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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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!