Robyn Reviews: The Lights of Prague

‘The Lights of Prague’ is a lovely historical fantasy novel about a Prague filled with a secret monster underworld, only protected by the Lamplighters – men responsible for lighting the gaslamps around the city, and for fighting off the monsters no citizens would believe were there. The ending is a tad rushed and predictable, but other than this it’s an excellent, creative novel with insight into a beautiful city rarely portrayed in urban fantasy.

Domek Myska is a Lamplighter – a man who roams the streets at night tasked with protecting the city from the monsters who dwell in the dark. He’d rather be a mechanic, but his uncle can’t afford to give him a full-time job, and his family has long known about Prague’s monstrous secret. One night, Domek saves a woman from a Pijavica – a bloodthirsty vampire – and suddenly finds himself the target of multiple brutal attacks. They all seem to centre around a mysterious jar he took from the creature. Now, Domek must figure out what’s in the jar – and what the Pijavice are planning with it – before they seize the power to unleash terror on Prague and all its inhabitants.

The story is told from two perspectives – Domek’s, and a wealthy widow called Ora Fischerova, a woman fascinated by Domek – but also secretly a Pijavica herself. Domek is a solid main character – kind-hearted, strong, and determined – but he’s also infuriatingly stubborn, with a set of incredibly black and white morals. He’s a talented mechanic and fighter, but otherwise not the brightest, and his inability to compromise or see other sides of the argument regularly leaves him in trouble. Domek always wants to do the right thing – but he’s convinced that his way is the only right way. Domek’s growth across the novel is good, but his stubbornness in the middle would be hard to deal with without Ora as a counterpoint.

Ora is a far more multifaceted character. As a Pijavica vampire, she’s been alive – or undead – for hundreds of years, seeing Prague change from the height of an empire’s power to a smaller, somewhat forgotten city. Previously part of an exclusive vampire family, she escaped decades ago, hiding herself amongst the humans. She even found love and married one – but has now been left a widow torn apart by loss. Ora is a very damaged character who struggles with the loss and death associated with vampire life. She’s a glamorous lady, enjoying the trappings of high society – but also one with a great deal of guilt. At first, she sees Domek as a bit of a diversion – a plaything to seduce and then discard – but she finds herself more and more enraptured by his heart and unshakeable moral code. However, she has no idea that he hunts those like her – and that makes her conquest dangerous. Ora makes an excellent protagonist, with a surprisingly good sense of humour, and an interesting perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of immortal life.

The plot is clever, with multiple layers of mystery that are hard to parse out. Its reasonably fast-paced, with constant action and developments, but not so fast it leads to confusion. It also heavily features creatures seen less often in fantasy, like will-o-the-wisps – a form of sprite or ghost in European folklore. The ending does feel a little rushed – Domek, in particular, seems to change without enough time or explanation – but it’s satisfying, coming to a strong conclusion whilst leaving room for a potential sequel.

The setting of Prague works brilliantly. Prague is a beautiful city, and elements of its history and culture are evident throughout. There are references to the decline of empire, the uneasy coexistence of new Germans with old Czechs, and the resident Jewish population who have only just been permitted citizenship and still aren’t seen as on par with their Christian neighbours. Jarvis creates a real sense of time and place, with an insight into a fascinating and turbulent piece of history that works perfectly with her fantasy additions. For those who have spent time in Prague, there are also recognisable landmarks. I don’t know enough about Central European history to know how accurate the historical elements are, but they feel authentic.

Overall, ‘The Lights of Prague’ is an enjoyable slice of historical fiction with a brilliant setting and clever use of European folklore. The ending is rushed, but otherwise its a solid read. Recommended for fans of historical, urban, and paranormal fantasy and books with an exceptional sense of place.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 18th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: Peter Pan (Mina Lima Edition)

The story of Peter Pan, first published in 1904, has been adapted so many times that most are familiar with the core elements of the story. In this edition, Mina Lima have republished the original with a number of deluxe illustrations and interactive elements, from the crocodile’s clock with moveable hands to a pull-out newspaper detailing the events in Kensington Gardens while the children are in Neverland. The story itself is obviously dated but still holds an element of magic, and the added extras are fun and creative. While this appears to be aimed at collectors, each interactive component would appeal to children.

Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, loses his shadow in the home of Mr and Mrs Darling and their three children. He returns to the house to look for it – but along with his shadow, leaves with the children too. Wendy, John, and Michael fly to Neverland to join the Lost Boys, a band of children Peter has similarly collected. Wendy becomes the Lost Boys’ mother, and they live a dreamlike life, punctuated only by the threat of Captain Hook and his band of pirates. However, the dream is not all pleasant. Their lives are lived according to Peter’s whims – and the longer they spend on the island, the more they start to forget the life they lived before. As time seeps by at an unknowable rate, the children must decide whether to stay on Neverland and never grow up – or return home to the comfort of a normal life.

The writing style is typical of the era, with a level of detachment, but it still creates an excellent atmosphere – darker and more eerie than modern adaptations would have you believe. Mina Lima add addendums to explain some of the more dated terminology, making it accessible to the modern reader. Neverland is a wonderfully creative example of fabulism – a delightful place where nature is in harmony with its inhabitants and mermaids and fairies are as normal as cats and dogs. The balance between the dark atmosphere and keeping things child appropriate is struck well.

Certain aspects have dated more than others. The references to the Redskins, with terms like savages, are inappropriate in modern literature. Similarly, while the Lost Boys go on adventures, Wendy’s only purpose is to look after them – she does the cooking and the laundry, tucks them into bed at night, and can only be the damsel in distress. However, by staying entirely faithful to the original story, the reader is given a window into society at the time and their expectations, even in their fantasies. Some of the magic is lost, but the cleverness and imagination is still apparent.

The Mina Lima edition is beautifully presented in a high-quality hardback that looks wonderful on the shelf – especially with its companions in the Mina Lima classics set. There are currently seven, with an eighth due to be published this year. Inside, each chapter has a full colour introductory illustration, and within the chapters are more illustrations and pop-out design elements. There are fairy wings which flap, a clock with moveable hands, and a multi-part diagram with insight into the children’s brains (one of my favourite elements, as scientifically inaccurate as it is). The only downside of these elements is that some have metal pins in, and whilst MinaLima have included pieces of card to protect the surrounding pages, they do still get damaged with repeated reading. While each element is great fun to explore, this is clearly more of a collectors product that doesn’t stand up to too much wear and tear.

Overall, the Mina Lima ‘Peter Pan’ is a faithful adaptation of the original story with some fun, attractive extras. For fans of classic children’s stories it makes an excellent addition to the shelf.

Published by Harper Collins
Hardback: 2nd June 2015

Robyn Reviews: In The Ravenous Dark

‘In the Ravenous Dark’ is an enjoyable, fast-paced fantasy romance with excellent LGBTQIAP+ representation and a fun cast of characters. The twists are relatively predictable and the plot simple, but it’s a solid read if you’re not looking for something complex.

In Thanopolis, those with magic are both prized and feared, bound to undead spirits to guide and control them. Rovan’s father gave his life to keep her from this fate – but when an accident leads to her revealing her powers, she’s thrust into a world of magic and politics that she barely understands. Her situation is further complicated when she finds herself falling for the beautiful Princess Lydea – and also Ivrilos, the undead spirit now bound to her for all eternity. Unsure who to trust, Rovan must uncover a centuries old secret at the heart of Thanopolis – and possibly betray everyone she loves in the process.

Rovan is a solid protagonist. Raised in an isolated village for her own safety, she understands little of city politics or royalty – and combined with a tendency for bluntness it leads to some hilarious, if cringe-worthy, situations. A powerful but untrained bloodmage, Rovan is capable of extraordinary feats, but regularly finds herself out of her depth. She’s so overpowered it does take some of the suspense and drama out of things, but despite this its impossible to dislike her with such an amazing matter-of-fact attitude.

The two love interests, Lydea and Ivrilos, are polar opposites. Lydea is a princess, but otherwise much like Rovan – fun-loving, relaxed, and unafraid of breaking the rules. Sparks fly almost immediately and the chemistry is palpable – however theirs always feels like a more surface level relationship. In contrast, Ivrilos is the stereotypical male fantasy love interest – quiet, brooding, and mysterious, a protector in the background betraying his family for the one he loves. He starts very two-dimensional, however as more about his past and personality is revealed, he develops into arguably the most interesting character in the book. His relationship with Rovan is a far slower burn, and feels more realistic for it.

It’s unusual to see polygamy portrayed in mainstream fantasy, and whilst the instant acceptance of anything might seem unrealistic, there’s enough tension in the plot without needing relationship friction to add to the drama. LGBTQIAP+ characters aren’t fully accepted in Strickland’s world – Japha, who is non-binary, is treated as male by the King, and lesbian Lydea is expected to marry and produce children with a man – but Rovan’s pansexuality and polygamy is never treated as abnormal. It’s great to have healthy representation of non-monogamous relationships, and whilst the overall ending is a bit too happily-ever-after it does make a pleasant change from all the LGBTQIAP+ characters dying at the end.

The plot is mainly focused around political intrigue and scheming, but it’s fast paced and engaging. It does feel very trope heavy, with most of the revelations easily predictable, but the tropes are written well. The main issue with the plot is that all the villains are a bit caricaturic. The protagonists are undoubtedly good, with the possible exception of Ivrilos, compared to the true irredeemability of their enemies. There’s a twist approximately two-thirds into the book which will likely divide opinion, but personally I found it an interesting addition if a bit out of keeping with the rest of the books mythos.

Overall, ‘In The Ravenous Dark’ is a solid addition to the fantasy romance genre, mostly notable for its depiction of a healthy polygamous relationship and LGBTQIAP+ diversity including pansexual, asexual, and non-binary representation. Recommended for fans of new adult fantasy romance, love triangles done right, and political intrigue.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 18th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: Felix Ever After

‘Felix Ever After’ is a delightfully moving coming-of-age story. It grapples with themes of identity, purpose, class divides, and marginalisation, managing to weave together a tale that’s both heartwarming and bittersweet. The ending is simultaneously satisfying and ambiguous, suiting the narrative perfectly. This is a must-read for any teenager grappling with their identity and what they want from life.

Felix Love is struggling. At seventeen, he wants nothing more than to get into Brown College to study art – but his father can’t afford the fees, so his only chance is to get his school’s scholarship. Unfortunately, his worst enemy – Declan – is also after the scholarship, and whilst he might be an asshole he’s an exceptional artist. Meanwhile, Felix is watching all his friends get into relationships and fall in love, while he himself – despite his surname – has never been in love. Can anyone fall in love with him when he isn’t even sure he loves himself? At the same time, Felix is grappling with his own identity. He’s identified as a trans man for several years, but he isn’t sure that label is right for him anymore. His struggles are thrown into the spotlight when someone carries out a transphobic attack at school. With so much growing on, Felix feels like his life is falling apart – but could his happily ever after be just around the corner?

The best thing about Felix is he feels so much like a teenager. His struggles, his attitude, his mistakes – all of them feel so genuine and believable. Felix is a bit self-centred and lazy, but only in the way that all teenagers are as they figure out their place in the world. At the end of the day, Felix is a great guy with a big heart and a huge amount of loyalty – he’s just emotionally fragile and prone to rash overreaction. At the start of the book, Felix can be a little hard to like. Some of his actions are questionable, and he leaps to conclusions without any evidence. However, as time goes on, it becomes clear why he is the way he is, and his true character starts to shine through. Felix isn’t perfect, and it’s this humanness that makes him such a brilliant protagonist.

A core part of the book is Felix’s relationships – with his friends, with his family, and romantically. His relationship with his father is fascinating, with both clearly loving each other yet having serious issues. Felix resents that his father hasn’t fully embraced him as his son rather than his daughter; Felix’s dad struggles with his son pulling away and trying to take so much independence at seventeen years of age. Neither communicates clearly with the other, and the way this falls out is cleverly written. In contrast, Felix’s relationship with his best friend, Ezra, seems amazing on the outside. The two care for each other deeply, with a level of physical and emotional comfort only seen between the closest friends. However, as the story goes on, it becomes clear how much they’re both hiding from the other, and cracks start to develop and widen. Once again, all the friendships feel incredibly authentic of teenage friendships, with a level of intensity and desperation. Felix’s difficulty as friend groups and those within them change is well-handled, and the ending is lovely.

There is a love triangle – not something I usually like in books. The love triangle here is obviously unbalanced, and the ending is always relatively clear. That said, whilst its inclusion isn’t entirely necessary, the way it ends does add an element of sadness and dissatisfaction inherent to life, and it fits the realistic vibe of the rest of the story. There are always those who are unhappy in love and in life. The love triangle is my least favourite part of the story, but I’ve read far worse.

This is not always a happy story. The ending is heartwarming, and there are cheerful elements throughout, but there’s also a dark plotline about transphobia and bullying that hits hard. I found this exceptionally well-done, adding to the realism and making the ending even sweeter, but readers should be warned that they may find parts difficult to read.

Overall, ‘Felix Ever After’ is a brilliant coming of age story that captures a slice of contemporary teenage life. A highly recommended read.

Thanks to Faber Children’s for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Faber Children’s
Paperback: 18th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Forest of Stars

‘The Forest of Stars’ is an enjoyable, if dark in places, middle grade novel about a floating girl who finds a home in a magical circus, but finds her new home under threat from a hidden foe. The mystery elements are relatively predictable, but the atmosphere and found family elements are lovely.

All her life, Louisa has been hidden away by her mother. Her bones are full of too much air, so she glides around without her feet touching the ground – and a wind too strong could blow her away, just like her father when she was young. When her mother dies, twelve-year-old Louisa is left to fend for herself – but the world is dangerous for those who are different. However, her fortune changes when she receives an invitation to a mysterious carnival. The carnival is full of those who are different like her. Louisa finds herself torn between making the carnival her home and going in search of her missing father. Her decision is complicated when a mysterious magic starts attacking the carnival’s residents, leaving Louisa and her friends to track down a hidden foe.

Louisa is a sweet, naive girl, loyal to her friends but hindered by a lack of knowledge of the world. She also has little to no control over her magic, regularly drifting into the sky then finding herself unable to come back down. For a child so young, Louisa has experienced a lot of grief,and the way this is handled – with a twist of fabulism – is excellent. Louisa isn’t the strongest protagonist, but she’s likeable enough and her determination to do the right thing is admirable.

The fabulism is the strongest part of the book. The magic those at the carnival possess, from Louisa’s floating to Mercy’s control over shadows, is great, but there are other elements too, like the love bugs which appear any time anyone is sad. All these elements are well woven into the narrative, adding to the atmosphere. The fabulism has a darker twist than in many books – rather than a fortune teller, there’s a misfortune teller – and this works well, lending gothic undertones without ever being too much for a child.

The main weakness of this story is the plot. There are two core mysteries – Louisa’s missing father and the mysterious foe targeting the circus – and both are relatively obvious from an early stage. Admittedly, this is a children’s story, so the elements being obvious to an adult is not necessarily a bad thing, but the hints dropped could be more subtle. The denouement is still satisfying, but it lacks the shock factor that would really elevate it to the next level.

Overall, ‘The Forest of Stars’ is a fun, creative children’s book with some lovely found family elements. Its not the most original storyline, but the magical elements make it an enjoyable read.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 11th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: Circus of Wonders

‘Circus of Wonders’ is a gritty yet engaging slice of historical fiction, following the life of Nell as she is thrust from quiet village life into the blood, sweat, and glitter of Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders. It’s beautifully written, drawing the reader in and building a gorgeous sense of atmosphere and tension throughout. When the curtain falls – as it must – the story lingers. This isn’t always a happy story, but it’s an evocative and worthwhile read.

In the year 1866, Nell picks violets for a living. Her entire world is her beloved brother, her swims in the sea – and the disdain from the rest of the village for the birthmarks covering her skin. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in her village, Nell’s insular life is thrown into disarray. Sold by her father to Jasper Jupiter as his newest curiosity, she finds herself alone – but, for the first time in her life, she also finds herself admired rather than scorned. Slowly, she finds friendship – and fame. But fame is a fickle beast, and the higher Nell flies, the further she has to fall.

The novel is told from three perspectives – Nell’s, Jasper Jupiter’s, and Jasper’s brother Toby’s. Each lends the story a slightly different angle – but while each is initially cast into a role, as the story goes on each casts free from their initial mooring, becoming far more complex than they first appeared. Nell starts as the victim. Set apart by her birthmarks, she is the subject of mockery in her village, and even her loving brother sees her as different – and thus inferior. When her father sells her, it’s the lowest moment in her life – she feels lower than an animal, trapped in a cage. However, as time passes, she goes from the victim to the hero, the star of the show. The fame is addicting, glorious – and she grows drunk on success, dreaming of dizzier and dizzier heights. She can’t connect to a simple village life like her brother’s any more – not when she can be such a wonder. However, for all her glory, she’s still trapped – still that animal in a cage. Her thoughts on the dichotomy are fascinating. Nell isn’t always likeable, but it’s still impossible not to root for her, and fear for her inevitable fall.

Jasper, of course, starts as the villain. He’s marched into Nell’s peaceful village and purchased her like a prize pony. He’s a bully, beating his workers when they don’t do what he wants and forcing everyone to play along to his whims. He expects the women to cater to his pleasure, and he’s certain Nell will fall in line. However, even villains have other sides to their story. Jasper is selfish and needlessly cruel, but he’s also wounded and grieving. He’s naive, taking risks without paying attention to the consequences. He sees himself as a genius, fills himself up with his own importance – and no-one in his life holds him accountable. No-one ever has. Jasper is a horrible person, but more of a spoilt child than someone deliberately calculating and cruel. His fall is as predictable as Nell’s and, despite everything, by the end it’s hard not to feel sorry for him too.

Where Nell and Jasper are protagonist and antagonist, Toby is the supporting cast. As a child, Toby dreamed of the circus he and his brother would create together – but while Jasper has the strength, charisma, and attractiveness to be a star, Toby is seen as dull. Simple. The sort of person who can only fade into the background. Toby has spent his entire life in his brother’s shadow. He longs to step into the spotlight himself, but he can’t – he’s too scared, and he can’t betray his brother. Initially, Toby is the sort of character to be pitied. However, as his role grows and he starts to take more control over his life, he becomes far more complex. By the end, Toby is my favourite of the main characters. He isn’t entirely a good person – he’s done some awful things, and been complicit in far more – but he’s exceptionally loyal, and he always tries to be better than he is.

The atmosphere this novel creates is incredible. The circus seems to live and breathe, every sense hit in some way. MacNeal creates visceral images – not always pleasant, but always a feast for the senses. The plot is almost secondary to the simple feel of the circus in motion. There’s a constant underlying tension. The performers twirl across the stage, reaching dizzier and dizzier heights – but at some point the curtain will come down, and the show will end. The only questions are what the final act will be – and what happens next.

The denouement, when it happens, is a predictable but fitting end. There’s an epilogue, offering a little insight into the fallout. I have mixed feelings about epilogues – I’m a big fan of ambiguity, and allowing readers to muse on their own endings – but this is one of the stronger ones, still leaving the door open for the reader to fill in the gaps.

Overall, ‘Circus of Wonders’ is an engaging piece of historical fiction with an exceptional sense of atmosphere and characters who linger. A recommended read.

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

Published by Picador
Hardback: 13th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Witch’s Heart

‘The Witch’s Heart’ is a retelling of Norse mythology, chronicling the life of the witch Angrboda from the time of her imprisonment by Odin to the end of the gods at Ragnarok. It’s slow to start, but packs an emotional punch – likely more so for anyone who has experienced motherhood.

When a witch refuses to provide Odin with a prophecy of the future, he casts her into the fire and cuts out her heart. However, she survives. Left injured and powerless, she flees to a cave in the mountains of Jotunheim, renaming herself Angrboda and setting out to rebuild her life. There, she is found by the trickster god Loki, who returns her heart. Gradually, Angrboda falls for her unlikely helper, leading to three highly unusual children. However, their fragile peace is threatened by the return of Angrboda’s prophetic powers – and the greed of Odin and the other Aesir to use them. When the treachery of the gods reaches new heights, Angrboda must decide whether to leave her family to their prophesised fate – or to try and reshape the future.

Angrboda is a fascinating character. At the start of the story she’s a mystery even to herself, remembering only her torture by Odin. The more she discovers, the more it becomes apparent that she’s both ancient and powerful – but she struggles between the dichotomy of her peaceful existence as a wife and mother, and her apparent past as a powerful and feared witch. Angrboda is strong, but the quiet sort of strong not often given widespread appreciation. She doesn’t fight any battles or seek any glory – instead, she maintains her home and raises her children and has strength in living exactly the life she wants to live. When that peace is disrupted, she uses her wits and seeks vengeance in a similarly quiet way -and her actions are all the more meaningful for it.

Angrboda has two main romantic relationships across the course of the book – one with Loki, and one with the giantess Skadi. Her relationship with Loki is innately unbalanced and always feels fragile, but Gornichec does well to weave in enough to show why Angrboda stays with him anyway. In contrast, her relationship to Skadi – a long friendship which eventually becomes something more – feels far more natural, although again it’s always clear it isn’t meant to last.

The more interesting relationships, however, are between Angrboda and her three children – Hel, Fenrir,and Jorgamund. Angrboda is widely known from Norse mythology as the mother of monsters – but from her perspective, she is merely a mother. Angrboda fears for her children as any mother would – especially as she is cursed to know their fates. Her fierce protection and desire to protect them above all with resonate with anyone who has experienced parenthood.

The story is split into three parts. The first, Angrboda’s life in Jotunheim, is the slowest and probably the least interesting, although it lays essential groundwork for the later action. The second is the part of Angrboda’s story I was least familiar with before reading this, and I found it fascinating uncovering the missing part of her mythos. There are also some heartbreaking moments. The third, very short part chronicles Ragnarok. This is the most emotionally hard hitting, and really elevates the story from a basic retelling to something with more depth.

Overall, ‘The Witch’s Heart’ is a solid addition to the growing genre of mythological retellings. It doesn’t quite have the impact of stories like Circe or Ariadne, but it’s an accomplished debut and a worthy addition to the shelves of any Norse mythology fan. Recommended for fans of retellings and stories of motherhood.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 4th May 2021

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