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.” 

Godblind (Anna Stephens)

4.5 Stars

“The Mireces worship the bloodthirsty Red Gods. Exiled from Rilpor a thousand years ago, and left to suffer a harsh life in the cold mountains, a new Mireces king now plots an invasion of Rilpor’s thriving cities and fertile earth.

Dom Templeson is a Watcher, a civilian warrior guarding Rilpor’s border. He is also the most powerful seer in generations, plagued with visions and prophecies. His people are devoted followers of the god of light and life, but Dom harbors deep secrets, which threaten to be exposed when Rillirin, an escaped Mireces slave, stumbles broken and bleeding into his village.

Meanwhile, more and more of Rilpor’s most powerful figures are turning to the dark rituals and bloody sacrifices of the Red Gods, including the prince, who plots to wrest the throne from his dying father in the heart of the kingdom. Can Rillirin, with her inside knowledge of the Red Gods and her shocking ties to the Mireces King, help Rilpor win the coming war?”

I’d been itching for a good bit of dark fantasy for a while, so when I weirdly ended up with two copies of ‘Godblind’ I had a feeling that it was just ‘meant to be’. I actually took a good two weeks reading this, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I wanted to savour it.

The Rilporins have been favoured by the Gods of the Light, the Dancer and her son, the Fox God. Peace has reigned for many years, with their enemies, the Mireces, and their Red Gods exiled to the inhospitable mountains, held at bay by the powers of the Light. But now the Mireces are on the move, hoping to tear the veil that keeps their Red Gods from the mortal world. The most assured way to break that veil? To spill truly epic amounts of blood in the name of their Gods…

I should probably point out at this moment that this book does fall into the grimdark category. If you haven’t read grimdark in the past, that basically means dark fantasy with characters that are more often than not grey morality or outright amoral. Plots are often ruthless and brutal with much death, and kind of make ‘Game of Thrones’ look positively lighthearted. If that isn’t your thing then you probably won’t enjoy this book very much. As with much grimdark there are quite a few content warnings that I’d like to put out there: violence, torture, religious sacrifice, self injury, internalized homophobia, rape and mutilation. They’re not one time warnings either, they occur multiple times throughout the book, and I don’t say that as criticism, I say that as fact. If you like your fantasy a little more forgiving then this book probably isn’t for you.

If, you know, that does sound like your kind of thing, then please continue.

One of my favourite things about this book was the characters, especially those of Rillirin,Tara, Dom and Crys…though, to be honest, I found all of them interesting in their own way. Rillirin is one of the first characters that we meet, a bed slave of the Mireces King and, honestly, one of my favourite female characters that I’ve read in a while. Seeing her flee from the Mireces, become a stronger person and begin to heal from her trauma, I found it was really great to meet a female character who didn’t have to fit the cookie cutter mold of ‘strong female protagonist’. Rillirin is strong,  but she’s also learning and growing and healing and I can’t wait to see where her story continues in later books.

“Then fuck you all, she thought, I’ll save myself.”

The quotation above is a perfect example of all the great women in this book, from Tara, the excellent Rilporin officer who consistently has to deal with men casting aspersions about how she climbed the ranks, to Gilda, an older woman and priestess who spits in the face of those who come to burn her town, and Lanta, a priestess of the Red Gods who is attempting to seize power for herself from the Mireces Kings. It was really nice to read some grimdark written by a woman, in that the female characters were much more than emotional cannon fodder.

The character of Dom is a fascinating one. I can see a couple of different directions in which his story might go. Out of all the characters in this book, his situation is probably the most tenuous. As a seer he is truly at the mercy of the Gods, who can enter his mind and send him messages and images at any time. Struggling and suffering under a compact that he made in past and trying to desperately avoid losing all sense of reality, I honestly worry for Dom and his tentative relationship with Rillirin. I fear that they might both be harmed by what is to come.

The final character I want to talk about is Crys, who I both adored and had a little bit of trouble with. I should probably preface this by saying that I’m bisexual and that, from what we see in text, Crys also seems to be bisexual. Which is awesome, I love representation and it’s pretty rare to see it in grimdark fantasy, let’s be honest. The problem I have with Crys is the way that him coming to terms with that bisexuality is written. We have a male character who flirts with Crys, and, initially Crys’ response is that he is abhorred, which, well, internalised homophobia is totally a thing, and his response IS explicitly called out on page (which I liked). However, I don’t really feel that we see enough of his mindset changing, of him thinking about his attraction before, boom, it’s the night before a battle and said male character is asking if he wants to kiss him and, suddenly, insta-bi! I also struggled with that scene because it seems as if the other male character is coercing Crys with the whole ‘we might die in battle tomorrow’ and, I totally think it isn’t intentional, but it does play a little into the ‘predatory gay’ trope. So, I’m conflicted, ‘yay’ for a canon mlm relationship in grimdark fantasy but ‘not-so-yay’ for there being some problems in how it was written. I’m hoping that by book two maybe some of those problems might have been ironed out.

Like many people, I went into this book not knowing whether it was a standalone or part of a series. I worked out about half way through that it probably wasn’t a standalone, and I’m actually pretty glad. I think there’s a lot more of this world to see and a lot more story to be told. I’m excited because I’ve sort of been tip-toeing around grimdark recently and I’m glad to see a new voice, especially a female voice! I’m also still kind of shocked that this was a debut, it wasn’t clunky in the slightest and held its own with all the giants of the genre.

So, if you’re looking for something dark and bloody to satisfy your ‘Game of Thrones’ cravings, I suggest picking this up when it comes out a couple of days from now on the 15th of June. The hardback cover looks gorgeous… I’ve also seen some variants with edges sprayed black out there, which, let’s be honest, are absolutely dreamy.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager for an advanced copy in return for an honest review!!

A song that describes this book to me: The Song of the Sword Dancer (The Witcher: The Wild Hunt OST)

 

 

 

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.

‘The Alchemists of Loom’ Read Along

So, in preparation for the release of ‘The Dragons of Nova’ in July, today is the first day of the Facebook read along of Elise Kova’s ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ , a wildly fun and dark steampunk fantasy novel set in a world very different from our own.

“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.”

‘The Alchemists of Loom’ was one of my favourite releases of last year, and was actually the book that began my deep love for Kova’s writing. Combining cool video-game-like magical mechanics, a fresh take on dragons, and fascinating blood magic systems, whether you’re a new reader or one hoping to refresh their memory of the book before TDON, come join us for four weeks of discussion, fun and general nerdery!

There will be special content and interviews with Elise going live throughout the month, including an interview with Elise here on my blog on the 20th of May.

So, if you’re already a fan, or someone who is new to Elise’s world, you’re welcome to join us throughout the month on Facebook and across social media. Hope you enjoy it as much a I do.

taol read along

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.

Flame in the Mist (Renée Ahdieh)

5 stars

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

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

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

Thankfully, I adored this book…

flame-in-the-mist-renee-ahdieh

Characters

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, hate to love, isn’t it glorious?

Story

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

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

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

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

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

Note

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

Conclusion

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

Many thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for a copy in return for an honest review.

A Conjuring of Light (V.E. Schwab)

5 stars

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

It softened the blow of leaving.

Eased the strain of parting.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Young Elites (Marie Lu)

 5 stars 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Upside of Unrequited (Becky Albertalli)

5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I feel you, Molly)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candidate (Rachel E Carter)

5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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