Robyn Reviews: The Final Strife

‘The Final Strife’ is Saara El-Arifi’s debut, a sweeping epic fantasy inspired by her Ghanaian and Sudanese heritage. The premise is excellent, but it takes a long time to grow into itself, and the initially unlikeable characters make the start especially slow. By the end this is an engaging and enjoyable read, with a solid ending that makes you want to read on – but the work it takes to get there prevents this from hitting its potential heights.

In this world, social status is determined by blood. Red blood equals the elite – Embers, the ruling class, with access to blood magic and control. Blue blood means the workers – Dustings – a poor faction with dreams of resistance. Clear is the blood of the invisible – Ghostings – slaves with no rights, constantly overlooked and oppressed. However, eighteen years ago, a group of Dustings exchanged twelve of their children with Ember children – and now one of those children has come of age. A pity, then, that rather than becoming the fated Chosen One, Sylah has been broken by the death of her family and drifts along, surviving only with the help of drugs, alcohol, and an illegal fighting ring. However, with the return of someone unexpected from her past, Sylah finds herself thrust back into the world of resistance. Can she overcome everything to be what she was intended to be – a saviour?

There are four characters granted a perspective in this book – Sylah, Anoor, Hassa, and Jond – but Sylah is clearly the protagonist. Bitter, worn-down, and deeply addicted to Joba seeds, she’s an extremely difficult character to like. She weilds anger not just as a weapon but as a survival mechanism, leaving her short-sighted and rash. She longs to be more than she is but the thought of putting in the work to get there is anathema. Sylah cares strongly about certain others, and about the rights of the oppressed – but it’s initially difficult to parse out how much of that is true empathy and how much is self-interest. It’s easy to feel sorry for Sylah, but much harder to connect with her. As the story develops, she starts to think more before she acts and allows herself to start to care for others, although she remains a caustic personality. El-Arifi makes a brave narrative choice choosing Sylah for her protagonist, and I’m not entirely convinced it was the best one.

Anoor gets the most page time after Sylah and is very different – although in another life the two characters could have taken each others place. One of the Dusting children left with an Ember family, Anoor has been raised in a life of luxury and privilege – but her family have never allowed her to forget that she is not truly one of them. Caring but self-indulgent, Anoor enjoys good food, fashion, and reading her zines – she’s a dreamer rather than a doer. However, when pushed, Anoor is determined, creative, and incredibly strong. Anoor has the strongest character arc, and despite the initial impression of the pampered princess she’s much easier to connect to than Sylah, providing a welcome addition to the narrative.

Hassa and Jond are given far less page time, although arguably Hassa has the most interesting perspective. A Ghosting, she has led a hard life – but also a fairly invisible one, allowing her to see things hidden from her contemporaries. The relationship between Hassa and Sylah is intriguing, and I hope more time is given to her in the sequel. Jond is never given the time to fully develop, so its difficult to have any opinion on him – I suspect he will play a larger part in later books.

The representation in this book is excellent. Sylah’s sexuality is never labelled but she has sexual relationships with multiple genders. The society has three accepted genders and individuals can identify however they please – Hassa is a trans woman taking hormones, which never impacts on her role in the story at all. Hassa, like all Ghostings, is also disabled and uses sign language. Everything is crafted to be part of the story but not key to it, and its nice seeing such effortless diversity in fantasy.

The plot is strong, using the trope of a training plotline and a competition to elect the new leaders. The first 100-150 pages are exposition, but once the training gets underway this becomes well paced and engaging, with a good balance between trilogy-furthering subplots and the main competition plot of the novel. There’s less fighting than might be expected in a novel about vengeance, but the fight scenes that do feature are well written. The writing in general is gritty and dark in places but suits the story well.

The worldbuilding leaves plenty of unanswered questions for future books, but works. The magic system, again, isn’t utilised as much as might be expected, but has plenty of potential for exploration going forward. There’s a great deal of incentive to read on to get some answers – a key element when writing a trilogy.

Personally, I would have liked a different distribution of character perspectives. The start is too slow and too much time is spent with Sylah, the most challenging character to connect to. This would be an easier and likely more enjoyable read if more early page time was given to Hassa and Anoor. For an epic fantasy, this is on the short side at under 500 pages, so using an extra 50-100 to get that greater reader connection wouldn’t make it too unwieldy. However, other readers will likely appreciate the shorter length and may find the plot engaging enough not to need a likeable protagonist. Those who enjoyed books like ‘The Rage of Dragons‘ should find plenty to love here.

Overall, this is a solid debut with an excellent premise just let down by a slow start. Future installments in the trilogy have plenty to build on to be excellent novels. Recommended for fans of epic fantasy who are happy to wait for the story to unfold.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 23rd June 2022
Paperback: 2nd March 2023

Robyn Reviews: The Book Eaters

“These days, Devon only bought three things from the shops: books, booze, and Sensitive Care skin cream. The books she ate, the booze kept her sane, and the lotion was for Cai, her son. He suffered occasionally from eczema, especially in winter.”

‘The Book Eaters’ is a contemporary fantasy with clever ideas, but one that doesn’t quite carry the reader on its journey. The premise is solid and the plot twists and turns, but the characters lack cohesiveness, losing connection and chipping away at enjoyment. However, the central themes are excellent, and many other readers may enjoy this for the atmosphere and exploration of motherhood.

Set in an alternate version of the present day UK, ‘The Book Eaters’ follows Devon, part of a race of humanoids who eat books to survive – absorbing the contents of everything they consume. In their highly patriarchal society, girls are raised on Fairytales and married young to produce rare, prized book eater children. Devon has no reason to question her life until her children are born – especially her son, who has a rare book eater variant meaning he consumes not books, but human minds. Desperate to protect him, Devon flees book eater society for human society – but she and her son are persecuted by those she has left behind, and without their protection she must find a mind for her son every month to prevent him going mad.

The book utilises dual timelines – the present day, following Devon trying to care for her son but also struggling with alcohol abuse brought on by the horrors she has experienced, and the past, starting at Devon’s childhood and gradually introducing why she’s been forced out of her society. The timelines at first work well, maintaining a sense of mystery and answering key questions in a show-don’t-tell manner. However, with some of the revelations, early characterisation and thoughts in the present day timeline cease to make sense, and the story ties itself in a bit of a problematic knot. Some of the impact is lost, which is a shame as the first half is very strong.

Devon is a character with huge potential. Her views on motherhood are warped by her upbringing and her strange relationship with her son – she loves him, but also fears him and his hunger for minds, and she resents what she has to do to keep him alive. The question of how far a parent would go for their child is central to the story and one of the strongest aspects – but again, later developments slightly dilute the message. There’s also potential for strong exploration around substance abuse, but this potential isn’t utilised as much as it could be. However, Devon is a likeable enough character to carry the story, and her character arc throughout is strong and well-rounded.

The most interesting character is Devon’s son, Cai. Much like the book eaters minds are shaped by the books they read, his entire personality is affected by the minds he consumes, raising intriguing questions around how much he is his own person. Cai’s feelings around his actions and what he has to do to survive are explored more towards the end, and this is one of the best parts of the book. In many ways, this would be a stronger novel if Cai was afforded a point of view – writing this would be immensely challenging, but done well it would enhance the novel. Regardless, Cai is well-written, and whilst he doesn’t get huge amounts of page time, his sections are always thought-provoking.

Book Eater society takes inspiration from seventeenth and eighteenth century England – not the most original, but well crafted and believable, aside perhaps from how they’ve remained under the radar in the social media age. The consequent exploration of feminism and same sex relationships in the context of a highly structured and patriarchal society has been done before but is done well here, as are themes of bodily autonomy and consent. Some sections are deliberately uncomfortable to read, but they’re well-written with no gratuity and strong impact.

Overall, ‘The Book Eaters’ has strengths in its exploration of themes of motherhood, feminism and autonomy, and the creativity of its premise, but the characters can lack cohesion at times and the plot overcomplicates itself with its dual timelines towards the end and starts to fall down on believability. A novel that may appeal to fans of atmospheric reads and the central themes, but that unfortunately didn’t convince me.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 18th August 2022

Robyn Reviews: Babel (or, the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution)

‘Babel’ is one of the most ambitious novels I’ve ever read. It blurs fantasy, historical fiction, social commentary, and linguistics into a shining silver piece of alternate nineteenth century history. As a work of literature it’s a monumental achievement. This is a book to be read slowly and savoured, allowing time to sink into the world and admire the intricacies of each thread. As a story, unfortunately, a little is lost to the sheer scope of everything else going on – but that shouldn’t take away from what RF Kuang has achieved here.

In 1928, a boy is orphaned by cholera in Canton, China. This in itself is not unusual – but this boy, soon to be known as Robin Swift, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell and tutored extensively in Ancient Greek, Latin, and Chinese. The purpose? For Robin to enroll in the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford – colloquially known as Babel. Babel is the crown jewel of the British Empire – the seat of translation, but more importantly silver-working, the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation to magical effect. Silver working has granted the British Empire unparalleled power and helped it colonise the globe. At Oxford, Robin has everything he ever dreamed of – but everything he does furthers colonialisation, betraying his Chinese homeland. Robin finds himself trapped between Babel and those who would work to bring it, and therefore the Empire, down. He must decide what he is willing to sacrifice – and what is required to truly engender revolution.

The research RF Kuang has done to bring this novel to life is exquisite. It’s full of pieces of real nineteenth century history and social and political commentary of the time, each with a slight overlay in the context of silver-working. The worldbuilding is exceptional, absolutely capturing the atmosphere of academia and Oxford, both from the perspective of the average white male student in the nineteenth century, and the foreign, non-white, and not always male students of Babel. Every aspect feels tangible and believable.

Silver-working, the fantasy spin, is a smaller part of the novel, simple but immensely effective. It isn’t explored to its fullest potential, but this is less a fantasy novel and more a novel exploring social and political commentary, so that’s to be expected.

The characters are wonderful. This is a single POV novel with the exception of three interludes towards the end, but Robin is strong enough to carry the story on his own. Robin loves language and loves to learn, but he struggles with his position at Oxford. He’s constantly grappling with issues of identity, of privilege, of Empire, and of what it is he actually wants. He loves his classmates – they’re the three people he’s closest to in the world – but he’s also, in many ways, very alone. Robin is a likeable and relatable protagonist, making many aspects of the book much more accessible. His development throughout is immense, and whilst his actions at the end may prove divisive, its easy to see why.

Robin’s classmates – Ramy, Victoire, and Letty – each add a new dimension to the story. Ramy, Robin’s roommate and a Muslim constantly referred to as Hindu by his Oxford contemporaries, is quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and observant in a way Robin is not. Victoire, Haitian in origin from a family still wounded by the slave trade, is fiery and downright angry at times in a way Robin initially struggles to understand, but gradually comes to. Letty, an English rose, is vastly different to her contemporaries – kind and easy to love and absolutely determined to fit in, but always on a different course by consequence of her birth. The characters play off each other well, and each feels well-rounded.

There are a few minor criticisms. At just over five hundred pages this isn’t the longest book in the world – especially for fantasy – but the first half is very slow, requiring concentration and patience as the worldbuilding and characters are established. Kuang does well at creating atmosphere and a sense of foreboding before things start to unravel, but the change of pace doesn’t quite work, and several points lack the emotional impact they should have. The ending itself is likely to divide opinion. I understand why Kuang did it, but it did feel a little like a cop out. This is definitely a book which prioritises the philosophy and social commentary over the story.

Overall, Babel is a monumental undertaking and Kuang almost carries it off. It’s a book with crossover appeal to fantasy, historical fiction, and literary fiction fans, and worth a read for anyone who enjoys social commentary, exquisite worldbuilding, British history, and the complexities of human psychology. There are many things to love and the impact lingers after the final page. A recommended read.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 23rd August 2022

RF Kuang is also the author of The Poppy War trilogy – I review the first book here.

Robyn Reviews: Memory of Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by HarperVoyager
Paperback: 24th January 2012

Robyn Reviews: The City of Brass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by HarperVoyager
Paperback: 22nd January 2018

Robyn Reviews: Threadneedle

‘Threadneedle’ is a hard book to categorise. Part urban fantasy, part young adult contemporary, and part a dark and harrowing tale of abuse, it’s not an easy book to read. At nearly 600 pages, it’s a complex book, and Thomas has packed it full of great ideas and creativity – but unfortunately, they didn’t mesh well for me, and I found the darker elements hugely affected by enjoyment of the story. I’m sure many readers will love this, but it wasn’t for me.

All her life, Anna has been warned of the dangers of magic. Magic killed her parents when she was just a baby, leaving her to be raised by her aunt – a member of a strict order known as the Binders, who believe magic is a sin to be locked away. Anna only has one year left before her magic will be bound. However, Anna’s carefully planned life is thrown into turmoil when her mum’s old friend Selene returns to town, bringing her daughter Effie – a rebellious New Yorker due to spend her last two years attending Anna’s strict school – and Effie’s mysterious friend Attis. With Effie and Attis throwing the school social order into disarray, Anna finds herself rethinking truths she’s believed all her life – and whether she really wants her magic to be bound after all.

The book’s actual blurb only talks about magic, but the majority of this book is a young adult contemporary about Anna’s life at school. Magic is a secret from the wider world, so Anna’s chief concerns are staying under the radar of the school bullies, getting the grades she needs for medical school – and keeping her magic hidden. I read plenty of young adult contemporary, so I didn’t mind being thrown into one, but it wasn’t what I expected when I picked up the book. Anna’s school is reminiscent of every TV show boarding school, with clear social cliques and a constant mean undercurrent. Anna has survived so far by being Nobody – not reacting to the bullies, and generally remaining so quiet and anonymous she’s not seen as important enough to even tease. The way Effie’s arrival affects this is one of the best parts of the book – it’s great to see Anna come out of her shell, and the eclectic group of friends she makes are fun to read about. However, they fall just a little too far on the side of a TV show caricature to be believable. One in particular is a passionate Christian, very devout and studious – but this is written in a very two-dimensional way, and her character changes so much throughout the book it almost creates whiplash.

Anna is actually an excellent character. She’s lived a horrendous life, and is terrified of magic – and stepping a toe out of line – but she’s actually a passionate, smart girl who cares a lot about others and has a surprisingly intuitive grasp of new concepts. She also loves music, and it’s the scenes where she plays the piano that her character really shines through. Anna struggles to trust anyone else, and she’s been taught to be quiet and passive – reverting to this automatically in times of stress – but the way she develops through the novel as she’s given a bit of freedom is amazing to read about. Her character arc is a shining light and a reason why, despite my reservations, I’d still recommend this novel to many people.

One of the underlying themes of the novel is love, and its many iterations. Anna has always been told that love, along with magic, was responsible for the death of her parents, and told to avoid it at all costs. Her relationship with her aunt is twisted and abusive, but Anna still loves her – her aunt is her only surviving family, and she claims everything she does is for Anna’s protection. Anna, at sixteen, is also starting to explore romance – and this again is very well written. With little frame of reference. she doesn’t fully understand her own feelings – but Thomas writes them in such a way that the reader gets hints before Anna even knows herself. Finally, there’s platonic love, with Anna making friends for the first time in her life. Her friendships aren’t all healthy, but the way she discovers and explores boundaries and standing up for herself within them is great to read.

I feel it’s very important that readers going into this book know about the abusive content. Anna experiences mental, emotional, and physical abuse, her aunt keeping her under complete control. Anna also experiences abuse from the other Binders – mostly emotional, but some physical as well. This is incredibly harrowing to read. I usually enjoy darker stories, but something about this one got under my skin. Books about abuse are essential – it’s important for people to be aware of its impacts, and to give survivors space to explore their experiences – but the abuse here is stark and insidious with the way it impacts every aspect of Anna’s life, and could potentially be very triggering. It also makes it very hard to definitively classify this as a young adult or adult book. The school aspects are exceptionally young adult, but many teenagers will likely find the abuse scenes very difficult to process.

The magic system is very creative. I won’t give too much detail to avoid spoilers, but the scenes of the characters discovering magic and experimenting with spells and potions are another highlight. Some of the magic can feel too easy, but Anna herself struggles, another facet which allows the reader to connect to her. Anna’s aunt’s magic is also very interesting – very different to the other magic seen in the book, and possibly deserving of another book all on its own. I will say that the magic aspects can feel very told rather than shown, with information sometimes thrown at the reader rather than unfolding organically, but in a book with so much else packed in there possibly wasn’t space to impart it in any other way,

Overall, I personally feel this book tries to do too much and loses some of its impact. I also feel it suffers from the blurb not really summing up the book’s content, leading to a surprise which can alienate readers. With adequate warning of the darker content, this is a book that plenty will enjoy – the creativity is undeniable, and Anna’s character arc is excellent – but, unfortunately, it wasn’t for me. Recommended for fans of young adult and adult fiction who enjoy creative magic systems, coming of age stories, and stories full of darker elements.

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

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 27th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Poppy War

‘The Poppy War’ is historical fantasy at its finest – engaging, beautifully written, with its own spin on events but clearly based on established source material. For a debut, it’s incredibly assured, with a style more reminiscent of a master of the fantasy genre. This is a dark story, but for those who enjoy grimdark fantasy there are few better examples.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is an orphan from Rooster province, raised by an aunt who only cares about marrying her off to further the family’s criminal enterprise. Determined to escape her aunt’s planned fate, Rin studies night and day for the Keju – the test all youths in the empire can take to join a military academy. To her surprise, she aces it, and is accepted into the empire’s most prestigious academy – Sinegard. But being a Southern girl – poor, dark-skinned, lacking grace and connections – is not easy at such a prestigious institution, and it’s even less easy for a girl with an aptitude for the dangerous, half-mythical magic of shamanism. With the threat of war on the horizon, Rin must navigate the twin minefields of Sinegard and Shamanism before her people are destroyed – and before a vengeful god destroys her.

“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”

Rin makes a brilliant protagonist. She’s fiesty and determined, with a ready anger always brewing near the surface. She’s exceptionally morally grey, with many flaws, but her drive makes the reader root for her anyway. She also has the most beautiful friendship with Kitay – it’s unusual to have a central male-female friendship without a hint of romance, and it’s a delight reading about their pure and platonic bond.

Kitay, on the other hand, is an exceptionally sweet character. A scholar, he’s quiet and easily underestimated, and always wants to take the peaceful route. He and Rin are complete opposites yet compliment each other in a strange way.

The other primary characters – Jiang, Nezha, and Altan – are mostly mysteries. Nezha starts unlikeable but goes through exceptional character development. Similarly, Altan starts relatively two-dimensional but the more the reader learns about him the more it becomes clear that he’s suffered hugely and simply does whatever it takes to numb the pain.

This is very much a book of two halves. The first is a standard trope of high fantasy – a poor, orphan girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a prestigious institution and has to navigate the complex politics. This half is well-written, giving a solid background to all the key characters and establishing relationship dynamics. However, it’s the second half which truly makes this book special. Here, there’s an evolution to a full-on military fantasy, with skirmishes and battle plans and deeper exploration of shamanism and the destruction it can cause. Kuang’s writing is exceptional, balancing painting gorgeous pictures of setting with complex military dynamics and huge emotional impact. There are no weak points – it balances three-dimensional, morally grey characters with equally strong plot and utterly believable worldbuilding. Fans of fantasy for many reasons can find something to like here.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

Overall, ‘The Poppy War’ is a remarkable debut and the start of a brilliant, fascinating military fantasy inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese war. Recommended for fans of any fantasy – as long as they don’t mind it on the darker side – along with Asian history and just expertly written books.

My review of the final book in the trilogy, The Burning God, can be found here.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: May 1st 2018 / Paperback: April 23rd 2019

Robyn Reviews: The Stone Knife

‘The Stone Knife’ is the first book in the intended ‘Songs of the Drowned’ trilogy, a new gritty epic fantasy series by Anna Stephens. The writing is raw and visceral, the world-building broad in scope, and the characters varied and intriguing. It’s a book that demands attention – it took me almost a month to read, because I regularly didn’t have the concentration and energy it required – but when given its due, this is a worthwhile read.

Over decades, the tribes of Ixachipan have fallen one by one to the Empire of Songs. Now just two tribes – the Tokob and Yalot – remain, determined to hold onto their freedom. Tayan, a shaman of the Tokob, communes with his goddess and determines to seek peace with the Empire – but his husband Lilla is preparing for war, and their friend Xessa is struggling to keep the Tokob safe from the threat of the Drowned, crocodile-like beasts which guard the tribe’s only water source. Meanwhile, Enet – first courtesan of the Singer, the ruler of the Empire of Songs – is trying to hold onto her tenuous position in his court, and Pilos, High Feather of the Empire’s armies, is trying to assure the Empire’s dominance over Ixachipan whilst dealing with Enet’s meddling closer to home. Epic fantasies which show all sides of the story are fantastic, showing that no force is precisely right or wrong, and Stephens doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities committed by all sides in war.

The difficulty with large numbers of perspectives is it takes some time to adjust to and care about them all, and the story definitely starts slowly. The reader is introduced to the Tokob and their way of life – their shamanic rituals to their goddess Malel, their fight against the Drowned just to obtain water, the way each citizen swears their life to a certain path (e.g. the jaguar path for warriors or the snake path for those who face the Drowned). Once this is established, the counter perspectives – those living ‘under the song’ in the Empire – are gradually introduced. It takes a good 40% of the novel before everything settles and the story can start to gather pace. It also leads to some characters – especially Tayan and Xessa – being easier to care about than others. Xessa especially is a fascinating character – it’s unusual to see a Deaf character in fantasy, and the way this is both an asset and hindrance depending on the circumstance is well written. She’s also feisty, strong-willed, and has an unbelievably sweet romantic arc as well as the most loyal canine companion of all time.

The setting, Ixachipan, is inspired by central American civilisations. It’s a forest environment, with seasons of rain and drought playing a huge part in shaping society. While the central American influence is clear, the direction Stephens has taken it feels fresh and unique, and the additional fantasy elements are worked in seamlessly. An industrial colonising empire vs those with a more traditional way of life has been written many times before in many iterations, but Stephens blends in new ideas to keep this from feeling stale.

The diversity is also excellent. Gender – and attraction to genders – is mostly irrelevant in both Pechaqueh and Tokob society, with a central relationship between two male characters (Lilla and Tayan), and as many female warriors as male. Xessa is Deaf, and whilst there’s mention that this would likely lead to her death if she was born into the Empire, it’s seen as an asset to the Tokob.

There are minor issues with ‘The Stone Knife’. All epic fantasies start slowly – it takes time to understand the world and differentiate and care about the wide range of characters – but the pacing throughout feels a tad erratic, with some sections veering away from action to several paragraphs of explanation or time-skipping. Certain characters are also particularly irritating – there was one in particular who almost made me want to skip sections – and whilst I respect the author for writing difficult characters, it detracted from my enjoyment. However, it’s a solid novel and builds plenty of intrigue for what happens next.

This reads more like a Part One than a complete novel, with plenty of cliffhangers awaiting resolution in Book Two. I’ll definitely be picking up the second to find out what happens next.

Overall, this is a highly intriguing first book that creates an excellent – if dark – world with plenty of potential, populated by a diverse group of fascinating characters. Recommended for all fans of darker, grittier epic fantasy and diverse worlds.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 26th November 2020

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

Robyn Reviews: The Burning God


‘The Burning God’ was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020. RF Kuang has been one of my favourite authors since her first book, ‘The Poppy War’, so I couldn’t wait to read the final instalment in the trilogy. As advance copies started to go out, praise poured in, so I went into this with sky-high expectations. It proved to be an absolutely excellent book – but for whatever reason, it just didn’t click with me quite as well as its predecessors. It was almost perfect, with gorgeous language and a fantastic plot, but there was so much hype I just expected a little bit more.

“They weren’t humans, they were stories; they were paintings winding their way across wall scrolls.”

‘The Burning God’ follows Rin, a Speerly shaman, as she tries to wrest her country back from the control of foreign invaders (the Hesperians) and defeat her mortal enemy (and old classmate) Nezha in the process. She’s already razed an entire island to ashes and will stop at nothing until victory is hers. However, the more she becomes captivated by power, the more dangerous she becomes – and in the end, even her anchor and best friend Kitay might not be enough to save her.

Rin is the ultimate morally grey protagonist. She’s stubborn, determined, and never admits she’s wrong. Her military training and shamanism have shaped her into a weapon to the extent that she doesn’t know how to be anything else – or when to stop. Kuang’s writing is masterful, making Rin into a character you want to root for, then carefully weaving her journey together so you don’t notice her falling to the wrong side until she’s already gone. Even when she commits the worst atrocities it’s impossible not to feel sympathetic towards her – a real achievement.

“They were at the stage of war where every choice would be monstrous, and the only question now was which choice kept them alive.”

Kitay is a lovely, sweet character, but here she shows more steel than he has before. It’s easy to forget that he’s a solider to – in this book, his ruthless streak comes out to play. Kitay tries to keep Rin from going too far, but he’s just as willing to play the game as everyone else. I enjoyed seeing a different side to him and Rin’s reaction to that.

Nezha is a far more peripheral character in ‘The Burning God’ than I expected. In many ways, this is realistic – war is rarely fought between the leaders, instead being fought by the cannon fodder – but I wanted to see more of him.

“She’d spent so long fighting by his side, she had to make herself remember how to hate him.”

This is a true military fantasy trilogy, and this is a more plot-driven novel than its predecessors – which I think is why it’s my least favourite. I love character driven stories, but here the characters have already been developed and it’s the plot that drives everything forward. Coupled with the fact that I’d already guessed the ending, it didn’t pack as much of an emotional punch as I expected. The plot is excellent and the ending appropriate, and for many will be incredibly emotional – but there wasn’t enough character build-up in this for it to reach those heights for me. It might have worked better if I’d reread the first two immediately before to immerse myself in the characters.

RF Kuang is an exceptional writer, and from a technical perspective this is her best novel yet. The writing is gorgeous, painting a beautiful – if at times horrible – picture of everything that happens. Every moment is visceral and real. ‘The Poppy War’ is a fabulous book but clearly a debut – this is a book written by a true master of her craft.

“She knew very well how it felt for a chasm of guilt to eat at her soul, to try to sleep when an abyss of vengeful souls whispered that she’d put them there.”

Overall, this is an excellent book concluding a fantastic trilogy that I’d recommend to every fantasy fan. It didn’t quite meet the very, very lofty expectations I had for it – but that’s a sign of how highly I value RF Kuang’s writing. I’m looking forward to reading what she writes next.

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

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 17th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Story of Silence

The Story of Silence is based on a thirteenth century poem about Silence, the only child of the Earl of Cador. The Earl was promised the fiefdom of Cornwall – but only if he had a son who could inherit. Desperate, the Earl decided that his firstborn child, regardless what sex they were born, would be raised a boy – and thus Silence, by nature female, was raised as a man. The author, Alex Myers, is a transgender writer and teacher, and this book functions as both a fascinating history and an examination of what gender is.

The protagonist, Silence, is a highly compelling individual. They’re one of the genuinely nicest characters I’ve ever read about, and their struggle with their gender identity is poignant and compelling. Silence dreams of being a knight, but their father is terrified of being found out and tries to hide them away with only their dreams, their nanny, and a priest to guide them. I was rooting for Silence throughout – and whilst it’s always obvious that the reveal is coming, plenty happened in between to surprise me, and the ending took a very different direction to what I expected – one that I greatly appreciated.

This is marketed as a fantasy novel, but I’d call it pure historical fiction. There are elements of magic – with Merlin making cameo appearances – but this is essentially a bard’s tale about a famous Knight who happened to have been born in a typically feminine body. The writing is period-appropriate and chronicles the story well. The primary setting of Cornwall is beautifully described, but the writing doesn’t wax lyrical, focusing on Silence and their life rather than anything happening around them. None of the characters, save Silence, are particularly three-dimensional, but this doesn’t detract – it’s Silence’s story, and the others are simply props. Delving deeper into characters like Albert would have changed this from a bard’s tale into something else, and I don’t know that it would have worked so well.

As a cisgender person, I don’t want to comment too much on Myers’s portrayal of gender here, but it was certainly fascinating to read and seemed from an outsider’s perspective to be very well done. Gender divergence is not a new phenomenon, but historical accounts of it are rarely discussed – how Myers presented it here was excellent and, albeit fictional, very believable. I would be interested to now read the original poem and see how much artistic license the author took in his portrayal.

Overall, this is a recommended read. It’s a very easy to read book, weaving an enjoyable tale of quests and minstrels and jousting, with an undercurrent of an issue that’s rarely portrayed in fiction. Everyone who enjoys historical fiction should appreciate this, and hopefully it’ll give them something to think about too.


Published by Harper Voyager
Hardback: 9 July 2020
Paperback: 18 March 2021