Review of “Kingdom of Ash” by Sarah J. Maas

Note: There are spoilers for previous books in this series.

This is the final book in the Throne of Glass series.

Kingdom of Ash, as noted above, is the conclusion of a series, and it seemed like the author hated to let it go. Not only is it 980 pages long, but the ending stretched out over several chapters, as if an orchestra concluded a symphony with multiple crescendos. I don’t think fans of the series will be disappointed however, as they probably feel the same reluctance to leave the story as Maas apparently did.

Most of the book is devoted to the efforts of Aelin, the heir to the kingdom of Terrasen, to escape the clutches of the evil queen Maeve and get back to her own people to defend them, and the efforts of her friends and supporters to help her. She doesn’t know it, but help is coming from all directions.

Aelin’s mate Rowan, as well as his Fae compatriots Lorcan, Fenrys, and Gavriel, are searching along the east side of the Kingdom to locate where Aelin is being held captive. They are accompanied by Elide Lochan, who is trying to deny her feelings for Lorcan.

In the north, close to Terrasen, Aelin’s cousin Aedion is fighting against the soldiers of Morath who are made up of Valg, a race of malicious demon parasites who have taken over human bodies. They serve their leader, Erawan, who wants to destroy the world. Aedion is greatly assisted by Lysandra, a shape-shifter. Aedion and Lysandra are also loathe to admit their feelings for one another.

On the sea in the south, Chaol, who is sworn to Dorian – the heir to the kingdom of Adarlan and Aelin’s friend, is heading toward Terrasen with fighters from the Khaganate to help. Chaol has gotten word that Morath is planning to destroy Chaol’s homeland at Anielle; it is on their way to Terrasen, and he feels compelled to stop there and help defend Anielle. With Chaol is his new wife, Yrene, who is a powerful healer.

And in the western mountains, Dorian is traveling with Manon Blackbeak, a witch who has broken with the malicious Ironteeth witches and is searching for the more peaceful Crochan witches. She wants to convince them to join the cause of saving Terrasen and making a better world for everyone. Dorian has his own mission: to find the missing key that will lock the Valg back in the dark world from whence they came. Lest any group not have a romantic entanglement as well, Manon and Dorian are dancing around their attraction to one another.

Map of the world of Erilea from the Throne of Glass fan wiki

Some of the characters get broken; some get killed, and some get stronger, albeit in ways they had not anticipated. The questions for this book are who will survive and how, and whether the forces of darkness will succumb to the combined might that stems – in this story, anyway, from loyalty, goodness, and love.

Discussion: There were less sex scenes and more battle scenes in this book, and a clear emphasis on wrapping up the story. I was fine with that; I feel the author’s descriptions of sex are the weakest part of her writing. She is quite good at battle scenes, however.

As I thought in the previous book, the portrayal of the relationship between Elide and Lorcan stood out for its romanticism and emotional depth. Aelin, despite clearly being the heroine of the series, never seemed as “real” or sympathetic to me as did the other women, especially Elide and Yrene. The characters of Dorian and Aedion saw more development in this book, and each of them became more interesting.

Alas, it would appear the series is over. It is not out of the question, however, that Maas could pick it up again one day; there are plenty of aspects to the story that could be continued.

Evaluation: Maas really is a master of fantasy, or what one hopes and wishes is fantasy: her descriptions of the intentions of the evil Valg to change the world for the worse seem all too real at times. She gives them some nuance too, which is laudable. She also has her heroic characters reveal their fears and failures. In addition, I like the way the story reflects her own experience and feelings as a new mother, and shows her commitment to demonstrating, as she says in her dedication, that “girls can save the world.”

These books are definitely not standalones, but should be read in order.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2018

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Review of “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs” by Lisa Randall

This book, subtitled “The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe” sets out to explicate “our current knowledge about the Universe, the Milky Way, the Solar System, as well as what makes for a habitable zone and life on Earth.”

The author, an award-winning professor of science at Harvard, explains that there were five major mass extinctions in the past 540 million years, as well as about twenty lesser ones, in which approximately 20 percent of life-forms died out. Many people are familiar with the extinction of the dinosaurs, the Mesozoic species that dominated the planet for more than 100 million years. She reviews the observations of geologists and paleontologists confirming that a big object hit the Earth 66 million years ago and as a result at least 75 percent of life on the Earth died, including the dinosaurs.

Tyrannosaurus rex holotype specimen at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh.

The description of how scientists solved the mystery of the dinosaur extinction is fascinating. It included detecting huge amounts of the rare metal iridium in the clay of the K-Pg geologic boundary marking the period of the dinosaur extinction. The K-Pg clay layer was meticulously studied in almost 40 locations around the globe. Other rare metals in that clay layer were also found, at levels a thousand times higher than seen elsewhere on earth. Scientists also identified shocked quartz, which indicates a high-pressure origin, and crystals called spinels that point to rapid solidification after high-temperature melting. The only known sources for the state of these materials are meteoroid impacts and nuclear explosions. Obviously, there were no nuclear explosions before 1945, leaving only one “culprit” to account for the measurements.

Badlands near Drumheller, Alberta, Canada, where glacial and post-glacial erosion have exposed the K–Pg boundary

Scientists, further investigating evidence left by the meteor impact crater at Chicxulub (pronounced CHICK-shuh-lube) in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, concluded that the meteor had to have been an incredible 10-15 kilometers in diameter. An object the size and speed of that meteor “would have released an energy equivalent of up to 100 trillion tons of TNT, more than a billion times greater than that of the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Even just a kilometer-wide meteoroid, the author points out, would do global damage, creating extreme winds, huge tsunamis, tidal waves, massive earthquakes, and trillions of tons of material ejected into the atmosphere and then rained down upon the Earth.

The only survivors would have been living creatures that could hide – through hibernation or otherwise.

The author suggests that a disk of dark matter might have been the trigger dislodging a comet from its orbit – probably in the Oort Cloud, and send it veering toward the Earth. A meteor from the comet then caused all this devastation upon impact.

In order to establish her theory, she has to take a detour to explain the composition and history of the Universe to readers. Thus she educates us about ordinary matter and how it differs from dark matter, and how we know about the existence of dark matter and dark energy. She talks about the composition of our Solar System, and how it operates within the Milky Way. She does all of this clearly and lucidly, with plenty of popular culture references and metaphors so that any reader should have no problem understanding her.

Although most of the book concerns impacts from meteoroids, the author ends with a cautionary note about a possible sixth extinction unrelated to celestial bodies:

“Many scientists today think we are currently undergoing a sixth mass extinction – of manmade origin. . . . The mammal extinction rate of the last 500 years has been about 16 times higher than normal, and in the last century the rate has been elevated by a factor of 32. Amphibians in the last century have died off at a rate nearly 100 times higher than in the past, with 41 percent currently facing the threat of extinction, while bird extinctions in this same time frame have exceeded the average rate by a factor of about 20. . . . The changes in the environment that are occurring now . . . have a disturbing resemblance to those at the time of the P-Tr extinction. [The P-Tr extinction was an event about 250 million years ago that was the most devastating known extinction in terms of the percentage of species that disappeared from the planet. While the cause of the P-Tr extinction remains the subject of controversy, massive climate change and changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans are thought to have been determinative.]”

Ocean areas predicted to be at high risk of extinction (red) are overlaid with areas most impacted by humans (black outline) and regions experiencing a high rate of climate change (crosshatch). (Finnegan et al, Science.)

She warns:

“Incredibly, the rate of temperature and changes in pH (which measures acidity) seems to have been comparable at that time [the P-Tr extinction] to what they are today. Human influence is almost certainly largely to blame for the recent diversity loss. . . . We are very rapidly undoing the cosmic work of millions or even billions of years.”

Predicted extinction risks from climate change by continent. (InsideClimateNews)

Evaluation: The relationship between the dinosaur extinction and the presence of dark matter unfolds like a murder mystery. It was fascinating to read about how scientists pieced together clues and evidence to solve a “cold case” – one that occurred some 66 million years in the past.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2015

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Kid Lit Review of “What Is Given From the Heart” by Patricia M. McKissack

This lovely book tells the story of a little boy named James Otis, who, along with his mother, is enduring hard times since the death of his dad and loss of their farm. They now live in a run-down house with few possessions. But Mama tries to remain upbeat:

“‘Long as we have our health and strength, we are blessed, James Otis,’ Mama said, tryin’ to sound brave.”

Two weeks before Valentine’s Day, the reverend at their church announced:

“Just as we always do, we’ll be delivering love boxes to needy folk in our community.”

He asked them to add Irene Temple and her young daughter to their list, because they just lost everything in a fire. He told them:

“Remember, what is given from the heart reaches the heart.”

Mama encourages James Otis to come up with something for the little girl, even though they have so little themselves. He considers everything he might give, but none of it seems right. Then he comes up with a great idea.

While this story for ages 4-10 was touching enough to make me cry, it was the outstanding artwork by April Harrison that really held my attention. April Harrison, a designer, used collage, mixed media, dappling, and a muted but gorgeous palette to illustrate the characters and the supportive relationships among them. The flat perspective employed by Harrison ironically imbues strength into the characters.

Note: Patricia McKissack, a three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner and Newbery Honor author, passed away in 2017, and this was her last book.

Evaluation: This book touches on many subjects children may face, including death of loved ones, poverty, friendship, compassion, and faith. All of it is expertly dealt with in a subtle but effective way. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2019

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Review of “The Girl He Used To Know” by Tracey Garvis Graves

This love story switches back and forth between the two main protagonists, and between two periods in time: 1991 when both were students at University of Illinois, and 2001, when both were living in Chicago.

Jonathan and Annika first meet in the chess club at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Annika has Asperger’s syndrome, which is a high-functioning form of autism. Annika is very smart and great at chess, but she has trouble with social skills. She sometimes forgets to look at others for cues about how to act, and copes with anxiety by engaging in repetitive behaviors.

Jonathan is attracted to Annika, both because of her looks and because he can be herself with her. He finds liberating her lack of pretension in herself, and her lack of expectation of it in others.

They begin seeing each other romantically, but something happens to break them up. When the story opens in 2001 they unexpectedly and awkwardly run into each other at a grocery store. We only gradually learn why their relationship ended. What is clear from the beginning however is that they are still attracted to one another after ten years of being apart.

They start dating again, and Annika gets frustrated by her inability to feel comfortable in Jonathan’s investment banking circles. She tells him:

“All I wanted was to show you that I’ve changed. That I’m not the same person I was in college.”

He responds:

“Well, guess what? You haven’t changed all that much. You’re still the same girl I fell in love with at twenty-two. And here’s a newsflash: I like that girl and always have, and I never once said I wanted her to change.”

Most of the story concerns the unfolding and rekindling of their relationship, with Annika’s needs adding a different spin. Not much else really happens in the story until the very last section, when tragedy strikes. It is then you fully understand the ways in which Annika and Jonathan have affected one another, and the depth of their feelings.

Evaluation: This story stands out for featuring an adult female protagonist with Asperger’s syndrome rather than the usual focus on a male character with that condition. It is also a lovely romance generally.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2019

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Review of “Somewhere Only We Know” by Maurene Goo

Having now read two books by Maurene Goo, I think I can say three things about her: she has an entertaining sense of humor; she has a great insight into teenage concerns and dialogue; and she is totally into food.

This book is a young adult retelling of “Roman Holiday” only with a better ending.

[“Roman Holiday” is a 1953 American romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. In that movie, Audrey Hepburn is a royal princess who escapes from her handlers in order to see Rome on her own, and Gregory Peck is the reporter chasing her for a scoop. His plans are upended however when he inconveniently falls in love with her.]

In this book, “Lucky” is the moniker of a big idol in K-pop, the popular South Korean music genre. K-pop is known [in real life as well as in the book] not only for its distinctive performance style, but for the close management of its artists. For one thing, these manufactured teenage idols live together in a regulated environment and spend many hours a day training, especially in dance, an integral part of K-pop. The performers have strict diets, and must adhere to rigid codes stipulating acceptable speech, appearance and behavior so as to maintain a “perfect” unblemished image with zero scandals. Consequences of a violation are severe.

Lucky is 17, and although she was born and bred in L.A., she now lives in Seoul with a team of handlers. As the story opens, she is performing in Hong Kong, staying at a fancy hotel surrounded by managers and bodyguards who make sure she doesn’t leave and doesn’t eat anything except salads. In a few days, she is scheduled to make her debut on American television, a huge opportunity. But she feels like the thrill of performing is gone; everything is so tightly regulated, and she doesn’t feel joy anymore.

Most of all, Lucky would kill for an “In-N-Out Burger” or even just any hamburger. In spite of having taken her mandated sleeping medication, she manages to sneak out of the hotel and into the city of Hong Kong in search of food.

In alternate chapters, we hear from Jack Lim, 17, also originally from L.A., but currently in Hong Kong. He is taking a “gap year” before college, and working as an intern at his father’s bank. He hates the job and wants to be a photojournalist. He is moonlighting on the side as a paparazzi, taking surreptitious photos of high-profile people for exposés in a sleazy tabloid. He will do anything to be able to take pictures for a profession; photography is his passion.

Out in the street, Jack bumps into Lucky, who is groggy and lost. At first he doesn’t know who she is, but he is not the type of guy who wouldn’t try to help someone in her situation. When she passes out, he takes her back to his apartment so she can sleep off what he assumes has been too much to drink. While she is conked out, he checks his twitter feed and inadvertently discovers who she is. This could be his chance for a career-making scoop.

If you’ve seen “Roman Holiday,” you know what happens next. The two spend the next day together, seeing the sites and having a wonderful time, with Jack taking pictures on the sly.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

But of course they fall for each other, and worse yet, Lucky finds out about the photos, and that Jack has been using her. Pictures of her having a “normal” life – especially with a boy! – could destroy her career. She is hurt and angry, and Jack is devastated. After an upsetting confrontation, they both go their own ways. Nevertheless, while they only spent one day together, each inspired the other to change and to alter the course of dreams that had seemed unattainable.

Evaluation: This is a wonderful travel guide to Hong Kong and its food, as well as an entertaining rom-com. It’s a fun read with a satisfying ending but also carries a message about finding out what is important in your life.

N.B. Don’t read it on a diet.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), 2019

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