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Review: The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

Review: The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

‘Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.

Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.

Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.’

The Unbroken is a fantastic read and one that I really enjoyed and look forward to reading future instalments of. I’m a huge fan of books that explore politics and history (or what is not yet truly history), and combined with its characters and setting, it’s easily one of my favourite reads of the year. It does take quite a while for the plot to get going, but without that which comes before some of the more serious events and twists in the narrative, it would rob these moments of their impact, and so while the pacing is a little inconsistent at times, I did like that events don’t simply charge ahead, but that time is spent more directly on character exploration and development.

The relationship between Luca and Touraine is one that it’s not easy to feel immediately or consistently comfortable with, owing largely to their power imbalance and an understanding that Luca is less frequently led by her feelings than Touraine is. There are times where it seems that Touraine could be dangerously expendable to the woman she is developing feelings for – and not only because Luca’s politics, but because Touraine herself doesn’t often appear to hold her own life in too high a regard. This is something impacted by her upbringing and what she is learning about her past; her questioning what she has done, in whose name, and what she feels about those who have and have had almost complete control over her life and what she has been taught to think. Their romance is perhaps not fully developed in this first book, but I liked that their power imbalance is specifically addressed in instances where Luca makes it clear that sex is not an expectation she has, and that if Touraine wants her, she wants it to be purely what she wants and for no other reason. The situations they find themselves in don’t allow for a great deal of openness or honesty, and I hope that we get to see more discussions between them in the next books.

Touraine is a conflicted – and conflicting – character, who spends much of the narrative with her loyalties pulled in so many different directions that it feels as if it simply isn’t safe to make assumptions about her or what she will do next, and this is one of the features of the story that I loved. She doesn’t always make what some might consider the smart or right decision, but she is living a life in which there are increasingly few ‘good’ decisions that she can make that won’t have consequences that she can’t anticipate due to the murky nature of the loyalties and politics of those around her. Paired with the fact that she finds herself in situations she hasn’t been in before, with personal feelings and identity involved, and she is having to make choices based on information she doesn’t necessarily have the whole (or the truth) of, and with emotions she isn’t sure she can trust further complicating matters. It feels like who Touraine wants to, could, and should be (in the eyes of more than one group of others) are all different people, and it’s no wonder that she has trouble treading the line between them, especially when she is all too frequently reminded that her best may never be good enough in the eyes of any one group or person – that to some, she is nothing more than a tool, and for others someone they need, but not exactly as they want.

I admittedly found it difficult to want to support Luca for much of the time, for though there were moments where I sympathised with her, I couldn’t really consider her motives to be ones that are easy to get behind. There are occasions where there seem to be flashes of her gaining a greater understanding of the world around her and the situation she’s in, yet it ultimately feels as if she is too much out for her own gains and willing to use those around her as and when needed. I don’t need to like a character for them to be a good character, so this isn’t to say that I don’t think she is well written – and I do wonder if the reader is meant to ‘like’ her at all, given her politics and lapses in consideration for others. Luca’s lack of understanding of her own actions and what they look like to the people she is trying(?) to support are an accurate portrayal of what has gone on through the ages and continues to this day; she just doesn’t understand why things aren’t as simple as she wants them to be and that she is more likely to be part of the problem than the solution. She feels that she is suffering and therefore can understand the suffering of others, which is a big assumption to make, and doesn’t ever really quite grasp that her world of privilege and power is one that causes damage, frustration seeming to edge her behaviour when she isn’t immediately trusted or gets her way because she claims to have ‘good’ or ‘different’ intentions compared to the rest of her people.

The Unbroken is out today! Thank you to Orbit Books for sending me a copy for review!

Blog Tour: The Key to Fear by Kristin Cast

Blog Tour: The Key to Fear by Kristin Cast

‘Elodie obeys The Key. Elodie obeys the rules. Elodie trusts in the system. At least, Elodie used to…

Aiden is a rebel. Aiden doesn’t do what he’s told. Aiden just wants to be free. Aiden is on his last chance…

After a pandemic wiped out most of the human race, The Key took power. The Key dictate the rules. They govern in order to keep people safe. But as Elodie and Aiden begin to discover there is another side to The Key, they realise not everything is as it seems.

Rather than playing protector, The Key are playing God.’

The Key to Fear is a rather frighteningly relevant book that explores what the world (or, in this case, a particular section of the world) could be like in the wake of a global pandemic. After the Cerberus virus has decimated the world’s population, the society built on what remains is now ruled by the Key, who decide everything from work assignments (decided in citizens’ teen years), to what everyone eats, which is no longer proper meals. People are forbidden to touch and are told repeatedly throughout their day, in one way or another, that this is for the sake of their future health, and all are encouraged (expected…) to activate a shield that keeps them separate from others whenever they go outside. The Key to Fear is written from multiple points of view, but, for the sake of this review, I’m going to be sticking with Elodie and what the reader sees of the world through her.

One of its most interesting aspects is an almost complete reliance on technology and virtual reality for communication and leisure activities, which could all too easily become our future, pandemic aside. Elodie and much of the rest of the cast use virtual reality to ‘meet up’ with each other and find it rather strange when they ever get together to do activities in the ‘real’. While VR offers them the opportunity to experience places and activities that they might otherwise never get the chance to, Elodie herself believes it to be a rather empty and lifeless way of seeing the world, knowing full-well that she is physically always in a safe place and can’t be hurt or die in VR. However, this has become the norm, and it would seem that socialising in general has suffered for it, as, though Elodie doesn’t appear to much enjoy the company of others, there’s little evidence to suggest young people have much interaction with one or two people outside their family. While I think it’s evident that people have found virtual meetups for work and other aspects of their lives quite a poor and increasingly frustrating substitute for actual interaction during the pandemic we’re living through, that we were more and more using technology to communicate instead of meeting up and going outside before the pandemic happened has been clear in the rising damage to mental health that things such as social media are causing, and not only to young people. In this respect, were/are we really as distant from Elodie’s reality as we would like to think?

On the subject of family, if Elodie’s is anything like the norm, the Cerberus virus has had a huge impact on familial interaction. It’s stated that children are no longer created in the usual way, for that would involve human contact, and are instead grown in labs and sent home with a ‘carebot’ to look after them for the first four years of their lives. Given that the first four years are crucial to a child’s social and emotional development, that there is a vast distance between Elodie and her overly critical, self-obsessed and outright emotionally abusive mother is not surprising, even taking into consideration that her mother plainly doesn’t know how to treat her with affection or see her as anything other than imperfect. It would seem more that families are now a collection of people who are genetically related living together in the same house, rather than what we would hope for today. People are matched by the Key with someone deemed appropriate for them, and it’s implied that to reject that match is to be socially outcast.

Despite knowing she shouldn’t, Elodie has literature that she hasn’t handed over to the Key, in which she reads about human behaviour that she has never seen or experienced, such as romance and adventure. Though she has a match and keeps trying to convince herself that she is in love with him, she knows that she isn’t, particularly as he seems as judgemental as her mother and blindly faithful to what the Key wishes without questioning a thing (oh, and he takes great pleasure in violence). It’s what she reads in her books that helps her to identify that her feelings for him are not what she wants them to be – even if the romance she reads is somewhat over the top – and that what she experiences with Aiden is much closer to an actual human connection…

The Key to Fear was released on November 5th and is available from booksellers across the country. Current times make it a particularly haunting read, especially as regards the impact of politics, technology and corporations on our lives, and I look forward to reading future instalments. Thank you, Head of Zeus, for sending me a copy and inviting me to be part of the blog tour.

Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

‘Everyone loses something to the Tox; Hetty lost her eye, Reese’s hand has changed, and Byatt just disappeared completely.

It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put in quarantine. The Tox turned the students strange and savage, the teachers died off one by one. Cut off from the mainland, the girls don’t dare wander past the school’s fence where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure as the Tox takes; their bodies becoming sick and foreign, things bursting out of them, bits missing.

But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her best friend, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie in the wilderness past the fence. As she digs deeper, she learns disturbing truths about her school and what else is living on Raxter Island. And that the cure might not be a cure at all…’

Firstly, I feel I should say that horror really isn’t my thing, but I’d heard good things about Wilder Girls and wanted to give it a read. This said, that horror really isn’t something that I particularly enjoy reading did colour my experience of the book and is probably one of the biggest reasons why I’m not terribly sure about it. On the one hand, I think it is written well in terms of the exploitation of language and structure, being that the sentence structures appear to follow a more abrupt train of instinct and thought, yet the overall pacing and arc is something that left me quite confused.

I may be completely misinterpreting the suggestions behind the Tox, especially as there is no clear evidence in the narrative that this was the definite intention (particularly as the Tox can be passed from women and to the general population/other creatures/etc), but my first inferences about it were that it was being used as a literary device – an extended metaphor, as it were – to scorn the long-held male belief that, in going through puberty and becoming women, girls become unpredictable and dangerous, akin to witches. This may well be my studies of Classical literature colouring my perception of the novel, but the emphasis on the Tox only impacting girls when they go through puberty and has fewer effects on women post-menopause seemed to go hand in hand with the Ancient Greek suggestion that young women are a threat, not to be trusted and possessed of something like magical powers. In the Tox being something that twists and turns the girls into unrecognisable creatures, in some cases, appeared to me to be mocking the idea that this is what men accuse women of being, often blaming our hormones when we behave in ways they don’t like, but, as said, I’m not sure that this interpretation holds too much merit, as there seems to be no definite conclusion about the links between puberty and the Tox, given that it’s also said to have been adapting the other flora and fauna (and also completely transforms more than one male character).

Wilder Girls is told from the point of view of Hetty, then her friend Byatt, who is subject to medical testing to explore the effects of the Tox (whether there are attempts to find a cure are truly debatable, given what happens to her). The girls’ school is surrounded by woods, the quarantine and fear of the forest things that are reminiscent of ‘Never Let Me Go’, especially in the dehumanisation of the girls by those who are supposed to be attempting to help them and the behaviour of the headmistress. Struggling to survive on what little they are sent, the girls have tried to continue to maintain some semblance of order, yet, as it to be expected, the social hierarchy determines much of their day to day lives, and they are not beyond physically fighting to get what they want when necessary, the lines between the desire to survive and wish to keep loved ones alive blurring unpredictably with no-one but themselves to enforce order (the remaining adults more or less leave them to govern themselves, beyond manipulating the hierarchy for their own means).

In my opinion, the reader doesn’t particularly get to know either Hetty or Byatt very well, which is one of the reasons I felt that I wasn’t entirely sure of motivations or what drives them. It becomes evident quite early on, by her own admission, that Byatt is an unreliable narrator and cannot be trusted to believe even her own feelings or intent, and while this serves to further distance the reader, her experiences are not something that fail to elicit sympathy. Hetty’s determination to find Byatt and understand the truth of what is going on in the world beyond the school and what, if anything, is being done to help them, is admirable, her determination and lack of forethought or specific planning exactly what one might expect of a young person pushed to the edge and set on surviving when everything that they can depend on has proven itself unreliable and turned its back.

Wilder Girls is a good read with a frightening premise, but, for me, the Tox itself wasn’t the most horrifying feature of the narrative. In its examination of what we’re willing to do to survive and steps we could take against other humans to protect ourselves, I feel it was all the more haunting. Thank you, Macmillan Children’s Books, for the copy to review!

Review: The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli

Review: The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli

‘At the end of one world, there always lies another.

Safire, a soldier, knows her role in this world is to serve the King of Firgaard-helping to maintain the peace in her oft-troubled nation.

Eris, a deadly pirate, has no such conviction. Known as The Death Dancer for her ability to evade even the most determined of pursuers, she possesses a superhuman ability to move between worlds.

When one can roam from dimension to dimension, can one ever be home? Can love and loyalty truly exist?

Then Safire and Eris-sworn enemies-find themselves on a common mission: to find Asha, the last Namsara.

From the port city of Darmoor to the fabled faraway Sky Isles, their search and their stories become threaded ever more tightly together as they discover the uncertain fate they’re hurtling towards may just be a shared one. In this world, and the next.’

The Last Namsara and The Caged Queen number among my favourite books and I’ve so been looking forward to The Sky Weaver (while also being sad that it’s the last book in this world and with these characters). I’m pleased to say that it was the same high quality that I’ve come to expect from this series and I loved the continuing structural device of using history/mythology between chapters set in the present to augment the story and reveal more of the world to the reader ahead of the moments in which threads draw together for the characters, ensuring the significance of these moments is not lost.

Safire is a character we’ve met before and is the commander of her cousin’s forces, having worked to prove herself more than capable while others have looked down on her because of her birth, and while she presents herself as brave and fearless, she remains haunted by the treatment of those who attempted to drag her down – and, ultimately, her response to it when she finally had the upper hand and ability to decide their fate. Having been fighting against a particular kind of evil for much of her life, that those she holds dear are now free and in power tends to skew her beliefs to absolute faith and loyalty to them, something that she begins to question when Eris enters her life. What I find most interesting about what happens to not only Safire, but much of the main cast, is that they are often trying to find their way and make the best decisions based on choices which will ultimately end up hurting someone that they love, making it feel somewhat like damage control. None of those who have become leaders since The Last Namsara are particularly experienced by this point, and all are attempting to do what is right for as many as possible in a world that they are still changing and shaping, and I liked that there is not one character who is presented as infallible or so knowledgeable and powerful that they know absolutely what to do when presented with difficult situations that stand to make someone pay a price.

Eris’ story is slightly removed from that of the cast that the reader has got to know over the past two books, her narrative one that develops the already established storylines and brings them together and to their conclusion. Working as a thief, she steals that which her boss orders her to, using a magical device in the form of a spindle to appear and disappear, creating legends that she can walk through walls and evade capture. Between one point and another is a place that she calls Across, where she can weave doors to particular places or people as more fixed points, though even here she is not entirely safe from her enemies. Eris carries the buden of being unaware of her origins and having experienced the destruction of that which was her first home, and has long lived with the belief that no-one really wants her around. Having had to survive among those with very few morals, her world view is considerably wider than Safire’s and, while they stand to be enemies, it’s Eris who takes the first steps of kindness towards the other (and the first steps in deliberately irritating and annoying her too).

I loved that we saw more of the dragons in The Sky Weaver and got to hear more about how they are being treated now that Dax and Roa’s kingdom knows the truth of them. It was lovely to see dragons and humans working together and to see more established about how the bond between a dragon and rider works. Sorrow was adorable and I particularly liked his role in the story.

Thank you, Gollancz, for the ARC!

I received a digital ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.