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

Robyn Reviews: The Lights of Prague

‘The Lights of Prague’ is a lovely historical fantasy novel about a Prague filled with a secret monster underworld, only protected by the Lamplighters – men responsible for lighting the gaslamps around the city, and for fighting off the monsters no citizens would believe were there. The ending is a tad rushed and predictable, but other than this it’s an excellent, creative novel with insight into a beautiful city rarely portrayed in urban fantasy.

Domek Myska is a Lamplighter – a man who roams the streets at night tasked with protecting the city from the monsters who dwell in the dark. He’d rather be a mechanic, but his uncle can’t afford to give him a full-time job, and his family has long known about Prague’s monstrous secret. One night, Domek saves a woman from a Pijavica – a bloodthirsty vampire – and suddenly finds himself the target of multiple brutal attacks. They all seem to centre around a mysterious jar he took from the creature. Now, Domek must figure out what’s in the jar – and what the Pijavice are planning with it – before they seize the power to unleash terror on Prague and all its inhabitants.

The story is told from two perspectives – Domek’s, and a wealthy widow called Ora Fischerova, a woman fascinated by Domek – but also secretly a Pijavica herself. Domek is a solid main character – kind-hearted, strong, and determined – but he’s also infuriatingly stubborn, with a set of incredibly black and white morals. He’s a talented mechanic and fighter, but otherwise not the brightest, and his inability to compromise or see other sides of the argument regularly leaves him in trouble. Domek always wants to do the right thing – but he’s convinced that his way is the only right way. Domek’s growth across the novel is good, but his stubbornness in the middle would be hard to deal with without Ora as a counterpoint.

Ora is a far more multifaceted character. As a Pijavica vampire, she’s been alive – or undead – for hundreds of years, seeing Prague change from the height of an empire’s power to a smaller, somewhat forgotten city. Previously part of an exclusive vampire family, she escaped decades ago, hiding herself amongst the humans. She even found love and married one – but has now been left a widow torn apart by loss. Ora is a very damaged character who struggles with the loss and death associated with vampire life. She’s a glamorous lady, enjoying the trappings of high society – but also one with a great deal of guilt. At first, she sees Domek as a bit of a diversion – a plaything to seduce and then discard – but she finds herself more and more enraptured by his heart and unshakeable moral code. However, she has no idea that he hunts those like her – and that makes her conquest dangerous. Ora makes an excellent protagonist, with a surprisingly good sense of humour, and an interesting perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of immortal life.

The plot is clever, with multiple layers of mystery that are hard to parse out. Its reasonably fast-paced, with constant action and developments, but not so fast it leads to confusion. It also heavily features creatures seen less often in fantasy, like will-o-the-wisps – a form of sprite or ghost in European folklore. The ending does feel a little rushed – Domek, in particular, seems to change without enough time or explanation – but it’s satisfying, coming to a strong conclusion whilst leaving room for a potential sequel.

The setting of Prague works brilliantly. Prague is a beautiful city, and elements of its history and culture are evident throughout. There are references to the decline of empire, the uneasy coexistence of new Germans with old Czechs, and the resident Jewish population who have only just been permitted citizenship and still aren’t seen as on par with their Christian neighbours. Jarvis creates a real sense of time and place, with an insight into a fascinating and turbulent piece of history that works perfectly with her fantasy additions. For those who have spent time in Prague, there are also recognisable landmarks. I don’t know enough about Central European history to know how accurate the historical elements are, but they feel authentic.

Overall, ‘The Lights of Prague’ is an enjoyable slice of historical fiction with a brilliant setting and clever use of European folklore. The ending is rushed, but otherwise its a solid read. Recommended for fans of historical, urban, and paranormal fantasy and books with an exceptional sense of place.

Thanks to NetGalley and Titan Books for providing an eARC -this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 18th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: Circus of Wonders

‘Circus of Wonders’ is a gritty yet engaging slice of historical fiction, following the life of Nell as she is thrust from quiet village life into the blood, sweat, and glitter of Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders. It’s beautifully written, drawing the reader in and building a gorgeous sense of atmosphere and tension throughout. When the curtain falls – as it must – the story lingers. This isn’t always a happy story, but it’s an evocative and worthwhile read.

In the year 1866, Nell picks violets for a living. Her entire world is her beloved brother, her swims in the sea – and the disdain from the rest of the village for the birthmarks covering her skin. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in her village, Nell’s insular life is thrown into disarray. Sold by her father to Jasper Jupiter as his newest curiosity, she finds herself alone – but, for the first time in her life, she also finds herself admired rather than scorned. Slowly, she finds friendship – and fame. But fame is a fickle beast, and the higher Nell flies, the further she has to fall.

The novel is told from three perspectives – Nell’s, Jasper Jupiter’s, and Jasper’s brother Toby’s. Each lends the story a slightly different angle – but while each is initially cast into a role, as the story goes on each casts free from their initial mooring, becoming far more complex than they first appeared. Nell starts as the victim. Set apart by her birthmarks, she is the subject of mockery in her village, and even her loving brother sees her as different – and thus inferior. When her father sells her, it’s the lowest moment in her life – she feels lower than an animal, trapped in a cage. However, as time passes, she goes from the victim to the hero, the star of the show. The fame is addicting, glorious – and she grows drunk on success, dreaming of dizzier and dizzier heights. She can’t connect to a simple village life like her brother’s any more – not when she can be such a wonder. However, for all her glory, she’s still trapped – still that animal in a cage. Her thoughts on the dichotomy are fascinating. Nell isn’t always likeable, but it’s still impossible not to root for her, and fear for her inevitable fall.

Jasper, of course, starts as the villain. He’s marched into Nell’s peaceful village and purchased her like a prize pony. He’s a bully, beating his workers when they don’t do what he wants and forcing everyone to play along to his whims. He expects the women to cater to his pleasure, and he’s certain Nell will fall in line. However, even villains have other sides to their story. Jasper is selfish and needlessly cruel, but he’s also wounded and grieving. He’s naive, taking risks without paying attention to the consequences. He sees himself as a genius, fills himself up with his own importance – and no-one in his life holds him accountable. No-one ever has. Jasper is a horrible person, but more of a spoilt child than someone deliberately calculating and cruel. His fall is as predictable as Nell’s and, despite everything, by the end it’s hard not to feel sorry for him too.

Where Nell and Jasper are protagonist and antagonist, Toby is the supporting cast. As a child, Toby dreamed of the circus he and his brother would create together – but while Jasper has the strength, charisma, and attractiveness to be a star, Toby is seen as dull. Simple. The sort of person who can only fade into the background. Toby has spent his entire life in his brother’s shadow. He longs to step into the spotlight himself, but he can’t – he’s too scared, and he can’t betray his brother. Initially, Toby is the sort of character to be pitied. However, as his role grows and he starts to take more control over his life, he becomes far more complex. By the end, Toby is my favourite of the main characters. He isn’t entirely a good person – he’s done some awful things, and been complicit in far more – but he’s exceptionally loyal, and he always tries to be better than he is.

The atmosphere this novel creates is incredible. The circus seems to live and breathe, every sense hit in some way. MacNeal creates visceral images – not always pleasant, but always a feast for the senses. The plot is almost secondary to the simple feel of the circus in motion. There’s a constant underlying tension. The performers twirl across the stage, reaching dizzier and dizzier heights – but at some point the curtain will come down, and the show will end. The only questions are what the final act will be – and what happens next.

The denouement, when it happens, is a predictable but fitting end. There’s an epilogue, offering a little insight into the fallout. I have mixed feelings about epilogues – I’m a big fan of ambiguity, and allowing readers to muse on their own endings – but this is one of the stronger ones, still leaving the door open for the reader to fill in the gaps.

Overall, ‘Circus of Wonders’ is an engaging piece of historical fiction with an exceptional sense of atmosphere and characters who linger. A recommended read.

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

Published by Picador
Hardback: 13th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: Ariadne

“I would not let a man who knew the value of nothing make me doubt the value of myself”

‘Ariadne’ is a retelling of the Greek myths of Ariadne and Phaedra, the daughters of King Minos of Crete. It sticks faithfully to the source material, weaving a beautiful – if at times tragic – tale of two women, trying to find a place in a world of men. A highly readable novel, it makes a worthy addition to any mythology fans’ shelves.

Ariadne has grown up in luxury as the Princess of Crete, free to spend her days dancing the halls and weaving her loom. However, her life has two blights – her fearsome father, King Minos, and her even more terrifying half-brother, the Bloodthirsty Minotaur. When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives as one of the Minotaur’s yearly sacrifices, Ariadne is besotted and vows to help – but helping Theseus means betraying her father and Crete, sacrificing the only life she has ever known. Besides, does the woman in the hero’s story ever get a happy ending?

The novel starts with only Ariadne’s perspective,but from part II onwards there are two – Ariadne and her sister Phaedra. Ariadne is by far the stronger character. Sheltered and naive, she’s a sweet girl who wants to do the right thing, but struggles to figure out what that is. As the story progresses, she grows into a more resilient woman, but still one who turns her face away from the truth of the world in order to preserve her happiness. Her internal dilemmas and insights are fascinating, with the dichotomy of powerlessness and privilege.

Phaedra is always harder and shrewder than her sister, never content to sit back and assume a woman’s role. Her relationship with Ariadne is complicated – she loves her sister, but also hates her passivity and naivety. Phaedra is easy to sympathise with, but there’s a cutting edge to her personality which can make her hard to like, and in some ways she’s even more blinkered and naive than her sister.

Most Greek mythology fans are familiar with Ariadne’s role in the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, but this is only a very small part of the book. The rest, chronicling what happens afterwards, is far more interesting. Jennifer Saint paints an engrossing picture of the sisters’ separate yet parallel lives, giving an exceptional sense of place and culture. The narrative is relatively sedately paced yet never feels slow. The subject matter inevitably means this book will be compared to Madeleine Miller’s work, and the combination of the focus on feminism and femininity, a prolonged period set on a secluded island, and the writing style, do make this feel much like Miller’s Circe. However, this is a quieter novel than Miller’s work – still emotional, but more of a gentle sea compared to the emotional storm found at the denouement of Miller’s novels.

Saint chooses to stay completely true to the source material – as far as this is possible for a several millennia old translated myth – and my only quibbles with her novel are mostly unavoidable given this. Ariadne’s infatuation with Theseus is instantaneous and feels unrealistic, but then this is very much how love is portrayed in all the major Greek myths. Theseus can come across as two dimensional, with little character development, but then he’s seen entirely through the eyes of Ariadne and Phaedra, who always view him in a certain light. This is an excellent novel, and these complaints are minor, with very little effect on enjoyment.

Overall, Ariadne is a strong addition to the mythology retelling genre, providing an interesting insight into the lives of Ariadne and Phaedra outside of the famed encounter with the Minotaur. Fans of similar modern retellings such as The Song of Achilles and Circe will likely enjoy this book.

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

Published by Wildfire Books
Hardback: 29th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: A History of What Comes Next

‘A History of What Comes Next’ is an enormously clever book, part alternate history and part science fiction novel. The writing style will likely be polarising, but for those who appreciate something a bit different it’s an exceptionally worthwhile read.

Germany, 1945. Nineteen-year-old Mia is sent from America to infiltrate the Nazis and locate Wernher von Braun, Germany’s most esteemed rocket scientist. Her mission is to get hold of von Braun and his missile technology before the Russians can capture it. Naturally, von Braun is suspicious. But Mia isn’t an ordinary nineteen-year-old – in fact, she isn’t even human. Her people have been secretly shaping human innovation for thousands of years. But is her help benevolent, or does it spell the dawn of a greater danger?

There are two primary perspectives, Mia and her mother Sarah, and both are fascinating. On the face of it, both they and their thoughts resemble humans – but as the story progresses, both the differences and similarities become more stark. Sarah has long accepted her people’s way and differing morality, whereas Mia questions, creating interesting ethical conundrums. Where Sarah is relatively solitary, caring only about her daughter and a distant friend, Mia forms attachments – a scenario which, again, creates smaller whirlpools within the larger chaos. Personally, I found Mia’s perspective easier to relate to, but I suspect Sarah’s will resonate with all who have experienced parenthood.

Neuvel takes slight liberties with the order of innovations, but by and large draws his inspiration from actual historical events. The inside depictions of the Soviet-American space race are fascinating. The political backdrop of World War Two and the subsequent descent into the Cold War meshes surprisingly well with the more speculative, alien elements, and its easy to believe Sarah and Mia could actually have had a hand in it. There are also brief mentions of other major events – Sarah’s only friend, Hsue-Shen Tsien, is a Chinese man in America amidst the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, and there are little snippets of the ensuing racial and political tension. Similarly, Mia becomes close with a woman named Billie, a Black woman whose family fled the US for Russia with the introduction of the Jim Crow laws. These little extras add important historical context and paint a rich tapestry for the action that unfolds.

The writing style is sedate, with an almost stream-of-consciousness style. Some will likely find this slow or irritating, but I found seeing into the heads of Mia and Sarah brilliant. Neuvel perfectly captures the otherness of their alien heritage, whilst balancing the influences of their Earth upbringing and attachments. He also deftly avoids dumping large amounts of information in one place, instead weaving just enough into the narrative to clearly understand what’s happening without being overwhelmed. In places, the flow is broken up with an abrupt twist. The first time this happens it feels jarring, but as the story moves on it works – again, it feeds into the stream-of-consciousness, the mind following a thread then suddenly being distracted by another one.

Overall, ‘A History of What Comes Next’ is a bold novel, but one that speculative fiction readers should find plenty to love about. Recommended for fans of alternate history and novels unafraid to challenge convention.

Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph for providing a finished copy – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph
Hardback: 4th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: Sistersong

‘Sistersong’ is the story of three siblings – Keyne, Riva, and Sinne – born to the King of Dumnonia in the early 5th century AD. It’s a very classic historical fantasy, creating a wonderful sense of time and place whilst also spinning an engaging tale of magic and identity. It starts slowly, but the second half is a fast-moving adventure that’s difficult to put down.

Dumnonia in 535 AD was an area of South-West Britain covering most of modern Devon and parts of Cornwall and Somerset. The Kingdom was created by the departure of the Romans – but they left a fragmented and divided land. In ‘Sistersong’, King Cador of Dumnonia has turned away from his peoples traditional gods and magics and instead towards Roman Christianity, weakening their natural defences. The result is famine, and growing terror at the threat of the Wessex Saxons on their borders. Amidst this uncertainty, Keyne tries to navigate a world in which he is persistently forced to be a woman, rather than the man he knows he is. Riva, badly burnt and disfigured in a terrible fire, worries that she will never heal. And Sinne, the youngest daughter, yearns for a romantic tale of adventure and love, willing to sacrifice anything for her own desires. As new faces and old friends gather at the Dumnonian stronghold, the siblings clash, grappling with their warring desires – and with the Dumnonian magic, their bloodline and birthright, perhaps the only way they can save their people from Saxon rule.

Keyne is by far the strongest character in the book. His struggles with his identity are powerful to read about, and he’s a determined, feisty character, always fighting against perceived injustice and mistakes. His actions can be selfish, but his intentions are always good, and he deeply cares about his land and his people. His relationship with Myrddhin, his mentor, is absolutely fantastic, and later on he has the sweetest friendship-to-romance arc – lovely to read about, especially for a transgender character in historical fiction.

Riva’s journey also starts strongly. Her place in society, as a woman and the daughter of the king, has always been to marry well and carry children – but thanks to being badly burnt by wildfire, she no longer believes herself desirable enough to do her duty. She’s also a healer, saving many of her people from death – yet she cannot heal herself. Her grapples with identity, whilst very different to Keyne’s, are equally moving. However, her story becomes very predictable, and she has the weakest ending of any of the siblings tales.

Sinne starts off an incredibly difficult character to like. She’s selfish, caring only about herself and her own desirability, and she toys with others and their emotions. She’s mean and catty to her siblings, especially Keyne, and tries to spin every situation to see how she could get more social power from it. However, as the story goes on, she grows greatly. Like her siblings, Sinne possesses powerful magic – but hers is fickle and hard to control, and she starts to grapple with how much she actually knows herself, and how much is her magic leading her astray. She’s also one of the first to accept Keyne as he is, and she develops a beautiful and powerful friendship with a man called Os, a mysterious mute who most people hate or fear for his outsider status. Sinne is a woman covered in thorns, but beneath them there’s a good heart buried deep.

The plot is uncomplicated – there are a few surprises, but the overall arcs and biggest twists are relatively predictable. However, the exploration of a period of British history less commonly seen in historical fiction is fascinating, and the different pagan magics are beautifully explored. The difficult relationship between the spreading influence of the Roman Catholic church and the traditional worship of gods and the land is also well-written, with some great fantasy twists thrown in.

The ending is clear folktale and will likely be divisive – while the rest of the novel can be read as solid historical fiction with some fantasy elements, there are twists at the end which are pure fantasy. It’s slightly jarring, given the relative realism of everything else, but overall works well. The epilogue, with its ambiguous nature, is a poignant way to end, adding an element of mystery to an otherwise neatly concluded story.

Overall, Sistersong is a strong historical fantasy novel inspired by ancient British folk tales, with its strengths lying in the exploration of identity and pagan magic. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, folklore, and complex family relationships.

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

Published by Pan Macmillan
Hardback: 1st April 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Viscount Who Loved Me

‘The Viscount Who Loved Me’ is the second book in Julia Quinn’s ‘Bridgerton’ saga, a series of historical romance novels following each member of the Bridgerton family in their quests for marriage and love. This particular installment focuses on Anthony Bridgerton, the eldest son, and is expected to be the inspiration for the second season of the Netflix show. Quinn continues to prove herself excellent at writing witty, humorous characters, and the chemistry she creates is just as electric as it was for Daphne and Simon in ‘The Duke and I‘.

A year has passed since the events of the first book, and the ton is gearing up for another season. This year, the diamond of the season is none other than Edwina Sheffield, a relative unknown from Somerset making her debut alongside her older sister Kate. Of course, the most eligible bachelor is one Viscount Anthony Bridgerton – but this season, Anthony has decided it’s time for him to settle down and find a wife. Naturally, he’ll settle for nothing less than the season’s diamond – but Kate knows more than enough about Anthony’s reputation and has no intention of allowing such a rake near her sister. The two regularly find themselves matching wits. However, when Kate finds her hatred morphing to grudging respect and then to something far more dangerous, she starts to wonder if her opposition to Anthony and Edwina marrying is to protect her sister – or to protect her own heart.

Kate Sheffield makes an absolutely spectacular heroine. Not particularly dignified, with any beauty she might possess completely overshadowed by her younger sister, she instead gets by with a sharp tongue and sharper wits. She adores her sister, placing Edwina’s happiness far above her own, and is quite content to let marriage pass her by and simply retire alone in the country. She also has a brilliant corgi, Newton – appalling trained but undeniably loveable, he leads to some of the funniest and best moments in the entire book.

Anthony played a very minor role in ‘The Duke and I’, but given centre stage here he shines. Like Kate, Anthony is devoted to his family – although his is considerably larger and more complicated – but he’s also far more troubled than he shows on the outside. Losing his father at eighteen, the most important person in his life, affected him deeply – and while he knows it’s his duty to marry and produce an heir, he cannot fathom falling in love with someone and risking that level of loss again. His verbal sparring with Kate is a delight, but the real tension is around waiting for the two to stop hiding everything and start trusting each other.

Like in ‘The Duke and I’, a good portion of the plot revolves around miscommunication and misunderstanding – a common trope in the romance genre, but one which can become frustrating when over-used. Quinn just about manages to keep the tension exciting rather than a chore, helped by the clear affection and chemistry between Kate and Anthony. She also excels at humorous scenes – Kate and Anthony’s Pall Mall game being a clear highlight. Daphne and Simon only play a very minor role, but Colin and Eloise get more page time – both are fantastic characters, which makes me intrigued to get to their installments of the series.

Overall, ‘The Viscount Who Loved Me’ is an excellent historical romance packed with humour and fun. It’s a very light read, but if that’s what you’re looking for it comes highly recommended.

Published by Piatkus
Paperback: December 5th 2000

Robyn Reviews: The Night Circus

Many years after first reading it, ‘The Night Circus’ remains my favourite book of all time. It’s a gorgeous feat of imagination, packed with evocative imagery and characters you have to love. Like the circus itself, this is less a book than an experience – it eschews traditional narrative structure, instead weaving a tapestry that engulfs the senses and lingers long beyond the final page.

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

The story spans the late 1800s and early 1900s. Across the world, a mysterious circus keeps arriving – preceded by no announcements, and only open at night. Named ‘Les Cirque des Reves’ – the circus of dreams – it’s a circus like no other: a feast for the senses, an amalgamation of experiences which border on the fantastical, and all in black and white and shades of grey. But behind the scenes, the circus is not merely a circus: it is a battlefield. Two young magicians, Marco and Celia, have been pitted against each other as part of a rivalry spanning centuries. However, as their rivalry turns to love, the fate of the entire circus is put in jeopardy. Will the circus remain the circus of dreams, or will it unravel into the circus of nightmares?

Celia is a brilliant character. Aged five, she’s sent to her father – the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter – with her mother’s suicide note pinned to her coat. Prospero has no interest in a daughter – but Celia has inherited her father’s magic, and he sees an opportunity. Prospero grooms Celia to be the next player in a battle he has waged with a rival for centuries. As a result, Celia has a very different childhood to most, and becomes a very different woman. She’s quietly intelligent, using words sparingly but with an unerring ability to pick the right ones. She’s always composed – beautifully put together and fully in control of her emotions – and survives only by keeping complete control. Her entire life’s purpose is the game – the circus – and thus she’s always innovating, seeking out new ways to be the best. Secretly, Celia loves to entertain and show off – but she maintains decorum, only stepping beyond her bounds in a limited way she hopes she can get away with. Anyone who has ever felt trapped will relate to Celia and her story.

Marco, on the other hand, is plucked out of an orphanage to be Celia’s opponent. He’s naturally reserved – an introvert, happy to spend his time surrounded by books and accounts. The life he has is better than any life he could have expected, so he’s content to do as he’s told – until it starts to get in the way of his heart. Celia is a firecracker wrapped in layers of decorum; Marco is more a gentle fire on a winter’s night, but even a small fire can become ablaze with the right kindling. Their chemistry is electric – every scene they are together is charged and poignant, and even apart their connection shines through every page. ‘The Night Circus’ is many things, but at it’s heart it’s a love story.

The writing is the highlight of the novel. Erin’s prose is rich and evocative, conjuring up incredible imagery that hits every sense. The reader doesn’t simply read about the circus – they’re transported to it, traveling between the tents and spying on the characters through gaps in the canvas. The scenes are painted with exquisite attention to detail, and the characters are crafted in the same way – each feels fully fleshed-out and real. This is the sort of book that makes the reader believe in magic.

“Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?”

‘The Night Circus’ isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, and the main reason for that is the narrative structure. Rather than tell a story in any conventional way, it jumps across time and space, crafting the tale far more slowly. It requires patience for the payoff, trusting that all will make sense in the end. Interspersed throughout the narrative are scenes which simply invite the reader to experience the circus – descriptions of tents, interludes of other experiences the circus has to offer. The reader is made as much a part of the story as any other character. The way the tale is told makes the plot almost unimportant. Those who like action and drama will find little to enjoy here – but for those who want to be swept away into a world that’s almost like a dream, there’s no better example.

Overall, ‘The Night Circus’ is a gorgeous example of literary fantasy, blurring the lines of poetry and prose to produce something so beautiful it’s hard to believe it’s only made up of words. Recommended for fans of beautiful writing, timeless romance, and anyone who dreams for a little more magic in the world.

“You think, as you walk away from Les Cirque des Reves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.”

My review of Erin’s other book, The Starless Sea, can be found here. Jackie’s review of The Night Circus can be found here.

Published by Vintage
Hardback: September 15th 2011
Paperback: May 24th 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Duke and I

‘The Duke and I’ is the first novel in Julia Quinn’s popular ‘Bridgerton’ series, recently adapted into a hit Netflix show. It’s a surprisingly humorous and witty historical romance which – other than one notable scene – makes an enjoyable, quick read.

Daphne Bridgerton knows that the rest of her life depends on her securing an advantageous marriage match. However, while she has formed friendships with most of the eligible men in London, none of them see her as a desirable marriage prospect. Enter one Simon Basset, the newly-titled Duke of Hastings. The Duke has no intention of marrying – despite every mother in town seeking his hand for their daughter – and merely wants to go about his business in peace. The two hatch a cunning plan – they will pretend to form an attachment. A woman who has the attentions of a Duke will seem a highly desirable match indeed, and all the ambitious mothers will assume Simon has found his Duchess and leave him alone. However, the more time Daphne and Simon spend together, the more their ruse starts to feel real…

Daphne makes an excellent protagonist. She’s charming, witty, and unafraid to speak her mind or stand up for herself. She’s naive and immature, and prone to making unwise decisions, but her intentions are usually good. She can be a tad self-centred, but then she’s an aristocrat who’s likely always gotten her own way. Daphne isn’t necessarily the most unique character, and there’s a touch of ‘not like other girls’ about her, but she’s engaging and that’s all she needs to be.

Simon, on the other hand, is less of a paragon of masculinity than is sometimes seen in historical romance, which is refreshing. Yes, he’s a duke, and a devastatingly handsome one at that, but he’s also dealing with a number of issues – mostly centering around his terrible father – and struggles with a speech impediment. Like Daphne, Simon is clever and fond of a good quip, and their chemistry is remarkable. It’s clear right from the start that the two make an excellent match, and their relationship is highly believable.

The plot is relatively standard historical romance fare, but beyond one twist is still enjoyable and suits the characters and setting. Quinn is an excellent writer, especially of dialogue, and there are a few laugh-out-loud moments. Everything is kept mostly light-hearted, and it’s easy to read this in a single sitting. It makes the perfect read at the end of a long day when you want something simple.

The one issue this book has is a scene of female-on-male sexual assault. The male character has made it quite clear that he doesn’t consent to a particular act, yet – while he is intoxicated – the female character knowingly chooses to do it anyway. She acknowledges afterwards that it was wrong, but states she doesn’t regret it, and after a time is forgiven for her actions. This scene made me very uncomfortable, especially how it was later glossed over and – in some ways – made to seem like a positive thing in the long run. Female-on-male sexual assault is given a lot less attention than male-on-female, and works which minimise it will only cause further hurt to victims.

Overall, ‘The Duke and I’ is an enjoyable read packed with light humour – other than one scene which tars the story. It’s a shame that it was included (and an even bigger shame that it was translated in the same form into the TV show with no further commentary). My biggest hope is that a greater public lens will spark positive and progressive discussion around the issue of female-on-male sexual assault, rather than minimise it further. If you’ve watched the show, or are considering watching it, this is a recommended read – with the caveat that one scene may be distressing.

Published by Piatkus
Paperback: 5th January 2000

Book Review: The Priest and the Lily

I came across Sanjida Kay when I reviewed her first psychological thriller, Bone by Bone. Following subsequent interviews and events I became aware that this was not her fiction debut, that she had already published a number of other works under the name Sanjida O’Connell. I purchased Angel Bird as it was set in Ireland and enjoyed the tale. When she contacted me to offer a review copy of The Priest and the Lily – a new edition of historical fiction originally published by John Murray – I was happy to take the book.

Set in 1865, just a few years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the protagonist of the story is Joseph, a young Jesuit priest. Although firm in his faith, Joseph has a keen interest in evolutionary biology. He works as a scientist at Bristol’s Royal Botanical Gardens, retaining links with the British Museum. For years he has been plotting and planning in hope of gaining funding for a foreign expedition. He has long dreamt of travelling to Outer Mongolia – an interest inspired by boyhood stories of Genghis Khan – and returning with specimens of previously uncategorised flowers, thereby gaining him the respect of revered members of the Royal Society.

From the prologue, readers will be aware that Joseph returned from a perilous journey across Mongolia with a rare lily that brought him the kudos he had so desired. The remaining story is of the expedition, with some backstory to explain why Joseph developed his faith and scientific bent.

The first chapter details his crossing of the border with China, necessary to reach the landlocked destination. It is a shocking opening – a depiction of cruelty that lays bare the attitudes of many men he will encounter. Although distressing to read it provides effective scene setting.

Mongolia harbours a nomadic people whose culture includes a welcome for strangers. Joseph travels with a Mongolian horseman, Tsem – who will manage the pack horses necessary to carry provisions and equipment – and a translator, Mendo, who is a Buddhist monk. The three men, although very different in outlook and ambition, will become friends.

As they travel across the remote mountains and plains, Joseph collects specimens of plants and creatures – killing as he feels necessary. He regards this as important for science. Others regard it as theft. Joseph’s arrogance is that of an Englishman abroad, comfortable in his right to be there. He is willing to learn the language and fit in with cultural miens but regards his work as valuable and worth the plundering of locale.

As well as staying in tents used as shelter by the indigenous population, the trio benefit from hospitality in Buddhist lamaseries. These are under increasing threat from a Warlord whose army proves brutal and pitiless.

Having long regarded Buddhists as peaceable, it was shocking to learn of some of their practices – towards young boys placed in their care and the creatures in their surroundings.

The dangers encountered on the journey – hunger, weather, terrain and vicious people – are not the only aspects that challenge Joseph’s equilibrium. Mendo causes him to ponder aspects of his beliefs.

Events conspire to place Joseph in the care of a small mountain community. Here he meets a beautiful woman, Namuunaa, who will test his vows of chastity. He prays to his god to be delivered from evil, but who in this story is evil?

Although the various dangers added to the sense of place, offering details on the manner in which the Mongolian population lived, the long journeying occasionally felt, well, long. Joseph’s admiration for Namuunaa focused on her beauty – I could have done without the detail of their sexual activities. She was remarkable in so many other ways.

I would emphasise though that the story told has lingered, particularly the imagery. The author is skilled at touching the senses – from her vivid descriptions of the filth of Bristol’s crowded and noisy dockside to the difficulties encountered traversing the Gobi desert. The reader can almost taste and smell each location alongside Joseph as he struggles to adapt and survive.

The story took me to a place I had never given much thought to and brought it to life, adding depth by exploring the attitudes of scientists and religions in a time of change. At its heart is a story of people whose lives have been shaped by their need to adapt to personal tragedy. A tale of choices made and the cost of ambition that proved an interesting and rewarding read.

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