Red Sister (Mark Lawrence)

5 stars

“I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin”

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book. I wasn’t a fan of Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ series, I couldn’t get into the mindset of the protagonist at all. I wasn’t even going to pick up this book initially, but reviews from friends lavished it in praise and I put in a review request, and then, assuming said request had been rejected, bought a copy. A copy arrived in my inbox just as another dropped on my doorstep and, I thought, well, this book and I were just meant to be together.

This book starts with an epilogue of sorts, but I won’t say too much about it, because to do so would be to ruin other parts of the story. The first entree into Nona’s story proper isn’t even through her own eyes, it’s through the eyes of a friend who’s viewing what little is left of their dwindling life from the wooden boards below a noose. Needless to say, the book opens with Nona having been sentenced to death for a crime unknown, and escaping the noose only through the good graces of the Abbess of the Convent of Sweet Mercy.

What follows after is my favourite sort of book. I am a complete sap for schools of magic and violence, all of my favourite books have some kind of place of learning in them. The beauty of this book is that it manages to stay ‘external’ whilst focusing inwards. We learn the stories of Nona’s early life and the history and politics of the world around her. It’s all told in great detail but I never once felt as if the information was simply being dumped upon me.

One thing I have always appreciated about Lawrence’s books is the genre that they lie in. A sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy. In Nona’s world, they are living on a planet watched over by a dying sun, where the feeble light grants them only a narrow corridor of living space between the ice. Moreso, they people of Abeth are not even from that world, having arrived on the planet many hundreds of years ago aboard great ships. I love the interplay between the fantasy and science fiction aspects of the book, how the magic seems to be amplified by the ‘shiphearts’ or reactor cores of the ancient space ships.

Nona, herself, is a wonderful character. She’s courageous and frightened, naive and world weary, stubborn and tentative. Basically, in all aspects, she is a young girl coming of age, a young girl thrust into a dark and unpleasant world and forced to come to terms with it. One of my favourite books when I was growing up was ‘Lirael’ by Garth Nix for many of the same reasons that I’ve come to love this book. We have a curious and introverted protagonist carving herself a niche in an environment that is both fascinating and dangerous. A young girl who has managed to utterly unbalance the world around her just by her existence. The way that Nona is written, and her feuds and friendships with those around her, is just amazing. I had flu for the last couple of days and just being able to curl up with this book was perfect escapism.

This is book filled with shadow, poison and politics. It’s a slow, rich, dark odyssey that, even after almost 500 pages, I felt sad to finish. ‘Grey Sister’, the second book, is due to be published next spring and, honestly, I can see myself reading this a good few times between.

So if you like complicated and truthful heroines, blood and bladework with a hefty dose of darkness then this is definitely a book you should have on your radar and your ‘to be read’ list.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager for a copy in return for an honest review. What a book!

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Invictus (Ryan Graudin)

5 stars

Time flies when you’re plundering history.

Farway Gaius McCarthy was born outside of time. The son of a time-traveling Recorder from 2354 AD and a gladiator living in Rome in 95 AD, Far’s birth defies the laws of nature. Exploring history himself is all he’s ever wanted, and after failing his final time-traveling exam, Far takes a position commanding a ship with a crew of his friends as part of a black market operation to steal valuables from the past. 

But during a heist on the sinking Titanic, Far meets a mysterious girl who always seems to be one step ahead of him. Armed with knowledge that will bring Far’s very existence into question, she will lead Far and his team on a race through time to discover a frightening truth: History is not as steady as it seems.

So, I went into this book with fairly low expectations. Not because it’s Ryan Graudin (I love Graudin’s books!) but because I just don’t tend to fall in love with time travel stories. I’m going to be perfectly blunt and say that I find Dr Who a complete snoozefest, so, I wasn’t really sure whether the odds were stacked against this book before I’d even read it. Nevertheless, it was Graudin, the cover was shiny, it had gladiators, so I decided to give it a try.

I am so glad that I did.

So, without further ado, here’s a little precis of why I enjoyed this book so much.

  • I haven’t fallen for a motley crew of characters so completely since ‘Six of Crows’. They’re present and multi faceted and all with their foibles. The interpersonal relations between them are engaging and real. We’re talking a bunch of teenagers who spend 50% of their time piloting a cramped time machine throughout the universe. Yes, the time travelling is fun, but so is their banter and how they deal with the fact they’re living double lives, so wildly inexplicable to anyone other than eachother.
  • Without giving too much away, I really enjoyed Graudin’s use of theories of time and the universe.
  • The threat levels in this book are through the roof. Honestly, as much as this book is fun and bubbly and adorable, the ‘enemy’ that our heroes face is absolutely terrifying. I had to sit and read it in one sitting because I was too tense to put it down!
  • It’s light hearted but emotional…so emotional. I was actually quite surprised with how much the story made me feel. I was expecting a light hearted sci fi caper, and we got that but also with a side of real emotional clout.
  • RED PANDAS.
  • Established romance. I didn’t realise how much I like to see characters already in relationships until I started this book. You get to see the cute, fluffy stuff without any of the awkwardness.
  • The worldbuilding was really cool. I loved the concept of recorders and the entertainment value of their work, but I also really liked the unexpectedness of having Rome as the centre of time travel rather than somewhere like New York, which, frankly, would have been a whole lot less interesting. It was really easy to imagine a new high tech city being built around and through the historical ruins and monuments of Italy. It also felt more like a global city for it, with people congregating from all around the world to work in the time travel industry. It’s not an American-centric future, but somewhere where you’re just as likely to get some proper Chai as an espresso.
  • There is a lot of chai and gelato in this book, I was honestly developing cravings.

In the interest of writing a balanced review, I tried to think whether there was anything that I didn’t particularly like about this book. I really struggled. I suppose what I will say is that if you’re looking for some kind of grimdark hard sci fi time travel then it might not be for you. It’s as much about personal relationships between the crew as it is the time travel element. I really like that, but it might not be for everyone.

So, in short, an awesome book that got me through a direly dull weekend on-call. If I had to describe it in only a handful of words, I’d say it was effervescent, colourful and emotionally draining. If you like fast paced, quirky adventure stories then it’s definitely one you should check out.

Many thanks to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for a copy in return for an honest review!

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo (F.C.Yee)

5 stars

Genie is a very tall, slightly awkward, sixteen year old girl. Every hour of her day is spent in homework, volleyball, volunteering and trying to get into the college of her dreams. She’d like to think she has enough things on her plate, thank you very much, without the appearance of a very beautiful and very obnoxious boy half her size. But Quentin Sun, ‘transfer’ student from somewhere (definitely not China), seems to think that he knows her, worse, that she belongs to him somehow, and she just can’t let that stand.

But Quentin has a strange habit of getting everything to go his way and Genie’s mother may have fallen in love with the very idea of him. Genie’s attempts to get him to leave her alone certainly aren’t helped by the sudden appearance of demons from traditional Chinese mythology, or the revelation that she might not be quite human.

Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but even creatures from Chinese Mythology have to work to try and get into Princeton, and Genie isn’t giving that up for anything.

To say that I simply enjoyed this book would be doing it a disservice. I loved it.

One of the strongest parts of this story was definitely the narrative voice. It’s smooth, sharp and effortlessly witty, without you ever getting the feeling that Genie is anything other than a sixteen year old girl. If I had to compare Yee’s voice to another author it would definitely be Rick Riordan. A bit out there, a bit slapstick, and very very good. At certain points in the story , to help us clueless readers, Yee explains some of the more salient points of Chinese Mythology and, honestly, if Yee were to write a book of myths from Genie’s point of view I would preorder it in approximately two seconds.

The second thing on my ‘most beloved list’ are the characters. Genie is stubborn, driven and impatient, she’s bored and uncomfortable with herself, aka, she reads exactly like my sixteen year old self. Quentin is just…it’s very obvious from early on that he’s not functioning on human social norms. He’s blunt, arrogant and frustratingly charming. It’s the perfect recipe for an uncontrolled explosion, and, wow, when it blows, it blows. There are a couple of other characters in the book that I’d love to meet in more detail, especially Genie’s fierce mother and effervescent friend, Eunie, but as there’s a sequel on the way, I can hope that we see more of them there.
 
Now, going into this story I knew very little about Chinese Mythology. So little. Did it affect my reading? The answer is no, because Yee explains every mythological element in fun, engaging ways. You never feel that you’re getting forcefed information, it’s a lot more relaxed than that. There’s also a lot of references to Chinese culture and, specifically, the culture of the Chinese diaspora. Genie is raised Chinese-American, and whilst there are a lot of similarities with mainland Chinese culture, the diaspora also have cultures which are specifically their own. It was refreshing to read Chinese-American characters that were written by a Chinese-American author, not the cardboard cutouts, or just sheer non-existance, of such characters that we usually see in western media.

I will warn you that for the first 20-30% of the book that you might find Quentin almost pathologically annoying, very much in the same way that I’m sure Genie does. But he grows and changes and, indeed, Genie grows and changes through the book. Many of Quentin’s actions also make a lot more sense once you realise who he is.

The part of the story that resonated most with me is Genie’s academic life. I was once a hard nosed, over driven kid trying to get into a top Medical School. I worked all the time, did extracurriculars all the time, and was absolutely obsessed with getting where I wanted to go. It was painful, it wasn’t fun, but it never felt like an option to not be fighting for my future. Goal driven characters tend to maybe get slightly villainised in YA, or at least, the moral of the story tends to be that they’re happier when they’re not fighting above their weight. ‘Genie Lo’ does something different in that is advocates balance, work hard but also be aware of your social and personal needs. Work hard, but make sure you’re working hard at what you enjoy. I think that as a sixteen year old I would have been pretty chuffed to see myself in a book like that.

‘Genie Lo’ is not the book that I expected it to be. It is more than I expected it to be. I’m honestly a little shocked that Yee is a debut author. It’s laugh out loud funny, warm and quirky and I think that if you’re looking for something fun, and a little bit different then definitely give this a go.

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


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The Dragons of Nova (Elise Kova)

5 stars

This is a review for the second book in the ‘Alchemists of Loom’ Trilogy and, as such, spoilers for book one will abound. If you want to learn more about the series, you can find my review for the first book, ‘The Alchemists of Loom’, here.

When I read ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ last year, it was actually the first of Elise’s books that I had ever read. Oh, how times have changed…

I can remember falling in love with the world of Loom, so dark and exciting and original, with its complicated Guild system and video game worthy mechanics. There’s always the worry when you find a book which is so fresh and different, that the second book will not be able to live up to the standards of the first. Thankfully, that is far from the case in ‘The Dragons of Nova’. If anything, Elise has stepped up her game with book two. It is a dream of a sequel.

So, without further ado, let’s get ourselves reacquainted with the world of Loom.

Ari is a chimaera, a Fenthri who has been spliced with multiple dragons parts to gain their magical properties. The events of book one saw our heroine leave Dortam, where she was the infamous thief ‘The White Wraith’, in the company of her apprentice, Florence, and a man who should, by all accounts, be her enemy, the Dragon Cvareh. The only thing keeping them together? The promise of a boon if she gets the errant Dragon to the distant Alchemists Guild.

But the journey was far from simple. Ari finds herself chased by the vicious Riders of the Dragon King, and, perhaps more harrowingly, by her own past. For in a world where chimaeras rot from the inside out under the taint of dragon magic, Ari is not. She is a perfect chimaera, every dragons greatest fear, and she must stop at nothing to avoid that information from spreading. Life is complicated further by her burgeoning emotions for Cvareh, a man she should feel nothing but hate for, and her distaste that her feelings are far from that.

‘The Dragons of Nova’ opens with Ari joining Cvareh on a journey to the Dragon land of Nova, floating islands hanging in the sky above the desolation of Loom. There they are to meet with his sister Petra, in the understanding that it is in both of their interests for the Dragon King to fall. There is, over all, the question of the Philosopher’s Box, the key component in the creation of a perfect Chimaera. How much does Ari know about their construction? And how much of that knowledge about the box, and herself, is she willing to share with her Dragon allies?

Down on Loom, Florence continues her work with the Alchemists Guild, very aware that, once again, she is an outsider in the Guilds and they will always put their lives before her own. Sent on a journey via train to the Harvester’s Guild, Florence becomes intimately acquainted with all facets of monstrosity; the monsters of Loom, and the monsters in humanity. Things are changing on Loom, and our top-hatted Raven-turned-Revolver has a first row seat for the action.

It is very hard to not just keyboard smash when writing this review. SO much happens in this book and my reaction is very much simply the emoji, 😱. Oh, you are truly lulled into a false sense of security by the end of book one. No-one is safe, no-one is secure in ‘TDON’. Our characters are truly trying to navigate violent rapids in a bathtub!

Ari, our protagonist, is mistrust and pride incarnate. Unwilling to accept help, partly because she has been so burned by her part, but also because she’s just the sort of person who would rather walk on hot coals than fall upon the generosity of another. Stubborn, capricious, difficult to love and let herself be loved, I, nevertheless, adore her. Driven by logic, yet coming to appreciate the ‘beauty as its own reward’ culture of Nova, we see so much growth in Ari during the book, both magically and personally. She’s also canonically attracted to more than one gender! Praise be for bisexual or pansexual protagonists in fantasy novels! They’re about as rare as white tigers, and it fills my little bi heart with joy to see myself represented in my favourite genre.

Ari is not the only character to undergo significant development throughout the novel. Florence, who had potentially been my least favourite of the main characters in book one, truly came into her own in ‘TDON’. ‘Tiny girl with a big gun’ is, in my opinion, one of the best tropes to come out of video games, and it’s a joy to see Florence actually be allowed to flourish without Ari being their to ‘save’ her before she gets a chance to save herself. Watching Florence come to a better understanding of herself and her place in the world was honestly one of the most exciting parts of the book. There were a couple of decisions that Florence made during the story that left me so shocked and impressed that I actually laughed out loud.

We see a lot more of Nova in this book, spending more than half of the page time above the cloud line. It’s a real treat to get to see more of the floating islands, with their environment and culture that is so different to that of Loom. Where Loom is built for function, the architecture of Nova is engineered for beauty and form. Cvareh seems a lot more comfortable and confident amongst the culture of his people, and we definitely see a different side to him, that of his sister’s second in command. Privy to his sister’s machinations and quest to return their family to power, there is a very political side to this story, exploring the social hierarchy of Nova and the implications of each and every act within their culture. Politics, I hear you groan, but do not fear, this isn’t a dry story of meetings, but politics that happens in the fighting pit and the gossip houses. The world building is far too interesting to ever let the politics get onerous.

Without spoiling anything, I will say that the events of the story and the ending truly do set the series up for an enormous conclusion. There’s bloody violence, betrayal, assassination and ‘Game of Thrones’-esque political maneuverings. It truly is beautifully and exquisitely satisfying (and painful).

The famous line from Robbie Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ comes to mind at this moment:

‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley’.

We truly have been set up for suffering. It’s going to be a painful old wait for book three!

Many thanks to Keymaster Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

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Nevernight (Jay Kristoff)

5 stars

“In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic—the Red Church. If she bests her fellow students in contests of steel, poison and the subtle arts, she’ll be inducted among the Blades of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the vengeance she desires. But a killer is loose within the Church’s halls, the bloody secrets of Mia’s past return to haunt her, and a plot to bring down the entire congregation is unfolding in the shadows she so loves.

Will she even survive to initiation, let alone have her revenge?”

I picked up a copy of this book last year at the YALC festival in London, but my final year of medical study meant the intervening twelve months took me up and down the length of the country, to the wilds of the Northern Isles, on more planes than I can count, living out of a suitcase for most of it. So, for that time, ‘Nevernight’ sat on my shelf, too beautiful to ruin in the scrumpled hand luggage of a propeller plane. More than once I’d considered downloading a kindle copy, but every time I did so, I thought of how upsetting it would be not to read those beautiful pages for the first time. So, when I returned home to the countryside after two weeks of intense examinations in smoky old London, ‘Nevernight’ was the first thing that I picked up.

Mia Corvere is the daughter of a murdered house, a young girl whose seen more death and destruction that is truly healthy for one so young. Forced to flee into the dark and dirty streets of Godsgrave when her rebel aristocrat father is executed for treason, she finds that life under the three bloody suns of Itreya is even stranger and more brutal than she could have dreamed. Fear and pain reveals to Mia to a part of herself that even she had no idea existed. She is darkin, one who can commune with the shadows, one who can consider the darkness of the Nevernight a friend. Raised by a retired killer and trailed by her shadow companion, the feline Mr Kindly, Mia learns everything that she needs to (try to) survive the next part of her training, induction into the infamous Red Church.

The first thing you realise when starting to read this book is how intensely clever it is. The first chapter is split into two parts, that of our protagonist’s first sexual experience and that of her first kill. It really is gloriously done, how the sex and death mirror one another, truly an examination of la petite mort

‘It’s quite a thing, to watch a person slip from the potential of life into the finality of death. It’s another thing entirely to be the one who pushed.’

Godsgrave is a Venetian style city of canals with a Roman bureaucratic heart, held in check by the Luminatii with their flaming swords. The heart of the city lies in the arching spine of an ancient dead God, mansions and meeting halls carved from the gravebone under the light of three suns. The truedark of nevernight, when all three suns disappear from the sky is only seen once every two years. The world building in this story is delicious, there’s a rich mythology with multiple Gods and Goddesses of the natural world, which is lovingly explained in text and through extensive footnotes.

The footnotes are one of the most glorious things about this book. If you’re not that interested in asides then I suppose you can skip them (I don’t know why you’d want to though), but the way they’re written and the information they add makes the world seem enormous and peopled with myriad cultures and a deep history. I feel I could read this book over and over and find something new each time.

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Another of my favourite parts of the book is the narrative voice. It’s narrated almost as if there’s a troubadour telling the tale by a campfire. It’s a very dense voice that can take a couple of chapters to get used to, with detailed and sometimes unexpected metaphors that I know a couple of friends didn’t enjoy, but I adored. It’s not clear during the story who the narrator actually is, but I think that’s half of the fun. Their sarcastic and teasing tone made me wonder whether it might be a creature of shadow or even a god doing the retelling, but maybe by the end of the trilogy we will know for sure.

“Iron or glass? they’d ask. She was neither. She was steel.” 

Reading ‘Nevernight’ is an experience. I’d maybe advise not taking any characters too close to your heart as Kristoff has a habit of brutalising them. Our protagonist Mia actually has a better soul than I was expecting when I started this book. She is an essentially a good person who has been driven to terrible things. A sixteen year old girl who is trying to navigate her growth into an adult and her past trauma, whilst also taking on her shoulders the burden of revenge. Godsgrave and its council, ruled over by the despot Consul Scaeva, do deserve to be utterly annihilated, but, it’s sad and fascinating to watch the same idealism that drove her father to the noose be perverted into the killing drive.

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Fanart of Mia and Mr Kindly by yours truly.

The book is peopled by a fascinating cast of characters. You don’t feel at any point as if anyone is simply there to fill space. From the talented and brutal assassins of the Red Church and their slippery and mysterious recruits, to the Fagin-like figure of Mercurio and the blazing fire and hell inquisitors of the Luminatii, every character is utterly memorable. Two of my favourites, not, of course, counting Mia, are Tric, a dweymeri inductee of the Red Church who has a twisting and heartfelt, on-off relationship with Mia, and Lord Cassius, the Leader of the Red Church, a figure seeming to the born of the shadows themselves.

With the paperback just having been released and the much-anticipated sequel ‘Godsgrave’ coming out in September and available for preorder, now is the perfect time to pick up a copy of this beautiful, dark and horrible book. If you’re a fan of fantasy YA or even adult grimdark, I honestly think you will adore this book, it is everything I hoped it would be and more. So, if you like books about the daggers in the shadows, blood magic and astounding worldbuilding, this book is the one for you.

Publisher: Harper Voyager (UK and AU), Thomas Dunne Books (US)

Amazon | Book Depository | Harper Collins

The Court of Broken Knives (Anna Smith Spark)

5 stars

“In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.

Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.

The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.”

Was I expecting, when requesting this on a whim, to find that a book that was one of my favourites of 2017? The answer is no, and I’m so glad that I listened to the feeling in my gut and decided to pick this one up. Because, as much as I love fantasy, sometimes I have a really hard time telling books apart from their blurbs. Large fantasy cities? Mercenaries? Empires? I can name off the top of my head a veritable list of books that contain these components. It’s what an author does with these building blocks that makes them special…

And this is certainly something special.

Sorlost is a City built behind towering walls of Bronze, residents comfortable, protected, despite being surrounded by a crumbling Empire of Dust. Orhan Emmereth is Lord of a once powerful house and sometime confidante of the Emperor. He sees the way the tiles are falling, that they are living in the dying ages of the Empire. Along with other high ranking Lords and his charismatic lover, Darath, he devises a coup, hiring mercenaries from across the desert to infiltrate the Palace and take out the Emperor.

This ragged band of mercenaries are much like any ragged band of mercenaries, apart from the cuckoo in their midst, a boy with the face and education of an aristocrat, the dreams of a broken soldier and the bloodlust of a beast.

In the great Temple of the Lord of Living and Dying, a young High Priestess completes her ritual sacrifices to keep the doors between life and death secure. She has no idea how this revolution could affect her temple and how it will change her life forever.

‘A crown of silver. A throne of gold. A sound of weeping. A scent of blood in the air. King Ruin. King of Dust. King of Shadows.’

This book is 100% for people who came out of ‘Game of Thrones’ more interested in the story of the Targaryens than anything else. It has all the trademarks of a dark fantasy, a brutal antihero, gallows humour, dragons…but there’s something else about this book. It’s just so well written. Seriously, it’s so rich and poetic and gorgeous. It’s a tale told by a poet with the mouth of a sailor and the voice of an angel, and it suits the tone of the book so well.

Take the character of Marith, a boy who looks as if he’s been carved from marble and storm clouds, but with an almost demonic killing frenzy. He’s not your classic anti-hero, not perfect in every crooked way; he has flaws that frequently take him to the edge of death, that make him unpredictable. You mourn for Marith, for the life and love that he could have had, for the addictions that plague him and for the lack of sympathy and help extended to him. I mean ‘cool motive, still murder’ is definitely a phrase that comes to mind and he’s not written in a way where you are expected to forgive him his crimes. I honestly felt at times as if we might be watching the end of the world…

Without spoiling much of the story I really loved how Smith Spark handled the story of the our dark hero’s lover. Through reading her sections you can entirely see how the character knows that falling in love with this person is a terrible idea, how they teeter between staying and leaving and yet, somehow, fall under their spell. So many times when reading fantasy novels, I find myself questioning why someone would stay with their despot lover, but this book definitely explored how people can become someone that they never knew they could be.

One thing that I know can make a lot of people uncomfortable whilst reading grimdark fantasy is an over-reliance on gendered violence. ‘A Court of Broken Knives’ seemed to be refreshingly free of this trope. I mean, every single person in this book is at severe risk of being knifed, but the danger of being decapitated by a dragon was higher than being raped. Thumbs up for that. For everyone who is concerned that it indicates a lack of general gory glory, have no fear, it’s bloody enough to make ‘Game of Thrones’ look a kids bed time story, it just decides to make everyone at risk of a gory death, not just women.

Also, the relationship between Orhan and Darath was so unbelievably cute. Established m/m romance in grimdark, that is treated respectfully? I did feel sad that it was a world where, whilst m/m relationships weren’t really frowned upon, a marriage between two high ranking Lords was considered impossible. It did mean that Orhan had to be ostensibly in a loveless sham marriage where neither he nor his wife was happy. But, to be honest, I don’t think there was a happy marriage in the entire book, so it wasn’t entirely out of pattern. The story is young and dark, who knows what is going to happen.

As mentioned earlier in the review, this book is one of my absolute favourites of the year so far. It is just so irreverent but evocative, poetic but also blunt and gory, filled with gorgeous prose and enough cursing to make a soldier blush. I can’t believe I’m going to have to wait ‘who-knows-how-long’ for book two. I can’t wait that long to see how my favourite royally makes a mess of everything.

‘A Court of Broken Knives’ it out on the 29th of June (tomorrow) from the wonderful people over at Harper Voyager, and I know there are some beautiful signed copies available at Goldsboro Books *wink wink*.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager Books for a copy in return for an honest review. It was a pleasure to read.

A Song for the Story? ‘Under Your Skin’ by Aesthetic Perfection really put me in mind of Marith’s character at multiple points in the book!

 

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