Robyn Reviews: Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable Sun is an action-packed, plot-driven novel, at the expense of its characters. Fans of epic space opera that bounces from action scene to action scene without pause will get a real adrenaline rush from this – but for those who need to connect to the characters to care about the story, this becomes more of a slog through over 500 pages of a confusing mess.

It is pitched as a gender-bent Alexander the Great in space. I adore Greek and Roman history and mythology, and I’m a huge sci-fi fan, so this sounded right up my street. Alexander the Great is a historical figure I’m less familiar with, but I know enough to see the parallels between him and his equivalent in this book – Princess Sun. Weirdly, however, Sun doesn’t feel entirely like the main character. This book contains multiple point-of-view characters – as many epic science fiction stories do – but while Princess Sun’s perspective is told in third person past, another character, Persephone, gets sections told in first person present. This gives the impression that Unconquerable Sun is about her, with the other characters merely lending a different perspective. Persephone is a promising character but also exceptionally irritating, and her sections being told in a different perspective disrupts the story’s flow.

The main issue I have with the story is how flat the characters are. As I read, I’m constantly being told what the characters are feeling, but never shown it. None of the feelings feel authentic, and I can’t fathom any of the characters motivations. Princess Sun is angry at her parents for treating her like a child and not believing in her ability – but if this wasn’t explicitly stated on the page, it wouldn’t be clear. Persephone is desperate to escape from her family’s clutches and make a stamp as her own person – but it’s never entirely clear why. She also falls instantly in lust with almost everyone she meets, which is irritating to read about and an unnecessary distraction from the plot. Zizou is actually a great character, and the only one to make me feel something, but vastly under-utilised. Princess Sun’s Companions feature prominently, but there are so many of them it’s very difficult to remember which one is which – especially as the reader is told so little about them beyond their names, so they never evolve into fully-fledged characters. It’s difficult for struggles and deaths to be impactful when the characters didn’t feel alive in the first place.

The setting and backdrop are intriguing. The Chaonian’s, led by Princess Sun’s mother Queen Eirene, have been at war with the Phene for generations. The Chaonian’s have military might – with military intelligence led by the Lee family – but the Phene have superior technology and the allegiance of the Gatoi, beings engineered to be the perfect soldiers. However, a few Gatoi have switched sides – one of them Princess Sun’s father, making her half-Gatoi and in many respects an unsuitable heir to the throne. The descriptions of the different cultures – Chaonian, Gatoi, Phene – and technological advances are very interesting, but never really developed. The story never slows its pace enough to allow any kind of explanation or worldbuilding. This mostly works, but there are sections where this becomes confusing and the story becomes difficult to visualise. The book takes place on such an epic scale that full description would probably put the page count somewhere upwards of eight hundred, but it might be worth it to make sure that the reader actually understands what’s going on.

The plot is the novel’s highlight. Most of the book is spent with the Chaonians, with occasional glimpses at the Phene’s plans through Apama – an intriguing character who deserved more screentime. There are tangled webs of secrets and lies, betrayals, assassinations, and frank invasions, and the plot never takes its foot off the throttle. I think this would work 100x better as a film than a book – so much happens that would be incredible to see on screen. It’s harder to take in via written format.

I feel I should also mention that this is marketed as an LGBT book, and it contains plenty of diversity, with relationships between all genders entirely normalised. Princess Sun is in a stable relationship with another female-presenting character, which seems to have great potential at the start but never becomes as prominent as the beginning hints at. The representation is generally done very well – with the exception of Persephone, who falls into the trope of bisexual or pansexual character who falls in lust with everyone.

Overall, a book that fans of fast-paced, plot-driven science fiction will adore, but those who like fully-fledged characters will struggle to connect with. Unfortunately, it isn’t my cup of tea.

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

 

Published by Head of Zeus
Hardback: October 1st 2020

Robyn Reviews: Witch

‘Witch’ is a relatively short novel, coming in under 300 pages, with a simple narrative; Evey and Dill’s mother, the town witch, is murdered by witch-hunters, and Evey vows to enact revenge. The language used reflects the historical setting and Evey’s young age. Many will love this as a quaint, atmospheric tale – but I found myself irritated by Evey and put off by a narrative style which made the story feel very superficial.

Evey is, to be quite frank, not a very nice person. Much of this can be forgiven due to her young age and the shock of watching the death of her mother – but she spends the entire story either complaining or making horrifically rash decisions, and it gets quite tiring to read about. Her interactions with her sister, Dill, are believable – they fight like real siblings, with true sibling grievances – but the pettiness of it all isn’t fun to read. In a novel where everything else is kept deliberately light and whimsical, the protagonist needed to be a strong anchor – Evey isn’t that person.

Most of my grievances with this book say more about me than the novel itself. I prefer my magic systems explained, with clear rules and limitations – the witchcraft in this book is a mysterious thing with no clear rules, and is also far less prominent than the title might suggest. I like character-driven fantasy – this is definitely plot-driven, with Evey never developed as a character beyond her base motivations. I prefer difficult situations to be solved by brains rather than fortuitous coincidences – this book has nothing but fortuitous coincidences. My difficulties with this book almost exactly mirror my issues with another whimsical fantasy from earlier this year, Feathertide – so if you enjoyed that, you might find this up your street too.

I should mention that, while this is written in a very light style, it touches on some dark subject matter. Despite the child narrator, it’s definitely a more adult novel with adult themes.

What about the positives? This is a quick read, easy to consume in one sitting – but also easy to consume in small bites, the narrative simple enough that nothing will be forgotten. It’s also an interesting exploration of attitudes towards witchcraft – people decrying it in the daylight but turning to witches when things get tough. It’s enlightening peering back to a time when witch trials were commonplace; for most of the novel, the historical fiction is more prominent than the fantasy.

Overall, this wasn’t the book for me – but I’m sure plenty of others will enjoy the style it’s written in, and it’s nice delving into a shorter novel amidst the trend for increasingly long fantasy stories. Recommended for fans of atmospheric, whimsical books, historical fantasy, and child narrators.

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

Published by Head of Zeus
Hardback: 1st October 2020

Book Review: Wakenhyrst

Wakenhyrst, by Michelle Paver, is loosely woven around facts and folklore from rural Suffolk and a supposedly enlightened England. Many of the attitudes and behaviours depicted were still pervasive in the not too distant past. The author has located the titular hamlet close to ancient fens that locals both enjoy and fear. Its church, St Guthlaf’s, was originally built in the Middle Ages. Much of the story is set in Edwardian times when a wealthy landowner and respected historian, Edward Stearne, ruled his family home, Wake’s End, with a stern hand (such Dickensian naming). The tale is told by his daughter, Maud, who by 1966 was the only survivor and lived as a recluse in what was by then a house in disrepair.

The book opens in this later time with a journalist visiting Maud to try to learn more of a murder she witnessed as a teenager that led to her father’s incarceration at Broadmoor. Written in tabloid style, the short exposition is followed by a series of letters between Maud and an art historian, Dr Robin Hunter, who is eager to access a notebook in which Edward Stearne may have written about his inspiration for famous paintings he produced while locked away in the asylum. Maud has no wish to have anything more to do with the outside world after her experience with the journalist. It is only when a violent storm puts her home at risk that she agrees to tell Dr Hunter about her childhood and the events that led to her father’s undoing.

Maud’s story opens in 1906 when she is six years old. Her beloved mother has gone into labour, a regular event that often leads to a baby born dead. Maud has just the one sibling, Richard, who she regards with contempt. Her handsome father is a pious man whom she fears but longs to impress. Maud’s childish beliefs are coloured by the church’s teachings and the tales told of the fen by household servants. As God has not listened to her pleas for help, she prays to the fen that her mother may survive.

St Guthlaf’s church contains gorgoyles, sculptures and carvings that date back to medieval times. These include animals, mythical creatures and devils intended to warn sinners to repent. Much of the church’s vivid artwork would have been painted over by the Puritans. When Edward donates a sizeable sum of money to enable improvements to the building he unwittingly unleashes forces in the form of an historic mural known as a Doom.

Maud is starved of affection and pours out her love on an injured magpie that she sets free but continues to feed. The only animals her father will tolerate are the horses required to pull his carriage. Rebelling against the strictures enforced by Edward’s many rules, Maud takes to wandering the fen, something he forbids. There is suggestion of an event from his childhood that led to him hating and fearing the place.

As the years pass Maud must cope with grief and the impossible love she feels for a young gardener in her father’s employ. Being female she is regarded as lacking sense, despite her obvious intelligence. Her father allows her to help him with menial tasks in his work but assumes she is incapable of comprehension. Maud secretly reads the journals he keeps and is appalled to discover his true nature, and where this leads.

Journal entries are included verbatim throughout the text. The window this offers into the attitudes of an Edwardian gentleman are disturbing. When Edward becomes obsessed and potentially dangerous, Maud finds she has nowhere to turn – her concerns repeatedly dismissed as hysteria. Her father is affected by the doom and the fen, by his guilt and knowledge of church history. Maud soon realises how precarious her situation is.

The author taps into the shadows and cracks that generate fear in the dark even rational minds struggle to dismiss. As the story progresses these elements build providing an undercurrent of unease. It is not so much what is true that matters as what is believed and feared.

The effects of class and gender divides offer a stark background for a beguiling tale of arrogance and misdirected fervour. At its heart though is a story of a house and a fen, each emanating secrets and rich histories that colour the lives of inhabitants across generations. Whilst not quite as tightly woven and therefore on par with the author’s previous work – the spellbinding Dark Matter this was a compelling and creepy tale that I enjoyed reading.

Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

Book Review: The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse

deadduke

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse, by Piu Marie Eatwell, is a meticulously researched account of a true story. At the turn of the nineteenth century a legal case, ‘Druce v Portland’, evolved into the stuff of dreams for the newly emerging tabloid press. The public couldn’t get enough of the family secrets and duplicitous lives being exposed. With a duchy that included a Nottingham estate and large swathes of land in London at stake this battle for a title and the wealth that it bestowed raged for over a decade.

In 1879 the 6th Duke of Portland arrived at Welbeck Abbey in Nottingham having succeeded to the ducal seat following the death of his eccentric second cousin who had ostensibly died without having produced an heir. Twenty years later a middle aged woman approached the church courts in London asking that her late father-in-law’s coffin be exhumed. She claimed that his funeral had been a charade, that the coffin would be found to be empty, and that the man in question had been leading a double life. She claimed that this Victorian businessman, T.C. Druce, had also been the 5th Duke of Portland, that he had sired several children, and that her son should now be the Duke.

The author unfolds the story as it would have emerged at the time. She ensures that the reader understands how other contiguous events would have coloured the public’s perception of the case. With increasing literacy came a demand for a press that entertained as much as informed. Newspapers vied for readers by providing details that laid bare the duplicitous lives of a supposedly moral society. This case offered it all: secret mistresses, illegitimate children, double identities, eccentric habits, abandoned wives, and the prospect of wealth and standing beyond most people’s dreams.

The publicity surrounding the case brought witnesses and claimants from around the globe. Each of these characters is introduced complete with their circumstances, background and personal histories. As well as court transcripts and newspaper articles the author has studied birth and death records, correspondence, photographs and notes held by the police, legal teams and the Portland estate. Much of this evidence was never presented in court and was subsequently locked away, remaining classified for the next eighty years.

What can now be told is a tale as convoluted, complicated and contrary as any fictional crime novel. It is a fascinating snapshot of life at the time involving as it does the aristocracy, their staff, the emerging middle classes, those who travelled to find a better life, and the unfortunates who were abandoned penniless to cope as best they could. Laws may have changed since that time but the role of newspapers in gathering and spreading misinformation looks all too familiar as does the public’s appetite for celebrity and gossip.

This is history brought alive. Unlike so many accounts there is no glossing over the weaknesses of the wealthy. What is known is presented in fascinating detail that the reader may decide for themselves why each character acted as they did. A colourful story written with flair that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

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