Shakespeare Retelling Mini Reviews|| Ophelia, Queen of Denmark/ Illyria/ I, Iago/ Prince of Shadows

Ophelia, Queen of Denmark by Jackie French

Young Adult Historical Fiction

288 Pages

Published: 2015

Standalone

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Synopsis

She is the girl who will be queen: Ophelia, daughter of Denmark’s lord chancellor and loved by Prince Hamlet.

But while Hamlet’s family stab, poison or haunt one another, Ophelia plans a sensible rule, one filled with justice and the making of delicious cheeses. Even if she has to pretend to be mad to make it happen, Ophelia will let nothing, not even howling ghosts, stand in her way.

This is Shakespeare’s play, but with what might also have happened behind the scenes.

General Comments

In general I quite enjoyed this novel. It’s fairly short and easy to read, and I thought the worldbuilding was also very good. I had a clear mental image of the setting and the people involved in Ophelia’s life. I quite enjoyed the descriptions of food and clothing and the general running of the castle. But I did get sick of Ophelia’s cheese references.

Written in first person from Ophelia’s point of view, we get to see Shakespeare’s play from a different (female) perspective. For the most part, I liked this version of Ophelia. She’s a little naive, but generally straightforward and pragmatic (at least in her internal narration).

I found the change between Ophelia’s internal voice and the flowery Shakespearean ‘courtly speak’ used between characters quite jarring. It only started happening from the middle of the book, and I don’t understand Shakespeare at the best of times, so I was pretty confused when it first appeared. It was like Jackie French just dropped lines from the play straight into a completely different style of writing.

I didn’t like Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet at all. It was weird and kind of smacked of insta-love. That being said, it does mirror the play, and Ophelia does reflect on it, which was a relief.

The novel explores themes ranging from greed, to gender divisions to what makes a good ruler.

Other than that, I thought the middle dragged a bit, but I thought the twists on the original play were clever and original.

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand

Young Adult Contemporary Magical Realism

144 Pages

Published 2010

Standalone

⭐️⭐️

Synopsis

Madeleine and Rogan are first cousins, best friends, twinned souls, each other’s first love. Even within their large, disorderly family—all descendants of a famous actress—their intensity and passion for theater sets them apart. It makes them a little dangerous. When they are cast in their school’s production of Twelfth Night, they are forced to face their separate talents and futures, and their future together.

This stunning short novel, winner of the World Fantasy Award, is the perfect introduction to Elizabeth Hand’s singular voice. Her many novels offer a window into what it means to create art, to experience it, to feel passionately about the world. Illyria throws her talent into high relief—it is magic on paper.

General Comments

I don’t want to say this is a bad book. It had lovely writing and some beautiful scenes. It was more of a character study than anything else, which is fine, but ultimately I felt it lacked anything resembling a plot. I just couldn’t see what the point of it was.

Also, it wasn’t a retelling. It just featured Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as part of the story. CW: incest, drug use, implied child abuse.

I, Iago by Nicole Galland

Historical Fiction

370 Pages

Published: 2012

DNF 16%

Standalone

Synopsis

The critically acclaimed author of The Fool’s Tale, Nicole Galland now approaches William Shakespeare’s classic drama of jealousy, betrayal, and murder from the opposite side. I, Iago is an ingenious, brilliantly crafted novel that allows one of literature’s greatest villains–the deceitful schemer Iago, from the Bard’s immortal tragedy, Othello–to take center stage in order to reveal his “true” motivations. This is Iago as you’ve never known him, his past and influences breathtakingly illuminated, in a fictional reexamination that explores the eternal question: is true evil the result of nature versus nurture…or something even more complicated?

General Comments

I don’t have a lot to say about this book. I was interested because I like retellings that explore the villains and their back stories. The writing was decent, but I didn’t care about Iago or his life. Basically, I was bored and I didn’t give two hoots about all the military descriptions (the weapons, the strategies, the training, the barracks.)

Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine

Young Adult Historical Fantasy

368 Pages

Published: 2014

Standalone

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Synopsis

In the Houses of Montague and Capulet, there is only one goal: power. The boys are born to fight and die for honor and—if they survive—marry for influence and money, not love. The girls are assets, to be spent wisely. Their wishes are of no import. Their fates are written on the day they are born.

Benvolio Montague, cousin to Romeo, knows all this. He expects to die for his cousin, for his house, but a spark of rebellion still lives inside him. At night, he is the Prince of Shadows, the greatest thief in Verona—and he risks all as he steals from House Capulet. In doing so, he sets eyes on convent-bound Rosaline, and a terrible curse begins that will claim the lives of many in Verona…

… And will rewrite all their fates, forever.

General Comments

The first thing I want to say is that this book was extremely addictive. I flew through it. The writing quality is excellent, and Rachel Caine really knows how to emphasise the right notes of a story.

Told primarily in first person from Benvolio’s point of view, Prince of Shadows is the story we know, but so much more. There’s a little bit of a supernatural edge, but it’s mostly realistic (although not necessarily completely believable.)

It was a compelling, action-packed read. I loved the twists on the original, and I think I almost prefer this version. There was still plenty of character development, especially within the Montague household. That being said, there were some dark, violent and frankly distressing scenes.

I often forget to provide trigger warnings because I’m pretty tolerant of awful things, but in this case I feel it’s important. There is a particularly brutal murder of a gay man, and it is a pivotal moment in the narrative. Whether this makes it more or less problematic, I don’t know. All I know is that I was sobbing in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, and my heart was breaking. As for other triggers, since I’m already on a roll, there’s plenty of death, violence and blood. There’s also suicide and homophobia.

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Perception|| Terri Fleming [Pride & Prejudice Retelling Mini Review]

Perception by Terri Fleming

Historical Fiction

400 Pages

Published 2017

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Synopsis

Mary Bennet does not dream of marriage. Much to her mother’s horror, Mary is determined not to follow in the footsteps of her elder sisters, Jane (now Mrs Bingley) and Lizzy (now Mrs Darcy). Living at home with her remaining sister, Kitty, and her parents, Mary does not care for fashions or flattery. Her hopes are simple – a roof over her head, music at the piano, a book in her hand and the freedom not to marry the first bachelor her mother can snare for her.

But Mrs Bennet is not accustomed to listening to her daughters. When one of Meryton’s wealthiest residents reveals her son is returning home, Mrs Bennett is determined to hear wedding bells ring for one of her girls. Thrown into society, Mary discovers that promises can be broken, money can conquer love, and duty is not always a path to happiness. But by the time she realises her perceptions might be false, might she have missed her chance at a future she’d never imagined?

Comments

The main protagonist is Mary Bennet, the middle daughter of the family. In the original she is described as plain, and is mostly interested in music and reading. She had no interest in social occasions beyond finding an audience to display her accomplishments, of which she was rather vain.

This book takes place a few years after the end of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There are many familiar characters, plus a few new ones. It mirrors the original in many ways and plays on familiar riffs of Pride and Prejudice.

Perception keeps to similar themes such as gender roles, marriage, social and class divisions, social climbing, and family. However, at its heart, it is a romance.

Yes, you heard me – a romance revolving around Mary Bennet. It was sweet and very well written. I was a little dismayed at the whole makeover part, but I enjoyed reading about Mary’s internal growth and change as a character. I felt it was perhaps a teeny bit dramatic, and sometimes I found myself wondering how believable it was. But this might not be an issue for others.

My only real issue was the portrayal of the majority of women as frivolous and stupid. It’s been a while since I read the original, but I’m pretty sure this type of talk was present. It still makes me uncomfortable.

The language is more accessible than Austen, but still keeps the historical feel. It’s very readable, and I’d recommend it to fans of Austen, and historical romance.

The Gilded Wolves|| Roshani Chokshi

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

YA Historical Fantasy

388 pages

Release date: 15 January 2019

#1 in series

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Synopsis

No one believes in them. But soon no one will forget them.

It’s 1889. The city is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. Here, no one keeps tabs on dark truths better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. When the elite, ever-powerful Order of Babel coerces him to help them on a mission, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance.

To hunt down the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin calls upon a band of unlikely experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian banished from his home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in arms if not blood.

Together, they will join Séverin as he explores the dark, glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the course of history–but only if they can stay alive.

General Comments

If you are going into this book expecting it to be like The Star-Touched Queen series you will be disappointed. The writing is still amazing, but it lacks the poetic descriptions and beautiful prose of Chokshi’s debut novel. I’ve also heard it compared to Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, but I can’t comment on the comparison, as I haven’t read that book yet.

While I enjoyed the book overall, I wasn’t really desperate to keep reading it when I put it down. It’s hard to pinpoint what was the problem, but I think I just wasn’t that excited by the plot. It wasn’t bad, so maybe heists just aren’t my thing? I also wasn’t super excited about the magic system, which is something I normally look forward to.

What I Liked

  • I liked the diversity of the characters in this book. Although I felt like they could have had a bit more depth, these four stood out among the six.

Laila is an Indian dancer with an ability to read the history of almost anything she touches. She loves cooking and has a strong mothering instinct.

Zofia is a Polish-Jewish scientist with a talent for Forging. She seems to be on the autism spectrum, and struggles with human interaction, preferring to get lost in mathematics and inventions.

Enrique is a bisexual Spanish-Filipino historian. He’s witty and a bit sarcastic.

Hypnos didn’t have a narrative voice of his own, but he was such a fun character. He is the bastard bi-racial head of the House of Nyx. He was sarcastic and flirtatious, but he had a lot of depth, showing hints of loneliness.

  • I appreciated the exploration of colonialism/imperialism, and how that affected both individuals and societies, although I would have liked to have a spent a bit more time doing so.
  • I did enjoy the witty, sarcastic banter between Severin, Enrique and Hypnos at various times throughout the book.

What I Disliked

  • I didn’t have any particularly strong negative opinions regarding this book, just a sense of being a bit bored and underwhelmed by the plot, which had something to do with Babel Rings, and Babel Fragments.
  • I didn’t really understand the individual characters’ motivations for participating in the heist, or indeed why the heist was necessary at all.
  • Two of the main six characters didn’t have narrative voices of their own, which struck me as a bit odd.
  • I didn’t care much for Severin, despite his story being the central thread running through the book. He is a bi-racial former heir to the House of ___, but his inheritance was taken from him because the Order wouldn’t allow two bi-racial children to inherit Houses at the same time. I didn’t find his narrative that interesting, and I didn’t find his back story or motivations that compelling.
  • I guess I also didn’t care about Tristan, because I totally forgot about him and had to look him up. He’s a bit of a hermit and has a talent for Forging related to plants. He doesn’t have a narrative of his own, and this surprised me given that he was part of the inner circle.
  • I was unclear about the magic system, which is called Forging. I can’t explain it, because I still genuinely don’t understand the rules, except some people have the ability, and it’s somehow related to Babel Fragments.
  • I didn’t feel like there was enough suspense to keep me engaged in the heist. Everything seemed to have a magical solution that one of the Forgers could just whip up. Like invisibility powder or whatever was required.

Wow, I had more issues with this book than I thought I did. If I weren’t analysing it for review I wouldn’t have even thought of these things. Needless to say I won’t be picking up the next volume in the series.

Let’s Chat!

Have you read The Gilded Wolves? What did you think? Do you ever reflect on a book later and find you liked it much less than you thought? Let me know in the comments below.

The Song of Achilles Mini Review|| Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Historical Fantasy Retelling

4/5 stars

Standalone

352 pages

Year published: 2011

Synopsis: Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. By all rights their paths should never cross, but Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But then word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus journeys with Achilles to Troy, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

Trigger warning: violence.

Spoilers: If you know nothing about The Iliad, and the story of the Trojan War, there will be minor spoilers ahead. I’m writing under the assumption that you know roughly what happened.

Why I was interested: It’s a retelling of The Iliad. And it’s by Madeline Miller.

General comments: The Song of Achilles is, at its heart, a character exploration, which Madeline Miller excels in writing. The story follows Patroclus from childhood onward, and the focus is the relationship he develops with Achilles. There was a lot to like, but I did almost quit on it twice. And if I’m completely honest, I would never have picked up Circe if I had read this first. I’m not sure I even understand my feelings about this book, so let’s just move on to the reviewing part of the review.

What I liked:

Patroclus: The best part of this book was Patroclus. He was a pacifist in a world that valorised violence. Achilles was portrayed as a sort of foil – the ultimate representation of that patriarchal warrior culture which was so at odds with Patroclus’ values. Patroclus was a healer, not a warrior.

Writing: Madeline Miller’s writing is lovely and readable. And I really enjoyed the way the narration was handled at the end. I won’t say any more because that ventures further into the realm of spoilers than I’m willing to go.

What I disliked:

Graphic scenes: There were some scenes which made me really uncomfortable, such as the battles, and the sacrifice of Iphigenia. It’s not that I wasn’t expecting them, or that I am particularly delicate. I read Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls which was about fifty billion times more graphic. I think it had more to do with the overall tone of the story being so at odds with these scenes that they really punched me in the gut. Maybe that was the point. But I still didn’t like it.

Apologist retelling: The problem here is not that it is trying to redeem Achilles, it’s that it completely and utterly failed to convince me. Achilles’ only redemption was Patroclus. His conscience was Patroclus. If Patroclus was not there to reign him in, Achilles was just as bad as the rest of the men.

Final thoughts:

I think the problems I had with this book were a result of my comparisons to Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I loved. There is less magic in The Song of Achilles. The narrator is male. And I just don’t think this book was as successful as Circe in making a ‘side character’ of one of the most well-known Greek myths the hero of the story. In the end, I still felt that it was all about Achilles.

 

The Bird and the Blade || Megan Bannen

The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

YA Historical Fiction

4.5/ 5 stars

 

The Bird and the Blade is a retelling of the opera Turandot, which itself is based on older story called Khalaf and the Chinese Princess. It follows the journey of Jinghua, a slave in the Kipchak khanate, as she aids Timur khan and his son, Prince Khalaf across the Mongol Empire.

Jinghua has plans to go home to Lin’an, which was part of the Song Dynasty of (southern) China, but they get completely derailed by Timur and Khalaf’s plans to regain their Khanate.

Their journey eventually leads them to Khanbalik, capital of the Yuan Dynasty, where Khalaf competes for Turandot’s hand by attempting to solve three impossible riddles.

Megan Bannen weaves the previously untold tale of a slave girl, who is more than she seems, with history and legend, into a surprisingly funny and heart rending story.

What I loved:

  1. The characters in The Bird and the Blade were the best part of the book – more than the characters themselves, I loved their relationships with each other. Our trio, Jinghua, Timur khan, and Prince Khalaf, are an unlikely group, but by the end they are more than what they seemed in the beginning. I particularly loved Jinghua’s relationship with Timur, who she called an ‘old goat.’ It cracked me up almost every time they interacted.
  2. Full disclosure: I am not really in the mood for romance at the moment. I would be perfectly content to read books without any romance in them at all. That being said, the romantic element in The Bird and the Blade was executed beautifully. It was a love built on shared experience, kindness, and genuine concern for each other. But it was also realistic. The relationship between a slave and a prince in that period was going to be fraught with trials.
  3. The ending. Oh my word. I did not expect that ending. I did not expect Jinghua’s back story. I was completely surprised. And believe me. It’s hard to surprise me these days. The Bird and the Blade had me laughing and crying. I cherish books that can elicit those emotions from me. And it really has everything to do with the characters and the way Megan Bannen wrote them.

What I didn’t love:

  1. Due to the structure of the narrative, weaving backwards and forwards through time, the reader finds out pretty early on exactly where the characters are going to end up – in Khanbalik facing Turandokht and her riddles. So the story as a whole lacked suspense up until the final chapters. The entire journey to that point, and all the dangers they faced should have been moments for the reader to worry and wonder about their fate. However, since you know they all reach Khanbalik those moments were pretty flat and anticlimactic.

 

On the whole, for me, there was a lot to like. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes retellings, Middle Eastern/Asian inspired stories, sarcastic female leads, sweet and intelligent male leads, grumpy old goats, and wonderful character interactions.