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The city of MallenIve is a strange place, though. The smells and people are different, as are the laws customs. Vampires are either expensive whores unable to leave their rookeries, or else the slaves of noble houses. Jannik is an object of ridicule and scandal, considered an object or animal rather than a person. Even more sinister, though, are the recent deaths. Someone is mutilating and murdering vampires. Recent political machinations by the noble houses threaten to remove all rights for vampires, relegating them to the same status as common animals. Felicita and Jannik need to get to the heart of this plot using whatever resources and allies they can.
Off the bat I should say that I probably cannot claim objectivity. I’m a fan of Hellisen’s work, and she’s one of the individuals instrumental in making me a better writer. Despite this, I’ve recently finished reading this book and would like to talk a bit about its strengths and where I felt it lost me a little.
This is the second of Hellisen’s Books of Oreyn series, which some descriptions have as the Hobverse series. As my Goodreads profile will testify, I thoroughly enjoyed the first book, When the Sea is Rising Red. As such, it’s hard not to make comparisons, or see where each draws its inspiration.
Hellisen’s strengths are her characters. All of them are fully realised, complex, and flawed. They perform actions which are fully in keeping with their backgrounds and motivations rather than the dictates of plot. At times it can be frustrating to see them making their own situations worse, but every time they do this they’re only acting as they should. There may almost be a warning in the text against the temptation to play the hero. Every time someone chooses to be brave to the point of recklessness, or trust in their own invincibility, they end up hurting themselves or those they love.
Author of the Books of OreynIt is this humanity that makes the characters so strong. When humans try to be story book heroes it often leads to tragedy. This is a real-world lesson our own history has taught us, and one the Hobverse characters are confronted with. This makes the happy moments all the sweeter, as we gain an appreciation for their frailty.
The descriptions in general are very strong. The senses of smell and sound are frequently incorporated to add that extra sense of presence. What I felt was missing was a general visual aesthetic to the city. Individual places, like family estates or the Council buildings, get their visual components and are well realised. Unlike Pelimburg in the first novel, though, I don’t feel like I can visualize the city of MallenIve. I couldn’t say what the architecture was like, or place it in a particular era. This is maybe a minor gripe, but although individual locales received a lot of attention to detail the ‘big picture’ of the setting felt missing.
The plot also gave me cause for pause in a pleasantly surprising way. When something lacks traditional structure (any of the Monty Python movies being a good example) the story often feels longer than it is, because our brains can’t discern a pattern or work out at which point in the plot we are by event progress. I found myself wondering where the story was going once or twice, but rather than bore me this sucked me in further. I couldn’t put the book down, and had to keep reading in order to satisfy my curiosity.
In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would heartily recommend it to anyone.
Did I Enjoy it: Yes
Is it Well Written: Oh yes!
Minor Niggles: Lack of visual component in the city’s overall description
Flash forward a couple of months and the very generous folks at Folded Wherry publications forwarded me a copy of the e-book. It was perfect timing, PERFECT, because I had been in a terrible reading slump. I had about 4 books I had started reading but couldn't finish a one. I was stuck. I needed an awesome book I could totally lose myself in to pull me out. House of Sand and Secrets (HOSAS) did just that.
I think I'll skip a WTSIRR recap-- you can read my review for that-- it's a complex and imaginative world that Hellisen has crafted. I think to recap would take up too much space in this review. But I will say for all of you who read WTSIRR and may have forgotten a few details over time, Hellisen does provide the reader some slight recapping in HOSAS. She doesn't give a play by play in the opening pages, but she does go back to important events as this new installment progresses. I never felt lost or confused as I was reading.
There is so much to say about this book--so many things that I absolutely adored.
Let's break it down into a list.
Ten Things I Loved About
House of Sand and Secrets.
1. Our heroine Felicita
I have always been a fan of Felicita. I loved her in WTSIRR warts and all. I loved that she was complicated and flawed--never dull and perfect-- and I loved her defiance and nerve. Sure, she made some mistakes along the way, but that just made her more three dimensional and alive as I read.
The thing you need to know about Felicita in this second book is she is definitely not the same naive, foolish, dependent girl that she was in WTSIRR. Felicita took control of her life when she went against Dash and her brother--moves that resulted in the deaths of both. When Felicita again chose to chart her own course, and proposed that Jannik the vampire marry and accompany her to the city of MallenIve, I could see that she was growing as a character.
In HOSAS, Felicita develops and matures even more. She finds herself torn and not quite fitting into the world of the High Lammer, which she was born into, or that of the Low Lammer, the world she chose to be a part of when she ran away. In MallenIve, Felicita is technically the heir of the House Pelim--but as a woman she holds no real power. By law and custom, that role should go to her husband. But as Jannik is a vampire, a race that is detested in MallenIve, he is little more than a figurehead in the eyes of the other House Lords. It is so interesting watching Felicita try to navigate this new position--and it made me love her character all the more. Yes, she still makes some mistakes, and yes, she still closes herself off--but the maturity she has gained as a character is undeniable.
And also? I loved that Felicita fully recognizes and owns the part she played in Dash and her brother's deaths back in Pelimburg. In fact, Felicita feels tremendous guilt and remorse over her role. For me this was so important because it not only made me sympathize with her and recognize her as character worthy of redemption, but also showed that she was developing, evolving, and not remaining static. It's clear that characterization is extremely important to Hellisen-- and it's one of the things I love most about her writing.
Oh, Jannik. First a confession. I loved Dash more than Jannik in WTSIRR. I did. He was such an enigmatic, charismatic guy. Sure he was also manipulative, self serving and, it turned out, pretty dangerous in the end. But I loved him regardless. It did make me sad when Dash died-- even though I think it was totally appropriate and the right thing to happen in that book.
I liked Jannik in WTSIRR, he was mysterious and broody, and almost fragile in a way--emotionally speaking. I loved watching the friendship-bordering-on-serious-flirtation thing develop between he and Felicita And I felt that the two of them teaming up at the end--marrying in fact--so that they could both escape Pelimburg and better their lives, was awesome. It seemed as if this thing between them might indeed develop into something more in the future. That was exciting.
But after reading HOSAS I can say that I am now a definite FAN of the vampire. That is not to say that he didn't really PISS ME OFF a lot in HOSAS, especially the beginning. But that's OK, that means that I was invested in him--invested in his relationship with Felicita.
By the end of the book I was so enamored with Jannik-- so sympathetic towards him and what he dealt with by being viewed as a lesser being because he was a vampire, and so enchanted by his own particular magic--that I was pretty much "Dash who??" Nice job Cat Hellisen, I never would have believed you could get me to that point.
There were some wonderful secondary character's in WTSIRR and this trend continues in HOSAS. There are three in particular that stand out, the first two being a couple, Harun, a high Lammer, and Isidro his vampire partner. These two characters are just as complicated as our main characters-- but I didn't grow to love them overnight. They are both disagreeable and sharp tongued--they aren't the nicest of people by any means-- but they really grew on me over time. As the only couple in a similar situation as Jannik and Felicita-- married and living in MallenIve, a city which disdains vampires and views them essentially as pets and slaves-- I believe their inclusion in this story was very important.
The third secondary character I enjoyed reading about was Carien, the wife of a MallenIve House head. Like Dash, Carien is the type that you can't really trust because she obviously has an agenda and is keeping secrets. But love and sympathize with her I did--just as I did Dash.
There is a fourth character who doesn't play a huge roll in terms of "screen time" but still grabbed my attention and made me think that there might be more to him as the overall story progressed: Yew. His role is a shady one--and as I sit here writing this review I am still not certain if he's a good guy or a bad guy. But I am extremely curious about him and hope there will be more of him in future books.
4. World building
Well, what can I say except that it is just as fantastic, imaginative, and beautifully rendered as it was in WTSIRR. In HOSAS, the setting of Pelimburg has been replaced by the larger city of MallenIve. Pelimburg was a sea faring city--and described as a city of great contrasts. There were the wealthier, more affluent parts of the city--where the High Lammers reside--and the seedier, lower class parts, Old Town, where the Hobs and Low Lammers live. But MallenIve reads as more metropolitan-- along with more High Lammer residences, and there are larger slum sections as well. And unlike Pelimburg, where bats, vampires, live freely, MallenIve's disdain and disgust for this species is glaringly obvious in the number of vampire rookeries--basically brothels, that it houses. I can't tell you how disturbing the vivid description of these places are in this book, Hellisen has really painted a dark and depressing picture of what life is like for MallenIve's vampire population. But more on that in a bit.
There is also a lot of description about the weather in MallenIve--and that is something I don't remember as much in WTSIRR. Humid days are followed by afternoon thunderstorms that roll in and I found that this kind of stifling and explosive atmosphere helped demonstrate how claustrophobic both Felicita and Jannik feel in this new city they have exiled themselves to. Remember how the stormy weather on the moors in Wuthering Heights so perfectly suits the tone of that story and it's characters? I feel like Hellisen accomplishes this as well in HOSAS. I love it when an author adds tension in subtle ways like this.
5. Classism and racism as themes
If WTSIRR focused on classism and rebellion, then HOSAS's main focus would definitely be on racial divide and the perversity of genocide. Dash and the Hob's struggles against the upper classes in WTSIRR reminded me so much of the French Revolution--the middle and lower classes rising up and rebelling against the aristocracy--and the dangers that lie when a mob mentality takes hold of a city.
But I think that racial issues that are examined in HOSAS between humans and vampires is even more compelling. And it's hard for me to find a neat comparison like I did in WTSIRR. It's partly the US slavery debate of the 19th century, and partly the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s. It's also smacks of the Nazi agenda during WWII. And I can't help but think about this author too--and the fact that she lives in South Africa-- and it's history of racial unrest, when I'm making comparisons.
The point is this-- I LOVED how Hellisen incorporated these themes into this book. I love that through Jannik and Harun and Isidro we get a look at what life is like when you are on the losing side of a race struggle. I loved that Felicita, married to a vampire and falling in love with him, must still train herself not to fall back into old prejudices she was born into. I loved that things like interracial relationships are examined in this book--and I find it fascinating that Hellisen chooses to make something like bisexuality acceptable in this fictional society, yet a relationship between a vampire and a human is seen as the ultimate taboo. There are so many thought provoking and discussion worthy aspects to this world that Hellisen has created, it is so much more than just a book about magic users and vampires.
6. More information on the vampires
And speaking of vampires, we learn so much more about them in this installment, and I LOVED it. We learn where they originate from; we learn more about their matriarchal society; we learn more about their inherent magic. In WTSIRR Jannik is the only vampire we really get to know in detail--his mother and sister have very brief roles--but we don't get an in depth study of their characters. In HOSAS we meet Isidro, a vampire who is in a relationship with a human House heir. And because Isidro was born and raised in MallenIve, his upbringing and way of life was VERY different than Jannik, who was born into the powerful House Sandwalker. I thought Isidro was a really compelling character. Not the most likable, but very compelling. And it was really interesting comparing he and Jannik. They had so many differences--but in the end the fact that they were both vampires living in a city where humans used them for perverse sexual means at best, and at worst persecuted them, they also shared many similarities. I wanted to get to know more about the vampires after reading WTSIRR and Cat Hellisen definitely delivered in HOSAS.
7. Magic, blood connections and psychic bonds
And speaking of magic--the way that it is incorporated into these stories is another favorite thing of mine. Lammer magic, accessed by using scriven--a substance that is snorted like cocaine--is delved into more deeply in HOSAS. As are the different types of abilities that Lammers possess under scriv's influence: Saints, Readers, and War-Singers. Very, very cool and original ideas you guys.
Felicita has given up using scriv but the Lammers of MallenIve are swimming in it. There is a scene where Harun, a Saint, performs a seven-fold reading to see the future, and I was totally RIVETED as I read.
But I think that the magic that I loved learning about the most in HOSAS was the magic of the vampires and the magic that Felicita and Jannik possess together. And no, I'm not talking about romance magic--though there is plenty of that too--I'm talking about a power that develops when those two work together. Good stuff, you guys.
As I said, we learn a lot more about the vampires, and one of those things is an elaboration on the blood connection that was talked about in WTSIRR. In that book Jannik explains his connection to Dash, but this connection can actually go both ways as we discover in HOSAS. When this happens an intense psychic bond develops between the two parties. So I am not going to go into great detail here because I don't want to spoil anything but this was such an amazing part of the book. The descriptions that Hellisen gives in reference to this bond were so very cool, you guys. I remember thinking "Ah...so that is why this book is titled House of Sand and Secrets..." I'll just say this: houses in your mind. Secrets in the shape of birds. Vague, I know, but this kind of imagery is why I LOVE this writer so much.
The mystery of the bodies washing ashore in Pelimburg in WTSIRR is replaced with a number of mutilated vampire bodies that are turning up in rubbish bins and along the river bank in MallenIve in HOSAS. And as with the former, there is a definite magical side to this mystery. But I felt like the political machinations of the High Lammers played into the mystery more than the magic--in a way that aspect was more pronounced overall in this book than the first one and I think I actually preferred that. The mystery is resolved--kind of. We do discover who is murdering vampires, but the full reasons behind it were a little murky to me. Maybe it is something that will be examined further in later books.
Show of hands--who loves slow developing and subtle romance storylines? Then you are going to love Felicita and Jannik's hard fought for romance. Will it frustrate and dismay you at times? Yes. Will it make you feel angry or injured when these two characters, who are OBVIOUSLY SO PERFECT FOR EACH OTHER stumble and slip and outright hurt each other? You bet. But is it totally worth it in the end? Yes, it totally is. Guys, you remember how I said I was a big fan of Dash in WTSIRR? But I could still see the potential for a Jannik and Felicita match by the end of that book. That potential is fully realized in HOSAS.
Yes, I did feel a little frustrated by the fact that something so obvious to me the reader was danced around for a good bit of this book. But when Felicita and Jannik finally do make their feelings known to each other the pay off was that much sweeter. Now here are two things you might be interested to know: firstly, HOSAS is much steamier than it's predecessor. There was Action in that first book but there is ACTION, of the all caps variety, in this second one. And I wholeheartedly APPROVE of the difference.
Secondly, all that ACTION, while awesome, pales when it comes to the real connection and bond that Felicita and Jannik develop over the course of this book. Guys, not only are they great characters on their own, they make such a fabulous team. They are a couple you will root for--even when they are letting pride get in their way and hurting each other with their words. In fact, you'll appreciate them more so because you know that if they can overcome these hardships then they have that certain something that can make them one of those epic fictional couples we all love to read. Their romance truly goes down as one of my favorites--I am that passionate about them both.
10. The writing
Look, it's one thing to be able to craft wonderful, complicated characters. And it's another to create this dark, gorgeous fantasy world full of strange stories. But what makes Cat Hellisen's work stand out to me is that she accomplishes both of these things and does so tied up in the most beautifully written prose--it's moody, and it's emotional, it's biting and it's powerful. I can only think of a handful of authors I have read that write this way. Laini Taylor. Melina Marchetta. Catherine Fisher. Robin McKinley. Maggie Stiefvater. Hellisen stands toe to toe with all of them. If you're familiar with any of them then that's saying something, isn't it?
She writes these great descriptive passages, but she also writes honest, introspective pieces that get the reader deep inside Felicita's head, just as well.
"Everything about him reminded me of what I had left behind, and I think I hated him a little for that. Hated that I had run and he hadn't. I slept next to him that night and woke before he did, and I'd watched him. He was clever and he was a contradiction; well-bred and yet lower than dirt, but in sleep none of that mattered. I could look at him and see not a collection of my own prejudices but a boy with hair like spilled ink, a poet and a game piece.
I think I came to a realization that morning, but I didn't want to face it. How strange now to find myself in love with my husband. After everything we have been to each other, I did not think there was space in our hearts for this."
And she doesn't always have to use a lot of words to get her point across:
"Eline Garret is just one man. One powerful man in a city maggoty with them. "
I think above all else it is clear that Cat Hellisen is a master storyteller. She has this boundless imagination and she writes books that don't really fit into certain categories-- these two books are definitely what I would call 'out of the box', unique, and fully their own in the secondary world fantasy genre (which is the genre Cat puts her writing in.) My experience with her writing so far has been that I know when I sit and down and start her book I am going to be fully entertained and engaged. As you can tell from this list, there is a lot going on in these books and this world she has created--some obvious and some more subtle. Is there anything I'd change about HOSAS? Nope. It's pretty much perfect. Oh! A map of this world--or a city map of MallenIve--would be AWESOME. You know that I wish EVERY book had a map or some form of visual aid:) And I know that Cat is a talented artist...so maybe my wish will one day be reality. One can hope.
It's also clear that this author has become of the auto-read variety for me. I cannot wait for more from her--both in the Books of Oreyn and elsewhere. And if you are wondering just what we can expect from her well she seems to be busy! My copy of HOSAS has an excerpt from the next planned book in this series, entitled Bones Like Bridges. I can tell you I am already HOOKED after reading the first few pages. And Hellisen also has a Beauty and The Beast retelling coming out, Beastkeeper, and the girl is the beast (see what I mean about out of the box?) So, yeah. Be on the look out for both of those--I know I certainly will.
So, as I said in my review of When the Sea is Rising Red--anyone who who hasn't tried out this series is stupid. No, I didn't say that. But I think that if you love fantasy--be it YA or adult, because I think that Hellisen's books straddle that line-- and are a fan of Marchetta's Lumatere Chronicles, or Catherine Fisher's Incarceron series, or Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle or Laini Taylor's Smoke and Bone series, then I think you would also appreciate Hellisen's. So, go on. Give it a whirl.
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