Robyn Reviews: Some Desperate Glory

Emily Tesh is a previous Astounding Award and World Fantasy Award winner for her novellas, but Some Desperate Glory marks her first novel. It’s hard to believe it from the sheer scope of this space opera, diving into difficult places around indoctrination, racism, family, and personal responsibility for collective horrors. This is a dark and occasionally difficult read but brilliantly written, a slow burn that sucks the reader in then takes them on a wild ride.

All her life, Kyr has trained to avenge the murder of planet Earth. Bred for war and raised on Gaea station with the last defiant strands of humanity, she’s preparing to face the Wisdom – the weapon that gave the enemy Majoda their victory over humanity. However, when Command sends her brother on a suicide mission and her to the Nursery to bear sons until she dies trying, Kyr decides she must take humanity’s revenge into her own hands. Accompanied by her brother’s technology-whizz friend and a lonely captive alien, Kyr escapes everything she’s ever known – and discovers a universe more complicated than she ever could have imagined.

This is one of those stories its best to go into knowing as little as possible and allowing the twists and turns to surprise and shock you. It starts slowly, introducing the reader to Kyr and her world on Gaea station – and these early passages need a little bearing with. Kyr is a strict follower, obeying rules to the letter and not questioning what she’s told. Her character is intentionally inflexible, unthinklingly callous – and consequently difficult to like. Her development throughout the story is wondrous mainly due to its believability, and the challenging early passages are needed to allow this development to flourish: but that doesn’t make them an easier read.

The book is only told from Kyr’s perspective, but her supporting cast also feel well fleshed out. Tesh clearly has a strength in creating multi-layered, complex characters who are allowed to change and grow throughout the story whilst remaining true to core values.

The plot starts slowly but develops into a fast-paced ride, reminiscent of travelling along a headphone cable someone’s just pulled out of a bag: its all going smoothly, then suddenly there are knots and tangles and nothing makes sense, but with patience everything is revealed and slots together nicely. It tackles big topics including racism, fascism, and reproductive freedom, but succeeds in keeping entertainment value and avoiding feeling like its preaching. There are multiple subplots, each of which add depth and fit seamlessly into the main narrative. For those looking for romance, that isn’t really one of them – there’s both achillean and sapphic representation, but a developing relationship would be challenging with how much else is going on.

The worldbuilding is both simple and incredibly detailed. The base idea – a war between Earth and a race of spacefaring aliens, leaving small rebel faction of humanity plotting revenge on a small space station – has been done plenty of times before, but its the intricacy of this that makes it feel fresh and unique. The psychology is explored down to the minutiae, and each society introduced has believable social norms clearly influenced by the history weaved into the storyline. It doesn’t quite have the sociology of a Becky Chambers novel, but it replaces this with a widened scope and willingness to dig down into the gritty bits that her lighter-hearted novels tend to leave well alone.

Overall, this is a triumphant debut likely to perform strongly in award season – a creative tale that’s both thought-provoking and entertaining. Highly recommended.

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 13th April 2023

Thank you to Orbit for providing an ARC. This does not affect the content of this review.

Robyn Reviews: The Final Strife

‘The Final Strife’ is Saara El-Arifi’s debut, a sweeping epic fantasy inspired by her Ghanaian and Sudanese heritage. The premise is excellent, but it takes a long time to grow into itself, and the initially unlikeable characters make the start especially slow. By the end this is an engaging and enjoyable read, with a solid ending that makes you want to read on – but the work it takes to get there prevents this from hitting its potential heights.

In this world, social status is determined by blood. Red blood equals the elite – Embers, the ruling class, with access to blood magic and control. Blue blood means the workers – Dustings – a poor faction with dreams of resistance. Clear is the blood of the invisible – Ghostings – slaves with no rights, constantly overlooked and oppressed. However, eighteen years ago, a group of Dustings exchanged twelve of their children with Ember children – and now one of those children has come of age. A pity, then, that rather than becoming the fated Chosen One, Sylah has been broken by the death of her family and drifts along, surviving only with the help of drugs, alcohol, and an illegal fighting ring. However, with the return of someone unexpected from her past, Sylah finds herself thrust back into the world of resistance. Can she overcome everything to be what she was intended to be – a saviour?

There are four characters granted a perspective in this book – Sylah, Anoor, Hassa, and Jond – but Sylah is clearly the protagonist. Bitter, worn-down, and deeply addicted to Joba seeds, she’s an extremely difficult character to like. She weilds anger not just as a weapon but as a survival mechanism, leaving her short-sighted and rash. She longs to be more than she is but the thought of putting in the work to get there is anathema. Sylah cares strongly about certain others, and about the rights of the oppressed – but it’s initially difficult to parse out how much of that is true empathy and how much is self-interest. It’s easy to feel sorry for Sylah, but much harder to connect with her. As the story develops, she starts to think more before she acts and allows herself to start to care for others, although she remains a caustic personality. El-Arifi makes a brave narrative choice choosing Sylah for her protagonist, and I’m not entirely convinced it was the best one.

Anoor gets the most page time after Sylah and is very different – although in another life the two characters could have taken each others place. One of the Dusting children left with an Ember family, Anoor has been raised in a life of luxury and privilege – but her family have never allowed her to forget that she is not truly one of them. Caring but self-indulgent, Anoor enjoys good food, fashion, and reading her zines – she’s a dreamer rather than a doer. However, when pushed, Anoor is determined, creative, and incredibly strong. Anoor has the strongest character arc, and despite the initial impression of the pampered princess she’s much easier to connect to than Sylah, providing a welcome addition to the narrative.

Hassa and Jond are given far less page time, although arguably Hassa has the most interesting perspective. A Ghosting, she has led a hard life – but also a fairly invisible one, allowing her to see things hidden from her contemporaries. The relationship between Hassa and Sylah is intriguing, and I hope more time is given to her in the sequel. Jond is never given the time to fully develop, so its difficult to have any opinion on him – I suspect he will play a larger part in later books.

The representation in this book is excellent. Sylah’s sexuality is never labelled but she has sexual relationships with multiple genders. The society has three accepted genders and individuals can identify however they please – Hassa is a trans woman taking hormones, which never impacts on her role in the story at all. Hassa, like all Ghostings, is also disabled and uses sign language. Everything is crafted to be part of the story but not key to it, and its nice seeing such effortless diversity in fantasy.

The plot is strong, using the trope of a training plotline and a competition to elect the new leaders. The first 100-150 pages are exposition, but once the training gets underway this becomes well paced and engaging, with a good balance between trilogy-furthering subplots and the main competition plot of the novel. There’s less fighting than might be expected in a novel about vengeance, but the fight scenes that do feature are well written. The writing in general is gritty and dark in places but suits the story well.

The worldbuilding leaves plenty of unanswered questions for future books, but works. The magic system, again, isn’t utilised as much as might be expected, but has plenty of potential for exploration going forward. There’s a great deal of incentive to read on to get some answers – a key element when writing a trilogy.

Personally, I would have liked a different distribution of character perspectives. The start is too slow and too much time is spent with Sylah, the most challenging character to connect to. This would be an easier and likely more enjoyable read if more early page time was given to Hassa and Anoor. For an epic fantasy, this is on the short side at under 500 pages, so using an extra 50-100 to get that greater reader connection wouldn’t make it too unwieldy. However, other readers will likely appreciate the shorter length and may find the plot engaging enough not to need a likeable protagonist. Those who enjoyed books like ‘The Rage of Dragons‘ should find plenty to love here.

Overall, this is a solid debut with an excellent premise just let down by a slow start. Future installments in the trilogy have plenty to build on to be excellent novels. Recommended for fans of epic fantasy who are happy to wait for the story to unfold.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 23rd June 2022
Paperback: 2nd March 2023

Robyn Reviews: The Drowned Woods

‘The Drowned Woods’ is part heist novel, part an exploration of Welsh mythology, and fully an immersive and entertaining read. Set in the same world as Lloyd-Jones’ previous novel ‘The Bone Houses‘, it draws on the strengths of the previous novel and adds to them, producing a more layered book. No knowledge of the previous novel is required to read and enjoy this, but the epilogue hits hard to those with knowledge of its predecessor.

Eighteen year old Mer is the last living Water Diviner. Having escaped a life of servitude under the Prince, where she was forced to murder hundreds on his command, she’s living hidden in a small village – until her old handler returns with a proposition. He wants to end the prince’s power once and for all. Together with a crew of hesitant allies including a man cursed by the Fae, the lady of thieves, and a corgi, they set off to track down a magical well – the source of the kingdom’s riches. But it’s not easy to topple the most powerful person in the land – and surrounded by ulterior motives, it’s unclear who Mer can trust.

Mer makes a solid and relatable protagonist. Like ‘The Bone Houses’, ‘The Drowned Woods’ chooses to use established YA tropes rather than breaking the mould – meaning that Mer is a powerful Chosen One who has been wronged by those in power and is out for revenge. She’s strong, creative, but with serious trust issues and a habit of lashing out before thinking. She has elements of Vin from ‘Mistborn‘ and Lola from the ‘Shadow Game‘ trilogy, and fans of strong female characters in general will appreciate her.

The supporting cast is excellent, with the relationships between characters expertly written. Fane, a man cursed by the Fae to cause the death of seven others, is the highlight – he’s a kindhearted man with a keen eye for justice, and always accompanied by his faithful corgi. He complements Mer perfectly – where she rushes into things, he stops to ponder; where she starts with violence, this is always his last resort. Despite this, they develop a deep understanding – they’re both pure of heart in a group where sincerity is a forgotten concept.

Ifanna, Mer’s ex-girlfriend and the heir to a family of thieves, is another highlight. A girl with a point to prove, she’s showy and extravagant and an exceptional thief – but she’s made mistakes, and doesn’t always come at things with the right perspective. Her character arc is very strong, and the dynamic between her, Mer, and Fane is fascinating to observe.

Mer is never referred to on-page as bisexual or pansexual, but her attraction to both men and women is well-written without fuss or over-emphasis. Its nice seeing more YA where this is simply fact and doesn’t have to be a plot point.

The plot is the main area where this book is stronger than ‘The Bone Houses’. It’s tauter, faster-paced, avoids exposition, and has more unpredictable twists and turns. Lloyd-Jones still follows well-trodden paths in many of her narrative choices, but she also takes a few risks and they pay off in a more entertaining novel. The Welsh mythology is also allowed to play a slightly stronger role with more explicit references to origins of magic and the role of the Fae.

Overall, this is an excellent YA fantasy with solid characters and well-written character relationships, an entertaining and well-paced plot, and an excellent atmosphere. A recommended read.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 16th August 2022

Robyn Reviews: The Bone Houses

‘The Bone Houses’ by Emily Lloyd-Jones is an enjoyable, if conventional, YA fantasy novel, set against the intriguing backdrop of Welsh mythology. The writing flows, the characters are engaging, and whilst this doesn’t win many points for originality, it executes the staples of the genre with aplomb.

Seventeen-year-old Ryn is desperaely trying to hold together her family, and her family’s prized business: gravedigging for her remote village’s graveyard. Both are in dire straits. Since the disappearance of her father and uncle, Ryn has been the sole breadwinner – but her uncle left debts, and there aren’t enough deaths to make a living gravedigging. There’s also the small matter of the dead in Colbren refusing to stay dead.

Enter Ellis: an apprentice mapmaker with a mysterious past. Claiming to want to more accurately map Colbren, his arrival coincides with an uptick in the risen dead, or Bone Houses – forcing Ryn into a difficult position. What will she risk to save her family and town – and perhaps stop the Bone Houses for good?

The story alernates between Ryn and Ellis’s perspectives, although Ryn feels like the primary protagonist. Strong-willed, impulsive, and with a huge heart, Ryn closely resembles many other YA protagonists – but that doesn’t make her any less easy to connect to. She’s frustrated – at her situation, her age, the politics of the village, and even her family – but she cares deeply, and everything comes from a good place.

Ellis is kept more of a mystery. A mapmaker raised in luxury as part of the Prince’s household, he’s treated with suspicion by Ryn and the residents of Colbren, who don’t believe he’s there simply to make maps. He’s too well dressed and spoken to blend in – but even the local aristocrat sees an intruder rather than a kindred spirit. Ellis is inquisitive but quiet, and his connection to the reader is slower, his story taking time to unfold. However, his softness works as a contrast to Ryn’s obvious strength – and it becomes increasingly clear he’s strong in his own way.

One of the strongest aspects of this book is its depiction of chronic pain, a condition Ellis lives with. There’s no use of magic to minimise it and no attempt to define him by it – it is simply there, always in the background and regularly affecting how much he can do. It’s unusual to see pain as something which limits characters in fantasy rather than something they fight through, and the difference is refreshing.

The plot is traditional: once the characters and incentives are introduced, it proceeds to a quest-type story with various hurdles along the way. Naturally, there’s a romantic subplot woven in, and this is slow-burn and well handled, complimenting rather than distracting from the main arc. There’s also an animal companion, a goat, which is always a fun addition to a fantasy. The plot springs up few surprises but is enjoyable, easy to follow, and creates a slightly sinister but never unduly scary atmosphere. Whilst this is a YA novel with a seventeen year old protagonist, this could easily be read by younger readers, including middle-grade aged readers advanced for their age.

The Welsh mythology inspiration is one of the few unique elements, and this is intriguing. I’m not familiar with the source material so can’t speak to its accuracy, but it makes a pleasing change from the more common Greek or Nordic origins. The tales are woven into the narrative well, with each of Ryn and Ellis having heard slightly different versions, highlighting the discrepancies intrinsic to oral storytelling tradition.

Overall, ‘The Bone Houses’ deviates little from the standard tropes of the YA fantasy genre, but it executes them well, and wins extra points for its positive disability representation and unusual source material. A recommended read for all YA fantasy fans.

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Paperback: 15th October 2020
Hardback: 31st October 2019

Robyn Reviews: Mio’s Kingdom

Mio’s Kingdom, translated by Jill Morgan and first published in 1954, is a Swedish children’s classic. A light and optimistic tale of good versus evil, its a straightforward story with much to appeal to both the child and adult reader.

Karl Anders Nilsson is living with foster parents in Stockholm when he finds a bottle with something moving inside. Knowing immediately from ‘A Thousand And One Nights’ that this is a genie, he frees it – and finds himself taken away to Farawayland. Here, he discovers that his true name is Mio, and he is the lost son of the King. He befriends another boy named Pompoo, and together they explore Farawayland with his horse, Miramis. As they explore, Mio comes to know of his father’s enemy, the evil Sir Kato of the Outer Land. Mio discovers that he is prophesised to battle the evil Sir Kato, and travels on a quest to the Outer Land to face this foe.

This is escapist fantasy, a chance for children to dream of a life where they are the hero. Most of the quests are fun and lighthearted, with a core theme of love saving the day. Be good and kindhearted, this book says, and you will always triumph over evil.

Mio is easy to relate to. At the start of the book, he is sad because he feels unwanted by his foster parents who would really have preferred a girl. Compared to his friend Ben, who has loving parents, his life feels very cold. It’s impossible not to be drawn to this child who just wants to be loved – to want his dreams to come true.

As an adult reader, there must of course be a suspension of disbelief – but it’s freeing to spend an hour in Mio’s fairytale new life. Even his trials against Sir Kato avoid being too dark. This is a hopeful book, one that brings a smile to the reader.

Some children’s classics do not age well into adulthood – this is not one of them. A recommended read both for the young and the young at heart.

Published by Oxford University Press
Paperback: January 1954

Jackie reviews Mio’s Kingdom here.

Robyn Reviews: Legends and Lattes

‘Legends and Lattes’ is a slice-of-life fantasy about an orc who, tired of a life as a mercenary, decides to retire to the city of Thune and open a coffee shop. The catch? The inhabitants of the city have never heard of coffee. A tale of found family and persistence in the face of adversity, this is a heartwarming read – although one that takes time to get going.

Viv is a solid main character – quite literally. As a recently retired orc barbarian, she’s used to getting her way through physical intimidation – the practicalities of opening a coffee shop and persuading residents who’ve never heard of coffee are a mystery to her. Determined, strong, and with a good heart inside her gruff exterior, she makes a likeable if not standout protagonist. She can be somewhat blind to interpersonal relationships, but despite that she always manages to surround herself with good people.

Cal, Tandri, and Thimble make up the main supporting cast. Each have intriguing backgrounds that are only minimally explored, bringing up plenty of potential for spinoff or prequel novels (a prequel surrounding Viv is already in the works). Tandri, a succubus, is especially interesting, but the interplay between all the characters is excellent. Baldree is better at weaving relationships than the individual characters, and the way these evolve is neatly done.

The worldbuilding is minimal – Thune is a generic fantasy city with the standard repertoire of high fantasy races such as dwarves, orcs, and gnomes. In many ways, this is a contemporary novel that happens to feature fantasy characters and a low-tech setting. The simplicity works, allowing a focus on character relationships and the central plot.

The writing is conventional, with a central plot of the day-to-day travails of running a coffee shop and starting your life anew, and subplots involving local politics and an old enemy from Viv’s barbarian days. The subplots serve dual purposes of rounding out details of Viv’s old life and raising the stakes of an otherwise very quiet novel. Overall, the subplots enhance rather than distract, although don’t expect duels or great bloodshed.

The main issue with this novel is the pacing. The first half is focused on establishing the coffe shop, and this is very slow, not offering the reader much chance to connect with Viv or the storyline. Things improve in the second half, but it isn’t until the last 20% that the reader could be called fully invested. With stronger character work, some of these issues might have been ironed out – but this is a debut, and Baldree certainly succeeds in persuading the reader to read something a bit different.

Overall, ‘Legends and Lattes’ is a solid debut and a nice change of pace from the typical high fantasy. Recommended to fans of TJ Klune’s ‘The House In the Cerulean Sea’ and ‘Under the Whispering Door‘.

Published by Tor (Pan Macmillan)
Hardback: 10th November 2022
(Previously self-published by the author)

Robyn Reviews: The Whispering Dark

‘The Whispering Dark’ is an atmospheric debut with shades of Ninth House, Gallant, and The Raven Boys. A blend of fantasy, dark academia, mystery, and romance, it draws the reader in and keeps them in a sense of unease and tension until the end. The romance is beautifully crafted and the central mystery clever, if not the most original. This is a book for fans of ambiance rather than plot – but if you let it suck you in you’ll have a wonderful time.

Delaney Meyers-Petrov is tired of being treated like she’s made of glass just because she’s Deaf. When she’s accepted into a prestigious, if controversial, programme at Godbole university, she sees her chance to finally prove herself. However, her new start is stymied by professors who won’t accept her disability – and a stand-offish upperclassman she can’t stop bumping into.

Colton Price died when he was nine years old – then impossibly resurrected several years later at the feet of a green-eyed girl. Twelve years later, that girl has stumbled back into his life. Ordered to stay away from her, he can’t help falling into her orbit – and forming a tenuous alliance as students start turning up dead. But Colton has secrets, and the more Delaney discovers (and hears whispered from the shadows), the more it threatens to tear their forbidden partnership – and the world – apart.

Delaney, otherwise known as Lane, is a fantastic protagonist. Used to being overlooked because of her disability, she’s inquisitive, determined, and desperate to prove herself. She’s also haunted by voices in the shadows, terrified of the dark, and paralyzed by impostor syndrome in an environment where she isn’t quite sure she belongs. Lane draws the reader’s empathy immediately, carrying the novel through sections of mystery where it’s unclear what everything means.

Colton, on the other hand, is arrogant, cold, and deliberately opaque. He has a connection to Lane, and an instinct to help her, but he’s also tied up in secrets upon secrets and it’s clear nothing with him is how it seems. Where Lane is clearly the hero, Colton is harder to place – yet Kelly Andrew manages to draw a connection to the reader. One action leaves a sour taste and slightly spoils Colton’s character, but overall he’s well written in a morally grey role.

The writing is repetitive, heavy on metaphors and atmosphere and light on answers. Fans of books like The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and The Starless Sea will likely get on with it. Those who found these books pretentious are unlikely to find any enjoyment here. It can be a little grating in places – Andrew overdoes the use of glass to describe Lane as delicate – but mostly works well, adding to the gothic nature of the story. This isn’t a book with an intricate magic system or carefully crafted fantasy world – it requires the reader to go with the flow, accepting the supernatural elements for what they are and not questioning the whys.

The romance is one of the highlights. Whilst Colton has an instant fascination with Lane, it’s a slow burn, with a building sense of tension right alongside the central mystery. It’s exquisitely written, palpable long before anything concrete is written on page.

Like most books with a college setting, this straddles the border of YA and adult fantasy. There are strong themes of violence and death, but nothing inappropriate for a YA reader. This is an ideal book for such a reader starting to branch out into adult fantasy.

Overall, this isn’t a book that will work for everyone, but for fans of atmospheric reads, well-crafted romance, and dark academia in all its overwritten glory, this is a recommended read.

Published by Gollancz
Hardback: 20th October 2022

Robyn Reviews: The Book Eaters

“These days, Devon only bought three things from the shops: books, booze, and Sensitive Care skin cream. The books she ate, the booze kept her sane, and the lotion was for Cai, her son. He suffered occasionally from eczema, especially in winter.”

‘The Book Eaters’ is a contemporary fantasy with clever ideas, but one that doesn’t quite carry the reader on its journey. The premise is solid and the plot twists and turns, but the characters lack cohesiveness, losing connection and chipping away at enjoyment. However, the central themes are excellent, and many other readers may enjoy this for the atmosphere and exploration of motherhood.

Set in an alternate version of the present day UK, ‘The Book Eaters’ follows Devon, part of a race of humanoids who eat books to survive – absorbing the contents of everything they consume. In their highly patriarchal society, girls are raised on Fairytales and married young to produce rare, prized book eater children. Devon has no reason to question her life until her children are born – especially her son, who has a rare book eater variant meaning he consumes not books, but human minds. Desperate to protect him, Devon flees book eater society for human society – but she and her son are persecuted by those she has left behind, and without their protection she must find a mind for her son every month to prevent him going mad.

The book utilises dual timelines – the present day, following Devon trying to care for her son but also struggling with alcohol abuse brought on by the horrors she has experienced, and the past, starting at Devon’s childhood and gradually introducing why she’s been forced out of her society. The timelines at first work well, maintaining a sense of mystery and answering key questions in a show-don’t-tell manner. However, with some of the revelations, early characterisation and thoughts in the present day timeline cease to make sense, and the story ties itself in a bit of a problematic knot. Some of the impact is lost, which is a shame as the first half is very strong.

Devon is a character with huge potential. Her views on motherhood are warped by her upbringing and her strange relationship with her son – she loves him, but also fears him and his hunger for minds, and she resents what she has to do to keep him alive. The question of how far a parent would go for their child is central to the story and one of the strongest aspects – but again, later developments slightly dilute the message. There’s also potential for strong exploration around substance abuse, but this potential isn’t utilised as much as it could be. However, Devon is a likeable enough character to carry the story, and her character arc throughout is strong and well-rounded.

The most interesting character is Devon’s son, Cai. Much like the book eaters minds are shaped by the books they read, his entire personality is affected by the minds he consumes, raising intriguing questions around how much he is his own person. Cai’s feelings around his actions and what he has to do to survive are explored more towards the end, and this is one of the best parts of the book. In many ways, this would be a stronger novel if Cai was afforded a point of view – writing this would be immensely challenging, but done well it would enhance the novel. Regardless, Cai is well-written, and whilst he doesn’t get huge amounts of page time, his sections are always thought-provoking.

Book Eater society takes inspiration from seventeenth and eighteenth century England – not the most original, but well crafted and believable, aside perhaps from how they’ve remained under the radar in the social media age. The consequent exploration of feminism and same sex relationships in the context of a highly structured and patriarchal society has been done before but is done well here, as are themes of bodily autonomy and consent. Some sections are deliberately uncomfortable to read, but they’re well-written with no gratuity and strong impact.

Overall, ‘The Book Eaters’ has strengths in its exploration of themes of motherhood, feminism and autonomy, and the creativity of its premise, but the characters can lack cohesion at times and the plot overcomplicates itself with its dual timelines towards the end and starts to fall down on believability. A novel that may appeal to fans of atmospheric reads and the central themes, but that unfortunately didn’t convince me.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 18th August 2022

Robyn Reviews: Babel (or, the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution)

‘Babel’ is one of the most ambitious novels I’ve ever read. It blurs fantasy, historical fiction, social commentary, and linguistics into a shining silver piece of alternate nineteenth century history. As a work of literature it’s a monumental achievement. This is a book to be read slowly and savoured, allowing time to sink into the world and admire the intricacies of each thread. As a story, unfortunately, a little is lost to the sheer scope of everything else going on – but that shouldn’t take away from what RF Kuang has achieved here.

In 1928, a boy is orphaned by cholera in Canton, China. This in itself is not unusual – but this boy, soon to be known as Robin Swift, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell and tutored extensively in Ancient Greek, Latin, and Chinese. The purpose? For Robin to enroll in the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford – colloquially known as Babel. Babel is the crown jewel of the British Empire – the seat of translation, but more importantly silver-working, the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation to magical effect. Silver working has granted the British Empire unparalleled power and helped it colonise the globe. At Oxford, Robin has everything he ever dreamed of – but everything he does furthers colonialisation, betraying his Chinese homeland. Robin finds himself trapped between Babel and those who would work to bring it, and therefore the Empire, down. He must decide what he is willing to sacrifice – and what is required to truly engender revolution.

The research RF Kuang has done to bring this novel to life is exquisite. It’s full of pieces of real nineteenth century history and social and political commentary of the time, each with a slight overlay in the context of silver-working. The worldbuilding is exceptional, absolutely capturing the atmosphere of academia and Oxford, both from the perspective of the average white male student in the nineteenth century, and the foreign, non-white, and not always male students of Babel. Every aspect feels tangible and believable.

Silver-working, the fantasy spin, is a smaller part of the novel, simple but immensely effective. It isn’t explored to its fullest potential, but this is less a fantasy novel and more a novel exploring social and political commentary, so that’s to be expected.

The characters are wonderful. This is a single POV novel with the exception of three interludes towards the end, but Robin is strong enough to carry the story on his own. Robin loves language and loves to learn, but he struggles with his position at Oxford. He’s constantly grappling with issues of identity, of privilege, of Empire, and of what it is he actually wants. He loves his classmates – they’re the three people he’s closest to in the world – but he’s also, in many ways, very alone. Robin is a likeable and relatable protagonist, making many aspects of the book much more accessible. His development throughout is immense, and whilst his actions at the end may prove divisive, its easy to see why.

Robin’s classmates – Ramy, Victoire, and Letty – each add a new dimension to the story. Ramy, Robin’s roommate and a Muslim constantly referred to as Hindu by his Oxford contemporaries, is quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and observant in a way Robin is not. Victoire, Haitian in origin from a family still wounded by the slave trade, is fiery and downright angry at times in a way Robin initially struggles to understand, but gradually comes to. Letty, an English rose, is vastly different to her contemporaries – kind and easy to love and absolutely determined to fit in, but always on a different course by consequence of her birth. The characters play off each other well, and each feels well-rounded.

There are a few minor criticisms. At just over five hundred pages this isn’t the longest book in the world – especially for fantasy – but the first half is very slow, requiring concentration and patience as the worldbuilding and characters are established. Kuang does well at creating atmosphere and a sense of foreboding before things start to unravel, but the change of pace doesn’t quite work, and several points lack the emotional impact they should have. The ending itself is likely to divide opinion. I understand why Kuang did it, but it did feel a little like a cop out. This is definitely a book which prioritises the philosophy and social commentary over the story.

Overall, Babel is a monumental undertaking and Kuang almost carries it off. It’s a book with crossover appeal to fantasy, historical fiction, and literary fiction fans, and worth a read for anyone who enjoys social commentary, exquisite worldbuilding, British history, and the complexities of human psychology. There are many things to love and the impact lingers after the final page. A recommended read.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 23rd August 2022

RF Kuang is also the author of The Poppy War trilogy – I review the first book here.

Robyn Reviews: Truthwitch

‘Truthwitch’ is the start of a high fantasy series right on the border between YA and adult. Its action packed with well fleshed out characters, strong relationships, immense worldbuilding, and generally everything you need for a superb fantasy novel. Like all fantasy stories, it takes a little while to adjust to the setting, but once you’re in it grips you tight and doesn’t let you go.

Safiya and Iseult have a habit of finding trouble – but after a clash with a powerful Guildmaster and terrifying Bloodwitch, their lives are upended. Forced to flee their Venaza City home, the Threadsisters find a reluctant ally in Prince Merik – who sees an opportunity to bring trade to his starving people once more. However, the Bloodwitch is hot on their heels – and Safiya, a rare and unregistered Truthwitch, must avoid capture at all costs, lest she be used in the age-old struggle between Empires. With war on the horizon, the friends will stop at nothing for their freedom – and to keep their power out of enemies hands.

The absolute highlight of this book is the friendship between Safiya and Iseult. These two young women are not related by blood, but they’re the most important people in each other’s lives, sacrificing everything for each other. In many ways, they’re quite different, but they compliment each other like two halves of a whole. Its lovely reading a fantasy that celebrates friendship, and paints deep emotional bonds without forcing them to be romantic.

There are four primary perspectives – Safiya, Iseult, Merik, and the Bloodwitch Aeduan – and each is engaging, bringing a new element to the story. The alternating is done well, with no leaps that throw the reader out of the story or distract from a sideplot – each furthers the narrative and gradually makes the worldbuilding more clear. Iseult and Aeduan have the most mystery, with clear potential for development in subsequent entries – but the ending twist also ensures a prominent role for Safiya and Merik.

The worldbuilding is excellently done. The reader is launched straight into the action, with no exposition or explanation. There’s a little initial confusion, but the basic concepts quickly become clear: three main Empires, coming to the end of a twenty-year Treaty which ended an ancient war (but greatly favoured one side), and each containing elemental witches. Witches powers can be specific (Voicewitches, which can send messages to each other over great distances) or broad (Waterwitches, with control over the element of water), and are more common in certain empires – Marstock has an affinity for fire, whilst Nubrevna has mastery over air. These powers are tied to ancient wells – one for each element – which currently lie dormant, waiting for the next Cahr Awen: a pair of matched witches which bring balance and harmony. The concepts are simple, and woven seamlessly into the narrative, allowing the reader to understand just enough as they go along whilst maintaining an immense sense of mystery.

The plot is clever, twisty, and with multiple elements of mystery that will likely only be explained in subsequent books. Dennard does brilliantly at sliding in hints, and whilst some are obvious to the seasoned fantasy reader, that doesn’t make the concept any less smart.

The romance is one of the weaker parts of the book. There’s a large element of insta-love – and whilst that somewhat fits with the concept of Threads between people that is central to the magic of the story, it isn’t the most satisfying to read. Admittedly, Dennard does brilliantly at creating chemistry and making the attraction believable, but it’s still a bit too fast to be fully convincing.

Overall, ‘Truthwitch’ is an excellent addition to the high fantasy genre, and fills the gap between YA and adult fantasy with aplomb. Recommended for all older YA fans and those looking for an entertaining fantasy story.

Published by Tor (Pan Macmillan)
Paperback: 23rd February 2016