Flame in the Mist (Renée Ahdieh)

5 stars

“Mariko has always known that being a woman means she’s not in control of her own fate. But Mariko is the daughter of a prominent samurai and a cunning alchemist in her own right, and she refuses to be ignored. When she is ambushed by a group of bandits known as the Black Clan enroute to a political marriage to Minamoto Raiden – the emperor’s son – Mariko realises she has two choices: she can wait to be rescued… or she can take matters into her own hands, hunt down the clan and find the person who wants her dead.

Disguising herself as a peasant boy, Mariko infiltrates the Black Clan’s hideout and befriends their leader, the rebel ronin Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, Okami. Ranmaru and Okami warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. But as Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets that will force her to question everything she’s ever known.”

So, ‘Flame in the Mist’ had been one of my most anticipated reads of this year ever since it was announced. That’s a lot to live up to and I was both excited and nervous when I received an ARC copy, wondering whether it could live up to my expectations.

Thankfully, I adored this book…

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Characters

Mariko, our protagonist is more interested in inventing things, whether they be objects that explode or those more practical, than being a Daimyō‘s daughter. The funny thing is that she’s actually kind of useless at first in the society of the Black Clan. She can’t cook, can’t cut fire wood, has pretty terrible upper body strength, and manages to make an enemy of pretty much everyone she meets. Maybe sometimes overestimating her own cunning and making chaos of situations, she’s a nightmare and I loved her.

Her twin brother, Kenshin, also known as the Dragon of Kai, is already a greatly revered Samurai warrior. He is equally as fierce as his sister and deeply protective of her, sometimes struggling with tenents of Bushidō relating to self control. One thing I couldn’t work out during the book is whether Kenshin actually has some magic of his own, mages are rare in the book but destruction seems to come to him far too easily. Fear for his sister, the complex political wranglings of the Imperial Court and having to lead a band of Samurai almost twice his age seem to push Kenshin to the brink and I’m pretty curious and worried to see how the next book works out for him.

Okami is, unsurprisingly, one of my favourite characters. Seemingly a little lazy and unkempt, the actually rather dangerous and dark-magic-wielding  second in command of the Black Clan has some of the best lines in the book:

‘My life has been filled with death and lies and loose women…I regret everything else.’

Like, what am I supposed to do with that? Witty and a dashing facial scar? He almost comes with a sticker on his head saying ‘this one is going to be your favourite character‘. I also enjoyed just how infuriating he found Mariko in her guise as a young man, seeing her as little more than a burden and a risk to the Black Clan.

Ah, hate to love, isn’t it glorious?

Story

Often touted as a combination of the Chinese story of Mulan and the Japanese tales of the 47 Rōnin, I will say that, plotwise, it takes a lot more from the latter. It is a Mulan retelling to the extent that Mariko disguises herself as a man and in some aspects of the romance, but the actual story is much closer to the Japanese stories of the rōnin, leaderless samurai, seeking revenge for the death of their daimyō.

It’s a slow story, but I’m glad that was the case. Ahdieh’s descriptions and character building take time and space, she has a wonderful way with words that often made me want to read the story aloud. Likewise, she takes time to allow character relationships to blossom, often leaving the exact feelings of characters towards one another as confused or amorphous, which, let’s be honest, is often exactly how close bonds form.

One thing I have, unfortunately, found over my years of reading is that it’s really difficult to find fantasy set in a Feudal Japanese setting that doesn’t make my eyes roll out of my head. Between painful tropes, fetishization and a basic misunderstanding  of Japanese cultural identity, finding good books has really been luck of the draw. This book was a breath of fresh air in that respect.

Flame in the Mist‘ is a sensitive portrayal of a fantasy feudal Japan. The story could not be told without its setting, it’s much more than scenic window-dressing, with Ahdieh addressing the political and cultural implications of Bushidō, ‘the way of the warrior’, as one of the central pillarstones of the story. It explores the duality of a fantasy Edo period and shogunate culture, where warriors such as the Samurai lived by the laws of Bushidō, including benevolence, integrity, loyalty and honour, but the structure of society enforced strict hierarchies with little or no social mobility. Ahdieh does a good job of explaining some more unfamiliar concepts in text, especially the omnipresent Bushidō code and the political importance of Geiko and the tea ceremonies.

It’s a story about revolution and social change, which, let’s be honest, is incredibly relevant right now. It asks questions about the status quo, about why it should be allowed to persist, whether it is even ethical for it continue in the way it is. Okami, for example, is vocally critical of the way of the Samurai and what he sees as unquestioning loyalty to an underserving upper echelon of society. I’m really excited to see how Ahdieh tackles some of those issues in the next book!

Note

I have seen one or two people comment that the use of Japanese in text is confusing or distracting for them. I would say that a) there’s a glossary at the back, b) the words are pretty easy to understand from context and cultural osmosis, and c) you’d probably just accept it if it was a fantasy novel. If you come from a martial arts background like me (Kendo), then you will probably have no problem with the words at all.

Conclusion

It was amazing, I read it too fast and now I’m going to have to wait painfully for book two. If you’re looking for a YA fantasy set in feudal Japan then this is the book for you; it’s beautifully written, sensitive to culture, has a perfect romance and is just, genuinely, everything that I wanted it to be.

Many thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for a copy in return for an honest review.

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.

The Upside of Unrequited (Becky Albertalli)

5 Stars

“Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?”

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, often preferring a heady dose of magic to reality. However, there are a handful of contemporary fiction writers that are autobuy for me, and Mrs Albertalli is just one of those writers. I picked up ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ last year at YALC and read the entire book in one sitting, falling in love with just how well Albertalli writes youth, especially those who live their teenage life towards the fringes, not popular but not exactly friendless either.

Her latest protagonist, Molly, falls into a similar segment of society. She’s well liked, has a happy home life, but is plagued with clinical anxiety and shyness which keeps her dreaming rather than acting upon any of her crushes. In Molly’s mind it is safer to pine from afar than risk the bitter sting of rejection. But watching her skinny twin, Cassie, fall in love, Molly begins to feel that she is being left behind, and begins to wonder whether she is the only barrier between herself and such happiness.

‘I’ve had crushes on twenty-six people, twenty-five of whom are not Lin-Manuel Miranda’

(I feel you, Molly)

This book was ridiculously cute and ridiculously relatable. I’m twenty three and I still feel the same nervous jitters when I come across someone I like and begin to wonder whether they could like me too. I think it will mean a lot to some teenagers readers to see a fat girl in a contemporary romance, to reassure young readers of all genders that being fat doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful or deserving of love.

‘There’s this awfulness that comes when a guy thinks you like him. It’s as if he’s fully clothed and you’re naked in front of him. It’s like your heart suddenly lives outside your body, and whenever he wants, he can reach out and squeeze it. Unless he happens to like you back.’

Without spoilers, the flirtation between Molly and her love interests was adorable. Hipster Will and Nerd Reid are definitely guys that I have met and dated. I’d also like to thank Albertalli for inserting the ??? into attraction. Sometimes those we come to love have things about them that are odd or a little off-putting at first but you come to accept as you grow to know them. It’s not something that is discussed often in romance, especially not teen romance!

I’d also like to put it out there that any scene about Molly’s mothers or their impending wedding made me tear right up. The world is a cold and cruel place to the LGBTQA community right now and this book was filled with the warmth and comfort that I have been craving. It also made me so happy to see bi women in relationships with women still being referred to as bi. It’s all too easy for authors to erase a character’s bi identity in a relationship and I felt all fuzzy to see that not happening here.

So, my loves: relatable non-cookie-cutter lead, a distinct lack of instalove, diversity, accurate depictions of anxiety, nerdom, oreos and arts and craft.

Dislikes? I don’t know what you expected me to put here because I loved it all.

‘The Upside of Unrequited’ is out on both sides of the Atlantic on the 11th of April (not long now!) and I seriously recommend you all go and pick it up (and ‘Simon’ if you haven’t already read it!).

Many thanks to Penguin Random House for a copy in return for an honest review. All quotations were drawn from an advanced review copy and may be subject to change in the final novel.

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.

Heartless (Marissa Meyer)

Long before she was the Queen of Hearts, Catherine Pinkerton was just a girl who wanted to fall in love. Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a favorite of the unmarried King of Hearts, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, all she wants is to open a shop with her best friend. But according to her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for the young woman who could be the next queen.

Then Cath meets Jest, the handsome and mysterious court joker. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the king and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into an intense, secret courtship. Cath is determined to define her own destiny and fall in love on her terms. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

3 stars

It took me the longest time to get into this book. For the first 40% I was fighting a constant battle with myself as to whether I should simply mark this book as a DNF and move on. However, I really enjoy Meyer’s work, I mean, Cinder is a great piece of fiction and I love how she cleverly twists fairytales to her needs. So, I soldiered on, and, at about 40%, I began to get a feeling, the sort of feeling I get in my chest when I’m really starting to get invested in something.

It was dark and mysterious and a little mind bending in places, and I began to think, this is why I wanted to read this book. We have an abrasive protagonist, a mysterious court jester, a cast of characters every bit as strange as the Wonderland of our childhoods, and the omnipresent threat of the Jabberwock. A feeble Monarch, a kingdom of the weird and wonderfully naïve, and a Hatter who managed to at once be eccentric and dangerous in all the best ways. It really does raise the question, how is it possible that a book I was coming to love ended up a three star read?

There were some really cool moments, I actually devoured the middle half of the book. Anything Jest or Hatta related automatically caught my attention and, without ruining the plot for anyone, I will say that the backstory written for them was really interesting. I do feel, however, that not enough was done with it, and there’s nothing more infuriating than watching the characters with the coolest designs just not getting used to their full effect. The book was deliciously dark, and with all its cake laden pages was delicious in many other ways as well. There was blood and pain and the heart breaking sensation of characters having to settle for less. It had all the ingredients of a five star book, but somehow in the baking did not rise to its potential majesty.

The beginning is slow and sometimes irritatingly twee. It was only once we reached further into the book that it developed a bit of grit, a bit of the sinister energy of a villain origin story. This is the world of the Looking Glass, yes, it should be strange, iridescent, vivid, but it should also be unsettling, for in that you find the true heart of Wonderland. I do feel the middle half of the book really captured the off kilter roots of Carroll’s books, it was just a shame that it ended in the way it did.

But this is a villain origin story you say. You knew when you started this read it was never going to have a happy end? Yes, but there’s a big difference between bittersweet and just plain anger inducing.

I don’t think I’ve ever raged over a character’s actions as much as I did those of Cath. She quite literally condemned her companions to death and their worst nightmares. I have no words for how close I was to hurling my kindle across the room at that point. Her decision was so illogical, so utterly infuriating, that I ended up skimming the last couple of pages, no longer invested in character or book at all. Vengeance is a fine plot motivator when it’s given time to brew. A handful of pages at the end of a book just doesn’t do it for me.

I can see why some people adored this book. Everyone and every heart is different. For me personally I felt there was little reward for me in finishing this book. I felt cold and hollow as I turned the final page and was tetchy for many hours afterwards. I think there is importance in the delineation between a good book and an enjoyable book. This was a good read, it was not an enjoyable one.

Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for a copy in return for an honest review.

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.

 

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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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.

A Quiet Kind of Thunder (Sara Barnard)

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“Steffi doesn’t talk, but she has so much to say. Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen. Their love isn’t a lightning strike, it’s the rumbling roll of thunder. 

Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk and, as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.”

4 stars

I was going to start this review by yelling about how cute this book was. But I just didn’t think that did it justice. Yes, this story is really really cute and I enjoyed it a lot, but it’s also really important. Our protagonist, Steffi, is selectively mute and struggles with anxiety that underpins every single one of her daily interactions. Our love interest, Rhys, is biracial and was born deaf. Steffi, having learnt some BSL to help her communicate when unable to talk, is roped in by her school to help new boy Rhys settle in and they end up finding that the other is the person they feel they’ve always been looking for.

This idea could have ended up really twee, but instead Barnard was honest about some of the difficulties of Steffi and Rhys’ friendship and relationship. There is no awkward feeling that Steffi or Rhys are ‘saved’ by the others existence, or that they couldn’t live their lives without the other, they just really enjoy being together. Indeed, there are a number of believable miscommunications between them fuelled by Steffi’s low self esteem and the fact that Rhys isn’t automatically the perfect human being just because he’s a disabled main character. Both seem beautifully and realistically human  and the relationship between them was so engaging I ended up sitting down and reading the book in one go.

But the relationship isn’t the only talking point of the book, in fact, I’d say it was only one of the plot points in a book that dealt with emotional discussions of grief, therapy and life long female friendship. Steffi is a character that will probably feel instantly recognizable to anyone with anxiety, but even to those who are less familiar, her friendship with her best friend and the way it morphs, changes and strengthens over time is so important. Changing schools, relationships, different life courses all can strain friendships, making those in them fear they may become distant from those that have been part of their lives for as long as they can remember. It was really lovely to see a female friendship meet those challenges and grow from it, not falter in the face of adversity.

For me, the thing that knocked it down a star was the last fifty pages or so. Without giving spoilers, Steffi comes to a realization in the last page that, as someone with anxiety, I feel maybe should have had a little more time spent upon.  I just don’t feel that the decision she made had enough time to come to fruition in the little time spent on it. It felt like a drastic turn around on her thinking in the rest of the book. Whilst her epiphany was a healthy one, it’s very difficult for someone with their anxieties so ingrained to come to that thought process so quickly. The thinking that goes into something like that, something which fights against every iota of your insecurities, feels like torture and I wish that had been given a little more page space.

Overall, this was a great book. Sweet, sad and truthful, it managed to share the beauty of a burgeoning relationship without every shying away from the common, and more specific, pitfalls of the main characters love.

Thank you to Pan Macmillan for a copy in return for an honest review.

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.