Themed Book Trio: Birdwatching

Subconsciously, the last two books I read both had a name of a bird as part of their title. This amused me so much that I decided the third book should follow the trend, and that’s why I’m now writing a post about it.

Usual disclaimer: I’m terrible about avoiding spoilers for stories, so just presume that you’re going to read something that’ll spoil you for the book. As with my anime & manga posts, I also don’t like summarizing the story — if you would like to read synopses of the titles mentioned, please head over to Goodreads or Librarything or Amazon, et al.

furyphoenixFury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon (Greenwillow Books, 2011) is the sequel to Silver Phoenix and is the novel that got involved in this big brouhaha when the redesigned cover was revealed pre-publication. (I don’t really want to add anything more to the discussion; it’s a few years old and I’d rather talk specifically about race and diversity in literature in a separate post, whenever I get to it.)

The titular phoenix in these two books is the character Silver Phoenix, whose backstory is much expanded in this work. I really was thrilled to read her “origin story,” how she met and got involved with Zhong Ye, the antagonist from the first book. Truth be told, I didn’t think the word “fury” best captures the mood of this novel; I was thinking maybe Tears of the Phoenix would’ve been more appropriate, but hey, I’m only a reader, not the author.

If anything, I feel that Cindy Pon captured the essence of guilt, accountability, and forgiveness in Fury of the Phoenix. Ai Ling, the female main character, spent a good amount of time feeling awful about what she did to Chen Yong’s brother from where the last book left off. The primary reason she even stowed away on the merchant boat was out of concern for him, though I suspect she was probably just so desperate to regain his approval before he left Xian for good. It took her a while though, to really muster up the courage and admit to Chen Yong her mistake. Ai Ling generally means well, it’s just that she doesn’t realize the consequences of her power and how it can get away from her before she figures out a way to fix the mess.

My favorite parts of the book were the scenes featuring Silver Phoenix and Zhong Ye’s tragic love story. Tragic, because well, she ends up dead — hence Ai Ling, her reincarnation. Also tragic because we find out why and how Zhong Ye became a power-crazed necromancer. (Side note: does anybody remember the Anastasia animated movie? In my mind’s eye, underworld Zhong Ye looks like Rasputin, except with Asian features.)

I appreciate it when authors are able to show each of their characters are complex individuals led by various motivations. Zhong Ye wasn’t born fully formed as evil incarnate, but he let his ambition and his quest for power take priority over everything else in his life, including his love for Silver Phoenix. It’s interesting to see how easy it is to fall, even without anybody pushing. In Zhong Ye’s case, what’s another prisoner, what’s another dead man… until he finds himself stealing souls with nary a second thought.

Bird count: no phoenix, but one of Zhong Ye’s quests involved facing a creature known as a Poison Eagle, which is as big as a tiger, “emits the cry of a small infant and will pick the flesh off the bones of man.” Creepy.


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was hyped as a creepy, lite-horror novel. Maybe there was a couple of scenes in the beginning where it was mysterious, but really, once they got to Cairnholm, the Welsh island where the main character’s grandfather grew up, it ceased being even semi-scary. Sorry.

The primary conceit of this novel is that the author, Ransom Riggs (best YA author name ever!) uses old b&w “found” photos to enhance his narrative. The photos show the peculiar children, those with unusual abilities that have made them unacceptable to their families and to the rest of society. Yes, like X-Men.

Jacob is the narrator who guides us through the mysterious origin of these photos and while originally searching for the truth behind his grandfather’s stories, discovers several truths about himself as well.

I’m still processing my feelings about the impact of certain events and how they shaped this novel; I feel the way Jacob was made to make his decision on what to do with the rest of his life wasn’t completely informed. Most of his life, he’s been alone, set apart because of his maternal family’s wealth and his general standoffish attitude. But he didn’t come off as a rebel or as a bad kid, just a sad one. So when he meets these peculiar children, he decides that they’re his new family? He’s okay with leaving his father, alone to deal his mother and the repercussions of what his leaving will do to their family? That doesn’t jive with my idea of Jacob. I don’t think he’ll stick around with the peculiars, even if there’s a girl involved.

And of course, I can’t leave that out: Jacob’s love interest was his grandfather’s love interest. Well, hey, they said this was a horror book. It’s almost as bad as Jacob imprinting on baby Renesmee. Even if all his grandfather and Emma did was kiss, it still doesn’t make it okay. Personally, if I were Jacob, I would always be worrying if she loved me for my own person, or if she only saw my grandfather in me.

Bird count: Miss Peregrine is the headmistress of this school/orphanage. She is an ymbryne, a time manipulator who can create time loops, that is, they can make a single day repeat infinitely until discovered. In the loop, Miss Peregrine and her charges are aware that this single day has been repeating itself for the last forty years, but everyone else in the loop forgets as soon as the day resets.

True to her name, Miss Peregrine can actually turn into a peregrine falcon, because all ymbrynes need to be able to turn to birds. (Um, okay.) There are other women like her: Mis Gannett, Miss Nightjar, Miss Avocet, Miss Bunting, Miss Finch, and Miss Crow.

Also, I almost forgot to mention that Jacob’s dad is an amateur ornithologist. The only reason he agreed to accompany Jacob to Cairnholm was because it would give him a chance to see a particular rare species of bird.


So, I have a classic case of a love/not-love relationship with Maggie Stiefvater’s works. I really enjoyed the Wolves of Mercy Falls series, am so-so about The Scorpio Races, and to be honest, the jury’s still out on The Raven Boys. But as much as I’d like to quit her books cold turkey, I think I’m already too far gone, I’m already addicted. (And dammit, they’re publishing a Cole/Isabel standalone next year!? My heart.)

I grudgingly admit that The Raven Boys hits a lot of my favorite fiction tropes: preppy school boys, sassy yet polite Southerners, rebellious angry boys who are actually crazy smart, and so forth. This novel brings all those, with a pinch of mild Southern Gothic thrown in for good measure. I cannot say that Maggie Stiefvater is a bad writer, because she’s not. Lady knows how to tell a story — I just wish somebody (like, I dunno, her editor David Levithan perhaps?) would tell her to hold back on the adverbs, adjectives, and too-twee metaphors. In reading this work, it felt to me like the author knows she’s writing numerous clever and quippable phrases — which, in moderation, is great! — but after pages of these, it just felt like she’s trying too hard. For instance, in conversations between the boys, I thought it was fine. I’ve been around prep school boys and they are that pretentious when they talk amongst themselves. But if the author continues with that same tone in exposition, it becomes tedious.

Anyway, that’s enough criticism, you’re here for the squee, I believe? I know this movie reference is going to date me, but there were so many scenes in this novel that reminded me of the seminal prep school coming-of-age movie, Dead Poets’ Society. What I think Stiefvater really did a masterful job of doing was showing the relationship dynamics between Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah. She did a great job showing and not just telling. I’m glad that the four Raven boys have complex and complicated personalities, none of them perfect, all of them with a specific chip on their shoulder.

I also appreciated the unexpressed and underlying conflict between the haves (Gansey, Ronan) and the have-nots (Adam, Blue). Maybe reading all the social justice-type blogs have really gotten to me since this theme was one that stuck with me throughout my reading of the book. Gansey doesn’t openly gloat that he’s rich, but he doesn’t shy away from it either. It’s the lifestyle that he’s been accustomed to and that he’s known all his life, and the only way that he can accomplish his goal is to utilize the financial resources that he has available. Adam, partial scholarship student that he is, doesn’t openly envy his friend, but he’s also too proud to accept the help that Gansey’s been offering him until it’s too late. And even though I highly doubt any teenage boy would be that self-aware, I also love that Gansey is conscious of the power of his words. He knows that his words can and have hurt people, so he’s trying to be more conscious of his privilege.

Bird count: Chainsaw, Ronan’s pet baby raven. Coincidence…? I think not.