Robyn Reviews: Piranesi

‘Piranesi’ is the second novel by Susanna Clarke, author of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’, and one of the rare fantasy novels to cross over into the mainstream consciousness. Along with being nominated for the the fantasy staples of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards, it was nominated for the Costa Book Award and won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. With a brilliantly clever premise and engaging prose, it’s easy to see why it has such wide appeal, but personally I didn’t find the ending had quite the impact I wanted.

Piranesi lives in the House. The House is a labyrinth of endless rooms, each filled with hundreds of statues and inhabited by an ocean that intermittently floods them with its restless tides. Piranesi is one of only two occupants of the House. There is also The Other, a mysterious man who visits Piranesi twice a week so Piranesi can help his research into The Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi loves his House, dedicating his life to studying it. However, the arrival of a visitor to the House shatters Piranesi’s world, and all his understanding of the House and its beauty starts to unravel.

‘Piranesi’ is a novel to go into with as little knowledge as possible. It’s a short book of gradual realisation, and starting from any point but ignorance robs it of some of its impact. Other reviews I’ve seen favour the second half, where things are clearer for the reader and there’s the tension that comes with waiting for the characters to catch up; strangely, I feel the first half of the book is by far the stronger, with a sense of confusion and building tension that grows as the reader starts to connect the dots.

One of the strongest aspects of the book is the writing. Clarke uses a lot of short, sharp sentences, reflecting the very literal way in which Piranesi sees his world. She creates a brilliant sense of place and atmosphere without resorting to flowery language – her ability to say a lot with few words is excellent. For some people the style might take a little time to get used to, but it adds to the sense of tension and slight disconnect from reality.

There are very few characters in the book, making the reader’s connection with Piranesi very important. Sharing too much about Piranesi might delve into spoiler territory, but he’s an easy character to like and sympathise with.

Whether or not this book works for each individual reader essentially hinges on how well the twist works. There’s a great deal of foreshadowing and by the time the climax happens there’s a simultaneous sense of horror and satisfaction. However, I didn’t buy into it as much as I wanted to. I absolutely loved the House and the creativity of the premise, but certain elements of the twist felt more contrived and underwhelming. I also felt it tried just a little too hard to explain all the fantasy elements, which removed some of their glorious magic. There was an undercurrent of morally grey ethics which I adored, but I wanted the fantasy elements to be just a little stronger.

Overall, ‘Piranesi’ is a short book worth reading for the excellent faculties of language, creativity of premise, and crossover appeal to fans of both fantasy and more literary fare. It didn’t blow me away as much as I wanted it to, but if you’re curious about the hype, it’s definitely worth giving it a read.

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 15th September 2020 / Paperback: 2nd September 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Winter Garden

‘The Winter Garden’ is an atmospheric historical fantasy novel about love, grief, friendship, feminism, and escapism, with elements of magical realism entwined with grittier steampunk. It’s beautifully written, and while it doesn’t quite have the depth it strives for it makes a compelling read.

On the night her mother dies, eight-year-old Beatrice finds herself invited to a mysterious Winter Garden – a place of wonder and magic, a nighttime refuge from all the horrors of daylight. For one glorious week it is her sanctuary – then it disappears, and it becomes Beatrice’s life goal to find it again. Eighteen years later, Beatrice is poised to marry a man all of society insists is highly eligible. Instead, she calls off the wedding, embarking on a worldwide trip to track down the elusive Winter Garden – an unimaginable scandal. Her best friend, Rosa, finds herself marrying the man instead. As their lives diverge, both find themselves with regrets. But The Winter Garden is looking out for them, offering both the chance to participate in a unique competition – with the prize a single wish. As the two find themselves combatants, their lifelong friendship is tested, and they find themselves grappling with a thorny question: if you could go back and change a single moment in your life, would you?

The biggest issue with this book is highlighted by how difficult it is to sum up in a single paragraph. This is a book about two women and the different choices they make; about the quest to find a magical garden; about regret and how dwelling on the past shapes the future. It’s about a competition, but the competition doesn’t start until around halfway through. In short: this is a book which tries to do a lot, and mostly succeeds, but by cramming in so much it doesn’t quite do each element justice. There isn’t really a single overarching narrative – not in itself a problem, but it makes this a challenging book to recommend or review.

With that out of the way, there are lots of things to like. Beatrice makes a highly compelling protagonist – opinionated, not concerned with sticking to societal convention, and deeply caring about her family and friends. She has her flaws – she cares deeply about herself as much as others, and can be unthinkingly selfish with her own privilege – but she’s incredibly relatable, and its difficult not to root for her. Similarly, Rosa is a strong character – one with different dreams to Beatrice, but equally opinionated and determined. Where Beatrice is asexual and quite content to be alone, Rosa desires a family – but she also values her independence, difficult things to balance in Victorian society. Rosa is never afraid to call Beatrice out on her flaws, and their relationship throughout the book is exceptionally well done.

The use of language throughout is excellent. Alex Bell paints beautiful pictures of gardens, of Rosa’s intricate clockwork creations, of society balls – and of course of the variety of places Beatrice explores. She also manages to nail the emotional turmoil Beatrice and Rosa experience – Beatrice’s struggles with loss, and later addiction; Rosa’s difficulty in maintaining her autonomy once she’s married, and her complex thoughts about Beatrice as they both change and grow. Bell’s imagination is also incredible – the ideas surrounding the magical realism and steampunk elements are creative and brilliantly incorporated.

‘The Winter Garden’ has drawn a lot of comparisons to ‘The Night Circus‘, and on a superficial level it’s easy to see why. Both are magical realism books about a mysterious, wonderful place which only opens at night, hosts a secret competition, and is difficult to find unless it wants you to. There are deeper comparisons too – both books deal heavily with themes of autonomy. However, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a much more plot-driven tale, more directly tackling themes like feminism and grief. It’s also a book with a message – where ‘The Night Circus’ is pure escapist fantasy, ‘The Winter Garden’ tries to translate this into messages for life, something which will likely work well for some reasons and seem a bit preachy to others.

Overall, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a beautiful and creative story, albeit one which struggles in trying to carry so many narrative threads. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy and magical realism, books about strong women, and fans of Erin Morgenstern and Robert Dinsdale (Paris by Starlight).

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 2nd September 2021

Robyn Reviews: Peter Pan (Mina Lima Edition)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Harper Collins
Hardback: 2nd June 2015

Robyn Reviews: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

‘The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender’ chronicles the life of the Roux family, including the titular Ava Lavender Roux. The Roux’s all have one thing in common – they’re what other people would consider strange. One turns into a bird without any explanation. Another has such an exquisitively sensitive nose she can immediately tell where you’ve been and what you’ve been eating. One struggles to remain corporeal and eventually vanishes entirely. Ava, the narrator, is arguably the strangest of them all – she was born with the wings of a bird. The story ranges from sad, to happy, to hopeful, but at its heart is a beautiful story about humanity and all its complexities.

The cover states that “Love makes us such fools.” This is a thread that runs throughout the novel, making up the underlying theme. There are many different kinds of love – romantic love, sexual love, unrequited love, familial love – and all our shown in their complexity.

Ava’s family have always hidden her away, knowing that her differences make her vulnerable. However, Ava – like the birds she resembles – longs to be free, and eventually she must venture out into the wider world. There, she experiences all its joy – but also its cruelty, especially to those who are different. Everything comes to a head the night of the Summer Solstice – a night Ava will never forget.

Ava is a great character – curious but also exceptionally sensible, a rare trait in a protagonist. For most of the book she’s a teenager, and its fascinating seeing how her differences and family’s attitude juxtapose with the normal worries of a teenage girl. She has some adorable interactions with Roux, a friend’s brother – and whilst her best friend Cardigan doesn’t always come across well, it’s nice to see a close friend and confidante in a fantasy book who’s actually true to her word. I also love Ava’s mother Viviane – she makes some terrible life choices, but she always intrinsically wants the best for people. It’s impossible not to root for the Roux’s to find happiness. The other brilliant character is Henry – a brilliant surprise who I will leave for you to discover.

In places, this can be quite a dark novel, so don’t go in looking for a light, whimsical read. It makes liberal use of metaphors – mostly beautiful, occasionally clunky – but there are awful scenes as well as lovely ones. The world is not always kind to those who are different.

“To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel”

I do have a few issues with the book. While the writing style mostly works, in some places it goes from lyrical to contrived. Certain phrases are jarring and throw you out of the story. It also suffers from being incorrectly marketed by its own prologue – Ava Lavender in the almost-present describing how the following is her life story. In truth, it’s her family’s life story; the book ends with Ava still a teenager, so it doesn’t feel like it’s actually complete. The ending would feel more final without the prologue, which isn’t really required for the rest of the novel. It should be a beautiful and poetic finale, but given the setup and expectations it doesn’t work as well as it’s meant to.

Overall, this is a recommended read for fans of magical realism, fabulism, and stories about the complexity of human nature and love – with the caveat that it does get dark at times.

Content warning: Rape and sexual assault

Published by Walker Books
Paperback: October 1st 2014

Robyn Reviews: Paris by Starlight

‘Paris by Starlight’ is both a gorgeous piece of fabulism and a harrowing tale of human nature. It’s a story you have to be in a good mood to read – otherwise the dark undertones can drag you down into a pit of despair. With everything happening in the world at the moment, it took me some time to read this book – but it’s beautifully written and its observations on human nature are spot on.

This is, at its heart, a story about finding home. Isabelle’s father left when she was six years old, and now – as an adult – she’s come to Paris to find him. But finding her father is harder than she thought, and memories and dreams never quite match up with the real thing. Levon’s home was ripped apart by war when he was a child, and he’s spent years trekking across borders and through refugee camps to find somewhere his family can call home. Against all the odds, he’s made it to Paris – but the life of a refugee is precarious, and places that seem welcoming can switch to hostile in a second.

A city hosts a thousand different worlds, and they snake around each other, their atlases like the scribbling in a child’s notebook

Isabelle is a delightful character. Her love of music shines through every page and illuminates her life, and her adventurous spirit is a joy to read about. However, her life is fraught with difficulty, and it tugs on the heartstrings how trying to do the right thing to often ends in despair. Robert Dinsdale really makes you care about his characters, and it makes the hardships he puts them through truly difficult to read about.

Levon is a man torn between two worlds – the world of his People, whose home has been destroyed, and the world of Paris he’s ended up in. His loyalty to his family and his People is lovely to read about, but it regularly puts him into conflict. Like Isabelle, Levon has a big heart and always tries to do the right thing – but it’s never clear what the right thing is, and when push comes to shove Isabelle is the stronger. That being said, Levon’s relationship with his sister Arina is a light, especially in the second half of the book.

Fabulism is a very hit or miss genre for me – too often it tips over too far into the fantastical and throws me out of the story. ‘Paris by Starlight’ achieves the rare feat of getting the balance between the real and the fantasy just right. The magic elements illuminate the story but don’t overcrowd it, sitting beautifully alongside the smaller tales of ordinary people just getting by. I adored the imagery and the whimsical, impossible nature of everything happening – which made it all the more harrowing when the dream started to shift into a nightmare.

Everyone gets a story, and then that story ends.

The tonal shift in this book is gradual. It starts of beautiful, dreamlike, evoking vibes of books like ‘The Night Circus’ – but things start to shift, and a dark cloud descends over the magic. I found this shift difficult to cope with. This is marketed for fans of Erin Morgenstern and Neil Gaiman, but I’ve never found either authors work to feel quite so insidious or harrowing. It’s exceptionally cleverly done, and I respect the author’s decision to inject some realism – the world, after all, is rarely kind – but I wasn’t expecting it, and at a time of high stress I simply needed a lighter read. I don’t want to criticise the author for what is entirely a personal preference at this moment in time, but I want to be honest about what readers should expect. This is not always a happy book, and the sheer depth of emotion – a sign of how good the writing is – can make the reading experience a rocky road.

Overall, this is an exceptionally written piece of fabulism with gorgeous, evocative imagery – but one that has a darker side that won’t be for everyone. In times as stressful as those we’re currently in, this may well be a marmite read.

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

Published by Cornerstone
Hardback: 5th November 2020