• Minis

    Monday Minis

    Welcome back to another week of Monday Minis – a literary historical novel I quite liked, and then two that I sadly didn’t get along with at all. I wish I could love every book I read! Nevertheless, many thanks to the publicists for giving me (e)ARCs of all of these titles for review, and as usual, all opinions are entirely my own.

    Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth is a historical novel set in London’s theatres of the Victorian era. It follows Zillah, a young actress, born and raised in London, but playing a Black savage on the stage due to her mixed heritage. But her comfortable life is disturbed when she meets Lucien, a fellow Black man and grocer, who leads her to question her role on the stage and in life, and introduces her to new ways of thinking. Around the same time, she learns of another Black woman held captive by the owner of the theatre she works at, and so Zillah starts her own investigation into what is right and wrong. A captivating story with a strong leading character who undergoes a huge growth arc over the course of the book, this was one I did really enjoy. I thought parts of the resolution were a bit simplistic in its execution, but I loved the overall message that the book ended on. Definitely one to check out if you are into historical fiction at all – a story verging on a mystery, with a romantic component.

    I struggled a lot with The Gift Book 1: Eleanor by RA Williams. This is a dark fantasy novel set in the first half of the twentieth century between the wreck of the Titanic and the beginning of World War II. It includes elements of Indiana Jones-esque hunts for antiquities, a ruthless, smart and driven protagonist and an obsessive mystery. However, I had two major issues with the book. First, the writing is rather clunky – it is not immersive and I felt that it would have needed further editing to reach a level to be ready for publication. This is not aided by the story jumping through years, weeks and months at will between chapters, making it harder for the reader to keep up while reading, rather than telling a coherent story. The other thing that I struggled with a lot is that it does not interrogate any of the events or privilege in the story – for example, Eleanor, the main character, moves to Berlin in the 1930s as a Jewish woman, and any concerns about Nazi Germany are pushed to the side as irrelevant as the family has plenty of money. And that sort of callousness isn’t something I’m happy to just take in the age of diverse books – privilege is fine, but use it as a platform to discuss issues from, to see it as a springboard for other things, not as an excuse to gloss over anything you want to ignore. So in a book where I felt iffy about the story already thanks to the writing, that lack of depth put me off, which means this is not something I will recommend.

    I was extremely excited for Emily X. R. Pan’s An Arrow to the Moon. I fell in love with the writing in her debut which charmed me with its haunting and lyrical ways despite being quite a bit outside my usual taste, so having more of that in a contemporary fantasy retelling of Chinese myth sounded like a dream come true. An Arrow to the Moon reimagines the story of Chang’e and Houyi in 1990s US – which I didn’t realise from the blurb. I assumed it was set in the present day, and it read like it was, except for the lack of communication devices. And I get how the existence of the internet would have messed up some of the plot points, but also, the setting felt rather clumsy and like an afterthought. I guess that is how I feel about most of this book – there are some great ideas and concepts, but ultimately in execution a lot doesn’t seem to be quite thought through enough, or shown to the reader to the extent that demonstrates why they should care. Apart from many small gripes I had with this book throughout, it felt unfinished – like a draft that doesn’t actually tie up the loose ends, but rather serves to get the story down and then to identify those. It made me really sad because I was so hyped for the book and I realised quite early on that I was only continuing to read on because I hoped that it would get better. So sadly this one is a miss for me too.

  • Reviews

    Mort the Meek and the Monstrous Quest – Rachel Delahaye

    Mort the Meek is back! I loved the first Mort book when I read it last year – Mort the Meek and the Raven’s Revenge – see my review here, and so I jumped on the chance to request book two when it came out. This is more of the same macabre kids humour combined with wonderful illustrations and quirky narration, so just a gem all around.

    Many thanks to Little Tiger for sending me a review copy, all opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 06/01/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: Around the unfriendly, rocky island of Brutalia, the waves are awash with brave sea-farers, on a treasure hunt for their demanding queen. Among them is Mort, but rather than hunt for treasure, he’s more interested in looking for his family who are lost at sea. Unfortunately, his shipmate Punky has her eyes firmly on the prize.

    But when the pair find the tentacle of a mythical sea creature, their adventure takes a dramatic turn. Is this the prize-winning treasure Punky and the queen seek? Or could it be a monstrous twist in Mort’s rescue mission? (from Little Tiger)

    OPINIONS: I just love these books. They remind me a bit of A Series of Unfortunate Events aimed at a slightly younger audience – and less realistic. This is again narrated by animals explaining words and sarcastically talking about what is going on – sea creatures this time. The focus on lexicon and new vocabulary is one of my favourite aspects, and something I know I would have absolutely adored as a child as well. Set on the island of Brutalia, this second installment takes place quite a bit of time after the first, with enough time having past for Mort’s father and siblings to have gone lost at sea. Their terrible queen has decided that she is now going to be a god queen – and thus asks her citizens to go out and quest to be named half-gods.

    Mort joins this expedition – not because he wants to be a half-god, but because he wants to find his missing family. On the way, he is paired up with the infuriating Punky, who has a soft core beneath her hard exterior, loses his pacifist ways and accidentally becomes a fish god. In the end, he has to find back to his pacifist roots to find a solution to Brutalia’s problems after receiving help from unexpected allies. Again, the story focuses on how ultimately issues can be solved through thinking and talking rather than violence, which I think is a wonderful message, and one that is very important to drill into the audience’s heads at that age.

    I think these books are probably best aimed at young readers aged seven to nine, though my adult self still enjoyed it a lot. Join Mort on his adventures by adding Mort the Meek and the Monstrous Quest to your Goodreads here, and ordering a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Reviews

    The Amber Crown – Jacey Bedford

    A standalone epic fantasy that hits familiar beats in interesting ways with a strong cast that earns their bonds and uses the familiar as a bedrock to add surprises along with a keen eye for detail. 

    Many thanks to Stephanie at DAW for sending me an eARC, all opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 11/01/2022

    STAR RATING: 3.5/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: The king is dead, his queen is missing. On the amber coast, the usurper king is driving Zavonia to the brink of war. A dangerous magical power is rising up in Biela Miasto, and the only people who can set things right are a failed bodyguard, a Landstrider witch, and the assassin who set off the whole sorry chain of events.

    Valdas, Captain of the High Guard, has not only failed in his duty to protect the king, but he’s been accused of the murder, and he’s on the run. He’s sworn to seek justice, but his king sets him another task from beyond the grave. Valdas doesn’t believe in magic, which is unfortunate as it turns out.

    Mirza is the healer-witch of a Landstrider band, valued and feared in equal measure for her witchmark, her scolding tongue, and her ability to walk the spirit world. When she’s given a task by Valdas’ dead king, she believes that the journey she must take is one she can never return from.

    Lind is the clever assassin. Yes, someone paid him to kill the king, but who is to blame, the weapon or the power behind it? Lind must face his traumatic past if he’s to have a future.

    Can these three discover the real villain, find the queen, and set the rightful king on the throne before the country is overcome?

    OPINIONS: The Amber Crown is a stand-alone with many of the trappings of epic fantasy squeezed into a single story. Set in a Central-European-inspired country, the story draws more from the late Renaissance with traders, merchants, a semi-prosperous middle class, and guns, rather than the typical medieval. The plot itself is very traditional with a group going on a quest, an uncertain power vacuum, and an unseen evil lurking underneath it all. While this sounds the same old, same old, the familiarity allows the differences to become more apparent and it’s the characters that make it, as well as a solid execution. It’s important to note that whilst the world is not grimdark, there are mentions of sexual assault, a scene of attempted rape, and a flashback to the rape of an adolescent. They’re addressed within the story and aren’t just used as set dressing or to set a tone but readers may want to approach with caution.

    Valdas is the most straightforward of the three POV characters. He’s loyal, honest, and willing to accept responsibility. However, he’s also a bit crude and loves women although he knows how to accept boundaries.  He’s also the one that I feel changes the least through the story. He already knows himself and mostly what kind of person he is so doesn’t go through the path of growth the other two do, although through his experiences he becomes more open-minded and tolerant of others.  

    While I liked Mirza with her pragmatism, sharpness but also a strong sense of fairness and compassion she does get the raw end of the deal a lot of the time. At the beginning of the story, she has to fight for the respect of her band, having recently been an apprentice who had outpaced her master but was forced to hide it.  As she continues to show her abilities to her band and later convinces Valdas of the existence of magic, her willingness to do what’s right overall despite the hardship it might cause her becomes a defining trait. 

    Lind is the most complex of the three and the most morally ambivalent. Through the story, we see his cleverness and his quickness but also Lind’s experiences as an assassin for hire are grounded more in detail than usual with descriptions of disguises and methodicalness of planning required rather than violence and a quick getaway.  All three have very distinct voices and the bonds between each of the characters are slowly developed and earned rather than forged in an instant through peril.   

    In terms of writing the short chapters maintain the pace of the book and help to keep momentum between the characters, particularly in the earlier parts. Each POV feels very different so it’s enjoyable to switch between them. There are also interesting bits of worldbuilding such as Lind’s mention of changing fashion adds a sense of vibrancy and of living culture rather than things being set in stone. The poor judgment of the new king is also mentioned through the references to new taxes in subtle asides. The Amber Crown would be a good fit for people who love epic fantasy but aren’t ready to commit to a long-running series.

  • Reviews

    A Tale of Two Faerie Tales

    So often we see recommendations based on certain keywords or subgenre classifications, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of reducing recommendations to this basic approach. Using such an approach, two books might appear to be excellent recommendations for a single request; however, the art of the successful recommendation is far more nuanced.

    We’ve all seen something like this before: “Recommended to those who like the Fae, Romance, and Regency- or Victorian-era language and settings.” In fact, this exact description could be used for two books I’ve recently read and are currently quite popular in Speculative Fiction circles, namely Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater and The Lord of Stariel by A.J. Lancaster. Based on that description alone someone might recommend both of these books to a single request, and they will have varying degrees of success, because these two books are in fact quite different. So, I present to you A Tale of Two Faerie Tales, short reviews of two books that – on paper – should appeal to the same reader and fulfill similar recommendation requests, but differ significantly in their tone, themes, and purpose.

    Publication Date: March 29, 2020

    Rating: 3/5 ✶

    Kat’s Summary: As a child, half of Dora’s soul was stolen by an evil lord of Faerie. Now, a young woman who has debuted in Regency-era England, Dora finds herself searching for her place in society, never really fitting in, because she’s missing some part of herself. When her family travels to London to find a husband for her cousin, she meets the ill-mannered Lord Sorcier, who has vowed to help her try and mend her soul purely because it’s a challenging problem to solve. Their plans are derailed by a magical plague putting children into an unwakable sleep as well as the dealing with the travesties of London workhouses. Dora and Elias must work together to discover the source of the plague and save the sick children before it’s too late. And as they do, will they be able to deny the feelings that are unexpectedly developing between them?

    Publication Date: November 1, 2018

    Rating: 3/5 ✶

    Kat’s Summary: Hetta is the unconventional daughter of Lord Stariel working as an illusionist in a theater. She must return to her estranged family’s estate after learning her father has passed away to take part in the Choosing ceremony in which the sentient land of Stariel will pick its next Lord. After being unexpectedly chosen, she must work within her small band of friends – her brother Marius, her cousin Jack, and her mysterious friend (and newly discovered love interest) Wyn – to understand the land’s magic, the arrival of unexpected Fae guests, and uncover the motivation behind a plot to seat her as the Lord regardless of the Choosing Stone’s intent. Can they uncover who is behind all the machinations in Stariel and restore order before any more dangerous Fae incursions put their land and family at risk?

    I’ll start with how these books are similar, namely their prose and language. Half a Soul is set in Regency-era England; the existence of magic and Faerie is simply overlaid atop this historic setting. The Lord of Stariel, on the other hand, is set in a secondary world reminiscent of late-Victorian England. Despite these inconsequential setting differences, both books have beautiful, soothing prose, and more importantly the language used fits their quasi-historical settings. It evokes the atmosphere you’d expect from a fantasy-of-manners and helps amplify the desired, historic English atmosphere.

    To me, the prose and language is the strongest similarity between the two books; in fact, the remaining similarities fall under the vein of : They both…, but…

    First, there is a noticeable difference in tone. Half a Soul is a very much a classic fairytale, complete with the requisite character tropes – the evil stepmother (Auntie Frances), prince charming (Lord Sorcier), etc. – and carries a tone that matches what you’d expect from a fairytale. Words I’d use to describe the tone are sweet, whimsical, emotional. Atwater creates this quality through both the characters and the setting. Dora is young and innocent, and Lord Stariel hardened and melodramatic. They are established as emotional opposites, Dora having lost the capacity to truly feel, and Elias deeply affected by his conscience and feelings. The author leans into this contrast, and the emotional drama that ensues contributes to the fairytale atmosphere. The journey into Faerie amplifies this further by presenting an absurd and exaggerated version of Regency-era society and mores in a manner reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.

    In contrast, The Lord of Stariel presents the reader with a less frantically emotional approach that is far more akin to “slice-of-life” story-telling. Despite being a “faerie tale,” the tone is measured and subdued, resulting from both mature characters and the author’s presentation. Hetta is an established adult with her own job, home, and independence. She is experienced in both life and relationships. She is an unconventional woman in conventional society, and yet still adheres to the expectations of her family and propriety. Her manner, coupled with a plot that is largely interspersed with the mundane – meals, gatherings, outings, and meetings about the estate – delivers a feel that is more commensurate with a fantasy-of-manners than a traditional fairytale. And although the Fae are present, most notably in Wyn, the events seem more realistic as they are not described in an over-the-top manner, the revelations and interactions handled as if they were “normal” life events.

    Second, both books contain romantic elements, but to unmistakably different degrees. Half a Soul is most definitely a Fantasy Romance and it is clear from the start that Dora and Elias are developing an unexpected and deep connection to one another. Their relationship evolves slowly over the course of the book, and the appropriate amount of time is spent developing both of the characters as well as their relationship such that the reader is invested in their success as a couple and the book can deliver a satisfying HEA. Dora and Elias have meaningful character arcs that are tied to their emotional states and their world views. Their attraction to one another is borne out of those arcs, based not in lust but shared experience and respect, creating a truly powerful romantic connection. (The scene where Elias attends the ball to dance with Dora under magically sparkling lights was perfectly romantic!)

    The romance in The Lord of Stariel falls squarely into the category of romantic subplot at best. It’s likely (based on chats with those that have read the entire series) that this book provides the set up necessary for a more fleshed-out romantic subplot later on. But if someone is looking for a strong romantic subplot, I probably wouldn’t recommend this book. It’s a bit thin for my taste, even if I did find their eventual coming-together a highlight of the ending. One of the reasons the romantic subplot was so thin, was that unlike Half a Soul, Hetta and Wyn’s character arcs were not fully fleshed out in service of the romance, much of their attraction portrayed as lust. It was disappointing that Hetta did not explicitly choose to stay in Stariel. Giving this decision more emotional treatment and tying it to Wyn, even in the slightest, would have given Hetta more agency and made the romantic subplot far more compelling.

    And finally, there is theming, or objective. Half a Soul, in true fairytale fashion, is not shy in delivering its message: virtue is not found in material wealth or in being a part of the aristocracy. By the end of the book, after tours through the horrific conditions of the workhouses and the journey to Faerie that mirrors Regency-era mores in an exaggerated manner, the reader can’t help but “get the message.” I would go so far as to say that the messaging could have been tempered a bit and still delivered its point! But that’s the purpose of many traditional fairytales, isn’t it? And so it worked within the context of the book’s tone and objective.

    The Lord of Stariel is subtle in its purpose and messaging. Here, the reader is presented with themes that are less heavy than the single, overarching moral that drives its counterpart. In fact, the book is light on themes, the strongest of which centers around returning to your roots, strengthened by the use of the Stariel family’s connection to the sentient land as a metaphor, and devotion to family. The purpose of this book is not to deliver a message, but to present the reader with a world and cast of characters that they will ostensibly follow throughout the series as it delivers adventures of the reunited family with its new world understanding.

    I would happily recommend both of these Faerie Tales. I found them equally delightful, but in markedly different ways. And while they appear to fit within the same proverbial box, for the reasons I’ve outlined above, you’ll likely not see me recommending both of these books to the same request. Half a Soul and The Lord of Stariel scratch decidedly different itches, and attention to what a reader is looking for will pay dividends against the success of recommending one or both of these books. Happy reading.

  • Hype!

    February Hype Post!

    And again it is time to talk about next month’s releases! To start, a reminder to check out our yearly preview post HERE, as we’ll try and not repeat books – there are simply too many great ones to be highlighted! And tbh, February is a bumper month there already, it really is a fantastic month for new releases.

    Fab: I am an utter mystery addict right now, and one of my recent favourites was Mia P. Manasala’s Filipino and food themed Arsenic and Adobo. Homicide and Halo-Halo is the second book in the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Series, and continues the story of Lila and her set of meddling aunties, the not one, but two, attractive and successful bachelors in her life and all the chaos that comes with life in Shady Palms. The books are in turn funny, charming and full of food – and in particular, Filipino food, which may be one of my obsessions… I can’t wait to delve into the shenanigans of Lila and co and figure out who truly killed the pageant judge that Lila’s cousin/frienemy Bernadette is accused of murdering! Pre-order via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

    Fab: It’s high time we added some non-fiction to our hype posts, and A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them by Neil Bradbury sounds like a brilliant choice. A blend of true crime, science and medical history, this puts the substances first and foremost. It tells the story of murder and mayhem through the eleven ‘deadly molecules’ that are portrayed in this book, looking at how they work, how they affect the body on a molecular level and what the damage they inflict tells us. It sounds absolutely fascinating and like a great resource for both morbid curiosity and any budding writer who may be including poison in their work… Pre-order via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

    Fab: From Dust, A Flame by Rebecca Podos is queer Jewish YA fantasy, and if that doesn’t tempt you, I’m not sure what will. Hannah and her family have spent their life in motion, running from something that Hannah’s mother never explained. And on Hannah’s seventeenth birthday, she wakes up transformed. Her mother leaves her and her brother alone, promising to be back with a cure – but never returns. And so Hannah and Gabe are drawn into a search for answers, a family they never knew and a history more tragic and fantastical they could have imagined. As the past comes crashing into the present, Hannah has to figure out her curse to save herself and her loved ones. It sounds like a wonderful story and I am looking forward to diving in. Pre-order this via Book Depository here.

    Sun: I surprised myself with how much I loved Sisters of the Vast Black and whilst it made a perfectly fine standalone I’m really glad we’re getting Sisters of The Forsaken Stars to see how the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita are coping with the fallout of their decisions.

    After releasing crucial details Central Governance had been hiding from their citizens, the sisters are constantly moving around in a bid to remain out of sight, if not necessarily out of mind. However, their decision is making them a focal point for more rebellious sections of citizens, angry at Central Governances’ direction and sooner or later the sisters will have to choose to what extent they get involved.

    I really enjoyed the first as the nuns had a great deal of agency and had a mix of characters who were both believers with a thoughtful examination of how this affected their choices and those who were there for more pragmatic reasons. Pre-order via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

    Sun: Across a Field of Starlight is the newest sci-fi graphic novel from the author of O Human Star which was a brilliant look at AI on a very personal level.

    Across a Field of Starlight is about two non-binary kids, Fassen and Lu from two very different communities who meet when Fassen’s spaceship crashes on the planet Lu is surveying. Although they remain separated their friendship continues amidst a backdrop of change and unrest, with a threatening empire getting stronger and closer to both communities.

    The cover art for this looks lovely and O Human Star had clear crisp art that was a joy to follow so odds are good Starlight will be the same. I’m really looking forward to learning about Fassen and Lu. This is out 8 February. Pre-order via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Reviews

    Elektra – Jennifer Saint

    One of the most successful titles in the recent boom of mythological retellings is Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne. Blessed with both a hardback and a paperback special edition, and nominated for the Waterstones Book of the Year, I really enjoyed it when I read it last year (see my review here). So to say I was excited for Elektra is an understatement. It looks at one of the most fascinating mother/daughter relationships in Greek myth, that of Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister, and her daughter Elektra – and is another enthralling tale.

    Many thanks to Wildfire and NetGalley for the eARC, all opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 28/04/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: The House of Atreus is cursed. A bloodline tainted by a generational cycle of violence and vengeance. This is the story of three women, their fates inextricably tied to this curse, and the fickle nature of men and gods.
    The sister of Helen, wife of Agamemnon – her hopes of averting the curse are dashed when her sister is taken to Troy by the feckless Paris. Her husband raises a great army against them and determines to win, whatever the cost.
    Princess of Troy, and cursed by Apollo to see the future but never to be believed when she speaks of it. She is powerless in her knowledge that the city will fall.
    The youngest daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Elektra is horrified by the bloodletting of her kin. But can she escape the curse, or is her own destiny also bound by violence? (from Wildfire)

    OPINIONS: Elektra is once again an enthralling story of three women often overlooked in mythology. It is quite a bit darker than Ariadne was – how could it not be, centred around this many murders as these interwoven stories are. I enjoyed this as a solid read, although I felt that the book tried to combine what should have been two separate stories into one, not giving either enough scope to delve deep enough. I wish that the book had entirely focused on Clytemnestra and Elektra, as I felt that the inclusion of Cassandra’s storyline meant that the nuances of the mother/daughter relationship, and especially the way it deteriorates and madness potentially creeps in after the sacrifice of Iphigenia didn’t have enough space to be explored in a manner that felt completely satisfactory. It felt like having the third perspective took up too much of the story but didn’t add quite enough in value.

    But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy reading the book – I did very much. Saint’s writing is strong and evocative, and the story compelling. It conjures emotions throughout, as I don’t think there was any part of the book that left me cold (though, much of it was rage at our darling Agamemnon…), and that is truly a credit to the author. I am an absolute fiend for mythological retellings, and so the complaining I am doing here is really complaining on a very high level, please don’t get me wrong! I am very much looking forward to reading Saint’s next book, because more feminist retellings are always a win in my mind.

    It’s interesting how a well-written retelling can get you completely enthralled in its plot and have you on your toes, even though you technically already know how the story ends. I know not everyone will be as familiar with these stories as I am, but it is something that always fascinates me. I think it may be part of why I fall in love with these stories so much – because I know the broad strokes, they are comforting, but because they are new interpretations, they are still new and exiting stories as a whole. Or maybe I’m just a weirdo. Who knows.

    Add Elektra to your Goodreads here, and pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Minis

    Monday Minis

    After an intermission with a special Monday Minis appearance by Sun we’re back to regular programming. As usual, thank you to publicists for giving me access to these books, all opinions are my own.

    I actually picked up an ARC of The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs back when I was bookselling – so not technically an ARC I have to review, but one that charmed me so utterly I couldn’t not write about it. A cover that is stunning, but an inside that is no less so. If you know me at all, you know that I’m a glutton, so a book that has food as an essential character was always likely to tempt me, though I’m always surprised when I fall for something that has absolutely no speculative elements at all. Not only are the descriptions in this delectable, but the characters telling the story really do come to life. I devoured The Language of Food just like I would one of Eliza Acton’s wonderful dishes. One of my favourite elements was that the book was rooted in history, featured real characters – though on the flip side, that also ended up presenting me with my one source of frustration with the book (which, I truly believe, is on me and not the book itself). There are some hints that I took to mean that there may be a queer subplot, but alas, those hopes were dashed when a different secret was exposed which – outside of history – was less compelling storytelling in my book. I highly recommend The Language of Food to those of you who love elegantly written prose, delightful descriptions of food and to be transported into a different world.

    Bright Ruined Things by Samantha Cohoe definitely lured me in with the stunning cover. I’m a sucker for that 1920s opulent decadence and the accompanying aestethic, and combined with family secrets… This tells the story of Mae, raised on an island among a rich family as a sort of foundling, though not quite part of them. It is full of magic and mystery and of people keeping secrets. Nevertheless, I didn’t fully fall in love with it, as I felt that the characters didn’t come to life as much as I would have liked them to. Many of them ultimately blended together and much was predictable. It was still a fun YA read, but not one that I think I will be rereading. It’s interesting that these Gatsby-esque settings are setting a trend at the moment, but that essentially means that this one will be overshadowed by stronger books in the same space, I think.

    I really enjoyed A Far Wilder Magic by Allison Saft. This was one of my most anticipated YA novels for 2022, as while I didn’t quite click with her debut novel, Down Comes the Night, I felt like she was very much an author to watch and thought her writing had a lot of potential for future novels. And A Far Wilder Magic did not disappoint. Set in a forest – which, probably my favourite sort of fantasy setting – and around a magic that is based in alchemy and thus learned rather than inherited, this tells the story of Wes, desperate to learn magic so that he can use it to set himself up for a better life, to help his family out of poverty, and Maggie, the daughter of a renowned alchemist, raised comfortable in material respects but poor in love. It is a lovely subtle story, both an overt adventure with high stakes, but also featuring an undercurrent of being an outsider in society for various reasons, of class, of what is actually important in life and what sacrifices you are willing to make for those you love, whether romantically, through obligation or friendship. It is a story with strong characters, most of them strong-willed and with clear ideas of how they see the world and their futures, which leads to interesting ways in which they have to communicate and navigate the gaps between these ideas. I did wish that it delved deeper into some of the issues it touched on, but it’s a solid read and one that I liked a lot.

  • Reviews

    Swashbucklers – Dan Hanks

    Came for the chocolate eyeballs, stayed for the wacky story and the adorable talking fox. Dan Hanks’ Swashbucklers is unique, hilarious and very out there – some elements worked very well for me, some didn’t quite click with me personally, but it was definitely a fun read.

    Many thanks to Caroline at Angry Robot for sending me a review copy. All opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 09/11/2021

    STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: When Cisco Collins returns to his home town thirty years after saving it from being swallowed by a hell mouth opened by an ancient pirate ghost, he realises that being a childhood hero isn’t like it was in the movies. Especially when nobody remembers the heroic bits – even the friends who once fought alongside him.

    Struggling with single parenting and treated as bit of a joke, Cisco isn’t really in the Christmas spirit like everyone else. A fact that’s made worse by the tendrils of the pirate’s powers creeping back into our world and people beginning to die in bizarre ways. With the help of a talking fox, an enchanted forest, a long-lost friend haunting his dreams, and some 80s video game consoles turned into weapons, Cisco must now convince his friends to once again help him save the day. Yet they quickly discover that being a ghostbusting hero is so much easier when you don’t have schools runs, parent evenings, and nativity plays to attend. And even in the middle of a supernatural battle, you always need to bring snacks and wipes…

    OPINIONS: Comedic fantasy is always a difficult beast. It’s hard to find that right balance between hitting your stride in terms of humour and overdoing in the eyes of the audience – and I’m not an easy customer in that respect. A cynic by nature, I’m quick to roll my eyes at books that try too hard to be funny. So Swashbucklers never had the best starting conditions with me – but there were a lot of things that I did really like about the story.

    My favourite element was probably Tabitha, the talking fox slash magic tour guide to the realms, who helps the motley crew of the book figure things out and find their way through their adventure. I also really enjoyed the concept of a group of friends who have gone through this huge thing together years ago, mostly lost touch in the intervening years and who are now getting back together in their middle age and are confronted with the impossible once again. Those dynamics worked really well and made the book stand out to me – because of their familiarity with each other, they are unafraid to call out each other’s behaviour, and it is refreshing to have characters who are not trying to impress but to function.

    I did strongly dislike the ending – it felt like it ended in the sort of time paradox that is doomed to failure if you actually think about it, and if the story had actually cut two scenes earlier, the ending would have been far more final and satisfying. I think that is what ultimately made me decide on the three star rating – I was torn on whether to round up or down, as it was very much a case of me just not fully clicking with the book rather than there being anything to criticise in a more objective sense, but then I felt that the way the “post-credits” ending left things undid a lot and left me very grumpy.

    Nevertheless, it is a fun book, and if you are more into comedic fantasy, eighties nostalgia or if you too love talking animal companions, you can find Swashbucklers on Goodreads here, and you can get your hands on your own copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Reviews

    Castles in Their Bones – Laura Sebastian

    Hodder’s in for a great month of new releases in February. Not just this one, but also Only a Monster (reviewed HERE) and The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, which is much beloved even if it didn’t quite work for me, are all coming out in the same month, and it’s very exciting! Castles in Their Bones shows Laura Sebastian’s talent for building rich worlds, strong female leads and an affinity to take risks other authors would have shied away from.

    Many thanks to Kate Keehan and Hodderscape for the eARC. All opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 01/02/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: The plot: overthrow a kingdom. The goal: world domination. The plan: marriage.

    Empress Margaraux has had plans for her daughters since the day they were born. Princesses Sophronia, Daphne, and Beatriz will be queens. And now, age sixteen, they each must leave their homeland and marry their princes.

    Beautiful, smart, and demure, the triplets appear to be the perfect brides – because Margaraux knows there is one common truth: everyone underestimates a girl. Which is a grave mistake. Sophronia, Daphne, and Beatriz are no innocents. They have been trained since birth in the arts of deception, seduction, and violence with a singular goal – to bring down monarchies – and their marriages are merely the first stage of their mother’s grand vision: to one day reign over the entire continent of Vestria.

    The princesses have spent their lives preparing, and now they are ready, each with her own secret skill, and each with a single wish, pulled from the stars. Only, the stars have their own plans – and their mother hasn’t told them all of hers.

    Life abroad is a test. Will their loyalties stay true? Or will they learn that they can’t trust anyone – not even each other? (from Hodder)

    OPINIONS: I hate to utter the word reading slump. But I have been struggling a bit to get excited about the books I’m reading, and I’m once again starting far too many and then just starting a new one next time I pick up a book. And while I do eventually finish them, I never really get immersed. Not so with Castles in Their Bones. Slightly aided by a lazy day due to Booster side effects, I raced through the 500-odd pages of this epic fantasy in a few hours, and I already want more. I especially loved the ending – I think Laura Sebastian made some great choices that not every author would have had the guts to go through with – one that sets up strong character arcs for the next book in the series.

    The three princesses, Sophronia, Daphne and Beatriz start out as sort of an entity, but as the story goes on, they really develop into their own characters and the differences between the sisters become clear. They are not damsels, but manipulators, though it soon becomes clear that they may not be in control as much as they believe themselves to be. I did feel like the side characters did not get quite as much attention as the triplets, and, for example, their respective spouses/fiancés were not as well-rounded as the girls themselves. It did sometimes feel like they were interchangeable almost. But ultimately, it didn’t diminish my reading experience.

    In terms of plot, the story was compelling, if not fully surprising. I think the best way to describe Castles in Their Bones is as a comfort read – taking on enough of the familiar beats of YA epic fantasy to create an atmosphere of recognition in some ways, while also taking them and twisting them into something of its own. It is reasonably fast paced, which adds to the compulsive readability. For me, this will be a book I’m going to reread, because it’s perfect to curl up with under a blanket and sip on a mug of tea or hot choc. Because I too have castles in my bones.

    Add Castles in Their Bones to your Goodreads here, and pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Minis

    Monday Minis

    Today is a bit of a grab-bag of things that don’t really fit together but I wanted to draw attention to anyway. I’m trying to ease my brain back into reading so I’ve been consuming a lot of novellas and comics. On with the reviews!

    Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons I really enjoyed this one. It’s a gentle exploration of a woman who’s been looked down on and under her sister’s thumb for many years and how she begins to push her own and her sister’s expectations through the unexpected gift of a dragon egg. While there is romance it’s very slow and subtle, the focus instead being on Miss Percy’s growth. The dragon, Fitz is absolutely adorable and this would be perfect for people who enjoyed Marie Brennan’s dragon series but wanted something a bit more domestic and rooted in the British countryside rather than far-flung locations

    The Murders of Molly Southbourne This is an odd one. The premise is instantly engaging, a woman who creates murderous duplicates of herself every time she bleeds. But the framing at the beginning and the end of the book – whilst effective for creating tension and allowed the novella to work both as a standalone and easing into a sequel – didn’t quite work for me. I also found parts of the book a bit slow going – a strange thing to say about a novella and the explanation for how Molly had ended up that way was ultimately to me not needed, proof that sometimes less is more. But despite all of these minor grumps, I keep finding myself thinking about various scenes and unpicking the hows and the whys so it’s definitely one I’d recommend people read. Order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

    The Ladies of the Secret Circus Circuses are always a bit of a liminal space with the potential for both entertainment and danger and I’m always on the lookout for books that capture that dichotomy. Ladies doesn’t quite succeed in this but it was still a reading experience I enjoyed. The book follows both Lara in the present and her ancestor Cecile in the past Lara has always been aware of Cecile’s history with the circus, but when her fiance disappears on their wedding day Cecile’s past begins affecting Lara’s present in unforeseen ways. Like the majority of books that deal with two different time periods, one story is more compelling than the other. The descriptions of the circus in Paris at the time of Ernest Hemmingway and the lost generation, and its sense of macabre and menace are more attention-grabbing than the quieter and more solemn beginning of Lara’s story of dealing with loss and grief. However, this is just the set-up and although the beginning is slow, events are carefully threaded through time and foreshadowed effectively with a satisfying payoff in the end. While the blurb mentions magic, this is both more and less central than might be expected, and people who come expecting the otherworld-ness of the Night Circus might be slightly disappointed. But as a tale in its own right, The Ladies of the Secret Circus delivered and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).