Book Review: Venom

Venom

Venom, by Saneh Sangsuk (translated by Mui Poopoksakul), tells a story that is fable like in message and construction. Set in a small, rural village in Thailand, depicting a lifestyle from a bygone era, it is populated by farmers and their families alongside religious leaders and their acolytes. The protagonist is a ten year old boy, an only child, whose days are spent caring for his family’s small herd of oxen. He is thoughtful and conscientious with dreams of a future in which his creative skills will be revered by many.

Much of the action takes place over the course of an evening. The boy and his friends are overseeing their grazing cattle, amusing themselves with sport and imaginative play. Backstory to their community is provided, including an accident that left the boy with a deformity. A self-proclaimed medium, who dislikes the boy and his parents’ for their refusal to kowtow to him, puts it about that this is a punishment from the Patron Goddess he claims a connection to.

As the sun begins to set and each of the boys must soon think of getting the oxen safely back to their sheds, the protagonist entertains his friends. This activity disturbs an enormous snake that launches an attack. As friends flee the imminent danger, boy and snake embark on a struggle to the death.

To get the most out of the story it is necessary to set aside the practicalities of the unfolding situation. If taken as metaphor the tale offers much to consider around who will help when most needed. The snake presents as a threat, not just to the boy, and some will use this for selfish ends.

A poignant, engaging story with a strong sense of time and place. Plot may be somewhat surreal but the lyrical prose is a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

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Book Review: Elizabeth of York, The Last White Rose

last white rose

Elizabeth of York, The Last White Rose, is the first book in a new trilogy by historian Alison Weir. It is a novel rather than a biography, thereby enabling the author to fill in gaps between known facts about the woman who became the first Tudor Queen. Elizabeth was the eldest child of King Edward IV of the royal House of York. The simmering rivalry between his kinsfolk, and those of the royal House of Lancaster, festered throughout his reign. It did not help that Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Wydeville, exerted her considerable influence to promote members of her family to positions of power, leading to resentment among those from more established aristocratic families who regarded them as upstarts.

The first half of the book covers the time before young Elizabeth’s marriage, aged nineteen, to King Henry VII. She and her siblings enjoyed the opulent surroundings of the many palaces her father kept, although suffered periods of imprisonment, albeit in comfortable surroundings, when Edward’s position was challenged or defeated. When Richard III took the throne and Elizabeth’s brothers were taken to the tower the family had to make difficult decisions to ensure survival. The disappearance of these two young princes cast a shadow over her remaining years.

Although a political marriage, following Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, Elizabeth and Henry are portrayed as having as happy a marriage as could be hoped for at the time. The country remained unstable, with numerous uprisings to contend with, but the Queen supported her husband, mostly accepting that her own claims to the throne could not be pursued further. A female monarch was unlikely to find the support necessary to rule effectively in late medieval England. As she reflected, had she been a boy she would likely have been killed by rivals.

Elizabeth bore seven children, although several of these died in childhood. When not defending his kingdom from usurpers, Henry put much time and effort into negotiating advantageous marriages for his offspring. He regarded these as a means to secure peace as well as economic benefits.

The story being told offers a window into the day to day life of a Queen during a turbulent period in English history. Elizabeth was expected to give birth to her children and then immediately hand them over to others for care and education. The fine food and clothes she enjoyed were as much for show as her pleasure. Henry wished to be seen as a ruler equal to those much admired in other realms.

The author undoubtedly writes well, although I did find this offering a tad repetitive. It is a lengthy book and key events in the Queen’s life have little to differentiate them. Kings must travel forth to quell dissent. Wives give birth and mourn their children’s deaths. There is little trust, even between siblings, understandable given rivalries and favouritism.

The family tree provided at the front of the book was a necessary reference given so many names were repeated across generations. It was interesting to read of the various palaces and other grand houses visited on the royal progresses, and to work out which still existed or what had replaced them. Having read Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, I enjoyed learning more about Henry VIII’s parents. Clearly, they lived through a time when it was dangerous to claim the throne of England.

A worthwhile addition to the author’s fictionalised covering of Tudor royals and the personal lives they led. I look forward to reading the rest of this new series to see what fresh perspective can be offered on already well covered personages.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Robyn Reviews: Midnight in Everwood

I’d like to disclaim this review with the fact that I have a slightly difficult relationship with historical fiction. Whilst some of my all time favourites – ‘The Night Circus‘, ‘The Once and Future Witches‘ – are historical fantasy books, it’s a particularly hit or miss genre for me. Overall, ‘Midnight in Everwood’ is an enjoyable read – but the writing style isn’t one that works for me, and it isn’t fully engaging until it leaves Edwardian England for the fantasy realm of Everwood.

Marietta lives for ballet – but after one last performance, she will be required to cease ballet and marry someone of appropriate status in Edwardian society. Her family favour the secretive Dr Drosselmeier – a toymaker of some wealth – but all Marietta sees is the loss of her hopes and dreams. When Drosselmeier proposes, she turns him down – only to find herself trapped in another world. Somehow, she’s been transported to Everwood – a world filled with gingerbread houses and sweet delights, but also monsters lurking under the exterior. Now, she’s at the mercy of sadistic King Gelum. She finds herself a prisoner with two other women – Dellara, a woman of sharp words and even sharper wit, and Pirlipata, a princess from another land. Marietta must forge an alliance in order to escape – but in an unfamiliar world brimming with secrets and rebellion, that prospect is far from easy.

The first quarter of the novel is a slow burner around Marietta, her family’s quest to find her a husband, and her dreams of escaping and becoming a ballet dancer. Here, Marietta comes across as somewhat spoilt and sheltered – unaware of the realities of the world for her dancing contemporaries, who are of lower class than she. However, she also comes across as persistent, kind-hearted, and stronger than she might seem. In many ways, she’s naive – especially around men such as Dr Drosselmeier – but in others she’s more cunning than you might expect. These early passages clearly try, in style and substance, to set the historical fiction scene – but the detached and verbose writing style is a detraction rather than an asset. There’s no engagement until the scene shifts and the reader is introduced to Everwood.

In Everwood, the writing really comes to life. Beautiful descriptions paint a gorgeous picture of this unfamiliar world – sugar and spice and all things nice on the outside, but rotten within. Rather than a plodding historical novel, it starts to feel like a fairytale – which, for a story inspired by ‘The Nutcracker’, is clearly the intention. There’s still a degree of detachment from all characters other than Marietta, leaving them fairly two-dimensional, but the plot and descriptions have enough to hold the attention.

The plot is solid, slow in pacing but allowing time for each lavish scene to be savoured. I haven’t read ‘The Nutcracker’, so can’t speak to its accuracy as a retelling, but familiarity with that tale is not required to enjoy this one. There is a fairly unnecessary romantic subplot – which due to the degree of separation between the reader and the characters, never quite feels fully believable – but otherwise, the subplots are complimentary.

The ending is, perhaps, predictable, but well written and satisfying. It leaves a degree of open-endedness so the reader can decide things for themselves.

Overall, this is an enjoyable enough story which will appeal to other readers far more than it does to me. Recommended for fans of plot rather than character driven fantasy, fairytale retellings, and fans of beautiful descriptive writing.

Published by HQ
Hardback: 28th October 2021
Paperback: 13th October 2022

Book Review: Are You Judging Me Yet?

Are You Judging Me Yet

Are You Judging Me Yet?, by Kim Moore, is a remarkable collection of essays and poetry that explore, as the tagline suggests, everyday sexism. The book started life as the author’s PhD thesis before being transformed into this reader-directed text. The innovative structure invites the reader to move between sections in a non-linear fashion, following ‘desire lines’ of interest. I chose to read it cover to cover and this worked for me.

In the essays, Moore offers a forensic examination of her encounters with sexism at poetry readings and in her personal life. There may be academic undertones but the writing remains humane and accessible. The author questions others’ behaviour towards her – male and female – and her immediate reactions. She then goes on to consider why what was said might be deemed socially acceptable. Included are poems that generated the responses detailed, and poems that were inspired by these.

Discussed are such issues as woman as a body. After the readings of her work, men approach to offer compliments on how she looks rather than commenting on what she read. These are small moments, perhaps not recognised by the perpetrator as sexist and dismissive. Women are expected to smile and accept, not make a fuss or complain.

“when you expose a problem, you pose a problem”

Not all encounters are what may be considered by many as benign. In writing about an experience of assault or more overt sexism, the author gives shape to the situation and its aftermath, rather than passively enduring.

“You pretend that nothing has happened,
you turn it into nothing, you learn that nothing
is necessary armour you must carry with you”

Women will recognise the ‘everyday assaults on integrity and personal safety’, how they are expected to listen without feeling attacked, to keep any discomfort to themselves. The essays herein offer intelligent and carefully considered thoughts on the sexist behaviour inherent in male and female relationships. When challenged through Moore’s poetry, men will often attempt to turn the tables, become defensive, accuse the author of treating them as she is claiming they treat her. The deconstruction of encounters includes attempts to pin down what is meant by words used, such as sexism and objectification.

As a female poet performing her work at literary events the author becomes the focus of attention – her as much as her words. She also discovers aspects of her poems she had not recognised before reading them aloud and observing reactions.

She writes of desire and is judged for this. She writes of violence and is blamed. The essays are interesting, detailed and thought-provoking. The poetry is incredible – mind altering and piercing.

A powerful and, in many ways, provocative book written with both rigour and empathy. The acuity is breath-taking. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Seren.

Book Review: The State of Us

State of Us

“if we could start again, build the world again, build the world from scratch, knowing what we do now, would it be different the next time around?”

The State of Us, by Charlie Hall, is a collection of thirteen short stories that offer a black mirror reflection of modern society. Some are opaque, others pure metaphor. All are written with insight, and undercurrents of dark humour.

The anthology opens with a conversation between two workers. Burt’s job is to move things. Bill counts. Burt is unhappy with his role and would like to try his hand at counting. What plays out is how managers maintain their position at the expense of underlings, and how the world of work requires much nonsensical activity.

What is cleverly achieved in these typically short stories – many just a few pages in length – is how characters are developed to draw the reader in and make situations fully three dimensional. Conflicts are rarely resolved to the satisfaction of whoever appears to harbour critical thinking skills. Those wanting an easy life push for conformity, a suppression of inconvenient memory, whatever the ultimate cost.

Ruckus at the Dog and Duck, in just half a page, pokes fun at the ‘virtuous’ middle classes.

“Last night there was a fight between two groups of Johnnie Bodens”

The subjects they disagree on prove how little people think, and how ridiculous conflict can be.

This story is followed by one of the longer in the collection, a tale of a lone astronaut trying to maintain his sanity on the International Space Station while the earth below him burns.

The Tale of Big Hal and the Bethany Tower pulls no punches in its mockery of modern day parenting. So much of this was recognisable and relatable, although thankfully not the denouement.

The anthology closes with a tale that may be set in the future but, given current government policy, probably not that far off. Two wealthy couples meet for a social occasion while a riot builds outside. The host, convinced that his comfortable life is protected, gets his sport from riling a guest with a more empathetic understanding of the situation. I pondered if there is any chance of our overlords ever facing their comeuppance.

This was a highly enjoyable read that offers thought-provoking entertainment delivered in bite sized chunks. The angle from which subjects are presented adds to the originality and satisfaction. Never heavy but still multi-layered, a recommended anthology.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.

Robyn Reviews: Godkiller

‘Godkiller’ is an intriguing epic fantasy debut with plenty of potential and solid worldbuilding, but lacking engagement. It has all the right ingredients to be the start of a superb series, but I didn’t find myself as invested as I should have been.

Kissen is a godkiller – paid by villagers to flush out problematic gods, whose worship is banned in the King’s empire. She enjoys her job, and she’s good at it. However, her life is changed when she meets a god she cannot kill: Skediceth, the god of white lies, is bound to a twelve year old girl – and neither can survive without the other. On a quest to find out why, and save the girl from the god, they encounter Elogast – a knight-turned-baker, who helped purge the kingom of gods before laying down his sword. A request from the king has him returning to a place he never thought he’d set foot in again. He finds himself entangled in the godkiller’s quest – but he cannot let them find out his true intentions.

The story alternates between four perspectives – Kissen, Elogast, twelve-year-old Inara, and the godling Skediceth. Each are solid characters with their own voices – Skediceth, especially, is well-written, with his non-human perspective an intriguing addition. Kissen is tough, abrasive as a defense mechanism, but with a soft spot for girls she sees some of herself in. Elogast seems superficially honourable and well-intentioned, but there’s clearly more than meets the eye. Inara is sweet and caring, but also strong in her own way, and with a fiercely determined streak that matches Kissen’s. The only real criticism is that Inara reads older than her age – she may have been better portrayed as a teenager, although you can always excuse her maturity as being a result of being bound to a god.

The worldbuilding isn’t greatly explored but neatly developed alongside the plot. In this kingdom, worship creates gods – humans go to gods for favours, and in turn the gods rely on humans for prayers and sacrifices. However, the balance was threatened when the newer gods became greedy, demanding ever more for their favour. Fed up with the gods and the danger they posed, King Arren went to war – pushing the gods back and outlawing their worship. There are still those who keep the old ways, and still gods, but they are hidden, with the power of many smaller gods diminished. Like many epic fantasies, civilisation otherwise seems inspired by vaguely medieval England, with swords and knives the main weapons and horseback a common mode of travel. It’s a simple but effective setup with plenty of room for expansion.

The plot, again, is solid. A quest storyline, there’s a setup, travelling – with dangers along the way – and then the climax once the destination is reached, with some twists thrown in. There are some well-written surprises, and whilst the pace isn’t the fastest, the entire book clocks in at only just over 300 pages, so it isn’t particularly slow either. There’s a hint of a romantic subplot which is arguably unncessary, but otherwise everything slots together nicely, with a satisfying ending that also leaves plenty open for the sequel.

It’s also worth mentioning that Kissen is a bisexual amputee. There’s a fair amount of focus towards the start of the novel on how this impact’s Kissen’s life as a godkiller, and how issues with her prosthetic can have a series knock-on effect on her health. This is, sadly, a little glossed over in the quest section of the novel where you’d expect it to come up again – but it’s still great seeing an amputee using a prosthetic in fantasy fiction.

Unfortunately, despite all these ingredients promising a great epic fantasy, it feels like there’s something missing. The hook never quite happens, the book not fully absorbing the reader’s attention. I kept finding myself putting it down after a few chapters, with the promise of something interesting happening next, yet not wanting to pick it up again. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what doesn’t work, but something stops this from being as enjoyable as it should be.

Overall, ‘Godkiller’ is a good debut – but not a great one, which is a shame as it feels like it should be. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone else who has read this, and whether or not you agree.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 19th January 2023

Book Review: A Light Still Burns

Light Still Burns

“Those who leave can never return, because the places they knew disappear.”

A Light Still Burns, by Selim Özdoğan (translated by Ayça Türkoğlu and Katy Derbyshire), is the third book in the author’s Anatolian Blues trilogy. I have not read the first two parts and, although this finale succeeded in telling a complete story, I pondered if my inability to warm to any of the characters stemmed from not having shared in their earlier life experiences.

The protagonist, Gül, married her husband, Fuat, when just fifteen years old. Her recollection of this decision was a desire to give her family one less mouth to feed. Following the death of her mother when she was a child, Gül helped raise her siblings and then half-siblings. Stemming from this she expects gratitude and respect for her efforts – she regards them as sacrifices, especially as it led to a curtailment of her education. When this is not forthcoming from her siblings, it causes resentment.

Early in their marriage Fuat decides to leave home and family in Turkey to become an economic migrant in Germany. Gül accompanies him, leaving their two infant daughters with her mother-in-law. The eighteen month separation from her children haunts her throughout her life, the damage she fears she inflicted on them.

Gül and Fuat take whatever jobs are available in Bremen, where they settle. Gül makes little effort to learn the local language and assimilate, mixing mostly with other Turkish immigrants. She makes friends but then chooses to go back to Turkey, for reasons I expect are covered in the previous book.

This story opens when Gül is around forty years old and returning to Germany to be with her husband after eight years back in her homeland. Their daughters are now grown, one living in each country. Fuat is not exactly welcoming, the reason for this causing a rift that does not heal. Gül does not regard marriage as a happy state, observing conflict between most couples she knows, and yet she insists the vows made on her wedding day must be kept. She blames Fuat for indulging in the interests that bring him pleasure, for his outlook on life, his sense of entitlement and endless complaints, especially about money.

“Fuat is a keen skiver – not because he’s lazy, but because he feels smart when he does less than he’s supposed to without suffering any consequences.”

The tale follows Gül into her sixties. She works diligently at her cleaning job until retirement, trusting Fuat to put their earnings aside to keep them comfortable when they eventually make the planned move back to Turkey. Each summer they travel to their homeland, spending many weeks with family in the parental summer house. She regards these as happy times and is particularly devastated when an inheritance causes division between the siblings. She had believed the Turks valued family, unlike the Germans in her estimation.

“That’s why people here are so lonely. They want to have their own lives just for themselves, without any consideration for others.”

The author skilfully captures the immigrant mindset and experience, especially across the generations as attitudes and values change. His portrayal of both men and women avoids the usual pitfalls. Although I struggled to empathise, particularly with Gül – who made little effort to change even small aspects of her life that she was unhappy with – her thinking is portrayed with care and insight.

“Her daughters are keeping secrets from her […] She sees less and less of the world because she only wants to see the things she approves of.”

Gül, and to a lesser extent her daughters, concern themselves with how others may gossip about them. The constraints this imposes prevents them from walking paths that may lead to greater happiness. There is little attempt to bridge the chasm between acceptable behaviours in men and women.

Mention is made of how Germans object to the many Turkish immigrants who tend to live within their enclaves, rarely mixing with local natives. Given the behaviour of Fuat when he takes on a job cleaning, and of young Cal whose attempts to get rich quick by whatever means keep landing him in prison, this dislike is understandable. Although the immigrants long to return to their homeland with the wealth accrued, Turkey is still regarded by the younger generations as less free and accepting than Germany. As Fuat and Gül age, they each seek new interests, coming to terms with past decisions made and their failing bodies.

“No alcohol, no fat, no going to bed late, and ideally no more gambling either. Apparently, you can grow older without these pleasures, but the question is, why would anyone want to?”

The writing style and structure impressed so I questioned throughout why I was suffering such a failure of empathy. I could not warm to Fuat due to his interests and attitude, his unpleasant selfishness. Gül had more depth but offered little to endear a reader. She smoked like a train despite complaining of lack of money to phone home, expected special treatment from the family she had chosen to leave behind, and spent much of her time staring out a window rather than exploring her neighbourhood. She seems happier when eventually back living comfortably in Turkey, although the means by which this came about felt a rare misstep in the story. Her changing relationships did, however, elicit more understanding from this reader.

“It’s not a question of languages; there are never enough words when you want to tell someone how you feel.”

I can’t say that I enjoyed this book despite its many admirable qualities. I wanted to better understand the immigrant experience whereas what I got was reasons why they are so resented by locals unless they assimilate. Not getting what is desired and expected from a story may, of course, reflect more on reader than author. However much I may admire the composition, my lack of connection to the characters made this a lacklustre read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.

Book Review: In the Shadow of Queens

shadow of queens

“Fiction offers the scope to develop ideas that have no place in a history book, but which can help to illuminate motives and emotions.”

In the Shadow of Queens, by Alison Weir, is a collection of fourteen short stories, most of which were released in digital format to accompany the author’s Six Tudor Queens series. Brought together here in a beautifully bound book, they offer further insights into the lives of the aristocracy, and those who served them, during the increasingly turbulent reign of Henry VIII and beyond.

After an introduction by the author, the collection opens with what turned out to be my favourite story. The voice is that of a young Arthur, the heir to the Tudor throne, whose untimely death led to his brother, Henry, taking on both Arthur’s wife and the role he had been so diligently prepared for. Arthur was raised apart from his parents and siblings, in a castle near the Welsh borders where he was to learn the arts of kingship. Although mostly fond of those charged with his care and education, it proved a lonely existence. Weir skilfully captures the voice of a child trying hard to please but still too young to fully grasp the political aspects of his father’s ambitions.

“Arthur did his best to look suitably impressed, but getting married meant nothing to him and it was ages and ages away in the future. He just hoped that, when she came to England, Catalina would share his interest in King Arthur and St George and toy soldiers.”

Quite a number of the stories that follow focus on young women who served the ladies of the royal court. Most came from wealthy families and were expected to remain chaste but also attract a suitable husband. I found the risks they took frustrating to read as again and again a young lady, aware of the cost to her reputation, permitted her admirer access to her body. Of course, such desires are natural, but all around, at this time, were men and women punished horrifically for indulging in such behaviour, or even abetting it.

Despite covering each Queen’s life in detail within the original series, some of these stories delve into additional aspects of their lives (why were they not included in the individual and lengthy fictionalised biographies?). Anne Boleyn’s sojourn with a French suitor would have been more interesting had it been less repetitive – she takes increasingly bold risks that appear foolish in her attempt to retain her beloved’s interest. Given the rabid court gossip, I pondered how Henry remained unaware of this history of hers – she had so many detractors when he became smitten.

The Princess of Scotland started well, offering an alternative setting around the life led there, but became more of the same when its subject entered the English court. Her behaviour, again, was bound to bring down trouble. She knew she was now a chattel of the King.

The stories featuring servants added welcome variety, although if their employers fell out of favour they too could be drawn into the ensuing maelstrom. It was a dangerous time to have anything to do with anyone the King may notice and therefore blame, as yet another of his wives fell.

Several names appear repeatedly, their lives rarely running smoothly. Children run the gauntlet of ambitious parents. Those who serve must travel wherever sent. I enjoyed the story of the painter required to teach The Princess of Cleves English, although would personally have preferred it to end earlier.

It will come as no surprise to readers that there are many, many deaths. Some of these are natural, particularly following childbirth, while others are punishment for behaviour. Coming back to the risks some took, for love or ambition, it grew harder to conjure sympathy.

I enjoyed the author’s take on what happened to Katherine Parr’s baby daughter. This tale offered a window into the world of children raised away from their families, within the households of supposed benefactors. The precarious situation female children could face if without a financial settlement provided interest.

A couple of the stories include a contemporary setting. These worked well. The final tale in the collection reveals the appalling treatment of Katherine Parr’s dead body through the ages. There is a degree of dark humour as those harbouring a lofty curiosity in history seek the kudos of viewing a rare artefact, and then cannot resist taking a damaging souvenir. Each believes they are better, more respectful, than their predecessors then behave in the same selfish way (I do not include the author, who has written herself in, here).

There are ghosts aplenty alongside descriptions of grand buildings, many of which still exist albeit in a redesigned or derelict state. Perhaps it is their longevity that makes the history of the wealthy so much easier to interrogate than that of the majority of the population.

This may be the weakest book by Weir I have read but that is not to say it is bad, although it did drag in places. I suspect the stories worked better when released as shorts alongside the books they were written to accompany. Nevertheless, they complete what has been a fascinating series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline Review.

My reviews of The Six Tudor Queens Series:

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession

Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen

Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets

Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen

Katherine Parr, The Sixth Wife

Robyn Reviews: The Rithmatist

‘The Rithmatist’ is a fun YA fantasy adventure with a clever Sanderson magic system and a protagonist you want to root for. It’s a great stepup novel from middle grade adventure stories, retaining the fast pacing and readability but offering more complexity with the magic and nuance. The protagonist is sixteen but reads young, so this would easily appeal to those from around 10-12 up depending on reading age.

Joel’s one desire is to be a Rithmatist: someone who can infuse life into chalk figures, known as Chalklings, and defend the American Isles from Wild Chalkling enemies. Unfortunately, he’s only the son of a chalkmaker, and must watch as other students learn th art he would do anything to practice. However, when students start disappearing, Joel finds himelf assigned to help the Rithmatic professor investigating the appearance. Together, Along with fellow student Melody, he finds himself on the trail of a discovery that could change Rithmatics forever.

Joel is an instantly relatable character. In his world, magic is a real and tangible thing – but he isn’t gifted with it, and he longs to be. He obsesses over Rithmatics and those who practice it, neglecting his studies in the process. He’s smart and determined, but can be reckless and doesn’t always see the consequences of his actions. In short, he’s a very accurate depiction of a teenager still figuring things out – but he has a good heart and cares deeply about those close to him.

As with all Sanderson fantasy books, the magic system is simple yet effective, with clear rules and limitations. As the name suggests, its loosely inspired by mathematics in the form of geometry – but no understanding of maths is required to appreciate it. The book explains the magic system partially through illustrations at the start of each chapter, detailing rithmatic designs. These provide a point of reference and avoid long passages of expositionary text that would slow the pace of the story. Its a neatly crafted and fun system that suits the story well.

The plot is a fast-paced adventure with plenty of twists and turns – mostly predictable, but fun all the same. It avoids making things too easy for the protagonist with challenges along the way, and whilst it uses some genre tropes like the worn-down mentor, it feels like a fresh and original story.

The setting is an alternate version of America with steampunk-type elements. Its a little distracting hearing references to recognisable American cities or states put slightly differently, but mostly works at creating a similar-yet-different world. The depth of worldbuilding is the main difference between this and Sanderson’s adult fantasy – this is half the length as the worldbuilding is left shallow, with the plot, characters, and magic doing the talking.

Overall, this is an excellent YA fantasy adventure with crossover appeal to younger audiences looking to step up and older readers just looking for a fun, fast-paced story. Highly recommended.

Published by Tor UK
Paperback: 26th February 2015

For reviews of Sanderson’s adult work, we suggest starting with Elantris or The Final Empire.

Book Review: The Way to Work

way to work

“Like Marlowe, he possessed a singular logic, which though drawing inspiration from something you had said, soon parted company from the common-sense spirit in which you had meant it; but his trajectories were more disarming, and I had to watch every word, for there was no telling where it would lead.”

The Way to Work, by Sean Ashton, opens with the 45 year old narrator boarding his usual train to work. He has already picked up a pastry, successfully avoided a colleague, and now sits in his favoured seat in the designated quiet coach. As the train starts its journey, all seems as it should. The public address system doesn’t appear to be working but this offers a welcome respite from the familiar stream of repetitive announcements. The narrator has, for many years, been employed by a company that sells cat litter. He is contemplating the day ahead in which he is to show prospective new clients around their facility.

Having set the scene and provided some key backstory, the journey takes a somewhat surreal turn. The narrator notices the scenery they are passing is not as expected and believes he may somehow have boarded the wrong train. As nobody in the carriage can answer his questions, he sets out to find the Guard. He discovers that a feature of this particular train is that it is only possible to move forward. Having gone through the sliding doors into the next carriage, he is unable to return.

The protagonist thus has a choice – to stay put or continue on. He chooses the latter. Fellow passengers recur, albeit presenting in slightly different form. When he sits down to rest he ends up talking to a small number of them. In doing so, he learns a little more about how the train they are on functions. Conversations offer a degree of enlightenment but rarely provide the substance of what is sought.

The journey being recounted is certainly strange. Breadcrumbs are scattered throughout that suggest the narrator is not entirely ordinary, but this remains a shadow lurking behind the experiences he goes through, a question about who he is beneath what others may observe. The reader must wait to find out if these quirks prove relevant.

Within the tale is: a cat, games to play, a romantic encounter. Many aspects come across as ridiculous, yet no more so than typical aspects of work life and socialising, that are mostly passively accepted as normal. The author is playing with how so many live without questioning, and the fact their trajectory can only be onwards to the end.

I was not, however, entirely convinced by the story. Sadly, at times, I grew bored with what was being recounted. There is some humour in how so many will submit to inane rituals when instructed by those who have set themselves up as having jurisdiction within a boundary few consider leaving. The sexual exploits, and then certain emails dealt with, suggest the author finds entertainment where I would feel discomfort.

The denouement was neatly achieved and went some way towards redeeming a book I had considered giving up on. Although I can see what the author is doing with this story, and admire the originality of construction, my engagement was lost too often. Satirical aspects are cleverly presented but came across as more sad than amusing.

A story I suspect will appeal to readers whose sense of humour is broader than my own. Despite the obvious literary competence, this was not a book I enjoyed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.