8 Aug 2019

Review: the Queen of Air and Darkness

The Queen of Air and Darkness is a great book that just goes on for too long. Cassandra Clare’s third book in the series is over 200,000 words—and a fourth book, a short story, is coming. Can the plot really support going over half a million words?

The Queen of Air and Darkness is undeniably a stunning work of fiction: the vast array of characters, relationships, conflict and magic is enough to keep this poor reader awake till the dark hours of the night. To cover all this ground in a review feels onerous; I can only summarise the key points, and reflect on my personal impressions. I assume the reader has already read the previous two books in the series, as well as the Mortal Instruments books. You are going to have a tough time reading this book otherwise.

Characterisation takes up most of the immense word count; this is partly a good thing, and partly a bad thing. Emma and Julian are great characters, of course, and we’ve come to know them well—the devoted and protective Julian, so beautiful yet so tortured; and fierce Emma, trusty Cortana at her side. There are many, many other characters in this book, however. Some, such as Jace and Clary—or my favourites, Alec and Magnus—are well-loved favourites from the Mortal Instruments. In fact, let me be honest: Alec and Magnus broke my heart, in all the best ways.

The remaining character cast is not as important to the narrative, but still take up too much “screentime”, so to speak. The number of pages dedicated to Drusilla and Jaime/Diego; to Rayan and Divya; Kit and Ty; and yes, even to the Mark–Kieran–Cristina nexus, is out of proportion. It slows down the plot, and weakens the story. Emma and Julian are the real protagonists in this tale.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Mark, Kieran and Cristina’s relationship immensely. It’s rare to get a bisexual love triangle in a fantasy book! Even so, I feel Cassy drew out their subplot way too much. Every romance story needs to have a reason for why two (or three) people can’t be together—and the biggest problem with any romance story is when those reasons become contrived. These three were like a seesaw: always up, always down. At some point you have to wonder: “Why don’t they just get together already?”

The plot is certainly interesting: Cassie has woven twists and turns between the angst-driven relationships, and her skill as a plot writer is, by this point, undeniable. The problem, really, is that there’s just too much—the story loses focus and starts to confuse the reader. The real antagonist is not Annabelle Blackthorn, as the title alludes to; it’s actually Horace Dearborn and his Cohort. Nor was it Annabelle in the first book (Malcolm Fade gets that honour).

I’ll try not to spoil this too much, but in part two of the book, Emma and Julian head to an alternate dimension known as Thule. I think this was probably a mistake for the story. This section seems separate from the rest of the book—aside from a few plot points, the entirety of this section could have been removed without affecting the main story too much. There’s some good characterisation, but the re-introduction (and subsequent death) of Sebastian Morgenstern is just anti-climatic.

The subplot between Kit, Ty and Drusilla is underdeveloped, because it does too little to affect the resolution of the story. Cassy could have given this rather important subplot much greater significance, with a bit of imagination: Livvy could have done something important in the final battle.

I would also like to comment on a few things that personally drew my eye. Cassy understands politics incredibly well—I almost wonder if she majored in political science or history at college. She’s certainly read the history books: the Cohort’s rise to power mirrors the Nazis, from the false flag attacks; the political theatre; and the Hitlerjugend. I also enjoyed the political realism displayed by the Seelie and Unseelie rulers; I think Machiavelli and Bismarck would approve.

Despite my criticisms of this book—really, it needed a better developmental edit—I still enjoyed the book tremendously. Emma and Julian are a great love story; Alec and Magnus are wonderful; likewise the Blackthorn family, which is one of the best examples of family I’ve read. The plot twists and turns, sometimes in horrible, unpredictable directions.

I will be reading the next book—a short story anthology named “Ghosts of the Shadow Market”—which will, at least, be shorter.

Rating: 4/5

3 Aug 2019

My Experience at AUC: A Review

As promised, I am writing a review of my experience at AUC—including the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. I have given similar feedback in the evaluation form I was sent, so the information presented here has already been communicated via the official channel. Instead, this blog post is written partly as an introspective essay, and partly as a guidebook to future AUC students.

The Good

The best thing about AUC is the student community. The environment is co-operative: think MIT rather than investment bank. Some students are academically gifted and help other students, but even the weakest AUC students possess something uncommon—initiative. Entrepreneurialism is cliché, and it’s not the best description here; we AUC students don’t start companies (this is not a thing in the Netherlands) but we do organise events, sing, write, go to festivals, and chair lots of committees.

The curriculum is interdisciplinary, at least much more so than at comparable universities. The course is demanding and hard, but also intellectually satisfying. The AUC faculty teachers are really good—I studied under a lawyer who is foremost in his field of environmental law, for example. One of my teachers is a prominent climate scientist in the Netherlands; another is a best-selling writer and human rights advocate. All of them are good teachers as well as academics; they’re obviously passionate about interacting with the students, and the students are happy to ask questions or pose criticisms.

We have graduates from Stanford, Cornell and Leiden in the faculty. The number of AUC students that obtain master’s degrees from the likes of Oxford, Cambridge or HEC is remarkable given that AUC only graduates about 300 students a year.

The Bad

Academically, the programme suffers from two problems: there’s too much work (and stress), and the quality of courses offered by outside professors is too variable. I won’t name courses or professors here, but one course I took at AUC was more like a high school class than a university-level class at one of the country’s most prestigious schools.

The workload is a well-known issue—AUC themselves basically admit it—and the stress takes its toll on many students. A survey reported by our student newspaper indicates that mental health issues are probably pretty common, and stress is the foremost issue in student life. Speaking personally, it’s not just the amount or the difficulty of assignments that’s stressful—though some exams and assignments were difficult, and sometimes I did have an awful lot of assignments. It’s also the way the assignments and exams are structured: the assignments are usually due at midnight. Not infrequently, on weekends. Exams can be early in the morning (I had one at 8:30am) or as late as 6–7:30pm.

The AUC experience is chaotic, in other words. It also doesn’t help that university’s administration is likewise chaotic and disorganised: the rules are many, important information is not always communicated on time, and some very bizarre decisions are taken with respect to retakes or grade equivalencies from semesters studied abroad. I myself contested an economics paper grade, and ended up having to write a new paper over the summer. Not fun.

The Downright Ugly

The ugliest thing about AUC is not actually AUC, but rather, DUWO—the company responsible for student accommodation. All AUC students have to live in the dorms, so there is no way to avoid dealing with this bunch of losers. Their incompetence verges on the comical, and I could write a long litany of all the things I hate about them. This is but a brief list, covering the greatest iniquities:

  • Repeated breakdowns in the hot water system. Sometimes this lasted a couple of hours in a localised part of the dorms, but once, all of the dorms didn’t have hot water for 2 or 3 days.

  • Repeated breakdowns of the lift: good luck getting your bike to the 3rd or 5th floor.

  • Lack of communication, and stubborn idiocy on the other end of the line.

  • Electronic keys that stopped working.

  • Poor quality washing machines. They didn’t allow us to use our own washing machines, either.

  • A bathroom with no light fixtures or ventillation; a linoleum floor that was always dirty even if you just cleaned it.

If I had to pick one ugly thing about AUC, however, it would be the way they deal with struggling students. As of 2020, students who need an extra semester to graduate need to move out of the dorms and find housing on their own. Retakes are officially forbidden, so hope you don’t screw up an exam.


I ultimately enjoyed my time AUC, and survived the more difficult periods. I have just graduated cum laude with a high GPA—enough to meet the minimum requirements for Oxford. Nevertheless, I cannot recommend AUC to just anyone. It’s obvious that academic ability is required (any good university requires this), but the experience is also unnecessarily stressful. By the end of my studies, I was exhausted.

2 Aug 2019

Publishing Woes, and other news

Hello readers!

It has been a while (over a month, in fact) since I last wrote on the Magical Realm. Alas, this is inevitable: there was too much work to do in June—the final month of my studies—and after July 1st, when I graduated. The wonderful housing corporation, which every single AUC student is obliged to rent from, made me move out on July 15th. That’s barely two weeks since I graduated.

After I managed to sell my furniture—or rather, a single piece, the rest of which I simply dumped—I travelled with my parents to Romania, and visited beautiful places in Austria along the way. The journey is about 2300km in length, and we were in no hurry, so we stayed 2 weeks on the road. You can check out my album here.

In Romania, I hoped for some peace and quiet, but naturally, got neither. Part of it is because of my family. Part of is it also because of a medical problem: I have developed foliculitis decanavans on my scalp and hair, thanks to years of antibiotics and reclacitrant acne. The good news is that I have convinced a local dermatologist to put me on isotretinoin (also known as “Accutane”). This is a Vitamin-A derivative that drastically reduces sebum production—sebum being a fatty secretion on the skin. Acne like mine has a variety of causes, but a huge overproduction of sebum is the main cause.

(The above is still a very simplified explanation: you can read more about it online, if you are interested.)

The medicine is, unfortunately, known for its side-effects, and I will need monthly medical supervision during the 6-month treatment course. But it’s the only permanent treatment available for both my acne and foliculitis.

You, dear reader, are probably interested to know more about my new novel—Fallen Love—as well as my experience at AUC. The latter is a topic I will be addressing in an upcoming blog post, entitled “My Experience at AUC: A Review”. I will be posting that shortly.

As for my new book, progress has once again stalled. I have queried another batch of agents, receiving one rejection and no replies after 1 month. The situation is so bad that I’ve seriously started considering how I will self-publish. Self-publishing requires three things: knowledge, time, and money. Naturally, money is the most difficult of the three. One good thing about AUC is cost; the cost of living in Amsterdam was manageable thanks to student housing and subsidies, and the tuition was mostly covered by loans. The loans have 0% interest and a 15-year repayment period starting in 2021. This means that I am not broke.

Even so, I have divided the self-publishing option into two plans: the cheap plan, and the expensive one. It is impossible to self-publish effectively without a good cover and a solid marketing strategy; and since editing is expensive, it must face the financial guillotine.

The two plans cost as follows:

  • The cheap plan costs €2500. This includes cover design (in the region of €500); the services of a marketing professional (€1000); miscellaneous expenses including a self-publishing course, for around €200; and the remaining €800 is budgeted for ads.

  • The expensive plan costs €5000. It budgets €2250 for editing (developmental + a proof read) and €750 for cover design, just to make sure I get the best cover I can.

The cheap plan is feasible for me right now; the expensive plan is predicated on getting some sort of job.

Right now, I’m honestly still uncertain as to what to do. I have applied for a master’s degree and a scholarship at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, where I can save rent living with my parents. If that doesn’t pan out—and there’s no guarantee it will, financially—I will look for a job or start a master’s degree in the winter.

Now you understand my quandary. I will leave you now, dear reader, for I need review the quality of my university’s education, on which I shall be writing again soon!