Book Review: Reservoir


“That was what he wanted, her discomfort”

I have mixed feelings about Reservoir. The advance information promised a story dealing with the neuroscience of memory, an interest of mine, and this was delivered. What I struggled with was the pace. The first half of the book is given over almost entirely to character introduction and scene setting. The protagonist, Hannah Rossier, despite being a renowned academic, comes across as dithering and unprofessional in this section. Granted, the reader is observing her mostly in private after she has been rocked by the emergence of a face from her traumatic past. I was glad to get beyond this to the second section where tension builds and Hannah is shown capable of pulling herself together, which her job and status requires. .

The tale is set in Geneva during an international academic conference, bringing together neuroscientists and psychologists. Delegates are presenting views and findings that challenge accepted thinking in their field of research. Hannah, a psychotherapist, is to give the keynote speech that will close proceedings. As someone who lives just a few hours away and who rarely chooses to socialise, it is unclear why she is attending the entire four days. Perhaps it is good for her career to be seen. Perhaps she needed to prove something to herself.

The book opens with a glimpse of Hannah’s childhood in England. She was an only child, raised by her single mother in a degree of poverty and struggling to make friends. Only one girl, Joanna, would play with her, and then only sometimes and when nobody else was available. Their chosen playground was scrubland by a local reservoir, the scene of Hannah’s trauma.

Hannah has only just arrived at the conference when she encounters Neville Weir, another delegate, who as a boy was also at the reservoir on that fateful day. Despite her best efforts Hannah is unable to avoid him. Eventually she must ask what it is he wants from her after all these years, and why.

This is a conference attended by researchers with an interest in criminality triggered by childhood experiences and suppressed memory. Much of the exposition is within lectures given. This was my area of interest but seemed a brave choice in progressing a story. I wonder if other readers may find this structuring dry.

It seemed questionable that delegates would be willing to open up about their personal histories amongst a gathering of such colleagues – without the promise of privacy offered by an individual session with a therapist. The hastily arranged forum that proves pivotal seemed unlikely in this context.

“Jeremy Kyle for academics”

We are, however, dealing with a work of fiction. Once the pace picked up it succeeded in retaining engagement. Neville may have been the bad guy but it was made clear how hard it can be to move on from the fallout he suffered through his teenage years. Hannah’s struggle manifested in her marriage which made for an interesting denouement.

A beguiling subject to weave a story around, especially for readers with a personal interest in the subject matter. The lengthy scene setting may have been frustrating to get through, but overall this tale was still worth finishing.

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


Robyn Reviews: Nona the Ninth

‘Nona the Ninth’ is the unexpected third addition to the Locked Tomb series. Planned as a trilogy, Muir subsequently decided there was too much to cover in the third and final book – Nona, therefore, has been inserted as an extra. Unfortunately, this book reads like what it is – exposition and filler to give the reader context for the planned finale, lacking the plot or gravitas to stand on its own. The insights into the wider world and certain characters are intriguing, but not enough to save this from being a bit of a slog.

In many ways, Nona is like other people on her refugee planet. She lives with her family, works at the local school, and enjoys visits to the beach and time with Noodle, the six-legged dog. However, Nona is not like other people. Six months ago, she woke up in a strangers body, and she’s afraid she’ll have to give it back. With the city collapsing, Blood of Eden forces on the attack, and a clear expectation for Nona to be the weaon that saves them from the Nine Houses, the pressure is on to figure out who she is. Nona would rather just have a birthday party. But each night, she dreams of a woman with a skull-painted face.

Both ‘Gideon the Ninth‘ and ‘Harrow the Ninth‘ succeed through a mixture of humour, enough intrigue to keep the reader’s interest when nothing quite adds up or makes sense, and satisfying out-there twists at the end. They also suit their protagonists – Gideon’s novel a fast-paced adventure with plenty of swords, Harrow’s a more cerebral, slower paced story that keeps the reader in the dark. ‘Nona the Ninth’ falls down in being superficially familiar but lacking some of that intrigue. The first half follows Nona’s day to day life: going to school, spending time at home with Camilla, Palamedes, and Pyrrha, and deliberately not caring about her mystery of existence. Having, in some ways, only been alive for six months, Nona is childlike and petulant – but unlike a child, she’s minimally inquisitive, and the combination of her life’s mundanity, her lack of guile, and the glacial pace of the story take their toll. I ended up setting the novel down for three months to avoid falling entirely into a reading slump, only picking it back up with the hope of a Muir classic spectacular ending.

There are glimmers of interest through that treacle-slow first half. Camilla and Palamedes are two of the strongest and most intriguing characters in the entire series, and this novel is where they get the most page time; unfortunately, rather than focusing on their most interesting attributes, there are only glimmers of this around Nona’s focus on them as parental figures. Similarly, the insight into the world outside of the bubble readers are kept in throughout the first two books is fascinating – but the focus is skewed, with Nona’s perspective making it hard to stay engaged. With Muir’s rigid structure, a focus on anyone outside the Ninth House as primary protaginist would have been wrong – but seeing this world through the eyes of Camilla and Palamedes would have been a far easier read.

The second half picks up the pace, bringing in more characters from previous books and details about Blood of Eden. There are twists and turns – but foreshadowing gives away the main twist earlier than I suspect the author intended. Few events feel truly surprising like the climaxes of ‘Gideon’ or ‘Harrow’. I also found myself getting to the end of paragraphs and having to reread them – not because I didn’t understand, but because I’d accidentally skimmed them rather than taking them in. The lack of engagement through the first half sadly carried over and made it hard to fully invest in the second half, despite its stronger atmosphere and plotline.

Put simply, Nona isn’t a strong enough character to carry her own book – and there isn’t enough underlying substance to work without an engaging protagonist. It’s a shame as there’s plenty of potential hidden in the pages.

Overall, ‘Nona the Ninth’ is a disappointing entry in an otherwise excellent series – one that’s carried out with Muir’s usual excellent writing and creativity but that lacks the juicy marrow of her other stories. Here’s hoping ‘Alecto the Ninth’ is more similar to its predecessors.

Published by Tordotcom
Hardback: 13th September 2022
Paperback: 12th September 2023

Book Review: Fray


“You do not recover from grief and return back to who and what you were before. You emerge new and different, though not necessarily better or improved. At the end you are someone else.”

I finished Fray, by Chris Carse Wilson, and immediately wondered, how on earth am I going to describe that? Although starting out in a fairly standard vein, the prose soon becomes more hallucinatory, almost staccato in places. It features three voices that only occasionally merge. The story being told is vivid and painful, yet also captures the dangerous beauty of the location in which it is set.

The narrator is a man whose mother recently died of cancer. In his anger and grief at this loss he lashed out at his father, who reacted by leaving without explanation. When he didn’t return the man called in the police but no trace was uncovered. In looking through his parents’ possessions he finds an old map with a single red dot marking a site in the Scottish Highlands. Thinking this might offer a clue to his father’s whereabouts he travels there, finding a remote cottage that nobody owns. Within this small building are hundreds, perhaps thousands of scattered notes in his father’s handwriting.

What follows are accounts of the narrator’s days as he sifts through these papers trying to piece together what his father had been doing. He explores the surrounding area, getting to know landmarks mentioned. Transcripts of many of the notes are included, offering hints of a deteriorating mindset. There are also shout outs, a word or two, perhaps summarising the emotions being dealt with.

The narrator has suffered depression and anxiety. He has learned strategies to get him through these periods, including running.

“Many people don’t understand this, both those who run and those who don’t. That I am not racing anyone, and if I was I would never be racing anyone but myself.”

As the notes increasingly suggest his father was unravelling, so too does the narrator. He struggles with loneliness and regret, recalling memories from childhood. He is desperately searching, but for what? He fears his father is dead yet still cannot quell the hope that he may find him still living. The structure of the writing retains an unrelenting tension as the reader tries to figure out what is real and where this may be going.

There are evocative descriptions of nature although it is rarely bucolic. The metaphor inherent in the buzzard attack was particularly powerful, as was the encounter with the eagle. The narrator may often feel lost, may have to call on every reserve his body possesses and more, but retains enough wit even through the darkest hours to recognise that light will eventually dawn.

A challenging yet engaging book that tackles the twin challenges of grief and depression with originality and aplomb. The taut and crisp writing style ensures steady pacing – precipices must be navigated and dense woodland escaped from. Whatever is happening throughout all of this, hope is never quite abandoned. A singular read from a debut author to watch.

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

Book Review: The Covenant of Water

Covenant of Water

“We never starved, Lord, never wanted for anything. I didn’t take my blessings for granted. But there’s always something, Lord, isn’t there? Every year there’s a new worry. I’m not complaining! It’s just that I imagined there’d come a time when I wouldn’t have anything more to worry about.” She laughs. “Yes, I know it was silly to expect that. This is life, isn’t it?”

The Covenant of Water, by Abraham Verghese, is a multi-generational family saga set in remote Southern India during the many changes wrought by the turbulent events of the twentieth century. Although political and technological changes encroach on day to day life as the decades progress, at the story’s heart are the personal concerns of a sprawling family and those who work for them. The book is vast in size and scope yet the phenomenal quality of the writing – the pitch perfect structure and pace – remains spellbinding from beginning to end.

The story opens with a twelve year old girl being sent some distance to her wedding. She first meets her future husband at the ceremony. He is a forty year old widower with a young child who owns a sizable estate of around five hundred acres – Parambil. Why would such a man accept a fatherless girl without a dowry as his new wife? There is talk of an inherited Condition – a history of family members drowning. The girl’s concern is more that she may never again see her beloved mother, tradition dictating that she must now serve her husband and his family.

Divided into ten parts – each opening with an evocative illustration, drawn by the author’s cousin – the first part covers the early years of the couple’s marriage. There is a growing respect and affection as they slowly get to know each other’s needs and quirks. There is also tragedy. The cast of characters expands but each is introduced through their role and relationship to the protagonists, given time to become fully three-dimensional.

The second part of the story introduces a ten year old boy, Digby, who is living in Glasgow with his single mother. Having become immersed in the trajectory of the family in India, this shift to Scotland felt unwelcome – I had become invested in lives and desperately wanted to know what happened next. It didn’t take long for my attention to swing around to Digby, a misfit even in his hometown who nevertheless worked hard to make his life better, despite significant setbacks.

Thanks to a hard won scholarship he qualifies as a doctor, only to find his dream of studying to become a surgeon thwarted by his background. To progress he must leave class bound Britain, advised to join the Indian Medical Service. In Madras he makes a name for himself locally despite ongoing tensions with his drunken yet well connected senior colleague. Just as Digby was out of place amongst the medical students he studied alongside, the young doctor cannot gel with the public school educated British in India. Perhaps this is why he gets on better with the Indian trained medics who are skilled yet eschewed by the colonisers. The tacit acceptance of class and caste by so many form a well portrayed undercurrent throughout this story.

Part three returns to Parambil where the bride is now known to everyone as Big Ammachi. She has established her place, on the estate and in her life with her husband. They are still reeling from what happened before but life inexorably moves on. Although well provided for there are still many hurdles to overcome – and further tragedy.

The story shifts across Southern India as characters’ lives progress and develop. Some have lucky breaks. At other times they act foolishly and lose what they once valued. Their behaviour can be heart-breaking to read in places, especially when pride drowns love.

In the sections that follow Digby’s trajectory, he finds good friends who step in to help when needed. As may be expected, the lives of the characters in each part start to intersect. A talented artist emerges who wants only to create yet is thwarted by well-meaning expectation despite promises made. A leper colony vividly portrays how society rejects those it fears.

Parambil is, in many ways, a model estate. It is small enough not to draw attention from the ruling classes as the British hand back some of what they have taken, but big enough to support a wider family in need. Big Ammachi’s husband shows unusual generosity, although often this is squandered by recipients. The privileged land owners prosper thanks to the hard work of those from the lower ranks of society. Such gain is lost when get rich quick schemes inevitably fail – it is left to the women to cope as best they can.

Even where kindness exists there is unintentional prejudice, ingrained attitudes being a challenge to shift.

“We’ve been doing the same thing to each other in India for centuries. The inalienable rights of the Brahmins. And the absence of any rights for the untouchables. And all the layers in between. Everyone who is looked down on can look down on someone else. Except the lowest. The British just came along and moved us down a rung.”

Everyday life in the watery landscape of Southern India is beautifully rendered. Characters are portrayed with flaws and depth, developing and changing as their lives progress along tangents unanticipated when young and eager. The Condition is there but it is only towards the end of the book that it merits greater attention. Medical advances may save lives, but before there were still those with skills that could do likewise, albeit with more stuttered success.

The author’s background adds authenticity to the descriptions of medical treatments – these are well explained in easy to follow language. It is his skill as a writer, though, that shines from these pages. This truly is a story I did not want to end as it was such an immersive read.

Be prepared to be put through the wringer of all emotions as lives play out and intersections ripple. A story written without pretension – characters given space to evolve within an evocative sense of place. This is a rare and quite magnificent literary masterpiece.

“What is worry but fear of what the future holds?”

(My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Grove Atlantic UK)

Robyn Reviews: The Circus Infinite

‘The Circus Infinite’ is a challenging book to review. Khan Wong’s debut, it’s part low-key found family sci-fi in the vein of Becky Chambers, and part a darker narrative about trauma, exploitation, and crime syndicates. I admire what the novel is trying to do, but it doesn’t quite succeed in melding those two halves together, giving it an increasingly disjointed feel as it progresses. There are a lot of positives, but the last page doesn’t leave the reader feeling satisfied.

On the run from those who want to experiment on his gravity powers, Jes hides in the last place anyone would expect an asexual fugitive to be: the pleasure moon. Successfully picking up employment at the local circus, everything seems set for Jes to have the relaxed, family life he’s always dreamed of – until he catches the attention of the moon’s crime boss. When the boss gets wind of the bounty on Jes’s head, he makes him an offer: do everything I tell you to, or face a return to a life of torture. With no other options, Jes become’s the bosses lackey – but when the requests start to threaten the future of the circus, Jes finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. What will he risk to protect his new friends?

The issue with this book is it oscillates between cute found family scenes of Jes and the circus members bonding, and scenes of outright physical and psychological torture. Jes himself is serene in the former and naturally horrified in the latter – but the jarring switch is increasingly unbelievable. Jes also starts strongly, with a likeable personality, strong sense of empathy, and clear moral values – but as events progress, he starts to feel increasingly flat, only making decisions based on what he’s told by others, with little agency or personality for himself. The author may have been trying to write this as a trauma response, but it doesn’t quite work, with the reader’s connection to Jes being lost. The ending should have huge emotional impact, but some of this is lost as Jes doesn’t feel so three dimensional.

On a brighter note, the worldbuilding is excellent. Wong has created a world where interplanetary travel is the norm, alien species intermingle (and to an extent interbreed, although some species accept this more than others), and there’s great celebration of all cultures and identities. The pleasure moon is well-crafted and feels vibrant, and each alien race has a distinct culture and identity that feels believable and fresh.

The asexual representation is also unusual to see in fantasy. His axeuality is a big part of Jes’s identity and a lot of page time is spent exploring it. Personally, I didn’t really feel the romantic attachment in Jes’s developing relationship, but this could be my own inexperience in reading about these sort of relationships, and it was nice to see an asexual romantic relationship on page.

The plot is well paced with plenty of twists and turns, and short chapters aiding in readibility. I found myself more invested in hearing about the circus and the quieter subplots around the characters rather than the overarching plot between Jes and the crime boss, but they were well interspersed to avoid sections dragging.

There are several races with powers that could be considered magic – empathic powers, telepathy, and some more unique powers like Jes’s gravity ability. These provide an intriguing extra dimension and allow the author to cheat to an extent, introducing the reader to aspects of supporting characters via the protagonists abilities rather than on-page development. Overall, this compliments the worldbuilding nicely, and whilst Jes is extremely powerful, it’s an interesting use of the chosen one trope that avoids common pitfalls.

One other small issue is the inclusion of a character who, whilst initially accepting Jes, becomes increasingly hostile towards him. This hostility seems to build, but in the end nothing comes of it – it’s simply there. This feels uncomfortable to read and unncessary, and in my opinion should be removed.

Overall, this is an interresting take on the space opera genre with wide scope and several unique selling points – but it tries to do a bit much, ultimately coming off as disjointed. One that’s worth reading for fans of asexual representation and found family stories who don’t mind a darker, violent edge, but unfortunately not a new favourite.

Published by Angry Robot Books
Paperback: 8th March 2022

Thanks to Angry Robot for providing an eARC. This in no way affects the content of this review.

Robyn Reviews: Midnight in Everwood

I’d like to disclaim this review with the fact that I have a slightly difficult relationship with historical fiction. Whilst some of my all time favourites – ‘The Night Circus‘, ‘The Once and Future Witches‘ – are historical fantasy books, it’s a particularly hit or miss genre for me. Overall, ‘Midnight in Everwood’ is an enjoyable read – but the writing style isn’t one that works for me, and it isn’t fully engaging until it leaves Edwardian England for the fantasy realm of Everwood.

Marietta lives for ballet – but after one last performance, she will be required to cease ballet and marry someone of appropriate status in Edwardian society. Her family favour the secretive Dr Drosselmeier – a toymaker of some wealth – but all Marietta sees is the loss of her hopes and dreams. When Drosselmeier proposes, she turns him down – only to find herself trapped in another world. Somehow, she’s been transported to Everwood – a world filled with gingerbread houses and sweet delights, but also monsters lurking under the exterior. Now, she’s at the mercy of sadistic King Gelum. She finds herself a prisoner with two other women – Dellara, a woman of sharp words and even sharper wit, and Pirlipata, a princess from another land. Marietta must forge an alliance in order to escape – but in an unfamiliar world brimming with secrets and rebellion, that prospect is far from easy.

The first quarter of the novel is a slow burner around Marietta, her family’s quest to find her a husband, and her dreams of escaping and becoming a ballet dancer. Here, Marietta comes across as somewhat spoilt and sheltered – unaware of the realities of the world for her dancing contemporaries, who are of lower class than she. However, she also comes across as persistent, kind-hearted, and stronger than she might seem. In many ways, she’s naive – especially around men such as Dr Drosselmeier – but in others she’s more cunning than you might expect. These early passages clearly try, in style and substance, to set the historical fiction scene – but the detached and verbose writing style is a detraction rather than an asset. There’s no engagement until the scene shifts and the reader is introduced to Everwood.

In Everwood, the writing really comes to life. Beautiful descriptions paint a gorgeous picture of this unfamiliar world – sugar and spice and all things nice on the outside, but rotten within. Rather than a plodding historical novel, it starts to feel like a fairytale – which, for a story inspired by ‘The Nutcracker’, is clearly the intention. There’s still a degree of detachment from all characters other than Marietta, leaving them fairly two-dimensional, but the plot and descriptions have enough to hold the attention.

The plot is solid, slow in pacing but allowing time for each lavish scene to be savoured. I haven’t read ‘The Nutcracker’, so can’t speak to its accuracy as a retelling, but familiarity with that tale is not required to enjoy this one. There is a fairly unnecessary romantic subplot – which due to the degree of separation between the reader and the characters, never quite feels fully believable – but otherwise, the subplots are complimentary.

The ending is, perhaps, predictable, but well written and satisfying. It leaves a degree of open-endedness so the reader can decide things for themselves.

Overall, this is an enjoyable enough story which will appeal to other readers far more than it does to me. Recommended for fans of plot rather than character driven fantasy, fairytale retellings, and fans of beautiful descriptive writing.

Published by HQ
Hardback: 28th October 2021
Paperback: 13th October 2022

Book Review: The State of Us

State of Us

“if we could start again, build the world again, build the world from scratch, knowing what we do now, would it be different the next time around?”

The State of Us, by Charlie Hall, is a collection of thirteen short stories that offer a black mirror reflection of modern society. Some are opaque, others pure metaphor. All are written with insight, and undercurrents of dark humour.

The anthology opens with a conversation between two workers. Burt’s job is to move things. Bill counts. Burt is unhappy with his role and would like to try his hand at counting. What plays out is how managers maintain their position at the expense of underlings, and how the world of work requires much nonsensical activity.

What is cleverly achieved in these typically short stories – many just a few pages in length – is how characters are developed to draw the reader in and make situations fully three dimensional. Conflicts are rarely resolved to the satisfaction of whoever appears to harbour critical thinking skills. Those wanting an easy life push for conformity, a suppression of inconvenient memory, whatever the ultimate cost.

Ruckus at the Dog and Duck, in just half a page, pokes fun at the ‘virtuous’ middle classes.

“Last night there was a fight between two groups of Johnnie Bodens”

The subjects they disagree on prove how little people think, and how ridiculous conflict can be.

This story is followed by one of the longer in the collection, a tale of a lone astronaut trying to maintain his sanity on the International Space Station while the earth below him burns.

The Tale of Big Hal and the Bethany Tower pulls no punches in its mockery of modern day parenting. So much of this was recognisable and relatable, although thankfully not the denouement.

The anthology closes with a tale that may be set in the future but, given current government policy, probably not that far off. Two wealthy couples meet for a social occasion while a riot builds outside. The host, convinced that his comfortable life is protected, gets his sport from riling a guest with a more empathetic understanding of the situation. I pondered if there is any chance of our overlords ever facing their comeuppance.

This was a highly enjoyable read that offers thought-provoking entertainment delivered in bite sized chunks. The angle from which subjects are presented adds to the originality and satisfaction. Never heavy but still multi-layered, a recommended anthology.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.

Robyn Reviews: Godkiller

‘Godkiller’ is an intriguing epic fantasy debut with plenty of potential and solid worldbuilding, but lacking engagement. It has all the right ingredients to be the start of a superb series, but I didn’t find myself as invested as I should have been.

Kissen is a godkiller – paid by villagers to flush out problematic gods, whose worship is banned in the King’s empire. She enjoys her job, and she’s good at it. However, her life is changed when she meets a god she cannot kill: Skediceth, the god of white lies, is bound to a twelve year old girl – and neither can survive without the other. On a quest to find out why, and save the girl from the god, they encounter Elogast – a knight-turned-baker, who helped purge the kingom of gods before laying down his sword. A request from the king has him returning to a place he never thought he’d set foot in again. He finds himself entangled in the godkiller’s quest – but he cannot let them find out his true intentions.

The story alternates between four perspectives – Kissen, Elogast, twelve-year-old Inara, and the godling Skediceth. Each are solid characters with their own voices – Skediceth, especially, is well-written, with his non-human perspective an intriguing addition. Kissen is tough, abrasive as a defense mechanism, but with a soft spot for girls she sees some of herself in. Elogast seems superficially honourable and well-intentioned, but there’s clearly more than meets the eye. Inara is sweet and caring, but also strong in her own way, and with a fiercely determined streak that matches Kissen’s. The only real criticism is that Inara reads older than her age – she may have been better portrayed as a teenager, although you can always excuse her maturity as being a result of being bound to a god.

The worldbuilding isn’t greatly explored but neatly developed alongside the plot. In this kingdom, worship creates gods – humans go to gods for favours, and in turn the gods rely on humans for prayers and sacrifices. However, the balance was threatened when the newer gods became greedy, demanding ever more for their favour. Fed up with the gods and the danger they posed, King Arren went to war – pushing the gods back and outlawing their worship. There are still those who keep the old ways, and still gods, but they are hidden, with the power of many smaller gods diminished. Like many epic fantasies, civilisation otherwise seems inspired by vaguely medieval England, with swords and knives the main weapons and horseback a common mode of travel. It’s a simple but effective setup with plenty of room for expansion.

The plot, again, is solid. A quest storyline, there’s a setup, travelling – with dangers along the way – and then the climax once the destination is reached, with some twists thrown in. There are some well-written surprises, and whilst the pace isn’t the fastest, the entire book clocks in at only just over 300 pages, so it isn’t particularly slow either. There’s a hint of a romantic subplot which is arguably unncessary, but otherwise everything slots together nicely, with a satisfying ending that also leaves plenty open for the sequel.

It’s also worth mentioning that Kissen is a bisexual amputee. There’s a fair amount of focus towards the start of the novel on how this impact’s Kissen’s life as a godkiller, and how issues with her prosthetic can have a series knock-on effect on her health. This is, sadly, a little glossed over in the quest section of the novel where you’d expect it to come up again – but it’s still great seeing an amputee using a prosthetic in fantasy fiction.

Unfortunately, despite all these ingredients promising a great epic fantasy, it feels like there’s something missing. The hook never quite happens, the book not fully absorbing the reader’s attention. I kept finding myself putting it down after a few chapters, with the promise of something interesting happening next, yet not wanting to pick it up again. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what doesn’t work, but something stops this from being as enjoyable as it should be.

Overall, ‘Godkiller’ is a good debut – but not a great one, which is a shame as it feels like it should be. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone else who has read this, and whether or not you agree.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 19th January 2023

Robyn Reviews: The Rithmatist

‘The Rithmatist’ is a fun YA fantasy adventure with a clever Sanderson magic system and a protagonist you want to root for. It’s a great stepup novel from middle grade adventure stories, retaining the fast pacing and readability but offering more complexity with the magic and nuance. The protagonist is sixteen but reads young, so this would easily appeal to those from around 10-12 up depending on reading age.

Joel’s one desire is to be a Rithmatist: someone who can infuse life into chalk figures, known as Chalklings, and defend the American Isles from Wild Chalkling enemies. Unfortunately, he’s only the son of a chalkmaker, and must watch as other students learn th art he would do anything to practice. However, when students start disappearing, Joel finds himelf assigned to help the Rithmatic professor investigating the appearance. Together, Along with fellow student Melody, he finds himself on the trail of a discovery that could change Rithmatics forever.

Joel is an instantly relatable character. In his world, magic is a real and tangible thing – but he isn’t gifted with it, and he longs to be. He obsesses over Rithmatics and those who practice it, neglecting his studies in the process. He’s smart and determined, but can be reckless and doesn’t always see the consequences of his actions. In short, he’s a very accurate depiction of a teenager still figuring things out – but he has a good heart and cares deeply about those close to him.

As with all Sanderson fantasy books, the magic system is simple yet effective, with clear rules and limitations. As the name suggests, its loosely inspired by mathematics in the form of geometry – but no understanding of maths is required to appreciate it. The book explains the magic system partially through illustrations at the start of each chapter, detailing rithmatic designs. These provide a point of reference and avoid long passages of expositionary text that would slow the pace of the story. Its a neatly crafted and fun system that suits the story well.

The plot is a fast-paced adventure with plenty of twists and turns – mostly predictable, but fun all the same. It avoids making things too easy for the protagonist with challenges along the way, and whilst it uses some genre tropes like the worn-down mentor, it feels like a fresh and original story.

The setting is an alternate version of America with steampunk-type elements. Its a little distracting hearing references to recognisable American cities or states put slightly differently, but mostly works at creating a similar-yet-different world. The depth of worldbuilding is the main difference between this and Sanderson’s adult fantasy – this is half the length as the worldbuilding is left shallow, with the plot, characters, and magic doing the talking.

Overall, this is an excellent YA fantasy adventure with crossover appeal to younger audiences looking to step up and older readers just looking for a fun, fast-paced story. Highly recommended.

Published by Tor UK
Paperback: 26th February 2015

For reviews of Sanderson’s adult work, we suggest starting with Elantris or The Final Empire.

Book Review: The Way to Work

way to work

“Like Marlowe, he possessed a singular logic, which though drawing inspiration from something you had said, soon parted company from the common-sense spirit in which you had meant it; but his trajectories were more disarming, and I had to watch every word, for there was no telling where it would lead.”

The Way to Work, by Sean Ashton, opens with the 45 year old narrator boarding his usual train to work. He has already picked up a pastry, successfully avoided a colleague, and now sits in his favoured seat in the designated quiet coach. As the train starts its journey, all seems as it should. The public address system doesn’t appear to be working but this offers a welcome respite from the familiar stream of repetitive announcements. The narrator has, for many years, been employed by a company that sells cat litter. He is contemplating the day ahead in which he is to show prospective new clients around their facility.

Having set the scene and provided some key backstory, the journey takes a somewhat surreal turn. The narrator notices the scenery they are passing is not as expected and believes he may somehow have boarded the wrong train. As nobody in the carriage can answer his questions, he sets out to find the Guard. He discovers that a feature of this particular train is that it is only possible to move forward. Having gone through the sliding doors into the next carriage, he is unable to return.

The protagonist thus has a choice – to stay put or continue on. He chooses the latter. Fellow passengers recur, albeit presenting in slightly different form. When he sits down to rest he ends up talking to a small number of them. In doing so, he learns a little more about how the train they are on functions. Conversations offer a degree of enlightenment but rarely provide the substance of what is sought.

The journey being recounted is certainly strange. Breadcrumbs are scattered throughout that suggest the narrator is not entirely ordinary, but this remains a shadow lurking behind the experiences he goes through, a question about who he is beneath what others may observe. The reader must wait to find out if these quirks prove relevant.

Within the tale is: a cat, games to play, a romantic encounter. Many aspects come across as ridiculous, yet no more so than typical aspects of work life and socialising, that are mostly passively accepted as normal. The author is playing with how so many live without questioning, and the fact their trajectory can only be onwards to the end.

I was not, however, entirely convinced by the story. Sadly, at times, I grew bored with what was being recounted. There is some humour in how so many will submit to inane rituals when instructed by those who have set themselves up as having jurisdiction within a boundary few consider leaving. The sexual exploits, and then certain emails dealt with, suggest the author finds entertainment where I would feel discomfort.

The denouement was neatly achieved and went some way towards redeeming a book I had considered giving up on. Although I can see what the author is doing with this story, and admire the originality of construction, my engagement was lost too often. Satirical aspects are cleverly presented but came across as more sad than amusing.

A story I suspect will appeal to readers whose sense of humour is broader than my own. Despite the obvious literary competence, this was not a book I enjoyed.

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