Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino

“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” So begins Italo Calvino’s compilation of fragmentary urban images. As Marco tells the khan about Armilla, which “has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be,” the spider-web city of Octavia, and other marvelous burgs, it may be that he is creating them all out of his imagination, or perhaps he is recreating fine details of his native Venice over and over again, or perhaps he is simply recounting some of the myriad possible forms a city might take.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Invisible Cities is one of the strangest, most haunting books I’ve ever read. There’s no particular plot; every page is just a short, lyrical description of an imaginary city Marco Polo passes on his travels. Some of these cities are more realistic than others – marble palaces, frangipane trees, bustling markets. Others are completely impossibly and theoretical – a city delicately and entirely strung up between two cliff walls that knows one day it will fall into the abyss; a city that breathes earth instead of air; a city that is so crowded that people blot out the place and even the sky.

One of my favorite cities is Beersheba, whose residents believe in a heavenly, celestial city above made of gold and silver and glittering diamond, and a hell-like city underground made of waste and tar and trash. They strive every day to worship the city above and abhor the city below; but what they don’t know is that their greed and superficiality has blinded them, and that the city below is actually the one made of gold, while the city above is made of trash.

Intent on piling up its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the city’s riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off things: a planet aflutter with potato peels, broken umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with tram tickets, fingernail cuttings and pared calluses, eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its heaven long-tailed comets fly-past, released to rotate in space from the only free and happy action of the citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.

Invisible Cities

Even though it’s short (only 160 pages or so), it isn’t the type of book you read in one sitting. I found that I could only digest a few cities at a time, in order to think about them more closely and visualize them in my mind. Maybe that’s how it was meant to be read – slowly, savoring every city individually and appreciating all the beauties or horrors of each one.

P.S. Artist Colleen Corradi Brannigan painted each city. The works are chaotic and stunning.

The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

An orphan’s life is harsh—and often short—in the mysterious island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game—or die trying.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I haven’t read a fantasy book this good in a while! Even compared to Six of Crows, which was a total page turner for me, I think I liked this a little more.

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The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea is a love letter to books and readers, a masterpiece of stories within a story where fables of pirates and princesses converge with the saga of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a fortune teller.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Unpopular opinion: I didn’t like this book much at all.

When I read The Night Circus, I was absolutely entranced by the world Morgenstern had created – I love fantasy and read plenty of it, and yet I don’t think I’d encountered anything like her writing before. Were there were some imperfections? Of course. You could call out her characters for being a little flat and the plot not quite satisfying at the end, but those paled in comparison to the imagination of her traveling circus.

Sadly, even her world building couldn’t make up for the flaws in The Starless Sea.

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Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb

Rating: 2.5/5

I was itching for a classic fantasy read so it only seemed natural to pick up one of the most classic books in the genre – Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. She gets a lot of love on /r/books so I figured it was as good a choice as any, but it turned out to be just meh for me.

What I liked:

  • Interesting world potential

What I didn’t like (and oh how much there is):

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Six of Crows – Leigh Bardugo

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone. . . .

A convict with a thirst for revenge. A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager. A runaway with a privileged past. A spy known as the Wraith. A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums. A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes

Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read this book when I’ve heard about it nonstop since it came out! It definitely didn’t disappoint, and like everyone else, I thought it was incredible. Usually when it comes to fantasy I’m pretty hesitant because a lot of authors aren’t convincing enough with their world-building. Oftentimes the magic systems or individual powers or the worlds themselves aren’t fleshed out enough to make you suspend your disbelief; other times, they’re way too complicated and/or farfetched and it turns into a chore to remember all the details while you read.

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