Robyn Reviews: Malice

‘Malice’ is a take on the well-known fairy tale ‘Sleeping Beauty’, told from the point of view of the so-called villain. It’s a quick, enjoyable read, with a protagonist you sympathise with and a solid background magic system. There’s nothing groundbreaking, but for fans of fairy tale retellings it’s an entertaining read.

Alyce is the last remaining Vila, a race of monstrous creatures who terrorised the land of Briar for centuries. Abandoned in Briar by a fisherman, her power means she has been raised amongst the Graced – humans blessed by Fae magic and given gifts like Wisdom, Beauty, and Pleasure. However, her green blood and affinity for dark magic means she will only ever be the villain – the Dark Grace. That is, until she meets the Princess Aurora: the last surviving member of the Briar royal family’s bloodline, their last hope – and cursed to die aged twenty-one unless kissed by her true love. Aurora is tired of a life of kissing princes in the hope to find the one, and wants to bring change to Briar. She treats Alyce like a friend – or even something more. But can the villain of the story ever have a happy ending?

Alyce, referred to as Malyce by most of the Graced, is an excellent protagonist. Treated like a lesser person all her life for her Vila heritage, and forced to use her powers by Briar’s Grace Laws, she’s justifiably angry. She starts off terrified, beaten down by her experiences – but throughout the story, as her knowledge of her own power grows, she becomes more and more confident, blossoming into a clever, conniving, but also very caring character. Alyce isn’t evil, but circumstances have shaped her into a weapon anyway. Her feelings for Aurora are beautifully written, and their steady development feels authentic and powerful.

Aurora, on the other hand, is a beacon of confidence. As the last remaining heir, she knows exactly how much she can get away with, and stretches the boundaries as far as she can. At first, she sees Alyce as a curiosity, one more rebellion – but gradually, she starts to see the real Alyce. However, unlike Alyce, Aurora has always been relatively sheltered and privileged – and while her idealism is lovely, there will always be parts of Alyce’s life that she can’t understand. I thought this gulf in experience, and the optimism of idealism versus the desperation of lived experience, was particularly well-written, and one of the most poignant moments of the book.

The plot is relatively predictable, with betrayals and hidden powers and a usurper trying to seize power for themselves, but then this is a fairy tale retelling, and certain tropes will always exist. The ending is particularly strong. All the characters are, in different ways, very naive, so most twists are strongly foreshadowed to the reader whilst the characters remain oblivious – but it works, creating a sense of tension and anticipation as the characters stumble into entirely avoidable pitfalls.

Overall, ‘Malice’ tells a familiar tale in a fresh and intriguing way, making a basic story more powerful with the strength of its protagonist. Fans of fairy tales, and especially villain origin stories, will find plenty to like here.

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 13th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Absolute Book

‘The Absolute Book’ is a contemporary portal fantasy novel of epic scope, drawing in influences from Norse mythology, the Fae, and tales of forbidden books and burning libraries. However, it’s also very much literary fiction, written in a style reminiscent of Dickens and other classics. The combination will work for some readers, but unfortunately I found the fantasy elements unoriginal and the literary elements tedious, labouring too much on tangents and unnecessary description and never allowing the reader to connect to the characters. I suspect this is a book for literary fiction readers who wish to dabble in fantasy rather than established fans of the fantasy genre.

Seeking revenge for her sister’s death, Taryn Cornick – the spoilt daughter of a well-known actor and pampered wife of a wealthy husband – allows a man called the Muleskinner to murder the supposed killer. Her actions draw the attention of DI Jacob Berger – but they also come to the attention of those far more otherwordly. For her family’s library has been hiding a secret, and those in a realm very far away now see Taryn as key to finding it. Thus begins a quest that will span the breadth of the Earth, and several other words as well, to find the secret – and perhaps save all the realms in the process.

There’s very little to say about either Taryn or Jacob, despite them being the protagonists. Knox doesn’t focus on her characters as more than plot devices. Taryn is a spoilt, wealthy woman who’s experienced a great deal of grief – the loss of her beloved sister, and the subsequent decline and loss of her mother. However, it’s hard to feel sorry for her given how insubstantial and selfish she is. She has no clear motivations or drive, no wishes in life. She publishes a book, and seems to have knowledge and passion on the subject, yet has little to no interest in her own life. It’s possible she’s intended to portray someone with severe depression, but she’s so underdeveloped as a character it becomes almost impossible to tell.

Jacob, a police detective who becomes unhealthily invested in both the case against Taryn and Taryn herself, is equally insubstantial. His life before Taryn is never shown – he simply appears, and his life becomes her bizarre story. Once again, he has no motivations – he claims he wants to solve the case, yet shows little interest in pursuing it once the answers become apparent. Almost nothing about the plot would change if he wasn’t in the book at all, which shows how flimsy he is as a character.

The plot is very standard fantasy quest fare – a missing, very powerful, world-changing object must be found to save the worlds. Similarly,world-hopping, with secret passages to worlds beyond Earth, is well-trodden ground in fantasy because it’s a device with huge creative potential. The world Knox creates is intriguing – the inhabitants have very different morals and politics to humans, with the ethics of how they dip in and out of human lives and history mused on in an engaging way – but overall it’s underutilised. Powers are introduced only to be very mentioned again, and ethical dilemmas discussed only to be summarily brushed over and never dealt with again. There are glimmers of brilliance, but none of them come to fruition.

My biggest issue, however, is with the writing. Knox favours writing filled with lavish descriptions and constant tangents, almost like a stream of consciousness. Passages which start as serious conversations meander off into observations on the weather, characters outfits, memories of the past, random and entirely unrelated facts. It’s difficult to keep track of what’s actually happening as there are constant diversions, most of which are entirely irrelevant. The novel could tell the same story with a fifth of the words, leaving some room for developing characterisation and narrative tension. Some people will likely appreciate the wealth of descriptions, but whilst I enjoy descriptions that create atmosphere, I’m less fond of unneccessarily long novels that lack purpose.

My other issue is the sexual undertones that several passages have. There are frequent references to Taryn’s breasts in strange moments, and several times when it is explicitly mentioned a character is getting an erection in an otherwise non-sexual moment. Each of these moments jarred me, throwing me out of the story. This isn’t a sexual story – it doesn’t even have a romantic sub-plot – and whilst streams of consciousness may, naturally, contain the odd sexual reference, none of these felt like they belonged.

Overall, ‘The Absolute Book’ is definitely a literary fiction novel that happens to contain fantasy elements rather than a typical fantasy novel. For those fond of complex descriptions, unreliable narrators, and books inspired by Norse mythology it may hold some appeal – but for those looking for a character-driven novel, or even a novel primarily driven by plot, this may not be the book for you.

Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph
Hardback: 18th March 2021

Book Review: The Silent Treatment

The Silent Treatment, by Abbie Greaves, tells the story of Frank and Maggie, a married couple who have been together for forty years. Despite continuing to live in the same house – eating and sleeping together – Frank hasn’t spoken to Maggie for the past six months. He has a secret that he fears, if shared, would drive her away. Meanwhile, she has reached the end of her tether.

The prologue describes events that result in Maggie’s hospitalisation. While there in an induced coma, Frank is encouraged by medical staff to talk to her that his familiar voice may help draw her into recovery. Thus the reader learns how they met, married and the difficulties they faced through their many years together.

The book is divided into two main parts: the couple’s life story as told by Frank at Maggie’s bedside, then the same story written in a journal by Maggie in the week before her hospitalisation. As may be expected, the two points of view have differences in perspective.

There is an urgency to the first part that I found lacking in the second. Both, however, are leading to key revelations. By the time these were divulged I had grown bored by the buildup. The bar of expectation had been raised to such a height it felt overworked.

Both accounts present an almost too perfect marriage. Serious difficulties encountered over the decades are acknowledged but the memories recounted are mostly frolicsome and adoring. Frank and Maggie each blame themselves for any shadows cast. Frank’s silence may be recent but they had never spoken freely. The love they retained for each other could not make up for their inability to communicate.

There is a third key character – the couple’s daughter, Eleanor. She is adored by both her parents. I found it draining to read of their pain when she started to pull away. As a parent, the impotence and despair experienced when a child is hurting but will not accept help, resonated.

There were minor inconsistencies – niggles – in Maggie’s journal entries. She wrote that she never did feel at home in a particular role yet then described it as the happiest time of her life. Perhaps this is how personal memories are always massaged.

Although I liked what the author did in the final few paragraphs it did not assuage my impatience with the structure. Many readers have raved about this novel but to me it felt bloated – the reveal not meriting the buildup. A shame, but it was not for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Century (an imprint of Penguin Random House)

Book Review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old

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The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, by a Dutch author whose identity is a closely guarded secret (his words have been translated into English by Hester Velmans), is a must read for anyone who claims they wish to live into old age. It had me laughing out loud on numerous occasions, but this is an honest, poignant and insightful exposé of how it feels to exist in a busy, modern world when one’s body is inexorably deteriorating.

Hendrik Groen doesn’t like old people, particularly their endless complaints and repetitive, small minded conversation. He lives in a care home in North Amsterdam, one provided by the state at minimal cost. He admits that it is not a bad place to be, that the food is passable and he has made some good friends. Many of his fellow residents, however, he derides. Due to his habit of wishing to please everyone he cannot bring himself to say what he thinks, so he decides to write it down, narrating a year in the life of the inmates.

Given that this home is the sort of facility where people go to die, death is a regular occurence. Each time a room is vacated it must quickly be cleared that a new resident may move in. When one such arrival, Eefje, turns out to have a sharper wit than most, Hendrik befriends her. He and his select band of peers have an epiphany – if life is to be improved then they must take action. To the palpable disapproval of management, they set up the Old But Not Dead Club. Outings are arranged and fun is had. Once more, they have something to look forward to, including a chance to fall in love.

Each entry in the diary presents aspects of life from the point of view of an elderly gentleman who fully recognises his incapacities yet rails against the way the growing number of old people are treated by society. He also rails against how so many of these old people talk and behave towards each other. He acknowledges the smells and the leaks and the slowness of their actions; he dislikes these unavoidable features of aging as much as anyone. What he struggles with is the narrowing of horizons, the constant discussion of ailments, the petty bullying and intransigence endemic in their everyday lives.

Alongside the routine are moments that prove Hendrik can still garner enjoyment from life. Their club outings enable the members to try new activities, to eat well and drink with abandon. Such behaviour earns them the rancour of their envious peers.

There are also the trials, when good friends suffer serious health setbacks. There is discussion of euthanasia, dementia and suicide.

The wide ranging scope of the book makes it, in my view, an essential read. It does not shy away from the issues of aging, but neither does it present it as without hope. I loved the fun Hendrik had on a mobility scooter, the way the members of the club behaved on their outings, and the subversive nature of their gatherings within the care home where they flouted the rules designed to make life boringly safe, or  simply easier for the carers.

Hendrik is incorrigible, sometimes grumpy, always relatable. His honesty is both poignant and refreshing. He asks that he may be granted a place in the world, not shunted aside as the embarrassment too many view him as.

It is pointed out that the number of old people is set to grow yet economies in provision for them are forever being sought. Hendrik does not expect to live long enough to suffer the consequences. He offers a reminder to the policymakers that they are ruling on the quality of their own future lives.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Think Jam.

 

Book Review: The Last Leaves Falling

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‘look close and you see the hidden buds of spring’

The Last Leaves Falling, by Sarah Benwell, is not a comfortable book to read dealing as it does with the imminent death of a teenager. It takes us into a world coloured by exam stress; parental expectation; the excitement and pressure of future unknowns that, for the protagonist, have been stolen away. This is not another ‘Fault in our Stars’. It is a darker and harsher tale.

Sora is seventeen years old and has rapidly progressing ALS (motor neuron disease). He lives in Kyoto, Japan with his mother and feels a burden of guilt for her grief over his condition. Sora has been forced to leave his school which could not offer the access and support he would require as his body deteriorates. Discomfited by onlookers pity he chooses to spend much of his time alone in his room. From here he reaches out through internet chatrooms to teenagers who did not know him before, finding friends who will see beyond his condition but not shy away from what is to come as the adults in his life are wont to do.

The writing interweaves narrative with on line screenshots and chat threads. These work well at showing the importance of the internet in modern, teenage life. As Sora’s new friends agonise over schoolwork and university applications he must cope with his degenerating body. He obsesses over how it will feel to die and if there is a hereafter, frustrated by his doctor’s and mother’s refusal to discuss his concerns.

The story is undoubtedly bleak but there are chinks of light which are uplifting. The friends learn to appreciate how precious life is and that it should not be wasted. They allow themselves to dream.

The attitudes portrayed reflect Japanese culture but there are wider truths to consider. Throughout the world adults aim to guide and protect young people who may then struggle to find a way to have their voices heard. Sora turns to his friends when his mother’s love becomes a burden, finding relief when they listen and accept.

A powerful tale that is very well written. It is moving and challenging, exploring difficult issues with painful honesty. People die, then for those left life goes on. What matters is to use the time we have to create memories, to be open to new ideas, to live.