Truthwitch (Susan Dennard)

4 stars

“I’ll always follow you, Safi, and you’ll always follow me. Threadsisters to the end.” 

I am not ashamed to admit that I picked up this book entirely because the cover is gorgeous. It was a pleasant and not-all-together-unexpected happenstance that I enjoyed the story as well.

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Character

Now, character is what this book does really well. Our central protagonist, Safiya, is a Truthwitch, a very rare type of witch who is instinctively able to tell truth from lie. Safi is a stubborn and feisty noblewoman from a family which has fallen on hard times, a perfect foil to her Threadsister, Iseult, a calm and very logical Threadwitch, widely mistrusted due her Nomatsi heritage. I liked the balance that the two girls gave eachother, Safi having to learn to not let emotions get in the way of her ability to tell truth, Iseult struggling not to be overwhelmed by her knowledge of humankind’s bonds and feelings, shown to her as a constant drifting miasma of coloured threads. I loved the concept of Threadsisters and brothers, a bond between characters that most closely correlates to platonic soulmate. It took me longer to warm to Safi’s character than Iseult’s, probably because I related more to Iseult’s quiet fire and determination, but even Safi went through a bit of a metamorphosis by the end of the book.

Events unfolding in book lead Safi and Iseult into the sights of Merik, a Prince of Nihar, and Aeduan, a much feared Bloodwitch who tracks by the scent of a person’s blood. I adored both characters. Merik is equally as hot headed as Safi, though, as a Windwitch, his rage comes with more risks. A young Prince second in line to the throne of a country on the brink of starvation, Merik crosses paths with the girls when desperately trying to broker a trade deal to keep his people alive. Immediately, Safi and Merik find the most superfluous of reasons to hate one another, and we all know how that ends…

Aeduan is equally a fascinating character,  somewhat an antagonist in this story, but only in the way that he is a mercenary on a contract. Hired to hunt Safi, who has been forced to flee from the City for reasons I will not divulge, he is utterly driven, unwilling to let anything get between him and his quarry. A lot of questions are raised in this book about the nature of just exactly who Aeduan is, but not a lot are answered…I am very interested to learn more about him in later books. Also, I ship our Threadwitch and our Bloodwitch with a fury

Story

One of the things I quickly realised whilst reading ‘Truthwitch’ is that I tend to favour fantasy with a slower pace. This book starts quick, only slows a little and then powers up for the finale. The book opens with a heist…well, an attempt at a heist that only really ends up exposing Safi and her secret powers to the mercy of our money hungry Bloodwitch. Truthwitches are rare and their powers, for reasons of business and government, are considered incredibly lucrative. Safi has tried her hardest throughout her life to keep her powers a secret from those that could twist her to their use and now her fragile shield has come shattering down.

From this point on we enter a story where the world is in a tremulous 20 year pact of peace, which is soon due to reach its natural end. Past wars have left several countries in ruin, everyone is jostling and trying to buy themselves any advantage to keep themselves on top of the hierarchy when the peace crumbles. Witches are revered in some countries and considered criminals in others, but all live under a common threat, the fear of cleaving, where their powers corrupt almost instantly leaving them creatures of murderous instinct.

The witches in this world have powers that work upon one of a selection of elements: earth, air, water, fire, aether and void. It’s not particularly complicated, though some of the naming conventions don’t make it immediately obvious who can control what. Threadwitch, for example, is a type of Aetherwitch, whilst a Bloodwitch is considered to be a Voidwitch…which, let’s be honest, is probably because it sounds cool.

The plot is fast paced, there are multiple POVs (none which I found tiresome), we have sea battles, enchanted hurricanes and wild chases on horseback. It is really good fun.

My one big criticism of this book is that the actual physical worldbuilding is fairly weak. There were a couple of times I had to guess at what exactly Dennard was going for when she was describing the cities and palaces. I think that Venaza is supposed to be a Venetian simulacram, but that was pretty much all I had to go on when trying to build an image of it in my mind. It actually did dampen the reading experience for me; I love rich and decadent worldbuilding and in places I felt I might as well have been dumped in a white room for the lack of imagery. I have no doubt that Dennard had beautiful lush images of her world in mind, she just never really put it on paper.

Final thoughts?

This was a really fun book; witty and sharp, with no words wasted. We have witch battles, true friendship, hate-to-love, cool magic systems and an entire world only a misstep away from war.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, this book was really fun, I can’t wait to pick up book two.

Candidate (Rachel E Carter)

5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miranda and Caliban (Jacqueline Carey)

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4 stars

Miranda is a lonely child. For as long as she can remember, she and her father have lived in isolation in the abandoned Moorish palace. There are chickens and goats, and a terrible wailing spirit trapped in a pine tree, but the elusive wild boy who spies on her from the crumbling walls and leaves gifts on their doorstep is the isle’s only other human inhabitant.

There are other memories, too: vague, dream-like memories of another time and another place. There are questions that Miranda dare not ask her stern and controlling father, who guards his secrets with zealous care: Who am I? Where did I come from?

The wild boy Caliban is a lonely child, too; an orphan left to fend for himself at an early age, all language lost to him. When Caliban is summoned and bound into captivity by Miranda’s father as part of a grand experiment, he rages against his confinement; and yet he hungers for kindness and love. 

“Thou art the shoals on which Caliban wilt dash his heart to pieces.” 

I will admit, it’s been a while since I read ‘The Tempest’, though I think you could probably never have read it and quite happily enjoy this book. ‘Miranda and Caliban’ is a retelling focusing on the younger years of the two protagonists, only entering the events of the play at the very end.

It was a beautifully crafted book, delicately written as Carey’s work always is, meandering through lush prose and rich fantasy. ‘The Tempest’ has often been lambasted for its dearth of female characters and this story seeks to address that, giving an important voice to a character who is used mainly as a tool in the original text. Likewise, in ‘The Tempest’ I always felt slightly uncomfortable that Caliban, an Algerian man, was written in a way that seemed to suggest he both abhorred and adored his own subjugation. In this retelling both Miranda and Caliban are shown as prisoners of Prospero, prisoners of societal prejudices even on an island cast out into the sea.

I can say straight out that this book will not be for everyone. It’s a cruel, hard book. Miranda and Caliban are kept under her father’s finger through physical punishment and emotional manipulation. She is both revered by her father and treated like dirt, on one hand taught the basics of his complicated magical arts, on the other forced to do menial tasks in kitchen work and cleaning. Prospero’s misogyny throughout the book left me with such a bad taste in my mouth, which I suppose shows the book is doing exactly what it intended to. Likewise, Caliban is subjected to horrific cruelty and unrelenting racism throughout. He adores Miranda, sees her as the sun in his otherwise grey, caged life, but he knows that he will never be allowed to be with her. It becomes so ingrained in him that, by the end, even he believes he is not good enough. Unfortunately, as this is a retelling, neither of our young protagonists gain their hearts desires.

This is a beautiful, lyrical book, filled with strange magic. I adored how Carey writes the capricious air spirit, Ariel, truly a creature of nature, beholden to no one other than themselves. I, personally, loved the heady, rich way that she writes, as if every paragraph is laden with heavy buds. I know that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. I can imagine that for some readers this book would be their idea of their worst nightmare, meandering, maudlin and unrelenting, but, for me, it was like being taken on an out of body experience.

So, if you enjoy reading a book for the feelings, for the journey and development as opposed to the plot, this is definitely a book for you. Even though it was sad, sometimes making me feel a little numb inside, it was so rich and immersive that I couldn’t blame it. It’s a book that makes you feel a lot of things, though not all of these sensations are so easy to pin down.

Many thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge for a copy in return for an honest review.

The beautiful cover is by Tran Nguyen.

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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.

Apprentice (Rachel E Carter)

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5 stars

So, if you were feeling a little ambivalent at the end of ‘First Year’, I’ll let you in on a little secret…’Apprentice’ is incredible.

I’m not usually the sort of person that writes gushing, overexcited reviews, but this book deserves one. So, we left Ryiah in emotional turmoil at the end of book one, ecstatically happy in one breath and desperately unhappy in another. She has gained both her heart’s desire and lost it.

‘Apprentice’ opens in the training ring, with Ryiah studying increasingly difficult combat spells and attempting to gain more control over her pain-casting. That in itself would be complicated enough did she not have to juggle interpersonal strife and her status as an apprentice battle mage in a country on the verge of war.

‘Apprentice’ covers the entire span of Ryiah’s training, through her every up and down, every failure and triumph. You follow her as she grows and matures, weaves and unravels friendships, and tries to work out exactly what it is that she wants out of life. She’s as bolshy and stubborn as ever, but there’s something about her particular journey in this book that meant I couldn’t put it down until I knew exactly what happened to her.

Her relationship with Darren is tumultuous, hot and cold, on and off, absolutely excruciating and yet, somehow, addictive. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book where I’ve been so invested in the relationship between two characters, so terrified and yet excited to turn the page and find out what happens next. There’s pain, and joy, and more pain, a rising crescendo of it right up to the last few pages.

‘Apprentice’ does have a love triangle, but not in the traditional sense. I actually thought it was really well handled, showing the more painful aspects of young love, how it can be unrequited, and the pain of one party realizing that they just do not love their partner in the way they feel they should.

I felt that Apprentice was tighter and more emotional for having fewer central characters. The ending of ‘First Year’, the choosing of the apprentices, fed into an environment where every character is competing but also having to support one another, because in many situations, if one loses then they all do. It meant you learned a lot more about character motivation and saw relationships building between characters that you only saw the very hints of in the first book. Every character is vulnerable in their own way, even those who are ostensibly strong.

This book hurts, and, for a book set in a magical world, it feels very real. For all that they’re axe and lightning wielding combat mages, they’re also teenagers crossing the border into adulthood. They fall in love with those they shouldn’t, fall out of love with themselves and struggle to find their place in the world. They’re endearing, troubled and torn and you just can’t help but find yourself rooting for each and every one of them.

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

First Year (Rachel E. Carter)

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4 stars

So, I’d already had ‘First Year’ on my ‘to-be-read’ pile for a little while when I was given the opportunity to read a copy of the new edition, with its beautiful new cover, in return for an honest review. 

I have a weakness for books set in schools of magic, especially when the books have feisty, stubborn female protagonists. 

Ryiah is an apothecary’s daughter who wants nothing more than to be a battle mage. Unfortunately, her magic has a bit of a habit of doing everything other than what she asks of it. She and her twin travel to one of the three War Schools, hoping to make their dreams of becoming mages reality. What they hadn’t quite counted on is the wide divides between them and the aristocratic students who seem to have been training for this their entire lives. Never have those chosen few apprenticeships seemed so unattainable and far away. 

 

Fighting her way through classes, late nights and brutal training regimes would be hard enough, but what further complicates matters is a Prince. A Prince that can’t seem to decide whether to hate or to help her. 

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. I found that I actually had to fight myself to put the book down before bed. I felt like I was getting the magic education that we all secretly dream of!

Ryiah is a great lead, she says and thinks what she wants, makes decisions that sometimes make you wince, but is so focused and hardworking towards her goals that you can’t help but admire her. Her twin is a cad, but a cad with a heart of gold who wants nothing more than to be a Healer. There seemed to be a genuine warmth between the two of them that, if you’re close to your brother like I am, felt very real. I also loved the friendship between Ryiah and Ella, female companionships like that aren’t something we see nearly enough of in fantasy fiction, and I really liked how much they supported each other and the sort of silent insistence that both of them would reach the end of what was turning out to be the year from hell. 

Whilst the plot isn’t wildly groundbreaking, I found that I didn’t mind. A stubborn female protagonist reaching for a goal that seems completely out of her reach. A smug and arrogant prince who the main character does not immediately fall head over heels for. A militaristic magic school with duelling and hazing and hierarchical struggles. Hundreds of students whittled down to a final test. It’s a formula that has been followed before, but for the basic reason that it’s a good formula, and it’s the details overlaid over the top of it that makes it individual and enjoyable. 

I would definitely recommend if you enjoyed the books of Tamora Pierce, Trudi Canavan or Elise Kova. A quick, deeply enjoyable, escapist read. I can’t wait to get my hands on book two!

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