Book Review: Seven Kinds of People You Find In Bookshops

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

If the number of review copies arriving through my letter box is anything to go by, publishers are on as big a push as ever to capture the Christmas market in book sales, despite the difficulties put in their way this year by bookshop closures and the ever changing rules on social contact. This little title, however, was the first to arrive that I would describe as a stocking filler. Please don’t think from that classification that I am putting it down. Any reader finding this book in their stocking on Christmas morning should feel lucky. It contains plenty to amuse – an excellent diversion for a recipient doing their best to avoid interacting with rarely encountered relatives, ones who insist on sharing distasteful opinions or recounting anecdotes about people only they have any interest in.

Of course, I digress, as does the author of this book on many occasions. It is these digressions that make the contents so entertaining. Like Bythell’s previous two publications – Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller – the tone is one of caustic wit woven through complaints about the behaviour of the customers encountered in the second hand bookshop he has owned and run for the previous two decades. There is, however, a greater generosity of spirit than was apparent in his earlier books. Perhaps this is due to the lack of people he has been permitted to observe and serve this year.

In the introduction, the author explains the focus of this latest work.

“It is about our customers: those wretched creatures with whom we’re forced to interact on a daily basis, and who – as I write this under coronovirus lockdown – I miss like long-lost friends.”

He then goes on to categorise and castigate these much missed providers of his income. Using what he describes as ‘a sort of Linnaean system of taxonomy’, the reader may muse over the failings of such customers as: expert, young family, loiterer, bearded pensioner. He introduces the last of these thus:

“This genus includes both males and females, although it tends to be dominated by males (by a whisker).”

Each chapter is further subdivided as the author sees fit. His Genus: occultist, includes the species, ghost hunter. He quotes from a YouGov survey from 2014 in which:

“alarmingly, 9 per cent of people claim to have communicated with the dead (although technically this could include shouting at a gravestone, as it’s unclear from the question whether or not the dead were required to respond).”

In amongst Bythell’s complaints about conduct within his shop are tangential rants about typical behaviour of various customers beyond his walls. Motor home drivers in particular are vilified for driving slowly and emptying their chemical toilets inappropriately.

The sartorial choices of each species are derided and compared – hipsters ignite the author’s ire even more than Goths; the pantalons rouge brigade are encapsulated with relish.

Habits highlighted are, of course, being mined for their entertainment value. In that, the writing succeeds, albeit in a mordant manner. For each smile or chuckle elicited there may be a tremor of guilt in the reader who wishes to regard themselves as of a more generous nature.

Such generosity would, however, be severely tested by regular and unavoidable encounters with many of the customers described within these pages. The corollary is that, as a bookshop customer, the more anxious may ponder how staff have judged their dress and behaviour.

Any Cop?: Many readers will doubtless enjoy pigeon holing themselves and their acquaintances into the genera and species depicted. Just as booksellers come in shades spanning Shaun Bythell to Frank Doel – both adding colour and interest to their métier– so I would counter that life would be a lot less interesting if all customers were of Bythell’s final genus – perfect.

Jackie Law

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: The Well of Ascension

‘The Well of Ascension’ is the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s original ‘Mistborn’ trilogy, picking up immediately where the first – ‘The Final Empire’ – left off. It avoids all the pitfalls of the middle book in a trilogy, telling a taut and compelling tale whilst introducing the reader to wider aspects of the Cosmere. It also introduces Sazed as a main POV character, adding an intriguing extra dynamic and perspective.

After the events of ‘The Final Empire’, Luthadel is in chaos – but Vin and Elend have no chance to rest. Having signed up to lead a simple heist, now Vin finds herself a pivotal figure in an emerging new religion, almost single-handedly responsible for the safety of the city, and the target of a mysterious new figure in the mists. Out of her depth, she leans on her trusted kandra companion, OreSeur – but one secret spirals into another, and her actions lead her into more and more conflict with her friends.

Meanwhile, Elend finds himself thrust into an unexpected position of leadership, and Sazed embarks on a quest for answers – a quest that takes him far from Luthadel and into the Eastern Dominance. The mists are behaving strangely, appearing during the day and even killing some of the skaa. There are no clear answers, and in a divided world everyone is keeping secrets. It’s impossible for anyone to know who to trust.

The complex dynamic between Vin and Elend is brilliantly written, even if not always comfortable to read. Relationships take work, and in many ways Vin and Elend are incredibly different people. Vin struggles to trust people, and remains a likeable but prickly – and sometimes naive – character. Similarly, Elend remains good-intentioned but remarkably innocent of the realities of human nature.

Sazed is a far more mature character – and, as a Terrisman, provides a fresh cultural perspective. His internal conflicts are subtler than the dramatics of Vin and Elend, but no less impactful.

It’s difficult to discuss the plot without giving spoilers for ‘The Final Empire’, but it moves from the traditional heist novel to more of a political fantasy, all about power struggles and backstabbing friends. There’s also the underlying threat of the mists and the Deepness – two mysterious, unknown threats hinted at in the prophecies but unclear in nature until it might be too late.

Overall, this is an excellent epic fantasy novel which takes the trilogy in a fresh direction without losing any of the brilliance of ‘The Final Empire. The characters remain complex and engaging, the plot fast-paced and twisty, and the magic system still has secrets. It also introduces the concepts of Ruin and Preservation – critical parts of the overall Cosmere lore – for the first time, laying the grounds for the involvement of a wider mythos. Highly recommended for all epic fantasy fans, especially fans of complex character dynamics and intricate fantasy lore.

Originally published in the US August 21st 2007
UK Publication December 10th 2009

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: The Final Empire

‘The Final Empire’ is the first book in Sanderson’s original ‘Mistborn’ trilogy and a classic fantasy heist novel. His second published novel after Elantris, it cements Sanderson as one of the best epic fantasy authors alive today.

What if the Dark Lord won? That’s the question posed by this book. For a thousand years, the Lord Ruler has ruled with an iron fist, completely unopposed, forcing the Skaa who make up the majority of the population into slavery. However, a few rebels persist – and one, Kelsier, the famed Survivor of Hathsin, is determined to enact his revenge. Enlisting a crew of foolhardy Skaa – including the reluctant Vin, a street urchin who works for a local crime lord – Kelsier devises a plan to rob the Lord Ruler (and, if possible, to kill him too).

According to Goodreads, I’ve read this book at least ten times. It’s that good. Vin, our reluctant heroine, is a brilliant character – outspoken and talented yet naïve, she trusts no-one and isn’t convinced by this plan of Kelsier’s. However, Kelsier is the only one willing to teach her Allomancy – a mysterious power gained by ingesting metals – and the longer she spends in his presence, the more invested she becomes. Kelsier, for his part, is a brilliant mentor and father figure. The survivor of unspeakable horrors, including being the only man to escape a death sentence at the Pits of Hathsin, Kelsier’s scars run much deeper than those on his skin. His crew will follow him until the end – but Kelsier has secrets within secrets, even from himself, and his desperation to take down the Lord Ruler seems foolhardy even for him.

Every aspect of this book is brilliantly written. The character dynamics – especially within the crew – are sharp, with even the minor characters feeling fully fleshed out. The mythology of the world – the Lord Ruler having seized power after defeating some undefined evil – is gradually revealed to both the reader and the characters, avoiding info-dumping. The structure of the city with its ten ruling noble families is cleverly painted, and Sanderson manages the difficult task of evoking sympathy for both the Skaa peasants and the scheming nobles. After all, no-one thinks of themselves as the villain.

The real strength of Sanderson’s work, beyond his exceptionally complex characters, is his magic systems. The magic in the Mistborn books – Allomancy and Feruchemy – is very clever, with obvious limitations, and has clearly shaped the way that the world works. Introducing powerful magic without making characters too powerful or indestructible is a balancing act, and its always one that Sanderson manages exceptionally well. Overall, The Final Empire is a brilliant book, telling a tense, intriguing heist story alongside more complex epic fantasy worldbuilding. It makes a great introduction to the epic fantasy genre – especially to fans of simpler fantasy heist books such as Six of Crows. Recommended for all fantasy fans or just fans of strong characters and clever, well-told stories.

Originally published 2006 (US) and 2009 (UK)

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Elantris

Welcome to my Cosmere Christmas series! Over the Christmas period, I’m going to be reviewing every published book in Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere, a fictional universe in which several – but not all – of his series’ are set. Each book can be read alone, without understand of the Cosmere or other books, but there are little nuggets hidden away for those who’ve read them all. Sanderson himself recommends starting with his Misborn trilogy, but I’ve chosen to start with his first published book – and the first book I ever read in the Cosmere, Elantris. I hope you enjoy the review series, and for those of you who haven’t read these books yet, they’re some of the finest examples of epic fantasy I’ve ever read! If you’d like some background information on the Cosmere, I have an introductory post here.


‘Elantris’ is a brilliant fantasy standalone packed full of intriguing, engaging characters with the fantastic worldbuilding Sanderson has become well known for. As his first published novel, it’s not his strongest work – but it’s a spectacular story with an incredibly imaginative premise.

The city of Elantris was once a place of miracles, a place full of magic where the Elantrians lived as gods. The old religions were forgotten as people worshipped the marvels they saw every day – but no longer. Now Elantris lies in ruins, and the Shaod – the process by which ordinary people become Elantrians – is a curse. Arelon, the neighbouring city, has lived in the shadow of this curse for ten years, and whilst at first glance it seems prosperous, many people still live in fear. The safety of Arelon lies with a betrothal between Prince Raoden, heir to the Arelon throne, and Sarene, a princess from neighbouring Teod – but when Raoden becomes a victim of the Shaod, a series of events is set in motion that could be the downfall of Arelon and all who reside within in.

Like most epic fantasy stories, Elantris follows multiple POV characters – Raoden, declared legally deceased and thrown into Elantris to die; Sarene, the princess determined to find out what everyone’s hiding; and Hrathen, a Derethi Gyorn (similar to a Priest) sent to convert Arelon to the Derethi religion of Shu-Dereth. Each character is well fleshed-out and likeable – Raoden for his kind heart, Sarene for her tenacity, and Hrathen for his questioning and clear humanity. Sarene especially is regularly hilarious, constantly outwitting everyone yet hiding her brains from her stepfather lest he become suspicious of her true intentions.

Sanderson is fond of flipping fantasy tropes on their head. In Elantris, he takes the trope of discovering magic and inverts it – where magic once existed, now it is gone, and the world must either survive without it or rediscover it. His explorations of the implications – especially around public perception – are fascinating and incredibly insightful. Memories are both very long and very short. The magic system is also excellent – all magics in the Cosmere follow very clear rules, which makes them both easy to understand and avoids the familiar pitfall of making any one power too overwhelming.

The other thing which sets Elantris apart from many compatriots in the genre is the strong focus on religion. Religion remains one of the most powerful forces to both unite and divide in the modern world, yet many fantasy authors avoid religion playing a prominent part in their stories. The clashes between the two religious sects of Shu-Korath and Shu-Dereth are reminiscent of squabbles between Protestantism and Catholicism, and the way Hrathen twists the truth to fit his purposes and underline his religious messages is – for a book originally published in 2005 – both very insightful of the current ‘post-truth’ media age we live in, and accurate to how religious leaders throughout the ages have sought to pit their religions against each other.

Overall, Elantris is an exceptional debut novel and a strong addition to the epic fantasy genre. Recommended for fans of intricate worldbuilding, excellent characterisation, and clearly delineated magic systems of limited rather than infinite power.

First published in the US 1st May 2005
UK publication August 11th 2011

Monthly Roundup – November 2020

November had barely started before England was once again forced into lockdown. With gyms closed and club sports banned, life for my little family became even more constrained. Mood was not helped by the inclement weather and shortening days. There have been moments when I have felt a dearth of hope that we will ever again be allowed to travel freely. I look back on time spent enjoying restaurants and hotels with nostalgia, throwback photos on my social media platforms reminding me of good times had. Until the hospitality industry is permitted to be hospitable again – no curfews, distancing, masks or demands to use hand sanitiser – and the threat of closure at the whim of government is removed, we will not be booking nights out or time away.

To retain a degree of mental stability – until a minor foot injury late last week made it seem unwise – I had been out running three or four times a week, walking or cycling on most other days. I value our local lanes but was growing bored with the repetition. Driving further afield for the sake of variety felt like going against the spirit of what lockdown is trying to achieve. I may rail against restrictions but am trying to adhere to the rules however inconsistent the reasoning.

With gyms due to reopen this week I hope for a better December. Life is short and being made to mark time rather than enjoy what days we have left feels such a waste. Nevertheless, we count our blessings. They are abundant and I must focus on this.

I posted reviews for nine books in November (2 novels, 1 novelette, 1 short story collection, 1 short story chap book, 1 children’s fiction, 1 poetry collection, 2 works of non fiction). Most were outstanding – a good reading month. Robyn added a further eleven reviews. The eagle eyed among you will notice that we both posted our thoughts on one of the books.

Click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

 

Fiction

 
Cat Step by Alison Irvine, published by Dead Ink
Inside the Beautiful Inside by Emily Bullock, published by Everything With Words


You Ruin It When You Talk by Sarah Manvel, published by Open Pen

 

Short Stories

 
London Gothic by Nicholas Royle, published by Cōnfingō
Signal by Michael Walters, published by Nightjar Press

 

Children’s Fiction / Horror


They Threw Us Away by Daniel Kraus (illustrated by Rovina Cai), published by Henry Holt

 

Poetry


Vertigo to Go by Brendon Booth-Jones, published by The Hedgehog Press

 

Non fiction

 
My Second Home by Dave Haslam, published by Cōnfingō
Absolutely Delicious by Alison Jean Lester (illustrated by Mary Ann Frye)

 

Robyn Reviews

 
The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter, published by Orbit
Paris by Starlight by Robert Dinsdale, published by Cornerstone

 
Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar, published by Harper Collins
Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly, published by Hot Key Books

   
They Threw Us Away by Daniel Kraus (illustrated by Rovina Cai), published by Henry Holt
The Betrayals by Bridget Collins, published by Harper Collins

 
The Burning God by R.F. Kuang, published by Harper Voyager
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, published by Pantheon Books

 
The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapowski (translated by David French), published by Gollancz
Infernal by Mark De Jager, published by Rebellion


These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong, published by Hodder & Stoughton

 

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also purchased or received quite a number of hard copies, including several special editions.

 

I was delighted with my November book post and read a couple immediately.

December is always a quiet month for new releases so I plan to use the time to tackle my TBR pile. Robyn has decided to focus on books by one of her favourite authors – Brandon Sanderson. She wrote about her plans for a Cosmere Christmas here.

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

 

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas

It’s nearly December! Are you all excited for Christmas? I can’t wait – it’s the last big break I have before Medical School Finals (how did this happen?), and I really need the time to relax. In the same vein, I’ve decided that rather than focusing on reviews of new and upcoming books, this month I’ll focus on one of my favourite collections of books – Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. I hope you’ll join me in this adventure into one of the best and most ambitious works of epic fantasy of all time! For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Cosmere, here’s a quick introduction.

What is the Cosmere?

The Cosmere is a fictional universe. Many, but not all, of Sanderson’s series’ take place within this universe. Each series can be read individually without requiring any knowledge of the wider Cosmere, but there are elements of crossover and a whole wider mythos for those who want to investigate them. Every world within the Cosmere shares underlying rules for their magic systems and a unifying creation mythos, but each world, their occupants, religions, cultures, and magics remain unique. Sanderson has stated that he plans for at least 36 books within the Cosmere, which is a hugely impressive undertaking! More information can be found on the official Wiki here, but please be aware of spoilers.

Which books are set within the Cosmere?

The main current works within the Cosmere are:

  • Elantris
  • Mistborn Era 1 – The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages
  • Mistborn Era 2 – The Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self, The Bands of Mourning
  • The Stormlight Archive – The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Edgedancer (novella), Oathbringer, Dawnshard (novella), Rhythm of War
  • Warbreaker
  • The Emperor’s Soul (novella)
  • The White Sand graphic novel series

In the future, there are plans for two sequels to Elantris, a sequel to Warbreaker, a third Mistborn Era, and six more novels in the Stormlight Archive. I can’t imagine writing that many epic fantasy books…

You’ve persuaded me! Where should I start?

The short answer is wherever you want! Each series can be read alone, and they all appeal to slightly different audiences. The longer answer is that some books do improve the reading of others – Warbreaker improves the later books in the Stormlight Archive, for example – so are good to read first. Personally, I would recommend starting with The Final Empire or Elantris, and reading The Stormlight Archive – Sanderson’s Magnum Opus – last. But there are no rules, so if you want to start with The Way of Kings, go for it! Check out my reviews over the coming month and see which series – if any – appeals to you.

I didn’t like <insert Cosmere book here>. Should I try another one?

I’m a bit biased, but I’d definitely say yes. All the books are written in Sanderson’s signature style, but they’re very different – The Final Empire is a fantasy heist novel, Elantris is political fantasy, and The Way of Kings is a classic fantasy war novel. If you’re not a big fan of a certain genre of fantasy, you can absolutely skip that series. Personally, I’m not a big graphic novel reader so I’ve never read beyond White Sand volume 1 (I live in hope that a novel version will be published one day…)

Will your reviews have spoilers?

No – this month will be a completely spoiler-free zone! If you want to discuss the Cosmere with me, including spoilers, I’m quite happy to be contacted on Twitter. Please leave the comments spoiler-free for those who’ve never read a Cosmere book before.

Which is your favourite Cosmere book?

Read my reviews to find out!

I hope this brief introduction was useful and that you’ll join me on my tour of the Cosmere this month. Merry Christmas!

Book Review: Absolutely Delicious

“no thing
Which is, can ever perish totally,
Since Nature makes one thing out of another”

Absolutely Delicious: A Chronicle of Extraordinary Dying, by Alison Jean Lester (illustrated by Mary Ann Frye), is an account of how the author’s mother, father and maiden aunt each approached their deaths. It is framed around the mother, Valerie Browne Lester, who, on learning that her cancer was likely terminal, opted to eschew further treatment. Instead, she retired to a residential hospice where she took control of the time she had left.

Written with love and generosity, there is no glossing over the more gross aspects of an old and failing body as it approaches its end. Nevertheless, this is a book that offers hope for what all will inevitably face – that it need not be a time of fear and upset.

The book opens with a preface that explains why the author chose to write about her mother’s dying. She then introduces the reader to Valerie, offering a potted biography of events that helped shape her. Valerie was also a writer, with a number of published works. Included within this volume are poems – some written by Valerie and others that influenced her. These help shed light on her emotions and spirited approach to life.

Born and schooled in England, Valerie also spent childhood years in Jamaica. When she married James Lester they settled in America. Here their two children, Toby and Alison, were born and raised.

Valerie’s father died of Parkinson’s disease and her mother of Alzheimer’s disease – drawn out endings in England that must have impacted their only child. She told family and friends that she did not wish to live beyond eighty. She got her wish.

After forty-six years of marriage, Valerie supported her husband, who had ALS, enabling him to die in the manner of his choosing. Alison and Toby were also there at their father’s end. Both he and his wife discussed with their children what they wanted and why – conversations that helped those remaining to come to terms with their loved one’s death.

During the last years of her parents’ lives, Alison was living abroad with her husband, raising their children until they left to follow their own paths. Alison’s brother lived with his wife and daughters an hour or so’s drive from their parents. Whatever the distance and other family commitments, the siblings travelled regularly to provide support as needed. There were also many close friends offering assistance – emotional and practical.

What comes across clearly in this narrative is how lucky the elderly relatives were to have friends and family able and willing to help out over the course of the protracted period it takes for a human body to finally fail. It is so different to how many other families end up functioning in such circumstances. Care was provided by health professionals but it was the family who came together to ensure the dying’s wishes were upheld – including that there should be no long faces when outcome had been understood and accepted. Valerie wished to celebrate the life she had experienced, and then be celebrated.

Although both James and Valerie accepted their prognoses and took control of their deaths, James’ sister, Jane, raged against the prospect of her end. Unmarried and with no children of her own, Jane also benefited from her niece’s willingness to do what she could to support and help as Jane’s ageing body suffered trauma and illness. The comparison in attitude serves as a reminder that not everyone will accept the inevitable with equanimity. This too must be accepted.

The writing in this book is both emotional and factual – thought-provoking and warmly engaging. It is structured to be succinct yet provides detail many appear reluctant to voice let alone face. There are sections that raise an element of revulsion – such as when control is lost over basic bodily functions – although Alison dealt with these with grace. She did have certain regrets, listed in a final chapter. It is also pointed out that the prospect of the imminent death of a parent enabled her to put aside differences that had previously resulted in conflict or hurt.

“Mum was returning to her factory settings, letting go of her sharp edges, her harsh judgements, the burden of ‘taste’. She told me once that cutting my toast into triangles rather than rectangles was low class. Now toast was just a good thing, however it came.”

Included within the details of dying are reminders that the elderly are still functioning human beings. Valerie had dalliances after she was widowed, sharing details that her daughter did not welcome. When sorting through her mother’s belongings, staying in her assisted living facility, Alison gained a fresh appreciation of how older people can still bask in new connections and approbation.

I am of an age when I and many of my peers have experienced the slow dying of elderly parents. This account serves as a lesson in the importance of discussing openly and clearly how people wish to be treated as their end nears. It is also an uplifting story, demonstrating it is possible for family and friends to support each other without resentment. I wonder if Alison realises quite how amazing – how unusual – many would find this.

Much is decided by others who think they know best for both children and the elderly – creating lasting repercussions for all involved. With death the final act for all who live, setting out one’s wishes in advance makes good sense. As Alison points out, it also removes a burden from those who must make affecting decisions at such a difficult time, and then live with the impact.

This is a tale that spills over with love, relish and appreciation. A recommended read for all who must deal with the dying. A reminder to live until death.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author. 

Book Review: You Ruin It When You Talk

You Ruin It When You Talk, by Sarah Manvel, is the second novelette in Open Pen’s second five book series of small but mighty pocket sized paperbacks. I highly recommend you check out all these little nuggets of literary treasure. They are proof that succinct story telling can be as impactful and satisfying as more common weighty tomes.

Marketed as fiction, the tale is structured as a series of short anecdotes detailing encounters on the modern dating scene. These are as appalling as they are hilarious – an eye-opening exploration of the narcissism inherent when seeking a mate.

“Have you tried toning it down? Men will treat you better if they think you’re dumber than them.”

There are recurring characters: friends, coworkers, and sometime partners. Mostly though, the entries offer up conversation that lays bare ill-considered expectation.

“As the night wore on I was disappointed by my surprise. The glam location convenient for the tube back to his was supposed to guarantee him sex. And once it became clear his moves weren’t working, he spent the rest of the meal being rotten to me.
We split the cheque, so the unpleasantness at the end was limited to him kissing me outside the station, then stepping back and saying, “Wow, that was awful. You’re really bad at this.”
I replied, “Likewise.””

The narrator dates both men and women, most found through an online dating app. She encounters: the angry, the desperate, and the bizarre. One man was in regular phone contact with his mother who was interested in how the evening was progressing. Others are already in relationships. Both men and women are shown to be capable of insulting without, apparently, thinking.

“After a little chitchat, he said he liked my necklace.
“Thank you,” I said.
“And I’m really glad you wore it,” he said, “otherwise I’d have had nothing to compliment.””

The narrator is knowledgeable about films and enjoys sharing her opinions with those who also consider themselves aficionados. This does not go down well with certain men who will not accept that a women may disagree with them and be able to back up why.

It is not, of course, just men who can be awful.

“I walked into the Christmas party and the Romanian girl from marketing said, “Oh wow. This is the first time I’ve seen you look pretty.””

From those who spend the evening sharing intimate details of their exes to others who boast about having assaulted previous dates, the encounters can be horrifying as well as cringeworthy. They do, however, provide a rich seam to mine for humour and elucidation.

An entertaining unsheathing of the contemporary dating scene. Written with candid and always engaging flourish.

You Ruin It When You Talk is published by Open Pen.

Robyn Reviews: These Violent Delights

‘These Violent Delights’ is a brilliant concept – a loose Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, featuring a fantasy monster, gang warfare, and a fascinating look at colonialism – but suffers a little from the scale of its ambition. It’s certainly a fast-paced and intriguing YA fantasy, but it isn’t quite as gripping as I’d like it to be.

Juliette Cai has just returned home to Shanghai after completing her education in the USA. As the heir to the Scarlet Gang, her job now is to start integrating herself with her father’s contacts and cement her people’s loyalty to her – but instead, she finds herself entangled in a conspiracy with a mysterious – and invariably fatal – virus, and strange rumours of a monster. Even worse, her arch-enemy Roma Montagov – heir to the White Flowers – keeps showing up. Determined to solve the mystery before more of her people die – and before Roma beats her to it – Juliette embarks on a mission that will truly test her loyalty – to her family, to the Scarlet Gang, and to a particularly irritating enemy-turned-lover-turned-enemy who just keeps getting under her skin.

Juliette and Roma are both major POV characters, but Juliette is such a force of nature that she feels like the true protagonist. She’s not particularly likeable – she’s completely ruthless, almost uncaring of the feelings of others and willing to do anything to ensure her own success – but at her core is a heart of fragility and worry. Juliette has had to fight for her place as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, and she knows that one misstep will send everything tumbling down.

Roma, on the other hand, is far easier to like. He’s also a ruthless gangster, but makes no secret of how much he hates it. Roma’s position as heir to the White Flowers is just as tenuous as Juliette’s for the Scarlets, but for very different reasons – Juliette’s father is unsure of her suitability as a woman, and also slightly scared of her; Roma’s father thinks his son is soft and unworthy. He’s the sort of character you constantly want to give a hug, because everything keeps going wrong despite the fact he’s always trying to do the right thing.

The strength of this book is in the setting. It really draws you into the various microcosms of 1920s Shanghai, the feeling of multiple cities within cities, and the political tensions of a city and country in transition. Chloe Gong’s writing is gorgeous, and she absolutely captures a sense of place. I know very little about this time period or area of the world, and the way it’s depicted here makes me want to find out more.

The main issue I have with this book is that, for a Romeo and Juliette retelling, there’s very little emotional buildup. Roma and Juliette were together, then four years ago there was a massive betrayal resorting in them returning to mortal enemies. Now there’s a huge amount of tension – and potentially lingering feelings – but much of this is brushed over with a simple explanation of ‘things happened in the past’. The decision to tell us about their past relationship rather than show us a relationship developing weakens the romance, and thus the story. I struggle to understand why Roma likes Juliette when she does nothing likeable – it mostly seems to be nostalgia for a character we never see on page – and similarly, Roma seems like someone Juliette would despise for his weakness rather than fall in love with.

The other niggle I have is that the fantasy elements feel disjointed. The plotline about a virus and a monster feels discongruous with a story about gangsters in 1920s Shanghai. I absolutely adored the historical context and the glimpse into a time period and culture I know little about, and I almost wish the fantasy elements had been toned down to allow the history to shine through. The plot is mostly predictable, and I suspect part of the reason for that is so much exposition is required to make everything fit that some of the mystery is lost.

Overall, this is a solid YA fantasy with a brilliant setting, but perhaps one which takes on too much. Fans of enemies-to-lovers romance, Shakespeare, and strong characters who take no prisoners might love this, but it definitely feels like a debut.

Thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 17th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: Infernal

‘Infernal’ is the intriguing start of a new fantasy series packed with magic, dry humour, and mystery. It has an old-school fantasy feel, yet the twists – especially the finale – feel fresh and unpredictable. For a debut author, de Jager is incredibly assured, taking risks which initially made me doubtful but which work brilliantly, adding an air of cloaking and uncertainty without detracting from the story.

Stratus wakes up alone. He knows very little except that the body he is in is not his own, and that he doesn’t seem to be its only occupant. Determined to find some answers, he sets off in search – only to stumble into a conspiracy of war, religion, and magic, with everyone convinced he’s on the other side. He isn’t helped by his complete lack of knowledge of human nature – or by his body’s companion, a being of pure rage which occasionally seizes control.

Mark de Jager’s decision to tell an epic fantasy story with a single POV is unusual enough, but when that character also has near-total amnesia it becomes an even bigger risk. Stratus doesn’t understand the world, humanity, or even himself. This empathy barrier means each character except Stratus feels two-dimensional, yet it works – partly because Stratus himself is so intriguing, and partly because Stratus’s attempts to understand them are often darkly hilarious. De Jager straddles the line between mystery and confusion expertly, revealing just enough at key moments to keep things engaging, but also making the final reveal a total – yet believable – shock.

Stratus doesn’t know what he is, but everyone else is convinced he’s some sort of demon – and gradually, throughout the book, this affects how he views himself too. He doesn’t share most human morals – quite happy to kill without compunction, take whatever he needs, and manipulate others with his sorcery – but he does respect and appreciate kindness and have a certain degree of loyalty. For a character who does pretty much a terrible thing per page, he’s a surprisingly likeable protagonist, making you root for him even when you’re not sure you should.

The world building is minimal – mostly because Stratus is more focused on who and what he is than what’s going on around him – but the magic system is fully fleshed out and developed. As systems go, it’s very conventional, but I love the descriptions of the Songlines and what it feels like to use them. It also has clear rules and limitations, meaning no character is ever over-powered.

Overall, this is an excellent debut, one that takes risks but ensures they pay off. Recommended for fans of non-human protagonists, dry and dark humour, and fantasy-mysteries.

Thanks to Rebellion and NetGalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Rebellion
eBook: 24th November 2020