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.

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(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.

The Hidden People (Alison Littlewood)

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4 stars

“Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth – but was she really a changeling, as her husband insists? Albie Mirralls met his cousin only once, in 1851, within the grand glass arches of the Crystal Palace, but unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak, a village steeped in superstition.

Albie begins to look into Lizzie’s death, but in this place where the old tales hold sway and the ‘Hidden People’ supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away …”

I’m very fond of a faery tale. Being Welsh, I’m a little more familiar with the mythologies of the Old Celtic countries than English folklore, but both seem to overlap on a key point: their depiction of faeries as wild, elemental, not-entirely-benevolent beings. This book goes one step further, dealing with old country folklore and looking at the flaws in the human condition, seeming to ask whether it is humans themselves who are the most inhuman of all…

Character: 4/5

  • Albie is not the most likeable or reliable of narrators and I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the book. Albie is a young, rich, newly-married man, an insufferable snob and an unconscious misogynist. The story could not happen as it did without the miscommunications that occur because he does not treat his wife as a human being.
  • I actually found it really interesting to see a book written with the same condescending tone as many classics, but with that tone being used to critique the treatment of women during the period, especially those of a lower socioeconomic status. There were a number of times where Albie thought that his wife, Helena, was acting like some kind of bizarre fae creature, but as a reader you can just tell that she thinks he’s ridiculous and is upset by something that he has said and done. Once or twice I was actually scared that he might do something to hurt her. Such a unreliable point of view was frustrating and sometimes very disconcerting, but very well done.

Worldbuilding: 4/5

  • The setting of this book is amazing. I loved the descriptions of the backward, rural village with the fairy rings and the terrifying old ‘wise women’. There are some truly gorgeous scenes spent under the night sky, ethereal, charming, wonderfully creepy. You spend the entire book questioning yourself. Are fairies real? Am I maybe the one who is backward and misunderstanding? Littlewood does an incredible job of imbuing the world in such a way that you understand why folklore developed in the way that it did.
  • It makes you wonder how much of the ‘changeling’ lore was built upon the fundamental misunderstanding that women are somehow different to men? If a woman is wilful, is not subservient, miscarries a child it somehow meant that there was something wrong with them, that they were unworldly and somehow not human women. There were some parts of the story that were painful, seeing just how little control some of these women had over their own lives.

Ending: 3/5

  • Whilst I enjoyed it, I felt that the ending was maybe a little open. I suppose it would have not made much sense to impose an ending on the reader, especially after a book that had been been based so much upon questions. But I did find myself wishing that there was something more, something that made the ending memorable.

The Nitty Gritty: 4/5

  • ‘The Hidden People’ is a beautifully written book, rich and wild in the ways of some of the classics referenced within. Littlewood mentions ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Goblin Market’ in text and she manages to put some of that magic and bleakness into her own work. Think looming hedgerows and wild oaks, fairy rings and dark moons.
  • My one qualm is that I sometimes felt that the book felt a little repetitive and maybe lingered overlong on scenes that could quite happily have been condensed into one. Some of the power was maybe diluted a little by too many words.

Conclusion

  • This was not an easy read but a fulfilling one. Questions are not entirely answered, you end without feeling that you will ever be certain what it was that happened, or that those who truly deserve to be punished ever will be. But I also felt it was a strangely real book and a strangely tender one. By the end the characters are finally true to themselves, even though it might not be the most satisfying or happy conclusion. Definitely a book that I would recommend to a lover of the classics, folklore and the old tales.

For readers who enjoyed: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke) , The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter), Smoke (Dan Vyleta), Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)

Thank you very much to Quercus Books for a copy in return for an honest review.

Way Down Dark ( J P Smythe)

waydowndarkcover

4.75 Stars

“Imagine a nightmare from which there is no escape. Seventeen-year-old Chan’s ancestors left a dying Earth hundreds of years ago, in search of a new home. They never found one.

This is a hell where no one can hide. The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.

This is a ship of death, of murderers and cults and gangs. But there might be a way to escape. In order to find it, Chan must head way down into the darkness – a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.

This is Australia. Seventeen-year-old Chan, fiercely independent and self-sufficient, keeps her head down and lives quietly, careful not to draw attention to herself amidst the violence and disorder. Until the day she makes an extraordinary discovery – a way to return the Australia to Earth. But doing so would bring her to the attention of the fanatics and the murderers who control life aboard the ship, putting her and everyone she loves in terrible danger.

And a safe return to Earth is by no means certain.” (Hodder Books)

 

When I think about this book, I’m reminded of the front cover, or, more specifically, of a less stylized central well of the huge ship Australia. The protagonist looks up into the darkness, at the layer up on layer of decks, crumbling down around her, at the stained and rusted metal of the hulk that she calls home. I have a lot of feelings about this book. Touching on science fiction and horror with a gothic vibe, think dystopia but in space.

Story: 4.5 /5

  • The premise caught my attention immediately. I am a huge sci fi fan, anything that takes me into the dark decaying outer reaches of space automatically ticks a massive box for me. This story focuses on the society that has been created by the environment of the ship; how people have changed how they live their lives, abandoning many of our social values to survive. It’s brutal, in many places quite gory, and touches on some dark themes but I do think that’s part of the appeal. I really enjoyed the direction that the story took and can’t wait to see how it continues.

Character: 3.5/5

  • The characters seem pretty uncomplicated, the book doesn’t delve any great depths in Chan’s soul. I felt that if we had replaced Chan, nothing much really would have changed. A bit like Darrow from Red Rising, Chan felt like a figurehead the story rode upon, rather than the central personality of the story itself. Not that I think that’s a problem, some books are character driven, others are world driven and this book just happens to be one of the latter.
  • That being said, I did care about the protagonist and those that she met on her way. This book wouldn’t have worked if you didn’t genuinely feel upset about the idea of Chan or those around her dying. Probably my favourite character of the lot was Jonah, a young man raised in one of the strange cults found at the very apex of the ship. Interestingly, there was no romance between Chan and Jonah, simply what could be counted as friendship in the increasingly uncertain environ of the ship.

Worldbuilding: 5/5

  • Smythe creates a brutal world filled with humans returning to primeval states and end of day cults. Every moments of the characters lives are spent eking out survival on the dying hulk of the Australia. You have those who have reverted to a base state of violence, those who desperately try to keep the old systems of the ship alive for future generations, and those who believe their suffering has some kind of higher meaning.
  • I ended up having a really vivid view of the ‘Australia’ in my head, a sad semi-abandoned infinity-bound ship, whose inhabitants were many many generations removed from the first that had called it home. They had little choices in their life, with options growing ever and ever smaller as the ship begins to fail.

Ending: 4.5/5

  • Ok, I admit, the twist wasn’t all that shocking. I’m not sure whether that’s because I’ve watched too many sci fi movies, but regardless, I found I didn’t really care that it wasn’t too much of a surprise. I wanted to grab a copy of the second book immediately after reading it, partly because it ended on a strange pseudo cliffhanger and, partly just because I love Smythe’s writing style.

The Nitty Gritty: 5/5

  • Did I mention that I love Smythe’s writing style? It somehow manages to be stark, creepy and yet, at the same time, imbued with a dreamlike quality. Pacing was, likewise, impeccable. ‘Way Down Dark’ isn’t a fast book by any definitions but it never felt as if it was dragging, every moment felt tense and necessary.

Conclusion: A dark and gripping ode to survival in a world where what makes us human seems less and less clear cut. One to begin because you enjoy the old sci fi classics, and one to finish because you’ve fallen for it entirely on its own merits. Definitely a book I will be recommending to the sci fi inclined teenagers and adults that I know.

For readers who enjoyed: Red Rising (Pierce Brown), Illuminae (Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff), Battlestar Galactica (2004 remake)

 

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