Book Review: A Pocketful of Crows

A Pocketful of Crows, by Joanne M. Harris, is a dark fairy tale weaving magic and the power of the natural world into a story of love and then revenge. The protagonist is a fourteen year old brown girl living wild and alone in woodland. She despises the restrictions under which the tame folk in the villages live with their trinkets and vanity, their societal rules and disconnection from nature. She has been warned by her people to stay apart so watches unseen, curious but content. Her special powers would be lost if she allowed these soft people to own her by bestowing a name.

The brown girl’s powers enable her to put herself inside other creatures. She flies with the birds, swims with the otters, hunts with the foxes and wolves. She will sometimes enter homes inside cats or rats to spy on residents. When not travelling in this way she rests in a hut she has built, eating the fish and small creatures she traps, the plants she picks. She wears garments sewn with feathers, stays warm under pelts.

A chance encounter, an act of kindness, brings the brown girl to the attention of the son of a wealthy landowner, stirring up new feelings she struggles to contain. She goes home with him believing his words of love, his promise of a golden ring. To be together requires assimilation and it is the brown girl who is expected to change. She pays a high price for her taming only to find that the young man is not as trustworthy as she had assumed.

The brown girl seeks advice from an elder. She must use the magic of her people to regain what she has lost if she is to survive this transformation she brought on herself. As the seasons turn and the villagers suffer hardships they look for someone to blame. The brown girl, having drawn their attention, is condemned as a witch. She must evade capture while she awaits the fruition of her carefully crafted vengeance. Nature may be beautiful but she is also merciless, as the brown girl must now be. Man’s power is shown to be weak, his beliefs fickle. Unlike the wild he has but one life and it is as nothing to an ancient earth.

I loved this story for the imagery, for the idea that such magic could exist. It offers a reminder that however much man tries to insulate himself with his beliefs and inventions, he remains reliant on and at the mercy of the forces of nature. We may damage our world but it will not be tamed.

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

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Guest Book Review: Library of Souls

 

As part of their #SummerReads promotion, Quirk Books sent me the second and third books in Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children trilogy (I review the first one here). These books are aimed primarily at young adults and, within a day of their arrival, one of my resident young adults, Robyn, had them read. As my reading and reviewing schedules are currently somewhat packed I decided to ask Robyn to provide me with her thoughts. I posted her review of Hollow City last week – you may read it here. I plan on reviewing both books myself later in the year but, for now, I hope you enjoy reading Robyn’s take on the final book in the trilogy.

 

‘Library of Souls’ is the third and final book in Ransom Riggs’ ‘Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children’ trilogy. It follows the peculiar children as they attempt to locate and free their ymbryne and guardian, Miss Peregrine, and in the process save peculiardom from the threat of their mortal enemies, the hollowgast and wights. Readers are introduced to some intriguing new characters, and there are several twists before everything is neatly wrapped up – as it tends to be in young adult fantasy.

This book focuses on the myths and legends of the peculiar universe. The children have to navigate a new time zone, new peculiar abilities, and an interesting cast of new characters. One of these was Sharon, an obvious reference to Charon – the ferryman of Hades from Greek mythology. The inclusion of a Greek mythological figure seemed somewhat random, but then again the entire premise of the novels is the peculiar. It would have been interesting to have more exploration of the interplay between mythological beliefs and the peculiar in this universe. Sharon’s character was intriguing, but did seem to represent a missed opportunity. It begs the question whether more was included in an earlier draft and cut during the editorial process.

Like its predecessors, ‘Library of Souls’ is well-written, and complimented by an interesting selection of black-and-white images. The trilogy continues to hold its own against other young adult fantasy books. The main weakness with ‘Library of Souls’ is the neatness of the ending. It comes across as rushed, and almost a bit too good to be true. Perhaps the average young adult reader will like the ‘happily ever after’, but I expect some will be left with a lingering taste of disappointment. The book did not take very long to read, so there could have been more explanation without making the ending overly long.

‘Library of Souls’ – and the ‘Peculiar Children’ trilogy as a whole – makes an excellent addition to any young adult’s bookshelves. However, the first book in the trilogy is undoubtedly much stronger than its successors.

   

Robyn Law

Guest Book Review: Hollow City

As part of their #SummerReads promotion, Quirk Books sent me the second and third instalments in Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children trilogy (I review the first one here). These books are aimed primarily at young adults and, within a day of their arrival, one of my resident young adults, Robyn, had them read. As my reading and reviewing schedules are currently somewhat packed I decided to ask Robyn to provide me with her thoughts. I plan on reviewing both books myself later in the year but, for now, I hope you enjoy reading this, the first guest review I have hosted.

 

The second novel of Ransom Riggs’ ‘Peculiar Children’ trilogy, ‘Hollow City’ picks up immediately where the first book left off. It chronicles the children’s quest to find a cure for their ymbryne and guardian, Miss Peregrine, who has become trapped in the form of a bird. Their adventure takes them through multiple locations and time zones, and the children make both new allies and new enemies along the way. There are also some fascinating revelations about the various children’s histories. The book delves much deeper into the world of the peculiar, and contains an interesting twist towards the end to set things up for the final novel of the trilogy.

The concepts in the ‘Peculiar Children’ books are not particularly original. Children with powers who must go on a quest from their school-type environment is probably the single most common young adult plot in history, notably done in the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series’. However, the way this is presented in ‘Peculiar Children’ comes across as new and refreshing. Ransom Riggs succeeds, as in the first book, in writing something that stands out from other books in the genre. The inclusion of peculiar animals as well as humans did come across as a little juvenile – but this could be more to do with the association of talking animals and children’s books than the writing itself.

‘Hollow City’ reads like the typical middle novel of a trilogy. It is well-written, with intriguing new characters and revelations, but it doesn’t stand alone as a strong book in the same way as the first. ‘Hollow City’ would not make much sense without having read its predecessor. As much as the plot is engaging, the feeling persists that the primary aim of the novel is to take the reader from A to B so that everything is ready for the ‘grand finale’ in the last book. It follows a linear journey rather than a traditional story arc. This is especially evident with the ending – the book never really comes to a conclusion, merely hitting another climax then leaving things to be continued in the next novel.

Overall, ‘Hollow City’ is an enjoyable book that approaches the young adult fantasy genre from a slightly different angle. Anyone who enjoyed ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ will likely enjoy this, but they will probably find it a bit weaker.

 

Robyn Law.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone #HarryPotter20

As many of you will no doubt be aware, Monday was the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the first book in the Harry Potter series. To mark this occasion Bloomsbury, the publisher who took a risk on an unknown author’s debut in 1997, have produced a set of special editions of her creation. These new versions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are Hogwart’s house themed and available in hardback or paperback.

As the anniversary fell during Independent Bookshop Week (IBW2017) Bloomsbury also commissioned a limited number of tote bags available only in the bookshops that have previously taken part in the IBW celebrations. On Saturday my daughter (who was also born in 1997) and I visited one of my favourite independent bookshops, Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights, and came away with a bag each along with hardback copies for the houses Pottermore had previously sorted us into – Ravenclaw and Slytherin. We are both fans of JK Rowling’s wizarding world. As well as the books and films we have enjoyed a fabulous day out at the Warner Brothers studio tour, and my daughter has been to see Harry Potter And The Cursed Child  on stage in London.

It all started though with this book. My review today is of our newly purchased twentieth anniversary editions which each contain extra house themed content. I have read my Ravenclaw book cover to cover and the extras from my daughter’s Slytherin version to compare.

The main story, of course, remains the same as that which I read all those years ago in my now battered original which has passed through the hands of myself and my three children for our numerous rereads.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling, tells the story of the eponymous boy wizard, the boy who lived. Following the death of his parents when he was an infant, Harry has been raised by his aunt and uncle who do not tell him of his magical forebears. With his eleventh birthday approaching Harry starts to receive letters which his uncle destroys before he can read them. It takes a personal visit from Hagrid, trusted gamekeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, for the boy to discover his background and that he has a place at the school.

Each book in the series covers an academic year. With this being Harry’s first he must face every challenge that a new school presents, including classmates. He quickly makes friends with Ron Weasley whose large and somewhat impoverished family are looked down on by Harry’s new rival, Draco Malfoy. Following an incident with a mountain troll, Ron and Harry also befriend Hermione Grainger.

The trio discover that something is being hidden within their school, something valuable and possibly dangerous. Hagrid unintentionally offers clues and the youngsters wilful determination to find out more leads them into numerous escapades. Alongside this they must hone their magical skills. Harry also discovers that he is a natural at Quidditch, the sport of wizards.

The denouement will bring Harry face to face for the second time with his nemesis, and thereby sets the scene for the main plot that runs through all of the books in the series.

The writing is polished and engaging. The inventive wit, especially around language, adds humour to what is an intriguing fantasy adventure. This book has justifiably been credited with encouraging a generation of children to read. It also stands up well to repeated rereading. Despite knowing the story well I enjoyed, once again, immersing myself in this world.

The extras in the twentieth anniversary editions offer information on the history of the chosen house, its founder, relic, livery, ghost, common room and significant alumni. Each also contains detail on how first years are sorted and a fun little quiz.

They are beautifully presented, fabulous for those who are familiar with the whole series from the books or perhaps the films. If coming into the Harry Potter world for the first time be aware, the extras contain spoilers from later books.

Buying this was an indulgence but worthwhile for the pleasure it gives. I hope Bloomsbury produce similar editions for the remaining books in the series as they would make a fabulous, collectable set.

Book Review: Spellslinger

Spellslinger, by Sebastien de Castell, is the first book in a proposed fantasy series aimed at young adults. Its protagonist is fifteen year old Kellen, an initiate in a land where those who can pass four tests before their sixteenth birthday become powerful magicians. Kellen is from a respected family but his magical abilities are weak. He faces the prospect of a life of servitude if he fails the tests.

The story opens with a duel and the arrival of a stranger who saves Kellen’s life. Introducing herself as Ferius Parfax she shows little respect for the Mage’s ways. When Kellen’s family are ambushed as they take him home to recover from his ordeal she once again steps in to help, thereby joining them as a target for a rival family.

Such rivalry is supposedly banned but with the death of the clan prince there is a power vacuum that both families intend to fill. Kellen’s actions risk dishonouring his parents but others are taking an interest in the attention Ferius continues to pay him. The dowager magus issues a summons and requests he find out more about this enigmatic stranger in order to report back. Kellen is uncomfortable with his role as a spy but is intrigued by the dowager and her hermit like existence within the opulence of the magnificent palace.

In many ways this is a standard story of an arrogant, ruling elite and the behaviour their young people will accept as normal, and indeed aspire to, having been raised to think of themselves in a certain way. Kellen begins to question the supposed truths he has been fed, but perhaps only because his own gilded future is threatened by his lack of magical ability. His younger sister is the family protégé, the apple of his parents’ eye. Kellen is appalled to discover why he is more of a worry to them than he ever realised.

The self-importance of the mages and their sanctioned brutality in order to maintain their privilege may be universal, but the twists and turns of this story keep the reader engaged. The writing is taut with the darkness of the plot relieved by humour. The squirrel cats are a fabulous creation.

History will always be manipulated by the victors. It is the gradual reveal of truth within this tale, complete with multi faceted intrigue and nuance, which provide wider perspective and a story worth reading. This is an enjoyable adventure with a satisfying denouement that offers an introduction to a fantasy world that the author may now develop as the series progresses. I look forward to discovering where Kellen goes next.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hot Key Books.

Book Review: Traction City / The Teacher’s Tales of Terror

2017 is the first year since I became aware of the event’s existence that my children did not return from school on World Book Day eagerly clutching either their choice of book or a voucher to be exchanged at a bookshop. My youngest is now in sixth form and is presumably no longer a part of the target demographic.

Recently, however, he has urged me to read a series of books that the rest of my family have already enjoyed – the Predator Cities Quartet by Philip Reeve. Having posted the reviews for these over the past few weeks I decided to pick up an associated, former World Book Day publication to see how it slotted into the fantasy world.

Traction City is a short story set in a time shortly before the first book in the quartet. London is on the move and a young boy, Smiff, is creeping through the city’s bowels searching for dropped or discarded items that may be saleable. Instead he finds a dead body. Smiff then witnesses a violent attack on the outlaw men who roam this abandoned area. A tall, human like figure with glowing green eyes allows the boy to escape. Despite his aversion to the police, a terrified Smiff reports what he has seen. He finds a sympathetic ear in Sergeant Anders.

Anders rarely has much to do during his shifts at the lower level police station where he was assigned when his home town was eaten by London. This evening, however, he has a prisoner to process. A young girl has flown in and been apprehended carrying a small amount of explosive. Her shabby airship is named the Jenny Haniver.

There follows a chase, the discovery of body parts, and a run-in with the Guild of Engineers. As ever in this series, where a potential weapon exists, all sides vie to harness its power for their cause, whatever the cost to the wider population.

This was an interesting add-on but was not as compelling as the excellent quartet. I will now need to decide if I wish to read the prequel trilogy starting with Fever Crumb. These are set around the time cities first started to move.

As with many of the World Book Day offerings, a second story is included on the flip side of the book. In this case it is an addition to Chris Priestley’s chilling Tales of Terror, not a series I am familiar with.

The Teacher’s Tales of Terror is appropriately set in a school on World Book Day. A supply teacher has been called in to cover for an ill colleague. The head teacher is pleased to note that Mr Munro, the rather austere looking gentleman who presents himself for this role, has got into the spirit of things and dressed for the chosen theme, celebrating a Victorian heritage.

Mr Munro soon takes control of his rather unruly class and informs them that his lesson will be to read them some stories. What follows are a series of deliciously creepy tales. These are short and spine tingling but not too scary.

The denouement was unexpected and added an extra dimension to the overall story arc. This was an engaging, nicely constructed, and satisfying read.

Book Review: A Darkling Plain

A Darkling Plain, by Philip Reeve, brings to a conclusion the author’s Predator Cities Quartet, and what a conclusion it is. Like the earlier books in the series it is filled with action and adventure, humour, a touch of romance, and some difficult truths about the predilections of mankind. All this is set on a future earth, ravaged by a Sixty-Minute War which caused massive geological upheaval and changed the manner in which survivors may live.

When the story opens, Theo has returned to his family in Zagwa but cannot forget the kiss he shared with Wren. Tom is travelling the Bird Roads with his daughter, both keeping busy in their attempts to put behind them their break from Hester. At a trading post Tom spots a face he recognises from his time in London where he thought everyone had been killed by Medusa. With his health deteriorating Tom mulls the possibility of revisiting the wreck of his old home city.

The Green Swarm and the Traction Cities have embarked on an uneasy truce but there are many on both sides who are unhappy with this peaceful acceptance of alternative ways of life they have been raised to regard as detestable. Rogue elements are determined to quash their enemies by whatever means necessary. When Tom and Wren are chartered to take a wealthy young mayor-in-waiting, Wolf, on a reconnaisance flight to what is left of old London, they get caught up in violent intrigues where trust is scarce.

Hester has been reunited with Stalker Shrike and is travelling on a sandship, intent on not allowing herself to care for anyone again. When she encounters captive slaves, recognising them from her previous life, she becomes embroiled in rivalries from both sides of the war.

Fishcake has done what he can to repair Stalker Fang who is eager to return to Batmunkh Gompa that she may avenge all who have failed her and, alone, turn the world green. Despite her deadly focus, she becomes the closest thing the abandoned young Lost Boy has to a longed for parent.

When a fearsome new weapon starts attacking from the sky, old grievances risk destroying what progress has been made in this violent and increasingly fragile new world. The race is on to prevent mankind’s annihilation.

This is an engaging and fast moving romp through an imaginatively constructed if somewhat violent fantasy world, but I would recommend reading the full series to gain the most from the story told. The quartet is proof, if anyone still needs convincing, that young adult fiction can be enjoyed by competent readers of any age. The final page is as satisfying as any I have read.

My reviews of the previous books in the series may be found by clicking on the titles below.

  1. Mortal Engines
  2. Predator’s Gold
  3. Infernal Devices