Reviews

  • Reviews

    Nettle & Bone – T. Kingfisher

    I love me a T. Kingfisher book as a comfort read, and Nettle & Bone is her best yet. Full of dark humour and dry wit, this is the twisted take on the fairy-tale trend I needed. A book I’m sure I’ll be re-reading again and again, as it’s exactly the kind of thing I want in a cosy read.

    Many thanks to Sarah at Titan for sending me a review copy (with a spell kit!), all opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 26/04/2022

    STAR RATING: 4.5/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.

    Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.

    On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra’s family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last. (from Titan Books)

    OPINIONS: I adored this book. Nettle & Bone is exactly what I want in a comfort read. It is a darker take on the fairy-tale tropes currently popular in fantasy literature, so it was sure to appeal to me – a princess who decides to kill the prince? What’s not to like about this concept. And then there is a chicken possessed by a demon, which… may be the best animal familiar ever. While the plot is not altogether unpredictable, it is fun, twisty and keeps the reader enthralled, but ultimately, it is the characters and the voice of the story that make it truly shine.

    I loved the quirky cast of characters, which is one of Kingfisher’s main strengths. Marra, having spent years in a convent, needs to re-adjust to the outside world, and as usual, there is a traumatised, sensitive hunk of a man (this is a recurring theme in Kingfisher’s books). Cranky witches and odd animals add to the mix, making up a very random group of intrepid adventurers, trying to break a curse. And there is nothing better than a reluctant gang, brought together by happenstance and need to complete a quest…

    The story is full of dry wit and dark humour, with a distinct voice narrating the story. And for me, that was Nettle & Bone‘s lifeblood. A great voice can really elevate a book, and this is a stellar example. The sometimes wacky plot and characters could easily have fallen into the absurd, or into more comedic fantasy, which is very hard to pull of if you’re not Terry Pratchett, but staying on the side of sarcasm avoided these pitfalls and made this a pure delight to read. That said, Nettle & Bone does address heavier subjects such as abusive relationships and miscarriage, which may be triggering for some readers, especially within the target demographic. I wish that the publisher had included a content warning – and I hope that this is something they may consider for the paperback edition still.

    As you can tell, I loved this book, and will add it to my list of comfort reads, most likely re-reading it again and again. If you too want to experience the magic, add Nettle & Bone to your Goodreads here, and order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

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    Reviews

    Cast Long Shadows – Cat Hellisen

    In a web of political machinations and religious tension, three women battle for survival with each other and, more poignantly, with their own selves. But this suggests a story of sweeping battles and loud proclamations, instead, Cast Long Shadows is full of quiet, and darkness, and stomach churning tension.

    RELEASE DATE: 31/05/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5*

    SUMMARY:

    Marjeta Petrell.
    Replacement bride, shadow of a dead and perfect wife, step-mother to a duke’s treasured daughter.
    A girl out of her depth, alone and afraid.
    Magic runs deep in her veins, stitched in blood ties, embroidered with kindness and pain.
    In an unfamiliar court, Marjeta must discover who are her friends and who are enemies; who she can trust before she is accused of witchcraft and executed (from lunapresspublishing.com).

    OPINIONS:

    I was terrified of writing this review… of finishing this book… of confronting internalised misogyny, rejecting which feels so dangerous. Cast Long Shadows is a book about witches, sure, but it is also a book about women, and about how easy it is to brand your friend as an enemy when that is what you’ve been taught your entire life.

    Marjeta’s initial perception of femininity as deplorable and dangerous is something familiar to me from my own teenage years – I, too, did not see magic in embroidery, or quiet charm-weaving, or well placed words in a world made by boot, gun, and shout, in a world made for men. It’s captured strikingly in the protagonist’s disdainful, pain filled words ‘What good is a message? Will it help her burn faster?’ Marjeta’s evolution through the novel is telling, just as my own had been, moving in evocative sweeping passages of excellent prose. It is, however, a little over-long, and I became inured to the tension. The distrust and paranoia strike close to home, as does the penitent abnegation of Lilika, Marjeta’s foil, for a transgression in equal parts real and imagined.

    The novel presents a variety of complex mother figures, ranging from step-mothers to confidantes, that is refreshing in a work which touches on the archetypal narrative of the witch-bride come to replace the benevolent ‘real’ mother. And it offers a bleak justice at the end, but it leaves a sour taste, like old ashes.

    It is not a comfortable read, but a necessary one, all the more for the work it does to rehabilitate logos and writing from the masculine paradigm. This might not be the kind of witch story you expect, but it is one that is sorely needed, and lies closer to the historical witchcraft accusations of the early modern period.

  • Reviews

    Elder Races – Thea Harrison

    The Elder Races series by Thea Harrison is a Paranormal Romance series that started in 2011 and made quite the impact – book 1, Dragon Bound, won the RITA (the RWA’s highest honor) for Best Paranormal Romance in 2012. With nine primary works (and countless novellas in the universe), Elder Races follows the politics and relationships of the seven Elder Races that share the world with humans: the Wyr, Light and Dark Fae, the Elves, Demonkind, Nightkind, and Human Witches. There is an aspect of portal fantasy here as well in that there are pockets of Other land that can be accessed through passageways throughout the mortal world, and the characters often enter these lands as part of the stories.

    I read the first three books , because I find that with these longer-running PNR series, you don’t really get an accurate impression until you are a few books in. In addition, I was intrigued by the fact that the first three MMCs were non-traditional shapeshifts in that they were mythical creatures – first a dragon, then a thunderbird, and finally a gryphon. So, this review tackles both the book I read for the square as well as the series.

    This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.


    Dragon Bound
    RELEASE DATE: 01/05/2011
    STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
    Storm’s Heart
    RELEASE DATE:
    01/08/2011
    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
    Serpent’s Kiss
    RELEASE DATE:
    04/10/2011
    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    The world-building stage is set in the first book, but it really isn’t until the second and third books that we see just how expansive the world is and get a sense of the politics and machinations of the various races. It isn’t often you get to read a book where you have a gryphon, vampyre, medusa, and djinn all in one scene! The world-building is rich enough to provide the backbone for a series with staying power.

    In terms of the romance, it has a heat level on par with a series like Psy-Changeling by Nalini Singh – it is steamy and explicit, but not to the point where it detracts from the plot. The MMCs are alphas, straight up, so if you don’t like that trope, these books are not for you. In fact, the MMC’s of the first two books are some of the most brutish, out-of-touch-with-my-feelings alphas I’ve read in a while. However! The character transformations are profound and definitely come across on the page.

    In terms of FMCs, one of the things I really appreciated about this series is how genuinely nice the FMCs are. I absoluletly love a “strong” heroine, but sometimes the stereotyping of what a “strong” heroine means can become grating – they are often set up as assertive to the point of aggressive, in constant conflict with the MMC. It was refreshing to read “strong” heroines that instead were simply kind. For example, toward the beginning of the first book, prior to even starting a relationship, Pia literally cuddles Dragos and falls asleep on top of him. When they are captured by the goblins and thrown in a dungeon, she saves a struggling beetle in her cell from falling down a crack. In the second book, Niniane is often found simply listening to her subjects, connecting with them to make them feel heard. She wants to use her resources to set up a school for her people so that they can integrate into the human world. I hadn’t realized how much I wanted to read FMCs like these, but apparently I did – it was a nice change of pace.

    The writing was a little rough for me, but I think that’s a personal taste thing. I sometimes struggle with an author that flips between “elevated” language and colloquialisms; it gives me whiplash to read a beautiful sentence followed by a character using the word “freaking.” It did improve as the series progressed, but it is the reason Serpent’s Kiss (which was my favorite of the three books I read) was not a five-star rating for me. I wanted to give it five stars SO badly, but unfortunately, I do have a hang-up about prose. That, combined with repetitive words and phrasing, and sometimes odd construction, kept the book at a four for me.

    Interestingly, the dual POV is not split up into sections like most modern Romances – hello head hopping! You bounce between the two POVs throughout the chapters, but it was done in such a way that, although I noticed it, it didn’t pull me out of the story.

    The focus of the third book – my favorite of the three, and the book I used for r/fantasy Book Bingo – is Carling. She is an old vampyre who is bored with life, essentially waiting for death, and her ennui is palpable. She undergoes a “rebirth,” if you will, finally attempting to pursue a second chance at life, in part due to the MMC. I highlighted this passage, because as Carling’s character evolves, and she begins to be pulled out of her complacency, it beautifully captures the impact of his love and support: “Or maybe that was just Rune, reawakening her soul.” Make no mistake – this book is about the FMC and her journey, and the MMC simply plays a supporting role.

    I enjoyed the maturity of the characters – Rune and Carling are much older than the characters of the first two books – and the somber tone. Serpent’s Kiss is mature and poignant, and its themes resonated with me. Although Rune is an alpha, he is much more of a cinnamon roll than the previous two heroes. He’s a laid back, ripped jeans and Jerry Garcia t-shirt wearing, easy-going guy. But make no mistake, he can flip on a dime when his friends or mate are in trouble. It does lend a different dynamic to this couple and this book, because he is far more sweet – there is a scene where he does Carling’s makeup, for example, because she hasn’t worn any in hundreds of years and doesn’t know what to do. And Carling being as old and powerful as she is does not stand for any high-handedness at all. I thoroughly enjoyed their dynamic.

    I’m usually not a huge fan of books that mess with time. I often find them confusing. But I think this book did a good job of addressing paradoxes and laying out the impacts of their forays into the past. I never felt like the time-travel was contrived. The plot was well-constructed around it and the characters abilities naturally shaped in support of it. The explanations were not confusing and all the typical time travel pitfalls were addressed. It was well-done.

    Serpent’s Kiss was by far my favorite of the three books. If you’re interested, you can read it standalone although you’d miss some of the context and world-building that preceded it. I don’t think I will read on in this series. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t really grip me in a way that propels me to keep reading. I think that’s in part due to the prose. This is a solid PNR series however, and I think many fans will find it enjoyable.

  • Blog Tours,  Reviews

    Blog Tour – The Collarbound – Rebecca Zahabi

    Welcome to today’s second post – a blog tour review of The Collarbound by Rebecca Zahabi. Fun epic fantasy galore and a promising start to a writing career! Many thanks to Gollancz for sending me a review copy and having me on the blog tour.

    RELEASE DATE: 12/05/2022

    STAR RATING: 3.5/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: On the other side of the Shadowpass, rebellion is brewing and refugees have begun to trickle into the city at the edge of the world. Looming high on the cliff is The Nest, a fortress full of mages who offer protection, but also embody everything the rebellion is fighting against: a strict hierarchy based on magic abilities.

    When Isha arrives as a refugee, she attempts to fit in amongst the other mages, but her Kher tattoo brands her as an outcast. She can’t remember her past or why she has the tattoo. All she knows is that she survived. She doesn’t intend to give up now.

    Tatters, who wears the golden collar of a slave, knows that this rebellion is different from past skirmishes. He was once one of the rebels, and technically, they still own him. He plans to stay in the shadows, until Isha appears in his tavern. He’s never seen a human with a tattoo, and the markings look eerily familiar…

    As the rebellion carves a path of destruction towards the city, an unlikely friendship forms between a man trying to escape his past and a woman trying to uncover hers, until their secrets threaten to tear them apart. (from Gollancz)

    OPINIONS: In a lot of ways, The Collarbound is pure entertainment. Fast paced epic fantasy, plot-driven but not quest-oriented. It profits from extensive world building, and it is made clear that what we see in this book is only a fraction of a greater world. This is something that always makes me enjoy a book more, seeing obvious thought and care being put into a world that the reader doesn’t fully see – it does pay off, even if it isn’t immediately visible. It makes the story more immersive. And immersive storytelling leads to books you can’t put down – The Collarbound is a very addictive read!

    The characters are great as well – with distinct edges and flaws, not forced to be consistently pleasant. This drew me in too, and made it feel as if I was there with them. I loved the interactions, the reluctant familiarity that built between them over the course of the story. And a good dose of politics and intrigue never hurts. While it is plot-driven rather than character-focused, The Collarbound stands out from other epic fantasy due to its focus on the small, rather than a big quest story. It is a book that despite its compelling nature needs attentive reading as it is full of details rather than just allowing the reader to go on the journey with the characters, so be prepared to have to unravel some of the plot strands and world building as you go along.

    So, definitely a rec if you like twisty, epic-y stuff with a lot of politics and fun characters! It’s not one of my all-time favourite books, but one I’ll probably re-read in the future and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

    Add The Collarbound to your Goodreads here, and order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Reviews

    Fire of the Frost – Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda Bouchet

    Fire of the Frost is a Fantasy Romance anthology consisting of four distinct novellas, which is quite an ambitious undertaking. Writing Romance novellas is hard, and compiling four well-executed Romance novellas even harder. Why? Because Romance novellas often suffer from the problem that there isn’t the page time to develop the characters in enough detail to make the plot or the romance believable. Layer on top of that a genre like Fantasy, and you’re faced with an even trickier prospect – now you also need page time to flesh out the world-builidng to the degree needed in support of the story or the romance. 

    However! It can be done! In the right hands, an author can construct a novella-length story that delivers on the promises of the premise of both Fantasy and Romance. In my opinion, Fire of the Frost accomplishes that, and I’ll try and unpack why it is so successful here by looking at each of the four novellas separately.

    This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.


    RELEASE DATE: 05/01/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

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    A Wynter Fyre by Darynda Jones – 5/5

    This is the shortest novella in the anthology, and despite the story being standalone, it really worked for me, I think, for three reasons. First, much of the page-time is dedicated to the world-building, and since the world itself is what drove the plot, the author made a good choice here. This is great literary device for managing page time – tie your world into the driving plot points and suddenly you’ve created a page efficiency that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

    Second, the steaminess is not tied to the HEA. I know – you’re thinking gratuitous sex? Well, maybe a bit gratuitous, but I don’t think so. If you don’t have time to have your characters fall in love, add steam another way, avoiding insta-love altogether. That’s what the author did here. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a content warning – there is dubious consent in the opening scene where the FMC is assaulted by vampires after being bitten and injected with what is essentially aphrodesiac vampire venom. This didn’t bother me and, like I said, I thought it was an ingenious way of getting the FMC and MMC into a steamy situation (he did not perpetrate the assault – their encounter came after), but I know that this is a big trigger for some folks, so reader beware!

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this book had an HFN as opposed to an HEA, making the relationship arc far more believable. Our couple doesn’t go all the way to love and a full HEA, but you get the sense that their HFN will lead to a true HEA and that is enough to make you feel complete while avoiding the feelings of the end being contrived and reeking of insta-love. The plot twist and relationship reveal is key to achieving this story. It was unexpected and made the plot work.

    Of Fate and Fire by Amanda Bouchet – 4/5

    Another way to make a Romance novella work? Write the story of a secondary character from an ongoing series. The world has alrady been established, the backstory of at least one of the characters is already in the mind of the reader, and you’re able to use your page time to develop the plot and Romance. That’s exactly what Bouchet does in Of Fate and Fire, which is a novella set in her Kingmaker Chronicles world. It contains the story of what happens to Piers after he is banished from Thalyria by Athena.

    For me, that was always a tough scene – I was SO conflicted about Piers’s fate, and for him to get a bit of character redemption and an HEA was extremely satisfying. The story is set in NYC at Christmastime, and the “big bad” is this billionaire tech mogul, both of which were extremely satisfying plot points (especially the downfall of the billionaire). I also love how much Bouchet leans in to her Greek heritage and mythology. She really leveled up with those elements in this novella, having the FMC being a part of a Greek immigrant family and a descendant of Heracles. I’m really looking forward to book 4 in the Kingmaker Chronicles series, which comes out this fall!

    The King of Hel by Grace Draven – 4/5

    If you follow my posts and reviews, you know that I’m a huge Grace Draven fan. She consistently delivers, and this story is no different; it has the tone, prose, and world-building I’ve grown to love in her works. This was the first story she ever published, expanded into novella for this anthology. It is standalone, and effortlessly tackles world-building and character development within the confines of a novella’s short length. Draven is truly a master of Fantasy Romance.

    The novella is as much a love story between Castil and her best friend as it is between Castil and Doranis. The tone is rather somber, tackling themes of inequity and loss. Each of the three main characters is bound by the expectations of their birth, relegated to class expectations and rights. Yet amid the unfortunate outcomes of being forced to live within those societal strictures, love and friendship perservere. A poignant tale that fans of Grace Draven will thoroughly appreciate.

    Familiar Winter Magic by Jeffe Kennedy – 3/5

    This novella was my least favorite of the anthology, but that had more to do with my personal taste in tropes than anything else. In general, I am not a big fan of magic schools or YA-leaning characters, and since this story followed the relationship of two students of the Convocation Academy – the magic school in Kennedy’s Bonds of Magic world – it wasn’t my preference. However, I know this isn’t a turn off for others, so if you like that series and Kennedy’s writing (which is fantastic!) and want to delve deeper into the unique world-building that is an allegory for slavery and caste systems, this might be a great novella for you!

    Familiar Winter Magic is another example of a novella set in an existing world, but unlike other examples I’ve read that employ this approach, this novella is far more tied into the main storyline of the series than usual. Although the characters and relationship are well-developed, it reads almost like a prelude to book 3, with multiple references to the series plotline and a cliffhanger ending that ostensibly will be resolved in book 3. I recommend this novella primarly to fans of the Bonds of Magic series as its an excellent and compelling entry into that world.

  • Reviews

    The Demon’s Daughter – Emma Holly

    I get my recs for Fantasy Romance from a lot of places, and this particular book was rec’ed to me on r/RomanceBooks over a year ago as part of a request for well-written, adult Fantasy Romance books (not YA, not NA, no romantic subplots, etc.). It’s been sitting on my TBR since that time until I recently started the process of culling my TBR and searching for books that might fit my all Fantasy Romance r/fantasy Book Bingo card. I didn’t know anything about Emma Holly going into this book aside what I’d learned from some online book buddies – she is best known for Erotic Romance (Romance that is steamier than most, packing more explicit sex than your average Romance) as well as late 1990’s early 2000’s SFF Romances. So, I decided to give it a try.

    I continue to marvel at the luck I have falling into books that seem to be made for me. This book screams Kat; it checks so many boxes for me, it’s almost scary. Look – I’m not going to say that what I like is close to being universal. This review is going to be more of a list of why this book works for me, and if you read it and you find that what works for me also works for you? Well, then I highly recommend reading The Demon’s Daughter by Emma Holly, because it was absolutely satisfying.

    This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.


    RELEASE DATE: 02/11/2004

    STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶

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    I really enjoy the approach to world-building that fuses a quasi-historical settings with a completely different world. I’ve read this a couple of times, and this book solidified my love of this approach. The author took late Victorian era London and pieces of its history and plunked it down inside a secondary world and alternate history on another planet with a race of demons. She then deepens the immersion through the use of chapter epigraphs that are meant to be excerpts from various historical texts. The world-building was this amazingly creative fusion of ideas and histories, and I was totally diggin’ it.

    The theming in this book draws on this world-building, focusing on both the human-demon interactions as well as the class structure within both races. Much of the conflict stems from racism between humans and demons, with both Adrian and Roxanne struggling given their unique ties to the demon race. Layer on top of that the classism that exists in both worlds, and you have a solid foundation for a plot rife with societal tension.

    I loved Adrian and Roxanne, the main characters in this book; I felt very connected to them and wanted them to find happiness both for themselves and with each other. Like most modern Romance books, this book is dual-POV, and the development of each character is rich and engaging. I will admit that my preferences tend to older protagonists given my age and the point I am in in my life, and so it was a pleasant surprise to find that the MMC is in his early 40’s and the FMC around 30.

    Adrian is not Alpha in any way, but an emotionally-connected man deseparate to find love after a failed marriage and a lonely life dedicated to his job as a Inspector (this book gives off a strong detective noir vibe). He wants the type of family he grew up with, and we get to see a glimpse of what that looks like when he visits his parents. His parents wanted a better life for him than they had, and his drive, the choices he makes with his first marriage, and his decision to take the demon implants all stem from these familial drives. The themes of race and class dynamics and family all tied together nicely to form Adrian’s character arc.

    But the same is true for Roxanne. She is alone in this world, never knowing her father and losing her mother at a young age, but she creates a family for herself adopting two children and shapes a life around her art that is uniquely her own. This book has a tremendous message of women’s independence – Roxanne is a force to be reckoned with in an era where a woman’s worth was associated with her husband and her family. She stands apart, making her own living with her art and conducting her day-to-day life in the manner that suits her regardless of societal expectations.

    By the end of the book, I realized that The Demon’s Daughter is very much a book about family. It’s a theme that is revisited and explored throughout the story, from Roxanne’s adopted children, to Adrian’s massive family, to the difficult relationship Roxanne has with both of her parents, and finally the formation of a family of their own.

    The Demon’s Daughter is a deeply sensual book, and I didn’t realize how much I’d been craving that. Yes, this book does get steamy – Emma Holly is known for her Erotic Romance – but what stood out for me was the intense sensuality of the couple for much of the first half of the book in the form of simple touching, caresses, and foot massages, as an example. That being said, this book does pack a lot of steam, so if you like your explicit sex scenes on the thinner side, this might be a bit much for you.

    Finally, the prose. I found this book extremely well-written. It didn’t feel basic, nor was it overwrought. Instead, is struck the perfect balance for me, reflecting the tone the author wanted to deliver with nary a hiccup.

    I highly recommend this book. I adored it. I’m not sure if I will read the other two full-length entries in this series – I felt complete at the end of this book – but I am so pleasantly surprised and happy to have read The Demon’s Daughter.

  • Blog Tours,  Reviews

    Blog Tour: Sistersong (paperback) – Lucy Holland

    In my current research project, I have this knack – I’m working on the Horned God in fantasy fiction, a figure that usually pops up on the sidelines or has a very limited presence, but casually browsing bookshelves in a shop or library, I’ll often pick up a random volume that catches my eye – and there he is. It’s uncanny, honestly! This was certainly the case with Sistersong. I picked the volume up on recommendation from Fabienne and because I enjoyed Lucy Holland’s previous fantasy oeuvre, the Worldmaker trilogy. I did not expect to find Cernunnos in its pages, nor did I expect that this novel would come to occupy such a central space in my research.

    Sistersong weaves a sellic spell that pluck at the heartstrings and leaves the reader wondering.

    RELEASE DATE: 28/04/2022

    STAR RATING: 5/5✶

    SUMMARY: King Cador’s children inherit a land abandoned by the Romans, torn by warring tribes. Riva can cure others, but can’t heal her own scars. Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, although born a daughter. And Sinne dreams of love, longing for adventure.

    All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold, their people’s last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. However, change comes on the day ash falls from the sky – bringing Myrdhin, meddler and magician. The siblings discover the power that lies within them and the land. But fate also brings Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear them apart.

    Riva, Keyne and Sinne become entangled in a web of treachery and heartbreak, and must fight to forge their own paths. It’s a story that will shape the destiny of Britain (from Pan Macmillan).

    OPINIONS: First and foremost, this is an excellently researched novel. The historical details are grounded in both medieval chronicles and longstanding tradition of reimagining the Middle Ages, but Sistersong also respectfully engages with concerns of the 21st century, especially gender politics and notions of spiritual autonomy.

    As for the Horned God, Cernunnos, his godhood is more literary than factual – the name survives to us in a single inscription of a Gallo-Roman devotional stele discovered in Paris (you can see it here), and archaeological evidence suggests he was a local deity subsumed into the Roman pantheon as Gaul became part of the Roman Empire. Further concrete information about how he was worshipped and by whom is lost to history, but he did find an ally in anthropologist Margaret Murray, whose ideas can be considered key for modern paganism in the West. Murray suggested that Cernunnos was one example among countless expressions of a pan-European Horned God, embodiment of male sexuality, wildness, and the natural world. This idea was taken up by fantasy authors to give Cernunnos a revived divinity. And he makes his appearance in Sistersong, along with Celtic goddesses Andraste, Brigid, and Epona.

    What struck me specifically was the gods were seen as ways of understanding the natural world. It’s something I’m arguing in my thesis: pagan gods in fiction are used to bring to mind nature and our relationship with it. And Holland presents this idea is a wonderfully eloquent way: at one point in the narrative one of the protagonists discusses the nature of magic with Myrdhin/Mori, a mysterious mentor character. Mori insists that there are no gods, and that ‘Brigid, Andraste, the Horned One […] are just names […] folk have given the land and its many faces.’

    Throughout the novel, humanity’s union with and attention to the land is leitmotif that defines the characters’ success or downfall – forget the land’s name and you forget yourself. Without overtly referencing the current ecological catastrophe, Holland brings to mind the importance of human compassion to our environment. I found this incredibly powerful.

    Now that Sistersong is out in paperback, do give it a read yourself and delve into legends of spectral hunts, ancient monuments and the uncanny bond between three siblings.

  • Reviews

    The Stardust Thief – Chelsea Abdullah

    There are many wonderful books out there, but few manage to tick all the boxes for elements I love as much as The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah did. I inhaled this – and I admit, I may have inhaled it a bit too quickly, as my memory of the plot is getting a bit hazy – but it was so worth it. I am already looking forward to diving back into the world of this wonderful book, and I hope I get to love it as much as I did this time around for many more reads.

    Many thanks to Nazia at Orbit for sending me an ARC for review. All opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 19/05/2022

    STAR RATING: 4.5/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: Neither here nor there, but long ago…

    Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp.

    With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artefact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything – her enemy, her magic, even her own past – is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality. (from Orbit)

    OPINIONS: I adored this. My current gremlin brain has already forgotten far too much other than that – and I’m looking forward to rereading it soon to refresh my memory. But the story was delightful and dark, gritty and compelling, and all-around wonderful. I fell for this book within just a few chapters, and its many twists and turns kept me engrossed until the very last page. The worldbuilding in this is rich and plastic, which just adds to the book as a whole transporting you into its realm.

    This is the sort of fantasy that takes its cues from mythology and stories, but turns them into something wholly its own. The focus is laid on character development and platonic relationships, with romance being very much on the backburner (which I really appreciated, especially as the most obvious comp to this is S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad series, which is wonderful, but also very focused on its romance). The main story is interwoven with in-universe tales, which I loved too, as it added another dimension to the linear storytelling which you don’t see too often. The characters are varied and amazingly well-developed, from Loulie, a merchant of stolen magical artefacts, to Qadir, her bodyguard or Aisha, the resident thief. Each of them brings something unique to the table as they are somewhat unwillingly thrown together on the book’s central quest – and I’m excited to read more when books two and three come out, as The Stardust Thief is announced as a trilogy.

    One of the elements I loved most as a reformed historian was the inclusion of magical artefacts, old, valuable and highly sought after. I adore old things, and it’s catnip for me if they’re used as a plot device in books… Combined with the inserted stories and nods to A Thousand and One Nights, this was a book I was always going to love – and what is not to love in a thrilling story based on Arab mythology, with a fantastically diverse cast of characters and an epic quest?

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

  • Reviews

    The Shadow Glass – Josh Winning

    I have been having a massive writing block in recent weeks – which is why my review output has been much slower than it has been. But luckily, it hasn’t affected my reading as much (though, looking at the huge pile of books that need writing about, that may not be such a good thing after all…). One of the books that have been sitting next to my laptop is The Shadow Glass by Josh Winning. A weird and wacky fantasy adventure inspired by a love of 1980s films that is immensely loveable and immersive – and one that managed to hit exactly that nostalgic love for The Neverending Story that I grew up with (as a child, one of my family nicknames was “Fuchur” – the German name for Falkor, the dragon from that story).

    Many thanks to Lydia at Titan for sending me a copy for review. All opinions are my own as usual.

    RELEASE DATE: 22/03/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: Jack Corman is failing at life.

    Jobless, jaded and on the “wrong” side of thirty, he’s facing the threat of eviction from his London flat while reeling from the sudden death of his father, one-time film director Bob Corman. Back in the eighties, Bob poured his heart and soul into the creation of his 1986 puppet fantasy The Shadow Glass, a film Jack loved as a child, idolising its fox-like hero Dune.

    But The Shadow Glass flopped on release, deemed too scary for kids and too weird for adults, and Bob became a laughing stock, losing himself to booze and self-pity. Now, the film represents everything Jack hated about his father, and he lives with the fear that he’ll end up a failure just like him.

    In the wake of Bob’s death, Jack returns to his decaying home, a place creaking with movie memorabilia and painful memories. Then, during a freak thunderstorm, the puppets in the attic start talking. Tipped into a desperate real-world quest to save London from the more nefarious of his father’s creations, Jack teams up with excitable fanboy Toby and spiky studio executive Amelia to navigate the labyrinth of his father’s legacy while conjuring the hero within––and igniting a Shadow Glass resurgence that could, finally, do his father proud. (from Titan Books)

    OPINIONS: I absolutely devoured The Shadow Glass. I was reading this while traveling across London on the tube, and was very upset when my journey was over and I had to pause – only to race through the rest on my way home. Lydia from Titan sold me the book as her favourite book of the year in the publicity email, and I’m so glad I listened and requested it, as the blurb had it sounding quite out there and I wasn’t sure if it would click with me. But this is brilliant and manages to hit those nostalgic feels without going too far into absurdist comedy. The Shadow Glass is fast paced and plot-driven, but its characters don’t suffer because of it.

    I really enjoyed Jack undergoing extensive character growth throughout the story and developing as a person within a relatively short span of time. We also get to know the deceased Bob fairly well, which I liked a lot, as well as some of the stranger creatures from the eponymous film. As a whole, it served as wonderful escapist entertainment, with big dashes of humanity and nostalgia. This will make readers of my generation and that before mine connect with this – it is very much a book aimed at those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, and makes for a refreshing change in the current market.

    Add The Shadow Glass to your Goodreads here, and order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • the cover of the devil's dictionary novel with a wolf's head over an open book on a dark background
    Reviews

    The Devil’s Dictionary – Steven Kotler

    For those who are looking for an unconventional sci-fi read exploring topics of ecology, empathy and the morality of making money, this book will have you snap your fingers and go ‘found it!’ The Devil’s Dictionary is full of complex questions, but it never leaves levity behind. It’s wry protagonist and clever, tongue-in-cheek narrative style are bound to get you hooked.

    RELEASE DATE: 19/04/2022

    STAR RATING: 5/5 *

    SYNOPSYS:

    Hard to say exactly when the human species fractured. Harder to say when this new talent arrived. But Lion Zorn, protagonist of Last Tango in Cyberspace, is the first of his kind—an empathy tracker, an emotional forecaster, with a felt sense for how culture evolves and the future arrives.

    It’s also a useful skill in today’s competitive business market.

    In The Devil’s Dictionary, when a routine em-tracking job goes sideways and em-trackers themselves start disappearing, Lion finds himself not knowing who to trust in a life and death race to uncover the truth. And when the trail leads to the world’s first mega-linkage, a continent-wide national park advertised as the best way to stave off environmental collapse, and exotic animals unlike any on Earth start showing up—Lion’s quest for truth becomes a fight for the survival of the species. (from Macmillan)

    OPINIONS:

    Hands down, my favourite read of the year! Kotler takes no prisoners in this sci-fi novel meets detective mystery. The premise that a mind-altering substance actually increases your empathy to other, especially other-than-human, beings is refreshing after the convention of sci-fi tech equaling emotionless rationality. It is also an excellent premise through which to discuss human-led ecological change, which Kotler does exceptionally well.

    Kotler’s language has a superb physicality to it. Like ‘one of those info-marketers turned self-help gurus, …, who seems to have self-helped himself to damn nearly every piece of real estate in this part of London’ – a situation that is both alternative reality and also here, now, unapologetically in your face. The dialogue especially is a marvellous thing. The story’s diverse cast is captured through unique linguistic patterns and mannerisms. The conversations are vibrant, with interruptions, tangents and in-jokes that make them come alive. I’ve had these conversations with my friends. Well, maybe not exactly these conversations…

    Since I work on ecological themes in literature for my research, The Devil’s Dictionary was a goldmine of philosophical quandaries and popular imagination assumptions, all bound up in a riveting plot that zigs and zags its way through the mystery, but never lets the readers lose themselves. I finished the book galvanised; perhaps, because despite tackling current social concerns, the novel does not preach anything, but presents a complex situation in a complex world. And that world is not lacking in beauty for being imperfect. It’s a book with feeling, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone!