Troublemakers (Catherine Barter)

4.5 stars

“In three years I will be able to vote and I will still have less power than I did at the moment that I saw that email, which was such a tiny thing but look what happened.

Fifteen-year-old Alena never really knew her political activist mother, who died when she was a baby. She has grown up with her older half-brother Danny and his boyfriend Nick in the east end of London. Now the area is threatened by a bomber who has been leaving explosive devices in supermarkets. It is only a matter of time before a bomb goes off. 

Against this increasingly fearful backdrop, Alena seeks to discover more about her past, while Danny takes a job working for a controversial politician. As her family life implodes, and the threat to Londoners mounts, Alena starts getting into trouble. Then she does something truly rebellious.”

I don’t tend to read contemporaries, I’m definitely a reader of science fiction and fantasy first and foremost. However, when I read the blurb for ‘Troublemakers’ I was intrigued. We’re in a bit of a maelstrom in British politics, filled with the Brexit nightmare, racism, terrorism and general bigotry. We have a government that, honestly, can’t quell their infighting, let alone look after the complex needs of an entire country.

‘Troublemakers’ is a book about a young girl’s political awakening, but also about personal growth and values. Alena has, in many ways, grown up in a bubble of enlightened thought within her stable family unit of legal guardian elder brother, Danny, a journalist, and his partner Nick, who runs an ethical coffee shop. Hanging over her life is the spectre of her mother, a political activist who died when she was very young. Alena has been sheltered from the bigotry and hate of the world around her but the decision of her brother to take a job in the campaign team of a right wing mayoral candidate cracks that bubble right open.

This book is very much a story about morals. Danny takes this job because of financial concerns, because he’s terrified of not being able to care for his family, but in doing so he pushes his moral concerns to the side. Nick, a man who lives his entire life by his morals, is confused and abhorred by Danny’s decision. Alena in the middle is trying to come to terms with what it all means for her.

Alena’s confusion sends her searching for the ghost of her mother, trawling through internet archives and finding mobile numbers for her old colleagues. Over it all lies the storage crate, a mythical entity to Alena which contains her mother’s belongings and, maybe, her answers.

The story asks a lot of questions about grief. About how Danny seems to have never really come to terms with his grief and Alena, because of that, has never been allowed to explore her feelings about her mother at all. There were parts of this story that were so emotionally raw that I actually cried.

‘Troublemakers’ is a really intense, nuanced and emotionally intelligent story. It captures the heart of London and it’s diverse and sometimes slightly bizarre political landscape. It’s a very well timed book in an era where youth are having to become increasingly politicised to allow their voices to be heard. I think one thing that it maybe skated over is social media’s part to play in all of this. Alena, as a fifteen year old, would, without a doubt, be on social media and that would have a impact on the type of politics and views that she was engaging with. I think, from that perspective, it felt as if the story was taking place a couple of years ago, rather than in the up to date, very digital London that I know.

This is a book filled with hope but also aching sadness. It’s clever, astute, with an emotional clout that I wasn’t expecting when I started to read it. I’d recommend it to young adults but also to older ones, because I think it’s important that everyone remembers the weight their political decisions burden upon the youth of this country.

Many thanks to Penguin Random House for a copy in return for an honest review.

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Red Sister (Mark Lawrence)

5 stars

“I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin”

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book. I wasn’t a fan of Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ series, I couldn’t get into the mindset of the protagonist at all. I wasn’t even going to pick up this book initially, but reviews from friends lavished it in praise and I put in a review request, and then, assuming said request had been rejected, bought a copy. A copy arrived in my inbox just as another dropped on my doorstep and, I thought, well, this book and I were just meant to be together.

This book starts with an epilogue of sorts, but I won’t say too much about it, because to do so would be to ruin other parts of the story. The first entree into Nona’s story proper isn’t even through her own eyes, it’s through the eyes of a friend who’s viewing what little is left of their dwindling life from the wooden boards below a noose. Needless to say, the book opens with Nona having been sentenced to death for a crime unknown, and escaping the noose only through the good graces of the Abbess of the Convent of Sweet Mercy.

What follows after is my favourite sort of book. I am a complete sap for schools of magic and violence, all of my favourite books have some kind of place of learning in them. The beauty of this book is that it manages to stay ‘external’ whilst focusing inwards. We learn the stories of Nona’s early life and the history and politics of the world around her. It’s all told in great detail but I never once felt as if the information was simply being dumped upon me.

One thing I have always appreciated about Lawrence’s books is the genre that they lie in. A sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy. In Nona’s world, they are living on a planet watched over by a dying sun, where the feeble light grants them only a narrow corridor of living space between the ice. Moreso, they people of Abeth are not even from that world, having arrived on the planet many hundreds of years ago aboard great ships. I love the interplay between the fantasy and science fiction aspects of the book, how the magic seems to be amplified by the ‘shiphearts’ or reactor cores of the ancient space ships.

Nona, herself, is a wonderful character. She’s courageous and frightened, naive and world weary, stubborn and tentative. Basically, in all aspects, she is a young girl coming of age, a young girl thrust into a dark and unpleasant world and forced to come to terms with it. One of my favourite books when I was growing up was ‘Lirael’ by Garth Nix for many of the same reasons that I’ve come to love this book. We have a curious and introverted protagonist carving herself a niche in an environment that is both fascinating and dangerous. A young girl who has managed to utterly unbalance the world around her just by her existence. The way that Nona is written, and her feuds and friendships with those around her, is just amazing. I had flu for the last couple of days and just being able to curl up with this book was perfect escapism.

This is book filled with shadow, poison and politics. It’s a slow, rich, dark odyssey that, even after almost 500 pages, I felt sad to finish. ‘Grey Sister’, the second book, is due to be published next spring and, honestly, I can see myself reading this a good few times between.

So if you like complicated and truthful heroines, blood and bladework with a hefty dose of darkness then this is definitely a book you should have on your radar and your ‘to be read’ list.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager for a copy in return for an honest review. What a book!

Invictus (Ryan Graudin)

5 stars

Time flies when you’re plundering history.

Farway Gaius McCarthy was born outside of time. The son of a time-traveling Recorder from 2354 AD and a gladiator living in Rome in 95 AD, Far’s birth defies the laws of nature. Exploring history himself is all he’s ever wanted, and after failing his final time-traveling exam, Far takes a position commanding a ship with a crew of his friends as part of a black market operation to steal valuables from the past. 

But during a heist on the sinking Titanic, Far meets a mysterious girl who always seems to be one step ahead of him. Armed with knowledge that will bring Far’s very existence into question, she will lead Far and his team on a race through time to discover a frightening truth: History is not as steady as it seems.

So, I went into this book with fairly low expectations. Not because it’s Ryan Graudin (I love Graudin’s books!) but because I just don’t tend to fall in love with time travel stories. I’m going to be perfectly blunt and say that I find Dr Who a complete snoozefest, so, I wasn’t really sure whether the odds were stacked against this book before I’d even read it. Nevertheless, it was Graudin, the cover was shiny, it had gladiators, so I decided to give it a try.

I am so glad that I did.

So, without further ado, here’s a little precis of why I enjoyed this book so much.

  • I haven’t fallen for a motley crew of characters so completely since ‘Six of Crows’. They’re present and multi faceted and all with their foibles. The interpersonal relations between them are engaging and real. We’re talking a bunch of teenagers who spend 50% of their time piloting a cramped time machine throughout the universe. Yes, the time travelling is fun, but so is their banter and how they deal with the fact they’re living double lives, so wildly inexplicable to anyone other than eachother.
  • Without giving too much away, I really enjoyed Graudin’s use of theories of time and the universe.
  • The threat levels in this book are through the roof. Honestly, as much as this book is fun and bubbly and adorable, the ‘enemy’ that our heroes face is absolutely terrifying. I had to sit and read it in one sitting because I was too tense to put it down!
  • It’s light hearted but emotional…so emotional. I was actually quite surprised with how much the story made me feel. I was expecting a light hearted sci fi caper, and we got that but also with a side of real emotional clout.
  • RED PANDAS.
  • Established romance. I didn’t realise how much I like to see characters already in relationships until I started this book. You get to see the cute, fluffy stuff without any of the awkwardness.
  • The worldbuilding was really cool. I loved the concept of recorders and the entertainment value of their work, but I also really liked the unexpectedness of having Rome as the centre of time travel rather than somewhere like New York, which, frankly, would have been a whole lot less interesting. It was really easy to imagine a new high tech city being built around and through the historical ruins and monuments of Italy. It also felt more like a global city for it, with people congregating from all around the world to work in the time travel industry. It’s not an American-centric future, but somewhere where you’re just as likely to get some proper Chai as an espresso.
  • There is a lot of chai and gelato in this book, I was honestly developing cravings.

In the interest of writing a balanced review, I tried to think whether there was anything that I didn’t particularly like about this book. I really struggled. I suppose what I will say is that if you’re looking for some kind of grimdark hard sci fi time travel then it might not be for you. It’s as much about personal relationships between the crew as it is the time travel element. I really like that, but it might not be for everyone.

So, in short, an awesome book that got me through a direly dull weekend on-call. If I had to describe it in only a handful of words, I’d say it was effervescent, colourful and emotionally draining. If you like fast paced, quirky adventure stories then it’s definitely one you should check out.

Many thanks to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for a copy in return for an honest review!

The Uploaded (Ferrett Steinmetz)

4 stars

In the near future, the elderly have moved online and now live within the computer network. But that doesn’t stop them interfering in the lives of the living, whose sole real purpose now is to maintain the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn’t enough – he wants more for himself and his sister than a life slaving away for the dead. It turns out that he’s not the only one who wants to reset the world…

‘The Uploaded’ is a dark book. I’m going to give you that warning for free now.

If said warning doesn’t put you off then please continue…

Amichai is an Upterlife orphan, a teenager whose parents died in one of the horrific genetically modified plagues that are accidentally set loose on the living world every now and then, and ‘ascended’ to a digital existence. Freed from the chains of reality, pain and suffering, they’ve all but forgotten that they left two children behind, spending their days fighting dragons with their pain receptors turned off and sipping piña coladas alongside an artificial sunset.

Amichai is left in the physical world, full of bleak crumbling sky scrapers, questionable protein sludge and glistening servers, whose upkeep is all that he’s considered good for. A trickster at heart and someone who is just terrible at following rules, Amichai lives under the constant burden of the shrive, a ‘save point’ where his memories and experiences are periodically uploaded to the servers and judged by the living dead. Tip too far into ‘criminal’ and he will not be allowed to enter the upterlife, instead dying a horrifying ‘meat death’, his existence erased.

Following the effects of the Bubbler Plague, which annihilated much of the living population, kids like Amichai are a dying breed, both needed and treated with disdain by their ‘ancestors’. Amichai would probably care less if it wasn’t for the existence of his sister, a survivor of the plague, no longer considered fit to wear the badge of the LifeGuard, the proxy officers by which the dead ‘police’ the living. Surviving ‘robbed’ her of the chance to ascend to the servers early, instead forcing her to take on menial work in microchip factories until the end of her natural lifespan.

Life on Earth is hopelessly grim with some foregoing the promise of a digital afterlife altogether, instead choosing ‘meat death’ and the dream of Heaven, trashing the servers that they consider ungodly. Caught between the dead, who do not value his existence and the ‘NeoChristians’ who wish to rob him of his digital future, Amichai is in a bit of a bind. All he knows for sure is that, life cannot continue this way.

Something has to change.

This was a very clever book. It’s been a while since I’ve had a book make me think so much. It’s also a strangely apt book for our current political situation, with the older generations entangling our futures in the chains of their poorly thought out decisions.

It’s definitely more about the concept than the characters. The worldbuilding is astounding, every little detail meticulously thought out for maximum weight and horror. Although the story is very different, I got a real ‘Fallout’ vibe from the book. It’s a bleak horrible world, with people banding together the best they can just to deal with the hideousness of their lives. A dangerous job is no longer considered something worth avoiding, but something that could potentially lead to a quicker upload to the Upterlife.

It’s not a book for the faint hearted, it is relentlessly dark and relentlessly hopeless. I’d also put a big warning on the book for anyone who’s currently having suicidal thoughts. Although the book is, obviously, NOT advocating suicide, the way that characters talk about death and how much they are looking forward to it could be seriously triggering for some readers!

In the afterword, Steinmetz speaks about the fact that he’s been writing this book for years. You can really see it in the story through the attention to detail and the planning of each of the twists and turns. It’s a story that I really enjoyed just letting it take me where it went. I stopped guessing what Amichai would do next, instead accepting that I would probably just be wrong.

In comparison with the world, the characters are a little bit forgettable. I don’t think that’s necessarily a flaw, it’s definitely a story more about deeds than the people behind them, but I found myself forgetting some of the side characters names or losing track of their relevance to the story. Amichai is, however, a great lead. When I was reading, the image in my head was Robert Sheehan as Nathan in ‘Misfits’, irreverent, extraverted, but, under it all, caring and more than a little afraid.

It’s a book that makes you feel a little hollow inside. You’d like to think that those living a digital existence wouldn’t forget the needs of those that they leave behind, but you also know that it’s entirely likely. The dead in this world have the ultimate privilege, they do not fear for anything, not hunger, poverty or pain, for they have already triumphed humanity’s greatest fear, death itself.

So, all in all, a great standalone with exceptional world building. Books like this are why I read science fiction: huge ethical questions, dark not entirely unfamiliar worlds and massive concepts. A great book, and definitely one that will have me searching out Steinmetz’s back catalogue.

(Also, look at this stunning cover…)

TheUploaded_144dpi

Many thanks to Angry Robot books for a copy in return for an honest review!

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo (F.C.Yee)

5 stars

Genie is a very tall, slightly awkward, sixteen year old girl. Every hour of her day is spent in homework, volleyball, volunteering and trying to get into the college of her dreams. She’d like to think she has enough things on her plate, thank you very much, without the appearance of a very beautiful and very obnoxious boy half her size. But Quentin Sun, ‘transfer’ student from somewhere (definitely not China), seems to think that he knows her, worse, that she belongs to him somehow, and she just can’t let that stand.

But Quentin has a strange habit of getting everything to go his way and Genie’s mother may have fallen in love with the very idea of him. Genie’s attempts to get him to leave her alone certainly aren’t helped by the sudden appearance of demons from traditional Chinese mythology, or the revelation that she might not be quite human.

Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but even creatures from Chinese Mythology have to work to try and get into Princeton, and Genie isn’t giving that up for anything.

To say that I simply enjoyed this book would be doing it a disservice. I loved it.

One of the strongest parts of this story was definitely the narrative voice. It’s smooth, sharp and effortlessly witty, without you ever getting the feeling that Genie is anything other than a sixteen year old girl. If I had to compare Yee’s voice to another author it would definitely be Rick Riordan. A bit out there, a bit slapstick, and very very good. At certain points in the story , to help us clueless readers, Yee explains some of the more salient points of Chinese Mythology and, honestly, if Yee were to write a book of myths from Genie’s point of view I would preorder it in approximately two seconds.

The second thing on my ‘most beloved list’ are the characters. Genie is stubborn, driven and impatient, she’s bored and uncomfortable with herself, aka, she reads exactly like my sixteen year old self. Quentin is just…it’s very obvious from early on that he’s not functioning on human social norms. He’s blunt, arrogant and frustratingly charming. It’s the perfect recipe for an uncontrolled explosion, and, wow, when it blows, it blows. There are a couple of other characters in the book that I’d love to meet in more detail, especially Genie’s fierce mother and effervescent friend, Eunie, but as there’s a sequel on the way, I can hope that we see more of them there.
 
Now, going into this story I knew very little about Chinese Mythology. So little. Did it affect my reading? The answer is no, because Yee explains every mythological element in fun, engaging ways. You never feel that you’re getting forcefed information, it’s a lot more relaxed than that. There’s also a lot of references to Chinese culture and, specifically, the culture of the Chinese diaspora. Genie is raised Chinese-American, and whilst there are a lot of similarities with mainland Chinese culture, the diaspora also have cultures which are specifically their own. It was refreshing to read Chinese-American characters that were written by a Chinese-American author, not the cardboard cutouts, or just sheer non-existance, of such characters that we usually see in western media.

I will warn you that for the first 20-30% of the book that you might find Quentin almost pathologically annoying, very much in the same way that I’m sure Genie does. But he grows and changes and, indeed, Genie grows and changes through the book. Many of Quentin’s actions also make a lot more sense once you realise who he is.

The part of the story that resonated most with me is Genie’s academic life. I was once a hard nosed, over driven kid trying to get into a top Medical School. I worked all the time, did extracurriculars all the time, and was absolutely obsessed with getting where I wanted to go. It was painful, it wasn’t fun, but it never felt like an option to not be fighting for my future. Goal driven characters tend to maybe get slightly villainised in YA, or at least, the moral of the story tends to be that they’re happier when they’re not fighting above their weight. ‘Genie Lo’ does something different in that is advocates balance, work hard but also be aware of your social and personal needs. Work hard, but make sure you’re working hard at what you enjoy. I think that as a sixteen year old I would have been pretty chuffed to see myself in a book like that.

‘Genie Lo’ is not the book that I expected it to be. It is more than I expected it to be. I’m honestly a little shocked that Yee is a debut author. It’s laugh out loud funny, warm and quirky and I think that if you’re looking for something fun, and a little bit different then definitely give this a go.

Many thanks to Amulet Books for a copy in return for an honest review!


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Daughter of the Burning City (Amanda Foody)

4 stars

“Reality is in the eye of the beholder…

Even among the many unusual members of the travelling circus that has always been her home sixteen-yea-old Sorina stands apart as the only illusion-worker born in hundreds of years.

This rare talent allows her to create illusions that others can see, feel and touch, with personalities all of their own. Her creations are her family, and together they make up the cast of the Festival’s Freak Show.

But no matter how lifelike they may seem, her illusions are still just that—illusions, and not truly real.

Or so she always believed…until one of them is murdered.

Now she must unravel the horrifying truth before all her loved ones disappear.”

Anyone who has been following me for a while will know that ‘Daughter of the Burning City’ is one of my most anticipated books of the second half of 2017. So, when I got the chance to read an advanced reader copy, courtesy of HQ and Harper Collins, I was very very excited.

Sorina is an illusionist, a rare type of jynxworker who can wish creatures of her imagination into physical form. The adoptive daughter of the Proprietor of the magical travelling Festival of Gomorrah, Sorina runs an act alongside the ‘freakish’ creations of her mind. As much as her creations are somewhat of a found family for her, she has never truly believed that they are real. However, her understanding of just what these creatures are is sorely tested when one of them is murdered, sending ripples through her entire adopted family.

Into this uncertain world steps Luca, a gossip broker and jynxworker whose gift protects him from physical death. Initially uninterested in Sorina’s plight, something changes in him and he offers his services to help Sorina find the killer of her creations. Blunt, clever and a little eccentric, Luca is viewed with mistrust by several people close to Sorina due to his UpMountain Origins and his avoidance of sexual interactions. But as time passes and Sorina and Luca grow closer, she realises that she can see little of the young man that other people seem to be seeing.

The world of ‘DOTBC’ is split into two key areas. The ‘UpMountain’ and ‘DownMountain’ regions, which refers to their geographical proximity to a spine of mountains which splits the continent. The countries North, ‘up’, of the Mountains are united by worship of a hardline warrior God, who believes in expansionism and the ‘eradication of sin’. The Festival of Gomorrah, with its drinking and song, revelry and prostitution, is far from the UpMountain ideals, with the festival allowed harbour infrequently and under strict regulation. The UpMountain religion considers jynxworkers to be creatures of demon magic, calling for their eradication throughout the continent. Perhaps most critically for Sorina, who was born without eyes, the UpMountain religion also considers physical deformities to be a sign of internal sin, making the world a thoroughly unwelcoming place for her.

daughtermidimage copy

Sorina, our protagonist, is not a perfect person and I think that’s honestly why I enjoyed reading from her perspective so much. She’s impulsive yet deeply unsure of herself and struggles with anxiety throughout the novel. She sees herself as someone who it is impossible to love, creating these illusions around her almost like a found family. She spends much of the novel thinking that they only care for her because she made them that way, undermining herself but also the independence and agency of her ‘creatures’.

I’d argue that her illusions are some of the most human characters in the book. They have foibles and flaws but they care for each other in a deep heartfelt way. Their abilities and appearances are really fascinating and illustrated by little drawings throughout the story. There was also something deeply philosophical about the question of their existence, were they their own entities or just part of Sorina’s mind?

I think one of the parts of the book that I have the most thoughts about is the bisexual and demisexual representation. Our protagonist, Sorina, shows attraction to more than one gender in the novel and vocally opposes a character who makes the assumption she is only attracted to men. Luca is also canonically shown to be on the ace spectrum, saying that he only experiences attraction to those he already ‘cares’ about. It’s not explicit in book as to whether that attraction is romantic, sexual or more queerplatonic, though he and Sorina do kiss on page. One thing that I really liked about how Luca’s identity is dealt with is that the protagonist Sorina does something which is pretty unforgiveable, she kisses him impulsively, without consent, without appreciating anything about what other characters have said about his reduced attraction, and he backs off, he doesn’t talk to her and he is obviously very unhappy with what she did. Luca isn’t ‘cured’ by the kiss of an allosexual character, it obviously puts him in very real turmoil and when he does talk to Sorina again it is with boundaries and with the understanding that although he has some kind of attraction to her, it may never be the same kind of attraction that she feels. A kiss without consent is shown to be awkward, cold and just really grim, whilst the kiss with consent between the two same characters chapters later is warm and requited. It definitely flips the idea that a lot of media has where it’s somehow ‘sexy’ to kiss someone without asking them.

There is one reveal towards the end of the book that left me a little confused and uncertain. I don’t want to go into it in depth here as it’s a major spoiler, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about it considering the rest of the book had been so hot on consent. It’s not anything that you’re thinking it might be, I wouldn’t have supported a book with rape or dubious consent or anything like that in it. It’s more…about agency and independence. There’s a lot in this book about consent and agency and I suppose how you feel about those issues in book will have a lot to do with how to feel about the ending. I, personally, was a bit disappointed but I know that other reviewers have felt differently.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable read. I agree with some other readers that the pacing was a little off and sometimes left me wondering how long had passed between scenes, but it didn’t bother me too much, it was only something I thought about when looking over the book retrospectively. It’s a really interesting world, with engaging characters and a lot of avenues that I’d love to explore in more detail. As I was watching the pages tick down I found myself really sad that the book would soon be over and I would be leaving the world behind me. If Foody decides to write anymore stories in this world then they will honestly be an autobuy for me.

So, if you enjoy circus stories with dark settings and liberal dashings of the occult, I definitely recommend picking this book up!

Many thanks to Harper Collins and HQ books for a copy in return for an honest review.

‘Daughter of the Burning City’ is out in the UK as an e-book on the 25th of July, 2017, a paperback copy will be following on September 7th.

Amazon | Book Depository | Waterstones

If any of you are looking for a playlist to listen to when reading, this is the playlist I was listening to whilst reading.

The Dragons of Nova (Elise Kova)

5 stars

This is a review for the second book in the ‘Alchemists of Loom’ Trilogy and, as such, spoilers for book one will abound. If you want to learn more about the series, you can find my review for the first book, ‘The Alchemists of Loom’, here.

When I read ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ last year, it was actually the first of Elise’s books that I had ever read. Oh, how times have changed…

I can remember falling in love with the world of Loom, so dark and exciting and original, with its complicated Guild system and video game worthy mechanics. There’s always the worry when you find a book which is so fresh and different, that the second book will not be able to live up to the standards of the first. Thankfully, that is far from the case in ‘The Dragons of Nova’. If anything, Elise has stepped up her game with book two. It is a dream of a sequel.

So, without further ado, let’s get ourselves reacquainted with the world of Loom.

Ari is a chimaera, a Fenthri who has been spliced with multiple dragons parts to gain their magical properties. The events of book one saw our heroine leave Dortam, where she was the infamous thief ‘The White Wraith’, in the company of her apprentice, Florence, and a man who should, by all accounts, be her enemy, the Dragon Cvareh. The only thing keeping them together? The promise of a boon if she gets the errant Dragon to the distant Alchemists Guild.

But the journey was far from simple. Ari finds herself chased by the vicious Riders of the Dragon King, and, perhaps more harrowingly, by her own past. For in a world where chimaeras rot from the inside out under the taint of dragon magic, Ari is not. She is a perfect chimaera, every dragons greatest fear, and she must stop at nothing to avoid that information from spreading. Life is complicated further by her burgeoning emotions for Cvareh, a man she should feel nothing but hate for, and her distaste that her feelings are far from that.

‘The Dragons of Nova’ opens with Ari joining Cvareh on a journey to the Dragon land of Nova, floating islands hanging in the sky above the desolation of Loom. There they are to meet with his sister Petra, in the understanding that it is in both of their interests for the Dragon King to fall. There is, over all, the question of the Philosopher’s Box, the key component in the creation of a perfect Chimaera. How much does Ari know about their construction? And how much of that knowledge about the box, and herself, is she willing to share with her Dragon allies?

Down on Loom, Florence continues her work with the Alchemists Guild, very aware that, once again, she is an outsider in the Guilds and they will always put their lives before her own. Sent on a journey via train to the Harvester’s Guild, Florence becomes intimately acquainted with all facets of monstrosity; the monsters of Loom, and the monsters in humanity. Things are changing on Loom, and our top-hatted Raven-turned-Revolver has a first row seat for the action.

It is very hard to not just keyboard smash when writing this review. SO much happens in this book and my reaction is very much simply the emoji, 😱. Oh, you are truly lulled into a false sense of security by the end of book one. No-one is safe, no-one is secure in ‘TDON’. Our characters are truly trying to navigate violent rapids in a bathtub!

Ari, our protagonist, is mistrust and pride incarnate. Unwilling to accept help, partly because she has been so burned by her part, but also because she’s just the sort of person who would rather walk on hot coals than fall upon the generosity of another. Stubborn, capricious, difficult to love and let herself be loved, I, nevertheless, adore her. Driven by logic, yet coming to appreciate the ‘beauty as its own reward’ culture of Nova, we see so much growth in Ari during the book, both magically and personally. She’s also canonically attracted to more than one gender! Praise be for bisexual or pansexual protagonists in fantasy novels! They’re about as rare as white tigers, and it fills my little bi heart with joy to see myself represented in my favourite genre.

Ari is not the only character to undergo significant development throughout the novel. Florence, who had potentially been my least favourite of the main characters in book one, truly came into her own in ‘TDON’. ‘Tiny girl with a big gun’ is, in my opinion, one of the best tropes to come out of video games, and it’s a joy to see Florence actually be allowed to flourish without Ari being their to ‘save’ her before she gets a chance to save herself. Watching Florence come to a better understanding of herself and her place in the world was honestly one of the most exciting parts of the book. There were a couple of decisions that Florence made during the story that left me so shocked and impressed that I actually laughed out loud.

We see a lot more of Nova in this book, spending more than half of the page time above the cloud line. It’s a real treat to get to see more of the floating islands, with their environment and culture that is so different to that of Loom. Where Loom is built for function, the architecture of Nova is engineered for beauty and form. Cvareh seems a lot more comfortable and confident amongst the culture of his people, and we definitely see a different side to him, that of his sister’s second in command. Privy to his sister’s machinations and quest to return their family to power, there is a very political side to this story, exploring the social hierarchy of Nova and the implications of each and every act within their culture. Politics, I hear you groan, but do not fear, this isn’t a dry story of meetings, but politics that happens in the fighting pit and the gossip houses. The world building is far too interesting to ever let the politics get onerous.

Without spoiling anything, I will say that the events of the story and the ending truly do set the series up for an enormous conclusion. There’s bloody violence, betrayal, assassination and ‘Game of Thrones’-esque political maneuverings. It truly is beautifully and exquisitely satisfying (and painful).

The famous line from Robbie Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ comes to mind at this moment:

‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley’.

We truly have been set up for suffering. It’s going to be a painful old wait for book three!

Many thanks to Keymaster Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

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Nevernight (Jay Kristoff)

5 stars

“In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic—the Red Church. If she bests her fellow students in contests of steel, poison and the subtle arts, she’ll be inducted among the Blades of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the vengeance she desires. But a killer is loose within the Church’s halls, the bloody secrets of Mia’s past return to haunt her, and a plot to bring down the entire congregation is unfolding in the shadows she so loves.

Will she even survive to initiation, let alone have her revenge?”

I picked up a copy of this book last year at the YALC festival in London, but my final year of medical study meant the intervening twelve months took me up and down the length of the country, to the wilds of the Northern Isles, on more planes than I can count, living out of a suitcase for most of it. So, for that time, ‘Nevernight’ sat on my shelf, too beautiful to ruin in the scrumpled hand luggage of a propeller plane. More than once I’d considered downloading a kindle copy, but every time I did so, I thought of how upsetting it would be not to read those beautiful pages for the first time. So, when I returned home to the countryside after two weeks of intense examinations in smoky old London, ‘Nevernight’ was the first thing that I picked up.

Mia Corvere is the daughter of a murdered house, a young girl whose seen more death and destruction that is truly healthy for one so young. Forced to flee into the dark and dirty streets of Godsgrave when her rebel aristocrat father is executed for treason, she finds that life under the three bloody suns of Itreya is even stranger and more brutal than she could have dreamed. Fear and pain reveals to Mia to a part of herself that even she had no idea existed. She is darkin, one who can commune with the shadows, one who can consider the darkness of the Nevernight a friend. Raised by a retired killer and trailed by her shadow companion, the feline Mr Kindly, Mia learns everything that she needs to (try to) survive the next part of her training, induction into the infamous Red Church.

The first thing you realise when starting to read this book is how intensely clever it is. The first chapter is split into two parts, that of our protagonist’s first sexual experience and that of her first kill. It really is gloriously done, how the sex and death mirror one another, truly an examination of la petite mort

‘It’s quite a thing, to watch a person slip from the potential of life into the finality of death. It’s another thing entirely to be the one who pushed.’

Godsgrave is a Venetian style city of canals with a Roman bureaucratic heart, held in check by the Luminatii with their flaming swords. The heart of the city lies in the arching spine of an ancient dead God, mansions and meeting halls carved from the gravebone under the light of three suns. The truedark of nevernight, when all three suns disappear from the sky is only seen once every two years. The world building in this story is delicious, there’s a rich mythology with multiple Gods and Goddesses of the natural world, which is lovingly explained in text and through extensive footnotes.

The footnotes are one of the most glorious things about this book. If you’re not that interested in asides then I suppose you can skip them (I don’t know why you’d want to though), but the way they’re written and the information they add makes the world seem enormous and peopled with myriad cultures and a deep history. I feel I could read this book over and over and find something new each time.

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Another of my favourite parts of the book is the narrative voice. It’s narrated almost as if there’s a troubadour telling the tale by a campfire. It’s a very dense voice that can take a couple of chapters to get used to, with detailed and sometimes unexpected metaphors that I know a couple of friends didn’t enjoy, but I adored. It’s not clear during the story who the narrator actually is, but I think that’s half of the fun. Their sarcastic and teasing tone made me wonder whether it might be a creature of shadow or even a god doing the retelling, but maybe by the end of the trilogy we will know for sure.

“Iron or glass? they’d ask. She was neither. She was steel.” 

Reading ‘Nevernight’ is an experience. I’d maybe advise not taking any characters too close to your heart as Kristoff has a habit of brutalising them. Our protagonist Mia actually has a better soul than I was expecting when I started this book. She is an essentially a good person who has been driven to terrible things. A sixteen year old girl who is trying to navigate her growth into an adult and her past trauma, whilst also taking on her shoulders the burden of revenge. Godsgrave and its council, ruled over by the despot Consul Scaeva, do deserve to be utterly annihilated, but, it’s sad and fascinating to watch the same idealism that drove her father to the noose be perverted into the killing drive.

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Fanart of Mia and Mr Kindly by yours truly.

The book is peopled by a fascinating cast of characters. You don’t feel at any point as if anyone is simply there to fill space. From the talented and brutal assassins of the Red Church and their slippery and mysterious recruits, to the Fagin-like figure of Mercurio and the blazing fire and hell inquisitors of the Luminatii, every character is utterly memorable. Two of my favourites, not, of course, counting Mia, are Tric, a dweymeri inductee of the Red Church who has a twisting and heartfelt, on-off relationship with Mia, and Lord Cassius, the Leader of the Red Church, a figure seeming to the born of the shadows themselves.

With the paperback just having been released and the much-anticipated sequel ‘Godsgrave’ coming out in September and available for preorder, now is the perfect time to pick up a copy of this beautiful, dark and horrible book. If you’re a fan of fantasy YA or even adult grimdark, I honestly think you will adore this book, it is everything I hoped it would be and more. So, if you like books about the daggers in the shadows, blood magic and astounding worldbuilding, this book is the one for you.

Publisher: Harper Voyager (UK and AU), Thomas Dunne Books (US)

Amazon | Book Depository | Harper Collins

Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher)

You can’t stop the future. You can’t rewind the past. The only way to learn the secret . . . is to press play.

Clay Jensen returns home from school one day to find a mysterious box with his name on it, outside his front door. Inside he discovers a series of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker – his classmate and crush. Only, she committed suicide two weeks earlier. On the first tape, Hannah explains that there are 13 reasons why she did what she did – and Clay is one of them.

If he listens, Clay will find out how he made the list – what he hears will change his life forever.”

 

2 stars

I had the hardest time trying to work out what to rate this book.  I’d heard a lot about this book, some of it good, some of it bad, all of it quite controversial. I wanted to read it with my own eyes, to see where my own opinions fell on the spectrum.

I had a vested interest in this book, as someone who a) had been a depressed teen and b) is someone considering specialising in child and adolescent mental health in my medical career. My general feeling is that I’m struggling to vocalise what I felt about this book. It didn’t feel like my depression at all, but I know that I can’t speak for everyone. Depression is an amorphous entity, as varied as there are people suffering from it, and everyone’s ‘black dog’ is different. I would say that I didn’t think the book delved into Hannah’s depression particularly deeply, it made the decision to focus on external motivators for her suicide, which, in my opinion, made this book more about how people treat others than suicide.

I liked the message that people should always be kind as no one knows what anyone is going through, but I also felt very uncomfortable with the idea that depression, and suicide, had a basis that could be entirely based in environmental interactions. Depression and suicide are very very complicated subjects and part of me did feel that this story oversimplified that.

I was also wary of the message that all of these ‘crimes’ towards Hannah were ‘reasons’ for her suicide. One of the characters only crime was to let a friendship drift? That’s not a crime against Hannah, that’s life. I feel uncomfortable with the idea that someone who lets a friendship drift (and herself is assaulted later in the story) is in the same league as a rapist. I’m also wary of the message that it sends teens, watching these ‘reasons’ stacking up in their own lives and wondering at what number their life starts to become unliveable. As someone who lived through a not particularly happy high school situation, that experience does not have to follow a person. Who cares who your friends and enemies were in High School? Odds are that you’re never going to see them again. Yes, the issues and problems born in teenage life can plague a person, but there’s therapy and medication and life beyond High School, and I worry that this book did not give that as an option. I wish Clay had challenged some of what Hannah had said, rather than believing it word for word. Depression can make people bitter and angry, it doesn’t necessarily make them the perfect sage counsellor for a book about how people should treat others.

That, I think is key. I don’t think this book was written for suicidal teens. I think it was written for teens who couldn’t even begin to consider that feeling. That job I think it does very well. People should be considering how their actions affect others, one person’s actions can create a domino effect. ‘Treat others as you’d want to be treated yourself’ is the lesson we try to instil in all kids, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem to get through. So, I hope that all kids reading this book take that message away, but for kids reading this who are suicidal, this is not the only path you have ahead of you. Please talk to people in your life, don’t waste your precious breaths on a cassette recorder…

Here’s a list of some resources for people who are currently struggling, or those who know someone who is struggling:

-currently suicidal or having thoughts of suicide? Here’s a list of suicide helplines around the world.

for parents or educators who want help in raising the conversation of suicide.

-for American Teens, ‘teenline’ offers phone/ text/email support from fellow teens in discussions of mental health and social problems.

-As always, if you feel in danger, whether it be from yourself or others, your local emergency room, accident and emergency department (UK) or crisis centre should be your first port of call. Mental health is health and you deserve to have your illness treated just like any other illness.

Thank you to Penguin Random House UK and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

The Court of Broken Knives (Anna Smith Spark)

5 stars

“In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.

Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.

The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.”

Was I expecting, when requesting this on a whim, to find that a book that was one of my favourites of 2017? The answer is no, and I’m so glad that I listened to the feeling in my gut and decided to pick this one up. Because, as much as I love fantasy, sometimes I have a really hard time telling books apart from their blurbs. Large fantasy cities? Mercenaries? Empires? I can name off the top of my head a veritable list of books that contain these components. It’s what an author does with these building blocks that makes them special…

And this is certainly something special.

Sorlost is a City built behind towering walls of Bronze, residents comfortable, protected, despite being surrounded by a crumbling Empire of Dust. Orhan Emmereth is Lord of a once powerful house and sometime confidante of the Emperor. He sees the way the tiles are falling, that they are living in the dying ages of the Empire. Along with other high ranking Lords and his charismatic lover, Darath, he devises a coup, hiring mercenaries from across the desert to infiltrate the Palace and take out the Emperor.

This ragged band of mercenaries are much like any ragged band of mercenaries, apart from the cuckoo in their midst, a boy with the face and education of an aristocrat, the dreams of a broken soldier and the bloodlust of a beast.

In the great Temple of the Lord of Living and Dying, a young High Priestess completes her ritual sacrifices to keep the doors between life and death secure. She has no idea how this revolution could affect her temple and how it will change her life forever.

‘A crown of silver. A throne of gold. A sound of weeping. A scent of blood in the air. King Ruin. King of Dust. King of Shadows.’

This book is 100% for people who came out of ‘Game of Thrones’ more interested in the story of the Targaryens than anything else. It has all the trademarks of a dark fantasy, a brutal antihero, gallows humour, dragons…but there’s something else about this book. It’s just so well written. Seriously, it’s so rich and poetic and gorgeous. It’s a tale told by a poet with the mouth of a sailor and the voice of an angel, and it suits the tone of the book so well.

Take the character of Marith, a boy who looks as if he’s been carved from marble and storm clouds, but with an almost demonic killing frenzy. He’s not your classic anti-hero, not perfect in every crooked way; he has flaws that frequently take him to the edge of death, that make him unpredictable. You mourn for Marith, for the life and love that he could have had, for the addictions that plague him and for the lack of sympathy and help extended to him. I mean ‘cool motive, still murder’ is definitely a phrase that comes to mind and he’s not written in a way where you are expected to forgive him his crimes. I honestly felt at times as if we might be watching the end of the world…

Without spoiling much of the story I really loved how Smith Spark handled the story of the our dark hero’s lover. Through reading her sections you can entirely see how the character knows that falling in love with this person is a terrible idea, how they teeter between staying and leaving and yet, somehow, fall under their spell. So many times when reading fantasy novels, I find myself questioning why someone would stay with their despot lover, but this book definitely explored how people can become someone that they never knew they could be.

One thing that I know can make a lot of people uncomfortable whilst reading grimdark fantasy is an over-reliance on gendered violence. ‘A Court of Broken Knives’ seemed to be refreshingly free of this trope. I mean, every single person in this book is at severe risk of being knifed, but the danger of being decapitated by a dragon was higher than being raped. Thumbs up for that. For everyone who is concerned that it indicates a lack of general gory glory, have no fear, it’s bloody enough to make ‘Game of Thrones’ look a kids bed time story, it just decides to make everyone at risk of a gory death, not just women.

Also, the relationship between Orhan and Darath was so unbelievably cute. Established m/m romance in grimdark, that is treated respectfully? I did feel sad that it was a world where, whilst m/m relationships weren’t really frowned upon, a marriage between two high ranking Lords was considered impossible. It did mean that Orhan had to be ostensibly in a loveless sham marriage where neither he nor his wife was happy. But, to be honest, I don’t think there was a happy marriage in the entire book, so it wasn’t entirely out of pattern. The story is young and dark, who knows what is going to happen.

As mentioned earlier in the review, this book is one of my absolute favourites of the year so far. It is just so irreverent but evocative, poetic but also blunt and gory, filled with gorgeous prose and enough cursing to make a soldier blush. I can’t believe I’m going to have to wait ‘who-knows-how-long’ for book two. I can’t wait that long to see how my favourite royally makes a mess of everything.

‘A Court of Broken Knives’ it out on the 29th of June (tomorrow) from the wonderful people over at Harper Voyager, and I know there are some beautiful signed copies available at Goldsboro Books *wink wink*.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager Books for a copy in return for an honest review. It was a pleasure to read.

A Song for the Story? ‘Under Your Skin’ by Aesthetic Perfection really put me in mind of Marith’s character at multiple points in the book!