Robyn Reviews: Truthwitch

‘Truthwitch’ is the start of a high fantasy series right on the border between YA and adult. Its action packed with well fleshed out characters, strong relationships, immense worldbuilding, and generally everything you need for a superb fantasy novel. Like all fantasy stories, it takes a little while to adjust to the setting, but once you’re in it grips you tight and doesn’t let you go.

Safiya and Iseult have a habit of finding trouble – but after a clash with a powerful Guildmaster and terrifying Bloodwitch, their lives are upended. Forced to flee their Venaza City home, the Threadsisters find a reluctant ally in Prince Merik – who sees an opportunity to bring trade to his starving people once more. However, the Bloodwitch is hot on their heels – and Safiya, a rare and unregistered Truthwitch, must avoid capture at all costs, lest she be used in the age-old struggle between Empires. With war on the horizon, the friends will stop at nothing for their freedom – and to keep their power out of enemies hands.

The absolute highlight of this book is the friendship between Safiya and Iseult. These two young women are not related by blood, but they’re the most important people in each other’s lives, sacrificing everything for each other. In many ways, they’re quite different, but they compliment each other like two halves of a whole. Its lovely reading a fantasy that celebrates friendship, and paints deep emotional bonds without forcing them to be romantic.

There are four primary perspectives – Safiya, Iseult, Merik, and the Bloodwitch Aeduan – and each is engaging, bringing a new element to the story. The alternating is done well, with no leaps that throw the reader out of the story or distract from a sideplot – each furthers the narrative and gradually makes the worldbuilding more clear. Iseult and Aeduan have the most mystery, with clear potential for development in subsequent entries – but the ending twist also ensures a prominent role for Safiya and Merik.

The worldbuilding is excellently done. The reader is launched straight into the action, with no exposition or explanation. There’s a little initial confusion, but the basic concepts quickly become clear: three main Empires, coming to the end of a twenty-year Treaty which ended an ancient war (but greatly favoured one side), and each containing elemental witches. Witches powers can be specific (Voicewitches, which can send messages to each other over great distances) or broad (Waterwitches, with control over the element of water), and are more common in certain empires – Marstock has an affinity for fire, whilst Nubrevna has mastery over air. These powers are tied to ancient wells – one for each element – which currently lie dormant, waiting for the next Cahr Awen: a pair of matched witches which bring balance and harmony. The concepts are simple, and woven seamlessly into the narrative, allowing the reader to understand just enough as they go along whilst maintaining an immense sense of mystery.

The plot is clever, twisty, and with multiple elements of mystery that will likely only be explained in subsequent books. Dennard does brilliantly at sliding in hints, and whilst some are obvious to the seasoned fantasy reader, that doesn’t make the concept any less smart.

The romance is one of the weaker parts of the book. There’s a large element of insta-love – and whilst that somewhat fits with the concept of Threads between people that is central to the magic of the story, it isn’t the most satisfying to read. Admittedly, Dennard does brilliantly at creating chemistry and making the attraction believable, but it’s still a bit too fast to be fully convincing.

Overall, ‘Truthwitch’ is an excellent addition to the high fantasy genre, and fills the gap between YA and adult fantasy with aplomb. Recommended for all older YA fans and those looking for an entertaining fantasy story.

Published by Tor (Pan Macmillan)
Paperback: 23rd February 2016

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Robyn Reviews: The Stardust Thief

‘The Stardust Thief’ is an enjoyable fantasy debut inspired by tales from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, but one that lacks a little sparkle. Many fans of action-driven fantasy will likely love it, but for those who appreciate more character connection it may fall slightly short.

Loulie Al-Nazari has crafted her reputation as the Midnight Merchant – a purveyor of illegal magical artifacts, aided by a mysterious bodyguard. However, when she breaks her routine to save the life of a simple civilian, he turns out to secretly be a prince – and now Loulie has drawn the attention of his father, the Sultan, who blackmails her into a dangerous quest to track down the most powerful of all magical artifacts – a magical lamp. Accompanied by the prince and one of his legendary Forty Thieves – and of course her bodyguard – Loulie sets off on a journey beset by vengeful jinn, killers from her mysterious past, ghouls, and deadly secrets. Loulie soon discovers that nothing is as it seems, and she must decide who to become in this strange new reality.

The story alternates between three main perspectives – Loulie, Prince Mazen, and Aisha bint Louas of the Forty Thieves. Of these, Mazen is ultimately the most engaging. A kindhearted prince who much prefers telling stories to a crown, he is utterly out of place in his cutthroat family. His family despises him for his cowardice, and everyone is convinced he must have ulterior motives. Mazen struggles with identity, with marrying his desires with what he ultimately has to be as a royal, and with understanding how everyone else is using him for their own gain. His naivety can be challenging to read, but he has a huge amount of growth and is easy to sympathise with and care for. Seeing him in his element telling stories is one of thr strongest part of the novel, which at its heart is an ode to the tradition of storytelling.

Both Loulie and Aisha are strong, determined female protagonists, fighters at heart and convinced that their way of seeing the world is the right one. Their beliefs and loyalties are polar opposites, but in every other way they’re immensely similar. The main difference is that Loulie has someone she can trust – her bodyguard, Qadir – whereas Aisha has been burned too many times and trusts no-one. Their arcs thus run in inverse directions – Loulie’s trust in Qadir is shaken as illusions are stripped away and revelations come to light, and Aisha is forced to compromise and let others in in order to survive. The contrast is done well, although ultimately neither character’s psychology is delved into in the depths it could be.

The plot is fast paced, with regular twists and turns. Those familar with ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ will appreciate the number of references and story elements blended in, but there’s also political scheming, betrayal, and other fresh elements to keep this a unique story.

The primary weakness is a superficiality to the writing. Abdullah has created a strong world, intriguing characters, and a solid plot, but at no point do the reader and characters feel fully connected, lessening the impact of everything that happens to them. This slightly detached prose is common in older myths and fairytales and may be a deliberate choice, but it doesn’t quite work here. Fans of plot driven rather than character driven fantasy will probably engage much more with it as a story.

Overall, ‘The Stardust Thief’ is a solid debut with plenty of potential, but one that lacks the character connection to fully convince fans of character-driven fantasy. Recommended for fans of Arabic-inspired stories, action-packed fantasy, and strong female characters.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 17th May 2022

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