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. 

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Gilded Cage (Vic James)

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☆☆☆☆☆

I have a bit of a thing for dark and despicable books.

You only have to look at my favourites shelf to know that much. From the pseudo Roman, genetically-augmented Golds of Pierce Brown’s ‘Red Rising’; the sin and smoke devoured pages of Dan Vyleta’s ‘Smoke’; to the wicked and wasteful young Aristocrat of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, there is a bit of a trend. So the moment I opened the first pages of ‘Gilded Cage’ and met a moonlit night and a young woman fleeing across a dark country estate, I knew I was onto something good.


NOT ALL ARE FREE.

NOT ALL ARE EQUAL.

NOT ALL WILL BE SAVED. 

 

Our world belongs to the Equalsaristocrats with magical giftsand all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world. 

 

A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.

 

Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price? 

 

A boy dreams of revolution.

 

Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution. 

 

And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.

 

He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberateor destroy?”

 

(Del Rey)


 

If someone forced me to put my feelings for this book into two words I’d probably go with ‘contemporary Dickens’. Despite its modern setting you really do get the sense of smog and chimney sweeps. Indeed, we have children as young as ten put to work and a smug parliament filled with extortionately wealthy families all jostling for power.


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(‘Scene of Huddersfield’ by LS Lowry)


The factory towns put me in mind of LS Lowry’s landscapes, the great belching chimneys and faceless, stick figure workers. Juxtaposed with the joyless lives of the indentured worker are the cold, elegant, horrible, and yet strangely fascinating overclass of aristocrats who wield the ‘Skill’. Chapters alternate between workers surviving day by day on the factory line and the gleaming, manicured world of the ‘Equals’, toxic with nepotism, narcissism and family secrets.


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(Chatsworth House, the closest I could find to how I imagined the great House of Kyneston)


‘Gilded Cage’ has broad swathes of that wild British darkness that I’ve come to love so much. Think of the iron sharp, back stabbing society of Bronte and Thackeray, but left to grow obese and wasteful on its own power. An upperclass that has begun to take its place in society for granted, a once strong muscle that has not had to work and has grown atrophied, leaving space for dissension and discontent.

Then add onto that the glittering, scintillating imagery of the skill, the strange ‘post Revolutionary’ glass buildings that seem to show shadows of another world.

It is utterly breathtaking, I can’t really say more than that. I adored it. It has taken me a good few weeks to mull and decide what exactly I want to write because, for a while, my thoughts were meandering all over the shop. How to decide whether to focus on character, world building, environment, the political wrangling, eugh…almost impossible. I loved it all.

So my one piece of advice would be to pick up a copy as quick as you possible can. The UK Paperback edition comes out on the 26th of January 2017, but the Kindle version comes out on the 1st of December this year…I will allow you to mull over that one.

 (I received an ARC from the Author and Pan Macmillan in exchange for an honest review)

Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo)

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☆☆☆☆☆

I give this book 4 MILLION KRUGE *cough* stars…

It took me way too long to get around to reading this book. I hadn’t actually finished the Grisha trilogy until a month or so ago and I wanted to save SOC for my summer reading. I’m very very glad I did.

Six of Crows is a book to be savored, to be devoured and thought about to the exclusion of all else. I read it on a balcony overlooking Lake Garda in the searing summer heat with a flute of cold Prosecco but I would have adored it even if I had been sitting in my room in wet, humid old Britain.

I will be honest and say that the concept of a heist, when I first read the blurb, didn’t entirely interest me that much. I was drawn in more by the beautiful graphics I’d seen on tumblr and the rabid praise of my friends. If you, like me, aren’t entirely drawn in by the Ocean’s Eleven style premise, I do suggest you put aside your prejudices and pick it up regardless. To me this book was more about characters and the relationships between them, which is EVERYTHING I am interested in as a reader. That and humour that is sharp as a whip crack.

We are introduced to a ragtag band of criminals and residents of the less than salubrious Ketterdam district of ‘The Barrel’. The amoral dagger sharp gang lieutenant Kaz, card loose, gun touting Jesper, and our ‘whisper on the wind’ assassin Inej of the ‘Dregs’. From there the plot thickens, involving some rather nasty experimentation with captive Grisha, a sketchy Merchant Lord and a prudish Witch Hunter who pretty much despises everything that makes up the ‘Dregs’ (and yet finds himself rather uncomfortably beholden to them). See also, our runaway, cake loving Ravkan Nina and the wispy haired demolitions man (*cough* boy) Wylan.

The characters in this book are everything. I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I spent with my brother laughing at the idea of each of them in different situations. They’re so real, so rich and utterly hilarious. Of course, this wouldn’t be one of my favourite books of all time if they weren’t also all nursing deeply traumatic backstories.

This book will grab you by the scruff of the neck and leave you hostage to the need to just keep turning the pages. There are three sections that I call the ‘chapters of unmentionable pain’ and, I warn you, they are very much as horrific as they sound.

You do not have to have read the Grisha trilogy to read and enjoy this. My brother was my test subject in regards to this and he seemed to love it every single bit as much as I did regardless of having not been familiar with the world beforehand.

I utterly adored this book, I’m sure there are ten thousands things I could have talked about in this review that I’ve managed to miss (like the fact I literally ship everything and everyone, amazingly diverse characters and a disabled protagonist!!!) but I would rather just tell you it was bloodydamn amazing and that you should go and read it and then come back and yell at me in excitement!!

Ariah (B.R. Sanders)

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“When you’re very young and you’re different, you begin to believe that no one has ever been as different as you and that no one has ever felt that difference as keenly as you.”

When I sit down to write I review I usually make a list of likes and dislikes. It should tell you something about how much I like this book that the list, in its entirety looked like this:

“Likes: everything about this book

-Genuinely, everything”

The book begins with Ariah, a young elf, journeying far from his familial home to study with a mentor who will help him control his rather unusual gifts. He lives in a world where elves are looked down upon by their human compatriots. Ariah is part Semadran, an ethnic variant of elves with strict and conservative family values, and part Red Elf, a wilder, more carefree people who don’t hold with the same traditions as the Semadrans. Ariah is a mimic, a gift that allows him to learn language and the nuances of voice with ease, but he is also something more dangerous, something he tries very hard to play down and hide. He is part shaper, very in-tune with others’ emotions, able to manipulate the emotions of others and can find himself losing all sense of who he is the great sweep of others minds. It is a gift that is heavily regulated in the empire and is viewed with great mistrust.

He begins his training with Dirva, his mentor, but familial problems lead to Ariah travelling beyond the borders of the empire alongside him. There he meets Dirva’s younger brother, Sorcha, and comes face to face with the realization that he does not know himself at all.


This is a wonderful, beautiful book. I don’t think I’ve read a book that’s lingered with me after reading the last page quite like this in a long time. I want to read it again even though it’s only been a handful of hours since I put it down. I can’t tell you how long I have been looking for a book like this. Beautiful, beautiful fantasy world building with diverse incredibly written characters and relationships that are delightfully non-heteronormative. As a bisexual fantasy lover this was a dream come true.

‘Ariah’ is very much a character as opposed to plot driven book. That’s not to say that nothing happens because by the end of the book you feel as if you’ve been on an odyssey with the main character, but if you’re looking for page after page of action then you might be disappointed. In my humble opinion, this is honestly some of the best character writing I have ever come across. You feel as if you could reach out and actually touch the characters they are painted so vividly. I love Ariah, I love Sorcha, I love Shayat and Dirva, I’m having a very hard time putting into words just why and how. They are all imperfect people, you embrace every inch of them through Ariah’s eyes, every feature and flaw, every moment of affection or miscommunication. It is very intense and strangely comforting.

“For some of us, the places we come from are not the places we belong, and never were, and never will be.”


Sanders touches on some very important issues in this book, most notably the idea of ‘difference’ and what it means to be ‘different’. I adored the way they handled Ariah’s internalised homophobia due to his strict upbringing and the effect that has on his sense of self after he develops intense feelings for Sorcha. The fact that Ariah has very little sense of self to begin with, that he ‘loses himself’, molds himself to the wants and whims of others, damaging himself in the process, becoming whatever he feels the other needs. The book ponders the different types of love, the different types of need, and the different possibly configurations of personal relationships. It talks about gender, attraction, identity and race all smoothly bound within the narrative. It is an incredible rich book and I had a tear in my eye and a tight feeling in my throat for a lot of it. 

Sanders has incredible prose, it lulls you along, so smooth and rich, it honestly does not feel as if you’ve lost an entire afternoon in reading. I read part of this book on a train and I was very shocked when I realized I was at my destination and two hours had passed.  I may also have had a handful of very groggy mornings due to late night reading sessions…

(Also, have you seen that cover art?? Gods of cover art have truly blessed Sanders. I’ve been a huge fan and follower of C. Bedford ( @c-bedford)  for the last couple of years, so it was a match made in heaven to find their art on the front cover of my new favourite book.)


I can’t recommend this book enough. I already have plans to order a hard copy because I can’t wait to read it again, this time with the pages physically in my hands. Seriously, if you’re looking for a wonderfully written fantasy with diverse protagonists and sublime character development go and get a copy, I repeat, go and get yourself a copy now.

☆☆☆☆☆

(Thanks to Zharmae Publishing and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.)

The Infinity of You and Me (J Q Coyle)

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☆☆☆ 1/2 stars

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I started ‘The Infinity of You and Me’. Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? In the end it turned out to be melting pot of both, and  a very enjoyable melting pot at that. A couple of people who’d reviewed it before me had mentioned that it was a little confusing, so I kept anticipating the point at which it would lose its way, but, happily, it never came.


Fourteen year old Alicia has grown up enthralled by the works of Sylvia Plath, finding amongst her words an escape from the inexplicable life that she is living. Alicia hallucinates strange and decaying but undeniably real worlds. The attacks come at the most inopportune moments, most notably whenever she must make a decision leaving her feeling as if she is being torn apart. Her brief absences from reality make life and school very difficult for her and they are only getting worse, increasing in frequency and intensity.

One day, drawn into a bleak and heartbreaking hallucination, she meets a boy of her own age, Jax, trapped in a dying world. Only a few days later her absent father appears to tell her that she is seeing real worlds. That she is not hallucinating and that she must try and find a way to keep these worlds alive.



My favourite part of this book was definitely the world system, especially the idea that these branch worlds are created from life altering decisions in the prime world causing a fork in possibilities. The idea of ‘roots’ and ‘branches’ and the eerie worlds, echoes of what could have happened if Alicia had chosen a different path, are so haunting and interesting. I really enjoyed learning about travelling throughout the book, beginning at the start, just as confused as Alicia and coming to an understanding with her. I actually thought it was really well thought out and not at all confusing.

I had a couple of qualms, I feel that the villain, who I won’t name for the sake of spoilers, could have been written with a little of a softer touch, that maybe their motivations were a little blunt. I also thought that Alicia didn’t seem fourteen, I couldn’t really see why she couldn’t have been older, she definitely thought and acted like an older teenager. Sometimes I also found I was caring a lot more for the world than the characters, but, considering that most of the book was about the fate of worlds I suppose that wasn’t too much of a problem.

So, all in all a solid book, enjoyable, a smooth and easy read. I wouldn’t put it on a list of my all time favourites, it didn’t create enough of an impression on me for that, but I would recommend it to friends and will keep my eye out for any potential sequels.

Many thank to St Martin’s Press and Netgalley for a copy of the book in return for an honest review. ‘The Infinity of You and Me’ will be available to purchase from the 8th of November this year.

A City Dreaming

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‘A powerful magician returns to New York City and reluctantly finds himself in the middle of a war between the city’s two most powerful witches.

“It would help if you did not think of it as magic. M certainly had long ceased to do so.” 

M is an ageless drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and the ability to bend reality to his will, ever so slightly. He’s come back to New York City after a long absence, and though he’d much rather spend his days drinking artisanal beer in his favorite local bar, his old friendsand his enemieshave other plans for him. One night M might find himself squaring off against the pirates who cruise the Gowanus Canal; another night sees him at a fashionable uptown charity auction where the waitstaff are all zombies. A subway ride through the inner circles of hell? In M’s world, that’s practically a pleasant diversion.

Before too long, M realizes he’s landed in the middle of a power struggle between Celise, the elegant White Queen of Manhattan, and Abilene, Brooklyn’s hip, free-spirited Red Queen, a rivalry that threatens to make New York go the way of Atlantis. To stop it, M will have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he’s ever acquiredhe might even have to get out of bed before noon.

Enter a world of Wall Street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steampunk universes, and demonic coffee shops. M’s New York, the infinite nexus of the universe, really is a city that never sleepsbut is always dreaming.’

This is a really strange, not so little book. Structurally, it resembles most closely a set of short stories which roll inexorably on from one to the next. I honestly had no idea what the endgame was until 94%, and that would usually drive me into a frenzy, but, do you know what?

I loved it.

‘It was around two in the afternoon on a hot August Saturday when M realised the rest of the people at the beach house were planning on using him as a human sacrifice.’

Oh, it’s weird and the prose reads like silk, it truly does. I admit, the first few chapters, maybe even the first 25% I found myself railing against everything I eventually came to love. Probably because I was expecting a linear story and I very much did not get one.

I adored the main character. M is the definition of neutral when it comes to alignment. He rolls with the tide, lets the sweep of New York’s power draw him from chess matches to drug dens, coffee shops and backstreet orgies. Most of the book he underplays himself, moving in circles in a way that makes you feel he’s an underdog, not honestly one of the most powerful magic users in the city, an ageless being travelling with the ebb and flow of civilisation.

The side characters are painted in broad, electric strokes, overlaid with M’s sometimes snarky, sometimes apathetic commentary. Every one of them could be a character in a graphic novel he brings them to life so vividly.

Plotwise, I’m not entirely sure what to say to you. The plot is a subtle little thing, twisting sinuously through each of M’s escapades, more like a background concern than an overwhelming worry. Initially, I found myself annoyed and searching for the plot, once I sat back and let the weirdness flow, I found it was something that no longer concerned me. This book’s a bit like a fever dream. If you try to grab at anything, it’ll just flutter away.

It’s urban fantasy to a backdrop of microbreweries and artisanal moustache wax and it’s horrible and beautiful to read. It’s very self aware, cattily funny and sometimes bordering on inappropriate.  I loved it.

Many thanks to Regan Arts and Netgalley for an ARC 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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