Robyn Reviews: She Who Became The Sun

‘She Who Became The Sun’ is a reimagining of the life story of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who drove the Mongols from China and became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It has a few epic fantasy elements, but at its core is historical fiction. It provides a fascinating look at Chinese history and culture, along with intriguing explorations of gender identity and gender roles. This is the author’s debut, and it has a few weaknesses, but overall its a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

In Mongol-occupied China, a young peasant girl is foretold of an early death, while her brother is destined for greatness. However, when her brother unexpectedly dies instead, she decides to steal his identity and claim his fate for her own. The new Zhu joins a monastery, going from monk to soldier to commander in the rebellion against the Mongols. However, her life depends on her continuing to fool Heaven that she is truly her brother. Can anyone truly claim someone else’s destiny?

Zhu – known as Zhu Chongba for the majority of the book – is a brilliant morally-grey protagonist. Her sheer determination and will to live is inspiring and keeps her alive through the hardest of challenges. Zhu is intelligent, observant, and willing to obliterate all the rules to get what she wants – the greatness her brother was always destined for. However, that comes at a cost. Zhu must always think and act like Zhu Chongba – not Zhu Chongba’s sister. Anyone who comes close to discovering her secret must be silenced. And greatness, even destined greatness, is not an easy path – a path filled with far more enemies than friends.

Identity is a major theme throughout the book. The complexity of Zhu’s identity grows as the novel goes on – while she uses female pronouns in her internal thoughts, she mostly thinks of herself as somewhere in between male and female. Shelley Parker-Chan has stated that Zhu is genderqueer – this language didn’t exist in 14th century China, but she manages to make it clear regardless. Zhu isn’t the only character with a complex gender identity – her greatest enemy, General Ouyang, has a similar struggle, and the two have a strange kinship alongside their hatred. Ouyang was born male and strongly identifies as male, but is a eunuch. His appearance is feminine and those around him treat him as something other – not truly a man or a woman. Again, his difficulty with his outward gender identity and not being treated as a man is beautifully written, and its interesting seeing how Zhu and Ouyang’s battles with identity differ.

Another major theme is destiny. This is a very common theme in Chinese history and folklore, with everyone living a foretold fate based on their actions in past lives and their choices inevitably leading them there. Reading about how the characters view destiny, and how this affects different characters in different ways, is fascinating – reconciling a predestined fate withautonomy is easier for some than others. However, personally I found it made certain sections unsatisying. One of my favourite aspects about epic fantasy is the crafting of magic systems. ‘She Who Became The Sun’ doesn’t have a true magic system, but it has a couple of elements derived from destiny – the mandate of Heaven – and this is never explained beyond that it marks those chosen for greatness. I would have liked a little more information on this mandate and how it works, and why it gives its particular set of abilities.

One of the book’s highlights is how well Shelley Parker-Chan writes relationships. Growing up in the monastery, Zhu has a best friend – an older trainee monk named Xu Da – and their friendship is beautifully written, going from a tentative connection to a relationship more akin to brotherhood. Later, Zhu becomes friends and later more with Ma, one of the rebel’s daughters, and again the change from a light friendship characterised by teasing banter to a strong romantic relationship is beautifully done. On the flipside, Ouyang has an intensely complicated relationship with Esen, the eldest son of the Prince of Hesan and commander of his army. Esen is the height of masculinity and trusts Ouyang implicitly, and its never quite clear to what extent Ouyang wants him or wants to be him – even to Ouyang himself. Esen’s adopted younger brother, Wang Baoxiang, is another outsider, seeing himself and Ouyang as very similar – but Ouyang despises him, and the evolving relationships between Ouyang, Esen, and Wang Baoxiang are expertly written.

The main downside is the lack of connection between the reader and the characters. Each individual character is well-written, complex, and intriguing, but also seems to be kept at a distance. Each character forms wonderful relationships with other characters, but to an extent is shrouded from the reader. This is on the shorter side for an epic fantasy novel, lending it pace and easy readability, but it means the reader doesn’t have time to connect to all the characters given a perspective. Even Zhu, the overall protagonist who gets the vast majority of page time, never commands as much emotional investment from the reader as they should.

Overall, ‘She Who Became the Sun’ is a strong historical fantasy debut, heavy on the history and light on the fantasy, with an intriguing cast of characters that give a fascinating insight into Chinese history and culture. It also explores identity in a very nuanced way, taking a different approach to a common fantasy trope. The minor niggles only detract a little from an otherwise strong story. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy, Chinese history and folklore, LGBTQIAP+ fiction, and morally grey characters.

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

Published by Tor
Hardback: 22nd July 2021

Robyn Reviews: Seven Deaths of an Empire

‘Seven Deaths of an Empire’ is a fast-paced gritty fantasy novel that draws clear inspiration from the Roman empire. With short chapters and constant action, it has huge appeal for fans of plot-driven fantasy – but for those looking for originality or character-driven fiction, it could prove a more difficult read.

The Emperor is dead. His son will be emperor after him, ensuring the ongoing strength and expansion of the empire – but first, the emperor’s body must be returned to the capital, allowing succession to formally take place. Whoever controls the body controls the empire. In the capital, General Bordan – a veteran of decades of service to the empire – works to quell the hints of rebellion and protect the heir to the throne. Meanwhile, Apprentice Magician Kyron finds himself part of the dead emperor’s honour guard, ensuring the preservation of the body and its safety on the long journey home. With war looming on the horizon, the fate of the very empire is at stake.

This is very much a plot-driven novel, with several overarching threads. Bordan senses a traitor in the emperor’s inner circle and works to sniff them out, trying to outmaneuver them before he’s outmaneuvered himself. This feels very reminiscent of the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series and similar political fantasy, with many players none of whom can be fully trusted. Kyron, on the other hand, has more obvious threats on all sides. The forest he’s traveling through is full of tribespeople who hate the empire – after all, it’s trying to conquer them and steal their lands – and beyond that, the empire itself is mistrustful of magicians and magic, and many of his own company would happily see him dead. On top of all this, he’s been stuck with the company’s guide, a tribeswoman who challenges his opinions of the empire’s superiority. As he fights for the emperor and the empire, Kyron must decide if he’s actually on the right side.

Bordan and Kyron are interesting characters, although neither is easy to initially connect with. Kyron starts off a stroppy, entitled teenager, unshakeably convinced in the empire’s might and righteousness. His worldview is completely black and white, and he reacts to his worldview being challenged with anger and derision. Bordan starts off every inch the hard, military man, attacking first and asking questions later. He comes off argumentative, intolerant, and harsh, convinced that atrocities are worth it for the good of the empire. As the story goes on, more nuance appears. Doubt creeps into Kyron’s mind and he starts to question teachings he always took for the complete truth. Bordan starts to show signs of weariness, heart creeping in where previously the answer to everything was the sword. Both characters are complex, but as the story goes on they become far easier to relate to.

Some of the secondary characters are more intriguing than either Bordan or Kyron. Magician Padarn, Kyron’s master, is clearly an intelligent and well-travelled man who has a far more rounded view of the world and a subtle sense of humour. Emyln, the guide from the local tribes, is the best character in the entire book and I wish she had been given a perspective of her own. She’s loyal to her people but has agreed to help the empire, for reasons that later become clear, and challenges Kyron’s views in a remarkably patient manner. She’s clearly exceptionally intelligent and strong-willed, and I’m sure she’ll have a huge part to play in any sequels.

The initial pacing, unfortunately, is a slow drudge. I had to put this book down several times in the first third because nothing appeared to be happening, and the short chapters made it difficult to connect with either point-of-view character. Fortunately, once the world and situation are established and things start to happen, the action draws you in and it becomes much more enjoyable. It’s a shame the book doesn’t jump in at the fast pace it proceeds at for the majority of the novel, but many longer epic fantasy novels start slowly due to their complexity so its an understandable decision.

The worldbuilding itself will be familiar to anyone who reads a lot of epic fantasy. The setup is highly Roman inspired, with an empire gradually conquering all the surrounding lands which it sees as filled with barbaric tribes. The empire sees itself as saving these tribespeople by bringing religion – the Flame, which is clearly Christian Catholic inspired. Magic is part of the empire, but the church sees it as a stain and is highly distrustful of magicians – a nod to the Catholic inquisition. Matthews writes it well, creating a solid and believable setup, and whilst both setting and plot lack some originality they’re very readable.

Overall, ‘Seven Deaths of an Empire’ is a solid book for fans of action-packed epic fantasy with well-written battle scenes. For those familiar with the genre, little about the plot or setting is unique, but it carries out tried and tested tropes well. The beginning is a bit of a slog, but it becomes worth it for the much stronger end. Recommended for fans of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ or ‘The Rage of Dragons‘.

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

Published by Solaris (Rebellion)
Hardback: 22nd June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Jasmine Throne

‘The Jasmine Throne’ is epic fantasy at its best, with complex world-building, an intriguing magic system, excellent characters, and an intricate, winding plot. The story flows beautifully, with a constant undercurrent of tension. Every part is morally ambiguous, and it’s never clear if anyone is doing the right thing. For those with a void in their heart after the conclusion of epics like The Poppy War and the Daevabad trilogy, this is the book for you.

Priya is a maidservant, spending her days working for the Ahiranya Regent’s wife, and her evenings seeking out sacred wood for the city’s plague-stricken orphans. However, she wasn’t always a maidservant – once she was a child of Hirana, the famed magic temple which burnt in a tragedy several years before, killing everyone else inside. When Princess Malini, the Emperor’s sister, is banished to the abandoned Hirana, Priya volunteers to make the treacherous journey to look after her. Her memories of Hirana are patchy, and she sees a way of reconnecting with her past. However, when an unexpected threat leads to her revealing her secret magic to the princess, the two find themselves thrust together. Malini is determined to escape her imprisonment and overthrow her brother’s empire. Priya wants to uncover the Hirana’s secrets – and maybe save Arihadya from its plague in the process. Together, they can change the fate of the empire – for better or worse.

There are many perspectives across the course of the novel, but the major ones are Priya, Malini, Rao, Ashok, and Bhumika. Of these, Priya, Malini, and Bhumika are my favourites. Each is very different. Priya, as a maidservant, is outwardly calm, obedient, and kind-hearted – but deep down, she remembers the power of Hirana and longs for it fiercely. She’s an adept fighter with anger she works hard to keep under control. Her intentions are good, and she wants to help others – but she has a selfish side too. Malini, as a Princess, is also supposed to be calm and obedient – but instead she’s always been fierce and crafty. At first, she appears defeated – but Malini is a schemer and master manipulator, very able to play any role to achieve her desired ends. If she has to, she’s perfectly at home with playing the villain. Malini has seen great hurt in her life, and her morals are greyer than most – but she has a softer side than many would believe. Bhumika, the regent’s wife, is seen by many as a traitor to her people – she married one of their conquerors, and now carries their child. However, like Malini, Bhumika is a politician – and she understands the power of her own body as a weapon. Bhumika is quite content to be underestimated and sneered at, as long as it helps keep her people safe. Bhumika is the sort of character less often seen in fantasy, but one who radiates a different kind of strength.

The world-building is absolutely exceptional. Inspired by Indian history, ‘The Jasmine Throne’ is set in the conquered state of Ahiranya, a place ruled by a distant empire – but left impoverished and restless. Underground rebel movements abound, and the state is being ravished by a deadly plague known as the rot. The ruling race see themselves as superior to the native Ahiranyans, and the way this affects every interaction is subtly yet powerfully done. The setting – a fading city on the outskirts of a mystical, almost magical forest – is eerie yet beautiful. The city has survived on its forestry and its pleasure houses, becoming a place the ruling class come to relax under freer laws – leading to a reputation as a place of debauchery inhabited by whores and drunkards. The way this affects attitudes towards the Ahiranyans is appalling but powerful to read about. The exploration of colonialism and empire is subtler than in some fantasy novels, but incredibly impactful.

Suri also excels in writing relationships. The relationship between Priya and Malini is complicated, evolving throughout the book, but every aspect is beautifully written. Priya has friends amongst the maidservants, but none who truly understand her. Similarly, Malini has cultivated allies – but her manipulative nature doesn’t lend itself well to true friends. Neither can fully trust the other, but both feels the attraction of having someone they can open up to after so long bearing secrets alone. In a society which frowns upon relationships between women – Ahiranya permitted it, but the new empire does not – the dynamic becomes even more fraught. It feels inevitable that everything will end badly – but Suri makes it impossible not to root for them anyway.

There’s a clear undercurrent exploring the shades of morality, and what atrocities it’s acceptable to commit in the pursuit of an ultimate good. Unlike many epic fantasies, there’s no real war in The Jasmine Throne – instead there are lots of smaller skirmishes, with each character believing their actions are justified by their end goal. Each character makes sacrifices. These elements are extremely thought provoking, lingering long past the final page. Its never clear if the protagonists are truly on the right side. The ambiguity is one of my favourite parts, and I’m both excited and terrified to see it further diverge in later books.

Overall, ‘The Jasmine Throne’ is an excellent epic fantasy and one of my favourite reads so far this year. Fans of creative world-building, complex epic fantasy, moral ambiguity, and multi-faceted characters should find plenty to love here. Highly recommended.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 10th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The City of Brass

‘The City of Brass’ is a fascinating Islamic-inspired fantasy packed with creative mythology and intriguing morally grey characters. SA Chakraborty’s debut novel, it skirts the border between YA and adult, easily accessible to younger readers but with the worldbuilding and depth of an adult novel.

In eighteenth century Cairo, Egypt, Nahri makes a living as a conwoman. She reads palms, hosts exorcisms – and steals from unsuspecting nobles. She knows better than anyone that the demons she makes a living exorcising aren’t real. That is, until she accidentally summons a djinn. Suddenly, Nahri finds herself swept into a world of magic and myth. But unlike Cairo, this is a world that Nahri doesn’t know how to navigate – and with those on all sides trying to manipulate her, Nahri must decide what she really wants. After all, they say you should be careful what you wish for.

The story is told from the perspective of three main characters – Nahri, Dara, and Alizayd. Nahri is a strong character, a woman who knows how to stand up for herself and isn’t afraid to bend the rules to her own needs. However, she’s also kind-hearted and overly trusting, wanting to believe in the best of everyone. She’s immensely likeable with a real spark, but Daevabad is very different to Cairo and she’s regularly out of her depth. Her relationships with Dara and Alizayd fluctuate, but are always beautifully written – and its great to see a character who unapologetically puts herself first.

Dara is viewed completely different by Nahri and Alizayd, a fascinating dichotomy. Its never clear whose perspective is more accurate. An ancient djinn who has spent most of his life as a slave, Dara is a bit of a mystery – but a mystery with a horrific legacy in Daevabad. To Nahri, Dara is a kind voice in her ear, a teacher about the djinn world and a staunch ally. To Alizayd, Dara is a scourge on his people and an enemy of Daevabad’s hard-fought peace. Dara himself seems to have good intentions – but those with good intentions can still do horrific things.

Alizayd is rash and judgmental, leaping to conclusions without considering the consequences – but he’s also sweet and naive. The younger prince of Daevabad, he’s lived all his life knowing he’s inferior in his father’s eyes, and trying desperately to live up to the impossible expectations placed upon him. Alizayd is also an exceptionally devout Muslim, and its lovely seeing how his faith impacts every aspect of his life. Alizayd’s growth across the novel is enormous, and its fascinating seeing how his relationships with both Nahri and Dara evolve.

The plot is intricate and intriguing, highly political with twists that are impossible to predict. The worldbuilding is also excellent. Daevabad is beautifully described, and whilst the magic systems remains mostly a mystery, its clear that this will be explored further in the sequels. The novel also has a strong focus on class structures and the affect these have on society. Daevabad is very much a city with a caste system, and the way this has affected its development and its politics is fascinating – if horrific in places – to read about. SA Chakraborty creates an exceptionally real feeling world, with every aspect believable – especially the class system and political manoeuvering.

Overall, ‘The City of Brass’ is a brilliant start to a wonderful, creative epic fantasy trilogy. The characters and worldbuilding are real highlights, but the political plot is strongly rendered too. Recommended for fans of political fantasy, Middle Eastern mythology, and stories which blur the boundary between YA and adult.

I review the final book in the trilogy, The Empire of Gold, here.

Published by HarperVoyager
Paperback: 22nd January 2018

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: The Poppy War

‘The Poppy War’ is historical fantasy at its finest – engaging, beautifully written, with its own spin on events but clearly based on established source material. For a debut, it’s incredibly assured, with a style more reminiscent of a master of the fantasy genre. This is a dark story, but for those who enjoy grimdark fantasy there are few better examples.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is an orphan from Rooster province, raised by an aunt who only cares about marrying her off to further the family’s criminal enterprise. Determined to escape her aunt’s planned fate, Rin studies night and day for the Keju – the test all youths in the empire can take to join a military academy. To her surprise, she aces it, and is accepted into the empire’s most prestigious academy – Sinegard. But being a Southern girl – poor, dark-skinned, lacking grace and connections – is not easy at such a prestigious institution, and it’s even less easy for a girl with an aptitude for the dangerous, half-mythical magic of shamanism. With the threat of war on the horizon, Rin must navigate the twin minefields of Sinegard and Shamanism before her people are destroyed – and before a vengeful god destroys her.

“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”

Rin makes a brilliant protagonist. She’s fiesty and determined, with a ready anger always brewing near the surface. She’s exceptionally morally grey, with many flaws, but her drive makes the reader root for her anyway. She also has the most beautiful friendship with Kitay – it’s unusual to have a central male-female friendship without a hint of romance, and it’s a delight reading about their pure and platonic bond.

Kitay, on the other hand, is an exceptionally sweet character. A scholar, he’s quiet and easily underestimated, and always wants to take the peaceful route. He and Rin are complete opposites yet compliment each other in a strange way.

The other primary characters – Jiang, Nezha, and Altan – are mostly mysteries. Nezha starts unlikeable but goes through exceptional character development. Similarly, Altan starts relatively two-dimensional but the more the reader learns about him the more it becomes clear that he’s suffered hugely and simply does whatever it takes to numb the pain.

This is very much a book of two halves. The first is a standard trope of high fantasy – a poor, orphan girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a prestigious institution and has to navigate the complex politics. This half is well-written, giving a solid background to all the key characters and establishing relationship dynamics. However, it’s the second half which truly makes this book special. Here, there’s an evolution to a full-on military fantasy, with skirmishes and battle plans and deeper exploration of shamanism and the destruction it can cause. Kuang’s writing is exceptional, balancing painting gorgeous pictures of setting with complex military dynamics and huge emotional impact. There are no weak points – it balances three-dimensional, morally grey characters with equally strong plot and utterly believable worldbuilding. Fans of fantasy for many reasons can find something to like here.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

Overall, ‘The Poppy War’ is a remarkable debut and the start of a brilliant, fascinating military fantasy inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese war. Recommended for fans of any fantasy – as long as they don’t mind it on the darker side – along with Asian history and just expertly written books.

My review of the final book in the trilogy, The Burning God, can be found here.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: May 1st 2018 / Paperback: April 23rd 2019

Robyn Reviews: The Unbroken

‘The Unbroken’ is a debut epic fantasy inspired by North Africa, chronicling the lives of a princess trying to control a colonial city in her empire, and a soldier stolen from the colony as a child and returning for the first time as an oppressor. It takes a harsh, unflinching look at the realities of colonialism, with some hard-hitting messages. There are clear signs that this is a debut – it’s rough around the edges – but the central themes make it an interesting read.

Touraine is a solider for Balladaire, stolen from her Qazali homeland as a child and raised to fight for the empire. She’s risen as high as a Sand – a non-Balladairian – can in her army, but she’s determined to prove herself and her loyalty. Her Sands mean everything to her, and she feels she owes the empire everything. When she’s sent to hold the Qazali city against rebels and protect the Balladairian princess, she makes it her job to do all she can – but blood is strong, and she soon finds herself in the centre of a rebel conspiracy. The princess, Luca, sees the perfect opportunity to send a spy into the rebel ranks. However, the longer Touraine spends in the city, the more she begins to doubt her place – is her loyalty to Balladaire, the Qazali, the Sands, or to herself?

The story alternates perspectives between Touraine and Luca, with Touraine the far more interesting character. Touraine just wants to fit in. She wants to be respected for her military achievements, for her loyalty, for her passion -but all she gets is derision from all sides. The Balladairians will never see her as one of them, and to the Qazali she’s a traitor. Even the other Sands can’t decide if they love her or hate her. Touraine’s struggles with her identity are hard-hitting and poignant – this is a bleak book for huge swathes of the story, and most of that is simply Touraine unable to find a place in a world where who you are is everything. Her divided loyalties are brilliantly portrayed and feel blisteringly raw and realistic. Her arc is twisty and complicated, sometimes changing exceptionally fast, but her ending is fitting – especially given the tone of the book.

Luca, on the other hand, is every inch the spoilt, pampered princess. She’s used to getting what she wants, and whilst she thinks her intentions are good she definitely epitomises the white saviour complex. She has little political acumen and stumbles trying to navigate the politics of the city, struggling to hold the leash of all the other leaders out for blood. Luca isn’t a bad person, but for someone supposedly smart – she’s an amateur scholar with a keen eye for strategy games – she grossly misreads how to manage almost every situation, including Touraine. As a counterpoint to Touraine she’s an engaging enough character, but Touraine has by far the better character arc.

The plot is twisty and complicated, with constant betrayals and political maneouvering. The fact that Touraine’s divided loyalties make it unclear what side she’s on at any given time make certain parts hard to follow, but they also lend and intriguing air of unpredictability – even she doesn’t know what she’ll do next. Because the plot is so changeable it does make certain scenes lack emotional impact – the reader barely has time to process one thing before being thrown into the next with an entirely different perspective – but Touraine in general gives the reader a constant air of low-level discomfort which makes up for that. This isn’t a nice book, and it’s not always an enjoyable read, but it packs a punch and forces the reader to think.

The main issue with it is the romance. The romance between Touraine and Luca gets little page time but has a significant bearing on aspects of the plot – and unfortunately, it just isn’t particularly believable. The two characters have sexual chemistry, but it’s hard to see how two such different people who barely understand each other could ever form a proper romantic relationship. Luca’s crush on Touraine is understandable, but what Touraine could want with a princess who barely sees her people as more than tools is hard to fathom. There’s no real need for this book to have a romance element, and personally I think it would have been stronger without it.

The worldbuilding is simple but strong. The empire looks down upon the Qazali as savages – they still worship a god when religion is banned, they’re incapable of the civilised culture of Balladaire – and the Qazali see the Balladairians as thieves and oppressors, stealing their children and subjugating them to slavery and torture. There’s magic, linked to worship and the Qazali god, but this is never explained – left a mystery to the reader as it is to Balladaire.The descriptions are functional rather than lyrical, but this works perfectly with the harsher, darker tone of the novel.

Overall, ‘The Unbroken’ lacks polish but is worth reading simply for the fascinating depiction of colonialism and identity. Recommended for fans of political fantasy and historical fiction.

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

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 25th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: Black Sun

‘Black Sun’ is the first book in the new ‘Between Earth and Sky’ series, an epic fantasy tale inspired by pre-Columbian American mythology. It weaves a tight, dark, intriguing tale of conspiracy and magic, creating a world of vast potential. I can’t wait to see where Roanhorse takes it next.

The holy city of Tova is preparing for the Winter Solstice – always a time of celebration, but this year even more special as it coincides with the solar eclipse. Naranpa, the Sun Priest, is trying to make sure everything is ready – but her appointment as the Sun Priest was controversial, and her power is less absolute than it might seem. Meanwhile, across the sea, a young man named Serapio is preparing to sail to Tova to fulfil a prophesised destiny. Scarred and blinded, he’s described as harmless to the ship’s captain Xiala – but Xiala knows well that men described as harmless often turn out to be the villain.

Naranpa is an easy character to empathise with. Born in the slums of Tova, she should never have risen high enough to become the Sun Priest – yet rise she did, in the process acquiring few allies and many enemies. She can trust no one. Naranpa is naive and ignorant in many ways, but her intentions are good, and she always remains true to herself and her beliefs. Her arc is less interesting than Xiala’s or Serapio’s, but I suspect she’ll have an important role in the sequels.

Serapio is a fascinating character. As a child, his mother carved up his back and sewed his eyes shut so he could fulfil a higher purpose. She promptly vanished, abandoning him blind with a father who couldn’t stand to look at him. Serapio’s life has been one of suffering, but it’s left him a controlled and measured man – whip smart, deadly in a fight, and far more than meets the eye. He’s definitely on the grey side of morally grey, but it’s impossible not to sympathise with his life and understand why he does what he does.

Xiala is the best character in the book. An exiled Teek, Xiala’s first love is the sea. She’s a sailor, using her Teek magic to bend the winds and waves to her favour, but the superstition of her fellow sailors makes her few friends. Xiala is honest to a fault, coarse, practical, and eminently likeable. Her Teek abilities are fascinating, and the brief glimpses we get are brilliantly portrayed. As an exile, it’s unclear if Xiala doesn’t fully understand her potential or merely represses it, but watching her come to terms with the full extent of her nature is brilliant. Her evolving relationship with Serapio, her cargo, is also cleverly written, with very few words required to create a brilliant atmosphere.

For an epic fantasy novel, ‘Black Sun’ is relatively short. There are four major points of view – Naranpa, Serapio, Xiala, and Okoa, who is introduced later than the others – each with a discrete plotline, even as their stories intersect. The wealth of characters and different storylines means each distinct narrative thread can only tell a limited tale. Each is solid, but the end result is that this very much feels like a set-up novel. This doesn’t detract from it – the pace is still fast, with plenty of action and intrigue – but Roanhorse easily could have gotten away with adding at least a hundred extra pages. The ending is satisfying, but a world this unique and detailed merits deeper exploration.

Overall, ‘Black Sun’ is an excellent start to a series. Roanhorse creates a world of enormous potential populated by solid characters. However, the tale told here barely scratches the surface of what could be done with such a setup, so I’m hopeful that later books go deeper. A recommended read.

Published by Rebellion
Paperback: 21st January 2021

Robyn Reviews: We Lie With Death

‘We Lie With Death’ is the sequel to ‘We Ride the Storm‘, and again was originally self-published before Madson’s deal with Orbit. It picks up immediately where ‘We Ride the Storm’ left off – but where the former was action-packed military fantasy, ‘We Lie With Death’ is slower, with far more journeying than politics. It’s a clear second in a series, which unfortunately makes it a less engaging read.

Northern Kisia has been conquered, with a new emperor on the throne. However, his rule is fragile, depending on uneasy alliances – including with those many would rather see dead. Amidst the chaos of rebel factions, political maneuverings, and a land fractured in two, Rah e-Torin – once head of the Second Swords of Torin – must decide where his loyalties truly lie. Meanwhile, Miko, the dethroned empress, determines to claw back her crown, with allies thinner and thinner on the ground. Cassandra, once an assassin of renown, finds herself a slave – but also privy to information that could change the course of the entire war. Finally, Dishiva e’Jaroven, loyal to the new emperor, tries to reconcile herself to her new life – no matter how foreign and distasteful it might seem.

Cassandra was the most interesting character in book one, and here she’s finally utilised to her full potential. Her arc is completely separate to the other characters, exploring the backstory and magic system of Madson’s world, and it makes a compelling tale. Cassandra cares little for politics or war, but her revelations will likely be more important for how everything ends up than every other character’s put together.

Rah remains a genuinely nice man – but his honour also makes him a frustrating one at times. His loyalty is absolute – except he isn’t always sure what he’s being loyal too. His internal struggles are well-written and convincing, and while he doesn’t develop greatly from ‘We Ride the Storm’, he remains hard to dislike. Without a major character arc, he likely could have been given less page time – but it’s pleasant enough being inside his head.

Miko has lost everything except her name, and how she copes should be fascinating to read about. As a character she’s excellent – not always nice, and perhaps not with the best motives beyond a stubborn desire to cling on to power, but utterly believable – but unfortunately, her scenes suffer from the fact that very little actually happens. Miko spends the majority of the book travelling, attempting to find allies – and while Madson does her best to add tidbits of interest, the sheer length of the book makes this hard to wade through. Her scenes pick up hugely towards the end, but it’s unnecessary challenging to get there.

Dishiva is the only new POV character, and her introduction packs a punch – but from there, she goes a bit downhill. She’s the least memorable of the four characters, so while she has some excellent scenes – and provides much-needed insight into the workings of the new empire – she doesn’t entirely justify her inclusion. She’s possibly a tad too similar to Rah, and struggles to stand up in comparison. That being said, her romantic arc is sweet, and hopefully she’ll come into her own as the series develops.

The pacing is where this falls down compared to its predecessor. It’s too slow, with occasional action scenes so quick they give you whiplash. The abrupt change lacks any real impact, instead leaving confusion. There are some excellent moments, and I love the deeper discoveries around Cassandra and the background magic, but overall this just doesn’t flow well. It also feels its nearly 600 pages in length, rather than pulling you in and allowing the pages to flow by.

In summary, ‘We Lie With Death’ expands upon the excellent foundations of ‘We Ride the Storm’, but it isn’t quite the same standard. I’ll probably continue with the series, but I hope any future books iron out the issues in pacing. Recommended to fans of political fantasy and A Song of Ice and Fire (if you made it through book three, the journeying here will seem like a short stroll in comparison).

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

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 14th January 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Stone Knife

‘The Stone Knife’ is the first book in the intended ‘Songs of the Drowned’ trilogy, a new gritty epic fantasy series by Anna Stephens. The writing is raw and visceral, the world-building broad in scope, and the characters varied and intriguing. It’s a book that demands attention – it took me almost a month to read, because I regularly didn’t have the concentration and energy it required – but when given its due, this is a worthwhile read.

Over decades, the tribes of Ixachipan have fallen one by one to the Empire of Songs. Now just two tribes – the Tokob and Yalot – remain, determined to hold onto their freedom. Tayan, a shaman of the Tokob, communes with his goddess and determines to seek peace with the Empire – but his husband Lilla is preparing for war, and their friend Xessa is struggling to keep the Tokob safe from the threat of the Drowned, crocodile-like beasts which guard the tribe’s only water source. Meanwhile, Enet – first courtesan of the Singer, the ruler of the Empire of Songs – is trying to hold onto her tenuous position in his court, and Pilos, High Feather of the Empire’s armies, is trying to assure the Empire’s dominance over Ixachipan whilst dealing with Enet’s meddling closer to home. Epic fantasies which show all sides of the story are fantastic, showing that no force is precisely right or wrong, and Stephens doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities committed by all sides in war.

The difficulty with large numbers of perspectives is it takes some time to adjust to and care about them all, and the story definitely starts slowly. The reader is introduced to the Tokob and their way of life – their shamanic rituals to their goddess Malel, their fight against the Drowned just to obtain water, the way each citizen swears their life to a certain path (e.g. the jaguar path for warriors or the snake path for those who face the Drowned). Once this is established, the counter perspectives – those living ‘under the song’ in the Empire – are gradually introduced. It takes a good 40% of the novel before everything settles and the story can start to gather pace. It also leads to some characters – especially Tayan and Xessa – being easier to care about than others. Xessa especially is a fascinating character – it’s unusual to see a Deaf character in fantasy, and the way this is both an asset and hindrance depending on the circumstance is well written. She’s also feisty, strong-willed, and has an unbelievably sweet romantic arc as well as the most loyal canine companion of all time.

The setting, Ixachipan, is inspired by central American civilisations. It’s a forest environment, with seasons of rain and drought playing a huge part in shaping society. While the central American influence is clear, the direction Stephens has taken it feels fresh and unique, and the additional fantasy elements are worked in seamlessly. An industrial colonising empire vs those with a more traditional way of life has been written many times before in many iterations, but Stephens blends in new ideas to keep this from feeling stale.

The diversity is also excellent. Gender – and attraction to genders – is mostly irrelevant in both Pechaqueh and Tokob society, with a central relationship between two male characters (Lilla and Tayan), and as many female warriors as male. Xessa is Deaf, and whilst there’s mention that this would likely lead to her death if she was born into the Empire, it’s seen as an asset to the Tokob.

There are minor issues with ‘The Stone Knife’. All epic fantasies start slowly – it takes time to understand the world and differentiate and care about the wide range of characters – but the pacing throughout feels a tad erratic, with some sections veering away from action to several paragraphs of explanation or time-skipping. Certain characters are also particularly irritating – there was one in particular who almost made me want to skip sections – and whilst I respect the author for writing difficult characters, it detracted from my enjoyment. However, it’s a solid novel and builds plenty of intrigue for what happens next.

This reads more like a Part One than a complete novel, with plenty of cliffhangers awaiting resolution in Book Two. I’ll definitely be picking up the second to find out what happens next.

Overall, this is a highly intriguing first book that creates an excellent – if dark – world with plenty of potential, populated by a diverse group of fascinating characters. Recommended for all fans of darker, grittier epic fantasy and diverse worlds.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 26th November 2020

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