The Darkest Part of the Forest (Holly Black)

5 stars

“Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and a hollowed-out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin. It rested right on the ground, and in it slept a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives.” 

I’d had this book on my ‘to be read’ list for a while, but had somehow decided that it was another heterosexual faerie story that I wasn’t really all that interested in. Oh, how wrong I turned out to be…I can remember seeing this book recommended on a pride month list and being deeply confused. There were queer people in this book? Why had I never gotten that memo? So, queer people and faeries, this book immediately shot right up my reading list. It was a beautiful beautiful coincidence that the following day I happened upon a well loved hardback of this exact novel in my favourite charity bookshop. It was meant to be.

Hazel lives with her brother Ben and their somewhat unusual parents in the town of Fairfold, a town where faeries and humans tentatively co-exist. Faerie magic attracts tourists to the otherwise innocuous town, whilst locals side step faerie tricks by avoiding the deep woods and the full moon revels. Hazel knighted herself as a killer of monsters when she was very young, slipping into the forest with her brother to hunt the faeries that wished the people of Fairfold ill. But growing older has meant growing away from her childhood days of knighthood and growing away from the strange faerie music that her brother used to be able to wield. Now Hazel has put her sword to sleep, and Ben has locked his music away entirely.

People from far and wide travel to see Fairfold’s most unique attraction, a faerie boy with horns nestled in his curls, sleeping within a casket of glass. To the people of Fairfold he is an omnipresent spectre, the sleeping prince around which teenagers hold their own midnight revels and spill their secrets upon the glass.

Until one day they find the glass casket shattered, the faerie boy missing, and a strange ancient creature of sorrow stalking their once familiar forest.

I love faerie stories, always have done. Growing up, I too was raised in a faerie forest, rich with lore, dark and beautiful, and there was something about this book that perfectly captures that. It’s gnarled trees and crisp leaf litter, gurgling streams and paint smeared pages, the never-ever silence of the forest and nests of warm sheets. It’s boys and girls with glinting eyes and sharp smiles, the spin and surge of a faerie revel and the coolness of a full moon’s gaze. It’s everything that I wanted it to be.

“They are twilight creatures, beings of dawn and dusk, of standing between one thing and another, of not quite and almost, of borderlands and shadows.” 

Hazel, our protagonist, is a girl torn in two. Part of her yearns for normalcy, the rest of her rejects it as a cage. She feels that she is running on borrowed time after making a bargain with the Erl King in exchange for seven years of her life and fears that she must savour every moment as if it is her last. Hazel has always looked to her brother and her parents as ‘true creatives’, feeling as if she is living somewhat in their shadow. Once she was a killer of monsters and now she is finding that being ‘normal’ isn’t all it was cut out to be.

Not popular, but not quite ostracized, Hazel and her elder brother, Ben, both long for a faerie prince of their own. Fierce Hazel and soft musician Ben have spent all of their life spinning stories of the boy in the casket, now he is free and they’re not quite sure what to think. I loved the interactions that Black writes between these two, how both are deep wells of secrets united by a childhood spent entirely in each other’s company. They are siblings that truly love and support one another, especially growing up in a household where their parents were less than reliable.

A common point in both their lives is Jack, a faerie changeling who, unusually, lives alongside his human counterpart. Half Yoruban, with gorgeous high cheekbones, glowing brown eyes, silver loops in his ears and perfect hipster style, Hazel has the biggest crush on Jack, but doesn’t believe that he reciprocates it. I don’t want to say anything to ruin the plot, but he quickly became one of my favourite characters. Raised in the human world by a mother who refused to give him back to the fae, Jack is both part of the town of Fairfold and strangely separate. When faerie sentiment changes towards the town, and people start to get hurt, Jack becomes the focus of their attention. He is not one of them. It was heartbreaking to see how people reveal their true colours the moment that their hateful views become in any way ‘legitimized’.

Black has said that this story is set in the same faerie world as ‘Tithe’, ‘Valiant’ and ‘Ironside’, though in a court somewhat separate from those of the Seelie and Unseelie. I read ‘Tithe’ for the first time a week ago and loved it, but it’s incredible to see how much Black has grown as a story teller since then. This book is so lush and vibrant and chilling. I could rave for days about how much I love how smoothly she integrates lore and story and flashback. It’s perfect, it was honestly like reading a faerie tale from my childhood.

I’ve avoided talking about the boy in the casket here, mostly because anything I wanted to say felt like a spoiler. One of my favourite parts of the story was learning about him, so I won’t take that mystery away from you. I will say, however, that I adored how this story ended, so so much.

So, if you’re looking for a non heteronormative faerie story with all the richness and dark charm of the Erl King’s Court, filled with the creak of the old forest and the wild magic of the midnight hunt, I implore you to pick this book up. It exceeded every single one of my expectations.

“Stories like that were will-o’-the-wisps, glowing in the deepest, darkest parts of forests, leading travelers farther and farther from safety, out toward an ever-moving mark.” 

Tithe (Holly Black)

4.5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shattered Minds (Laura Lam)

4.5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Moroda (L.L. McNeil)

4 stars

I was pretty much sold on this book the moment the author described it as princes, dragons and sky pirates. Moroda is a young woman thrown into a jail cell after speaking out against an Arillian Lord  who seems to have her people in thrall. Normally quiet and unassuming, Moroda is forced into an unlikely alliance with a Sky Pirate named Amarah when a dragon attacks the city. The slaying of the usually peaceful dragon by a mysterious Arillian hunter and the realisation that the creature may have been under a similar thrall to the people of the town, sends Moroda, and a motley crew of fellow travellers, across continents in search of answers.

‘Moroda’ was a classic fantasy novel in almost every respect, from the wide range of magical races to the dragons and in depth consideration of personal values and morals. Our protagonist Moroda, and indeed the dragons within book, are advocates of nonviolent methods of conflict resolution. Indeed, the whole premise of the book seems to be that war between humanoids is pretty much meaningless in the face of the damage that we wreak on our environment and our world. What use is an end to war, when the destruction we’ve wrought with kill us all anyway? The question raised at the very end of the story seems almost to be ‘do these people even deserve the world that they live in?’

One of my favourite parts of the novel was the dragon lore. We have a world where the souls of dragons are the source of almost all magical power, to the extent that the oldest Sevastos dragons are pretty much worshipped as gods and creators. Phoenixes are found in greater numbers near the largest dragons, attracted to their heat and power,  and phoenix feathers can be used to scry for their location.

Alongside the dragons there are several humanoid fantasy species. Arillians are winged beings with a strange magic of their own; the Varkain are grey skinned creatures that can transform into venomous snakes and the Ittallans are also shapeshifters, though more humanoid in appearance.

One thing that I’ve heard recently from some of my friends is how eager they are for a fantasy series that doesn’t focus on romance. ‘Moroda’ was entirely romance free, and whilst I personally prefer a love subplot, I can totally see why that would be a selling point for many people!

I was also impressed with the ending, it really made sense with the tone of the rest of the novel, focusing on non-violence and sacrifice. I’m interested to see where the rest of the series goes from this, who of the characters will be the focus and, to be honest, whether any of them with even survive! It’s been a long time since I’ve been unable to predict where a series will go and it’s honestly quite exciting to be able to say that!

The not-so-good:

It’s only a small thing but during the reading experience I really felt as if we needed a map. I was having trouble working out where people were going and what they were doing. Ironically, I rarely actually look at maps in books, but I felt myself turning the page to go and look for one a couple of times whilst reading this. Something to consider for future books in the series maybe!

The other small criticism I have is that the book felt very dialogue heavy. The thing with dialogue is that I like it fleeting and to try and mirror actual speech as much as possible, otherwise I end up skimming it. Pretty much every explanation in this book took place via speech and I wondered whether it would have been better explained via an internal voice recap, a letter or some other method, to allow the speech to be more playful and less ponderous.

Conclusion

It’s been a while since I read a pure adventure fantasy and it was really refreshing to do so. Dragons, soul magic and sky pirates all combine into a rollicking start to what looks to be an interesting series. I look forward to seeing where the next book takes what is left of our motley crew!

Many thanks to L. L McNeil for a free copy in return for an honest review. All opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

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!

A Court of Wings and Ruin (Sarah J Maas)

5 stars

Spoilers linger ahead, turn back if thou hast not read ACOWAR.

“I would have waited five hundred more years for you. A thousand years. And if this was all the time we were allowed to have… the wait was worth it.”

I think that, luckily, I didn’t go into this book expecting ACOMAF. Why? Because it’s the end of an arc, there’s war, destruction, pain, whilst ACOMAF was about healing, and joy and wonder. I also went into this with my heart in my throat, wondering whether, as a bisexual wlw, I would find this book as offensive as the internet had been saying. I was actually in quite a dark place starting this book, my grandmother had just died, I was 1000 miles from home and horribly homesick, I could feel my anxiety as a constant pressure in my chest. The ACOTAR series has always been like a comfort blanket for me, too many times I’ve curled up with ‘don’t let the hard days win’ on my lips. The thought that had been planted in me, that this book could hurt me, made me feel ill, I desperately didn’t want it to be true. I made sure to read it critically, listening to what people had been saying, but, personally, as a bi woman I didn’t find any of it offensive (though I agree, the acephobic is painfully acephobic). There are definitely one or two things I would love to just sit down and educate Sarah about, namely NB genders, but I felt that there was a real effort made to include more diverse identities in this book. I’ve seen a lot of people saying that Sarah ignores the comments made about her lack of diversity, but I think this book really does show that she’s listening.

ACOWAR begins maybe a week after ACOMAF left off, with Feyre infiltrating the Spring Court, now allied with Hybern, and gathering information for the Court of Dreamers. Feyre is playing the part of a ‘perfect Bride of Spring’, painting, helping organize festivals…sowing unrest and discord in the Court. When commanders from Hybern arrive in the Court, alongside the dastardly Jurian, so begins a dangerous game…

I will start by saying that I know this book, or indeed any of Sarah’s books, are not for everyone. This entire series is about love, romance and sex, so if that’s not your cup of tea then you might as well pick up another book. There are lines in here that I find incredibly beautiful and others find incredibly cheesy. I’m pretty sure that a couple of years ago I would not have enjoyed this series as much as I do now. How we enjoy books is never based entirely on the books, but also on things we have experienced, things that have happened to us…

‘Night Triumphant- and the Stars Eternal. If he was the sweet, terrifying darkness, I was the glittering light that only his shadows could make clear.’

If you don’t subscribe to the soulmate philosophy, then I can just tell you straight off the bat that some parts of this will make you want to scream. I am, however, an enormous romantic; the idea of finding a partner where both of you are the better for your partnership, just makes me well up. The relationship between Feyre and Rhysand across this series is just so perfect, so secure and safe and heartfelt, it’s really going to be hard to find another couple that can even come close. They’re just so good for each other, both feeling able to lower their masks and open their hearts to one another. The mating bond is definitely a magical extension of the intuitive nature of some relationships. I also really enjoyed that there were some times where the two of them stepped on one another’s toes, where they annoyed or worried the other. I honestly don’t think a relationship is as strong as it originally seems until you’ve seen it weather a storm, or ford a river crossing. Arguments are natural, expected, it would be bizarre if couples didn’t disagree about some things.

Feyre
Feyre’s growth as a character in this book was just incredible. Watching her embrace her fears and say and do the things that had always lived somewhere deep in her heart was just so gratifying. Feyre, the woman who had survived homelessness, starvation, torture, accepting her past, accepting herself and mastering the mirror…wow, I was so impressed with her arc. I also enjoyed that she wasn’t instinctively good at flying, did not master the skill in an unbelievable time frame and would probably need to keep working on it even after the end of the book. Watching Feyre grow into a true High Lady, and how her relationships blossomed with the other members of the Court of Dreamers, drawing out the truth of each of the characters…ah, I’m so ready to reread and experience that all again.

Rhys
I’d seen some comments that Rhysand seemed out of character, ‘too soft’, in this book and I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about that. In ACOTAR we saw only the mask, in ACOMAF the mask slipped away, in ACOWAR we saw the heart of Rhys. I honestly believe that, from the end of ACOMAF, Rhys knew that he would die, that his gentleness in this book came from constant integration of every possibility and the realization that all of them ended in his death. He takes every moment of happiness he possibly can, makes sure, with every moment, that Feyre knows that he loves her and would spend every second of eternity with her if he could.

“The great joy and honour of my life has been to know you. To call you my family. And I am grateful – more than I can possibly say – that I was given this time with you all”

I know that a lot of people relate to Feyre, but, personally, I relate more with Rhysand. Feyre’s depression is very visible, very obvious, whilst Rhys hides his behind a mask of half smiles and glib comments, isolating himself from those he loves because he considers himself a burden. Feyre wastes away, Rhys is actively reckless with his life, spending every ounce of himself and his self worth upon those he loves. Even his beast form, with its cruel talons and inhuman face, seems like a metaphor for internalised self loathing, a part of himself that he really hates to let others see. You feel as if Rhys has always been hiding parts of himself, well before Amarantha’s torture, that from a young age he was aware of the suffering around him and that it pained him.

‘Everyone insists Rhysand is soulless, wicked. But the male I knew was the most decent of them all.’ (Jurian)

He was written so well, so honestly, that I could almost know what he was going to do before he did it. The respect that he has for Feyre, his trust in her and her abilities honestly made me well up in places. Feeling and caring, sensitivity and gentleness and love does not make someone weak, and I didn’t really like the implication that Rhysand was in this book. If you think that a man dealing with trauma and fear and the coming of war is ‘weak’, then you’re part of the problem and you can come and fight me to be honest.

The Court of Dreams
I won’t lie, the moment we met Cassian in the snow of the Winter Court, I wanted to be the one to throw my arms around his chest. I missed my Court of Dreamers so much in the Spring Court, I missed their laughter, joy and support for one another. Seeing Feyre becoming an integral part of that circle, to see their love for Rhys become love for Feyre…eugh, my heart. I think the dynamic of the Court, watching as Nesta, Elain and, towards the end, Lucien, became enveloped to varying extents into their circle, was just…I loved it.

I liked Cassian and Azriel in ACOMAF, but, after finishing ACOWAR I adored them. Seeing how much they cared for Feyre, not just as Rhys’ mate, not just as High Lady, but as a friend…how they would die for her and for her sisters, I have no words for how much I felt about that. Azriel’s rage at hearing how Tamlin had turned violent around Feyre, his gentleness around broken Elain, Cassian’s desperation to save Nesta even when his body was broken…the depth of their love for those around them is just unbounded. I personally, would love to see Azriel and Elain happy together, multiple times throughout the book Sarah’s pointed out that sometimes the mating bond just doesn’t work, just isn’t right and I think even Lucien has come to see their bond as something strange and inexplicable. I ship Lucien with Vassa to be honest, I feel that would be one hell of a relationship, and I really think he deserves someone who loves him as much as he loves them, especially after all that Ianthe did to him. Gentle Elain with her green fingers, her love of beauty and her fierce loyalty to her family, Azriel whose life has been shadows and pain but has seen the joy of love from afar…I just want them to be happy. If that happiness is together or in another pairing I don’t mind, just let them be happy.

Nesta and Cassian were just…I already enjoyed their relationship in ACOMAF, but there’s so much more depth in ACOWAR, with even Nesta letting her own mask slip when concerned about the Illyrian General. I will be disappointed, to say the least, if one of the novels is not about these two, I think there is so much more to be said with them, bear in mind that they only met one another in a time of war when so much else was at stake. Does it matter whether the mating bond snaps into place for them? Not really, I always got the feeling that being ‘mated’ was actually not all that common, a little like finding your soul mate and, I almost wonder whether you kind of had to be looking for your soulmate for that to happen. I can’t imagine that was particularly high on either Nesta or Cassian’s priorities. Relationships are different for everyone and I don’t think a relationship without a mating bond is lesser to one with. But who knows, maybe it will snap into place at some point in the next few books.

I’ve seen some people say that they think the inner circle are a bit too blasé, a bit silly almost and I have some things to say about that. I’m a ‘military brat’, I grew up surrounded by battle hardened soldiers and one thing they have almost universally is the most childish sense of humour I have ever come across, sure it dips into darkness every now and then, but for the majority of the time eye rolling and tongue sticking out it entirely par for course. I mean, even for me as a Doctor, do you honestly think we’re serious all the time. Dealing with death painfully often makes you more likely to be cracking dumb jokes and not giving a crap what anyone thinks about it, because you know too much about the frailty of life.

I felt really bad for Mor in this book, really bad…it seemed that, whilst the situation was terrible for everyone, it was really unravelling for her. Being forced to interact with abusers…watching compromise having to be made with those abusers, I mean, there was no choice, without the Autumn Court, without Keir’s forces, they would not have won, but still, it would really have had a serious impact on Mor’s security. For her to maybe no longer feel that she’s safe in her own city, eugh, my heart hurt reading that part. My heart hurt when Feyre yelled at her about things she couldn’t understand, when she struggled to find a way to explain to Azriel that she could not love him that way, when Feyre tricked her into letting her go to the Middle…seriously, Mor really got dealt some of the most painful blows in this book. I just hope that Sarah gives her a wonderful, loving lady in later books, and I hope that the splintering of the relationship between her and the rest of the circle is healed with time.

Sexual Identity
Since Rhys’ mask came down in ACOMAF, I’ve read him as demisexual, someone who feels sexual attraction only to those they have an emotional bond with. The emotional bond doesn’t have to be ‘true love’, just emotional intimacy and trust. I don’t think Sarah wrote him that way intentionally, I just honestly think that lots of people are demisexual but maybe have never considered that part of themselves. It’s an identity that I’ve been turning over in my hands, trying to get a feel for, wondering whether it might apply to me for a while, and I read a lot of my own feelings in Rhys, his flirtations with those other than Feyre not filled with any real sexual desire. You get the feeling he’d never really act on anything without truly knowing them, truly feeling as if he could trust them. The idea that much of that had to do with his trauma at the hands of Amarantha, doesn’t make his potential demisexuality any less valid. Being hurt and betrayed by others can definitely impact on your romantic and sexual identities.

That leads very much into the next point that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I came into this book expecting that I might find problems with the way that Mor ‘being a lesbian’ was handled, only to find that she wasn’t even a lesbian at all! From what I understand as a bi wlw, Mor is a homoromantic bisexual, which means that she enjoys sex with more than one gender but is more often than not only romantically attracted to her own gender. ‘I prefer females‘ seems to be the line that has confused people. The thing is, it is perfectly valid as a bi person to be more attracted to a specific gender, bisexuality is a spectrum and it is perfectly normal to feel more attraction to certain genders than others and still consider yourself attracted to all. The fact that she seems unsatisfied after her sex with Helion seems more to do with the fact she was only having sex with Helion to avoid having to talk to Azriel than the fact that she didn’t like taking male lovers.

‘I do find pleasure in them. In both. But I’ve known, since I was little more than a child, that I prefer females. That I’m…attracted to them more over males. That I connect with them, care for them more on that soul-deep level.’

Homoromantic bisexual…that is literally what she is describing. She’s not bad lesbian rep because she’s not a lesbian at all. It is not homophobic for Mor to say that sometimes she wants male lovers, because she’s bisexual, and erasing that part of her identity is just gross, please stop. I actually found Mor’s story heartbreaking because I see so many similarities with myself.

‘It was Nephelle and her lover- now her wife, I suppose- who made me dare to try. They made me so jealous. Not of them personally, but just…of what they had. Their openness.’

Because being in the closet off the internet can be so heartbreakingly difficult. Seeing people so open in their love and just not being able to find it in yourself to explain the way that you feel to family and friends because some part of you is so scared that it could tear everything asunder, destroy everything that you have. Even the part of Mor that can’t love Azriel, I relate to that so much…I once had a friend that I adored, one of the best friends I ever had, and he loved me in a different way to how I loved him. I tried a relationship because part of me thought that being lovers can’t be that different to being friends, but every time he kissed me or touched me I felt repulsed, because I just didn’t love him that way and in the end I had to explain that and it destroyed our friendship. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him that way that hurt, it was that I had lied to myself and lied to him about the fact I just didn’t see him that way.

So, I don’t think Mor’s story is bad rep, I think that it’s complicated rep, maybe too complicated for a YA book (not that I really think ACOTAR is YA) but at the same time, reading through ACOMAF I honestly think that Mor has been queer right from the start and I was really happy to see parts of myself in Sarah’s books where there had been very few queer identities before.

There are two more points about sexual identity that I want to deal with, Helion and that acephobic paragraph.

‘Dagdan and Brannagh had listened to her fawning with enough boredom that I was starting to wonder if the two of them perhaps preferred no one’s company but each other’s. In whatever unholy capacity. Not a blink of interest toward the beauty who often made males and females stop to gape. Perhaps any sort of physical passion had long ago been drained away, alongside their souls.’

Everytime I see that paragraph I groan because it is acephobic, I don’t think she intended it to be, I genuinely think she was probably horrified when she found out. It reads more like ignorance than malice. Two characters, evil, twins, probably incestuous…literally, this paragraph causes me physical pain because I can just see how hurtful it could be to people and I just honestly don’t believe that Sarah had any idea that it was the case. Being on the internet, learning about different sexual identities, having asexual friends has opened my eyes, but if you haven’t had that kind of awakening…I know lots of people who hold a lot of internalised bullshit that they’ve not yet worked through. This reads a lot like that, and I hope that it leads to some reading that stops it happening again. I honestly don’t believe that a single person exists on this planet who doesn’t hold some kind of internal bigotry, the important part is recognizing that and working to erase it from your thought process and prevent it from hurting others.

Now, Helion…I’ve also seen some very angry stuff online about how he’s a trope, how he’s a hypersexualised stereotype and biphobic, which I don’t agree with? Not all bisexuals fit into a nice little box, some of us really like sex, others not so much, some of us are poly, others not…saying a bisexual character is biphobic for enjoying sex or wanting a threesome is kind of hurtful. Is someone’s bisexuality less valid if they like these things? That sounds an awful lot like slut shaming. I can understand some people not seeing it as representative of their bisexuality but I think it’s disingenuous to say it is outright biphobic, not when other bisexual characters such as Rhy Maresh and Monty (A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue) also are shown as louche and flirtatious and don’t get half of the vitriol. Helion’s love of sex is literally mentioned once, at that point, and, if I remember correctly, not again after that. He has a really interesting character development, and a story that I hope Sarah goes into more detail in later books. I’m really fascinated to see how the news that he is Lucien’s father goes down!!

Diversity
So, one of the things that Sarah has been panned for in the past is her lack of diversity, and I agree, most of Throne of Glass was the whitest, most hetero thing I have ever read. You can tell from ACOWAR that she is really listening and trying. Many of the High Lords we are introduced to in this books are POC, Drakon and Miryam are POC, Lucien is biracial, Illyrians are confirmed as brown, not simply tan, making Rhys, the main love interest, not white. There are definitely some identities missing, for example, trans and NB characters and more varied sexualities, but this book was almost unrecognizable to the white out of TOG and is substantially more diverse than many fantasy books I’ve read recently.

Conclusion
I think it’s obvious from this enormous review that I have a LOT of thoughts about this book and what it does well and maybe what it does not so well. I knew when I started reading that it would not be another ACOMAF, this is book about pain, war and loss, about the fear of waking up one more to a world without the one you love. The ending filled my heart with joy. It was 3am and I was sitting in the dark, clutching my kindle and sobbing because I was just so satisfied and so excited to see more of the world that Sarah has created. Maybe not perfect, but complicated and beautiful.

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 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.

A Quiet Kind of Thunder (Sara Barnard)

a-quiet-kind-of-thunder

“Steffi doesn’t talk, but she has so much to say. Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen. Their love isn’t a lightning strike, it’s the rumbling roll of thunder. 

Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk and, as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.”

4 stars

I was going to start this review by yelling about how cute this book was. But I just didn’t think that did it justice. Yes, this story is really really cute and I enjoyed it a lot, but it’s also really important. Our protagonist, Steffi, is selectively mute and struggles with anxiety that underpins every single one of her daily interactions. Our love interest, Rhys, is biracial and was born deaf. Steffi, having learnt some BSL to help her communicate when unable to talk, is roped in by her school to help new boy Rhys settle in and they end up finding that the other is the person they feel they’ve always been looking for.

This idea could have ended up really twee, but instead Barnard was honest about some of the difficulties of Steffi and Rhys’ friendship and relationship. There is no awkward feeling that Steffi or Rhys are ‘saved’ by the others existence, or that they couldn’t live their lives without the other, they just really enjoy being together. Indeed, there are a number of believable miscommunications between them fuelled by Steffi’s low self esteem and the fact that Rhys isn’t automatically the perfect human being just because he’s a disabled main character. Both seem beautifully and realistically human  and the relationship between them was so engaging I ended up sitting down and reading the book in one go.

But the relationship isn’t the only talking point of the book, in fact, I’d say it was only one of the plot points in a book that dealt with emotional discussions of grief, therapy and life long female friendship. Steffi is a character that will probably feel instantly recognizable to anyone with anxiety, but even to those who are less familiar, her friendship with her best friend and the way it morphs, changes and strengthens over time is so important. Changing schools, relationships, different life courses all can strain friendships, making those in them fear they may become distant from those that have been part of their lives for as long as they can remember. It was really lovely to see a female friendship meet those challenges and grow from it, not falter in the face of adversity.

For me, the thing that knocked it down a star was the last fifty pages or so. Without giving spoilers, Steffi comes to a realization in the last page that, as someone with anxiety, I feel maybe should have had a little more time spent upon.  I just don’t feel that the decision she made had enough time to come to fruition in the little time spent on it. It felt like a drastic turn around on her thinking in the rest of the book. Whilst her epiphany was a healthy one, it’s very difficult for someone with their anxieties so ingrained to come to that thought process so quickly. The thinking that goes into something like that, something which fights against every iota of your insecurities, feels like torture and I wish that had been given a little more page space.

Overall, this was a great book. Sweet, sad and truthful, it managed to share the beauty of a burgeoning relationship without every shying away from the common, and more specific, pitfalls of the main characters love.

Thank you to Pan Macmillan for a copy in return for an honest review.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Kij Johnson)

thedreamquest

Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the prestigious Ulthar Women’s College. When one of her most gifted students elopes with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt must retrieve her.

But the journey sends her on a quest across the Dreamlands and into her own mysterious past, where some secrets were never meant to surface.

4 stars

So, when I first picked up a copy of this book I, somehow, neglected to notice that it was based on the Lovecraft mythos (more, specifically, ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’) and, once I realised this, I spent a while torn between continuing as I was and reading up around the base concept. In the end I sort of did a bit of both.

I can happily say that this book is accessible to any and all, you don’t have to know anything about Lovecraft’s work to enjoy it. I’d read a little of Lovecraft’s work but found it very difficult to overlook the racism and sexism that is prevalent in it. Beautiful ideas utterly mired by disgusting prejudice. Johnson’s book almost reads as a commentary on that, a bit of a ‘what we could have had’ if the Lovecraft stories weren’t so hostile to women. Vellitt Boe acts as foil throughout the book, correcting some of the more troubling assumptions of the original books and gently critiquing the misogyny of Lovecraft’s male protagonists, namely Randolph Carter, the protagonist of the original ‘Dream-Quest’.

‘He loved who he was: Randolph Carter, master dreamer, adventurer. To him, she has been landscape, an articulate crag he could ascend, a face to put to this place. When were women ever anything but footnotes to men’s tales?’

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book is the voice of the protagonist. Vellitt Boe is an elderly woman, a character who has settled down to a life of quiet academia after decades of adventure, before being pulled into it once more. It’s so rare to read about older women in fantasy, especially not elderly women who are the heroes of the story.

Even without focusing on the important social commentary aspects, this is a beautiful book. It is entirely possible to get lost in the Dreamlands with Vellitt Boe. It has all the haunting beauty of the Mythos’ original ideas, but written in a more accessible, less rambling manner. The author mentioned in the afterword that she can remember the first time she read ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ at the age of 10, and that, even though being troubled by the racism, the ideas of the Dreamlands had stuck with her. You can see the nostalgia in this book, that of Vellitt Boe travelling the roads she travelled as a young woman, and that of Johnson giving voice to the worlds she had adored and devoured as a child.

Whether it be the wild landscapes and creatures of the Dreamlands, or the well trodden paths of our own modern world,  Johnson finds beauty in both the extravagant and the mundane. Throughout the story you feel you are taking the journey with Vellitt, through places both bizarre and somehow familiar, and into the memories of a life fully lived.

Thank you very much to Macmillan-Tor/Forge for a copy in return for an honest review.

For those who are wondering, the beautiful cover art is by the wonderful Victo Ngai