Robyn Reviews: The Night Circus

Many years after first reading it, ‘The Night Circus’ remains my favourite book of all time. It’s a gorgeous feat of imagination, packed with evocative imagery and characters you have to love. Like the circus itself, this is less a book than an experience – it eschews traditional narrative structure, instead weaving a tapestry that engulfs the senses and lingers long beyond the final page.

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

The story spans the late 1800s and early 1900s. Across the world, a mysterious circus keeps arriving – preceded by no announcements, and only open at night. Named ‘Les Cirque des Reves’ – the circus of dreams – it’s a circus like no other: a feast for the senses, an amalgamation of experiences which border on the fantastical, and all in black and white and shades of grey. But behind the scenes, the circus is not merely a circus: it is a battlefield. Two young magicians, Marco and Celia, have been pitted against each other as part of a rivalry spanning centuries. However, as their rivalry turns to love, the fate of the entire circus is put in jeopardy. Will the circus remain the circus of dreams, or will it unravel into the circus of nightmares?

Celia is a brilliant character. Aged five, she’s sent to her father – the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter – with her mother’s suicide note pinned to her coat. Prospero has no interest in a daughter – but Celia has inherited her father’s magic, and he sees an opportunity. Prospero grooms Celia to be the next player in a battle he has waged with a rival for centuries. As a result, Celia has a very different childhood to most, and becomes a very different woman. She’s quietly intelligent, using words sparingly but with an unerring ability to pick the right ones. She’s always composed – beautifully put together and fully in control of her emotions – and survives only by keeping complete control. Her entire life’s purpose is the game – the circus – and thus she’s always innovating, seeking out new ways to be the best. Secretly, Celia loves to entertain and show off – but she maintains decorum, only stepping beyond her bounds in a limited way she hopes she can get away with. Anyone who has ever felt trapped will relate to Celia and her story.

Marco, on the other hand, is plucked out of an orphanage to be Celia’s opponent. He’s naturally reserved – an introvert, happy to spend his time surrounded by books and accounts. The life he has is better than any life he could have expected, so he’s content to do as he’s told – until it starts to get in the way of his heart. Celia is a firecracker wrapped in layers of decorum; Marco is more a gentle fire on a winter’s night, but even a small fire can become ablaze with the right kindling. Their chemistry is electric – every scene they are together is charged and poignant, and even apart their connection shines through every page. ‘The Night Circus’ is many things, but at it’s heart it’s a love story.

The writing is the highlight of the novel. Erin’s prose is rich and evocative, conjuring up incredible imagery that hits every sense. The reader doesn’t simply read about the circus – they’re transported to it, traveling between the tents and spying on the characters through gaps in the canvas. The scenes are painted with exquisite attention to detail, and the characters are crafted in the same way – each feels fully fleshed-out and real. This is the sort of book that makes the reader believe in magic.

“Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?”

‘The Night Circus’ isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, and the main reason for that is the narrative structure. Rather than tell a story in any conventional way, it jumps across time and space, crafting the tale far more slowly. It requires patience for the payoff, trusting that all will make sense in the end. Interspersed throughout the narrative are scenes which simply invite the reader to experience the circus – descriptions of tents, interludes of other experiences the circus has to offer. The reader is made as much a part of the story as any other character. The way the tale is told makes the plot almost unimportant. Those who like action and drama will find little to enjoy here – but for those who want to be swept away into a world that’s almost like a dream, there’s no better example.

Overall, ‘The Night Circus’ is a gorgeous example of literary fantasy, blurring the lines of poetry and prose to produce something so beautiful it’s hard to believe it’s only made up of words. Recommended for fans of beautiful writing, timeless romance, and anyone who dreams for a little more magic in the world.

“You think, as you walk away from Les Cirque des Reves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.”

My review of Erin’s other book, The Starless Sea, can be found here. Jackie’s review of The Night Circus can be found here.

Published by Vintage
Hardback: September 15th 2011
Paperback: May 24th 2021

Robyn Reviews: All the Birds in the Sky

‘All the Birds in the Sky’ is a profoundly strange book. It’s extremely ambitious, bending genres and written in a very particular style, but it doesn’t quite manage to carry it off. It’s also quite different to what you might picture from the blurb, which can lead to confusion as the story unravels.

The novel follows two individuals – Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a technology-obsessed scientist – from childhood. Both are social outcasts, and thus thrown together. They’re too weird for school – nerdy before being nerdy was almost cool – and too obsessed in their own interests to be friends. Neither truly understands the other or believes they would be friends by choice. As they grow older, they lose touch – partially by choice, and partially through outside forces – but in adulthood, unusual circumstances force them to reconnect. Together, they could bring about the end of the world – or stop it.

The style of writing means there’s no connection between the reader and either Patricia or Laurence. It isn’t clear if this is a deliberate plot device – the reader failing to relate to them in the same way as their peers – or simply an accident, but either way it doesn’t work for me. They feel distant and two-dimensional, definitely stereotypes rather than people, and it makes it difficult to care what happens to them. It also makes them very forgettable – as soon as the novel is finished, its hard to remember any details you’ve just read.

The plot is the strongest part. The events of the novel are bizarre – Charlie Jane Anders has clearly done her research, because the science has a vague basis in reality, but coupled with witchcraft it becomes completely chaotic. The blend of science-fiction and fantasy is clever and intricately done. In many ways this boils down to simply magic vs science, but it feels ridiculous to dilute such a complex and confusing novel down to such a trivial description.

Unfortunately, what could be a strong and engaging novel is derailed by the writing. The entire novel is written in a detached and superficial manner – a bit like a newsreader telling an entire narrative in monotone without going into any details or justification. It reminds me of a poorly-written middle grade novel – not in content, which is definitely adult, but in the way it avoids explaining anything as if the reader won’t understand it. If the writing style is ignored it becomes an enjoyable, creative piece of literature, but without the connection with either the characters or the plot it becomes a bit of a slog to get through.

Overall, ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ is a creative attempt at fusion between science fiction and fantasy, with an intriguing premise and ambitious plot, but one which is let down by the writing. It may be enjoyed more by fans of experimental fiction than conventional science fiction and fantasy fans.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 26th January 2016

Monthly Roundup – February 2021

February has been tough. My minor physical injuries continue to heal but not yet sufficiently to allow me to return to running or even to walk any distance. In the week just past, the cold and wet weather finally cleared to enable me to return to cycling. It is good to get outside but I still miss running more than I could have imagined before I took up the habit. It is, as far as I have experienced it, akin to an addictive, if mostly socially acceptable, drug.

My little family is keeping well although stress levels have increased notably. This has not been helped by the raising then smashing of hope that came with the government’s proposed path out of lockdown. The suggestion that mandatory vaccination or testing will be added to mask wearing in public spaces raises the spectre of being unable to eat out, take a holiday in the UK or even visit my local gym for the foreseeable future. The prospect of still being deemed a biohazard after so many months staying home leaves me questioning the freedoms we have surrendered – what a country I moved to for its tolerance and opportunity has become.

My inability to exercise each day left me with little to do other than read. Thankfully most of the books I picked up proved capable of taking my mind off the more negative aspects of the life I am currently required to live. February has been a busy month on the blog, mainly because I agreed to help promote the inaugural Barbellion Prize by reviewing the shortlist. My roundup post for this may be found here. 

I reviewed 13 books: 5 fiction (including 2 short story collections) of which 3 were translated; 8 non-fiction, 5 of which were memoirs. All of the latter chronicled the lives of people with health impairments. They were eye-opening and well written. None milked the misery but rather wrote to raise awareness of issues faced. Robyn added a further 12 reviews, a good mix of new releases and older works.

As ever in these monthly posts, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

 

Fiction / Short Stories

 
Astral Travel by Elizabeth Baines, published by Salt
Like Fado by Graham Mort, published by Salt

Translated Fiction

 
Theatre of War by Andrea Jeftanovic (translated by Frances Riddle), published by Charco Press
Havana Year Zero by by Karla Suárez (translated by Christina MacSweeney), published by Charco Press

Translated Fiction – Short Stories


Nordic Fauna by Andrea Lundgren (translated by John Litell), published by Peirene Press

Illustrated


Dreamy Days and Randon Naps by Mawson, published by Odyssey Books

Non Fiction

 
The Pleasure of Regret by Scott Manley Hadley, published by Broken Sleep Books
Chauvo Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo by Sam Mills, published by The Indigo Press


Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, published by Dodo Ink

The Barbellion Prize Shortlist

Four memoirs that explore the realities of living with disability and chronic health conditions.

 
Sanatorium by Abi Palmer, published by Penned in the Margins
The Fragments of my Father by Sam Mills, published by 4th Estate

 
Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, published by Virago
Kika & Me by Amit Patel, published by Pan MacMillan

 

Robyn Reviews

 
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, published by Rebellion
The Stranger Times by C.K. McDonnell, published by Bantam Press

 
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, published by Borough Press
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, published by Orbit

 
Fable by Adrienne Young, published by Titan Books
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, published by Faber & Faber

 
To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder & Stoughton
Red White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, published by St Martin’s Griffin

 
The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder & Stoughton
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, published by Orbit

 
The Library of the Dead by T. L. Huchu, published by Pan MacMillan
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, published by Jo Fletcher Books

 

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also purchased a number of hard copies, supporting: Illumicrate, Goldsboro Books, and Blackwells.

My monthly book post was both generous and interesting. It included a couple of purchases from Toppings.

 

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Robyn Reviews: This is How You Lose the Time War

‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a gorgeously written novella that crosses the boundaries between sci-fi, romance, and literary fiction. It’s the sort of story that’s impossible to capture in mere words – it’s an experience, and to reduce it to a simple summary or review would be to do it a disservice. I also suspect it’s a Marmite novella – some will adore it, and some will find it confusing and lacking any sort of substance.

Somewhen and somewhere – and by the same token, everywhen and everywhere – there are two rival time agents. Each seek out strands of time – sections of history – and subtly alter them to the needs of their side. They race to get there before agents of the enemies, to tip the balance of progress in their direction. Amidst this war, Red finds a letter. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence across time and space between two ultimate rivals – a correspondence which would see both branded traitors and could lead to one side ultimately winning, or losing, the time war.

The issue with that summary is that the novella is only tangentially about the war. The war is there, it’s happening, and it’s important in that it’s the entire reason for Red and Blue’s existence – but it’s merely the backdrop. The real story is about Red and Blue. Red, an agent of the Commandant, made for a purpose, perfected, sharpened; a woman who needs nothing, but finds herself craving it anyway. Blue, an agent of the Garden, a woman who thirsts and hungers and wants – a thrill-seeker of extreme talent who finds herself out of even her considerable depth. It’s also a story about words – the power of language, connection, expression; the power of emotion and its conveyance. The ideas and language are elaborate, but the underlying themes are simple. This is a love story, albeit one with teeth.

The novella alternates between Red and Blue, with the bulk of the story told in the form of letters. At-first, the non-letter content seems superfluous and unnecessary – as the novella develops, it becomes more substantial, but the letters are still the emotive heart. The narrative style of both the action and the letters is elaborate. El-Mohtar and Gladstone craft prose which resembles poetry – overly fanciful and descriptive, but at the same time gorgeous. They use many words to say what could be said in far fewer, but it’s so beautiful it adds an ethereal nature to what is already an otherwordly story – after all, it is a story about time-travel.

This is a sci-fi novella in that it deals with time travel, but very light sci-fi in that very few of the concepts are explained. The origins of the warring agencies remain a mystery, as does the nature of time travel. References are made to parallel strands of time – multiverse theory – and other futuristic concepts like neural implants and nanites, but this is at heart a literary novella not a scientific one. It can be confusing trying to navigate this unfamiliar universe without any explanations, but no knowledge of them is required to appreciate the beauty of the central tale. A little exposition would make life easier for the reader, but I can see why the authors chose not to.

Overall, ‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a beautifully written, genre transcending novella that weaves a tale of obsession and forbidden love. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s an ambitious piece of fiction and a credit to its authors. Recommended to fans of gorgeous prose and stories that really make their readers feel.

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Paperback: July 18th 2019

Robyn Reviews: The Library of the Dead

‘The Library of the Dead’ is the first book in the ‘Edinburgh Nights’ series, a paranormal urban fantasy by the Zimbabwean-Scottish author TL Huchu. There are elements of dystopia, horror, science-fiction, and fantasy, with the story told through the lens of Ropa, a fourteen-year-old protagonist. It’s an ambitious concept, and the end result is a little like a library being thrown into a blender – entertaining, but lacking in finesse and flow.

At fourteen, Ropa is the breadwinner of her family. She can still remember a time when they had a house – although her younger sister can’t – but now they rent a space in the slums for their caravan, Ropa barely making enough to cover that. School is a distant memory, replaced by what she can do to get by: take messages from the dead to the living, ensuring they can pass to the beyond in peace. However, when one of the dead begs her to find her missing son, Ropa is pulled into a conspiracy far beyond anything she ever imagined. There’s much more magic in the world than just ghosts – and much more danger too.

Ropa makes a great protagonist. She’s feisty, brave, and simultaneously wise beyond her years and hopelessly naive. She puts on a tough face, but beneath it she cares deeply. She wants a better life for her little sister than she’s managed for herself and she’ll do anything to get it – even when her sister hates her for it. She also narrates in a Scottish dialect, occasionally interspersed with scientific terminology – something which I enjoyed, but others might find jarring.

While Ropa is the only point-of-view character, there are some great secondary characters – especially Priya, an apprentice Healer who uses a wheelchair, and Ropa’s gran, who clearly has a fascinating backstory only hinted at on page. Priya makes every scene she’s in more fun, and Ropa’s gran brings a sense of peace and calm to an otherwise turbulent novel.

Where it all falls down a bit is the plot. The idea is excellent – children disappearing from their homes, with those who return irrevocably changed – but the execution feels like a middle-grade novel with some adult themes and swearing thrown in. Ropa manages to get out of every sticky situation by sheer luck (except for one, in a mysterious house, which is brilliant). Her friendship with Priya is never explained – Priya simply decides Ropa is her new best friend – and Ropa’s general air of obliviousness makes her seem younger than her fourteen years. Personally, I think this would make a brilliant middle grade novel – but it’s clearly aimed at adults, and as adult fantasy it doesn’t work nearly as well.

The other part which doesn’t work for me is the dystopia. ‘The Library of the Dead’ is set in near-future Edinburgh, but something has happened referred to only as the ‘catastrophe’. There are mobile phones and the internet, but people are just as likely to use a donkey and cart as to use a car. Class divides have been exacerbated, with masses in slums and minorities in massive houses in the cities. There are frequent references to a distant king with an iron rule – everyone must greet each other by wishing him well – but there’s still mandatory public education and a healthcare system, even if it’s one that’s no longer free. The overall feel is cobbled together, and it doesn’t seem necessary alongside the paranormal elements.

Overall, ‘The Library of the Dead’ is a fun read with some great characters and interesting ideas, but it feels more like a hodge-podge of different books than a single linear narrative in its own right. Recommended for adult fans of YA and MG fantasy.

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

Published by Tor Books
Hardback: 4th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: Ancillary Justice

It would be faster to list the awards that ‘Ancillary Justice’ hasn’t won than the awards that it has. Leckie’s debut novel, it swept all the major science fiction awards – the Hugo, Locus, Nebula, BSFA, and Arthur C Clarke – instantly cementing its place amongst the greatest works of the genre. It’s always difficult to pick up a novel like this, because it comes with such high expectations. ‘Ancillary Justice’ does not disappoint. It’s not perfect, but the idea is so utterly audacious and so cleverly portrayed that I can see why it made such a splash on publication.

Once, Breq was the artificial intelligence of the ship Justice of Toren, controlling vast numbers of bodies – known as ancillaries. They spent over two thousand years serving the Radch, a warrior race led by Anaander Mianaai. Now, Breq is a single soldier – their ship and other ancillaries destroyed – out for revenge. The novel flips between the present – Breq seeking a weapon powerful enough to destroy Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch – and the past, showing what lead to the destruction of the Justice of Toren and put Breq on their path for revenge. At its heart, the plot is simple, but the strength of this book is in the rich, exceptionally different culture of the Radch and other races, and the linguistic dexterity required to write a novel about a character who is at once many characters, and many characters who are almost – but not quite – the same.

Is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative?”

Breq – or Justice of Toren, or Essen One, depending on the perspective – is fascinating. They’re not human, but they’ve spend two thousand years learning how to mimic one in their ancillaries. They’ve also gone from being a being spread out over many bodies to a being confined to one, which has clear effects on their psyche. Breq was designed to serve – to carry out the will of their ship’s lieutenant, and of Anaander Mianaai – but also to think, to weigh up decisions and decide the best course of action, and to be absolutely deadly when required. What happens to an AI like that when their prime directives clash? The idea of autonomy and consciousness is deftly explored, with Leckie using the medium of sci-fi to ask complicated questions about free will.

The line between human and AI is also examined. Breq is not human – but they experience emotions. They can use logic to decide the best course of action but also make emotional, irrational decisions. They struggle with things which come naturally to humans – the use of gendered pronouns, for example – but they form attachments to others like humans, and in many ways seem more human than not. There are some fascinating discussions in this book about what artificial intelligence could become, and where the line might fall – if there is a line at all. These are the sort of questions that I find extremely interesting.

“Without feelings, insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions.”

I love how different Radch society can be to societies present on Earth. Gender is not a concept to the Radch, although it is to many of the groups they interact with. There is no such thing as privacy – every aspect of life is overseen by an AI. Class – specifically family lineage – is enormously important, as is religion, but the culture has changed so much you can believe this is thousands of years in the future. Some futuristic science fiction books feel too similar to present day society – no such claim can be made here.

Is this a perfect book? No – mainly because it’s confusing. It’s very difficult to write a book with many characters who are the same – with the same name, same speech patterns, same actions – but also different, and not have it end up confusing. Leckie gets very close, but the finale felt a bit messy and this made it lack impact. I also have issues with the character of Seivarden, Breq’s companion – they feel too good to be true, their motivations too opaque. It made them feel fake, rather than three-dimensional. Hopefully they’re developed further in subsequent novels in the trilogy. ‘Ancillary Justice’ deserves many accolades for sheer creativity, but – understandably for a debut – it isn’t quite polished enough.

Overall, I highly recommend this to any science fiction fan. It’s clever, unique, and pushes the boundaries of where science fiction can go. I’m looking forward to picking up further books in the series.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: October 1st 2013

Robyn Reviews: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

‘The Galaxy, and the Ground Within’ is the fourth and final book in Becky Chambers’ ‘Wayfarers’ series – a collection of loosely-connected space operas imagining an intergalactic future. Like all of her books, it’s a gorgeous, character driven tale, quiet and small in scope but absolutely brimming with humanity and emotion. It’s not my favourite entry in the series, but it’s a beautiful and poignant tale to end on.

The planet Gora is utterly unremarkable. It has no water, no breathable air, and no native life – not even the smallest microbe. However, it’s in convenient proximity to several more remarkable planets – and therefore makes a convenient stopover point for intergalactic travel. Ouloo, a member of the Laru race, runs the Five-Hop One-Stop – a place designed to cater to every sapient on their travels, no matter their needs. When a freak technical failure ends up grounding all flights from Gora, Ouloo finds herself playing host to four completely different sapients: her occasionally helpful son Tupo, an Aeluon called Pei, a Quelin exile called Rovsig, and – to her discomfort – an Akarak called Speaker, an alien even amongst aliens. The longer they spend together, the harder it becomes to stay diplomatic – for better or worse.

The only character to have featured in a previous ‘Wayfarers’ book is Pei – she’s Ashby’s love interest from ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’. However, seeing her from her own perspective is completely different, so this feels like a collection of completely new characters. ‘Galaxy’ is also the first Wayfarers book to have a completely non-human main cast. Chambers has proven time and time again that she excels at creating aliens – from the xenobiology to complicated cultures and political structures – and this is one of the best exemplifications of that. Each character is utterly unique, and their cultural backgrounds, complex politics, and relative xenophobia feel exceptionally believable. With the Akarak, Chambers has created her most unusual race yet, and the impact this has on the others’ relationship with Speaker is brilliantly portrayed.

This is a quiet story. There’s no plot beyond a group of different people being trapped for several days together unexpectedly, each with their own reasons to want to get away: Pei to meet Ashby, Rovsig to make an appointment, and Speaker to return to her unwell sister. The perspective alters between Pei, Rovsig, and Speaker, with very occasional chapters from Ouloo’s point of view as host. There are regular culture clashes, but there’s always an underlying sense of optimism that things can be better.

The underlying themes are many, but the overarching one is family and what it means. None of the characters have conventional family dynamics for their species: both Ouloo and Speaker spend time in pairs (Ouloo with her son, Speaker with her sister) when their culture would traditionally dictate a larger group, Rovsig is exiled from his family, and Pei is romantically involved with a human when her species forbids inter-species relationships. They each have a completely different perspective, and seeing how they all influence each other and come to understand each other’s beliefs is beautiful.

I can’t believe the series is over – Chambers’ world is so rich that it feels like losing a friend. Her writing is gorgeous and quotable, her worldbuilding immensely detailed and yet never overwhelming or confusing, and the diversity in her work is unparalleled. This book is one of the first major works I’ve seen in which a character uses neo-pronouns (xe and xyr), and it feels entirely natural.

Overall, ‘The Galaxy, and the Ground Within’ is a profoundly moving book – just like all its predecessors in the ‘Wayfarers’ series. This is a series where the books can be read in isolation, so if you’re a fan of character-driven stories and quiet, emotional reads, I highly recommend picking up the entry which interests you the most. For fans of stories about family and love in all its forms, this is definitely a book for you.

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

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 18th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: Red, White, and Royal Blue

‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is pure escapist fiction. Since its release it’s garnered constant comparisons to fanfiction for its idealism, tooth-rotting sweetness, and amalgamation of romance tropes between – of all people – the First Son of the first female US President and the Prince of England. Naturally, it’s an absolutely implausible read – but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny, joyously fun, and a much needed ray of light in a genre which contains too much tragedy. If you’re willing to go along for the ride, ‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is deserving of its reputation of one of the best books in the LGBTQIA+ romance genre.

Alex Claremont-Diaz is tabloid fodder – the twenty-one year old son of the first female US president, and the first half-Mexican in the White House. His entire life revolves around politics – and with election year approaching, it’s more important than ever that he remains the perfect marketing strategy. So, when photos leak of an apparent confrontation with his arch-nemesis – none other than His Royal Highness Prince Henry, grandson of Her Majesty the Queen of England – damage control is essential. Enter a clever scheme: a fake friendship between Alex and Henry stretching back years. Alex and his arch-nemesis must put their longstanding enmity aside and play nicely for the paparazzi. Except the more time they spend together, the more it becomes clear that they don’t hate each other after all… and the only thing more damaging for both of them than enmity is love.

Both Alex and Henry are instantly loveable characters. Alex is a charmer – intelligent, witty, and determined, he’s the consummate politician, always looking for the right thing to say (unless Henry’s involved). But underneath the politician’s sheen he’s a hot mess – unsure what he wants to have for lunch, let alone the direction of his entire life, and clueless about his own personal life even with things staring him in the face. Alex’s relationship with his sister is heartwarming, and his relationship with his mother complicated, but overall filled with love. (There’s a scene involving a PowerPoint which sums it up perfectly and is one of the funniest scenes ever put to paper).

Henry is, in many ways, an American caricature of what a British person should be like – uptight and repressed, faultlessly polite, but beneath that veneer kind, caring, and exceptionally poetic. It’s impossible not to like him. There has never been an outwardly gay member of the British royal family, and Henry’s relationship with his sexuality – and how it affects his perception of himself – is heartbreaking to read about. However, this is always a hopeful and optimistic book, and it’s always clear he’ll get a happy ever after.

The plot is stereotypical romance – enemies forced to play nice and pretend to be friends end up in a secret relationship which will undoubtedly be revealed at the worst possible time – but the characters and writing make it so much more. Alex and Henry get themselves into ridiculous situations and force you to laugh, cry, and gasp right along with them. Their chemistry is electric, but so too is the chemistry between the books many friendships – Alex’s White House Trio, Henry and his sister Bea, Henry and his friend from Eton Pez. There are elements which stretch the bounds of plausibility to its limit, but you want to believe it’s possible – you want to believe that Alex and Henry can beat the odds. (And yes, the Prince probably can’t just conveniently obtain the keys to the V&A for a midnight visit – but everyone wants to believe it could happen).

Overall, ‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is the sort of tooth-rotting fluff that everyone wants to read on a bad day. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but so likeable that it’s hard to care. Recommended for all fans of romance and LGBT fiction, and everyone who wants something happy and optimistic to get through hard times.

Published by St Martin’s Griffin
Paperback: May 14th 2019

Robyn Reviews: To Be Taught, If Fortunate

‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ is a beautiful, emotional novella which captures humanity in a way only Becky Chambers can do. Filled with poignant, memorable scenes it’s a little slice of hope in a world which desperately needs it.

Set somewhere in the early 22nd century, it imagines a world in which humans have developed the technology to explore nearby planets compatible with life. Instead of developing complex machines and terraforming, humans have transformed themselves, developing ways to optimise their bodies to whichever planet they land on at the time. Ariadne, an engineer, is one of a crew of four sent to investigate these planets. Put in a form of stasis between planets, the journey will take a mere decade or so for her – but eighty years will pass back home on Earth. Ariadne and her colleagues have no idea how Earth will have changed on their return. As they grapple with the claustrophobia of deep space, the joy of new discovery, the thrill of being the first humans to set foot on new worlds, and the deep sadness of leaving all their loved ones – including their beloved planet – behind, they must answer one key question: what’s more important, their mission or the fate of those back home?

Chambers specialises in character-driven science fiction. She can craft complex technologies, entire alien races with plausible xenobiology, and realistic forms of space travel, but the crowning achievement of her work is how much the reader comes to love the characters and how deeply it makes them feel. This novella is no different. Ariadne is an eminently relatable character. She never intended to go to space, joining the space agency intending to be an engineer with her feet firmly on the ground, and fell into the astronaut program by accident. She’s strong and intelligent, with tight bonds of friendship to each of her crewmates, but she’s also given up her entire life for this mission – and no matter how amazing the things they discover are, there are always moments of darkness and doubt. Chambers chronicles the highs and the lows so well that the reader can’t help but feel them as well. At the end of the day, Ariadne stands by her choices, but her journey to get there is both haunting and beautiful.

For a novel with, essentially, four characters, there’s a huge amount of diversity. Ariadne is bisexual, one of the main characters is asexual, and another is transgender. One of the characters is Latin American, another Black. Each of these things is noted but never used as a plot point or discussion. It shows how easy it is to naturally fill a book with diverse characters, and hopefully hints of an accepting future.

The main difference between ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ and the work chambers is most known for, her ‘Wayfarers’ quartet, is the focus on ethics. Here, Chambers delves into the ethics of space travel – the colonial nature of humanity imposing itself on new planets, the risk to local ecosystems, the ethics to the astronauts themselves of taking them away from their families and decades out of their own time. These are complex issues with no clear answers, but the discussions posed are fascinating. None of these issues feel shoved in – they weave naturally through the plot and add another level of maturity. I adore the ‘Wayfarers’ books, but this is a more challenging undertaking.

Overall, ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ is a fantastic novella that marries Chambers’ exceptional ability to write characters and deeply emotional stories with intriguing discussions on ethics and futuristic science. Recommended for all science fiction fans, along with fans of general philosophy and stories with heart.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback:
8th August 2019 / Paperback: 3rd November 2020

Robyn Reviews: Rebel of the Sands

‘Rebel of the Sands’ is a young adult fantasy novel that truly embodies its genre. It features all of the standard tropes and characters reminiscent of those from many other novels – but for all of that, it’s a highly enjoyable read and proof that novels don’t have to do something different to be great fun.

Amani Al-Hiza grew up in the backwater town of Dustwalk. She’s a gunslinger, and a good one – with near-perfect aim – but she knows she’ll never be able to escape, instead winding up either married to a local boy or dead. Her family dreams of making an advantageous match, while Amani desperately tries to save enough money to pay for a train ticket to her cousin in the city. Enter Jin, a strange – but handsome – foreigner on a mythical horse, who might just be the escape route she’s always dreamt of. Suddenly, Amani’s thrust into the middle of a rebellion and grappling with desert magic she previously took to be a myth.

Amani is a bundle of cliches – an orphan in a small town who dreams of escape, a strong heroine fighting against a patriarchal society – but she’s undeniably a likeable and fun protagonist. Her dreams are relatable, and whilst she’s exceptionally skilled she also makes a lot of mistakes and has a great deal of naivety. She also has a fiery temper and a smart mouth which constantly gets her into trouble. It’s impossible not to root for her and get drawn into her journey.

Jin, equally, is the classic handsome stranger who comes to rescue the heroine – even if the heroine is more than capable of rescuing herself. He’s a mysterious figure, but fortunately Alwyn Hamilton reveals just enough details to make him into a three-dimensional character rather than simply a plot device. I’m not the biggest fan of his relationship with Amani – the development is rushed, always a risk in a shorter fantasy novel – but Jin himself is a nice character with clear potential for future books.

The setting and world-building is where ‘Rebel of the Sands’ stands out from its peers. Inspired by a mixture of Middle Eastern mythology and the US Wild West, it’s set in the desert nation of Maraji. There are towns with weapons factories and shooting competitions in local taverns, but there’s also the desert – the home of vengeful spirits and skinwalkers and other things which go bump in the night. The intersection works perfectly and the magic feels right at home amongst the more traditional Western influences. There are no in-depth explanations, but this is the first book in a series so that wouldn’t be expected at this stage.

Overall, ‘Rebel of the Sands’ is a solid young adult fantasy novel that exemplifies all of the tropes of the genre done well. If you’re looking for an easy but enjoyable fantasy book, this might just be the one for you.

Published by Faber & Faber
Paperback: February 4th 2016