Welcome to the May instalment of Moncur’s Must-Reads! This month, I am diving into two novels which are both beautifully written and the first I’ve read of these authors’ works. Happy reading and see you next time…
#1 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is the first of Elif Shafak’s books that I’ve read and it will certainly not be the last. Set in Istanbul, Turkey but with roots across the world, the novel delves into the ebbing consciousness of Tequila Leila in the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her death.
Sparked by specific tastes, scents and sights, Leila’s thoughts and memories unfurl each minute: her childhood and adult life unravel sporadically to catch up with the present moment, before her friends take over the narrative with their attempts to find their lost Tequila Leila. With such a unique and interesting premise, this beautiful novel builds a detailed picture of an individual’s life which bleeds into the plights and experiences of those that she meets.
The location is everything, exploring how these characters, these ‘undesirables,’ fit into (or, rather, don’t fit into) the patriarchal world of Istanbul. Their stories and lives converge in what Shafak calls the ‘she-city’ and these relationships, formed on the basis of difference, show the strength of companionship and the necessity of understanding each other and breaking down barriers across the globe.
Shafak’s skill as a writer is undeniable. The lyricism of her sentences and the haunting visuals she creates are insane. There were moments when I finished a chapter and I just had a deep ache in my chest: there is something about the way she depicts these intensely sad and tragic events and pairs them with such beautiful, strong yet flawed friendships that just ripped my heart out. She also created the most stunning imagery of death I’ve ever read that was both comfortingly peaceful and a magical experience. I wanted to cry when I finished this book but could only sit in silence, shocked and in awe of what I’d just read.
Reading about Leila’s life and meeting her friends along the way is a harrowing yet heart-warming experience. You know from the start that Leila is dead, and the plot comes from that knowledge, but the reality of her death becomes so much more weighty as you progress through the book. There’s a lot of trauma to be unpacked, with Shafak sensitively navigating mental illness and exploring how past experiences can influence our futures. I just wanted to grab some characters and shake them because of their unjust treatment of others.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is a little profound at times and existential in many ways, but it is also just about the bonds we form with other humans and how our chosen family are the ones who can save us in times of hardship. It’s really hard to put into words why this book is so brilliant, you just need to experience it for yourself.
#2 The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Now, this is a monster of a book at just over 800 pages so it has been sitting on my shelf for a good few months as I’ve psyched myself up for the commitment. However, I am so glad I got around to it as Samantha Shannon has created an action-filled story with a plot that never runs smoothly nor predictably.
The Priory of the Orange Tree has everything you would want from a fantasy novel, from court drama, political intrigue and epic adventure to romance, assassins and magical creatures. Although its size is daunting, I think the book’s length is necessary for you to be immersed in the complex, divided and fantastical world of Virtudom.
The extremely basic plot is that Queen Sabran (who is without an heir) is under threat from assassins so Ead Duryan steps in to protect her. However, there’s an even greater threat coming – the Nameless One. Following multiple characters’ points of view, the stories, dreams, desires and duties of these loveable (and hateable) individuals converge in an epic tale of good vs. evil. Will the people of Virtudom put aside their religious and political differences to unite against the Voldemort-esque creature?
I’ve not read much fantasy these past few years, but this book made me want to get back into it. It’s true that it can be hard to escape the clichéd quirks of the genre and create a new tale that feels different, yet the book’s plot twists and how Shannon weaves the characters’ intricate relationships, bring about unpredicted revelations and unexpected action which always kept me on my guard. I found that there were many moments when I wanted to shout at the characters so they would bloody hurry up and either kiss each other or get to safety before something else happened.
Character development is definitely one of Shannon’s strong points as I found myself invested in the protagonists, understanding even the questionable decisions they were making. You meet, learn to love and sometimes lose characters and you feel like you’re fighting and mourning alongside them – there are some gruesome and heart-breaking moments you need to be prepared for.
With such a mighty landscape being created, I don’t know how Shannon manages to balance both the epic scale of the adventures, battles and geography of this world with the intimacy and precise detail of its descriptions. The beauty of her writing is something to behold: she makes water dripping off a dragon’s scales or the placement of hands during a court dance sequence truly magical. The book drove my imagination wild and I fell in love with the dragons that she created.
And, if that wasn’t enough, the feminist nature of The Priory of the Orange Tree made me incredibly happy. The strong female protagonists, queendoms, diverse characters and queer relationships made for a refreshing, innovative and inclusive novel, and it was all done so authentically. I hope to see more of this in every genre, please!
It took me a while to read this book as I found I dipped in and out of it, but every time I started reading again, I was swept along quickly. The last 100 to 200 pages were riveting, building towards a majestic climax which was full of tension, emotion, success and failure. Some secrets are left untold and rumour has it that Shannon has just finished the draft of a follow-up novel so there’s still more to experience and uncover about Ead’s world… eek! Pick up this bulk of a book and prepare to be mesmerised.
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