Monday, 30 January 2012

Book Review: Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

First published: 9th August 2011
By: Ballantine Books

This enthralling confection of a novel, the first in a new trilogy, follows the transformation of a coddled Austrian archduchess into the reckless, powerful, beautiful queen Marie Antoinette.

Why must it be me? I wondered. When I am so clearly inadequate to my destiny?

Raised alongside her numerous brothers and sisters by the formidable empress of Austria, ten-year-old Maria Antonia knew that her idyllic existence would one day be sacrificed to her mother’s political ambitions. What she never anticipated was that the day in question would come so soon.

Before she can journey from sunlit picnics with her sisters in Vienna to the glitter, glamour, and gossip of Versailles, Antonia must change
everything about herself in order to be accepted as dauphine of France and the wife of the awkward teenage boy who will one day be Louis XVI. Yet nothing can prepare her for the ingenuity and influence it will take to become queen.

Filled with smart history, treacherous rivalries, lavish clothes, and sparkling jewels,
Becoming Marie Antoinette will utterly captivate fiction and history lovers alike.

My review:

I don't feel strongly about this book one way or another. For most of its page count, I found it diverting, but not fully engrossing. Juliet Grey's writing is fine and I enjoyed her sympathetic portrayal of Marie Antoinette; I think the 'problems' such as they are, come from the choice of material. Becoming Marie Antoinette is the first book in a trilogy about the life of the French queen and so this novel starts with her early life in Austria, with her marriage taking place at the halfway mark and ends with her becoming queen. I imagine the next 2 books in the series will be better than this one; this early period of MA's life just isn't the story that has captivated people for centuries.
Becoming Marie Antoinette first shows us a ten year-old MA, who thinks of nothing but having fun with her sisters and playing tricks on her governess, until she is told by her mother that she is to marry the dauphin of France and one day become its queen. MA's childhood comes to an abrupt end, as she now must undergo a series of 'improvements' on her body and her mind, until she is deemed worthy of this honour. In a straight biography of MA, this detail, while interesting, would probably only take up a few pages or a chapter at most. Here, it is half the book. While I did feel for MA (I don't think anyone who's ever worn braces on their teeth can help cringing for her at the thought of 18th-century orthodontics - it's painful enough now!), like her, I wondered when it would finally be over.

As various doctors and teachers march in and out of MA's life and her family members either die of smallpox or are married off, another issue becomes apparent. I liked MA, but she isn't a strong enough character to carry this book on her own and there really isn't any other character for the reader to get invested in - except the dauphin, towards the end of the novel. For the most part, people come and they go and I didn't feel like I got to know them enough to care. Especially as I found it hard to keep track of who was who: Everybody is called either Maria Something or Comte de Something Else. None of this is the author's fault; Marie Antoinette's early life was lonely and the names and titles of the European nobles were confusing. But unfortunately, this did affect my ability to get fully into the book.

The story picked up for me when MA finally made it to Versailles, as the gossip and scandal of the Versailles court will always be good stuff. And as I mentioned, probably the best character portrayal is that of Louis Auguste. Grey avoids treating this awkward young man like a buffoon and instead treats him with real tenderness and dignity, and his relationship with MA becomes very touching. You can feel friendship and care for each other tentatively grow between them and their marriage comes to feel like a nice one, even if they are not madly in love. Their scenes together were my favourites, hands-down.

Will I read the next two books in this trilogy? Unless I find another Marie Antoinette series that 100% kicks ass, I'm inclined to say yes, as this one improved for me as it went along and Grey's novels will be a decent way to read the next part of the story, which is the part I'm waiting for.

Rating: 3 stars

This book was provided to me by the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Book Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Promise Part 1

First published: 25th January 2012
By: Dark Horse Comics
The war is over...but the adventure has just begun!

Picking up exactly where Avatar: The Last Airbender left off, The Promise takes Aang to a Fire Nation colony in the heart of the Earth Nation, where tensions between neighbours threaten to shatter the world's newfound peace - putting the Avatar on a collision course with one of his closest friends, Fire Lord Zuko!

Written by Eisner Award winner Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese) in close collaboration with Avatar creators Bryan Konietzo and Michael Dante DiMartino, this is the story Avatar fans have been waiting for!

My review:

I am a huge fan of the original animated series of Avatar and was crushed when it ended, as I felt that there was still much of the story left to tell. After reading The Promise Part 1 I can happily say that, yes, it is the story I've been waiting for. The comic book continuation of the series is doing the plot threads I had hoped to see on the show and judging by this first installment, it seems to be doing them very well indeed.

The story of Aang and his friends is picked up from where we last left them, down to the minute. Zuko is the new Fire Lord and has a lot of work ahead of him, restoring peace to the Four Nations. His first decision is to remove the Fire Nation colonies from the Earth Nation and resettle the people there back into the Fire Nation. With the Avatar by his side, he hopes this will go smoothly, but it's been a hundred years; many people of the colonies have laid down roots and don't want to leave their homes. Zuko soon realises the situation is not black and white, but will Aang agree? Or will the new friends be on opposing sides again?

I am again impressed by, despite ostensibly being for children, Avatar's willingness to tackle complex issues and do so in a smart and multi-faceted way. Being British, I couldn't help but compare the plot here to what happened, and is still happening, with our colonies. I read this volume in one sitting, completely engaged from start to finish. Everything great about the original series is present here: the characters, the humour, the relationships, the fight scenes. I don't think fans will be disappointed at all.

I'm more of a book reader than a comic reader so commenting on the quality of things like artwork and panelling is a little beyond me. However, I can comment on the quality of the story and I found it to be top-notch. I've never read Gene Luen Yang before, but based on this, I will be seeking out American Born Chinese. Zuko feels like the leading man in this one - the other main characters (Aang, Katara, Toth and Sokka) do get to show why they're awesome (although there's not as much Sokka as I would like), but its Zuko who drives the plot. Although Zuko's not my favourite character, I do think the issues surrounding him, his family and the Fire Nation are the most interesting ones in Avatar, so I'm happy for them to take centre stage here. 

A nice touch to this volume is having a few minor characters from the series show their faces again and better still is Avatar keeping up its tradition of having more kick-ass female characters than any other series in history, with the addition of Kori, who answers a question that's always been in the back of my mind: What happens when benders from two different nations procreate? I squealed aloud when she was introduced; it's just something I always wanted to know and I'm thrilled that it was finally addressed.

As it's one part of a larger story, this volume has a cliff-hanger ending and though I'm already dying to know what comes next, I was completely satisfied with what The Promise gave me. I've wanted Avatar back for so long, and now, at last, it is.

Rating: 4.5 stars

This book was provided to me by the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for a fair and honest review.