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Month: October 2019

Review: Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

Review: Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

‘The gods of the Myriad were as real as the coastlines and currents, and as merciless as the winds and whirlpools. Now the gods are dead, but their remains are stirring beneath the waves…

On the streets of the Island of Lady’s Crave live 14-year-old urchins Hark and his best friend Jelt. They are scavengers: diving for relics of the gods, desperate for anything they can sell. But there is something dangerous in the deep waters of the undersea, calling to someone brave enough to retrieve it.

When the waves try to claim Jelt, Hark will do anything to save him. Even if it means compromising not just who Jelt is, but what he is…’

Initially, I wasn’t sure that Deeplight was my sort of read (only because I tend to sidestep features of horror and generally favour books with female protagonists) and I was a little apprehensive about it, but after having read it cover to cover without pause, I think I can safely say that any worries were unfounded. Due to be released on Halloween, I think it’s the perfect read for the season, its blend of quiet horror and living mythology one that easily grabs hold of the reader and refuses to let go. I loved the mythology that isn’t actually mythology in this one, for the gods are both very real and not entirely what people believe they are all at once, and even the gods themselves have their own stories and legends that bleed into the narrative.

The story primarily follows the story of Hark, an orphan who has grown to rely on con work and other less than legal tasks to survive. Hark’s best friend goes by the name of Jelt and is, from the start, rather obviously set on manipulating him, though he claims that he only wants good things for Hark. Jelt repeatedly claims that Hark needs to grow up, and most of the ways that he presents to do this involve doing as Jelt wishes him to, his emotional manipulation and guilt-trips something that continue for much of the story. While Hark believes that Jelt is a good friend and genuinely cares for him, I would hope that it’s obvious from the very start that this is, in-fact, not the case, and despite their being bigger and badder forces at work, I have to say that my ire was most often directed at Jelt.

During one of the missions that Hark is manipulated into taking on, he gets himself caught and put up for auction as an indentured slave, subsequently bought by a supposed scientist who is investigating the nature of the Undersea and the gods. He’s put to work looking after the priests who used to commune with the gods by travelling underwater to speak with them through a variety of communication methods, though Hark’s actual work is extracting information and encouraging the priests to share their stories of their experiences with the gods with the purpose of furthering his owner’s research. It’s the stories and expansion of the history involving the gods from these sections that I particularly enjoyed, especially as more and more of the truth comes to light and the ethics behind the whole endeavour become something to consider even more seriously than before. There’s a lot to unpack here and I very much enjoyed the different angles from which characters undertook their actions and made their choices, at once able to defend their decisions and, in the larger picture, often not, and I admit it was many of these features, as the threads of the narrative began to draw together for some and simultaneously unravel for others, that made me flinch as much as, if not more than, the darker elements of the more physical aspects of the tale.

It’s during another ‘adventure’ with Jelt that he’s coerced into that Hark discovers something that stands to change the course of history, though first it begins to change his life and that of Jelt in dangerous and disturbing ways that only he seems concerned about. I don’t want to ruin the plot, so I’m not going to linger long on the direction in which this takes the narrative, but I enjoyed that it includes further consideration of morality and what it means to perceived as ‘fixable’ for what is a natural response to a traumatic event.

Deeplight is out on October 31st! Thank you to Pan Macmillan for sending me a proof copy!

Review: A River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy

Review: A River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy

‘Sixteen-year-old Eva is a princess, born with the magick of blood and marrow–a dark and terrible magick that hasn’t been seen for generations in the vibrant but fractured country of Myre. Its last known practitioner was Queen Raina, who toppled the native khimaer royalty and massacred thousands, including her own sister, eight generations ago, thus beginning the Rival Heir tradition. Living in Raina’s long and dark shadow, Eva must now face her older sister, Isa, in a battle to the death if she hopes to ascend to the Ivory Throne–because in the Queendom of Myre only the strongest, most ruthless rulers survive.

When Eva is attacked by an assassin just weeks before the battle with her sister, she discovers there is more to the attempt on her life than meets the eye–and it isn’t just her sister who wants to see her dead. As tensions escalate, Eva is forced to turn to a fey instructor of mythic proportions and a mysterious and handsome khimaer prince for help in growing her magick into something to fear. Because despite the love she still has for her sister, Eva will have to choose: Isa’s death or her own.’

What I enjoyed most about A River of Royal Blood is the magic, history and cultures involved in the worldbuilding. Though the reader is not given a huge amount of information about how exactly every facet of how the Queendom of Myre functions, I appreciated that the early chapters of the novel are not simply a huge amount of exposition to introduce us to the world before any of the plot truly gets going. Flashes of each of the prominent races and cultures are shared, so that it’s enough to know how some of their society functions and what has happened to bring them to where they are, but some is left to unfold over the course of the story and there’s a good deal that, I can only assume, is wisely being left for future books, given the novel’s conclusion. Myre is built on a hugely bloody and questionable past, in which the rightful queen was removed from the throne and her people subjugated and driven into reservations, echoing some of the worst of mankind’s treatment of each other and opening up the exploration of a vast number of ethical and moral issues.

Eva has ever been deemed to be the weakest and thus unlikely to overpower – and kill – her sister in combat and win the throne through the Rival Heir system. While Isa, her sister, has the ability to control the minds of others, Eva’s magic of blood and marrow is one that she has demonstrated next to no ability to access, leading her to seek out assistance in unlocking her potential as the day that will invoke the system that invites sister to kill sister draws ever closer. What I liked most about Eva is that she is not perfect by any means. She hates the situation that she is in and often struggles to see when those who care about her try to do right by her, mostly because she feels her mother and sister have decided that she is inferior and beneath noting. However, she tries to take what control she can of the situation, even if it does mean taking some people for granted, her sympathies nevertheless leaning most towards those who have always been in her life, even when she struggles to find any goodness in the world. That these sympathies are not with her own race complicate matters for her, particularly when she is set to fight for the throne that has caused so much harm.

Though there are moments of romance that develop over the course of the narrative, I was pleased to see that the romance is not something upon which the whole story hinges or focuses on. I was also glad to see that, though Baccha is described as handsome, powerful and mysterious – employing the descriptors usually used for the romantic interest in YA literature – he is not the one that she chooses for that sort of entanglement. I admit I was a little worried about this to begin with, especially when it’s revealed that she and Baccha have been bound together to the extent that can feel each other’s emotions (another reasonably common feature of fantasy romances), as I’m really not on-board with anything that turns instructor/student relationships into something romantic. I’m glad that those lines weren’t crossed and that, though she and Baccha seem to develop a constructive friendshp and working relationship, it is not more than that.

Without discussing major spoilers, though there is a reason (I won’t say ‘good’ reason, because her choice to behave in the manner in which she does is coloured by her experiences and what she’s learned, but not necessarily a valid reason for it) that Isa is the way she is, she was the character that I was most conflicted about and felt that I couldn’t quite work out. Her motivation doesn’t seem entirely solid and I hope that this is something that is made a little clearer in future books. Though she seems to want the crown and power, her ambition for them seems to fluctuate, in that sometimes it seems a genuine lust for power, at others simply because she ‘can’ and has lived with the assumption that she will be queen for most of her life, and then there are the moments when she appears only to want it because she perceives that Eva doesn’t and, therefore, as her mother’s daughter, she will. She’s an interesting antagonist, especially because Eva understands that she is the enemy and still, despite having plenty of evidence not to, wishes she weren’t, her feelings for her never quite settling as beloved sister or enemy. I’d really love to see more of Isa in future instalments and hope that she and Eva spend more time together in the present, seeing as a lot of what we see of them together in this book is from a past before either of them knew that one would have to kill the other.

A River of Royal Blood is out on October 29th!

Review: Emergence by Gaja J. Kos & Boris Kos

Review: Emergence by Gaja J. Kos & Boris Kos

‘A new breed of nightmare

Broken relationships. Broken heart. Broken world.

Ember has left illusions behind in Somraque, but reality is just as treacherous in a land where nothing is static. Not even the ground beneath her feet.

To find the missing fragment and fulfil the prophecy, she has to rebuild the trust left in ashes in the Whispers. While Mordecai might have placed his faith in his enemies, will they be able to do the same to the monster in their midst?

And more importantly—can a Savior even exist in a world that does not want to be saved?’

I read an advance copy of the first in the Shadowfire trilogy, Evenfall, last year and was grateful to also receive an ARC of the second book in the series, Emergence, from Gaja Kos! Thank you! Though I enjoyed Evenfall, I have to admit that I think I enjoyed Emergence even more, particularly for its choice of location for much of the narrative and the system(s) of magic that are uncovered and explored there.

Emergence picks up where Evenfall left off, with Ember and her friends having just stepped through a portal from Somraque to Svitanye, which they immediately find to be very different from the world they’ve left behind. Svitanye is subject to shifts which change its layout and location, these instances often unpredictable and, most importantly, near indiscriminate in occurrences that can also tear apart people who are caught in them. These shifts almost immediately separate Ember from her companions, meaning the first thing she has to do is try to find a common place to attempt to locate them. As she does this, the reader is introduced to the other ways in which Svitanye is different to the other two worlds, such as the manner in which its inhabitants embrace a myriad of colours and styles to express themselves, dying their hair vibrant colours and using spells to permanently change elements of their appearance. Compared to what they have left behind, Svitanye seems much more alive, yet, as they soon find out, it’s just as deadly, only a different fashion (if you’ll excuse the inadvertent pun).

There isn’t a great deal of action in the first two thirds of Emergence, but, as I’m sure I’ve said before, this is exactly the kind of thing that I love, as it allows more focus on character development. I’m not a huge fan of action-packed books in general, so I was delighted to find that, while bringing the plot along at a steady pace, there were not vast chapters of fighting. The conflict in this is mostly internal, as Ember struggles to come to terms with the numerous tragedies that her very birth brought upon the worlds and her own family, attempting to accept what others have – that it was beyond her control – while finding she is unable to do anything but feel sick to her stomach each time some new element of the awful day is uncovered. She is both the Savior of the worlds and the one who has caused some of the worst destruction, something that she finds herself quite unable to reconcile. As everyone searches for evidence of the fragment that is key to saving the worlds, Ember searches also for ways to accept herself and her still developing powers – and what they mean for her, those she loves and all three worlds.

I loved the focus on books and the ways of interacting with the texts within that are revealed as the ways that magic is used in Svitanye is explored. By using some key command words, Ember (and others native to the world) are able to essentially walk through memories that have been left in pages, and it’s through this that she uncovers not only important historical information, but also things about her family history that she would rather not know, especially as pertains to her relationship with Mordecai. Speaking of the Crescent Prince, though he isn’t present for much of the narrative, he is nevertheless key to it when he is involved. It might be a small thing to others, but I thought how he interacts with Lyra was adorable and it was a positive way of showing his more human side, especially as it’s often said that one can judge a person on how they treat animals.

Emergence is a well-written novel with beautiful description and immersive prose, and will be on shelves from October 29th!

Review: Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo

Review: Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo

‘The streets of Creije are for the deadly and the dreamers, and four crooks in particular know just how much magic they need up their sleeve to survive.

Tavia, a busker ready to pack up her dark-magic wares and turn her back on Creije for good. She’ll do anything to put her crimes behind her.

Wesley, the closest thing Creije has to a gangster. After growing up on streets hungry enough to swallow the weak whole, he won’t stop until he has brought the entire realm to kneel before him.

Karam, a warrior who spends her days watching over the city’s worst criminals and her nights in the fighting rings, making a deadly name for herself.

And Saxony, a resistance fighter hiding from the very people who destroyed her family, and willing to do whatever it takes to get her revenge.

Everything in their lives is going to plan, until Tavia makes a crucial mistake: she delivers a vial of dark magic—a weapon she didn’t know she had—to someone she cares about, sparking the greatest conflict in decades. Now these four magical outsiders must come together to save their home and the world, before it’s too late. But with enemies at all sides, they can trust nobody. Least of all each other.’

This book. I’ll admit, it took a little while for it to drag me in, but I do say it dragged me in because I just didn’t want to put it down and I didn’t want it to end once it got hold of me. The follow-up to Into the Crooked Place is already one of, if not my most anticipated read of next year and I cannot wait to see more from this world and these characters because there is just so much that I loved about them.

In my opinion, one of the things that Into the Crooked Place does very well is skilfully manipulate how the reader feels about particular characters. I don’t want to name those I mean because I feel that a big part of the journey of the narrative is how your opinion of them alters and how you grow to care for those that it’s been signposted you ought not to. And despite knowing it’s probably going to be a bad idea to start to sympathise and want positive things for them, in the end there is very little fighting it. The cast of the book go on some grand journeys both literally, in terms of travel, and within themselves and their own feelings, but I think the most important is that which the reader goes on as characters transform in a number of ways and become more than what they may have been assumed to be very early in the story, subverting the expectations for their own tales and interactions.

I love, love, love Karam and Saxony, both together and as individual characters, and it’s their backstories and histories that lend the novel a good deal of its atmosphere and bring together a lot of its worldbuilding and magical mechanics. One of my favourites things is how vividly and richly the magic Saxony wields is described, and I adore the systems of magic employed by her people (I would quite happily read endless stories about them). That Karam is not what she has made herself be perceived as, especially how she is in her quieter moments, is another of my favourite things about the book, and I hope that we get to see more of her working through what she left behind, who she is, and who she wants to be.

I tend not to favour books with multiple points of view, but Into the Crooked Place is structured in such a way as to make the different viewpoints of its different protagonists flow together seamlessly and keep the switches from being too jarring (which is my primary complaint when more than one point of view is involved, because I tend to end up liking one character’s chapters more than that of the other(s)). The chapters are not built to be so long as to let you settle completely into one character’s mindset, yet each propels the story and shares enough of their thoughts and feelings about events both present and past (often incidents which have involved the others) as to weave together what feels like a very elegant tapestry.

Into the Crooked Place is out tomorrow! Thank you so much to Hot Key Books for sending me a proof copy to read! It truly was my favourite read of the summer.

Review: Hex Life

Review: Hex Life

‘These are tales of witches, wickedness, evil and cunning. Stories of disruption and subversion by today’s women you should fear. Including Kelley Armstrong, Rachel Caine and Sherrilyn Kenyon writing in their own bestselling universes.

These witches might be monstrous, or they might be heroes, depending on their own definitions. Even the kind hostess with the candy cottage thought of herself as the hero of her own story. After all, a woman’s gotta eat…’

Hex Life is exactly the kind of book I absolutely adore and it did not disappoint. I am a huge fan of stories about witchcraft, and particularly those that examine the representation of and assumptions about women involved involved in it – and exactly why the perception of women involved with magic changed so early in history (big surprise: because of men). In ancient literature, it’s relatively easy to track the presentation of women from all-powerful and beautiful sorceresses to the more common and stereotypical haggard and evil witch figure, used by male dominated societies to paint women as emotional, unpredictable and not to be trusted (I could rant for many thousand words about Medea, but I’ll save that for another time). That we have more and more works by women reclaiming the witch figure and writing them as the powerful, unflinchingly human characters  that they are is, in my opinion, one of the best things happening in modern literature.

A collection of short stories about women and witchcraft, Hex Life encompasses a variety of styles, time periods and themes, with the common thread being the involvement of different magics. Some of them contain the more familiar and typical features of what people have come to expect of the genre, but even those that do certainly cannot be considered ‘typical’, especially in their tone, which is, more often than not, brilliantly unapologetic.

My favourite of the collection is actually the last: How to Become a Witch-Queen by Theodora Goss. One of my favourite things to read is a fairytale retelling, which is what How to Become a Witch-Queen is a twist on, carrying on the tale of Snow White after she has lived her days as a queen and now faces the fact of her son inheriting the throne in the wake of her husband’s death. One of the the features I loved most about it was it being perfectly its own story in its own right, while linking back to the the events in the more widely-known version of Snow White and turning them on their heads to create a new tale and a new, more modern character without dashing the original to pieces. Her primary motivation is to ensure a brighter future for her daughter, knowing that the men in her life will inevitably remove any chance of her making her own choices, determined to use her for their own advantage, and both the journey of mother and daughter and the unthreading of the supposed reality of the past was simply a joy to read.

Hex Life was released on October 1st and is available in bookshops now! Thank you to Titan Books for sending me a copy!

Review: SLAY by Brittney Morris

Review: SLAY by Brittney Morris

‘By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is a college student, and one of the only black kids at Jefferson Academy. By night, she joins hundreds of thousands of black gamers who duel worldwide in the secret online role-playing card game, SLAY.

No one knows Kiera is the game developer – not even her boyfriend, Malcolm. But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, the media labels it an exclusionist, racist hub for thugs.

With threats coming from both inside and outside the game, Kiera must fight to save the safe space she’s created. But can she protect SLAY without losing herself?’

SLAY is one of those books that I picked up intending to read the first few chapters of and ended up halfway through it before realising quite how long I’d been reading for. I thoroughly enjoyed SLAY and found it incredibly engaging. It’s quick to reel the reader in, its pacing – both in the real world and that of the virtual reality – fast and story to the point, which is one of the things I liked most about it. There’s an urgency to the narrative that doesn’t let you gain much distance from the ideas at its heart as they are examined, the need to acknowledge the topics within as a matter of keen importance paired with Kiera’s imperative need to fight for and shield the world she’s built for so many.

In creating SLAY, Kiera has constructed a game that uses virtual reality equipment to bring the player to a fantasy world, where they can primarily get involved with the card collecting and wielding element of the game, as well as roleplay characters and build their own homes. The cards themselves are based on elements of black culture and become different powers and buffs when used in a duel, seen as additions to players’ avatars. To maintain a safe environment for her players, she has done her best to ensure that only black players can access SLAY, meaning for the game to be a celebration of culture, achievement and somewhere free of the racism that is a ugly part of the real world. This being her intention, that her game is labelled as racist and one that deliberately excludes others in the aftermath of the murder hurts her deeply, and one cannot help but flinch that people have the audacity to suggest such a thing.

Malcolm’s behaviour is almost immediately unsettling, particularly the manner in which he speaks of and addresses Kiera. He rather frequently refers to her in a fashion that suggests she is an object, she is his, and he is to be obeyed, while telling her how she ought to behave towards others and what she ought to think. He builds her up in one moment, provided it is in the way he permits, and tears her down in the next. I don’t mean to suggest that he is incorrect for being angry of the injustices of the past and present, but how he behaves both towards her and others, using said anger as an excuse for increasingly poor behaviour that begins to spiral completely out of control, is one of the things that has stuck in my mind long after finishing the novel.

The discussion of online gaming creating safe spaces focuses on something that I feel is becoming increasingly important, particularly as they are many who are determined to believe that gaming is something dangerous that can only perpetuate violence. Those who have never been a part of a gaming community might never understand how much a positive part of a person’s life that they can become and never see online friendships as ‘real’ ones, which is one reason why I particularly appreciated the portrayal of Kiera and Claire’s friendship as supportive and something that brings them both joy and ultimately leads to good things. Those who are a part of the SLAY community are there to share their culture and uniqueness and all that is brilliant about each individual and I especially enjoyed that the different viewpoints in the novel thread together to build and bring worlds closer, encompassing friendships, family and more.

SLAY is out today from Hachette Children’s Books! Thank you to the publisher and Team BKMRK for sending me a proof copy!

Review: Redwood and Ponytail by K. A. Holt

Review: Redwood and Ponytail by K. A. Holt

‘Kate and Tam meet, and both of their worlds tip sideways. At first, Tam figures Kate is your stereotypical cheerleader; Kate sees Tam as another tall jock. And the more they keep running into each other, the more they surprise each other. Beneath Kate’s sleek ponytail and perfect façade, Tam sees a goofy, sensitive, lonely girl. And Tam’s so much more than a volleyball player, Kate realizes: She’s everything Kate wishes she could be. It’s complicated. Except it’s not. When Kate and Tam meet, they fall in like. It’s as simple as that. But not everybody sees it that way. This novel in verse about two girls discovering their feelings for each other is a universal story of finding a way to be comfortable in your own skin.’

I read Redwood and Ponytail cover to cover in one sitting and just didn’t want to put it down. I loved the format of the story, being that the whole narrative is told in verse that includes the thoughts and feelings of Kate and Tam while incorporating their own dialogue and the dialogue of other characters, such as Kate’s sister and Tam’s mother. Every so often, commentary is offered by the Alexes, three girls who serve as a chorus of sorts and bring to light the observations of the school crowd while serving as omniscient narrators. As a Classicist, this is one of the things that I really enjoyed about the structure of the novel and I have to say I would happily read several more books about Kate and Tam written in exactly the same style.

Of Kate and Tam, it’s perhaps Kate’s story that is more complicated, for most of the people in her life, notably her mother, are the ones who don’t want her to be herself, but who they perceive and want her to be. One of the more upsetting features of the story is how Kate’s mother focuses so intently on telling Kate that she is beautiful and must be ‘normal’ and that she has to be everything that her mother wishes her to be, all the while without taking into account what Kate actually wants. It’s plain to see that her mother is trying to live vicariously through her daughter’s achievements, nearly all of which she tries to manipulate, from telling her exactly how she has to behave and what her goals are, to buying the friendship of Kate’s circle of ‘friends’ with tickets to concerts. Her parenting has created in Kate a desperate need to fit in and be the best; the one others look to for guidance and who effortlessly draws attention to her with her perfection. It’s when she begins to realise that her feelings for Tam are making her behave in ways the world insists isn’t ‘normal’ that she begins to panic and shut out everything and everyone who risks exposing her as not the girl everyone believes her to be, just as she is getting to grips with understanding that she doesn’t want to be the person she’s being driven to be.

Tam has more people in her life who are supportive of her choices as she gradually realises the extent of her feelings for Kate, her mother in particular a stark contrast to the behaviour of Kate’s in accepting and feeling joyful about her daughter’s feelings without questioning them. She also has the support of her neighbours, who give her the space to reflect on her feelings and advise based on their own experiences, Frankie having travelled a path that many feel forced down. That Tam has this extended family network in her life makes her coming to terms with her own feelings easier than Kate’s experience, but she struggles with Kate’s behaviour and that of her friends, especially in that they seem superficial and vapid when together as a group, making Kate become a girl that she simply doesn’t know and can’t reconcile with how she sees her. For Kate’s sake more than her own, she tries to fit in with her social circle, but finds herself unable to share their interests or views, with these attempts ultimately ending badly when she can’t bring herself to sacrifice her principles or feelings. For Tam, based on her experience of the world, acceptance is a more simple thing than for Kate, whose life is full of illusions and suppressed emotions and desires that go beyond her feelings for Tam.

Redwood and Ponytail is a beautiful story and I’m not ashamed to say I was in tears at the end of it. It’s out today from Abrams and Chronicle! Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy! I would love to see more of Tam and Kate’s stories at some point in the future!