Robyn Reviews: The Midnight Bargain

‘The Midnight Bargain’ is a regency romance with a fantasy and feminist twist. It makes a quick and easy read, and whilst the ideas and setting would have allowed for more depth and complexity, as it is it tells an enjoyable tale.

Beatrice Clayborn has always dreamed of being a sorceress, seeking magic in hidden grimoires and practising her art in secret. She dreads the day she’ll be married off and locked into a collar, unable to access her magic so she can safely carry children. However, her debt-ridden family have staked everything on Bargaining Season, and Beatrice must find a husband to save her family from ruin. When Beatrice stumbles across a grimoire with the key to becoming a full Magus, she thinks her troubles have finally come to an end – only for the book to be taken from her hands by Ysbeta Lavan, one of the most influential young women in town. To access the book, Beatrice and Ysbeta strike a deal – but the more Beatrice becomes entangled with Ysbeta and her handsome brother Ianthe, the more complicated her choices become.

Beatrice makes an engaging protagonist. Her forthright feminism and strong attitude makes her polarising in society but quickly wins the reader’s sympathy. She makes regular social faux pas – to the horror of her very proper younger sister Harriet – and is far too naive, but these flaws almost make her more endearing. Beatrice is clearly an intelligent woman and a powerful sorceress, but her position as an unmarried woman leaves her almost powerless, something she simultaneously rages against and is forced to submit to. The way she’s torn between warring desires is well written, with the reader feeling every inch of her frustration.

Ianthe is a very classic regency novel love interest – ridiculously wealthy, handsome, and completely besotted by the heroine. The chemistry between him and Beatrice is excellent, but there’s an element of insta-love which is frustrating. Beatrice is clever, loyal, and unintentionally hilarious with her lack of knowledge of social norms – their relationship could develop slower and more organically. Its still a sweet and believable partnership, but in many ways the romance is the weakest part of the book.

Ysbeta, on the other hand, is an excellent character, and her relationship with Beatrice is far more complex and intriguing. Ysbeta has no interest in love or romance. Beatrice has always wanted to pursue magic and therefore resigned herself to not marrying – Ysbeta, although unstated, is probably on the aromantic spectrum, and finds a joy in magic that she could never find in a relationship. Her desperation to study magic is rawer than Beatrice’s in a way Beatrice can’t quite understand. The two make a formidable team, with a heartwarming friendship – but there’s also a gulf between them, with neither quite understanding the others point of view.

The world is quite clearly regency inspired, with the magic system is worked in seamlessly. CL Polk avoids info-dumps, deftly weaving the magical elements into the overarching narrative. They also create a harsh but believable patriarchal society – at first, it can feel a bit much, but it quickly becomes apparent how such a huge divide between the genders has been created.

Overall, ‘The Midnight Bargain’ is an enjoyable fantasy romance, likely to appeal to fans of Bridgerton and similar series’. A great, uncomplicated read at the end of a long week.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 13th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: Malice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 13th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: All the Murmuring Bones

‘All the Murmuring Bones’ is a beautifully atmospheric tale, winding folklore and fantasy together to create something dark and gothic. There are family secrets, lapsed bargains, a crumbling fortune – and at the heart of it all, a young woman who just wants to be free. The tale winds slowly, filled with lingering descriptions, painting a vivid picture tinged with the salt of the sea.

Miren’s grandmother, Aoife, is the last of the O’Malley’s – a family who prospered due to a bargain struck with the mer. All their ships would have safe passage across the sea in return for one child sacrificed per generation. However, pride in the bloodline has become their downfall – generations of intermarriage have left producing enough healthy children impossible, with Aoife only able to bare one child. With the bargain broken, the legacy is collapsing: the O’Malley fortune has dwindled to nothing. Miren is left to bare the burden of the family misfortune. Trapped by her grandmother’s scheming, Miren desperately seeks a way out – but in a family full of secrets, there’s only so far she can go.

Miren makes an excellent protagonist. Shrewd and determined, she fights for what she wants the quiet way – biding her time, outwardly appearing to acquiesce whilst secretly gathering information and plotting her next move. She’s spent her entire life under her grandmother’s thumb, experiencing cool disinterest rather than warm affection – but she loves her family, and wars with contrasting desires to protect the family legacy and tear down every root of it. She has her weaknesses – but she knows them, every last flaw, and she turns them into weapons. Miren might not outwardly seem like the most special or talented woman, but if there’s someone you don’t want as your enemy then it’s her.

The writing takes a little time to adjust to, but once it draws you in it’s exquisite. The first chapters are packed with dense descriptions, and the plot ambles around them like a man picking his way through the fog – but eventually, the book ensnares you and leaves you enraptured. This is very much a novel about atmosphere rather than plot. The story is solid – an arranged marriage in exchange for a fortune, a secret kept for decades, a journey full of magical creatures and ethereal encounters – but not what lingers. Instead, it’s the eerie images of mer watching on from the sea, witches hiding behind herbs and smiles, ghosts of abandoned cottages preying on weary travellers, that make this book what it is.

There’s also an element of story within a story. The O’Malleys have a book of stories, passed down through generations. There are tales of dealing with the mer, of selkies giving up their pelts, of witchcraft and herblore and – above all – the importance of family. It’s never clear how much is fact and how much fiction, but Miren grew up with these stories and remembers them in times of hardship. They’re a source of comfort – the O’Malleys are children of the sea, and the sea protects its own. Each story is as beautiful as the tale which contains them, and they add a wonderful extra element.

The main weakness ‘All the Murmuring Bones’ has is the same thing which creates its lingering atmosphere, and that’s the descriptions. It takes a long time to get past the pages and pages of description and settle into the story, and even once there, it can detract from key moments of the plot. Personally, I found this a very minor thing – the writing is beautiful, and I adore books which create an atmosphere – but I suspect some readers will find it too slow going and tedious. If you’re the sort of reader who wants action to create tension, this isn’t the book for you.

Overall, ‘All the Murmuring Bones’ is a delightfully gothic tale that would feel right at home in a book of fairytales from several centuries ago. Recommended for fans of eerie stories and classical folklore: especially those which focus on the quiet power of women who have been wronged.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 8th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Poppy War

‘The Poppy War’ is historical fantasy at its finest – engaging, beautifully written, with its own spin on events but clearly based on established source material. For a debut, it’s incredibly assured, with a style more reminiscent of a master of the fantasy genre. This is a dark story, but for those who enjoy grimdark fantasy there are few better examples.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is an orphan from Rooster province, raised by an aunt who only cares about marrying her off to further the family’s criminal enterprise. Determined to escape her aunt’s planned fate, Rin studies night and day for the Keju – the test all youths in the empire can take to join a military academy. To her surprise, she aces it, and is accepted into the empire’s most prestigious academy – Sinegard. But being a Southern girl – poor, dark-skinned, lacking grace and connections – is not easy at such a prestigious institution, and it’s even less easy for a girl with an aptitude for the dangerous, half-mythical magic of shamanism. With the threat of war on the horizon, Rin must navigate the twin minefields of Sinegard and Shamanism before her people are destroyed – and before a vengeful god destroys her.

“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”

Rin makes a brilliant protagonist. She’s fiesty and determined, with a ready anger always brewing near the surface. She’s exceptionally morally grey, with many flaws, but her drive makes the reader root for her anyway. She also has the most beautiful friendship with Kitay – it’s unusual to have a central male-female friendship without a hint of romance, and it’s a delight reading about their pure and platonic bond.

Kitay, on the other hand, is an exceptionally sweet character. A scholar, he’s quiet and easily underestimated, and always wants to take the peaceful route. He and Rin are complete opposites yet compliment each other in a strange way.

The other primary characters – Jiang, Nezha, and Altan – are mostly mysteries. Nezha starts unlikeable but goes through exceptional character development. Similarly, Altan starts relatively two-dimensional but the more the reader learns about him the more it becomes clear that he’s suffered hugely and simply does whatever it takes to numb the pain.

This is very much a book of two halves. The first is a standard trope of high fantasy – a poor, orphan girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a prestigious institution and has to navigate the complex politics. This half is well-written, giving a solid background to all the key characters and establishing relationship dynamics. However, it’s the second half which truly makes this book special. Here, there’s an evolution to a full-on military fantasy, with skirmishes and battle plans and deeper exploration of shamanism and the destruction it can cause. Kuang’s writing is exceptional, balancing painting gorgeous pictures of setting with complex military dynamics and huge emotional impact. There are no weak points – it balances three-dimensional, morally grey characters with equally strong plot and utterly believable worldbuilding. Fans of fantasy for many reasons can find something to like here.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

Overall, ‘The Poppy War’ is a remarkable debut and the start of a brilliant, fascinating military fantasy inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese war. Recommended for fans of any fantasy – as long as they don’t mind it on the darker side – along with Asian history and just expertly written books.

My review of the final book in the trilogy, The Burning God, can be found here.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: May 1st 2018 / Paperback: April 23rd 2019

Robyn Reviews: Sistersong

‘Sistersong’ is the story of three siblings – Keyne, Riva, and Sinne – born to the King of Dumnonia in the early 5th century AD. It’s a very classic historical fantasy, creating a wonderful sense of time and place whilst also spinning an engaging tale of magic and identity. It starts slowly, but the second half is a fast-moving adventure that’s difficult to put down.

Dumnonia in 535 AD was an area of South-West Britain covering most of modern Devon and parts of Cornwall and Somerset. The Kingdom was created by the departure of the Romans – but they left a fragmented and divided land. In ‘Sistersong’, King Cador of Dumnonia has turned away from his peoples traditional gods and magics and instead towards Roman Christianity, weakening their natural defences. The result is famine, and growing terror at the threat of the Wessex Saxons on their borders. Amidst this uncertainty, Keyne tries to navigate a world in which he is persistently forced to be a woman, rather than the man he knows he is. Riva, badly burnt and disfigured in a terrible fire, worries that she will never heal. And Sinne, the youngest daughter, yearns for a romantic tale of adventure and love, willing to sacrifice anything for her own desires. As new faces and old friends gather at the Dumnonian stronghold, the siblings clash, grappling with their warring desires – and with the Dumnonian magic, their bloodline and birthright, perhaps the only way they can save their people from Saxon rule.

Keyne is by far the strongest character in the book. His struggles with his identity are powerful to read about, and he’s a determined, feisty character, always fighting against perceived injustice and mistakes. His actions can be selfish, but his intentions are always good, and he deeply cares about his land and his people. His relationship with Myrddhin, his mentor, is absolutely fantastic, and later on he has the sweetest friendship-to-romance arc – lovely to read about, especially for a transgender character in historical fiction.

Riva’s journey also starts strongly. Her place in society, as a woman and the daughter of the king, has always been to marry well and carry children – but thanks to being badly burnt by wildfire, she no longer believes herself desirable enough to do her duty. She’s also a healer, saving many of her people from death – yet she cannot heal herself. Her grapples with identity, whilst very different to Keyne’s, are equally moving. However, her story becomes very predictable, and she has the weakest ending of any of the siblings tales.

Sinne starts off an incredibly difficult character to like. She’s selfish, caring only about herself and her own desirability, and she toys with others and their emotions. She’s mean and catty to her siblings, especially Keyne, and tries to spin every situation to see how she could get more social power from it. However, as the story goes on, she grows greatly. Like her siblings, Sinne possesses powerful magic – but hers is fickle and hard to control, and she starts to grapple with how much she actually knows herself, and how much is her magic leading her astray. She’s also one of the first to accept Keyne as he is, and she develops a beautiful and powerful friendship with a man called Os, a mysterious mute who most people hate or fear for his outsider status. Sinne is a woman covered in thorns, but beneath them there’s a good heart buried deep.

The plot is uncomplicated – there are a few surprises, but the overall arcs and biggest twists are relatively predictable. However, the exploration of a period of British history less commonly seen in historical fiction is fascinating, and the different pagan magics are beautifully explored. The difficult relationship between the spreading influence of the Roman Catholic church and the traditional worship of gods and the land is also well-written, with some great fantasy twists thrown in.

The ending is clear folktale and will likely be divisive – while the rest of the novel can be read as solid historical fiction with some fantasy elements, there are twists at the end which are pure fantasy. It’s slightly jarring, given the relative realism of everything else, but overall works well. The epilogue, with its ambiguous nature, is a poignant way to end, adding an element of mystery to an otherwise neatly concluded story.

Overall, Sistersong is a strong historical fantasy novel inspired by ancient British folk tales, with its strengths lying in the exploration of identity and pagan magic. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, folklore, and complex family relationships.

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

Published by Pan Macmillan
Hardback: 1st April 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Absolute Book

‘The Absolute Book’ is a contemporary portal fantasy novel of epic scope, drawing in influences from Norse mythology, the Fae, and tales of forbidden books and burning libraries. However, it’s also very much literary fiction, written in a style reminiscent of Dickens and other classics. The combination will work for some readers, but unfortunately I found the fantasy elements unoriginal and the literary elements tedious, labouring too much on tangents and unnecessary description and never allowing the reader to connect to the characters. I suspect this is a book for literary fiction readers who wish to dabble in fantasy rather than established fans of the fantasy genre.

Seeking revenge for her sister’s death, Taryn Cornick – the spoilt daughter of a well-known actor and pampered wife of a wealthy husband – allows a man called the Muleskinner to murder the supposed killer. Her actions draw the attention of DI Jacob Berger – but they also come to the attention of those far more otherwordly. For her family’s library has been hiding a secret, and those in a realm very far away now see Taryn as key to finding it. Thus begins a quest that will span the breadth of the Earth, and several other words as well, to find the secret – and perhaps save all the realms in the process.

There’s very little to say about either Taryn or Jacob, despite them being the protagonists. Knox doesn’t focus on her characters as more than plot devices. Taryn is a spoilt, wealthy woman who’s experienced a great deal of grief – the loss of her beloved sister, and the subsequent decline and loss of her mother. However, it’s hard to feel sorry for her given how insubstantial and selfish she is. She has no clear motivations or drive, no wishes in life. She publishes a book, and seems to have knowledge and passion on the subject, yet has little to no interest in her own life. It’s possible she’s intended to portray someone with severe depression, but she’s so underdeveloped as a character it becomes almost impossible to tell.

Jacob, a police detective who becomes unhealthily invested in both the case against Taryn and Taryn herself, is equally insubstantial. His life before Taryn is never shown – he simply appears, and his life becomes her bizarre story. Once again, he has no motivations – he claims he wants to solve the case, yet shows little interest in pursuing it once the answers become apparent. Almost nothing about the plot would change if he wasn’t in the book at all, which shows how flimsy he is as a character.

The plot is very standard fantasy quest fare – a missing, very powerful, world-changing object must be found to save the worlds. Similarly,world-hopping, with secret passages to worlds beyond Earth, is well-trodden ground in fantasy because it’s a device with huge creative potential. The world Knox creates is intriguing – the inhabitants have very different morals and politics to humans, with the ethics of how they dip in and out of human lives and history mused on in an engaging way – but overall it’s underutilised. Powers are introduced only to be very mentioned again, and ethical dilemmas discussed only to be summarily brushed over and never dealt with again. There are glimmers of brilliance, but none of them come to fruition.

My biggest issue, however, is with the writing. Knox favours writing filled with lavish descriptions and constant tangents, almost like a stream of consciousness. Passages which start as serious conversations meander off into observations on the weather, characters outfits, memories of the past, random and entirely unrelated facts. It’s difficult to keep track of what’s actually happening as there are constant diversions, most of which are entirely irrelevant. The novel could tell the same story with a fifth of the words, leaving some room for developing characterisation and narrative tension. Some people will likely appreciate the wealth of descriptions, but whilst I enjoy descriptions that create atmosphere, I’m less fond of unneccessarily long novels that lack purpose.

My other issue is the sexual undertones that several passages have. There are frequent references to Taryn’s breasts in strange moments, and several times when it is explicitly mentioned a character is getting an erection in an otherwise non-sexual moment. Each of these moments jarred me, throwing me out of the story. This isn’t a sexual story – it doesn’t even have a romantic sub-plot – and whilst streams of consciousness may, naturally, contain the odd sexual reference, none of these felt like they belonged.

Overall, ‘The Absolute Book’ is definitely a literary fiction novel that happens to contain fantasy elements rather than a typical fantasy novel. For those fond of complex descriptions, unreliable narrators, and books inspired by Norse mythology it may hold some appeal – but for those looking for a character-driven novel, or even a novel primarily driven by plot, this may not be the book for you.

Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph
Hardback: 18th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Unbroken

‘The Unbroken’ is a debut epic fantasy inspired by North Africa, chronicling the lives of a princess trying to control a colonial city in her empire, and a soldier stolen from the colony as a child and returning for the first time as an oppressor. It takes a harsh, unflinching look at the realities of colonialism, with some hard-hitting messages. There are clear signs that this is a debut – it’s rough around the edges – but the central themes make it an interesting read.

Touraine is a solider for Balladaire, stolen from her Qazali homeland as a child and raised to fight for the empire. She’s risen as high as a Sand – a non-Balladairian – can in her army, but she’s determined to prove herself and her loyalty. Her Sands mean everything to her, and she feels she owes the empire everything. When she’s sent to hold the Qazali city against rebels and protect the Balladairian princess, she makes it her job to do all she can – but blood is strong, and she soon finds herself in the centre of a rebel conspiracy. The princess, Luca, sees the perfect opportunity to send a spy into the rebel ranks. However, the longer Touraine spends in the city, the more she begins to doubt her place – is her loyalty to Balladaire, the Qazali, the Sands, or to herself?

The story alternates perspectives between Touraine and Luca, with Touraine the far more interesting character. Touraine just wants to fit in. She wants to be respected for her military achievements, for her loyalty, for her passion -but all she gets is derision from all sides. The Balladairians will never see her as one of them, and to the Qazali she’s a traitor. Even the other Sands can’t decide if they love her or hate her. Touraine’s struggles with her identity are hard-hitting and poignant – this is a bleak book for huge swathes of the story, and most of that is simply Touraine unable to find a place in a world where who you are is everything. Her divided loyalties are brilliantly portrayed and feel blisteringly raw and realistic. Her arc is twisty and complicated, sometimes changing exceptionally fast, but her ending is fitting – especially given the tone of the book.

Luca, on the other hand, is every inch the spoilt, pampered princess. She’s used to getting what she wants, and whilst she thinks her intentions are good she definitely epitomises the white saviour complex. She has little political acumen and stumbles trying to navigate the politics of the city, struggling to hold the leash of all the other leaders out for blood. Luca isn’t a bad person, but for someone supposedly smart – she’s an amateur scholar with a keen eye for strategy games – she grossly misreads how to manage almost every situation, including Touraine. As a counterpoint to Touraine she’s an engaging enough character, but Touraine has by far the better character arc.

The plot is twisty and complicated, with constant betrayals and political maneouvering. The fact that Touraine’s divided loyalties make it unclear what side she’s on at any given time make certain parts hard to follow, but they also lend and intriguing air of unpredictability – even she doesn’t know what she’ll do next. Because the plot is so changeable it does make certain scenes lack emotional impact – the reader barely has time to process one thing before being thrown into the next with an entirely different perspective – but Touraine in general gives the reader a constant air of low-level discomfort which makes up for that. This isn’t a nice book, and it’s not always an enjoyable read, but it packs a punch and forces the reader to think.

The main issue with it is the romance. The romance between Touraine and Luca gets little page time but has a significant bearing on aspects of the plot – and unfortunately, it just isn’t particularly believable. The two characters have sexual chemistry, but it’s hard to see how two such different people who barely understand each other could ever form a proper romantic relationship. Luca’s crush on Touraine is understandable, but what Touraine could want with a princess who barely sees her people as more than tools is hard to fathom. There’s no real need for this book to have a romance element, and personally I think it would have been stronger without it.

The worldbuilding is simple but strong. The empire looks down upon the Qazali as savages – they still worship a god when religion is banned, they’re incapable of the civilised culture of Balladaire – and the Qazali see the Balladairians as thieves and oppressors, stealing their children and subjugating them to slavery and torture. There’s magic, linked to worship and the Qazali god, but this is never explained – left a mystery to the reader as it is to Balladaire.The descriptions are functional rather than lyrical, but this works perfectly with the harsher, darker tone of the novel.

Overall, ‘The Unbroken’ lacks polish but is worth reading simply for the fascinating depiction of colonialism and identity. Recommended for fans of political fantasy and historical fiction.

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

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 25th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Library of the Unwritten

‘The Library of the Unwritten’ is a fun fantasy adventure with a highly unique premise. Fast-paced and engaging, it’s an easy and enjoyable read.

Hell isn’t just a place where damned souls go where they die – it also plays host to the largest library in all existence. Within this library is the Unwritten Wing, shelves containing every book left unfinished by its author. Occasionally, characters within these books rise up and escape, trying to get their authors to finish them – and it’s the librarian’s job to track them down. When a hero escapes his book and manages to flee all the way to Earth, it’s down to Head Librarian Claire, her assistant Brevity, and junior demon Leto to track him down. However, when their retrieval is unexpectedly interrupted by an angel, a chase begins – one that could lead to war between Heaven and Hell.

Claire is a strong woman, with all the positives and negatives that brings. She takes her job as head librarian seriously, ruling with an iron fist coated in ink. She has no sympathy for characters who go walkabout, no matter how they plead – unlike her more empathetic assistant, Brevity. Claire is all ruthless competence and hard lines. However, as the story goes in, cracks start to appear in her armour – and beneath it is a flawed, struggling, and far more interesting woman. Claire makes a solid protagonist, and her love of books and the library will resonate with all bookworms.

Leto, in contrast, is an absolute sweetheart. He’s terrible at being a demon – he’s not even the slightest bit demonic – and ruled entirely by his heart. His heart isn’t on his sleeve, it’s on a neon sign flashing above his head at all times, and he’s all the more endearing for it. Leto struggles with the morality of Claire’s actions – just because characters bleed ink not blood doesn’t make them any less real – but even more with himself.

Brevity is a weaker character. A failed muse, sentenced to the library in punishment, she has just as much heart as Leto – but she spends so much time trying to be what people want her to be, she loses who she actually is herself. It’s never clear what she actually wants, and she falls somewhat flat as a result. Ironically, she feels more like a character than Hero, who’s genuinely leapt out of the pages of a book.

The worldbuilding is primarily Judeo-Christian, with Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, but also encompasses other beliefs – Valhalla makes an appearance, as does an ancient Greek labyrinth. It’s superficial, but doesn’t need to go any deeper for a fantasy adventure. The plot isn’t the most original, with most of the twists and betrayals predictable – but this works reasonably well in a story that focuses on unwritten books and their archetypes. The real highlight is simply the idea of a library with unwritten books that characters can escape from as more-or-less fully fledged personalities. It’s clever, simple, and works brilliantly. AJ Hackwith winds in elements of found family and what is means to belong, creating a novel which might not be the strongest work of fiction but is a delight to read.

Overall, this is a fun fantasy adventure which will appeal to any bookworm – especially if they’ve ever been an aspiring writer. Recommended.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 11th February 2020

Robyn Reviews: Gideon the Ninth

Gideon the Ninth is one of the most chaotic books I’ve ever read. It’s completely non-stop, jumping from action scene to action scene until you’re left spinning around in confusion yet still too enthralled to look away. I read this in one sitting, occasionally stopping to grin at one of Gideon’s wittier lines. If you love fun, action packed fantasy you should love this – and if, like me, you’re usually more of a fan of character-driven beautifully written fantasy, it’s so cleverly constructed you should appreciate it equally as much.

Gideon Nav has had enough – of her life, her planet, and especially her boss, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, necromancer supreme and heiress apparent of the Ninth House. All she has to look forward to is an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She’s all set to stage a daring escape – successful, this time, after more than eighty attempts – when her plot is foiled by Harrowhark’s summons to take part in an inter-House competition. Win, and Gideon finally gets her freedom – lose, and she’s dead.

Gideon is a brilliant character. She has an impeccable sense of humour, always ready with a witty comeback – and truly, the comebacks and insults in this are so creative I want to use them everyday. Muir has an incredible imagination. Gideon is also dedicated, fierce, and such a firecracker that her personality shines through every page. A book about a character like her can’t be anything other than chaotic – but it’s the brilliant sort of chaos it’s fun to be part of. Gideon’s evolving relationship with Harrow is a spectacular highlight and it’s delightful reading about it.

Harrow makes the perfect counterpart. She’s controlled, disciplined, and always tries to stay three steps ahead of the game. Her and Gideon clash at every opportunity, and watching them have to pretend to be civil and try to trust each other is both hilarious and amazing. Harrow is also a necromancer, and the intricacies of necromancy are fascinating – it says something about how good a character Gideon is to overshadow it. Harrow provides an element of calm in the chaos – ironic considering how she’s further developed in the sequel, Harrow the Ninth.

The other characters are equally brilliant. Two of my favourites are definitely Palamedes and Camilla of the Sixth House. Palamedes is the consummate nerd, making a careful study of every aspect of the competition and letting others handle the heavy lifting. Camilla, on the other hand, is just as much of a badass as Gideon, but quieter about it. Where Gideon is brash and cocky, Camilla is introverted, lulling everyone into a false sense of security before she pounces. Dulcinea, of the Seventh House, is also intriguing – I don’t want to give too much away about her, but the relationship between her, Gideon, Palamedes, and Harrow is spectacularly written, if exceptionally frustrating.

The plot is non-stop, with action scene after action scene and constant quips and humour. The pace suits Gideon, who isn’t a character you can imagine ever sitting still. The necromancy element is brilliantly constructed, with exceptional worldbuilding. The premise of a game sounds unoriginal, but in practice this is unlike any other book I’ve ever written – the game is ever-present, but it’s the characters and their dynamics that steal the show.

Overall, this is a fabulous book that I’d highly recommend. Will you find it confusing? Yes. Is it still a great book? Double yes – and it’s so much fun. Try not to think about it too much, just go with the flow and let Gideon entertain you.

My review of the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, can be found here.

Published by Tor.com
Hardback: September 10th 2019
Paperback: July 14th 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Night Circus

Many years after first reading it, ‘The Night Circus’ remains my favourite book of all time. It’s a gorgeous feat of imagination, packed with evocative imagery and characters you have to love. Like the circus itself, this is less a book than an experience – it eschews traditional narrative structure, instead weaving a tapestry that engulfs the senses and lingers long beyond the final page.

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

The story spans the late 1800s and early 1900s. Across the world, a mysterious circus keeps arriving – preceded by no announcements, and only open at night. Named ‘Les Cirque des Reves’ – the circus of dreams – it’s a circus like no other: a feast for the senses, an amalgamation of experiences which border on the fantastical, and all in black and white and shades of grey. But behind the scenes, the circus is not merely a circus: it is a battlefield. Two young magicians, Marco and Celia, have been pitted against each other as part of a rivalry spanning centuries. However, as their rivalry turns to love, the fate of the entire circus is put in jeopardy. Will the circus remain the circus of dreams, or will it unravel into the circus of nightmares?

Celia is a brilliant character. Aged five, she’s sent to her father – the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter – with her mother’s suicide note pinned to her coat. Prospero has no interest in a daughter – but Celia has inherited her father’s magic, and he sees an opportunity. Prospero grooms Celia to be the next player in a battle he has waged with a rival for centuries. As a result, Celia has a very different childhood to most, and becomes a very different woman. She’s quietly intelligent, using words sparingly but with an unerring ability to pick the right ones. She’s always composed – beautifully put together and fully in control of her emotions – and survives only by keeping complete control. Her entire life’s purpose is the game – the circus – and thus she’s always innovating, seeking out new ways to be the best. Secretly, Celia loves to entertain and show off – but she maintains decorum, only stepping beyond her bounds in a limited way she hopes she can get away with. Anyone who has ever felt trapped will relate to Celia and her story.

Marco, on the other hand, is plucked out of an orphanage to be Celia’s opponent. He’s naturally reserved – an introvert, happy to spend his time surrounded by books and accounts. The life he has is better than any life he could have expected, so he’s content to do as he’s told – until it starts to get in the way of his heart. Celia is a firecracker wrapped in layers of decorum; Marco is more a gentle fire on a winter’s night, but even a small fire can become ablaze with the right kindling. Their chemistry is electric – every scene they are together is charged and poignant, and even apart their connection shines through every page. ‘The Night Circus’ is many things, but at it’s heart it’s a love story.

The writing is the highlight of the novel. Erin’s prose is rich and evocative, conjuring up incredible imagery that hits every sense. The reader doesn’t simply read about the circus – they’re transported to it, traveling between the tents and spying on the characters through gaps in the canvas. The scenes are painted with exquisite attention to detail, and the characters are crafted in the same way – each feels fully fleshed-out and real. This is the sort of book that makes the reader believe in magic.

“Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?”

‘The Night Circus’ isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, and the main reason for that is the narrative structure. Rather than tell a story in any conventional way, it jumps across time and space, crafting the tale far more slowly. It requires patience for the payoff, trusting that all will make sense in the end. Interspersed throughout the narrative are scenes which simply invite the reader to experience the circus – descriptions of tents, interludes of other experiences the circus has to offer. The reader is made as much a part of the story as any other character. The way the tale is told makes the plot almost unimportant. Those who like action and drama will find little to enjoy here – but for those who want to be swept away into a world that’s almost like a dream, there’s no better example.

Overall, ‘The Night Circus’ is a gorgeous example of literary fantasy, blurring the lines of poetry and prose to produce something so beautiful it’s hard to believe it’s only made up of words. Recommended for fans of beautiful writing, timeless romance, and anyone who dreams for a little more magic in the world.

“You think, as you walk away from Les Cirque des Reves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.”

My review of Erin’s other book, The Starless Sea, can be found here. Jackie’s review of The Night Circus can be found here.

Published by Vintage
Hardback: September 15th 2011
Paperback: May 24th 2021