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

Robyn Reviews: We Lie With Death

‘We Lie With Death’ is the sequel to ‘We Ride the Storm‘, and again was originally self-published before Madson’s deal with Orbit. It picks up immediately where ‘We Ride the Storm’ left off – but where the former was action-packed military fantasy, ‘We Lie With Death’ is slower, with far more journeying than politics. It’s a clear second in a series, which unfortunately makes it a less engaging read.

Northern Kisia has been conquered, with a new emperor on the throne. However, his rule is fragile, depending on uneasy alliances – including with those many would rather see dead. Amidst the chaos of rebel factions, political maneuverings, and a land fractured in two, Rah e-Torin – once head of the Second Swords of Torin – must decide where his loyalties truly lie. Meanwhile, Miko, the dethroned empress, determines to claw back her crown, with allies thinner and thinner on the ground. Cassandra, once an assassin of renown, finds herself a slave – but also privy to information that could change the course of the entire war. Finally, Dishiva e’Jaroven, loyal to the new emperor, tries to reconcile herself to her new life – no matter how foreign and distasteful it might seem.

Cassandra was the most interesting character in book one, and here she’s finally utilised to her full potential. Her arc is completely separate to the other characters, exploring the backstory and magic system of Madson’s world, and it makes a compelling tale. Cassandra cares little for politics or war, but her revelations will likely be more important for how everything ends up than every other character’s put together.

Rah remains a genuinely nice man – but his honour also makes him a frustrating one at times. His loyalty is absolute – except he isn’t always sure what he’s being loyal too. His internal struggles are well-written and convincing, and while he doesn’t develop greatly from ‘We Ride the Storm’, he remains hard to dislike. Without a major character arc, he likely could have been given less page time – but it’s pleasant enough being inside his head.

Miko has lost everything except her name, and how she copes should be fascinating to read about. As a character she’s excellent – not always nice, and perhaps not with the best motives beyond a stubborn desire to cling on to power, but utterly believable – but unfortunately, her scenes suffer from the fact that very little actually happens. Miko spends the majority of the book travelling, attempting to find allies – and while Madson does her best to add tidbits of interest, the sheer length of the book makes this hard to wade through. Her scenes pick up hugely towards the end, but it’s unnecessary challenging to get there.

Dishiva is the only new POV character, and her introduction packs a punch – but from there, she goes a bit downhill. She’s the least memorable of the four characters, so while she has some excellent scenes – and provides much-needed insight into the workings of the new empire – she doesn’t entirely justify her inclusion. She’s possibly a tad too similar to Rah, and struggles to stand up in comparison. That being said, her romantic arc is sweet, and hopefully she’ll come into her own as the series develops.

The pacing is where this falls down compared to its predecessor. It’s too slow, with occasional action scenes so quick they give you whiplash. The abrupt change lacks any real impact, instead leaving confusion. There are some excellent moments, and I love the deeper discoveries around Cassandra and the background magic, but overall this just doesn’t flow well. It also feels its nearly 600 pages in length, rather than pulling you in and allowing the pages to flow by.

In summary, ‘We Lie With Death’ expands upon the excellent foundations of ‘We Ride the Storm’, but it isn’t quite the same standard. I’ll probably continue with the series, but I hope any future books iron out the issues in pacing. Recommended to fans of political fantasy and A Song of Ice and Fire (if you made it through book three, the journeying here will seem like a short stroll in comparison).

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

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 14th January 2021

Robyn Reviews: Nophek Gloss

‘Nophek Gloss’ is a brilliantly creative science-fiction book packed with futuristic technology, incredible theories about multiple universes, and fascinating alien races. However, it’s also an example of how an unlikeable protagonist can let an otherwise fantastic book down. I imagine fans of plot-driven complex science fiction will adore this, but fans of more character-centred books like me may struggle with certain aspects.

Caiden’s life is simple. Aged ten, his aptitude test deemed him to be the perfect mechanic, so ever since he’s worked with his dad to fix things. He’s tired of his dad refusing to answer questions or telling him he’s too young, but that’s OK – he’s fourteen, almost an adult, and he’s sure he’ll get the answers soon. Instead, his entire planet is destroyed by their overseers, Caiden only escaping by finding a mysterious ship – and with the aid of a mysterious crew of Passagers. Wracked by guilt and anger, Caiden dreams only of revenge – but the multiverse is a large and complicated place, and if Caiden is to survive it he’ll have to take drastic measures.

Caiden is a fourteen year old boy who goes through a hugely traumatic event. In a single day he witnesses unimaginable horrors and finds out that his entire life is a carefully constructed lie. Understandably, this takes a huge toll. Caiden suffers recurrent nightmares and bursts of uncontrollable anger. He makes rash decisions and lets his emotions take over. None of these things are his fault, and the’re common results of severe trauma – but they do make him a very difficult single POV character. His head is an unpleasant place to be, and – coupled with actions which are reckless at best – it makes him difficult to engage with. He also instantly seems to win over several of his new companions – part of this is explained later, but it felt far too unrealistic for a damaged and unpleasant child to so quickly make such close friends, even if they understood his trauma. He does improve a bit as the book goes on, but he’s never as compelling as I want him to be.

It’s a shame that Caiden is such a difficult character because everyone else on the ship is fascinating. They’re a variety of species, all with complicated – and equally horrible – pasts, and seeing into their heads and perspectives would provide an excellent counterpoint. I especially like the ship’s cook and medic – they’re initially very cold to Caiden, but they have an amazing animal companion and a heart of gold, and by the end it’s clear they’re secretly a massive softie. The ship itself is also, to an extent, alive – a popular science fiction trope that isn’t utilised that much here but has clear potential for the sequels.

The worldbuilding is the strongest part. Hansen paints a picture of an exceptionally complex world with layered politics, incredible xenobiology, fascinating future technology, and above all a feeling of complete uniqueness. There are familiar elements and tropes, but the overall creation is entirely unique. It’s a world that would be fascinating on the big screen, and spending time in it – even if that time involves dealing with Caiden – is a joy. The story is wide in scope, with a great deal of travelling between places, but each new place – be that a spaceship, a space station, a city, or an entire new planet – is developed with impeccable attention to detail. It’s a true triumph and a testament to Hansen’s strength as a creator.

Revenge plots are a stalwart of science fiction, but again Hansen spices it up and throws in some surprises. Some of the twists are predictable, but there’s enough there to keep it engaging and fast-paced. There are also no unnecessary distractions – no romantic sub-plots or other diversions – which I really appreciate. Caiden is a traumatised teenager out to avenge the death of his entire world – this isn’t the time for romance. The plot is dark at times – this isn’t a book to go into for those with any triggers surrounding death, including animal death – but the ending is hopeful, and there’s an undercurrent throughout that things will get better.

Overall, this is a book that some will adore for its beautifully complex worldbuilding and fast-paced, brutal plot, but others will struggle with because of the unlikeable protagonist and elements of implausibility. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter camp, but I can still appreciate Hansen’s strength as a writer. I don’t know whether or not I’ll seek out the sequel, but I’ll certainly be following Hansen’s career with interest. Recommended to fans of harder science fiction and intricate worldbuilding.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 17th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Rage of Dragons

The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter was originally self-published in 2017, then picked up by Orbit and republished last year. It’s an exhilarating epic fantasy, and one of few I’ve read recently told from a single point of view. The protagonist, Tau, is in many ways an unlikeable character, but written so well that the reader ends up rooting for him regardless. I’m excited to see how his journey develops further in the sequels.

“Let them think me a monster” the Dragon Queen thought. “I will be a monster, if it means we survive.”

This African-inspired epic fantasy follows Tau, a Lesser in a kingdom where caste is everything, the son of an acclaimed Lesser swordsman. Tau lives out his days as the sparring partner of Jabari, a Petty Noble of higher caste, and training to join the Ihashe – a group of Lesser warriors and his only chance of achieving any sort of status. He’d be quite content to be injured out of the Ihashe and marry Zuri, a girl from his village – but when his life is turned upside down, his life instead turns into a quest for vengeance.

The world-building is excellent, with an intriguing magic system and a rigid caste system that’s completely believable. Dragons play a less prominent role than the title suggests – this is very much a military fantasy, with focus on training and battles – but is no less gripping for their absence. It also doesn’t shy away from the horrors and difficulties of war. Evan Winter’s world is stark and brutal, but retains enough elements of hope and humour to make this an enjoyable read.

Character building is less of a focus than in many novels, and consequently the first 100 pages are a bit of a slow slog, but the novel grows into itself and the plot and setting are good enough that the lack of character depth matters less. I would have liked to get to know Tau and his motivations more – along with the other major characters, such as Uduak, Hadith, and Zuri – but the pace of the novel likely would have suffered. Despite being a fan of character-driven novels, I can appreciate why that wasn’t the direction taken here.

The ending is impressive, wrapping up the story but leaving plenty of potential for a sequel. It struck a great balance between allowing this novel to stand alone and leaving plenty of questions to be answered in subsequent books – something that not every novel manages. I like the note it ended on and hope the sequel builds on these excellent foundations.

“The Lessers shook the Crags with the power in their voices. ‘The world burns!’”

Overall, this is a fabulous epic fantasy novel likely to appeal to fans of plot-driven stories – especially those with a military focus. In many ways, it’s a more traditional style of fantasy than many recent entries to the genre. A recommended read, and I’m looking forward to picking up the sequel.

 

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 16th July 2019, Paperback: 10th March 2020

The sequel, The Fires of Vengeance, is due for publication by Orbit on the 10th November 2020.