Robyn Reviews: The Winter Garden

‘The Winter Garden’ is an atmospheric historical fantasy novel about love, grief, friendship, feminism, and escapism, with elements of magical realism entwined with grittier steampunk. It’s beautifully written, and while it doesn’t quite have the depth it strives for it makes a compelling read.

On the night her mother dies, eight-year-old Beatrice finds herself invited to a mysterious Winter Garden – a place of wonder and magic, a nighttime refuge from all the horrors of daylight. For one glorious week it is her sanctuary – then it disappears, and it becomes Beatrice’s life goal to find it again. Eighteen years later, Beatrice is poised to marry a man all of society insists is highly eligible. Instead, she calls off the wedding, embarking on a worldwide trip to track down the elusive Winter Garden – an unimaginable scandal. Her best friend, Rosa, finds herself marrying the man instead. As their lives diverge, both find themselves with regrets. But The Winter Garden is looking out for them, offering both the chance to participate in a unique competition – with the prize a single wish. As the two find themselves combatants, their lifelong friendship is tested, and they find themselves grappling with a thorny question: if you could go back and change a single moment in your life, would you?

The biggest issue with this book is highlighted by how difficult it is to sum up in a single paragraph. This is a book about two women and the different choices they make; about the quest to find a magical garden; about regret and how dwelling on the past shapes the future. It’s about a competition, but the competition doesn’t start until around halfway through. In short: this is a book which tries to do a lot, and mostly succeeds, but by cramming in so much it doesn’t quite do each element justice. There isn’t really a single overarching narrative – not in itself a problem, but it makes this a challenging book to recommend or review.

With that out of the way, there are lots of things to like. Beatrice makes a highly compelling protagonist – opinionated, not concerned with sticking to societal convention, and deeply caring about her family and friends. She has her flaws – she cares deeply about herself as much as others, and can be unthinkingly selfish with her own privilege – but she’s incredibly relatable, and its difficult not to root for her. Similarly, Rosa is a strong character – one with different dreams to Beatrice, but equally opinionated and determined. Where Beatrice is asexual and quite content to be alone, Rosa desires a family – but she also values her independence, difficult things to balance in Victorian society. Rosa is never afraid to call Beatrice out on her flaws, and their relationship throughout the book is exceptionally well done.

The use of language throughout is excellent. Alex Bell paints beautiful pictures of gardens, of Rosa’s intricate clockwork creations, of society balls – and of course of the variety of places Beatrice explores. She also manages to nail the emotional turmoil Beatrice and Rosa experience – Beatrice’s struggles with loss, and later addiction; Rosa’s difficulty in maintaining her autonomy once she’s married, and her complex thoughts about Beatrice as they both change and grow. Bell’s imagination is also incredible – the ideas surrounding the magical realism and steampunk elements are creative and brilliantly incorporated.

‘The Winter Garden’ has drawn a lot of comparisons to ‘The Night Circus‘, and on a superficial level it’s easy to see why. Both are magical realism books about a mysterious, wonderful place which only opens at night, hosts a secret competition, and is difficult to find unless it wants you to. There are deeper comparisons too – both books deal heavily with themes of autonomy. However, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a much more plot-driven tale, more directly tackling themes like feminism and grief. It’s also a book with a message – where ‘The Night Circus’ is pure escapist fantasy, ‘The Winter Garden’ tries to translate this into messages for life, something which will likely work well for some reasons and seem a bit preachy to others.

Overall, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a beautiful and creative story, albeit one which struggles in trying to carry so many narrative threads. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy and magical realism, books about strong women, and fans of Erin Morgenstern and Robert Dinsdale (Paris by Starlight).

Thanks to Del Rey for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 2nd September 2021

Robyn Reviews: A Master of Djinn

‘A Master of Djinn’ is a fun alternate history novel, exploring a version of early 1900s Cairo where djinn roam the streets and, rather than being a British colony, Egypt has shaken them off and struck out as its own world power. At times it can get a bit too sucked into description and context, but for the most part its a fast-paced read packed with strong characters and an intriguing mystery. This is P Djeli Clark’s debut novel, but is set in the same world as some of his previous short stories including ‘A Dead Djinn in Cairo’. Reading those stories provides context but is not necessary to enjoy the book.

Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Cairo Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, but she’s no rookie – she even prevented the destruction of the universe last summer. So when a wealthy English expatriate’s secret society are all mysteriously burned to death, she finds herself put on the case. The society was dedicated to al-Jahiz – the man who opened the gate between the mundane and magical realms fifty years ago before vanishing into the unknown. Fatma’s case becomes more complicated when a mysterious figure appears, proclaiming himself to be al-Jahiz returned and instigating unrest on the streets of Cairo. Alongside her new partner agent Hadia and her fiery girlfriend Siti, Fatma must unravel the mystery before Cairo is thrust into chaos.

Fatma is a brilliant protagonist. As the first young woman to crack the Ministry, she has a chip on her shoulder the size of a small boulder and an independent streak wider than the Nile. She’s smart, a strong fighter, and takes her job seriously, but she’s also incredibly stubborn and set in her ways. Adjusting to having a new partner is difficult for her, as is taking other people’s advice on a case where even she might be out of her depth. Her growth throughout the novel is excellent, and she has some wonderful interactions with both Hadia and Siti.

Hadia and Siti are only seen through Fatma’s eyes, but they’re also complex, strong characters. Hadia, like Fatma, has struggled to crack the Ministry’s patriarchal system – but unlike Fatma, who wanders around in tailored Western suits and cows others with the force of her personality, Hadia has done it all in colourful Hijabs and a polite, unassuming manner. Between her devout Muslim faith and rule-abiding attitude, Hadia is constantly underestimated – including by Fatma. However, Hadia is just as competent as Fatma, and seeing how she constantly surprises people with her ability is both wonderful and sad to read. Hadia and Fatma are interesting case studies in how women are expected to change in order to be taken seriously, and their similarities and differences are brilliantly written.

Siti is an incorrigible flirt, a passionate devotee of the forbidden old Egyptian religions, and a generally mysterious character. Her and Fatma’s relationship is intriguing – there’s a lot of attraction there, but its clear at the start that the two don’t really understand each other. As the story goes on, that starts to change, and Clark does a great job of making the transition feel authentic.

This is an audacious novel. It creates an entirely new world filled with djinn, goblins, ghuls, dragons, and other fantastical creatures, alongside crafting an alternative history for Cairo from the point the British tried to invade in the mid-nineteenth century. Alongside its main mystery plotline, there are subplots on women’s rights, colourism, and the rights of the half-djinn. The scope is admirable, but in trying to fit everything into a four-hundred page book, Clark sometimes finds himself bogged down in paragraphs of rote description, losing some of the tension and flow. This is his first step from short stories to novels, and he’s simply taken on a bit too much for a single urban fantasy. However, the potential for his world is exceptional, and hopefully any sequels will smooth out some of the rough edges and flow much more smoothly.

Overall, ‘A Master of Djinn’ is a solid historical urban fantasy exploring an intriguing alternative version of Egypt. It has a few teething issues – as is to be expected of a debut novel – but still tells an excellent, fast-paced story with a cast of likeable and complex characters. Recommended for fans of urban fantasy, steampunk, and Islamic mythology.

Thanks to Orbit for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 19th August 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Wolf and the Woodsman

‘The Wolf and the Woodsman’ is a dark, gritty tale inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish folklore. It has its weaknesses, but its beautifully written and tells an intriguing tale with gorgeous atmosphere.

In Évike’s pagan village, all women are blessed with magic by the gods – all, that is, except her. To be without magic is to be foresaken by the gods, leaving her an outcast. When the feared Woodsmen come to the village to enact their yearly toll – a powerful Wolf Girl as payment to the King – the villagers send Évike instead. However, en route to the city, the Woodsmen are attacked, leaving only two survivors – Évike, and the mysterious one-eyed captain. Alone in the dangerous forest, they must learn to trust each other if they’re to survive. But the captain is not who he seems, and there are far more dangerous threats than the monsters in the woods. Always the outsider, Évike must decide where she really fits in, and what she’s willing to give up to protect it.

Évike is a damaged woman, all snarls and sharp teeth. All her life she’s been looked down upon and belittled – bullied for her lack of magic, and for her Yehuli father sullying her pagan blood. Évike trusts no-one, and she craves power like a drug. Her words are sharp and she’s a talented huntress, but she’s never been strong enough to truly damage anyone else. In a cruel world, she dreams of finally having the strength to hit back. In many ways, Évike is an unlikeable character – but its difficult not to be sympathetic to her plight. Her character has been shaped by circumstance, and whilst she might not be pleasant she knows what it means to survive.

Gáspár, the Woodsman, is a complete contrast. He puts on a tough front, but inside he’s soft and kind-hearted – far too gentle for a world as cruel as his. He’s also smart and patient, knowing how to play the long game. His weakness is his heart -and a certain amount of naivety born from wanting to believe in the best of others. Its impossible not to like Gáspár, but his gentle nature lends itself to mistakes and betrayal.

Unfortunately, the romance between them doesn’t quite work. Enemies-to-lovers is incredibly popular at the moment, and often works well – but the chemistry between Évike and Gáspár isn’t fully convincing. Évike’s sharp edges are hard to reconcile with Gáspár’s softness, and the chasm between them is just too wide. There isn’t enough on-page character development to show any common ground.

Character development in general is the book’s biggest weakness. Évike feels almost exactly the same at the end of the book as she does at the start of her journey. She makes some seismic discoveries, but none of them have any convincing impact on her. Gáspár starts off as a mystery and then has a solid story arc, but Évike remains stubbornly the same. The story is still enjoyable, but it would be vastly improved if Évike ‘s character was explored a bit deeper and allowed to grow more obviously – especially in the second half.

On a more positive note, the writing is exquisite. Ava Reid has a knack for scene setting and descriptive writing, painting a gorgeous yet eerie picture of both the forest Évike is from and the city her and Gáspár end up in. The atmosphere is always dark and gritty, but there are elements of real horror interspersed with lighter elements – the sun peeking from behind the clouds. There are points where you want to stop and just admire the phrasing of a particular sentence.

The plot is engaging and twisty, with several distinct parts. In some ways, this would work better as two or even three books. The second half is faster paced than the first, but both are engaging. It takes some time to settle in and get past Évike’s prickly exterior, but beyond that, the first half becomes reminiscent of ‘Uprooted‘ or ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’, with the second half adding the politics of ‘We Ride the Storm‘ or ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. There are a couple of moments where things become repetitive, but overall everything meshes together well.

Reid packs a lot into just under 450 pages, yet manages to get away without information overload. It does mean that some things aren’t explored as deeply as they could have been – the Yehuli, Évike’s father’s people clearly based on the Jews, get less page time than might have been nice, and similarly it would have been good to see more of the Northerners – but there’s still plenty to enjoy. The atmosphere and excellent writing goes a long way to papering over the cracks of the minor flaws. This is a debut novel, and the skill Reid has with words leaves little doubt that she has bigger things to come.

Overall, ‘The Wolf and the Woodsman’ is a mixed book, but one worth reading for the atmosphere, more unusual folklore basis, and the exceptional writing. The characters and relationships aren’t the strongest, but there’s still plenty to like. Recommended for fans of folklore-inspired tales, lyrical writing, and complex explorations of culture and identity.

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 8th June 2021