women separated by a century who share similar destinies. But what will happen once Rahima is of marriageable age? Will Shekiba always live as a man? And if Rahima cannot adapt to life as a bride, how will she survive?

I chose to “read” this one by audio and I’m so glad that I did. Hearing the names and places spoken aloud in my car brought the story to life, and I felt as if I was hearing a family legend recounted just for me. Initially, the wealth of family names was a little confusing, but soon I was invested enough in the story to feel as if these people were my neighbours. I began to recognize their characteristics and quirks, and all due credit goes to the narrator, Gin Hammond, for her excellent work.

We are introduced to Rahima and Shekiba through stories; although they live a hundred years apart, their lives are not so different as they struggle to remain strong despite their respective circumstances. My heart ached for them, especially as their decision-making power was removed from them time and time again, and they were left to make the best of their situation. While Shekiba had most of my sympathy at the start of the book, it was Rahima in the more recent setting who ultimately broke my heart; her situation had changed little from her ancestor’s, and to see her viewed with so little value as a human being was painful. That her story was taking place less than ten years ago, and that it is still a common practice in many parts of rural Afghanistan made it all the more heart-wrenching.

This is a story of human strength and resilience, but it’s also a reminder that the lives of women and children remain challenging for much of the world. It’s very easy in our North American culture to think that issues such as women’s rights are ‘solved’, when the reality is that many women around the world still do not have a voice. I admired Hashimi for writing such strong characters who refused to give up, and showed how they could still attempt to control their futures, despite being repeatedly pushed aside and ignored.

This isn’t an easy read by any stretch, but fans of  Shilpi Somaya Gowda and Khaled Hosseini will be fascinated by this book. Hashimi has created a powerful narrative of resilience from two women who are silenced again and again, yet who are determined to be heard.

A copy of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell was purchased for our #BrunchBookClub. It is published by HarperCollins Canada and is available now from your favourite booksellers. ISBN: 9780062244758, 464 pages.