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.” 

When the Moon was Ours (Anna-Marie McLemore)

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“To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.”

4 stars

It took me longer to read this book than I would have liked. It’s not a fast book, it’s a slow, meandering, thoughtful book with beautiful, lyrical prose. It contains probably the most sensitive portrayal of a trans character that I’ve come across, a trans character that is allowed to fall in love and explore his sexuality without fetishization.

I think I can safely say that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Things happen and you just have to let go and accept that they’re happening. This book is the definition of Magical Realism, down to the beautiful authenticity of the Latin American elements present in the book. Think pumpkins turning to glass, brujas pulling the lovesickness from a heart, shining painted moons, and a roping vine of rose that buds and flowers in response to the protagonist’s inner turmoil.

You can really tell that this book is ‘own voices’. McLemore draws upon her heritage and, as is described in the afterword, her marriage to her husband, who transitioned after they started dating. It gives the book a truthful feeling even amidst the unreality of some of the magical elements. You feel as if McLemore is very carefully and sensitively choosing her words. The relationship between Miel and Sam, how it blossoms and, equally as importantly, how they help to manage each other’s foibles is just so tenderly handled that it makes your heart swell in your chest.

‘To Sam, she was the girl who gave his moons somewhere to go. She was the dark amber of beechwood honey, the caramel of sourwood, and the bitter aftertaste of heather and pine. She was every shade of blue between two midnights.’

I also loved how McLemore intertwined the cultural identities of our two characters, how Sam shared traditions of his Pakastani heritage with Miel, and she shared with him the Mexican culture of her family. It’s sad and powerful and feels very true.

One star was removed because I felt that, in places, this book could have benefitted from being shorter. There were some beautiful passages that lost their power for me because I felt as if I’d heard them before earlier in the book. I felt it was dilute when it could easily have been concentrated.

However, I think overall that any positives far outweigh the benefits. I think it’s still sadly unusual to find a book ‘for’ lgbt individuals as opposed to ‘about’ lgbt individuals. There are some books I’ve read where I worry for the lgbt kids reading them, where an overuse of slurs to illustrate the hardships facing lgbt individuals ends up hurting those who read it whilst looking for characters like themselves. This book was different. Yes, it covered transmisogyny and dysphoria, but importantly it gave its lgbt characters a happy loving relationship and a warm positive ending. I cannot thank McLemore enough for that.

Thank you to St Martin’s Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

The Bear and the Nightingale (Katherine Arden)

the-bear-and-the-nightingale

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

5* stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A song for reading: Anuna- Noel Nouvelet 

The Hidden People (Alison Littlewood)

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4 stars

“Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth – but was she really a changeling, as her husband insists? Albie Mirralls met his cousin only once, in 1851, within the grand glass arches of the Crystal Palace, but unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak, a village steeped in superstition.

Albie begins to look into Lizzie’s death, but in this place where the old tales hold sway and the ‘Hidden People’ supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away …”

I’m very fond of a faery tale. Being Welsh, I’m a little more familiar with the mythologies of the Old Celtic countries than English folklore, but both seem to overlap on a key point: their depiction of faeries as wild, elemental, not-entirely-benevolent beings. This book goes one step further, dealing with old country folklore and looking at the flaws in the human condition, seeming to ask whether it is humans themselves who are the most inhuman of all…

Character: 4/5

  • Albie is not the most likeable or reliable of narrators and I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the book. Albie is a young, rich, newly-married man, an insufferable snob and an unconscious misogynist. The story could not happen as it did without the miscommunications that occur because he does not treat his wife as a human being.
  • I actually found it really interesting to see a book written with the same condescending tone as many classics, but with that tone being used to critique the treatment of women during the period, especially those of a lower socioeconomic status. There were a number of times where Albie thought that his wife, Helena, was acting like some kind of bizarre fae creature, but as a reader you can just tell that she thinks he’s ridiculous and is upset by something that he has said and done. Once or twice I was actually scared that he might do something to hurt her. Such a unreliable point of view was frustrating and sometimes very disconcerting, but very well done.

Worldbuilding: 4/5

  • The setting of this book is amazing. I loved the descriptions of the backward, rural village with the fairy rings and the terrifying old ‘wise women’. There are some truly gorgeous scenes spent under the night sky, ethereal, charming, wonderfully creepy. You spend the entire book questioning yourself. Are fairies real? Am I maybe the one who is backward and misunderstanding? Littlewood does an incredible job of imbuing the world in such a way that you understand why folklore developed in the way that it did.
  • It makes you wonder how much of the ‘changeling’ lore was built upon the fundamental misunderstanding that women are somehow different to men? If a woman is wilful, is not subservient, miscarries a child it somehow meant that there was something wrong with them, that they were unworldly and somehow not human women. There were some parts of the story that were painful, seeing just how little control some of these women had over their own lives.

Ending: 3/5

  • Whilst I enjoyed it, I felt that the ending was maybe a little open. I suppose it would have not made much sense to impose an ending on the reader, especially after a book that had been been based so much upon questions. But I did find myself wishing that there was something more, something that made the ending memorable.

The Nitty Gritty: 4/5

  • ‘The Hidden People’ is a beautifully written book, rich and wild in the ways of some of the classics referenced within. Littlewood mentions ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Goblin Market’ in text and she manages to put some of that magic and bleakness into her own work. Think looming hedgerows and wild oaks, fairy rings and dark moons.
  • My one qualm is that I sometimes felt that the book felt a little repetitive and maybe lingered overlong on scenes that could quite happily have been condensed into one. Some of the power was maybe diluted a little by too many words.

Conclusion

  • This was not an easy read but a fulfilling one. Questions are not entirely answered, you end without feeling that you will ever be certain what it was that happened, or that those who truly deserve to be punished ever will be. But I also felt it was a strangely real book and a strangely tender one. By the end the characters are finally true to themselves, even though it might not be the most satisfying or happy conclusion. Definitely a book that I would recommend to a lover of the classics, folklore and the old tales.

For readers who enjoyed: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke) , The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter), Smoke (Dan Vyleta), Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)

Thank you very much to Quercus Books for a copy in return for an honest review.

Stealing Snow (Danielle Paige)

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Seventeen-year-old Snow lives within the walls of the Whittaker Institute, a high security mental hospital in upstate New York. Deep down, she knows she doesn’t belong there, but she has no memory of life outside, except for the strangest dreams. And then a mysterious, handsome man, an orderly in the hospital, opens a door and Snow knows that she has to leave

She finds herself in icy Algid, her true home, with witches, thieves, and a strangely alluring boy named Kai. As secret after secret is revealed, Snow discovers that she is on the run from a royal lineage she’s destined to inherit, a father more powerful and ruthless than she could have imagined, and choices of the heart that could change everything. Heroine or villain, queen or broken girl, frozen heart or true love, Snow must choose her fate …

(Bloomsbury Publishing)

☆☆ stars

I started reading this book at the beginning of August. It gave me a bit of a headache, but since I’d just finished exams I thought maybe I’d wait until I was a little more rested and give it another chance.

Unfortunately, I felt exactly the same way. I wanted to finish it because I had some vague curiosity as to what might happen at the end, but there was something about the way the book was written that had me rereading sentences every couple of paragraphs. Oddly structured and meandering doesn’t quite cover it, it just made me tired trying to make sense of what was happening.

I’ll be honest and say that from the first couple of chapters my hackles were up. I’m a little sick and tired of psychiatric hospitals written up as the source of all evil. I, personally, think the beginning section might have been better suited to a juvenile detention center…there’s a lot that can be said about the poor management of kids in the US criminal justice system, whilst psychiatric hospitals are actually there to do good. Maybe as a medical student and someone who has suffered with anxiety and depression I’m a little sensitive, or maybe the ‘evil psychiatric hospital’ is a trope that just needs to die.

I’ll say that there are one or two parts of the book that I really did enjoy, but that I didn’t think were built upon enough. There is a part near the beginning where we meet Kai and Gerde and there’s a wondrous house and lots of talk of different types of magic and the world they live in. The next is the section where we meet Jagger’s Robbers and their strange mansion which is a magpie amalgamation of all the architectures of great civilization. I had a very brief and pleasurable moment where I thought we might get something a little more ‘Six of Crows’-esque, but it never happened.

I struggled to work out where this book wanted to lie. Did it want to appeal to the upper part of middle grade or did it truly want to be gritty young adult? Quite a lot of Snow’s internal dialogue felt as if it was written for a younger audience, but then we had talk of drugs and slavery and graverobbing that threw my compass off course. I suppose it shouldn’t really matter but something about this book made it matter.

My biggest qualm with this book is that nothing of the plot or ending was satisfying or made sense. It leaped around like a frog on hallucinogens, had enough possible love interests that I honestly couldn’t tell which one was which, and, worst of all in my opinion, had no sense of threat. You did not feel as if anything truly could go wrong, or if it did then you weren’t particularly concerned. I wanted to like this book, I gave it a good month to grow on me when my stomach was telling me to just stop, but it just wasn’t to be.

I honestly felt as if the book needed to be entirely reworked and reshaped. Some meandering side branches needed to be chopped, the main plotline needed to braced into a coherent arc; it was a book without a central pillar, a book where sentences and paragraphs needed to be reforged so they didn’t make my eyes feel as if they’d read two identical segments one after the other.

I didn’t even dislike the premise of the story, was hopeful for the later segment of the book, but it just didn’t work.

Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for a copy in return for an honest review.

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet

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Maire is a baker with an extraordinary gift: she can infuse her treats with emotions and abilities, which are then passed on to those who eat them. She doesn’t know why she can do this and remembers nothing of who she is or where she came from.

When marauders raid her town, Maire is captured and sold to the eccentric Allemas, who enslaves her and demands that she produce sinister confections, including a witch’s gingerbread cottage, a living cookie boy, and size-altering cakes.

During her captivity, Maire is visited by Fyel, a ghostly being who is reluctant to reveal his connection to her. The more often they meet, the more her memories return, and she begins to piece together who and what she really is—as well as past mistakes that yield cosmic consequences.

From the author of The Paper Magician series comes a haunting and otherworldly tale of folly and consequence, forgiveness and redemption.”

(47North)

I received a copy from the publisher in return for an honest review and, I will be completely honest with you here, I may have let out the most ungainly little squeal when I got my hands on it. I’m already a huge fan of Holmberg’s ‘The Paper Magician’ series, loving the strange magic systems she builds and the whimsical quality she brings to her worlds. I admit, I was already ready to love this book, and it didn’t disappoint me.

Plot

I was not expecting this book to be as dark as it was! Admittedly, just from reading the premise I should have realised it wouldn’t be cotton candy and magnolias but it had this gorgeous creepy folklore vibe that was unexpected. I don’t know, I think I saw it was about cakes and blanked out that cakes can totally be used for evil, à la Hansel and Gretel. The juxtaposition of the opening moments, with the heady scent of cake baking, to the following chapters where the protagonist is beaten, bound in a burlap sac and sold as a slave is so jarring, it has the vicious quality of a true fairy tale.

Allemas, her master, is a brutal captor and sinister as hell. Maire’s situation, imprisoned in his home, starving, forced to complete suspect tasks all in the hope of learning a scrap of information about her past life is just so unsettling and sad. Indeed, you begin to hope and wish, just as Maire, that Fyel, her resident ‘ghost’ companion, can just come and whisk her away from this hideous situation.

I’m wary of giving too much away, part of the joy was watching everything unfold and see how everything fell together. I will say that I found the epilogue a little disappointing, I would have preferred for it to end ambiguously at the end of the final chapter. I’ll be interested to know if any of you felt the same.

Characters

I love, love, love Maire. For all her gentle kindness she is wonderfully strong and decisive. She manages every horror that comes at her and is just a true survivor. Also, she didn’t make any decisions that made me want to throw the book against the wall, so for that I’m very grateful.

Fyel is…Fyel’s story is so sad. As part of my medical training I’ve spent a lot of time on wards with older people. Fyel reminds me of the husbands or wives that sit by the bedside of the loved ones as they fall in and out of lucidity, gentle and patient. I’d just quite like him to be happy.

Allemas is wonderfully weird. I love that he’s more of a chaotic evil, starving Mairie because he forgets she needs to eat, rather than out of maliciousness. His motivations aren’t immediately obvious, I love that the reader is kept in the dark as much as Maire. It’s all the more satisfying when you read the conclusion.

Writing

Holmberg’s style is fluid and flowery, which I’m rather fond of. Admittedly, it probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s all part of the delicate feel that permeates the book, wonderful for reading out in the open or as your lids are closing for the evening.

‘My mind flutters from one idea to the next. Maybe I should make my tart of strength, infusing it with vigor by focusing on the pull in my biceps as I cut and cut and cut the dough. Or maybe I should do something lighter, such as cheer, or something new, like nostalgia. Then again, part of me wishes to be daring, to think of passionate things, of warm caresses in the night and newlyweds and Cleric Tuck’s lips on my neck.’

It suits the feel of the book and the character of Maire who has this fae, unearthly feeling about her.

Worldbuilding

Initially it feels like you could be in any or many fantasy worlds, though I admit the baking magic is new and fresh. But this feeling of familiarity fades rather fast as the story progresses. There’s a fascinating biblical feel to it that I wasn’t expecting, but if you, like me, are not Christian then don’t let it put you off, it’s a conceptual link more than anything.

Conclusion

All in all, I loved this book. It was everything I wanted to be, smooth and beautifully readable. I sat down with the intention of reading a few chapters and devoured the entire thing. So, if you like a little whimsy with your escapism or are a bit of a folklore fiend (or enjoyed the Paper Magician Trilogy) I’d definitely pick it up for summer reading. I’d recommend a grassy park and a hot sweet cup of tea to go with it.

4.5 Stars

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