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)

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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 

Dreadnought (April Daniels)

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Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero. Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, Danny was trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender. But before he expired, Dreadnought passed his mantle to her, and those secondhand superpowers transformed Danny’s body into what she’s always thought it should be. Now there’s no hiding that she’s a girl.

It should be the happiest time of her life, but Danny’s first weeks finally living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined. Between her father’s dangerous obsession with “curing” her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he’s entitled to date her, and her fellow superheroes arguing over her place in their ranks, Danny feels like she’s in over her head.

She doesn’t have time to adjust. Dreadnought’s murderera cyborg named Utopiastill haunts the streets of New Port City, threatening destruction. If Danny can’t sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.”

4 Stars

Many thanks to Diversion Books for providing me a copy in return for a honest review.

This is a really important book. I think, off the top of my head, I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read with trans characters. Considering how many friends and people I know that identify as trans or nonbinary, its actually pretty terrible how little representation there is for them in TV, film and books. This book is extra special because its accessible to the people who really need to be exposed to this book, your middle grade and younger adult readers.

‘Dreadnought’ did a really good job of taking the kind of high tech, metahuman world we see in X-Men and using it to examine real world problems. A world that will accept a flying green man but still balks at transwomen. It’s about hypocrisy in the face of progress and ‘equality for all…except you’.

I also feel this book really speaks to our current generation, kids who are finding themselves on the internet and our need for superheroes in a disappointing and downright dangerous world. We have an MC, Danny, who knows her own mind and is yet constantly told that she’s too young to make decisions for herself, to ‘consider’ the wants of her parents and put them before herself. I like that the book definitively calls out the vileness that Danny is subjected to. Misgendering? Slayed. Discrimination? Pulled up by the scruff of the neck. Trans-exclusionary rad fems? Slam dunked in the trash can.

It’s a short read, with a sparky, quick moving story that doesn’t shy away from confronting prejudice. I think one of my favourite messages of the book is that being a lawful good superhero shouldn’t stop you from examining your prejudices; that even a saint can be a bigot if they don’t listen to those around them.

Why not 5 stars?

I’m writing this review as a white cis bi woman so please correct me if you feel I’ve said something offensive/ incorrect. This book is #ownvoices, and it’s telling a really important story. My one big qualm with ‘Dreadnought’ was that, ironically, it did not feel that friendly to LGBT teens. In depicting the discrimination against Danny a lot of really quite nasty slurs were used, and, whilst, that’s good at teaching your average white teen about what it can feel like to be LGBT (and here more specifically trans) it can be a hostile environment for a young reader who wants to read about people like them.

It’s a difficult line to tread and, whilst I felt the ending was quite empowering, I’m not sure whether there were too many slurs used throughout. I’ve never had most of those words used against me and I felt uncomfortable. Now imagine you’re a 15 year old kid who is feeling really down, really isolated and wants to read a book about people like them. Is that kid really going to be glad about the MC being called a f*gg*t and being subjected to violent transmisogyny? I’d be interested to see what other readers thought. Maybe the book could have come with a trigger warning just to warn kids that it’s maybe one to save for when they’re feeling a bit more secure?

The Bear and the Nightingale (Katherine Arden)

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“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)

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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)

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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!