Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: The Emperor’s Soul

‘The Emperor’s Soul’ is a brilliant, quick novella, telling a complete and enticing story in just over 100 pages. It takes place in the same world as Elantris, but contains none of the same characters, focusing on a very different country on the same planet. Novellas can be very hit-or-miss for me, but this is a perfect example of how they can be done well.

Wan ShaiLu – known as Shai – is a master forger, a woman who can rewrite the history of objects to persuade them that they are, in fact, something else. However, her latest job has gone wrong, and she’s found herself captured and imprisoned. Only one thing can buy her freedom – creating a forgery of the soul of the Emperor himself, who has been rendered permanently comatose by an attack. Shai must break all the rules of forgery and create something more convincing than she’s ever made in her life, or both her life and the Empire will be forfeit.

Shai is a great protagonist – quick witted and immensely proud of her talent, she’s not only a master forger but a master manipulator in general. She prides herself in being able to see several steps ahead of everyone else. Shai’s desire to escape battles with the immensity of the task she’s been given and her desire to complete something which has never been done before. She trusts no-one – sometimes not even herself.

The magic system of Forgery – unique to this novella – is one of the best parts of this novella. Like most of Sanderson’s magic systems, it’s simple yet clever, with clear rules and limitations. Forgery requires an extensive knowledge of an object’s past, and then the creativity of altering this past slightly so that the object could plausibly be something else. It has almost unlimited applications – as proven by the challenge of Forging a soul – but is so complicated that its usefulness is limited. It’s one of my favourite magic systems within the Cosmere, and I really hope it pops up again – perhaps in the upcoming sequels to Elantris.

Overall, ‘The Emperor’s Soul’ is a clever an intriguing addition to the Cosmere that highlights the versatility and breadth of Sanderson’s universe. It makes a brilliant quick read for fans of clever magic systems, devious women, and themes of betrayal and Empire.

Originally published in the US October 11th 2012
UK Publication March 21st 2013

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Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: The Hero of Ages

‘The Hero of Ages’ is the brilliant conclusion to Mistborn Era 1, and the first book to start to explore the mythos of the Cosmere as a whole. It introduces some of the concepts which underpin the Cosmere whilst telling a tight, twisting tale with a shocking – yet incredible – ending.

Whilst ‘The Final Empire’ was a heist novel and ‘The Well of Ascension’ political fantasy, ‘The Hero of Ages’ shifts focus again to predominantly military or quest fantasy. The various political factions have gained power and followers, and now a struggle ensues for who will take control. Alongside this, Vin is struggling with the aftermath of a massive mistake, and Sazed is going through something of an existential crisis – why does he care so much about religion when he doesn’t know or believe in his own?

Alongside Vin, Elend, and Sazed, there are some new POV characters in ‘The Hero of Ages’ – Marsh and Spook. Both have been prominent characters since ‘The Final Empire’, but here they step up and play even bigger roles. Marsh has always been a peripheral character, very different to the others, and his perspective and struggles are both fascinating and tragic. In ‘The Final Empire’ he was Kelsier’s slightly estranger brother – now he’s far more than that, and the tribulations he goes through could be considered the worst of any character in the trilogy.

Spook’s role, on the other hand, is not immediately clear – he’s not as directly involved in the main plotline, and his direction is very different to the other protagonists. However, his character provides a brilliant example of what prolonged war and turmoil can do to a person’s psyche. Sanderson depicts this sensitively, and Spook becomes a beloved character integral to the overall feel and impact of the book.

‘The Final Empire’ will always be my favourite Mistborn book, but this is probably the cleverest and most essential. The tone is much darker, the story much bleaker. The very world is breaking apart and a few mere humans are fighting to keep it together. It’s the relationships between characters which provide essential moments of light and warmth. Elend remains one of the best intentioned characters in fantasy, and Vin, ruthless as she is, seems far more human when up against such insurmountable odds.

The best part of this novel is how seamlessly Sanderson introduces the seminal concepts the Cosmere is founded on without info-dumping or detracting from the pace of the plot. Readers are introduced to Preservation and Ruin, two of the sixteen shards of Adonalsium – the power of creation. I won’t go into detail here, as that could be considered a spoiler, but it’s one of the reasons I think Mistborn Era 1 is one of the ideal places in the Cosmere to start.

It’s very difficult to write three such different books in a trilogy and keep every one gripping, yet Sanderson manages it. The ending is both heartbreaking and perfect. I’d recommend the trilogy to all fans of epic fantasy, and this book in particular to fans of intricate, unique worldbuilding and quests for answers.

Originally published in the US October 14th 2008
UK Publication February 11th 2010

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: The Well of Ascension

‘The Well of Ascension’ is the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s original ‘Mistborn’ trilogy, picking up immediately where the first – ‘The Final Empire’ – left off. It avoids all the pitfalls of the middle book in a trilogy, telling a taut and compelling tale whilst introducing the reader to wider aspects of the Cosmere. It also introduces Sazed as a main POV character, adding an intriguing extra dynamic and perspective.

After the events of ‘The Final Empire’, Luthadel is in chaos – but Vin and Elend have no chance to rest. Having signed up to lead a simple heist, now Vin finds herself a pivotal figure in an emerging new religion, almost single-handedly responsible for the safety of the city, and the target of a mysterious new figure in the mists. Out of her depth, she leans on her trusted kandra companion, OreSeur – but one secret spirals into another, and her actions lead her into more and more conflict with her friends.

Meanwhile, Elend finds himself thrust into an unexpected position of leadership, and Sazed embarks on a quest for answers – a quest that takes him far from Luthadel and into the Eastern Dominance. The mists are behaving strangely, appearing during the day and even killing some of the skaa. There are no clear answers, and in a divided world everyone is keeping secrets. It’s impossible for anyone to know who to trust.

The complex dynamic between Vin and Elend is brilliantly written, even if not always comfortable to read. Relationships take work, and in many ways Vin and Elend are incredibly different people. Vin struggles to trust people, and remains a likeable but prickly – and sometimes naive – character. Similarly, Elend remains good-intentioned but remarkably innocent of the realities of human nature.

Sazed is a far more mature character – and, as a Terrisman, provides a fresh cultural perspective. His internal conflicts are subtler than the dramatics of Vin and Elend, but no less impactful.

It’s difficult to discuss the plot without giving spoilers for ‘The Final Empire’, but it moves from the traditional heist novel to more of a political fantasy, all about power struggles and backstabbing friends. There’s also the underlying threat of the mists and the Deepness – two mysterious, unknown threats hinted at in the prophecies but unclear in nature until it might be too late.

Overall, this is an excellent epic fantasy novel which takes the trilogy in a fresh direction without losing any of the brilliance of ‘The Final Empire. The characters remain complex and engaging, the plot fast-paced and twisty, and the magic system still has secrets. It also introduces the concepts of Ruin and Preservation – critical parts of the overall Cosmere lore – for the first time, laying the grounds for the involvement of a wider mythos. Highly recommended for all epic fantasy fans, especially fans of complex character dynamics and intricate fantasy lore.

Originally published in the US August 21st 2007
UK Publication December 10th 2009

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: The Final Empire

‘The Final Empire’ is the first book in Sanderson’s original ‘Mistborn’ trilogy and a classic fantasy heist novel. His second published novel after Elantris, it cements Sanderson as one of the best epic fantasy authors alive today.

What if the Dark Lord won? That’s the question posed by this book. For a thousand years, the Lord Ruler has ruled with an iron fist, completely unopposed, forcing the Skaa who make up the majority of the population into slavery. However, a few rebels persist – and one, Kelsier, the famed Survivor of Hathsin, is determined to enact his revenge. Enlisting a crew of foolhardy Skaa – including the reluctant Vin, a street urchin who works for a local crime lord – Kelsier devises a plan to rob the Lord Ruler (and, if possible, to kill him too).

According to Goodreads, I’ve read this book at least ten times. It’s that good. Vin, our reluctant heroine, is a brilliant character – outspoken and talented yet naïve, she trusts no-one and isn’t convinced by this plan of Kelsier’s. However, Kelsier is the only one willing to teach her Allomancy – a mysterious power gained by ingesting metals – and the longer she spends in his presence, the more invested she becomes. Kelsier, for his part, is a brilliant mentor and father figure. The survivor of unspeakable horrors, including being the only man to escape a death sentence at the Pits of Hathsin, Kelsier’s scars run much deeper than those on his skin. His crew will follow him until the end – but Kelsier has secrets within secrets, even from himself, and his desperation to take down the Lord Ruler seems foolhardy even for him.

Every aspect of this book is brilliantly written. The character dynamics – especially within the crew – are sharp, with even the minor characters feeling fully fleshed out. The mythology of the world – the Lord Ruler having seized power after defeating some undefined evil – is gradually revealed to both the reader and the characters, avoiding info-dumping. The structure of the city with its ten ruling noble families is cleverly painted, and Sanderson manages the difficult task of evoking sympathy for both the Skaa peasants and the scheming nobles. After all, no-one thinks of themselves as the villain.

The real strength of Sanderson’s work, beyond his exceptionally complex characters, is his magic systems. The magic in the Mistborn books – Allomancy and Feruchemy – is very clever, with obvious limitations, and has clearly shaped the way that the world works. Introducing powerful magic without making characters too powerful or indestructible is a balancing act, and its always one that Sanderson manages exceptionally well. Overall, The Final Empire is a brilliant book, telling a tense, intriguing heist story alongside more complex epic fantasy worldbuilding. It makes a great introduction to the epic fantasy genre – especially to fans of simpler fantasy heist books such as Six of Crows. Recommended for all fantasy fans or just fans of strong characters and clever, well-told stories.

Originally published 2006 (US) and 2009 (UK)

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Elantris

Welcome to my Cosmere Christmas series! Over the Christmas period, I’m going to be reviewing every published book in Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere, a fictional universe in which several – but not all – of his series’ are set. Each book can be read alone, without understand of the Cosmere or other books, but there are little nuggets hidden away for those who’ve read them all. Sanderson himself recommends starting with his Misborn trilogy, but I’ve chosen to start with his first published book – and the first book I ever read in the Cosmere, Elantris. I hope you enjoy the review series, and for those of you who haven’t read these books yet, they’re some of the finest examples of epic fantasy I’ve ever read! If you’d like some background information on the Cosmere, I have an introductory post here.


‘Elantris’ is a brilliant fantasy standalone packed full of intriguing, engaging characters with the fantastic worldbuilding Sanderson has become well known for. As his first published novel, it’s not his strongest work – but it’s a spectacular story with an incredibly imaginative premise.

The city of Elantris was once a place of miracles, a place full of magic where the Elantrians lived as gods. The old religions were forgotten as people worshipped the marvels they saw every day – but no longer. Now Elantris lies in ruins, and the Shaod – the process by which ordinary people become Elantrians – is a curse. Arelon, the neighbouring city, has lived in the shadow of this curse for ten years, and whilst at first glance it seems prosperous, many people still live in fear. The safety of Arelon lies with a betrothal between Prince Raoden, heir to the Arelon throne, and Sarene, a princess from neighbouring Teod – but when Raoden becomes a victim of the Shaod, a series of events is set in motion that could be the downfall of Arelon and all who reside within in.

Like most epic fantasy stories, Elantris follows multiple POV characters – Raoden, declared legally deceased and thrown into Elantris to die; Sarene, the princess determined to find out what everyone’s hiding; and Hrathen, a Derethi Gyorn (similar to a Priest) sent to convert Arelon to the Derethi religion of Shu-Dereth. Each character is well fleshed-out and likeable – Raoden for his kind heart, Sarene for her tenacity, and Hrathen for his questioning and clear humanity. Sarene especially is regularly hilarious, constantly outwitting everyone yet hiding her brains from her stepfather lest he become suspicious of her true intentions.

Sanderson is fond of flipping fantasy tropes on their head. In Elantris, he takes the trope of discovering magic and inverts it – where magic once existed, now it is gone, and the world must either survive without it or rediscover it. His explorations of the implications – especially around public perception – are fascinating and incredibly insightful. Memories are both very long and very short. The magic system is also excellent – all magics in the Cosmere follow very clear rules, which makes them both easy to understand and avoids the familiar pitfall of making any one power too overwhelming.

The other thing which sets Elantris apart from many compatriots in the genre is the strong focus on religion. Religion remains one of the most powerful forces to both unite and divide in the modern world, yet many fantasy authors avoid religion playing a prominent part in their stories. The clashes between the two religious sects of Shu-Korath and Shu-Dereth are reminiscent of squabbles between Protestantism and Catholicism, and the way Hrathen twists the truth to fit his purposes and underline his religious messages is – for a book originally published in 2005 – both very insightful of the current ‘post-truth’ media age we live in, and accurate to how religious leaders throughout the ages have sought to pit their religions against each other.

Overall, Elantris is an exceptional debut novel and a strong addition to the epic fantasy genre. Recommended for fans of intricate worldbuilding, excellent characterisation, and clearly delineated magic systems of limited rather than infinite power.

First published in the US 1st May 2005
UK publication August 11th 2011

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas

It’s nearly December! Are you all excited for Christmas? I can’t wait – it’s the last big break I have before Medical School Finals (how did this happen?), and I really need the time to relax. In the same vein, I’ve decided that rather than focusing on reviews of new and upcoming books, this month I’ll focus on one of my favourite collections of books – Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. I hope you’ll join me in this adventure into one of the best and most ambitious works of epic fantasy of all time! For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Cosmere, here’s a quick introduction.

What is the Cosmere?

The Cosmere is a fictional universe. Many, but not all, of Sanderson’s series’ take place within this universe. Each series can be read individually without requiring any knowledge of the wider Cosmere, but there are elements of crossover and a whole wider mythos for those who want to investigate them. Every world within the Cosmere shares underlying rules for their magic systems and a unifying creation mythos, but each world, their occupants, religions, cultures, and magics remain unique. Sanderson has stated that he plans for at least 36 books within the Cosmere, which is a hugely impressive undertaking! More information can be found on the official Wiki here, but please be aware of spoilers.

Which books are set within the Cosmere?

The main current works within the Cosmere are:

  • Elantris
  • Mistborn Era 1 – The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages
  • Mistborn Era 2 – The Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self, The Bands of Mourning
  • The Stormlight Archive – The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Edgedancer (novella), Oathbringer, Dawnshard (novella), Rhythm of War
  • Warbreaker
  • The Emperor’s Soul (novella)
  • The White Sand graphic novel series

In the future, there are plans for two sequels to Elantris, a sequel to Warbreaker, a third Mistborn Era, and six more novels in the Stormlight Archive. I can’t imagine writing that many epic fantasy books…

You’ve persuaded me! Where should I start?

The short answer is wherever you want! Each series can be read alone, and they all appeal to slightly different audiences. The longer answer is that some books do improve the reading of others – Warbreaker improves the later books in the Stormlight Archive, for example – so are good to read first. Personally, I would recommend starting with The Final Empire or Elantris, and reading The Stormlight Archive – Sanderson’s Magnum Opus – last. But there are no rules, so if you want to start with The Way of Kings, go for it! Check out my reviews over the coming month and see which series – if any – appeals to you.

I didn’t like <insert Cosmere book here>. Should I try another one?

I’m a bit biased, but I’d definitely say yes. All the books are written in Sanderson’s signature style, but they’re very different – The Final Empire is a fantasy heist novel, Elantris is political fantasy, and The Way of Kings is a classic fantasy war novel. If you’re not a big fan of a certain genre of fantasy, you can absolutely skip that series. Personally, I’m not a big graphic novel reader so I’ve never read beyond White Sand volume 1 (I live in hope that a novel version will be published one day…)

Will your reviews have spoilers?

No – this month will be a completely spoiler-free zone! If you want to discuss the Cosmere with me, including spoilers, I’m quite happy to be contacted on Twitter. Please leave the comments spoiler-free for those who’ve never read a Cosmere book before.

Which is your favourite Cosmere book?

Read my reviews to find out!

I hope this brief introduction was useful and that you’ll join me on my tour of the Cosmere this month. Merry Christmas!

Robyn Reviews: The Tower of Fools

‘The Tower of Fools’ has the same translator, David French, as Andrzej Sapkowski’s ‘Witcher’ series, and the narrative voice is undoubtedly the same. However, unlike the ‘Witcher’ books, this first instalment in Sapkowski’s ‘Hussite War’ trilogy is much heavier on the historical than the fantasy. I enjoyed the insight into a period of history I know little about – but unfortunately, as the novel continues, the constant references to more and more historical figures become a little draining. It’s like reading ‘A Game of Thrones’ for the first time magnified by ten – it’s impossible to remember who each character is.

The novel follows Reinmar of Bielewa – known as Reynevan – a scholar and physician from Prague who fled after the invasion of the Hussites. Now safely ensconced the other side of the border, he makes the mistake of having an affair with a nobleman’s wife. The nobleman’s family are enraged, and Reynevan is forced to flee. Thus begins a story in which Reynevan runs from town to town, makes generally bad choices, and survives thanks to good luck and much smarter friends.

Reynevan has great potential as a character. An accomplished physician – and secretly, a far less accomplished mage – he comes across as a generally nice man (unless women are involved). Unfortunately, his constant terrible decision making makes him a very difficult character to like. He’s rash, hot-headed, and – unless medicine is involved – generally a bit clueless about everything. I have no idea how he’s ended up with so many useful and helpful friends without picking up a lick of common sense himself.

The cast of supporting characters evolves, but some of the most interesting are Scharley, Samson, and Urban Horn. This is a plot-driven rather than character-driven novel, and all three characters are left mostly mysterious, but hopefully more will be revealed in book two – especially about Samson, who is far more than he seems.

The fantasy elements are mainly the existence of mages – of which Reynevan is an amateur, but far more accomplished mages and witches are encountered – demons, and mysterious shapeshifting creatures, including one known as the Wallcreeper. There’s no specific magic system, but each element is worked neatly into the story. The Wallcreeper appears to be the true overarching ‘enemy’ of the trilogy, but remains a peripheral figure in this first instalment. The witches are brilliant and, whilst they only make cameos, deserve their own book.

The main issue I have with this book is one that I also have with the ‘Witcher’ novels, and that’s the attitude towards women. Of course, ‘The Tower of Fools’ is a historical (15th century) book written through a man’s perspective, so misogyny is to be expected – but that doesn’t make it pleasant to read about for 500 pages. Sapkowksi appears to try to make Reynevan marginally less misogynistic than his peers, but his thoughts about women are regularly unpalatable. Overall, this is a solid historical fantasy novel that will likely appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell-esque historical fiction, Sapkowksi’s Witcher novels, and fantasy novelists like Mark Lawrence – but perhaps not fans of more modern fantasy that’s moved past medievalist fantasy tropes.

Published in the UK by Gollancz
Paperback: 27th October 2020

(Originally published in Polish in 2002)

Robyn Reviews: The Last Wish

‘The Last Wish’ is a collection of short stories that introduce Geralt of Rivia, Yennefer, and Dandilion – the key characters of the Witcher series. The stories jump around in time and place, with tales of Geralt doing his job as a Witcher – hunting down monsters – interspersed by an overarching story of Geralt recuperating at a temple. The stories are the basis for the first season of the ‘Witcher’ TV series and will likely be familiar to fans of the series or the games, although as someone who never watched beyond episode one of the TV show I appreciate how much more vocal Geralt is in the books than this on-screen equivalent.

The stories are an intriguing introduction to Geralt’s world. Loosely inspired by Medieval European, and more specifically Slavic and Polish, history, there are references to folk tales and many creatures of European myth. Sapkowski also chooses to set his stories at a time when Witchers are declining, their occupation frowned upon, which adds an interesting dynamic to each of Geralt’s interactions. There are also a number of ethical questions posed about the nature of monsters.

Geralt himself is a mostly likeable protagonist. ‘The Last Wish’ was originally published in Polish in 1993 and is typical of 1990s fantasy in its attitude towards women; Geralt mostly but not entirely escapes this misogyny. Nonetheless, he always tries to do the right thing and it’s obvious that he’s a good person at heart. Similarly, Dandilion – introduced halfway through, in the fifth of seven short stories – is a fairly stereotypical hapless companion, but a nice character and it’s clear he has a larger part to play in later books.

Yennefer, by contrast, appears in one story as the beautiful yet evil seductress. I hope her character is further developed later on, as from first impressions she seems a bit two-dimensional, especially as the series’ most important female character.

The format of this, with each tale relatively short, keeps it engaging, and whilst it’s definitely plot rather than character driven fantasy there’s plenty of room for character expansion later on. Its main issues are related to its age – at nearly thirty years old, it suffers from all the tropes and misogyny common to popular fantasy at the time. The fact that Geralt is slightly more progressive keeps this from being intolerable, and hopefully later books – especially those where Yennefer is more prominent – will suffer from this less.

Overall, this is a solid introduction to the major character of the Witcher series and an enjoyable collection of short stories. Recommended for fans of traditional fantasy and folklore-inspired stories.

Thanks to Books2Door for providing the entire box set of the Witcher series – this in no way affects the content of this review

Robyn Reviews: Ninth House

Leigh Bardugo is well-known in the world of young adult fantasy fiction for the Grishaverse – originally a trilogy which has now expanded to include a related duology, with another series in the works. Ninth House, however, was her first adult fantasy, marketed as having a much darker tone.

“All you children playing with fire, looking surprised when the house burns down.”

Ninth House is a slow builder. It follows the story of Galaxy Stern, known as Alex, a school dropout and drug addict who ends up in hospital, the only survivor of a mysterious tragedy. In an unlikely turn of events, Alex is visited in hospital and invited to join the upcoming Freshman class at Yale. Why? Because Alex is one of the few people in the world who can see ghosts – known to those in-the-know as Grays.

This is definitely not a book for the faint-hearted. It’s dark, twisty, and full of unknown power and magic. However, it leans heavily on mystery, and that means the first 100 pages or so can seem confusing and even drag as the story begins to take shape. Leigh Bardugo’s other work is known for being fast-paced and action packed – this is the opposite, the slowest of slow burns as secrets are gradually revealed. In many ways, it reads less like a fantasy novel and more like a mystery or thriller which happens to contain the supernatural.

“Peace was like any high. It couldn’t last. It was an illusion, something that could be interrupted in a moment and lost forever.”

Alex, is a fantastic, multi-faceted character. She’s lived a tough life but come out tougher. She’s always been able to see ghosts, but as a child didn’t realise that others couldn’t see them too. Bardugo explored the way this would shape your personality brilliantly, and didn’t shy away from the negative aspects of Alex’s psyche. Alex’s reaction to Yale – filled with smart but entitled young adults who’d never known true hardship – was also an excellent examination of how those from alternative backgrounds can struggle with the education system; not because they’re not capable, but because the others there see them as an outsider and they never feel like they fit in. I wanted to wrap Alex up in blankets and give her biscuits and tea – although she’d probably see that as condescending and have some choice words in response.

Darlington, Alex’s mentor at Yale, was her polar opposite. A man from a wealthy family with a long history at Yale, he epitomised everything that she despised. However, as they got to know each other, they realised they weren’t so different after all. Darlington was an interesting character who I would have liked to have more ‘screentime’ so to speak – I’m hoping he plays a more prominent role in any sequels. (I’ve also seen several comparisons to Gansey, and I agree that they would get along like a house on fire – and possibly set a house on fire too).

Dawes, who started out as Alex and Darlington’s assistant with the occult, was possibly my favourite character. I loved her. At first glance, she appeared sweet and trusting, but she had a spectacularly deadpan sense of humour. Dawes loved rules and order but wasn’t afraid to break them when the situation called for it. She epitomised Hufflepuff in the best way. Who says Hufflepuffs can’t be the badass too?

Overall, this book starts too slowly but builds into a great story with a fascinating cast of characters. It’s extremely dark in places and explores a number of sensitive issues, but I think it manages to avoid just throwing them in for shock value. Fans of crime, mystery, and horror are likely to love this.

*Trigger warnings: This book contains graphic scenes including rape of a minor and mentions of substance abuse*

 

Published by Gollancz
Hardback: 8th October 2019
Paperback: 6th October 2020

Gig Review: Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins in Bath

On Friday of last week I travelled to Bath for what I expect to be my final book event of the year (I avoid festive season crowds). It proved to be well worth attending. Held in the Maven Gallerywhere the original artwork for The Blue Salt Road is currently on display, Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins gave a fascinating talk on their collaboration for both this latest work and its predecessor in the series, A Pocketful of Crows. The setting added to the pleasure and interest. Bonnie’s art is exquisite.

  

The two books were inspired by Child Ballads – indigenous stories of the British Isles. These dark and challenging folk tales, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, exist in different versions and have been sung by musicians such as Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. As a folk musician Joanne knew the stories – she believes they ought to be our Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The draft version of A Pocketful of Crows was written in two weeks – much faster than Joanne normally writes. She was on a deadline to finish The Testament of Loki and attending a book festival on the Isle of Skye. The journey to and from the festival, the landscape, inspired her to start writing something different. She gave herself a day, then two, then a week, and realised that the story was almost complete. She then had to persuade her publisher that the idea was worth pursuing. She envisaged a beautifully bound hardback – illustrated fairy tales for adults – with illustrations by an artist who would produce detailed work such as would have been common in books published in Victorian times – vignettes, an almanac feel. When it was agreed that three stories should be written she needed to find an illustrator.

Joanne’s publisher provided a huge dossier of potential artists but none seemed quite right. Then, unexpectedly, Joanne received a drawing through the post from Bonnie.

Bonnie told us that, at the time, her daughter had recently been introduced to Ted Talks at school. Bonnie listens to the radio while she works so started listening to some of these talks. Most were from people explaining how wonderful they were and how much money they had made. In her Ted talk Joanne focused on her family and the power of stories, how important it is that we share things together, that we value people more than money (you may listen to the talk here). Bonnie hadn’t read any of Joanne’s books but was inspired to get in touch with this speaker.

Joanne added that narratives are about making connections. This was a perfectly timed connection – like magic.

Bonnie told us that it almost didn’t happen. The letter from the publisher asking her to create the drawings was binned as she thought it was junk mail – Look! We can put your drawings in a book! Luckily the publisher sent a follow up which she read.

By this time all the words had been written and the art was needed quickly. Bonnie had 8 weeks to produce 24 illustrations. Nevertheless she loved working with Joanne as she was given free rein. She knew that the publisher wanted the illustrations spaced. The prose was so poetic she could have illustrated everything.

Joanne introduced us to The Blue Salt Road by talking about the Child Ballads. They reflect real events such as rape, abuse and other forms of domestic violence. The selkie story is a Scottish legend, often of a young girl bound into slavery by a man. She wished to subvert this and consider: in a patriarchal society how can women gain empowerment? In her story a young woman, Flora, is living on an island with a limited gene pool. She has an agenda.

Joanne gave a reading from where Flora first meets her selkie.

The Blue Salt Road is a love story but one of entrapment. The selkie is tamed and must find work. The limitations of island living mean he ends up a whaler, killing sea life. Unlike the other men, it feels wrong to him and he doesn’t understand why.

Flora also has limited options and convinces herself she has done the selkie a favour. Their environment is harsh. Life is about survival. Joanne wished this to be reflected in the illustrations but also to show the beauty of the sea. In its rawest sense, this is a story about where we have all come from.

Bonnie talked about stories being a way of understanding ourselves long before psychologists offered their services. They provide a means of talking about dark and difficult subjects.

She based several of her drawings on people she knows. In A Pocketful of Crows she drew a 14 year old whose personality seemed to fit. Flora is also based on a real person – a girl who has wild hair and a dissatisfaction with life. When asked, the teenager was blasé about her likeness appearing in a book. Bonnie did change certain features as she wished Flora to look a little sly.

Bonnie had longer to produce the drawings for the second book than the first. She wanted to include rock pools, crabs, to show the folds of the walrus’s skin. Drawing waves was a challenge so she made them stylised. Each seal that is a selkie has a little spiral tattoo. Bonnie would have liked to draw the scene on the beach where Flora and her selkie are nude but the publishers weren’t keen.

  

Joanne told us that often author and illustrator don’t work so closely together. She talked of the view that illustrated books are only for children. One hundred years ago many adult works were lavishly illustrated. The drawings enhance the story providing a visual mood board.

There is to be a third book and Bonnie has seen the initial words even before the editor. Bonnie is working on another project and sent Joanne one of her works in progress. Joanne was so impressed that she decided to adapt her story that this wonderful, evocative picture may be incorporated.

Questions were opened up to the audience.

Q: Will there be more books after the third is published? These beautiful books look so good on a bookshelf.

It depends on how the first three sell. Joanne would like to write more. She is fond of the novella with its linear format. Time constrained people appreciate books that are quick to read and offer even more when reread.

Bonnie added that reading a book in one go is like eating a big slice of delicious cake. She reads the manuscript from start to finish to get a feel for the story and then rereads particular chapters to think of possible illustrations. Each chapter is a little story in itself.

Q: How do you tease a story out of a ballad?

The ballad is a starting point. It introduces themes, such as entrapment (man), agency (women). These are perennial concerns. Ideas are then built on, such as how would the selkie feel and react when offered seal stew which the folk often eat. The ballads are springboards.

Q: Why did you include your initial in your author name?

Joanne writes mainstream novels as well as fantasy. Some readers who enjoy psychological thrillers may not wish to read magical realism. It allows them to better understand what to expect.

Q: When you write how do you keep control of your imagination to get things down on paper quickly enough?

Joanne doesn’t wish to keep her imagination under control. She writes each day, even if only 300 words. She will start by revisiting the previous day’s efforts, reading it aloud to judge if it works. As a musician and linguist as well as a writer vocal patterns matter to her. Reading aloud also makes obvious what is superfluous.

Q: Do you have a structure to your working day?

Not so much as many other things are going on. When at home Joanne will start at 8.30am and work to lunchtime by which time a break is needed. When on tour she keeps working, writing in hotels or on trains. If she goes for more than three days without writing, the book goes feral. Even 20 minutes a day maintains the headspace of the narrative. As a full time writer there are many non writing tasks that fill the time she used to filled with her job as a teacher.

Bonnie has no particular structure to her day. She often works early in the morning and late into the evening with her day consumed by other demands. When she has deadlines the work just has to get done. She knows what she wants to draw but each piece takes a long time to complete.

Joanne talked of her dislike of deadlines. She is always aware that others are waiting on her work – editors and so on – but finds deadlines cause panic which isn’t conducive to the creation of art.

  

Q: What does a publisher’s art department do to the work – does Bonnie retain any control?

Bonnie scans her drawings at an ultra high resolution and submits this. Afterwards she has no further say over what will happen to the work.

There was some discussion about illustrated books and how children also appreciate more complex drawings – there is no need to simplify.

The jacket design was done by someone else as this is a different skill, requiring consideration of the placement of words and sales stickers. Bonnie would not wish to have to think of this when drawing.

As the evening drew to a close many books were purchased from the hosts, Toppings Bookshop. Joanne and Bonnie signed copies on request. The opportunity to have my book signed by both author and illustrator was too tempting to resist so I waited in line before heading home.

Joanne was kind enough to chat to me before the event. Both author and illustrator made this event even more special by being so open and friendly throughout.

The Blue Salt Road and A Pocketful of Crows are published by Gollancz (Orion Books).