Final Girls, by Riley Sager

>> Monday, July 31, 2017

TITLE: Final Girls
AUTHOR: Riley Sager

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 342
PUBLISHER: Dutton

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Thriller
SERIES: None

Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout's knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media's attempts, they never meet.

Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancé, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past.

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy's doorstep. Blowing through Quincy's life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa's death come to light, Quincy's life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam's truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.
I sort of fell for the hype with this one. But then, I really liked the premise. The thought has crossed my mind more than once after watching a horror movie: what would it be like to have to live having gone through that? This is what Final Girls is about. The title refers to the horror movie trope of the single survivor of some sort of horrendous massacre, usually a young woman.

Our protagonist, Quincy Carpenter, was one such final girl, after all her friends were killed while at a drunken party weekend in a remote cottage in the forest. In the eyes of the press, she joined two others: Sam, who survived a massacre in a motel, and Lisa, who lived through a killing spree in a sorority house (to continue with our horror movie tropes!). The press would like nothing better than to have all 3 women get together, but although Quincy and Lisa have spoken on the phone, that has never happened.

Some years later, Quincy feels like she's doing well. She runs a popular baking blog and leads a quiet life with her boyfriend, a public defender. Yes, she still can't remember most of what happened in Pine Cottage, and she needs antidepressants to get through the day, not to mention her intermittent fits of kleptomania, but considering what she went through, that's understandable.

And then Quincy receives news that Lisa has killed herself, not long after sending Quincy an email saying she needs to speak to her. And that is quickly followed by Sam showing up at Quincy's apartment, where she proceeds to immediately upend Quincy's life.

This didn't work at all. The plot, which was the main draw for me, ended up being nothing more than an intriguing setup. The way it was developed felt clunky and unbelievable. The author sprinkled red herrings all over, which I guess were effective, in that I did fall for them, but they felt manipulative and artificial, rather than organic. It all ends up being too convoluted to be remotely believable, and I just couldn't buy the ending.

The characters were even weaker. Quincy is incredibly meh, a sort of vacuum where a personality should be, and her relationship with Sam just annoyed me, because it felt so forced and fake. Sam is incredibly clichéd, the bad girl who shows up and immediately starts getting the good girl to misbehave and do really stupid stuff and take pointless risks. I didn't believe any of it for a minute.

So yeah, my main problem with this one was that I was just not able to suspend my disbelief, so I spent the entire book going "Oh, seriously!" and "No, no, no!". Not great.

MY GRADE: A C-. And I'm probably being a bit generous.

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The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

>> Tuesday, July 25, 2017

TITLE: The Queen of Blood
AUTHOR: Sarah Beth Durst

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: Kingdom of Aratay
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: First in the Queens of Renthia series

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow...

But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still only human, and no matter how strong or good they are, the threat of danger always looms.

Because the queen’s position is so precarious, young women are specially chosen to train as her heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Meanwhile, the disgraced champion Ven has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. When Daleina and Ven join forces, they embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land... before it’s bathed in blood.
This is the sort of book that, if you only read the back cover, might seem like pretty generic YA fantasy. It's anything but! A huge thank you to Carrie S at Smart Bitches Trashy Books for the excellent review, otherwise I never would have picked it up.

The Queen of Blood is set in a world where humans live in a sort of armed truce with the spirits that reside in every bit of nature. There are spirits in the wood, in the ice, in the fire, in the earth, in the air and in the water, and every single one of them wishes to push the humans out of what they feel is their world. The only thing holding them back from killing humans and driving them out is the human Queen, who is able to control them, to a certain extent, and mostly keep them from attacking.

In such a world, it's crucial to have someone ready to take over as soon as the Queen dies, someone with enough power to be able to control the spirits. The way it works is that the Queen's Champions select Candidates (usually from Academies devoted to training any girls with power -and it's only girls, not boys, who have power) and train them to be able to pass the tests that allow them to become Heirs.

That is the future that Deleina is determined should be hers. When she was a child, spirits attacked her village. Deleina was able to protect her family with her powers, and they were the only survivors. This has made her determined to develop her abilities enough to, if not become Queen, be able to better protect those around her. She's probably one of the students with least raw power in her Academy, but she's hard-working and conscientious and very, very determined.

And I'll leave the plot description at that, just the basic setup, because one of the things I loved most about this book was that I had no idea where it was going to go next. There were plenty of times when my jaw just dropped. I only realise how much a lot of what I read is a bit predictable and how much I crave being surprised when I read books like this.

One of the surprises was how feminist and subversive of bad fantasy tropes this book is. Part of me was expecting demonising (or at least negative portrayal) of other women: Daleina's fellow students at the Academy, the Queen, all clear rivals to our protagonists... and what does it say about our world that enough books have done this that I was expecting it (even if kind of dreading it)? Durst surprised me, and I loved what she did here. The students forge a strong sisterhood. They are rivals and they understand this, but they are invested in making it a fair, healthy competition, and that doesn't preclude friendship. My favourite was what Durst did with Merecot (sp? I listened to the audiobook), who's the strongest student in terms of control over the spirits, and who is extremely ambitious and ruthless about it. She's prickly and can be mean, but even she is not portrayed as bad. She and Daleina forge a real friendship, even if one with a fair bit of conflict. And the Queen! We know almost from the start that something is wrong there, and that the destruction of villages such as Daleina's is down to the Queen's actions (or inactions). Surely she is a villain? Nope. Again, she's a very flawed person, but even she is not portrayed as a villain. I loved it.

Another surprise: the relationship between Daleina and Ven, the Champion who takes her on as his candidate and trains her to become an Heir. I sort of assumed there was going to be some sort of romance there between them, but there wasn't! Which was great, because the book worked so much better because of that. There is romance, and each of them has their own relationships, but their relationship was one that felt so much fresher and new because of the lack of the romance.

Daleina herself is surprising as well. She seems a bit tentative at first, and she is probably the least ambitious of the candidates, but she is absolutely not tentative when it comes to doing what is best for her country. Durst goes places with this that I wasn't expecting, and I loved it.

I also loved that the world is really original. There's a real darkness here (things can get really bloody!), and Durst doesn't guarantee that even nice characters survive. There's also an interesting environmental message here: what happens when humanity seeks to impose its will over nature rather than work with it? It's made clear that the reason spirits can be controlled by humans is that they need humans as much as humans need the spirits. Each are essential to keeping the world in balance, so the power to influence and control the spirits has evolved to ensure that. Most women with power use it to control, but Daleina is not powerful enough for that. She coaxes the spirits, uses her limited power to distract them from destructiveness and push them towards an expression of their own power and impulses that helps humans (to grow, to build, rather than to kill and destroy). This is one of the elements I hope to see explored in future books.

MY GRADE: An A-. Highly recommended

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