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House of Sand and Secrets (Books of Oreyn) (Volume 2) Paperback – May 10, 2014
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About the Author
Cat Hellisen is an author of fantasy for adults and young adults. Born in 1977 in Cape Town, South Africa, she has also lived in Johannesburg, Knysna, and Nottingham. She originally studied graphic design at Technikon Witwatersrand, before realising that she had no interest at all in the world of advertising. She began writing seriously at age twenty-five but it was not until 2010 that she sold her first full-length novel, When the Sea is Rising Red. Her children’s book Beastkeeper, a play on the old tale of Beauty and the Beast, is due out 2014.
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I don't usually have the patience for meadering, detailed discriptions, and flowery mood-paintings, and I will admit that I did end up skimming some of them.
Never the less, the heroine's struggle not to lose herself, to not actually become the person she is pretending to be in order to navigate the pitfalls of the high house politics, kept me reading on.
The story deals with some pretty serious issues, such as peer pressure, prejudice, and homophobia, to name just a few, without getting preachy or heavy handed.
There is some romance, but it is rather bitter-sweet and low key, and while a resolution is hinted at, the author ends the book before we actually get to see if it happens - or if the main couple once again manages to sabotage their relationship in an effort to protect themselves from getting hurt.
House of Sand and Secrets starts a few months after WSRR, with Felicita and Jannik in MalllenIve with more than just space between them. One of the things that I found most interesting about WSRR is how, while Felicita isn't a terribly likable character, she's compelling and I never wanted to stop reading even when her behavior bothered me. While Rising Red is arguably the story of Felicita figuring herself out, House of Sand and Secrets is the story of her trying to be the person she's become. It's harder than it sounds, with societal pressures and rampant misogyny and nobody to lean on or guide her.
I like the person Felicita's become. She's not perfect, in fact far from it, and her ambition and her guilt drag her into a sinister series of violent crimes against vampires. Which brings us to Jannik. I'm a sucker for a good vampire, and Jannik is a great character (not to mention Hellisen's vampires are unique and interesting). He's floundering much like Felicita but exhibits it in different ways. Their styles of communication and apprehensions about each other push them away from each other even as the leaders of MallenIve's Houses shove them together.
The pacing of the story is excellent, giving the reader enough breathing room at the beginning to start to understand the players and the rules of the world. As the action ramps up, each decision and act or failure to decide or act has consequences. Hellisen plays the characters - each with their own complex motivations and nuances - off of each other masterfully. I don't want to give anything away, because the story was full of unexpected twists and depths. While the plot was satisfying, it was watching the characters establish themselves and revolve around each other that's the most memorable part of the story. Felicita and Jannik are excellent characters separately, but they're magnetic together.
I love this universe, and very much hope to see more stories set in it.
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
I was surprised multiple times during this book, including which characters were sacrificed. The end was perfect, and I had so many feelings about it, but I do not wish to spoil. I can't wait to read the next book in the series and see where Cat takes us.
Recommended for fans of: When the Sea is Rising Red, complex relationships, amazing world-building, beautiful language, unique magic systems, politics in a fantasy world, and non-sparkly vampires.