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!

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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…)

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

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.

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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.

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

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!

 

October is the Coldest Month (Christoffer Carlsson)

4 Stars

“Vega Gillberg is 16 years old when the police come knocking on the door looking for her older brother, Jakob.

Vega hasn’t heard from him in days, but she has to find him before the police do. Jakob was involved in a terrible crime. What no one knows is that Vega was there, too.
In the rural Swedish community where the Gillbergs live, life is tough, the people are even tougher, and old feuds never die. As Vega sets out to find her brother, she must survive a series of threatening encounters in a deadly landscape. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s dealing with the longing she feels for a boy that she has sworn to forget, and the mixed-up feelings she has for her brother’s best friend.

During a damp, raw week in October, the door to the adult world swings open, and Vega realises that once she has crossed the threshold there is no turning back.”

I don’t read a lot of thrillers. That’s not to say I don’t like the feeling that you get from reading thrillers, there’s something about that dry-throat, adrenaline-surge as everything begins to tumble apart. Generally, I tend to get my fill of that feeling from horror books, but there was something about the blurb of this particular YA psychological thriller that drew me right in.

From the start there’s a very sinister feel to the story, all dark forests, drowning bogs and remote trailer parks. Much of the local economy runs on moonshine and the general atmosphere is one of ‘don’t ask questions that you don’t want the answer to’. Vega’s world is a hard and unfamiliar one. I’m sure that most people think of Scandinavia as some kind of utopia, they certainly don’t usually stop to consider the stories of those raised in poor rural towns and villages.

The story starts with a visit from the police. You get the feeling that the police don’t very often stick their noses into the business of this little forest community, and that their presence is unusual and unwanted. Vega, our protagonist, is asked whether she knows the location of her brother who is wanted for questioning about a crime. Vega must pretend that she knows nothing when, in fact, she knows exactly what they are talking about…she just doesn’t entirely know why it happened. We follow Vega as she tries to work out what happened that night and what it has to do with her brother.

It’s a short book, only taking me an evening to finish, but I think it’s the perfect length for the story that Carlsson wished to tell. I’d argue that it’s much more about Vega’s growth in an environment hostile to young women, than the mystery of the crime itself. Vega has to stick her nose in places where she is not welcome, learning uncomfortable truths about her brother, money and her uncle’s moonshine operation. A portion of the book is also devoted to her complicated feelings for one of the local boys and their awkward and strained relationship following some drunken fumbling. I liked that Vega’s interest in sex wasn’t shamed at any point during the book. She’s a sixteen year old girl, unapologetically finding what she likes in a world that has forced her to grow up too fast.

This book was a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I got was a rich little book, evoking all the cold loneliness of rural Sweden. Vega is a wonderful protagonist, who is fighting a battle against her past and the stagnancy of the world around her. Although the ending is left quite open, I found myself hoping that she ended up with a future that she deserved. I’ll definitely be picking books up by Carlsson in future.

Many thanks to Scribe UK and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

Waking Gods (Sylvain Neuvel)

1 star

An unknown vessel, not of this world, materializes in London. A colossal figure towering over the city, it makes no move. Is this a peaceful first contact or the prelude to an invasion?

Every child has nightmares. But the only thing scarier than little Eva Reyes’ dreams – apocalyptic visions of death and destruction – is the habit they have of coming true…

Scientist Dr Rose Franklin has no memory of the last few years. The strangers she works with say she died, and was brought back to life. The question is not just how … but why?

Kara Resnik and Vincent Couture fell in love during war, and have found peace since. They are the thin line of defence against what is coming. But they do not know they have been living a lie.

And a man who claims to have the answers has his own agenda. There are things he cannot say – and others he won’t.”

Ok, the lesson I’m going to take out of this is that if I’m not all that fond of book one the likelihood is that I’m not going to like book two at all…

All my least favourite parts of ‘Sleeping Giants’ took a front seat in the sequel. It’s a book about giant robots and the annihilation of the human race, I couldn’t honestly care less about a questionable love story between two characters that I only mildly had any feelings for.

It’s a book that thinks that it’s more intelligent than it actually is…there were a couple of points during the DNA/sepsis exposition that I was sitting there as a medic thinking ‘you just described 1+1=2 in the most roundabout and smug way possible’. Also, choosing the BRCA2 mutation as one of the genetic markers for imperfect humanity was pretty insensitive, maybe they should have made up some gene mutations instead of choosing ones that people die from every year.  At about 10% I’d pretty much reached the decision that this just wasn’t a book for me, but I kept reading, ever hopeful and marginally curious about what would happen. That was a poor decision on my part.

There’s a reason that I don’t choose to read film scripts, because the lack of internal thought process and visuals is boring as hell to a reader. Maybe it was more interesting to listen to as an audiobook but I’m not sure that I can be bothered to try. I know that I mentioned World War Z in the first review as well, but, honestly, that’s proof that I do quite enjoy the interview format if it’s done well. The transcribed audio logs in ‘Waking Gods’ were embarrassing to read, it put me in mind of old manuscripts that I wrote when I was eleven, stilted dialogue and too many ‘noooooooos’ for me to be able to take it seriously. Let’s be honest, an audio recording is not going to hear what you’re saying if you’re screaming, it’s just going to come out as a lot of ear bleeding static.

This had a great premise, giant robots is one of the quickest ways to get me on side when I’m trying to choose media…but it was just so dull, and the fact that I could completely skim huge chunks of text and still know what was going on didn’t exactly made me want to read it in any more detail. Sometimes books and readers just don’t click and I think that might have been the case here. Maybe the audiobook would have been better? I know that I would have enjoyed a film version a lot more? All I know is that I went in wanting giant robots and got a love story…eugh.

Thank you to Penguin Books and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

 

Godblind (Anna Stephens)

4.5 Stars

“The Mireces worship the bloodthirsty Red Gods. Exiled from Rilpor a thousand years ago, and left to suffer a harsh life in the cold mountains, a new Mireces king now plots an invasion of Rilpor’s thriving cities and fertile earth.

Dom Templeson is a Watcher, a civilian warrior guarding Rilpor’s border. He is also the most powerful seer in generations, plagued with visions and prophecies. His people are devoted followers of the god of light and life, but Dom harbors deep secrets, which threaten to be exposed when Rillirin, an escaped Mireces slave, stumbles broken and bleeding into his village.

Meanwhile, more and more of Rilpor’s most powerful figures are turning to the dark rituals and bloody sacrifices of the Red Gods, including the prince, who plots to wrest the throne from his dying father in the heart of the kingdom. Can Rillirin, with her inside knowledge of the Red Gods and her shocking ties to the Mireces King, help Rilpor win the coming war?”

I’d been itching for a good bit of dark fantasy for a while, so when I weirdly ended up with two copies of ‘Godblind’ I had a feeling that it was just ‘meant to be’. I actually took a good two weeks reading this, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I wanted to savour it.

The Rilporins have been favoured by the Gods of the Light, the Dancer and her son, the Fox God. Peace has reigned for many years, with their enemies, the Mireces, and their Red Gods exiled to the inhospitable mountains, held at bay by the powers of the Light. But now the Mireces are on the move, hoping to tear the veil that keeps their Red Gods from the mortal world. The most assured way to break that veil? To spill truly epic amounts of blood in the name of their Gods…

I should probably point out at this moment that this book does fall into the grimdark category. If you haven’t read grimdark in the past, that basically means dark fantasy with characters that are more often than not grey morality or outright amoral. Plots are often ruthless and brutal with much death, and kind of make ‘Game of Thrones’ look positively lighthearted. If that isn’t your thing then you probably won’t enjoy this book very much. As with much grimdark there are quite a few content warnings that I’d like to put out there: violence, torture, religious sacrifice, self injury, internalized homophobia, rape and mutilation. They’re not one time warnings either, they occur multiple times throughout the book, and I don’t say that as criticism, I say that as fact. If you like your fantasy a little more forgiving then this book probably isn’t for you.

If, you know, that does sound like your kind of thing, then please continue.

One of my favourite things about this book was the characters, especially those of Rillirin,Tara, Dom and Crys…though, to be honest, I found all of them interesting in their own way. Rillirin is one of the first characters that we meet, a bed slave of the Mireces King and, honestly, one of my favourite female characters that I’ve read in a while. Seeing her flee from the Mireces, become a stronger person and begin to heal from her trauma, I found it was really great to meet a female character who didn’t have to fit the cookie cutter mold of ‘strong female protagonist’. Rillirin is strong,  but she’s also learning and growing and healing and I can’t wait to see where her story continues in later books.

“Then fuck you all, she thought, I’ll save myself.”

The quotation above is a perfect example of all the great women in this book, from Tara, the excellent Rilporin officer who consistently has to deal with men casting aspersions about how she climbed the ranks, to Gilda, an older woman and priestess who spits in the face of those who come to burn her town, and Lanta, a priestess of the Red Gods who is attempting to seize power for herself from the Mireces Kings. It was really nice to read some grimdark written by a woman, in that the female characters were much more than emotional cannon fodder.

The character of Dom is a fascinating one. I can see a couple of different directions in which his story might go. Out of all the characters in this book, his situation is probably the most tenuous. As a seer he is truly at the mercy of the Gods, who can enter his mind and send him messages and images at any time. Struggling and suffering under a compact that he made in past and trying to desperately avoid losing all sense of reality, I honestly worry for Dom and his tentative relationship with Rillirin. I fear that they might both be harmed by what is to come.

The final character I want to talk about is Crys, who I both adored and had a little bit of trouble with. I should probably preface this by saying that I’m bisexual and that, from what we see in text, Crys also seems to be bisexual. Which is awesome, I love representation and it’s pretty rare to see it in grimdark fantasy, let’s be honest. The problem I have with Crys is the way that him coming to terms with that bisexuality is written. We have a male character who flirts with Crys, and, initially Crys’ response is that he is abhorred, which, well, internalised homophobia is totally a thing, and his response IS explicitly called out on page (which I liked). However, I don’t really feel that we see enough of his mindset changing, of him thinking about his attraction before, boom, it’s the night before a battle and said male character is asking if he wants to kiss him and, suddenly, insta-bi! I also struggled with that scene because it seems as if the other male character is coercing Crys with the whole ‘we might die in battle tomorrow’ and, I totally think it isn’t intentional, but it does play a little into the ‘predatory gay’ trope. So, I’m conflicted, ‘yay’ for a canon mlm relationship in grimdark fantasy but ‘not-so-yay’ for there being some problems in how it was written. I’m hoping that by book two maybe some of those problems might have been ironed out.

Like many people, I went into this book not knowing whether it was a standalone or part of a series. I worked out about half way through that it probably wasn’t a standalone, and I’m actually pretty glad. I think there’s a lot more of this world to see and a lot more story to be told. I’m excited because I’ve sort of been tip-toeing around grimdark recently and I’m glad to see a new voice, especially a female voice! I’m also still kind of shocked that this was a debut, it wasn’t clunky in the slightest and held its own with all the giants of the genre.

So, if you’re looking for something dark and bloody to satisfy your ‘Game of Thrones’ cravings, I suggest picking this up when it comes out a couple of days from now on the 15th of June. The hardback cover looks gorgeous… I’ve also seen some variants with edges sprayed black out there, which, let’s be honest, are absolutely dreamy.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager for an advanced copy in return for an honest review!!

A song that describes this book to me: The Song of the Sword Dancer (The Witcher: The Wild Hunt OST)

 

 

 

Tithe (Holly Black)

4.5 stars

I really wish that I’d read this back when I was a teenager. When it came out, back in 2004, I was eleven, but the odds of finding proper young adult books in my local bookshops was close to zero.

‘No, Tabitha, proper young girls read Dickens, not books about drugs and faeries…’

Eventually, I found my way to Twilight and Melissa Marr’s ‘Wicked Lovely’, but I just know that I would have loved to have read this back then. It just makes me glad that there are so many great available YA books out there for teenagers nowadays.

So, this books centres on Kaye, a sixteen year old forced to trail her mother from city to city as she drops in and out of bands. Kaye has known since her childhood that she draws some of the weirder things in life towards her; men with glowing eyes and tiny birdlike faeries, but it’s not until she meets an injured faerie Knight in the woods that she realises the full extent of her ‘difference’.

In exchange for her help, the faerie offers her three questions. For her third and final question, Kaye asks him for his true name…and we all know what such questions lead to.

This was a dark story, there’s no doubt about it. It has sex and alcohol and drugs and violence, but perhaps the darkest thing of all is that very faerie concept of true names and the power that they give. Words are so unbelievably powerful in this story. Those with power over your true name can make you do as they please, can rip your ability to consent from you entirely…

I really enjoyed that Black stayed true to so many of the old faerie tales; we have the Court under the Hill, the moral ambiguity of both the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, the mortal danger of faerie wine and the sad tales of the Changelings. Intertwined amongst this is the gritty urban fantasy that I was expecting; poor rural america, rusting old cars, trailer parks and broken carousels. She doesn’t shy away from making things ugly and I’d definitely put a content warning on this for body horror. If the idea of peeling skin, bleeding scars and iron welded into flesh is already making your stomach turn over then it might be worth giving this a miss!

It would be disingenuous to not mention one of my favourite parts of this story, our Unseelie Knight himself, Roiben. Quiet, hides his emotions behind a mask, utterly powerless to the demands of the Unseelie Queen, a literal sweet child of Summer who is caught beneath the hill. He has no ability to stop himself from completing the horrifying acts that the Unseelie Queen forces upon him. He has no ability to consent, no way to stop the agony. It genuinely breaks my heart a little bit, he instantly became one of my favourite male YA protagonists.

So, if you love dark faerie tales with a gritty contemporary edge and the sharp scent of apples, this is definitely a book I would recommend.

Shattered Minds (Laura Lam)

4.5 stars

“Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill.

She satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug ‘Zeal’. Now she’s heading for self-destruction until she has a vision of a dead girl.

Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project, causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When Carina realizes the vision was planted by her old colleague Mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows hes probably dead.

Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis or shes next.

To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, shell need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help Carina fight her addictions. If she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary before it changes us and our society, forever.”

 

Set in the same dark future as ‘False Hearts’, the newest offering from Laura Lam is a very different book. Whereas ‘False Hearts’ was a book of neon warmth and arching redwoods, ‘Shattered Minds’ is a story filled with clinical chrome and the buzz of electronic instruments. It is a harder, colder book, less forgiving, with characters that take a little bit longer to love. But love them you definitely do.

Centring around a hacking group that is attempting to bring down a large, corrupt corporation that seems to own most of the West Coast (now Pacifica), ‘Shattered Minds’ has a really classic cyberpunk feel that put me in mind of William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’. Members of society now have complex neural implants to allow functions such as the straight downloading of information from external systems. Such neural implants can also allow hacking via VR, a more natural interface than hard code, though also bringing the added risk of cybersecurity systems being able to ‘fry’ user implants remotely, and, with them, the user’s own mind.

Carina, our protagonist, an ex neuroprogrammer, takes some time to warm to. She’s blunt and difficult, though once you realise how much of that ‘difficulty’ is due to self loathing and trauma she’s much easier to understand. She’s a character who has been betrayed by everyone she ever thought to trust, from her father to Roz, the scientist who was supposed to take her pain away. ‘Taking the pain’ away in Carina’s case turned out to be much more literal, with Roz re-engineering Carina’s brain in a way that made it so she rarely felt strong emotion. It was only when that programming began to unravel and sudden strong compulsions to commit violence and murder began to develop that Carina realised what had happened to her. Terrified of hurting people, she retreats into the world of zeal, a drug that allows users to manipulate their own dreamscapes. Her body falling apart at the seams, Carina feels that at least she is less of a threat to those around her…it’s heartbreaking on so many levels. The story raises the question on multiple occasions of just how much of Carina’s personality is her own and how much is what the brain engineering made her. Even if they were to reverse that engineering, how much of what Carina is was caused by nature and how much is what was done to her?

Dax, an important secondary POV character and love interest, was my favourite. I try not to play favourites, but I just couldn’t help it. He is, in Laura’s own words, the ‘cinnamon roll’, and I entirely agree with that assessment. The medic to our hacking collective, Dax originally was a surgeon specialising in body modification, common in the state of Pacifica. Always excellent at including LGBTQA+ characters and respectful rep in her stories, Laura’s decision to write Dax as a trans man is such a positive thing. Dax’s identity is not a plot point, it’s not a twist, it simply is. More books need to include LGBTQA+ characters in a way that makes identity incidental and not somehow part of the plot. LGBTQA+ people exist and their story doesn’t have to end there, let them have stories beyond that! Let them be heroes and villains and hackers and doctors, let them be whatever your stories need them to be, like any other character.

Also, you know, let them be cinnamon roll Native Doctors, because I love Dax so much.

Before I go on an excessively long ramble about how much I love one character, I’ll direct you towards our villain, the ruthlessly driven Roz. It’s been a while since I’ve disliked a villain quite as much as Roz. Cold, hard, indifferent to the feelings of others, she is probably my entire opposite, but I don’t think it’s even that which got under my skin so much. The most horrifying thing about Roz is how she doesn’t view consent as something sacred. She doesn’t care what you want, you’re simply her experiment and she has no qualms whatsoever in knocking you out and making fundamental changes to your brain. Genuinely, she gives me the shudders.

The half a star came off because I wasn’t able to gel with the story quite as much as I would have liked. It has a complicated structure, moving backwards and forwards in time in a way that makes a lot of sense for the plot and for Carina’s character, but sometimes left me a little confused. I’ve also mentioned before that Carina is maybe a little more difficult to love than your classic protagonist, but I think, once again, that that’s a personal thing and I know from reading other reviews that other people have absolutely adored her.

One of my favourite parts of the world that Laura builds for her Pacifica novels is the culture and the cities. There are all these subtle hints at other stories happening behind the scenes, like the fan who tried to clone his idols and led to a fashion for covering all fingerprints and shaving off all hair, so that no DNA was accidentally left behind. There’s also some overlap with ‘False Hearts’, in mentions of the cult that the protagonists were raised in, characters reappearing and further discussion of the some of the repercussions of events in the other book. Whilst you don’t have to have read ‘False Hearts’ to enjoy this, I’d honest recommend picking up both books, because ‘False Hearts’ is one of my favourite books of all time, and the world that Laura has created is a joy to read.

So, if you’re looking for a cerebral thriller (no pun intended), with diverse characters, genuine threat and much much neurohacking, this is definitely the book for you.

‘Shattered Minds’ is out on the 15th of June, and Laura has a pre order promotion going at the moment with 10K of extra Pacifica fiction available in return for proof of pre-order!

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