Robyn Reviews: Wendy, Darling

‘Wendy, Darling’ is a feminist exploration of the aftermath of JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan‘. It’s a dark tale, looking at the price of growing up, what is means to be a parent, and how society treats those who don’t conform. It also explores some of the issues within the original ‘Peter Pan’ seen through a modern lens, especially around the role of women and racism towards indigenous peoples. The flow isn’t always there, but for those who enjoy a darker story it’s a worthwhile read.

Neverland is a children’s paradise, perfect for the boy who never grows up. Wendy, on the other hand, has given up Neverland, and finds growing up inevitable. By the time Peter returns for her, Wendy has married and had a daughter of her own – but Peter refuses to believe that the adult woman is Wendy. Instead, he steals her daughter Jane. Desperate to get her daughter back, Wendy sets off for Neverland once more. In returning, Wendy must confront some painful truths about Neverland – and about herself. There’s a darkness in the heart of the island, and for all his charisma, there’s darkness in Peter too.

The story is told from two perspectives – Jane’s and Wendy’s – and across two timelines. There’s the present, with Jane and Wendy in Neverland, but also flashbacks to Wendy’s life in the years after leaving Neverland the first time and the impact that had. In many ways, the flashback scenes are the more compelling. Neverland completely upended the trajectory of Wendy’s life, and the lasting struggles it left her with are stark. Her brothers quickly forgot Neverland, but Wendy never did – and in her desperation to hold on, she managed to alienate herself from everyone around her. The loneliness of being the only one to remember something, and the way it makes them doubt their own mind, is brilliantly – if somewhat horrifically – portrayed. At one point, Wendy even ends up instituitonalised – this being the early 20th century, where women who did not conform were shut away – and the brutality of this is again not shied away from.

Wendy is by far the more interesting character. Enormously complex, she struggles with her identity and her feelings on Neverland. She’s gone from being forced to be a mother to the Lost Boys to choosing to be a mother herself – and then that child is torn away from her too. With the trauma of her life after leaving Neverland, her memories of it have become her comfort and shield against the world – so when Neverland itself becomes a source of trauma, she struggles to know where to turn. Wendy is flawed and struggling, but immensely strong, and she loves her daughter fiercely. Its impossible not to empathise with her. Her relationships with Mary and with her husband Ned are also delightful to read about. While the term is never used on page, Wendy reads as aromantic, possibly with an element of bisexuality. AC Wise does well to foreshadow this before Wendy mentions it on page, and its lovely to see her find happiness and companionship in a time less accepting of those identities.

Jane is a very typical child protagonist. Smart and plucky, she wants to be a scientist and fiercely stands up for herself. Unlike Wendy, who in the original ‘Peter Pan’ mostly went along with Peter and his ideas – only rebelling by leaving at the end – Jane fights from the start. She has no interest in being anyone’s mother, and she’d much rather look at rocks than spend all day play-fighting. Her rebellion makes Peter more malevolent, highlighting the darker side that was present in the original but far mote subtle. Jane’s sections are made more readable by the inclusion of Timothy, one of the Lost Boys who has grown tired of Peter’s games – and scared of Peter as a consequence. Jane is kind-hearted and caring, and her interactions with Timothy are lovely. Unlike Wendy, Jane doesn’t stand out as a character – she reads much like a wide variety of children’s book protagonists – but she makes an interesting counterpoint to her more complex mother.

The ending is powerful, with clear messages about motherhood and what it means to grow up. There are a couple of minor irritations – Jane’s characterisation slips a bit at the climax, becoming a little too subserviant – but overall it works well.

The main issue with ‘Wendy, Darling’ is that it takes a risk by telling two simultaneous stories, and one is so much more gripping and complex that it makes the other seem a little weak. The flashback scenes are probably intended to be a minor part, but to me their story is more compelling than the main plotline. I would happily read an entire book just dedicated to the psychological impact of Neverland on Wendy and her life, and how she navigates the aftermath. This definitely says more about me as a reader than it does the book, but it colours my ability to look at it objectively.

Overall, ‘Wendy, Darling’ is a clever look at the story of ‘Peter Pan’ and what might have happened next. Unlike the original, it’s definitely not a children’s book, but it’s an intriguing addition to the world of ‘Peter Pan’ spinoffs. Recommended for existing ‘Peter Pan’ fans, along with those who enjoy tales about motherhood, women who survive, and psychology.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 1st June 2021

Robyn Reviews: For the Wolf

‘For the Wolf’ is a dark yet engrossing story, packed with the atmospheric magic of the fairytales it draws its inspiration from. There are family curses, sacrifice, blood magic, an enchanted forest, and layers upon layers of secrets and betrayal, all coming together to produce a story much deeper and more nuanced than it first appears.

“The first daughter is for the throne. The second daughter is for the Wolf.”

All her life, Red – as the second daughter of the Queen – has known that her purpose is to be sacrificed to the Wolf of the Wilderwood, in the hope of bringing back the Five Kings it stole centuries ago. Her sister and friends are desperate to save her – but secretly, Red is glad to go: for Red has a dangerous magic inside her, one that she struggles to control. Red is prepared to die to save those she loves. But all her beliefs about the Wilderwood are wrong. The Wolf of the Wilderwood is a man, not a monster – and the wood might not be her true enemy after all. With her magic, Red might be the last hope the Wilderwood has to prevent monsters destroying all she holds dear.

Red makes an excellent protagonist. Sharp and feisty, she knows what she wants and will stop at nothing to achieve it. She’s caring and loyal, but guards her heart behind a crown of thorns, sharpened by old hurts. Red is very much the sort to jump in without thinking of consequences, but her intentions are good and she’s smarter than those around her think. She also adores books – they’re the only possessions she takes with her to the Wilderwood, and her reaction to libraries is amazing. Its nice to see a bookish heroine portrayed as bold and forthright.

While most of the story is from Red’s perspective, there are a few Interludes following her sister Neve. I found these weaker than Red’s sections – Neve is a little two-dimensional, her entire personality shaped around the loss of her sister – but she has clear potential, and hopefully will develop more in the planned sequel. The sisterly bond between Red and Neve is also heartwarming, especially as the two appear so different. There are glimmers of Neve being a more trusting and naive figure than her sister, but she also has a quiet strength and determination that Red would be proud of.

The setting and atmosphere are the strongest part of the novel. The Wilderwood is a dark, gloomy, and terrifying place, yet it has an eerie sense of beauty which Whitten paints perfectly. There are gothic undertones, but combined with a sense of peace and tranquility. Red has always been taught to fear the Wilderwood – and there are plenty of reasons why she should – but she also feels at home there in a way she never has before. The dichotomy is difficult to balance, but Whitten does so brilliantly, creating a sense of quiet tension combined with an element of strange rightness.

This being a story inspired by fairytales, the plot is full of tropes and recognisable elements – but Whitten puts her own spin on them, adding enough uniqueness to keep them engrossing. The pace alters throughout – rather than a relentless march or slow meander, it changes like the wind, sometimes merely rustling the leaves and sometimes tearing down entire branches. This works well – and in fact, the slower middle is my favourite part, really highlighting the atmosphere and winding up a beautiful sense of tension sure to crack. The ending is clever, changing direction several times so its impossible to predict where things will end up, and achieves both a sense of resolution and a clear direction for the sequel.

Naturally for a fairytale, there’s a romantic element. This is well-written, developing slowly and organically with clear hints dropped throughout, but its less gripping than the rest of the novel. The most important relationship is the family one between Red and Neve – the romance is a nice and expected addition, but somewhat overshadowed.

Overall, ‘For the Wolf’ is a darkly gripping tale perfect for fans of atmospheric fantasy and clever fairytale retellings. It’s strongly reminiscent of books like Naomi Novik’s ‘Uprooted‘, although stands strongly as its own tale. A recommended read.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 3rd June 2021

Book Review: Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Lonely Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura (translated by Philip Gabriel), was a number one bestseller in Japan where it won two highly influential literary prizes. The publisher explains that, according to a recent UNICEF report,

“While Japanese children ranked first in physical health and often lived in relatively well-off economic circumstances, instances of bullying in schools, as well as difficult relationships with family members, lead to a lack of psychological well-being.”

The success of this story may well be testament to how it resonated with so many readers.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Kokoro Anzai, a 7th Grade student (age 12/13) living in Tokyo who stopped attending her Junior High School after just a few weeks. This followed a run of upsetting incidents involving her new classmates. It opens in May, the second month in the Japanese academic year. Kokoro wakes up each morning suffering from severe stomach aches and apprehensively tells her mother that, once again, she cannot attend school. Kokoro is an only child and both her parents go out to work. She spends her days cooped up in her bedroom, often keeping the curtains closed and sleeping or watching soaps on TV. She does not wish this to continue but, unable to find the words to explain what happened and how it made her feel, can think of no way to return to a place that triggers her debilitating anxieties.

It is on one such closed in day that the full length mirror in Kokoro’s bedroom starts to glow with a bright light. When she gets up to investigate she discovers it has become a portal to a large castle. Here she meets six other children and the enigmatic Wolf-Queen. The latter – a masked and child-like figure – explains that the group have been brought together to partake in a quest. Until the following March they may come and go as they please by day – so long as they do so alone and vacate the castle by 5pm. Their quest is to find a hidden key by solving clues, some of which she has already given them. If they succeed then the finder will have one wish granted, after which the castle will be inaccessible to all of them.

The children are unsure of the cryptic nature of what the Wolf-Queen reveals. However, the castle becomes their refuge from the upsetting reality of the home lives they are each currently leading. The children are all of an age when they should be attending Junior High School. For a variety of reasons they have not fitted in and lead lonely existences. Within the confines of the castle they are accepted, albeit guardedly. Their experiences have rendered them painfully self-conscious and lacking wider emotional literacy.

The story of these seven misfits is told over the course of the remaining academic year. It employs the language of young people and is distinctively Japanese in its sometimes abrupt and detached expression. Some of the phrasing felt a little off at times but this came to be explained. Until close to the end the reader may be confused about certain elements of continuity.

The children are struggling to navigate a world driven by the cool kids and the teachers who favour them. Kokoro has loving parents who wish to support her but cannot break through the generational language barrier. It is only in the castle that she feels she belongs, despite her occasional missteps. As March approaches, the idea of losing this refuge – and the friends she has made there – must also be managed.

At times the curious directions the tale took made me question what I was reading and whether to continue. Oddities grated and I pondered if I was enjoying the often static and opaque developments. Throughout, however, the story remained strangely compelling. The author has captured the voices of distressed and anxious young people. Their often fraught interactions remain plausible and poignant, even when they behave badly towards each other.

The denouement pulls each thread together with the Wolf-Queen’s role and her clues explained. Dark undertones have the classic fairy tale feel for a reason. Magical elements and use of metaphor may not be for everyone but provide a thought-provoking conclusion, albeit a curious one.

An unusual bildungsroman that powerfully evokes the damage caused by school bullying, familial trauma and abuse. In portraying the impact through interaction rather than lengthy exposition, reader empathy overrides inevitable judgement.

Did I enjoy the book? Not entirely while reading, as indicated above. It is, however, growing on me as I consider it further. A worthwhile read I will be pondering for some time to come.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Robyn Reviews: Malice

‘Malice’ is a take on the well-known fairy tale ‘Sleeping Beauty’, told from the point of view of the so-called villain. It’s a quick, enjoyable read, with a protagonist you sympathise with and a solid background magic system. There’s nothing groundbreaking, but for fans of fairy tale retellings it’s an entertaining read.

Alyce is the last remaining Vila, a race of monstrous creatures who terrorised the land of Briar for centuries. Abandoned in Briar by a fisherman, her power means she has been raised amongst the Graced – humans blessed by Fae magic and given gifts like Wisdom, Beauty, and Pleasure. However, her green blood and affinity for dark magic means she will only ever be the villain – the Dark Grace. That is, until she meets the Princess Aurora: the last surviving member of the Briar royal family’s bloodline, their last hope – and cursed to die aged twenty-one unless kissed by her true love. Aurora is tired of a life of kissing princes in the hope to find the one, and wants to bring change to Briar. She treats Alyce like a friend – or even something more. But can the villain of the story ever have a happy ending?

Alyce, referred to as Malyce by most of the Graced, is an excellent protagonist. Treated like a lesser person all her life for her Vila heritage, and forced to use her powers by Briar’s Grace Laws, she’s justifiably angry. She starts off terrified, beaten down by her experiences – but throughout the story, as her knowledge of her own power grows, she becomes more and more confident, blossoming into a clever, conniving, but also very caring character. Alyce isn’t evil, but circumstances have shaped her into a weapon anyway. Her feelings for Aurora are beautifully written, and their steady development feels authentic and powerful.

Aurora, on the other hand, is a beacon of confidence. As the last remaining heir, she knows exactly how much she can get away with, and stretches the boundaries as far as she can. At first, she sees Alyce as a curiosity, one more rebellion – but gradually, she starts to see the real Alyce. However, unlike Alyce, Aurora has always been relatively sheltered and privileged – and while her idealism is lovely, there will always be parts of Alyce’s life that she can’t understand. I thought this gulf in experience, and the optimism of idealism versus the desperation of lived experience, was particularly well-written, and one of the most poignant moments of the book.

The plot is relatively predictable, with betrayals and hidden powers and a usurper trying to seize power for themselves, but then this is a fairy tale retelling, and certain tropes will always exist. The ending is particularly strong. All the characters are, in different ways, very naive, so most twists are strongly foreshadowed to the reader whilst the characters remain oblivious – but it works, creating a sense of tension and anticipation as the characters stumble into entirely avoidable pitfalls.

Overall, ‘Malice’ tells a familiar tale in a fresh and intriguing way, making a basic story more powerful with the strength of its protagonist. Fans of fairy tales, and especially villain origin stories, will find plenty to like here.

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 13th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: Uprooted

‘Uprooted’ is heavily inspired by Central European fairytales and could loosely be classified as a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ retelling. It’s a slow burner, but gradually weaves a captivating and beautiful story.

Agnieszka loves the quiet Polish village she’s grown up in – but all the villagers live in fear of the neighbouring Dark Wood and the malevolent powers within. Their only defence from the wood is the Dragon – a cold, mysterious wizard who lives in a nearby tower. For his protection, the Dragon demands a price – every ten years, he selects a young woman from the village to spend the next decade serving him. He always chooses the most beautiful villager. Agniezska was born in a tribute year, but she’s sure her best friend Kezia – beautiful, polite, perfect – will be the one chosen. However, to everyone’s surprise, the Dragon selects Agnieszka instead – and now Agnieszka faces ten years with the Dragon, a fate considered worse than being abandoned to the Dark Wood itself.

Agnieszka is exactly the sort of heroine you want to root for. She resents her circumstances and is far from the polished lady of the tower – she’s clumsy, with no eye for fashion or beauty – but she’s loyal to a fault, filled with determination and sure of herself. Everything about her is highly relatable, and she manages to be strong without seeming two-dimensional. In contrast, the Dragon remains mysterious throughout – little tidbits of his past and character are revealed in places, but he’s very much kept shrouded, with Agnieszka the focus of the story. His interpretation is left to the reader’s discretion – a bold move, but one which works well here without seeming like a cop-out.

One of the biggest strengths of ‘Uprooted’ is the magic system. It takes some time for this to be revealed, but the novel becomes far more engaging and enjoyable once its role begins. It’s a simple system, but it fits the fairytale theme and its fun to learn about it at the same time as the protagonist. I do wish that the magical philosophies were explored in greater detail – as a standalone, there’s less room for in-depth examinations of magical lore, and that’s one of my favourite parts of fantasy novels – but what’s revealed works well.

The other major strength is Naomi Novik’s writing – she absolutely nails the fairytale style and gorgeously paints a picture of the Dark Wood and the mysterious Dragon in his tower.

There are minor flaws – the initial pacing is slow and almost drags, and Kesia, Agnieszka’s best friend, is left as a two-dimensional character when she could have been so much more – but, while these detract a little, they still leave a vastly enjoyable novel packed with many positives.

Overall, ‘Uprooted’ is an excellent addition to the fairytale genre, set in a part of the world less often seen in Western fantasy novels. Recommended to fans of fairytales, strong heroines, and beautiful prose.

Published by Pan Macmillan
Hardback: May 21st 2015