Robyn Reviews: The Betrayals

‘The Betrayals’ is gorgeous, atmospheric, character-driven historical fantasy at its finest. It’s slow-paced, but there’s a constant underlying sense of danger that keeps it engaging throughout.

Unlike the majority of readers, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Collins’ adult debut, ‘The Binding’ – it started far too slowly, without the atmosphere to back it up. However, it grew into itself as it went on, and I had high hopes that Collins’ sophomore effort might have fixed the teething issues. These wishes have been fulfilled. The characters are far more engaging and likeable, the atmosphere more effective, the pacing perfectly balanced. There are minor quibbles, but this is a much more enjoyable read.

‘The Betrayals’ is set at an exclusive college, Montverre, dedicated to studying the national game – the grand jeu. This mysterious game is part mathematics, part music, and – it could be claimed – part magic. Léo Martin won the Gold Medal for his grand jeu as a second year – an almost unprecedented achievement – but subsequently left academia for politics. Now, disgraced from the ruling political party, he finds himself exiled back to Montverre. But things have changed in the last ten years, and there are many parts of Léo’s past – parts he hasn’t thought about in years – he doesn’t want coming back to haunt him.

There are three POV characters – Léo, the disgraced politician; Claire, the first female Magister Ludi in history; and the Rat, a mysterious figure who hides in the passageways of Montverre. There are also regular interludes – written in first person, unlike the rest which are in third – from Léo’s diary as a student at Montverre. I’m not always a fan of the first person, but these were some of my favourite parts – Léo now is a politician for a fascist party and a resounding misogynist, whereas Léo then was a bully, but had many more redeeming features. The complexity of those entries turns him into a character you can understand and empathise with.

Claire is an intriguing character. Montverre is an all-male institution, and as the first female Magister Ludi she has a point to prove. She’s strong and clever, but can be abrasive. Her interactions with Léo are intricately written, and I suspect I’ll appreciate them even more on a reread.

The Rat is my one major quibble with the book. She’s not a bad character, but she doesn’t fit well with the rest of the story – I feel like she could be removed and the tale told just as effectively, and possibly more tautly. At its heart, this is Léo and Claire’s story – the other characters are almost superfluous distractions.

This is a character-driven story, and whilst the plot is clever, it’s less important than the intersecting relationships and character dynamics. It’s almost like crossing Collins’ debut with ‘The Secret History’ – a mashup of historical fantasy-lite with dark academia and a generous helping of male egotism. The atmosphere and writing style should appeal to fans of both.

Overall, this is an excellent historical fantasy and a chance to see Collins’ writing and imagination at their best. Those who weren’t so fond of her ‘The Binding’ may want to give her a second chance, and those that loved her debut should find plenty to enjoy here. Recommended.

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

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 12th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: Star Daughter

‘Star Daughter’ is a beautiful Hindu-mythology inspired YA fantasy that truly captures the idea of being a teenager caught between two worlds. Shveta Thakrar infuses every chapter with angst and conflict, and while the plot is predictable, it’s written with enough emotional to stand up as a strong addition to the genre.

Sheetal Mistry has a secret. Her mother was a star – not the star of some TV show or film, but an actual star, one that came down from the sky to spend some time on Earth. But stars must always return to the Heavens, and years ago her mother abandoned her and her father, returning to her place in the celestial court. All Sheetal has left are memories – and a warning that no-one must find out what she is. But as her seventeenth birthday comes closer, the call of the stars is getting louder, and it’s getting harder and harder to hide. Everything comes crashing down when her dad accidentally gets hurt – and, with only her best friend Minal at her side, Sheetal is left to seek out the stars for some answers, and the only thing that might save her dad’s life.

Sheetal is a likeable protagonist. Forced into a situation completely beyond her control, she spends the entire book fighting to stay afloat. Her constant worries are harrowing to read about, but she’s hardly helpless – she fights tooth and nail. She’s also never afraid to admit when she’s wrong – an unusual trait in YA characters, but one that I really appreciated.

Everyone around her, on the other hand, is very difficult to like. For a supposed best friend, Minal spends a great deal of time abandoning Sheetal or giving her conflicting advice. It’s clear that Minal’s trying to help, but I couldn’t understand why Sheetal was so attached to her. Similarly, everyone in Sheetal’s family spends more time trying to manipulate her than they do trying to understand her. I appreciated the moral greyness of almost every character in the book, but it was horrible watching Sheetal be tossed around between people who cared more about their goals than they did about her.

‘Star Daughter’ uses several tropes of YA fantasy – the quest to get something to help an ailing family member, the competition that must be won, the ‘Chosen One’, the secret powers that must never be revealed. The ending is relatively predictable – I’d guessed the main twist by about halfway through – but it works, and predictability can be comforting. What makes each trope stand out is the Hindu culture. I loved how this was infused into every paragraph. However, familiarity with Hindu culture isn’t necessary to enjoy this book – I’m not particularly knowledgeable, but every reference was easily understood and added to rather than detracting from the narrative.

My main issue was with the romance. YA fantasy has a habit of acting like someone’s first crush is the absolute love of their life, and insisting they stay with that person forever. I didn’t feel like the romance in the latter half of the book was necessary – it would have been more realistic for both parties to move on, rather than constantly reminding themselves of past traumas. This was a story about Sheetal taking control of her own life – it didn’t even need a romantic element to it.

Overall, this is a great YA fantasy with some gorgeous writing and true emotional resonance. Recommended to fans of mythology-inspired fantasy and complex family dynamics.

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 3rd September 2020

Robyn Reviews: Queen of Volts

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‘Queen of Volts’ is the final book in the Shadow Game trilogy, a YA urban fantasy trilogy set in the fictional city of New Reynes – the city of sin. It’s a taut, high-stakes, fast-paced conclusion to an action-packed trilogy, filled with unpredictable twists and heartbreaking losses. The ending fits the trilogy perfectly and, despite the tragedies, made me grin with delight. The Shadow Game trilogy is horrendously underrated – hopefully with this book it’ll finally get the attention it deserves.

‘Queen of Volts’ has five main point-of-view characters – Enne, Levi, Sophia, Lola, and Harvey – and alternates between them in chapters grouped by tarot cards (or shadow cards), a lovely touch. Initially, I cared about some perspectives more than others – but by the end, I appreciated them all and the different angles they offered. Harvey especially is a peripheral character in previous books but adds a different flavour here, complementing the others perfectly. His relationship with Bryce is brilliantly depicted and dissected, and his character arc is probably the strongest. Lola also has an exceptional arc – very different to the arc I expected, but cleverly done.

The fictional setting of New Reynes – likely inspired by Las Vegas – is a town of street lords and casinos, conmen and gangs. Everything is a game, and everyone a player. Enne and Levi have come a long way from who they were in Ace of Shades – the uptight girl from finishing school and the egoistical crime lord packed away like ill-fitting suits – but they remain compelling, intriguing characters. The moves that they’ve made have given them powerful allies and even more powerful enemies – but figuring out which is which is more difficult than it might first seem.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without spoiling Ace of Shades or King of Fools, but the stakes have definitely been raised. Courtesy of King of Fools, no character feels safe, so the entire book is fraught with tension. It’s entirely implausible, but this is YA fantasy – plausibility isn’t the point.

The biggest strengths of this series have always been the creativity of the worldbuilding and the relationships between the characters. By the third book in the trilogy, the worldbuilding is established – but ‘Queen of Volts’ goes further than its predecessors in testing those relationships and really shines for it. As the characters are tested, their relationships entangle and fray in complex ways, and Foody absolutely nails the feelings and changes. While the plot might be farfetched, the relationships aren’t, and that makes the entire book relatable. I especially liked the family dynamics (although I won’t spoil the story by revealing whose).

Overall, this is a brilliant conclusion to a solid YA fantasy trilogy. I don’t understand why this series isn’t shouted about more – with a finale as good as this, I hope it gains its place on people’s shelves. Recommended for all fans of YA fantasy, urban fantasy, morally grey characters, and complex character dynamics.

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

Published by HQ
eBook: 1st September 2020 / Paperback: 1st October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Court of Miracles

There was so much potential here but it wasn’t achieved. Maybe huge fans of Les Misérables will enjoy The Court of Miracles but to the average reader everything is so disjointed and confusing it’s hard to ever get into the story. There are unexplained time jumps, sudden changes in motivations, and generally inexplicable plot points which just can’t be believed. I’ve heard so much hype about this book and I can’t see how it’s justified.

The protagonist, Nina (or Eponine), was born into poverty, the daughter of the Master of Beasts in the Guild of Thieves – one of the Guilds making up the Court of Miracles, a collection of the undesirable members of 1800s Paris society. The Court has its own laws and own hierarchy, but the laws are being abused. Nina’s elder sister, Azelma, has been sold by their father into prostitution, and Nina will do anything to get her back – even if that means going up against the Master of the Guild of the Flesh, the dreaded Tiger himself.

It’s a great premise, and the backdrop – France if the French revolution failed – is equally brilliant. Unfortunately, the story never gets going. It keeps jumping with no explanation. Nina has just joined the Guild of Thieves, then she’s been there two months, then she’s been there two years. New characters are introduced with minimal explanation and justification and the reader is expected to care. It all feels fragmented and unbelievable, and it’s hard to come to care about anyone or their motivations when their motivations keep suddenly switching. All the major characters from Les Misérables cameo, but while this likely appeals to existing fans, the lack of explanation is confusing to everyone else.

Nina is fine as a main character – she’s brave but reckless, smart but not all powerful – although she’s ‘the best Cat (thief) ever’ with no explanation or on-page training, which is a trope that’s a little tired. Her care for her sister – and her friend Ettie, later on – is heartwarming, although the sudden shift in focus from her sister to Ettie is slightly jarring. Equally, Ettie’s switch from helpless little mouse to capable looks-out-for-herself lockpicker was great but never really explained. Essentially, all the characters were great, but all their growth took place off-page. I kept waiting for things to happen on-screen, but all we were shown were action scenes or the scheming of the Court. I wanted character development that was shown, not changes that were told.

There’s no romance in this, which was great – not all books need romance – but everyone seemed to be in love with Nina anyway. A prince? Check. An assassin? Check. The head of a lovable French resistance movement? Seriously, Nina spends all her time stealing from people, crawling around in the sewers, or thinking about either her sister or Ettie – why do these people love her? It would be a stronger book with none of that at all.

I feel like this has been a very negative review. It isn’t a dreadful book – it’s fine. A very quick read, plenty of action, plenty of originality, a brilliantly diverse cast. It just doesn’t feel finished. It’s a rough draft that could have become a diamond but has been left unpolished. I expected more, especially given the hype, and I’m just disappointed.

From what I’ve seen, my opinions are in the minority and lots of people love this – which is great! But personally, I can’t recommend it – unless you’re looking for spin-off Les Misérables fanfiction.

 

Published by Harper Collins
Hardback: 18th June 2020

Book Review: The Alchemist

The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream, by Paul Coelho (translator not credited), tells the story of a young shepherd who consults a gypsy and then meets an enigmatic king. The boy is encouraged to follow his dream which involves abandoning his nomadic existence in Andalusia and seeking treasure at the Egyptian pyramids. Along the way he is robbed and beaten. He must find work if he is to continue his journey. He opens himself to the possibility of omens and must decide when to share what he learns from these.

The boy recognises that he must choose between regarding himself as a victim or an adventurer. Although looking to his future, to fulfilling his quest, the importance of living in the present is often reiterated. The boy learns from every experience, including that a universal language exists to enable deeper understanding of self, other people and place.

The fable-like narrative is spiritual but not favouring any particular religion. Rather it encourages the reader to take time to observe surroundings and engage with nature.

I was somewhat put off the story by the buried treasure aspect – despite the obvious metaphor – and the repeated references to God. I enjoyed the appreciation of nature and the boy’s acceptance of setbacks – how he reasoned in order to find ways to continue. The story of his journey, personal and practical, is a device to pass on the author’s perceived wisdom. I wonder if he regards himself as the titular alchemist.

This wasn’t the tale I expected when I requested the book based on its many rave reviews. Although offering occasional nuggets of wisdom, I found progress slow in places. Evocative and smoothly written as it is, I am reluctant to recommend.

The Alchemist is published by Harper Collins.  

Book Review: Enemies of the People

Are you happy with the way our current crop of politicians and their influencers are running the world? Do you believe Brexit will make Britain Great, that Trump is good for the USA? If so then this book may not be for you, unless you wish to gain a better understanding. It offers, in bite sized chunks, key facts about those who helped create the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Enemies of the People, by Sam Jordison, is divided into fifty short chapters dedicated to those who have worked tirelessly to further their personal agendas at such potentially devastating cost. These include the usual subjects – Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Nigel Farage, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump – as well as the men and women who inspired their skewed ways of thinking. There are unexpected names – Pepe the Frog, Jesus Christ, Chris Martin, Mel Gibson, Simon Cowell, Your Granny. Although dealing with weighty subjects the content is not entirely sober and serious.

I was familiar with the majority of the names but not all of the information included. This is an important point to make. Although partisan in presentation the information has been verifiably sourced and makes for interesting reading, even for someone who tries to keep up with current affairs.

I learned that there is an inheritance of ideas, cherry picked and repolished but undoubtedly affecting decision making over decades. Country-wide catastrophe means little when personal power is at stake, when there are private fortunes to be made. Who says we learn nothing from history? These people have learned plenty from their predecessors and don’t care that their actions cause untold damage to those they purport to represent.

As well as politicians there are economists, religious leaders, writers, advisers and media figures. The common thread is the impact of their actions on the general population, and how most have got away with such behaviour. Methods of manipulating public thinking are among the most valued of skills. Wider suffering is shown to be of little interest to the perpetrators.

I bought this book for my seventeen year old son who is developing his own political views. The historical perspective, accessible language and concise structure will, I hope, offer him a wider perspective than he is picking up from popular web-sites, YouTube channels and the family influenced conversations of his peers. The book is witty without being bland, angry but on point. It does not attempt to offer answers but encourages readers to pay more attention, and not just to the dead cat on the table or Kim Kardashian West’s shoes.

Intended to provide a snapshot of our times rather than a roll call of evil the author states:

“I can’t pretend to be objective. In fact, I can’t pretend to be anything other than royally cheesed off. I’ve seen the world I love torn to shreds and I wish it hadn’t happened.”

If the enemies listed here can learn from history, so too can readers. This perfectly sized stocking filler offers as good a place as any to begin the conversation.

Enemies of the People is published by Harper Collins.

Book Review: Fragile Lives

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“A successful cardiac surgeon is a man who, when asked to identify the three best surgeons in the world, has difficulty in naming the other two.”

Fragile Lives, by Professor Stephen Westaby, is a memoir that is both awe inspiring and heart-rending. It tells the story of the medical career of a man raised in working class Scunthorpe who became a world class, ground-breaking cardiac surgeon before watching his life saving profession being stymied by the NHS bureaucracy that we know today.

The first few chapters cover Westaby’s childhood, inspiration and medical training. Born in the post-war baby boom years he decided young that he wished to be a heart surgeon after watching a television programme, ‘Your Life in Their Hands’, in which American surgeons were able to close a hole in a patient’s heart thanks to the newly created heart-lung machine. Westaby gained entrance to a local grammar school and from there worked towards his dream of medical school. As a teenager he took menial jobs at a hospital, learning as much as he could through observation. His years of medical training at Charing Cross and the Royal Brompton in London brought him to his first surgeries, where he learned that a certain arrogance is necessary for a successful outcome. A surgeon must believe in their own abilities if they are to innovate and thereby save more lives. When a patient is cut open on an operating table the surgeons cannot know exactly what problems they will be required to deal with.

Subsequent chapters look at particular patients whose medical issues Westaby tackled in new ways. Not all of them survive, and those that do are changed.

“extra life is not ordinary life. There’s a price to pay and a second dying to come”

These cases are fascinating if poignant to read. There is an amount of medical detail included but the language used is accessible. Westaby’s confidence in his abilities and willingness to take risks not only saved many of the lives he held in his hands but also led others in his field to do the same. These world class doctors worked together, sharing techniques and outcomes for the good of their patients as well as furthering their own careers.

“For the unfortunate patient, any prospect  of survival depends upon having an experienced trauma surgeon at hand. Few are offered that privilege.”

Westaby worked all over the world and experienced many levels of both staff competence and facility provision. When dealing with a patient who will surely die without intervention, risks seem a price worth paying. This is the way, the only way, that new techniques and treatments can be developed.

A cardiac surgeon must retain a certain detachment as they are dealing every day with the dying who often harbour multiple health issues. Success rates matter. The monetary cost of surgery is high and those controlling the purse strings wish to invest only in proven drugs or equipment.

Pioneering surgery is now threatened by the blame culture. Even proven techniques are being rationed due to the focus on cost, whatever the benefit.

“When a surgeon remains focused on helping as many patients as his ability will allow, some will die. But we should no longer accept substandard facilities, teams or equipment. Otherwise patients will die needlessly.”

By the end of his career Westaby had become disillusioned with the NHS. He had watched too many of his patients die due to a lack of drugs and equipment simply because they are deemed too expensive by non medical decsion makers.

“What mattered was keeping down costs. Death comes cheap.”

Inevitably he looks back on his own younger years with a degree of pride and with more regard than he offers today’s trainees. Setting this aside there is a warning to be heeded. It is understandable that cardiac surgeons feel frustrated with the constraints placed on their ability to work effectively. What this means to the individual patients and their families is the difference between life and death.

Those who believe that the drama of medical TV shows is overplayed should read this book. It is a fascinating account of a career that observed and facilitated huge medical innovation. The effect this had on the patients whose cases are included had me in tears of both sorrow and joy. To anyone with an opinion on the value of national healthcare expenditure, this is a recommended read.

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