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.

Book Review: The Warlow Experiment

“They err as men do that argue right from wrong principles”

The Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan, is set during the closing decade of the eighteenth century. This was the Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment, when European intellectuals were debating ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity. The movement instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy and politics, which grew alongside great strides in scientific discovery. It was also a time of social revolution in France leading to numerous wars that took men from their families.

The protagonist of the story is Herbert Powyss, a wealthy bachelor gentleman with an interest in horticulture. He experiments with the cultivation of non-native plants and trees on his small estate in the Welsh Marshes – Moreham House. An avid reader with an interest in scientific reasoning, he dreams of recognition by the Royal Society in London. Realising that his current interests and occupations may not be regarded as consequential, Powyss decides to set up an experiment centring on a willing human subject. He advertises for a man prepared to live alone, underground, for seven years, permitted no contact with the outside world. The subject will be provided with food and comforts, paid a stipend for life, in return for keeping a journal of his thoughts and activities while in solitary confinement.

“his actions would produce something good, a significant contribution to science”

Only one man replies to the advertisement. John Warlow lives locally with his wife and six children. He is a farm labourer surviving in a hand to mouth existence. From childhood he has taken whatever work local landowners will offer. His home is a small, badly maintained cottage, typical of those available to families in his position. He regards Powyss’s scheme as offering the only chance he will ever have to escape poverty. His involvement in the experiment certainly changes the way the Warlows live, but not in ways they could have envisaged.

Powyss’s first mistake is in kitting out the rooms in which his subject will live to entertain someone like him. There are books, a small pipe organ and writing materials. Warlow is semi-literate and used to days filled by hard manual labour. He is determined to earn his stipend but struggles with how to get through each day. The requirement to write in the journal is one he cannot comprehend.

Warlow’s wife, Hannah, visits Powyss each week to collect her husband’s wage. She is wary of wealthy gentlemen, and with good reason. Women at the time had few rights and little recourse to justice should they be violated. Even the social warriors of the time, advocating for wider suffrage, did not consider women in their campaigns.

Wider social changes are explored through Powyss’s servants. He keeps only a small staff as his needs are few compared to his peers. Some of the servants are more loyal than others. They vary in skills and education. Powyss favours his gardener, even when the man starts spreading sedition.

Moreham House becomes a microcosm of issues being fought for across Europe. Despite Warlow being willingly incarcerated, others regard him as a prisoner of the landed gentry. Powyss is assumed to be taking advantage of Hannah. The gardener, who claims to be fighting for freedom for the oppressed, cannot recognise his own controlling relationship with the maid he becomes involved with. He is angered when she proves herself more capable than him of parsing texts the rebels revere.

Powyss, meanwhile, is struggling with the way his experiment is progressing. The settled and solitary existence he had previously enjoyed has been thrown off kilter by Warlow’s habitation of his cellars. The servants complain that the man rarely changes his clothes – the state of them when he does means they must be burned. With no communication allowed, there can only be conjecture on how he is coping. Powyss had envisaged his experiment as ‘the application of cool reason, of impartial, scientific calculation.’ Unlike his plants, a human subject cannot be disposed of if it fails to thrive or infects those in its vicinity.

The structure of the story allows the reader to follow what is happening from multiple viewpoints. Taken within the context of growing social unrest – including complaints over hunger and conscription – there is pleasing depth in the depiction of all social classes and their expectations of each other’s behaviour. Powyss is educated, has travelled the world, but his naivity is the catalyst for a tsunami of destruction. Throughout, Warlow is being used by all he comes into contact with to further their pet causes, whatever the cost to him and his family.     

This is the first novel in a long time that I have picked up and read cover to cover in a day. The writing is engaging and well paced, going in directions that maintain momentum. There is much to consider around the actions of the varied and well developed characters. Secondary characters are only introduced with good reason.

The author is not afraid to include the consequences of actions, to follow through on threads that cannot end well. Although a multi-layered narrative it flows with ease. A story that can be taken at face value or as an allegory for the price of progress. This is a recommended read.

The Warlow Experiment is published by Serpents Tail.

Book Review: Inside the Beautiful Inside

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bethlem Hospital began as a priory, founded in the 13th Century. By 1400 it had become a refuge for strangers in need. Over time, Bethlem specialised in caring for those considered insane. By the 17th century, the asylum was well-known enough to appear in dramas and ballads – used as a way to explore the popular question of who was mad, who was sane, and who had the power to decide.

When the second version of the hospital was constructed, in 1676, it was unlike any asylum seen before. Its opulent exterior was compared to the Palace of Versailles. However, the hospital was built on rubble – it didn’t have proper foundations. Because the ornate façade was so heavy, it immediately cracked at the back. Whenever it rained, the walls ran with water.

The new hospital was, quite literally, putting a pretty face on what many Londoners saw as a messy, distasteful problem. Visitors would pay to view the inmates and wonder at the grimness of their lives. Going to the hospital was meant to be an instructive reminder to keep baser instincts in check lest they too be committed.

Inside the Beautiful Inside is set in the crumbling Bethlem during its final decades, before it was torn down and rebuilt again elsewhere. The protagonist is an American marine, James Norris, a real life seaman who was an inmate from 1800 to 1815 – he was incarcerated for an unnamed lunacy. In this fictionalised account of his life, Norris served under Captain Bligh – of Mutiny on the Bounty fame – and was a friend of Fletcher Christian. The story opens with Norris saving Christian’s life whilst at sea.

The timeline then jumps forward to the day Norris is taken to Bethlem. Here he must endure under the cruel regime of the keepers and a drunken surgeon, tasked with patient care. Convinced that Christian is also an inmate, Norris is determined to wreak revenge on the man he now blames for ruining his chance of a happy life with a woman he spurned.

The appalling conditions in the asylum are brought to vivid life in the narrative. Norris survives by going inside his memories, particularly of happier times with a young Welsh woman, Ruth, who he hoped to marry. He has, over the course of his life, lost all those he cared for: mother, brother, lover, friend. By reliving his key memories, the reader learns of each of these relationships, albeit in fragments.

Norris’s eventual outcome was determined by three prominent reformers who were concerned by the condition and ill-treatment of patients in lunatic asylums. They used an illustration of Norris – mechanically restrained in an extraordinary device designed specifically for him after a series of violent incidents – to garner public interest and thereby orchestrate change.

The reasons for these incidents are used in the story to add depth to Norris’s character and subsequent actions. Told from his point of view, veracity is always in question. Norris holds tight to his memories as they are all that keep him going through the pain and degradation inflicted on him and his fellow inmates. Over the course of his time in Bethlem, Norris’s grasp on reality is severely tested.

Fascinating though it is to travel inside the head of someone living through such appalling circumstances, this was not an easy read. The memories Norris shares add colour and credence to his actions but life in Bethlem remains unremittingly grim. Although not a long book, I was eager for it to end. The denouement made more sense when I looked up what happened to Norris in reality.

The author has chosen to make Norris a victim who survives in part due to strengths derived from his life as a hardened seaman. That he hankers after a more domestic existence – one he eschewed due to jealousy and pride – made his predicament poignant but, in some small measure, self-inflicted. His time in captivity brought to the fore his regret at not valuing what he could have had.

The story offers an interesting history but not so much the psychology I had expected from the synopsis. The voice adopted for Norris garners sympathy – how could it not – but too often comes across as disjointed. Perhaps my not entirely favourable reaction is down to unmet expectations derived from the book’s publicity material – that and my lack of engagement with the style of writing.

Any Cop?: The treatment of those society regards as insane has a long and shocking history. I feel I learned more about Bethlem in general from this tale than about the inmate narrating.

 

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: The Tower of Fools

‘The Tower of Fools’ has the same translator, David French, as Andrzej Sapkowski’s ‘Witcher’ series, and the narrative voice is undoubtedly the same. However, unlike the ‘Witcher’ books, this first instalment in Sapkowski’s ‘Hussite War’ trilogy is much heavier on the historical than the fantasy. I enjoyed the insight into a period of history I know little about – but unfortunately, as the novel continues, the constant references to more and more historical figures become a little draining. It’s like reading ‘A Game of Thrones’ for the first time magnified by ten – it’s impossible to remember who each character is.

The novel follows Reinmar of Bielewa – known as Reynevan – a scholar and physician from Prague who fled after the invasion of the Hussites. Now safely ensconced the other side of the border, he makes the mistake of having an affair with a nobleman’s wife. The nobleman’s family are enraged, and Reynevan is forced to flee. Thus begins a story in which Reynevan runs from town to town, makes generally bad choices, and survives thanks to good luck and much smarter friends.

Reynevan has great potential as a character. An accomplished physician – and secretly, a far less accomplished mage – he comes across as a generally nice man (unless women are involved). Unfortunately, his constant terrible decision making makes him a very difficult character to like. He’s rash, hot-headed, and – unless medicine is involved – generally a bit clueless about everything. I have no idea how he’s ended up with so many useful and helpful friends without picking up a lick of common sense himself.

The cast of supporting characters evolves, but some of the most interesting are Scharley, Samson, and Urban Horn. This is a plot-driven rather than character-driven novel, and all three characters are left mostly mysterious, but hopefully more will be revealed in book two – especially about Samson, who is far more than he seems.

The fantasy elements are mainly the existence of mages – of which Reynevan is an amateur, but far more accomplished mages and witches are encountered – demons, and mysterious shapeshifting creatures, including one known as the Wallcreeper. There’s no specific magic system, but each element is worked neatly into the story. The Wallcreeper appears to be the true overarching ‘enemy’ of the trilogy, but remains a peripheral figure in this first instalment. The witches are brilliant and, whilst they only make cameos, deserve their own book.

The main issue I have with this book is one that I also have with the ‘Witcher’ novels, and that’s the attitude towards women. Of course, ‘The Tower of Fools’ is a historical (15th century) book written through a man’s perspective, so misogyny is to be expected – but that doesn’t make it pleasant to read about for 500 pages. Sapkowksi appears to try to make Reynevan marginally less misogynistic than his peers, but his thoughts about women are regularly unpalatable. Overall, this is a solid historical fantasy novel that will likely appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell-esque historical fiction, Sapkowksi’s Witcher novels, and fantasy novelists like Mark Lawrence – but perhaps not fans of more modern fantasy that’s moved past medievalist fantasy tropes.

Published in the UK by Gollancz
Paperback: 27th October 2020

(Originally published in Polish in 2002)

Robyn Reviews: The Betrayals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 12th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: 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