A fun mixture of historical fantasy, mystery and romance, with lots of wit, entertaining characters and my favourite use of weaponized holly. Thanks to NetGalley for a review copy, all opinions are my own
RELEASE DATE: 02/11/21 (US) 09/12/2021 (UK)
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known.
Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it—not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.
Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they’ve been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles—and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.
OPINIONS: After an introductory chapter, the main story starts with Robin Blyth, an easy-going, charming non-magical person suddenly and without warning finding out about the existence of magic when he has been spitefully put into what his supervisor thinks is a dead-end, out of the way job deep within the Civil Service. The highly prickly (although not without good reason) Edwin Courcey is his liaison and guide to the previously unknown world of magic.
The writing for this reveal is particularly effective. Whilst it grounds the rules and parameters of this world’s magic, it does it in a natural way without the dreaded info dump. The magic in this world is straightforward to understand- based largely on patterns and “cradling” i.e winding string (or in this case energy) in shapes and lines to produce a result. How magic is revealed to Robin is particularly effective at highlighting his character to a T. Instead of the expected horror or apprehension he’s charmed and a little bit delighted with what Edwin shows him. Edwin on the other hand, whose magic is significantly weaker than is expected in his otherwise magically powerful family gets to bask in Robin’s enjoyment and show off a little. This pattern of Robin appreciating Edwin for what he can do, and illuminating how spectacular it is when viewed in a different light to one his family uses is repeated again and again throughout the book – my favourite one is when Edwin has effectively recreated a magical version of the Dewy decimal system and brushes it off as not worth mentioning. He’s not being modest, it just doesn’t seem to him to compare to his family’s achievements or what was expected of him.
Although it’s set in a version of Edwardian England where queerness is still secret and undesirable, hiding their feelings both from each other and society as a whole is not a key part of this book. Both realise the other is interested in men fairly on in the book and in a low key, undramatic way. This gives the story time to question what it is that they both want from each other and how their characters play off each other. Whilst at its simplest it is the sunshine happy-go-lucky and the gloomy withdrawn misanthropist pairing both Robin and Edwin are more than that very simple definition. Although Robin is definitely the golden retriever he appears early on in the book, he’s a person who is at home in himself, unlike Edwin who is all sharp edges and elbows. Both have been strongly shaped by the expectations and abuse of their families albeit in very different ways
The mystery side of this book is also strong. As Robin has been cursed by the same people looking for the mysterious object mentioned in the first chapter, he’s dragged through half of Southern England’s libraries looking for answers. As a book lover, the description of the library at Edwin’s family home is the thing of dreams and the maze Robin and Edwin end up trapped in is one of my favourite parts of the book where plants come to life and holly becomes a somewhat unnerving weapon. The book also sets itself up well for the remainder of the (presumed) trilogy without feeling like nothing is resolved.
All in all a fun blend of historical fantasy and romance with a mystery added for good measure. Perfect for fans of KJ Charles.
An excellent sci-fi adventure that mixes and matches genre elements from sci-fi fantasy and horror and has a great time doing it. All opinions are my own
RELEASE DATE: 01/06/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Ten Low is an ex-army medic, one of many convicts eking out a living at the universe’s edge. She’s desperate to escape her memories of the interstellar war, and the crimes she committed, but trouble seems to follow wherever she goes. One night, attempting to atone for her sins, she pulls a teenage girl – the sole survivor – from the wreck of a spaceship. But Gabriella Ortiz is no ordinary girl. The result of a military genetics programme, she is a decorated Army General, from the opposing side of the war to Ten. Worse, Ten realises the crash was an assassination attempt, and that someone wants the Ortiz dead…
The pair bury their hatreds and strike an uneasy deal to smuggle the General off-world. Their road won’t be easy: they must cross the moon’s lawless wastes, facing military hit squads, bandits and the one-eyed leader of an all-female road gang, in a frantic race to get the General to safety. But something else waits in the darkness at the universe’s edge. Something that threatens to reveal Ten’s worst nightmare: the truth of who she really is and what she is running from.
OPINIONS: I picked up this book because I’d heard Holborn describe the premise on a panel and knew instantly it was something I wanted to read. It’s been described as Dune meets Firefly and on a surface level, this is true. Certainly, it shares with Firefly a galaxy-wide war where one side has been crushed, Core planets with all the wealth and rim planets barely noticed by the ruling power. It also incorporates lots of different elements of genre. While the setting is Sci-fi by way of westerns (complete with saloons and general stores) there’s magic – by way of the Ifs and the horror of Seekers – groups who will strip down ships and corpses down to harvest whatever’s valuable whether this is metal or organs.
Each of these elements is used to good effect and the pace is constant – moving from one crisis to another but never dragging out the encounters or explanations too much. Because of this though the world can feel like a familiar one, although this is not a complaint as it gives more space for the characters and plot to shine. It’s also not a cookie cutout setting either there are plenty of small details that don’t detract from the pace but still create a living breathing world.
Ten is a great character to follow. As she’s a healer her first instinct isn’t always to reach for a weapon, although there are plenty of others around who do so. Instead, she finds a way around and this plays well against the General and Falco who are both more of the shoot first ask questions later. The dynamic between Ten and the General is also a highlight of the book. Whilst for most of the book co-operation is grudging and there’s a great deal of suspicion some of the amusing moments are when Ten nudges the General to act as the child she appears to give them cover – although the General isn’t above playing that card for her own benefit which can make for an effective dichotomy in some scenes.
Ten Low is around 320 pages and it crams a lot of story into them. In between the dynamic and frenetic action scenes, the story explains how and why Ten has ended up where she is and what will be her purpose moving forward. It’s a good balance with a strong resolution. Things aren’t spelt out in precise detail but nothing feels unresolved or left hanging which can sometimes be an issue.
I really enjoyed this and would recommend it for those who like fast-paced action, two opposites being forced to work together, and love sci-fi western fusion. If however, your focus is deep lore and extensive worldbuilding this may not be the story for you.