Book #274: A Book of Spirits and Thieves Review

2-Star-Ratings

 

I’m an adult, I read YA, and guess what?  I’m not ashamed.

There are plenty of people out there who want me to be ashamed, though.  Ruth Graham’s nastygram to adult YA readers, appropriately titled “Against YA,” is probably the most famous argument against adult YA readers.  Basically, she says that adults reading YA is the equivalent of never leaving high school: it boils problems down to black-and-white and doesn’t teach you how to deal with issues like an adult.

To that, I say: whatever, lady.  Shaming people for their choices isn’t the way to get anyone to do anything.  As my grandmother says, “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

Unfortunately, Morgan Rhodes’ A Book of Spirits and Thieves isn’t the sort of novel that would change Graham’s mind about the genre.  The book just isn’t very good, which is a shame since the premise is so promising.  Here’s the synopsis from the publisher:

Modern-day Toronto: A heavy leather-bound book written in an unrecognizable language is delivered to the Speckled Muse, the antique bookshop owned by Crystal and Becca Hatcher’s mother. When Becca opens it, she’s sent into a coma, leaving Crys behind to uncover a series of terrifying secrets.
 
Ancient Mytica: A merciless goddess hunts for the elusive treasure that will make her ruler not only of Mytica, but of all the unseen worlds that lay beyond it.
 
Modern-day Toronto: Rich and aimless Farrell Grayson finally has the chance to prove himself when the mysterious leader of a powerful secret society invites him into his fold.
 
Ancient Mytica: Maddox Corso has always been different, but never remarkable. Everything changes the day he meets a pretty, unfamiliar girl from a faraway land, only to realize that he’s the only one who can see her.
 
Fate has brought these young people together, but ancient magic threatens to rip them apart.

I mean, sure, To Kill A Mockingbird this ain’t.  But on the surface, this book combines some of my favorite things: fantasy, time-travel, and sisterhood.  I figured that, if nothing else, it would be a really fun beach read.  Unfortunately, issues with characterization, worldbuilding, writing, and pacing make this a real chore to get through.

 

THE GOOD

But, as usual, we’ll start off with what this book does well.  I’ve already mentioned that I love a good time-travel fantasy story. It all started with Kate & Leopold (which, I know, isn’t a book at all).

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Yes, it’s an older movie.  Yes, it’s dated and goofy.  IT’S ALSO PERFECT.  I would give any amount of money for Hugh Jackman to look at me like that.  I’d even cut my hair with razors, which is evidently what they did to poor Meg Ryan.

Anyway, A Book of Spirits and Thieves promises a plot at least vaguely reminiscent of this, and in that way, it delivers.  Maddox is a budding necromancer trying to save his country from the grip of an evil goddess, and Becca is the daughter of a god (?) who’s been displaced by a magical book.  Rhodes also does a good job making me believe that the book itself–the Bronze Codex–connects to the modern Hawkspeare Society, which is committed to ridding the world (but really, just Toronto) of evil.

This is Toronto.  Apparently it is full of Tim Hortons and Evil.

This is Toronto. Apparently it is full of Tim Hortons and Evil.

Becca’s sister, Crystal, has to deal with the aftermath of her sister’s illness/disappearance.  Crystal actually feels like a real teenager.  She’s acting out against her parents because of her father’s abandonment, she’s unhappy at school, and she’d rather be an artist than go to college.  She’s pushing boundaries at home and everywhere else, which makes her come across as impulsive, spoiled, and just a little dumb.  She’s a real teenager, and even though she’s not exactly likable, she becomes a compelling YA protagonist. Her pieces of the story were considerably more interesting than Becca’s, even though Becca’s been transported into a quasi-medieval society.

I’ll also give Rhodes some props for adding a few interesting plot twists to the story.  We learn that–SPOILER ALERT–Becca is actually Marcus King’s daughter.  Marcus leads the Hawkspeare society and has convinced his followers that he’s a god trying to rid the world of evil, i.e. street-level drug dealers.  By the end of the book, Becca doesn’t know she’s Marcus’ daughter but Crystal does, which will lead to some nice plot tension in the sequel.

 

THE BAD

…and that’s pretty much where the good stuff peters out.  Beyond Crystal, the rest of the characters might have been cut from cardboard.  Becca is a Mary Sue of the worst variety–she’s perfect, gorgeous, and intelligent.  Maddox, likewise, is the sweet-but-unsure love interest who immediately falls for Becca despite the fact she’s a) a spirit and b) from another world.  Farrell, the boy who STALKS Crystal but is still set up as her eventual love interest, might as well be played by James Dean.  He’s a bad boy from money, but he has a good heart.  Sigh.  It’s almost like Rhodes googled TV Tropes and picked her characters that way.

This isn’t helped by the worldbuilding, I’m afraid.  Toronto is…well, Toronto, so no fault there.  It’s Mytica that falls completely flat.  I literally had no idea what the heck was happening in that country.  There are two goddesses that rule the land.  One rules the north and the other the south, as you do, and there’s a weird DMZ in the middle.  The weird part is that these goddesses apparently just showed up out of nowhere one day and took over.  Are they goddesses?  Fairies?  Witches?  Drag Queens?  The reader sure as heck doesn’t know since Rhodes glosses over this really important information in one infodump of a section.

Because you don’t know the mechanics of the country, it’s hard to understand why Maddox and his compatriots do what they do.  He gets conscripted to participate in a resistance effort to overthrow Valoria, who gets described as completely evil because–and I’m serious here–she bans books.  Lord have mercy, but that’s what Rhodes writes, and it’s the only thing about her that really gets Becca fired up.  She even calls Valoria an “evil bitch,” so we know she must be!  Right?!

And that’s one of the central problems of this book: the characters change arbitrarily.  Because they’re so two-dimensional, you never quite understand why they do what they do.  For instance, Becca keeps a cool head even though she’s see-through.  Why?  Well, because she’s level headed.  How do you know this?  Because the narrator tells you in two sentences early in the book.  The same goes for Maddox.  He’s probably the most damning example of poor character development in the book outside of Evil Queen Goddess Valoria, Who Is Evil Because She Bans Books.  When we meet him, he has magic but doesn’t know how to use it.  We hear this no fewer than three times both from him and the narrator, and he struggles to make it bend to his will.  However, at the climax of his storyline, he goes from struggling to save his friends because his magic won’t work to sending Becca home (which would take considerable power and control, you would think).  HOW?  WHY?  You don’t know because there’s literally no exposition that tells you how Maddox comes into his power.  It just happens, and *pop*!  Becca’s back inside her catatonic body in Toronto.  Sigh.

Finally, can we talk about the super terrible covers?  Apparently there are two covers for this book right now:

The first presumably shows Becca staring out a bookstore window into Mytica.  This fits the story, at least: Becca and Crystal’s mother own a bookstore, and she does end up in Mytica as a passive participant.  However, the art and typography are just atrocious.  There are no fewer than FIVE DIFFERENT FONTS on that cover, and let’s not even TALK about the composition.  Look at that coffee mug.  Does that in any way look like decent perspective to you?  I think not.

The second cover, though, is an outright lie.  You look at this and you think, “Cool!  Look at that badass girl on an amazing horse with a FREAKING SWORD.  There’s even a hawk!  Is that her hawk?!  She’s a falconer?!  Amazing.  I must have this.”  It looks like the series could be Kristen Britain’s Green Rider on crack.  But let’s break this down:

  1. This cover clearly shows Becca in Mytica, but
  2. Becca is stuck in her streetclothes there, which Maddox brings up repeatedly,
  3. She’s a spirit, so she can’t actually touch anything.  Also,
  4. She never rides a horse, and
  5. She never carries a sword (see 3).

Much like the cake, the cover is a lie.

 

THE UGLY

There are two things that really cripple this book and push it below a three-star rating: the writing and the exposition.  Rhodes loves dialogue.  In fact, she writes primarily in dialogue, sprinkling a few sentences of description and explanation here and there for the reader’s edifice.  There’s a big problem with this strategy, though: it strips the characters of autonomy.  I’ve already talked about that above, so I won’t beat a dead horse here.  You never know why her characters do what they do, which comes from a severe lack of useful, effective supporting exposition.

Unfortunately, the problem compounds because of Rhodes’ writing.  Now, I’ll preface this comment by saying that I’m unfamiliar with Rhodes’ Falling Kingdoms series, it’s hard for me to know if the problems with Rhodes’ writing are systemic or because she’s trying out something new.  Regardless, the writing here is completely utilitarian.  There’s little artistry to it; she’s just trying to get the story down on paper.  Fair enough, but that’s a major problem when you’re telling a story primarily in dialogue.  You have to make sure the characters sound like real people.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in A Book of Spirits and Thieves.  Not only is the dialogue stilted and unnatural, it’s often unintentionally hysterical.  For instance, at the very end of the book, Crystal tells Farrell to “bite me.”  If that’s not 90s enough, Farrell responds, “maybe later.”  My response:

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There isn’t a teenager alive that talks like that.  Even though it was a super tense moment in the story, I started cracking up.  I’m afraid this wasn’t an isolated incident, either.  The amount of eye-rolling at cheesy dialogue in A Book of Spirits and Thieves was too dang high.


 

One of the problems that comes along with the soaring popularity of a genre like YA is a flood of the market.  Because YA is hot right now, publishers are printing anything with passable readability, and A Book of Spirits and Thieves reads like a rough draft pushed prematurely out the door.  It’s not finished, and it’s not good.

However, there are some really good YA books out there right now.  If you want a magical kingdom story with sisters, try Kelley Armstrong’s Age of Legends series.  Time travel more your thing?  How about Marianne Curley’s Old Magic?  Just want a fluffy time-travel romance instead?  I remember loving Margaret Ball’s The Shadow Gate as a kid (but the Goodreads reviews make me wonder if it holds up).  There are plenty of good books that scratch the same itch out there that aren’t this one.

Read This If: 

You’re a fan of Morgan Rhodes and you can’t be dissuaded

You like time travel and can’t get enough

Skip This If: 

You want something with a good plot that’s well written

You can’t stand shallow characters



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