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Month: May 2019

Review: Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan

Review: Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan

‘Sixteen-year-old twins Madeline and Catlin move to a new life in Ballyfrann, a strange isolated Irish town, a place where the earth is littered with small corpses and unspoken truths. A place where, for generations, teenage girls have gone missing in the surrounding mountains. As distance grows between the twins – as Catlin falls in love, and Madeline begins to understand her own nascent witchcraft – Madeline discovers that Ballyfrann is a place full of predators. And when Catlin falls into the gravest danger of all, Madeline must ask herself who she really is, and who she wants to be – or rather, who she might have to become to save her sister.’

Perfectly Preventable Deaths is a hauntingly lyrical novel full of dark, visceral magic and the pains of growing up. On the surface, it has many elements of a contemporary novel, yet the threads of the narrative bring this together with otherworldly features and powers of a fantasy world without ever entirely leaving ‘our’ world behind, bringing what feels like an ancient and mythological history into the present day. When Madeline and Caitlin arrive in Ballyfrann, they are, at first, removed from the area’s history and its people, yet both are soon drawn into events and associations that they cannot resist, each under the thrall of their own particular magic.

One of the things I found most interesting about Madeline and Catlin is their own, separate, dedications to their individual choice of religion. Catlin is said to have an altar full of statues of the Virgin Mary, which is deemed acceptable by their mother and stepfather, whereas Madeline’s instinctive and anxious ‘habit’ of carrying salt and other, often natural, bits and pieces with her for protection is frowned upon to the extent that their mother takes deliberate steps to stop her and goes around removing salt from where Madeline has placed it, such as under her sister’s bed. Is it because Catlin’s choice of religion is more familiar, particularly for the location, that she is allowed her collection of votives and icons that ostensibly serve the same purpose as Madeline’s salt? I think that this particular element of the narrative raises a lot of good questions about what religion is and what it means to each person, and why people, often driven by fear, feel the need to object to what they don’t immediately understand.

The magic that Madeline slowly begins to embrace and further understand is both beautiful and horrifying on an instinctive level, particularly because it is so grounded in the physical and natural world and not formed of fantastical and intangible power. The power that she is encouraged to embrace is not a simple and malleable ‘gift’, but a responsibility and understanding that comes with a price that must be paid. All too often in YA literature, magical powers come with no cost and are at such a level that they turn the character who wields them into an unstoppable force. This is not the case with Madeline, whose entering into a world that she must risk sacrificing her dreams (or the dreams she believes she has) for is understood to be one that will grant her strength and the ability to assist others, but will not turn her into a being of unrivalled power. Her power lies more in knowledge and an understanding of that which others might not see or comprehend, a subtlety there that doesn’t completely remove her from the realm of what it is to be human.

I loved the idea of the families in Ballyfrann having their own ties to different forms of magic and affinities going back generations, with none of them so obvious on the surface as to indentify them as anything other than human to outsiders who aren’t familiar to the population. I particularly loved Oona and her affinity for water (to be honest, I just loved Oona in general and could probably write a whole separate review just about her) and the rumours that hinted at what powers and abilities other characters might have.

Perfectly Preventable Deaths is a stunning read and one that I just couldn’t put down. Thank you, Hot Key Books, for gifting me a copy! Perfectly Preventable Deaths is out on May 30th!

Review: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

Review: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

‘Fatima lives in the city of Noor, a thriving stop along the Silk Road. There the music of myriad languages fills the air, and people of all faiths weave their lives together. However, the city bears scars of its recent past, when the chaotic tribe of Shayateen djinn slaughtered its entire population — except for Fatima and two other humans. Now ruled by a new maharajah, Noor is protected from the Shayateen by the Ifrit, djinn of order and reason, and by their commander, Zulfikar.

But when one of the most potent of the Ifrit dies, Fatima is changed in ways she cannot fathom, ways that scare even those who love her. Oud in hand, Fatima is drawn into the intrigues of the maharajah and his sister, the affairs of Zulfikar and the djinn, and the dangers of a magical battlefield.’

The Candle and the Flame gave me the worst book hangover I’ve had in ages! I really didn’t want the book to end and I desperately hope that there are going to be more books set in this world. The description of the city and the lives of those who live in it are painted so vividly that it’s impossible not to envision the setting and surroundings in rich colour, textures, sights and sounds simply leaping from the page. It makes it all the more difficult to leave the world behind and I was reluctant to read the last few pages, knowing that the story was at an end and I would have to leave Noor.

In the world of The Candle and the Flame, humans live alongside different species of djinn, some of which have positive intentions and others that are set to creating chaos. The majority of these need to be Named to cross into the human world from their plane of existence, a process that gives them a physical, human, form. To take away their Name is to unbind them and send them back – or worse. The concept of Naming and how it’s done is one of the things that I loved most about the story. The drawing together of the different things that have come to define the person being Named, seeing their memories and what has led them to become what the pieces of their Name brand them as, is described as a beautifully tangible process, from the heat of the fire to the fitting together of the fragments and settling of the Name. I read a lot of fantasy novels that involve magical processes, and this one is up there with my all-time favourites.

Fatima is an intelligent and compassionate lead, unafraid to exert her independence and correct those who attempt to order her around or make unfounded assumptions about her. Her devotion to those around her and her selflessness both give her a strength that guides her, even though they sometimes lead to her making decisions that put her at risk. She seems slightly out of phase with the world, particularly as she is drawn into that of the Ifrit, and at certain points in the narrative it’s characters such as the Alif sisters who help to keep her grounded and human. I loved the family interactions in this novel, particularly because they are often between found family and demonstrate some of the best of human nature’s capacity to care for others. Fatima’s interaction with Zulfikar is another aspect that draws out more of her than she may be willing to share with others, and it is often in these scenes that she seems the most animated and most herself, rather than what she may believe she has to be.

Ultimately, it’s the women in the novel who drive the story, from Ghazala’s initial choice in its opening pages, to the ladies of the palace who are not quite what the men of the city believe them to be. Many of them are consistently undervalued by the men in their lives, who may love and respect them, yet tend not to actually see the full extent of who these women are, refusing to believe that they are as intelligent and independent as they genuinely are. I absolutely adore Bhavya and Aruna, both of whom are severely underestimated by their immediate family, and, in a some respects, by themselves and the reader in the opening stages of the story. Bhavya’s journey is perhaps one of the most significant in the story, not being directly involved with the more magical elements, but with her own inner struggle to identify who she is, what she is capable of, and what she truly wants for her life.

The Candle and the Flame is out from Scholastic Press on May 14th! It’s one of my favourite reads this year and I hope you love it as much as I did!

Review: Snakeskins by Tim Major

Review: Snakeskins by Tim Major

‘Caitlin Hext’s first shedding ceremony is imminent, but she’s far from prepared to produce a Snakeskin clone. When her Skin fails to turn to dust as expected, she must decide whether she wishes the newcomer alive or dead.

Worse still, it transpires that the Hext family may be of central importance to the survival of Charmers, a group of people with the inexplicable power to produce duplicates every seven years and, in the process, rejuvenate. In parallel with reporter Gerry Chafik and government aide Russell Handler, Caitlin must prevent the Great British Prosperity Party from establishing a corrupt new world order.’

Snakeskins is an excellently crafted and often horrifying look at identity and what it means to be human. In the Britain of Caitlin’s world, there are – ostensibly – two types of people: humans and Charmers, the latter of which have the ability to produce a copy of themselves every seven years from their seventeenth year onward, rejuvenating their body and gaining a longer than expected lifespan in the process. Understandably, she is apprehensive about her first shedding, but when her first Skin does not turn to dust and ‘ash’ as she expects her to, her beliefs and her attitude towards having a duplicate Caitlin around are severely challenged. In the opening pages of the novel, she seems to have a tolerant attitude towards the idea of creating a copy of herself, knowing that she will not have to live with them for more than a couple of minutes, but, when faced with the reality of another version of Caitlin around, with her memories and experiences intact, it turns out that she is not immediately as tolerant or as welcoming as she would have liked.

There are echoes of Never Let Me Go in the Snakeskins narrative, particularly in the use of care homes for the Skins who don’t immediately turn to dust. The reality of how the Skins are treated, compared to what is presented to the outside world, is one of the more disturbing facets of the story, especially when what exactly the care homes are geared towards is revealed. With the exception of the main antagonists, not one of the other characters, Charmer or human, appears to be completely able to decide how they feel about the existence of Charmers and what is the appropriate course of action when ‘dealing with’ the matter of Skins. Some tend towards a more open and pro-rights view, yet cannot help but be repulsed and unsettled when actually faced with a Skin, unable to completely see them as human, despite wishing that their moral compass would read how they want it to. In a world where we appear to be becoming less and less concerned about the ethics of cloning, with more frequent stories of animals being cloned seeming to ‘normalise’ the process, just how we would react to human cloning, compared to how we like to think we could respond, is just one of the ideas explored in the story. It’s all well and good to think that we would want equal rights for copies of humans, but the fact remains that none of us has ever been faced with a copy of ourselves and forced to confront our individuality, mortality and instinct versus morality on such an immediate level – which is one of the reasons why we may never have to do so.

The scenes involving Caitlin and her Snakeskin clone are some of the most powerful in the narrative, especially as regards the behaviour of her copy and her response to her. By turn, Caitlin is reassured by their similarities and horrified by them, just as she is when her Skin displays knowledge and understanding guided by her experiences since their separation. She initially seems unable to decide whether she wishes them to maintain their similarities or become different people, primarily focused on what this means for her once she realises that her Skin has not yet ashed into non-existence. When safe in the knowledge that her Skin will not survive, she is a much more generous and thoughtful soul, yet she turns vindictive and much more narrow-minded when she knows that the matter will continue to affect her, rather disturbingly highlighting one of the more depressing features of human nature: it is much easier to be good and kind and open-minded when an issue does not directly affect us, but we are far less apt to be so if a situation is likely to impact us in any negative fashion.

A keen look at human nature and the workings of a corrupt government, Snakeskins is out today, May 7th! Thank you to the publisher, Titan Books, for gifting me a copy!