Flame in the Mist (Renée Ahdieh)

5 stars

“Mariko has always known that being a woman means she’s not in control of her own fate. But Mariko is the daughter of a prominent samurai and a cunning alchemist in her own right, and she refuses to be ignored. When she is ambushed by a group of bandits known as the Black Clan enroute to a political marriage to Minamoto Raiden – the emperor’s son – Mariko realises she has two choices: she can wait to be rescued… or she can take matters into her own hands, hunt down the clan and find the person who wants her dead.

Disguising herself as a peasant boy, Mariko infiltrates the Black Clan’s hideout and befriends their leader, the rebel ronin Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, Okami. Ranmaru and Okami warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. But as Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets that will force her to question everything she’s ever known.”

So, ‘Flame in the Mist’ had been one of my most anticipated reads of this year ever since it was announced. That’s a lot to live up to and I was both excited and nervous when I received an ARC copy, wondering whether it could live up to my expectations.

Thankfully, I adored this book…

flame-in-the-mist-renee-ahdieh

Characters

Mariko, our protagonist is more interested in inventing things, whether they be objects that explode or those more practical, than being a Daimyō‘s daughter. The funny thing is that she’s actually kind of useless at first in the society of the Black Clan. She can’t cook, can’t cut fire wood, has pretty terrible upper body strength, and manages to make an enemy of pretty much everyone she meets. Maybe sometimes overestimating her own cunning and making chaos of situations, she’s a nightmare and I loved her.

Her twin brother, Kenshin, also known as the Dragon of Kai, is already a greatly revered Samurai warrior. He is equally as fierce as his sister and deeply protective of her, sometimes struggling with tenents of Bushidō relating to self control. One thing I couldn’t work out during the book is whether Kenshin actually has some magic of his own, mages are rare in the book but destruction seems to come to him far too easily. Fear for his sister, the complex political wranglings of the Imperial Court and having to lead a band of Samurai almost twice his age seem to push Kenshin to the brink and I’m pretty curious and worried to see how the next book works out for him.

Okami is, unsurprisingly, one of my favourite characters. Seemingly a little lazy and unkempt, the actually rather dangerous and dark-magic-wielding  second in command of the Black Clan has some of the best lines in the book:

‘My life has been filled with death and lies and loose women…I regret everything else.’

Like, what am I supposed to do with that? Witty and a dashing facial scar? He almost comes with a sticker on his head saying ‘this one is going to be your favourite character‘. I also enjoyed just how infuriating he found Mariko in her guise as a young man, seeing her as little more than a burden and a risk to the Black Clan.

Ah, hate to love, isn’t it glorious?

Story

Often touted as a combination of the Chinese story of Mulan and the Japanese tales of the 47 Rōnin, I will say that, plotwise, it takes a lot more from the latter. It is a Mulan retelling to the extent that Mariko disguises herself as a man and in some aspects of the romance, but the actual story is much closer to the Japanese stories of the rōnin, leaderless samurai, seeking revenge for the death of their daimyō.

It’s a slow story, but I’m glad that was the case. Ahdieh’s descriptions and character building take time and space, she has a wonderful way with words that often made me want to read the story aloud. Likewise, she takes time to allow character relationships to blossom, often leaving the exact feelings of characters towards one another as confused or amorphous, which, let’s be honest, is often exactly how close bonds form.

One thing I have, unfortunately, found over my years of reading is that it’s really difficult to find fantasy set in a Feudal Japanese setting that doesn’t make my eyes roll out of my head. Between painful tropes, fetishization and a basic misunderstanding  of Japanese cultural identity, finding good books has really been luck of the draw. This book was a breath of fresh air in that respect.

Flame in the Mist‘ is a sensitive portrayal of a fantasy feudal Japan. The story could not be told without its setting, it’s much more than scenic window-dressing, with Ahdieh addressing the political and cultural implications of Bushidō, ‘the way of the warrior’, as one of the central pillarstones of the story. It explores the duality of a fantasy Edo period and shogunate culture, where warriors such as the Samurai lived by the laws of Bushidō, including benevolence, integrity, loyalty and honour, but the structure of society enforced strict hierarchies with little or no social mobility. Ahdieh does a good job of explaining some more unfamiliar concepts in text, especially the omnipresent Bushidō code and the political importance of Geiko and the tea ceremonies.

It’s a story about revolution and social change, which, let’s be honest, is incredibly relevant right now. It asks questions about the status quo, about why it should be allowed to persist, whether it is even ethical for it continue in the way it is. Okami, for example, is vocally critical of the way of the Samurai and what he sees as unquestioning loyalty to an underserving upper echelon of society. I’m really excited to see how Ahdieh tackles some of those issues in the next book!

Note

I have seen one or two people comment that the use of Japanese in text is confusing or distracting for them. I would say that a) there’s a glossary at the back, b) the words are pretty easy to understand from context and cultural osmosis, and c) you’d probably just accept it if it was a fantasy novel. If you come from a martial arts background like me (Kendo), then you will probably have no problem with the words at all.

Conclusion

It was amazing, I read it too fast and now I’m going to have to wait painfully for book two. If you’re looking for a YA fantasy set in feudal Japan then this is the book for you; it’s beautifully written, sensitive to culture, has a perfect romance and is just, genuinely, everything that I wanted it to be.

Many thanks to Hodder and Stoughton 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.

The Upside of Unrequited (Becky Albertalli)

5 Stars

“Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?”

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, often preferring a heady dose of magic to reality. However, there are a handful of contemporary fiction writers that are autobuy for me, and Mrs Albertalli is just one of those writers. I picked up ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ last year at YALC and read the entire book in one sitting, falling in love with just how well Albertalli writes youth, especially those who live their teenage life towards the fringes, not popular but not exactly friendless either.

Her latest protagonist, Molly, falls into a similar segment of society. She’s well liked, has a happy home life, but is plagued with clinical anxiety and shyness which keeps her dreaming rather than acting upon any of her crushes. In Molly’s mind it is safer to pine from afar than risk the bitter sting of rejection. But watching her skinny twin, Cassie, fall in love, Molly begins to feel that she is being left behind, and begins to wonder whether she is the only barrier between herself and such happiness.

‘I’ve had crushes on twenty-six people, twenty-five of whom are not Lin-Manuel Miranda’

(I feel you, Molly)

This book was ridiculously cute and ridiculously relatable. I’m twenty three and I still feel the same nervous jitters when I come across someone I like and begin to wonder whether they could like me too. I think it will mean a lot to some teenagers readers to see a fat girl in a contemporary romance, to reassure young readers of all genders that being fat doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful or deserving of love.

‘There’s this awfulness that comes when a guy thinks you like him. It’s as if he’s fully clothed and you’re naked in front of him. It’s like your heart suddenly lives outside your body, and whenever he wants, he can reach out and squeeze it. Unless he happens to like you back.’

Without spoilers, the flirtation between Molly and her love interests was adorable. Hipster Will and Nerd Reid are definitely guys that I have met and dated. I’d also like to thank Albertalli for inserting the ??? into attraction. Sometimes those we come to love have things about them that are odd or a little off-putting at first but you come to accept as you grow to know them. It’s not something that is discussed often in romance, especially not teen romance!

I’d also like to put it out there that any scene about Molly’s mothers or their impending wedding made me tear right up. The world is a cold and cruel place to the LGBTQA community right now and this book was filled with the warmth and comfort that I have been craving. It also made me so happy to see bi women in relationships with women still being referred to as bi. It’s all too easy for authors to erase a character’s bi identity in a relationship and I felt all fuzzy to see that not happening here.

So, my loves: relatable non-cookie-cutter lead, a distinct lack of instalove, diversity, accurate depictions of anxiety, nerdom, oreos and arts and craft.

Dislikes? I don’t know what you expected me to put here because I loved it all.

‘The Upside of Unrequited’ is out on both sides of the Atlantic on the 11th of April (not long now!) and I seriously recommend you all go and pick it up (and ‘Simon’ if you haven’t already read it!).

Many thanks to Penguin Random House for a copy in return for an honest review. All quotations were drawn from an advanced review copy and may be subject to change in the final novel.

The City Stained Red (Sam Sykes)

citystainedred_comic_page1

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.

Apprentice (Rachel E Carter)

apprentice-review-header

5 stars

So, if you were feeling a little ambivalent at the end of ‘First Year’, I’ll let you in on a little secret…’Apprentice’ is incredible.

I’m not usually the sort of person that writes gushing, overexcited reviews, but this book deserves one. So, we left Ryiah in emotional turmoil at the end of book one, ecstatically happy in one breath and desperately unhappy in another. She has gained both her heart’s desire and lost it.

‘Apprentice’ opens in the training ring, with Ryiah studying increasingly difficult combat spells and attempting to gain more control over her pain-casting. That in itself would be complicated enough did she not have to juggle interpersonal strife and her status as an apprentice battle mage in a country on the verge of war.

‘Apprentice’ covers the entire span of Ryiah’s training, through her every up and down, every failure and triumph. You follow her as she grows and matures, weaves and unravels friendships, and tries to work out exactly what it is that she wants out of life. She’s as bolshy and stubborn as ever, but there’s something about her particular journey in this book that meant I couldn’t put it down until I knew exactly what happened to her.

Her relationship with Darren is tumultuous, hot and cold, on and off, absolutely excruciating and yet, somehow, addictive. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book where I’ve been so invested in the relationship between two characters, so terrified and yet excited to turn the page and find out what happens next. There’s pain, and joy, and more pain, a rising crescendo of it right up to the last few pages.

‘Apprentice’ does have a love triangle, but not in the traditional sense. I actually thought it was really well handled, showing the more painful aspects of young love, how it can be unrequited, and the pain of one party realizing that they just do not love their partner in the way they feel they should.

I felt that Apprentice was tighter and more emotional for having fewer central characters. The ending of ‘First Year’, the choosing of the apprentices, fed into an environment where every character is competing but also having to support one another, because in many situations, if one loses then they all do. It meant you learned a lot more about character motivation and saw relationships building between characters that you only saw the very hints of in the first book. Every character is vulnerable in their own way, even those who are ostensibly strong.

This book hurts, and, for a book set in a magical world, it feels very real. For all that they’re axe and lightning wielding combat mages, they’re also teenagers crossing the border into adulthood. They fall in love with those they shouldn’t, fall out of love with themselves and struggle to find their place in the world. They’re endearing, troubled and torn and you just can’t help but find yourself rooting for each and every one of them.

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

The Bear and the Nightingale (Katherine Arden)

the-bear-and-the-nightingale

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

5* stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A song for reading: Anuna- Noel Nouvelet 

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.

The Alchemists of Loom (Elise Kova)

loom-facebook

Her vengeance. His vision.

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

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

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

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


 

☆☆☆☆☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilded Cage (Vic James)

gildedcageheader

☆☆☆☆☆

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

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


NOT ALL ARE FREE.

NOT ALL ARE EQUAL.

NOT ALL WILL BE SAVED. 

 

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

 

A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.

 

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

 

A boy dreams of revolution.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

(Del Rey)


 

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


gilded-cage-image-2

(‘Scene of Huddersfield’ by LS Lowry)


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


gilded-cage-kyneston

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


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

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

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

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

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