Robyn Reviews: Kingdom of the Wicked

‘Kingdom of the Wicked’ treads well-trodden ground but puts a fresh enough spin on it to become an intriguing and enjoyable story. It definitely reads like part one of a series rather than fully standing up on its own, but as long as the sequels provide some much-needed answers this can stand up as a solid addition to the YA fantasy genre.

The novel follows Emilia, one of a family of streghe – witches – living secretly amongst humans. Their family is one of twelve streghe families in Sicily, but following a powerful spell cast generations ago the families are discouraged from mixing. Emilia pays more attention to her family renowned restaurant than to magic – until she discovers her beloved twin, Vittoria, murdered, her heart ripped out, and a mysterious figure drinking her blood. Her quest for vengeance pulls her into the world of the Wicked – the princes of Sin her Nonna has always warned her about.

Emilia is a likeable enough protagonist. Previously a carefree girl whose only worries were new dishes at the restaurant and her flirtation with a completely unavailable man, she becomes a creature driven only by vengeance. She rushes headlong into situations without thought of the consequences and frequently has to be rescued. It’s slightly annoying that she spends most of the novel being pulled out of dangerous places by a man (and once her grandma, which is far more badass), but the idea of a teenage girl in over her head is certainly more accurate than most YA fantasy. Her motivations and struggles are always relatable, and hopefully as she starts to understand more about her abilities and situation in book two, she’ll become less of the damsel in distress and more the damsel of distress.

The other major character is Wrath, one of the seven Princes of Sin. Wrath is the typical mysterious male figure in YA fantasy – powerful, with many secrets and unknown motives, and also exceptionally attractive. However, I appreciate that, unlike in most books, Wrath and Emilia don’t immediately fall into a romance. Emilia’s priority throughout remains her sister, and she won’t allow herself unnecessary distractions. She also innately distrusts a Prince of Sin, a very wise decision not shared by most other heroines in her genre.

Kerri Maniscalco is known for her ‘Stalking Jack the Ripper’ series, a collection of YA mysteries. I’ve never actually read any of them, but her talent for writing mystery is absolutely on show in ‘Kingdom of the Wicked’. The plot twists and turns, with the culprit for the murders never entirely evident. There are dead ends, red herrings, and far too many potential murderers to count. When the killer is finally revealed, they come from a very unexpected direction. I appreciate that Maniscalo managed to weave a difficult-to-predict mystery without making it seem outlandish or implausible.

The highlight of this novel is the interspersing of Sicilian culture. There’s a strong focus on the food – Emilia spends a lot of time at the family restaurant, and she enjoys subjecting a Prince of Sin to mortal cuisine. Sicily is a more unusual setting for a fantasy novel, and it helped differentiate this from its peers and add depth to the characters and story.

Overall, this is a solid start to a series, albeit one that – as it doesn’t entirely stand on its own – will be greatly influenced by the strength of its sequel. Recommended to fans of A Court of Mist and Fury, The Cruel Prince, and similar story dynamics.

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

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 27th October 2020

Book Review: Amulet

amulet

Amulet, by Alison Thomas, is a fantasy adventure story aimed at pre-teen independent readers. Its protagonists are a brother and sister who climb down a well in their garden and discover an alternative land where men have been banished underground and the Land of Light is ruled by a family of unusually tall, pale skinned women. There are fierce flying wolves, a vegetarian dragon and a sunken city. Everyone speaks with a Welsh accent.

I didn’t fully tune into the book until I realised that the author was writing it as if written by the children themselves. Alternative chapters are penned by the girl, Megan, and her brother, Dion. The latter is autistic and his ‘corrections’ to the story that his sister is creating offer insight into the world from the perspective of a child on the spectrum.

Their story is of two journeys. Dion is taken through the air to the Land of Light where he explores a magical palace and is introduced to the ruling family who promise to explain why he too is pale skinned. His desire for information helps him to cope with the discomfort he feels at the change to his routine.

Megan enters the well separately and travels underground with her best friend Harriet, her grandfather and a band of small men. They are trying to reach Dion before his imminent birthday in order to rescue him from an unspecified danger.

Both journeys take the children through experiences which reflect the sorts of places parents take their offspring for holidays or days out. These are augmented with elements from stories they may have read or watched on TV. Transport involves vehicles of the sort found in theme parks; Megan’s group travel through a mine; refreshments are taken in a cafe that offers food the girls are unfamiliar with and therefore suspicious of; creatures emerge from wardrobes in strange bedrooms.

Within the palace doors lead to whichever room the person entering wishes to go, meaning they may only go somewhere they have already been and can therefore picture. This book seemed to be written in a similar way. The children wove their adventure around that which they knew.

Naturally both children wish to be the hero of the tale. There is bickering but also the admittance of care. I could picture them constructing the story together.

An unusual tale that gently explores family dynamics and the relationship between siblings when one has special needs. As an adult it is hard for me to know what a child would think of a story written as if by a child, whether this would help them to relate to the protagonists. The contributions by Dion could lead to useful discussions around how best to interact with an autistic peer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Bone Clocks

boneclocks

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, is a story about mortality. Using a series of interwoven vignettes set over a sixty year time period it combines a character led drama with century spanning fantasy elements. The author is undoubtedly a talented writer. The prose is neat and perceptive with plenty of humour and insight. However, the plot centers around warring Anchorites and Horologists, beings who can live forever if certain conditions are met, and whose raison d’etre failed to either move or inspire me.

The book opens in 1984 when a love struck fifteen year old, Holly Sykes, gets into an argument with her mother over an older boyfriend and decides to leave home. As may be expected from such an inauspicious beginning, things do not go according to plan. The reader can see the potential importance of the various people and events Holly encounters in her few days away, but at this stage none are explained. Holly’s character development is nicely done, she is a believable young teenage rebel, but the fantastical action in this section comes across as extraneous.

The next vignette is set seven years later and introduces the reader to four students at Cambridge University. Their interactions are interesting and well developed, their aspirations recognisable to anyone who has experience of Oxbridge students. The confidence, self-entitlement and resentments combine to provide compelling storylines which I would have been happy to follow further. I found myself enjoying all but the recurring fantasy elements which, once again, did not draw me in.

Part three is set thirteen years later at a wedding in Brighton. Holly now has a daughter and a war correspondent partner. The subplots impressed while the slow burning main plot development did not. I enjoyed the quality of the writing but by this stage was beginning to wonder about the point of this book.

Having said that, the next section was my favourite. It opens in 2015 at the  Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival and proceeds to bite big, bitter chunks out of authors, critics, editors, publishers and readers. This was not what why I liked it, indeed I felt rather put out that the fictional author and protagonist, Crispin Hershey, should look on those who have supported his work and provided his income with such disdain. It is perhaps unfortunate that he came across as so believable; it was almost enough to put me off literary events. Unlike the previous sections this one covers a longer time frame, five years,, which allowed for a good progression of the story. A number of previous characters are reintroduced. In these chapters the main, fantasy plot seems to fit more naturally into the story being told.

The penultimate section starts in 2025 and is the only one which revolves around the Anchorites and Horologists rather than merely mentioning them in passing. The threads from preceding stories are drawn together and the reason for certain recurring characters explained. There is a battle and an outcome, neither of which excited me. I found myself counting the pages to the end.

The final section is set in a dystopian future and reminded me of Ben Elton’s early works when he attempted to show his readers what a mess man is making of the world. Set in a rural Ireland, now being run by wealthy Chinese, it covers a pivotal three days during which the fragile infrastructure cracks and violent lawlessness becomes a reality. It was interesting to ponder the possibilities, particularly the way the author saw the role of women regressing in a time of anarchy, but at times it came across as rather too preachy for my liking. The denouement was reasonable even if it felt a tad contrived.

My main problem with this book was that the fantasy elements bored me. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and each of their stories, but I wanted to get back to these each time the overall plot became the focus. I found the the women more likable than the men who seemed overly influenced by sex. I am unable to comment on the fairness of such a representation.

Having read this book I will be removing Cloud Atlas from my wish list. However well he may write and be regarded by others, it would seem that David Mitchell’s work may not be for me.

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

 

Book Review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus UK

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a glorious assault on the senses. Full of sumptuous, descriptive prose that reads like poetry in places, it takes the reader on a fabulous journey through time where nothing can be taken for granted. Just as visitors to the circus wind through seemingly never ending pathways and tents filled with wonder, sometimes exploring new vistas, sometimes criss crossing back along well trodden paths; so the plot twists and turns but never disappoints as it develops it’s characters and exposes just enough of it’s secrets to elicit a gasp of delight or fear as the reader guesses at where they could be going next. It is dream like yet deliciously believable in so many ways.

The book is at heart a love story with allegorical undertones. The writing is rich but never cloying, the author’s imagination both original and delightful. Nothing is easy for the protagonists as they slowly decipher the secrets behind the lives that have been chosen for them, yet this is not written as a tragedy but as a lesson in hope. The lessons that they learn about how an individual’s actions impact all around are universal.

I particularly liked the constant references to how most do not take notice of what is happening right in front of them, how most will not believe what they see if they have been conditioned to think in a certain way.

I read this book over two days, having to put it down from time to time to absorb the imagery and think through the latest nugget of understanding as another layer in the mystery was peeled off. It is not a difficult read but should not be skimmed. By allowing the story to permeate I became absorbed in the tale, feeling satisfied if somewhat bereft when the book was concluded.

I am told that it has received mixed reviews from readers; I do not understand why. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the fantasy world of the Night Circus, in the idea that magic could exist and be learned. Who can truly say what in life is illusion and what is real? Those who have not read this book have a treat in store should they choose to indulge.