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

Robyn Reviews: The City We Became

‘The City We Became’ is one of the most inventive urban fantasy novels I’ve ever read. The premise is spectacularly creative and Jemisin carries it out brilliantly, with a real sense of tension and atmosphere throughout. The ending is a little weaker than the rest of the novel, but this is the start of an intended series so some loose ends are inevitable. A highly recommended read.

Every city has a a soul – an identity. When cities get big and established enough, that identity starts to manifest – always choosing a human caretaker for this process. New York is finally coming of age. But New York is too big and too diverse to have just one soul – instead, its got five. Five new city protectors. Each of the five is waking up confused, unsure what’s happening to them as the city takes hold. But they don’t have long to figure things out – for cities have an enemy just as ancient and powerful as them, and its coming for them. The five new protectors must come together and learn to trust each other or it will spell New York’s doom.

Distilling an entire city down into a character is a daunting task. Jemisin makes her job slightly easier by dividing New York in five – each a major New York borough – but its still an unimaginably complex idea. Not being a New Yorker, I can’t say how believable her characterisations are – but I can say that they’re all brilliant, diverse characters, fully fleshed out and powerful. Manny (Manhattan), Bronca (The Bronx), and Aislyn (Staten Island) are given marginally more page time than the others, with Bronca a favourite. An older lesbian artist who marched at Stonewall and spent her entire life fighting the system, she has bags of guts and attitude – but she also feels like she’s fought her fight and it’s time for others to take up the mantle. She wants no part in some sort of war between the city and an ancient enemy, content to help run the Bronx’s art gallery and look out for those who otherwise slip through the cracks. It’s wonderful seeing an older female heroine in fantasy, and it’s fascinating seeing how she views the present day. So much has been achieved since she was young and marching, yet so much hasn’t changed. Her observations on the internet – which has almost entirely passed her by – are also interesting; she makes some very astute points about how protest now is simultaneously easier and harder than it was for her.

There’s always a risk with a novel like this of the characters becoming stereotypes, but all of them feel three-dimensional enough for this to be avoided. They also all have elements the reader can sympathise with – even the enemy. Whilst the setup initially appears to be good versus evil, it turns out to be a lot more complicated – all villains have propaganda which sounds good and rational, otherwise they’d never accrue their power.

The writing is excellent. Each character has a distinct voice, with the writing subtly changing depending on whose perspective is taken. The novel moves at a rapid pace, with constant action and new developments and a permanent undercurrent of tension. There aren’t many plot twists until the end – instead, there’s a gradual accumulation of knowledge, changing the reader’s perspective and understanding alongside the protagonists. The final plot twist is blindsiding but also strangely unsatisfying – it feels like a cop out. It’s a single stain on an otherwise excellent book.

This is an urban fantasy novel, but the fantasy elements have most of their roots in science fiction. Saying more would be a spoiler, but this is definitely a novel with crossover appeal to fans of both genres.

Overall, ‘The City We Became’ is a brilliant urban fantasy novel with a creative premise and strong execution. The pacing makes it a fast and engaging read, and the characters are all complex and intriguing. Elements of the ending are unsatisfying, but otherwise this is another excellent offering by one of fantasy’s greatest contemporary authors. Highly recommended for all fans of fantasy and science fiction, along with anyone who’s been to New York.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 24th March 2020 / Paperback: 29th July 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Goblin Emperor

‘The Goblin Emperor’ is a quiet fantasy novel with real emotion and heart. It avoids the battle scenes and epic magical powers usually associated with the fantasy genre, instead focusing entirely on court politics and one man trying to figure out how to rule a country without mortally offending – or being deposed by – all his subjects. There are moments of despair, of anger, of pain – but ultimately this is a hopeful story, an ideal balm for a tough day.

Maia, the emperor’s youngest son, has lived most of his life in exile. An unwanted reminder of the emperor’s fourth wife – and a stain on the Elvish line for his half-Goblin heritage – he’s never been educated on the ways of the Imperial Court, or ever expected to set foot in it. However, when an accident wipes out his father and his three elder brothers, Maia finds himself in the strange position of suddenly being crowned Emperor. He has no friends, no advisors, and no knowledge of court politics. Even worse, the accident might not have been so accidental – and the assassins could come back for Maia at any moment. Surrounded by scheming politicians and gossips, Maia can trust nobody. He must adjust to his new life as emperor and try to get to grips with the intricacies of court life before someone sees fit to depose him – or worse.

Maia is one of the sweetest fantasy protagonists of all time. He cares about everyone and just wants everyone to be happy – an impossible task when running an entire empire. He’s intelligent but quiet, and his lack of poise and tendency to get overwhelmed and flustered mean most others see him as an idiot. More than anything, Maia is lonely. Since his mother died when he was eight he hasn’t had a true friend – his guardian after her death was abusive, leaving him mentally and physically scarred, and as the emperor he can’t be seen to favour anyone. Maia is constantly making mistakes, but he tries his hardest to do the right thing despite his lack of education and understanding. His growth throughout the novel is wonderful to see, and every time he stands up for himself it makes you want to applaud.

While Maia is the only point-of-view character, there are several major supporting characters. Maia can’t be too friendly with any of them, so their depths aren’t fully explored, but all of them still feel well-rounded. There’s Cala and Beshelar, his sworn bodyguards – Cala overly relaxed and informal, Beshelar the complete opposite and a stickler for formality and protocol. There’s Csevet, Maia’s secretary who ensures he isn’t completely clueless what’s going on and essentially runs the empire while he figures out the basics. On the flipside, there’s the Lord Chancellor, a man who starts the novel by trying to delay Maia’s coronation and the rest making his job as emperor as difficult as possible – despite being outwardly helpful. There’s also his late father’s fifth wife, now a widow, who despises him for keeping her own children off the throne. There are hundreds more named characters – which can be overwhelming, and the novel likely doesn’t need so many, but it gives a good impression of how busy court life is and how many people an emperor has to remember.

Aside from Maia, it’s the worldbuilding that makes this novel great. The Elflands in ‘The Goblin Emperor’ have their own patterns of speech – with several different grades of formality depending on who is being addressed – distinct titles, a complex government and political hierarchy, and of course tangled relationships between the prominent families within the Elflands and the other lands on their borders – including the Goblin homeland. The detail is staggering, and Addison weaves it all in with great skill, dripfeeding information to both Maia and the reader gradually so its never overwhelming. The speech patterns in particular take a while to get used to – as do the various titles for people (denoting gender, marital status, and importance, among other things) – but after a while things start to make sense, and it makes the experience in a different culture more immersive.

The plot takes a backseat – this is more a study of a fictional culture, and to a lesser extent a character study of Maia. Events do happen – slowly, with no real overlying arc beyond the development of Maia’s character and the discovery of what caused his father and brothers to die – but there’s more focus on the minutiae of running a country, something which is glossed over in most books. There’s a great deal of attention paid to how it feels to be emperor – the lack of privacy, the inability to truly confide in anyone, the knowledge that everyone is using you for some sort of political gain. There are also smaller threads – Elfland society is patriarchal, and women’s rights are a recurring theme. The issue of having Goblin blood in an Elf-run society is raised less than the blurb would suggest – it seems to be regarded as more of an issue by Maia himself than anyone else, an interesting exploration of internalised racism. Moral dilemmas are regularly posed for both Maia and the reader to consider. Some passages can grow a little tedious – court life is repetitive – but the overall effect is immersive and intriguing.

There are minor issues. Some of the naming customs, combined with the sheer number of characters, mean that certain characters can become very difficult to tell apart and its not always clear why the reader should care. There’s a helpful glossary provided, but having to flick to and from a glossary on a regular basis affects the flow. The book is also probably a shade long – at 450ish pages its average or even short for epic fantasy, but certain sections do start to stray too much into banality and could be trimmed down without affecting the books overall feel. In general, however, its a very strong book, one that takes a very different angle to most fantasy novels and carries it off remarkably.

In summary, ‘The Goblin Emperor’ is a quiet and intimate fantasy novel that acts as a study of court politics and a character study of a young emperor rather than telling a complete story. For those interested in political machinations and what happens in fantasy kingdoms after all the fighting, or just looking for a heartwarming and hopeful read, this is the book for you.

A sequel set in the same world but focusing on a different character, ‘The Witness for the Dead’, was published by Solaris on 22nd July 2021.

Published by Solaris
Paperback: 21st March 2019

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