A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars (Yaba Badoe)

4.5 stars

“Sante was a baby when she was washed ashore in a sea-chest laden with treasure. It seems she is the sole survivor of the tragic sinking of a ship carrying migrants and refugees. Her people.

Fourteen years on she’s a member of Mama Rose’s unique and dazzling circus. But, from their watery grave, the unquiet dead are calling Sante to avenge them:

A bamboo flute. A golden bangle. A ripening mango which must not fall… if Sante is to tell their story and her own.”


‘Strangers pitch up on our shores and we herd them into camps. They come in broken boats and we let them drown.’

I honestly don’t think there is a more important time to read this book than right now. With the political turmoil of Brexit and the resurgence of the far right, people seem to be forgetting that the desperate people trying to make their way into Europe are humans deserving of all the rights that we so take for granted. This book is about people whose only option is to attempt to cross the Mediterranean, who know it might kill them, who know they might fall into the hands of traffickers, but also know that it is the only choice that they have left. Honestly, with many peoples heads turned by the rhetoric plied by politicians, that we must strengthen borders and turn people away from our gates, I hope that people read this book and feel their opinions change.
Sante is one of the younger narrators that I’ve read recently, only fourteen, but her voice is so authentic that I feel it can be enjoyed by young and old alike. Badoe has a gorgeous way of writing, fluid and magical and, honestly, I didn’t even feel the pages passing, it was like a wonderful dream. It’s one of those books which is almost surreal, but you never feel the need to question it, it all makes sense in its own strange way. The closest category I’ve found when trying to explain it is Animist Realism, a genre of African Literature close to the Latin concept of Magical Realism, which is born from animism, a belief that everything on earth, be it rock, animals, weather or thought has its own spiritual essence. It’s the perfect genre for Sante’s story, allowing her to deal with the death of her parents, her exploration of the little she knows of them, and the ancestral echoes of the treasures that were left alongside her in the sea chest.

‘The baby gurgles, entranced by the rough play of water as a wave steadies her boat. She smiles, a jigsaw of stars and fire reflected in her eyes, and she stretches a dimpled hand to touch the moon.’

 

This book is so gorgeous. It’s rich and vibrant, filled with lush descriptions and poetic prose. Where in many books the inclusion of an animal companion can risk infantilising the story, Sante’s golden eagle felt more like a guardian spirit, a anthromorphisation of her strength and determination. It was a clever decision to balance the cold hard realities of the book against more whimsical prose. It’s the literary equivalent of casting fragrant rose petals over a rotting corpse, the scent only become more cloying, more horrific in the juxtaposition. The book is never graphic in its horror, it does not linger over the sordid details of what the traffickers do to their captives, but it does show the aftereffects of the trauma, the trembling fear and pain of survivors. It’s been a long time since I was so filled with hate for a villain, but ‘The Captain’, the head of the trafficking ring, is so powerful and vile that it honestly sent a shiver up my spine when he was first introduced.

The half star that I removed is for pacing, there was a bit of a lull at about the 60% mark that I felt was unnecessary and was the first time whilst reading the book that I felt a little bored. I was also a little confused about the use of the word ‘gypsy’ in text. Multiple times throughout the book Sante describes the word being used as a slur against other members of her circus family and yet once or twice she uses it to describe them herself. There’s also a random paragraph where Mama Rose, the head of the circus is described as dressing up in a kimono and white face powder for ‘thinking time’…whilst Mama Rose is a white woman. They’re small aberrations, but unnecessary ones that could easily be removed from the final product with no change to the plot itself.

Conclusion
‘A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars’ is a rich, vibrant young adult contemporary with a bright magical sparkle, that deals with incredibly important and relevant issues. It’s a short book, only 256 pages, which I’d genuinely love as many people to read as possible, because it’s the perfect foil to the dehumanisation of migrants that is horribly common in modern media.

‘A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars’ is out on the 7th of September, definitely one to be added to your ‘to be read’!

Many thanks to Head of Zeus Books for a copy in return for an honest review!

False Hearts (Laura Lam)

5 stars

So, this is actually a review that I wrote well before I had this blog. It was my first ever ARC review, but it’s still one of my favourite books and, rather excitingly, Laura Lam has a new book ‘Shattered Minds’, set in the same world and coming out soon. So, now seemed like a great time to rec this awesome, diverse, beautifully written book. Hope you enjoy!

“I finished False Hearts a couple of hours ago but had to give myself some time to marinade  because, you know, incoherent screaming doesn’t make a very good book review.

I reviewed the preview of ‘False Hearts’ by Laura Lam ( @lauraroselam) a couple of days ago, basically concluding that, dear lord, I wanted to read the rest of this book and fast. Thanks to Pan Macmillan and Netgalley I was able to get a full copy to review and I’m sure the question you want to know the answer to is ‘was it as good as you thought it was going to be?’

Yes

Oh, yes…

To put this in perspective, when I’m writing a review I tend to make two lists, one of parts I liked, one of elements I didn’t like, but I really struggled to find things to put in the second column. It felt disingenuous to try and find something wrong with this book so, you know what, I accepted that I just honestly loved it.

So what’s the ‘basic’ premise?

Raised in the closed cult of Mana’s Hearth and denied access to modern technology, conjoined sisters Taema and Tila dream of a life beyond the walls of the compound. When the heart they share begins to fail, the twins escape to San Francisco, where they are surgically separated and given new artificial hearts. From then on they pursue lives beyond anything they could have previously imagined.


Ten years later, Tila returns one night to the twins’ home in the city, terrified and covered in blood, just before the police arrive and arrest her for murder–the first homicide by a civilian in decades. Tila is suspected of involvement with the Ratel, a powerful crime syndicate that deals in the flow of Zeal, a drug that allows violent minds to enact their darkest desires in a terrifying dreamscape. Taema is given a proposition: go undercover as her sister and perhaps save her twin’s life. But during her investigation Taema discovers disturbing links between the twins’ past and their present. Once unable to keep anything from each other, the sisters now discover the true cost of secrets.

(Macmillan-Tor/Forge)

The world building is just so good. A corporate owned San Francisco, devoid of crime, running on pure green energy, every citizen augmented. Use of psychoactive technology means every violent or abhorrent thought or fantasy is exorcised through dreams. You see the world through the eyes of the twins who spent their childhood in a woodland cult, deprived of access to the implants and technology that people view as standard. You view this world with the same mild bewilderment that the sisters are feeling, as an outsider.

We have Tila, the adventurer, the twin who always wants to forge ahead, and Taema, the twin who you almost feel started life in Tila’s shadow. The events of the book mean these roles have to swap, we see a Taema who, initially, seems woefully out of her depth, a Tila with the situation ripped from her hands. There’s this wonderful juxtaposition of forward fighting Tila forced to look backwards and the more retiring Taema having to take the plunge into the future for them both.

I fell in love with the tech in this world. I have an intercalated degree in Neuroscience so the concept of Zeal, a psychoactive dream altering agent, sucked me right in. Between the blurred identity of separated conjoined twins and the personality muddling effects of Zeal, you get a feeling that this is a book which focuses a lot on ‘self’. Indeed, Taema, taking on Tila’s identity often wonders whether people like her more as Tila than as herself.

That point takes me onto the sinister cult of Mana’s Hearth. A cult raising people to be part of a lucid dreaming hive mind whole, united in fear of outsiders and nervous devotion to their leader Mana-ma. Mana-ma is a distant villain throughout the book, constantly in the back of the twin’s minds, warping their identity, making them doubt themselves and their independence.

Enter Nazarin, the undercover cop (and love interest). Now, Nazarin could very easily have slipped into a cliché but he never did. He’s not overly brooding or weirdly protective of Taema, you feel he respects her and her ability to make her own decisions. He is the quiet reassurance that Taema, raised to doubt herself, has always needed. I could probably write an essay on Nazarin but I really want you to experience him for yourself because the segments between Taema and him are some of my favourite in the book.

(Also, I feel I need to say that it seems as if bisexuality is the base state in this book and it’s great, it’s great not to read another book where characters get morally offended at getting hit on by the same sex. This was A+.)

This book never felt as if it was dragging, which is a miracle, because I don’t know a book where there isn’t at least one section that I feel could be cut. It runs to a very smooth, well paced end, that, without spoiling anything, I will say was very satisfying 😉

As a final flourish I want to talk about the feel of this book. You know those beautiful aesthetic graphics that people make for books, I feel False Hearts could inspire some completely gorgeous ones. The open starry skies and towering Redwoods of Mana’s Hearth, the bay fog, glistening neon skyscrapers of San Francisco, the swirling unpredictable Zealscapes…this is a beautiful beautiful book.

I hope you all enjoy this every bit as much as I did.”

Originally posted at lordbelatiel.tumblr.com.

The Promise of the Child (Tom Toner)

1 star

Ok, so I actually had a couple of other reviews lined up to write before this, but I feel I need to talk about this one now. I’m usually a fan of darker books, I don’t tend to get turned off by violence, or gore, or things that are just plain weird, but I do have a real bugbear with the unnecessary use of sexual violence…that, and books without a single female character of note.

So, the book…

It’s touted as an epic space opera in the style of Banks or Reynolds, and it is pretty big…but also wallowing and lacking direction. We follow the POVs of a good ten or so different characters throughout the story, but only two that you’ll actually have any interest in. It’s basically set in our universe but approximately 12,000 years in the future. Humans left earth, some became the immortal Amaranthine, others evolved into strange Prism races, all seeming to be at war with one another. The Amaranthine, being immortal, ended up holding power, but a power that seems to be waning as infighting weakens their society.

Chapters leap around a bit, there’s one set in 14th century Prague that seems to be literally never mentioned again, a couple in the 20th century Mediterranean that turn out to be dreams, and most set in the 147th Century. I’m sure that some of the more superfluous seeming chapters may be important in later books, but since I found them horrendously dull and pretty irrelevant I won’t be reading the later books to find out.

This book could have done with some serious streamlining. I know it was supposed to be some grand space opera, but it wallowed in a way that the greats, the Herbert’s and the Bank’s did not.

Lycaste, the main POV for the novel, is a member of a colour changing race of giants living on Earth. The blurb describes him a ‘lovesick recluse’. What that doesn’t tell you is that he spends the entire book bemoaning the fact he has been friendzoned, and basically ends up trying to kill the man that his ‘beloved’ loves instead. I also really did not like that his ‘reclusiveness’ and the fact he is generally unlikeable seems to be ‘explained away’ by him being on the autistic spectrum…seriously, if you’re going to try and write an autistic character, maybe talk to some autistic people beforehand and don’t make already rare autistic characters into gross stereotypes.  Needless to say, I didn’t like how Lycaste’s character was handled at all. There was some really cruel ableist language chucked around that could really hurt readers on the autistic spectrum.

The second POV that gets the most page space is Sotiris, a 12,000 year old Amaranthine, who originally lived his life in contemporary Cyprus. Personally, I think this entire book would have been much more interesting and much more readable if Sotiris had been the main character. I want to read books about amoral space Immortals, not whingy young men (well, giants) from Earth. Sotiris also gets the most interesting, and least offensive plot line. I’m going to sit here and mourn the epic story that could have been.

So, what is wrong with this book…

Whilst the inclusion of rape, sexism, homophobia and ableism in a book isn’t in itself a red flag, how it is dealt with, and whether it is given the grief it deserves in book, really is.

I mentioned the problematic depiction of a character on the autism spectrum earlier, and the fact that the book is just generally too long and poorly paced, but there’s more.

There are only a handful of named female characters in this enormous book and pretty much all of them either get raped or die…sometimes both. There’s even an attempt to explain away the lack of older female Amaranthine by saying they all ‘go senile’ earlier than the men…which doesn’t follow medical statistics at all, but, well, you do you. Also, I’m not going to go into detail about it here because I know it could hurt people, but the character I mentioned earlier, the one who doesn’t love Lycaste, literally…I’m not sure the author really intended it to be this way…but it reads like a friendzone revenge fantasy . I had to skip that part entirely, it was so gross and hurtful and unnecessary. All I’ll say is that it involved pregnancy and sexual assault…

There’s also some really rampant and completely out of place homophobia in this book. One character goes on a rant about how he thinks it’s disgusting that two men loved one another, just, out of nowhere, for no real reason. Later, a character is goaded by another character that he’s a ‘pretty man’ and ‘gay’, as if it’s a bad thing?? Then later some dude, that looks like a kid, drugs Lycaste and tried to sleep with him?? Why a) are any of these scenes necessary and b) how did no-one read any of this and think ‘maybe this is a little bit homophobic?’

As I mentioned earlier, you can put the most horrible, disgusting content in your books as long as you justify in text that the actions are abhorrent. You’re allowed to make points, to use shock and horror, as long as it doesn’t read like torture or revenge porn. Using rape to make a character look like a monster is maybe not advised but possible, however, take care with context! If you’re writing a book  and you don’t take care not to romanticize that act, then you’ve written something that actively damages rape victims of any gender.

Conclusion…

This a big book with an interesting plotline and envious scope…but it rolled some critical fails when it came to nuanced use of gendered violence. As a woman, specifically a queer woman, this one was not for me.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Gollancz Publishing for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

A Conjuring of Light (V.E. Schwab)

5 stars

Anoshe was a word for strangers in the street, and lovers between meetings, for parents and children, friends and family.

It softened the blow of leaving.

Eased the strain of parting.

A careful nod to the certainty of today, the mystery of tomorrow.” 

 

I think it’s going to take a while to sink in that this series is over. It’s been a while since I’ve read a group of characters that feel so much like old friends.

I found myself moving back in my memories, trying to work out exactly when I picked up book one, and found that I wasn’t entirely sure. I just remembered every time I walked into a bookshop, saw ‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ and smiled, because what else can you do when you love a book so much that, whenever you see it, you just want to brush your fingers across it.

The series spanned a weird time for me; the last few years of Medical School, a time of growing up, taking responsibility and finding out exactly who I was. It was made all the more poignant by this series being filled with characters of the same age, who were doing just the same. Kell, trying to find his place between worlds; Lila, learning to trust and accept that having friends and those who cared for her wasn’t such a bad thing; Rhy, accepting that taking the responsibilities of the Crown didn’t mean he had to erase who he was.

The book begins directly after ‘A Gathering of Shadows’ ended, after that tortuous cliffhanger that we had to survive for an entire year. The British copy of ‘ACOL’ has exactly 666 pages, which is just too apt, because who didn’t spend their entire time reading this story terrified of their favourite characters (aka all the characters) dying?

I think this is one of the only stories I’ve read recently where I honestly loved every character. Kell with his magic coat and seeming inability to be anything other than the human embodiment of social awkwardness. Rhy, our jovial Prince, who actually seems to feel every ounce of his country’s suffering like a physical blow. Lila, a character who I still can’t quite fathom that people could dislike, impulsive, volatile, coming to terms with the fact that, despite her best efforts, she actually cares for people. Alucard, whose pomp and indifference is many layers of a very elaborate mask to spare his actual, very breakable, heart. Holland, the survivor, the one who both cracked the whip and was subjected to its lash.

A couple of other backstories are explored in ‘ACOL’, we learn about Maxim and Emira’s courtship and their experience of raising Rhy and Kell as brothers, what truly drove Alucard from Arnes, and, in depth, about Holland’s life in White London, from childhood to the horror of the Dane’s reign. The histories slow the pace of ‘ACOL’, and I know they weren’t to everyone’s taste, but I adored hearing more about the characters and, without spoilers, I thought they were all entirely necessary for the story.

I’m going to avoid major spoilers here but I will say that if you’re scared of reading it because you’re worried your favourite will die, you don’t really need to worry. There is a beautiful and wonderful avoidance of all gratuitous death. I’m not saying you’re not going to bawl your eyes out at the handful of deaths there are, but there are no deaths that honestly make you want to put the book down in protest.

It’s an beautifully satisfying ending to the series. All the threads are tied, I think I may have welled up with happiness at the end. I’d say there’s room for exposition in the world if Ms Schwab so wished, and, I would probably enter into a blood pact with Ms Schwab for more stories about Alucard…

This series has always been important to me because it’s probably the only series that comes to mind at the moment with a canonically bisexual protagonist. The page time, character development and story space that Rhy Maresh gets, especially in this book, is incredibly important. I think that if you’re in a majority group, ie. white heterosexual for this point, it’s very easy to dismiss the significance of putting diversity into your books, because you’re not going to know what it feels like to not be represented. Almost every book is written about you, for you. Obviously, the beauty of books is empathizing with people who aren’t ‘like us’, but there’s also great importance in seeing valid characters who are just like you. I also think the importance of Rhy is that his story is not based around how bisexuality has affected his life. He’s not hurting because he’s bisexual, he’s hurting because he’s in love and he’s only partially alive and he’s worried about the responsibilities of the crown. Writing a diverse character isn’t about basing their entire story around their diversity (necessarily) it’s about allowing them to have a story and have adventures just like any other character, and Ms Schwab does that really really well.

rhymareshuncomplicatedsmaller

(Fanart of Rhy Maresh by me/ lordbelatiel.tumblr.com)

So, if you’ve read ADSOM, I suggest picking up AGOS and ACOL and hibernating with them for a week. If you’ve read AGOS then what are you doing(?), go and grab ACOL. If you haven’t read any of them, then consider this your sign to pick the series up en masse and devote the next few weeks to the majesty that is Victoria Schwab.

The Young Elites (Marie Lu)

 5 stars 

I did tell myself that I would start being harsher, or at least less ecstatic, with my reviews, and I tried, I really did, I just enjoyed this book too much to give it anything less than five stars. It has everything I want out of a book: darkness, bucket loads of diversity, amorality, mystery, a renaissance setting… cool hair.

The book opens with our protagonist, the anti-heroine Adelina Amouteru, languishing in an Inquisition cell, awaiting the day of her execution. Adelina is malfetto, a survivor of the blood plague that killed her mother and thousands of other Kennetrans. However, Adelina is more than simply malfetto, she is a young elite, one of the few survivors that developed strange unearthly powers after their illness. Hunted by the Inquisition and considered little more than demons, Young Elites are the stuff of legend, so when a group of them save Adelina from her own execution, all hell is about to break loose.

I think the easiest way to describe the setting is post-plague Europe, but with magic. Lu’s writing is dark and rich. I know that some people find her writing a little dense, but I, personally, really enjoyed it. I actually could have spent another couple of hundred pages in the Fortunata Court, amongst the flowers and silks. I just can’t get enough of rich details and luscious locations.

“I am tired of losing. I am tired of being used, hurt, and tossed aside. It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.”

I think one of my favourite aspects of this book is that Adelina is not an anti-hero because she deliberately does terrible things, but because she makes awful human mistakes. She’s selfish and flawed but also deeply traumatised and filled with anger from her childhood, bitter at a life raised as a monster and an outsider. The most heartbreaking part is how desperately she just wants to be loved, how cruelty has warped her view of the world and others, making it difficult for her to trust.

The love interest, Enzo, the leader of the Daggers, is a malfetto prince in exile who wishes to reclaim his throne. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel the romance between Adelina and Enzo at all, it felt very one sided (which may have been the point? I don’t know) and I have an alternate favoured ship for the dark prince.

I have this thing where I fall in love with side characters that don’t get enough page space, and that happened again. Raffaele Laurent Bessette, ‘one kissed by moon and water’, a beautifully androgynous bisexual consort whose magic lies in ensnaring the emotions. He’s basically the ultimate empath and I agree with every single thing he said in this book *no spoilers*.

The ending is a little brutal, I warn you. You won’t see it coming because, well, YA novels don’t tend to end that way. So, if you’re looking for YA from an alternate perspective and enjoy books such as Locke Lamora or the darkness of Red Rising, I’d suggest giving this a read.

Candidate (Rachel E Carter)

5 stars

‘Apprentice’ ended with Ryiah attaining her true hearts desires, and what can you do when a character’s trajectory seems to be becoming a little too comfortable? You can throw a spanner in the works.

Everything is going wonderfully for Ryiah, she has her pick of battle mage placements, her freedom, the heart of a Prince, yet things are just not quite working out for her. Ryiah didn’t go to War School to fall in love, and certainly not to languish in her lover’s shadow, she went to become the best, the greatest battle mage imaginable. Now, newly graduated, comes the year of the Candidacy, a contest where the most powerful Mages of the three disciplines are chosen. It’s a competition that pits mage against mage, friend against friend, and, in the case of Ryiah and Darren, lover against lover. As much as they love one another, neither will place their love before the possibility of becoming the next Black Mage.

This book had a much grittier feel to it than the ones that came before. The characters are older and very aware of  the spectre of war hanging over their heads. Ryiah knows the danger that Darren’s proposal has put her in, how the King and his Heir are less than happy at her change in circumstances, how the prince’s love has made her a target. But she also has to ponder how much she could or should bend to fit by Darren’s side. Should she forgo her dreams of serving at the Northern border outpost to stay with Darren in the capital? Should she forget her dreams of winning the mantle of the Black Mage to avoid confrontation with her lover? It raises the question of how much someone should compromise for love.

Ryiah’s determination is one of her greatest assets and her Achilles heel. By fixating on the grandeur and glory of the Candidacy she closes her eyes to those around her, creating divisions between her and her friends and, more drastically, between her and those she is tasked to lead. What is more important? Individual glory or the strength of the pack.

This book was painful in all the right ways. I’d definitely suggest giving Darren’s prequel novella ‘Non-Heir’ a read before this book because it makes some of the scenes all the more powerful. It feels as if it’s building to a crescendo, and as to how it will end for Ryiah and Darren, I honestly don’t know. Their world is quickly becoming one of darkness and they’re finding out things about those they love that could shake their faith in humanity forever. I can’t wait to pick up ‘Last Stand’, I have a feeling I might be sobbing by the end of it.

Many thanks to Rachel E Carter for a copy in return for an honest review.

Heartless (Marissa Meyer)

Long before she was the Queen of Hearts, Catherine Pinkerton was just a girl who wanted to fall in love. Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a favorite of the unmarried King of Hearts, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, all she wants is to open a shop with her best friend. But according to her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for the young woman who could be the next queen.

Then Cath meets Jest, the handsome and mysterious court joker. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the king and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into an intense, secret courtship. Cath is determined to define her own destiny and fall in love on her terms. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

3 stars

It took me the longest time to get into this book. For the first 40% I was fighting a constant battle with myself as to whether I should simply mark this book as a DNF and move on. However, I really enjoy Meyer’s work, I mean, Cinder is a great piece of fiction and I love how she cleverly twists fairytales to her needs. So, I soldiered on, and, at about 40%, I began to get a feeling, the sort of feeling I get in my chest when I’m really starting to get invested in something.

It was dark and mysterious and a little mind bending in places, and I began to think, this is why I wanted to read this book. We have an abrasive protagonist, a mysterious court jester, a cast of characters every bit as strange as the Wonderland of our childhoods, and the omnipresent threat of the Jabberwock. A feeble Monarch, a kingdom of the weird and wonderfully naïve, and a Hatter who managed to at once be eccentric and dangerous in all the best ways. It really does raise the question, how is it possible that a book I was coming to love ended up a three star read?

There were some really cool moments, I actually devoured the middle half of the book. Anything Jest or Hatta related automatically caught my attention and, without ruining the plot for anyone, I will say that the backstory written for them was really interesting. I do feel, however, that not enough was done with it, and there’s nothing more infuriating than watching the characters with the coolest designs just not getting used to their full effect. The book was deliciously dark, and with all its cake laden pages was delicious in many other ways as well. There was blood and pain and the heart breaking sensation of characters having to settle for less. It had all the ingredients of a five star book, but somehow in the baking did not rise to its potential majesty.

The beginning is slow and sometimes irritatingly twee. It was only once we reached further into the book that it developed a bit of grit, a bit of the sinister energy of a villain origin story. This is the world of the Looking Glass, yes, it should be strange, iridescent, vivid, but it should also be unsettling, for in that you find the true heart of Wonderland. I do feel the middle half of the book really captured the off kilter roots of Carroll’s books, it was just a shame that it ended in the way it did.

But this is a villain origin story you say. You knew when you started this read it was never going to have a happy end? Yes, but there’s a big difference between bittersweet and just plain anger inducing.

I don’t think I’ve ever raged over a character’s actions as much as I did those of Cath. She quite literally condemned her companions to death and their worst nightmares. I have no words for how close I was to hurling my kindle across the room at that point. Her decision was so illogical, so utterly infuriating, that I ended up skimming the last couple of pages, no longer invested in character or book at all. Vengeance is a fine plot motivator when it’s given time to brew. A handful of pages at the end of a book just doesn’t do it for me.

I can see why some people adored this book. Everyone and every heart is different. For me personally I felt there was little reward for me in finishing this book. I felt cold and hollow as I turned the final page and was tetchy for many hours afterwards. I think there is importance in the delineation between a good book and an enjoyable book. This was a good read, it was not an enjoyable one.

Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for a copy in return for an honest review.

Fair Rebel (Steph Swainston)

 

3.5 stars

Fifteen years after the last devastating Insect attack, the immortal Circle is finally ready to launch an offensive against their implacable enemies. This time they have a new weapon – gunpowder. Hopes are high.

But the Circle’s plans are threatened when the vital barrels of gunpowder go missing. Jant, the Circle’s winged messenger, is tasked to investigate. Soon it becomes clear that the theft is part of a deadly conspiracy . . . and Jant and his friends are among the targets.

As tensions rise, Jant races to foil the conspirators. Can he expose them in time – or will the crisis blow the Fourlands apart?

My first introduction to the Fourlands was a good seven years ago now, in a book large enough to take someone’s head off. The blurb read as if all my favourite disparate plot characteristics had been forged into one enormous vat of excellence. Immortals, a winged messenger, drug fuelled crossings to wildly strange parallel worlds. Thankfully, it was as good as I had hoped.

Skip forward eight years and we have a book that I did not think was coming. “Fair Rebel’ is the fifth instalment in the Fourlands series, the story of a land being slowly destroyed by a wave of unrelenting, world-eating insects. Without giving too much away about the plot of the initial trilogy, because I think you should probably go and read that first, fifteen years have passed since an onslaught that stemmed the tide of insects, even if only for a little while. The Circle, a coterie of the very best militarists that the Fourlands has to offer, gifted immortality for as long as they remain ‘the greatest’, are planning a staggering assault on the insects far to the North, using their new secret weapon, gunpowder. Obviously, this does not all entirely go to plan.

One of my favourite things about these books has always been the voice of our protagonist, the immortal Messenger, Jant. Fate gave him fully functioning wings in a world where, for most, they’ve become little more than vestigial. The Jant of the original trilogy spent more time in the drug jettisoned worlds of the shift than in the Fourlands, but he seems more tempered in ‘Fair Rebel’, maybe a little more aware of just what they have to lose if he takes his eye from the ball. His relationships are firmer, truer, he seems more reluctant to disappear from them than the immortal of fifteen years ago. It raises a lot of questions about humanity and what happens to our humanity if immortality intercedes.

There was, however, one big elephant in the room for me when I was reading this book. The word ‘gypsy’ is used liberally throughout. I’m pretty sure it was used critically (well, semi-critically), indeed in the book the ethnic group that it’s used for and their persecution is a huge story theme. It’s just difficult when you’re physically wincing every time you see the word. You’ve just got to question whether it was necessary to use such a loaded word in text. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, just come up with a fancy fantasy word. Likewise, the plotline, which obviously had some basis in world events and the current post-Brexit bigotry we’re encountering, wasn’t handled as delicately as it needed to be. I’m not sure whether we’re all still a little bit tender for narratives about domestic terrorism, especially when coupled with a loaded use of the word ‘gypsy’. Swainston’s books have always dealt in the more fringe realms of fantasy; sex, drugs and death, and were probably never really for people who like ‘happy go lucky’ books, but there are definitely parts of this plot that came up as a big question mark for me.

So it was a bit of an up and down experience for me. I love the character of Jant, I love being back in the world and the depth and detail of Swainston’s work, I’m just not sure that the plotline worked and I ended up a little bit worried that it might even be offensive to some readers. I felt like in places it was trying to make a point but then never really made it. Is this supposed to be a book about terrorism? If you want to have a discussion about the broad painting of marginalised ethnic groups as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ purely due to the actions of a few then why is this book about white people? It’s either an allegory for the treatment of actual Romani people or an allegory for the treatment of the Muslim community in the world at the moment, it can’t be both, and it felt a little bit like a weird, mind-mashing mix of the two.

So, my recommendation at the moment is to read the first three books. I’m not quite sure where this book sits with me. I enjoyed it when I was reading it, but thinking about it and writing this review I started to realise just how uncomfortable I’d been with the way some of the plot points were handled. I’ll be interested to see how the next book continues the story, but I’m disappointed with the way that this one unfolded.

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

Miranda and Caliban (Jacqueline Carey)

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4 stars

Miranda is a lonely child. For as long as she can remember, she and her father have lived in isolation in the abandoned Moorish palace. There are chickens and goats, and a terrible wailing spirit trapped in a pine tree, but the elusive wild boy who spies on her from the crumbling walls and leaves gifts on their doorstep is the isle’s only other human inhabitant.

There are other memories, too: vague, dream-like memories of another time and another place. There are questions that Miranda dare not ask her stern and controlling father, who guards his secrets with zealous care: Who am I? Where did I come from?

The wild boy Caliban is a lonely child, too; an orphan left to fend for himself at an early age, all language lost to him. When Caliban is summoned and bound into captivity by Miranda’s father as part of a grand experiment, he rages against his confinement; and yet he hungers for kindness and love. 

“Thou art the shoals on which Caliban wilt dash his heart to pieces.” 

I will admit, it’s been a while since I read ‘The Tempest’, though I think you could probably never have read it and quite happily enjoy this book. ‘Miranda and Caliban’ is a retelling focusing on the younger years of the two protagonists, only entering the events of the play at the very end.

It was a beautifully crafted book, delicately written as Carey’s work always is, meandering through lush prose and rich fantasy. ‘The Tempest’ has often been lambasted for its dearth of female characters and this story seeks to address that, giving an important voice to a character who is used mainly as a tool in the original text. Likewise, in ‘The Tempest’ I always felt slightly uncomfortable that Caliban, an Algerian man, was written in a way that seemed to suggest he both abhorred and adored his own subjugation. In this retelling both Miranda and Caliban are shown as prisoners of Prospero, prisoners of societal prejudices even on an island cast out into the sea.

I can say straight out that this book will not be for everyone. It’s a cruel, hard book. Miranda and Caliban are kept under her father’s finger through physical punishment and emotional manipulation. She is both revered by her father and treated like dirt, on one hand taught the basics of his complicated magical arts, on the other forced to do menial tasks in kitchen work and cleaning. Prospero’s misogyny throughout the book left me with such a bad taste in my mouth, which I suppose shows the book is doing exactly what it intended to. Likewise, Caliban is subjected to horrific cruelty and unrelenting racism throughout. He adores Miranda, sees her as the sun in his otherwise grey, caged life, but he knows that he will never be allowed to be with her. It becomes so ingrained in him that, by the end, even he believes he is not good enough. Unfortunately, as this is a retelling, neither of our young protagonists gain their hearts desires.

This is a beautiful, lyrical book, filled with strange magic. I adored how Carey writes the capricious air spirit, Ariel, truly a creature of nature, beholden to no one other than themselves. I, personally, loved the heady, rich way that she writes, as if every paragraph is laden with heavy buds. I know that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. I can imagine that for some readers this book would be their idea of their worst nightmare, meandering, maudlin and unrelenting, but, for me, it was like being taken on an out of body experience.

So, if you enjoy reading a book for the feelings, for the journey and development as opposed to the plot, this is definitely a book for you. Even though it was sad, sometimes making me feel a little numb inside, it was so rich and immersive that I couldn’t blame it. It’s a book that makes you feel a lot of things, though not all of these sensations are so easy to pin down.

Many thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge for a copy in return for an honest review.

The beautiful cover is by Tran Nguyen.

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The City Stained Red (Sam Sykes)

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5 stars

‘Your employers should consult those who make the corpses. We merely clean up after them. Death is our business, Captain. Business is always good in Cier’Djaal.’

Sam Sykes has to be the first author whose book I’ve picked up solely based on personality. I used to devour high fantasy, to the point where it was almost all I read, but that did lead to the conundrum where everything I read felt a little…the same? I read a lot of science fiction, young adult, some classics, even a little contemporary,  but I was looking for something to draw me back into the high fantasy fold.

I’d been following Sam for a while on twitter because he seemed fun and there was a high concentration of writing discussion, owls and dogs on his feed. Eventually I did indeed ‘BUY [his] BOOK’ and I will admit, I didn’t think his personality would translate into the text because, from past experience, ‘swords and sorcery’ never had much of a sense of humour.

I am pleased to say that I was very much mistaken.

The book opens with our battle weary young protagonist, Lenk, on ‘some crappy little boat’ making the decision that he really ought to put down his sword and place his killing days well in his past. I think that you can already guess that he doesn’t really get a chance to even act on that decision before he is thrust once more into fighting, killing and general tomfoolery. You see, he’d love to settle down, but you can’t retire without gold, and the gold he thought was coming his way is now in the pocket of a priest somewhere in the city of Cier’Djaal.

Except, the priest isn’t a priest, a gang footwar is brewing, the giant spiders that make the silk are feeding on something less than wholesome, and the city is full of demons…

I loved this book.

The monsters are really monsters. We’re not talking vaguely humanoid creatures with boobs, we’re talking dragonmen, demons that haul their way out of peoples mouths and cloaked, multi-armed creatures with paintings for faces. It’s delightfully weird.

It feels like that D&D campaign you’d play if you were funnier, more intelligent and more imaginative than you think you are.

The characters are really something else. Amoral yet loyal, sarcastic, running from their pasts, trying desperately, and failing, to care less and be more detached. A motley crew comprised of a reluctant young warrior, a shict far from home, a seven foot dragonman, a thief, a priestess and a boy wizard. A combination that shouldn’t lead to anything less than Armageddon (and, in its own way, does) but actually tends to hilarity and genuine emotional upheaval.

This is maybe not a book for the squeamish, or those without a slightly twisted sense of humour, but I genuinely adored it. A surprise favourite for sure.

So if you like your fantasy wildly imaginative, gory and darkly funny then this is definitely the author for you.