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Month: January 2021

Review: The Once and Future Queen by Clara O’Connor

Review: The Once and Future Queen by Clara O’Connor

‘Londinium, the last stronghold of the Romans left in Britannia, remains in a delicate state of peace with the ancient kingdoms that surround it. As the only daughter of a powerful merchant, Cassandra is betrothed to Marcus, the most eligible bachelor in the city.

But then she meets Devyn, the boy with the strange midnight eyes searching for a girl with magic in her blood.

When a mysterious sickness starts to leech the life from citizens with Celtic power lying dormant in their veins, the imperial council sets their schemes in motion. And so Cassandra must make a choice: the Code or Chaos, science or sorcery, Marcus or Devyn?’

Please be advised that the following review contains spoilers.

Cassandra is the daughter of a wealthy merchant, soon to complete her schooling, make a politically advantageous marriage, and have everything that she has been led to believe she ought to dream of. Unfortunately for her, she has lived her life in a very safe and rather spoiled bubble, which has never truly invited her to question the world around her, and when she begins to notice that which doesn’t fit with her view of society, she takes steps down paths that she cannot turn back from. Her world is not that which everyone experiences, the history she knows is not necessarily true, and even she may not be the person she has been led to believe she is.

The Once and Future Queen takes place in a future where the Roman system of governing is still firmly in place. As a Classicist, I found this an intriguing concept and, though not everything in this respect is accurate, that we live in a society that has so many features that can still be traced back to ancient civilisations, I enjoyed reading about a technologically advanced future with prominent Roman aspects. In terms of accuracy, you cannot expect a society that has developed over hundreds of years to absolutely still contain its original elements in their complete and unchanged entirety. I liked the contrast between technology and the aspects of society that it hasn’t managed to subsume, which may say more about human nature than our willingness to embrace science and tech. Both Roman history and that of the Britons in the story has been intertwined with myth and warped for creative purposes to create a universe-specific history (what Cassandra and others know of which may or may not be the whole truth as we go through the series, I’m sensing). I love reading about politics, and the matching system is something quite horrendous to entertain as a future, used essentially as a system of arranged marriages for genetics/economic prosperity/power and other elements I’m sure we don’t hear of, akin to the ancient system and one that we truly aren’t even a hundred years past at this point. Ultimately, I feel was most engaged in reading about the history of how society had developed and what links had been forged between those beyond the wall and not permitted outside the city in the name of a supposed peace, when it’s very evident that it is anything but.

I’m not sure whether the ages of the characters in the book have been adapted over drafts and edits, as I admit I wasn’t ever too sure exactly what age Cassandra is meant to be. When Devyn reveals his actual age and what he’s been doing for several years, it’s something that makes their relationship unsettling, if I’m honest. It’s made a little clearer late in the book that she’s in her twenties, but she is written as a young woman who behaves in a much more immature way. This said, given that The Once and Future Queen is set in a society where women appear to be shielded from society in some similar ways to the Roman source material, that she isn’t wise in the ways of the world or used to making her own choices of a more serious nature is not surprising. In more ways than one, she’s been brainwashed by her family and those around her – as is everyone else, it seems – and I hope we see develop a little more as the series unfolds. Her story and what different worlds want from her, in that she has been manipulated, suppressed and has the pressure of Devyn’s desperate belief in who she could be, makes for a read composed of twists and turns as different ‘truths’ come to light and more than one character has to decide which side they’re on and what they want out of life.

I will say that I found the last quarter of the book somewhat discomforting, in that one of the key plot points revolves around the fact that Cassandra is put under the influence of a device that alters her thoughts, feelings and essentially removes her body autonomy. It’s said that this is done routinely to couples in this universe, as love matches no longer exist with everyone matched by the Code, and to ensure that there is ‘affection’ and that couples sleep together, they’re first put under the influence of something that alters their personalities and interest in their partner, then drugged into wanting to. That Cassandra and Devyn’s first sexual encounter happens while she admits to being rather under the influence – and that her reaction afterwards is painted as immediate regret – simply doesn’t sit right and I’m afraid it coloured my reading of the book. Cassandra spends much of the last hundred pages unable to conclusively make her own choices, fooled into believing she is content with her life, which I think would have worked in a more comfortable manner were there not to be the question of physical intimacy with either of her potential partners.

All in all, I enjoyed the history, the politics and the technological features of society, but the romance didn’t really work for me. This said, I’ve mentioned before that I tend to find a lot of romances in YA fiction somewhat problematic, and I’m much more focused on political threads and societal commentary.

The Once and Future Queen is out on January 21st! Thank you, One More Chapter, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins

Review: Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins

Felipe is fat. And he doesn’t need anyone to remind him, which is, of course, what everyone does. That’s why he’s been waiting for summer: a break from school and the classmates who tease him incessantly. His plans include catching up on TV, finishing his TBR pile, and watching YouTube tutorials on skills he’ll never actually put into practice.

But things get a little out of hand when Felipe’s mom informs him that Caio, the neighbour kid from apartment 57, will be spending the next fifteen days with them while his parents are on vacation. Felipe is distraught because A) he’s had a crush on Caio since, well, for ever, and B) Felipe has a list of body image insecurities and absolutely NO idea how he’s going to entertain his neighbor for two full weeks.

Suddenly, the days ahead of him that once promised rest and relaxation (not to mention some epic Netflix bingeing) end up bringing a whirlwind of feelings, forcing Felipe to dive head-first into every unresolved issue he has had with himself – but maybe, just maybe, he’ll manage to win over Caio, too.’

Here the Whole Time opens with Filipe looking forward to a summer where he’ll no longer have to endure the torment of attending school, where his peers mock and bully him for being overweight, going out of their way to draw attention to what they think is wrong with his appearance and make assumptions about his lifestyle and who he is. Knowing that he’ll not have to interact with anyone he doesn’t choose to is a huge comfort that he’s been clinging to, but this is abruptly taken away from him when he’s informed by his mother that they’re going to have a house guest in the form of the boy from next door: Caio, who Filipe used to be friends and swim with when they were much younger – before his insecurities about his appearance and sexuality meant he no longer felt comfortable doing as he used to. Having Caio is such close quarters threatens to be a nightmare for Felipe, who is embarrassed about his hobbies and appearance… and a little bit in love with him from afar.

When Caio moves in, Felipe is panicked by numerous things, such as having to try and make conversation, which is something he struggles with, and being near to him in any way that might make what he perceives as his physical flaws more obvious. He expects Caio to be as judgemental as his classmates, but soon finds that they are not so dissimilar and that Caio too has worries of his own, for all he appears more outwardly confident about his sexuality. With encouragement and guidance from his therapist and his mother, he gradually opens up to Caio about his insecurities and learns that he isn’t the only one to suffer from such feelings – and that what he thinks of himself and has been reinforced by his peers isn’t true. As the two grow closer, he’s introduced to Caio’s friends and begins to build the confidence to stand up to those who have been tormenting him at school and well as to be more open about his interests and what he enjoys. Their relationship feels like a natural progression as they learn more about each other and try to be honest about their hopes and fears, while starting to share what they love and find more common ground. They’re respectful of each other’s boundaries and Caio is particularly patient with Felipe, knowing that his insecurities are no small thing to be cast aside so easily, and that what he sees in Felipe and what he feels about himself are two different things.

One of the things I really liked about Here the Whole Time is how supportive Felipe’s mother is of him, and how she very quickly realises that Caio may not have the same sort of relationship with his mother and would benefit from the same sort of affection that she shows her son. She doesn’t see Caio as just a boy she’s agreed to host and look after, but makes him part of her family and treats him as she does Felipe, encouraging him to join in with their traditions and things that she thinks he’ll enjoy. She has a good heart and it’s obvious that she wants what’s best for her son, while genuinely caring for Caio. There are times when she seeks to encourage Felipe to take steps that are outside his comfort zone in terms of socialising, yet she isn’t forceful or unkind in trying to expand his horizons, and is just as supportive of that which she knows he enjoys and what makes him happy. It’s obvious that she knows her son very well and it was lovely to see a parent in such a caring and loving role, when all too often books that have similar subject matter have a parent as a negative force (this is not to say that all the parents in Here the Whole Time are as supportive as she is), as can too frequently unfortunately be the case in reality.

Here The Whole Time is a cute and fun read, and a beautiful story, out on 21st January! Thank you to TeamBKMRK for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

‘The Iskat Empire rules its vassal planets through a system of treaties – so when Prince Taam, key figure in a political alliance, is killed, a replacement must be found. His widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with the disreputable aristocrat Kiem, in a bid to keep rising hostilities between two worlds under control. But Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and when Jainan himself is a suspect, he and Kiem must navigate the perils of the Iskat court, solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war.’

The following review contains SPOILERS for Winter’s Orbit.

Winter’s Orbit introduces the reader to Kiem, a royal without any real ‘royal’ duties or position to recommend him as more than one of what is implied to be a reasonably stable and large family, and Jainan, a scholar and widower of Kiem’s cousin Taam, married to secure a treaty and maintain his people’s position within a vast alliance. While Kiem is on the more notorious side of things for enjoying a somewhat wild lifestyle, Jainan is a relative unknown (save for in academic circles), seemingly defined by his marriage to Prince Taam and his supposed assimilation into Iskat society. Shortly after Taam’s death, Kiem is summoned by his grandmother, the Emperor, and informed that he will be marrying Jainan and that there is to be no argument about it, all for the sake of ensuring that politics and the security of the empire run smoothly. Thrown together, the two try to learn how to navigate their new relationship and their role in broader political circles, while dealing with the news that Taam’s death does not appear to have been so much of an accident as has been reported.

Jainan’s behaviour has, since his marriage to Taam, become largely influenced by the abuse he has suffered at the hands of his partner, in that he has done all that he can to put his own wants, needs and interests aside and completely ignore them, simply in the hope of surviving his marriage and not drawing negative attention towards Taam. Upon meeting him, Kiem misinterprets his behaviour as distaste for him and a reluctance to be involved with him really on any level, assuming that he is still grieving for a man he loved and cared for. Unfortunately for the both of them, Kiem is primarily concerned with not making Jainan uncomfortable and giving him the space he needs, often eliminating any opportunity for them to communicate properly, as he is initially unwilling to press about why particular behaviours or actions make Jainan retreat or shut down, determined that he shouldn’t upset him any further than their arranged marriage already appears to have.

Jainan is clearly devoted to his people, having surrendered much of who he is to ensure that the treaty remains in place and that he fulfils what he believes to be his duty. One of the details that I immediately thought of after having finished the novel is that which focused on his unpacking and just how little he owns, but most importantly what he has felt he has to do to the items from his clan. These, he has crammed into a tiny box and hidden away, which, if this isn’t a metaphor for what Jainan has done to himself, I don’t know what is. He is genuinely surprised when Kiem shows an interest and essentially tells him he should be able to do whatever he wishes with their quarters to make them feel like his too, and is stunned by the invitation to display his clan flag – and that Kiem is racing ahead to try and find one to make him comfortable. He is so entirely focused on making sure that he is ‘acceptable’ and not doing anything to step outside the boundaries of what he has been taught (by Taam) is appropriate, offering up everything from his body to any form of privacy, and this, combined with the snapshots of what we see of his relationship with Taam, just makes considering what he must have endured utterly heartbreaking. In this, perhaps Kiem’s kindness is his undoing. It isn’t, as Jainan can only assume, that he’s uninterested in him, or suspicious, or willing to use him, but that he so wants him to be comfortable and for their marriage to be one in which he can be fulfilled (even if that means there being no romantic relationship) that he doesn’t want to elbow his way any further into Jainan’s life and be seen as his keeper.

Winter’s Orbit reads in a manner akin to fanfiction (unsurprising, given its origins), and as someone who grew up reading fanfiction and is still a participant in fandom, when I say this it isn’t to be dismissive of the quality of writing – quite the opposite. It’s clear that the focus of the story itself is Jainan and Kiem, and while there is significant political worldbuilding (which is something I always love), the reader’s view never really expands much beyond them – which, in my opinion, is exactly right for the style of story Winter’s Orbit is. It’s a novel about them as individuals and their relationship first and foremost; too much ‘outside’ would detract from the impact of the tale. It includes some of the typical fanfiction tropes without seeming too cliche, and is, simply, a pleasure to read. Winter’s Orbit is set in a universe in which people may marry who they wish without societal remarks about gender or preference, with gender itself being something that people of Iskat can choose to indicate without inviting comments or judgement, with titles seeming to serve for all genders equally. Though the empire’s politics are certainly questionable in many respects, the wider universe suggests a future where today’s more judgemental attitudes are eliminated and people may be free to love and be who they choose to.

Out on February 2nd, Winter’s Orbit is a book to look out for! Thank you, Orbit Books, for sending me a copy for review.