Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire is really the OG sapphic YA fantasy. I feel like when it came out in 2018 it was one of the first books to lean into what is now an established sub-genre, especially considering the lead time needed in traditional publishing. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and its sequel, Girls of Storm and Shadow, when they first came out, and so I was super excited to read the last book in the trilogy. I do have to admit, when I first started Girls of Fate and Fury, I struggled to follow along – so I squeezed in a cheeky reread and read the whole trilogy over the past week. And I think I loved them even more this time around!
Massive thanks to Kate Keehan and Hodder for sending me an eARC of this via NetGalley, all opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 23/11/2021
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
SUMMARY: The final pages of Girls of Storm and Shadow brought a jaw-dropping conclusion that had the fates of Lei and Wren hanging in uncertainty. But one thing was certain – the Hidden Palace was the last place that Lei would ever consider home. The trauma and tragedy she suffered behind those opulent walls would plague her forever. She could not be trapped there with the sadistic king again, especially without Wren. The last Lei saw of the girl she loved, Wren was fighting an army of soldiers in a furious battle to the death. With the two girls torn apart and each in terrorizing peril, will they find each other again or have their destinies diverged forever? (from Hodder)
OPINIONS: I loved Girls of Fate and Fury. In fact, I loved re-reading the whole trilogy, but this conclusion to the series was the best book out of all of them. It took all of the themes and things I enjoyed, and went into them in more depth and detail. This still is the wonderful sapphic YA fantasy centred around Lei and Wren that readers have loved since the beginning, but this really dives into the themes of abuse and trauma. Not only are Lei and Wren dealing with their pasts and present, but many of the side characters actively show and experience the consequences of what happens to them, and their treatment at the hands of the king.
Natasha Ngan is a master at writing with compassion. The way she writes about trauma, abuse and disability never feels like it’s condescending or lecturing, but accepting. As someone with mental health issues, I really empathized with the wide range of responses the former Paper Girls had in the wake of Lei’s return – none of them considered lesser because they struggled. Another character became paralyzed, and after the first shock of everyone around them, the acceptance and love that emanated from the characters was wonderful. Not many authors manage to strike this balance and it is clear that this series is a true labour of love for Ngan.
And damn, the story. It’s fast-paced – faster than the previous two books – and extremely addictive. I really liked that this switched between Lei and Wren’s PoV for the first time, as they are apart for the first time in the trilogy. It really allowed both their stories to shine, and Ngan to explore the struggles they faced. And while, obviously they are the OTP and fated to be together, reading about them striving to reunite and longing for the other is so damn delicious. Combine that with revolution, overthrowing an evil king and friendships in all their iterations, and you have a fantastic conclusion to a great trilogy.
A little while ago, the lovely folks over at Little Tiger sent me a box full of their recent YA favourites to unbox over on my TikTok account, and now that I’ve had a chance to read them all, I thought I’d do a special Little Tiger feature for this week’s Monday Minis. All opinions are my own as usual.
I already reviewed The Boy I Am by K.L. Kettle back when it came out at the start of the year (see my full review here) – I really enjoyed this dystopian YA that is reminiscent of the early 2010s and made me feel all nostalgic for a simpler time in my life. This turns gender roles on their head – boys are in a position of weakness, whereas women control the power in this world, and it shows the stark inequality still present in our system. A fun read with some deeper underthemes!
I’m not sure why I didn’t fully click with Wranglestone by Darren Charlton. The book has generally been really well received, and quite a few of my friends have read it and liked it a lot. And while there really isn’t anything I can fault the book for, I found that while I didn’t dislike it, I was not emotionally invested in the characters – which meant that I found it hard to keep going. This is essentially both a tense zombie survivalist adventure and a sweet queer romance between two teen boys. But, I just ended up feeling like it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. And I’m not sure if it’s the book, or if it’s the fact that I’ve read most of the queer YA that’s been released in speculative fiction in the last few years and have just become super picky. Because by all accounts, I should have loved this. I think, ultimately, I just didn’t quite buy the romance. For me this ended up being a solid 3* read, and I hope that if you give it a read, it works better for you.
I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed Radha and Jai’s Recipe for Romance by Nisha Sharma. And now I desperately want some Indian food because of all the delicious sounding recipes this romcom includes… I’m not usually a huge fan of contemporary romance, but this charmed me and I was absorbed into the story from the start, I really do blame it on the food – I am exceedingly food-motivated. While this is certainly not a perfect book, it is one that deals with a lot of the anxieties and challenges that teens face towards the end of their high school years, when they have to balance hobbies, passions, expectations and dreams for their future with the reality that comes crashing down on them. Radha and Jai, while utterly different and from very different backgrounds ultimately struggle with the same sorts of issues, and their differing approaches are interesting and make for a good story. I loved the flavour the Indian-American setting gave the story and the central theme of the Bollywood dancing theme. All in all, a very sweet story and one to look out for if you enjoy contemporary YA!
The Rules by Tracy Darnton is a YA thriller about Amber, who is fleeing from her survivalist dad. He has been prepping them for some sort of impeding apocalypse for as long as she can remember and raised her under very strict rules for every aspect of life. It’s a gripping story, though not the most refined one. I felt like I didn’t get to know the characters as well as I would have liked – it feels like ultimately The Rules is really a predominately plot-driven story, and anyone outside of Amber is quite one dimensional. The ending was unexpected – though it felt rushed and didn’t get the sort of attention I would have liked to see. I did enjoy reading this, and felt for the characters, but I didn’t love it. It’s worth a look if you’re into YA thrillers though as YMMV!
The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw is one of those books that coasts on vibes. And because one of the important locations of the story is a planet called Dimmuborgir, and it is an angry queer space opera, I can’t resist starting this review with a Dimmu Borgir song – I love that the band’s vibes fit the book’s vibes so well. So press play, and have the fitting soundtrack to get you into the right mood.
And we’re back with the second space opera of the week. The All-Consuming World is a very different kettle of fish to Far From the Light of Heaven, though, much less streamlined and linear, and far grittier and queer. I really enjoyed the reading experience of this one too but this one will be much more of a Marmite type book, dividing opinion as it is ultimately something very special. Massive thanks to Marty at Erewhon for sending me a review copy, all opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 07/09/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Maya has died and been resurrected into countless cyborg bodies through the years of a long, dangerous career with the infamous Dirty Dozen, the most storied crew of criminals in the galaxy, at least before their untimely and gruesome demise.
Decades later, she and her diverse team of broken, diminished outlaws must get back together to solve the mystery of their last, disastrous mission and to rescue a missing and much-changed comrade… but they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the secret at the heart of the planet Dimmuborgir.
The highly evolved AI of the galaxy have their own agenda and will do whatever it takes to keep humanity from ever regaining control. As Maya and her comrades spiral closer to uncovering the AIs’ vast conspiracy, this band of violent women—half-clone and half-machine—must battle their own traumas and a universe of sapient ageships who want them dead, in order to settle their affairs once and for all. (from Erewhon)
OPINIONS: So this one is quite special. It’s really a Marmite book I think that is dividing opinions – I personally really enjoyed it, but I can see how this will definitely not work for everyone. Have a read of my thoughts and see if The All-Consuming World might be one for you. This book really lives off vibes more so than coherent storytelling. It is all about the characters and the world that they move in, and in that sense, it reminds me a bit of the brilliant Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo – which is an entirely different book, as it is a gothic dark academia novel, but it similarly focuses on vibes and atmosphere over plot.
Think of this as weird along the lines of Gideon the Ninth, edgy like Jay Kristoff (but less problematic) and fun like a very dark episode of Doctor Who with a dash of Becky Chambers. This isn’t a book for the faint of heart – there is surgery that happens while the character is awake, on the page, for example, so do heed the content warnings. The official ones are depictions of abusive relationships, mentioned character death, codependency, emotional manipulation, eye trauma, gaslighting, grief and surgery without anesthesia. It sounds like a long list of difficult topics, but it didn’t read like a heavy book to me – though that might be speaking from a position of privilege as my wounds are in very different places.
While The All-Consuming World is pitched as a heist book, it doesn’t feel like one. It’s mostly an angry queer book, set in space, where you get to know the characters, their stories and their problems. It doesn’t always feel like there is too much to the story, but ultimately I didn’t mind that. I cared about the characters, and I was emotionally invested, which is always the most crucial for me personally. I just loved being along for the ride with these characters and enjoyed my experience. It is a book that functions like a Black Metal album for me – escapism, forgetting the world and how shit it is by sinking into noise.
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.
I saw the cover for Far From the Light of Heaven and I knew I needed to read this book, even though I’m not always a massive fan of science fiction. I started Rosewater by the same authors quite a while back, and it’s still on my pile of partially read books – I’m not sure why, but my mood-reader self didn’t quite click with it at the time. But I can say with confidence that even if Tade Thompson’s earlier work wasn’t for you, pick up Far From the Light of Heaven – it is a great story, addictive and thought-provoking (and I know quite a few people who feel similarly about this one!).
Many thanks to Nazia Khatun at Orbit for sending me an ARC of this excellent space opera. All opinions are my own as usual.
RELEASE DATE: 28/10/2021
STAR RATING: 4.5/5 ✶
SUMMARY: The colony ship Ragtime docks in the Lagos system, having traveled light-years to bring one thousand sleeping souls to a new home among the stars. But when first mate Michelle Campion rouses, she discovers some of the sleepers will never wake.
Answering Campion’s distress call, investigator Rasheed Fin is tasked with finding out who is responsible for these deaths. Soon a sinister mystery unfolds aboard the gigantic vessel, one that will have repercussions for the entire system—from the scheming politicians of Lagos station, to the colony planet Bloodroot, to other far-flung systems, and indeed to Earth itself. (from Orbit)
OPINIONS: Hi, you need this book. And coming from someone who doesn’t read too much space opera that means something. (though funnily enough, the next book I’m going to review is ALSO space opera) I really really enjoyed Far From the Light of Heaven. It is compulsively readable, and has that great quality of being accessible and commercial while still having deeper themes and making you think without hitting the reader over the head with its politics – a balance that Orbit’s editors have been managing to hit really well with their recent releases. I started reading this one a little while ago, and got distracted with life, and when I picked it up to just read a few chapters, it sucked me in and I blitzed through the last two-thirds of the book – that’s how compelling it is.
This is space opera, and a locked-room murder mystery, and a criticism of capitalism (there’s a UBER-rich guy who reads as a cross between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk – obviously he ends up dead and is a dumbass) and so basically combines everything needed for a damn good story. Ultimately, the ending feels a bit rushed – I thought there was still a bit of story coming and was blindsided by the book being over (partially because the ARC came with some back matter that filled the last 20-30 pages) – but that feels like a minor quibble. And oh, Shell and Fin are such wonderful characters. I loved their interactions, their banter, and how they grow as the story unfolds. The way Ragtime’s AI is woven into the narrative is delightful too.
I thought that the way the bigger issues about space travel, capitalism and worker’s rights and conditions were woven into this story about deaths on a spaceship was really well done, in a way that did not feel like the author was forcing his readers to deal with them, while subtly making it clear that these were important factors driving both the story and our world. This really is one of the best space operas I have read, and one that I will be thinking about for a long time to come.
All in all, highly recommended. If you like your books fast-paced, smart and compelling, even if you’re not the biggest fan of science fiction or space opera usually. Add Far From the Light of Heaven to your Goodreads here, and order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).
Once again it’s Monday – so time for Monday Minis! A very eclectic combination of books this week – a teen mystery, an occult comic and a pandemic YA set in a juvenile detention facility. Many thanks to the publicists who sent me review copies or eARCs, all opinions are my own as always.
I’ve had The Five Clues by Anthony Kessel for a while. And I read it quite a while ago. But I found reviewing this book very hard – I struggle to write reviews that are predominately negative, especially if a book is from a small press and there isn’t a whole lot out there. There are just some things that I struggled with and that I felt undermined the premise of the book as a whole. First and foremost I just could not deal with the inciting incident being that a supposedly loving mother (who was in fear for her own life) would leave her pre-teen daughter ACTIVE instructions to track down the people she thinks might KILL her?! What mother would put their child in danger like that? Not Edie, the main character, randomly finds something that leads her to believe that her mother’s death might not have been an accident. But her mother basically leaving a trail for her to follow. I was interested in reading the book because it is written by a public health physician and is marketed as teaching young readers to better deal with grief, something that is very dear to my heart as I too have lost my mother at a rather young age. However, I didn’t feel that this came across very well in the finished product, and would recommend other books for this purpose.
I’m once again on a graphic novel binge, and so I was excited to get to read Shadow Service Volume 2: Mission Infernal by Cavan Scott and drawn by Corin M. Howell. I enjoyed the first volume earlier this year, and this continues Gina Meyer’s story as she runs from MI666, the secret division responsible for the supernatural. Gina is a witch, kicks ass and does not play around. Her adventures in this volume take her to Rome where she has to face a new threat and perhaps work together with old enemies to survive. Shadow Service is a very fun comic series, extremely fast paced – a little to the deterrent of character work, I think, I would prefer if it slowed down a bit and let us discover some more about who these characters are, rather than just their backstories – and it once again ends on a massive cliffhanger that has me very keen to read the next volume. While this isn’t one of my all-time favourite comics, it is one that I really enjoy reading and it has a lot of the elements that make me pick up a story. And every time I’m thinking, ah, I’m getting a bit bored, this story doesn’t quite feel like the right thing for me, they come up with some sort of twist or cliffhanger that ends up getting me hooked again, making the series very addictive. It feels a bit like that comforting thing you can read without having to think too much, similar to how I’ve been binging Riverdale again. A fun series for those of you who like occult action-packed stories!
At The End of Everything by Marieke Nijkamp is a hard book to talk about. It took me quite a bit to get into it, probably because I tend to struggle with prison settings – I didn’t look up what the book was about before I started reading as I loved their last book, Even If We Break, and knew I would want to follow what they wrote. That the book deals with a virus breakout doesn’t help either, it hits very close to home as the characters struggle to survive after they’ve been forgotten by the world around them. But damn, once you get into the book, it grips you. The way Nijkamp manages to build tension through the rapid switch of PoVs, the addition of lists, transcripts of phone calls and left messages and similar scenes is brilliant, and as the story goes on, you end up not as close to any single character as you’d be in a traditionally told story, but caught up in the fraught atmosphere of the world. It is an excellent book, and one with great disability rep – there is a deaf character and an autistic character, both of which are really well written. Generally, Nijkamp’s a great bet if you’re looking for queer and diverse YA, and this one in particular is one for you if you like to tear your heart out and stomp on it. Be prepared for all the pain.
I loved diving back into the Dragons of Terra series by Brian Naslund, with the epic conclusion Fury of a Demon. Many thanks to Black Crow PR and UK Tor for sending me a review copy, all opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 02/09/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Commanding a devastating army of skyships, Osyrus Ward has conquered most of Terra. And to finish the task, he’s building a machine of unparalleled power. With it, he’d be unstoppable – and dragons would be wiped from the face of the earth.
Bershad and Ashlyn are leading a desperate rebellion, but they’ve been trapped within the Dainwood by Ward’s relentless mercenaries. The rebels pray Ashlyn’s dark magic will give them an edge, but her powers are well-known to their enemies as they draw ever nearer. Out of options, Ashlyn must embark on a dangerous mission to save her fledgling army – or be crushed by Ward’s soldiers.
Bershad was once invincible in battle, but this very power may prove his undoing. Now, with every new wound, his humanity is slipping further away. Bershad seems to be Terra’s last and best hope against terrifying forces. But to save the world, will he become the nightmare? (From UK Tor)
OPINIONS: Fury of a Demon takes us back into the rich Grimdark world Brian Naslund has created in his Dragons of Terra trilogy. This is a pretty epic finale to the series, tying up many of the story-strands, but also leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination. I think in that respect, this does really well as the final book in the trilogy, hitting that balance between revealing endings and closing strands of story while leaving opportunities for the characters to live on and grow further after the end of the written story – because what we read is always merely a snapshot of their entire story, not the whole thing. They have lives outside of the bits that the author tells us, and in my opinion, the best books are those where that becomes clear – and thus the characters become something bigger than words on the page.
I haven’t been reading a lot of epic quest-style fantasy recently, but even so, Fury of a Demon shows me why I love the genre. Brilliant characters who are pretty much all backstabbing bastards, though loyal in their own ways. Bershad, dragon killer (though, he doesn’t do much of that in this one) is one of my favourite Grimdark heroes, and Ashe and Kira are such non-princess-princesses that I love reading about. I do wish there were a few more dragons in this series called Dragons of Terra, and slightly less considerations of politics, but that’s more of a complaint on the level of principle than because it is something wrong with the book itself.
All in all, these books are fun and fast paced, keeping up high tension throughout in a dark and twisty world that throws shit at our protagonists left and right. It is not a kind series, but a very good one. If you like Grimdark, or epic fantasy that goes into the darker side, this series is for you.
I adore books about witches and those inspired by mythology, especially from cultures that I’m not as familiar with. So I was thrilled when Laura Smythe and Zephyr invited me on this tour, and sent me an ARC of Lionheart Girl by Yaba Badoe. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 14/10/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Born into a family of West African witches, Sheba’s terrified of her mother who is deadly dangerous. But like mother, like daughter – magic runs through her blood and Sheba discovers powers of her own.
Her touch can unravel people’s innermost thoughts; their hopes, their fears – their secrets. Sheba too can shape-shift. Through the communion of ancient magic, blood and friendship, she slowly uncovers the murderous truth about her stolen childhood and steels herself for the future. She must protect the hunted from the hunter – her mother. (from Zephyr)
OPINIONS: Lionheart Girl is a gorgeously told fable of a girl growing up in a culture where oral storytelling is the centre of life. Sheba is a young girl growing up in a family of West African witches, one that functions almost like a clan, where everyone cares about everyone. Through its setting in a small village, removed from the outside world, the story seems almost out of time, though I’m fairly certain it is contemporary-set.
It is hauntingly written, in a way that wouldn’t be amiss if told while sitting around a campfire. And as some of my very favourite memories are from sitting around a campfire in Tanzania, chatting to my loved ones, that made the story feel incredibly comforting to me. It is the kind of book that transports you into a different world, and introduces you to a whole new set of stories and mythology. And that makes it a win in my opinion. It is also character-driven, rather than a sweeping adventure, which made me really enjoy the narration and writing more.
I also really enjoyed that this was a YA book, but one aimed at the teen demographic rather than the upper YA that is prevalent these days. It is a book that is just as appropriate to read for an advanced ten or eleven year old as it is for a fifteen-year-old. And thus, it is one that is especially well-suited for school libraries! So, if you like slow-burning stories with a strong voice and a mythological slant, this is one for you.
This week’s Monday Minis are a bit of a special edition. I’ve been reading quite a bit of short fiction recently – thanks to some amazing publicists who have sent me some anthologies and collections for review – so I thought I’d do a roundup of the lovely books I’ve read! I received review copies of all of these, all opinions are my own as usual.
We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020, edited by C.L. Clark and series editor Charles Payseur came out from Neon Hemlock Press in August. It reprints a selection of short fiction published in 2020 that the editors chose as their ‘best of’ 2020 – which, as they quite eloquently explain in the introduction is a very subjective classification and always ends up missing out on great things due to a variety of reasons. As such, this was quite a mixed bag for me personally. I think as a whole, the anthology was very well done and put together in a way that made sense, even if the individual stories weren’t all to my taste. I did feel like the stronger stories were in the second half of the anthologies – the ones that stood out to me most were “Thin Red Jellies” by Lina Rather, which shows the heartbreaking deterioration of a relationship under strange circumstances, and “The Wedding After the Bomb” by Brendan Williams-Childs, which focused on the found family aspect of queer groups. A solid entry if you want to get into reading more short fiction!
I first came across Aliya Whiteley’s work late last year, when I read and reviewed the brilliant Skyward Inn (see my review here). So I jumped at the chance to read her new collection From the Neck Up, full of short fiction about the strangeness of life and the uncanny things that people encounter in their everyday lives, published by Titan Books in September. I highly enjoyed all of the stories in this collection – I really appreciate how Whiteley manages to evoke an uncanny atmosphere using relatively simple and accessible language, keeping her work grounded in reality while unsettling the reader with the content of the stories. These stories are really taken from the mundane, rather than the poetic and abstract, and that makes them all the creepier. An excellent collection of light horror stories.
I’ve been on a bit of a translated fiction binge recently, and Sinopticon has only given me more authors to look up and read more from. Edited by Xueting Christine Ni, this collects and celebrates stories written by Chinese authors over the past few decades and makes them accessible to a far wider audience by translating them into English. I would love to see more of these kinds of anthologies and really dive into the way storytelling differs in different places. This anthology features some true gems – the two stories that stood out the most to me were “The Great Migration” by Ma Boyong and “Flower of the Other Shore” by A Que. Two utterly different stories that managed to draw me into their worlds completely. The first, “The Great Migration” is set in a far future where humans have colonised Mars and features two travelers who meet trying to travel home to Earth in the limited window where the two planets are closer to each other. This is an analogy to the Chinese tradition of people returning home to their families across the country for the holidays, such as Chinese New Year, turning a really mundane encounter into something special through great writing. The second story, “Flower of the Other Shore” is more out there – it’s story of the zombie apocalypse, but it’s a truly special one. The writing is haunting and the characters are ones that will stick with you. So definitely an anthology that should be on your radar!
The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu collects seven of the author’s stories and was published in June 2021 by Tachyon. This was my first foray into Liu’s prose work – I’d read the Monstress graphic novels, which she writes, but a graphic novel isn’t quite the same thing as a prose story. Now that I’m finished with the collection, I remain torn with my thoughts about it. I love that the stories all have that almost whimsical, ethereal feel to them that I expected from Liu’s work after Monstress, but none of them stood out to me in particular as stories that I loved. So while the atmosphere and the writing worked really well for me, I didn’t connect to the stories on an emotional level and found the individual stories almost forgettable. What I did really enjoy is that all of the stories had a little afterword about their inspiration, about their original publication. I loved reading these little insights that Liu had while going over her earlier work again in preparation for the collection, as all of the stories contained here are reprints. If you like Monstress, or enjoy atmosphere-driven stories with a good dash of whimsy, you might enjoy this collection a lot!
It’s funny, sometimes, how you fall into a book. Recently, I was reading Appropriately Aggressive: Essays About Books, Corgis, and Feminism by Krista D. Ball (although not the subject of this review, I recommend this book as Krista’s brand of sarcastic wit provides a highly entertaining delivery mechanism for serious essays about women in literature and the craft of writing). In an essay about how to support women in literature, the following passage caught my attention: “Pick up an author’s debut novel. I can recommend Kate Elliott’s as a great standaone alt-Victorian portal fantasy.” What?! Alt-Victorian portal fantasy?? Uh, yes, please! I feverishly texted Krista. “What is the name of this book?” She quickly replied, “The Labyrinth Gate!” and I couldn’t be happier to have stumbled in to such a satisfying read. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 12/01/1988
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
With marriage comes change, and for Sanjay and Chryse, that change is literally world altering. After their wedding reception, they accidentally drop a gift—a pack of special tarot cards—onto an elevator floor. The cards scatter, the lights go out, and all at once, they find themselves transported to Anglia. It’s a strange parallel world not unlike Victorian England, but matriarchal in nature and shaped by powerful sorcery. While fleeing a riot in the streets, the pair is rescued by aristocrats Julian and Kate, the first of many new friends and adventures. To get home, they must find a treasure in the labyrinth city of Pariam—a quest that becomes ever more daunting as it attracts the attention of the evil Princess Blessa.
There are many enjoyable elements of The Labyrinth Gate, but the element that really shines for me is its fast-paced, plot-driven story. To understand why this book’s plot is so compelling, let’s first take a look at the world in which it’s set. As Krista points out, this book is an alt-Victorian portal fantasy, but what exactly does that mean? Our FMC and MMC, Chryse and Sanjay (I actually consider this an ensemble cast, but more on that later), are magically transported from modern-day US to an alternate Victorian-era England, where places and names are somewhat familiar, and yet different, but the patriarchy of the peerage and Christianity are both turned upside down, and a matriarchy governs all aspects of society. Layered on top of this alternate foundation is magic. The world is filled with Tarot-card driven sorcery, goblins, ogres, and elves, and a lost pagan history that speaks of a secret source of even greater magical power. Chyrse and Sanjay are thrust into a quest to find this treasure, motivated as it is said to be the key to finding their way back home, while powerful sorcerers vie for the find, their own agendas far more sinister.
Several aspects of our own Victorian-era England are preserved. Here, the significant class divide between the aristocracy and the commoners is ever present and shapes societal expectations and moraes. In fact, Chryse and Sanjay enter the world amid a riot in a lower-class, poverty-stricken part of town. There are violent uprisings, and the commoners are pushing for a new, more equal way of life. Herein lies one of the main themes of this book – the old ways versus new and the rocky transition that exists between the two. Elliott presents this theme to the reader again by weaving sacred holidays into the ritual that becomes central to uncovering the secrets of the gates. The pseudo-Christian holidays are celebrated as the year moves along, but these holidays are simply replacements for the old pagan celebrations – much like was done in our own world – and these holidays held far more power in the magic that surrounds their original intent. Old versus new and the cycle of time are concepts at the forefront of this book.
The search for the treasure of the labyrinth via a massive archaeological expedition forms the backbone of the plot. Chryse, Sanjay, and their new group of friends (and frienemies!) travel North to the site of the mythical Pariam in the hopes of uncovering the secret buried therein. Throughout the preparation for and during their quest, unexpected events, both magical and mundane, start happening to members of their party, those they left behind, and in the area surrounding the dig that leave the reader speculating about how these clues all fits together. The story is most definitely a mystery, and Elliott plants so many of these questions in preparation for the ending that you cannot help but frantically turn pages to find out how it all comes together. I honestly do not want to provide any more detail about the plot than that, because further discussion will invariably lead to spoilers, and I would be truly remiss as a reviewer if I ruined any of the surprises this book has in store for you!
Another element of this book that I unexpectedly appreciated was the vagaries surrounding the prophecy and ritual central to the plot. Generally, I’m the type of reader that wants everything explained. I am an engineer after all – there must be a succinct explanation for everything! But the softness and purposeful haze surrounding magic, the fact that the prophecy and ritual are veiled in mystery and ambiguity, actual serves the tone of this book perfectly and surprised me in how satisfying it was. In fact, it struck such a chord with me that I was reminded of Guy Gavriel Kay’s 2021 J.R.R Tolkien Lection on Fantasy Literature (if you haven’t seen it, please do yourself a favor and listen to his insightful talk) in which he makes a case for leaving some questions unanswered in your story, especially in regards to magic. In other words, leave some magic in magic. To me, what Elliott accomplishes in this book is a perfect example of what Kay was referring to in his lecture. The prophecy and the ritual felt inherently magical to me – other-worldly – and that made for a far more rewarding experience than I would have expected.
I said that this book is plot-driven, and I believe that to be a true statement, but that doesn’t mean this book lacks in characterization. The characters are developed and presented (just like the world-building) in what is just enough detail to support and enhance the plot such that the plot remains the focal point. The ensemble cast forms right from the beginning; as soon as Chryse and Sanjay are transported to Anglia, they are rescued from a riot by Julian and Kate. From that moment forward, the cast grows to include characters that range from Julian’s opinionated, but wise, old Aunt Laetitia to the mysteriously evil Earl of Elen who finances their trip North and for unknown reasons wishes to marry the archaeology professor’s daughter. This unlikely crew have such varied personalities, backgrounds, and motivations, and yet they are all pointed toward the same purpose: to uncover the treasure at Pariam.
One of the things that really stood out to me about this book was the casual and natural way interpersonal relationships are depicted and how simple, but meaningful interactions are sprinkled thorughout the story alongside the plot. There is a familiarity that develops among the characters, and the author interleaves talk of friendship, sex, love, and marriage nonchalantly which lends an authenticity to the various relationships that I found delightful, especially within a high-stakes fantasy setting. The relationship-building, which took unexpected and starkly different paths depending on the couple, was remarkable in and of itself, but even more impressive when considering how each couples’ path added a richness to the story that would not have otherwise been there. The ultimate outcomes of these pairings varied significantly, and I found that to be a unique and adeptly contrived aspect of this book.
I’m legitimately baffled as to why this book isn’t more widely known and read. It is a fantastic example of standalone, high fantasy that had me reading well into the night. If you are a fan of plot-heavy mystery, alternate historical world-building with a healthy serving of magic, and casual relationship-building between delightful and varied characters from an ensemble cast, The Labyrinth Gate might just be the book for you!