Book Review: Skyward Inn

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Humans had been through so many changes. Evolutionary changes, yes, but more than that, much more than that. Who lived where and who loved what and who hated who: what was allowed and what was forbidden and all of it changing, changing with every generation.”

Skyward Inn is science fiction that explores what it means to be human and its cost. It opens at the titular inn where the landlady, Jem, is drinking after hours with her assistant, Isley. They have run the place together for more than seven years, since they returned from Isley’s home planet, Qita.

Skyward Inn used to be called the Lamb and Flag, before Jem bought it with her military tour completion bonus. It is situated on a hill close to the rural community in Devon where Jem was born and raised – where her brother and son still live. This area is now part of The Western Protectorate – an area kept free from the computer connectivity, including implants, which the rest of the island accepts as a price worth paying for instant answers to questions along with other comforts and entertainments.

Jem and Isley declare their love for each other but do not touch – at his insistence. When customers have left, they reminisce about their time on Qita, an area now mined for resources. History reports that the Qitans gave up their world peacefully when humans invaded, that it was a war without casualties. The alien population are not, however, made welcome on Earth. Isley has done his best to assimilate – although his world translates this idea differently. He is still treated with suspicion by locals.

Fosse, Jem’s teenage son, lives with his uncle, Dom. The boy dreams of leaving the confines of the Protectorate, although with no clear idea of where he would go. Dom is a pillar of the community, responsible for the trades that enable its residents to acquire goods and services they cannot provide for themselves. People who can afford it want more than can be made available and a black market flourishes – a weakness in the supposedly strict control over comings and goings.

News of an encroaching virus leads to changes in travel rules and quarantine. Then three strangers arrive and take over an abandoned farm. Fosse is drawn to the interlopers, especially the women. He fears the man and his manipulations – his apparent power over his companions. Fosse is torn between a feeling of invasion and the prospect of a path towards his own escape.

Skyward Inn also has an uninvited visitor to contend with. Won is a Qitian whose arrival upsets Jem due to her apparent closeness to Isley. He shows no surprise at her presence but is concerned by her predicament. Won’s ability to travel has malfunctioned – her suit requires a replacement part. To get rid of her, Jem must take the risk of asking the law-abiding Dom for help.

“All it took was the arrival of one more Qitan and I’ve begun to separate this situation into sides. How human I am, no matter how hard I try. We residents of the Western Protectorate, setting up our boundaries, priding ourselves on not being barbaric compared to the tiny villages not a few miles away. Being human is the problem, the huge problem in a nutshell”

The story is mostly told from the points of view of Jem and Fosse. It explores how power revolves around information, and the human need to feel appreciated – to belong. There is an instinct to protect what is believed rightfully owned, be it people, property or values. There is arrogance in what is assumed to be a right, whatever the cost to other beings.

Earthlings do not understand Qitan society. The aliens are assumed to be peace loving because they did not put up a fight for Qita. This is regarded as weakness, the Quitans assumed to pose little threat to their invaders. Differing principles lead to a lackadaisical approach to finding out what is valued and why. As the truth is gradually revealed, Jem must make a difficult choice.

This is a prescient tale for a time when nationalism appears to be on the rise and historical accuracy is being questioned. It may be human instinct to fear the outsider, but change arrives whether or not it is invited.

Any Cop?: In her writing, Aliya Whiteley presents important topics to consider with the lightest of touches. This is a story to be enjoyed for its imaginative world building and development that can be mined for so much more.

 

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: Black Sun

‘Black Sun’ is the first book in the new ‘Between Earth and Sky’ series, an epic fantasy tale inspired by pre-Columbian American mythology. It weaves a tight, dark, intriguing tale of conspiracy and magic, creating a world of vast potential. I can’t wait to see where Roanhorse takes it next.

The holy city of Tova is preparing for the Winter Solstice – always a time of celebration, but this year even more special as it coincides with the solar eclipse. Naranpa, the Sun Priest, is trying to make sure everything is ready – but her appointment as the Sun Priest was controversial, and her power is less absolute than it might seem. Meanwhile, across the sea, a young man named Serapio is preparing to sail to Tova to fulfil a prophesised destiny. Scarred and blinded, he’s described as harmless to the ship’s captain Xiala – but Xiala knows well that men described as harmless often turn out to be the villain.

Naranpa is an easy character to empathise with. Born in the slums of Tova, she should never have risen high enough to become the Sun Priest – yet rise she did, in the process acquiring few allies and many enemies. She can trust no one. Naranpa is naive and ignorant in many ways, but her intentions are good, and she always remains true to herself and her beliefs. Her arc is less interesting than Xiala’s or Serapio’s, but I suspect she’ll have an important role in the sequels.

Serapio is a fascinating character. As a child, his mother carved up his back and sewed his eyes shut so he could fulfil a higher purpose. She promptly vanished, abandoning him blind with a father who couldn’t stand to look at him. Serapio’s life has been one of suffering, but it’s left him a controlled and measured man – whip smart, deadly in a fight, and far more than meets the eye. He’s definitely on the grey side of morally grey, but it’s impossible not to sympathise with his life and understand why he does what he does.

Xiala is the best character in the book. An exiled Teek, Xiala’s first love is the sea. She’s a sailor, using her Teek magic to bend the winds and waves to her favour, but the superstition of her fellow sailors makes her few friends. Xiala is honest to a fault, coarse, practical, and eminently likeable. Her Teek abilities are fascinating, and the brief glimpses we get are brilliantly portrayed. As an exile, it’s unclear if Xiala doesn’t fully understand her potential or merely represses it, but watching her come to terms with the full extent of her nature is brilliant. Her evolving relationship with Serapio, her cargo, is also cleverly written, with very few words required to create a brilliant atmosphere.

For an epic fantasy novel, ‘Black Sun’ is relatively short. There are four major points of view – Naranpa, Serapio, Xiala, and Okoa, who is introduced later than the others – each with a discrete plotline, even as their stories intersect. The wealth of characters and different storylines means each distinct narrative thread can only tell a limited tale. Each is solid, but the end result is that this very much feels like a set-up novel. This doesn’t detract from it – the pace is still fast, with plenty of action and intrigue – but Roanhorse easily could have gotten away with adding at least a hundred extra pages. The ending is satisfying, but a world this unique and detailed merits deeper exploration.

Overall, ‘Black Sun’ is an excellent start to a series. Roanhorse creates a world of enormous potential populated by solid characters. However, the tale told here barely scratches the surface of what could be done with such a setup, so I’m hopeful that later books go deeper. A recommended read.

Published by Rebellion
Paperback: 21st January 2021

Robyn Reviews: Infernal

‘Infernal’ is the intriguing start of a new fantasy series packed with magic, dry humour, and mystery. It has an old-school fantasy feel, yet the twists – especially the finale – feel fresh and unpredictable. For a debut author, de Jager is incredibly assured, taking risks which initially made me doubtful but which work brilliantly, adding an air of cloaking and uncertainty without detracting from the story.

Stratus wakes up alone. He knows very little except that the body he is in is not his own, and that he doesn’t seem to be its only occupant. Determined to find some answers, he sets off in search – only to stumble into a conspiracy of war, religion, and magic, with everyone convinced he’s on the other side. He isn’t helped by his complete lack of knowledge of human nature – or by his body’s companion, a being of pure rage which occasionally seizes control.

Mark de Jager’s decision to tell an epic fantasy story with a single POV is unusual enough, but when that character also has near-total amnesia it becomes an even bigger risk. Stratus doesn’t understand the world, humanity, or even himself. This empathy barrier means each character except Stratus feels two-dimensional, yet it works – partly because Stratus himself is so intriguing, and partly because Stratus’s attempts to understand them are often darkly hilarious. De Jager straddles the line between mystery and confusion expertly, revealing just enough at key moments to keep things engaging, but also making the final reveal a total – yet believable – shock.

Stratus doesn’t know what he is, but everyone else is convinced he’s some sort of demon – and gradually, throughout the book, this affects how he views himself too. He doesn’t share most human morals – quite happy to kill without compunction, take whatever he needs, and manipulate others with his sorcery – but he does respect and appreciate kindness and have a certain degree of loyalty. For a character who does pretty much a terrible thing per page, he’s a surprisingly likeable protagonist, making you root for him even when you’re not sure you should.

The world building is minimal – mostly because Stratus is more focused on who and what he is than what’s going on around him – but the magic system is fully fleshed out and developed. As systems go, it’s very conventional, but I love the descriptions of the Songlines and what it feels like to use them. It also has clear rules and limitations, meaning no character is ever over-powered.

Overall, this is an excellent debut, one that takes risks but ensures they pay off. Recommended for fans of non-human protagonists, dry and dark humour, and fantasy-mysteries.

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

Published by Rebellion
eBook: 24th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: Phoenix Extravagant

phoenix

‘Phoenix Extravagant’ is an intriguing fantasy novel with a magic system I adored, but unfortunately never quite reached its potential. It’s much shorter than many modern fantasy novels, coming in at under 400 pages, and I wonder if it would have been better if everything was slowed down and stretched out to give more time to connect to the plot and characters.

The protagonist, Jebi, is a Hwagukin orphan in a region occupied by the conquering Razanei. Jebi is an artist – a painter – but struggles to find work. After an argument with her sister leaves her homeless, she takes a job with the Ministry of Armor – the Razanei ministry responsible for producing automatons, autonomous robots which enforce the rules in Hwagukin and help them defeat their enemies. Her job? To fix the broken dragon automaton blamed for the destruction of an entire village. Caught between her loyalty to her sister and the unexpected connections she makes inside, Jebi must decide if she’ll complete the task or sabotage the Razanei military might.

Jebi is an artist, and depicted in a very stereotypical way – out of touch with the world, uncaring of politics and invasions, connecting to her art more than she connects to people. However, their most defining character trait is their inconsistency. They flip-flop between hating their sister, loyalty to their sister, fear of their sister, and more, in the space of pages. All these emotions are understandable, but there’s no justification. They remind me of a pancake being tossed around, never sure which side they want to face up. I found it very difficult to care about them or their choices when they couldn’t seem to decide what they wanted either. As a rare non-binary protagonist, I want to like them, but I need more showing of feelings than telling and generally some sort of personality beyond their profession.

Azari, the dragon automaton, is the single best character in the book. I adore them. They’re regularly hilarious and so fascinated by ordinary things. The entire system behind the automatons and how they work and think is fascinating, and another reason I wish this book had been longer – more time to explore the world and its intricacies, rather than relying on the hard-to-like Jebi to carry the story.

Vei, the duelist prime tasked with monitoring Jebi in the Ministry of Armor, is also an interesting character. They have a complex past which is gradually unveiled and their interactions with Jebi are excellent. However, the way their relationship is written almost makes it insta-love – we’re told that time passes, but in the space of a few sentences they’ve gone from prisoner-enforcer to potential love interests. Enemies to lovers is a popular trope in fantasy but it’s mostly squandered here for the sake of keeping the page count down. I wish we’d got to see things develop so that it felt authentic, rather than simply being told Jebi suddenly had romantic feelings.

The setting is excellent. Inspired by Korea under Japanese convention, it’s full of references and traditions which are fascinating to read about. The varying feelings towards the Razanei conquerors – and the Razanei’s insistence that their occupation was far more favourable than Hawgukin’s inevitable destruction by the West – are well-written, and the addition of the fantasy elements with automatons and artistic magic are neatly done. I’d love to know more about the magic system – this is currently a standalone, but one with clear potential for a sequel, so hopefully the magic will be developed and explained in any subsequent books.

Overall, this is a decent fantasy with excellent LGBTQIA+ representation but knocked down by a protagonist it’s hard to connect with and a plot which deserved more time to be fleshed out. Those who care more about the quality of their fantasy worlds and less about the depth of characters may very well love this book, but for those who prefer character-driven stories this may not be the book for you. Recommended for fans of quick fantasy reads, Asian-inspired settings, and own-voices LGBTQIA+ representation.

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

Published by Rebellion
Hardback: 20th October 2020

Robyn Reviews: Northern Wrath

Northern Wrath has everything you could want from a Viking novel – dark, gritty, visceral, and firmly rooted in Norse mythology. The characters are intriguing, the plot even more so, but it’s the atmosphere that makes this. At every turn, you feel like you’ve been enveloped in the harsh, unyielding world of the Vikings.

There are many point of view characters – possibly too many, although it’s always very clear which character is being followed – but the most important seem to be Hilda, Einer, and Siv. Hilda is the daughter of Ragnar, the storyteller of Ash-hill, who cannot raid with the other Vikings due to a leg wound suffered in his youth. Hilda wants nothing more than to be a warrior, going on raids and fighting so she can ascend to Valhalla – but her father wants her safe, and the chief has promised that Hilda will never be allowed to raid. Determined not to let that stop her, Hilda takes control of her own fate – with huge consequences. Her ending of this book was incredible and I’m excited to see what happens next.

Einer is the son of the chief, and everyone expects him to be chief after his father. A strong but fair man, he loves Hilda and can’t understand why she keeps refusing to be with him. He also has a secret – a secret which would damage his future forever – that must be kept. Thilde Kold Holdt does a great job making you care for her characters, and no-one shows this better than Einer – he comes across as a lovely, gentle giant, despite being a Viking who regularly kills people.

Siv is Einer’s mother. She has lived in Ash-hill for some time, but it is not her place of origin. If Einer has a secret, Siv has a large box full of particularly angry secrets all desperate to get free and be heard. Her road is very different to Einer and Hilda’s, and she provided a very different perspective. Her relationship with Tyra was heartwarming – Siv was another caring yet deadly character, with deadly somewhat of an understatement.

The other major characters I expect will play a larger role in sequels. Buntrugg is intriguing, especially in the latter half of the book, and I’m interested to see the repercussions of his actions in the sequel. Ragnar has an entirely separate character arc, the meaning of which was not revealed here. His parts are enjoyable, but without any sort of conclusion they almost seem like side notes. Finn is an unlikeable character, but his perspectives spark pity – likely the intent. Sigismund is very wise, and whilst his perspectives add little, he has a lovely relationship with Einer – he’s another character who I think has bigger things to come.

The main issue with this book is that it feels less like a complete novel and more like a part one. It ends with no conclusion and more questions. It would have been nice to have had a more solid ending – after seven hundred pages, the reader deserves some sort of payoff. Nonetheless, this is an excellent story and probably the best Viking or Norse mythology novel I have ever read.

Overall, I highly recommend for fans of Norse mythology and the Vikings. If you’re looking for a gritty epic fantasy with huge scope and excellent worldbuilding, you’ll find it here. I’ll be eagerly looking forward to the next installment – hopefully one with some answers.

 

Published by Rebellion
Paperback: 27th October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Angel of the Crows

‘The Angel of the Crows’ is a very clever book, and enjoyable to read, but I’m not sure it quite diverges enough from its source material to stand up as a separate novel.

The premise is simple: a retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, still set in Victorian London, if the supernatural also walked the Earth. Angels, vampires, werewolves, hellhounds, clairvoyants, curses – these are all part of everyday life. Dr Doyle – this book’s Dr Watson, in clear homage – has just returned from Afghanistan having been grievously wounded by the Fallen, a band of fallen angels. Seeking somewhere quiet to live, he bumps into Stanford, an old friend from medical school, who happens to know of someone else seeking shared lodgings. Enter the angel Crow – somewhat ostracised by his fellow angels and looking for a flatmate for a certain 221b Baker Street. From here, the stories proceed as we know them, with the addition of supernatural elements.

The writing feels uncannily like Conan Doyle’s style, which is very clever of Addison – I reread A Study in Scarlet for a direct comparison. I completely believe that this is how Conan Doyle would have written had he chosen a fantasy version of his stories. Similarly, the characters of Dr Doyle and Crow are much like their counterparts in the originals – although Dr Doyle is noticeably smarter and more perceptive than Dr Watson, and Crow, ironically, much more human than Sherlock Holmes. There are cameos from several other notable characters from Conan Doyle’s stories, and they too feel mostly authentic – with one exception, who I hope is developed further should this ever get a sequel.

I love the supernatural element. The mythology of the angels is clever and well-explained, with tidbits dropped in throughout. Each new being is introduced subtly, without a great deal of explanation, but this helps to their presence seem entirely normal. I would have been interested to see how their presence changed the development of London – and, indeed, of the world – but that isn’t the intent of this novel, and it isn’t required. Several of the supernatural beings are discriminated against – mostly illogically – and this is explored well, adding an extra dimension to the society created.

My main issue with this book is the choice to use the first few Sherlock Holmes stories as the plot. They’re cleverly rendered, staying very close to their source material with just a few adaptations to give a supernatural spin – but these stories have been adapted so many times it makes the book predictable. The setting is exceptional with the scope for far more interesting, fresh mysteries in the supernatural sects of London. I wish that Addison had chosen to create new mysteries rather than relying on paths well-trodden. To be fair to her, she did include one new plot element – capturing Jack the Ripper – but this has also been extensively written about before. None of these issues affect the enjoyment of the book, but they do give it a strong fanfiction feel rather than that of a published work.

Those who enjoy Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the BBC’s Sherlock (or at least the first two seasons), Lucy Liu’s Elementary, or any other adaptation will likely enjoy this. Similarly, those who have never dived into the Sherlock universe but like a good urban mystery or urban fantasy will probably love this. It’s very well written and a strong addition to all the adaptations out there – I just feel like there’s potential for it to be more than that.

Thanks to NetGalley and Rebellion for providing both an eARC and a finished copy of this book – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Rebellion
Hardback: 17th September 2020