Robyn Reviews: Dog Rose Dirt

‘Dog Rose Dirt’ is the first crime thriller by Jen Williams, known for her adult fantasy trilogies ‘The Winnowing Flame’ and ‘The Copper Cat’. As a fan of ‘The Winnowing Flame’ series, I was curious how her writing would translate into crime fiction – and the answer is with aplomb. ‘Dog Rose Dirt’ is a gripping, dark crime thriller full of twists and atmosphere. To those familiar with the genre, many of the twists are predictable, but they’re brilliantly written, leaving this a fast-paced and enjoyable read.

Heather Evans has been almost estranged from her mother, Colleen, for years – but when her mother unexpectedly commits suicide, she’s forced back to her childhood home to put her affairs in order. There, she makes an alarming discovery – stacks of letters from the serial killer Michael Reave, otherwise known as the Red Wolf. Reave has been in prison for decades – but the letters take on a more sinister turn with the appearance of a copycat killer, borrowing Reave’s tableau of removing his victims’ hearts and decorating their bodies with flowers. Determined to figure out how her mother knew Reave – and why she might have committed suicide – Heather teams up with DI Ben Parker to interview Reave. However, he only talks in riddles. The more he says, the less Heather understands – and as mysterious things start happening at home, Heather starts to wonder if approaching the truth is putting her own life in danger.

Heather is a bit of a mess. Once a journalist, she’s been fired from her job and picks up odd bits of work as a freelancer. She has friends, but no serious relationships – and all her friends are worried about her. She’s self-centred, rash, and has terrible coping strategies – but she also has moments of brilliance, a keen wit that must have served her well as a journalist, and a knack for knowing when others are lying. She’s not necessarily a likeable protagonist, but she’s an intriguing one, and she feels incredibly real. Its hard at times to see what her friends see in her – she asks a lot without giving much back – but then, with her mother’s death, the loss of her job, and all the other upheavals going on in her life, its understandable that she sometimes forgets that everyone else has a life and responsibilities to.

The story is mostly from Heather’s perspective, with occasional cutaway chapters showing the victims of the new Red Wolf. This works well – it makes the atmosphere darker, humanising each victim by showing snippets of their lives. The cutaway chapters increase in frequency later in the book, adding to the sense of urgency in solving the puzzle and identifying the killer.

There isn’t so much an overarching plot as several closely intertwined threads. There’s the mystery of Heather’s mothers’ death – why such a seemingly stable woman would commit suicide. Then there’s the copycat killer – or possibly even the original killer, if Reave is as innocent as he claims. Finally, there’s Colleen’s relationship with Reave, and to what extent this ties into everything else. This all works seamlessly, moving at a rapid pace and remaining engaging throughout. Many of the twists are genre tropes, lending them an air of predictability, but the way they’re done is skillful and fits the story well. It would feel unnatural if they weren’t written that way.

This is a dark story. The atmosphere is one of the highlights – there’s a constant shadow hanging over every scene, a sense that things aren’t quite what they seem. There’s a lot of foreshadowing – too much in places, with twists that may otherwise have been a surprise becoming obvious – but it lends a sense of foreboding, the reader realising secrets that Heather hasn’t clocked yet. Those sensitive to graphic violence, death, desecration of a corpse, incest, coercion, and child abuse may want to avoid this, although it handles its subject matter well – never glorifying it, and never glossing over the impact.

Overall, ‘Dog Rose Dirt’ is an excellent entry to the crime thriller genre and showcases Jen Williams’ versatility as an author. Recommended for fans of dark, atmospheric crime thrillers, messy characters, and complex family relationships.

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

Published by Harper Collins
Hardback: 22nd July 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Book of Accidents

‘The Book of Accidents’ is a slow building horror novel, gradually ramping up the tension and secrecy before unleashing terror on its characters. It draws on classics of the genre but puts its own spin on them, maintaining a feeling of freshness and uniqueness. Fans of classic horror writers and tension-packed reads can find plenty to love here.

When Nate’s abusive father finally dies, he finds himself doing something he swore he’d never do – moving back into his childhood home, this time with his own family in tow. His son, Oliver, wants a fresh start after a series of embarrassing incidents at school, and his wife, Maddie, is delighted by the idea of having her own space to fully explore her art. However, it isn’t long before strange things start happening. Nate keeps seeing his father’s ghost walking the halls. One of Maddie’s sculptures comes to life. And Oliver finds himself befriending a strange boy – one with an even stranger book who claims he can do magic. Everyone in the Graves family has secrets – and with something sinister stalking Pennsylvania, those secrets could be deadly.

At nearly 550 pages, ‘The Book of Accidents’ is a reasonably long novel, and most of what happens isn’t touched on by the blurb. This is the best way to go into it – this way, the revelations are more surprising, and the level of tension is higher. All I’ll say is that it starts off reminiscent of a haunted house story, but very quickly diverges into something much more complex. There’s a lot going on, and in places it isn’t clear what’s real and what isn’t. Wendig uses a great deal of foreshadowing and leaves plenty of clues, but there are shocks in store for even the most alert reader. It’s very cleverly done.

The story alternates between Nate, Oliver, and Maddie, with very occasional forays into other perspectives. All are complex characters with their own appeal. Oliver is an absolute sweetheart – at fifteen, he’s been sent to therapy for being too empathetic. He can physically see other people’s pain, and he finds being in crowds of people – like at school – distressing because of the amount of pain on display. However, he can’t tell anyone this because they’d think he was mad, so instead everyone thinks he’s a weirdo and a wimp. Oliver just wants to help everyone, and his isolation makes him naive and easily mislead. He makes a lot of mistakes, but its hard to dislike someone with such a pure heart.

Nate has been a big city cop for years, and going back to work in the fish and game department of the town he grew up in is a huge adjustment. His dad beat him, and Nate is determined to be better, but readjusting to a place he thought he’d escaped forever is difficult for him. His new colleagues don’t trust him, his family is keeping secrets, and he’s seeing ghosts. Like Oliver, Nate is intrinsically a nice guy – but unlike Oliver, Nate is a cynic, worn down by the world and inclined to think the worst of everyone. It’s never clear quite where Nate’s moral lines are drawn – he regularly feels one step away from doing something he’ll regret. However, he sees that in himself, and it’s that recognition and fight against it that makes him a good person.

Maddie is an artist – but not the scatterbrained type. Instead, she’s a planner, constantly overthinking and worrying and getting through life by making a hundred lists of everything she has to do. Her art is her escape. Maddie is a bit spoilt and pampered, but she loves her family and she’s incredibly practical. She knows her own worth and has an independent streak that makes her husband worry but also love her for it. Maddie takes the longest to understand, but by the end its impossible not to root for her.

The atmosphere is one of the strongest parts of this book. The hints that something isn’t right start early, and every chapter has a sense of unease and darkness. There’s also a constant sense of unrealiability – uncertainty that what’s happening is real. Even the quieter chapters become engaging and readable because of the atmosphere surrounding them.

There are a few minor quibbles. This is on the longer side for a horror novel, and it takes some time to get into. The first 150 pages are especially slow, essentially setting the scene and introducing the threat, and while from there the pace picks up and it becomes very readable, the first 150 could really be trimmed down without losing the overall atmosphere. There are also a couple of twists which are slightly over-hinted at, losing a little tension. However, these are only small blips in an otherwise excellent book.

Overall, ‘The Book of Accidents’ is an excellent, atmospheric horror novel packed with gradually escalating tension and wonderful complex characters. Recommended for fans of classic horror stories, intriguing characters, and books that leave you unsettled.

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 20th July 2021

Robyn Reviews: She Who Became The Sun

‘She Who Became The Sun’ is a reimagining of the life story of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who drove the Mongols from China and became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It has a few epic fantasy elements, but at its core is historical fiction. It provides a fascinating look at Chinese history and culture, along with intriguing explorations of gender identity and gender roles. This is the author’s debut, and it has a few weaknesses, but overall its a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

In Mongol-occupied China, a young peasant girl is foretold of an early death, while her brother is destined for greatness. However, when her brother unexpectedly dies instead, she decides to steal his identity and claim his fate for her own. The new Zhu joins a monastery, going from monk to soldier to commander in the rebellion against the Mongols. However, her life depends on her continuing to fool Heaven that she is truly her brother. Can anyone truly claim someone else’s destiny?

Zhu – known as Zhu Chongba for the majority of the book – is a brilliant morally-grey protagonist. Her sheer determination and will to live is inspiring and keeps her alive through the hardest of challenges. Zhu is intelligent, observant, and willing to obliterate all the rules to get what she wants – the greatness her brother was always destined for. However, that comes at a cost. Zhu must always think and act like Zhu Chongba – not Zhu Chongba’s sister. Anyone who comes close to discovering her secret must be silenced. And greatness, even destined greatness, is not an easy path – a path filled with far more enemies than friends.

Identity is a major theme throughout the book. The complexity of Zhu’s identity grows as the novel goes on – while she uses female pronouns in her internal thoughts, she mostly thinks of herself as somewhere in between male and female. Shelley Parker-Chan has stated that Zhu is genderqueer – this language didn’t exist in 14th century China, but she manages to make it clear regardless. Zhu isn’t the only character with a complex gender identity – her greatest enemy, General Ouyang, has a similar struggle, and the two have a strange kinship alongside their hatred. Ouyang was born male and strongly identifies as male, but is a eunuch. His appearance is feminine and those around him treat him as something other – not truly a man or a woman. Again, his difficulty with his outward gender identity and not being treated as a man is beautifully written, and its interesting seeing how Zhu and Ouyang’s battles with identity differ.

Another major theme is destiny. This is a very common theme in Chinese history and folklore, with everyone living a foretold fate based on their actions in past lives and their choices inevitably leading them there. Reading about how the characters view destiny, and how this affects different characters in different ways, is fascinating – reconciling a predestined fate withautonomy is easier for some than others. However, personally I found it made certain sections unsatisying. One of my favourite aspects about epic fantasy is the crafting of magic systems. ‘She Who Became The Sun’ doesn’t have a true magic system, but it has a couple of elements derived from destiny – the mandate of Heaven – and this is never explained beyond that it marks those chosen for greatness. I would have liked a little more information on this mandate and how it works, and why it gives its particular set of abilities.

One of the book’s highlights is how well Shelley Parker-Chan writes relationships. Growing up in the monastery, Zhu has a best friend – an older trainee monk named Xu Da – and their friendship is beautifully written, going from a tentative connection to a relationship more akin to brotherhood. Later, Zhu becomes friends and later more with Ma, one of the rebel’s daughters, and again the change from a light friendship characterised by teasing banter to a strong romantic relationship is beautifully done. On the flipside, Ouyang has an intensely complicated relationship with Esen, the eldest son of the Prince of Hesan and commander of his army. Esen is the height of masculinity and trusts Ouyang implicitly, and its never quite clear to what extent Ouyang wants him or wants to be him – even to Ouyang himself. Esen’s adopted younger brother, Wang Baoxiang, is another outsider, seeing himself and Ouyang as very similar – but Ouyang despises him, and the evolving relationships between Ouyang, Esen, and Wang Baoxiang are expertly written.

The main downside is the lack of connection between the reader and the characters. Each individual character is well-written, complex, and intriguing, but also seems to be kept at a distance. Each character forms wonderful relationships with other characters, but to an extent is shrouded from the reader. This is on the shorter side for an epic fantasy novel, lending it pace and easy readability, but it means the reader doesn’t have time to connect to all the characters given a perspective. Even Zhu, the overall protagonist who gets the vast majority of page time, never commands as much emotional investment from the reader as they should.

Overall, ‘She Who Became the Sun’ is a strong historical fantasy debut, heavy on the history and light on the fantasy, with an intriguing cast of characters that give a fascinating insight into Chinese history and culture. It also explores identity in a very nuanced way, taking a different approach to a common fantasy trope. The minor niggles only detract a little from an otherwise strong story. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy, Chinese history and folklore, LGBTQIAP+ fiction, and morally grey characters.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor UK for providing am eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Tor
Hardback: 22nd July 2021

Robyn Reviews: Full Disclosure

‘Full Disclosure’ is a delightful contemporary YA novel about navigating school, identity, and relationships with a slight twist – the protagonist, Simone, has HIV. A debut by a teenage author, it keeps the perfect balance between a fun YA contemporary and providing an honest look at the struggles of living with HIV – not because of the disease, which is easily controlled, but because of the stigma surrounding it. Simone makes a delightfully relatable protagonist, with authentic teenage worries compounded by the added stress of her secret. This is an incredibly important book, and highly recommended to teenage and adult readers alike.

Simone Garcia-Hampton has only been at her new school for a few months, but she’s determined that things will be different. Here, she finally has best friends, she’s respected and using her talents as the director of the school play, and she’s got a crush – Miles, the only Black boy on the school lacrosse team. She’s doing great – which is why it’s paramount that her HIV status stays a secret. After all, last time it got out, things got ugly. However, when it becomes apparent that Miles actually likes her back, things get complicated. She knows that undetectable means untransmissible – but will Miles still like her when she tells him her status? Then she starts receiving threatening notes – someone in the school knows, and if she doesn’t break up with Miles by Thanksgiving they’ll tell the whole school. Now Simone is juggling a new relationship, her classes, the school play, and desperately trying to keep her secret – and sooner or later, she knows it’ll all come tumbling down.

Simone is a fantastic protagonist. Brought up by two gay dads, who adopted her as a young child, she’s had a liberal and loving upbringing – other than having to take medication every day to control the HIV she was infected with by her birth mother. Her dads and doctors have always impressed the importance of taking her medication and being careful – and she is. But now, at seventeen, she’s ready to start exploring relationships and sex – and with her diagnosis, that’s a whole can of worms beyond what most seventeen year olds have to deal with. Simone is a strong, intelligent young woman, but having bad experiences with people finding out her HIV status before has knocked her self-esteem, and she’s terrified of the idea of having to disclose it to anyone else. She’s scared to confide her worries in anyone because that would either involve having to disclose her status or talking about sex with her parents. The stress of Simone’s predicament is wonderfully portrayed. It’s clear that she always wants to do the right thing but is terrified of being hurt again, especially when her life seems to be finally going well.

Being written by a teenager, all the characters feel believable. Simone and her best friends – Lydia and Claudia – are accepting and sex-positive, yet simultaneously awkward about sex and relationships in a way that feels completely authentic. Claudia is an asexual lesbian and Simone bisexual, and its great seeing them navigate those identities and figure out which labels suit them. There are also discussions on exclusion within queer spaces – being not bisexual enough when being in a male-female relationship, for example – which are important, and it’s great seeing them handled so well in a YA book. They’re not perfect – Claudia has a very black-and-white worldview common to teenagers figuring out the world, and Lydia can be passive and indecisive – but their imperfections make them three-dimensional and generate discussion.

The most impressive thing about this book is how, despite covering some important and heavy-hitting topics, it always remains first and foremost an enjoyable YA contemporary. It never feels preachy, and it’s packed full of lighthearted and fun moments as well as the more difficult ones. Discussions around the stigma of an HIV diagnosis, bisexual exclusion in queer spaces, the importance of safe sex and consent, and the difficulty of navigating school cliques and stereotypes are woven naturally and seamlessly into the overarching plot, enhancing rather than detracting from the central story about a girl navigating her first serious relationship. It’s an incredibly mature novel yet accessible to its teenage audience.

Overall, ‘Full Disclosure’ is a powerful YA contemporary covering some crucial topics in an engaging and enjoyable way. Highly recommended for all teenagers and young adults, anyone who works with them, and anyone who wants to educate themselves on what growing up with HIV is like while enjoying a great read.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 30th October 2019

Robyn Reviews: Seven Deaths of an Empire

‘Seven Deaths of an Empire’ is a fast-paced gritty fantasy novel that draws clear inspiration from the Roman empire. With short chapters and constant action, it has huge appeal for fans of plot-driven fantasy – but for those looking for originality or character-driven fiction, it could prove a more difficult read.

The Emperor is dead. His son will be emperor after him, ensuring the ongoing strength and expansion of the empire – but first, the emperor’s body must be returned to the capital, allowing succession to formally take place. Whoever controls the body controls the empire. In the capital, General Bordan – a veteran of decades of service to the empire – works to quell the hints of rebellion and protect the heir to the throne. Meanwhile, Apprentice Magician Kyron finds himself part of the dead emperor’s honour guard, ensuring the preservation of the body and its safety on the long journey home. With war looming on the horizon, the fate of the very empire is at stake.

This is very much a plot-driven novel, with several overarching threads. Bordan senses a traitor in the emperor’s inner circle and works to sniff them out, trying to outmaneuver them before he’s outmaneuvered himself. This feels very reminiscent of the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series and similar political fantasy, with many players none of whom can be fully trusted. Kyron, on the other hand, has more obvious threats on all sides. The forest he’s traveling through is full of tribespeople who hate the empire – after all, it’s trying to conquer them and steal their lands – and beyond that, the empire itself is mistrustful of magicians and magic, and many of his own company would happily see him dead. On top of all this, he’s been stuck with the company’s guide, a tribeswoman who challenges his opinions of the empire’s superiority. As he fights for the emperor and the empire, Kyron must decide if he’s actually on the right side.

Bordan and Kyron are interesting characters, although neither is easy to initially connect with. Kyron starts off a stroppy, entitled teenager, unshakeably convinced in the empire’s might and righteousness. His worldview is completely black and white, and he reacts to his worldview being challenged with anger and derision. Bordan starts off every inch the hard, military man, attacking first and asking questions later. He comes off argumentative, intolerant, and harsh, convinced that atrocities are worth it for the good of the empire. As the story goes on, more nuance appears. Doubt creeps into Kyron’s mind and he starts to question teachings he always took for the complete truth. Bordan starts to show signs of weariness, heart creeping in where previously the answer to everything was the sword. Both characters are complex, but as the story goes on they become far easier to relate to.

Some of the secondary characters are more intriguing than either Bordan or Kyron. Magician Padarn, Kyron’s master, is clearly an intelligent and well-travelled man who has a far more rounded view of the world and a subtle sense of humour. Emyln, the guide from the local tribes, is the best character in the entire book and I wish she had been given a perspective of her own. She’s loyal to her people but has agreed to help the empire, for reasons that later become clear, and challenges Kyron’s views in a remarkably patient manner. She’s clearly exceptionally intelligent and strong-willed, and I’m sure she’ll have a huge part to play in any sequels.

The initial pacing, unfortunately, is a slow drudge. I had to put this book down several times in the first third because nothing appeared to be happening, and the short chapters made it difficult to connect with either point-of-view character. Fortunately, once the world and situation are established and things start to happen, the action draws you in and it becomes much more enjoyable. It’s a shame the book doesn’t jump in at the fast pace it proceeds at for the majority of the novel, but many longer epic fantasy novels start slowly due to their complexity so its an understandable decision.

The worldbuilding itself will be familiar to anyone who reads a lot of epic fantasy. The setup is highly Roman inspired, with an empire gradually conquering all the surrounding lands which it sees as filled with barbaric tribes. The empire sees itself as saving these tribespeople by bringing religion – the Flame, which is clearly Christian Catholic inspired. Magic is part of the empire, but the church sees it as a stain and is highly distrustful of magicians – a nod to the Catholic inquisition. Matthews writes it well, creating a solid and believable setup, and whilst both setting and plot lack some originality they’re very readable.

Overall, ‘Seven Deaths of an Empire’ is a solid book for fans of action-packed epic fantasy with well-written battle scenes. For those familiar with the genre, little about the plot or setting is unique, but it carries out tried and tested tropes well. The beginning is a bit of a slog, but it becomes worth it for the much stronger end. Recommended for fans of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ or ‘The Rage of Dragons‘.

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

Published by Solaris (Rebellion)
Hardback: 22nd June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Nature of Witches

‘The Nature of Witches’ is an atmospheric contemporary fantasy novel that explores the burden of the ‘chosen one’ trope. Written for a YA fantasy audience, it has equal crossover appeal to readers of character-driven adult fantasy, like ‘The Once and Future Witches‘ or ‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue‘. The writing is beautiful, changing slightly in tone with each season and leaving an impact long beyond the final page. It isn’t perfect – it’s a debut, with some rough edges to be expected – but it’s a brilliant book.

For centuries, witches have been responsible for maintaining the Earth’s climate. However, with human-induced climate change, the climate is becoming too erratic for them to control. Their only hope lies with Clara – the first Everwitch born in a century. But Clara hates her magic – it’s dangerous, and she’s lost too many people she loves already. While everyone else tries to drive Clara to push her abilities and fight for the future of the Earth, Clara sees her only hope in stripping herself of her magic so she isn’t cursed to spend forever alone.

The book is set over a year of Clara’s life training at a school for witches. It’s split into sections based on seasons. Most witches have the power of only one season, the season of their birth – but Clara, the Everwitch, has the power of all four seasons, changing as the season turns. The price of this is that she changes to, her desires and personality as changeable as the weather. Griffin makes this work beautifully. In autumn, Clara is in flux – swinging from hope to despair, indifference to rage. In winter, Clara is more stoic, steadfast, confident in making decisions and blunt in her conclusions. This section is one of my favourites, with some of the best writing in the entire book. In spring, Clara grows and changes – passion rises, along with her power, but also a storm of worries that threatens to undo her. In summer, that tumult of emotion spikes, and all Clara’s plans are thrown into chaos.

Clara makes a brilliant protagonist – one who feels completely like a teenager with the weight of the word on her shoulders. She’s self-centred and brooding, bottling everything up until it threatens to explode. She blames herself for everything and convinces herself that far from being the Earth’s salvation, she’s defective – something that needs to be removed. But while all that self-pity can be difficult to read, it comes from a good place. Clara has a huge heart, and while all her decisions are short-sighted in the way the choices of teenagers often are, her intentions are good. Clara doesn’t just think she’s special – she knows she is, and that knowledge is immensely difficult for her to handle. The emotional immaturity, rash decision making, and insistence on solitude rather than confiding in anyone else feel authentically like the choices a teenager would make in her situation.

The counterpoints to Clara’s emotional storm are Sang and Paige. Sang, a Spring witch brought to the school to train Clara, is sunshine in human form. He has all the best attributes of spring – a constant sense of happiness and cheerfulness, a love for family, and a keen interest in life and growth. Sang forces Clara out of her brooding state and brings contentment to her life that she didn’t think was possible. Of course, spring isn’t only about the sunny days, and Sang has his clouds too. He needs human connection, and when Clara withdraws into her shell, he struggles. But Sang has the patience of spring too, and he’ll always wait for the clouds to pass over.

Paige, in contrast, is all sharp angles and biting retorts. She has the hardness of winter – the strength required to stay strong in the harshest of seasons, and a contempt for weakness in others. Paige sees Clara’s selfishness and it brings rage. But winter isn’t only cold and anger. Like Sang, Paige cares deeply about Clara, it just manifests in different ways. Where Sang uses smiles and emotional heart-to-hearts, Paige argues and insults – anything to bring Clara out of her shell. Anything to show the world that its strong enough to survive. It takes time to come to like Paige, but as time goes on she becomes a refreshing cool breeze on a warm day.

The worldbuilding is simple but effective. The story is set in a parallel version of America, but one that is aware of witches. In this America, witches are seen as the cure to everything – humanity doesn’t need to worry about endless growth and climate destruction because the witches are there to fix it. The shaders – non-witches – aren’t malicious, they’re simply ignorant of the impact their climate destruction is causing. The magic system is equally simple – magic comes only to those born on a solstice or equinox, with the magic specific to the season of birth and strongest during that season.

This is a quiet novel. The biggest villain for Clara to fight is herself – her own thoughts and worries. There’s no grand exposition about how and why magic works – it’s just there. This is a novel about climate change, but its just as much about human psychology and coming to terms with power. Those looking for action, or heroes and villains, or complex fantasy elements won’t find them here. But for those who like their stories character driven with complex, messy characters, this is an excellent choice.

Published by Sourcebooks Fire
Hardback: 1st June 2021

Robyn Reviews: Cemetery Boys

‘Cemetery Boys’ is a delightful contemporary YA fantasy about a transgender teen in a conservative Latinx community. Combining paranormal fantasy with topical issues of gender, immigration, and class, it’s an engaging and moving read. The plot is predictable, but the brilliant characters, Latinx fantasy elements, and fast pace make it heartwarming and enjoyable anyway.

Yadriel is determined to prove himself a real Brujo. In his community, women are homemakers and healers, whereas men are Brujos – people who lay restless spirits, or ghosts, to rest. Yadriel has always known he’s a man – even if his family refuses to accept it – and decides to prove it, performing the Brujo ritual in secret with the aid of his best friend, Maritza. He succeeds in summoning a ghost – except rather than the ghost he’s looking for – his missing cousin Miguel – he accidentally summons resident school bad boy Julian Diaz. Julian refuses to go quietly into death. Instead, he’s determined to figure out how he died. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian – with the assurance that once they have answers, Yadriel can send Julian into the afterlife and finally prove himself to his family. Except, the longer Julian is around, the less Yadriel wants him to leave.

Yadriel is a wonderful protagonist. All he wants is to feel accepted – by his family, his contemporaries, and most of all by himself. He’s deeply insecure, but also incredibly caring and hardworking. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and every time his family misgenders him or insinuates he can’t be a real Brujo it’s like a punch in the heart – both for him and the reader. Yadriel has been through a lot, including the death of his mother, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him and root for him throughout.

The other standout characters, Maritza and Julian, are both firecrackers. Maritza is completely confident in her own identity and determined to forge her own path. She’s a vegan, and as the healing all women in her community practise involves animal blood, she refuses to have any part in it, instead seeking a career crafting potajes – talismanic daggers carried by all Brujos. Maritza will always stand up for Yadriel when he’s too scared to, stalwartly loyal – but also unafraid to challenge him when she thinks he’s making a bad decision. She’s the sort of friend everyone should have.

Julian is a bit of a petulant child, but like Maritza he’s fiercely loyal. Julian has a quick temper, regularly lashing out with words or throwing things, but he’s also deeply caring about those he loves and will always stand up for a friend. He challenges everything, unwilling to admit he’s ever wrong, but is also incredibly astute in many of his observations. Julian is far from perfect, but it’s hard not to like him anyway – and the way he looks out for others is heartwarming.

The worldbuilding is exquisite. Yadriel’s family speaks partially in English and partially in Spanish, building a real sense of atmosphere, but always with enough context that the gist of the phrases can be understood. There are spooky elements – Yadriel’s family lives in a graveyard, and there are hidden crypts and both friendly and less friendly ghosts – but also a sense of a tight, protective Latinx community, with overbearing family members, communal Mexican staple meals, and traditional Mexican celebrations. The two blend together seamlessly, with an overarching sense of simultaneous unease and protection. It’s clear that Yadriel loves his community, but also that he doesn’t entirely feel at home there because not everyone accepts him for who he is.

Its also wonderful reading a YA fantasy with a transgender main character. Yadriel’s identity and his struggles with it affects everything he does. He wears a chest binder, and he’s constantly self-conscious how it looks – whether it’s masculinising his chest enough. Yadriel doesn’t pass as male, meaning things other people take for granted – like which public bathroom to use – are difficult and traumatic for him. These elements are also woven seamlessly into the book, adding another thought-provoking dimension to a multi-layered story.

The plot is the weakest element. This is a YA fantasy, and while it uses fewer tropes of the genre than some books, the twists still feel relatively predictable and it’s always clear how things will end up. However, the other elements are strong enough that the plot is almost secondary -this is more a novel about relationships and belonging than it is about the central mystery element.

Overall, ‘Cemetery Boys’ is an excellent contemporary YA fantasy with delightful characters, strong relationships, and brilliant worldbuilding. The plot is predictable, but it’s still an enjoyable and highly worthwhile read. Recommended for all YA fantasy fans along with fans of great LGBTQIAP+ books and those who enjoy character and relationship-focused books.

Published by Swoon Reads
Hardback: 28th September 2020 / Paperback: 1st July 2021

Robyn Reviews: Subject Twenty One

‘Subject Twenty One’ is a dystopian novel with an intriguing premise. The dystopian genre dominated the YA scene for several years, with The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series’ possibly the best known examples, but since then it’s been a tough genre to crack. ‘Subject Twenty One’ is simply written, but puts a fresh spin on older ideas, creating an engaging and highly readable story. First published by Locutions Press in 2018 as ‘The Museum of Second Chances’, it’s now being reissued under a new name by Del Rey.

Elise is a Sapien – a member of the lowest order of humanity and held responsible for the damage inflicted on Earth by previous generations. Sapiens are given limited education and kept in poverty to atone for their ancestors’ crimes. When Elise is offered a job at the Museum of Evolution, she sees a chance to build a better life. Her task is to be a companion to one of the recently resurrected Neanderthals, Twenty-One. However, the job comes with risks – at the Museum, she’ll be under greater scrutiny than she ever has been before, putting her and her family’s secrets at risk. Plus, the more time she spends with Twenty-One, the more she starts to realise how little there is keeping her from a cage of her own.

The world Warren creates is excellent. Set only a few hundred years in the future, it’s changed enormously. The advent of genetic engineering has led to a race of superhumans, Homo Potiors, who run society. All skilled jobs are performed by Homo Medius – another race of genetically engineered humans, inferior to the Potiors but far superior to the un-engineered Homo Sapiens. Homo Sapiens was responsible for the destruction of the planet and extinction of untold species, and therefore cannot be trusted. All of humanity lives on four highly controlled bases – each named after a component of DNA – with the rest of the world given over to rewilding, allowing Earth to heal. Its a simple yet effective concept. As a Sapien, Elise is taught very little about her world, and it’s fascinating learning about evolutionary concepts and the structure of her world with her – and then seeing how Potior-taught truths are challenged.

Elise makes a very likeable protagonist. Her father is a sceptic, convinced that the Potior and Medius are going to move against the Sapiens, and raised her to be prepared for war and survival. Elise, in contrast, is more trusting and genial – but also lonely, as most of those around her see her family as freaks. She also has a younger brother who’s Deaf, which is seen by society as a marker her family has poor genetics. Elise is friendly and caring, always looking out for her family – especially her brother – but her friendliness means she easily forms attachments, and as a companion the biggest no-no is becoming attached to her Neanderthal. It’s interesting seeing how Elise grapples with her warring responsibilities – how her loyalty to her family starts to chafe against her loyalty to her new friends at the Museum.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Samuel and Georgina, a Homo Medius scientist and doctor respectively, are two highlights – both are always nice to Elise despite her designation, but there’s always an underlying uneasiness of how much the different classes can truly trust each other. Twenty-One, the Neanderthal, is brilliantly written – he’s lived all his life in a cage, alone except for his companion, and the way this has affected his psyche is both horrible and fascinating.

The science is kept to a minimum – Elise has never been allowed much of an education, so she barely understands concepts like evolution, let alone how the Museum is bringing back extinct animals. It makes this a highly accessible read. The language is also very simple. It took me some time to get into the book because of this – at times it felt over-simplistic – but the story is fast-paced and the content engaging, and after a while the language starts to suit the story. It’s a little unclear if this is aimed at the YA or adult audience, but given the more basic language and Elise’s age, I’d put this in the YA bracket.

Overall, ‘Subject Twenty One’ is a solid addition to the dystopian genre, with elements of Jurassic Park crossed with a standard YA dystopia. Recommended for fans of both the former, plus those who enjoy a fast-paced story and explorations of human ethics.

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

Published by Del Rey
Paperback: 1st July 2021

Robyn Reviews: Don’t Breathe A Word

‘Don’t Breathe A Word’ is part YA mystery in the vein of ‘One of Us Is Lying’ and part dark academia along the lines of ‘Plain Bad Heroines‘. Like the latter, it takes place across two timelines – the present, where Eva has just started at a new, exclusive boarding school, Hardwick Academy, and 1962, where six students enter a bunker built under the threat of the Cold War – but only five emerge alive. It’s an engaging, twisty tale with plenty of surprises. There are elements that require a bit of suspension of disbelief but, taken at face value, this is a solid mystery with a highly satisfying ending.

Eva has always felt like she doesn’t belong. An accidental pregnancy, she was replaced in her mother’s affections as soon as her husband and legitimate child came along – and the final straw has seen her shipped off to boarding school against her will. At Hardwick, she’s on the outside of established social groups and more of an outsider than ever – that is, until she receives an invitation to join a secret society known as the Fives. With the Fives, she’s finally part of something – finally seen as special. But there’s more to the Fives than there first seems, and the more Eva learns, the more uneasy she becomes. Just how many secrets are the Fives ensuring stay buried?

In 1962, Hardwick Academy has constructed a nuclear fallout shelter to counter the escalating threat of the Cold War – and to test it out, six students are invited to volunteer to stay overnight. Connie would never have volunteered – except the exercise is being run by Mr Kraus, her best friend Betty’s latest obsession, and school golden boy Craig Allenby has also volunteered. She can’t pass up the opportunity to spend four days locked in with him. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to the exercise than they first thought – and as things start to escalate, Connie starts to worry that everything will end in disaster.

Both plotlines are engaging. Reading about the threat of the Cold War and the psychological impact on those growing up in the sixties is fascinating, if horrific, as is the difference in gender roles and the way authority figures are treated. The politics of high school are incredibly familiar, and its hard not to feel for Connie. While it’s never stated on page, Connie also has a clear anxiety disorder, and it’s great to see this not glossed over and have a significant impact on how she acts. In the present day, it’s initially unclear how the timelines will intersect – but as reveals are slowly made, it becomes obvious that there’s a massive secret, and the tension steadily ramps up. At the same time, Eva must deal with the joy of being chosen for the first time in her life alongside the growing fear that the Fives are far darker than she initially thought. The way she grapples with her innate clinginess and fear of being alone is well portrayed, and while its always clear which side she’ll choose Woods does well to make her decision a difficult one.

The characters are delightfully complex. Initially, Eva can come across as hard to like – as a result of her childhood, she has an outward air of irreverence combined with an internal clinginess so strong its off-putting – but as the reader gets to know her, she flourishes into a practical girl with great instincts and a strong moral compass. Her character arc is excellent, and its wonderful to see her start to find happiness despite the circumstances. In contrast, the reader immediately feels sorry for Connie – the anxiety she suffers with is overwhelming, and she’s led along by her friend Betty who seems to mean well but doesn’t always go about things the right way. Connie is sweet and quiet, but also naive – and as events unfold, it becomes apparent that her view on things is far too black and white. Again, she has an excellent character arc, and its impossible not to root for her.

The supporting cast fall a little more into stereotypes, but they play their roles well and have enough dimension to avoid being caricatures. The story as a whole isn’t the most original, with elements reminiscent of other stories in the YA mystery genre, but again it holds its own well enough to prove a worthwhile read. Some parts are wildly implausible – its unclear how the original secret was covered up so well – but this is fiction, and allowances can be made. The story reads on the lighter side, so detailed criticisms of possibility seem unfair.

Overall, this is an enjoyable entry to the YA mystery genre with a highly effective two-timelines structure and two complex and compelling protagonists. The historical elements with the Cold War lend this a dimension which sets it apart enough from its compatriots to be highly worth a read. Recommended for fans of YA mystery and the lighter end of dark academia.

Thanks to Harper360 YA for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 24th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is literary fiction with a fantasy twist – the protagonists are polar bears. It chronicles the story of three bears across three generations, each of which lead widely different – yet also incredibly similar – lives. Its a deliberately bizarre book, one which falls apart under any sort of scrutiny, but raises plenty of questions about humanity and modern life.

The story is divided into three chapters, one for each bear. In chapter one, a bear who was once a circus performer starts to write her autobiography after a chance conversation with her building’s superintendent. The memoir becomes a bestseller, eventually leading to her being forced to flee the Soviet Union to avoid internment in Siberia, becoming a refugee first in West Germany and, later, Canada. In chapter two, her daughter Tosca, who grew up in East Germany and trained as a ballet dancer, follows her mother’s legacy into circus life. This chapter is divided – told partially from the point of view of a human performer at the circus, and partially from Tosca’s – and is the most surreal of the three. In chapter three, Tosca’s son Knut – left by his mother to be raised at the Berlin Zoo – grows up raised by the human Matthias, knowing only life in his enclosure. He’s the zoo’s prize star, used to raise awareness of climate change and showed off as an adorable polar bear cub. However, when he accidentally injures Matthias, he’s left alone, with only his thoughts for company.

This is an exceptionally difficult book to review, mostly because its less a piece of fiction and more an elaborate work of social commentary The unnamed bear in chapter one lives much like a human, whereas Knut in chapter three lives like any other animal today – caged. This regression of rights throughout the book is only apparent on reflection: on a first read, it’s simply confusing why some bears have some rights and others have none. The entire book leads the reader to make assumptions and then confront why they’ve made them. Where the first bear has an excellent grasp of human languages, Tosca is mute – and thus the reader is lulled into thinking of them as less intelligent, more animal than human. But why should Tosca’s inability to speak a language make her any less intelligent? Humans jump to conclusions and cognitive biases, and Tawada takes them and frames them so subtly it’s easy to miss on a first or even second read.

Alongside these more abstract concepts, the bears make some direct and piercing observations on humanity. Why do humans always lie to try and spare other’s feelings? Why do humans turn some essential functions, like eating, into an elaborate and pleasurable performance, whereas others, like bowel movements and periods, are taboo? The bears see humans as constantly making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves, and spend a great deal of time trying to figure out why.

All the bears are artists, so there are some equally intriguing comments on the purpose of art and performance, and to what extent life is an elaborate piece of theatre. Knut, especially, having spent his entire life in a zoo, is conscious of always performing. His anxieties about this feel all too human.

While the idea behind this book is exceptionally clever, it does have issues in execution. It was originally written in German, so may flow better in its original language. The second chapter in particular starts to blur dreams and reality, leaving it very unclear what is actually happening. This more spiritual, surrealist element comes across as confusing and jarring to me personally, and makes this section quite hard to read. At times, there’s even a temptation to skip over entire paragraphs. This is also very much a book which demands reflection. Without it, it would be very easy to close the final page with a vague air of dissatisafaction and confusion and write the entire book off as failing to tell any real story.

Overall, ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is a strong literary novel, despite its fantasy elements, designed more to be thought-provoking than to tell a real story. Recommended for fans of cerebral literary fiction, novels which defy convention, and those with an interest in human psychology.

Published by Granta Books
Paperback: 2nd November 2017