Robyn Reviews: Sistersong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Pan Macmillan
Hardback: 1st April 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Library of the Dead

‘The Library of the Dead’ is the first book in the ‘Edinburgh Nights’ series, a paranormal urban fantasy by the Zimbabwean-Scottish author TL Huchu. There are elements of dystopia, horror, science-fiction, and fantasy, with the story told through the lens of Ropa, a fourteen-year-old protagonist. It’s an ambitious concept, and the end result is a little like a library being thrown into a blender – entertaining, but lacking in finesse and flow.

At fourteen, Ropa is the breadwinner of her family. She can still remember a time when they had a house – although her younger sister can’t – but now they rent a space in the slums for their caravan, Ropa barely making enough to cover that. School is a distant memory, replaced by what she can do to get by: take messages from the dead to the living, ensuring they can pass to the beyond in peace. However, when one of the dead begs her to find her missing son, Ropa is pulled into a conspiracy far beyond anything she ever imagined. There’s much more magic in the world than just ghosts – and much more danger too.

Ropa makes a great protagonist. She’s feisty, brave, and simultaneously wise beyond her years and hopelessly naive. She puts on a tough face, but beneath it she cares deeply. She wants a better life for her little sister than she’s managed for herself and she’ll do anything to get it – even when her sister hates her for it. She also narrates in a Scottish dialect, occasionally interspersed with scientific terminology – something which I enjoyed, but others might find jarring.

While Ropa is the only point-of-view character, there are some great secondary characters – especially Priya, an apprentice Healer who uses a wheelchair, and Ropa’s gran, who clearly has a fascinating backstory only hinted at on page. Priya makes every scene she’s in more fun, and Ropa’s gran brings a sense of peace and calm to an otherwise turbulent novel.

Where it all falls down a bit is the plot. The idea is excellent – children disappearing from their homes, with those who return irrevocably changed – but the execution feels like a middle-grade novel with some adult themes and swearing thrown in. Ropa manages to get out of every sticky situation by sheer luck (except for one, in a mysterious house, which is brilliant). Her friendship with Priya is never explained – Priya simply decides Ropa is her new best friend – and Ropa’s general air of obliviousness makes her seem younger than her fourteen years. Personally, I think this would make a brilliant middle grade novel – but it’s clearly aimed at adults, and as adult fantasy it doesn’t work nearly as well.

The other part which doesn’t work for me is the dystopia. ‘The Library of the Dead’ is set in near-future Edinburgh, but something has happened referred to only as the ‘catastrophe’. There are mobile phones and the internet, but people are just as likely to use a donkey and cart as to use a car. Class divides have been exacerbated, with masses in slums and minorities in massive houses in the cities. There are frequent references to a distant king with an iron rule – everyone must greet each other by wishing him well – but there’s still mandatory public education and a healthcare system, even if it’s one that’s no longer free. The overall feel is cobbled together, and it doesn’t seem necessary alongside the paranormal elements.

Overall, ‘The Library of the Dead’ is a fun read with some great characters and interesting ideas, but it feels more like a hodge-podge of different books than a single linear narrative in its own right. Recommended for adult fans of YA and MG fantasy.

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

Published by Tor Books
Hardback: 4th February 2021

Book Review: Kika and Me

“Changing attitudes about disability is mainly about education. That’s why I do my best to talk about my life.”

Amit Patel grew up in the town of Guildford, England. As the son of local corner shop owners, he was well known in his neighbourhood. A livewire, he liked nothing better than to try any new sport, especially those offering some risk. He was supported in all his endeavours by his close-knit family.

As someone who was not privately educated, attaining a place at Cambridge to read medicine was a notable achievement. It was during his university years that Amit learned he had an eye condition – one that should be correctable with surgery. Treatment was not as straightforward as expected. He underwent numerous procedures, although these did enable him to finish his training and enter his specialism as an A&E doctor, working at a busy London hospital. He married the girl of his dreams – Seema – at a lavish wedding attended by 600 friends and relations. They settled down to enjoy married life in a house close to Amit’s parents.

Kika & Me is Amit’s memoir. Although opening with a prologue describing an episode of disturbing human cruelty, the chapters covering his early life paint a picture of perfect happiness. Perhaps that is how he remembers those years given what happened next. In November 2013 he woke up with blurred vision, quickly and unexpectedly losing his sight altogether. Not only was he plunged into a world of darkness, this was accompanied by constant pain. Drugged and depressed, grieving for an expected future he had been anticipating with relish, he pushed Seema away.

Thankfully for Amit, his wife is a determined individual. At the end of the book she provides a brief account of how she too suffered, but at the time she became the rock on which Amit could rebuild his life. Gradually he refocused on new achievements: learning braille, walking with the aid of a white stick, attending therapy sessions run by organisations supporting the visually impaired. He learned to ask for help and attained a degree of independence. Seema encouraged him to apply for a guide dog – a move that would transform their lives for the better.

The writing style is simple and unchallenging but provides fascinating insight into the process of learning to live with blindness. It is horrifying to consider how some people treat the visually impaired – selfish thoughtlessness, attempts at taking advantage, and worse. This is perhaps why a book such as this, bringing such issues to light, matters. The more that is understood about the difficulties faced, the more can be changed to help. Amit proved himself a fine advocate, unafraid to challenge when needed.

Social Media, particularly Twitter, showed him how he could raise awareness. After learning that, unbeknown to him, a fellow traveller on the underground had attacked his guide dog, Kika, he fitted her with a camera. He posted a short video clip of a subsequent attack that went viral. When people know what is happening and find it unacceptable, they may be more willing to help prevent a next time.

Amit was raised a Hindu and writes of his work trying to persuade Temple hierarchy to allow guide dogs admittance. Some have been more accommodating than others. Through responses to tweets, he garners the attention of the mainstream media. He has forged a role for himself as an advisor and speaker, working towards enhancing rights and fostering better understanding of difficulties the visually impaired must navigate.

The attention Amit now commands has granted him the attention of those with influence, as well as earning him awards that help raise his profile further. In gaining a new career, he has regained his self-esteem. His work has the potential to make life better for others.

In his personal life Amit has proved that a blind man can be a hands-on father, even when his efforts have not always met with support from other parents. He writes of his determination never to let his impairment hold his children back.

The book concludes with an ‘Ask Amit’ section that offers suggestions on how to treat those like the author – a useful guide for any who may wish to offer help without offending.

Although an easy, at times sugared, read, the story told fulfils its aim of raising awareness. Given all that Amit has achieved – including driving the ‘reasonably-fast car’ for an episode of Top Gear (!) – it is also an inspiring reminder that disabled does not equate to incapable.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, PanMacMillan, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Robyn Reviews: Uprooted

‘Uprooted’ is heavily inspired by Central European fairytales and could loosely be classified as a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ retelling. It’s a slow burner, but gradually weaves a captivating and beautiful story.

Agnieszka loves the quiet Polish village she’s grown up in – but all the villagers live in fear of the neighbouring Dark Wood and the malevolent powers within. Their only defence from the wood is the Dragon – a cold, mysterious wizard who lives in a nearby tower. For his protection, the Dragon demands a price – every ten years, he selects a young woman from the village to spend the next decade serving him. He always chooses the most beautiful villager. Agniezska was born in a tribute year, but she’s sure her best friend Kezia – beautiful, polite, perfect – will be the one chosen. However, to everyone’s surprise, the Dragon selects Agnieszka instead – and now Agnieszka faces ten years with the Dragon, a fate considered worse than being abandoned to the Dark Wood itself.

Agnieszka is exactly the sort of heroine you want to root for. She resents her circumstances and is far from the polished lady of the tower – she’s clumsy, with no eye for fashion or beauty – but she’s loyal to a fault, filled with determination and sure of herself. Everything about her is highly relatable, and she manages to be strong without seeming two-dimensional. In contrast, the Dragon remains mysterious throughout – little tidbits of his past and character are revealed in places, but he’s very much kept shrouded, with Agnieszka the focus of the story. His interpretation is left to the reader’s discretion – a bold move, but one which works well here without seeming like a cop-out.

One of the biggest strengths of ‘Uprooted’ is the magic system. It takes some time for this to be revealed, but the novel becomes far more engaging and enjoyable once its role begins. It’s a simple system, but it fits the fairytale theme and its fun to learn about it at the same time as the protagonist. I do wish that the magical philosophies were explored in greater detail – as a standalone, there’s less room for in-depth examinations of magical lore, and that’s one of my favourite parts of fantasy novels – but what’s revealed works well.

The other major strength is Naomi Novik’s writing – she absolutely nails the fairytale style and gorgeously paints a picture of the Dark Wood and the mysterious Dragon in his tower.

There are minor flaws – the initial pacing is slow and almost drags, and Kesia, Agnieszka’s best friend, is left as a two-dimensional character when she could have been so much more – but, while these detract a little, they still leave a vastly enjoyable novel packed with many positives.

Overall, ‘Uprooted’ is an excellent addition to the fairytale genre, set in a part of the world less often seen in Western fantasy novels. Recommended to fans of fairytales, strong heroines, and beautiful prose.

Published by Pan Macmillan
Hardback: May 21st 2015

Robyn Reviews: The Cheerleaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Robyn Reviews: The Sin Eater

The Sin Eater is dark, gripping historical fiction. Set in an alternative Elizabethan world, it follows the story of May, who – for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread – is sentenced to be a Sin Eater, a woman who takes on the sin of others when they die so that they can ascend to Heaven. Sin Eaters are curses made flesh – they may not speak, except when listening to the sins of the dying, and no-one may look at them or touch them. Completely cast out, May has to navigate her new reality – along with the burden of being the only person who could unravel everyone’s secrets.

I loved the idea of sin eaters – a real concept taken from history but beautifully twisted and elevated here. Campisi wove sin eating into every thread of the novel, making regular interjections about the foods eaten for specific sins which worked brilliantly and gave the narrative a real sense of voice. She also painted a very interesting picture about belief in Elizabethan times – a contentious issue given the switch from one Church to another and back again.

The picture painted of this alternative Elizabethan era was visceral. May was an outcast living amongst outcasts, and Campisi didn’t shy away from the horrors of that life. I also loved how she played with the idea of being an outcast and the freedoms, as well as restrictions, that could give you. The scenes where May used her status to give herself liberty were some of my favourites.

May was a fascinating narrator. She read exactly like her fourteen years, with growing maturity throughout the novel as she learnt more of the world and its secrets. She also fitted seamlessly into her time. Some historical fiction struggles to make its narrators feel authentic – their views or words are too modern – but there was no such difficulty here. May also kept the darkness of the book from being overwhelming by occasionally acting her age – being overjoyed by small things, like dipping her toes into a fountain. Moments of teenage melodrama brought a smile to my face.

There were many supporting characters, but as May could not speak to them, none felt as real as May. Instead, they were viewed through her lens – given names like Fair Hair, or Willow Tree, or Mush Face, labels she could use to identify them as she couldn’t ask their names. Again, this retained a sense of childishness but also painted a clearer picture of them than any name could. Willow Tree couldn’t be anything but a wizened elderly physician. Fair Hair couldn’t be anything other than the beautiful maid.

There were elements I disliked – a couple of phrases threw me out of the story, feeling out of place, and one scene between May and another character felt entirely unnecessary and discomfiting – but those are minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent book.

Anyone who likes historical fiction or historical fantasy will likely enjoy this – especially those who enjoy books that really embody their narrators voice. Highly recommended.

 

Published by Mantle (Pan MacMillan)
Hardback: 23 July 2020

Book Review: Black 13

Black 13, by Adam Hamdy, is the first in a proposed new series from the author of the high octane Pendulum trilogy. It introduces the reader to Scott Pearce, a former operative with MI6 who was driven out of the service when he refused to stand down after an horrific engagement in Islamabad. He believes the perpetrators are still at large and seeks some form of retribution. Scott is a formidable individual whose skills, strengths and lack of personal ties allow him to make clear decisions that may put him in mortal danger but for what he believes is the greater good. He is loyal to the former colleagues who have remained loyal to him.

The story opens with the murder of one of these colleagues, Nathan Foster. Like Scott, Nathan is no longer working for a government agency but is struggling to get by as a civilian. When a young lawyer, Melody Gold, recruits him on behalf of a shadowy client to investigate goings on at a bank, Nathan is drawn to the chance of some danger and glory. He has grown bored with his mundane work as a private investigator for suspicious wives or employers. However, what he discovers at the bank terrifies him and ultimately leads to his demise.

The action then moves to a beautiful beach location in Thailand where Scott is working under an assumed identity as a climbing guide and tutor while seeking gunrunners he believes are connected to what happened in Islamabad.  He is appalled when Melody turns up to recruit him in place of Nathan as only three people in the world should have known Scott’s location. With his cover compromised and powerful enemies on his tail he returns to England. On confirming the details of what happened to Nathan he plots revenge.

Scott asks another of his trusted former colleagues, Wayne Nelson, to act as bodyguard for Melody who is now also in danger. He contacts Leila Nahum, a disabled Syrian refugee and accomplished IT expert with an horrific personal history, whose life Scott saved during an MI6 operation. This small team works to find out who Nathan’s client was and who was behind his killing. What they uncover goes to the heart of the British establishment and beyond, into global networks of politics and wealth.

This is a slick, tense and fast paced thriller. Beneath the vividly described action – the fights, car chases and imaginative means of escape – the author effortlessly slips in thought-provoking social commentary. Arguments put forward can be made to sound reasonable to the disaffected who see their concerns being ignored by those in authority. The narrative explores how ordinary people can be radicalised and how some will go on to commit indefensible atrocities. It is a warning, a clarion call, for what could be happening in Britain today.

The varied and well drawn characters add to the enjoyment of what is an intense and compelling story. It offers escapism but is inventive enough to carry the reader through the many battles and complex conspiracies. Explication never detracts from the adrenaline fuelled escapades. Recommended for those who enjoy well written and electrifying action thrillers.

Black 13 is published by Macmillan.

I am touched and grateful for the limited edition proof I received, with a personalised inscription from the author.

Book Review: Hausfrau

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Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum, tells the story of three months in the life of American expatriate Anna who is now living in the suburbs of Zurich with her Swiss husband, Bruno, and their three children. Despite having no close family left alive, and having lived in Switzerland for the past nine years, Anna feels no connection with her adopted homeland. She is in a spiral of self destruction, accelerating towards crisis with an inevitability which is disturbing to read.

On the face of it Anna has it all: a husband who provides for her; healthy, happy children; a mother-in-law available to help out with childcare giving her time to indulge her interests. However, throughout her life Anna has distanced herself from others and now finds that she has few friends.

“Anna rarely felt at ease inside her skin. I am tight faced and thirty-seven years, Anna thought. I am the sum of all my twitches.”

At her husband’s behest she meets with a therapist but is reluctant to open up to her. She is advised to cultivate interests so joins a language class to improve her German that she may communicate better with those around. Here she meets Archie with whom she immediately starts an affair. She uses sex as an opiate, quashing any feelings of guilt with skewed arguments based on feelings of self-entitlement.

Anna does not conflate lust with love although even those she loves are viewed through a self tainted glass. She recognises that if her affairs are discovered then her comfortable world will fall apart. Many of her actions are more akin to self-harm, a cry for the help that she persistently eschews.

I loved the way this book was written, its use of language. For example, descriptions of place allow the reader to appreciate how Anna found the grandeur and beauty of her surroundings oppressive.

“Alstadt is clotted with historically significant churches”

Absorbed as she is in her malcontents she finds the efforts of Bruno’s family and those who try to reach out to her in friendship to be as repressive as the well ordered canton in which she reluctantly lives.

The tragedy of the story is all the more painful because it could have been avoided. I would have liked to know more about Anna’s background to better understand why she acted as she did but perhaps I am looking for easy answers which do not exist in life. Anna brought about her own downfall, but to blame her entirely would be to misunderstand the human condition. Her story is poignant and well worth a read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mantle.