The City Stained Red (Sam Sykes)

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5 stars

‘Your employers should consult those who make the corpses. We merely clean up after them. Death is our business, Captain. Business is always good in Cier’Djaal.’

Sam Sykes has to be the first author whose book I’ve picked up solely based on personality. I used to devour high fantasy, to the point where it was almost all I read, but that did lead to the conundrum where everything I read felt a little…the same? I read a lot of science fiction, young adult, some classics, even a little contemporary,  but I was looking for something to draw me back into the high fantasy fold.

I’d been following Sam for a while on twitter because he seemed fun and there was a high concentration of writing discussion, owls and dogs on his feed. Eventually I did indeed ‘BUY [his] BOOK’ and I will admit, I didn’t think his personality would translate into the text because, from past experience, ‘swords and sorcery’ never had much of a sense of humour.

I am pleased to say that I was very much mistaken.

The book opens with our battle weary young protagonist, Lenk, on ‘some crappy little boat’ making the decision that he really ought to put down his sword and place his killing days well in his past. I think that you can already guess that he doesn’t really get a chance to even act on that decision before he is thrust once more into fighting, killing and general tomfoolery. You see, he’d love to settle down, but you can’t retire without gold, and the gold he thought was coming his way is now in the pocket of a priest somewhere in the city of Cier’Djaal.

Except, the priest isn’t a priest, a gang footwar is brewing, the giant spiders that make the silk are feeding on something less than wholesome, and the city is full of demons…

I loved this book.

The monsters are really monsters. We’re not talking vaguely humanoid creatures with boobs, we’re talking dragonmen, demons that haul their way out of peoples mouths and cloaked, multi-armed creatures with paintings for faces. It’s delightfully weird.

It feels like that D&D campaign you’d play if you were funnier, more intelligent and more imaginative than you think you are.

The characters are really something else. Amoral yet loyal, sarcastic, running from their pasts, trying desperately, and failing, to care less and be more detached. A motley crew comprised of a reluctant young warrior, a shict far from home, a seven foot dragonman, a thief, a priestess and a boy wizard. A combination that shouldn’t lead to anything less than Armageddon (and, in its own way, does) but actually tends to hilarity and genuine emotional upheaval.

This is maybe not a book for the squeamish, or those without a slightly twisted sense of humour, but I genuinely adored it. A surprise favourite for sure.

So if you like your fantasy wildly imaginative, gory and darkly funny then this is definitely the author for you.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Kij Johnson)

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

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

4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timekeeper (Tara Sim)

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It’s pretty rare with my current study/ life balance to be able to sit down and read a book in a day. It’s definitely testament to just how good this book is that I managed to devour it in one go on a train the morning after an A&E nightshift. So good that I almost missed my connection…oops…


Danny is a young clock mechanic in an alternate London where the only thing keeping time flowing are enormous clock towers spread throughout the land. The failure of a tower causes time to grind to a halt, forming a bubble of stopped time which no one can pass into. It is effectively a death sentence, caught forever more in a stuttering loop of time only a few seconds in length. In the not too distant past Danny lost his father, himself also a mechanic, to a ‘stopped’ town. More recently still Danny was in a clock accident where he was almost caught in a loop of his own.

Anxious and afraid, but trying to build himself back to working on the clocks he loves, Danny is sent to fix a clock in a rural market town outside of London. There he meets Brandon Summers, his new clock apprentice, a young man with a smile that makes his heart stutter. Barely a handful of days later Danny is brought back to the rural tower to investigate potentially willful damage against the clock. Here he meets another young man who also claims to be Brandon Summers…utterly oblivious to who is standing behind him, with a grin like morning sunshine.  The young man that made Danny so swoon only days before.  With an injury to his body that curiously mirrors the damage to the clock face…

Danny knows now that he is in serious trouble…


 

This story is deathly cute. The romance is gorgeous. There are parts that will genuinely make your heart skip a beat. For me, it’s immediately become a book that I want to foist on any and all who will listen because I just want you all to feel the warm fuzziness (and periodic sheer terror) that this story brought me. It is the book equivalent of a warm morning with lazy sunbeams, though in places my heart decided it liked to sit in my throat. The ending is very, very tense I warn you.

The book is set in a 19th Century Britain which is a little more technologically advanced than our own was in the same time period, with the invention of air ships and early steam powered automobiles making the world a lot more open. Think steampunk-lite, but with more flowers and village greens. Sim actually has written a little history of her world and the things she decided to change from our world at the back of the book. I love hearing her thought process for designing her world.

Now, onto our two protagonists. One thing that really struck me, and that I really enjoyed, is that Danny knows that he is gay before he meets Colton, the love interest. Speaking as a bisexual reader, It was really refreshing to not have another romance overly preoccupied on the protagonist ‘coming to terms’ with being queer. I mean, those books have their own purpose but not every queer love story needs sexuality angst running throughout it. Heterosexual love stories can focus solely on the joy of falling in love, it’s really nice to see a LGBT romance being allowed to do the same.  Sim also makes the decision to place the love story in a world where being queer was never met with the same levels of puritanical hatred and violence as in our own. I do think that was an important decision, as an LGBT person, it can be wearing to read books where people like you are constantly subjected to derision or danger. We deserve a little escapism too.

Here we have a romance that is wonderfully tender and gentle, it truly is a young love story. Warm and deeply emotionally satisfying, every intimate scene between them is filled with sunshine and light. Just thinking about it makes me smile. As with the rest of the book, their story is filled with a fairy tale quality perfect for dim autumn days with short hours of sunlight and a warm cup of tea. It brings the glow even when there is no light around it.

So, I guess what I am trying to say is that I can’t wait for you all to read this. It’s a quick gentle read, doesn’t require a tonne of effort or a certain emotional state. In fact I’d say it’s the perfect book to read if you’re sick and feeling some of the less enjoyable effects of autumn. I just loved it and can’t wait for you all to get a hold of a copy for yourselves!

Thank you so much to Skyhorse Publishing and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest Review. Timekeeper is available to preorder at Amazon and will be released on the 8th of November.

The Edge of Everything (Jeff Giles)

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☆☆☆☆☆

I started ‘The Edge of Everything’ in a bit of a book slump. I’d set aside two books in the days beforehand and was generally looking for a novel with that special something to pique my interest once more.

The book opens in the midst of a snow storm with our protagonist Zoe venturing out to search for her little brother and their two dogs who have gone missing in the wild weather. Zoe has had a terrible year, losing her father in an accident and her elderly next door neighbours in mysterious and violent circumstances. The last place she wants to be is ploughing through the snow, looking for a little brother that she is petrified could be dead.

She finds her brother, freezing cold but alive in the snow, and they seek refuge in the abandoned house of their dead neighbours. You believe the worst has come, that the shelter they find will save them, that they will be allowed to wait the storm out in warmth and peace. But when is anything ever that easy?

A mystery assailant puts Zoe and her little brother in desperate danger. Terrified and alone she begins to wonder whether there is truly any way out of this situation. But she’s not expecting the entry of a nameless stranger with weird powers and a body marked with bizarre tattoos. She’s certainly not expecting him to go straight for her assailant’s soul…

What happens in the moments after changes everything for Zoe and the nameless stranger. Rules are broken, orders disobeyed and everything Zoe thinks she knows about the world begins to start crumbling around her…

This was a wonderful book, tight and dense and filled to the brim with fresh ideas. It’s a book that you read in a daze, utterly immersed in the bleak and lonely world that Giles has created. It raises questions about family relations, grief and what it means to sin.

Without spoiling too much, I loved Giles description of the Lowlands, the mysterious ‘underworld’ that our heroic stranger, X, hails from. The rules, the hierarchy, the bleak Norse melancholy. The ending leaves it wide open for a sequel and I can not wait to hear more about this particular part of the story.

Giles creates a great sense of place. Whether it be Zoe’s lonely mountainside home, the wide flats of the Lowlands or the remote inhospitality of a Canadian shoreline, you feel the atmosphere of each place spreading its tendrils through every scene.

The decision to limit the active cast of characters was also a great idea, it made the interactions between those who were present all the more vivid. The dynamic of Zoe’s family, grieving and fatherless, and the insertion of X into the mix creates some hilarious and heartfelt moments, especially those between our nameless stranger and Zoe’s lonely little brother.

My one qualm is the ‘ending’, it felt rather like it existed solely to make way for book two. The true ending of the book comes a little while before the final page in a twist that’ll make your heart suddenly a rather uncomfortable presence in your throat.

Would I recommend this book? Most definitely! I can imagine curling up under a blanket with it howling a gale beyond the window pane, book in hand.  It also doesn’t hurt that the front cover is gorgeous, I can’t wait to get a physical copy for pride of place on my shelf. A sequel couldn’t come soon enough!

‘The Edge of Everything’ is released on the 31st of January 2017 through Bloomsbury. Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for the review 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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