It’s been a while since I made a(nother) fruitless attempt to consume audiobooks, so I was due a new try. And this one I actually finished, so not even fruitless. I don’t think that’s happened since the summer I spent scanning literally every book in Newnham college library, while listening to The Iliad, The Odyssey and anything else I could get hold of for free on my headphones to stop me from being bored out of my skull. Which should have alerted me to the precise set of circumstances I need to power through an audiobook, but I’m not very smart sometimes. After a difficult (and steadily increasing speeded) start, I found I could manage to listen to this without tuning out when, and only when, I was doing data entry. Anything else, especially if it involved any level of concentration, and I zoned out. And if I was just listening to it with nothing else going on, I got impatient and bored, even on 1.75x speed. I’m assuming I’m weird in this, because lots of people listen to audiobooks and they can’t all be doing data entry or library scanning the whole time. Lucky me, I did at least have a big ol’ bunch of data entry I needed to be doing last week and this, so I got through it without losing the plot desperately much, but it still just… wasn’t as enjoyable an experience for me as reading a words-on-a-page book, nor as immersive. I’m much more aware of my surroundings and other stuff going on when I’m listening than when I’m reading – when I’m reading, I can very easily go totally in-the-zone, to the extent that I won’t notice if someone speaks to me or touches me. Notable – and somewhat embarrassing example – I was reading something very good, and the boyfriend came and sat next to me and I think either hugged me or held my hand. About fifteen minutes later, when he was no longer in the room, I asked “hang on, were being affectionate just now?”. It just… took about 15 minutes to sink into my brain that something outside of the story was happening. I don’t get this level of monofocus when I’m doing basically anything else, and definitely not when listening to an audiobook. And I think I associate the act of consuming stories with that level of immersion so it feels incomplete without it. So audiobooks just feel… unsatisfying. I’m missing out.
And then of course there’s the fact that even at 2x speed, I read more quickly than the audiobook goes. And so I get really impatient. I want the story to be going as fast as stories normally go in my head.
Genuinely interested to hear if anyone who does use audiobooks has any suggestions for how to manage better with them. They’d be a really useful way for me to continue consuming books e.g. at work, but I can’t always be doing data entry. I hope. I’m not sure that would be worth the trade-off.
All that aside, I also didn’t particularly like the book.
The narrator was great, she read really pleasantly and did a good set of easily distinguishable voices for the different characters. Also it was really nice to get the accent, and how that varied between the different characters’ social statuses. Bahni Turpin – no complaints.
But the story? Ehhhhh. Some of this is just because it’s YA, and I don’t like YA. The only ones I read as an adult are the ones I have nostalgia for because I read them when I was the right age. The stuff I come to fresh now feels so… samey. There’s a limited selection of narratives, and they tend to be very focussed on a small subset of problems (shockingly, the ones affecting teens), rather than the breadth you get in adult fiction. I mean, don’t get me wrong, some adult fiction is obsessed with love triangles between the people saving the world too… but there’s other options. And since I’m not a fan of teen-hormone-crush-obsession as a major part of my narratives, I like having those other options. It’s just not my thing. And this is very YA. I spent a pretty chonky section of the book getting annoyed that the only way people could see past years of oppression was if the person who represented the other side of the issue was really really hot. Because it really is just “your people have murdered and oppressed mine but you’re really pretty so I’m going to ignore it and work with you” vs. “I’ve been brought up to think your people are dangerous rebels and should be kept downtrodden at all costs but omg you’re so hot so we can totally fix the system I was happily supporting up until literally five seconds ago”. Guys! That’s not… please… really? Ok no apparently that’s how we roll.
Even leaving aside my own reading tastes and desire for a less annoying narrative… give teenagers some credit. None of the people I was friends with aged 16 were like that… they were relatively sensible and level headed and sure, they had crushes, but they weren’t all-consuming things that required them to throw all sense and logic to the wind and change every opinion they had. It just feels like it’s playing into some really crappy stereotypes of “omg so hormonal” about teenagers that aren’t… real? And it’s annoying to read.
The story in and of itself is… fine I guess? In broad strokes, it sounds fairly similar to a lot of other YA fiction (fictional country, oppressed minority, cruel heartless nobility, one girl defies the world order, has special unique property that allows her to do so, attracts attention of sexy boy in heartless nobility, quests to free her people, undergoes vast quantities of angst). The overall premise is similar to, for instance, Red Queen, which I read a while ago. The details are different, the flavour is different… but it’s just a different reflex of a common narrative. It’s not a great example of it though. The pacing is somewhat nonsense, and goes all over the place near the end. It’s the first book in a trilogy, but it doesn’t do enough of a good job of tidying up loose ends even for that – it’s not stuff being left hanging for book two, it’s just stuff that’s been abandoned (or so it feels). Far too much space in the story is given to a central section of doubled up relationship drama, and you end up sort of forgetting how the actual plot is getting on while this is happening.
And then of course the fact that the relationship stuff is so fucking cringe. I don’t know how many times I had to listen to the phrase “the seasalt scent of her soul” but it was too many. Far too many. There’s also a bit about someone’s eyelashes going on forever, which… weird. And people using the word “scent” in a way that feels downright creepy – I don’t think I’ve ever found the idea of someone enjoying a person’s “scent” romantic. It feels far more… predatory.
This also comes through in broader aspects of the novel – there’s a tendency towards overblow descriptions and behaviours that undermine a lot of the themes it’s going for. There’s a definite striving for the oppressive king to be comprehensible while still evil – we get a lot of his motivation – but he’s so caricaturedly evil that this just doesn’t land at all, and feels like a waste of time. We get introduced early to how evil he is, and however many times you talk about his tragic backstory, it doesn’t outweigh the massive evil.
Likewise, the attempts to make the oppression of the maji (magic users) more complex by giving them a dangerous history of their own feels… iffy. There’s a history in SFF of trying to do an in-world history where x oppressed group is oppressed because in the past actually they were the evil overlords and huzzah now it’s complicated and morally deep oh what a clever author I am. And that isn’t… good. It says some really nasty shit about how people think about oppressed groups and whether they “deserve” what they got. And likewise here, there’s an unresolved sense in the second half of the book that the concern about how dangerous the oppressed group is legitimate, and the way it’s handled feels kinda icky to me. I would have liked to see it shut down more firmly, rather than just set aside when other bits of the plot were more exciting. I feel like it didn’t really get refuted (and is probably an issue coming back for more in book two), but that abeyance feels far more like a tacit agreement to it than I’d like.
There’s also a real polarisation in terms of the female characters that I didn’t like… it’s setting a very real dichotomy of the ungirly, fighty one vs. the soft, gentle, pretty and nice one. And even though the “nice” one gets some development throughout the book, it doesn’t really ever stop that characterisation. Likewise, the fighty one gets to be a bit softer… by being in love with a dude. Like, guys, can we not? Can’t women just have some development for their own sake?
On the plus side, the setting was at least enjoyable. There’s a lot of decent evocation of place, and parts where I was given very clear mental images or impressions of environment – Adeyemi definitely likes emphasising smells, for instance, and that worked well for me in creating an atmosphere. But even this is undermined, because she’s fallen into the common trap of “real world stuff but fake name”. Like in The Black Magician Trilogy, where there are animals that are absolutely spiders, mice and rats, but they need fantasy names because this is a fantasy book, all the animals in this have fantasy names. But not only are the “real” animals discernable underneath from the descriptions… the names are often also just the real animal name with “uh” on the end. Maybe in the paper version the spelling makes that less obvious, but over audiobook, it was kind of rubbish, and definitely eyeroll enough to make me fall out of immersion at points. There was also a bit of “this is the city of <one notable feature that permeates everything>”, which… again, just a bit dull. But the descriptions of the journeys and places were quite well done, so for all I was sighing, at least the hackneyed ideas were being worked fairly hard? I sound catty, but for the most part, I did enjoy the descriptive passages, so long as they weren’t applied to people, and some of the buildings, villages and communities had a very real and evocative feel to them.
However, it was a fundamentally unsatisfying book, frankly, that fell into a lot of stuff I don’t particularly like, but also was doing some of the valid and aspiration-worthy stuff it was clearly trying for quite badly. The issues it’s engaging with are, for the most part, issues worth engaging with, but some of them are dropped part way through, left behind or just made a bit dodge, so it’s hard to see it as a good response to those issues. Its joy for me is in the surface level stuff, the stuff that isn’t enough to sustain a novel. I don’t like or really engage with the characters because there’s not really enough to them to do so – they’re often defined by a simple selection of traits, and we spend too much time watching them lust over someone else to get enough actual character development out of them.
Basically, it’s a very YA novel, and it’s the sort of thing that’s exactly why I don’t read YA… and why I think YA on the whole has some kinda bad points to it. It undersells, I think, what teens are capable of and may enjoy, by narrowing the focus to a specific subset of fairly predictable narratives. It’s not wrong to enjoy those narratives, but I think teen-me definitely wanted a broader scope – and aged out of YA fairly quickly because of this – than it was willing to provide her. I have nostalgia for some YA books, but none of it as strongly as for adult books I read around the same time. Not that this one book is a referendum on all YA, but it does exemplify a lot of the stuff that drives me away from it, as a genre.