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

Robyn Reviews: Under the Whispering Door

‘Under the Whispering Door’ is a comedic fantasy novel about death, grief, found family, and the importance of living life to the fullest. With a mixture of laugh out loud and heartwarming moments, it’s an enjoyable read – but also a superficial one that struggles to reach the depths it strives for. This is a good, gentle story after a long day, but not one likely to linger.

Wallace Price has dedicated his entire life to his company – and even then, he’s not the sort of boss you’d buy a Christmas card for. He’s outraged to find only four attendees at his own funeral – one of them his ex-wife who spends most of the ceremony talking about what an asshole he was, and one of them the Reaper ready to escort him to the afterlife. However, rather than taking him straight to the Beyond, the Reaper instead takes Wallace to a very peculiar tea shop. There, a ferryman named Hugo serves tea and cake to all who need it – including lonely souls coming to terms with things they missed in life. With Hugo’s help, Wallace starts to adjust to his death – and makes some startling realisations about his life. However, the tea shop is only a stop on the journey, not a final destination – and as deadline day nears, Wallace starts to realise he isn’t ready to move on.

At the start of the book, Wallace is a horrible person. He only cares about his company’s profit margin – not its employees. He has no real friends, an ex-wife he certainly isn’t on speaking terms with, and so little to do that he spends his entire life at work. However, the longer he spends with Hugo and his ragtag band at the tea shop – Mei, the newly qualified Reaper, Nelson, the ghost who refuses to cross over and leave his grandson, and Apollo, the adorable ghost dog – the more regrets Wallace starts to have. His distaste at their inability to bring him back to life turns to grudging respect, and finally to true friendship – and it turns out Wallace Price has a heart after all. The change is sweet, but it also happens surprisingly quickly, not feeling entirely authentic. It’s hard to match the caricaturic villain Wallace is at the start of the book with the reasonably nice guy he’s become by the middle. The message that everyone can change for the better is lovely, but there isn’t quite enough nuance to carry it off.

Mei, Hugo, and Nelson, on the other hand, are all great characters. Mei is a spitfire, full of energy and determination and unwilling to take insolence from anyone – especially not the dead. Hugo is a calm, soothing presence with a lot of wisdom – but he’s also a bit blind to what’s in front of him, and as the story unfolds it’s clear that he’s almost as lonely as Wallace is. Nelson has a wicked sense of humour, but also an uncanny knowledge of human nature and a deep love for his family. Their little family is incredible, and together with Apollo it’s easy to see why Wallace wouldn’t want to leave.

The romance is choreographed from relatively early on and more subtly written than a lot of the rest of the book. I would argue that this isn’t really the sort of book that needs a romantic subplot, but it’s a sweet relationship and it’s always lovely reading about gay couples getting a happy ending.

Stories with an underlying message are difficult to write without coming across as preachy, and while ‘Under the Whispering Door’ just about manages to avoid this, the sacrifice is a book that feels a bit twee. It’s a little too syrupy sweet and optimistic. There are darker passages – this is a story about death, and there are several subplots about grief including the death of a child and suicide – but some of their impact is lost because of the overarching sunshine-and-rainbows feel. Its a difficult balance, and some will probably love the optimism, but personally I was looking for a bit more depth and acknowledgement of just what a black pit grief can be.

One area TJ Klune is particularly strong at is humour – I regularly found myself laughing out loud while reading this. Admittedly, some of the jokes are a bit crass, but it’s hard not to laugh anyway. If you’re a fan of sitcoms, this would definitely be a book for you.

Overall, ‘Under the Whispering Door’ is a solid read but not one that I found spectacular. Fans of books with messages, sitcoms, and happy stories will likely love it, but for those looking for a more nuanced tale there are better options (like ‘A Man Called Ove‘) out there.

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

Published by Tor
US hardback: 21st September 2021 / UK hardback: 28th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Devil Makes Three

‘The Devil Makes Three’ is a contemporary young adult fantasy following two students – Tess, a cello prodigy on a scholarship, and Eliot, the headmaster’s wealthy son – at an exclusive private school in Pennsylvania. It weaves a dark tale of bargains, demoncraft, and possession alongside commentary on elitism, family, and growing up too fast. The execution isn’t always there, but it’s a bold and ambitious story that makes an interesting read.

After Tess’s father spends all the family’s savings on his failing stationery business, Tess uses her family connections – and her abilities as a cello prodigy – to get both herself and her sister accepted into an exclusive private school. There, she works two jobs to try and earn enough money to fulfil her sister’s dream of going to medical school. It’s through her job at the library that she makes the acquaintance of Eliot Birch, the charming, entitled son of the headmaster. But there’s more to Eliot than there seems – he’s a witch, looking for a piece of magic powerful enough to save his dying mother. In search of a forbidden grimoire, Eliot enlists Tess’s help. However, instead of a grimoire, they find themselves unleashing a demon from his book bound prison – and he’ll stop at nothing in his quest to take Tess’s body for his own and ensure his freedom forever.

Tess and Eliot make excellent protagonists. Tess wants nothing more than to be left in peace to play her cello, but instead she’s found herself stepping into the figure of surrogate mother for her sister, Nat. She’s sacrificed her own dreams – and a place at a prestigious art institute – to get her sister into a school with the connections to get her into medical school. She works herself to the bone to earn money for her sister’s college fund, and earns her sister’s ire telling her off every time she steps out of line. Tess is a tough character, hardened by adversity and sheer force of will, but she has plenty of guilt and insecurity too – it’s impossible not to respect and feel sorry for her.

Eliot, meanwhile, at first glance seems every inch the entitled private school boy, but it doesn’t take much more than that to realise he’s the human equivalent of a marshmallow. All Eliot wants is to save his mum – but instead, he’s trapped on the other side of the Atlantic with his tyrannical father. With considerable resources at his disposal, Eliot doesn’t care how many toes he steps on – or how many librarians he drives to despair with endless book requests – as long as he can find a spell to help his mum. Eliot and Tess’s interactions are golden – the way they meet is hilarious, and Eliot quickly realises that Tess is way out of his league. Their growing relationship is adorable, and surprisingly free of many YA cliches.

This is a dark book in many ways. The devil torments Tess – and to a lesser degree Eliot – in a way that’s both gory and has significant elements of psychological horror. There are some graphic descriptions of corpses and decay. Eliot and his father also have an exceptionally unhealthy relationship – Headmaster Birch is controlling to the extreme and there’s a scene of physical abuse. It’s still a YA book, with nothing too heavy for the teenage reader, but it’s worth bearing in mind for those with sensitivities around horror or abuse.

I did have a few issues. There’s a little too much ‘telling’, with elements just stated to the reader rather than being discovered organically or even left a mystery to heighten the suspense. Certain elements are also a little too black and white to be believable – Eliot’s father has absolutely no redeeming features yet somehow manages to have a nice girlfriend, which I personally couldn’t understand. However, for a book which tries to pull a lot off, it mostly succeeds in telling an entertaining and fast-paced story.

Overall, ‘The Devil Makes Three’ is a solid entry into the YA dark fantasy or horror genre, with some interesting commentary on elitism and education too. Recommended for fans of psychological horror, soft male love interests, and complex family dynamics.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 14th September 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Second Rebel

‘The Second Rebel’ is the epic sequel to ‘The First Sister‘, expanding the world in scope and complexity and continuing to tell a tense, action-packed tale reminiscent of a morally-greyer Star Wars. Where ‘The First Sister’ is a solid novel elevated by the excellence of its ending, ‘The Second Rebel’ is brilliant throughout, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat. Once again, the ending is a punch to the gut- and also shows that the author won’t pull their punches when it comes to beloved main characters. This is a dark and gritty sci-fi in places, and a recommended read throughout.

Where ‘The First Sister’ alternated between three perspectives – Lito, First Sister, and Hiro – with the latter only in the form of audio recordings, ‘The Second Rebel’ ups this to four. The additional point-of-view, Lucinia sol Lucius – Lito’s sister – sees the world very differently to her brother, and also lends a touch of youthful naivety and optimism missing from the now battle-hardened other characters. However, the highlight of the book is Hiro, allowed to flourish instead of being relegated to recorded snippets. Hiro is sarcastic and irreverent, but also deeply caring, and their struggles throughout the book are both harrowing and moving to read about. There’s a single chapter at the end with a fifth perspective, but to provide any more insight would be a spoiler – I had guessed the twist, but its still an excellent one that I’m looking forward to seeing develop in the finale.

The worldbuilding is expanded greatly, and is one of the strongest parts. Beyond the Icarii and Gaens, the Asters play a much larger role than they did in The First Sister, and there’s also the introduction of the Synthetics – a powerful yet mysterious group poised to play an even larger role in the finale. Lewis avoids info-dumping, weaving all the parts of this expanded world in seamlessly. They also excel at creating culture – each race feels distinctly different, with their own lifestyles, social and political structures, and places in the wider universe.

For most of the book, the four protagonists are separate, each following their own storyline. Unusually in a multi-perspective story, there isn’t a weak link – each storyline is engaging, and its enjoyable rather than cumbersome jumping between them. First Sister’s storyline is a bit separate to the rest – all of whom are more clearly on the same side, and working towards similar goals – but this broadens the book, providing intriguing context about the world outside Lito, Hiro, and Lucinia’s bubble.

Another of Lewis’s strengths is the many fight scenes throughout the book. Fight scenes can be chaotic, but Lewis choreographs them all well, giving them realism and brutality. Its always obvious whats happening and what each characters limitations are. This is definitely a book to heed the trigger warnings for, but if you don’t mind gritty action it does it exceptionally well.

The one criticism the book could have is that it’s over 150 pages longer than ‘The First Sister’ and it does take a little time to warm up. Part of this is Lewis trying to explain the basis of the plot of ‘The First Sister’ so that readers don’t have to reread the first book before digging into this one. For those who prefer not to re-read, this will probably be greatly appreciated – I reread the first, so for me it was a little more cumbersome. However, once it got past this section, the story flowed beautifully and passed impressively quickly for an over-500 page book.

Overall, ‘The Second Rebel’ expands and improves on ‘The First Sister’, telling an engaging and action-packed story with all the best aspects of complex space opera. Highly recommended to all sci-fi fans.

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

Published by Hodder and Stoughton
Hardback: 24th August 2021

Robyn Reviews: Velvet Was The Night

‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a historical noir novel set in 1970s Mexico, a place of student protests and massive political unrest. It provides an intriguing insight into a piece of history rarely portrayed in fiction, and like all Silvia Moreno-Garcia novels is sharply written. Noir isn’t a genre I read particularly often, but for fans or those looking for a taut piece of historical fiction this is a solid read.

Mexico City, sometime in the 1970s. The government is cracking down on student protests, often forcefully, with shadowy gangs enlisted to do the dirty work. Elvis – a pseudonym only – has found himself part of one of these gangs, roughing up reporters and stealing information for his boss. It’s not the life he dreamed of, but it got him out of his dead-end hometown and he’s determined to never go back. At first glance, Elvis has little in common with Maite – a secretary who lives for vinyl records and the comic series ‘Secret Romance’. However, the disappearance of a student protestor named Leonora sets both of them on a path to find her. Against a backdrop of violence, hitmen, and simmering secrets, their lives draw inexorably closer – and Elvis finds himself captivated by a woman who shares both his love of rock and roll and the loneliness in his heart.

‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a brutal story. Elvis is the ultimate anti-hero – a gangster beating up journalists and students just on his boss’s say-so. Moreno-Garcia does a wonderful job getting the reader to sympathise with him despite his violent actions. Elvis is obsessed with rock and roll and the West – idolising Elvis Presley- and dreams of success in a childlike, abstract way. He uses music to escape from the harsh reality of his life. Elvis is young and naive, and while he’s not always a nice character he’s one it’s easy to feel sorry for and root for.

Maite, on the other hand, is a self-deprecating woman to the extent it occasionally gets on the reader’s nerves. Just turning thirty, Maite adores romance – she troves through romantic comics, especially ‘Secret Romance’, and despairs of the fact that she still hasn’t found someone to share her life with. She has an independent streak, but – possibly due to the opinions of her family and society at large – hates herself for what she perceives as her inadequacies. She’s not pretty enough, not smart enough, not good enough at conversation. Maite is a perfectly average young woman and that drives her to despair. Like Elvis, it’s easy to feel sorry for Maite – but she’s harder to root for, especially as she inevitably makes terrible choices.

The best part of this book is the setting. Moreno-Garcia paints an incredible picture of 1970s Mexico, transporting the reader to a slice of history where danger lurks around every corner yet the mundanity of everyday life trundles on. There’s the constant fear of riots and the police, but also ordinary struggles like paying the mechanic and dealing with nagging parents. The dichotomy works beautifully, and whilst this is exaggerated pulp fiction its based on fact and those influences are fascinating.

The plot is entertaining. Most of the twists are easily guessable, but there are a few surprises, and this is intrinsically designed to be an easy-read book rather than one with too much hidden below the surface. It’s the perfect read after a long day when you want to switch off and not think too much. There are lots of references to the rock and roll scene – not something I’m familiar with, but fans will likely appreciate them.

The main weakness is a certain degree of separation between the reader and the characters. Maite and Elvis always feel like characters rather than fully rounded people. They’re a little too caricaturic – especially Maite. It’s still enjoyable, and it’s definitely a noir rather than a character study – but it would be nice if Maite was taken a little outside her romance-loving secretary stereotype.

Overall, ‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a solid noir novel with an intriguing historical basis and lots of references to the rock and roll music scene. It highlights once again Moreno-Garcia’s sheer versatility as a novelist, and provides a peek at a slice of history rarely referenced in modern media. Recommended for fans of noir and thriller novels along with those looking for a readable piece of historical fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley and Jo Fletcher Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

More Silvia Moreno-Garcia reviews can be found here: Mexican Gothic, The Beautiful Ones

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 17th August 2021

Robyn Reviews: A Master of Djinn

‘A Master of Djinn’ is a fun alternate history novel, exploring a version of early 1900s Cairo where djinn roam the streets and, rather than being a British colony, Egypt has shaken them off and struck out as its own world power. At times it can get a bit too sucked into description and context, but for the most part its a fast-paced read packed with strong characters and an intriguing mystery. This is P Djeli Clark’s debut novel, but is set in the same world as some of his previous short stories including ‘A Dead Djinn in Cairo’. Reading those stories provides context but is not necessary to enjoy the book.

Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Cairo Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, but she’s no rookie – she even prevented the destruction of the universe last summer. So when a wealthy English expatriate’s secret society are all mysteriously burned to death, she finds herself put on the case. The society was dedicated to al-Jahiz – the man who opened the gate between the mundane and magical realms fifty years ago before vanishing into the unknown. Fatma’s case becomes more complicated when a mysterious figure appears, proclaiming himself to be al-Jahiz returned and instigating unrest on the streets of Cairo. Alongside her new partner agent Hadia and her fiery girlfriend Siti, Fatma must unravel the mystery before Cairo is thrust into chaos.

Fatma is a brilliant protagonist. As the first young woman to crack the Ministry, she has a chip on her shoulder the size of a small boulder and an independent streak wider than the Nile. She’s smart, a strong fighter, and takes her job seriously, but she’s also incredibly stubborn and set in her ways. Adjusting to having a new partner is difficult for her, as is taking other people’s advice on a case where even she might be out of her depth. Her growth throughout the novel is excellent, and she has some wonderful interactions with both Hadia and Siti.

Hadia and Siti are only seen through Fatma’s eyes, but they’re also complex, strong characters. Hadia, like Fatma, has struggled to crack the Ministry’s patriarchal system – but unlike Fatma, who wanders around in tailored Western suits and cows others with the force of her personality, Hadia has done it all in colourful Hijabs and a polite, unassuming manner. Between her devout Muslim faith and rule-abiding attitude, Hadia is constantly underestimated – including by Fatma. However, Hadia is just as competent as Fatma, and seeing how she constantly surprises people with her ability is both wonderful and sad to read. Hadia and Fatma are interesting case studies in how women are expected to change in order to be taken seriously, and their similarities and differences are brilliantly written.

Siti is an incorrigible flirt, a passionate devotee of the forbidden old Egyptian religions, and a generally mysterious character. Her and Fatma’s relationship is intriguing – there’s a lot of attraction there, but its clear at the start that the two don’t really understand each other. As the story goes on, that starts to change, and Clark does a great job of making the transition feel authentic.

This is an audacious novel. It creates an entirely new world filled with djinn, goblins, ghuls, dragons, and other fantastical creatures, alongside crafting an alternative history for Cairo from the point the British tried to invade in the mid-nineteenth century. Alongside its main mystery plotline, there are subplots on women’s rights, colourism, and the rights of the half-djinn. The scope is admirable, but in trying to fit everything into a four-hundred page book, Clark sometimes finds himself bogged down in paragraphs of rote description, losing some of the tension and flow. This is his first step from short stories to novels, and he’s simply taken on a bit too much for a single urban fantasy. However, the potential for his world is exceptional, and hopefully any sequels will smooth out some of the rough edges and flow much more smoothly.

Overall, ‘A Master of Djinn’ is a solid historical urban fantasy exploring an intriguing alternative version of Egypt. It has a few teething issues – as is to be expected of a debut novel – but still tells an excellent, fast-paced story with a cast of likeable and complex characters. Recommended for fans of urban fantasy, steampunk, and Islamic mythology.

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

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 19th August 2021

Robyn Reviews: Deeplight

‘Deeplight’ is a brilliantly crafted young adult fantasy about the sea, the power of stories, and surviving toxic friendships. A difficult but powerful read in places, it’s a moving and highly worthwhile tale. I’ve never read a Frances Hardinge book before, but on the basis of this I can see why she’s so highly regarded.

Hark, a fourteen-year-old street urchin and scavenger, scratches out a living diving for relics of the lost gods. However, his best friend Jelt is now content with them remaining mere scavengers, and insists of them taking more and more dangerous missions. Jelt’s risk-taking almost costs him his life. But Hark will do anything to protect his friend – even if it means compromising not just who Jelt is, but what he is.

There are several layers within ‘Deeplight’. There’s Hark and Jelt’s friendship – a complex bond of brotherhood after being abandoned by everyone else, with all the strength of family but also so much toxicity and resentment. There’s stories and their power – Hark is, at heart, a storyteller, and the way he regards them will resonate with any reader. Then there’s the mythology of the world – the history of the gods of the Undersea, and the cataclysm which destroyed them all, leaving a society dependent on history and scraps of their once mighty power. These are all brilliantly combined, creating a story as changeable and as captivating as the sea.

Hark is an exceptionally likeable protagonist. He’s had a difficult life – but where Jelt has been hardened by it, Hark has been softened, becoming as slippery and hard to pin down as an eel. An accomplished liar, Hark is made of secrets and stories. However, Hark has a heart of gold. Both he and Jelt are ambitious – but where Jelt’s ambition is entirely selfish, Hark is less comfortable leaving others behind or compromising his morals for his own gain. Hark’s growth throughout the novel is amazing, and while it can be difficult reading about his struggles at the start, it’s worth it to see just how far he’s come by the end.

‘Deeplight’ was written after Hardinge was asked by a Deaf fan if she’d ever write a book with Deaf characters, and it features a number of Deaf characters – known as sea-kissed. In this society, being Deaf is highly respected, and everyone is competent in both spoken and sign language. This is a brilliant addition, seamlessly fitting into Hardinge’s world. The vast majority of the novel is from Hark’s perspective, but there are occasional passages from the point of view of Selphin, a Deaf girl who gives a fascinating insight into what it’s like living with no hearing. Not being Deaf, I can’t speak about the accuracy of the representation, but its very apparent that Hardinge has done her research.

This is a slow burn of a novel. The first 100 pages are a little less engaging, mostly setting the scene for everything to come – but it’s worth it for the power and brilliance of the ending. Once this finds its feet, it’s a real page-turner, easy to read in a single sitting. It’s definitely one to persevere with even if the start feels a little sedate.

Overall, ‘Deeplight’ is an excellent novel, covering a lot of important and powerful themes in a highly enjoyable and readable way. Recommended for all fans of books about the sea, along with those who like to read about complex human relationships, the power of stories, and incredibly fascinating monsters – human and otherwise.

Published by MacMillan Children’s
Hardback: 31st October 2019
Paperback: 2nd April 2020

Robyn Reviews: Ace of Spades

‘Ace of Spades’ is a searing thriller exploring institutional racism in US private schools. It’s a powerful read exploring some hard-hitting topics, but despite the difficult subject matter it’s incredibly fast-paced and readable.

Niveus Private Academy is one of the most elite US schools, attended almost exclusively by the super-rich and churning out students destined for Harvard or Yale. Amongst these students, Devon Richards doesn’t fit in. He’s an exceptionally talented musician – but his father’s in prison, and his mother can barely scrape together enough money to pay the fees even with his hefty scholarship. Not to mention the fact he’s one of only two Black students in his year. The other, Chiamaka, has generational wealth thanks to her Italian father – but she still straightens her hair and puts on a persona every day to try and make herself fit in. She’s fought her way up to Head Girl, but her fight hasn’t made her many friends. When the two find themselves the target of an anonymous texter, Aces, determined to spill their darkest secrets, they must band together if they want to keep their future – and possibly themselves – alive.

Devon is an exceptionally likeable protagonist. He struggles with school – struggles being around people who have too much when his family struggles to even pay the bills – but he loves his family, and his passion for music is incredible. He’s desperate to make it to Juilliard to make his mother’s sacrifices for his education worth it. He’s also gay, but terrified of that coming out – terrified of how his mum might react. Devon skips classes and sometimes deals drugs to try and make sure there’s enough money in the house for the bills to be paid, but he has a good heart and does everything with the best intentions and to try and make his mother proud. He’s the sort of character you want to give a hug to for the majority of the book.

Chiamaka takes longer to warm up to, but she’s a complex character and very well crafted. She wears masks in every moment of her life – a Head Girl mask at school, a Good Nigerian Daughter mask at home with her parents, a Bubbly Fun Girl mask with her best friend Jamie. Beneath the masks, Chiamaka just wants to be good enough – to make it into medical school at Yale and prove that she deserves it. She wants so badly to be liked and respected that she forces herself to be other people because she isn’t convinced that she deserves it as herself. Her battles with self-esteem are hugely relatable, and exacerbated by being the only Black girl at her school and hyper-aware of it. Her growth throughout the book is excellent and it’s amazing seeing her confidence gradually change from a crafted, false confidence to a genuine sense of belief in herself.

The plot is fast-paced and twisty, with a constant sense of tension and unease. It starts as simple high school drama – an anonymous texter spreading gossip – but quickly takes on a more sinister tone. There are side plots dealing with homophobia, incarceration, gangs, and internalised racism. These are all dealt with very well, provoking a great deal of thought without being too heavy for a YA reader. They also fit into the flow of the story, never distracting or coming across as preachy. For a debut novel its an assured and impressive read.

There are a few minor quibbles. There’s a sapphic relationship between two bisexual female characters which comes out of nowhere and has absolutely no on page chemistry – a shame, as every other relationship in the book is well-crafted. The plot is also a bit over-exaggerated which can occasionally take away from the important messages it puts across – but then again, this is fiction, and thriller as a genre is often over-exaggerated. Still, these are tiny blips on an otherwise resoundingly excellent copybook.

Overall, ‘Ace of Spades’ is an excellent YA thriller tackling some important and heavy issues in a powerful yet readable way. Recommended for fans of both YA and adult thrillers and anyone who enjoys TV shows like Gossip Girl.

Published by Usborne
Paperback: 10th June 2021