Robyn Reviews: Far from the Light of Heaven

‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ is pitched as a locked room mystery in space, with elements of space opera and elements of old-fashioned detective drama. It’s an audacious premise, and while it doesn’t entirely come off, it’s still an entertaining and fast-paced story.

Michelle ‘Shell’ Campion is from a line of astronauts, and there was never any doubt in her mind that she’d end up in space. For her first mission, she’s assigned as First Mate on the starship Ragtime – an entirely ceremonial position, providing backup to an AI captain that’s never failed. Except, when Shell wakes in the Lagos system, she discovers the AI has failed – and some of her passengers are dead. With the help of Rasheed Fin, a disgraced investigator from the colony Bloodroot, his robotic partner Salva, and a couple of unexpected allies, Shell must figure out who’s attacking her ship – before they kill them all.

The story starts strongly, introducing the main players and setting the scene organically, without resorting to reams of description of technology or futuristic culture. There’s also clear foreshadowing, with emphasis on the infallibility of the AI and hints of characters needing a redemption arc. It’s unclear exactly how far into the future the novel is set, but the Earth described retains hints of current culture whilst also showing hints of divergence, making it easy to settle in.

All the characters are likeable enough without being particularly memorable. The strongest is probably Larry, an ageing governor on Lagos Station and friend of Shell’s late father. Fin also has an intriguing backstory and brings an emotional element sometimes lacking from some of the others.

I have two main criticisms of this book. The first is that there’s a level of disconnect between the reader and the characters throughout – they’re deliberately kept at a distance, very much observing through the keyhole rather than sitting down at the table. It makes the characters seem a little two-dimensional, and also makes them less memorable. Every moment of tension loses some impact because the reader empathises less without that connection. In a book that relies on a fast-pace and constant threat of danger, that’s a major downside.

The second criticism is related to the first, and it’s a loss of believability towards the end of the novel. Science fiction and fantasy as a genre revolves around the reader believing in the major or science within the book – believing that, in this world or version of it, these things are possible. Perhaps due to the lack of reader connection, ‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ starts to lose its plausibility towards the end. There are certain elements I couldn’t bring myself to buy, and it affected my enjoyment. That being said, the novel tries to pack an awful lot into a short space of time, and I admire Tade Thompson for having the guts to try and pull something so difficult off.

The mystery element is creative, twisty, and keeps the reader guessing, so in this way the novel excels. Thompson isn’t afraid to blend genres and go down rabbit holes to hide the twists, and many of the new directions are completely unpredictable. Some of the foreshadowing is there, but it would be incredibly difficult to guess the ending before at least three quarters of the way in.

Overall, ‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ is a solid mystery novel that utilises its sci-fi setting well. For fans of character-driven stories it’s a weaker tale, but for fans of fast-paced, audacious novels that like to try something new it’s a recommended read.

Thanks to Orbit UK for providing an arc – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 26th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: A Master of Djinn

‘A Master of Djinn’ is a fun alternate history novel, exploring a version of early 1900s Cairo where djinn roam the streets and, rather than being a British colony, Egypt has shaken them off and struck out as its own world power. At times it can get a bit too sucked into description and context, but for the most part its a fast-paced read packed with strong characters and an intriguing mystery. This is P Djeli Clark’s debut novel, but is set in the same world as some of his previous short stories including ‘A Dead Djinn in Cairo’. Reading those stories provides context but is not necessary to enjoy the book.

Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Cairo Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, but she’s no rookie – she even prevented the destruction of the universe last summer. So when a wealthy English expatriate’s secret society are all mysteriously burned to death, she finds herself put on the case. The society was dedicated to al-Jahiz – the man who opened the gate between the mundane and magical realms fifty years ago before vanishing into the unknown. Fatma’s case becomes more complicated when a mysterious figure appears, proclaiming himself to be al-Jahiz returned and instigating unrest on the streets of Cairo. Alongside her new partner agent Hadia and her fiery girlfriend Siti, Fatma must unravel the mystery before Cairo is thrust into chaos.

Fatma is a brilliant protagonist. As the first young woman to crack the Ministry, she has a chip on her shoulder the size of a small boulder and an independent streak wider than the Nile. She’s smart, a strong fighter, and takes her job seriously, but she’s also incredibly stubborn and set in her ways. Adjusting to having a new partner is difficult for her, as is taking other people’s advice on a case where even she might be out of her depth. Her growth throughout the novel is excellent, and she has some wonderful interactions with both Hadia and Siti.

Hadia and Siti are only seen through Fatma’s eyes, but they’re also complex, strong characters. Hadia, like Fatma, has struggled to crack the Ministry’s patriarchal system – but unlike Fatma, who wanders around in tailored Western suits and cows others with the force of her personality, Hadia has done it all in colourful Hijabs and a polite, unassuming manner. Between her devout Muslim faith and rule-abiding attitude, Hadia is constantly underestimated – including by Fatma. However, Hadia is just as competent as Fatma, and seeing how she constantly surprises people with her ability is both wonderful and sad to read. Hadia and Fatma are interesting case studies in how women are expected to change in order to be taken seriously, and their similarities and differences are brilliantly written.

Siti is an incorrigible flirt, a passionate devotee of the forbidden old Egyptian religions, and a generally mysterious character. Her and Fatma’s relationship is intriguing – there’s a lot of attraction there, but its clear at the start that the two don’t really understand each other. As the story goes on, that starts to change, and Clark does a great job of making the transition feel authentic.

This is an audacious novel. It creates an entirely new world filled with djinn, goblins, ghuls, dragons, and other fantastical creatures, alongside crafting an alternative history for Cairo from the point the British tried to invade in the mid-nineteenth century. Alongside its main mystery plotline, there are subplots on women’s rights, colourism, and the rights of the half-djinn. The scope is admirable, but in trying to fit everything into a four-hundred page book, Clark sometimes finds himself bogged down in paragraphs of rote description, losing some of the tension and flow. This is his first step from short stories to novels, and he’s simply taken on a bit too much for a single urban fantasy. However, the potential for his world is exceptional, and hopefully any sequels will smooth out some of the rough edges and flow much more smoothly.

Overall, ‘A Master of Djinn’ is a solid historical urban fantasy exploring an intriguing alternative version of Egypt. It has a few teething issues – as is to be expected of a debut novel – but still tells an excellent, fast-paced story with a cast of likeable and complex characters. Recommended for fans of urban fantasy, steampunk, and Islamic mythology.

Thanks to Orbit for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 19th August 2021

Robyn Reviews: The City We Became

‘The City We Became’ is one of the most inventive urban fantasy novels I’ve ever read. The premise is spectacularly creative and Jemisin carries it out brilliantly, with a real sense of tension and atmosphere throughout. The ending is a little weaker than the rest of the novel, but this is the start of an intended series so some loose ends are inevitable. A highly recommended read.

Every city has a a soul – an identity. When cities get big and established enough, that identity starts to manifest – always choosing a human caretaker for this process. New York is finally coming of age. But New York is too big and too diverse to have just one soul – instead, its got five. Five new city protectors. Each of the five is waking up confused, unsure what’s happening to them as the city takes hold. But they don’t have long to figure things out – for cities have an enemy just as ancient and powerful as them, and its coming for them. The five new protectors must come together and learn to trust each other or it will spell New York’s doom.

Distilling an entire city down into a character is a daunting task. Jemisin makes her job slightly easier by dividing New York in five – each a major New York borough – but its still an unimaginably complex idea. Not being a New Yorker, I can’t say how believable her characterisations are – but I can say that they’re all brilliant, diverse characters, fully fleshed out and powerful. Manny (Manhattan), Bronca (The Bronx), and Aislyn (Staten Island) are given marginally more page time than the others, with Bronca a favourite. An older lesbian artist who marched at Stonewall and spent her entire life fighting the system, she has bags of guts and attitude – but she also feels like she’s fought her fight and it’s time for others to take up the mantle. She wants no part in some sort of war between the city and an ancient enemy, content to help run the Bronx’s art gallery and look out for those who otherwise slip through the cracks. It’s wonderful seeing an older female heroine in fantasy, and it’s fascinating seeing how she views the present day. So much has been achieved since she was young and marching, yet so much hasn’t changed. Her observations on the internet – which has almost entirely passed her by – are also interesting; she makes some very astute points about how protest now is simultaneously easier and harder than it was for her.

There’s always a risk with a novel like this of the characters becoming stereotypes, but all of them feel three-dimensional enough for this to be avoided. They also all have elements the reader can sympathise with – even the enemy. Whilst the setup initially appears to be good versus evil, it turns out to be a lot more complicated – all villains have propaganda which sounds good and rational, otherwise they’d never accrue their power.

The writing is excellent. Each character has a distinct voice, with the writing subtly changing depending on whose perspective is taken. The novel moves at a rapid pace, with constant action and new developments and a permanent undercurrent of tension. There aren’t many plot twists until the end – instead, there’s a gradual accumulation of knowledge, changing the reader’s perspective and understanding alongside the protagonists. The final plot twist is blindsiding but also strangely unsatisfying – it feels like a cop out. It’s a single stain on an otherwise excellent book.

This is an urban fantasy novel, but the fantasy elements have most of their roots in science fiction. Saying more would be a spoiler, but this is definitely a novel with crossover appeal to fans of both genres.

Overall, ‘The City We Became’ is a brilliant urban fantasy novel with a creative premise and strong execution. The pacing makes it a fast and engaging read, and the characters are all complex and intriguing. Elements of the ending are unsatisfying, but otherwise this is another excellent offering by one of fantasy’s greatest contemporary authors. Highly recommended for all fans of fantasy and science fiction, along with anyone who’s been to New York.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 24th March 2020 / Paperback: 29th July 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Jasmine Throne

‘The Jasmine Throne’ is epic fantasy at its best, with complex world-building, an intriguing magic system, excellent characters, and an intricate, winding plot. The story flows beautifully, with a constant undercurrent of tension. Every part is morally ambiguous, and it’s never clear if anyone is doing the right thing. For those with a void in their heart after the conclusion of epics like The Poppy War and the Daevabad trilogy, this is the book for you.

Priya is a maidservant, spending her days working for the Ahiranya Regent’s wife, and her evenings seeking out sacred wood for the city’s plague-stricken orphans. However, she wasn’t always a maidservant – once she was a child of Hirana, the famed magic temple which burnt in a tragedy several years before, killing everyone else inside. When Princess Malini, the Emperor’s sister, is banished to the abandoned Hirana, Priya volunteers to make the treacherous journey to look after her. Her memories of Hirana are patchy, and she sees a way of reconnecting with her past. However, when an unexpected threat leads to her revealing her secret magic to the princess, the two find themselves thrust together. Malini is determined to escape her imprisonment and overthrow her brother’s empire. Priya wants to uncover the Hirana’s secrets – and maybe save Arihadya from its plague in the process. Together, they can change the fate of the empire – for better or worse.

There are many perspectives across the course of the novel, but the major ones are Priya, Malini, Rao, Ashok, and Bhumika. Of these, Priya, Malini, and Bhumika are my favourites. Each is very different. Priya, as a maidservant, is outwardly calm, obedient, and kind-hearted – but deep down, she remembers the power of Hirana and longs for it fiercely. She’s an adept fighter with anger she works hard to keep under control. Her intentions are good, and she wants to help others – but she has a selfish side too. Malini, as a Princess, is also supposed to be calm and obedient – but instead she’s always been fierce and crafty. At first, she appears defeated – but Malini is a schemer and master manipulator, very able to play any role to achieve her desired ends. If she has to, she’s perfectly at home with playing the villain. Malini has seen great hurt in her life, and her morals are greyer than most – but she has a softer side than many would believe. Bhumika, the regent’s wife, is seen by many as a traitor to her people – she married one of their conquerors, and now carries their child. However, like Malini, Bhumika is a politician – and she understands the power of her own body as a weapon. Bhumika is quite content to be underestimated and sneered at, as long as it helps keep her people safe. Bhumika is the sort of character less often seen in fantasy, but one who radiates a different kind of strength.

The world-building is absolutely exceptional. Inspired by Indian history, ‘The Jasmine Throne’ is set in the conquered state of Ahiranya, a place ruled by a distant empire – but left impoverished and restless. Underground rebel movements abound, and the state is being ravished by a deadly plague known as the rot. The ruling race see themselves as superior to the native Ahiranyans, and the way this affects every interaction is subtly yet powerfully done. The setting – a fading city on the outskirts of a mystical, almost magical forest – is eerie yet beautiful. The city has survived on its forestry and its pleasure houses, becoming a place the ruling class come to relax under freer laws – leading to a reputation as a place of debauchery inhabited by whores and drunkards. The way this affects attitudes towards the Ahiranyans is appalling but powerful to read about. The exploration of colonialism and empire is subtler than in some fantasy novels, but incredibly impactful.

Suri also excels in writing relationships. The relationship between Priya and Malini is complicated, evolving throughout the book, but every aspect is beautifully written. Priya has friends amongst the maidservants, but none who truly understand her. Similarly, Malini has cultivated allies – but her manipulative nature doesn’t lend itself well to true friends. Neither can fully trust the other, but both feels the attraction of having someone they can open up to after so long bearing secrets alone. In a society which frowns upon relationships between women – Ahiranya permitted it, but the new empire does not – the dynamic becomes even more fraught. It feels inevitable that everything will end badly – but Suri makes it impossible not to root for them anyway.

There’s a clear undercurrent exploring the shades of morality, and what atrocities it’s acceptable to commit in the pursuit of an ultimate good. Unlike many epic fantasies, there’s no real war in The Jasmine Throne – instead there are lots of smaller skirmishes, with each character believing their actions are justified by their end goal. Each character makes sacrifices. These elements are extremely thought provoking, lingering long past the final page. Its never clear if the protagonists are truly on the right side. The ambiguity is one of my favourite parts, and I’m both excited and terrified to see it further diverge in later books.

Overall, ‘The Jasmine Throne’ is an excellent epic fantasy and one of my favourite reads so far this year. Fans of creative world-building, complex epic fantasy, moral ambiguity, and multi-faceted characters should find plenty to love here. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Orbit for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 10th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: For the Wolf

‘For the Wolf’ is a dark yet engrossing story, packed with the atmospheric magic of the fairytales it draws its inspiration from. There are family curses, sacrifice, blood magic, an enchanted forest, and layers upon layers of secrets and betrayal, all coming together to produce a story much deeper and more nuanced than it first appears.

“The first daughter is for the throne. The second daughter is for the Wolf.”

All her life, Red – as the second daughter of the Queen – has known that her purpose is to be sacrificed to the Wolf of the Wilderwood, in the hope of bringing back the Five Kings it stole centuries ago. Her sister and friends are desperate to save her – but secretly, Red is glad to go: for Red has a dangerous magic inside her, one that she struggles to control. Red is prepared to die to save those she loves. But all her beliefs about the Wilderwood are wrong. The Wolf of the Wilderwood is a man, not a monster – and the wood might not be her true enemy after all. With her magic, Red might be the last hope the Wilderwood has to prevent monsters destroying all she holds dear.

Red makes an excellent protagonist. Sharp and feisty, she knows what she wants and will stop at nothing to achieve it. She’s caring and loyal, but guards her heart behind a crown of thorns, sharpened by old hurts. Red is very much the sort to jump in without thinking of consequences, but her intentions are good and she’s smarter than those around her think. She also adores books – they’re the only possessions she takes with her to the Wilderwood, and her reaction to libraries is amazing. Its nice to see a bookish heroine portrayed as bold and forthright.

While most of the story is from Red’s perspective, there are a few Interludes following her sister Neve. I found these weaker than Red’s sections – Neve is a little two-dimensional, her entire personality shaped around the loss of her sister – but she has clear potential, and hopefully will develop more in the planned sequel. The sisterly bond between Red and Neve is also heartwarming, especially as the two appear so different. There are glimmers of Neve being a more trusting and naive figure than her sister, but she also has a quiet strength and determination that Red would be proud of.

The setting and atmosphere are the strongest part of the novel. The Wilderwood is a dark, gloomy, and terrifying place, yet it has an eerie sense of beauty which Whitten paints perfectly. There are gothic undertones, but combined with a sense of peace and tranquility. Red has always been taught to fear the Wilderwood – and there are plenty of reasons why she should – but she also feels at home there in a way she never has before. The dichotomy is difficult to balance, but Whitten does so brilliantly, creating a sense of quiet tension combined with an element of strange rightness.

This being a story inspired by fairytales, the plot is full of tropes and recognisable elements – but Whitten puts her own spin on them, adding enough uniqueness to keep them engrossing. The pace alters throughout – rather than a relentless march or slow meander, it changes like the wind, sometimes merely rustling the leaves and sometimes tearing down entire branches. This works well – and in fact, the slower middle is my favourite part, really highlighting the atmosphere and winding up a beautiful sense of tension sure to crack. The ending is clever, changing direction several times so its impossible to predict where things will end up, and achieves both a sense of resolution and a clear direction for the sequel.

Naturally for a fairytale, there’s a romantic element. This is well-written, developing slowly and organically with clear hints dropped throughout, but its less gripping than the rest of the novel. The most important relationship is the family one between Red and Neve – the romance is a nice and expected addition, but somewhat overshadowed.

Overall, ‘For the Wolf’ is a darkly gripping tale perfect for fans of atmospheric fantasy and clever fairytale retellings. It’s strongly reminiscent of books like Naomi Novik’s ‘Uprooted‘, although stands strongly as its own tale. A recommended read.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 3rd June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Shadow of the Gods

‘The Shadow of the Gods’ is the first book in John Gwynne’s ‘Bloodsworn Saga’, a new epic fantasy series inspired by Norse mythology. It tells an excellent, brutal tale, punctuated throughout by a sense of unease. The world Gwynne creates is cruel and unflinching, with no safety for the characters within. This is definitely a read for epic fantasy fans who like their stories on the bloodier side.

The land of Vigrid has been shattered by the fall of the gods, driven to extinction by war. In the broken remains, power-hungry Jarls feud for dominance, and monsters – remnants of the dead gods – stalk the lands. Amidst this chaos, Orka, a wife and mother, tries to eke out a living for her family, staying away from the politicking Jarls. Varg, a fugitive thrall, tries to find justice for his sister. And Elvar, daughter of a noble bloodline, rejects her heritage and goes in search of battle fame. Each are very different, living very separate lives – but something is rising, a dormant power believed dead that could spell the end of Vigrid once and for all.

Unusually for a novel with multiple perspectives, each of Gwynne’s protagonists is equally strong, with an equally compelling storyline. It can be a little difficult at times to keep each character straight – there are a lot of names, some of them very similar (like Elvar and Einar) – but once this is established, each plotline makes a worthy contribution. Orka has retired from the mercenary life, settling down with her husband and son and focusing on raising her family. Her son, Breca, is a sweet child, one constantly going out of his way to save animals and trying to make people do the right thing. In contrast, Orka is a tough, fierce woman, a warrior who may no longer be actively fighting, but who still analyses every situation like a war. Her love for her family is overwhelming and she’ll do anything to protect them. Orka is regularly rash, but she’s an incredibly strong fighter and, despite a lack of regard for human life, she does have a moral compass pointing in more or less the right direction.

Varg is undoubtedly the nicest of the protagonists. He’s spent most of his life as a thrall – a slave to a master’s bidding. His escape has led to a bounty on his head and him being named a murderer, but really all Varg wants is justice for his sister. Varg is constantly getting into situations well over his head, but he has a desperate will to survive and a generous dollop of luck. Varg ends up joining a band of mercenaries, the Bloodsworn, almost by accident, but once there he finds himself with friendship for the first time in his life. The ensuing moral battle between justice for his sister and loyalty to his new friends is beautifully written,as is Varg’s struggle to fight and kill when really all he wants is peace. Varg has the most complete character arc over the course of the novel, so it will be interesting which direction he goes in in the sequel.

Elvar starts the novel as a bit of a mystery. She’s a member of the Battle Grim, another band of mercenaries, but her place isn’t quite established. She also has a mysterious bodyguard, Grend, steadfastly loyal but looked upon with caution by the rest of the Battle Grim. Elvar is another fierce warrior, but unlike Orka it’s initially less clear what she’s fighting for. As the novel progresses, more about Elvar’s past is revealed, and her precarious position in the Battle Grim starts to make sense. Beyond anything, Elvar desires freedom – a desire which many can empathise with.

Gwynne’s worldbuilding is excellent, although this is definitely a novel which benefits from regularly referring to a map. Vigrid is a land divided into sections, each ruled by a Jarl – a powerful warrior. There’s also a Queen, Helga, trying to move away from the feudal system to a more united reign – going about this, naturally, by being stronger than all the rest. The magic system, a minor part, is based on the defeated gods – some people have a remnant of the gods’ powers in their blood, making them known as the Tainted. These people are collared and controls, treated as lower than the thrall slaves. The Tainteds’ powers depend on the god they inherited them from, but are always related to battle. Gwynne avoids info-dumps,instead spreading this information across the novel and allowing the reader to infer it. This allows the novel to flow smoothly, although at the expense of a small amount of confusion as all of the new terms are introduced.

The ending is excellent. A novel with three such separate plotlines is hard to end satisfactorily, but Gwynne manages it, each plotline ending neatly but with clear potential for future development.

Overall, ‘The Shadow of the Gods’ is an exceptionally strong epic fantasy novel, packed with Norse mythology and with three equally strong character arcs. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for the sequel. Recommended to all fans of epic fantasy and Norse mythology.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 6th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Midnight Bargain

‘The Midnight Bargain’ is a regency romance with a fantasy and feminist twist. It makes a quick and easy read, and whilst the ideas and setting would have allowed for more depth and complexity, as it is it tells an enjoyable tale.

Beatrice Clayborn has always dreamed of being a sorceress, seeking magic in hidden grimoires and practising her art in secret. She dreads the day she’ll be married off and locked into a collar, unable to access her magic so she can safely carry children. However, her debt-ridden family have staked everything on Bargaining Season, and Beatrice must find a husband to save her family from ruin. When Beatrice stumbles across a grimoire with the key to becoming a full Magus, she thinks her troubles have finally come to an end – only for the book to be taken from her hands by Ysbeta Lavan, one of the most influential young women in town. To access the book, Beatrice and Ysbeta strike a deal – but the more Beatrice becomes entangled with Ysbeta and her handsome brother Ianthe, the more complicated her choices become.

Beatrice makes an engaging protagonist. Her forthright feminism and strong attitude makes her polarising in society but quickly wins the reader’s sympathy. She makes regular social faux pas – to the horror of her very proper younger sister Harriet – and is far too naive, but these flaws almost make her more endearing. Beatrice is clearly an intelligent woman and a powerful sorceress, but her position as an unmarried woman leaves her almost powerless, something she simultaneously rages against and is forced to submit to. The way she’s torn between warring desires is well written, with the reader feeling every inch of her frustration.

Ianthe is a very classic regency novel love interest – ridiculously wealthy, handsome, and completely besotted by the heroine. The chemistry between him and Beatrice is excellent, but there’s an element of insta-love which is frustrating. Beatrice is clever, loyal, and unintentionally hilarious with her lack of knowledge of social norms – their relationship could develop slower and more organically. Its still a sweet and believable partnership, but in many ways the romance is the weakest part of the book.

Ysbeta, on the other hand, is an excellent character, and her relationship with Beatrice is far more complex and intriguing. Ysbeta has no interest in love or romance. Beatrice has always wanted to pursue magic and therefore resigned herself to not marrying – Ysbeta, although unstated, is probably on the aromantic spectrum, and finds a joy in magic that she could never find in a relationship. Her desperation to study magic is rawer than Beatrice’s in a way Beatrice can’t quite understand. The two make a formidable team, with a heartwarming friendship – but there’s also a gulf between them, with neither quite understanding the others point of view.

The world is quite clearly regency inspired, with the magic system is worked in seamlessly. CL Polk avoids info-dumps, deftly weaving the magical elements into the overarching narrative. They also create a harsh but believable patriarchal society – at first, it can feel a bit much, but it quickly becomes apparent how such a huge divide between the genders has been created.

Overall, ‘The Midnight Bargain’ is an enjoyable fantasy romance, likely to appeal to fans of Bridgerton and similar series’. A great, uncomplicated read at the end of a long week.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 13th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Unbroken

‘The Unbroken’ is a debut epic fantasy inspired by North Africa, chronicling the lives of a princess trying to control a colonial city in her empire, and a soldier stolen from the colony as a child and returning for the first time as an oppressor. It takes a harsh, unflinching look at the realities of colonialism, with some hard-hitting messages. There are clear signs that this is a debut – it’s rough around the edges – but the central themes make it an interesting read.

Touraine is a solider for Balladaire, stolen from her Qazali homeland as a child and raised to fight for the empire. She’s risen as high as a Sand – a non-Balladairian – can in her army, but she’s determined to prove herself and her loyalty. Her Sands mean everything to her, and she feels she owes the empire everything. When she’s sent to hold the Qazali city against rebels and protect the Balladairian princess, she makes it her job to do all she can – but blood is strong, and she soon finds herself in the centre of a rebel conspiracy. The princess, Luca, sees the perfect opportunity to send a spy into the rebel ranks. However, the longer Touraine spends in the city, the more she begins to doubt her place – is her loyalty to Balladaire, the Qazali, the Sands, or to herself?

The story alternates perspectives between Touraine and Luca, with Touraine the far more interesting character. Touraine just wants to fit in. She wants to be respected for her military achievements, for her loyalty, for her passion -but all she gets is derision from all sides. The Balladairians will never see her as one of them, and to the Qazali she’s a traitor. Even the other Sands can’t decide if they love her or hate her. Touraine’s struggles with her identity are hard-hitting and poignant – this is a bleak book for huge swathes of the story, and most of that is simply Touraine unable to find a place in a world where who you are is everything. Her divided loyalties are brilliantly portrayed and feel blisteringly raw and realistic. Her arc is twisty and complicated, sometimes changing exceptionally fast, but her ending is fitting – especially given the tone of the book.

Luca, on the other hand, is every inch the spoilt, pampered princess. She’s used to getting what she wants, and whilst she thinks her intentions are good she definitely epitomises the white saviour complex. She has little political acumen and stumbles trying to navigate the politics of the city, struggling to hold the leash of all the other leaders out for blood. Luca isn’t a bad person, but for someone supposedly smart – she’s an amateur scholar with a keen eye for strategy games – she grossly misreads how to manage almost every situation, including Touraine. As a counterpoint to Touraine she’s an engaging enough character, but Touraine has by far the better character arc.

The plot is twisty and complicated, with constant betrayals and political maneouvering. The fact that Touraine’s divided loyalties make it unclear what side she’s on at any given time make certain parts hard to follow, but they also lend and intriguing air of unpredictability – even she doesn’t know what she’ll do next. Because the plot is so changeable it does make certain scenes lack emotional impact – the reader barely has time to process one thing before being thrown into the next with an entirely different perspective – but Touraine in general gives the reader a constant air of low-level discomfort which makes up for that. This isn’t a nice book, and it’s not always an enjoyable read, but it packs a punch and forces the reader to think.

The main issue with it is the romance. The romance between Touraine and Luca gets little page time but has a significant bearing on aspects of the plot – and unfortunately, it just isn’t particularly believable. The two characters have sexual chemistry, but it’s hard to see how two such different people who barely understand each other could ever form a proper romantic relationship. Luca’s crush on Touraine is understandable, but what Touraine could want with a princess who barely sees her people as more than tools is hard to fathom. There’s no real need for this book to have a romance element, and personally I think it would have been stronger without it.

The worldbuilding is simple but strong. The empire looks down upon the Qazali as savages – they still worship a god when religion is banned, they’re incapable of the civilised culture of Balladaire – and the Qazali see the Balladairians as thieves and oppressors, stealing their children and subjugating them to slavery and torture. There’s magic, linked to worship and the Qazali god, but this is never explained – left a mystery to the reader as it is to Balladaire.The descriptions are functional rather than lyrical, but this works perfectly with the harsher, darker tone of the novel.

Overall, ‘The Unbroken’ lacks polish but is worth reading simply for the fascinating depiction of colonialism and identity. Recommended for fans of political fantasy and historical fiction.

Thanks to Orbit for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 25th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: Ancillary Justice

It would be faster to list the awards that ‘Ancillary Justice’ hasn’t won than the awards that it has. Leckie’s debut novel, it swept all the major science fiction awards – the Hugo, Locus, Nebula, BSFA, and Arthur C Clarke – instantly cementing its place amongst the greatest works of the genre. It’s always difficult to pick up a novel like this, because it comes with such high expectations. ‘Ancillary Justice’ does not disappoint. It’s not perfect, but the idea is so utterly audacious and so cleverly portrayed that I can see why it made such a splash on publication.

Once, Breq was the artificial intelligence of the ship Justice of Toren, controlling vast numbers of bodies – known as ancillaries. They spent over two thousand years serving the Radch, a warrior race led by Anaander Mianaai. Now, Breq is a single soldier – their ship and other ancillaries destroyed – out for revenge. The novel flips between the present – Breq seeking a weapon powerful enough to destroy Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch – and the past, showing what lead to the destruction of the Justice of Toren and put Breq on their path for revenge. At its heart, the plot is simple, but the strength of this book is in the rich, exceptionally different culture of the Radch and other races, and the linguistic dexterity required to write a novel about a character who is at once many characters, and many characters who are almost – but not quite – the same.

Is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative?”

Breq – or Justice of Toren, or Essen One, depending on the perspective – is fascinating. They’re not human, but they’ve spend two thousand years learning how to mimic one in their ancillaries. They’ve also gone from being a being spread out over many bodies to a being confined to one, which has clear effects on their psyche. Breq was designed to serve – to carry out the will of their ship’s lieutenant, and of Anaander Mianaai – but also to think, to weigh up decisions and decide the best course of action, and to be absolutely deadly when required. What happens to an AI like that when their prime directives clash? The idea of autonomy and consciousness is deftly explored, with Leckie using the medium of sci-fi to ask complicated questions about free will.

The line between human and AI is also examined. Breq is not human – but they experience emotions. They can use logic to decide the best course of action but also make emotional, irrational decisions. They struggle with things which come naturally to humans – the use of gendered pronouns, for example – but they form attachments to others like humans, and in many ways seem more human than not. There are some fascinating discussions in this book about what artificial intelligence could become, and where the line might fall – if there is a line at all. These are the sort of questions that I find extremely interesting.

“Without feelings, insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions.”

I love how different Radch society can be to societies present on Earth. Gender is not a concept to the Radch, although it is to many of the groups they interact with. There is no such thing as privacy – every aspect of life is overseen by an AI. Class – specifically family lineage – is enormously important, as is religion, but the culture has changed so much you can believe this is thousands of years in the future. Some futuristic science fiction books feel too similar to present day society – no such claim can be made here.

Is this a perfect book? No – mainly because it’s confusing. It’s very difficult to write a book with many characters who are the same – with the same name, same speech patterns, same actions – but also different, and not have it end up confusing. Leckie gets very close, but the finale felt a bit messy and this made it lack impact. I also have issues with the character of Seivarden, Breq’s companion – they feel too good to be true, their motivations too opaque. It made them feel fake, rather than three-dimensional. Hopefully they’re developed further in subsequent novels in the trilogy. ‘Ancillary Justice’ deserves many accolades for sheer creativity, but – understandably for a debut – it isn’t quite polished enough.

Overall, I highly recommend this to any science fiction fan. It’s clever, unique, and pushes the boundaries of where science fiction can go. I’m looking forward to picking up further books in the series.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: October 1st 2013

Robyn Reviews: Winter’s Orbit

‘Winter’s Orbit’ is a sci-fi romance advertised as ‘Red White and Royal Blue’ meets ‘Ancillary Justice’. It’s brilliantly written with adorable characters and intriguing, complex worldbuilding – but it’s also got a darker side, and I feel like readers should be aware this isn’t quite the fun, lighthearted read they might expect.

Every twenty years, the treaty between the seven planets of the Iskat Empire must be redrawn. As the deadline approaches, the unexpected death of Prince Taam – the husband of Count Jainan, a representative of Thea – threatens hostilities between Thea and Iskat, casting doubt over the treaty. To solve this, a marriage is hastily arranged between Jainan and Prince Kiem, a minor royal with a reputation as an irresponsible playboy. However, it quickly comes to light that Taam’s death was no mere accident – and Jainan is the prime suspect. With the treaty on the line, Kiem and Jainan must learn to trust one another and figure out the truth before the Empire comes crashing down around them.

Kiem is one of my absolute favourite characters. He’s a social butterfly, a man who loves a good party and an adrenaline rush – but he has a heart of gold, throwing his soul into charity work and trying to make everyone happy. He knows his reputation and wields it like a shield, taking the blame for everything so others can live their lives in peace. He’s not particularly smart, constantly missing obvious signs – especially about Jainan – but he’s a real people person with an exceptional ability to network. He’s also hilariously clumsy, which leads to some truly brilliant scenes whenever he attempts to do anything practical (I love the bear scene so much).

Jainan is initially a hard character to warm up to. He’s stiff, cold, and formal, and constantly falling over himself to apologise for every menial slight – but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s scarred beyond imagining. Many of Jainan’s scenes are very difficult to read. His thought patterns are exceptionally accurate of someone who’s suffered prolonged abuse, and the way it affects his self-worth and demeanour is heartbreaking. Jainan is the main reason why this isn’t the light-hearted romance that some publicity makes this book out to be – for anyone with sensitivities around domestic abuse, this makes a powerful but harrowing read.

The worldbuilding is incredibly complex, and even after finishing the book some aspects are hard to fully understand. The story primarily focuses on Iskat, a planet with a monarchy which controls a seven-planet empire – but there are allusions to other empires and organisations, and the overall hierarchy is hard to parse out. That being said, the worldbuilding is still exceptional. Iskat itself is beautifully portrayed, and the complex politics between the monarchy, the military, and the intelligence service are intricately described. Everything feels real and plausible. The futuristic technology is neatly slotted in, and overall there’s incredible potential for future books to expand on the universe.

The plot has several threads – the slow-burn romance between Kiem and Jainan, the mystery of Prince Taam’s murder, the politics of trying to organise the treaty – all of which slot together very neatly at the end. The complexity and scope means the start is very slow, with a good third of the book passing before things kick into gear – but it’s worth it to have a backdrop and understanding as the action ramps up. At times, it can be a challenge to keep track of each thread, but it’s worth it for how clever the denouement is. There are many twists and turns, and whilst by the end some things are obvious, others come completely out of the blue. Maxwell’s writing is clever with lots of red herrings, but also plenty of foreshadowing of the brutal climax.

Perhaps the most impressive part is how truly fifty-fifty this is a romance novel and a science fiction novel. The two threads compliment each other beautifully, neither detracting from the other, and primary readers of either genre will likely find something to enjoy.

Overall, this isn’t always a lighthearted read, with graphic mentions of domestic abuse and torture – but it’s an exceptional debut, so with prior warning it makes an enjoyable read. I look forward to seeing what Everina Maxwell does next.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 4th February 2021