Book Review: Case Study

case study

“This was what people did. They sat in pubs drinking beer and gin and listening to each other talk. They pretended to be interested and then took their own turn at talking. It was difficult to see the point of any of it.”

If you enjoyed Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel, His Bloody Project, then you are going to love Case Study. Set in the 1960s it explores what Shakespeare expressed so well:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players

In the preface, the author explains that the tale he is about to tell came about when he was offered a series of notebooks written by a young woman whose supposedly successful sister, Veronica, died of suicide. The woman blames a notorious psychotherapist her sister had been seeing, without the family’s knowledge, for Veronica’s unexpected action and sets out to gather evidence. The author had written about this man, Collins Braithwaite, in a blog post and the current owner of the notebooks believed they would be of interest.

The story is then structured as a variety of entries written in appropriate literary styles and compositions. The contents of the notebooks are reproduced along with key pages from books written by Braithwaite. There are also chapters that tell the man’s life story.

The young woman starts her quest by making an appointment with Braithwaite under an assumed name, Rebecca Smyth. She does not wish to reveal that she is Veronica’s sister. Having little knowledge of mental health issues, she assumes that Braithwaite’s clients must be ‘nuts’. This assumption injects humour into the narrative as she gives herself leave to behave in ways her carefully controlled and repressed normal self would never countenance. As Rebecca, she will flirt with a handsome admirer and become inebriated. She also finds herself talking freely to Braithwaite about her past, something that surprises her and makes her think this is why people pay a therapist for their time. Braithwaite states of her:

“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone quite as hollow as you”

Braithwaite was a contemporary of R. D. Laing and railed against how the mentally ill were being treated at the time – drugged and electrocuted more than listened to. Despite agreeing on many issues, the two men were not interested in collaboration. Each thought their own work deserved the greater recognition, along with the wider respect this would garner.

Braithwaite gained fame through notoriety. He took on clients to earn money and provide cases he could write about in his books. Veronica appears in one of these under the name Dorothy. When her sister reads the account given of Dorothy’s relationship with her family she dismisses it. This was not the Veronica she had known and often derided. She could not accept that her sister may have differed from her assumptions.

As the story progresses, Rebecca Smyth and Collins Braithwaite emerge as fully formed characters, their thoughts and behaviours being at least as ‘nuts’ as those imagined people Rebecca initially tried to emulate. Perhaps if one looks closely enough at the life decisions made by any supposedly sane person, societal behaviours and constraints make little sense in terms of seeking contentment.

The author writes with skill and verve from the points of view of both men and women. There is only the one jarring inclusion. The narrator in the notebooks writes of her time at a girls’ school where sex was discussed but remained mysterious:

“At St Paul’s there was frequently exciting talk about The Penis, this chiefly concerned its dimensions”

Personally, I have never known any girls or women discuss the size of a man’s penis, although plenty of males have expressed interest in the subject. In the author’s favour, he avoids bizarre mentions of women’s breasts in descriptions of sexual encounters.

There are cringeworthy moments when Rebecca is out drinking with her admirer, Tom. These add flavour to her acknowledged difficulty in making conversation. Mostly the story builds on the emotional repression those at the time lived under, and how some strained and suffered at the behavioural shackles placed on them. Braithwaite may have pushed at the boundaries but even he could not fully escape what had shaped him as a youngster.

The young woman lives with her widowed father and has no particular wish to change this situation. She foresees for herself a future looking after him. When he encourages her to find a job, he then takes on a housekeeper his daughter soon grows jealous of. It is only when she invents Rebecca that she starts to question how she would choose to behave if freed from the constraints ingrained by her late mother.

There is much name dropping as real people coexist alongside those invented by the author. Rebecca relates many tall tales of encounters with the famous that Tom laps up. This adds to the sense that the young woman behind this mask is not as content with her lot as she has convinced herself.

The various strands come together effectively, leaving the reader questioning the fictions we create about ourselves and others. Even within close families people are unlikely to be understood, thereby building resentment, often unacknowledged. Social interactions are indeed a performance. Personas evolve but always around the foundation of upbringing.

A wise and witty portrayal of attitudes towards non conformists – how they appal but are also envied. This is impressively addictive storytelling, with breadth and depth, that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Saraband.

Book Review: Winter Flowers

winter flowers

Winter Flowers, by Angélique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter), brings to life the everyday hardships of ordinary working people living in Paris at the tail end of the First World War. Its protagonist is Jeanne Caillett, a talented flower maker living with her young daughter, Léonie, in a cramped two room apartment on the fourth floor of a building situated in the 2nd arrondissement. Jeanne’s husband, Toussaint, was called up to fight in the summer of 1914. In late 1916 his face was blown apart by shrapnel. He asked his wife not to visit after he was eventually evacuated to Paris for treatment and to convalesce.

The tale opens with Toussaint finally returning to his home and family. It is not just his looks that have been changed. Jeanne has been “waiting for a husband who’s been replaced by a stranger”. Unable or unwilling to speak, Toussaint hides his injuries behind a mask – physical and emotional.

The story explores loss in many forms and how this is dealt with by those directly affected or who stand witness. The authorities hold up the war dead as heroes. Those who return disfigured are openly pitied but expected to cope and fit back in. The Spanish Flu is also reaping lives, while others succumb to illnesses such as tuberculosis. Parents must deal with the deaths of their partners and children with chilling regularity and little compassion given how common such suffering is.

While Toussaint was away, Jeanne worked hard to keep herself and Léonie warm and fed amidst the shortages of fuel and food. They befriended neighbours, a small group of women offering mutual support, sharing what little they had when they could. Hunger and cold were rife. Long working days necessary for survival.

Toussaint’s return means there is another mouth to feed. His lack of communication leaves Jeanne unsure if he will work again or even leave the apartment. Léonie is put out that she no longer has so much of her mother’s attention, especially as her place in the big bed has been taken by a stranger who bears little resemblance to the picture she knew as her father.

As the family dynamic shifts, one of the neighbours finds her burden increased. With only so many hours in the day, Jeanne struggles to offer the support she would have managed previously. So much is being asked of her and still she must work.

The writing is spare and exquisite, the characters given depth, their plight drawn with care and empathy. Although a war story the focus is on the experiences of those who stayed home and must now deal with the aftermath. It is a poignant reminder of the many and varied hardships they faced.

I have read of the war disfigured in The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, and of another father’s return after the war in Her Father’s Daughter. Winter Flowers adds an additional dimension and is as subtly powerful and thoughtfully written while never descending into the sentimental. A perceptive story written with incisive skill.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Some Rise By Sin

Some Rise By Sin cover

“But do not be like one of those cold, calculating men who know much and in consequence, believe others to be of lesser worth. Acquire knowledge and understanding of the world and also of your neighbour, not for what it may bring in worldly goods, but for its own end.”

Some Rise By Sin, by Siôn Scott-Wilson, is historical fiction set in 1829 London. Told from the point of view of a young man named Sammy, it focuses on the hardships faced by those who possess scant assets and capital, who must scrape together a living by whatever means available. Sammy works with Facey, a friend from their shared childhood in Portsmouth. With help from a network of friends, informants and labourers the pair steal freshly dead bodies from graves to sell to wealthy men with an interest in anatomy. These grave robbers are known as Resurrection Men.

The story opens with a heist that, unbeknown to Sammy and Facey, will lead to a great deal of trouble. Amongst the poor and struggling there are those who would wield power through violence, raising themselves up by crushing any who threaten their nefarious business dealings. Sammy and Facey are well aware of who to steer clear of but cannot always avoid coming under the radar of those with eyes across the city’s underworld. A mistake can lead to brutal punishment, sometimes death, and the authorities have little appetite to investigate.

The tale told focuses on those living hand to mouth existences, who must do jobs such as: collecting faeces for tanneries and vegetable gardens, running errands, transporting goods on handcarts, begging from those passing by on the streets. In the background are the wealthy, most of whom care little for the labourers and scavengers who they regard as no better than animals. As in any strata of society, some are capable of kindness but there are also many users and ne’re-do-wells.

The first half of the book sets the scene, bringing to life a dark and vicious London barely imaginable to the privileged of today. Descriptions are sordid and explicit, capturing the stench, gore and violence. The rich men who feature are a mix of callous and condescending. Those who mean well often conflate poverty with ignorance. The author’s character development is impressive, the sense of place key. Although a somewhat slow read in places, details add depth and are there for a reason.

Around the halfway mark the pace of the plot picks up markedly. There is a chase scene that crosses the city, almost descending into farce but adding welcome elements of black humour. From here the tension is retained, the reader becoming more invested in outcomes as characters’ mettle is tested – sometimes in what may seem foolish confrontations. The brutality continues but the pulling together of threads – kick-started by one key section of expository dialogue – makes sense of the inclusion of previous descriptions. I was left with questions but these did not detract from the page-turning race to the ending.

Notably, there are few female characters with only one fully developed, who also serves as a love interest for Sammy. This was a time when death was common – from violence, illness, infection and childbirth. The precarious healthcare of the time is explored within a thread, as is the means of survival for children left without parents. Poor men lived through their wits, fists and dubious morality. If those featured sought women this is not mentioned.

For readers who cannot bear mention of animal cruelty, be aware this is graphically described – a reflection of the times portrayed. Entertainments often involved watching the deaths of fellow creatures, with betting on outcomes amidst heavy drinking. The book opens with a dog being cruelly punished for theft and this is accepted as fair.

In amongst the stench and dirt there are good people, although also many who will place acquaintances in danger when offered money for information. The law exists only for the gentry – one scene brings to life the flawed reasoning for this. Justice for any is rare, predicated as it is on protecting wealth and status.

The tale told provides a strong depiction of an historical period focusing on the paucity of lives being lived day by day rather than on aristocratic marriage machinations, politics or national affairs. Although not always a comfortable read this is due to the realism. As well as offering a strong story featuring goings on many may not have been aware of, it is a timely reminder that if an underclass exists without redress to legal protection, they will seek to survive by whatever means they feel necessary. For those who derided the pomp and inaccuracies of escapist Bridgertonset in a similar time period – this antithesis may be right up their street.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Deixis Press.

Book Review: Forty Lost Years

forty lost years

Forty Lost Years, by Rosa Maria Arquimbau (translated by Peter Bush), tells the story of a woman born and raised in Barcelona during the turbulent years of the mid twentieth century, when Catalonia suffered insurrection, war and fascism. It is not a political book but rather one of how ordinary lives were affected by authoritarian change. The author lived through this time and, in an epilogue written by Julià Guillamon, it is suggested that she wrote her own experiences into her central character. This is not memoir but offers a portrayal of lived history.  

The tale opens in 1931 when the protagonist, Laura Vidal, is fourteen years old. She lives with her parents and siblings in the cramped quarters provided for the concierge of their building – her mother’s job. Her father works for a furniture maker but money is tight. Laura has recently become an apprentice seamstress at an up-market workshop, along with her good friend, Herminia. Following elections, the president has proclaimed the Republic of Catalonia leading to widespread if short-lived celebrations.

Laura has little interest in these wider events being more concerned with her day to day existence and social life. She is frustrated by the limitations placed on her through lack of money and parental demands that she conduct herself with decorum. She is impatient to acquire womanly curves, to grow up and gain independence. Although developing an interest in boys, she draws little attention.  

The story follows Laura, her family and friends over the coming four decades. There are times of hardship when food is scarce and the young men, required to complete military service, are endangered by numerous conflicts. Laura is ambitious but requires backers if she is to set up the business she dreams of. Throughout her life she retains a pragmatic approach to securing what she needs.

There are marriages, babies, affairs and deaths as the years pass. In their twenties, Laura and Herminia leave Spain along with many other refugees in an attempt to relocate to Mexico. The trials faced in this period are described in the epilogue as autobiographical in nature. Eventually, Laura returns to Barcelona where she prospers in the opulent post-war years.

In many ways Laura is fortunate, finding those who are willing to help her when she is hungry or in need of accommodation. She works hard and feels no need to rely on a partner, noting the compromises married acquaintances must make. In her fifties, however, she observes how younger women now regard her and feels regret at some of her decisions. 

The spare prose offers little emotion yet succeeds in drawing the reader in. The portrayal of an independent woman as she navigates her way from naive teenager to successful business owner is rendered engagingly. Laura occasionally faces criticism from her family and friends but, despite this, mostly acts as she sees fit. Given her earlier approach to life – her attitude towards other’s expectations of her – I was surprised by the denouement, that she was so affected by what is natural aging. Her reaction to others’ opinion appeared out of character, or maybe this is also a change that comes with age.

Certain sections of dialogue could flow better – I wondered at some of the translator’s choices of spoken words – but this may be true to the region. Encounters with the young idealists who then turn to profiteering offer a reminder that principles are rarely fixed.

An enjoyable read set in a time of great change that refuses to pander to a stoicism that so often veneers survivors who are later regarded as worldly successes. The characters portrayed here have flaws as well as strengths, and this adds to their depth. 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum D’Estampa Press.

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