Robyn Reviews: These Feathered Flames

‘These Feathered Flames’ is a queer retelling of the Russian folktale of the Firebird, but reads more like a beautifully layered political fantasy. Packed with secrets, betrayals, and ethical dilemmas, it twists and turns, ensuring the reader never knows what’s coming next.

When twins are born to the Queen of Tourin, their fate is certain – one will be raised to rule, and one will become the feared and revered Firebird, tasked with maintaining the balance of magic in the realm. Separated as young children, Asya and Izaveta live completely different lives. However, when the Queen dies suddenly, both are thrust into their new roles unprepared. Asya grapples with her power – the Firebird must commit terrible atrocities to maintain stability, but the consequences of her soft heart could be even worse. Izaveta, meanwhile, finds her position as heir precarious, older and more powerful advisers moving from all sides to depose her. The sisters must decide who they can trust – and what they will sacrifice for the sake of the Queendom.

Of the two sisters, Asya is definitely my favourite. The Firebird is a ruthless creature, balancing out the use of magic by exacting tithes – and leaving death and destruction in its wake. Its carrier, however, is gentle and kind-hearted, always seeking to defend rather than attack and wanting peace above all else. Asya loves her sister, despite their differences, and will do anything to ensure the Firebird hurts as few people as possible. Her kindness makes her vulnerable – including to her own power – but it also gives her a sense of strength and resolve. Asya’s many mistakes are all borne from good intentions. It’s hard not to like such an intrinsically nice person – and it doesn’t hurt that she has a beautiful friendship with her pet bear, Mischka.

Izaveta, meanwhile, has been raised by a Queen renowned for being a hard, uncompromising ruler – and she had no soft side for her daughter. Izaveta is seen as weaker, unfit for rule, and fights this by trying to be even colder than her mother was. She trusts few, and sees other people more as pawns than fellow humans. However, Izaveta is human, and she does care – perhaps too much – about her Queendom, and especially her sister Asya. She might not be a nice person, but she’s not an evil one. Raised to care about power and control above all else, she struggles to see the world as anything other than a chessboard for her to shape – but she has a heart, and its when she listens to it that she’s at her strongest. Despite everything, its hard not to sympathise with Izabeta and her plight.

The plot is the book’s highlight. Alternating in perspective between Asya and Izabeta, it follows their separate quests – Asya’s to control her power and track down a magic user who has unbalanced the scales, and Izabeta’s to garner enough support to be elected queen. Asya’s storyline is faster paced, with threats around every corner – to Asya, from an unknown foe, to the world, from the unbalancing of the magic scales, and from Asya, as she struggles to control the Firebird within. Izabeta’s is slower, but no less fraught with tension. She has few allies, and even those she doesn’t know if she can trust. Every move she makes is a gamble, every move she doesn’t make an opportunity lost. Like Asya, she grapples with her conscience – although while Asya wears her heart on her sleeve, emotions burning like flame, Izabeta’s heart is hidden away with only small cracks in her icy facade.

The majority of the book takes place in the palace, but there are hints of the Russian inspired setting. Outings are made riding bears, rather than horses, and the surrounding forest has the feel of a cold, snowy place. The palace itself also feels cold – but more because of its inhabitants than its setting. There are no sanctuaries for the characters – only hard choices with bitter consequences.

The sapphic romance is a slow-burn enemies-to-lovers and beautifully written. Every element feels authentic – the hatred at the start is clear, and the gradual move to begrudging friendship and finally more is carefully done. Its very much a side element, with the central relationship that of the sisters – and even to an extent between Asya and the Firebird – but it provides an element of warmth to the story.

Overall, ‘These Feathered Flames’ is an excellent political fantasy novel with intriguing elements of Russian folklore. Its marketed as YA, and has clear coming-of-age components, but very much has cross-market appeal to adult fantasy fans. Recommended for all fans of political fantasy, folklore, and morally grey characters.

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 10th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: Felix Ever After

‘Felix Ever After’ is a delightfully moving coming-of-age story. It grapples with themes of identity, purpose, class divides, and marginalisation, managing to weave together a tale that’s both heartwarming and bittersweet. The ending is simultaneously satisfying and ambiguous, suiting the narrative perfectly. This is a must-read for any teenager grappling with their identity and what they want from life.

Felix Love is struggling. At seventeen, he wants nothing more than to get into Brown College to study art – but his father can’t afford the fees, so his only chance is to get his school’s scholarship. Unfortunately, his worst enemy – Declan – is also after the scholarship, and whilst he might be an asshole he’s an exceptional artist. Meanwhile, Felix is watching all his friends get into relationships and fall in love, while he himself – despite his surname – has never been in love. Can anyone fall in love with him when he isn’t even sure he loves himself? At the same time, Felix is grappling with his own identity. He’s identified as a trans man for several years, but he isn’t sure that label is right for him anymore. His struggles are thrown into the spotlight when someone carries out a transphobic attack at school. With so much growing on, Felix feels like his life is falling apart – but could his happily ever after be just around the corner?

The best thing about Felix is he feels so much like a teenager. His struggles, his attitude, his mistakes – all of them feel so genuine and believable. Felix is a bit self-centred and lazy, but only in the way that all teenagers are as they figure out their place in the world. At the end of the day, Felix is a great guy with a big heart and a huge amount of loyalty – he’s just emotionally fragile and prone to rash overreaction. At the start of the book, Felix can be a little hard to like. Some of his actions are questionable, and he leaps to conclusions without any evidence. However, as time goes on, it becomes clear why he is the way he is, and his true character starts to shine through. Felix isn’t perfect, and it’s this humanness that makes him such a brilliant protagonist.

A core part of the book is Felix’s relationships – with his friends, with his family, and romantically. His relationship with his father is fascinating, with both clearly loving each other yet having serious issues. Felix resents that his father hasn’t fully embraced him as his son rather than his daughter; Felix’s dad struggles with his son pulling away and trying to take so much independence at seventeen years of age. Neither communicates clearly with the other, and the way this falls out is cleverly written. In contrast, Felix’s relationship with his best friend, Ezra, seems amazing on the outside. The two care for each other deeply, with a level of physical and emotional comfort only seen between the closest friends. However, as the story goes on, it becomes clear how much they’re both hiding from the other, and cracks start to develop and widen. Once again, all the friendships feel incredibly authentic of teenage friendships, with a level of intensity and desperation. Felix’s difficulty as friend groups and those within them change is well-handled, and the ending is lovely.

There is a love triangle – not something I usually like in books. The love triangle here is obviously unbalanced, and the ending is always relatively clear. That said, whilst its inclusion isn’t entirely necessary, the way it ends does add an element of sadness and dissatisfaction inherent to life, and it fits the realistic vibe of the rest of the story. There are always those who are unhappy in love and in life. The love triangle is my least favourite part of the story, but I’ve read far worse.

This is not always a happy story. The ending is heartwarming, and there are cheerful elements throughout, but there’s also a dark plotline about transphobia and bullying that hits hard. I found this exceptionally well-done, adding to the realism and making the ending even sweeter, but readers should be warned that they may find parts difficult to read.

Overall, ‘Felix Ever After’ is a brilliant coming of age story that captures a slice of contemporary teenage life. A highly recommended read.

Thanks to Faber Children’s for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Faber Children’s
Paperback: 18th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: Red, White, and Royal Blue

‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is pure escapist fiction. Since its release it’s garnered constant comparisons to fanfiction for its idealism, tooth-rotting sweetness, and amalgamation of romance tropes between – of all people – the First Son of the first female US President and the Prince of England. Naturally, it’s an absolutely implausible read – but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny, joyously fun, and a much needed ray of light in a genre which contains too much tragedy. If you’re willing to go along for the ride, ‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is deserving of its reputation of one of the best books in the LGBTQIA+ romance genre.

Alex Claremont-Diaz is tabloid fodder – the twenty-one year old son of the first female US president, and the first half-Mexican in the White House. His entire life revolves around politics – and with election year approaching, it’s more important than ever that he remains the perfect marketing strategy. So, when photos leak of an apparent confrontation with his arch-nemesis – none other than His Royal Highness Prince Henry, grandson of Her Majesty the Queen of England – damage control is essential. Enter a clever scheme: a fake friendship between Alex and Henry stretching back years. Alex and his arch-nemesis must put their longstanding enmity aside and play nicely for the paparazzi. Except the more time they spend together, the more it becomes clear that they don’t hate each other after all… and the only thing more damaging for both of them than enmity is love.

Both Alex and Henry are instantly loveable characters. Alex is a charmer – intelligent, witty, and determined, he’s the consummate politician, always looking for the right thing to say (unless Henry’s involved). But underneath the politician’s sheen he’s a hot mess – unsure what he wants to have for lunch, let alone the direction of his entire life, and clueless about his own personal life even with things staring him in the face. Alex’s relationship with his sister is heartwarming, and his relationship with his mother complicated, but overall filled with love. (There’s a scene involving a PowerPoint which sums it up perfectly and is one of the funniest scenes ever put to paper).

Henry is, in many ways, an American caricature of what a British person should be like – uptight and repressed, faultlessly polite, but beneath that veneer kind, caring, and exceptionally poetic. It’s impossible not to like him. There has never been an outwardly gay member of the British royal family, and Henry’s relationship with his sexuality – and how it affects his perception of himself – is heartbreaking to read about. However, this is always a hopeful and optimistic book, and it’s always clear he’ll get a happy ever after.

The plot is stereotypical romance – enemies forced to play nice and pretend to be friends end up in a secret relationship which will undoubtedly be revealed at the worst possible time – but the characters and writing make it so much more. Alex and Henry get themselves into ridiculous situations and force you to laugh, cry, and gasp right along with them. Their chemistry is electric, but so too is the chemistry between the books many friendships – Alex’s White House Trio, Henry and his sister Bea, Henry and his friend from Eton Pez. There are elements which stretch the bounds of plausibility to its limit, but you want to believe it’s possible – you want to believe that Alex and Henry can beat the odds. (And yes, the Prince probably can’t just conveniently obtain the keys to the V&A for a midnight visit – but everyone wants to believe it could happen).

Overall, ‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is the sort of tooth-rotting fluff that everyone wants to read on a bad day. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but so likeable that it’s hard to care. Recommended for all fans of romance and LGBT fiction, and everyone who wants something happy and optimistic to get through hard times.

Published by St Martin’s Griffin
Paperback: May 14th 2019

Robyn Reviews: Plain Bad Heroines

‘Plain Bad Heroines’ is a complex novel set across two timelines: the early 20th century, where both students and staff at Brookhants School for Girls are captivated by a new, audacious book by Mary Maclane; and the present day, where a film is being made about the events at Brookhants over a hundred years ago. Told by a mysterious narrator, it switches back and forth between the timelines, emphasising the parallels between the past and modern day events. The comparisons and clever interspersing of gothic elements are enjoyable, but the exceptionally ambiguous ending isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

Brookhants, an exclusive school in Massachusetts, was set up by Libbie Brookhants after her husband’s death. With the help of her close friend – and lover – Alex, it became a huge success – until the death of two students, Clara and Flo. Thus began a series of events ending in the school’s permanent closure, passing into legend – until a precocious young writer, Merritt, decided to write a book about the tragedies at Brookhants. The book was subsequently optioned, and two actresses at very different stages of their careers – Harper Harper and Audrey Wells – were signed on to star. These characters make up our plain bad heroines – in the past timeline, Clara, Flo, and their classmate Eleanor, along with Principal Brookhants and Alex; in the present timeline, Harper Harper, Audrey, and Merritt.

Each character is complex, and the relationships between them are highlights. I especially liked Libbie Brookhants – a bold and independent woman never given the freedom to be as independent as she’d like – and Audrey Wells, a child star struggling to grow out of the shadow of her infamous mother and show off any talent of her own. The relationship between Libbie and Alex in a time when such things were not accepted is brilliantly portrayed, and it’s fascinating seeing how each of them view it – even when those views don’t align. The interplay between Harper Harper, Audrey, and Merritt is also excellent, although I did feel that the changes in Audrey and Merritt weren’t always written with the subtlety of the others.

Unusually for a book with multiple timelines, both the past and present stories are equally strong. Jumping between them never feels unnatural or out of place, and there are some truly beautiful moments of mirroring. The only weakness in either timeline is the pacing. This is a long book, with a great deal of build-up before each new event happens, and I feel like it could be edited down without losing any of the gorgeous atmosphere and tension.

My main issue with this book, however, is the ending. The past timeline is more-or-less wrapped up – not everything is answered, but then some mystery adds to the atmosphere – but the present just ends with no resolution. The reader is left to decide for themselves what happens to the plain bad heroines – which will suit some readers well, but I want a few more answers. The ending also leaves the reader knowing a lot more than the protagonists, which is interesting, but definitely a situation more could be done with.

Overall, this is a clever piece of fiction that straddles the boundary between literary and gothic. It’s filled with sapphic relationships and intriguing characters, and the writing is gorgeous, evoking beautiful imagery across its multiple timelines. Recommended for fans of gothic literature, dark academia, and stories with real atmosphere.

Thanks to NetGalley and Borough Press for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Borough Press
Hardback: 4th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: Phoenix Extravagant

phoenix

‘Phoenix Extravagant’ is an intriguing fantasy novel with a magic system I adored, but unfortunately never quite reached its potential. It’s much shorter than many modern fantasy novels, coming in at under 400 pages, and I wonder if it would have been better if everything was slowed down and stretched out to give more time to connect to the plot and characters.

The protagonist, Jebi, is a Hwagukin orphan in a region occupied by the conquering Razanei. Jebi is an artist – a painter – but struggles to find work. After an argument with her sister leaves her homeless, she takes a job with the Ministry of Armor – the Razanei ministry responsible for producing automatons, autonomous robots which enforce the rules in Hwagukin and help them defeat their enemies. Her job? To fix the broken dragon automaton blamed for the destruction of an entire village. Caught between her loyalty to her sister and the unexpected connections she makes inside, Jebi must decide if she’ll complete the task or sabotage the Razanei military might.

Jebi is an artist, and depicted in a very stereotypical way – out of touch with the world, uncaring of politics and invasions, connecting to her art more than she connects to people. However, their most defining character trait is their inconsistency. They flip-flop between hating their sister, loyalty to their sister, fear of their sister, and more, in the space of pages. All these emotions are understandable, but there’s no justification. They remind me of a pancake being tossed around, never sure which side they want to face up. I found it very difficult to care about them or their choices when they couldn’t seem to decide what they wanted either. As a rare non-binary protagonist, I want to like them, but I need more showing of feelings than telling and generally some sort of personality beyond their profession.

Azari, the dragon automaton, is the single best character in the book. I adore them. They’re regularly hilarious and so fascinated by ordinary things. The entire system behind the automatons and how they work and think is fascinating, and another reason I wish this book had been longer – more time to explore the world and its intricacies, rather than relying on the hard-to-like Jebi to carry the story.

Vei, the duelist prime tasked with monitoring Jebi in the Ministry of Armor, is also an interesting character. They have a complex past which is gradually unveiled and their interactions with Jebi are excellent. However, the way their relationship is written almost makes it insta-love – we’re told that time passes, but in the space of a few sentences they’ve gone from prisoner-enforcer to potential love interests. Enemies to lovers is a popular trope in fantasy but it’s mostly squandered here for the sake of keeping the page count down. I wish we’d got to see things develop so that it felt authentic, rather than simply being told Jebi suddenly had romantic feelings.

The setting is excellent. Inspired by Korea under Japanese convention, it’s full of references and traditions which are fascinating to read about. The varying feelings towards the Razanei conquerors – and the Razanei’s insistence that their occupation was far more favourable than Hawgukin’s inevitable destruction by the West – are well-written, and the addition of the fantasy elements with automatons and artistic magic are neatly done. I’d love to know more about the magic system – this is currently a standalone, but one with clear potential for a sequel, so hopefully the magic will be developed and explained in any subsequent books.

Overall, this is a decent fantasy with excellent LGBTQIA+ representation but knocked down by a protagonist it’s hard to connect with and a plot which deserved more time to be fleshed out. Those who care more about the quality of their fantasy worlds and less about the depth of characters may very well love this book, but for those who prefer character-driven stories this may not be the book for you. Recommended for fans of quick fantasy reads, Asian-inspired settings, and own-voices LGBTQIA+ representation.

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

Published by Rebellion
Hardback: 20th October 2020