Dreadnought (April Daniels)

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Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero. Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, Danny was trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender. But before he expired, Dreadnought passed his mantle to her, and those secondhand superpowers transformed Danny’s body into what she’s always thought it should be. Now there’s no hiding that she’s a girl.

It should be the happiest time of her life, but Danny’s first weeks finally living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined. Between her father’s dangerous obsession with “curing” her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he’s entitled to date her, and her fellow superheroes arguing over her place in their ranks, Danny feels like she’s in over her head.

She doesn’t have time to adjust. Dreadnought’s murderera cyborg named Utopiastill haunts the streets of New Port City, threatening destruction. If Danny can’t sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.”

4 Stars

Many thanks to Diversion Books for providing me a copy in return for a honest review.

This is a really important book. I think, off the top of my head, I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read with trans characters. Considering how many friends and people I know that identify as trans or nonbinary, its actually pretty terrible how little representation there is for them in TV, film and books. This book is extra special because its accessible to the people who really need to be exposed to this book, your middle grade and younger adult readers.

‘Dreadnought’ did a really good job of taking the kind of high tech, metahuman world we see in X-Men and using it to examine real world problems. A world that will accept a flying green man but still balks at transwomen. It’s about hypocrisy in the face of progress and ‘equality for all…except you’.

I also feel this book really speaks to our current generation, kids who are finding themselves on the internet and our need for superheroes in a disappointing and downright dangerous world. We have an MC, Danny, who knows her own mind and is yet constantly told that she’s too young to make decisions for herself, to ‘consider’ the wants of her parents and put them before herself. I like that the book definitively calls out the vileness that Danny is subjected to. Misgendering? Slayed. Discrimination? Pulled up by the scruff of the neck. Trans-exclusionary rad fems? Slam dunked in the trash can.

It’s a short read, with a sparky, quick moving story that doesn’t shy away from confronting prejudice. I think one of my favourite messages of the book is that being a lawful good superhero shouldn’t stop you from examining your prejudices; that even a saint can be a bigot if they don’t listen to those around them.

Why not 5 stars?

I’m writing this review as a white cis bi woman so please correct me if you feel I’ve said something offensive/ incorrect. This book is #ownvoices, and it’s telling a really important story. My one big qualm with ‘Dreadnought’ was that, ironically, it did not feel that friendly to LGBT teens. In depicting the discrimination against Danny a lot of really quite nasty slurs were used, and, whilst, that’s good at teaching your average white teen about what it can feel like to be LGBT (and here more specifically trans) it can be a hostile environment for a young reader who wants to read about people like them.

It’s a difficult line to tread and, whilst I felt the ending was quite empowering, I’m not sure whether there were too many slurs used throughout. I’ve never had most of those words used against me and I felt uncomfortable. Now imagine you’re a 15 year old kid who is feeling really down, really isolated and wants to read a book about people like them. Is that kid really going to be glad about the MC being called a f*gg*t and being subjected to violent transmisogyny? I’d be interested to see what other readers thought. Maybe the book could have come with a trigger warning just to warn kids that it’s maybe one to save for when they’re feeling a bit more secure?

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The Bear and the Nightingale (Katherine Arden)

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“In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, willfull girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.” (Random House)

5* stars

There are some books that are just meant to be read with the cold wind whistling down the chimney and a spiced cup of tea. This is one of them.

I’ve always been a big fan of Russian classics, reading wide-eyed into the night from tomes larger than my head, imagining Princes and Princesses fur bundled in sledges against the driving snow, or farmer’s daughters dancing around the kitchen bread ovens. I was unsure as to whether a modern author would ever be able to capture the wild, hard beauty of Russian history quite like a writer who had lived through it. But this book proved me wrong.

Rich, heady, and yet unyielding in its honesty, embracing the juxtaposition that is the beauty and bleakness of life in a rural northern Russian village far from Moscow. The breaking of bread fresh from the oven, the frail snowdrops raising their heads against the ice, the dull blue lips of a child who froze in the dark winter night.

I fell in love with the wildness of Vasya, our protagonist, and how she felt like a creature of the woods herself. Wilful, clever and obstinate, she was a character after my own heart.

Arden brings to life the elemental superstitions of Russian folklore, from the timid house spirits to the powerful godlike figure of Morozko, Father of the Frost and the Winter Wind. Even if you are not familiar with Russian folklore, Arden manages to gently explain mythological origins in text without the reader ever feeling overwhelmed. I was also impressed with how easily she managed to convey the increasing discord between the old ways and Christianity in the rural hamlets, where farmer’s left offerings to the house spirits to protect them and yet simultaneously felt guilt for looking beyond the church for help. It’s a fascinating time in history that Arden has managed to mould into the most beautiful story.

I feel I could probably ramble about how much I love this book for a good while. I can still remember curling up to read it on my kindle in the dark and just feeling as if I had stepped into another time entirely.

Rich, vibrant, and utterly scintillating; I recommend this book to anyone who is drawn to the winds of the winter, to the warmth of the open fire or the cavernous depth of the night sky. I recommend it to anyone with a soul.

Many thanks to Random House Books for an advance copy in return for an honest review.

A song for reading: Anuna- Noel Nouvelet 

Fall Far from the Tree (Amy McNulty)

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2.75/5 stars

I’m quite fond of a good dose of ‘grimdark’ fantasy so I was really interested to read what seemed to be a young adult version of my favourite adult fantasy trope. ‘Fell Far from the Tree’ is written from the POVs of four teenage characters struggling to follow in the footsteps of their parents. Rohesia is the daughter of a brutal duke who has been raised to hate and destroy her own people. Fastello is a nomad prince, raised to steal from the rich to feed the poor, but increasingly aware that his father is not the paragon of virtue he would like him to be. Cateline is a religious devotee hidden away in a monastery, realising as she ages that not all is pure and good in the order she was born into. Kojiro is the Prince of a distant empire, a constant disappointment to his Empress mother who has decided to send him on a suicide mission to assassinate a foreign dignitary. None of these lives should ever have intertwined, but the roles they have been raised for begin to take them all down the same bloody and violent path…

Story- 3/5
-As you can see from the synopsis, this sounds really interesting. Assassins? Priestesses? Robin Hood undertones? But it just ends up being way more confusing than it needs to be.
-Instead of four threads that should have formed a clean braid, we ended up with four threads that tangled into an almost impenetrable mess.
-Frustratingly, I think a structural rework could have made this much more enjoyable.

Characters- 3.5/5
-I’m sad that the book wasn’t longer! I would have liked to have gotten to know all the characters a little better. I think that it negated some of the strength of the ending that I didn’t know the characters well enough and therefore wasn’t entirely invested in the ending of their arcs. However, what I did know of the characters I liked, especially how the narrative dealt with their internal dialogues.
-From a positive perspective the characters are wonderfully diverse. We have three POV’s from POC and the fourth POV is from the perspective of a character with a disability. I think that some of the rep maybe suffered from the same problem that the book wasn’t long enough and therefore couldn’t deal satisfactorily with some the internalised racism that played quite a big part in the story.

Worldbuilding- 3.5/5
-I have the same criticisms for the worldbuilding as I do for the characterisation. The book just needed to be longer.
-I love how the characters all come from very different backgrounds and there was such potential to use these multiple viewpoints to give a huge, rich view of the world they inhabited. But their ‘introductions’ were cut so short that we ended up with only a broad swathe painting of what seemed like a really interesting and complex world.

Ending- 3/5
-I felt pretty emotional about some of the things that happened in the ending. Without giving an spoilers I’ll say that I was glad that McNulty didn’t take the easy way out and ‘save’ everyone. The ending was true to the tone of the rest of the book.
-It felt maybe a little too open if it was intended to be a stand alone. As it is left at the moment I think it would be a bit strange not to have a second book.

The Nitty Gritty- 2/5
-The pacing is off. I feel like you haven’t been given time to get to know the characters well enough to actually care what happens to them…
-The prose is good but each character’s narrative voice sounds exactly the same. I found it very difficult to tell whose POV I was reading if there weren’t constant references to their storyline.

Conclusion
-Lots of great ideas but too confusing to be truly satisfying.
-Far too short to give us time to grow to know the characters.
-if you enjoyed you should consider reading: The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch), The Boy with the Porcelain Blade (Den Patrick), The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie)

Thank you to Netgalley and Patchwork Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

The Alchemists of Loom (Elise Kova)

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Her vengeance. His vision.

Ari lost everything she once loved when the Five Guilds’ resistance fell to the Dragon King. Now, she uses her unparalleled gift for clockwork machinery in tandem with notoriously unscrupulous morals to contribute to a thriving underground organ market. There isn’t a place on Loom that is secure from the engineer-turned-thief, and her magical talents are sold to the highest bidder as long as the job defies their Dragon oppressors.

Cvareh would do anything to see his sister usurp the Dragon King and sit on the throne. His family’s house has endured the shame of being the lowest rung in the Dragons’ society for far too long. The Alchemist Guild, down on Loom, may just hold the key to putting his kin in power, if Cvareh can get to them before the Dragon King’s assassins. 

When Ari stumbles upon a wounded Cvareh, she sees an opportunity to slaughter an enemy and make a profit off his corpse. But the Dragon sees an opportunity to navigate Loom with the best person to get him where he wants to go.

He offers her the one thing Ari can’t refuse: A wish of her greatest desire, if she brings him to the Alchemists of Loom.


 

☆☆☆☆☆

This is my first foray into Kova’s writing and the first thing I  will say is that I was not expecting the world of Loom to be SO big. The world of the Fenthri (Loom) and the world of the Dragons (Nova) lie one atop the other, only separated by a treacherous cloud bank. The Fenthri of Loom do not know the touch of the moon, the Dragons of Nova are a people so redolent with magic that they did not see the point in developing technology for centuries. The people of Loom live in Guilds, each continent and people specializing in a specific task, enforced by their Dragon overlords, whilst the Dragons of Nova stagnate in their strict, hierarchical and violent society, their magical strength alone letting them keep control of Loom with ease. But the Fenthri of Loom have their own methods of gaining magical strength. Through harvesting and transplanting Dragon organs, the source of their power, they create strange Fenthri/Dragon hybrids called Chimaera.

Our protagonist, Ari, is one such of these Chimaera, a shadowy figure intent on protecting her young apprentice and enacting revenge on the Dragon society that ripped her life from her. I immediately fell in love with Ari as a character, she’s unapologetically harsh, her every instinct centered on survival and the care of the one person she has left. (See also: canonically bisexual!!) I feel like she’s a fresh female equivalent of the male grimdark antihero trope.  (She also has a really cool harness transport system that I want in a video game STAT.)

Kova’s writing of women in this book is so strong. Other than Cvareh, pretty much every important character in this book is a lady, and a fascinating, multi-faceted lady at that. Florence, Ari’s young apprentice, is a tiny gunsmith and demolitions expert with a rather snazzy tophat; the Dragon King’s right hand ‘man’ is a brutal and utterly relentless woman who will stop at nothing to keep order and ranking within her world. There are also some really important moments of true female friendship and protectiveness, something I found really refreshing in a genre where connections between women are often lacking and not given enough page time.

The action is cinematic, I couldn’t help but think just how good it would look on a screen hooked up to my Xbox, with a mana bar and a wheel choice system of different gun canisters. If any of you are gamers, think a world reminiscent of Dishonored or Thief, full of crumbling quarters and sinister lighthouse prisons. The character designs are more adventurous than most, in fact, neither of the protagonists could be called human, one grey, the other blue skinned. Cultural and hierarchical differences are noted and shown through clothing and status symbols, such as the forelock of a dragon rider, threaded with a bead for every dragon defeated and heart consumed. It’s just so rich and wonderful, I felt thoroughly immersed.

I’m not entirely sure whether I would call this book young adult. Ari is in her twenties and has a very adult view of the world. I suppose I would slot it into the same age bracket as ‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ (Schwab), not inappropriate for young adult readers, but not necessarily fitting smoothly into the young adult genre. Likewise, I wouldn’t say it was sexually explicit but, as in ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ (Maas), the main protagonist has a more adult view of intimacy and knows very much what she wants.

So, after much rambling, I will try to keep the recommendation short. I can see this book being much beloved by fans of the Mistborn series (Sanderson), ADSOM and Six of Crows (Bardugo). If you like incredible world building, small ladies with enormous guns and brutal action sequences (with plenty of heart eating), this is the book for you!

Many thanks to Keymaster Press for an ARC in return for an honest review!

Stealing Snow (Danielle Paige)

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Seventeen-year-old Snow lives within the walls of the Whittaker Institute, a high security mental hospital in upstate New York. Deep down, she knows she doesn’t belong there, but she has no memory of life outside, except for the strangest dreams. And then a mysterious, handsome man, an orderly in the hospital, opens a door and Snow knows that she has to leave

She finds herself in icy Algid, her true home, with witches, thieves, and a strangely alluring boy named Kai. As secret after secret is revealed, Snow discovers that she is on the run from a royal lineage she’s destined to inherit, a father more powerful and ruthless than she could have imagined, and choices of the heart that could change everything. Heroine or villain, queen or broken girl, frozen heart or true love, Snow must choose her fate …

(Bloomsbury Publishing)

☆☆ stars

I started reading this book at the beginning of August. It gave me a bit of a headache, but since I’d just finished exams I thought maybe I’d wait until I was a little more rested and give it another chance.

Unfortunately, I felt exactly the same way. I wanted to finish it because I had some vague curiosity as to what might happen at the end, but there was something about the way the book was written that had me rereading sentences every couple of paragraphs. Oddly structured and meandering doesn’t quite cover it, it just made me tired trying to make sense of what was happening.

I’ll be honest and say that from the first couple of chapters my hackles were up. I’m a little sick and tired of psychiatric hospitals written up as the source of all evil. I, personally, think the beginning section might have been better suited to a juvenile detention center…there’s a lot that can be said about the poor management of kids in the US criminal justice system, whilst psychiatric hospitals are actually there to do good. Maybe as a medical student and someone who has suffered with anxiety and depression I’m a little sensitive, or maybe the ‘evil psychiatric hospital’ is a trope that just needs to die.

I’ll say that there are one or two parts of the book that I really did enjoy, but that I didn’t think were built upon enough. There is a part near the beginning where we meet Kai and Gerde and there’s a wondrous house and lots of talk of different types of magic and the world they live in. The next is the section where we meet Jagger’s Robbers and their strange mansion which is a magpie amalgamation of all the architectures of great civilization. I had a very brief and pleasurable moment where I thought we might get something a little more ‘Six of Crows’-esque, but it never happened.

I struggled to work out where this book wanted to lie. Did it want to appeal to the upper part of middle grade or did it truly want to be gritty young adult? Quite a lot of Snow’s internal dialogue felt as if it was written for a younger audience, but then we had talk of drugs and slavery and graverobbing that threw my compass off course. I suppose it shouldn’t really matter but something about this book made it matter.

My biggest qualm with this book is that nothing of the plot or ending was satisfying or made sense. It leaped around like a frog on hallucinogens, had enough possible love interests that I honestly couldn’t tell which one was which, and, worst of all in my opinion, had no sense of threat. You did not feel as if anything truly could go wrong, or if it did then you weren’t particularly concerned. I wanted to like this book, I gave it a good month to grow on me when my stomach was telling me to just stop, but it just wasn’t to be.

I honestly felt as if the book needed to be entirely reworked and reshaped. Some meandering side branches needed to be chopped, the main plotline needed to braced into a coherent arc; it was a book without a central pillar, a book where sentences and paragraphs needed to be reforged so they didn’t make my eyes feel as if they’d read two identical segments one after the other.

I didn’t even dislike the premise of the story, was hopeful for the later segment of the book, but it just didn’t work.

Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for a copy in return for an honest review.

Gilded Cage (Vic James)

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☆☆☆☆☆

I have a bit of a thing for dark and despicable books.

You only have to look at my favourites shelf to know that much. From the pseudo Roman, genetically-augmented Golds of Pierce Brown’s ‘Red Rising’; the sin and smoke devoured pages of Dan Vyleta’s ‘Smoke’; to the wicked and wasteful young Aristocrat of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, there is a bit of a trend. So the moment I opened the first pages of ‘Gilded Cage’ and met a moonlit night and a young woman fleeing across a dark country estate, I knew I was onto something good.


NOT ALL ARE FREE.

NOT ALL ARE EQUAL.

NOT ALL WILL BE SAVED. 

 

Our world belongs to the Equalsaristocrats with magical giftsand all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world. 

 

A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.

 

Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price? 

 

A boy dreams of revolution.

 

Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution. 

 

And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.

 

He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberateor destroy?”

 

(Del Rey)


 

If someone forced me to put my feelings for this book into two words I’d probably go with ‘contemporary Dickens’. Despite its modern setting you really do get the sense of smog and chimney sweeps. Indeed, we have children as young as ten put to work and a smug parliament filled with extortionately wealthy families all jostling for power.


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(‘Scene of Huddersfield’ by LS Lowry)


The factory towns put me in mind of LS Lowry’s landscapes, the great belching chimneys and faceless, stick figure workers. Juxtaposed with the joyless lives of the indentured worker are the cold, elegant, horrible, and yet strangely fascinating overclass of aristocrats who wield the ‘Skill’. Chapters alternate between workers surviving day by day on the factory line and the gleaming, manicured world of the ‘Equals’, toxic with nepotism, narcissism and family secrets.


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(Chatsworth House, the closest I could find to how I imagined the great House of Kyneston)


‘Gilded Cage’ has broad swathes of that wild British darkness that I’ve come to love so much. Think of the iron sharp, back stabbing society of Bronte and Thackeray, but left to grow obese and wasteful on its own power. An upperclass that has begun to take its place in society for granted, a once strong muscle that has not had to work and has grown atrophied, leaving space for dissension and discontent.

Then add onto that the glittering, scintillating imagery of the skill, the strange ‘post Revolutionary’ glass buildings that seem to show shadows of another world.

It is utterly breathtaking, I can’t really say more than that. I adored it. It has taken me a good few weeks to mull and decide what exactly I want to write because, for a while, my thoughts were meandering all over the shop. How to decide whether to focus on character, world building, environment, the political wrangling, eugh…almost impossible. I loved it all.

So my one piece of advice would be to pick up a copy as quick as you possible can. The UK Paperback edition comes out on the 26th of January 2017, but the Kindle version comes out on the 1st of December this year…I will allow you to mull over that one.

 (I received an ARC from the Author and Pan Macmillan in exchange for an honest review)

Down Station (Simon Morden)

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DNF @ 52% after a good old slog of an effort…

I started reading this book a while ago, and at first the premise seemed really interesting. A ragtag group of survivors flee Armageddon through a door in the London tube network to a strange new world. But very quickly it lost its magic, mostly due to just being a little bit predictable.

The new world just wasn’t that interesting…which still baffles me because how can a world filled with strange monsters be boring? Yet somehow it was. For a book that spent so much time supposedly describing the world I still didn’t really feel as if I was in it.

I wanted to like the characters mainly because I was excited to see a POC protagonist, but they felt like cardboard cutouts and were often weird cultural stereotypes (mouthy girl whose been in care, the older black woman who mothered them all…yeah).

What frustrated me most, however, was reaching 50% and there still being no real discernible plot. Why put characters in an interesting new world and inflict upon them the same boring social hierarchy that we see in everyday life?

I went and read some reviews to try and get myself back into the mindset for continuing to read it but I just felt as if I was reading a different book entirely. Sadly, there was nothing that made me want to continue other than a lingering interest in how it ended. But not even that could keep me going. It’s a pretty rare thing for me to not finish a book but it felt as if the more effort I put into trying to finish, the more I began to hate the book. 52% seems a fair attempt to get into a book and it took me a month to get there. I think, for someone who usually reads books in a couple of days, that it’s time to jump ship.

I’m giving it 2 stars because I don’t think it’s a horrific book and I thought that it was well written but that it was just very much not for more. It’s pretty rare for a book to be ‘too slow’ for me, but I think I’ve found one.

Many thanks to Gollancz and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review. I’m sorry that I didn’t enjoy it more!

The Edge of Everything (Jeff Giles)

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☆☆☆☆☆

I started ‘The Edge of Everything’ in a bit of a book slump. I’d set aside two books in the days beforehand and was generally looking for a novel with that special something to pique my interest once more.

The book opens in the midst of a snow storm with our protagonist Zoe venturing out to search for her little brother and their two dogs who have gone missing in the wild weather. Zoe has had a terrible year, losing her father in an accident and her elderly next door neighbours in mysterious and violent circumstances. The last place she wants to be is ploughing through the snow, looking for a little brother that she is petrified could be dead.

She finds her brother, freezing cold but alive in the snow, and they seek refuge in the abandoned house of their dead neighbours. You believe the worst has come, that the shelter they find will save them, that they will be allowed to wait the storm out in warmth and peace. But when is anything ever that easy?

A mystery assailant puts Zoe and her little brother in desperate danger. Terrified and alone she begins to wonder whether there is truly any way out of this situation. But she’s not expecting the entry of a nameless stranger with weird powers and a body marked with bizarre tattoos. She’s certainly not expecting him to go straight for her assailant’s soul…

What happens in the moments after changes everything for Zoe and the nameless stranger. Rules are broken, orders disobeyed and everything Zoe thinks she knows about the world begins to start crumbling around her…

This was a wonderful book, tight and dense and filled to the brim with fresh ideas. It’s a book that you read in a daze, utterly immersed in the bleak and lonely world that Giles has created. It raises questions about family relations, grief and what it means to sin.

Without spoiling too much, I loved Giles description of the Lowlands, the mysterious ‘underworld’ that our heroic stranger, X, hails from. The rules, the hierarchy, the bleak Norse melancholy. The ending leaves it wide open for a sequel and I can not wait to hear more about this particular part of the story.

Giles creates a great sense of place. Whether it be Zoe’s lonely mountainside home, the wide flats of the Lowlands or the remote inhospitality of a Canadian shoreline, you feel the atmosphere of each place spreading its tendrils through every scene.

The decision to limit the active cast of characters was also a great idea, it made the interactions between those who were present all the more vivid. The dynamic of Zoe’s family, grieving and fatherless, and the insertion of X into the mix creates some hilarious and heartfelt moments, especially those between our nameless stranger and Zoe’s lonely little brother.

My one qualm is the ‘ending’, it felt rather like it existed solely to make way for book two. The true ending of the book comes a little while before the final page in a twist that’ll make your heart suddenly a rather uncomfortable presence in your throat.

Would I recommend this book? Most definitely! I can imagine curling up under a blanket with it howling a gale beyond the window pane, book in hand.  It also doesn’t hurt that the front cover is gorgeous, I can’t wait to get a physical copy for pride of place on my shelf. A sequel couldn’t come soon enough!

‘The Edge of Everything’ is released on the 31st of January 2017 through Bloomsbury. Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for the review copy in return for an honest review.

Ariah (B.R. Sanders)

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“When you’re very young and you’re different, you begin to believe that no one has ever been as different as you and that no one has ever felt that difference as keenly as you.”

When I sit down to write I review I usually make a list of likes and dislikes. It should tell you something about how much I like this book that the list, in its entirety looked like this:

“Likes: everything about this book

-Genuinely, everything”

The book begins with Ariah, a young elf, journeying far from his familial home to study with a mentor who will help him control his rather unusual gifts. He lives in a world where elves are looked down upon by their human compatriots. Ariah is part Semadran, an ethnic variant of elves with strict and conservative family values, and part Red Elf, a wilder, more carefree people who don’t hold with the same traditions as the Semadrans. Ariah is a mimic, a gift that allows him to learn language and the nuances of voice with ease, but he is also something more dangerous, something he tries very hard to play down and hide. He is part shaper, very in-tune with others’ emotions, able to manipulate the emotions of others and can find himself losing all sense of who he is the great sweep of others minds. It is a gift that is heavily regulated in the empire and is viewed with great mistrust.

He begins his training with Dirva, his mentor, but familial problems lead to Ariah travelling beyond the borders of the empire alongside him. There he meets Dirva’s younger brother, Sorcha, and comes face to face with the realization that he does not know himself at all.


This is a wonderful, beautiful book. I don’t think I’ve read a book that’s lingered with me after reading the last page quite like this in a long time. I want to read it again even though it’s only been a handful of hours since I put it down. I can’t tell you how long I have been looking for a book like this. Beautiful, beautiful fantasy world building with diverse incredibly written characters and relationships that are delightfully non-heteronormative. As a bisexual fantasy lover this was a dream come true.

‘Ariah’ is very much a character as opposed to plot driven book. That’s not to say that nothing happens because by the end of the book you feel as if you’ve been on an odyssey with the main character, but if you’re looking for page after page of action then you might be disappointed. In my humble opinion, this is honestly some of the best character writing I have ever come across. You feel as if you could reach out and actually touch the characters they are painted so vividly. I love Ariah, I love Sorcha, I love Shayat and Dirva, I’m having a very hard time putting into words just why and how. They are all imperfect people, you embrace every inch of them through Ariah’s eyes, every feature and flaw, every moment of affection or miscommunication. It is very intense and strangely comforting.

“For some of us, the places we come from are not the places we belong, and never were, and never will be.”


Sanders touches on some very important issues in this book, most notably the idea of ‘difference’ and what it means to be ‘different’. I adored the way they handled Ariah’s internalised homophobia due to his strict upbringing and the effect that has on his sense of self after he develops intense feelings for Sorcha. The fact that Ariah has very little sense of self to begin with, that he ‘loses himself’, molds himself to the wants and whims of others, damaging himself in the process, becoming whatever he feels the other needs. The book ponders the different types of love, the different types of need, and the different possibly configurations of personal relationships. It talks about gender, attraction, identity and race all smoothly bound within the narrative. It is an incredible rich book and I had a tear in my eye and a tight feeling in my throat for a lot of it. 

Sanders has incredible prose, it lulls you along, so smooth and rich, it honestly does not feel as if you’ve lost an entire afternoon in reading. I read part of this book on a train and I was very shocked when I realized I was at my destination and two hours had passed.  I may also have had a handful of very groggy mornings due to late night reading sessions…

(Also, have you seen that cover art?? Gods of cover art have truly blessed Sanders. I’ve been a huge fan and follower of C. Bedford ( @c-bedford)  for the last couple of years, so it was a match made in heaven to find their art on the front cover of my new favourite book.)


I can’t recommend this book enough. I already have plans to order a hard copy because I can’t wait to read it again, this time with the pages physically in my hands. Seriously, if you’re looking for a wonderfully written fantasy with diverse protagonists and sublime character development go and get a copy, I repeat, go and get yourself a copy now.

☆☆☆☆☆

(Thanks to Zharmae Publishing and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.)

And I Darken (Kiersten White)

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“No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwyla likes it that way.

Ever since she and her brother were abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman sultan’s courts, Lada has known that ruthlessness is the key to survival. For the lineage that makes her and her brother special also makes them targets.

Lada hones her skills as a warrior as she nurtures plans to wreak revenge on the empire that holds her captive. Then she and Radu meet the sultan’s son, Mehmed, and everything changes. Now Mehmed unwittingly stands between Lada and Radu as they transform from siblings to rivals, and the ties of love and loyalty that bind them together are stretched to breaking point.

The first of an epic new trilogy starring the ultimate anti-princess who does not have a gentle heart. Lada knows how to wield a sword, and she’ll stop at nothing to keep herself and her brother alive.”

I really wanted to adore this book, I mean, what’s not to like, a brutal, fierce female lead, a gory and underexplored part of history, that sounds like it ought to be great. I did enjoy this book but I didn’t adore it as I’d wished.

Positives first, I thought the decision to make Vlad the Impaler a woman was great, I mean, having a female character that was largely amoral and brutal is exciting. I have some qualms with how this decision affected some of the historical elements of the book, especially the relationship between Radu and Sultan Mehmed, but, who knows, that could be addressed in book two.

I also really loved a) that it’s set in a period of history that’s been largely overlooked by fiction and b) that it portrays Islam in a positive light for once, rather than the stereotypical war mongering rubbish of many books set in the Islamic world.

The machinations within the Court and the political wrangles with the vassal states within the Empire were my favorite parts of the book. The struggles of a young Sultan and Lada’s battle to assert her control over soldiers who automatically assumed her unfit to lead simple because of her gender are the stand out parts of the novel. The personal and political implications of age, ethnicity and gender were explored in a way that never made you bored. I would perhaps have liked to witness more of the political struggles within the Sultan’s Harem, since having a female lead made that much more possible. I cross my fingers and hope we see a little more of the lives of the women in the Harem in the next book. I think their stories are just as important and potentially even more interesting.

I suppose one of the problems was that it lacked ‘richness’. I wanted to be regaled by the opulence of the Ottoman Empire, to experience the vast buildings, the rich silks and heady scents but instead I found myself feeling a little distant from it all. Sometimes I lost track of where exactly I was supposed to be.

I had a similar problem with the characters. Lada and Radu are interesting characters but they’re lacking the little something that would make them ‘fascinating’. I found Lada’s internal monologue a little ‘one track’ and repetitive, and whilst I generally enjoyed her character I wasn’t sure it was as fully realised as it could have been. I would have liked to have gone a bit deeper into her motivations and maybe focused a little less on her preoccupation with Mehmed.

I found Radu’s motivations clearer, I liked his quiet, intense internal dialogue and the way he worked around the problems he faced. I was less interested in the tortured LGBT plotline…I wondered why we couldn’t have a Radu confident in his sexuality, after all, in history Radu and Mehmed were supposedly lovers.

I also felt that Lada wasn’t entirely the ‘feminist’ lead she was touted to be…or, at least, she wasn’t given a chance to be. She struggled with a lot of internalized misogyny, seemed to, at times, openly despise Radu’s more ‘feminine’ attributes and just generally seemed to dislike every single female character she met in the book (not that there were many…). I’m hoping it’s part of her character arc, that she realizes the strength in being a women, not simply in trying to emulate the behaviour of the men around her, but I think we’ll just have to wait and see.

Objectively, this was good book. However, it didn’t give me that sensation of mindless love I get after reading some books, where just thinking about it makes my heart leap. It gets 3.5 stars because, despite my problems with it, it’s fresh, interesting and generally well executed.

I will be really curious to see where the next book takes us.

Many thanks to Penguin Random House Books who gave me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.