Book Review: Malarkoi

malarkoi

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is a sign of a progressive society that dissent is allowable – anything else is a form of homogeneity such as the inferior herd-minded and cattle-headed peoples are likely to accept”

Malarkoi is the second instalment in a proposed fantasy trilogy that began with Mordew. Although complex and detailed, the world Pheby built in the earlier book was presented at a surface level, the characters and their relationships to each other key. Now the author takes the reader deeper into the workings of the cities focusing on the powerful and what they hope to gain from manipulating underlings and the places they traverse.

Many characters return. The Master remains at Mordew, necessary as his power is largely derived from God’s corpse, which is still stored in the catacombs beneath the city. The Mistress is more fluid. Nathan’s mother plays a role of greater significance than before, although in offering further explanation as to how the world operates the reader will come to understand why she raised her son in the slums – and why her husband contracted lung worm. Nathan’s gang friends and those who pull their strings divide into groups, each granted their own quest.

The plot of Malarkoi brought to mind The Lord of the Rings. There is much journeying in which travellers face perils amidst beautiful surroundings that have been despoiled as those wielding power attempt to gain the upper hand. The death count is high. Few of the characters prove likable, other than the dogs.

“Loneliness is like a vacuum – it is an absence that draws anything and everything into it”

There are huge swathes of exposition as the author attempts to make clear the workings of the weft and those who manipulate it. The writing is more existential than previously, understandable for those familiar with Pheby’s body of work but not, perhaps, always so noticeable in fantasy. While I never felt lectured at, there was a definite message being conveyed.

The weft is centre stage and an interesting concept. Time is meaningless here. It passes, as time must, but it is possible for those with the power to move around in time and space, although this comes at a cost.

Events from Mordew are expanded and explained, given back story and then progressed. The reader is learning more details about this world and those who reside therein.

Then there is death. It happens, regularly, but what comes next may be better given the lives so many have no choice but to live. This message – obvious propaganda – enables the powerful to obtain willing sacrifices, necessary for their magic.

“Recognition is only the beginning of knowledge and is no substitute for comprehension”

How the Master controls his realm is also complex. Details provided are lengthy and still not entirely clear on first reading. Having said that, the story is meticulously plotted. Character development takes more of a back stage. The reader comes to understand why they act as they do but it is more challenging to empathise given choices made.

The details and intrigues make for somewhat slow reading in places as each thread is progressed separately. As is so often the case in fantasy, a being in possession of magical power is depicted as awe inspiring, able to overcome all obstacles, only for something to happen that appears to defeat or negate abilities.

Within these pages there are: mystical creatures, murder, resurrection, joyful interludes, unexpected dangers, friendship, and treachery.

Pheby depicts power in a depressingly realistic way. It may be used to hurt enemies. When enemies also have power the fallout on lesser beings is devoid of compassion, regarded as collateral damage. Bellow’s brother, Adam, tells a bedtime story that gets to the heart of this – how the general population can be lead so easily.

The dogs make a welcome return and play key roles. The epilogue on Sirius was more moving than what had gone before, and why this should be is explored. Appendices offer further detail on episodes gone before, intriguingly on an Assembly, mentioned briefly and perhaps a subject of the next instalment.

Mordew introduced Nathan Treeves, a boy with power the unleashing of which caused mighty change, not least to himself. Malarkoi makes Mordew look parochial in the wider world, although still relevant due to its storage of God’s corpse. The ‘religions’ described see heavens turn into hells. We learn why the Master and Mistress wish to defeat each other and how they plan to do so. There are several gods but it is the weftlings who take centre stage here.

“the past is always gone, and one must find happiness where one may”

With one more instalment still to go, not all questions are answered. It is clear that there will be outside forces to contend with, but the roles given to the weft population – few of whom seem to entirely disappear even when killed – will be of interest.

Any Cop?: This sort of deep diving fantasy fiction offers more on each perusal, drawing in readers eager to discuss the layers and conspiracies. I suspect that in future years, when Cities of the Weft has become the classic it deserves to be, there will be plenty of aficionados with views and theories the author himself may not have considered apposite.

Jackie Law

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Robyn Reviews: Babel (or, the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution)

‘Babel’ is one of the most ambitious novels I’ve ever read. It blurs fantasy, historical fiction, social commentary, and linguistics into a shining silver piece of alternate nineteenth century history. As a work of literature it’s a monumental achievement. This is a book to be read slowly and savoured, allowing time to sink into the world and admire the intricacies of each thread. As a story, unfortunately, a little is lost to the sheer scope of everything else going on – but that shouldn’t take away from what RF Kuang has achieved here.

In 1928, a boy is orphaned by cholera in Canton, China. This in itself is not unusual – but this boy, soon to be known as Robin Swift, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell and tutored extensively in Ancient Greek, Latin, and Chinese. The purpose? For Robin to enroll in the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford – colloquially known as Babel. Babel is the crown jewel of the British Empire – the seat of translation, but more importantly silver-working, the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation to magical effect. Silver working has granted the British Empire unparalleled power and helped it colonise the globe. At Oxford, Robin has everything he ever dreamed of – but everything he does furthers colonialisation, betraying his Chinese homeland. Robin finds himself trapped between Babel and those who would work to bring it, and therefore the Empire, down. He must decide what he is willing to sacrifice – and what is required to truly engender revolution.

The research RF Kuang has done to bring this novel to life is exquisite. It’s full of pieces of real nineteenth century history and social and political commentary of the time, each with a slight overlay in the context of silver-working. The worldbuilding is exceptional, absolutely capturing the atmosphere of academia and Oxford, both from the perspective of the average white male student in the nineteenth century, and the foreign, non-white, and not always male students of Babel. Every aspect feels tangible and believable.

Silver-working, the fantasy spin, is a smaller part of the novel, simple but immensely effective. It isn’t explored to its fullest potential, but this is less a fantasy novel and more a novel exploring social and political commentary, so that’s to be expected.

The characters are wonderful. This is a single POV novel with the exception of three interludes towards the end, but Robin is strong enough to carry the story on his own. Robin loves language and loves to learn, but he struggles with his position at Oxford. He’s constantly grappling with issues of identity, of privilege, of Empire, and of what it is he actually wants. He loves his classmates – they’re the three people he’s closest to in the world – but he’s also, in many ways, very alone. Robin is a likeable and relatable protagonist, making many aspects of the book much more accessible. His development throughout is immense, and whilst his actions at the end may prove divisive, its easy to see why.

Robin’s classmates – Ramy, Victoire, and Letty – each add a new dimension to the story. Ramy, Robin’s roommate and a Muslim constantly referred to as Hindu by his Oxford contemporaries, is quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and observant in a way Robin is not. Victoire, Haitian in origin from a family still wounded by the slave trade, is fiery and downright angry at times in a way Robin initially struggles to understand, but gradually comes to. Letty, an English rose, is vastly different to her contemporaries – kind and easy to love and absolutely determined to fit in, but always on a different course by consequence of her birth. The characters play off each other well, and each feels well-rounded.

There are a few minor criticisms. At just over five hundred pages this isn’t the longest book in the world – especially for fantasy – but the first half is very slow, requiring concentration and patience as the worldbuilding and characters are established. Kuang does well at creating atmosphere and a sense of foreboding before things start to unravel, but the change of pace doesn’t quite work, and several points lack the emotional impact they should have. The ending itself is likely to divide opinion. I understand why Kuang did it, but it did feel a little like a cop out. This is definitely a book which prioritises the philosophy and social commentary over the story.

Overall, Babel is a monumental undertaking and Kuang almost carries it off. It’s a book with crossover appeal to fantasy, historical fiction, and literary fiction fans, and worth a read for anyone who enjoys social commentary, exquisite worldbuilding, British history, and the complexities of human psychology. There are many things to love and the impact lingers after the final page. A recommended read.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 23rd August 2022

RF Kuang is also the author of The Poppy War trilogy – I review the first book here.

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

Robyn Reviews: The Fever King

‘The Fever King’ is an ambitious YA dystopia, a tonal response to the YA dystopian boom in the early 2010s (think The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner), but with greater diversity and scope. It’s a bit rough around the edges, with mild issues around pacing and engagement, but overall it’s a solid and worthwhile read.

Sixteen-year-old Noam Alvaro is the son of undocumented immigrants in Carolinia, part of the former United States. He’s spent his life fighting for the rights of immigrant families and refugees fleeing outbreaks of a dangerous magical disease – one that grants 1% magical powers and kills the remaining 99%. However, his entire life is upended when he wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of a magical outbreak, and newly blessed with the rare power of technopathy. His ability draws the attention of the magical elite and he finds himself drawn into the very world he’s always hated. Stuck between two worlds, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go for the greater good.

Noam makes an excellent protagonist. Intelligent but emotional and often lead by his heart, he cares deeply and always wants to do the right thing, but struggles with what the right thing is. Rationalising his new identity as one of those he’s always despised is challenge, as is seeing the others around him as people rather than merely monsters. Noam tries to straddle two worlds, never feeling at home in either, and clings to things that remind him of the life he once had. At times, Noam is frustrating in those he trusts or the decisions he makes, but its always clear and believable why he’s done what he’s done, and his growth throughout the book is excellent. Books narrated by a single protagonist hinge on whether that protagonist convinces the reader, and Noam does.

As only Noam gets a POV, the secondary characters are more mysterious, but Dara and Calix Lehrer especially are intriguing and well fleshed-out. There’s strong potential for both to be developed in the sequel.

The setting is standard dystopia fare, a city in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event – in this case a virus that decimates most of the population. Where this goes further than most dystopias is exploring the issue of refugees from the virus and the dynamics of immigration. The parallels to contemporary refugee politics are clear, and this poses plenty to think on about current refugee policy. Lee does well at raising questions without pretending to have all the answers, and at pitching complex political debates at a level accessible to a YA audience.

The romance is unfortunately one of the weakest parts of the book. There’s very little initial chemistry, and the relationship is beset by communication issues – some believable in the context of immature teenage characters, but largely frustrating. Its great reading a YA dystopia with a male-male relationship, but it doesn’t come across as a healthy one.

Overall, ‘The Fever King’ is a late entry into a crowded genre, but a worthwhile addition with plenty of new material to explore. Recommended for all dystopia fans.

Published by Skyscape (Amazon Children’s)
Paperback: 1st March 2019

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: Book of Night

Holly Black, best known for the ‘Folk of the Air’ trilogy but a prolific author of YA fantasy, makes her adult fantasy debut with ‘Book of Night’ – an urban fantasy about con artists, power, and messy characters living messier lives. In much the vein of ‘Ninth House‘ – another adult debut by a popular YA author – it’s a darker book, almost to emphasise that this is Definitely Not Aimed At Children. (There’s probably an entire debate to be had there about why female YA authors feel the need to do this, but I digress). In short, ‘Book of Night’ is a solid and enjoyable dark urban fantasy, but probably not a book that will appeal to many fans of Holly Black’s other work.

Charlie is a (mostly) retired con artist, working as a bartender and trying to distance herself from her previous life of crime. She’s got a steady, boring boyfriend and a steady income – if not enough of one to save up for her younger sister to go to college. However, when Charlie accidentally witnesses a murder on her way home from work, she finds herself thrown back into her old life of shadow crime – with her life potentially on the line. Never one to make a good decision when she could make a worse one, she throws herself wholeheartedly back into a world of secrets, power, and murder.

The magic system in this book is simple but effective. Everyone starts off with a shadow – but some people develop the power to alter them, using them to alter appearances, increase power, or even as weapons. Shadows can be traded and even stolen, leaving one shadowless – a lesser in society. The shadow trade is at its depths a dark and ugly thing, but to the populace at large, shadow alterations are seen as glamorous accessories. The choice of magic system adds to the darkness of the book in a quite literal way, but it’s cleverely done, and Holly Black weaves explanation into the story well, avoiding long passages of exposition.

Charlie, the protagonist, is a highly relatable Millennial-type character, the sort of person who keeps screwing up and whose life seems fated to go wrong in a hundred different ways – partially because Charlie herself can’t keep her nose out of trouble. She’s creative, curious, and kind-hearted, but also headstrong and reckless. Her relationship with her younger sister is intriguing, and one of the parts of the book I wish was explored further.

The plot is fast paced with plenty of twists and turns, with just about the right balance between foreshadowing and surprise. Most revelations can be predicted with enough mental gymnastics, but it’s satisfying having deductions proven right and there are still shocks along the way. Naturally, the book uses some genre tropes, but there’s plenty to make it feel original. The ending provides a satisfying conclusion that fits with the tone of the rest of the book, whilst leaving the door open for a potential spinoff or sequel.

For an adult fantasy this is on the shorter side, and there could have been more exploration of the world and characters, but overall this is a solid, entertaining adult debut. Recommended for fans of Ninth House and fast-paced darker fantasy.

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 3rd May 2022

Robyn Reviews: Gallant

VE Schwab is a prolific writer of fantasy across age groups and subgenres. Her adult fantasy The Invisible Life of Addie Larue remains one of my all-time favourites, and her City of Ghosts trilogy is a wonderful fantasy adventure for the 8-14 age group. Her latest offering, Gallant, is targeted at a teenage or YA audience, but makes a great easy read for adults too. It’s an atmospheric, slow build read with elements of Neil Gaiman. The ending isn’t quite as satisfying as I might have liked, but otherwise this is another solid entry to Schwab’s shelves that any fan of fantasy mysteries or the haunted house genre should enjoy.

Sixteen-year-old Olivia Prior can barely remember a time when she wasn’t alone. Her parents have vanished, and almost no-one at Merilance School for Orphaned Girls has bothered to learn how to communicate with a girl with no voice. When she receives a mysterious letter from an uncle she’s never met, inviting her to join him at his estate of Gallant, it seems like a dream come true, aside from one thing: A note in her mother’s old journal, the only piece of her she has left. ‘You will be safe as long as you stay away from Gallant’. Her options few, Olivia arrives at Gallant – but her welcome isn’t what she expected, and she soon finds herself surrounded by a family secret that might just spell her end.

The biggest strength of the book is Schwab’s writing. Atmospheric and haunting, it paints lingering images of Merilance, of Gallant, and of its inhabitants – both living and dead. It’s perhaps pitched a little young – Olivia is sixteen, but this is probably aimed at the 12+ age group, and she reads younger than she is – but nonetheless, the writing effectively builds tension without ever being age inappropriate.

Gallant pitches itself as ‘The Secret Garden’ meets ‘Stardust’, and certainly much of the imagery is clearly Gaiman inspired. However, even with the clear inspiration from other works and use of fantasy tropes, Gallant still stands out as its own work without feeling too reliant on or too similar to predecessors. It helps that Olivia feels very much like a Schwab protagonist – a feisty, adventurous girl fond of sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong and leaping into action before thinking about the consequences.

I liked the disability representation in the form of Olivia’s mutism, although a disabled reviewed would be better placed to vouch as to its accuracy.

The plot starts slowly, letting us get to know and sympathise with Olivia, revealing more and more secrets and unspooling at a greater and greater pace. The ending is fast-paced and almost over too quickly, with one final twist which is very clever but a certain lack of satisfaction. It would be helped by an extra thirty to fifty pages allowing the finale more time and impact – it almost feels like there’s a page limit as this is a YA not adult novel. Still, there’s enough there to hold it together and make it feel like a complete and enjoyable story. There is one trope in the ending which personally felt unncessary, but that’s a personal quibble that others may disagree with.

Overall, Gallant is an atmospheric YA fantasy novel perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman, haunted house stories, and family secrets.

Published by Titan Books
Hardback: 8th March 2022

Robyn Reviews: A Marvellous Light

‘A Marvellous Light’ is a gay regency era romance novel that happens to be set in a fantasy world. It’s creative, well written – especially the relationships, both romantic and otherwise – and a generally fun read.

Robin Blyth has more than enough to contend with, what with his sister to care for, a household to run, and a whole mess caused by his parents excesses to sort out now he’s inherited the baroncy. The last thing he needs is an administrative mistake seeing him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society. Now, he also has to contend with an excruciating deadly curse, and worse than that Edwin Courcey, his prickly counterpart in magical bureaucracy who wishes Robin were literally anyone else. However, Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and tracking him down unveils a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles – and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

Robin is a brilliant character. He’s not always the brightest, but he’s determined, forthright, and jumps into everything with two feet even if he hasn’t sussed where he’s landing. His relationship with Edwin – a pessimist and consummate planner – is regularly hilarious with some brilliant moments. Robin would be frustrating to know in real life in many respects, but you could trust him to the end of the earth and he’s a great person to have at your back.

Edwin, on the other hand, uses a cold demeanour and sharp intellect to hide deep insecurities. He’s lived his whole life feeling inadequate, and clearly doesn’t know what to make of the warm and frank Robin. Magic and Edwin have a difficult relationship, and seeing how Robin reacts to it clearly opens Edwin’s eyes to new ways of thinking. They’re a brilliant pairing, and their slow-burn chemistry is exceptionally well-written.

Whilst there’s a strong fantasy element and an underlying mystery, this is at its heart a gay novel of manners or regency romance. Edwin and Robin’s developing relationship is given more page time and focus than any other element, and there are multiple romance tropes squeezed in. Those who don’t like sex scenes may have to skip a few chapters.

That being said, the fantasy setting is still excellent. The magic system is strongly and believably constructed, the worldbuilding simple but effective, and the subtly different culture well crafted. This is no epic fantasy, but it knows its own limitations and works within them well.

The plot is reasonably fast paced, with a good mix of predictable tropes and less predictable twists. There’s strong character growth for both Edwin and Robin, and a good exploration of both their romantic relationship and complex family relationships. The mystery, fantasy, and romance elements all complement each other without clashing, and whilst the relationships between characters are the main focus the mystery would still stand on its own.

Overall, this is an easy, fun read that will appeal to fans of fantasy romance, regency novel settings, and those looking for a readable, page-turning fantasy novel.

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

Published by Tor (Pan Macmillan)
Hardback: 9th December 2021

Robyn Reviews: Wild and Wicked Things

‘Wild and Wicked Things’ is historical fantasy set in the 1920s with influences from The Great Gatsby and Practical Magic. With hidden witchcraft, family secrets, old friends, and new flames, it has plenty of mystery and intrigue, along with a gorgeous and beautifully described island setting. If you’re looking for a standalone historical fantasy with a darker side, this could be the book for you.

On Crow Island rumours of magic abound – not faux magic, the sort peddled by fortune tellers and tea shops, but real magic brimming with power and darkness. Annie has no interest in magic. She’s on the island for a single summer to settle her late father’s estate, and hopefully reconnect with her old friend Beatrice. However, her new neighbour turns out to be the enigmatic Emmeline Delacroix, known for extravagant parties and the shadow of witchcraft. Annie can’t help but be drawn in – but there’s a cost to all magic, and the cost of magic this powerful might be death.

Annie is an easy enough character to like – somewhat bland, but inoffensive and charming in her naivete. The island through her eyes is a daunting yet intriguing place. Annie has clearly led a simple life and, suddenly being surrounded by those who have sought more, changes her perspective in interesting ways.

Emmeline is more of a firecracker – a morally grey witch with many skeletons in the closet and secrets oozing from her pores. Emmeline lives life to the fullest, throwing wild parties and barely bothering to hide her witchcraft from the common folk. But inside, Emmeline is in turmoil, and her glamorous life is little more than a veil. She’s a more difficult character to connect with, but far more engaging and layered.

Annie and Emmeline’s relationship is one of the weaker parts of the novel. There’s chemistry, but it’s difficult to tell if Emmeline truly likes Annie or merely likes what she represents – freedom, innocence, and a life Emmeline was never allowed to have. Similarly, it’s unclear if Annie truly likes Emmeline or likes her mystery, her power, and the darker side that Annie has never acknowledged in herself. There isn’t much for a lasting relationship to be built on, but the difficulty of a sapphic relationship in 1920s Britain is well explored, and its good to see more sapphic fantasy allowed to end on a happier note.

The side characters vary, each with a great deal of potential but not always fully realised. Bea, especially, deserves a perspective of her own – her motivations seem simple, and almost naive in their selfishness, but there are hints of a more interesting and layered character that never fully materialise. Emmeline’s friends again deserve a full book of their own, but Isabella especially has a wonderful character arc within the narrative that compliments the overarching story well.

The setting is gorgeous – Crow Island is beautifully described, with the atmosphere present throughout the novel. Francesca May has a way with language, never overdoing it but ensuring each moment and description lingers in the minds eye. Mysterious island settings are a bit of a fantasy cliche, but this one stands out and has enough to set it apart.

The plot is part mystery, and part coming of age for the adult reader – exploring adult relationships and stepping out alone in a different way to standard coming-of-age stories written for a teenage audience. It’s twisty, at times difficult to predict, and a generally enjoyable ride. There are cliché moments, but also some curveballs and real highlights.

Overall, ‘Wild and Wicked Things’ is a strong fantasy standalone with a beautiful setting, intriguing characters, and a twisty plot that keeps the reader guessing. Recommended for fans of darker fantasy, gorgeous prose, and witches.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 31st March 2022

Robyn Reviews: The Atlas Six

‘The Atlas Six’ is a character study of six magicians – or medeians – each competing for a place in a highly secretive and prestigious society. It’s a slow and atmospheric read, far more about people than plot – and whilst some might find it tedious and meandering, for those who enjoy psychology, philosophy, and introspective novels such as ‘The Secret History’ or ‘If We Were Villains‘, this is a highly recommended read.

The Alexandrian Society guards the lost knowledge of civilizations, its members consisting of the best magicians in the world. Each decade, six initiates are chosen, each with their own unique magical strength – of which five will be granted membership. The six chosen must live and study together for a year, where they will have access to untold knowledge – and can either collaborate or compete as they see fit. At the end, they must decide who will be eliminated. As the six players dive into magic no-one has attempted before, advancing the field of human knowledge to untold heights, that shadow always looms over their head – after the year is up, one of them will be gone.

Olivie Blake’s worldbuilding is simple, merely adding magic to the current world with a few twists – but the atmosphere she creates with it is astounding. There are secrets upon secrets, and with illusory magic and magicians who can change how you think and feel, its never clear to either the characters or the reader exactly what’s real or who to trust.

It’s the characters, though, which make the novel. They’re all delightfully morally grey – even the ones who seem pure and innocent becoming less so by the end, and those who seem heartless and scheming suggesting they might just have good intentions buried deep. Each brings something different, and it’s difficult to know who to root for – or against.

The relationships between the characters are complex and ever-changing, none of them fully able to trust the others. Nico and Libby orbit around each other like binary stars – neither really able to live without the other, but neither fully accepting that fact. Reina stands alone, separating herself from the crowd – despite the fact that her powers can never be fully realised in isolation. Parisa can seduce anyone, but while everyone’s secrets are visible to her she keeps her own close. Callum, capable of persuading anyone to do or be anything, is mistrusted by all – except Tristan, whose power is so niche and so difficult to understand he has difficulty believing he should be a part of it. Tristan oscillates between Callum and Parisa like a metronome, clinging to those who can know him because he barely knows himself.

This is the first in an intended series, with a twist at the end that sets up plenty of intriguing directions for a sequel. I’ll be very interested to see how the author continues it – the plot is very much secondary to character and character dynamics here, and striking the balance with characters who already know each other will be exceptionally challenging. By their nature, intimate character studies often work better as standalones, but given the strength of this I’m highly hopeful that Olivie Blake will pull it off.

Overall, ‘The Atlas Six’ is a musing, meandering tale of power, humanity, and the complexities of human psychology against a backdrop of magic and the excusivity of academia. It won’t appeal to everyone, but for those who enjoy morally grey character studies this is a highly recommended read.

Thanks to Tor UK, Black Crow PR, and Netgalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Tor
Hardback: 3rd March 2022