Robyn Reviews: Deeplight

‘Deeplight’ is a brilliantly crafted young adult fantasy about the sea, the power of stories, and surviving toxic friendships. A difficult but powerful read in places, it’s a moving and highly worthwhile tale. I’ve never read a Frances Hardinge book before, but on the basis of this I can see why she’s so highly regarded.

Hark, a fourteen-year-old street urchin and scavenger, scratches out a living diving for relics of the lost gods. However, his best friend Jelt is now content with them remaining mere scavengers, and insists of them taking more and more dangerous missions. Jelt’s risk-taking almost costs him his life. But Hark will do anything to protect his friend – even if it means compromising not just who Jelt is, but what he is.

There are several layers within ‘Deeplight’. There’s Hark and Jelt’s friendship – a complex bond of brotherhood after being abandoned by everyone else, with all the strength of family but also so much toxicity and resentment. There’s stories and their power – Hark is, at heart, a storyteller, and the way he regards them will resonate with any reader. Then there’s the mythology of the world – the history of the gods of the Undersea, and the cataclysm which destroyed them all, leaving a society dependent on history and scraps of their once mighty power. These are all brilliantly combined, creating a story as changeable and as captivating as the sea.

Hark is an exceptionally likeable protagonist. He’s had a difficult life – but where Jelt has been hardened by it, Hark has been softened, becoming as slippery and hard to pin down as an eel. An accomplished liar, Hark is made of secrets and stories. However, Hark has a heart of gold. Both he and Jelt are ambitious – but where Jelt’s ambition is entirely selfish, Hark is less comfortable leaving others behind or compromising his morals for his own gain. Hark’s growth throughout the novel is amazing, and while it can be difficult reading about his struggles at the start, it’s worth it to see just how far he’s come by the end.

‘Deeplight’ was written after Hardinge was asked by a Deaf fan if she’d ever write a book with Deaf characters, and it features a number of Deaf characters – known as sea-kissed. In this society, being Deaf is highly respected, and everyone is competent in both spoken and sign language. This is a brilliant addition, seamlessly fitting into Hardinge’s world. The vast majority of the novel is from Hark’s perspective, but there are occasional passages from the point of view of Selphin, a Deaf girl who gives a fascinating insight into what it’s like living with no hearing. Not being Deaf, I can’t speak about the accuracy of the representation, but its very apparent that Hardinge has done her research.

This is a slow burn of a novel. The first 100 pages are a little less engaging, mostly setting the scene for everything to come – but it’s worth it for the power and brilliance of the ending. Once this finds its feet, it’s a real page-turner, easy to read in a single sitting. It’s definitely one to persevere with even if the start feels a little sedate.

Overall, ‘Deeplight’ is an excellent novel, covering a lot of important and powerful themes in a highly enjoyable and readable way. Recommended for all fans of books about the sea, along with those who like to read about complex human relationships, the power of stories, and incredibly fascinating monsters – human and otherwise.

Published by MacMillan Children’s
Hardback: 31st October 2019
Paperback: 2nd April 2020

Robyn Reviews: Children of Blood and Bone

‘Children of Blood and Bone’ is a solid YA fantasy with an intriguing mythological basis, but aside from the magic system it’s not terribly unique. It’s an enjoyable read, but not one that differentiates itself from the rest of the genre.

Once, Orisha was a place of magic – a place where clans lived in relative harmony with power over fire, water, and even death. However, under the rule of a new king, magic has been purged from Orisha, all capable of it persecuted. The few still alive must hide. Zelie is one such person – left without a mother, she hates the crown and dreams of the day she can strike back against it. When a rogue princess appears in her village, she seizes the chance to move against the monarchy. But the more time they spend together, the more it becomes clear that the princess isn’t her enemy – and her magic might be a danger after all.

Initially, Zelie is a hard character to like. She’s angry at a world which has taken so much from her – her mother, her magic, her safety – and she’ll burn it all down to get her vengeance. Her anger is understandable, but that doesn’t make her head an enjoyable place to be. She softens a little as the book progresses, but she still remains a slightly off-putting protagonist, which is a shame – her magic and culture are both fascinating, and she’s capable of so much more than hate.

In contrast, Amari – the princess – is easy to love. She’s sweet and undoubtedly has the best character arc of the main trio, even if she has fewer chapters and is kept as a secondary character. Her character is stereotypical but feels more believable than her brother Inan and more likeable than Zelie. Her evolving relationship with Zelie is well-written and enjoyable, and it’s great seeing the fierce side that she keeps hidden pop out every now and then. She does have an entirely unnecessary romantic subplot, but then it’s unusual to see a YA fantasy without one.

The final point-of-view character is Inan – Amari’s brother, the son of the King of Orisha, charged with hunting down Zelie who, the crown believes, kidnapped his sister. He hates Zelie’s magic, which historically killed so many of his people – but he changes his views so often and so abruptly it gives the reader whiplash. He starts off as an antagonist, but despite getting more point of view chapters than Amari it’s difficult to tell which side he’s actually on – possibly because he isn’t sure himself. He’s a more interesting character than the others in many ways, but he sometimes feels more like two alternating people than one whole character.

The plot and setting are the strongest parts of the book. The descriptions of the kingdom of Orisha are gorgeously written, and the trials and tribulations faced by Zelie, Amira, and Inan are engaging. The descriptions of the tribal magic are beautiful, and Adeyemi doesn’t flinch from how difficult magic can be to control and how dangerous it is. This is a YA fantasy, and you never doubt that the “good” characters will win, but there’s plenty of hardship along the way. The main issue with the plot is Inan – his constant changes are the main driver towards the end and it’s too confusing to keep up with. The peeks we get inside his head regularly don’t correspond with his actions and it can make events seem hollow, designed to drive difficulty in the plot rather than character authenticity. His indecision is understandable, torn as he is between the beliefs he’s been raised with an the new things he’s learnt, but the writing doesn’t quite pull it off.

Overall, this is a good, solid YA fantasy, but not a great one. Recommended for those interested in reading about West African mythology and plot-driven stories – but for those who prefer their stories character-driven and unique, I’m not sure there’s enough here.

Published by Macmillan Children’s
Paperback: 8th March 2018

Book Review: They Threw Us Away

Although I am posting this review well into November, They Threw Us Away, by Daniel Kraus (illustrated by Rovina Cai), was my Halloween read. A story about teddies waking up in the middle of a massive and putrid rubbish dump instead of in the warm bed of a loving child looked to be the perfect horror story for an arctophile such as myself. The tale turned out to be not quite what I had expected.

In the same way that Watership Down features rabbits but is not exactly about rabbits, so They Threw Us Away features a small group of intrepid teddy bears but is not exactly about teddies. Rather, it is an allegory about what is granted value by contemporary humans and the way we too often ignore, discard and put in danger that which should be cherished.

There are certainly horror elements in the story. A scene in the back room of a store is particularly disturbing, evoking as it does images of survivors in the mass graves of genocide victims. The innocence and cute factor of teddy bears soon gives way to recognition of how people can come to be treated when viewed as an unwanted mass, and thereby dehumanised.

They Threw Us Away opens with Buddy, a blue bear made by the prestigious Furrington Company, waking up in a rubbish dump with no memory of how he got there. Finding himself able to move, freed for the first time from the confines of his packaging, he investigates the unpleasant surroundings. Close by he finds four other bears and sets about releasing them too. Together they try to survive the dump’s many predators before deciding they need to escape.

A teddy bear exists to be chosen by a child whose loving hug will send them into Forever Sleep – the teddy equivalent of Happy Ever After. This is the dream that every bear sitting on a shelf in a shop harbours – that they will be chosen and thereby find fulfilment. They may long for a child rather than a Prince Charming but do not give due consideration to life beyond that moment of bonding.

One of the bears, Reginald, is older and has therefore acquired more knowledge. He tells stories of: the Mother; her personal teddy, Proto; and the eight Originals. Reginald remains calm, willing to join the others but morbidly fatalistic. Buddy and his sidekick, Sunny, remain more hopeful that they can somehow return to the world from which they were so inexplicably cast away. All take care of Sugar, who is the most damaged but retains her sweetness. Perhaps in a hat tip to Watership Down, she has a scary vision that her friends cannot yet interpret.

The bears in this story have innate skills such as an ability to read. Bravery and loyalty feature along with an appreciation of hugs and being there when needed. The longer their quest to find children takes, the more their personalities anthropomorphise. Naturally, this leads to damage and distress.

The voices given to some of the bears did not always sit well with the usual image of a teddy as a gentle and loving creature. Proto in particular is portrayed as rather coarse and self-centred. The rest of the sleuth enabled an exploration of the value to be found in differing characteristics.

The images of the city were particularly well rendered – viewed through the lens of small, now rather grubby beings, who understand the danger of being treated as garbage. People emerge as more threatening than the rodents or vehicles (although headlights in the dark are recognised as a warning to flee). The teddies encounter many dangers and do not survive unscathed.

This is the first story in a proposed trilogy. It stands well alone, with a denouement that offers scope for further developments and adventures. Not every thread is tied up neatly, although from hints given much can be inferred. It is not a difficult read, excepting certain distressing scenes. The numerous illustrations are welcome additions, especially when the story appears bleak. Unlike Robyn (this blog’s intern), who reviewed the book here, I would be wary of recommending this to young readers. It is marketed as a children’s book but has a darkness they would need to be capable of dealing with.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, although it took a while to catch the writing’s cadence. I will be interested in finding out what happens to the teddies next.

They Threw Us Away is published by Henry Holt (Macmillan).  

Robyn Reviews: The Cheerleaders

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The Cheerleaders is solid YA crime fiction. There are plenty of threads, making it difficult to guess exactly what the ending will be, and while some twists are predictable some take you by surprise. The final chapter neatly ties up loose ends and lets the reader decide for themselves whether justice was served.

The book follows Monica, the younger sister of Jen – one of five school cheerleaders who tragically passed away nearly five years ago. As the five year anniversary of the deaths approaches, Monica is dealing with struggles of her own – affairs, battling for her place on the dance team, keeping up her GPA – but a chance conversation leads her to make a discovery, and suddenly she isn’t sure that the right killer was apprehended.

Monica is a very accurate portrayal of a teenage girl dealing with major traumas. Frustrated and angry, she pushes everyone she knows away and struggles to care about her previous passions. She makes mistakes in attempts to feel genuine human connection and rebels against all her mum and stepdad’s attempts to keep her safe. Monica isn’t always a likeable protagonist, but it’s impossible not to feel sorry for her situation.

Most of the book is from Monica’s point of view, but there are occasional flashback chapters from Jen’s, adding intrigue and context. Unlike Monica, who is popular for being the attractive dancer rather than for her personality, Jen is a genuinely lovely person. The flashbacks turn her from someone considered a saint – after all, who would speak ill of a dead girl – into an ordinary teenager with her own issues. Dealing with squabbles with her friends, a new girl on the cheerleading squad, and the most unsuitable guy in school crushing on her, Jen’s life makes it clear that there might have been multiple people wanting the cheerleaders dead after all.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about this book. The characters are relatively well-developed, the plot well-constructed, the high school dynamics believable – but it never steps out of the safety of standard YA crime tropes. It’s also, for a book being published in 2020, lacking in diversity. That being said, there’s nothing particularly unlikeable about this book either – it’s a fast read that pulls you in, and it’s difficult to connect the dots before the book wants you to. I also appreciated that there was no unnecessary romance – Monica isn’t in the right place for a relationship and has too much to do juggling her normal life with trying to find out what really happened to her sister and the other cheerleaders.

Overall, this is good without being great – a solid read for fans of YA crime novels that doesn’t do anything new but executes the standard tropes of the genre well.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan Children’s for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

 

Published by Macmillan Children’s
Paperback: 3rd September 2020