Hello everyone, and welcome back to Weekly Reads! This week, I read a couple of books that will be coming to the big screen soon (and a sequel for good measure).
So I’ve spoken before about book to screen adaptations on this blog. My usual sentiment is that the book is pretty much always better overall, but adaptations usually have something to offer in terms of taking an element in the book that’s less strong and going in a more interesting direction with it.
I want to retool that, though. Because lately, I’ve been thinking: what about adaptations of books I’m not sold on? What if I didn’t really find magic in the source material, but the screen version has something more to offer?
A while ago, I wanted to test that theory (and write you a fun review) by watching Shadowhunters, since I really wasn’t feeling The Mortal Instruments.
That mostly backfired: I never did write a review, because I wasn’t sure how. Shadowhunters is pretty dang corny, acted completely over the top, full of terrible setpieces, and so on. I maintain that it’s way more watchable than The Mortal Instruments is readable, but I tend to think that’s a low bar.
It might not be possible to make me enjoy source material that I feel outright negative about. (Although I’ll reserve judgement and try Thirteen Reasons Why, for the purpose of science.)
Still, that made me curious, and it made me especially eager to dig in to books that’d soon be adapted. I mean, it’s me, so I was bound not to love all of them, so I’d get to test this theory again.
And now, for better or worse, now I’ll have a couple of chances to find out how I feel about adaptations of books I’m on the fence about.
Everything, Everything by Nicola yoon
Everything negative that people say about this book is true. (Spoiler alert: this isn’t going to be a totally negative review, though. Just wait.)
It’s instalove, or at least instaobsession. (Given how little the protagonist, Maddy, has going on, that’s not surprising, but it is a little weird coming from the love interest, Olly.)
The illness Maddy has isn’t depicted with accuracy. I don’t think accuracy was what the book was going for, but I can understand the frustration of people looking for good disability representation and not finding it.
The love interest, Olly, is just…yeah. He’s half-defined by being exactly whatever Maddy needs/wants in the moment and half by his familial circumstances. I don’t feel like I get a real sense of who he is as a person, other than a sense of desperation. (Because his life sucks, not because he wants to be with Maddy; she’s cool.)
I feel like we’re pretty distanced from the mother as a character, too, which is unfortunate because as one of two figures Maddy has in her life from the start, she drives a lot of the plot? But the emotional weight of events involving her isn’t there, because she isn’t really there as much of a presence, and the developments between her and Maddy feel kind of skimmed over at the end.
And speaking of that: the plot of this book was kind of predictable, and its twists felt sometimes frustrating or dealt with in frustrating ways, so…yeah.
So what pulls this book together, if not the plot or most of the characters or accurate disability representation? I said this wouldn’t be totally negative, right?
Well, Maddy. Maddy loves to read and boil down books into biting, one-sentence reviews on her Tumblr. Maddy has a sense of wonder in experiencing anything new, because she’s been trapped in her house for most of her life. She’s melodramatic about her crush, but able to poke fun of her own angst. She likes to imagine the thousands of people she could’ve been. She comes up with zany rewards for people returning her lost books, even though her books never get lost.
She’s just charming, and she’s so ready to offer her heart to anyone (including the reader) that it’s hard not to care about her. So this was an incredibly easy read, even if I did find the ending rushed and emotional beats between Maddy and other main characters skimmed over after the climax.
This book could’ve been better with a little more time spent on developing Olly and the mother in the front end and hitting home the developments in relationships in the last act (and it was short enough to add that material, so why, editors?), so anyway—if a movie can pick up this slack, it might really step up this book for me. (Bonus if it makes Olly’s sister friends with Maddy, because who wouldn’t be more curious about their brother’s love interest who’s trapped in the house next door? Come on.)
An Ember in the Ashes and a torch against the night by sabaa tahir
So you know how I often complain about pacing in books, particularly fantasy books? Welp, I’m not going to complain about pacing for once. You’re welcome. (Or thank Sabaa Tahir, probably.) There are some definite cut-above aspects of these books that the author deserves credit for.
An Ember in the Ashes and A Torch Against the Night are pretty quick, easy reads. Something dramatic is happening in every chapter, often something that might change a drastic number of lives. The main characters, although clearly Chosen and Important and imbued with special training/powers, are still human enough to be hurt and to fail at things. Moral choices are not always easy to make, but the characters are still likeable.
But. Here’s the complaining part.
These are books that suffer from the fact that everything that happened before they came to pass sounds infinitely more interesting than what we’re reading about on each page.
Why is the Commandant so cold and full of rage? Who is the Cook? What is the backstory of all the magical creatures that exist across the land, and why did they stop showing themselves for so long? How and why did the Empire subjugate everyone so thoroughly and ruthlessly? (Better yet, how does the Empire even hold itself together? Its practices are even more barbaric than those of Spartan society, in many ways. And their ways held up only in one city-state, not for overly long, and their harsh traditions of soldiership were likely driven and influenced by threat from large external powers.)
Those and many other questions make me feel like there are stories that are much, much more interesting in this universe than what’s going on with Elias, Laia, and the third perspective from book two, who are, after all, foretold to do a bunch of stuff they’ve been pressed into doing because of crap that happened ages ago and paying for the follies of their parents and they’re Chosen and so on and whatever.
It’s like when you see a reference to a great movie in a less-great one: it makes you wish you were watching something else.
Also: a lot of the backstory makes it feel less like these characters have agency and more like they’re stuck on their charted courses, no matter how much inner strength it takes for them to follow them. And the less it feels like the characters have agency, the more it feels like I want to know about the people actually making choices.
And the less I care about what the characters pick—because as the books go on, as much as there is a message of hope in survival, the characters also often have their wings clipped by forces they don’t understand or just by moustache-twirling villains who are mega-evil with no clear motivations. And those dressing-downs tend to happen violently, with a lot of side characters paying the price like cannon fodder, to the point where a reader knows not to get attached to them—although I also feel we don’t get much chance to, since the side characters aren’t very well-developed.
Which is not to say that kind of thing should never happen, but if it’s always what happens and the characters (and reader) rarely have a clue what’s coming, the obstacles protagonists face and the consequences to their “mistakes” begin to feel like plot contrivances and/or like the reader is being left out of what’s important and at stake. (And I start to feel desensitized when everyone keeps dying.)
I think there’s potential for this series to pick up: for the characters in it to claim more agency and become bigger players, to discover all the backstories, to create machinations of their own, and so on. I think this is especially possible because all of the protagonists are relatively likeable and distinct.
But as is, and especially by the second book, I’m feeling iffy about this series. The setting doesn’t feel clearly sketched out. (Who are and were the Scholars, other than…scholarly? I care about their subjugation, but I don’t know anything about their culture.) While the characters are connected to all the major factions who have something at stake, they really don’t know what’s actually going on. And I’m not that sold on straight-up Chosen One stories.
If I had to star rate these now, I might go with 3 for the first book and 2.5 for the second. (I don’t feel the second book was particularly less good, I just feel as if it doesn’t deal with some of the issues already present in the first book that it begins to grate more.)
I’m reserving judgement, though, because in a series, things can pick up, and perhaps much of this will pay off and be explained when the characters move into the fray. (I don’t think the setting will ever be quite as developed as I’d like, beyond the military system of the Empire, which is a shame.)
Movie-wise, though, a movie can show a lot of what the book isn’t conveying in terms of the ways that different peoples live differently, and movies tend to simplify book plots where many characters are acting at cross-purposes with different motivations—which might actually work for An Ember in the Ashes. It’ll be a bummer if that tangled web pays off in later books, but for the purpose of a first movie, it’d be a relief to focus on the few things the main characters are involved in and can actually affect.
Well, that’s it for this week—after all of that. I’ll catch you again next week, and until then, have a lovely bookish weekend!