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

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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.

Robyn Reviews: As the Shadow Rises

‘As the Shadow Rises’ is the second book in the Age of Darkness trilogy. The five main characters – Ephyra, Beru, Anton, Jude, and Hassan – are dealing with the aftermath of their first battle with the Hierophant and the revelations made. There’s less action than in book one, but this is still an intriguing, tightly plotted book packed with fascinating characters – and the climax is even better than book one’s.

Ephyra – the Graced assassin known as the Pale Hand – has been separated from her sister Beru. The only way to save her sister once and for all is to track down an ancient relic known as Eleazar’s Chalice – but everyone who’s ever gone looking for the Chalice has perished. Ephyra goes searching for the one man who might be able to help her – but the journey is perilous and will require her to put her trust in an old enemy. In many ways, Ephyra reminds me of Rin from The Poppy War – the darker side of morally grey, one step from falling into utter chaos. She’s a horrible person but with good intentions buried deep and a fascinating character to read about.

Beru, wracked with guilt over all the people her sister has killed to keep her alive, has run away to die. Trying to atone, she takes a job as a healer – but when an unexpected acquaintance stumbles across her hideout, with a secret of their own, she decides there might be a better way to assuage her guilt. Beru plays a much larger role in this book than in ‘There Will Come A Darkness’, and while she remains a less interesting personality than her sister she’s a far nicer person. Her ending is incredible and I can’t wait to see what happens to her in book three.

Hassan, the character with the largest role in book one, plays the smallest role here. Now known as the Deceiver, Hassan is disgraced – but as the heir to the throne, he’s still determined to take back his city. Much like in book one, Hassan makes increasingly terrible life choices, but – besides being incredibly cocky – isn’t a bad person.

Jude and Anton’s storyline is the best part of this book. Jude, the Keeper of the World and Captain of the Paladin Guard, is in turmoil. All his life he’s been raised to protect the Prophet – but a member of his Guard has deserted him, his Grace is gone, and he’s broken his own vows to put his duties before all else. Everything is complicated by his growing feelings for Anton. For his part, Anton’s entire world has been upended and he’s being forced to face his worst fears day in and day out. The only person he trusts is Jude – but Jude is hiding from him, keeping secrets, and not offering the same trust back. Their relationship throughout this book is beautifully written. Katy Rose doesn’t shy away from showing the impact of the trauma they’ve gone through – especially Jude, who doesn’t know his own identity without his Grace – but the little moments of happiness and hope she offers are balms in what is regularly a darker book.

It’s difficult to discuss the plot without spoiling book one, but there are adventures, assassination attempts, huge reveals about the magic system and theology, and quests across the country. It avoids all the pitfalls of sequels and manages to tell an engaging story that stands up on its own.

Overall, this is an excellent sequel to a trilogy I wish more people talked about. I can’t wait to see how everything is tied up in book three.

My review of the first book, There Will Come A Darkness, can be found here.

Thanks to Orbit for providing a copy of this book – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 3rd September 2020

Robyn Reviews: There Will Come A Darkness

‘There Will Come a Darkness’ is a brilliant fantasy debut. The first book in the Age of Darkness trilogy, it introduces five main characters – Ephyra, Beru, Anton, Hassan, and Jude – each of whom are fighting to stay alive in a world prophesised to fall into ruin. There’s constant tension, a gorgeous Greco-Roman inspired setting, and excellent use of some classic fantasy tropes. This straddles the line between YA and adult – it appears to be marketed as adult in the UK but YA in the US – and would easily appeal to readers of either genre.

The story starts with Ephyra, a Graced assassin known as the Pale Hand. Ephyra uses her abilities to manipulate people’s life force to kill – but only so she can keep her sister, Beru, alive. I adored the complex sibling dynamic between Beru and Ephyra. Ephyra is the ultimate morally grey character, willing to do anything for her sister – but Beru has a good heart and hates what her sister is doing. Ephyra is one of my favourite characters, but not a particularly nice one. Beru’s chapters are in many ways the weakest of the book, but she provides an interesting counterpoint to Ephyra’s actions – a much-needed moral compass. I’m hoping that we’ll see more of Beru in book two, with further development of her character.

In many ways, however, Ephyra and Beru are side characters to what is primarily Hassan’s story. Hassan, the Prince of Herat, has fled his homeland to avoid the persecution his people are facing. Safely ensconced with his aunt, he begins to chafe at how little he’s doing to help his people. He starts to sneak out to a local refugee camp, befriending one of the leaders there – but his entire world is upended when the keepers of a secret prophecy arrive. Hassan is a sweet but incredibly naïve person. He makes mistakes trying to do what he thinks is the right thing and struggles to stand up for himself and what he truly believes. It’s difficult not to root for him – or for his developing relationship – but at the same time, it’s always clear that he’s getting himself and others into situations that could end in disaster.

The other two main characters, Anton and Jude, are at first opposite but in many ways very alike. Jude has been raised to be the next leader of the Paladin, tasked with keeping the last Prophet alive. His entire life has been about duty – but Jude has doubts, and he isn’t sure he’s cut out for this life. Anton, on the other hand, has always found his Grace to be more of a burden than a boon. He’s been on the run from his abusive brother for years and wouldn’t know duty if it stared him in the face – but when it comes down to it, both he and Jude are hardwired to protect others, even at the expense of themselves. Anton’s relationship with his brother is an intriguing counterpart to Ephyra and Beru’s; their interactions were always uncomfortable but made for interesting reading.

The fantasy system of the five Graces is reminiscent of many fantasy magic systems, but magic plays a relatively minor role. Instead, this is character-driven fantasy, focusing on the lives of the five protagonists in all their messy glory. Similarly, the persecution of the Graced by a religious sect known as the Witnesses – led by the mysterious Heirophant – is a fantasy cliché, but one that’s written well and matters less in a character-and-plot-focused novel. I’ll be interested to see if it goes in a more unique direction later in the trilogy, but the well-trodden material didn’t detract from the book’s enjoyment.

Overall, this is an excellent debut and introduction to an intriguing cast of characters. I can’t wait to pick up ‘As the Shadow Rises’ and find out what happens next. Recommended to all fans of YA and adult epic fantasy, especially character-driven fantasy.

Thanks to Orbit for providing me with a copy of this book – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback:
3rd September 2019. (The sequel, As the Shadow Rises, was published on the 3rd September 2020)

Robyn Reviews: The Ministry for the Future

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Kim Stanley Robinson is a big name in sci-fi, best known for the Mars trilogy and 2312. His work tends to focus on ecological sustainability with a utopian rather than dystopian slant – less common in modern fiction. However, despite being a sci-fi fan, before picking up ‘The Ministry for the Future’ I’d never read any of his work. I’ll be interested to hear from other reviewers how this compares – the idea is fascinating, but the execution doesn’t have me completely sold.

‘The Ministry for the Future’ is established in 2025 in Zurich by the United Nations, an organisation aimed at conserving the future of humanity by battling the largest threat of the time – climate change. It brings together experts from around the world in various fields to tackle the problem from all sides – policy, economics, artificial intelligence, and direct action. However, the wheels of change are slow, and the effects of climate change are starting to be felt. The book follows the Ministry – primarily its leader, Mary Murphy – over decades, chronicling how the Earth might change and society might change with it.

The narrative style is what makes or breaks this book. It’s exceptionally factual, almost textbook-like. There are entire chapters dedicated to theory – of ecology, economics, engineering. Mary is the main character, but there’s still a level of detachment between her and the reader – and her chapters can’t make up more than a third of the book. The rest resolve through other perspectives – major characters, minor characters, unknown characters, even a carbon atom and a photon – and reels of information, regularly breaking the fourth wall to address the reader. As far as I can tell, much of the science is sound, although the feats of engineering are perhaps a little far-fetched for only happening ten or fifteen years in the future. However, it can be a hard-going slog reading multiple chapters of pure theory, especially when the characters remain superficial rather than pulling the reader in and making them care.

The major characters – Mary Murphy, Badim, Frank May – are all interesting, but very much characters. Mary always feels two dimensional. A career woman with no family (her husband died young), she moves between meetings and summits, taking breaks only to swim or wander aimlessly around Zurich. It’s hard to figure out what she cares about – if she’s even passionate about ecology and climate change – as she doesn’t seem to know herself. This may be a deliberate choice; an underlying theme in all of the characters is trauma and how this affects the psyche. However, this apathy can make her as hard to engage with as the reams of economic theory.

Frank is by far the highlight. The only survivor of a horrific heatwave, he suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s unstable and regularly makes terrible choices, but deep down he seems like a nice man – and he cares, which is enough to persuade the reader to care.

I am, by my own admission, a character-driven reader. The stories I love the most are those with intriguing, engaging characters – they don’t have to have a strong plot, just characters that feel real. This, with its carefully maintained distance from the characters, and arguably barely a protagonist at all beyond climate change, was never going to be a favourite. I think that some readers – especially those with a science background – will love this, but it’s very much a Marmite book. Recommended for fans of more complex sci-fi that emphasises the science over everything else and those looking for a bit of hope for humanity’s future.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 8th October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Once and Future Witches

It’s safe to say that October is one of the best months in book publishing history. First, we had The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – now Alix E Harrow is throwing her own (pointy) hat into the ring with The Once and Future Witches.

It isn’t fair to any of the other books being published in 2020 that they have to compete with this. The Once and Future Witches is one of my favourite books of all time. Reading it is like being immersed of a bath of magic and witchcraft, hopes and dreams, power and joy. Alix E Harrow wields words like a master sculptor creating their pièce de résistance. There’s nothing I can say to adequately sum up how incredible the experience of reading this is, other than it ignites your soul with the fire of all those who have been wronged for wanting to be more than they are.

“She is a woman who understands the value of words, especially the ones they don’t want you to say.”

Once upon a time, there were three sisters. Beatrice Belladonna Eastwood was the eldest, the Crone, banished from her home only to find a new one in the New Salem College Library. Agnes Amarantha Eastwood was the middle sister, the brave one, the Mother, holding a punishing job in the mill where she could avoid having to care about anyone else. James Juniper Eastwood was the youngest, the Maiden, a firecracker of a girl who burned with the injustice of the world and wouldn’t rest until it burnt down and a new one arose in its place. These three sisters were lost – to each other, to their purpose, to themselves – but they would find each other again, and the world would tremble with the power of the three united.

“She crumples the map in her fist and keeps walking because it’s either run or set something on fire, and she already did that.”

Bella was the character I empathised with the most – the planner, the reader, most at home amongst her books and research. Given a problem she went to the library and worked. Bella loved her sisters fiercely but also tempered them, soothing Juniper’s more bloodthirsty elements and prodding Agnes into action when she faltered. Bella would never be the spokesperson, the radical thinker, the ideas generator – but she would always be there giving the ideas roots and branches, turning them from abstract dreams into tangible, inevitable reality. No plan would get anywhere without a Bella.

“Together they dared to dream of a better world, where women weren’t broken and sisters weren’t sundered and rage wasn’t swallowed.”

Agnes was the beating heart of the trio – at first cautious, careful, burned too many times, but later the fierce, clawed figure of a mother protecting her cubs. Juniper saw Agnes as a coward, but really Agnes was the brave one – the one not afraid to say no when everyone else insisted she say yes. I understood Agnes less than the others, but then I’m not a mother – I don’t know what it’s like to hold another life in your hand that you value so much more than your own.

Juniper was all thorny branches and tangled thickets and bloody, scraped knees. Juniper was what happened to a dog kicked once too many times that suddenly scented weakness in its owner. Juniper didn’t know words like restraint, or forgiveness, or subtlety – she answered every question with a fist and a curse hissed under her breath. She was not the swooning Maiden of your fairytales. I loved Juniper – loved how fierce she was, how determined, how she never apologised or thought but simply rushed in with no thought of the consequences. The world would be a very different place with a few more Juniper’s in it.

“All the caring was beaten and burned out of her, and now she’s just hate with a heartbeat.”

The plot is excellent, twisting like smoke, but the three sisters are by far the most important part. This book is moulded on the strength of their characters and the sheer beauty of Alix E Harrow’s writing. The fact that the plot is so clever is merely the cherry on top (and the little references and similarities to The Ten Thousand Doors of January an extra little garnish).

Read this book. Listen to the story of the three sisters and let them speak to your soul. Maybe these words will be the ones you need to spark the will and the way, and change your life for the better.

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 13 October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Bone Shard Daughter

The Bone Shard Daughter is brilliantly readable epic fantasy full of original magic and compelling, diverse characters. The different plot arcs pulled me in and kept me hooked, with twists that were foreshadowed enough to not be entirely surprising but still felt bold and clever. The backdrop – an Emperor unliked and untrusted by his people, supposedly protecting them from a mysterious threat that no-one is sure is real – is well-trodden territory, but was just different enough here to maintain interest.

There are five point of view characters – two main, and three more secondary. The first, Lin, is the Emperor’s daughter – quick-witted and loyal, and determined to become better at the Bone Magic only the Emperor’s bloodline can learn than her foster brother, Bayan. Lin could be naïve and somewhat cold, but her kindness to the constructs and desire to do better always shone through. I always rooted for her, although I wasn’t sure I believed in what she was fighting for – mostly because she wasn’t sure herself.

The second, Jovis, is a smuggler. Wanted by the Empire for his smuggling, and by the smugglers for failing to pay his debts, he’s on the run, searching for his ex-girlfriend – but one good deed snowballs into another, and suddenly he’s involved in a movement he never wanted to be a part of. I loved Jovis – his kind heart, his dedication to his lost lover, and his relationship with Mephis. Jovis is the stereotypical soft-hearted rogue we all need. I loved the idea of the Bone Magic and the constructs, but I almost found Jovis’s parts more compelling because he was just so nice.

The other point of view characters – Ramani, Phalue, and Sand – were interesting, but for the most part less compelling. Sand was the exception – at first, I wasn’t sure why she was included, but her revelations were truly surprising and I’m excited to see more of her in the sequel. Ramani and Phalue were great characters, and Phalue especially had a brilliant arc, but they added less to the overall story. It was nice to see a romantic relationship between two women fighting to make it work across class differences, ambitions, and beliefs, but I never quite understood how the relationship worked – hopefully it will be fleshed out in future books.

Overall, this was an easy-to-read but still creative epic fantasy with intriguing magic systems and characters you wanted to root for. The finale wasn’t quite satisfying enough – and the sequels have potential to be even better. I’ll definitely be looking out for them when they’re published.

 

Published by Orbit (Little Brown Books)
Hardback: 10 September 2020