Time for some November hype! We have quite a variety of books for you to get excited about in November, ranging new installments in massive Epic Fantasy series to an adorable graphic novel. There’s a little something for everyone in this list!
Kat: My bookish friends know that I am a complete Tad Williams fan-girl, and so its no wonder that Brothers of the Wind is first on my hype list for November (out on the fourth). Williams revists his world of Osten Ard in a second prequel to the The Last King of Osten Ard series. This novella (mind you, a Tad-Williams-length novella) takes place a thousand years before the events of The Dragonbone Chair, the first book in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, and will finally give fans of Osten Ard some of the backstory of the Sithi, Ineluki, and the events the led to the epic battle between the Norns and humanity. I cannot wait to dive back in to Williams’ prose, explore new history and world-building surrounding Osten Ard, and meet new characters. Oh, and can we talk about that cover?! Gorgeous! Pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).
Kat: Bec McMaster’s Dark Court Rising series comes to completion this November with the final book in the trilogy, Curse of Darkness, out on the 2nd. I read the first installment in this adult, Epic Fantasy Romance last year and was intrigued by both the world-building and the plot. The story is set in a dark, magical world inhabited by both dark and light Fae. The romance is enemies-to-lovers, but McMaster puts an twist on that trope that makes for an interesting read, and also sets up a cliff-hanger ending that makes you itch to grab book two. Knowing that book three was coming out this fall, I decided to wait before reading the second book, so that I could read all three straight through. So, I’ll be restarting the trilogy this month in prepartion for the final book, and I’m excited to see how the fantasy and the romance pans out! Get a copy via the various e-book retailer links on the author’s website here.
Fab: One of my favorite graphic novels of all time is Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker. So it’s no wonder I’m highly excited for Tidesong by Wendy Xu, her solo graphic novel out on the 16th of November. The story features a young witch and a water dragon and it sounds so damn cute that I think it’s INCREDIBLY mean that no one has ensured that I get a copy on or before release day yet. (I know, I could just pre-order it myself, which is probably what I’ll end up doing). With comps to stories like Howl’s Moving Castle and The Tea Dragon Society you know that this one will be a perfect feel-good book to curl up with on a day you have the sads, which is the kind of graphic novel that I love most of all. Pre-order a copy via Amazon here.
Fab: This month is full of comfort releases for me. I have listened to all of the books in the Outlander series so many times in audio because the narrator is so amazing that Claire, Jamie, Brianna and co feel like family by now. So to say that I’m excited for Go Tell the Bees That I am Gone by Diana Gabaldon is a bit of an understatement. Out on the 23rd, this continues the long-running saga of the time-travellers in the eighteenth century, and we’re due a big reunion. I’ll be listening to the audiobook the day it comes out, but I’m sure the print version will be just as good. These books really aren’t my usual genre, but they’re just such comfort books. Pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link) or the audio via Audible here.
Happy book birthday to A.M. Shine and The Watchers! Today’s my turn on the Head of Zeus blog tour for this creepy horror novel set in the forests of Galway – one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, though of course my experience of the area was very different to the story told in this book…
Many thanks to Lauren and Head of Zeus for the review copy and having me on the Blog tour, and superstar agent John for ensuring we all get to read this wonderful story.
RELEASE DATE: 14/10/2021
STAR RATING: 4.5/5 ✶
SUMMARY: This forest isn’t charted on any map. Every car breaks down at its treeline. Mina’s is no different. Left stranded, she is forced into the dark woodland only to find a woman shouting, urging Mina to run to a concrete bunker. As the door slams behind her, the building is besieged by screams.
Mina finds herself in a room with a wall of glass, and an electric light that activates at nightfall, when the Watchers come above ground. These creatures emerge to observe their captive humans and terrible things happen to anyone who doesn’t reach the bunker in time.
Afraid and trapped among strangers, Mina is desperate for answers. Who are the Watchers and why are these creatures keeping them imprisoned, keen to watch their every move? (from Head of Zeus)
OPINIONS: I’ve gotten really into horror this year, and especially the kind of horror that creeps you out rather than splatters you with gore. And The Watchers is exactly that. Uncanny, thrilling and creepy. Set in the wonderful area of Galway in Ireland – which made me love the book from the get-go as I spent one of my favourite ever trips there – this story is very atmospheric, which adds so much to it. I adored the setting and premise, which are really characters in their own right. I would say that this is definitely one for readers who like to be scared a bit while reading and enjoy books on the creepier end of the spectrum. It’s not merely a suspenseful thriller – more of a slower paced story that might keep you up at night. It would not surprise me if this one will get nominated for all the awards next year.
I don’t want to say too much about the story itself as knowing too much will take away from the effect, but the concept of the watchers is *chef’s kiss* and the characters slot into the narrative structure and the atmosphere perfectly. And the plot definitely did not go where I thought it would. So a very excellent book. I don’t often get actually creeped out by reading a story, and this did have that effect on me, which made me love it even more.
It is a slightly slower paced story than many in the genre. This builds up tension more thoroughly in my opinion, focusing on the uncanny and the atmosphere rather than packing in as many events as possible. While this worked really well for me personally, I can see that this might put some readers off, so do check out a sample if that is something that tends to bother you.
And welcome back to Monday Minis, Switzerland Edition, the second. I’m still here, hanging out with my favourite person in the world (my grandma, sorry lads). I got to meet up with some lovely nerdy friends this weekend and eat lots of great food, so a fantastic time was had. Sadly, I didn’t have quite as much of a good time reading this batch of books… Once again, thank you to the wonderful publishers for sending me (e)ARCs for review, all opinions are my own.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed is a fun YA contemporary with an added historical narrative woven into the story. Khayyam is spending the summer in Paris after losing an important art history essay competition and feeling like she has failed at everything she worked towards. And then she meets Alexandre. Alexandre Dumas, to be exact. Descendant of that Alexandre Dumas, the one who she was working on. Together, they follow her seemingly insane theory about a missing painting once belonging to Dumas, and thus end up following in the footsteps of Leila, a young Muslim woman living in the Paris of Dumas’ time. There is much here that makes a great story. But I ended up loving the premise a lot more than the actual book. To me, there were a lot of pieces that just didn’t quite fit together properly and the story and characters ended up like a puzzle with half the pieces missing or wrongly assembled. I might have approached it from the wrong perspective as someone very familiar with academic work in both history and art history, so it might well be that I am just the wrong reader for the book – but the way historical documents were treated in the story made me cry and that Khayyam’s parents (PROFESSORS!) encouraged her in this endeavour made me VERY upset. JUSTICE FOR RARE MATERIALS! I think this was a three star read for me, but ultimately more due to who I am than anything else.
Dare To Know by James Kennedy frustrated me to no end. It starts out very intriguing – it’s a high concept thriller about a narrator who works for a company which developed an algorithm able to predict people’s deaths, until one day, he is in an accident, which causes him to calculate the time of his own death… which is half an hour in the past. This leads him on a wild goose chase for his ex-girlfriend who is the only other person who knows his time of death and might be able to help. But the story loses itself in a confused stream-of-consciousness narration skipping through moments of the narrator’s past, ultimately not leading to much of a coherent plot line. What further annoyed me is that the narrator is a self-centred narcissist who thinks he is smarter than everyone around him and I could not stand the bastard. I was close to throwing the book across the room many many times because of what a dick the narrator is – I don’t think he has any redeeming qualities. And because the book is so closely focused on his experiences, that is a major aspect of the reading experience. So, sadly not one I’d recommend.
If you’ve been reading my Monday Minis you might think I haven’t been enjoying the books I’ve been reading (I certainly have been getting that impression from myself!) – but I’ve also been reading some true gems. I loved Only A Monster by Vanessa Len, which isn’t out for another few months. I devoured this while I was at Fantasycon, sneaking chapters whenever I could. This is addictive YA fantasy as it should be written.
Many thanks to Kate Keehan and Hodderscape for the eARC. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 22/02/2022
STAR RATING: 4.5/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Don’t forget the rule. No one can know what you are. What we are. You must never tell anyone about monsters.
Joan has just learned the truth: her family are monsters, with terrifying, hidden powers.
And the cute boy at work isn’t just a boy: he’s a legendary monster slayer, who will do anything to destroy her family.
To save herself and her family, Joan will have to do what she fears most: embrace her own monstrousness. Because in this story… she is not the hero. (from Hodder)
OPINIONS: Damn this is a good book. It’s exactly the kind of YA fantasy I adore. I raced through this one, sneaking chapters whenever possible and found it so addictive – I’ve been struggling to keep focused on a single book recently but this one managed to grab all my attention. I was pulled in by the V.E. Schwab comp (I’m a basic fangirl) but I stayed for the complex morality, compelling characters and fast-paced story.
I think my favourite element of the book was the magic system – the so-called monster families are able to steal time from other people, which they then can use to travel through time. And that presents them, and the readers, with interesting moral questions. Joan, the main character, isn’t truly aware of the extent of her family’s machinations and powers, and so she discovers what she and others can do along with the reader. There are still a lot of open questions by the end of the book, but it is open-ended enough that it looks like it will continue on and there’s plenty of space to continue on in later books. It’s definitely one of those books where morality isn’t quite so clear cut and no one is sure if they’re really on the right side, and I really appreciated that.
Another thing I really liked is that romance isn’t at the centre of this story. All too often YA focuses on romantic pairings over everything else, and this one doesn’t. It’s about Joan, her family and saving the future (and the present). It’s a book where teens are actually teens despite being faced with problems far bigger than themselves and overwhelming odds. Only A Monster is a good one. One of the best YA fantasies I’ve read this year, so definitely one I’d recommend.
Marissa Meyer’s books have a special place in my heart. I once did a casual cosplay of Scarlet from the Lunar Chronicles with a few friends for a con, and I remember how me and one of my best friends scoured every single English language bookshop in Rio de Janeiro for the new Marissa Meyer book that was supposed to come out the week we were there. We did not find it, but we had a great time. So to say I was excited to read another fairy-tale inspired book by her is an understatement – I love retellings and have been on a binge recently so this came at a perfect time.
Many thanks to Bethany at Faber for sending me a shiny ARC (she is the most wonderful ARC packager, they are always wrapped amazingly!). All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 02/11/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Long ago cursed by the god of lies, a poor miller’s daughter has developed a talent for spinning stories that are fantastical and spellbinding and entirely untrue.
Or so everyone believes.
When one of Serilda’s outlandish tales draws the attention of the sinister Erlking and his undead hunters, she finds herself swept away into a grim world where ghouls and phantoms prowl the earth and hollow-eyed ravens track her every move. The king orders Serilda to complete the impossible task of spinning straw into gold, or be killed for telling falsehoods. In her desperation, Serilda unwittingly summons a mysterious boy to her aid. He agrees to help her… for a price. Love isn’t meant to be part of the bargain.
Soon Serilda realizes that there is more than one secret hidden in the castle walls, including an ancient curse that must be broken if she hopes to end the tyranny of the king and his wild hunt forever. (from Faber Children’s)
OPINIONS: I really really enjoyed this one. Serilda is a fantastic YA heroine – she is a storyteller first and foremost, and most definitely not the meek and obedient type. She is unashamedly herself, even when it brings her into situations that aren’t the most comfortable. She talks big game and then is stumped when she actually has to follow up on her words and that makes her so damn charming – we don’t see girls like her enough. That kind of talking confidence is all too often reserved for guys. But she breaks those stereotypes, and ends up making deals with a king and a demon that have her in over her head.
And despite all of this, she is smart. All that she can rely on are her wits, as she doesn’t really have anything but that. And somehow, she needs to get out of that situation she talked herself into. Gilded is a compelling story, and while yes, it is inspired by the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, it is also something wholly its own. Meyer takes this story and crafts it into something both modern and ethereal, perfect for the boom in retellings we are currently experiencing and hitting on a lot of elements that work well for the older YA audience.
I can see Gilded doing really well once it is released next month. It is not a perfect book – I thought the pacing wasn’t quite right, and some parts were a tad too long and started dragging a bit – but it is a very solid one with characters I fell for. I am already looking forward to rereading it. If you’re into retellings, character-driven fantasy and smart-talking girls, then this one is for you.
This is a somewhat special post. The Cheltenham Literature Festival is running from the 8-17 of October 2021 and has a fabulous programme full of interesting events around books and literature. To get the word out, Midas PR invited me and a whole bunch of other bloggers on a huge book tour to spotlight a surprise book from one of the authors featured at the festival! You can see the full schedule for week one of the tour up top – it’s a two week tour.
I was sent the wonderful Grimwood by Nadia Shireen, who will be doing an in-person event at the festival on Saturday 9th of October, showing readers how she draws the characters from her book and doing a bit of a reading. You can get tickets for what is sure to be a very fun afternoon here. I loved the book so much and am already plotting how to get it into the hands of children I know.
Many thanks to Sofia Saghir at Midas PR and Simon and Schuster for sending me a review copy. All opinions are my own.
SUMMARY: Fox cub siblings Ted and Nancy are on the run from Princess Buttons, the scariest street cat in the Big City. They flee for Grimwood, expecting to find refuge in the peaceful countryside. Instead, they are met with thieving eagles, dramatic ducks, riotous rabbits and a whole host of unusual characters. Grimwood is… weird. But when Princess Buttons tracks them down, Nancy and Ted and the animals of Grimwood must unite in a mind-bending race against time… (from Simon and Schuster)
OPINIONS: Grimwood is absolutely delightful. It is laugh-out-loud funny, adorable and just a fantastic children’s book. I devoured it in a single sitting and it massively improved both my day and my mood and I want to throw this at every single child I know. The story follows fox siblings Ted and Nancy who are sweet and charming, crafty and prone to mischief as they get themselves in and out of trouble. An unfortunate incident with resident mean cat Princess Buttons sees them running to Grimwood where they meet new friends and get into many new adventures – and ultimately have to face their enemy again.
This is probably good to be read to kids five and up, and easy enough for young readers getting comfortable reading on their own to understand and read. It is highly illustrated throughout in black and white, which further enhances it and makes Grimwood a lovely packaged book. This is definitely one to watch and I can see Nadia Shireen being a major new children’s author for years to come.
If you have children in your life in any way, they’ll probably enjoy this. I think it’s best suited for ages seven to nine, but grown-up me loved it too. You can experience the magic of Grimwood by adding it on Goodreads here or ordering it from Bookshop here (affiliate link).
Welcome to Monday Minis, Switzerland edition. I’m finishing up writing these as I am on the train from one end of the country to the other. I’m on a bit of a recuperation trip seeing friends and family until the middle of next week, so who knows how much I’ll be posting. Sadly, this week’s books are all ones that I didn’t get on great with even if I was really excited for all of them – keep reading to see why. Many thanks to all the publishers for sending me eARCs via NetGalley.
What is it with sequels not living up to the potential of the first book recently? I feel like The Monarchs by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige is the latest in a series of second books following up on great initial novels that just left me wanting more. I read The Ravens, the first book, a couple times, both before it released for my review and after it came out and loved the characters, setting and approach to magic. But this second book felt very generic and lost a lot of the magic that sucked me into the first one to begin with. The plot takes a long time to get going – the main arc doesn’t really start until about halfway through – and much of what happens is basically petty drama. Honestly, I just ended up not being emotionally invested in this and constantly thinking of more interesting directions that the book could have taken. I think as a whole it is fine, and it ends up in a mostly satisfying ending to the duology, but it could have been so much better. While The Monarchs really focuses on just Vivi and Scarlett – and shows much less of their fellow Ravens – it seems to do so superficially, and not really explore their dynamic, which for me was one of the most interesting parts of the first book. So a solid three stars from me.
The Grimrose Girls by Laura Pohl has such an interesting concept which is total Fab catnip – it made it onto my October hype post even. But, I struggled to even finish it. It ended up being more of a rage read than anything else. The story follows four girls at an elite boarding school after the death of one of their own as they slowly figure out that they’re actually set to repeat fairy tale tropes and their destinies are set. The concept is great, but that is pretty much the only thing the book has going for itself. The writing isn’t great – and in a crowded YA fantasy market, clunky writing is really something that does put me off. The characters were bland and because they fell into stock tropes, not characterised deeply enough. I didn’t feel like I got a proper sense of any single one. And while the book as a whole had a sense of casual queerness, I was rather upset to realise that the Beauty and the Beast insert characters included casting the only trans character in the book as the “Beast”… which is certainly a choice. I was quite excited when I realised that the book was set in Switzerland – and quite close to where I grew up too – but that soon turned to dismay when I realised that the setting was not well crafted, but relied on stereotypes and a lack of basic research. All in all, this is a book that I found underperformed in all aspects and would not recommend, as tempting as the premise is.
The Ice Whisperers by Helenka Stachera is a middle grade fantasy that takes readers back to the Ice Age. The framing narrative is set in pre-revolutionary Russia, and the story then transports readers and characters into a dream-world close to the Ice Age. It centres Bela, who was raised as something of an orphan by extended relatives and never truly felt like she belonged, as she discovers that there is more to her parentage as she ever suspected. There is a lot to this story that is sweet, and I can see many young readers enjoying Bela’s adventures. But it is also not one that stands out enough in terms of writing and characters for me to recommend this over some of the other middle grades I’ve been reading. I think this is an author to watch, even if this particular book isn’t quite a standout success yet.
Like many patrons of this blog, I possess an unabashed gluttony for books. I’m a voracious reader, but a voracious reader that is keenly aware of her preferences. I would characterize myself primarily as a genre reader. Yes, I appreciate and regularly read the Classics. And yes, I read the occasional piece of literary fiction or non-fiction recommended by a friend or family member. But the vast majority of the content I read falls squarely into one of two genres: Fantasy or Romance.
And also, like many patrons of this blog, I am continually in pursuit of those perfect books, books that speak to my soul, books that seem to have been written just for me, because they deliver on all the elements of literature that matter to me specifically. These perfect books cater to my literary preferences, they resonate with my life experiences, and they scratch the itch of how I like to be entertained.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what the search for those perfect books looks like for me as a reader and why, especially with respect to an author that I have found consistently delivers content that is thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying for me personally: Grace Draven. This essay attempts to unpack my thoughts on Fantasy-Romance and explain my appreciation for Grace Draven’s works as first-class examples of both genres.
The title of this post makes a bold claim – “The Best Epic Fantasy Author You’re Not Reading” – and I admit to being provocative in the title. While Grace Draven is often included in Romance recommendation threads, you don’t often, if ever, see her name in recommendations outside of that context, or more specifically in requests for Epic Fantasy. My hope is that by reading this, Romance-wary, Epic Fantasy fans might decide to pick up one of her books and discover what an amazing fantasy author she is, and that her name will start to materialize in Epic Fantasy discussions and not “just” Romance. And for Romance readers out there that are unfamiliar with her work, here’s hoping you decide to dive in to one of her fantastical worlds.
My search for the next perfect book often begins perusing selections from the branch of speculative fiction that I prefer above all others – Epic, or Heroic, Fantasy. When I think about what appeals to me within the Epic Fantasy subgenre, the immediate answer, for me, is the scale of the world-building. I enjoy being completely immersed in another world, and I want to explore that world in detail with the characters through the plot. I want that world to contain lands, climates, races, and magic that is truly outside the realm in which I exist. I want to be transported to another time and place so different from my own, that when I enter that world through reading, my own ceases to exist.
Layered on top of this world is a plot that is equally epic in scale, where the actions of the protagonists and the battles they face have world-changing consequences. There is good and evil, and our heroes must overcome both external and internal conflicts to ultimately defeat that evil. My favorite fantasy authors are my favorite fantasy authors because they deliver on these two aspects of Epic Fantasy; Tad Williams, Guy Gavriel Kay, and J.R.R. Tolkien are writers whose world-building and plots are expansive yet detailed, imaginative yet grounded, and high-stakes yet personal.
My search for perfect books also seeks out the aspects of the Romance genre that I find especially enjoyable. While the primary relationship-building is essential, (and, personally, I like some steam), the biggest draw for me is the superb characterization delivered by the genre. I often see Fantasy readers requesting “character-driven” books or “strong character-building,” and honestly, when I read that, I immediately want to direct them to a Fantasy Romance. The depth of characterization in a Romance novel is often unparalleled. Because the Romance genre focuses on the relationship of the couple as the primary plot, Romance authors must necessarily delve deeply into the backstory, motivations, and struggles of the characters in order to establish the basis for and evolution of their relationship. The characters must change or evolve in some significant way as part of the romantic plot in order for the resolution of the relationship to occur. The depth of characterization required to do this well leads to three-dimensional, well-balanced characters, fleshed out to a degree that you may not otherwise experience, and an investment in their success as individuals and as a couple that results in a thoroughly satisfying ending. You won’t find much better characterization than in a good Romance book!
Understanding what appeals to me from each genre helps focus my search on the next perfect book. I want a book that checks all of these boxes, a book that delivers the best of what both Fantasy and Romance has to offer. I want a full, A-plot, adult Romance that is richly developed with nuanced characters right alongside the heroic quest set in a deeply imaginative world. Over the course of the past several years, I have found several of these diamonds-in-the-rough: Milla Vane’s A Heart of Blood and Ashes, Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles series, and C.L. Wilson’s The Winter King, to name a few. But I have also found an author who’s entire canon consistently and adeptly delivers on the promises and expectations of both the Epic Fantasy and Romance genres: Grace Draven.
I am convinced that fantasy fans that have not taken the plunge and read a Grace Draven book are missing out on one of the best, contemporary Epic Fantasy writers out there. My goal is that this explanation of how her work delivers on the genre expectations of both Fantasy and Romance entices you to take a chance on something you may not otherwise have picked up and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.
So, how do Grace Draven’s books appeal to readers of Epic Fantasy? First and foremost, Draven’s world-building is both expansive and thorough including original magic systems, diverse races, languages, kingdoms, and cultures, and even the mundane minutiae of day-to-day life like food and attire, all of which coalesce to make for a truly immersive experience. Her attention to detail in establishing the form and function of her worlds is remarkable and serves to strengthen the authenticity of the plot and create a deeper basis and context for that plot and the characters.
Draven’s two ongoing series, The Wraith Kings and The Fallen Empire, are both set on an epic scale that is reflected in the world-building of these two worlds. Take The Wraith Kings, for example. There are multiple races, two of which are phsyically very different, and the romance plot actually brings these two races – the humans and the Kai – together. But even among the humans there are a number of courtly kingdoms politicking and vying for power as well as nomadic mountain clans that follow an entirely different social structure. Eventually, these disparate peoples must come together to fight a demon horde that threatens all of the peoples in their world regardless of race, kingdom, or alliances. There is magic in this world that is the purview of the Kai, but also a mysterious Elder race who existed long ago and holds keys to that magic. Magic, and in particular necromancy, must be used in order to summon enough power to defeat the evil and banish the horde to their alternate realm. Draven needed an expansive world to provide ample setting and context for a multi-book series based in the classic trope of good versus evil, and she delivers such a world in spades!
But the appeal doesn’t stop with world-building. Draven’s ability to weave intricate stories that consistently contain both an “A” Epic Fantasy plotline as well as an “A” Romance plotline cannot be overstated. Neither plotline feels like it is less important than the other; they stand on equal footing and are written in such a way as to contribute to and complement one another. In Master of Crows, Silhara is plagued by the demi-god Corruption and is the only sorcerer powerful enough to defeat this evil, but he knows that even his power may not be enough. Over the course of the book, the relationship between Silhara and Martise begins to develop, and we learn that Martise has latent magic that allows her to feed power to Silhara’s sorcery. Suddenly, the “A” Epic Fantasy plotline and “A” Romance plotline are thrust together in a most unexpected and yet meaningful way. Martise is completely devoted to Silhara and his quest to defeat Corruption, and Silhara knows he can use her power to feed the spells necessary for its ultimate demise. But he also knows that it will probably kill her, and using her as a vessel of power makes him no better than the slave-owners that have captured her soul and therefore her life. The Epic Fantasy and Romance plotlines present the reader with difficult moral questions and tension because of they way they are artfully woven together. Here, the sum of the parts has a far greater impact, and Draven expertly employs this structural device throughout her books.
Another aspect of her writing that will appeal to Epic Fantasy readers is that Draven does not limit explicitness to sex. Her writing is often raw and brutal, depicting violence, pain, and loss in the same detail as her sex scenes. Her books deal with dark themes like torture, slavery, inequality, and prejudice, and she doesn’t shy away from tackling these themes head on through explicit scenes. There’s a brutality in her brand of evil that is more often seen in Epic Fantasy than in Romance, but serves to enhance the authenticity of both aspects of her books; when every facet of life is depicted to the same level of detail, when it is not only sex or violence that is explicit, a balance is achieved, and the reader is left with an impression of a more realistic world in which both pleasure and pain exist on equal footing. In Phoenix Unbound, we are introduced to a throughly depraved villainess and exposed to explicit scenes of her atrocities including mass sacrifice by fire and the brutal torture of our MMC, Azarion. These scenes are more reminiscent of content you might read in grimdark, but they are not gratuitous; these scenes are purposeful in establishing the depths of the character’s evil and also as a device used to provide compelling contrast to the explicit tenderness depicted when Azarion and Gilene finally unite.
And speaking of romantic couples uniting, let’s not forget that Grace Draven also writes Romance! These relationships are adult; they are not YA, neither in age nor in content. These are adults embarking on adult relationships and is one of the things I appreciate most about her books. There is no “pining and whining.” The struggles and the concerns of the characters are not those of individuals embarking on their first relationships. These are adult men and women, experienced in life and relationships and wrestling with internal and external struggles commensurate with their age and maturity. And oh is it refreshing! Her romances are high-tension and the resulting pay-off is quite satisfying. When couples do come together in her books, the sex is steamy and explicit. It is well-written in that the scenes are never sappy or cringey, they are long enough to be engaging without becoming a focal point, and, most importantly, they contribute to the romantic plotline as opposed to being merely gratuitous.
Finally, and independent of the Fantasy and Romance genre expectations, I find Draven’s prose, for lack of a better word, delicious. It’s meaty. It has pulp. Something you can sink your teeth into. It is eloquent and elevated without being purple or dense; there are no extraneous words – every word is perfectly placed. I would go so far as to call her prose “literary.” Her word choice is often surprising, yet refreshing, pulling from vocabulary I’d like to see more of in writing today. Her phrasing and imagery compliment the tone of her books as well as her world-building and plotting in a way that amplifies setting and action; in other words, her writing serves to enhance the overall reader experience.
Some of you may be thinking, “Alright, Kat, I’m sold. Grace Draven sounds like an amazing Epic Fantasy author and I’d like to give her a shot, but where should I start?” Great question! To help guide new readers of Draven’s work pick something that might resonate with their particular tastes, here is a list of her seven full-length novels (in order of publication) that includes a break-down of both Fantasy and Romance tropes contained therein.
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher Summary: This is the question that sets bondwoman, Martise of Asher, on a dangerous path. In exchange for her freedom, she bargains with her masters, the mage-priests of Conclave, to spy on the renegade sorcerer, Silhara of Neith. The priests want Martise to expose the sorcerer’s treachery and turn him over to Conclave justice. A risky endeavor, but one she accepts without hesitation–until she falls in love with her intended target.
Silhara of Neith, Master of Crows, is a desperate man. The god called Corruption invades his mind, seducing him with promises of limitless power if he will help it gain dominion over the world. Silhara struggles against Corruption’s influence and searches for ways to destroy the god. When Conclave sends Martise as an apprentice to help him, he knows she’s a spy. Now he fights a war on two fronts -against the god who would possess him and the apprentice who would betray him.
Mage and spy search together for a ritual that will annihilate Corruption, but in doing so, they discover secrets about each other that may damn them both. Silhara must decide if his fate, and the fate of nations, is worth the soul of the woman he has come to love, and Martise must choose continued enslavement or freedom at the cost of a man’s life. And love.
Tropes: Good versus Evil; A Destroyer is Coming; Politicking of a Magical Conclave; Sorcery; Master-Slave Love Interest; Subservient FMC meets Reluctant MMC; Slow-Burn
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher Summary: Afflicted by a centuries-old curse, a warlord slowly surrenders his humanity and descends toward madness. Ballard of Ketach Tor holds no hope of escaping his fate until his son returns home one day, accompanied by awoman of incomparable beauty. His family believes her arrival may herald Ballard’s salvation.
…until they confront her elder sister.
Determined to rescue her sibling from ruin, Louvaen Duenda pursues her to a decrepit castle and discovers a household imprisoned in time. Dark magic, threatening sorcerers, and a malevolent climbing rose with a thirst for blood won’t deter her, but a proud man disfigured by an undying hatred might. Louvaen must decide if loving him will ultimately save him or destroy him.
Tropes: Beauty and the Beast Fairytale Retelling; Magical Curse; Strong, Assertive FMC; Tortured MMC
The Wraith Kings Series
Publication Date: 2014, 2016, 2020
Publisher Summary (Book One): Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.
Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.
Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.
Tropes: Power-Hungry Queen; Court Politics; Old Magic; Demons; Necromancy; Large-Scale Battles; Arranged Marriage (Radiance and Eidolon); Friends-to-Lovers (The Ippos King)
The Fallen Empire Series
Publication Date: 2018
Publisher Summary: Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital – her fate: to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.
But this year is different.
Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion, and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.
To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire and burn once more.
Tropes: Roman-Empire-Inspired World; Gods and Goddesses; Elemental Magic; Evil Empire; Rebellion; Enemies-to-Lovers
The Fallen Empire Series
Publication Date: 2020
Publisher Summary: Magic is outlawed in the Krael Empire and punishable by death. Born with the gift of earth magic, the free trader Halani keeps her dangerous secret closely guarded. When her uncle buys a mysterious artifact, a piece of bone belonging to a long-dead draga, Halani knows it’s far more than what it seems.
Dragas haven’t been seen for more than a century, and most believe them extinct. They’re wrong. Dragas still walk among the denizens of the Empire, disguised as humans. Malachus is a draga living on borrowed time. The magic that has protected him will soon turn on him–unless he finds a key part of his heritage. He has tracked it to a group of free traders, among them a grave-robbing earth witch who fascinates him as much as she frustrates him with her many secrets.
Unbeknownst to both, the Empire’s twisted empress searches for a draga of her own, to capture and kill as a trophy. As Malachus the hunter becomes the hunted, Halani must risk herself and all she loves to save him from the Empire’s machinations and his own lethal birthright.
Tropes: Roman-Empire-Inspired World; Healer Magic; Dragon Lore; Dragon Shifter; Evil Empire; Rebellion; Slow-Burn
I hope this essay has piqued the curiosity of Epic Fantasy afficianados and will create an entirely new group of Grace Draven fans. I know that her books have hit a sweet spot for me, masterfully blending Epic Fantasy and Romance in a way that is both entertaining and utterly satisfying as a reader searching for those special books that deliver on the promises of both genres. Hopefully, we’ll all start seeing more Grace Draven recommendations for Epic Fantasy! Happy Reading!
You’ve probably all seen my gushing review for The Cabinet from last week – the book that basically sent me on a binge of translated fiction. So when I had the opportunity to review this adorable book – The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa, translated by Louise Heal Kawai – that featured books and cats – two of my very favourite things in the world – I quite literally jumped at it. I also did a silly and didn’t take a proper picture before I left the UK (I’m finally visiting my family in Switzerland) which means you have to make do with the cover image. However, it does not do it justice at all, the final cover is SO MUCH PRETTIER – it’s got this gold foil sprinkling that is so gorgeous… that alone is worth getting it!
Many thanks to Alice at Picador for sending me a review copy. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 16/09/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Grandpa used to say it all the time: books have tremendous power. But what is that power really?
Natsuki Books was a tiny second-hand bookshop on the edge of town. Inside, towering shelves reached the ceiling, every one crammed full of wonderful books. Rintaro Natsuki loved this space that his grandfather had created. He spent many happy hours there, reading whatever he liked. It was the perfect refuge for a boy who tended to be something of a recluse.
After the death of his grandfather, Rintaro is devastated and alone. It seems he will have to close the shop. Then, a talking tabby cat called Tiger appears and asks Rintaro for help. The cat needs a book lover to join him on a mission. This odd couple will go on three magical adventures to save books from people who have imprisoned, mistreated and betrayed them. Finally, there is one last rescue that Rintaro must attempt alone… (from Picador)
OPINIONS: This is such an adorable book. I don’t quite know how to categorise it – it’s not a children’s book, but you wouldn’t go amiss reading this with an eight year old. But at the same time, an elderly litfic aficionado would get just as much out of it as a young genre reader. I think this might be the kind of book that has universal appeal to people who love books (and probably cats) and that’s pretty much all of us. A love letter to books, bookshops and the magic that comes with them. And that is quite something.
The one thing that did irritate me a bit was how it seemed to be so oriented towards Western literature. It is sprinkled full of references to French and English classics and I was just sad that all the touchstones it used seemed to be so outside of what the world it was set in was – though I’m not sure to what extent that is standard in Japanese fiction. And maybe this was influenced by being read in such close succession to The Cabinet, which made no concessions towards Western readers, which made the contrast seem much starker than it actually was.
But as a whole, the book was absolutely wonderful. I think part of why I connected so much with it is because Rintaro inherits this bookshop from his grandfather, it is this sentimental place that reminds him of his favourite person. And for me, my grandma is my favourite person. She is that touchstone. And I am very lucky to still have her around – I actually get to spend some time with her right now – and she loves books and cats (especially cats) just as much as I do. So I guess it reminds me of her.
So like, if you like a hug in a book, this is the one to get. And if you love cats and books and wonderful and adorable, this is the book you need to read. Add The Cat Who Saved Books to your Goodreads here, or order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).
This book could not be more timely than now! A powerful read about survival and morality under threat of extinction. Many thanks to Sarah Mather at Titan Books for sending me a review copy. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 21/09/2021
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Environmental disasters and AI armies have caused the human population of Earth to flee. They lie scattered across space stations and colonies, overcrowded and suffering. The Earth is cut off by the Interdiction Zone: a network of satellites that prevents any escape from the planet. The incredible cost of maintaining it has crippled humanity, who struggle under the totalitarian yoke of the Sol Commonwealth government. Many have been driven to the edge of society, taking any work offered, criminal and otherwise, in order to survive. The crew of the Arcus are just such people.
Through the Interdiction Zone, a world of priceless artefacts awaits, provided anyone is crazy enough to make the run. With fuel running low and cred accounts even lower, the Arcus’ survival might depend on taking the job. Yet on arrival on Earth, the crew discovers that what remains of their world is not as they have been told, and the truth may bring the entire Sol Commonwealth tumbling down… (From Titan Books)
OPINIONS: Reading Stolen Earth against a backdrop of newsreels on resource poverty, environmental degradation, and the ultra-rich’s space tourism, makes it seem less like science fiction and more like science possibility. ‘What if this is our future?’ I wondered halfway through the book. Well, the protagonists are not lying down to take it. The stark, claustrophobic spaces of spacer life, conveyed through minimalistic but punchy descriptions, bring to the fore the interior lives of the characters. In diametric opposite to something like a sprawling high fantasy novel, the world of Stolen Earth is pared down; there is no lush background to recede into, only the crew of the Arcus in their daring bid to reach Earth and return. And it works perfectly for a novel that deals with resource scarcity and the dilemma of ensuring your own survival or doing the right thing.
I was a bit thrown by encountering yet another Soviet-coded bruiser with a penchant for violence raised by a criminal cartel where children are forced to labour in the mines. It’s not this character, Leo Federov, in particular, but just how often that trope occurs, that has given me pause. But ultimately, his heritage and his occasional Russian expletives can be ignored and have no significant bearing on the story.
Finally, I loved Nicholas’ treatment of incomplete solutions: outcomes are negotiated, characters misunderstand or mistrust each other, there are plenty of invested parties, each pulling in their own direction, but… that’s what makes the world of Stolen Earth so compelling and so timely.