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Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

‘Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, Al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world fifty years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be Al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and a familiar person from her past, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…’

A Master of Djinn is a fantastic read, with witty dialogue, vivid worldbuilding and delightful characters. It follows the adventures of Fatma, who works for a ministry that deals with magic and the supernatural, and what happens when she finds herself having to investigate the murder of a brotherhood who have seemingly been getting involved in that which they don’t really understand, nor have the ability to handle. She’s soon joined by Hadia, a new member of the ministry, and, assisted by her other colleagues and those she claims more personal (if uncertain) relationships with, it’s her duty to uncover who is responsible for the murder and put a stop to their increasing displays of power.

Fatma is a fun and clever character, her ready wit creating more than a few laugh out loud moments, her dialogue only one example of a whole cast of readable and varied characters. For all her pride in her achievements and progress, that she clashes with Hadia is an interesting facet of their working relationship, and it’s good that she gets called out for often treating her in the overprotective manner that they have both experienced from male colleagues who underestimate them. Fatma is not infallible and not perfect, particularly in these first encounters with Hadia, who expects better from her, being a woman who has been in the position that she is in, and seeing Fatma’s unconscious perceptions challenged directly are among some of the best scenes in the book. On the whole, she is confident in herself and has to learn to accept help on terms that may not be exactly that which she wants, and this is something that also impacts her personal life and her behaviour within relationships. She is less confident with the personal than she is with the professional, seemingly not willing to spend too long dwelling on her feelings, yet not at all unfeeling, and appears to be more nervous in situations that might lead to uncovering anything beyond the armour that she maintains to appear always capable and in control.

The magic and worldbuilding is clever and captivating, from the clockwork and more mechanical features of this alternate Cairo, to the way in which the ancient Egyptian gods are made very much part of a world that seems set on trying to forget them. The Cairo of A Master of Djinn feels very metropolitan, bright and bustling, but not without the problems of the time in which it is set – and of modern society – such as discrimination against particular faiths and peoples, which some attempt to address head-on, while others feel that they have no choice but to accept it. Siti’s comments in response to being openly and repeatedly discriminated against are especially heartbreaking in her flat refusal to let it get to her, demonstrating just how frequently it must be a part of her life. On a brighter note, there are some lovely conversations about faith, primarily focusing around Hadia, and other interesting explorations of what it is to believe and its impact both personal and otherwise. The world created within the novel feels very real, solid and believable, its fantastical elements incorporated in a way that finds matter of fact acceptance from the characters, and so encourages the same from the reader.

A Master of Djinn is out on August 19th and would be the perfect read for fans of crime fiction, fantasy books and historical novels alike. Thank you to Orbit Books for sending me a proof!

Review: XOXO by Axie Oh

Review: XOXO by Axie Oh

‘Jenny didn’t get to be an award-winning, classically trained cellist without choosing practice over fun. That is, until the night she meets Jaewoo. Mysterious, handsome, and just a little bit tormented, Jaewoo is exactly the kind of distraction Jenny would normally avoid. And yet, she finds herself pulled into spending an unforgettable evening wandering Los Angeles with him on the night before his flight home to South Korea.

With Jaewoo an ocean away, there’s no use in dreaming of what could have been. But when Jenny and her mother move to Seoul to take care of her ailing grandmother, who does she meet at the elite arts academy she’s just been accepted to? Jaewoo.

Finding the dreamy stranger who swept you off your feet in your homeroom is one thing, but Jaewoo isn’t just any student. Turns out, Jaewoo is a member of one of the biggest K-pop bands in the world. And like most K-pop idols, Jaewoo is strictly forbidden from dating anyone.

When a relationship means not only jeopardizing her place at her dream music school but also endangering everything Jaewoo’s worked for, Jenny has to decide once and for all just how much she’s willing to risk for love.’

XOXO is a fun read that would be perfect for adaptation into a K-Drama, and is one of the YA books that I’ve most enjoyed this year. The story follows Jenny, who is determined to follow the path she has set out for herself, which involves reaching one of the top universities to continue her studies of music and… what doesn’t sound like an awful lot of living or fun, her focus settled squarely on her academics. When she meets Jaewoo, she finds herself starting to question her choices, and when circumstances temporarily bring her and her mother to Seoul to take care of her grandmother, a new school and new friends begin to broaden her horizons and make her wonder whether she is essentially building a lonely life for herself. But is the alternative too big a risk to take, especially when it could cost her a place at her dream university – and Jaewoo and his friends everything that they have achieved in the spotlight?

The lives of Jaewoo and the XOXO band – and, by extension, very nearly everyone that they associate with – shine a light on the expectations of those who spend their lives in the media in Korea, and highlight the pressures that young stars are under and the rules that they are expected to follow. The one that impacts Jenny and Jaewoo’s relationship the most is the fact that he isn’t supposed to be involved with anyone, ostensibly so that he is seen to be prioritising his fans and seen as ‘available’, leaving him and others in his position with the choice of focusing on having the opportunity to use their talents or have any semblance of a personal life. It’s a world in which stars are judged harshly for any ‘mistakes’ that can cost them their careers, and in which anyone they are seen to be too fond of can become a target for negative comments from fans. As Jenny tries to learn to navigate this world and the impact her relationship with Jaewoo could have on not only their lives, but the lives of those around them, it’s clear that he is struggling with everything that fame has brought him, and though he cares very much for his band mates and enjoys performing, what else being part of XOXO means (such as the fact that he has to succeed to support his family) is not always easy for him to handle. References to his mental health are handled sensitively, as is that he is attending therapy, and the story also takes the opportunity to bring attention to the differences between how men and women are seen and treated in the media spotlight.

What gives the book its heart are the relationships between the characters, which aren’t always easy and don’t involve everybody getting along all the time, but it feel as if there is no-one truly nasty or malicious in the main cast, leaving the threats and pressures to be presented from the outside or media-brainwashed classmates, creating an interesting reflection of what it’s like to be in their shoes. Even when there are disagreements and misunderstandings, it still feels like they are on the same side, facing the same pressures, and ultimately understand what everyone is going through. They have each other’s backs and are supportive, trying to do what’s best in the best way that they can, even if it might not always be obvious or the easiest thing to do.

XOXO is out today! If you enjoy K-Dramas or have an interest in K-Pop, it’s definitely a book to look out for and would help brighten the summer. It’s a wonderful read with some lovely dialogue and a cast of characters that I hope we get to see again one day. Thank you to Harper360YA for sending me a copy!

Review: These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan

Review: These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan

‘Brie hates the Fae and refuses to have anything to do with them, even if that means starving on the street. But when her sister is sold to the sadistic king of the Unseelie court to pay a debt, she’ll do whatever it takes to get her back—including making a deal with the king himself to steal three magical relics from the Seelie court.

Gaining unfettered access to the Seelie court is easier said than done. Brie’s only choice is to pose as a potential bride for Prince Ronan, and she soon finds herself falling for him. Unwilling to let her heart distract her, she accepts help from a band of Unseelie misfits with their own secret agenda. As Brie spends time with their mysterious leader, Finn, she struggles to resist his seductive charm.

Caught between two dangerous courts, Brie must decide who to trust with her loyalty. And with her heart.’

These Hollows Vows follows Abriella (known as Brie for the most part) on her journey to attempt to rescue her sister, who has been sold into slavery in the world of the fae. Both Brie and Jas have been fending for themselves since they were young, with Brie doing her best to take on the role of protector and provider, with varying degrees of success. She finds herself an able thief, if not entirely certain of just how she manages to get away with what she does, and makes some questionable choices in the targets she chooses to steal from, but what she has of a moral code means she seems content with taking risks to ensure that those she cares for have enough to survive. In the battle between the faerie courts that she finds herself involved in, she has to learn to navigate a world of politics that she has little true information about and lots of different versions of stories instead, leaving her to attempt to work out who is telling her the truth – or the closest to the truth that she needs – that will let her get her sister back.

I enjoyed the political elements of These Hollow Vows, and learning about the relationship between the fae and humans, the latter considered important only insofar as concerns the fae’s survival. The fae have little regard for humans as individuals or beings with their own lives, hopes and dreams, and only entertain the idea of valuing humans until the point that they have got what they need from them. It’s indicated that to be bound to a faerie is to lose independence and worse, and though there are questionable attempts to dress it up romantically, this is only something that paints both of Brie’s romantic interests in unpleasant lights. Neither of them are ever really honest with her, and though Finn is perhaps more open in his indication of why he is not a good idea, Sebastian’s supposed ‘honest and caring’ attitude continues to fling up red flags throughout the book. No-one in the story can really be trusted to be truthful, not even Brie (whether with herself or with others), and it’s easy to see how, eventually, she has to try and make the best of a lot of bad options and try to live with the decisions she makes.

It seems that Brie’s biggest flaw is that she doesn’t ask enough questions, be they about herself or what is happening around her. She often fixates on the appearance (and there are many comments from others about her own) of those she is interested in and tends to avoid making sharp enquiries that might help her. This is not to say that she would necessarily get the answers she needs, and she might well not ask particular questions so as to avoid exposing what she doesn’t know and putting herself at further risk, but it sometimes feels as if there is a lot that she is more wilfully ignorant about, which is a bit at odds with her supposed skill as a thief. She is given quite a few leading, expository, statements from other characters that she doesn’t really follow up, though many of these are quite early in the narrative and seem more for the reader’s benefit than hers.

The use of prophecy or far-sight as a plot device is well executed, which makes the choices that more than one character makes in the second half of the novel all the more impactful and, I hope, promises that the effects of the decisions will be felt in the next book. If I’m honest, Brie’s task to obtain the magical objects reads as though it is responsible for the lulls in action in the story’s middle, and though it is clearly the device designed to keep her involved with both courts and keep her at the Seelie court, it feels less important than her plot threads with other characters, particularly the Unseelie. On the whole, the plot is sound, but there are moments when it is best to not study the behaviour of some characters too deeply, or the practicalities of how certain events unfold. It’s an enjoyable read, particularly in its conflict and secrets, and its more minor characters are well developed, each lending something to the story.

These Hollows Vows is a fun read for fans of the fae, though it struggles a little with exposition and pacing. There are plenty of unanswered questions and surprises by its conclusion, which make it easy to look forward to the second instalment, which is said to be arriving in 2022. Thank you to Hodder and Stoughton for sending me a copy for review.

Review: Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart

Review: Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart

‘The Earth’s resources are dwindling. The solution is the Sleep.

Inside a hibernating city, Ben struggles with his limited waking time and the disease stealing his wife from him. Watching over the sleepers, lonely Peruzzi craves the family he never knew.

Everywhere, dissatisfaction is growing.

The city is about to wake.’

Kings of a Dead World explores a Britain in which its inhabitants are only permitted to be awake for one month at a time, before they’re forcibly sedated again and sent into a deep sleep until the next month that they are permitted to be awake. This is ostensibly to preserve what remains of the world’s resources, though there are indications that the ‘sleepers’ aren’t told the whole truth – not that they have the power to do anything about their situation anything. The story primarily follows main characters: Ben, a former anarchist who is struggling with his wife’s worsening dementia, and Peruzzi, whose job it is to look after the city and its sleepers, and who is finding himself more and more dissatisfied with his life (or lack of one).

The system by which life operates for the average person in the city is extremely unsettling, largely because there now seems to be no true purpose to their lives and no free will. What can anyone really do with their lives when they are awake for only one month at a time? The average person doesn’t seem to work or have leisure activities, and looks only to be waiting until they are put to sleep again. Anyone believed to be causing a disturbance, or, in some cases, simply has elevated vital signs, can be and usually is immediately sedated by the system. This happens on more than one occasion to Rose, Ben’s wife, who has little memory of who she is and what is happening around her, and so often grows distressed enough that the system sedates her, which only perpetuates the cycle for her. Seeing what happens to Rose because of her illness is one of the elements of the book that is the most difficult to read, particularly as more of her past unfolds and it becomes quite evident that she has suffered for much of her life. It’s initially easy to sympathise with Ben, who seems to be trying to do the best he can for her, yet there are moments when his actions feel selfish and it can seem that he is acting out of a desire to make things more bearable for him (‘easier’ is not the word here) rather than what would be right for her.

Peruzzi’s life seems just as empty and no less under the control of forces that he doesn’t understand. From the outset, he doesn’t appear to relish his relative ‘freedom’ and finds it difficult to find joy or happiness in anything. He spends his life alone, with only technology for company, and while he relies on said technology for many things, he gradually begins to understand that it cannot be trusted in all respects. Sometimes, it’s as if he gets a kick out of his ‘absolute’ power, yet this is often short-lived or feels forced, and his interactions with actual people tend to leave him shocked or unable to comprehend the immediacy of life – something not surprising for an observer normally removed from supposed reality. His flippancy and attitude towards others makes him difficult to sympathise with, though he may well have simply survived with such limited contact for so long that he doesn’t really understand how to interact or empathise anymore.

Ben’s past is revealed through a series of ‘confessions’ he makes to one of the few residents of the city that he actually trusts, and with his past comes the path that led humanity to the ‘solution’ of the sleep and how the city has been manipulated into accepting its fate. It’s difficult to tell whether Ben ever actually believes that he is doing the right thing, especially as his group’s war against the establishment grows more and more bloody, for in moments he seems matter of fact about its accomplishments, and uncertain about his choices in others, his memories undoubtedly coloured by what he has learned since the days of his youth. The structure here is incredibly effective, especially as it often makes the reader reconsider what they may feel about more than one of the characters.

Kings of a Dead World is an effective, impactful and often unsettling read that feels not too distant from our own world in its politics and most pressing challenges. Many thanks to Sandstone Press for sending me a copy for review.

Review: Notes from The Burning Age by Claire North

Review: Notes from The Burning Age by Claire North

‘Ven was once a holy man, a keeper of ancient archives. It was his duty to interpret archaic texts, sorting useful knowledge from the heretical ideas of the Burning Age–a time of excess and climate disaster. For in Ven’s world, such material must be closely guarded so that the ills that led to that cataclysmic era can never be repeated.

But when the revolutionary Brotherhood approaches Ven, pressuring him to translate stolen writings that threaten everything he once held dear, his life will be turned upside down. Torn between friendship and faith, Ven must decide how far he’s willing to go to save this new world–and how much he is willing to lose.’

Notes From the Burning Age takes place in the world that has grown out of the disasters caused by humankind’s focus on advances in technology, especially destructive features of science that can be used to harm the earth, animals and people. The arrogance of society in believing that it is possible to gain control over nature through technology and adamantly refusing to believe that science can have negative consequences for the natural world leads humankind to build and build, until, according to Temple scripture, creatures called kakuy rose from the land and sought to destroy humans for their hubris. Since then, there remains some debate as to whether the kakuy were a punishment for humankind or a blessing that attempted to restore the earth to how it should be. Fragments of what is now known as the Burning Age remain, in old technology and data that is carefully controlled or no longer understood, and while some humans acknowledge that it is this technology that almost led to their destruction, others appear set on making the same mistakes again and are determined to gain control through whatever means necessary. Notes from the Burning Age is a sharp look at modern society and the patterns of behaviour that humankind inevitably appears to repeat, including elements of our own nature that we seem unable to overcome.

The idea of the kakuy and whether or not they exist is something else that divides the characters – often less whether they truly exist and more whether they are willing to admit that they do. It’s interesting that the reader sees events from Ven’s point of view, and Ven has more than one encounter with a kakuy, yet, given Ven’s beliefs, it is only natural that he would have absolute faith in what he sees and interpret it in a particular way (at least, more towards the beginning of the novel), and so bring the reader into this manner of seeing and thinking too. Others ‘see’ them and insist that they never have, largely for reasons personal to them or particular to their politics, while some believe that their awakening is humankind’s punishment and are respectful not only in religious ways, and the conflict between the different beliefs and interpretations of world events makes the reader begin to wonder whether the kakuy are mankind’s way of explaining away what they have done to the world, or whether they really exist.

Ven’s world is one which seems on the precipice of making the mistakes that have led to the necessity of the creation of new societies and ways of living. Those who are in search of the information from before the disasters are fixated on advances in technology that will allow them to arm themselves and gain power through the threatened destruction of others, having seemingly learned nothing from the mistakes of the past. Their reasoning sometimes leans into accusations that the information that is being protected is being hoarded for the wrong reasons, yet they show no interest in anything except that which could be useful for destructive purposes – and that the information should be shared simply because they don’t like the fact that those with different beliefs have it. Ven’s experience with the various factions and their interactions only serves to highlight that, though one may appear to or suggest that they have better intentions than the others, ultimately there is no singular group that can have the best intentions for the whole of humankind. Even Ven himself finds himself swayed towards particular people and ideas more than once, only further highlighting humankind’s fragility.

Notes from the Burning Age is a brilliant and thought-provoking read that is difficult to put down. A fascinating look at human nature and our relationships with each other and the world around us. Thank you, Orbit Books, for sending me a copy for review.

Review: The Forevers by Chris Whitaker

Review: The Forevers by Chris Whitaker

‘They knew the end was coming. They saw it ten years back, when it was far enough away in space and time and meaning.

The changes were gradual, and then sudden.

For Mae and her friends, it means navigating a life where action and consequence are no longer related. Where the popular are both trophies and targets. And where petty grudges turn deadlier with each passing day. So, did Abi Manton jump off the cliff or was she pushed? Her death is just the beginning of the end.

With teachers losing control of their students and themselves, and the end rushing toward all of them, it leaves everyone facing the answer to one, simple question…

What would you do if you could get away with anything?’

The Forevers is a story that looks at the experience of a group of young people in the final month of their lives, for they and the rest of the world knows that humans are soon to be wiped out by the arrival of an asteroid – that has been named Selena – that will crash into the Earth. Society has had ten years to try and come to terms with the impending extinction of the human race and has made numerous attempts to try and divert or destroy the asteroid, but time has now run out and there is nothing to be done. Not all hope has been lost, but it is in short supply, and there are those who are capitalising on the building of bunkers and other supposed survival strategies, while others use the impending end as an excuse to behave as they wish without the threat of consequences. For Mae and her friends, life has become about what boundaries they can push, shifting social hierarchies, and trying to find meaning in their lives before Selena arrives. The Forevers addresses a number of difficult and sensitive topics, and isn’t an easy read in parts, but it is one that very swiftly draws the reader in and becomes difficult to put down. It’s particularly interesting in its structure and use of flashbacks, including how information about the past and the situation surrounding Abi Manton is slowly revealed.

Mae’s devotion to her sister, Stella, is one of the most prominent threads of the narrative and seems to be the stability that she returns to time after time, as everything and everyone else around her starts to slip out of control (including her own habits and risk taking). Her interactions with her little sister are different to those she has with others, the more despairing side of herself hidden so that she can lend a sense of safety and reassurance to her, which is something that she doesn’t appear to have experienced since the deaths of their parents. She does her best to be a mother to Stella, and their scenes were among my favourite of the book. It’s through Mae and Stella that the reader learns something of the past too, including the various Saviour missions that have been sent to try and destroy Selena before it reaches Earth. Even knowing that Selena is still on-course and the end is inevitable from the very beginning of the story – and therefore none of the Saviours can have worked – there is a sense of hope with what is learned about each one, much like that which the characters would have experienced, only to have this swiftly dashed when errors are made and plans don’t work.

It’s interesting how society in The Forevers tries to maintain a sense of normalcy and there seems to be encouragement to continue as if nothing is different, which, on the surface, feels as if it would be unlikely, yet may well be exactly what the young people in the story need to cope with what is approaching and how they feel about their inevitable fate and that of those around them. This is not to say that everyone involved in aiming to maintain this structure is successful, for many of the adults in the story do anything but set a good example for those in their care and in-fact have been falling prey to the darker side of their natures for many, many years before the immediacy of Selena’s arrival begins to have a bigger impact on mental health. There are few good examples for Mae and her friends to look to for support, and, in many instances, it feels as if the younger generation is handling the idea of their rapidly approaching deaths better than the adults – or perhaps it’s that the adults are so used to exercising a sense of power and control that, when faced with defiance and their own crumbling stability, they are less able to adapt.

The Forevers is out today from Hot Key Books! Thank you to the publisher for sending me a proof copy for review.

Review: Wendy, Darling by A. C. Wise

Review: Wendy, Darling by A. C. Wise

‘For those that lived there, Neverland was a children s paradise. No rules, no adults, only endless adventure and enchanted forests all led by the charismatic boy who would never grow old. But Wendy Darling grew up. She has a husband and a young daughter called Jane, a life in London. But one night, after all these years, Peter Pan returns. Wendy finds him outside her daughter’s window, looking to claim a new mother for his Lost Boys. But instead of Wendy, he takes Jane. Now a grown woman, a mother, a patient and a survivor, Wendy must follow Peter back to Neverland to rescue her daughter and finally face the darkness at the heart of the island.’

Wendy, Darling is a brilliant and haunting retelling of the Peter Pan story, focusing on what happened to Wendy after her return from Neverland. While her brothers are soon able to put Neverland behind them and begin to dismiss it as a fantasy, this is something that Wendy finds herself unwilling and unable to do, which leads to her eventual admittance to an institution, where she has to learn to survive and what it will take for her to retain some sense of self in the face of those who only want her to conform. When she is eventually brought back into society, her troubles are far from over, for after spending years trying to build a life for herself and her new family, Peter Pan returns. Except, upon discovering her adult self, it isn’t Wendy that he wants. It’s her daughter, Jane, who he steals away to Neverland.

The novel’s re-imagining of Neverland is a dark, twisted and dangerous place, manipulated by a boy who seems to utterly lack empathy and any understanding of the needs of others – or anything that isn’t exactly what he wishes. Here, Peter Pan is transformed from the innocent, fun-loving character that the reader may remember from various childhood stories, and into a creature that feels as if it is made of the grim realities of adulthood and the shadows of the inability to believe in the magic and whimsical realities that children can. To a child’s eyes, Peter Pan is joyful and magical, and Neverland a dreamy escape, while to an adult, Peter Pan – this Peter Pan – is a stealer of children and an invitation to all sorts of dangers. He is manipulative and wilfully ignorant in his supposed innocence, willing to hurt and lash out at anyone who argues with him or is a threat to his fun and games, needing child subjects to be admired by and opportunities to demonstrate his power over them.  He is utterly frightening in this incarnation, simply because the reader can see exactly what he is doing and so many of the lost boys cannot, and though the novel is a retelling, it also feels absolutely as if it isn’t – as if this is the Neverland we simply didn’t notice when we were younger.

Much of the book centres around the idea of family, starting with Wendy’s relationship with her brothers and the trauma they experience owing to Neverland and the reality of war, going from play-fighting to suffering from PTSD in the wake of being very real soldiers. They hardly seem to know how to help themselves, let alone Wendy, and while poor choices are made on her behalf, they appear to be trying to do their best by her – and she is ultimately more forgiving than some may think they deserve. But they are her family, and while not by choice initially, it feels as if she does choose them by the story’s end, just as she chooses who is a part of the family formed by her marriage.

She and her husband, Ned, make the decision to build a friendship in a marriage that wouldn’t have been a first choice for either of them, and are as open as they can be – as much as Wendy can manage – about their relationship and who they are, both as individuals and together. Their family includes Mary, a friend, sister and perhaps more, and their daughter, Jane, who is loved by all of them. While they are happy together, Wendy’s father-in-law is the blight on their lives, his expectations and judgemental nature causing them all to take precautions about being too much of themselves around him. In returning to Neverland to rescue Jane, Wendy brings the facets of herself that society would have her suppress to the fore: her cleverness, her heart and her strength as a woman and a mother, and with them a greater understanding of herself, her relationships and all that she’s endured and wants for herself and those she loves.

Wendy, Darling is a beautiful, fantastically written book, and a powerful story that grabs you and won’t let go. Thank you, Titan Books, for sending me a copy!

Review: Pumpkin by Julie Murphy

Review: Pumpkin by Julie Murphy

‘Waylon Russell Brewer is a fat, openly gay boy stuck in the small West Texas town of Clover City. His plan is to bide his time until he can graduate, move to Austin with his twin sister, Clementine, and finally go Full Waylon so that he can live his Julie-the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music-Andrews truth.

So when Clementine deviates from their master plan right after Waylon gets dumped, he throws caution to the wind and creates an audition tape for his favorite TV drag show, Fiercest of Them All. What he doesn’t count on is the tape getting accidentally shared with the entire school… As a result, Waylon is nominated for prom queen as a joke. Clem’s girlfriend, Hannah Perez, also receives a joke nomination for prom king.

Waylon and Hannah decide there’s only one thing to do: run-and leave high school with a bang. A very glittery bang. Along the way, Waylon discovers that there is a lot more to running for prom court than campaign posters and plastic crowns, especially when he has to spend so much time with the very cute and infuriating prom king nominee Tucker Watson.

Waylon will need to learn that the best plan for tomorrow is living for today… especially with the help of some fellow queens.’

Pumpkin is set is the same universe as Dumplin’ and Puddin’ and follows Waylon, who is a big fan of drag and drag reality TV shows, and is looking forward to the near future in which he feels he can fully embrace who he is, once he and Clementine, his twin sister, leave town for university. But when Clem decides that going to the university that they’ve agreed on isn’t necessarily she wants, his plans and his feelings about the future are thrown into disarray.

The book has a lovely cast of supportive characters, particularly Waylon and Clementine’s parents and their grandmother, and though his uncertainties sometimes lead him to think that that he is being left behind and it sometimes takes others pointing out the positives of the relationships in his life to realise what he has, Waylon quite clearly loves his family and values them, just as they love him. It’s his grandmother who has given him the nickname that he chooses to transform into his drag name, and is a delightfully funny and warm-hearted character. It’s wonderful to see families like Waylon’s in YA literature and the scenes that involved his family were among my favourites of the story. However, while his family may support Waylon in his choices and encourage him to make decisions that are best for him, this is not to say that the novel shies away from exploring the impact of discrimination and the fact that there are those who do not have a supportive family and friends like his. This is handled sensitively, with the discrimination that some of the characters suffer painted plainly for what it is: unacceptable and not to be tolerated.

Waylon’s relationship with his twin sister is a close and supportive one, though it has some of the signs of him being a little too dependent on it at times, and he is heartbroken when he discovers that she has been considering options other than going to the same university as him. He acknowledges that their relationship is co-dependent and doesn’t seem entirely sure what to do about it, and while he says he considers Clem in the decisions that he makes, he is incredibly hurt that she hasn’t shared her feelings about university with him or told him that she has been planning to potentially set aside their plans and follow a path that doesn’t involve him in her life as much as he is now. It takes him some time to come to terms with her decision and why it unsettles him so much, but it’s good to see them eventually start to talk about it properly and see Waylon start to try and figure out what he wants for himself – and whether going to university is actually what he wants, rather than what is ‘expected’ of a student of his age. He acknowledges early on in the story that being in drag feels as if it’s just another part of himself and not a performance, and this is one of several realisations he has about aspects of his life and who he wants to be over the course of the book, and by the novel’s conclusion it really feels as if he is more in touch with his own emotions than he is at its beginning.

Pumpkin is a fun, inclusive and body-positive read that is not only a sweet story, but looks at some of the issues facing young people about to take their steps towards a more independent future. Though it’s part of the Clover City universe and there are the previous two books in the series, it can be read as a standalone, as the characters from the other novels make cameo appearances that don’t require the reader to have a comprehensive understanding of their stories. Thank you, Harper360 YA, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Review: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

‘Izumi Tanaka has lived an uneventful seventeen years in her small town, keenly aware of all the ways in which her family is different from most of her classmates’. But then Izumi discovers a clue to her previously unknown father’s identity… and he’s none other than the Crown Prince of Japan.

Soon she’s traveling overseas to meet the father she never knew and discover the country she’s only dreamed of. But being a princess isn’t all ball gowns and tiaras. There are conniving cousins, a hungry press, a scowling but handsome bodyguard who just might be her soulmate, and thousands of years of tradition and customs to learn practically overnight. Izzy soon finds herself caught between worlds, and between versions of herself-back home, she was never “American” enough, and in Japan, she must prove she’s “Japanese” enough. Will Izumi crumble under the weight of the crown, or will she live out her fairytale, happily ever after?’

Tokyo Ever After is a lovely book with a lot of heart, its dialogue fresh and delightfully real, and while it is a bright and often humorous book, it doesn’t shy away from looking at more serious issues, such as identity, belonging and family. It reads as a fairytale with a hope for a happily ever after from the beginning, which is one of the things that makes it such an enjoyable book and one I would recommend as a perfect summer read.

Izumi’s journey to Japan brings not only her father into her life, but all that being his daughter means, including titles and the need to behave in a particular way in the spotlight, her life suddenly one that is very interesting to a media that is always on the lookout for the most minute of mistakes from the royal family. While her father does have expectations of her, it’s clear from the start that he genuinely cares for Izumi and wants to get to know her – and what’s best for her – and isn’t set on completely transforming her into someone she isn’t. He tries to help her and he is forgiving when she makes mistakes, knowing that she’s trying her best, and ultimately doesn’t want her to leave for any other reason than he would be losing his daughter again. He aims to be a good father even while he’s still learning, and it’s nice to see him and Izumi exploring in what ways their family might not be so typical as expected, and so how their own relationship may not need to be so heavily influenced by protocol and expectations.

This is not to say that the family Izumi meets in Japan is entirely welcoming, for she finds some of them hostile and unyielding when it comes to her identity, determined to prove to her that she isn’t one of them and never will be. However, they are not without troubles of their own and are likewise targets of a media that wants to delight in their failure or suffering. Unfortunately for Izumi, while trying to navigate the politics and relationships of the royalty that is her family, who could be a friend and who might be a foe is never quite clear to her, worried as she is about making bigger mistakes and trying to fit in.

One of the narrative threads that I loved was the idea that Izumi’s father is still in love with her mother and hasn’t ever quite let go of the memory of her. Though he has put his duty to his family and country first, he continues to keep reminders of her close to him, such as the flowers that she loves, and his affection for her is quite clear in what interactions they have. It isn’t that Izumi’s life isn’t full without her parents being together, or that she hasn’t had a proper family, but that her parents might become a couple after so many years apart – time that they have obviously spent still thinking of each other – is another part of the fairytale happy ending that it feels they all deserve. Izumi’s own romance is a sweet story that feels like a natural growing together after moving beyond each other’s defences and finding common ground, and while they may have not known each other for very long, their relationship reads as the beginnings of a solid partnership.

If you’re looking for a modern fairytale with family at its heart and a cast of characters to care for (I hope this isn’t the last we see of them!), Tokyo Ever After should be top of your list for a warm and heartfelt read. Thank you to My Kinda Book for sending me a copy!

Review: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

Review: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

‘One is a vengeful princess seeking to depose her brother from his throne.

The other is a priestess searching for her family.

Together, they will change the fate of an empire.

Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in the Hirana: an ancient temple that was once the source of powerful magic – but is now little more than a decaying ruin.

Priya is a maidservant, one of several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the Hirana every night to attend Malini’s chambers. She is happy to be an anonymous drudge, as long as it keeps anyone from guessing the dangerous secret she hides. But when Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled…’

The Jasmine Throne is an excellent read, especially if you enjoy complex politics and the exploration of human nature. None of the characters seem ever to be truly one thing or the other and there is nothing so simple as good and evil in the story (except for Malini’s brother, in my opinion), with actions and intent in shades of grey perceived depending on alliances and beliefs that may or may not survive. Everyone has their secrets and deliberately presents themselves in specific ways to different faces and depending on the situation, to the extent that it feels difficult to trust many of the characters or feel secure in understanding them, which makes for a wonderfully unpredictable journey. To single out one character, it was Bhumika who I found to be a surprise, for though there is clear evidence of her loyalty and strength, I was never certain how far she was willing to go for the cause.

The relationship between the former temple children is a particularly interesting one, especially the shifts in supposed power and what each of them is willing to do to help their people and restore them to how they believe it should be. Bhumika has perhaps played the most strategic game, intent on assisting those that she can by concealing the depth of her strength behind a cultivated kindness and a marriage for which she has surrendered much. It feels as if Priya has almost the least success in concealing her true herself, for though she has managed to hide her gifts, she reads as the most open-hearted of the cast and the most generous with whatever she has to hand, whether that is sacred wood for the children suffering from the rot, or her time and energy. Ashok is presented as the more reckless of them, driven by desperation and fury, and while it seems that he is a threat to his sisters and others, he ultimately doesn’t seem able to navigate the world as well as Bhumika and Priya, his rage something that makes him dangerous and simultaneously only the greatest risk to himself.

Malini is a delightfully complex character and unapologetic about who she is and what she wishes to achieve. She takes no issue with using those around her as and when she can, yet she is not entirely without conscience, as blind to it as she seems very determinedly to be. Those around her are assessed for their usefulness, especially Priya in the first instance, who, being less adept at hiding her feelings, is someone she appears to find easy to read. Even imprisoned and drugged as she is, she refuses to become a victim (though there are times when it seems she is play-acting the part), and is quite plainly biding her time until an opportunity presents itself. Though Priya’s strength of character and her more magical abilities are well established by the time Malini begins to set her newest plan in motion, it’s easy to feel anxious about just what Priya is stepping into by creating her alliance with her. This said, neither of them are entirely honest with each other, unable to afford the risk of unveiling the true extent of their natures, and, as the narrative unfolds, there’s more than one instance that leaves the reader wondering which of them is manipulating the other – and which of them is doing this more successfully.

The Jasmine Throne is a brilliantly immersive read, its world-building rich and tangible, and its politics and societies thoroughly engaging and grounded in an exploration of complex morals and ethics. I very much look forward to the next books in the Burning Kingdoms trilogy and highly recommend it for fans of fantasy and those with an interest in reading about the complexities and impact of conflict. Thank you, Orbit Books, for sending me a proof for review!