Robyn Reviews: Shadow of the Fox

‘Shadow of the Fox’ is an entertaining, gentle-paced young adult fantasy novel packed with intriguing Japanese mythology and delightful characters. The start of a trilogy, it’s packed with tropes of the young adult fantasy genre – but the Japanese elements lend it originality, and each trope is brilliantly executed. From a plot standpoint, its not the strongest, but the characters and setting are excellent enough that it doesn’t matter.

Yumeko has spent her entire life at the Silent Winds temple, being raised by reclusive monks. Half-kitsune, her heritage makes her shunned by society – but in her solutide she’s blissfully unaware, and dreams of exploring the world. Her wish comes true – but in the worst way. The temple is attacked by demons searching for an ancient scroll, leaving Yumeko the only survivor. Her master’s dying wish is for Yumeko to protect the scroll – by journeying across the land to another temple, one lost to myth and legend. Yumeko has no idea where to start – but fate thrusts her into the path of Kage Tatsumi, a mysterious samurai of the Kage shadow clan. Tatsumi agrees to help her find the temple. There’s just one problem – his masters have sent him after the scroll too, and if he finds out Yumeko has it her life might be forfeit. Together, the two set off on an uneasy journey across the country, each hiding their true purpose. But the more time they spend together, the more their fragile alliance starts to come something more – potentially something even more dangerous.

Its unusual in a dual perspective novel for both perspectives to be equally compelling, but Kagawa manages it. I couldn’t pick a favourite between them.

Yumeko is a sweet, naive character – but also exceptionally mischievous, part of her heritage as half kitsune. She plays up the innocent side to everyone she meets, and even the reader is regularly taken in – but she also comes out with comments that prove that whilst she’s a gentle and caring soul, she’s far more of a trickster than she first seems. Yumeko wants to believe the best in everyone, and can come across as overly trusting – but she has many secrets, and those she trusts to no-one but herself. She’s a delightful protagonist, surprisingly complex, and more subtle and nuanced than many mainstream YA characters are allowed to be.

Tatsumi, at first glance, is Yumeko’s opposite. Trained to be a warrior for the Kage, he shields his emotions, not allowing himself to form attachments. He follows orders, killing who he’s told to kill and trying not to think about why. However, Yumeko accidentally finds all the cracks in Tatsumi’s armour, allowing a different man to shine through – a man who does care, a dangerous trait in an assassin. Where Yumeko’s layers are subtle, Tatsumi’s are obvious and compelling. He wants to care, but he can’t allow himself to, and the dichotomy is heartbreaking to read about. Tatsumi does horrible things, but like Yumeko, his heart is in the right place.

The story is inspired by ancient Japan, and absolutely packed with Japanese mythological creatures, Japanese turns of phrase, and clear references to ancient Japanese culture. The sense of place is incredible. Kagawa does a brilliant job of avoidong info-dumping but still making everything accessible to those less familiar with Japanese history and customs. Everything flows brilliantly, and the reader is completely transported into Kagawa’s world.

The plot is the novel’s weakest element. This is a journey novel, moving at a very sedate pace as all the individual chess pieces are assembled on the board. Parts feel a bit like a video game – there’s the overall quests, but also side quests, as Yumeko and Tatsumi solve problems for villages they pass through and take on occasional random enemies. The overarching plot – the scroll that Yumeko must protect – is mostly a footnote. In itself, none of these things are bad – each minor skirmish is well crafted, revealing more about the world and allowing Yumeko and Tatsumi’s relationship to change and grow. However, the sedate pace and trope-packed plot lend everything a sense of predictability. There are no real twists. The ending has a sense of inevitability that, rather than feeling satisfying, feels a bit anticlimatic. It’s still impactful, but less impactful than it would have been with a little more originality to lend suspense and mystery.

It should be mentioned that, in many ways, the entire book feels like setup. It reads more like a part one than a complete story on its own. With all the worldbuilding out of the way, I have high hopes that the later books in the trilogy will launch straight in and elevate the series to a true five-star read.

Overall, ‘Shadow of the Fox’ is an enjoyable tale, worth reading for the excellent characters and creative worldbuilding. The plot is very standard YA fare, but the Japanese mythology elements and Yumeko’s surprising depth elevate this to an enjoyable read. Recommended for fans of slower paced novels, in-depth worldbuilding, nuanced humour, and YA fantasy in general.

Published by HQ
Paperback: 2nd October 2018

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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: The Witch’s Heart

‘The Witch’s Heart’ is a retelling of Norse mythology, chronicling the life of the witch Angrboda from the time of her imprisonment by Odin to the end of the gods at Ragnarok. It’s slow to start, but packs an emotional punch – likely more so for anyone who has experienced motherhood.

When a witch refuses to provide Odin with a prophecy of the future, he casts her into the fire and cuts out her heart. However, she survives. Left injured and powerless, she flees to a cave in the mountains of Jotunheim, renaming herself Angrboda and setting out to rebuild her life. There, she is found by the trickster god Loki, who returns her heart. Gradually, Angrboda falls for her unlikely helper, leading to three highly unusual children. However, their fragile peace is threatened by the return of Angrboda’s prophetic powers – and the greed of Odin and the other Aesir to use them. When the treachery of the gods reaches new heights, Angrboda must decide whether to leave her family to their prophesised fate – or to try and reshape the future.

Angrboda is a fascinating character. At the start of the story she’s a mystery even to herself, remembering only her torture by Odin. The more she discovers, the more it becomes apparent that she’s both ancient and powerful – but she struggles between the dichotomy of her peaceful existence as a wife and mother, and her apparent past as a powerful and feared witch. Angrboda is strong, but the quiet sort of strong not often given widespread appreciation. She doesn’t fight any battles or seek any glory – instead, she maintains her home and raises her children and has strength in living exactly the life she wants to live. When that peace is disrupted, she uses her wits and seeks vengeance in a similarly quiet way -and her actions are all the more meaningful for it.

Angrboda has two main romantic relationships across the course of the book – one with Loki, and one with the giantess Skadi. Her relationship with Loki is innately unbalanced and always feels fragile, but Gornichec does well to weave in enough to show why Angrboda stays with him anyway. In contrast, her relationship to Skadi – a long friendship which eventually becomes something more – feels far more natural, although again it’s always clear it isn’t meant to last.

The more interesting relationships, however, are between Angrboda and her three children – Hel, Fenrir,and Jorgamund. Angrboda is widely known from Norse mythology as the mother of monsters – but from her perspective, she is merely a mother. Angrboda fears for her children as any mother would – especially as she is cursed to know their fates. Her fierce protection and desire to protect them above all with resonate with anyone who has experienced parenthood.

The story is split into three parts. The first, Angrboda’s life in Jotunheim, is the slowest and probably the least interesting, although it lays essential groundwork for the later action. The second is the part of Angrboda’s story I was least familiar with before reading this, and I found it fascinating uncovering the missing part of her mythos. There are also some heartbreaking moments. The third, very short part chronicles Ragnarok. This is the most emotionally hard hitting, and really elevates the story from a basic retelling to something with more depth.

Overall, ‘The Witch’s Heart’ is a solid addition to the growing genre of mythological retellings. It doesn’t quite have the impact of stories like Circe or Ariadne, but it’s an accomplished debut and a worthy addition to the shelves of any Norse mythology fan. Recommended for fans of retellings and stories of motherhood.

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: 4th 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: Sistersong

‘Sistersong’ is the story of three siblings – Keyne, Riva, and Sinne – born to the King of Dumnonia in the early 5th century AD. It’s a very classic historical fantasy, creating a wonderful sense of time and place whilst also spinning an engaging tale of magic and identity. It starts slowly, but the second half is a fast-moving adventure that’s difficult to put down.

Dumnonia in 535 AD was an area of South-West Britain covering most of modern Devon and parts of Cornwall and Somerset. The Kingdom was created by the departure of the Romans – but they left a fragmented and divided land. In ‘Sistersong’, King Cador of Dumnonia has turned away from his peoples traditional gods and magics and instead towards Roman Christianity, weakening their natural defences. The result is famine, and growing terror at the threat of the Wessex Saxons on their borders. Amidst this uncertainty, Keyne tries to navigate a world in which he is persistently forced to be a woman, rather than the man he knows he is. Riva, badly burnt and disfigured in a terrible fire, worries that she will never heal. And Sinne, the youngest daughter, yearns for a romantic tale of adventure and love, willing to sacrifice anything for her own desires. As new faces and old friends gather at the Dumnonian stronghold, the siblings clash, grappling with their warring desires – and with the Dumnonian magic, their bloodline and birthright, perhaps the only way they can save their people from Saxon rule.

Keyne is by far the strongest character in the book. His struggles with his identity are powerful to read about, and he’s a determined, feisty character, always fighting against perceived injustice and mistakes. His actions can be selfish, but his intentions are always good, and he deeply cares about his land and his people. His relationship with Myrddhin, his mentor, is absolutely fantastic, and later on he has the sweetest friendship-to-romance arc – lovely to read about, especially for a transgender character in historical fiction.

Riva’s journey also starts strongly. Her place in society, as a woman and the daughter of the king, has always been to marry well and carry children – but thanks to being badly burnt by wildfire, she no longer believes herself desirable enough to do her duty. She’s also a healer, saving many of her people from death – yet she cannot heal herself. Her grapples with identity, whilst very different to Keyne’s, are equally moving. However, her story becomes very predictable, and she has the weakest ending of any of the siblings tales.

Sinne starts off an incredibly difficult character to like. She’s selfish, caring only about herself and her own desirability, and she toys with others and their emotions. She’s mean and catty to her siblings, especially Keyne, and tries to spin every situation to see how she could get more social power from it. However, as the story goes on, she grows greatly. Like her siblings, Sinne possesses powerful magic – but hers is fickle and hard to control, and she starts to grapple with how much she actually knows herself, and how much is her magic leading her astray. She’s also one of the first to accept Keyne as he is, and she develops a beautiful and powerful friendship with a man called Os, a mysterious mute who most people hate or fear for his outsider status. Sinne is a woman covered in thorns, but beneath them there’s a good heart buried deep.

The plot is uncomplicated – there are a few surprises, but the overall arcs and biggest twists are relatively predictable. However, the exploration of a period of British history less commonly seen in historical fiction is fascinating, and the different pagan magics are beautifully explored. The difficult relationship between the spreading influence of the Roman Catholic church and the traditional worship of gods and the land is also well-written, with some great fantasy twists thrown in.

The ending is clear folktale and will likely be divisive – while the rest of the novel can be read as solid historical fiction with some fantasy elements, there are twists at the end which are pure fantasy. It’s slightly jarring, given the relative realism of everything else, but overall works well. The epilogue, with its ambiguous nature, is a poignant way to end, adding an element of mystery to an otherwise neatly concluded story.

Overall, Sistersong is a strong historical fantasy novel inspired by ancient British folk tales, with its strengths lying in the exploration of identity and pagan magic. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, folklore, and complex family relationships.

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

Published by Pan Macmillan
Hardback: 1st April 2021

Robyn Reviews: Star Daughter

‘Star Daughter’ is a beautiful Hindu-mythology inspired YA fantasy that truly captures the idea of being a teenager caught between two worlds. Shveta Thakrar infuses every chapter with angst and conflict, and while the plot is predictable, it’s written with enough emotional to stand up as a strong addition to the genre.

Sheetal Mistry has a secret. Her mother was a star – not the star of some TV show or film, but an actual star, one that came down from the sky to spend some time on Earth. But stars must always return to the Heavens, and years ago her mother abandoned her and her father, returning to her place in the celestial court. All Sheetal has left are memories – and a warning that no-one must find out what she is. But as her seventeenth birthday comes closer, the call of the stars is getting louder, and it’s getting harder and harder to hide. Everything comes crashing down when her dad accidentally gets hurt – and, with only her best friend Minal at her side, Sheetal is left to seek out the stars for some answers, and the only thing that might save her dad’s life.

Sheetal is a likeable protagonist. Forced into a situation completely beyond her control, she spends the entire book fighting to stay afloat. Her constant worries are harrowing to read about, but she’s hardly helpless – she fights tooth and nail. She’s also never afraid to admit when she’s wrong – an unusual trait in YA characters, but one that I really appreciated.

Everyone around her, on the other hand, is very difficult to like. For a supposed best friend, Minal spends a great deal of time abandoning Sheetal or giving her conflicting advice. It’s clear that Minal’s trying to help, but I couldn’t understand why Sheetal was so attached to her. Similarly, everyone in Sheetal’s family spends more time trying to manipulate her than they do trying to understand her. I appreciated the moral greyness of almost every character in the book, but it was horrible watching Sheetal be tossed around between people who cared more about their goals than they did about her.

‘Star Daughter’ uses several tropes of YA fantasy – the quest to get something to help an ailing family member, the competition that must be won, the ‘Chosen One’, the secret powers that must never be revealed. The ending is relatively predictable – I’d guessed the main twist by about halfway through – but it works, and predictability can be comforting. What makes each trope stand out is the Hindu culture. I loved how this was infused into every paragraph. However, familiarity with Hindu culture isn’t necessary to enjoy this book – I’m not particularly knowledgeable, but every reference was easily understood and added to rather than detracting from the narrative.

My main issue was with the romance. YA fantasy has a habit of acting like someone’s first crush is the absolute love of their life, and insisting they stay with that person forever. I didn’t feel like the romance in the latter half of the book was necessary – it would have been more realistic for both parties to move on, rather than constantly reminding themselves of past traumas. This was a story about Sheetal taking control of her own life – it didn’t even need a romantic element to it.

Overall, this is a great YA fantasy with some gorgeous writing and true emotional resonance. Recommended to fans of mythology-inspired fantasy and complex family dynamics.

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 3rd September 2020