Robyn Reviews: The Falling in Love Montage

‘The Falling in Love Montage’ is a cute sapphic romance, but also a moving coming-of-age story that deals with grief, family, and making the most of the time you have. It balances the saccharine sweetness perfectly with hard-hitting character development, producing a novel that’s both entertaining and moving.

Saoirse doesn’t believe in happy endings. If they were real, she and her ex-girlfriend would still be together. If they were real, her mother would still be able to remember her name. If they were real, Saoirse wouldn’t be at risk of inheriting the very condition that’s confined her mum to a care home in her fifties. The last thing Saoirse is looking for is a new relationship – no point in starting one if its doomed to end. Enter Ruby – a rom-com obsessed girl only visiting Ireland for the summer. She has a loophole: for the next few months, they do all the swoon-worthy activities from her favourite rom-coms, then at the end they break up and never see each other again. Its the perfect plan aside from one tiny flaw: at the end of the falling in love montage, the characters always fall in love. For real.

Saoirse is a highly flawed character – cynical, angsty, and prone to verbally lashing out – but she’s also deeply caring, and trying to navigate the complexity of the teenage-to-adult transition with a lot on her plate. There’s her mother – in a care home with early onset dementia, a disease which is often genetic. There’s her father – unbeknown to Saoirse, in a new relationship despite her mother still being alive. There’s her future – she’s secured the envy of everyone, a place at Oxford, and she can’t quite bring herself to admit that she isn’t sure she actually wants to go. Not to mention there’s the huge breakup that has cost her both her girlfriend and her best friend. Saoirse is too proud and mistrustful to ask for help, or even admit she needs it – but for all her flaws, her intentions are good, and her growth throughout the book is amazing. She’s also a highly realistic teenager with many relatable struggles and snap reactions.

While this is a love story, there are several key relationships in this book. There’s Saoirse and Ruby – but also Saoirse and her father, Saoirse and Ruby’s cousin Oliver, and Saoirse and her father’s new partner Beth. Romantic love is important, but this also explores other forms – love between family, between friends, and love and acceptance of one’s self. Some of the book’s strongest moments involve Saoirse’s father or Oliver rather than the Saoirse and Ruby dynamic.

“I do believe there’s a right person for you at different times of your life. Whether that relationship lasts a week or fifty years is not what makes it special.”

The writing is excellent – Ciara Smyth creates a wonderful sense of place, and her pacing is spot on, the story moving quickly but also slowing for some poignant moments. There’s the right balance of romance, humour, and harder hitting content, and each character feels three-dimensional – while this is Saoirse’s coming of age story, her father also shows significant character growth, and both Ruby and Oliver have their moments. All in all, this both strives for and succeeds in weaving an additional layer of depth over the stanard rom-com structure.

If you’re looking for a fun, quick read that’s also poignant and moving, this is the book for you. Recommended for fans of sapphic romances, coming-of-age stories, and stories that explore the complexity and emotion of family dynamics.

Published by Andersen Press
Paperback: 4th June 2020

Robyn Reviews: Beartown

‘Beartown’ is a powerful novel from a master of character-focused fiction. Along with ‘A Man Called Ove’, ‘Beartown’ is probably Fredrik Backman (and translator Neil Smith)’s most famous work – and for good reason. Where ‘A Man Called Ove’ focuses on one man, ‘Beartown’ focuses on an entire community – what makes it, what ties it together, and what happens when those ties start to fray apart. Its a brilliant piece of literature, and while it doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of ‘A Man Called Ove’, it’s a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

Beartown is a nowhere town – a tiny town in a Swedish forest growing smaller year by year as its residents gradually up sticks in search of work and opportunity. It’s also, like so many towns in the area, a hockey town: and therein lies the town’s greatest hope of a future. If their junior hockey team can reach the finals, Beartown will finally be put on the map. When that future is threatened by one person speaking up, battle lines are drawn. What matters more: the future of the town, or the truth?

The novel switches between a large number of perspectives, with Maya, Amat, and Benji probably the strongest. Maya, a fifteen-year-old musician, can’t understand the hockey obsession of the town – she’d much rather be playing her guitar. She can, however, understand their obsession with star player Kevin Erdahl. Maya is sweet and naive but also strong, with an integrity and maturity beyond her age. Its impossible not to like her, and as the mood of the town turns, to both admire and pity her.

Amat, also fifteen, lives in the poor part of town – and for that, his immigrant status, and his small stature, he’s looked down upon. His escape is ice hockey – ever since he first put on a pair of skates he’s adored it, and thanks to his obsession his hard work is finally starting to pay off. He’s been awarded a coveted place on the junior team as they aim for the national finals. Being a part of the team comes with new acceptance and community – suddenly he’s a star, his name cheered instead of sneered at, his teammates protecting him from bullies instead of bullying him themselves. But there’s a cost – and as Amat leaves his old life behind, he starts to feel uncomfortable at the new one he’s thrust into. Like Maya, Amat is sweet and naive – but unlike her steel, Amat is pliable, unable to stand up for anything when the time comes. He has a good heart, and while it’s easy to villainise those who don’t speak up, Amat shows just how hard it can be.

Seventeen-year-old Benji is the backbone of the junior ice hockey team, known for his fierce fighting and protection of Kevin, the team’s star. He’s the cool kid – but Benji has more heart than most, and while he’s crafted himself into whatever Beartown and Kevin need him to be, he’s increasingly uncomfortable with that image. Benji’s character arc is one of the strongest, a compelling secondary narrative to the main story.

Of course, there are major adult characters in the novel too – Peter, the hockey club’s general manager and Maya’s dad, roles which eventually put him in conflict; Kira, Maya’s mum and a high-flying lawyer who, as an outsider to Beartown, still doesn’t understand it; Sune, the adult team’s elderly coach and increasingly ostracised by the club’s ambition. Each of these has a part to play – but it’s Maya and Amat who have the novel’s heart.

The town is central to the story, and Backman crafts a wonderful sense of place, emphasising Beartown’s isolation and accumulating state of disrepair. Like a Swedish winter, it’s a cold and unforgiving place, not fond of outsiders or those who threaten the status quo. This is superficially a book about ice hockey, but anyone who has lived in a small town can recognise the atmosphere of it.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking novel that captures person and place perfectly, this is the book for you. Recommended for those who enjoy books about human nature, community, and just generally good reads.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd May 2018

Jackie reviews ‘A Man Called Ove’ here. Robyn reviews Backman’s latest release, ‘Anxious People’, here.

Robyn Reviews: Iron Widow

‘Iron Widow’ is an ambitious, Chinese history inspired, YA fantasy with elements of sci-fi, romance, and social commentary. It packs a lot into its 400-odd pages, and while it tells an entertaining and fast-paced story, it does at times struggle with trying to do too much.

Huaxia has been at war with the mecha-aliens beyond the Great Wall for generations, with their best means of attack the giant Chrysalises – giant transforming robots powered by a powerful male pilot and a female concubine. The fact that the female often dies is a necessary sacrifice. Zetian, however, will never forgive Huaxia for her sister’s death – and when she enlists as a concubine-pilot, it’s purely to assassinate the male pilot responsible. When she achieves the impossible – overpowering the psychic link between them and ensuring he is the one who dies instead – it rattles Huaxia to the core. In revenge, they pair her with the most controversial of their pilots – Li Shimin, powerful and renowned for murdering his entire family. However, Zetian is not giving up her new power so easily – and by leveraging their combined infamy, she’s determined to bring the entire misogynistic system to its knees.

Zetian is fierce, determined, and full of anger and vengeance. She’ll stop at nothing to bring down her sister’s killer – and once she’s done that, to turn the entire system on its head. Her motives are admirable – she clearly loves her sister, and hates that most women simply accept being mere vessels or batteries for male power – but gradually, as her influence grows, she also starts to crave power for power’s sake. It’s subtly and cleverly done, and even when Zetian doesn’t seem to be doing the right thing its difficult to stop rooting for her after growing so attached.

Li Shimin is a more nuanced character, kept a mystery for a large amount of the book. There are horrors in his past, and its difficult to know whether to pity or revile him. However, as more is revealed, it’s clear his story is a more complex one than first meets the eye. He provides a good counterpoint to Zetian.

The other major character is Gao Yizhi – Zetian’s only friend from her original village and the son of one of the richest and most influential people in Huaxia. Unlike Zetian and Shimin, Yizhi always comes across as a genuinely nice and supportive person – not perfect, but a breath of fresh air amongst the darkness. Yizhi clearly adores Zetian, and their dynamic is always excellent.

‘Iron Widow’ is one of the only mainstream YA books featuring a polyamorous relationship, and this is exceptionally well handled. The chemistry is authentically written and the characters have some wonderful open discussions about polyamory.

The worldbuilding is solid, although clearly not the novel’s main focus – this is a plot and theme driven novel rather than anything else. The system behind the Chrysalises and the origins of the aliens is one of the most intriguing parts, and from the ending its apparent this will be delved into much more in the sequel. The ending, again, is strong, satisfying but leaving plenty open for the next chapter.

The main issue is that so much is explored that none of it can be explored to its full depths. Feminism is a key theme, but there’s minimal delving into the origins of the current patriarchal system. Power is another – but again, while this is explored, it doesn’t feel entirely satisfying. Admittedly, this is the first book in a series, so it has to leave itself revelations for the sequels – but after reading, little of the book lingers, which is a sign it didn’t quite have its intended impact.

Overall, ‘Iron Widow’ is a fun, fast-paced read, audacious in scope and solid in execution. It might have benefitted from an extra hundred pages to help it go slightly deeper into its subject matter, but if you’re looking for an action-packed YA fantasy this should fit the bill.

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

Published by Rock the Boat
Hardback: 7th October 2021

Robyn’s Reads of 2021

As you all might have noticed, I’ve taken a bit of a step back from the blog in the past couple of months. Now that I’m working full time, I barely have enough time to read – let alone to write about what I’m reading in any coherent way. Moving into 2022, I’m hoping to continue to contribute occasional reviews and perhaps other posts such as book recommendations, but I won’t take any regular review slots. Despite the chaos, I’ve read some truly brilliant books in 2021, so here are some of the best ones. In no particular order, the books I’d recommend are:

Fantasy:

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

If you’re looking for a well-developed epic fantasy with intricate worldbuilding, complex characters, and lingering tension, this is the book for you. The start of a new series inspired by Indian history, it’s everything I love about the fantasy genre. The sequel, The Oleander Sword, is due for publication next August so there’s plenty of time to get stuck in!

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

The sequel to A Deadly Education, Novik’s foray into the ‘magic school’ subgenre, this is a funny, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful novel perfect for fans of excessive sarcasm, antiheroes, and anthropomorphic settings. This is miles better than the already enjoyable first book and the ending sets up a tantalising finale in The Golden Enclaves, slated for a September release.

The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin

This quiet, atmospheric fantasy novel has crossover appeal to fans of both YA and adult fantasy, and is at its heart a character study about what its actually like being the sort of all-powerful hero foretold in prophecies. Its a beautiful read that packs an emotional punch, and as a standalone there’s no waiting around for any loose ends.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

The only criticism I have about this book is that it’s too short. The start of a new epic fantasy series inspired by the pre-Colombian Americas, its packed with fascinating characters, intriguing worldbuilding, and knife-edge tension. The sequel, Fevered Star, is due for publication in April, and with such a good platform to stand on should take the series to new heights.

Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favourite authors, and The Stormlight Archive is his magnum opus – an immense epic fantasy series with unparalleled worldbuilding and characters who couldn’t feel more real. Rhythm of War, the fourth book, takes the series in intriguing new directions, and the ending is so gut wrenching I can’t believe it’ll be a several year wait to find out what happens next. If you haven’t discovered Sanderson yet, now is the perfect time to start.

For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

This dark fairytale is perfect for fans of Uprooted, enchanted forests, and lingering atmosphere. The first in a planned duology, the tale will conclude in For the Throne in June.

Science Fiction:

The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

The Wayfarers series is like a comforting hug – beautiful, character-driven science fiction that gives you hope for humanity and beyond. Unlike most series, the books are only loosely interconnected and can be read out of order. Chambers has confirmed that this will be the last book, and whilst its sad to come to the end of a tale that cemented my love for the sci-fi genre, this book is a lovely note to end on.

The Second Rebel by Linden A Lewis

The first book in this series, The First Sister, was a solid space opera in the vein of Star Wars – The Second Rebel elevates the potential to new heights, with an intriguing world, complex political dynamics, and fascinating characters. If you’re looking for an intergalactic sci-fi with all the technology, family drama, and witty one-liners of the original Star Wars trilogy, this is the series for you.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

The man who wrote the best-selling The Martian is back with another humorous, science-packed, and clever novel. If you’re looking for a novel that details what it might really be like living in space, with plenty of funny moments thrown in, this could be the book for you.

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

Dystopia has gone a little out of fashion since the days of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner, but if you’re looking for a quieter dystopia and don’t mind a book that makes your head hurt with its complexity, this is a vastly rewarding read.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

A quiet, atmospheric dystopia highly reminiscent of poetry in its writing style, this is a crossover between science fiction and literary fiction with all the best of both worlds. A surprise discovery that’s been on my to-read list for years, this is a gorgeous feat of wordcraft.

Contemporary:

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

A challenging novel about childhood sexual assault, this is a powerful and gripping read about an immensely important and timely issue.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

A light, fun piece of escapism, this contemporary sapphic romance is the perfect read when you’re having a bad day.

Young Adult:

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

A powerful coming-of-age novel about a teenager with HIV, this is both a highly enjoyable read and an important, educational one. With HIV still so highly stigmatised, this digs deep into the real-life impact without ever losing its accessibility or appeal to a teenage audience.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

An engaging contemporary fantasy about a transgender teen in a conservative Latinx community, this combines fun paranormal elements with serious interrogations of issues including gender, immigration, and class.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callendar

A coming of age story about identity, art, and purpose, this has some of the most realistic depictions of teenagers I’ve ever seen in fiction. The characters aren’t necessarily likeable, but they’re delightfully real, and highly relatable for any teenager just figuring out growing up.

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

A young adult fantasy set on a series of islands, this is a brilliantly entertaining and exceptionally crafted novel about the power of stories, surviving toxic friendships, and the mysteries of the sea.

Children’s:

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

Last but certainly not least, this delightful story about the friendship between a girl and a polar bear is both a rallying call against climate change and a heartwarming tale for both children and adults alike.

I hope you can find something here that intrigues you! Wishing you all a wonderful 2022 filled with great reads.

Robyn Reviews: Far from the Light of Heaven

‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ is pitched as a locked room mystery in space, with elements of space opera and elements of old-fashioned detective drama. It’s an audacious premise, and while it doesn’t entirely come off, it’s still an entertaining and fast-paced story.

Michelle ‘Shell’ Campion is from a line of astronauts, and there was never any doubt in her mind that she’d end up in space. For her first mission, she’s assigned as First Mate on the starship Ragtime – an entirely ceremonial position, providing backup to an AI captain that’s never failed. Except, when Shell wakes in the Lagos system, she discovers the AI has failed – and some of her passengers are dead. With the help of Rasheed Fin, a disgraced investigator from the colony Bloodroot, his robotic partner Salva, and a couple of unexpected allies, Shell must figure out who’s attacking her ship – before they kill them all.

The story starts strongly, introducing the main players and setting the scene organically, without resorting to reams of description of technology or futuristic culture. There’s also clear foreshadowing, with emphasis on the infallibility of the AI and hints of characters needing a redemption arc. It’s unclear exactly how far into the future the novel is set, but the Earth described retains hints of current culture whilst also showing hints of divergence, making it easy to settle in.

All the characters are likeable enough without being particularly memorable. The strongest is probably Larry, an ageing governor on Lagos Station and friend of Shell’s late father. Fin also has an intriguing backstory and brings an emotional element sometimes lacking from some of the others.

I have two main criticisms of this book. The first is that there’s a level of disconnect between the reader and the characters throughout – they’re deliberately kept at a distance, very much observing through the keyhole rather than sitting down at the table. It makes the characters seem a little two-dimensional, and also makes them less memorable. Every moment of tension loses some impact because the reader empathises less without that connection. In a book that relies on a fast-pace and constant threat of danger, that’s a major downside.

The second criticism is related to the first, and it’s a loss of believability towards the end of the novel. Science fiction and fantasy as a genre revolves around the reader believing in the major or science within the book – believing that, in this world or version of it, these things are possible. Perhaps due to the lack of reader connection, ‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ starts to lose its plausibility towards the end. There are certain elements I couldn’t bring myself to buy, and it affected my enjoyment. That being said, the novel tries to pack an awful lot into a short space of time, and I admire Tade Thompson for having the guts to try and pull something so difficult off.

The mystery element is creative, twisty, and keeps the reader guessing, so in this way the novel excels. Thompson isn’t afraid to blend genres and go down rabbit holes to hide the twists, and many of the new directions are completely unpredictable. Some of the foreshadowing is there, but it would be incredibly difficult to guess the ending before at least three quarters of the way in.

Overall, ‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ is a solid mystery novel that utilises its sci-fi setting well. For fans of character-driven stories it’s a weaker tale, but for fans of fast-paced, audacious novels that like to try something new it’s a recommended read.

Thanks to Orbit UK for providing an arc – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 26th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: Piranesi

‘Piranesi’ is the second novel by Susanna Clarke, author of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’, and one of the rare fantasy novels to cross over into the mainstream consciousness. Along with being nominated for the the fantasy staples of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards, it was nominated for the Costa Book Award and won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. With a brilliantly clever premise and engaging prose, it’s easy to see why it has such wide appeal, but personally I didn’t find the ending had quite the impact I wanted.

Piranesi lives in the House. The House is a labyrinth of endless rooms, each filled with hundreds of statues and inhabited by an ocean that intermittently floods them with its restless tides. Piranesi is one of only two occupants of the House. There is also The Other, a mysterious man who visits Piranesi twice a week so Piranesi can help his research into The Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi loves his House, dedicating his life to studying it. However, the arrival of a visitor to the House shatters Piranesi’s world, and all his understanding of the House and its beauty starts to unravel.

‘Piranesi’ is a novel to go into with as little knowledge as possible. It’s a short book of gradual realisation, and starting from any point but ignorance robs it of some of its impact. Other reviews I’ve seen favour the second half, where things are clearer for the reader and there’s the tension that comes with waiting for the characters to catch up; strangely, I feel the first half of the book is by far the stronger, with a sense of confusion and building tension that grows as the reader starts to connect the dots.

One of the strongest aspects of the book is the writing. Clarke uses a lot of short, sharp sentences, reflecting the very literal way in which Piranesi sees his world. She creates a brilliant sense of place and atmosphere without resorting to flowery language – her ability to say a lot with few words is excellent. For some people the style might take a little time to get used to, but it adds to the sense of tension and slight disconnect from reality.

There are very few characters in the book, making the reader’s connection with Piranesi very important. Sharing too much about Piranesi might delve into spoiler territory, but he’s an easy character to like and sympathise with.

Whether or not this book works for each individual reader essentially hinges on how well the twist works. There’s a great deal of foreshadowing and by the time the climax happens there’s a simultaneous sense of horror and satisfaction. However, I didn’t buy into it as much as I wanted to. I absolutely loved the House and the creativity of the premise, but certain elements of the twist felt more contrived and underwhelming. I also felt it tried just a little too hard to explain all the fantasy elements, which removed some of their glorious magic. There was an undercurrent of morally grey ethics which I adored, but I wanted the fantasy elements to be just a little stronger.

Overall, ‘Piranesi’ is a short book worth reading for the excellent faculties of language, creativity of premise, and crossover appeal to fans of both fantasy and more literary fare. It didn’t blow me away as much as I wanted it to, but if you’re curious about the hype, it’s definitely worth giving it a read.

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 15th September 2020 / Paperback: 2nd September 2021

Robyn Reviews: My Dark Vanessa

‘My Dark Vanessa’ is a challenging book – immensely uncomfortable to read but impossible to look away from. It’s also a powerful one, brilliantly written and thought-provoking. As a debut novel, it’s an exceptional achievement, establishing Kate Elizabeth Russell as a literary force. This is the sort of book you have to be in the right mood to read, but one that lingers long after the final page.

Aged fifteen, a scholarship student at an exclusive boarding school in Maine, Vanessa Wye entered into a sexual relationship with her forty-two-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, the same teacher is publicly accused of sexual assault by a former student, and Vanessa’s entire world turns on its head. He can’t be an abuser. The relationship he and Vanessa had was love, the greatest love story of her life – wasn’t it? As the world shakes with the #MeToo movement, Vanessa grapples with everyone’s insistence in painting her a victim – and the man she has never shaken free from a villain.

Vanessa Wye is a brilliant protagonist, but not a likeable one, which is at the heart of what makes this book such a powerful read. Aged fifteen, she’s an outcast – she’s lost her best friend, Jenny, to a new boyfriend, and as a poor kid from rural Maine she doesn’t really fit in her polished, exclusive school. Her connection with Mr Strane feels like fate – he’s the only one who truly sees and understands her.

Aged thirty-two, she’s still an outcast, but an outcast with sharp edges. Her entire life has been defined by one teenage relationship, and she can’t seem to extricate the broken pieces of herself from him; she isn’t sure that she wants to. She fills in the gaps with alcohol, weed, casual sex – men who make her feel like she did at fifteen. Sometimes, in the dead of night, she still calls him. She hates herself after, but it’s the only time she ever feels at peace.

The story is set across two timelines – Vanessa at fifteen, and Vanessa at thirty-two. The entire book is told from Vanessa’s perspective. Russell mentions in the author’s note at the end that she was advised by editors to explore Strane’s perspective, but she refused, and I think it’s all the better for it – Vanessa’s head is an uncomfortable place to be, but there’s a real tension and atmosphere from being constantly submerged in it. It forbids the reader any escape from the horrors of Vanessa’s life – after all, she has none.

“Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?… it’s my life… This has been my whole life.”

The writing style is exquisite, but also challenging. Vanessa struggles with seeing her relationship with Strane through a negative lens – part of her knows it was wrong, but she’s also always seen it as a love story. He’s the most important figure in her life. Accordingly, parts of the novel are written very much like a romance, albeit a twisted one, a narrative choice that won’t agree with every reader. This is an explicit book, and while some elements are clearly abusive, Vanessa sees others quite differently, forcing the reader to consider them through that lens too. The writing is highly readable, flowing beautifully and painting incredibly detailed imagery – but its strength forces the reader to take a step back during certain scenes because of its sheer visceral and discomforting nature.

A big part of the novel focuses on what it means to be a victim. Vanessa struggles to see herself in any of the victims splashed across the media in the #MeToo era. Can you still be a victim if you didn’t say no? Can you still be a victim if you enjoyed it? Can you still be a victim if you love your abuser? Vanessa has been groomed and moulded until she can’t look at herself without also seeing Strane. To hate him would be to hate herself. Her musings are painful but vital – it’s easy to sympathise with abuse victims in an abstract way, but far more challenging to consider the marks left behind and the effects those have for the rest of a person’s life.

This definitely isn’t a book for everyone. Anyone with sensitivities around abuse, especially sexual abuse or abuse of minors, will likely find this book too much. Similarly, those who need a likeable protagonist they can connect to won’t find that here. However, for those with interests in human psychology or who want to understand the impact of abuse, this is a powerful read. Highly recommended.

Published by Fourth Estate
Hardback: 31st March 2020
Paperback: October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Last Graduate

‘The Last Graduate’ is the much anticipated sequel to ‘A Deadly Education‘, Naomi Novik’s foray into fantasy dark academia. Like its predecessor, it’s a stream-of-consciousness style novel packed full of El’s righteous anger, dry humour, and general over-dramatisation – but this is also a more mature novel, showing off more of the Scholomance and its place in the world, and allowing El a great deal of personal growth. It’s a compelling read throughout, gradually picking up pace and ending on a cliffhanger that demands the next book immediately. Overall, it’s an exceptional addition to the Scholomance series and sets things up tantalisingly for a grand finale.

El, Orion, and their classmates are now seniors, with just a single year to prepare for the horrors of graduation. However, El finally has something she never expected to have – a graduation alliance – which means she might just survive after all. First, she has to navigate the daily perils of life in the Scholomance – less dangerous than they used to be, but still ever-present – the complexity of actually having friends, and of course her mother’s warning. But with her death less imminently on the horizon, El starts to allow herself to dream – and those dreams might be even more perilous than anything that has come before.

El remains a sarcastic, prickly character with no tolerance for anyone else’s ineptitude, but she’s starting to become more self aware – she’s realised that, on the inside, she’s actually a nice person, and she has no idea what to do about that. All her life she’s been told she’s an immeasurable evil. The perspective shift is fascinating – and El struggles with keeping up a tough face and accepting that she’s actually a marshmallow. She also has no idea how to interact with people – other than her mum, it’s not something she’s really had to do before – so watching her try to figure out her friendship with Aadhya, Liu, and Chloe, and her maybe-something-more with Orion is brilliant.

As the entire book is told from El’s head, the perspective on the other characters is limited, but Aadhya, Liu, Chloe, and Orion are still given room and space for growth. Orion especially is fleshed out a lot more in ‘The Last Graduate’, going from the hero who always wants to save the day to a far more insecure figure. El, with her potential for mass destruction, initially seems like the morally grey one – but the more that’s revealed about Orion, the more it becomes clear that it’s a lot more complicated. I love the way Novik flips hero and villain tropes on their head and continually obscures any clear morality.

One of my favourite characters in ‘The Last Graduate’ is the Scholomance itself, which develops hugely from ‘A Deadly Education’. There, it is simply an unusual and eccentric school packed with monsters. In the sequel it becomes a character in its own right with elements of personality and almost a sense of humour. Anthropomorphic settings are one of my favourite fantasy tropes and Novik executes it well, allowing it to develop slowly – especially because El, for someone with great powers of observation and deduction, can sometimes be surprisingly oblivious to anything happening outside of her own head.

The plot starts slowly, focusing on El’s battle with herself, but the action ramps up in the second half. I actually enjoyed both sections equally – El’s internal turmoil is brilliantly written, and the action scenes and desperation in the second half are equally engaging – but I can see how some readers would find the first half more difficult going. Those who struggled with the more tangential sections in ‘A Deadly Education’ might find this takes a while to get into, but it’s worth it for the finale.

The weakest bit, for me, is the romance – but my quibbles are very minor. For a book that takes place inside El’s head, it can be very hard to see what she actually thinks of Orion – but then, El spends a lot of time trying to hide her own feelings from herself, especially any that she finds inconvenient, so it’s easy to see why. Their interactions remain frequently hilarious, and Orion around El is exceptionally sweet. It’s not a particularly healthy relationship, but El clearly acknowledges this – as do those around her, who regularly hold her accountable for her occasional unthinking selfishness.

Overall, ‘The Last Graduate’ enhances the world established in ‘A Deadly Education’, taking the excellent characters and ideas and elevating them to new heights. It’s an excellent sequel, and one that lays the groundwork for a formidable finale. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Thanks to Del Rey for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 28th September 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Winter Garden

‘The Winter Garden’ is an atmospheric historical fantasy novel about love, grief, friendship, feminism, and escapism, with elements of magical realism entwined with grittier steampunk. It’s beautifully written, and while it doesn’t quite have the depth it strives for it makes a compelling read.

On the night her mother dies, eight-year-old Beatrice finds herself invited to a mysterious Winter Garden – a place of wonder and magic, a nighttime refuge from all the horrors of daylight. For one glorious week it is her sanctuary – then it disappears, and it becomes Beatrice’s life goal to find it again. Eighteen years later, Beatrice is poised to marry a man all of society insists is highly eligible. Instead, she calls off the wedding, embarking on a worldwide trip to track down the elusive Winter Garden – an unimaginable scandal. Her best friend, Rosa, finds herself marrying the man instead. As their lives diverge, both find themselves with regrets. But The Winter Garden is looking out for them, offering both the chance to participate in a unique competition – with the prize a single wish. As the two find themselves combatants, their lifelong friendship is tested, and they find themselves grappling with a thorny question: if you could go back and change a single moment in your life, would you?

The biggest issue with this book is highlighted by how difficult it is to sum up in a single paragraph. This is a book about two women and the different choices they make; about the quest to find a magical garden; about regret and how dwelling on the past shapes the future. It’s about a competition, but the competition doesn’t start until around halfway through. In short: this is a book which tries to do a lot, and mostly succeeds, but by cramming in so much it doesn’t quite do each element justice. There isn’t really a single overarching narrative – not in itself a problem, but it makes this a challenging book to recommend or review.

With that out of the way, there are lots of things to like. Beatrice makes a highly compelling protagonist – opinionated, not concerned with sticking to societal convention, and deeply caring about her family and friends. She has her flaws – she cares deeply about herself as much as others, and can be unthinkingly selfish with her own privilege – but she’s incredibly relatable, and its difficult not to root for her. Similarly, Rosa is a strong character – one with different dreams to Beatrice, but equally opinionated and determined. Where Beatrice is asexual and quite content to be alone, Rosa desires a family – but she also values her independence, difficult things to balance in Victorian society. Rosa is never afraid to call Beatrice out on her flaws, and their relationship throughout the book is exceptionally well done.

The use of language throughout is excellent. Alex Bell paints beautiful pictures of gardens, of Rosa’s intricate clockwork creations, of society balls – and of course of the variety of places Beatrice explores. She also manages to nail the emotional turmoil Beatrice and Rosa experience – Beatrice’s struggles with loss, and later addiction; Rosa’s difficulty in maintaining her autonomy once she’s married, and her complex thoughts about Beatrice as they both change and grow. Bell’s imagination is also incredible – the ideas surrounding the magical realism and steampunk elements are creative and brilliantly incorporated.

‘The Winter Garden’ has drawn a lot of comparisons to ‘The Night Circus‘, and on a superficial level it’s easy to see why. Both are magical realism books about a mysterious, wonderful place which only opens at night, hosts a secret competition, and is difficult to find unless it wants you to. There are deeper comparisons too – both books deal heavily with themes of autonomy. However, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a much more plot-driven tale, more directly tackling themes like feminism and grief. It’s also a book with a message – where ‘The Night Circus’ is pure escapist fantasy, ‘The Winter Garden’ tries to translate this into messages for life, something which will likely work well for some reasons and seem a bit preachy to others.

Overall, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a beautiful and creative story, albeit one which struggles in trying to carry so many narrative threads. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy and magical realism, books about strong women, and fans of Erin Morgenstern and Robert Dinsdale (Paris by Starlight).

Thanks to Del Rey for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 2nd September 2021

Robyn Reviews: Vespertine

‘Vespertine’ is the third young adult fantasy book by Margaret Rogerson, author of ‘An Enchantment of Ravens’ and ‘Sorcery of Thorns‘. Unlike her previous works, ‘Vespertine’ is the start of an intended series – although it works as a standalone, telling a complete and intriguing story. Chronicling the life of a nun who can see spirits, parts are reminiscent of stories like ‘The Raven Boys’ and ‘Ninth House‘, but overall ‘Vespertine’ is a unique and compelling tale set in a creative world with huge potential for the rest of the series.

In Loraille, the dead do not rest, rising as vengeful spirits with an insatiable hunger for the living. Those who can see spirits are bound to become nuns – cleansing the bodies of the deceased so that their spirits can pass on – or soldiers, protecting the masses from the undead threat. Artemisia is training to become a Grey Sister – but when her convent is attacked by possessed soliders, she finds herself awakening an ancient spirit to protect it. The spirit threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard – but with an unknown threat controlling Loraille’s dead, working with the spirit and becoming a Vespertine might be her only change to save Loraille. As Artemisia travels across Loraille, she and the spirit start to reach an understanding. But the more Artemisia learns – and the closer they become – the more she’s forced to question everything she’s been taught, including whether she’s on the right side.

The worldbuilding is one of the best parts of the book. Loraille is run by a religious order worshipping the Lady and her chosen Saints – seven women who defeated the Revenants, the strongest of the undead spirits, and bound spirits to their will. The Saints are all long dead, but their power lives on in relics – objects containing a bound spirit, allowing its power to be harnessed. Rogerson avoids info-dumping, yet the story is never confusing – the worldbuilding is woven seamlessly into the narrative, with enough revealed to allow understanding yet plenty kept in the dark to maintain a sense of intrigue. Loraille feels European in inspiration, with the Clerisy sharing aspects with the Catholic Church, but there are enough differences to feel fresh. The system of dead spirits and their differing powers is also well crafted – simple in concept, thus easy to understand, but executed with impeccable atmosphere. The overall effect is a spooky book, dark in places, with a perfect combination of mystery and exposition.

Artemisia is a solid main character, but the best part about her is the contrast between her personality and that of the spirit she binds herself to. Artemisia is a survivor. Possessed by a vengeful spirit as a baby, she was rescued by the nuns – but only after her entire family died in mysterious circumstances, leaving Artemisia physically scarred and the rest of her community blaming her for their deaths. As a result, Artemisia is feared and avoided, with few friends and little knowledge of how to interact with others. She’s prickly and stubborn, with a reckless disregard for her own safety – but she’s also caring and loyal, as much as she tries to hide it. The spirit is the first companion Artemisia has ever really had – and whilst neither of them trust the other, the way their relationship grows, driven by mutual loneliness, is incredible to read. Its amazing how Artemisia’s view of herself finally starts to change as the spirit points out how differently she regards herself and others.

Unusually for a young adult fantasy, there’s no romance in this book. There are several characters who, in other books, might have developed into love interests, but Rogerson chooses to instead focus entirely on the underlying plot and Artemisia’s growth and development as an individual. Personally, I loved this – it’s nice seeing a story with the confidence to stand alone without relying on a romantic subplot to add interest, and it never feels necessary. If you’re not a fan of romance, this is definitely the book for you.

Rogerson has mentioned that there will be a few edits to the pose and flow in the final version that haven’t appeared in the advanced copy. As it stands, ‘Vespertine’ is an excellent read but one that doesn’t quite have the magic of ‘Sorcery of Thorns’. It’s hard to pin down exactly what is missing – but it’s possible that with edits that magic will be captured again so I’m excited to read the final version when it publishes.

Overall, ‘Vespertine’ is an intriguing tale about ghosts, survival, and secrets set in a compelling alternative medieval Europe. Recommended for fans of creative young adult and adult fantasy, books without romance, and exceptional character growth.

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

Published by Simon & Schuster Children’s
Hardback: 5th October 2021