Robyn Reviews: The Second Rebel

‘The Second Rebel’ is the epic sequel to ‘The First Sister‘, expanding the world in scope and complexity and continuing to tell a tense, action-packed tale reminiscent of a morally-greyer Star Wars. Where ‘The First Sister’ is a solid novel elevated by the excellence of its ending, ‘The Second Rebel’ is brilliant throughout, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat. Once again, the ending is a punch to the gut- and also shows that the author won’t pull their punches when it comes to beloved main characters. This is a dark and gritty sci-fi in places, and a recommended read throughout.

Where ‘The First Sister’ alternated between three perspectives – Lito, First Sister, and Hiro – with the latter only in the form of audio recordings, ‘The Second Rebel’ ups this to four. The additional point-of-view, Lucinia sol Lucius – Lito’s sister – sees the world very differently to her brother, and also lends a touch of youthful naivety and optimism missing from the now battle-hardened other characters. However, the highlight of the book is Hiro, allowed to flourish instead of being relegated to recorded snippets. Hiro is sarcastic and irreverent, but also deeply caring, and their struggles throughout the book are both harrowing and moving to read about. There’s a single chapter at the end with a fifth perspective, but to provide any more insight would be a spoiler – I had guessed the twist, but its still an excellent one that I’m looking forward to seeing develop in the finale.

The worldbuilding is expanded greatly, and is one of the strongest parts. Beyond the Icarii and Gaens, the Asters play a much larger role than they did in The First Sister, and there’s also the introduction of the Synthetics – a powerful yet mysterious group poised to play an even larger role in the finale. Lewis avoids info-dumping, weaving all the parts of this expanded world in seamlessly. They also excel at creating culture – each race feels distinctly different, with their own lifestyles, social and political structures, and places in the wider universe.

For most of the book, the four protagonists are separate, each following their own storyline. Unusually in a multi-perspective story, there isn’t a weak link – each storyline is engaging, and its enjoyable rather than cumbersome jumping between them. First Sister’s storyline is a bit separate to the rest – all of whom are more clearly on the same side, and working towards similar goals – but this broadens the book, providing intriguing context about the world outside Lito, Hiro, and Lucinia’s bubble.

Another of Lewis’s strengths is the many fight scenes throughout the book. Fight scenes can be chaotic, but Lewis choreographs them all well, giving them realism and brutality. Its always obvious whats happening and what each characters limitations are. This is definitely a book to heed the trigger warnings for, but if you don’t mind gritty action it does it exceptionally well.

The one criticism the book could have is that it’s over 150 pages longer than ‘The First Sister’ and it does take a little time to warm up. Part of this is Lewis trying to explain the basis of the plot of ‘The First Sister’ so that readers don’t have to reread the first book before digging into this one. For those who prefer not to re-read, this will probably be greatly appreciated – I reread the first, so for me it was a little more cumbersome. However, once it got past this section, the story flowed beautifully and passed impressively quickly for an over-500 page book.

Overall, ‘The Second Rebel’ expands and improves on ‘The First Sister’, telling an engaging and action-packed story with all the best aspects of complex space opera. Highly recommended to all sci-fi fans.

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

Published by Hodder and Stoughton
Hardback: 24th August 2021

Robyn Reviews: A Dark and Hollow Star

‘A Dark and Hollow Star’ is a fun contemporary urban fantasy, blending Fae magic with modern Toronto. Packed with pop culture references and great characters, it tells an entertaining, twisty tale sure to appeal to the young adult fantasy audience.

Toronto isn’t just a thriving Canadian city – hidden from human eyes, its also the home of the High King of the Fae and his Court of Seelie Spring. One of eight Fae Courts around the globe, its greatest job is to keep all faeries secret from their human counterparts. However, a series of gruesome, ritualistic murders of the Ironborn – half-fae, half-human children – threatens to reveal their existence. Enter four unlikely heroes. Arlo, of royal blood but outcast due to her half-human heritage, is naturally curious about a threat to those like her – and she can’t understand why her family seems determined not to investigate. Nausicaa, an immortal Fury cast out of the Immortal Realm over a century ago, sees an opportunity to sow more chaos and exact revenge on her family. Vehan, a dutiful prince of the Seelie Summer Court, feels honour-bound to investigate. And Aurelian, Vehan’s reluctant bodyguard, must follow Vehan wherever he goes – and keep a terrible secret. As the four delve into the Mortal Realm’s underworld, it becomes clear there’s more at stake than just secrecy – perhaps even war between the Mortal and Immortal Realms. The players can tip the scales – but which way?

The story alternates between the four perspectives, perhaps focusing slightly more on Arlo and Nausicaa. Arlo makes an excellent protagonist – at sixteen, she’s struggling with her dual lives in the Fae and human worlds, juggling adventures with her full-Fae cousin with normal human school and spending time with her human father, whose memory has been wiped of knowledge of the Fae. Arlo’s strong and caring, but constant judgement from her Fae family for her human heritage has knocked her self-esteem. Coupled with her difficulties with magic, she isn’t sure she fits in anywhere, and beyond her cousin has few friends. Arlo’s journey will resonate with most teenagers. I especially like the few scenes she has with her dad – they have an interesting relationship, given how much Arlo has to hide, and I hope it’s explored further in later books.

Nausicaa has a fascinating, but tragic, backstory. Once a fearsome immortal Fury, she was cast out for breaking the rules, stripped of her rank and most of her power and left to live amongst the Mortals she despised. A hundred years later, Nausicaa is still an angry, chaotic being – but to an extent she’s mellowed, and while her morals are very grey she’ll occasionally do the right thing. Nausicaa isn’t a nice character, but she’s an intriguing one, and she genuinely comes to care for Arlo. Nausicaa’s struggles with morality, depression, and loss are openly explored on page, and it’s great to see a fantasy character talking unashamedly about therapy and her mental health. Her character arc is more subtle than Arlo’s, but its still lovely to see a damaged character opening up and learning how to care about others again.

Vehan and Aurelian are separate for most of the story, living in the Seelie Summer Court in Nevada, and only joining Arlo and Nausicaa for the climax. Vehan is a delightful character – kind, caring, honourable, and determined to do the right thing no matter the costs. Much to Aurelian’s vexation, he’s an old-fashioned hero. Aurelian, meanwhile, is a bit of a mystery. Vehan’s childhood friend, now employed as his bodyguard, he’s a gruff, detached man, eternally frustrated by how hard Vehan makes his job. Their relationship is excellent, if sad. Both absolutely adore the other – but Aurelian, with his many secrets that Vehan can’t possibly know, has to hide it at all costs. Vehan, meanwhile, as an eligible eighteen-year-old prince, will have to marry for status – not for love. Throughout the book, there’s a constant tension between them – both wanting to confess, but also desperately avoiding the other’s confessions. Its a fantastic dynamic, and one that works well alongside the main plot rather than detracting from it.

The Toronto setting is one of my favourite parts of the book. I know very little about it, but it’s great to see a setting other than New York or London in urban fantasy, and the faerie elements are blended with the standard modern city brilliantly. I can’t speak for how accurate it is, but it feels authentic, with the bustling atmosphere of city life. There’s also a huge amount of casual diversity. Nausicaa is a lesbian, and actually uses the term on page – very unusual in fantasy, even sapphic fantasy. Several side characters are mentioned to be non-binary and use they-them pronouns, and of course the central relationships are sapphic and achillean. Its great to have a book where queerness is a casual feature without being a notable plot point.

There are a few minor quibbles. The start of the book is very slow, with the first hundred pages mostly exposition and scene-setting, so it takes perseverance to engage with the story. There are also times where things just feel a little too easy for the protagonists to have the full level of tension – Nausicaa is extremely powerful, and Arlo extremely lucky. There are reasons for both, but it can make elements less fraught than they might otherwise have been. I will also note that this is clearly inspired by roll-player games, with references throughout to Dungeons and Dragons and clear elements borrowed from similar media. This isn’t a bad thing, but some might find it difficult to engage with.

Overall, ‘A Dark and Hollow Star’ is an excellent contemporary urban fantasy with a strong plot and brilliant casual diversity. Highly recommended for fans of young adult fantasy, stories about the Fae, and LGBT+ literature.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Paperback: 25th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: In The Ravenous Dark

‘In the Ravenous Dark’ is an enjoyable, fast-paced fantasy romance with excellent LGBTQIAP+ representation and a fun cast of characters. The twists are relatively predictable and the plot simple, but it’s a solid read if you’re not looking for something complex.

In Thanopolis, those with magic are both prized and feared, bound to undead spirits to guide and control them. Rovan’s father gave his life to keep her from this fate – but when an accident leads to her revealing her powers, she’s thrust into a world of magic and politics that she barely understands. Her situation is further complicated when she finds herself falling for the beautiful Princess Lydea – and also Ivrilos, the undead spirit now bound to her for all eternity. Unsure who to trust, Rovan must uncover a centuries old secret at the heart of Thanopolis – and possibly betray everyone she loves in the process.

Rovan is a solid protagonist. Raised in an isolated village for her own safety, she understands little of city politics or royalty – and combined with a tendency for bluntness it leads to some hilarious, if cringe-worthy, situations. A powerful but untrained bloodmage, Rovan is capable of extraordinary feats, but regularly finds herself out of her depth. She’s so overpowered it does take some of the suspense and drama out of things, but despite this its impossible to dislike her with such an amazing matter-of-fact attitude.

The two love interests, Lydea and Ivrilos, are polar opposites. Lydea is a princess, but otherwise much like Rovan – fun-loving, relaxed, and unafraid of breaking the rules. Sparks fly almost immediately and the chemistry is palpable – however theirs always feels like a more surface level relationship. In contrast, Ivrilos is the stereotypical male fantasy love interest – quiet, brooding, and mysterious, a protector in the background betraying his family for the one he loves. He starts very two-dimensional, however as more about his past and personality is revealed, he develops into arguably the most interesting character in the book. His relationship with Rovan is a far slower burn, and feels more realistic for it.

It’s unusual to see polygamy portrayed in mainstream fantasy, and whilst the instant acceptance of anything might seem unrealistic, there’s enough tension in the plot without needing relationship friction to add to the drama. LGBTQIAP+ characters aren’t fully accepted in Strickland’s world – Japha, who is non-binary, is treated as male by the King, and lesbian Lydea is expected to marry and produce children with a man – but Rovan’s pansexuality and polygamy is never treated as abnormal. It’s great to have healthy representation of non-monogamous relationships, and whilst the overall ending is a bit too happily-ever-after it does make a pleasant change from all the LGBTQIAP+ characters dying at the end.

The plot is mainly focused around political intrigue and scheming, but it’s fast paced and engaging. It does feel very trope heavy, with most of the revelations easily predictable, but the tropes are written well. The main issue with the plot is that all the villains are a bit caricaturic. The protagonists are undoubtedly good, with the possible exception of Ivrilos, compared to the true irredeemability of their enemies. There’s a twist approximately two-thirds into the book which will likely divide opinion, but personally I found it an interesting addition if a bit out of keeping with the rest of the books mythos.

Overall, ‘In The Ravenous Dark’ is a solid addition to the fantasy romance genre, mostly notable for its depiction of a healthy polygamous relationship and LGBTQIAP+ diversity including pansexual, asexual, and non-binary representation. Recommended for fans of new adult fantasy romance, love triangles done right, and political intrigue.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 18th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Prison Healer

‘The Prison Healer’ is a surprisingly dark and gritty YA fantasy. The individual elements and twists are relatively predictable, but the unique setting and darker undertones make this an engaging and worthwhile read.

Kiva Meridan has been at the notorious Zalindov prison for ten years, imprisoned as a seven year old alongside her father for being part of the rebel uprising. Now seventeen, she works as the prison’s healer – treating the inmates’ ailments, but also carving the prison’s mark into new arrivals and reporting intel to the prison’s warden. The other inmates shun her for her compliance – all except Tipp, an eleven year old she’s taken under her wing. When the Rebel Queen is captured, it’s Kiva’s job to keep her alive long enough to face punishment – a job which becomes even more important when a coded message from her family arrives, making it clear that Kiva’s own life is tied to the Queens. Kiva’s only chance at survival is to volunteer to sit the Queen’s punishment in her place – a punishment no-one has ever survived.

Kiva is an excellent protagonist – strong, mature beyond her years, and absolutely determined to survive. Outwardly compliant, her inner thoughts are nothing but, and she knows exactly how to game the system to her advantage. However, the Rebel Queen’s arrival throws all her careful plans and systems into disarray, leaving her almost helpless. Its this that is Kiva’s main issue – she’s so powerless against her own fate it can be a bit irritating to read, as she continually survives with almost no input of her own. She’s clearly a highly intelligent woman – it would be nice if she was allowed to play a larger role in her own fate.

The other major characters are also great – especially Tipp, the sweetest character in the book. Tipp is an element of light and joy in an otherwise dark story. He also has a speech impediment, not something seen very often in fantasy novels. Naari is another fantastic character, a strong and moral prison guard in an institution otherwise filled with corruption. The friendship between her and Kiva is excellent, and the way they come to gradually trust each other feels entirely natural.

The love interest, Jaren, is probably the weakest character. He’s very easy to like, and the chemistry between him and Kiva is evident, but he also feels incredibly stereotypical of a YA love interest. Other than his affection for Kiva, he comes across two-dimensional. However, he has the potential to be a much stronger character than he is, and I hope he’s developed further in the planned sequel.

The setting is the high point. Zalindov prison is a horribly bleak place, a place where people are sent to die, and Lynette Noni does an exceptional job painting a picture of it. The situation always feels dark, and the horrors – whilst carefully age-appropriate – always feel real. Kiva’s role as the prison healer shelters her from some of the worst elements, and her horror and revulsion as they come to light is deeply impactful. The healing itself also has a reasonable scientific basis. The terminology is kept simple and accessible, but none of it feels out of the realms of possibility.

The major issue with this novel, unfortunately, is the plot. The secondary plot, involving the outbreak of a plague, is very interesting, but the major plot – a series of trials Kiva must take for the Rebel Queen – is well-trodden territory in YA fantasy, and there isn’t enough innovation to stand out. It isn’t helped by the fact Kiva is continually saved rather than saving herself. The twists in the plot, including the ending, are clever, but all are predictable before they happen, giving the ending a lack of impact.

Overall, this is a solid entry to the YA fantasy genre, worth reading more for the innovative setting and darker undertones than the overarching narrative. Recommended for fans of YA fantasy novels like Shadow and Bone and The Hunger Games.

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

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 13th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

‘The Galaxy, and the Ground Within’ is the fourth and final book in Becky Chambers’ ‘Wayfarers’ series – a collection of loosely-connected space operas imagining an intergalactic future. Like all of her books, it’s a gorgeous, character driven tale, quiet and small in scope but absolutely brimming with humanity and emotion. It’s not my favourite entry in the series, but it’s a beautiful and poignant tale to end on.

The planet Gora is utterly unremarkable. It has no water, no breathable air, and no native life – not even the smallest microbe. However, it’s in convenient proximity to several more remarkable planets – and therefore makes a convenient stopover point for intergalactic travel. Ouloo, a member of the Laru race, runs the Five-Hop One-Stop – a place designed to cater to every sapient on their travels, no matter their needs. When a freak technical failure ends up grounding all flights from Gora, Ouloo finds herself playing host to four completely different sapients: her occasionally helpful son Tupo, an Aeluon called Pei, a Quelin exile called Rovsig, and – to her discomfort – an Akarak called Speaker, an alien even amongst aliens. The longer they spend together, the harder it becomes to stay diplomatic – for better or worse.

The only character to have featured in a previous ‘Wayfarers’ book is Pei – she’s Ashby’s love interest from ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’. However, seeing her from her own perspective is completely different, so this feels like a collection of completely new characters. ‘Galaxy’ is also the first Wayfarers book to have a completely non-human main cast. Chambers has proven time and time again that she excels at creating aliens – from the xenobiology to complicated cultures and political structures – and this is one of the best exemplifications of that. Each character is utterly unique, and their cultural backgrounds, complex politics, and relative xenophobia feel exceptionally believable. With the Akarak, Chambers has created her most unusual race yet, and the impact this has on the others’ relationship with Speaker is brilliantly portrayed.

This is a quiet story. There’s no plot beyond a group of different people being trapped for several days together unexpectedly, each with their own reasons to want to get away: Pei to meet Ashby, Rovsig to make an appointment, and Speaker to return to her unwell sister. The perspective alters between Pei, Rovsig, and Speaker, with very occasional chapters from Ouloo’s point of view as host. There are regular culture clashes, but there’s always an underlying sense of optimism that things can be better.

The underlying themes are many, but the overarching one is family and what it means. None of the characters have conventional family dynamics for their species: both Ouloo and Speaker spend time in pairs (Ouloo with her son, Speaker with her sister) when their culture would traditionally dictate a larger group, Rovsig is exiled from his family, and Pei is romantically involved with a human when her species forbids inter-species relationships. They each have a completely different perspective, and seeing how they all influence each other and come to understand each other’s beliefs is beautiful.

I can’t believe the series is over – Chambers’ world is so rich that it feels like losing a friend. Her writing is gorgeous and quotable, her worldbuilding immensely detailed and yet never overwhelming or confusing, and the diversity in her work is unparalleled. This book is one of the first major works I’ve seen in which a character uses neo-pronouns (xe and xyr), and it feels entirely natural.

Overall, ‘The Galaxy, and the Ground Within’ is a profoundly moving book – just like all its predecessors in the ‘Wayfarers’ series. This is a series where the books can be read in isolation, so if you’re a fan of character-driven stories and quiet, emotional reads, I highly recommend picking up the entry which interests you the most. For fans of stories about family and love in all its forms, this is definitely a book for you.

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

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 18th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: To Be Taught, If Fortunate

‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ is a beautiful, emotional novella which captures humanity in a way only Becky Chambers can do. Filled with poignant, memorable scenes it’s a little slice of hope in a world which desperately needs it.

Set somewhere in the early 22nd century, it imagines a world in which humans have developed the technology to explore nearby planets compatible with life. Instead of developing complex machines and terraforming, humans have transformed themselves, developing ways to optimise their bodies to whichever planet they land on at the time. Ariadne, an engineer, is one of a crew of four sent to investigate these planets. Put in a form of stasis between planets, the journey will take a mere decade or so for her – but eighty years will pass back home on Earth. Ariadne and her colleagues have no idea how Earth will have changed on their return. As they grapple with the claustrophobia of deep space, the joy of new discovery, the thrill of being the first humans to set foot on new worlds, and the deep sadness of leaving all their loved ones – including their beloved planet – behind, they must answer one key question: what’s more important, their mission or the fate of those back home?

Chambers specialises in character-driven science fiction. She can craft complex technologies, entire alien races with plausible xenobiology, and realistic forms of space travel, but the crowning achievement of her work is how much the reader comes to love the characters and how deeply it makes them feel. This novella is no different. Ariadne is an eminently relatable character. She never intended to go to space, joining the space agency intending to be an engineer with her feet firmly on the ground, and fell into the astronaut program by accident. She’s strong and intelligent, with tight bonds of friendship to each of her crewmates, but she’s also given up her entire life for this mission – and no matter how amazing the things they discover are, there are always moments of darkness and doubt. Chambers chronicles the highs and the lows so well that the reader can’t help but feel them as well. At the end of the day, Ariadne stands by her choices, but her journey to get there is both haunting and beautiful.

For a novel with, essentially, four characters, there’s a huge amount of diversity. Ariadne is bisexual, one of the main characters is asexual, and another is transgender. One of the characters is Latin American, another Black. Each of these things is noted but never used as a plot point or discussion. It shows how easy it is to naturally fill a book with diverse characters, and hopefully hints of an accepting future.

The main difference between ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ and the work chambers is most known for, her ‘Wayfarers’ quartet, is the focus on ethics. Here, Chambers delves into the ethics of space travel – the colonial nature of humanity imposing itself on new planets, the risk to local ecosystems, the ethics to the astronauts themselves of taking them away from their families and decades out of their own time. These are complex issues with no clear answers, but the discussions posed are fascinating. None of these issues feel shoved in – they weave naturally through the plot and add another level of maturity. I adore the ‘Wayfarers’ books, but this is a more challenging undertaking.

Overall, ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ is a fantastic novella that marries Chambers’ exceptional ability to write characters and deeply emotional stories with intriguing discussions on ethics and futuristic science. Recommended for all science fiction fans, along with fans of general philosophy and stories with heart.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback:
8th August 2019 / Paperback: 3rd November 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Ravens

‘The Ravens’ is a cute, simple YA fantasy about a US college sorority which also happens to be one of the US’s largest covens of witches. The plot isn’t the most original, but the brilliant magic system and likeable characters make it a fast-paced and enjoyable read.

Vivienne Devereaux – known as Vivi – has always been the new girl. Her mother will suddenly pack up and move every year or two, claiming to have seen an omen in the tarot and tea leaves she reads for a living. Vivi couldn’t be more excited to finally be escaping her mother for the normal life of college – but when she arrives, she finds out her mothers witchcraft may not be as fake as it seemed. Witches are real – and Vivi’s one of them.

Scarlett Winter has a lot to live up to. She’s from a family of powerful witches going back generations. Both her mother and sister were sorority coven president, and becoming president herself is the minimum she can do to meet their expectations. However, she’s hiding a secret which could torpedo her dreams once and for all. When strange things start to happen, Scarlett must choose – what’s more important, her sorority sisters or her family’s ambition?

In all honesty, Vivi is a bit like the trope of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’. She’s always been an outsider, yet suddenly at college she’s popular and – to top it all off – secretly a powerful witch. However, she’s also a profoundly likeable character. She’s kind-hearted and studious and desperate to fit in. She’s not perfect – years of being the outsider have left her self-conscious and sometimes she lets her temper get the better of her – but she’s difficult not to like. In contrast, Scarlett initially comes off abrasive – but her character development throughout is excellent, and by the end she’s by far the more interesting and engaging character.

The magic system is the most creative part of the book. It’s based on tarot, something I’m not particularly familiar with, along with simple elemental magic. There are clear limitations, and without control and intent its impossible to use, so new witches don’t get instant access to major power – something I appreciate. It’s always too easy when new characters become all powerful in books. The magic use is often frivolous, but this helps to give the book a light-hearted feel, even with some of the darker content.

The plot has a few twists and turns, but can mostly be predicted by familiarity with YA fiction. I actually think this works well – the writing is engaging but basic, and the simple plot fits the overall style of the book. Reading this gives the best of two worlds – the familiarly of sliding into well-trodden YA fantasy but with the excitement of new characters and a new world. There are a few tropes I’m not fond of, such as hints of a love triangle, but they’re just about kept out of cringe-worthy territory.

Overall, this is a solid YA fantasy with a brilliant magic system that’s very easy to read. It’s not groundbreaking or experimental, but for those who just want something fun and well-written it makes an excellent addition to the YA fantasy genre.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 5th January 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Witchling’s Girl

‘The Witchling’s Girl’ is a quiet young adult fantasy that burrows under your skin and refuses to let you go. The magical elements are intriguing, but the real heart of the story is in its emotions – sadness and longing and heartbreak and love. This is not a happy story, but it’s a profoundly impactful one that lingers long beyond the last page.

The story follows Haley – a perfectly normal child until, aged seven, she accidentally resurrects the family cat. The only people with the ability to resurrect the dead are the Witchling’s – healers and herbalists, but also those with death magic, who can resurrect the dead or take them to the afterlife for judgement. As she knows she must, Haley’s mother takes her to the current Witchling – Marion – and abandons her, leaving the Witchling to train Haley to be her successor. At first, Haley fights her fate – but every town needs a Witchling, and the costs of Haley not becoming the Witchling are worse than those she faces becoming one.

It’s impossible not to become attached to Haley. She’s introduced as a terrified seven year old, not understanding why her mother has left her behind in a strange place. She hates the Witchling and longs so badly for a freedom she will never achieve. As time passes, she grows and matures – but some of that defiant seven year old always remains, and it’s a flaw that’s eminently relatable. Haley is, at heart, a nice person – she cares about people, and wants to do the right thing – but she often cares too much and that starts to become her downfall.

The world Helena Coggan crafts is exquisite in its simplicity. In many respects it feels like Medieval Britain – small towns run by rival Lords, each with their own healer-herbalist who works to balance the humours – but Coggan has taken this framework and built a fantasy world out of it. In her version, there is death-magic – a way of healing severe wounds by giving some of your energy to another, and a way to resurrect the dead – but only once, and at the cost of that person never going to the afterlife. It’s a familiar feeling magic system, but one which works perfectly with the setting and is beautifully described.

The plot is nothing like what I expected when I picked this up. It’s cleverly crafted, with little hints dropped throughout, but still manages to catch you by surprise. The first few chapters are reminiscent of novels like ‘The Sin Eater‘ – historical fiction about a child outcast – but this goes in an entirely different direction, weaving in political upheaval and supernatural entities and, above all, a child forbidden from connecting with others trying – but failing – to follow that vow. Haley doesn’t make good, or logical, decisions, but each one is completely understandable, and the story doesn’t shy away from the consequences. This is magical realism, but the fact that the protagonist is allowed to make these childish decisions makes it feel more real than many similar novels that follow stricter historical fiction.

The writing is one of the best parts. It doesn’t try to be flowery or lyrical; doesn’t craft elaborate descriptions – it just tells the story, but it does it in such a way that every emotion is a stab through the heart. There are a few moments where the flow isn’t perfect, but beyond those this is a masterclass in the effectiveness of simplicity.

Overall, this is a story that’s far more than the sum of its parts. If you’re looking for fantasy filled with action and bold characters this isn’t the book for you – but if you want to read something quieter, something that focuses on character and connection, something that crafts a little bubble of a world and explores the delicate dynamics within that, then this is a recommended read.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 7th January 2021

Robyn Reviews: These Violent Delights

‘These Violent Delights’ is a brilliant concept – a loose Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, featuring a fantasy monster, gang warfare, and a fascinating look at colonialism – but suffers a little from the scale of its ambition. It’s certainly a fast-paced and intriguing YA fantasy, but it isn’t quite as gripping as I’d like it to be.

Juliette Cai has just returned home to Shanghai after completing her education in the USA. As the heir to the Scarlet Gang, her job now is to start integrating herself with her father’s contacts and cement her people’s loyalty to her – but instead, she finds herself entangled in a conspiracy with a mysterious – and invariably fatal – virus, and strange rumours of a monster. Even worse, her arch-enemy Roma Montagov – heir to the White Flowers – keeps showing up. Determined to solve the mystery before more of her people die – and before Roma beats her to it – Juliette embarks on a mission that will truly test her loyalty – to her family, to the Scarlet Gang, and to a particularly irritating enemy-turned-lover-turned-enemy who just keeps getting under her skin.

Juliette and Roma are both major POV characters, but Juliette is such a force of nature that she feels like the true protagonist. She’s not particularly likeable – she’s completely ruthless, almost uncaring of the feelings of others and willing to do anything to ensure her own success – but at her core is a heart of fragility and worry. Juliette has had to fight for her place as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, and she knows that one misstep will send everything tumbling down.

Roma, on the other hand, is far easier to like. He’s also a ruthless gangster, but makes no secret of how much he hates it. Roma’s position as heir to the White Flowers is just as tenuous as Juliette’s for the Scarlets, but for very different reasons – Juliette’s father is unsure of her suitability as a woman, and also slightly scared of her; Roma’s father thinks his son is soft and unworthy. He’s the sort of character you constantly want to give a hug, because everything keeps going wrong despite the fact he’s always trying to do the right thing.

The strength of this book is in the setting. It really draws you into the various microcosms of 1920s Shanghai, the feeling of multiple cities within cities, and the political tensions of a city and country in transition. Chloe Gong’s writing is gorgeous, and she absolutely captures a sense of place. I know very little about this time period or area of the world, and the way it’s depicted here makes me want to find out more.

The main issue I have with this book is that, for a Romeo and Juliette retelling, there’s very little emotional buildup. Roma and Juliette were together, then four years ago there was a massive betrayal resorting in them returning to mortal enemies. Now there’s a huge amount of tension – and potentially lingering feelings – but much of this is brushed over with a simple explanation of ‘things happened in the past’. The decision to tell us about their past relationship rather than show us a relationship developing weakens the romance, and thus the story. I struggle to understand why Roma likes Juliette when she does nothing likeable – it mostly seems to be nostalgia for a character we never see on page – and similarly, Roma seems like someone Juliette would despise for his weakness rather than fall in love with.

The other niggle I have is that the fantasy elements feel disjointed. The plotline about a virus and a monster feels discongruous with a story about gangsters in 1920s Shanghai. I absolutely adored the historical context and the glimpse into a time period and culture I know little about, and I almost wish the fantasy elements had been toned down to allow the history to shine through. The plot is mostly predictable, and I suspect part of the reason for that is so much exposition is required to make everything fit that some of the mystery is lost.

Overall, this is a solid YA fantasy with a brilliant setting, but perhaps one which takes on too much. Fans of enemies-to-lovers romance, Shakespeare, and strong characters who take no prisoners might love this, but it definitely feels like a debut.

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

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 17th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: Kingdom of the Wicked

‘Kingdom of the Wicked’ treads well-trodden ground but puts a fresh enough spin on it to become an intriguing and enjoyable story. It definitely reads like part one of a series rather than fully standing up on its own, but as long as the sequels provide some much-needed answers this can stand up as a solid addition to the YA fantasy genre.

The novel follows Emilia, one of a family of streghe – witches – living secretly amongst humans. Their family is one of twelve streghe families in Sicily, but following a powerful spell cast generations ago the families are discouraged from mixing. Emilia pays more attention to her family renowned restaurant than to magic – until she discovers her beloved twin, Vittoria, murdered, her heart ripped out, and a mysterious figure drinking her blood. Her quest for vengeance pulls her into the world of the Wicked – the princes of Sin her Nonna has always warned her about.

Emilia is a likeable enough protagonist. Previously a carefree girl whose only worries were new dishes at the restaurant and her flirtation with a completely unavailable man, she becomes a creature driven only by vengeance. She rushes headlong into situations without thought of the consequences and frequently has to be rescued. It’s slightly annoying that she spends most of the novel being pulled out of dangerous places by a man (and once her grandma, which is far more badass), but the idea of a teenage girl in over her head is certainly more accurate than most YA fantasy. Her motivations and struggles are always relatable, and hopefully as she starts to understand more about her abilities and situation in book two, she’ll become less of the damsel in distress and more the damsel of distress.

The other major character is Wrath, one of the seven Princes of Sin. Wrath is the typical mysterious male figure in YA fantasy – powerful, with many secrets and unknown motives, and also exceptionally attractive. However, I appreciate that, unlike in most books, Wrath and Emilia don’t immediately fall into a romance. Emilia’s priority throughout remains her sister, and she won’t allow herself unnecessary distractions. She also innately distrusts a Prince of Sin, a very wise decision not shared by most other heroines in her genre.

Kerri Maniscalco is known for her ‘Stalking Jack the Ripper’ series, a collection of YA mysteries. I’ve never actually read any of them, but her talent for writing mystery is absolutely on show in ‘Kingdom of the Wicked’. The plot twists and turns, with the culprit for the murders never entirely evident. There are dead ends, red herrings, and far too many potential murderers to count. When the killer is finally revealed, they come from a very unexpected direction. I appreciate that Maniscalo managed to weave a difficult-to-predict mystery without making it seem outlandish or implausible.

The highlight of this novel is the interspersing of Sicilian culture. There’s a strong focus on the food – Emilia spends a lot of time at the family restaurant, and she enjoys subjecting a Prince of Sin to mortal cuisine. Sicily is a more unusual setting for a fantasy novel, and it helped differentiate this from its peers and add depth to the characters and story.

Overall, this is a solid start to a series, albeit one that – as it doesn’t entirely stand on its own – will be greatly influenced by the strength of its sequel. Recommended to fans of A Court of Mist and Fury, The Cruel Prince, and similar story dynamics.

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

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 27th October 2020