Robyn Reviews: The Beautiful Ones

‘The Beautiful Ones’ is very much a novel of manners – one sprinkled with fantasy elements, but far heavier on the romance. Like all of Moreno-Garcia’s books it’s beautifully written, but there’s an element of detachment from the characters that prevents it being a fully immersive experience.

Antonina Beaulieu, known as Nina, has travelled to the city for the season – and the opportunity to join the city’s elite, The Beautiful Ones, thanks to her well-connected cousin and his scheming wife Valerie. However, her debut has not gone to plan. A country girl at heart, she lacks the decorum expected by high society – not to mention, she keeps losing control of her telepathy, a flaw which has earned her the nickname The Witch of Oldhouse. Enter the famed telekinetic entertainer Hector Auvray. Nina is dazzled by his skill, and Hector intrigued by her innate ability. However, its not only Nina’s telekinesis that draws him to her – and as Nina falls in deeper, Hector’s secrets threaten to tear them apart forever.

Nina is undoubtedly the highlight of the book. Forthright and naive, Nina is entirely out of place in a society run on unspoken rules and appearances, but she’s determined to have a good time anyway. A keen naturalist, Nina cares more about beetles than she does about securing an appropriate husband, and while she frustrates everyone around her she’s a delight to read about. While she might seem innocent and childlike, Nina is also an intelligent woman, and she picks up on more than those around her believe. Really, Nina is too good for any of the other characters, but in this sort of novel you always know how it’s going to end.

Hector Auvray initially comes across as very unlikeable, but as the story unfolds, he starts to evoke more sympathy. Hector is a performer, very different to the high class Beautiful Ones, and he’s worked hard to get to his station in society. However, he’s also become so adept at hiding behind a mask to fit in that he’s forgotten who he is without it. Hector makes a lot of mistakes, and Nina deserves better, but he isn’t a bad man.

Valerie, on the other hand, is on the dark side of morally grey. Consummately selfish, she’s been forced into a situation that she hates and regrets with every fibre of her being – and she reacts by tearing down everyone around her. Valerie’s situation, simultaneously the height of privilege and a tottering precipice, is a reminder of how difficult society used to be for women – even the wealthy ones.

The plot is predictable, following the well-trodden tracks of regency-type romances since the days of Austen. That doesn’t make the twists any less powerful when they inevitably come, Moreno-Garcia’s writing beautifully evoking tension and feeling. However, she also chooses to write her characters in a very Austen style, maintaining a degree of propriety and distance from them. This will likely appeal to stalwart fans of the regency romance genre, but personally I prefer to feel closer to characters, and this posed a barrier to becoming fully invested in the story.

The fantasy elements are well-woven, fitting the story without playing a large role in it. However, their absence wouldn’t greatly affect the plot or feel. This is definitely a romance novel that happens to feature fantasy rather than anything else.

Overall, ‘The Beautiful Ones’ is a well-written novel of manners that will appeal to fans of classic romance, Bridgerton, and fantasy-lite. For Moreno-Garcia’s fans, it’s very different to her previous work, but still a worthwhile read.

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

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 27th April 2021

I review another of Moreno-Garcia’s books, Mexican Gothic, here.

Robyn Reviews: The Shadow of the Gods

‘The Shadow of the Gods’ is the first book in John Gwynne’s ‘Bloodsworn Saga’, a new epic fantasy series inspired by Norse mythology. It tells an excellent, brutal tale, punctuated throughout by a sense of unease. The world Gwynne creates is cruel and unflinching, with no safety for the characters within. This is definitely a read for epic fantasy fans who like their stories on the bloodier side.

The land of Vigrid has been shattered by the fall of the gods, driven to extinction by war. In the broken remains, power-hungry Jarls feud for dominance, and monsters – remnants of the dead gods – stalk the lands. Amidst this chaos, Orka, a wife and mother, tries to eke out a living for her family, staying away from the politicking Jarls. Varg, a fugitive thrall, tries to find justice for his sister. And Elvar, daughter of a noble bloodline, rejects her heritage and goes in search of battle fame. Each are very different, living very separate lives – but something is rising, a dormant power believed dead that could spell the end of Vigrid once and for all.

Unusually for a novel with multiple perspectives, each of Gwynne’s protagonists is equally strong, with an equally compelling storyline. It can be a little difficult at times to keep each character straight – there are a lot of names, some of them very similar (like Elvar and Einar) – but once this is established, each plotline makes a worthy contribution. Orka has retired from the mercenary life, settling down with her husband and son and focusing on raising her family. Her son, Breca, is a sweet child, one constantly going out of his way to save animals and trying to make people do the right thing. In contrast, Orka is a tough, fierce woman, a warrior who may no longer be actively fighting, but who still analyses every situation like a war. Her love for her family is overwhelming and she’ll do anything to protect them. Orka is regularly rash, but she’s an incredibly strong fighter and, despite a lack of regard for human life, she does have a moral compass pointing in more or less the right direction.

Varg is undoubtedly the nicest of the protagonists. He’s spent most of his life as a thrall – a slave to a master’s bidding. His escape has led to a bounty on his head and him being named a murderer, but really all Varg wants is justice for his sister. Varg is constantly getting into situations well over his head, but he has a desperate will to survive and a generous dollop of luck. Varg ends up joining a band of mercenaries, the Bloodsworn, almost by accident, but once there he finds himself with friendship for the first time in his life. The ensuing moral battle between justice for his sister and loyalty to his new friends is beautifully written,as is Varg’s struggle to fight and kill when really all he wants is peace. Varg has the most complete character arc over the course of the novel, so it will be interesting which direction he goes in in the sequel.

Elvar starts the novel as a bit of a mystery. She’s a member of the Battle Grim, another band of mercenaries, but her place isn’t quite established. She also has a mysterious bodyguard, Grend, steadfastly loyal but looked upon with caution by the rest of the Battle Grim. Elvar is another fierce warrior, but unlike Orka it’s initially less clear what she’s fighting for. As the novel progresses, more about Elvar’s past is revealed, and her precarious position in the Battle Grim starts to make sense. Beyond anything, Elvar desires freedom – a desire which many can empathise with.

Gwynne’s worldbuilding is excellent, although this is definitely a novel which benefits from regularly referring to a map. Vigrid is a land divided into sections, each ruled by a Jarl – a powerful warrior. There’s also a Queen, Helga, trying to move away from the feudal system to a more united reign – going about this, naturally, by being stronger than all the rest. The magic system, a minor part, is based on the defeated gods – some people have a remnant of the gods’ powers in their blood, making them known as the Tainted. These people are collared and controls, treated as lower than the thrall slaves. The Tainteds’ powers depend on the god they inherited them from, but are always related to battle. Gwynne avoids info-dumps,instead spreading this information across the novel and allowing the reader to infer it. This allows the novel to flow smoothly, although at the expense of a small amount of confusion as all of the new terms are introduced.

The ending is excellent. A novel with three such separate plotlines is hard to end satisfactorily, but Gwynne manages it, each plotline ending neatly but with clear potential for future development.

Overall, ‘The Shadow of the Gods’ is an exceptionally strong epic fantasy novel, packed with Norse mythology and with three equally strong character arcs. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for the sequel. Recommended to all fans of epic fantasy and Norse mythology.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 6th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: Shadow and Bone

‘Shadow and Bone’ is a solid, fast-paced example of the YA fantasy genre, now back in the spotlight due to the new Netflix adaptation. Its not perfect, but its creative, eminently readable, and a very strong debut novel.

For centuries, the nation of Ravka has been divided in two by the Shadow Fold – an area of near-impenetrable darkness filled with monsters that feast upon those who enter. The nation’s only hope lies in the legend of the Sun Summoner – a Grisha who can summon light, finally destroying the Shadow Fold once and for all. Alina Starkov, an orphan and cartographer, has never put much stock in Grisha legend – but when her regiment’s crossing of the Shadow Fold goes awry, she finds herself suddenly being proclaimed the Sun Summoner of legend. Whisked away to the luxurious world of the Grisha, Alina struggles with her new identity. Can she, a mere orphan, possibly be the saviour of Ravka – or is she doomed to fail them all?

Alina is the sort of strong character you want to root for. Stubborn and in many ways childish, she’s full of flaws, but she has a good heart and wants to do the right thing. Her struggles with identity are beautifully written and very impactful. Alina is an example of the Chosen One trope done well – despite being powerful, her naivety and moral dilemmas prevent her ever being too strong, and its abundantly clear that she has her limits.

This being an early 2010s young adult novel, naturally there’s a love triangle. Love triangles aren’t a trope I’m particularly fond of, but this is one of the strongest examples I’ve read, simply because it’s never entirely clear which character she’ll choose. There’s Mal, another orphan who grew up as her best friend – steadfast and loyal, but uncomfortable with Alina’s new power and status. Then there’s the Darkling – General Kirigan, the commander of the Grisha armies and the most powerful Grisha alive. The Darkling is captivated by Alina, proclaiming her his only equal – but he has many secrets, and Alina is never sure how much she can trust him. Alina’s dilemma between the two always feels authentic. The romance elements develop very well, with less predictability than might be expected, and it makes the situation much more readable than love triangles often are.

The setting is one of the book’s strongest parts. Ravka is inspired by Eastern Europe, but the way the Shadow Fold has influenced politics and society is fascinating. There’s also clear tension between Ravka and the surrounding nations, which despite not being the story’s focus is well woven in. Ravka is a very two-tiered society,with clear differences between the powered Grisha and ordinary humans, and again the tensions this creates are well explored. Bardugo has gone on to explore neighbouring areas like Ketterdam and Fjerda in subsequent spinoff series’, and her talent for worldbuilding is undeniable.

Overall, ‘Shadow and Bone’ is very much a novel of its time, packed with the tropes pervasive in all early 2010s young adult novels, but its one of the strongest examples of those books. For those interested in the show, the book is definitely worth a read first. Recommended for fans of strong worldbuilding, the Chosen One trope, and general young adult fantasy.

Published by Orion Children’s
Paperback: 6th June 2013

Monthly Roundup – April 2021

April has been another mixed month in terms of my mood, with the underlying stress of imposed restrictions shadowing the beauty of new life bursting forth in the woods and fields where I am fortunate to live. Lockdown was eased mid-month allowing for gyms to reopen. I welcomed the return to strength training and, as well as working out alone or with younger son, have enjoyed a couple of sessions with a personal trainer. I am hoping his expertise will help ensure my form is correct, that injury may be avoided as I slowly increase the weights I am shifting. Prior to this I had been trying to improve my fitness with lengthy bike rides. I still cycle to and from the gym but no longer feel the need to pedal endless miles. Much as I enjoy cycling, the routes I use had become repetitive. Life remains tied to my local area.

With organised sport now permitted the other members of my little family have returned to playing hockey. This means I occasionally find myself alone in the house, a strange feeling after so many months of living and working in the same shared space. What had once been taken for granted has become the exception. This also applies to making small talk at the gym. The staff there are friendly but I have forgotten how to socialise, not that I was ever much good at this anyway. Lockdown has exacerbated my hermit-like tendencies.

Shops and restaurants may have reopened but do not appeal while masks are required and certain strangers’ reactions to my proximity suggest I am regarded as a biohazard. I will return to these when I am made to feel welcome. It would be lovely to have a weekend away with husband but we shall wait until hospitality venues are permitted to be hospitable again. I have said this before – it is undoubtedly a bugbear.

My family are keeping as well as can be expected under the circumstances. We had good news last week when daughter’s exam results were released. After six years at medical school she may finally call herself a doctor. She has an NHS position confirmed, enabling her to start work in the summer. We ordered a takeaway and drank quite a lot of champagne to celebrate. Many of her fellow medical students were privately educated and I feel immensely proud that she, coming through the local state school comprehensive system and with no personal contacts within the field of medicine, has achieved alongside them.

My foot injuries continue to heal and I am running more frequently and covering longer distances. During the recent fine weather this was particularly enjoyable, although even in rain I find exercise provides a sense of achievement. As a reward for my efforts I finally treated myself to new trainers. Unfortunately the wrong size was sent – the downside of online shopping.

I reviewed 13 books in April: 10 fiction (3 translated), 2 non fiction, and a poetry collection. I particularly enjoyed The High House by Jessie Greengrass so sent the couple of proof copies I had received to other book bloggers who I thought would also enjoy this tale. I am grateful to the publisher for providing me with a beautiful finished edition.

Robyn added a further 12 reviews making this a bumper month on the blog. We have both been trying to read from our TBR piles alongside new releases.

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

brood brooklyn
Brood by Jackie Polzin, published by Picador
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, published by Penguin

artist floating  every seventh wave
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, published by Faber & Faber
Every Seventh Wave by Tom Vowler, published by Salt

skyward  the source
Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley, published by Solaris
The Source by Sarah Sultoon, published by Orenda

the high houseThe High House by Jessie Greengrass, published by Swift Press

Translated Fiction

astragal andrea victrix
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin (translated by Patsy Southgate), published by Serpent’s Tail
Andrea Víctrix by Llorenç Villalonga (translated by P. Louise Johnson), published by Fum d’Estampa

lonely castle
Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura (translated by Philip Gabriel), published by Doubleday

Non Fiction

gone  spirit of the river
Gone by Michael Blencowe, published by Leaping Hare Press
The Spirit of the River by Declan Murphy, published by The Lilliput Press

Poetry

lover from tunisia
Ouafa and Thawra: About a Lover From Tunisia by Arturo Desimone, published by African Books Collective

Robyn Reviews

sistersong  1rv
Sistersong by Lucy Holland, published by Macmillan
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, published by Harper Voyager

ag-sl  heather
All the Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter, published by Titan Books
Malice by Heather Walter, published by Del Rey

iwwv-1 1tmb
If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, published by Titan Books
The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk, published by Orbit

blood  1
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, published by Macmillan Children’s Books
The Prison Healer by Lynette Nomi, published by Hodder & Stoughton

1aho 2rv-1
A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuval, published by Michael Joseph
Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody, published by HQ Stories

last bear  1ar
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, published by Harper Children’s
Ariadne by Jennifer Saint, published by Wildfire Books

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also purchased or was gifted some gorgeous finished copies.

Robyns April Books

I received many books that I am eager to read, although I do feel sad that I am unlikely to get to them all as quickly as I would wish.

april books received

As ever I wish to thank 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: Ariadne

“I would not let a man who knew the value of nothing make me doubt the value of myself”

‘Ariadne’ is a retelling of the Greek myths of Ariadne and Phaedra, the daughters of King Minos of Crete. It sticks faithfully to the source material, weaving a beautiful – if at times tragic – tale of two women, trying to find a place in a world of men. A highly readable novel, it makes a worthy addition to any mythology fans’ shelves.

Ariadne has grown up in luxury as the Princess of Crete, free to spend her days dancing the halls and weaving her loom. However, her life has two blights – her fearsome father, King Minos, and her even more terrifying half-brother, the Bloodthirsty Minotaur. When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives as one of the Minotaur’s yearly sacrifices, Ariadne is besotted and vows to help – but helping Theseus means betraying her father and Crete, sacrificing the only life she has ever known. Besides, does the woman in the hero’s story ever get a happy ending?

The novel starts with only Ariadne’s perspective,but from part II onwards there are two – Ariadne and her sister Phaedra. Ariadne is by far the stronger character. Sheltered and naive, she’s a sweet girl who wants to do the right thing, but struggles to figure out what that is. As the story progresses, she grows into a more resilient woman, but still one who turns her face away from the truth of the world in order to preserve her happiness. Her internal dilemmas and insights are fascinating, with the dichotomy of powerlessness and privilege.

Phaedra is always harder and shrewder than her sister, never content to sit back and assume a woman’s role. Her relationship with Ariadne is complicated – she loves her sister, but also hates her passivity and naivety. Phaedra is easy to sympathise with, but there’s a cutting edge to her personality which can make her hard to like, and in some ways she’s even more blinkered and naive than her sister.

Most Greek mythology fans are familiar with Ariadne’s role in the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, but this is only a very small part of the book. The rest, chronicling what happens afterwards, is far more interesting. Jennifer Saint paints an engrossing picture of the sisters’ separate yet parallel lives, giving an exceptional sense of place and culture. The narrative is relatively sedately paced yet never feels slow. The subject matter inevitably means this book will be compared to Madeleine Miller’s work, and the combination of the focus on feminism and femininity, a prolonged period set on a secluded island, and the writing style, do make this feel much like Miller’s Circe. However, this is a quieter novel than Miller’s work – still emotional, but more of a gentle sea compared to the emotional storm found at the denouement of Miller’s novels.

Saint chooses to stay completely true to the source material – as far as this is possible for a several millennia old translated myth – and my only quibbles with her novel are mostly unavoidable given this. Ariadne’s infatuation with Theseus is instantaneous and feels unrealistic, but then this is very much how love is portrayed in all the major Greek myths. Theseus can come across as two dimensional, with little character development, but then he’s seen entirely through the eyes of Ariadne and Phaedra, who always view him in a certain light. This is an excellent novel, and these complaints are minor, with very little effect on enjoyment.

Overall, Ariadne is a strong addition to the mythology retelling genre, providing an interesting insight into the lives of Ariadne and Phaedra outside of the famed encounter with the Minotaur. Fans of similar modern retellings such as The Song of Achilles and Circe will likely enjoy this book.

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

Published by Wildfire Books
Hardback: 29th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Last Bear

‘The Last Bear’ is a beautiful and moving children’s book about eleven-year-old April and her summer on Bear Island. It combines gorgeous writing with a wonderful tale about a girl and her connection to nature – and especially to Bear, the only polar bear remaining on an island cut off by the receding polar ice. Woven throughout is a rallying cry about littering and climate change. This is a lovely little book, perfect to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

After April’s mother died suddenly in a car accident when she was four, April was left to be raised by her father, a climate scientist. However, his grief at his wife’s loss led him to throw himself into his work, more or less leaving April to her own devices. When he receives an invitation to spend six months manning the research station on Bear Island, April is ecstatic – finally, her and her father can have their own adventures. Instead, her father once again occupies himself with work. But her isolation leads April to make the most extraordinary friend. There are no bears on Bear Island – but there might be just one.

April is the sort of plucky heroine that children’s fiction thrives on. She’s stubborn, determined, and has an absolutely huge heart – especially for animals of all shapes and sizes. Her connection to nature is absolutely beautiful to read about. In many ways, April is reckless and foolhardy, but it’s impossible not to root for her every step of the way.

At its heart, this is a story about two relationships – the one between April and Bear, and the one between April and her father. Both are wonderfully and intelligently written. April’s relationship with Bear is heartwarming to read about – the way she’s determined to help him right from the start, and the way he always seems to understand when April’s having a bad day. Such a close friendship between a young girl and a polar bear is entirely unrealistic, but it doesn’t matter because it’s so beautifully done. April’s relationship with her father is much sadder but no less moving. In many ways, April lost both her parents when her mother died, and the guilt she feels for thinking that is cleverly rendered. The author simultaneously manages to make April wise beyond her years but also feel exactly like a real eleven-year-old girl, a difficult balance.

Hannah Gold’s prose really makes the story come to life. There are beautiful depictions of the wild landscape of Bear Island, but it’s the way Gold infuses the story with emotion that makes it stand out. The reader feels April’s delight, fear, desperation, and determination right along with her, making the happy moments all the more enjoyable and the sad moments even more moving.

The story is illustrated throughout by Levi Pinfold, and his depictions are fantastic, bringing elements of the story to life. The moments he’s chosen to capture are very powerful – especially the final scene. It’s hard to pick out a favourite image as they’re all excellent, but the emotional value of that moment is undeniable.

Overall, this is a wonderful children’s story recommended for children and grown-up-children alike.

Published by Harper Children’s
Hardback:18th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: Ace of Shades

‘Ace of Shades’ is the first book in the Shadow Game trilogy, a YA urban fantasy set in the fictional gambling town of New Reynes. It’s a brilliantly fast-paced read, packed with likeable characters and intricate worldbuilding – very easy to sit down and devour in one sitting. It’s also beautifully written, and generally one of the strongest additions I’ve read to the YA fantasy genre.

Enne Salta is a proper young lady, about to start her final year of finishing school – not the sort who would ever visit the famed City of Sin. However, when her mother goes missing on a visit to the city, Enne must leave her reputation behind in search of answers. Her only lead is a name, Levi Glaisyer – but Levi is not the sort of gentleman Enne is used to. He’s a street lord and conman, and one who doesn’t have time for Enne’s problems. However, he does need money. Spurred on by Enne’s offer of payment, the unlikely pair start an investigation that will take them into the criminal heart of New Reynes – something neither of them can escape unscathed.

Enne starts the novel naive, entitled, and petulant. She hates New Reynes, finding it horribly uncouth compared to the finishing school she’s used to – but her character development is brilliant, and as the story progresses she becomes more and more likeable. Her best attribute is a determined streak a mile wide – one which regularly gets her into trouble, but that more often than not gets her out of it too.

Levi is one of my all-time favourite characters. He’s a conman and runs a gang in the City of Sin, but he has a heart of gold and really cares about everyone in his crew. He’s also flamboyantly and unapologetically bisexual, leading to some hilarious moments. Levi’s strong, tough, and smart, but his big heart will always be a weakness – not that he’ll ever let that change.

The worldbuilding is simple but exceptionally effective. Each character inherits two gifts – one from each parent, with one always stronger than the other. These blood talents are brilliantly utilised, never making a character over-powered but adding an extra dynamic to an already fascinating story. The talents can be absolutely anything, from better dancing ability to the ability to physically enslave another person to your will – and the way these influence the politics of the city is fascinating.

Overall, this is a strong and immensely readable YA fantasy with gorgeous writing and a simple yet creative world. Recommended for all fans of YA fantasy.

My review of the final book in the trilogy, Queen of Volts, can be found here.

Published by HQ
Paperback: May 17th 2018

Robyn Reviews: A History of What Comes Next

‘A History of What Comes Next’ is an enormously clever book, part alternate history and part science fiction novel. The writing style will likely be polarising, but for those who appreciate something a bit different it’s an exceptionally worthwhile read.

Germany, 1945. Nineteen-year-old Mia is sent from America to infiltrate the Nazis and locate Wernher von Braun, Germany’s most esteemed rocket scientist. Her mission is to get hold of von Braun and his missile technology before the Russians can capture it. Naturally, von Braun is suspicious. But Mia isn’t an ordinary nineteen-year-old – in fact, she isn’t even human. Her people have been secretly shaping human innovation for thousands of years. But is her help benevolent, or does it spell the dawn of a greater danger?

There are two primary perspectives, Mia and her mother Sarah, and both are fascinating. On the face of it, both they and their thoughts resemble humans – but as the story progresses, both the differences and similarities become more stark. Sarah has long accepted her people’s way and differing morality, whereas Mia questions, creating interesting ethical conundrums. Where Sarah is relatively solitary, caring only about her daughter and a distant friend, Mia forms attachments – a scenario which, again, creates smaller whirlpools within the larger chaos. Personally, I found Mia’s perspective easier to relate to, but I suspect Sarah’s will resonate with all who have experienced parenthood.

Neuvel takes slight liberties with the order of innovations, but by and large draws his inspiration from actual historical events. The inside depictions of the Soviet-American space race are fascinating. The political backdrop of World War Two and the subsequent descent into the Cold War meshes surprisingly well with the more speculative, alien elements, and its easy to believe Sarah and Mia could actually have had a hand in it. There are also brief mentions of other major events – Sarah’s only friend, Hsue-Shen Tsien, is a Chinese man in America amidst the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, and there are little snippets of the ensuing racial and political tension. Similarly, Mia becomes close with a woman named Billie, a Black woman whose family fled the US for Russia with the introduction of the Jim Crow laws. These little extras add important historical context and paint a rich tapestry for the action that unfolds.

The writing style is sedate, with an almost stream-of-consciousness style. Some will likely find this slow or irritating, but I found seeing into the heads of Mia and Sarah brilliant. Neuvel perfectly captures the otherness of their alien heritage, whilst balancing the influences of their Earth upbringing and attachments. He also deftly avoids dumping large amounts of information in one place, instead weaving just enough into the narrative to clearly understand what’s happening without being overwhelmed. In places, the flow is broken up with an abrupt twist. The first time this happens it feels jarring, but as the story moves on it works – again, it feeds into the stream-of-consciousness, the mind following a thread then suddenly being distracted by another one.

Overall, ‘A History of What Comes Next’ is a bold novel, but one that speculative fiction readers should find plenty to love about. Recommended for fans of alternate history and novels unafraid to challenge convention.

Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph for providing a finished copy – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph
Hardback: 4th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Prison Healer

‘The Prison Healer’ is a surprisingly dark and gritty YA fantasy. The individual elements and twists are relatively predictable, but the unique setting and darker undertones make this an engaging and worthwhile read.

Kiva Meridan has been at the notorious Zalindov prison for ten years, imprisoned as a seven year old alongside her father for being part of the rebel uprising. Now seventeen, she works as the prison’s healer – treating the inmates’ ailments, but also carving the prison’s mark into new arrivals and reporting intel to the prison’s warden. The other inmates shun her for her compliance – all except Tipp, an eleven year old she’s taken under her wing. When the Rebel Queen is captured, it’s Kiva’s job to keep her alive long enough to face punishment – a job which becomes even more important when a coded message from her family arrives, making it clear that Kiva’s own life is tied to the Queens. Kiva’s only chance at survival is to volunteer to sit the Queen’s punishment in her place – a punishment no-one has ever survived.

Kiva is an excellent protagonist – strong, mature beyond her years, and absolutely determined to survive. Outwardly compliant, her inner thoughts are nothing but, and she knows exactly how to game the system to her advantage. However, the Rebel Queen’s arrival throws all her careful plans and systems into disarray, leaving her almost helpless. Its this that is Kiva’s main issue – she’s so powerless against her own fate it can be a bit irritating to read, as she continually survives with almost no input of her own. She’s clearly a highly intelligent woman – it would be nice if she was allowed to play a larger role in her own fate.

The other major characters are also great – especially Tipp, the sweetest character in the book. Tipp is an element of light and joy in an otherwise dark story. He also has a speech impediment, not something seen very often in fantasy novels. Naari is another fantastic character, a strong and moral prison guard in an institution otherwise filled with corruption. The friendship between her and Kiva is excellent, and the way they come to gradually trust each other feels entirely natural.

The love interest, Jaren, is probably the weakest character. He’s very easy to like, and the chemistry between him and Kiva is evident, but he also feels incredibly stereotypical of a YA love interest. Other than his affection for Kiva, he comes across two-dimensional. However, he has the potential to be a much stronger character than he is, and I hope he’s developed further in the planned sequel.

The setting is the high point. Zalindov prison is a horribly bleak place, a place where people are sent to die, and Lynette Noni does an exceptional job painting a picture of it. The situation always feels dark, and the horrors – whilst carefully age-appropriate – always feel real. Kiva’s role as the prison healer shelters her from some of the worst elements, and her horror and revulsion as they come to light is deeply impactful. The healing itself also has a reasonable scientific basis. The terminology is kept simple and accessible, but none of it feels out of the realms of possibility.

The major issue with this novel, unfortunately, is the plot. The secondary plot, involving the outbreak of a plague, is very interesting, but the major plot – a series of trials Kiva must take for the Rebel Queen – is well-trodden territory in YA fantasy, and there isn’t enough innovation to stand out. It isn’t helped by the fact Kiva is continually saved rather than saving herself. The twists in the plot, including the ending, are clever, but all are predictable before they happen, giving the ending a lack of impact.

Overall, this is a solid entry to the YA fantasy genre, worth reading more for the innovative setting and darker undertones than the overarching narrative. Recommended for fans of YA fantasy novels like Shadow and Bone and The Hunger Games.

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: 13th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: Children of Blood and Bone

‘Children of Blood and Bone’ is a solid YA fantasy with an intriguing mythological basis, but aside from the magic system it’s not terribly unique. It’s an enjoyable read, but not one that differentiates itself from the rest of the genre.

Once, Orisha was a place of magic – a place where clans lived in relative harmony with power over fire, water, and even death. However, under the rule of a new king, magic has been purged from Orisha, all capable of it persecuted. The few still alive must hide. Zelie is one such person – left without a mother, she hates the crown and dreams of the day she can strike back against it. When a rogue princess appears in her village, she seizes the chance to move against the monarchy. But the more time they spend together, the more it becomes clear that the princess isn’t her enemy – and her magic might be a danger after all.

Initially, Zelie is a hard character to like. She’s angry at a world which has taken so much from her – her mother, her magic, her safety – and she’ll burn it all down to get her vengeance. Her anger is understandable, but that doesn’t make her head an enjoyable place to be. She softens a little as the book progresses, but she still remains a slightly off-putting protagonist, which is a shame – her magic and culture are both fascinating, and she’s capable of so much more than hate.

In contrast, Amari – the princess – is easy to love. She’s sweet and undoubtedly has the best character arc of the main trio, even if she has fewer chapters and is kept as a secondary character. Her character is stereotypical but feels more believable than her brother Inan and more likeable than Zelie. Her evolving relationship with Zelie is well-written and enjoyable, and it’s great seeing the fierce side that she keeps hidden pop out every now and then. She does have an entirely unnecessary romantic subplot, but then it’s unusual to see a YA fantasy without one.

The final point-of-view character is Inan – Amari’s brother, the son of the King of Orisha, charged with hunting down Zelie who, the crown believes, kidnapped his sister. He hates Zelie’s magic, which historically killed so many of his people – but he changes his views so often and so abruptly it gives the reader whiplash. He starts off as an antagonist, but despite getting more point of view chapters than Amari it’s difficult to tell which side he’s actually on – possibly because he isn’t sure himself. He’s a more interesting character than the others in many ways, but he sometimes feels more like two alternating people than one whole character.

The plot and setting are the strongest parts of the book. The descriptions of the kingdom of Orisha are gorgeously written, and the trials and tribulations faced by Zelie, Amira, and Inan are engaging. The descriptions of the tribal magic are beautiful, and Adeyemi doesn’t flinch from how difficult magic can be to control and how dangerous it is. This is a YA fantasy, and you never doubt that the “good” characters will win, but there’s plenty of hardship along the way. The main issue with the plot is Inan – his constant changes are the main driver towards the end and it’s too confusing to keep up with. The peeks we get inside his head regularly don’t correspond with his actions and it can make events seem hollow, designed to drive difficulty in the plot rather than character authenticity. His indecision is understandable, torn as he is between the beliefs he’s been raised with an the new things he’s learnt, but the writing doesn’t quite pull it off.

Overall, this is a good, solid YA fantasy, but not a great one. Recommended for those interested in reading about West African mythology and plot-driven stories – but for those who prefer their stories character-driven and unique, I’m not sure there’s enough here.

Published by Macmillan Children’s
Paperback: 8th March 2018