Robyn Reviews: The Last Wish

‘The Last Wish’ is a collection of short stories that introduce Geralt of Rivia, Yennefer, and Dandilion – the key characters of the Witcher series. The stories jump around in time and place, with tales of Geralt doing his job as a Witcher – hunting down monsters – interspersed by an overarching story of Geralt recuperating at a temple. The stories are the basis for the first season of the ‘Witcher’ TV series and will likely be familiar to fans of the series or the games, although as someone who never watched beyond episode one of the TV show I appreciate how much more vocal Geralt is in the books than this on-screen equivalent.

The stories are an intriguing introduction to Geralt’s world. Loosely inspired by Medieval European, and more specifically Slavic and Polish, history, there are references to folk tales and many creatures of European myth. Sapkowski also chooses to set his stories at a time when Witchers are declining, their occupation frowned upon, which adds an interesting dynamic to each of Geralt’s interactions. There are also a number of ethical questions posed about the nature of monsters.

Geralt himself is a mostly likeable protagonist. ‘The Last Wish’ was originally published in Polish in 1993 and is typical of 1990s fantasy in its attitude towards women; Geralt mostly but not entirely escapes this misogyny. Nonetheless, he always tries to do the right thing and it’s obvious that he’s a good person at heart. Similarly, Dandilion – introduced halfway through, in the fifth of seven short stories – is a fairly stereotypical hapless companion, but a nice character and it’s clear he has a larger part to play in later books.

Yennefer, by contrast, appears in one story as the beautiful yet evil seductress. I hope her character is further developed later on, as from first impressions she seems a bit two-dimensional, especially as the series’ most important female character.

The format of this, with each tale relatively short, keeps it engaging, and whilst it’s definitely plot rather than character driven fantasy there’s plenty of room for character expansion later on. Its main issues are related to its age – at nearly thirty years old, it suffers from all the tropes and misogyny common to popular fantasy at the time. The fact that Geralt is slightly more progressive keeps this from being intolerable, and hopefully later books – especially those where Yennefer is more prominent – will suffer from this less.

Overall, this is a solid introduction to the major character of the Witcher series and an enjoyable collection of short stories. Recommended for fans of traditional fantasy and folklore-inspired stories.

Thanks to Books2Door for providing the entire box set of the Witcher series – this in no way affects the content of this review

Robyn Reviews: Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable Sun is an action-packed, plot-driven novel, at the expense of its characters. Fans of epic space opera that bounces from action scene to action scene without pause will get a real adrenaline rush from this – but for those who need to connect to the characters to care about the story, this becomes more of a slog through over 500 pages of a confusing mess.

It is pitched as a gender-bent Alexander the Great in space. I adore Greek and Roman history and mythology, and I’m a huge sci-fi fan, so this sounded right up my street. Alexander the Great is a historical figure I’m less familiar with, but I know enough to see the parallels between him and his equivalent in this book – Princess Sun. Weirdly, however, Sun doesn’t feel entirely like the main character. This book contains multiple point-of-view characters – as many epic science fiction stories do – but while Princess Sun’s perspective is told in third person past, another character, Persephone, gets sections told in first person present. This gives the impression that Unconquerable Sun is about her, with the other characters merely lending a different perspective. Persephone is a promising character but also exceptionally irritating, and her sections being told in a different perspective disrupts the story’s flow.

The main issue I have with the story is how flat the characters are. As I read, I’m constantly being told what the characters are feeling, but never shown it. None of the feelings feel authentic, and I can’t fathom any of the characters motivations. Princess Sun is angry at her parents for treating her like a child and not believing in her ability – but if this wasn’t explicitly stated on the page, it wouldn’t be clear. Persephone is desperate to escape from her family’s clutches and make a stamp as her own person – but it’s never entirely clear why. She also falls instantly in lust with almost everyone she meets, which is irritating to read about and an unnecessary distraction from the plot. Zizou is actually a great character, and the only one to make me feel something, but vastly under-utilised. Princess Sun’s Companions feature prominently, but there are so many of them it’s very difficult to remember which one is which – especially as the reader is told so little about them beyond their names, so they never evolve into fully-fledged characters. It’s difficult for struggles and deaths to be impactful when the characters didn’t feel alive in the first place.

The setting and backdrop are intriguing. The Chaonian’s, led by Princess Sun’s mother Queen Eirene, have been at war with the Phene for generations. The Chaonian’s have military might – with military intelligence led by the Lee family – but the Phene have superior technology and the allegiance of the Gatoi, beings engineered to be the perfect soldiers. However, a few Gatoi have switched sides – one of them Princess Sun’s father, making her half-Gatoi and in many respects an unsuitable heir to the throne. The descriptions of the different cultures – Chaonian, Gatoi, Phene – and technological advances are very interesting, but never really developed. The story never slows its pace enough to allow any kind of explanation or worldbuilding. This mostly works, but there are sections where this becomes confusing and the story becomes difficult to visualise. The book takes place on such an epic scale that full description would probably put the page count somewhere upwards of eight hundred, but it might be worth it to make sure that the reader actually understands what’s going on.

The plot is the novel’s highlight. Most of the book is spent with the Chaonians, with occasional glimpses at the Phene’s plans through Apama – an intriguing character who deserved more screentime. There are tangled webs of secrets and lies, betrayals, assassinations, and frank invasions, and the plot never takes its foot off the throttle. I think this would work 100x better as a film than a book – so much happens that would be incredible to see on screen. It’s harder to take in via written format.

I feel I should also mention that this is marketed as an LGBT book, and it contains plenty of diversity, with relationships between all genders entirely normalised. Princess Sun is in a stable relationship with another female-presenting character, which seems to have great potential at the start but never becomes as prominent as the beginning hints at. The representation is generally done very well – with the exception of Persephone, who falls into the trope of bisexual or pansexual character who falls in lust with everyone.

Overall, a book that fans of fast-paced, plot-driven science fiction will adore, but those who like fully-fledged characters will struggle to connect with. Unfortunately, it isn’t my cup of tea.

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

 

Published by Head of Zeus
Hardback: October 1st 2020

Robyn Reviews: As the Shadow Rises

‘As the Shadow Rises’ is the second book in the Age of Darkness trilogy. The five main characters – Ephyra, Beru, Anton, Jude, and Hassan – are dealing with the aftermath of their first battle with the Hierophant and the revelations made. There’s less action than in book one, but this is still an intriguing, tightly plotted book packed with fascinating characters – and the climax is even better than book one’s.

Ephyra – the Graced assassin known as the Pale Hand – has been separated from her sister Beru. The only way to save her sister once and for all is to track down an ancient relic known as Eleazar’s Chalice – but everyone who’s ever gone looking for the Chalice has perished. Ephyra goes searching for the one man who might be able to help her – but the journey is perilous and will require her to put her trust in an old enemy. In many ways, Ephyra reminds me of Rin from The Poppy War – the darker side of morally grey, one step from falling into utter chaos. She’s a horrible person but with good intentions buried deep and a fascinating character to read about.

Beru, wracked with guilt over all the people her sister has killed to keep her alive, has run away to die. Trying to atone, she takes a job as a healer – but when an unexpected acquaintance stumbles across her hideout, with a secret of their own, she decides there might be a better way to assuage her guilt. Beru plays a much larger role in this book than in ‘There Will Come A Darkness’, and while she remains a less interesting personality than her sister she’s a far nicer person. Her ending is incredible and I can’t wait to see what happens to her in book three.

Hassan, the character with the largest role in book one, plays the smallest role here. Now known as the Deceiver, Hassan is disgraced – but as the heir to the throne, he’s still determined to take back his city. Much like in book one, Hassan makes increasingly terrible life choices, but – besides being incredibly cocky – isn’t a bad person.

Jude and Anton’s storyline is the best part of this book. Jude, the Keeper of the World and Captain of the Paladin Guard, is in turmoil. All his life he’s been raised to protect the Prophet – but a member of his Guard has deserted him, his Grace is gone, and he’s broken his own vows to put his duties before all else. Everything is complicated by his growing feelings for Anton. For his part, Anton’s entire world has been upended and he’s being forced to face his worst fears day in and day out. The only person he trusts is Jude – but Jude is hiding from him, keeping secrets, and not offering the same trust back. Their relationship throughout this book is beautifully written. Katy Rose doesn’t shy away from showing the impact of the trauma they’ve gone through – especially Jude, who doesn’t know his own identity without his Grace – but the little moments of happiness and hope she offers are balms in what is regularly a darker book.

It’s difficult to discuss the plot without spoiling book one, but there are adventures, assassination attempts, huge reveals about the magic system and theology, and quests across the country. It avoids all the pitfalls of sequels and manages to tell an engaging story that stands up on its own.

Overall, this is an excellent sequel to a trilogy I wish more people talked about. I can’t wait to see how everything is tied up in book three.

My review of the first book, There Will Come A Darkness, can be found here.

Thanks to Orbit for providing a copy of this book – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 3rd September 2020

Robyn Reviews: There Will Come A Darkness

‘There Will Come a Darkness’ is a brilliant fantasy debut. The first book in the Age of Darkness trilogy, it introduces five main characters – Ephyra, Beru, Anton, Hassan, and Jude – each of whom are fighting to stay alive in a world prophesised to fall into ruin. There’s constant tension, a gorgeous Greco-Roman inspired setting, and excellent use of some classic fantasy tropes. This straddles the line between YA and adult – it appears to be marketed as adult in the UK but YA in the US – and would easily appeal to readers of either genre.

The story starts with Ephyra, a Graced assassin known as the Pale Hand. Ephyra uses her abilities to manipulate people’s life force to kill – but only so she can keep her sister, Beru, alive. I adored the complex sibling dynamic between Beru and Ephyra. Ephyra is the ultimate morally grey character, willing to do anything for her sister – but Beru has a good heart and hates what her sister is doing. Ephyra is one of my favourite characters, but not a particularly nice one. Beru’s chapters are in many ways the weakest of the book, but she provides an interesting counterpoint to Ephyra’s actions – a much-needed moral compass. I’m hoping that we’ll see more of Beru in book two, with further development of her character.

In many ways, however, Ephyra and Beru are side characters to what is primarily Hassan’s story. Hassan, the Prince of Herat, has fled his homeland to avoid the persecution his people are facing. Safely ensconced with his aunt, he begins to chafe at how little he’s doing to help his people. He starts to sneak out to a local refugee camp, befriending one of the leaders there – but his entire world is upended when the keepers of a secret prophecy arrive. Hassan is a sweet but incredibly naïve person. He makes mistakes trying to do what he thinks is the right thing and struggles to stand up for himself and what he truly believes. It’s difficult not to root for him – or for his developing relationship – but at the same time, it’s always clear that he’s getting himself and others into situations that could end in disaster.

The other two main characters, Anton and Jude, are at first opposite but in many ways very alike. Jude has been raised to be the next leader of the Paladin, tasked with keeping the last Prophet alive. His entire life has been about duty – but Jude has doubts, and he isn’t sure he’s cut out for this life. Anton, on the other hand, has always found his Grace to be more of a burden than a boon. He’s been on the run from his abusive brother for years and wouldn’t know duty if it stared him in the face – but when it comes down to it, both he and Jude are hardwired to protect others, even at the expense of themselves. Anton’s relationship with his brother is an intriguing counterpart to Ephyra and Beru’s; their interactions were always uncomfortable but made for interesting reading.

The fantasy system of the five Graces is reminiscent of many fantasy magic systems, but magic plays a relatively minor role. Instead, this is character-driven fantasy, focusing on the lives of the five protagonists in all their messy glory. Similarly, the persecution of the Graced by a religious sect known as the Witnesses – led by the mysterious Heirophant – is a fantasy cliché, but one that’s written well and matters less in a character-and-plot-focused novel. I’ll be interested to see if it goes in a more unique direction later in the trilogy, but the well-trodden material didn’t detract from the book’s enjoyment.

Overall, this is an excellent debut and introduction to an intriguing cast of characters. I can’t wait to pick up ‘As the Shadow Rises’ and find out what happens next. Recommended to all fans of YA and adult epic fantasy, especially character-driven fantasy.

Thanks to Orbit for providing me with a copy of this book – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback:
3rd September 2019. (The sequel, As the Shadow Rises, was published on the 3rd September 2020)

Robyn Reviews: Witch

‘Witch’ is a relatively short novel, coming in under 300 pages, with a simple narrative; Evey and Dill’s mother, the town witch, is murdered by witch-hunters, and Evey vows to enact revenge. The language used reflects the historical setting and Evey’s young age. Many will love this as a quaint, atmospheric tale – but I found myself irritated by Evey and put off by a narrative style which made the story feel very superficial.

Evey is, to be quite frank, not a very nice person. Much of this can be forgiven due to her young age and the shock of watching the death of her mother – but she spends the entire story either complaining or making horrifically rash decisions, and it gets quite tiring to read about. Her interactions with her sister, Dill, are believable – they fight like real siblings, with true sibling grievances – but the pettiness of it all isn’t fun to read. In a novel where everything else is kept deliberately light and whimsical, the protagonist needed to be a strong anchor – Evey isn’t that person.

Most of my grievances with this book say more about me than the novel itself. I prefer my magic systems explained, with clear rules and limitations – the witchcraft in this book is a mysterious thing with no clear rules, and is also far less prominent than the title might suggest. I like character-driven fantasy – this is definitely plot-driven, with Evey never developed as a character beyond her base motivations. I prefer difficult situations to be solved by brains rather than fortuitous coincidences – this book has nothing but fortuitous coincidences. My difficulties with this book almost exactly mirror my issues with another whimsical fantasy from earlier this year, Feathertide – so if you enjoyed that, you might find this up your street too.

I should mention that, while this is written in a very light style, it touches on some dark subject matter. Despite the child narrator, it’s definitely a more adult novel with adult themes.

What about the positives? This is a quick read, easy to consume in one sitting – but also easy to consume in small bites, the narrative simple enough that nothing will be forgotten. It’s also an interesting exploration of attitudes towards witchcraft – people decrying it in the daylight but turning to witches when things get tough. It’s enlightening peering back to a time when witch trials were commonplace; for most of the novel, the historical fiction is more prominent than the fantasy.

Overall, this wasn’t the book for me – but I’m sure plenty of others will enjoy the style it’s written in, and it’s nice delving into a shorter novel amidst the trend for increasingly long fantasy stories. Recommended for fans of atmospheric, whimsical books, historical fantasy, and child narrators.

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

Published by Head of Zeus
Hardback: 1st October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Once and Future Witches

It’s safe to say that October is one of the best months in book publishing history. First, we had The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – now Alix E Harrow is throwing her own (pointy) hat into the ring with The Once and Future Witches.

It isn’t fair to any of the other books being published in 2020 that they have to compete with this. The Once and Future Witches is one of my favourite books of all time. Reading it is like being immersed of a bath of magic and witchcraft, hopes and dreams, power and joy. Alix E Harrow wields words like a master sculptor creating their pièce de résistance. There’s nothing I can say to adequately sum up how incredible the experience of reading this is, other than it ignites your soul with the fire of all those who have been wronged for wanting to be more than they are.

“She is a woman who understands the value of words, especially the ones they don’t want you to say.”

Once upon a time, there were three sisters. Beatrice Belladonna Eastwood was the eldest, the Crone, banished from her home only to find a new one in the New Salem College Library. Agnes Amarantha Eastwood was the middle sister, the brave one, the Mother, holding a punishing job in the mill where she could avoid having to care about anyone else. James Juniper Eastwood was the youngest, the Maiden, a firecracker of a girl who burned with the injustice of the world and wouldn’t rest until it burnt down and a new one arose in its place. These three sisters were lost – to each other, to their purpose, to themselves – but they would find each other again, and the world would tremble with the power of the three united.

“She crumples the map in her fist and keeps walking because it’s either run or set something on fire, and she already did that.”

Bella was the character I empathised with the most – the planner, the reader, most at home amongst her books and research. Given a problem she went to the library and worked. Bella loved her sisters fiercely but also tempered them, soothing Juniper’s more bloodthirsty elements and prodding Agnes into action when she faltered. Bella would never be the spokesperson, the radical thinker, the ideas generator – but she would always be there giving the ideas roots and branches, turning them from abstract dreams into tangible, inevitable reality. No plan would get anywhere without a Bella.

“Together they dared to dream of a better world, where women weren’t broken and sisters weren’t sundered and rage wasn’t swallowed.”

Agnes was the beating heart of the trio – at first cautious, careful, burned too many times, but later the fierce, clawed figure of a mother protecting her cubs. Juniper saw Agnes as a coward, but really Agnes was the brave one – the one not afraid to say no when everyone else insisted she say yes. I understood Agnes less than the others, but then I’m not a mother – I don’t know what it’s like to hold another life in your hand that you value so much more than your own.

Juniper was all thorny branches and tangled thickets and bloody, scraped knees. Juniper was what happened to a dog kicked once too many times that suddenly scented weakness in its owner. Juniper didn’t know words like restraint, or forgiveness, or subtlety – she answered every question with a fist and a curse hissed under her breath. She was not the swooning Maiden of your fairytales. I loved Juniper – loved how fierce she was, how determined, how she never apologised or thought but simply rushed in with no thought of the consequences. The world would be a very different place with a few more Juniper’s in it.

“All the caring was beaten and burned out of her, and now she’s just hate with a heartbeat.”

The plot is excellent, twisting like smoke, but the three sisters are by far the most important part. This book is moulded on the strength of their characters and the sheer beauty of Alix E Harrow’s writing. The fact that the plot is so clever is merely the cherry on top (and the little references and similarities to The Ten Thousand Doors of January an extra little garnish).

Read this book. Listen to the story of the three sisters and let them speak to your soul. Maybe these words will be the ones you need to spark the will and the way, and change your life for the better.

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 13 October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Phlebotomist

The Phlebotomist is part medical sci-fi, part dystopia, and part fantasy novel. It’s audacious in scope and full of brilliant ideas, but they don’t always work cohesively together. The twist in the middle was shocking and completely unexpected, but the sudden tone and genre change didn’t work for me in the way I wanted it to.

Before reviewing this, I feel like I should give a disclaimer – I have a medical background. I’m always going to be pickier with medical sci-fi than any other genre, because I’m familiar with the theory behind it. It’s clear from the first page that Chris Panatier has done his research, with everything he includes more-or-less grounded in science, and I’m very impressed with the whole idea of a society segregated by blood type. There are a couple of inaccuracies (for example a reference to an O antigen, which doesn’t exist), but overall Panatier does a great job at incorporating medical science facts as springboards for science fiction.

The story focuses on Willa Mae Wallace – a Reaper for Patriot, the blood contractor that more or less rules society. The world has been ravaged by nuclear weapons, producing Grey Zones – areas full of people suffering from radiation sickness and other injuries who desperately need blood. With jobs mostly performed by robots, the main way for the populace to earn money is by donating blood – with the best price gained for O negative blood, which can be donated to anyone. Those with O negative have become rich, whilst those with AB positive live in slums, as their blood can only be donated to each other. Willa is AB positive, and has only dragged herself out of the slums by gaining her job as a Reaper (or phlebotomist). However, after witnessing an accident at work, Willa finds herself privy to Patriot’s biggest secret – and they’ll do anything to keep it from getting out.

Willa is an intriguing character. For one thing, she’s a grandmother – an unusual choice for a sci-fi protagonist – who’s been left completely bald, choosing to wear a wig of bright pink hair. Everything she does is to protect her grandson Isaiah. She’s got strong morals and a kind streak a mile wide, but – whilst she regularly reminisced about the past – she doesn’t always read her age. She’s an active lady with no age-related complaints, and I wish a little more had been done to make her seem like an older lady – or else she’d just been written as Isaiah’s mother.

While Willa is the majority point-of-view character, we get occasional chapters from the perspective of Everard, the member of a group of blood-hackers. These are interesting but mostly unnecessary – they never do anything to further the plot. They also do nothing to flesh out Everard as a character – while Willa gets some backstory, most of the other characters are little more than names on the page. This makes it hard to care when bad things happen to them, and lowers the stakes in what should be tense, dramatic moments.

My main issue with this book is more of a personal one than any flaw with the book itself, and that’s that it turned into something very different to what I expected. I went in expecting sci-fi dystopia, but by the end this was more of a fantasy novel with a sci-fi backdrop. I love fantasy, but I see so little medical sci-fi that I just really wanted a novel that explored the potential of that, rather than falling back on fantasy to add intrigue. My rating is purely based on personal enjoyment, and I really think that many others will love the direction it takes. I would prefer this as two separate books – one sci-fi dystopia, and one with the intriguing fantasy elements.

The ending feels a bit rushed in places – so much happens in a short space of time that it stops being as dramatic as it should be – but sets the book up for a potential sequel. Given that I’ll know what to expect, I might pick up a sequel if it appears – the world is excellent, and I’d be interested to see if Panatier explores beyond the boundaries of what we see here.

Overall, this is an ambitious book that didn’t quite work for me, but that I expect many people will love. If you’re a fan of genre-crossing sci-fi and fantasy, kickass grandmothers, and taking down evil corporations, this might be a book for you.

 

*Thank you to NetGalley and Angry Robot Books for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review*

 

Published by Angry Robot
Paperback: 8th September 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Angel of the Crows

‘The Angel of the Crows’ is a very clever book, and enjoyable to read, but I’m not sure it quite diverges enough from its source material to stand up as a separate novel.

The premise is simple: a retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, still set in Victorian London, if the supernatural also walked the Earth. Angels, vampires, werewolves, hellhounds, clairvoyants, curses – these are all part of everyday life. Dr Doyle – this book’s Dr Watson, in clear homage – has just returned from Afghanistan having been grievously wounded by the Fallen, a band of fallen angels. Seeking somewhere quiet to live, he bumps into Stanford, an old friend from medical school, who happens to know of someone else seeking shared lodgings. Enter the angel Crow – somewhat ostracised by his fellow angels and looking for a flatmate for a certain 221b Baker Street. From here, the stories proceed as we know them, with the addition of supernatural elements.

The writing feels uncannily like Conan Doyle’s style, which is very clever of Addison – I reread A Study in Scarlet for a direct comparison. I completely believe that this is how Conan Doyle would have written had he chosen a fantasy version of his stories. Similarly, the characters of Dr Doyle and Crow are much like their counterparts in the originals – although Dr Doyle is noticeably smarter and more perceptive than Dr Watson, and Crow, ironically, much more human than Sherlock Holmes. There are cameos from several other notable characters from Conan Doyle’s stories, and they too feel mostly authentic – with one exception, who I hope is developed further should this ever get a sequel.

I love the supernatural element. The mythology of the angels is clever and well-explained, with tidbits dropped in throughout. Each new being is introduced subtly, without a great deal of explanation, but this helps to their presence seem entirely normal. I would have been interested to see how their presence changed the development of London – and, indeed, of the world – but that isn’t the intent of this novel, and it isn’t required. Several of the supernatural beings are discriminated against – mostly illogically – and this is explored well, adding an extra dimension to the society created.

My main issue with this book is the choice to use the first few Sherlock Holmes stories as the plot. They’re cleverly rendered, staying very close to their source material with just a few adaptations to give a supernatural spin – but these stories have been adapted so many times it makes the book predictable. The setting is exceptional with the scope for far more interesting, fresh mysteries in the supernatural sects of London. I wish that Addison had chosen to create new mysteries rather than relying on paths well-trodden. To be fair to her, she did include one new plot element – capturing Jack the Ripper – but this has also been extensively written about before. None of these issues affect the enjoyment of the book, but they do give it a strong fanfiction feel rather than that of a published work.

Those who enjoy Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the BBC’s Sherlock (or at least the first two seasons), Lucy Liu’s Elementary, or any other adaptation will likely enjoy this. Similarly, those who have never dived into the Sherlock universe but like a good urban mystery or urban fantasy will probably love this. It’s very well written and a strong addition to all the adaptations out there – I just feel like there’s potential for it to be more than that.

Thanks to NetGalley and Rebellion for providing both an eARC and a finished copy of this book – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Rebellion
Hardback: 17th September 2020

Robyn Reviews: A Deadly Education

a deadly ed

Some books are objectively well written – neatly structured, with clever turns of phrase – but fail to tell enjoyable stories. Others are objectively poor – full of info-dumping, lacking a coherent plot, without a single likeable character, or all three – yet despite this, are so brilliant to read it doesn’t matter. ‘A Deadly Education’ is the latter. It’s a mess of a book, told in a first-person stream of consciousness style that goes on page-long tangents about entirely irrelevant points then abruptly jumping back to the original point that you’d forgotten was being made, but it’s such a fun book that it doesn’t matter. I regularly found myself laughing out loud reading it. This has been talked about as a fantasy dark academia, but the vibes I was getting from it were more Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. Gideon and Novik’s protagonist, El, would outwardly hate each other but secretly get along like a house on fire, setting not just the house but the entire village on fire in the process.

‘A Deadly Education’ follows El, short for Galadriel, a sophomore student at the Scholomance – a school for those born with magic. However, it’s not like any other school. There are no teachers – in fact, there are no staff members at all. There are lessons, but the content is unpredictable and may or may not be helpful. There’s only one rule – survive – deceptively difficult when monsters stroll the halls. Thousands of students enter, but only a few hundred will leave.

“They don’t have any reason to care about us. We’re not their children. We’re the other gazelles, all of us trying to outrun the same pack of lions. And if we happen to be faster than their children, more powerful, their children will get eaten… You can’t blame people for wanting their own kids to live.”

El is a loner – her mother is a hippy at a commune in Wales, not a member of an Enclave which might have brought her daughter allies. In a school where alliances with other students are key to survival, this should have been a death sentence – except that El possesses dark magic strong enough to level mountains. Too bad that using that magic would kill everyone else in the school – and that no-one believes she has it. When her life is saved by the school’s resident hero – Orion, the son of the head of the New York Enclave, one of the most powerful witches in the world – El’s initial reaction is anger. How dare he think her incapable of protecting herself? When Orion continues to stick around like an old piece of chewing gum stuck to her shoe, the entire balance of power keeping the school in check shifts – with potentially devastating consequences.

El is the single best part of this book. She’s a perpetually angry, grumpy mess, but has a heart of gold – fortunate in someone with enough power to kill all those around her. Everything she says and thinks is completely deadpan but regularly hilarious – her interactions with Orion are frequently comedy gold. She’s also incredibly smart and insightful in the way she sees the world. At first, it’s easy to feel annoyed at her for her constant anger at others, but as the book unfolds it becomes easier to see why she acts in the way she does. Her character development is excellent – when she finally starts to let others in it’s one of the best moments of the book.

“You know that feeling when you’re a mile away from anywhere, and you didn’t take your umbrella because it was sunny when you left, and you’re in your good suede boots, and suddenly it gets dark and you can tell it’s about to start pouring buckets? That’s what it feels like, when you show up.”

Orion is absolutely adorable. The saviour of the school, Orion has an entire Enclave’s worth of power at his back and a unique ability to kill Mals (monsters) and steal their power. His efforts mean there are more surviving students at the Scholomance than ever before -but they’ve also made the magic of the school very angry, and the Mals very hungry. Orion has always been hero-worshipped for his ability, so he has no idea what to do when El acts like her charming self with him. At first, his presence is hard to understand and he seems like a two-dimensional hero, but once again Novik brilliantly adds depth to his character as the story unfolds, painting a picture of a boy who just wants to be liked for who he is, rather than what he can do. Orion is also, for a conquering hero, the single naivest character in the world, and El’s continuing exasperation at his obliviousness is comedy gold.

The supporting characters are equally excellent. There’s Liu, who resorts to sacrificing animals to obtain power; Chloe, the spoilt rich girl from the New York Enclave who El can’t stand; Aadhya, the pragmatic trader and one of the few in the school to tolerate El’s presence; Magnus, the entitled prat who wants El dead for the crime of daring to talk to Orion. Even these characters grow and develop throughout the book, with Novik managing to flip opinions of them as events unfold. She has a true gift for writing exceptional characters.

In many ways, the plot is simple – it has to be, to fit in around the winding tangents and info-dumps – but this matters less because of the intriguing setting and characters. It’s still tense, clever, and the ending is such an exceptional cliffhanger I’m both in awe and angry. Novik manages the rare skill of both making this stand alone as a full book and leaving a cliffhanger so good you need the next book immediately. She’d better not give us years to wait or I’ll be tearing my hair out at the suspense.

Overall, this is an info-dumpy mess that somehow still manages to be an exceptional book. Novik has dared to write a book that many people will hate but others will love for the sheer brilliance of the setting and characters. Recommended for those who like character-driven fantasy, intriguing settings, and grizzly, unlikeable characters who you end up loving anyway.

 

Published by Cornerstone Books
Hardback: 29th September 2020

Robyn Reviews: Mordew

mordew

I’ve been a fan of Alex Pheby’s work since I first read ‘Playthings’. His next novel, ‘Lucia’, was also excellent. When I heard he was turning his hand to fantasy I was excited – fantasy is my primary genre, and given the creativity of his literary fiction I was intrigued by what he could do with expanded horizons. The answer, it would appear, is a lot – possibly too much to form a fully coherent novel.

Mordew – a play on the French Mort Dieu, meaning God is Dead – is set in the city of Mordew, a city ruled by the mysterious Master, a man who stays in his locked palace on the top of the hill yet reigns completely unopposed. At the bottom of the hill lie the slums, coated in the filth of the Living Mud – and it is in these slums that Nathaniel Treeves, the protagonist, grows up. Nathan is different to those around him – he has a Spark, an ability which he can use to coax flukes from the Living Mud to sell to obtain medicine for his dying father. However, Nathan’s abilities only go so far, and the day comes when his mother decides she’d be better off selling him to the Master. This sets off a chain of events which shake the very foundations of the city of Mordew.

Nathaniel is a difficult protagonist to like. He’s thirteen – always a bold choice in an adult fantasy novel – and in many ways acts his age. However, his biggest crime is his complete inability to make a decision. He never seems to know what he wants, or why – partially because no-one ever explains what’s going on to him, but partially because he really doesn’t seem to have anything he wants. Characters in any genre need to have a goal – Nathan starts off with a goal, but when that goal becomes impossible, he never creates another one. Instead, he’s led around like a fool for the entire novel – which does well to show the power of those around him, but makes him very hard to root for.

The best character in the book is undoubtedly Dashini, who’s the complete opposite – strong-willed with clear goals and knowledge about what’s going on around her. Dashini lights up the novel when she appears, and in many ways would have made a much stronger protagonist.

As a regular fantasy reader, I’m very confident in my preferences – strong, character-driven fantasy with a clearly delineated and explained magic system and beautiful prose. This clearly plot-and-worldbuilding-driven fantasy was never going to be exactly my cup of tea. However, I do think the world created is fascinating. The idea of the Living Mud and flukes is intriguing, and the corpse of God – something which I don’t think the blurb should mention due to the lateness of its appearance in the novel – as a source of power is bold. I also loved the descriptors – Spark, Itching, and Scratching. There are few answers about how power works, but this is the first book in a trilogy so that isn’t really required at this stage.

The other main issue this book has, besides the apathy of the protagonist, is the pacing. The first 250-odd pages are incredibly slow and do very little to further the plot. Fortunately, the pace picks up from here and remains brisk for the rest of the novel – but, especially given the blurb, the first section is essentially spent waiting for the book to start doing what it advertises.

Overall, this is a solid novel with a very intriguing world, but one that suffers from a lack of character depth. It reads very much like a debut – possibly to be expected given that this is the author’s first foray into fantasy. Recommended for fans of darker, plot-focused fantasy and fantasy of a literary bent.

 

Jackie’s review of Mordew can be found here

 

Published by Galley Beggars
Hardback: 13th August 2020