Robyn Reviews: She Who Became The Sun

‘She Who Became The Sun’ is a reimagining of the life story of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who drove the Mongols from China and became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It has a few epic fantasy elements, but at its core is historical fiction. It provides a fascinating look at Chinese history and culture, along with intriguing explorations of gender identity and gender roles. This is the author’s debut, and it has a few weaknesses, but overall its a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

In Mongol-occupied China, a young peasant girl is foretold of an early death, while her brother is destined for greatness. However, when her brother unexpectedly dies instead, she decides to steal his identity and claim his fate for her own. The new Zhu joins a monastery, going from monk to soldier to commander in the rebellion against the Mongols. However, her life depends on her continuing to fool Heaven that she is truly her brother. Can anyone truly claim someone else’s destiny?

Zhu – known as Zhu Chongba for the majority of the book – is a brilliant morally-grey protagonist. Her sheer determination and will to live is inspiring and keeps her alive through the hardest of challenges. Zhu is intelligent, observant, and willing to obliterate all the rules to get what she wants – the greatness her brother was always destined for. However, that comes at a cost. Zhu must always think and act like Zhu Chongba – not Zhu Chongba’s sister. Anyone who comes close to discovering her secret must be silenced. And greatness, even destined greatness, is not an easy path – a path filled with far more enemies than friends.

Identity is a major theme throughout the book. The complexity of Zhu’s identity grows as the novel goes on – while she uses female pronouns in her internal thoughts, she mostly thinks of herself as somewhere in between male and female. Shelley Parker-Chan has stated that Zhu is genderqueer – this language didn’t exist in 14th century China, but she manages to make it clear regardless. Zhu isn’t the only character with a complex gender identity – her greatest enemy, General Ouyang, has a similar struggle, and the two have a strange kinship alongside their hatred. Ouyang was born male and strongly identifies as male, but is a eunuch. His appearance is feminine and those around him treat him as something other – not truly a man or a woman. Again, his difficulty with his outward gender identity and not being treated as a man is beautifully written, and its interesting seeing how Zhu and Ouyang’s battles with identity differ.

Another major theme is destiny. This is a very common theme in Chinese history and folklore, with everyone living a foretold fate based on their actions in past lives and their choices inevitably leading them there. Reading about how the characters view destiny, and how this affects different characters in different ways, is fascinating – reconciling a predestined fate withautonomy is easier for some than others. However, personally I found it made certain sections unsatisying. One of my favourite aspects about epic fantasy is the crafting of magic systems. ‘She Who Became The Sun’ doesn’t have a true magic system, but it has a couple of elements derived from destiny – the mandate of Heaven – and this is never explained beyond that it marks those chosen for greatness. I would have liked a little more information on this mandate and how it works, and why it gives its particular set of abilities.

One of the book’s highlights is how well Shelley Parker-Chan writes relationships. Growing up in the monastery, Zhu has a best friend – an older trainee monk named Xu Da – and their friendship is beautifully written, going from a tentative connection to a relationship more akin to brotherhood. Later, Zhu becomes friends and later more with Ma, one of the rebel’s daughters, and again the change from a light friendship characterised by teasing banter to a strong romantic relationship is beautifully done. On the flipside, Ouyang has an intensely complicated relationship with Esen, the eldest son of the Prince of Hesan and commander of his army. Esen is the height of masculinity and trusts Ouyang implicitly, and its never quite clear to what extent Ouyang wants him or wants to be him – even to Ouyang himself. Esen’s adopted younger brother, Wang Baoxiang, is another outsider, seeing himself and Ouyang as very similar – but Ouyang despises him, and the evolving relationships between Ouyang, Esen, and Wang Baoxiang are expertly written.

The main downside is the lack of connection between the reader and the characters. Each individual character is well-written, complex, and intriguing, but also seems to be kept at a distance. Each character forms wonderful relationships with other characters, but to an extent is shrouded from the reader. This is on the shorter side for an epic fantasy novel, lending it pace and easy readability, but it means the reader doesn’t have time to connect to all the characters given a perspective. Even Zhu, the overall protagonist who gets the vast majority of page time, never commands as much emotional investment from the reader as they should.

Overall, ‘She Who Became the Sun’ is a strong historical fantasy debut, heavy on the history and light on the fantasy, with an intriguing cast of characters that give a fascinating insight into Chinese history and culture. It also explores identity in a very nuanced way, taking a different approach to a common fantasy trope. The minor niggles only detract a little from an otherwise strong story. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy, Chinese history and folklore, LGBTQIAP+ fiction, and morally grey characters.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor UK for providing am eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Tor
Hardback: 22nd July 2021

Robyn Reviews: Seven Deaths of an Empire

‘Seven Deaths of an Empire’ is a fast-paced gritty fantasy novel that draws clear inspiration from the Roman empire. With short chapters and constant action, it has huge appeal for fans of plot-driven fantasy – but for those looking for originality or character-driven fiction, it could prove a more difficult read.

The Emperor is dead. His son will be emperor after him, ensuring the ongoing strength and expansion of the empire – but first, the emperor’s body must be returned to the capital, allowing succession to formally take place. Whoever controls the body controls the empire. In the capital, General Bordan – a veteran of decades of service to the empire – works to quell the hints of rebellion and protect the heir to the throne. Meanwhile, Apprentice Magician Kyron finds himself part of the dead emperor’s honour guard, ensuring the preservation of the body and its safety on the long journey home. With war looming on the horizon, the fate of the very empire is at stake.

This is very much a plot-driven novel, with several overarching threads. Bordan senses a traitor in the emperor’s inner circle and works to sniff them out, trying to outmaneuver them before he’s outmaneuvered himself. This feels very reminiscent of the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series and similar political fantasy, with many players none of whom can be fully trusted. Kyron, on the other hand, has more obvious threats on all sides. The forest he’s traveling through is full of tribespeople who hate the empire – after all, it’s trying to conquer them and steal their lands – and beyond that, the empire itself is mistrustful of magicians and magic, and many of his own company would happily see him dead. On top of all this, he’s been stuck with the company’s guide, a tribeswoman who challenges his opinions of the empire’s superiority. As he fights for the emperor and the empire, Kyron must decide if he’s actually on the right side.

Bordan and Kyron are interesting characters, although neither is easy to initially connect with. Kyron starts off a stroppy, entitled teenager, unshakeably convinced in the empire’s might and righteousness. His worldview is completely black and white, and he reacts to his worldview being challenged with anger and derision. Bordan starts off every inch the hard, military man, attacking first and asking questions later. He comes off argumentative, intolerant, and harsh, convinced that atrocities are worth it for the good of the empire. As the story goes on, more nuance appears. Doubt creeps into Kyron’s mind and he starts to question teachings he always took for the complete truth. Bordan starts to show signs of weariness, heart creeping in where previously the answer to everything was the sword. Both characters are complex, but as the story goes on they become far easier to relate to.

Some of the secondary characters are more intriguing than either Bordan or Kyron. Magician Padarn, Kyron’s master, is clearly an intelligent and well-travelled man who has a far more rounded view of the world and a subtle sense of humour. Emyln, the guide from the local tribes, is the best character in the entire book and I wish she had been given a perspective of her own. She’s loyal to her people but has agreed to help the empire, for reasons that later become clear, and challenges Kyron’s views in a remarkably patient manner. She’s clearly exceptionally intelligent and strong-willed, and I’m sure she’ll have a huge part to play in any sequels.

The initial pacing, unfortunately, is a slow drudge. I had to put this book down several times in the first third because nothing appeared to be happening, and the short chapters made it difficult to connect with either point-of-view character. Fortunately, once the world and situation are established and things start to happen, the action draws you in and it becomes much more enjoyable. It’s a shame the book doesn’t jump in at the fast pace it proceeds at for the majority of the novel, but many longer epic fantasy novels start slowly due to their complexity so its an understandable decision.

The worldbuilding itself will be familiar to anyone who reads a lot of epic fantasy. The setup is highly Roman inspired, with an empire gradually conquering all the surrounding lands which it sees as filled with barbaric tribes. The empire sees itself as saving these tribespeople by bringing religion – the Flame, which is clearly Christian Catholic inspired. Magic is part of the empire, but the church sees it as a stain and is highly distrustful of magicians – a nod to the Catholic inquisition. Matthews writes it well, creating a solid and believable setup, and whilst both setting and plot lack some originality they’re very readable.

Overall, ‘Seven Deaths of an Empire’ is a solid book for fans of action-packed epic fantasy with well-written battle scenes. For those familiar with the genre, little about the plot or setting is unique, but it carries out tried and tested tropes well. The beginning is a bit of a slog, but it becomes worth it for the much stronger end. Recommended for fans of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ or ‘The Rage of Dragons‘.

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

Published by Solaris (Rebellion)
Hardback: 22nd June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Nature of Witches

‘The Nature of Witches’ is an atmospheric contemporary fantasy novel that explores the burden of the ‘chosen one’ trope. Written for a YA fantasy audience, it has equal crossover appeal to readers of character-driven adult fantasy, like ‘The Once and Future Witches‘ or ‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue‘. The writing is beautiful, changing slightly in tone with each season and leaving an impact long beyond the final page. It isn’t perfect – it’s a debut, with some rough edges to be expected – but it’s a brilliant book.

For centuries, witches have been responsible for maintaining the Earth’s climate. However, with human-induced climate change, the climate is becoming too erratic for them to control. Their only hope lies with Clara – the first Everwitch born in a century. But Clara hates her magic – it’s dangerous, and she’s lost too many people she loves already. While everyone else tries to drive Clara to push her abilities and fight for the future of the Earth, Clara sees her only hope in stripping herself of her magic so she isn’t cursed to spend forever alone.

The book is set over a year of Clara’s life training at a school for witches. It’s split into sections based on seasons. Most witches have the power of only one season, the season of their birth – but Clara, the Everwitch, has the power of all four seasons, changing as the season turns. The price of this is that she changes to, her desires and personality as changeable as the weather. Griffin makes this work beautifully. In autumn, Clara is in flux – swinging from hope to despair, indifference to rage. In winter, Clara is more stoic, steadfast, confident in making decisions and blunt in her conclusions. This section is one of my favourites, with some of the best writing in the entire book. In spring, Clara grows and changes – passion rises, along with her power, but also a storm of worries that threatens to undo her. In summer, that tumult of emotion spikes, and all Clara’s plans are thrown into chaos.

Clara makes a brilliant protagonist – one who feels completely like a teenager with the weight of the word on her shoulders. She’s self-centred and brooding, bottling everything up until it threatens to explode. She blames herself for everything and convinces herself that far from being the Earth’s salvation, she’s defective – something that needs to be removed. But while all that self-pity can be difficult to read, it comes from a good place. Clara has a huge heart, and while all her decisions are short-sighted in the way the choices of teenagers often are, her intentions are good. Clara doesn’t just think she’s special – she knows she is, and that knowledge is immensely difficult for her to handle. The emotional immaturity, rash decision making, and insistence on solitude rather than confiding in anyone else feel authentically like the choices a teenager would make in her situation.

The counterpoints to Clara’s emotional storm are Sang and Paige. Sang, a Spring witch brought to the school to train Clara, is sunshine in human form. He has all the best attributes of spring – a constant sense of happiness and cheerfulness, a love for family, and a keen interest in life and growth. Sang forces Clara out of her brooding state and brings contentment to her life that she didn’t think was possible. Of course, spring isn’t only about the sunny days, and Sang has his clouds too. He needs human connection, and when Clara withdraws into her shell, he struggles. But Sang has the patience of spring too, and he’ll always wait for the clouds to pass over.

Paige, in contrast, is all sharp angles and biting retorts. She has the hardness of winter – the strength required to stay strong in the harshest of seasons, and a contempt for weakness in others. Paige sees Clara’s selfishness and it brings rage. But winter isn’t only cold and anger. Like Sang, Paige cares deeply about Clara, it just manifests in different ways. Where Sang uses smiles and emotional heart-to-hearts, Paige argues and insults – anything to bring Clara out of her shell. Anything to show the world that its strong enough to survive. It takes time to come to like Paige, but as time goes on she becomes a refreshing cool breeze on a warm day.

The worldbuilding is simple but effective. The story is set in a parallel version of America, but one that is aware of witches. In this America, witches are seen as the cure to everything – humanity doesn’t need to worry about endless growth and climate destruction because the witches are there to fix it. The shaders – non-witches – aren’t malicious, they’re simply ignorant of the impact their climate destruction is causing. The magic system is equally simple – magic comes only to those born on a solstice or equinox, with the magic specific to the season of birth and strongest during that season.

This is a quiet novel. The biggest villain for Clara to fight is herself – her own thoughts and worries. There’s no grand exposition about how and why magic works – it’s just there. This is a novel about climate change, but its just as much about human psychology and coming to terms with power. Those looking for action, or heroes and villains, or complex fantasy elements won’t find them here. But for those who like their stories character driven with complex, messy characters, this is an excellent choice.

Published by Sourcebooks Fire
Hardback: 1st June 2021

Robyn Reviews: Cemetery Boys

‘Cemetery Boys’ is a delightful contemporary YA fantasy about a transgender teen in a conservative Latinx community. Combining paranormal fantasy with topical issues of gender, immigration, and class, it’s an engaging and moving read. The plot is predictable, but the brilliant characters, Latinx fantasy elements, and fast pace make it heartwarming and enjoyable anyway.

Yadriel is determined to prove himself a real Brujo. In his community, women are homemakers and healers, whereas men are Brujos – people who lay restless spirits, or ghosts, to rest. Yadriel has always known he’s a man – even if his family refuses to accept it – and decides to prove it, performing the Brujo ritual in secret with the aid of his best friend, Maritza. He succeeds in summoning a ghost – except rather than the ghost he’s looking for – his missing cousin Miguel – he accidentally summons resident school bad boy Julian Diaz. Julian refuses to go quietly into death. Instead, he’s determined to figure out how he died. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian – with the assurance that once they have answers, Yadriel can send Julian into the afterlife and finally prove himself to his family. Except, the longer Julian is around, the less Yadriel wants him to leave.

Yadriel is a wonderful protagonist. All he wants is to feel accepted – by his family, his contemporaries, and most of all by himself. He’s deeply insecure, but also incredibly caring and hardworking. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and every time his family misgenders him or insinuates he can’t be a real Brujo it’s like a punch in the heart – both for him and the reader. Yadriel has been through a lot, including the death of his mother, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him and root for him throughout.

The other standout characters, Maritza and Julian, are both firecrackers. Maritza is completely confident in her own identity and determined to forge her own path. She’s a vegan, and as the healing all women in her community practise involves animal blood, she refuses to have any part in it, instead seeking a career crafting potajes – talismanic daggers carried by all Brujos. Maritza will always stand up for Yadriel when he’s too scared to, stalwartly loyal – but also unafraid to challenge him when she thinks he’s making a bad decision. She’s the sort of friend everyone should have.

Julian is a bit of a petulant child, but like Maritza he’s fiercely loyal. Julian has a quick temper, regularly lashing out with words or throwing things, but he’s also deeply caring about those he loves and will always stand up for a friend. He challenges everything, unwilling to admit he’s ever wrong, but is also incredibly astute in many of his observations. Julian is far from perfect, but it’s hard not to like him anyway – and the way he looks out for others is heartwarming.

The worldbuilding is exquisite. Yadriel’s family speaks partially in English and partially in Spanish, building a real sense of atmosphere, but always with enough context that the gist of the phrases can be understood. There are spooky elements – Yadriel’s family lives in a graveyard, and there are hidden crypts and both friendly and less friendly ghosts – but also a sense of a tight, protective Latinx community, with overbearing family members, communal Mexican staple meals, and traditional Mexican celebrations. The two blend together seamlessly, with an overarching sense of simultaneous unease and protection. It’s clear that Yadriel loves his community, but also that he doesn’t entirely feel at home there because not everyone accepts him for who he is.

Its also wonderful reading a YA fantasy with a transgender main character. Yadriel’s identity and his struggles with it affects everything he does. He wears a chest binder, and he’s constantly self-conscious how it looks – whether it’s masculinising his chest enough. Yadriel doesn’t pass as male, meaning things other people take for granted – like which public bathroom to use – are difficult and traumatic for him. These elements are also woven seamlessly into the book, adding another thought-provoking dimension to a multi-layered story.

The plot is the weakest element. This is a YA fantasy, and while it uses fewer tropes of the genre than some books, the twists still feel relatively predictable and it’s always clear how things will end up. However, the other elements are strong enough that the plot is almost secondary -this is more a novel about relationships and belonging than it is about the central mystery element.

Overall, ‘Cemetery Boys’ is an excellent contemporary YA fantasy with delightful characters, strong relationships, and brilliant worldbuilding. The plot is predictable, but it’s still an enjoyable and highly worthwhile read. Recommended for all YA fantasy fans along with fans of great LGBTQIAP+ books and those who enjoy character and relationship-focused books.

Published by Swoon Reads
Hardback: 28th September 2020 / Paperback: 1st July 2021

Robyn Reviews: Memory of Water

‘Memory of Water’ is a gorgeously atmospheric dystopian novel. The language is beautiful, with a kind of cyclical repetitiveness reminiscent of poetry. Right from the start there’s an air of foreboding, and it’s always clear how things will end – but the journey there is all the more engrossing for it, and the climax still packs an emotional punch. For those who enjoy speculative fiction, this is a recommended read.

Sometime in the future, climate change has transformed the Earth. The ice at the poles has melted, and the sea level rise has drastically transformed the landscape. However, in this world, access to fresh water is highly limited, and water has thus become the most valuable commodity. In what was once Finland, Noria Katio is preparing to follow her father and become a tea master. However, her father has been keeping secrets – a hidden water source outside the strict government controls, used only for the benefit of their family. As Noria grapples with her impending adulthood and this new knowledge, the secret becomes a small stone that sends ripples through a cold pool, building in momentum until the consequences are far beyond anyone’s control.

The story ebbs and flows like the tide. It breaks all the rules of storytelling, regularly circling back to old points and making no attempt to hide the inevitable ending. There are constant references to water, with metaphors for life that sound almost biblical. At first, this can seem strange – but it creates an exceptional atmosphere, one that builds and builds until the tension is almost unbearable. The climax, when it comes, is a relief – but even then, the tension doesn’t fully abate, with a sense that the cycle will only begin again. This is a novel about water with all the gravity and energy of the ocean. Its an exceptional linguistic feat.

Noria is a quiet yet compelling protagonist. As the child of a tea master intended to become one herself, her life has always been shrouded in privilege. The tea master will always have enough water – she’s never known the poverty that’s shaped the life of her friends. Noria is also fascinated by history. She snatches at every reference she can find to how life was before climate disaster reshaped the planet – knowledge lost to the march of time, or perhaps something more sinister. Noria is polite and inquisitive, but also somewhat sheltered and naive. She’s easy to like, but her interactions with others – particularly her closest friend, Sanja – have a disconcerting element of cultural divide. Noria is free to indulge her passion, free to dream of a better future – others don’t have that luxury.

Noria’s relationship with Sanja is an intriguing element. The two are close friends – but while Sanja is everything to Noria, it’s never entirely clear what Noria is to Sanja. Unlike Noria, Sanja’s family live in poverty. Sanja is loathe to accept the help Noria tries to impart, seeing it as charity, and Noria doesn’t understand why Sanja resorts to desperate measures when Noria is willing to help. Their relationship is kept strictly platonic, but there are parts towards the end where it could almost be read as sapphic. The two books are very different, but the dynamics remind me of Luca and Touraine in The Unbroken – two diametrically opposite people who enjoy each others company but who can never fully understand the other’s mind.

Overall, ‘Memory of Water’ is a quiet, atmospheric novel that draws you in and packs a powerful emotional punch. It takes some time to adjust to the writing style, but the payoff is worth it. Recommended for fans of speculative and dystopian fiction, and those who appreciate linguistic ingenuity.

Published by HarperVoyager
Paperback: 24th January 2012

Robyn Reviews: Shadow of the Fox

‘Shadow of the Fox’ is an entertaining, gentle-paced young adult fantasy novel packed with intriguing Japanese mythology and delightful characters. The start of a trilogy, it’s packed with tropes of the young adult fantasy genre – but the Japanese elements lend it originality, and each trope is brilliantly executed. From a plot standpoint, its not the strongest, but the characters and setting are excellent enough that it doesn’t matter.

Yumeko has spent her entire life at the Silent Winds temple, being raised by reclusive monks. Half-kitsune, her heritage makes her shunned by society – but in her solutide she’s blissfully unaware, and dreams of exploring the world. Her wish comes true – but in the worst way. The temple is attacked by demons searching for an ancient scroll, leaving Yumeko the only survivor. Her master’s dying wish is for Yumeko to protect the scroll – by journeying across the land to another temple, one lost to myth and legend. Yumeko has no idea where to start – but fate thrusts her into the path of Kage Tatsumi, a mysterious samurai of the Kage shadow clan. Tatsumi agrees to help her find the temple. There’s just one problem – his masters have sent him after the scroll too, and if he finds out Yumeko has it her life might be forfeit. Together, the two set off on an uneasy journey across the country, each hiding their true purpose. But the more time they spend together, the more their fragile alliance starts to come something more – potentially something even more dangerous.

Its unusual in a dual perspective novel for both perspectives to be equally compelling, but Kagawa manages it. I couldn’t pick a favourite between them.

Yumeko is a sweet, naive character – but also exceptionally mischievous, part of her heritage as half kitsune. She plays up the innocent side to everyone she meets, and even the reader is regularly taken in – but she also comes out with comments that prove that whilst she’s a gentle and caring soul, she’s far more of a trickster than she first seems. Yumeko wants to believe the best in everyone, and can come across as overly trusting – but she has many secrets, and those she trusts to no-one but herself. She’s a delightful protagonist, surprisingly complex, and more subtle and nuanced than many mainstream YA characters are allowed to be.

Tatsumi, at first glance, is Yumeko’s opposite. Trained to be a warrior for the Kage, he shields his emotions, not allowing himself to form attachments. He follows orders, killing who he’s told to kill and trying not to think about why. However, Yumeko accidentally finds all the cracks in Tatsumi’s armour, allowing a different man to shine through – a man who does care, a dangerous trait in an assassin. Where Yumeko’s layers are subtle, Tatsumi’s are obvious and compelling. He wants to care, but he can’t allow himself to, and the dichotomy is heartbreaking to read about. Tatsumi does horrible things, but like Yumeko, his heart is in the right place.

The story is inspired by ancient Japan, and absolutely packed with Japanese mythological creatures, Japanese turns of phrase, and clear references to ancient Japanese culture. The sense of place is incredible. Kagawa does a brilliant job of avoidong info-dumping but still making everything accessible to those less familiar with Japanese history and customs. Everything flows brilliantly, and the reader is completely transported into Kagawa’s world.

The plot is the novel’s weakest element. This is a journey novel, moving at a very sedate pace as all the individual chess pieces are assembled on the board. Parts feel a bit like a video game – there’s the overall quests, but also side quests, as Yumeko and Tatsumi solve problems for villages they pass through and take on occasional random enemies. The overarching plot – the scroll that Yumeko must protect – is mostly a footnote. In itself, none of these things are bad – each minor skirmish is well crafted, revealing more about the world and allowing Yumeko and Tatsumi’s relationship to change and grow. However, the sedate pace and trope-packed plot lend everything a sense of predictability. There are no real twists. The ending has a sense of inevitability that, rather than feeling satisfying, feels a bit anticlimatic. It’s still impactful, but less impactful than it would have been with a little more originality to lend suspense and mystery.

It should be mentioned that, in many ways, the entire book feels like setup. It reads more like a part one than a complete story on its own. With all the worldbuilding out of the way, I have high hopes that the later books in the trilogy will launch straight in and elevate the series to a true five-star read.

Overall, ‘Shadow of the Fox’ is an enjoyable tale, worth reading for the excellent characters and creative worldbuilding. The plot is very standard YA fare, but the Japanese mythology elements and Yumeko’s surprising depth elevate this to an enjoyable read. Recommended for fans of slower paced novels, in-depth worldbuilding, nuanced humour, and YA fantasy in general.

Published by HQ
Paperback: 2nd October 2018

Robyn Reviews: Wendy, Darling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 1st June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Wolf and the Woodsman

‘The Wolf and the Woodsman’ is a dark, gritty tale inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish folklore. It has its weaknesses, but its beautifully written and tells an intriguing tale with gorgeous atmosphere.

In Évike’s pagan village, all women are blessed with magic by the gods – all, that is, except her. To be without magic is to be foresaken by the gods, leaving her an outcast. When the feared Woodsmen come to the village to enact their yearly toll – a powerful Wolf Girl as payment to the King – the villagers send Évike instead. However, en route to the city, the Woodsmen are attacked, leaving only two survivors – Évike, and the mysterious one-eyed captain. Alone in the dangerous forest, they must learn to trust each other if they’re to survive. But the captain is not who he seems, and there are far more dangerous threats than the monsters in the woods. Always the outsider, Évike must decide where she really fits in, and what she’s willing to give up to protect it.

Évike is a damaged woman, all snarls and sharp teeth. All her life she’s been looked down upon and belittled – bullied for her lack of magic, and for her Yehuli father sullying her pagan blood. Évike trusts no-one, and she craves power like a drug. Her words are sharp and she’s a talented huntress, but she’s never been strong enough to truly damage anyone else. In a cruel world, she dreams of finally having the strength to hit back. In many ways, Évike is an unlikeable character – but its difficult not to be sympathetic to her plight. Her character has been shaped by circumstance, and whilst she might not be pleasant she knows what it means to survive.

Gáspár, the Woodsman, is a complete contrast. He puts on a tough front, but inside he’s soft and kind-hearted – far too gentle for a world as cruel as his. He’s also smart and patient, knowing how to play the long game. His weakness is his heart -and a certain amount of naivety born from wanting to believe in the best of others. Its impossible not to like Gáspár, but his gentle nature lends itself to mistakes and betrayal.

Unfortunately, the romance between them doesn’t quite work. Enemies-to-lovers is incredibly popular at the moment, and often works well – but the chemistry between Évike and Gáspár isn’t fully convincing. Évike’s sharp edges are hard to reconcile with Gáspár’s softness, and the chasm between them is just too wide. There isn’t enough on-page character development to show any common ground.

Character development in general is the book’s biggest weakness. Évike feels almost exactly the same at the end of the book as she does at the start of her journey. She makes some seismic discoveries, but none of them have any convincing impact on her. Gáspár starts off as a mystery and then has a solid story arc, but Évike remains stubbornly the same. The story is still enjoyable, but it would be vastly improved if Évike ‘s character was explored a bit deeper and allowed to grow more obviously – especially in the second half.

On a more positive note, the writing is exquisite. Ava Reid has a knack for scene setting and descriptive writing, painting a gorgeous yet eerie picture of both the forest Évike is from and the city her and Gáspár end up in. The atmosphere is always dark and gritty, but there are elements of real horror interspersed with lighter elements – the sun peeking from behind the clouds. There are points where you want to stop and just admire the phrasing of a particular sentence.

The plot is engaging and twisty, with several distinct parts. In some ways, this would work better as two or even three books. The second half is faster paced than the first, but both are engaging. It takes some time to settle in and get past Évike’s prickly exterior, but beyond that, the first half becomes reminiscent of ‘Uprooted‘ or ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’, with the second half adding the politics of ‘We Ride the Storm‘ or ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. There are a couple of moments where things become repetitive, but overall everything meshes together well.

Reid packs a lot into just under 450 pages, yet manages to get away without information overload. It does mean that some things aren’t explored as deeply as they could have been – the Yehuli, Évike’s father’s people clearly based on the Jews, get less page time than might have been nice, and similarly it would have been good to see more of the Northerners – but there’s still plenty to enjoy. The atmosphere and excellent writing goes a long way to papering over the cracks of the minor flaws. This is a debut novel, and the skill Reid has with words leaves little doubt that she has bigger things to come.

Overall, ‘The Wolf and the Woodsman’ is a mixed book, but one worth reading for the atmosphere, more unusual folklore basis, and the exceptional writing. The characters and relationships aren’t the strongest, but there’s still plenty to like. Recommended for fans of folklore-inspired tales, lyrical writing, and complex explorations of culture and identity.

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 8th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Jasmine Throne

‘The Jasmine Throne’ is epic fantasy at its best, with complex world-building, an intriguing magic system, excellent characters, and an intricate, winding plot. The story flows beautifully, with a constant undercurrent of tension. Every part is morally ambiguous, and it’s never clear if anyone is doing the right thing. For those with a void in their heart after the conclusion of epics like The Poppy War and the Daevabad trilogy, this is the book for you.

Priya is a maidservant, spending her days working for the Ahiranya Regent’s wife, and her evenings seeking out sacred wood for the city’s plague-stricken orphans. However, she wasn’t always a maidservant – once she was a child of Hirana, the famed magic temple which burnt in a tragedy several years before, killing everyone else inside. When Princess Malini, the Emperor’s sister, is banished to the abandoned Hirana, Priya volunteers to make the treacherous journey to look after her. Her memories of Hirana are patchy, and she sees a way of reconnecting with her past. However, when an unexpected threat leads to her revealing her secret magic to the princess, the two find themselves thrust together. Malini is determined to escape her imprisonment and overthrow her brother’s empire. Priya wants to uncover the Hirana’s secrets – and maybe save Arihadya from its plague in the process. Together, they can change the fate of the empire – for better or worse.

There are many perspectives across the course of the novel, but the major ones are Priya, Malini, Rao, Ashok, and Bhumika. Of these, Priya, Malini, and Bhumika are my favourites. Each is very different. Priya, as a maidservant, is outwardly calm, obedient, and kind-hearted – but deep down, she remembers the power of Hirana and longs for it fiercely. She’s an adept fighter with anger she works hard to keep under control. Her intentions are good, and she wants to help others – but she has a selfish side too. Malini, as a Princess, is also supposed to be calm and obedient – but instead she’s always been fierce and crafty. At first, she appears defeated – but Malini is a schemer and master manipulator, very able to play any role to achieve her desired ends. If she has to, she’s perfectly at home with playing the villain. Malini has seen great hurt in her life, and her morals are greyer than most – but she has a softer side than many would believe. Bhumika, the regent’s wife, is seen by many as a traitor to her people – she married one of their conquerors, and now carries their child. However, like Malini, Bhumika is a politician – and she understands the power of her own body as a weapon. Bhumika is quite content to be underestimated and sneered at, as long as it helps keep her people safe. Bhumika is the sort of character less often seen in fantasy, but one who radiates a different kind of strength.

The world-building is absolutely exceptional. Inspired by Indian history, ‘The Jasmine Throne’ is set in the conquered state of Ahiranya, a place ruled by a distant empire – but left impoverished and restless. Underground rebel movements abound, and the state is being ravished by a deadly plague known as the rot. The ruling race see themselves as superior to the native Ahiranyans, and the way this affects every interaction is subtly yet powerfully done. The setting – a fading city on the outskirts of a mystical, almost magical forest – is eerie yet beautiful. The city has survived on its forestry and its pleasure houses, becoming a place the ruling class come to relax under freer laws – leading to a reputation as a place of debauchery inhabited by whores and drunkards. The way this affects attitudes towards the Ahiranyans is appalling but powerful to read about. The exploration of colonialism and empire is subtler than in some fantasy novels, but incredibly impactful.

Suri also excels in writing relationships. The relationship between Priya and Malini is complicated, evolving throughout the book, but every aspect is beautifully written. Priya has friends amongst the maidservants, but none who truly understand her. Similarly, Malini has cultivated allies – but her manipulative nature doesn’t lend itself well to true friends. Neither can fully trust the other, but both feels the attraction of having someone they can open up to after so long bearing secrets alone. In a society which frowns upon relationships between women – Ahiranya permitted it, but the new empire does not – the dynamic becomes even more fraught. It feels inevitable that everything will end badly – but Suri makes it impossible not to root for them anyway.

There’s a clear undercurrent exploring the shades of morality, and what atrocities it’s acceptable to commit in the pursuit of an ultimate good. Unlike many epic fantasies, there’s no real war in The Jasmine Throne – instead there are lots of smaller skirmishes, with each character believing their actions are justified by their end goal. Each character makes sacrifices. These elements are extremely thought provoking, lingering long past the final page. Its never clear if the protagonists are truly on the right side. The ambiguity is one of my favourite parts, and I’m both excited and terrified to see it further diverge in later books.

Overall, ‘The Jasmine Throne’ is an excellent epic fantasy and one of my favourite reads so far this year. Fans of creative world-building, complex epic fantasy, moral ambiguity, and multi-faceted characters should find plenty to love here. Highly recommended.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 10th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The City of Brass

‘The City of Brass’ is a fascinating Islamic-inspired fantasy packed with creative mythology and intriguing morally grey characters. SA Chakraborty’s debut novel, it skirts the border between YA and adult, easily accessible to younger readers but with the worldbuilding and depth of an adult novel.

In eighteenth century Cairo, Egypt, Nahri makes a living as a conwoman. She reads palms, hosts exorcisms – and steals from unsuspecting nobles. She knows better than anyone that the demons she makes a living exorcising aren’t real. That is, until she accidentally summons a djinn. Suddenly, Nahri finds herself swept into a world of magic and myth. But unlike Cairo, this is a world that Nahri doesn’t know how to navigate – and with those on all sides trying to manipulate her, Nahri must decide what she really wants. After all, they say you should be careful what you wish for.

The story is told from the perspective of three main characters – Nahri, Dara, and Alizayd. Nahri is a strong character, a woman who knows how to stand up for herself and isn’t afraid to bend the rules to her own needs. However, she’s also kind-hearted and overly trusting, wanting to believe in the best of everyone. She’s immensely likeable with a real spark, but Daevabad is very different to Cairo and she’s regularly out of her depth. Her relationships with Dara and Alizayd fluctuate, but are always beautifully written – and its great to see a character who unapologetically puts herself first.

Dara is viewed completely different by Nahri and Alizayd, a fascinating dichotomy. Its never clear whose perspective is more accurate. An ancient djinn who has spent most of his life as a slave, Dara is a bit of a mystery – but a mystery with a horrific legacy in Daevabad. To Nahri, Dara is a kind voice in her ear, a teacher about the djinn world and a staunch ally. To Alizayd, Dara is a scourge on his people and an enemy of Daevabad’s hard-fought peace. Dara himself seems to have good intentions – but those with good intentions can still do horrific things.

Alizayd is rash and judgmental, leaping to conclusions without considering the consequences – but he’s also sweet and naive. The younger prince of Daevabad, he’s lived all his life knowing he’s inferior in his father’s eyes, and trying desperately to live up to the impossible expectations placed upon him. Alizayd is also an exceptionally devout Muslim, and its lovely seeing how his faith impacts every aspect of his life. Alizayd’s growth across the novel is enormous, and its fascinating seeing how his relationships with both Nahri and Dara evolve.

The plot is intricate and intriguing, highly political with twists that are impossible to predict. The worldbuilding is also excellent. Daevabad is beautifully described, and whilst the magic systems remains mostly a mystery, its clear that this will be explored further in the sequels. The novel also has a strong focus on class structures and the affect these have on society. Daevabad is very much a city with a caste system, and the way this has affected its development and its politics is fascinating – if horrific in places – to read about. SA Chakraborty creates an exceptionally real feeling world, with every aspect believable – especially the class system and political manoeuvering.

Overall, ‘The City of Brass’ is a brilliant start to a wonderful, creative epic fantasy trilogy. The characters and worldbuilding are real highlights, but the political plot is strongly rendered too. Recommended for fans of political fantasy, Middle Eastern mythology, and stories which blur the boundary between YA and adult.

I review the final book in the trilogy, The Empire of Gold, here.

Published by HarperVoyager
Paperback: 22nd January 2018